This article appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of the Erikson on Children newsletter, under the headline “Inventing the systems for success.” More from this issue

As governments tighten their belts, line items for programs and services that support young children and families are disappearing. Yet the needs of those children and families aren’t.

In this environment, Candace Williams, M.S. ’08, M.S.W. (Loyola) ’09, is working to develop the systems and networks that will enable early childhood organizations to reach more children and families.

Candace Williams

She began her career as a teacher and youth specialist, switching to the policy side when she was chosen from among 200 candidates to receive an Illinois Early Childhood Fellowship. The program, created by six leading Illinois funders in the field of early childhood, was established to develop emerging leaders who can shape and extend effective public policy for children.

Williams served her fellowship at Positive Parenting DuPage, working to support collaboration among organizations, agencies, and resources serving parents and young children. She joined Positive Parenting DuPage as director of special initiatives following the fellowship.

We talked with Williams about her experiences and her perspective on the early childhood field.

When you talk about “systems development” as it relates to social services, what do you mean?
It’s about creating networks. The goal is to move beyond silos, where individual agencies provide specific services, to developing an awareness of a larger, more comprehensive picture of serving young children and their families. At the heart of this work is relationship building in an effort to cultivate and sustain partnerships while reducing duplication and gaps in services. This can be done by developing support systems and structures to meet local agencies’ needs, including technical assistance. I have been active in this work as a member of the Illinois Early Learning Council’s Community Systems Development Work Group, helping shape common language around community partnerships, as well as providing statewide capacity building trainings.

What prevents agencies from collaborating?
In short, silos, competing for scarce funding, and lack of communication. The system was not necessarily designed with the collaborative process in mind. However, that is beginning to change—you have to be involved in some form of collaborative process to be considered as a candidate for certain grants and initiatives. It will be interesting in five or ten years to see the impact of this on systems.

We need to increase resources, and we also need to get creative about collaboration. If you do what I do, and there are 1,500 families to serve, there’s no reason that both of us should be serving the same 500 families when collectively we could serve all of them with the same amount of funding.

What else could we do to improve services for children and families?
We never want to lose sight of what families need and want. We’ve been doing the work so long that we may feel like we know what’s needed. For example, we’ve always fought to improve education and early childhood services, so that’s where we continue to focus our efforts. But it is vital that, along with our current efforts, we also are intentional about going into communities and talking to families. Ask them, what’s going on? Building relationships of trust and empowerment is key to our mission.

You seem to see communities as the essential matrix of change. Is that true?
Yes and no. By community, I mean not only a specific community but the collective, what we believe and what we value as Americans. We say it takes a village, meaning the community, to raise a child. But just looking at it “bottom up” is not enough. We don’t talk enough about the broader aspects of community, that is to say our institutions, society itself.

People who work in the field can sound almost apologetic when we talk about the social reality in this country. We need to have a stronger voice. We have to say, “Yes, there are people who are undereducated, who are not working, who need help. But this country’s problems are not centered on one group, one race, one socioeconomic class. Americans in general are suffering.” We need to say, out loud and all together, “This is not okay.” Other interests can do it, and they are not representing the well-being of people. Why can’t we?

How do we rebuild and strengthen communities, then?
It has to be a comprehensive effort for the collective good. If we do not work on the issues from all angles, we are just spinning our wheels. Ultimately, everyone has to be invested in the thought that there is value to all people, especially the most vulnerable—very young children and their families.