If hearts and minds don’t change, neither will the social structures holding us back. But what’s the best way to change hearts? For a long time, the convenient or even polite approach involved skipping over race and culture. Too painful, too intrusive. But some people and organizations are recognizing that to achieve real change—in the household, in the classroom, in the marketplace of ideas—so-called politeness matters less than sincere and deep engagement about the things that matter.
Founded in New York City by Dr. Laurie Brotman (Bezos Family Professor of Early Childhood Development, Department of Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine), ParentCorps offers professional development for educators, a social-emotional learning curriculum for pre-K students and a parenting program. Prioritizing racial equity, the team honors families’ culture and their lived experience and expertise, and supports teachers in establishing authentic relationships.
“You can’t just tell people to change,” explains Kai-ama Hamer, who has been with the organization since 2018, serving as director since last May. “You have to know their values, what they’re doing, why they do this work, what moves them? And then once you unearth that, then they feel open.”
It starts the moment a parent or educator comes in the door, says Hamer. “We want them to understand that even if our values are different, even if we don’t speak the same language, ‘I see you and I care for you.’ And that is the basis for everything else.”
Beyond the Five Boroughs
Randomized control trials of the ParentCorps model have demonstrated improvements in home and school environments, as well as the health and development of children and parents.
In light of the evidence, it’s no wonder that the model is expanding. Detroit was the first pilot beyond New York City. Since 2015, when Starfish Family Services then-CEO Ann Kalass met Brotman as Aspen Institute Ascend fellows, ParentCorps and Starfish have teamed up to build relationships with the early childhood workforce, social workers, facilitators and teachers, and to embed ParentCorps programming for children and families in Starfish sites. “We want Starfish to own the model in ways that work in their setting,” Hamer says.
In its 19 early care and education centers, Starfish provides integrated, high-quality care and support services that build on the strengths and assets of families in and around Detroit. Lindsay LaBoda, a social worker and a clinical therapist with Starfish, points to widespread trauma among the families they serve. “Trauma-informed care,” she says, “means fully supporting our children by identifying the signs of stress and responding with respect, care, and kindness. We don’t ask, ‘What’s wrong with this child?’ but ‘What’s strong about this child?’”
Kecia Rorie, operations director at Starfish, acknowledges that when people think of Detroit, they picture “blight, unemployment and an educational system that has failed a lot of children.” At the same time, she points to resiliency and a strong sense of community. “When parents walk through our doors,” she says, “you can tell right away, they’re very protective of their children, and we are honored that they allow us to come in their homes to take care of their most priceless, precious possessions, to just help guide them along the way.”
Ironically, for a city built on the automobile industry, Family Engagement Specialist Mary Woods-Miles notes that viable transportation is one of the biggest challenges for many Detroit families. Starfish provides $500 or more in Family Stability Funds for car repairs, insurance, down payments and other expenses, which helps parents get to and from work, and to drop off and pick up their children.
A New Twist on an Old Adage
“Build a better mousetrap,” the saying goes, “and the world will beat a path to your door.” ParentCorps reboots this adage by building a better training, using old-fashioned mousetraps. The trainers have asked me not to reveal the specifics of how the devices are used, but I can say that the activity also involves balloons. This is a distinctly low-tech approach.
Rorie recalls her first exposure to ParentCorps: “A colleague and I flew out to New York City just to observe. But by the time we got to lunchtime on day one, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is amazing.’ And by day two, we were like, ‘We have to take this back.’” At the time, Rorie says, “We were having trouble engaging with families. Our network of six Head Start grantees had just come together, but it was still new, and people weren’t used to it.”
One of the people she took it back to was Woods-Miles, who told me, “The mousetrap game did it for me, too. I knew that ParentCorps would be effective, but I didn’t anticipate it being as effective as it is.”
The experience made Woods-Miles reflect on her time as a single parent of a young child and all the multitasking involved. About 30 years ago, she tells me, the Head Start class misplaced her son. “I was going to community college, and it was finals time. When I went to get him, he wasn’t there. So I literally kicked in every locked door, broke some doors and went in the men’s bathroom until I felt like I couldn’t breathe. And I went outside, and there was my slippery kid saying, ‘Ma, what took you so long?’ He had gotten out with another family.”
Three Little Words
The ParentCorps approach boils down to three words: safe, nurturing and predictable. Woods-Miles acknowledges that not all the parents at Starfish go for it right away. One mom told her it wasn’t going to work for her children, but Woods-Miles persuaded her to try it. The mom came back the next week and admitted that letting the kids know what was going to happen in the evening helped her to be more organized, and as a result she had a few hours to unwind.
LaBoda appreciates the fact that ParentCorps doesn’t tell parents how to parent. “You’re the expert on your child,” she asserts. “Your know your child better than anyone else.” The point of the programming for pre-K caregivers is to get them to realize they already have everything they need to be a parent.
Recently, a grandmother in LaBoda’s parenting group announced, “Y’all can’t tell me nothing. Ain’t nothing new under the sun and y’all can’t tell me a thing.” Just a few hours later, she reported, “I actually learned a lot. I have to admit that I was wrong.”
For Hamer, the parents, grandparents, Head Start professionals and other educators contribute immense value to our communities that often goes unrecognized. “Once you understand the value of early education,” she says. “You see the value of those people who stay, who choose to stay because they really care.”
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.