Written by Communities Program Officers Roxana Martinez & Hector Gutierrez

When you propose a new way of doing things, there are many questions that present themselves:

“Is this the best way of moving forward?”

“If it fails, what will be the consequences?”

“If it succeeds, what does it mean for those who are impacted?”

These were some of the questions staff in the Communities department had in mind as they prepared for Best Start’s transition from a direct operational support structure to a network of regional grantees in May 2018.

Since 2010, First 5 LA has worked to strengthen community leadership and infrastructure in the 14 Best Start community partnerships spread throughout Los Angeles County.

With research revealing that families do better when they live in strong, supportive communities, Best Start provides the opportunity for parents, residents, organizations, non-profits, elected officials and other stakeholders to collaboratively improve neighborhoods so that young children can thrive and enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and life.

As the Best Start investment evolved, First 5 LA recognized the need for a stronger infrastructure that could maximize community resources, increase local ownership and promote increased collaboration and sustainability. This new direction was the result of a thoughtful and deliberative process alongside community stakeholders who provided their best thinking about how to strengthen the structure of Best Start so they could better position themselves to advocate for their young children and advance policy and systems changes in their communities.

This new structure launched in May 2018, when five Regional Network Grantees (RNGs) — Para Los Niños (Region 1), Community Health Councils (Region 2), El Nido Family Services (Region 3), The Nonprofit Partnership (Region 4) and Children’s Bureau (Region 5) — began their new role with Best Start community partnerships. These RNGs developed a team that includes Local Network Contractors (LNCs) to work with each of the communities. The first six months of year one largely focused on relationship and trust building.

Together, five RNGs, 25+ local contractors and hundreds of community members are moving forward to work to change the lives of children in L.A. County. As year one ends, there were three key learnings we would like to share:

Growing Pains Are Real

Storming, forming and norming were part of the transition as new relationships were established and onboarding of RNG partners took place.

The experience of the first several months reinforced the notion that transitions take time — especially after eight years of First 5 LA providing direct operational support.

This newly formed team of collaborators is building the capacity to do this work more effectively together. As teams form, they get to know each other and work on building trust and alignment. Community work is often complex and layered, and all parties involved have had to evaluate power dynamics and, at times, make changes to support a new way of operating in order to move forward. It will continue to take a great deal of time, dedication and resources for the critical relationships to be built, developed and sustained to advance community change efforts.

Systems Change Cannot Occur Without Communities

Systems change is about “shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place,” and it will take multiple efforts at all levels to change the conditions that affect child development and family well-being.

In order for every child in L.A. County to enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and life, publicly funded, professionally delivered services — by themselves — are not sufficient. Through Best Start, parents with young children and their families and neighbors are mobilizing and acting together to directly support the well-being of their children, and to advocate for and help design improvements in the policies, services, investments and infrastructure that benefit their communities.

As Best Start communities refine their community change agendas (i.e., systems change strategies that they will use to catalyze change), there is increasing alignment between their priorities and First 5 LA long-term systems outcomes in service of the four results for children and families.

First 5 LA’s investment in Best Start is about amplifying the collective voice of people who care deeply about ensuring that communities are places where children and families thrive.

First 5 LA Is Learning How to Be a Better Partner to Communities

Within this first year of the new structure, First 5 LA was working on its Impact Framework and launched the Strategic Plan Refinement (SPR4) process.

Both of these processes generated excitement and increased commitment to partnership between First 5 LA and the RNGs. These processes also raised important questions from RNGs about First 5 LA’s longer-term commitment to Best Start, including questions about priorities, resources, roles, timeframe and sustainability.

These questions will be addressed through the SPR4 process, informed by ongoing reflections on first-year learnings. Moving forward, First 5 LA will continue to strengthen its relationship with the RNGs and partners involved in the investment. Moreover, the Communities department will further refine its approach, roles and practices through the SPR4 process. While it’s underway staff will continue to support implementation of Best Start as a key anchor investment.

The lessons learned in this first year help staff better understand the path ahead. It is an opportunity to engage our new RNG partners, as we all have a role to play in achieving our “North Star”: By 2028, all children in Los Angeles County will enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and life.

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