In these days after the death of Nelson Mandela, we’re all absorbed by reflections on the tremendous impact of one of the greatest leaders of our time.
Here’s one trait that especially inspires me: focus. I understand that Mandela once spent three solid days on a single chess match. That degree of focus and single-mindedness for issues both big and small is a guide for making change in our communities. With so much to do, where should we as leaders focus our energies to move families beyond poverty to a legacy of opportunity?
At Ascend at the Aspen Institute, we believe two-generation approaches — which meet the needs of, and create opportunities for, children and their parents together — are an important part of the answer. Last September, Ascend at the Aspen Institute and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation hosted a forum on Innovations in Early Childhood. Ascend Fellows, and other national and early childhood experts, pushed each other to think honestly about how to focus our two-generation efforts around the windows of opportunity within early childhood. Ascend recently released a summary of the key takeaways from the forum, which you can read here.
Building on that discussion, these are my top three areas of focus in 2014:
1) The Rearview Mirror. We are all anxious to find new solutions, innovations, and policy opportunities. But we need to spend equal time looking back at past two-generation attempts to improve communities. Although these conversations can be challenging, time spent “reverse-engineering” past policies and implementation strategies in order to understand our failures is essential to future progress.
2) The Cornerstone of Health and Well-Being. There’s no question: without solid physical and mental health and well-being, the best programs and services in early childhood, adult training, and education can’t be maximized. Next year, Ascend will dig into this issue — finding new opportunities to support health and well-being within two-generation strategies.
3) A Policy Plum. I can’t remember a policy conversation in 2013 that didn’t start or end with frustration around the apparent Gordian knot of federal progress. But there are opportunities with bipartisan appeal waiting. Let’s dedicate 2014 to finding one or two policy plums to advance two-generation strategies, and let’s re-commit to making change. This fall, the Ascend team has spent many hours deliberating policy opportunities in early childhood. We look forward to releasing our top recommendations in 2014.
Effective two-generation work is hard. Success comes only with effort, dedication, and heaps of frustration. We all need inspiration — to expand a program, press for better results, or spur state or federal policy change. Find your inspiration — be it the toddler who helps a crying classmate, the first-generation college student and parent who completes a degree, or those international leaders who motivated you to embark on a career of service. And know that your work is our inspiration!
Jennifer Stedron is senior program manager at Ascend at the Aspen Institute, the national hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and their parents toward educational success and economic security.