When we first began holding meetings as the Thriving Community Collaborative (TCC), one of the topics of greatest interest was driving Systemic Change. As a new administration prepares to take over in Baltimore, as well as on the national stage, several organizations and individuals are hard at work drafting policy positions to help guide the go-forward strategy and focus. In fact, the City Paper crafted a to-do list based on input from 100 Baltimoreans. The Open Society Institute-Baltimore has engaged the community in a Solutions Summit that included half-day forums held with community leaders, elected officials, issue-area experts, on-the-ground activists, and concerned residents centered around Jobs, Criminal and Juvenile Justice, and Behavioral Health.  This is all scheduled to culminate in a meeting on December 10th where recommendations coming out of the past work will be debated with the goal of highlighting priorities.

It is gratifying to see this acknowledgment of the importance of including the community in the shaping of policy. This, in combination with changes in attitudes, will be critical in shaping real systemic change.  There is no escaping the fact that decisions made (or not made) over the coming months  will have a profound impact on our ability to thrive. These policies will shape whether we move toward achieving our goal of helping all communities to thrive, whether we maintain the status quo, or whether things, in fact, get worse before they get better.

Over the past several months, the TCC has used films from the Raising of America series, a project focused on looking into how we as a country go about the task of becoming more informed about the impact trauma has on our lives and those of our children. The films have served as a useful tool in helping heighten awareness of the devastating impact violence, abuse, and neglect can have on our communities as a direct result of the impact they have on an individual’s mental and physical health. The films have also provided a wealth of “food for thought” about potential solutions, particularly around how our policy decisions impact children and families.

At the November TCC meeting, we spent some time talking about the policies that flow from having an understanding of the science of trauma, and those that might help to alleviate its impact. What came out of the discussion was the complete realization that a discussion about the policies that support children and families is unending in its scope because, in fact, there isn’t much on the policy side that doesn’t impact the success of children and families.

That said, this article highlights some of those policies that we did discuss. Importantly, this is not to suggest that the programs highlighted may not currently exist in some places or some form. We aren’t experts on the topics on this list.  We are concerned citizens, and we list them only as a framework for discussion within organizations interested in policy advocacy.  Also, it’s important to note that although we’ve highlighted problems or issue areas, it  was suggested that we change our mindset and reframe the discussion in tackling these issues, coming at the solutions from a strength-based approach.

the critical role of nutrition

Our conversation began with nutrition because past research provides evidence that what an expectant mom consumes during pregnancy can have a profound impact on the developing child, potentially affecting their health throughout their lifespan. Notably, the participants in our November discussion jumped immediately to policies supporting children’s nutrition.

Free & Reduced Lunch

The Issue:  We have free and reduced lunch programs in place to help children nutritionally; however, they are only available during the school week.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Expand coverage to include weekends and summer vacation
  • Open the programs to families
  • Improve the nutritional quality of the food provided

Expand Access to Healthy Foods

The Issue:  There are quite a few food desserts in Baltimore. Though several programs are in place to address this, like Baltimarket and the work being done by the Urban Agriculture | University of Maryland Extension, there remains much work that can be done.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Support policies that offer incentives to corner stores to offer healthier alternatives
  • Expand coverage of the initiatives provided by Baltimarket like community gardens & online shopping

Expand Nutrition Education

The Issue:  Though much has been done in the area of nutrition education, there is still much work to be done

Policy Suggestions:

  • Reopen community centers and leverage them as a tool for education
  • Ensure nutrition is covered in schools

Support Community Partnerships

The Issue: So often we, as providers or funders take a top-down approach. We need to get rid of the mentality “If we build it, they will come.” It’s important to break down barriers to participation that “pre-baked” solutions can elicit and to engage individual communities in the search for solutions.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Leverage programs like Maryland Community Health Workers. This program leverages community resources, folks already living in the community, as a force for health education, which can include nutrition education. They are looking to increase capacity, increase training and are in need of increased funding.

the trade-off:
environmental toxins vs. convenience vs. profits

The discussion around toxins arose directly from a reference to the impact that BPA, a chemical found in commonly used plastics, can have on the unborn. In the case we reviewed in the film, DNA is Not Destiny, it was mouse pups; however, there has also been research showing detrimental effects in humans.

BPA & Other Plastics

The Issue:  We are still using plastics extensively, while other countries have shifted away from this extensive use of plastics.

Policy Suggestions:

Failing Infrastructure/Water Supply/Lead Paint

The Issue:  We have an old and failing infrastructure, resulting in exposure to chemicals like lead in our water supply, not to mention widespread existence of unabated lead paint.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Support major infrastructure projects
  • Make it a crime not to inform citizens when information about potential toxins is uncovered

Abandoned Houses

The Issue:  Beyond the fact that abandoned houses create unsafe spaces which can be a blight on our communities, when we tear them down toxins are released and left in our neighborhoods for the residents to deal with.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Ensure that programs focused on tear downs are comprehensive in their approach
  • Look into rehabbing properties where feasible

Making Information Available to Community Members

The Issue: People often don’t know what toxins may be present in their immediate environments.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Make information more accessible to communities
  • Translate the information that’s out there so it’s more accessible to moms and families

Toxic Chemical Manufacturers

The Issue: We don’t have adequate legislation in place to protect communities from corporations building plants that have toxic byproducts or that pollute our waterways.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Set limitations on how close these facilities can be built to schools and communities
  • More public education on GMO’s

supporting children = supporting families

When it comes to brain science, there is no doubt that the human brain is most plastic in infancy and early childhood. As a result, we can have the biggest impact if we proactively focus on prevention by ensuring the healthiest possible environment for our infants, toddlers, and young children. Notably, parents are critical in achieving this, and therefore, it is essential that we consider families when shaping policies to support infants and children. Additionally, when we consider the science of epigenetics, we realize that changes in the epigenome, either positive or negative, can occur throughout our life.

Caring for Newborns

The Issue:  In several countries and some states, a greater emphasis has been placed on ensuring newborns get the healthiest start possible, including a safe sleeping space, proper clothing, knowledge about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, etc.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Implement programs like the Baby Shower Program initiated earlier this year in New York City
  • Reframe the conversation and provide additional support for new moms; don’t punish the infants
  • Make it easier to access agencies for support

Parental Leave Policy

The Issue:  Quite often, hourly workers have insufficient leave, or don’t have the ability to forgo salaries to take needed time off to support newborns.  Additionally, paternal leave may not be offered.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Provide governmental support for both paternal and maternal leave
  • Support paid sick leave for parents

Quality Childcare

The Issue:  Often families are forced to leave children in less than adequate childcare settings because they can’t afford or don’t have access to quality childcare.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Where needed, provide subsidized childcare in schools for teen parents as well as parents living in the community.
  • Focus on positive, nurturing, early learning environments
  • Increase pay for childcare workers
  • Provide additional support for pregnant moms and new parents in prison. Investigate options that could increase family connectedness

Multi-dimensional Impact of Incarceration

The Issue: Incarceration impacts family connectedness, family economics, and family safety.  These all have an impact on how successful we are in raising healthy children from infancy through the teen years.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Stop housing prisoners so far away from their families, and look into other options besides incarceration.
  • Reexamine privatization models. Are they really giving us the best options or are they shifting incentives in a negative way?
  • Leverage resources from the Birth Parent National Network which has done extensive work in promoting a system of services, laws, practices and attitudes that help families to provide their children with a safe, healthy, nurturing childhoods.
  • Support programs for living wages and low-income housing. These are the types of programs that can prevent parents from turning to illegal practices to support their families.

Parents’ Mental Health

The Issue:  The mental health of both parents has a significant impact on the health of the children. We need to take more steps to support parents’ mental health.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Cover alternative health care that has been demonstrated to be effective, like acupuncture or yoga under private and government based insurance policies.
  • Sponsor parental support groups

taking a broader view

How we fund programs, where we focus, and how we incentivize agencies, corporations, organizations and individuals impacts the success of the programs that we undertake. The group raised some broader issues affecting the success of children and families.

The Corporatization of Everything

The Issue:  As we focus so much on payouts and dollars, we’ve deemphasized humanity. Our constant focus on “who profits” when a program is implemented has compromised our ability to support children and families. Providing and evaluating funding for a one to two-year period is often too short of a time horizon.  We end up meeting quotas instead of looking at long-term success.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Stop focusing on short term payouts and consider the broader implications for communities
  • Refocus on implementing long term studies
  • Take advantage of the fact that corporations don’t want bad PR. Leverage that as a strength, and pay for success.  For example, have governmental agencies commit to providing support for programs that demonstrate successful social impacts.
  • Reprioritize safety over profits

STEM Policy

The Issue:  Our schools don’t focus enough on STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math. It has left us non-competitive, particularly with students being educated in our inner-city schools.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Make access to quality STEM education a requirement in all our schools
  • Support policies and public service announcements that encourage and motivate students to want to excel in STEM

Displaced Families/Gentrification

The Issue:  As families are forced out to make way for development, they are faced with longer commutes, no reasonable access to public transportation, and lack of access to support systems or supportive environments.

Policy Suggestions:

  • Ensure communities have a role pre-development
  • Ensure higher levels of access to low-income housing as a requirement for development

Increasing the Practice of the Science of Positivity

The Issue:  So many times we focus on the negatives of what’s happening in our communities. There is a whole science of positivity that we can leverage in addressing problems and potential solutions.

Policy Suggestions: