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Fixing the Wobbly Stool: Why Early Childhood Advocacy Matters

Two young children play with PlayDoh at their preschool

Carrie Zelin Johnson M.Ed.


“I’m sorry, we have an opening for your preschooler, but we won’t have any openings for infants until next year…”

“We have a confirmed case of COVID, so we are closed for the next 10 days…”

“We are going to have to let you go if you can’t find consistent childcare to work your scheduled shifts…”

These are just a few of the daily challenges faced by parents and early childhood caregivers. These disruptions in childcare impact children’s development and families’ economic stability, with impacts disproportionately experienced by women in caregiving roles.

To ensure that all children in our state are prepared to begin school, we must ensure equitable access to high-quality early learning opportunities—and to accomplish that goal, we need public policy advocacy that is informed by the voices and perspectives within our communities. Not only does this improve the long-term health and economic wellbeing of children and families, but it also accelerates Minnesota’s economic recovery.

A partner and advocate for children

Greater Twin Cities United Way has a long history of advocacy for early childhood care and education. Since 2011, one way we have advocated for public policies and practices is by hosting the Start Early Funders Coalition for Children and Minnesota’s Future (Start Early), a collaboration of 18 members of Minnesota’s philanthropic community.

Start Early’s work leverages their unique perspective as funders to ensure all children have a strong, equitable and healthy start and are prepared to contribute to our state’s vitality. Through its committees focused on research and public policy, Start Early has doubled down on its commitment to community engagement by listening to the lived experiences of parents and providers and supporting community-led grantmaking.

Start Early is a strong partner of Greater Twin Cities United Way, building on our close alignment in our public policy and advocacy commitments. Our 2022 Legislative Agenda names early childhood care and education as an area warranting our full support—working to expand access to high quality, culturally competent care, particularly for families from low-wealth households; stabilizing and sustaining the early childhood workforce; and deepening resources for trauma-informed care that supports young children’s mental health. All of these efforts connect directly with Start Early’s work in 2022, particular their focus on accessibility of early childhood care and youth mental health resources.

This intentional alignment in previous years has already yielded powerful results within the early childhood sector. In partnership with Start Early Funders Coalition, during the 2020 legislative session, Greater Twin Cities United Way worked to secure $97 million in emergency childcare grants for childcare providers statewide.

Building momentum for early childhood care

Our close collaboration was further illustrated this past month, with two joint events in March raising awareness and engagement around early childhood issues at the Minnesota state legislature. Greater Twin Cities United Way co-sponsored Start Early’s annual Early Childhood Legislative Briefing; the following week, Start Early co-sponsored Greater Twin Cities United Way’s annual Advocacy for Children Day Rally.

These events amplified our community voices, shared recommendations from our respective advocacy agendas, and ultimately urged lawmakers to prioritize early childhood funding in this legislative session. Many of our speakers expressed the view that the early childhood system is broken, and that current resources are insufficient for the challenges faced by families and providers alike.

Recommended solutions included increased funding for childcare programs; new tax credits for families; and expanded tuition assistance, compensation support, and mental health and wellness resources for professionals in the field.

Fixing a broken system

At the rally, Nikki Graf, a member of Start Early’s Parent and Provider Advisory Group, shared a powerful metaphor for the challenges she faces: "For our family, childcare feels like a three-legged stool with one wobbly leg—one leg is affordability, one leg is availability, and the last leg is quality. You pick two of the strongest legs and hold on as hard as you can and hope you won’t topple over.”

Tina Rucci is our advocacy manager at Greater Twin Cities United Way and a member of the Start Early coalition. She underscores the urgency of fixing the stool for parents and providers: “We know that investments in early childhood result in improved educational and health outcomes, and allow parents to fully participate in the workforce, which supports thriving families and a thriving economy. This is why we continue to advocate for effective solutions and investments at the legislature.”

Greater Twin Cities United Way and Start Early Funders Coalition rely on the support of our donors and community stakeholders to advance systems change work in early childhood education and beyond. Help support the cause, and join us in our efforts to ensure our youngest Minnesotans are healthy and ready to thrive.

About the Author

Carrie Zelin Johnson M.Ed. is a Program Officer on the community impact team, where she drives education outcomes and leads the Start Early Funders Coalition. Carrie joined Greater Twin Cities United Way with an extensive background in education and mental health. She worked as a consultant for over 20 years helping organizations and schools improve equitable outcomes. She holds a master’s degree in education with a focus on leadership.

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