Chatham Scene | Ben Rappaport

Gather ‘round children, it’s time to make a change

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PITTSBORO — Put smart and engaged people in a room and good things are bound to happen.

That was exactly the case at the Chatham Partnership for Children event I attended last Thursday.

The partnership is undertaking the ambitious project of a Community Needs Assessment and Early Childhood Action Plan for children of Chatham County. The assessment will show where the community’s children age 0 to 5 stand, and the action plan will show where to go in the future to make necessary changes. Thursday’s event at the Chatham Agriculture & Conference Center in Pittsboro was the kickoff for that process.

Community stakeholders like the Love Chatham, Community Organizing for Racial Equity (CORE) and Chatham Education Foundation — along with county employees and officials — were all in attendance collaborating and envisioning what this project could look like and the impact it could have for the young people of the county. It sparked meaningful conversations about the status of education, childcare and social services currently available for families and the challenges that lie ahead.

The event began with a thought experiment: imagine your dream for children in Chatham 20, 30 or 40 years from now. In a room full of people who work with children across the county every day, the ideas were wide-ranging, including universal Pre-K, increased teacher pay and the development of better food systems in the county. Across all these ideas, however, one theme emerged: equity.

No matter what organization members came from, they each recognized the economic and social disparities in different geographies in the county. And how those disparities are leading to vastly different outcomes for children.

That’s where the Community Needs Assessment hopes to fill the gaps. Chatham Partnership for Children has hired two community engagement consulting firms — Partners for Impact and Community Voice Consulting — to help make this project meaningful. Both groups have experience in similar projects, but this marks one of the first times they have each worked on early childhood issues. The partnership and its consulting groups outlined the plans for the assessment on Thursday.

The partnership advertised this project to potential consultants and both firms bid on the assessment, but rather than choose one, Chatham Partnership for Children chose both because each has different specialties. Despite this project being both organizations’ first time working in this space, Genevieve Megginson, the executive director of the Chatham Partnership for Children, said she landed on these firms because they have experience in solving equity issues.

“They have researched the method that works at lifting up voices,” she said. “That’s what I want to see. It’s a new partnership for them, but it seems like neither one could’ve done this process on their own.”

The assessment is set to take place in two phases: community engagement and data collection. The first phase will consist of surveys, data collection and interviews with families about the current state of affairs in Chatham. The second phase will involve focus groups and listening sessions regarding ways to improve the community in the future.

This project is still in the very early stages with the first surveys launching in December and plans to be completed by the end of next year. The final product will include presentations to the Chatham Board of Commissioners and a special film created using the interviews.

Megginson said the organization decided this assessment was necessary because the county has changed by leaps and bounds since the last assessment in 2008.

“We need to be deeply community-based,” Megginson said. “Everything is changing and we’re building back. As we build back we need to look deep at what it is we need to be doing.”

She said to be community-based means involving all levels of society, not just the most outspoken voices. We need to be asking questions like who are the families in the county? What do those families need? And what are we, as a community, not doing for children today?

Megginson said the other motivator for the assessment was the inevitable growth and change in the community with incoming development. She said childcare is the “overlooked essential infrastructure.” While roads, housing and water are important, we also have to care for the families that are bound to make our communities more vibrant. Megginson believes this assessment and subsequent action plan will become a model for other areas of the state as N.C. continues to be a hotbed of growth and development.

If we don’t understand where we stand and where the gaps in coverage exist currently, then we won’t be prepared for the future — where more folks of all classes and creeds will inevitably become our neighbors.

Undertaking a project like this is also a privilege in itself. To be able to zoom out and take broad views of the community and say “we are doing well, but we could be doing much better” is a task that takes introspection and trust from every facet of the community.

For more information about the Chatham Partnership for Children and its Community Needs Assessment plans including methodology, resources and how to get involved visit chathamkidsmatter.com or email genevieve@chathamkids.org.

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

Chatham Scene, Chatham Partnership for Children, Chatham Community Needs Assessment, Early Childhood Action Plan

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