Jackie Counts, director of Kansas University’s Center for Public Partnerships and Research (CPPR), likens the early childhood continuum to the power grid. When it’s operating at full capacity, it makes everything possible. When it’s down, nothing works and we’re stuck in the dark.
CPPR is dedicated to advancing Kansans’ lives through public and private action. Since 2006, Counts has been involved with the Kansas Children’s Cabinet, an agency housed within the Kansas State Department of Education. The Cabinet released a comprehensive strategic plan in January 2020—just in time for a pandemic that changed virtually everything. Everything, that is, except for the foundations of healthy development, strong families and early learning.
“We know the research about the first thousand days of life,” Counts states. “The question is how to operationalize it.” The purpose of the plan is to guide decision-making across communities, providers and parents so that all stakeholders are working in harmony. And its recommendations have held up during this challenging period. “In the face of incredible adversity, we renew our commitment to follow our Blueprint,” Cabinet director Melissa Rooker writes in their 2020 Annual Report.
Counts is a Kansas native who went away to University of California Berkeley and then returned with her family. She’s acutely aware of the risks academics and pundits run by overlooking the views of people in the middle of the country. That’s why CPPR collects data and stories from across the state. And visioning sessions “bring more voices into the room,” she says.
For a needs assessment in early 2019, CPPR supported the state to solicit a cross-section of 6,100 Kansans for their opinions and stories about what it takes to survive and thrive. The Our Tomorrows project uses a story-based research tool called SenseMaker.
Among the stories that were collected:
I have closed my daycare due to concerns of contracting COVID-19. I am pregnant, and there is not enough information about how COVID-19 affects pregnancy and babies. In order to prevent myself from contacting it, I’ve closed the daycare. I have stopped asking parents to pay to hold their child’s spots, so I have no income. I’ve applied to a grant but was denied. I’ve applied for unemployment but was denied. I’ve applied for a loan, and I’m waiting to hear back about it. This is a very difficult and stressful time.
This week someone helped me learn how to use zoom, so that I could get in touch with my local church community. This helped me feel more connected and was a new skill.
COVID has changed our whole family environment, and sometimes it is overwhelming, but there are positive outcomes for every instance. [For example], our teenage daughter is cooking a lot more out of boredom, which is helping her develop tools for future use and become self reliant. However, it is becoming a problem for me and my desire to eat healthy!
A few themes come through loud and clear. One is the primacy of self-sufficiency. Closely aligned is the value of overcoming adversity. “Then again,” Counts observes, “Why don’t we avoid the conditions for adversity in the first place?”
The pandemic, she says, makes it abundantly clear that the current system isn’t working for the majority—a fact that in and of itself should open up new possibilities.
Counts believes this is the time for trying a host of new approaches, knowing that some will fail. “Not all innovations are created equal,” she says. A certain percentage of approaches won’t work.” A collective dissatisfaction with the status quo should yield a commitment to make funding and policy decisions sooner rather than later.
When it comes to making these decisions, Counts has a big question: “How we can make today a little better and tomorrow a lot better?”
For Counts, asking big, open-ended questions like “What does thriving look like? What does flourishing look like?” is a starting point, and then data comes into play. “We have the power to give kids what they need,” she says. “We need metrics, but what is our endpoint?”
In case it isn’t apparent, Counts asks a lot of questions. In conversation, she cites inspirations beyond the usual policy reading list, such as Complexity Theory and Charles Eisenstein’s The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible (2013). She invokes the decision-making framework of Cynefin coined by Welsh thinker David Snowden, along with other such unlikely sources as Canada’s Future Skills Council and Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel The Ministry for the Future, which envisions a climate disaster in the very near future with an international agency coordinating a response from the financial sector and other levers of power. (It made Barack Obama’s list of top books of 2020.)
Counts also draws upon the work of researchers who share her future-oriented mindset, including:
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.