Northfield Healthy Community Initiative

Report date
February 2017

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

COMMITMENT TO DATA & BEST PRACTICES. Northfield Promise’s commitment to the use of data has been vital to the project’s success. For the first time, community members and partners are digging into data and looking at what the results are telling them about the success of our kids. Most importantly, Northfield Promise has continued to push for the regular disaggregation of data so that we can see where gaps exist on factors like gender, race/ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Ensuring that data remains front-and-center in all of this work – and that we do not try to run or hide from the data – is paramount to this work.

Related, Northfield Promise’s success has also come from ensuring that we are pushing partners to not just implement efforts or activities that stakeholders like or that they think should work. Instead, focusing on research-based best practices ensures that we are implementing activities that have seen results – and then are continually looking at whether they are, in fact, working. This mindset can lead to uncomfortable conversations, but given that resources are scarce, we must ensure they are being invested in efforts with the greatest potential returns.
HUMILITY. One of the key ingredients to any success we have enjoyed has been a genuine level of humility with which this work is approached. Backbone staff are continually reminded that we do not have all the answers and that we don’t always know what is best for someone else. A recent example of this involved a desire by members of the Northfield Promise Literacy Team to attend a meeting with the local daycare providers to present them evidence-based instruction on how to teach literacy in their daycares. The problem, however, was that there was not yet a relationship between Northfield Promise and these providers. Thus, instead of pushing forward with this instruction, backbone staff asked the Literacy Team to pause and recalibrate. Northfield Promise then began a series of one-on-one conversations with local daycare providers, listening to their thoughts on raising young children in this community, needs that they faced, and struggles that they encountered. The end result will include some forms of evidence-based literacy resources. However, this new approach has resulted in a much greater level of buy-in, thereby significantly increasing the likelihood of long-term success.
SUSTAINED INVOLVEMENT. As shared previously, organizers expected that there would be a level of attrition as Northfield Promise progressed, with some of the early adopters growing tired and wanting to step aside. We have been pleasantly shocked that this has not yet materialized. In fact, across the initiative, many of the strongest champions are ones who have been involved with Northfield Promise from the start, which is now nearing five years. When asked their reasons for continuing to give so much time and talent to this, these partners have said they remain committed to Northfield Promise’s mission, believe that it has the potential for significant community change, and are continually energized by the progress. This sustained involvement – coupled with the continuing influx of new individuals interested in helping – remains critical to the momentum Northfield Promise continues to enjoy.

Key lessons learned

DARE TO BE BOLD. Ever since we started this effort, we have heard feedback that our goals were likely too ambitious. Did we really believe that EVERY child could reach the Northfield Promise benchmarks, as we contend in saying “Every child. Cradle to career.”? During the early stages, these questions and challenges made us nervous. We would dance around the answers, talking about how the goals were aspirational and we were working to try and see continuous improvement, etc.

Today, we answer the question differently. We say ABSOLUTELY and then push back to ask the questioner which kids they think can’t achieve these results. Doing so has led to some fascinating and challenging conversations about the boxes that we put kids (and people) in and the expectations and aspirations we have based on factors like race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
EVERYONE DOES NOT NEED TO BE HAPPY. In this kind of work (as in life), it is imperative to treat everyone with respect and kindness. However, it is impossible (and undesirable) to try make everyone happy all of the time.

The longer we do this, the more committed we are to the reality that community innovation is about disrupting systems -- systems that are not working for people. This disruption can cause levels of friction and uncomfortable moments, which are not only okay but necessary.

Similarly, there may be times when changes are needed within the backbone organization or the action team make-up in order to accelerate progress. While this is rarely easy or comfortable, it is important to remember that this work is about helping kids and families –- they are who we must be accountable to and we must ensure we are doing everything we can to get the best results. Continually checking to ensure this is the lens we are looking through has been critical to the initiative’s success.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Partners see the presence of all three of these elements on a daily basis. If pushed to pick one, inclusive has been the most important. Northfield Promise was built on a process of having conversations with over 600 community members from across all walks of life. This commitment to engaging and genuinely listening to community has been critical ever since. As shared in the response about humility in Question 1, it has involved approaching this work with a mindset that we don’t have all the answers – and that most of the best answers come from the community itself. Another concrete example of this played out with Northfield Promise’s launch of a Latino Childcare Provider Network (a monthly gathering of Spanish-speaking providers of early childhood care). As a starting point, project partners outlined what the model could look like. However, before moving forward, they committed to doing a series of one-on-one conversations with some of the providers. What resulted was a model that looked very different (on everything from location to topics covered to format) than what had been originally envisioned. The new model much better met the needs of the people for whom it was intended.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

When asked to define some of the elements that have been critical to Northfield Promise’s success, a key theme that emerged was a willingness to take calculated chances and to push the boundaries. One of the favorite mantras of this work is to “lose the can’t” – to challenge those who say that something can’t be done for reasons X, Y, and Z. Being willing to try – to look for alternative angles or approaches – is part of what makes this work different. It is also part of why many people are attracted to being involved (because they are tired of the can’ts).

Along these lines, Northfield Promise partners know that every effort that is tried won’t be successful; sometimes, in fact, they fall flat. The excitement of this effort is that those moments provide a chance to reflect, learn, and push on – to “fail forward,” as we like to say. We believe this is a key component of the innovation process and is something that is important to publicly recognize and acknowledge.

Understanding the problem

As shared above, one of the key successes of the Northfield Promise work has been its commitment to data and to refusing to run or hide from data. Part of this has included Northfield Promise pushing for data to be widely shared in the community and for it to be regularly disaggregated (by gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status) to see where gaps exist. As a result of this, Northfield Promise has helped bring to light some results that have challenged community perceptions about the level of success that our kids are having. The renewed focus of the schools on looking at their literacy instruction has come, in large part, from Northfield Promise highlighting the number of children who were not seeing reading success. Similarly, Northfield Promise’s analysis of what happens to graduates after they finish high school has served as a catalyst for conversations about additional supports that could be added to improve outcomes for more of these young adults. Data has the potential to challenge our preconceived notions and its use within Northfield Promise is helping do just that.

If you could do it all over again...

Big changes typically do not happen overnight – and that is okay. It is easy to become frustrated or disheartened when this doesn’t occur. Cut yourself some slack and keep beating the drum. Change requires persistence and our kids deserve that persistence.

On the flip side, while change does not always happen quickly, it CAN happen faster than many people will contend. Part of our role in this kind of work is to push the envelope – to challenge our partners to move more quickly and more boldly than they may typically be comfortable doing. Again, our kids deserve for us to be relentless in this pursuit.

One last thought

We feel incredibly grateful to be partnering with the Bush Foundation on this work. We commend your commitment to the community innovation process. We are excited about the progress that has been made and what lies ahead in the upcoming year. Thank you for your support, your guidance, and your authentic partnership.