Putting Families at the Center: Key Takeaways from the Los Angeles Family Engagement Summit

by Ali Miller and Mary Gray

The LA Partnership for Early Childhood Investment and First 5 LA, recently hosted Families at the Center Summit which brought together parents and leaders from community programs, schools, health organizations, funders, and researchers to talk about how to engage families in ways that are more informed, aligned and connected. The Summit was a response to a growing recognition of the importance of family engagement and empowerment among those working in the early childhood arena. As Yolie Flores from The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading succinctly summed it up during the afternoon plenary, “We will have no impact (on early childhood outcomes) if parents aren’t at the center of our work.”


Engage R+D has been working with the LA Partnership to learn more about family engagement efforts across the region and to assess the extent to which these efforts are moving the needle and embedding authentic family engagement into the fabric of organizations, communities, and systems in LA County. As part of this work, we helped plan the Summit with a cross-section of field leaders. The goals were to:  1) create a clear sense of shared purpose, 2) share learnings and best practices, 3) bring parents in as partners, and 4) expand the community of leaders involved in the field. Participants left the Summit energized, describing it as informative, engaging, empowering and inspiring (see word cloud based on the results of a feedback survey).  Below we share four takeaways from the Summit that captured our attention.

1. Meet families where they are.

A lot of times it’s, ‘Parents need to come to us’; but if parents are truly at the center, we need to meet families where they are.
— Mary H. Lee, Parent Leader

A dynamic panel of parent leaders kicked off the Summit, lifting up their individual journeys and sharing suggestions for how systems and policies can better meet the needs of families. At the core of the discussion was the belief that we must meet families where they are. All too often, our institutions assume families will reach out when they need support; however, this assumption overlooks common barriers, such as distrust of systems or parents’ fear of judgment.* Presenters discussed the need to be flexible and adaptable when engaging families. For example, meeting families in non-traditional places like laundromats or parks is a creative and culturally responsive form of engagement. Childcare, food, and translators should be provided also. Furthermore, we must remember to intentionally engage the full spectrum of parents and caregivers, including fathers, kin-caregivers, and parents of children with special needs.

2. When you shift from transactional to relational engagement, magic happens.

Nobody loves that child more than that parent, but we often don’t treat parents that way.
— Yolie Flores, The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

Authentic family engagement means treating families and parents as partners from the beginning. However, relationships between parents and providers/educators are often transactional. For example, the first time a teacher might reach out to a parent is if there is a problematic issue with their child.Panelist Yolie Flores challenged the audience to imagine a different approach to engagement where providers and educators start by asking parents the question, “What are your hopes and dreams for your child?” Questions like this help us remain curious and open, honoring that parents and caregivers know their child better than anyone else. When working with her team at The Children’s Clinic, panelist Dr. Elisa Nicholas underscored the importance of respect, openness, humility, and acknowledgement of “not knowing” or making snap judgments about families and their cultures.

3. Cross-sector collaboration is key.

This work is like a big orchestra. Everyone plays a different instrument with a different sound, but all are an important part of the symphony.
— - Carolina Bororquez-Ramirez, Parent Leader and Promotora

To strengthen family engagement efforts across the region, we must take a close look at how we’re collaborating across the early childhood ecosystem. A true systems-level approach to family engagement requires strong communication across organizations, effective strategies for referrals/warm hand-offs, and a shared understanding of core family engagement principles. Participants said having opportunities to connect at places like the Summit could help bridge gaps and create opportunities for agencies to leverage one another’s strengths. In fact, we even witnessed several cross-sector connections happen in real time. One of the most powerful moments of the day was when a representative from the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) publicly reached out to a parent leader who spoke about the barriers she’s faced when interacting with the agency. Connections continued being formed during the Community Spaces breakout session when real-time collaboration took place between DCFS and other panelists from community-based organizations.

4. Co-create, evaluate and keep track of milestones along the way.

At the Summit’s Learning & Evaluation breakout session, three field leaders discussed strategies for evaluating family engagement efforts and how to include parents in the process. The panel emphasized the importance of working in partnership with families to co-design, implement and evaluate the effectiveness of family engagement strategies. For example, taking the time to listen and learn from parents/caregivers through focus groups, interviews, and advisory boards can help an organization understand what “success” really looks like and inform what metrics and outcomes to track. Further, research and evaluation are critical tools that ensure family engagement is equitable and inclusive. Data can help organizations explore the extent to which they are engaging and retaining underrepresented families, as well as learn if strategies are effective across different types of communities and families.

Moving the work forward

With over 100 field leaders together in one space, the energy at the Summit was palpable. At the close of the day, participants voiced an eagerness to sustain the work, while also acknowledgeing challenges facing the field. A common thread throughout the day was that meaningful family engagement takes investment, not only of time and energy, but funding. While there is no shortage of providers committed to family engagement, funding that directly supports family engagement work is rare. Kim Brenneman from The Heising-Simons Foundation shared that “As philanthropists, we need to provide the space, resources, and opportunities for experts from all sectors—including parents—to work together to reframe challenges families are facing and design solutions. We want to hold ourselves accountable as a funder, but also work with grantees to ask them how they are engaging families and give them resources and space to bring families in from the beginning.”

Family engagement is not a strategy, it’s a goal.
— Parker Blackman, LA Partnership for Early Childhood Investment

While there is still work to be done to increase funding and resources for family engagement efforts, an immediate action organizations can take is to invite parents/caregivers to the table. As one parent leader said, “I hope that every agency sitting out there has a few parents on their steering committee, so the voice of community is always heard.” At Engage R+D, we are committed to sustaining the momentum of the Summit through our ongoing collaboration with the LA Partnership for Early Childhood Investment and other partners as they work to strengthen the family engagement field in LA County.


*Tuning In: Parents of Young Children Tell Us What They Think, Know and Need is a comprehensive research undertaking by ZERO TO THREE and the Bezos Family Foundation, 2016.

All photos in this post are courtesy of MiaBella Chavez / Las Fotos Project.