Our families, whether adoptive, birth or chosen, shape our beliefs, foster lifelong habits, and provide opportunities that steer our life trajectory. When those working to change the systems that impact our everyday lives talk to families and prioritize their needs and aspirations, we can build meaningful policies and programs that benefit all.
This is the first post in a three-part series that describes how RWJF and its partners are amplifying the influence that families have over the systems that impact their lives. The second post discusses how grantee partners are ensuring access to affordable child care for all. And the third and final post in the series describes how a collective of caregivers are shaping stronger family-supportive policies.
In this Q&A, Trene M. Hawkins, program officer at RWJF, spoke with Marjorie Sims, managing director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, an RWJF grantee, about how Ascend harnesses parent and caregiver leaders’ expertise to create policy and systems change in communities and organizations. We can all agree that our families profoundly influence our wellbeing. And for more than 20 years, Sims has worked to ensure that all families can provide children with the support they need to grow and flourish.
Marjorie, Ascend puts families at the center of everything it does. Can we start this conversation by talking a bit about how Ascend is ensuring families lead the way on changing policies and programs to work for them?
At Ascend, our main goal is to help all families achieve prosperity and wellbeing across generations. We all want every child to have the healthiest start to life possible, but our current political, economic, and care systems were not designed to support every child. We have the power to change that. Using a two-generation (2Gen) approach, we partner with families with diverse lived experiences to ensure that their voices are heard in every space where decisions are made.
I think it’s important to note that the 2Gen approach is not unprecedented or revolutionary. Indigenous communities in the United States and around the world have long recognized that family is fundamental to human development. The 2Gen approach views families as a unit and that families define for themselves their structure. It recognizes that all aspects and generations affect a child's wellbeing, including the prosperity of the parent(s) and caregiver(s). Ascend is building a movement by focusing on the whole family and listening to parents to find solutions to issues that affect them.
We often talk about the importance of “family voice”—the experiences and expertise that families offer up—particularly as it relates to the work organizations like ours are doing to change systems all of us navigate on a day to day basis. Why is family voice critical to systems and policy change, and what is Ascend doing to bring families’ expertise to the fore in these efforts?
Families have invaluable expertise and experience, but they are usually not included in developing and making decisions about policies and practices that are “designed to support them.” How can anything designed without you support you? We must partner with parents and caregivers to identify factors that undermine their wellbeing and engage them to co-create effective programs and solutions that actually reflect the needs and aspirations of their family.
For more than a decade, we’ve built partnerships with parents and caregivers from across the US who have graciously and eagerly shared their expertise and knowledge with us to inform our work. Together, a set of eight principles for engaging and centering parent voices emerged. These guiding principles—like engaging parents as experts, ensuring equity, and compensating parents appropriately—are a model for how Ascend, or any organization, policymaker, practitioner, or researcher, can continuously improve and be more intentional in centering parent voice.
Let’s dig deeper—can you describe a few of Ascend’s programs that allow parents and caregivers to play a more active role in influencing policy decision-making?
Using the 2Gen approach and centering family voice, we have had success with several programs. For example, through our Postsecondary Success for Parents initiative, we work with a group of Parent Advisors who understand first-hand how to improve policies and programs for student parents and make educational success more attainable for families. Their lived experience informs our strategies and recommendations for systems change.
In partnership with RWJF, we’re also directly funding organizations supporting parent voice initiatives through the Family Prosperity Innovation Community’s Parent Voice Fund. Through this participatory grantmaking process, a community of 20 Family Prosperity Partners chose to provide parents themselves with the opportunity to select awardees. Ten parent advisors formed the review committee with a goal to advance the priorities of Family Prosperity and model parent-centered, equitable grantmaking for philanthropic partners.
Can you share more about some of the parents and caregivers that have worked with Ascend and gone on to make change in their communities?
Parents are able to draw from their lived experience to become even stronger leaders. Amber Angel is a great example of this. We first met Amber while she was a single mother of two and studying at Los Angeles Valley College’s Family Resource Center, where she later worked. She first spoke at Ascend’s first federal-level 2Gen Forum in May 2016. We convened it in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, the White House, and seven cabinet agencies. Amber is now a nationally recognized student parent leader, innovator, and adjunct professor. And, to bring it full circle, recently, she became a program officer at the ECMC Foundation, where she leads a portfolio focused on postsecondary success for single moms.
Another shining example is one of our former parent advisors, Drayton Jackson, who is a father of six daughters and two sons. Drayton grew up in poverty and also experienced more than a decade of living in homelessness in New York City and Washington state. Drayton now uses his story to uplift those who are facing the same challenges. In November 2019, Drayton was elected to the Central Kitsap School District Board of Directors. He also currently sits as vice-chair of the Steering Committee for Governor Jay Inslee’s Poverty Reduction Workgroup in Washington state under the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) where he advocates for systems and structures that help people living in poverty and those surviving homelessness.
I think both of these leaders are representative of the power of parents and the need to create opportunities that reflect their full potential.
How can people learn more about Ascend and how to authentically engage families?
That’s a timely question.
We encourage policymakers, philanthropists, practitioners, researchers, direct service providers and advocates interested in raising their voice and learning about the 2Gen approach to register for the Aspen Forum on Children and Families which is taking place April 11th and 12th. Parent Advisors, including Drayton, will be featured over the course of the two-day convening throughout various sessions.
Learn more about how our grantees and partners are supporting families here.
About the Author
Trene Hawkins, program officer, works with visionaries from various disciplines to discover new thinking about how to transform health and healthcare.