When the administrators from the U.S. Dept. of Health of Human Services Administration for Children & Families called ECIC for our recommendations six months ago, no one knew exactly what to expect. The opportunity? The federal government, at the request of the President, aimed to organize the “first federally-sponsored national conference solely devoted to creating an inclusive human services delivery system.” Because of ECIC’s work with our partners at Region 5 of the Administration for Children & Families over the years, the planning for this national conference began with parent voice and leadership.
Four parent leaders—Anthony Queen, Zach Ben, Amber Robinson, and Sadia Batool—representing communities from Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Federally Recognized Sovereign Tribes, gave their time and talents to help plan the national conference. Thanks to a generous partnership with the Pritzker Children’s Initiative to cover the cost of travel to the DC area, three of these parent leaders were also able to participate in the two-day national convening with 2,000 attendees from across the country.
“I appreciated that we were asked to be part of this, and it seems like our feedback was really valued,” said Amber Robinson.
“Throughout the planning stages I spoke about my lived experiences and how my trademarked tag line, ‘Collaboration moves at the speed of Trust’ came about,” said Anthony Queen. “They decided to use it as a title for the breakout session on Building Bridges Among Communities of Color,” Person of Color, Building Bridges session.”
Zach Ben added: “Although it was facilitated by a federal entity, it was great to see the inclusion of community-based organizations and institutions. The majority of the voices were from community, and that felt like our voices were being heard and listened to.”
Elevating Lived Experiences
Both Zach and Anthony also accepted invitations to serve on and moderate panels at the national conference. Zach shared about his experience: “I co-presented on a panel on empowerment for equitable outcomes in tribal communities. There were three of us on the panel, and we talked about tribal sovereignty, a clinical approach from a therapist, and I spoke as a family leader and entrepreneur. We talked about sovereignty and how policies and laws affect us at the community level. We talked about what we’re doing to heal from historical, intergenerational cycles of trauma, and what we’re doing to experience sovereignty as an advantage, not as a disadvantage…what we’re doing to create economic sustainability that’s equitable.”
“For me, I grew up knowing that in order to instill or create change, it starts from within,” continued Zach. “I shared my story as a parent and the values I’m teaching my child. I’m also creating a business and creating an ecosystem within the tribe. And I understand that I want our children to inherit this business and the wealth we create, and most importantly, not to inherit the cycles of trauma we experienced.
“At the national conference, I was able to share how I and my people benefited from human services but also how the system has held me back. As an indigenous people, we experienced disenfranchisement; it’s set us back, compared to our white peers. We need to teach that history lesson and understand where we need to navigate. Hopefully, this ripple effect will impact the federal entities and create more change.”
“Everyone else on the planning process had a master’s degree or a ph.D. Don’t have any letters after my name. What I was trying to get them to understand, throughout the process, is that when you’re talking to a general audience, they may not connect to the research.”
At the start of the planning process, Anthony continued, “they wanted parents to be contributors, and I contributed. As the journey continued, they asked if I would be part of a panel, and eventually, they asked me to serve as a moderator. I was glad because they had a parent up there on the podium and a focus on fathers. With fathers, you have to try different approaches to get them involved. In my work with dozens of fathers in Kent County, I always try to get them involved, so that they aren’t feeling like they are sitting on the sideline. I’m not a facilitator. I’m a conversationalist,” continued Anthony. “Between each speaker, I kept it lively and asked provocative questions to make things more lively for the general public.”
The Power of Connection
A natural networker, Amber said a highlight of the conference was “seeing the parent leaders face-to-face that I had only worked with virtually over the years.”
Amber also had a chance to connect with a program lead from the Administration for Children and Families. “We had a candid conversation,” she said, “and I felt like he was receptive to my feedback. It was refreshing to be able to connect with them, and I learned about the drawbacks and shifts in programming when there are changes in administrations.”
“Systemically, having family leaders there was great. Not only to network and understand potential future collaborations, but, most importantly, to be included. It was great to know that we finally have a seat at that type of table. There is great work going on across the nation. It was good to plug in and find out what organizations are out there and doing amazing things,” continued Amber. “And they need more parent leaders to connect with them to inform their work and help them be responsive.”
Equity & Inclusion
Everyone who attended agreed that the national convening was a positive step and that more investments and more commitments are needed.
“I have an issue with the word ‘equity,’ because people use it as a buzzword. When it comes to understanding how it plays out, people aren’t willing to go into what it takes to be equitable. It takes time, trust, and power-shifting.”
Amber shared one insight that she recommends for all government agencies and organizations who are working with parents and families: “Sometimes when you are a parent leader, they don’t see you as anything more than a parent leader. They don’t find out what else you bring to the table. If you’re going to change something, it’s a multi-layered thing. Mindsets have to change. Processes have to change.”
Anthony also shared guidance for agencies and organizations that want to work alongside parent leaders.
“On the final day, everyone was talking about ‘lived experience,’ which is kind of the hot phrase right now. Make sure you get the parents’ permission first and each and every time you want to share a parent’s story and lived experience. Don’t assume you have a blank check to use it each and every time.”
The National Convening on Building an Inclusive Human Services System provided a venue to educate, stimulate and galvanize action through informative sessions led by national thought leaders, i.e., national experts, parents, state/community leaders, researchers. The specific populations to be addressed within the National Convening on Building an Inclusive Human Services System are persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; and persons who live in rural areas.
ECIC extends a special thanks to Anthony Queen, Zach Ben, Amber Robinson, and Sadia Batool for their thoughtful contributions and leadership on this national convening, organized by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Administration for Children & Families.
For the generous support from the Pritzker Children’s Initiative that made conference participation possible, Zach shared, “thank you for the sponsorship. It really helped me to know that my child would be cared for, that my meals and travel were covered, so all I had to do was focus on sharing my story and my experiences. I’m honored to be part of something where we’re all working together to hold institutions accountable as they work to become more equitable.”