A Conversation with Nancy Leonard, David Nee, and Carmen Siberon of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund on Community Based Advocacy

Children and storytelling have always been at the heart of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund. It is only fitting that one of their most successful programs, “Stone Soup,” is rooted in a classic children’s story. Family Giving News recently interviewed David Nee, long-time executive director of the Memorial Fund, Carmen Siberon, Community Program Officer, and Public Policy Program Officer Nancy Leonard, who managed this annual convening in 2013.

One of the core programs of the Memorial Fund is its Discovery Initiative, the goal of which is that “Connecticut’s children of all races and income levels are ready for school by age 5 and successful learners by age 9.” The Discovery Initiative (“Discovery”) makes modest grants and provides technical assistance to fifty-two communities and a group of advocacy organizations in Connecticut. The initiative supports collaborative “tables” that include anyone who can help advance the goal of promoting better local and state policy and programs for young children. Each community “table” looks different depending on the area it represents, and community members, not the Memorial Fund staff, decide who participates. Once a year all grantees are invited to come share what they have learned at the “Stone Soup” conference. Here we present ten key lessons learned by the Memorial Fund’s board and staff from past conferences about effective community based advocacy.

Lesson #1: Provide the rock

According to Nee, the group conversation among the staff that led to the genesis of the Stone Soup conference reflects the collaborative ethos of the gathering itself.

“Stone Soup goes back to the children’s story about the traveler who comes to town, heats up a pot of water, drops a rock in it, and says he’s making stone soup. He shares with the curious villagers that it would be considerably enhanced if people would drop in the occasional carrot or cabbage or whatever, and pretty soon, he has a wonderful, rich soup going, to which his sole contribution was the rock.

“That, to us, is the power of collaboration. And if we may extend the metaphor, our rock is the little bit of money that each of these fifty-two communities gets in order to build a local collaborative that will help address that goal of all children being ready for school by five and successful learners by age nine.”

Lesson #2: Give deference to community voices

The recent 10th anniversary conference was entitled “Stone Soup the Impact of Race and Economic Status on Early Childhood: Opportunities for Community Transformation.”  Carmen says that “the racial and equity lens has been raised as a potential theme for the conference each year by community members, but had never been previously chosen because it didn’t seem like a one-day conference could do this important and complex topic justice. However, it was always used as a filter for the conference to ensure the speakers were diverse and representative of the most vulnerable communities that we are working with.”

Carmen elaborates, “Stone Soup has always been a conference for the community by the community and always strives to ensure all voices are at the table, especially those representing the families of the most vulnerable children.”

Last year’s topic finally emerged as the central theme based on the community conversations taking place as part of the Memorial Fund’s many capacity building programs and the work of a statewide convening, called Right from the Start, that looked at systems change and what it would take to build an early childhood system in Connecticut. Nancy, who manages “Right from the Start,” said the conversation “was almost snowballing it was moving so fast. It went from a very small group, a pre-planning committee, to a planning committee to a design committee and an implementation group, and the group grew, changed, and morphed as the work at hand evolved.”

Nancy describes the process of designing the subsequent Stone Soup conference as having a “voluntary movement feel to it. We approached those who were positioned to take on racial and economic equity in a very genuine way. We were purposeful about adding people as the group discussions evolved.”

Lesson #3: Have a clear goal…  and recognize the many facets of that goal

downloadDiscovery has a very clear goal: “All children [in Connecticut] are ready for school by age five and successful learners by age nine.” This goal is at the heart of everything they do and every conversation they have.

The “Right from the Start” initiative facilitated conversation about what an early childhood system would look like to enable all children, from any background, to have what they need to be successful learners by age nine. After participants determined the four core commitments they thought would advance this primary goal, the Memorial Fund chose one area and put it at the center of all of the conversations and sessions for the year. “We decided to explore the impact of racial and economic equity or inequity on children,” says Nancy. “How does it manifest itself, how do we perpetuate it, and how can we think about changing that? Whether the topic was health or how do you talk to children or parents, the racial and equity lens was the central theme of every one of those sessions this year.”

Lesson #4: Take a holistic approach

Nancy notes that it is fascinating to watch the “ebb and evolution” of what issue takes center stage each year. “While we think of ourselves as an education funder, we recognize that you can’t separate issues any more than you can separate pieces of a child and that takes a holistic approach.” For instance, Nancy says that one year childhood obesity became a rallying point for many of the communities; their holistic view of education allowed them to capitalize on this fact and include a health keynote in the conference agenda.

Lesson #5: Be willing to “stumble the mumble”

David makes a crucial observation about what has allowed the Memorial Fund to be ‘successful’ in this complex arena. Working with communities and partners over the years led to their commitment to doing internal work on racial issues. Bill Graustein, a family trustee, told David as he did the personal work, “David, you’ll start out wanting to walk the talk and you’ll find yourself stumbling the mumble. Give yourself permission to stumble the mumble.”

David says that this has proven to be great advice, and he thinks “one of our diseases in foundation land is everything’s got to be researched to the nth degree. Everything must be expressed ever so succinctly. And then we’ll tell people, how they need to make arrangements in order to fit our guidelines. But honestly we are in the dialogue business.” With this in mind, he says that while “working on race is not the easiest work to do, we realized we couldn’t wait to perfect ourselves. We needed to continue to work away at it.  We recognized that there is not a destination, in a sense, but an opportunity to share our own confusion and share our own journey in learning.”

Lesson #6: Don’t be afraid to discuss the elephant in the room

“The question we kept bumping up against is why does the system so systematically exclude children of color?” says David. “The only answer it can be is that somehow this set of arrangements is benefiting somebody, and it’s certainly not poor children or children of color. We chose the equity lens because we wanted to live up to our own ambitions and our own rhetoric. It just felt like the right time.

“Just because the world is carrying on in a certain way doesn’t relieve the Memorial Fund, as an organization, of the necessity to at least acknowledge there’s something going on out there that’s very bad for children. And we’ve got to get a lot better at owning it, talking about it, and beginning to move differently.”

David also mentions that while explicitly codifying and communicating this focus with their Discovery communities and partners has been crucial, “frankly, none of us is progressing as fast as we would like.”

Carmen adds that all the programs they provide are voluntary and people engage when they are ready and interested in doing so. While the Memorial Fund may have helped to plant the seeds and provide support, many communities have taken leadership by diving deeper into the structural issues of race and equity than they had originally anticipated.

Lesson #7: Language matters

Nancy points out the importance of language choice in this arena. She notes that research shows people have not always responded well to the most direct language about racial equity. “We are often advised that it is better to use all-inclusive words like ‘opportunity’ or ‘all children.’  This had led us into conversations about whether we should say what we know other people can hear in order to be more effective, or, do we use words that may stop the conversation, stop the thinking, and in the end have no great impact on the things we care about?” Nancy continues: “What I have seen in Connecticut is that for more and more people, it is time to get brave. It is time to not use the code words without explaining that what we are talking about is race and poor children.” Carmen adds that Rinku Sen, the keynote speaker for the most recent Stone Soup event, also made the case for being explicit when talking about race. You can see her PowerPoint here.

David thinks the jury may still be out on the use of language but says he doesn’t think they have lost any partners because of being more explicit. He adds, “In our technical assistance work, we’ve offered help to several communities wishing to work on equity issues at the local level. After the first year, we decided not to add more communities, but to work more deeply with the existing ones. People were not beating down our doors to say, ‘you have to start a second group.’ So, we are still on the thin end of the wedge. It will be interesting to see if we make more explicit claims regarding what a close consideration of equity does to the tone of the relationship, either with government partners or with other private partners. But so far, there’s been no negative consequence for the Memorial Fund.”

Lesson #8:  Never mistake the symptom for the disease

“Sometimes people in foundations concerned about education focus very narrowly on the achievement gap,” notes David. “Another learning from our systems work is to never mistake the symptom for the disease. The achievement gap is a symptom and the real disease is racism. And it’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to acknowledge. And yet it’s there. You can’t observe the phenomena of so many kids getting excluded or having really lousy outcomes and define this as just personal bias, though this arises, too. There’s something going on structurally.”

Lesson #9: A networked mindset includes everyone!

home-page-mapWhen tackling a systemic issue it is critical to approach it as a team. David says “when you begin to see that the system is not out there you realize ‘I am a part of it.’ I like to use the word ‘ecosystem’ because I think it conveys a better sense that we are all in this together, and in Connecticut we have profoundly linked destinies. About a quarter of our high school graduates come from the seven worst performing school systems.

“On the cusp of retirement I think about a work force and I would dearly like Social Security to continue. Everyone can find a point of self-interest in the education of children. We have powerfully linked destinies. We are in a state that has a very polite political culture, in some ways, but in other ways can just walk past things for years without engaging.  The Memorial Fund is no longer willing to just watch the parade go by.”

Carmen adds that the Stone Soup “participants always tell me how re-energized they get by coming to the conference and realizing they are not trying to do this alone. We know there is a critical mass of people in Connecticut focused on early childhood education who are trying to make things better for children of all walks. This really inspires us to keep fighting.”

Lesson #10: Cultivate community leaders

There can’t be effective systemic change without effective community leaders. In using the race and equity lens David realized there is a skillset to doing this work that they need to put at the disposal of communities. This in part was what the Stone Soup conference hoped to start. The Memorial Fund supports a number of capacity building opportunities, including the Facilitative Leadership Institute run by the Interaction Institute for Social Change. Carmen said they were able to identify this successful program, with servant leadership as its core tenet, and bring it to Connecticut to make it accessible for their grantee partners.

These programs also complement the work Bill Graustein, one of the Memorial Fund family trustees, leads through his Community Leadership Program and Courageous Community program. Nancy says, “These programs are designed as another opportunity for people to gain skills that will help them bring their whole self to work. It is about applying leadership skills to increase their own effectiveness for making social change in the causes that they care about.” David adds that these programs also empower people by helping them to understand that they can take control of and improve their situations.

Conclusion: A vision for the future

The William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund has learned many important lessons about how to do effective community-based advocacy. Their willingness to make these lessons public amplifies the work they have done and provides building blocks to lift others. Their candidness in sharing the stumbling blocks in approaching this difficult work and their willingness to work through this on a public stage opened the door for genuine community engagement. David doesn’t believe this work could have been done in silos and he is proud that they have been able to create a loop where each program enriches the other while deepening community engagement. Carmen reminds us that “We are trying to build capacity and muscle in each community and across the state of Connecticut. This conference is just the beginning of bringing the issues of race and equity to the forefront of the conversation.”

True to form, the Memorial Fund leaves us with a reminder of the importance of capturing and telling powerful stories so that others may learn. The children’s story of stone soup has inspired a decade of shared learning and collaboration. We leave you with Tasha’s Story, a video created by Magalis Martinez as part of Right From the Start. This story grounds the often abstract head work and lives at the heart of what the Memorial Fund and its partners envision for the future.

About the Interviewees:

Nancy Leonard is Public Policy Program Officer at the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund and is responsible for the communications and public will building activities of the Memorial Fund. She works with statewide and local partners to engage the public in the Memorial Fund’s mission and current Discovery initiatives. Previously she was a communications consultant for 20 years Ms. Nancy holds a Master’s Degree in journalism, with a concentration in communications theory, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature and journalism from the University of Illinois.

David Nee became the first executive director of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund in 1993. Before coming to the Memorial Fund, Mr. Nee was executive director of the Ittleson Foundation and of the Florence V. Burden Foundation. Mr. Nee has exercised national leadership in the fields of aging, crime and justice, mental health, AIDS, and the environment. In 1989 with Martin Greller, Mr. Nee co-authored a book entitled From Baby-Boom to Baby-Bust: How Business Can Deal With the Demographic Challenge. The book examines organizational strategies to address the human resources crisis facing us in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Mr. Nee graduated from Harvard College in 1968, holds a master’ degree in English from Yale University, and a master’s degree in business administration from Boston University.

Carmen M. Siberon is Community Program Officer at the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund and is responsible for partnerships with 53 communities in CT and for supporting community progress through the creation and implementation of a robust community capacity building program building local capacity to improve education outcomes for young children birth to age eight. Other professional experience over the last 30 years includes designing and implementing community interventions to improve family and children focus-serviced systems. Carmen holds an MPH from Yale University School of Public Health.