New Report: Convergence’s “In This Together” Offers Framework for Families with Children - Early Learning Nation

New Report: Convergence’s “In This Together” Offers Framework for Families with Children

Elected leaders tend to shun compromise during campaign season, and these days it feels like we’re always in campaign season. Convergence represents an antidote to our hyper partisan era, bringing experts together from across the political spectrum to build solutions on common ground. The organization’s new “In This Together” report zeroes in on the American family.

Subtitled “A Cross-Partisan Action Plan to Support Families with Young Children in America,” it builds on a 2023 Convergence report that identified four challenges facing working families:

  • Child care
  • Financial squeeze
  • Time squeeze
  • Insufficient government investment

Convergence fielded a group of leaders from a wide variety of organizations and ideologies. The New York Times called it ‘Couples Therapy,’ but for Politics.

They met in person in April 2023 and again in late September, with numerous teleconference sessions along the way, ultimately agreeing upon a set of recommendations that fall under four headings:

  • Changing the Story. “We believe the stories about raising children in America are often inaccurate, unhelpful or pushed to the background. We want to change the story. When families flourish, we all flourish.”
  • Rethinking Cash Support for Families. “We believe that low-to-moderate income families with young children should have more effective and easy-to-access cash support, while acknowledging fiscal realities.”
  • Ensuring More High-Quality Care Options for Children. “We believe that parents should be able to make care choices for their children that align with their family needs and values, and that support their children’s development.”
  • Supporting Parents with New Children. “We believe that all parents should have the opportunity to bond with an infant or new child, while maintaining economic and job security.”

To learn more about the process, Early Learning Nation magazine spoke to six of the collaborative members as well as Abby McCloskey, director of the Convergence Collaborative on Supports for Working Families.

Getting Past Skepticism

Going into the process, Bruce Lesley, president, First Focus on Children, had his doubts. “I was like, ‘I don’t see how in the world you’re going to get this person and that person on board,’” he recalls. “I was very dubious, but Abby did a masterful job of really herding cats. She kept us on task, striving toward the mission, defining that mission and exploring where the common ground is, not letting people focus on the differences.”

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Leah Austin, Ed.D., president & CEO of the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI), acknowledges that she, too, was initially skeptical, but also curious, and she welcomed the time spent “talking about and disagreeing about, but ultimately coming to a place of commonality” on what it means for families to flourish. “If we don’t start there,” she says, “then we often just recycle the same unhelpful strategies.”

Even McCloskey wondered whether the group would cohere around a framework. “It felt scattered at first,” she says. “I found myself wondering, ‘Why are we talking about this thing at such a high level when there are such urgent needs right here on the ground?’” Over time, however, what seemed like a cumbersome exercise did help the group gel.

Katharine Stevens, founder and president of the Center on Child and Family Policy, says “I’ve been part of these groups that talk about ‘consensus,’ but it’s consensus by mass bullying.” She objects to the approach where pundits “define a problem as the absence of their chosen policy solution.”

Stevens, whose organization is often identified as right-leaning, came away from the process pleasantly surprised by her interactions with Indivar Dutta-Gupta of the left-leaning Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). “We didn’t expect to connect at all,” she says. “But I would say we ended up connecting on almost everything.”

Rachel Anderson, principal of Hope& Consulting, who works with faith-based organizations, says most families care more about their well-being and their kids thriving than they do about a given policy, so she came to the process with her mind open to various solutions.

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Reconcilable Differences

Mariah Levison, Convergence CEO and president, says the organization’s collaborative problem-solving methodology has fostered breakthroughs in numerous policy settings, commenting, “We’ve seen past participants do transformative work in their respective fields, and we are eager to see where this group takes things.”

The presence of a professional mediator helped. “This is the first group I’d ever been part of that had that,” says McCloskey. “It felt less like driving towards a particular policy end and more about building trust and relationships.” Stevens also credited the Consensus Building Institute, saying David Fairman, senior mediator, could probably help in the Middle East.)

“Despite some very real differences in opinion,” says Dana Suskind, M.D., founder and co-director, TMW Center for Early Learning and Public Health, and author of Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child’s Potential, Fulfilling Society’s Promise. “Every single person was there to make a good-faith effort to find consensus. In some ways, that was very surprising. But at the same time, it helped reinforce what I’ve always believed: that we all want the best for our children.”

👉 Read our 2-part interview with Dr. Suskind

Anderson confesses she found it very moving to see all the participants adding and moving their sticky notes around until it became a collective vision. “That was the moment when I thought, ‘Okay, we will accomplish something,’ she says. “And in classic good group process, once you’ve achieved something together, then you feel like you can achieve the next thing. It allowed us to unsettle the fixed ideas about what policy should look like.”

According to Dutta-Gupta, “We generally worked to find any common ground rather than negotiate compromises. That meant identifying the pieces of policies that conservatives might advocate for and progressives thought would move things in the right direction.” For example, while he personally doesn’t like the idea of limiting paid leave to new parents because of the many events in people’s lives requiring such leave, he came away satisfied that his position was acknowledged and, more importantly that “the basics of what children deserve have everything to do with them being children and nothing to do with who their parents are.”

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“At least people agreed that something should be done,” said Lesley. “In a lot of ways, that in itself is progress. We all agreed we should do things to help families with caregiving.”

Holistic and Optimistic

A “holistic care agenda” emerges as one of the agreed-upon values of the “In This Together” report, but what does this term mean? For Dr. Austin, it corresponds with her organization’s Eight-Outcomes framework, saying, “It’s not just about child care or early childhood education,” while Dr. Suskind cites her book Parent Nation and her Atlantic essay calling for an “AARP for parents,” adding, “It’s the set of public and private policies, informed by brain science, that empower and help all families to meet the developmental needs of their children.”

👉 “A Sense of Urgency Like Never Before”

Stevens highlighted the way the report puts forward a concept of child care that includes and even emphasizes the role of parents in caring for their own young children.

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For Dutta-Gupta, a holistic care agenda “appreciates the enormous public good that care confers our society, and invests in people and systems to ensure that each of us has meaningful, well-resourced and publicly funded care options whenever we need care.”

For Anderson, the term entails an acknowledgement that “there are multiple interventions that will benefit families and achieve good goals. The core ones in this report—cash support for families, paid parental leave and investing in child care as a relevant form of family support—all have a role. It’s not productive to pit one against the other.”

Lesley defines ‘holistic’ as thinking about all the needs of kids rather than in silos. “How can all those things work better together? So how can health care programs work in tandem with child care and nutrition and housing, so that we really do maximize the full potential of children and benefit families?”

The Next (Baby) Steps

Does the Convergence report herald a bipartisan golden era for family policy? Unlikely. Nor is this a particularly easy issue for consensus. “I’m not sure that in our politics today there is any low-hanging fruit,” McCloskey admits, but at the same time, she sees “a tremendous amount of innovation and engagement on family issues right now. In light of this momentum, she believes the time is right for re-upping a National Commission on Children similar to the one commissioned in 1987 by Ronald Reagan. Its Beyond Rhetoric report (1991) paved the way for the enactment of the Child Tax Credit and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“If you really think about what’s happened since,” Lesley notes, “with the exception of the American Rescue Plan, since then, there really hasn’t been anything for kids on that scale.”

In many important ways, our nation hasn’t progressed that much since the Beyond Rhetoric era, but as Dr. Suskind observes, “We now have a wealth of scientific evidence pointing to the relationship between a child’s earliest experiences—both positive and negative—and their brain development, their school performance and a host of lifelong outcomes. This is science that simply cannot be ignored.”

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.

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