The best and most productive learning experiences are the ones where everybody comes away with more than they started with. Those of us who have raised, worked with or advocated on behalf of young children can appreciate that fact. Very often, what we invest in guiding children's early development ends up strengthening our own skills, knowledge, insight and confidence.
At First Five Nebraska, we undertook the work of designing and launching the Nebraska Early Childhood Policy Leadership Academy expecting to get as much out of the project as we put in—and it exceeded those expectations. Here are three key takeaways that capture some of what we gained from the experience and the outstanding citizen-leaders who took part in the inaugural class:
It's no secret that a big part of getting things done locally depends on who you know. That's why we devoted a significant part of the Academy's curriculum to identifying and cultivating the key influencers and decision-makers in a community who are best positioned to help advance local conversations about early childhood issues and projects. We discussed ways to research, engage and build lasting relationships with public- and private-sector leaders who can help grow local early childhood infrastructure. As we moved throught he curriculum, however, we came to appreciate how many of our Academy participants had existing lines of access to the major influencers in their communities—either directly, or by a single degree of separation. Naturally, we know it's not uncommon for social and professional contact networks to overlap, especially in lower-population areas of the state. Even so, being able to see what that overlap looks like in communities from Omaha to Ogallala gave us a new insight and appreciation for the power of networking as a way of getting the right people on board with early childhood efforts. That insight will do more than help fine-tune this part of the curriculum for future classes of the Academy—it'll also help us improve First Five Nebraska's policy and strategic engagement work overall.
For a small population state, sometimes Nebraska can feel very big—especially to community leaders who are working hard to advance their local early childhood projects. Even though common sense tells us we're not the only ones engaged in this work, being neck-deep in planning meetings, assessing needs and gathering resources can sometimes make it feel that way. Participants in this year's class told us that one of the biggest benefits of the program was the ability to network with one another, exchange ideas and simply connect socially. Because the Academy involves communities at all stages of their various early childhood projects, there is a wealth of information and resources to share with one another—from strategies that worked to pitfalls to avoid. Moving forward, we will embed even more peer-to-peer networking opportunities into our program so participants can better support one another's work, even if they're on opposite ends of the state.
Spending time at the Capitol, following devleopments in the Legislature and interacting with busy elected officials can sometimes be challenging, even for those of us at First Five Nebraska who do it nearly every day. But there is no better way to develop an understanding and appreciation for Nebraska's unique system of government and how citizen-leaders can play a part in it. For many of our Academy participants, our visit to the Capitol in March was a highlight of the entire class. The feedback we received was clear on this point—it's one thing to know the steps of the legislative process, but it's quite another to actually see it in action by watching floor debate from the balcony or by speaking directly with legislators as they're engaged in the business of the Unicameral. In future classes of the Academy, we will build in a full day at the Capitol so participants have more time to observe committtee hearings, watch floor debate and schedule one-on-one meetings with the senators who represent their communities in the Legislature.
No matter where we live, all Nebraskans share a common interest in creating social and economic opportunity for our state and its citizens. This responsbility cannot—and should not—rest with any single organization, entity profession or special interest group. Projects like the Nebraska Early Childhood Policy Leaership Academy help bring a wider range of knowledge, experience and perspective to public conversations affecting our communities, families and youngest children. We're grateful to have learned so much from the inaugural class of the Academy—and we're looking forward to learning more from this project in the years ahead.