Aida Mariam is the director of The Early Learning Lab’s Parent Innovation Institute, where she works to enhance programs and services for parents with children 0–5 through a model that is centered on leadership development, co-creation, and rapid-cycle learning.
Parents’ voices should be heard, especially in a diverse area like the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland, California. Fruitvale is a vibrant corridor for community services, cultural events, and shopping, yet it also sits at the intersection of many contentious community issues like housing, immigration, employment, health care, and early education, all of which compete for increasingly scarce public dollars. It is in the context of these opportunities and challenges that The Early Learning Lab piloted the first Parent Innovation Institute in Fruitvale. In this blog, we share our framework, and as we apply it in our community, we will continue to share our story with you.
An Innovative Learning Space: The Parent Innovation Institute
The Parent Innovation Institute is a learning space for bringing together families and parent-serving organizations via hands-on workshops and coaching. Through the institute, we seek to develop individual parent leadership, strengthen the early-childhood learning ecosystem, and improve programs and services for families with young children throughout the community (see Figure 1).
We focus on parent leadership skills and training because confidence and self-identification are prerequisites to taking action. But parent leadership alone is not enough. We focus on building a strong early-childhood ecosystem—an interconnected fabric of community spaces where parents have pathways to share their ideas and experiences and speak with their service providers as well as with other parents. We do this because we know that leaders thrive in a community with close connections. We also focus on improving programs and services so that service providers talk with each other, act faster, and engage with families through more caring relationships.
Co-constructing Family Learning: The Parent Innovation Institute’s Unique Approach
To reach these goals, we design opportunities for families and service providers to co-construct solutions to problems they face in the community. We draw from the best of what continuous improvement, human-centered design, and community-organizing frameworks have to offer. Our approach is characterized by:
- An innovation cycle, rather than a linear process, so that participating families and communities can continually get feedback, refine their ideas, and remain focused on the needs of the community.
- A human-centered Design Thinking approach that is less about extracting information from parents and more about putting them at the heart of the work, involving them in problem solving and guided discovery, and developing their leadership capacity.
- A culturally relevant and outcomes-oriented process so that families’ voices are elevated according to the routines and languages of their daily lives.
In our inaugural initiative in Fruitvale, we brought together four parent-serving organizations and the parents/caregivers they serve. Teams worked together over a nine-month period to creatively problem solve around challenges they perceived within the early childhood landscape. The four teams were chosen from an in-depth recruitment and application process in which teams needed to show that they, in partnership, were willing to commit time to the project.
Here is the application from the Oakland Public Library César E. Chávez Branch:
And here is a video about our work:
As we close the first year of implementation, we are analyzing the data that we have collected. In our next blog, we will write about the problems the teams surfaced, how they problem solved around them, how the teams put their early prototypes into action, and our early insights and lessons for improving our work.
 Teams were from East Bay Agency for Children, La Clínica de La Raza Inc., the Oakland Public Library, and the Unity Council.