Measuring the Impact of Parental Education Building Citizens Now and for the Future

Cornelia Butler Flora

MELD, a not-for-profit organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota with collaborators across the nation, has developed a community-organizing and training material approach to child development, child guidance, health, family management, and parental development. Yet, its impacts are beyond increased child and family well-being.

The approach unites parents with young children of the same age into small groups that meet on a regular basis for at least two years. The groups are led by peer facilitators, carefully selected and trained individuals who come from the same socio-economic context as the parents and have successfully been through child rearing experiences in that setting.

The groups receive expert information delivered through the para-professional facilitators and guided by a community-based coordinator. They also help each other by sharing their own information and solutions to the immediate problems they face as parents, learning from each other, as well as from carefully prepared curriculums related to a series of family and community-based issues.

The program focuses on strengths, rather than weaknesses, emphasizes problem solving and decision making, and keeps in constant contact with the facilitators and the parents.

The long-term outcomes and goal of the program are related to building a stronger society. They currently measure the results on the children, the impacts on the parents, and are developing measurement impacts on the communities. This is particularly important for an approach that seeks to build on the resources of the community and the parents, taking an assets base approach rather than a needs base approach.

This approach to parent education, like the new approaches to community building, issues the expert model, although it does use experts as appropriate by the various parent communities.(???) They look at capacities rather than deficiencies and use asset mapping of the parents rather than a needs assessment of what they lack. They view the parents as citizens rather than clients, work to build inner dependencies rather than dependencies, help the parents do strategic visioning rather than narrow planning, stress building community rather than individual capabilities, and seek to build from within rather than looking outside of the community to solve problems.

Finally, measurement is very important because of the need for internal accountability to the parents, to the community, to MELD, and to their partner organizations and outside funders. This becomes more important than external evaluation in terms of providing feedback to make programs better and helping those involved understand when they are making a difference and for what end.

Taking the approach of a program made from assets rather than needs may correct a number of problems that are found in traditional programs that fix "bad" parents. Needs build dependencies where assets build inner-dependencies. Needs label excluded people as "takers", assets identify ways of giving. Needs focus on deficiencies, assets focus on effectiveness. Needs reinforce powerlessness while assets empower.

The MELD approach takes a systems view of ones work, the resources used in it, and the goals sought. It is useful to define the goals of child development and parental development in terms of human capital, social capital, natural capital, and financial and built capital. Each of these can be an end or also a means to the larger society goals of a healthy eco-system, vital economy, and social equity. None of these goals can be ignored if healthy human beings and communities are to be built.

Human capital includes education, skills, health, values, and leadership. These are not only things that can be provided by the program, but they are assets each parent brings to the process. They can be measured by the increased use of the knowledge, skills, and abilities of local people, which contribute to success and a sustainable society. This involves three processes that can be measured:

MELD does this and will measure this in terms of people sharing within the groups, which tend to be people sharing in context so that they can attain a collective identity before they meet with sharply different groups. This has been a very important community organization tactic for excluded groups. There is a need to understand oneself and one's own situation with those who share that context before confronting and sharing with people who have a completely different context.

In the case of excluded people, if they are brought into groups with middle class individuals too soon to discuss something as sensitive as parenting, one of two things happens. The excluded peoples are silenced and, therefore, bored, or there is angry confrontation of excluded people toward those who seem to have more. This can then lead to the middle class people explaining how they too have been excluded and discriminated against. This results in a sharing of "victimhood", which is not empowering or positive.

Increasingly, the skills that parents need in our current complex society go beyond the basic physical skills of keeping a baby clean, clothed, and fed. It also goes beyond the skills of understanding why cleanliness is important, what goes into a nutritious diet, and how to sew. It also includes accounting skills. How much do the different ways of providing for children and their needs cost?

The most important skills that allow all of these previous sets of skills to be best utilized within a complex situation are relational skills. The ability of parents to interact with the parents of other children, with their own children, with teachers, with librarians, with the police, and with social service institutions is critical as human capital skills that need to be learned for use in parenting and other aspects of daily living.

Social capital is an important piece of the ends and the means of the MELD approach. It includes mutual trust among the parents and their facilitators, among the groups and the organizational staff, and between the groups and other groups within the community. But first, it comes from within the group.

It involves reciprocity, not just trading favors but everyone committing to the group because everyone gains from a strong group. Groups are an important part of social capital, which is a critical piece of the education and development process for MELD.

It involves a collective identity as parents and as community members. It involves a sense of shared future in that what we do can make a difference for children. And it involves working together. These are critical skills in parenting and critical skills for community building and increasing community capacity.

Social capital is so important to the MELD program that two separate dimensions have been identified for measurement based on our work in community development. One is strengthened relationships and communication. These measurements include the following:

  1. Increased interactions among unlikely groups within the community
  2. Increased interactions among unlikely groups outside the community
  3. Increased availability of information and knowledge

Two-way knowledge flows are critical in strengthening of relationships and communications. Strengthened relationships and communication are important because they lead to improved community:

This involves a shared vision that the group develops in terms of what is a positive future for themselves and their children. It involves building first on internal resources, which means helping people identify those internal resources within the group. It looks for alternative ways to respond to constant change. Instead of simply providing the answers, processes and methodologies are taught to enable the group and individuals to move beyond the present into the future.

Very importantly, it involves the loss of a victim mentality - as an individual, as a family, and as a group. This includes figuring out collective ways of solving challenges. For example, a possible solution to costly childcare would be to set up a cooperative. Or, a solution for improved child health would be to teach one another how to boil water properly. Rather than waiting for someone else to come and fix things for us, we figure out ways of fixing it ourselves. This does not mean that there is no need for external resources, but those resources are more effectively invested when the group itself has initiative, responsibility, and adaptability.

Natural capital is a very important part of child development and parental development, although it sometimes seems far afield. Air quality is extremely important since excluded communities are often located near polluting entities. Water quality and quantity become critical issues for parenting in making sure young children have safe water. Soil quality is important, particularly in brown fields and areas having old houses with chipped lead paint. Theses are examples where what is on the ground or on the walls makes a difference in regard to health and well being.

Bio-diversity also plays a part in child and parental development. Landscapes, such as community-based gardens, are a way of making the interior of the home and the neighborhood itself more pleasing and more inviting for people getting together.

Natural capital is measured through sustainable healthy ego-systems with multiple community benefits. Some measurements are:

As group relationship skills - social capital and human capital - are developed, they can then be used to negotiate space for children and families.

Financial capital is incredibly important. Debt capital, savings, tax, refunds, and grants such as food stamps and housing supplements are all an important part of the program, including both income generating and expenditure savings kind of activity.

Financial capital is important in how it can be invested in the children and parents and in accumulating assets, both human and physical, that can build household wealth. This can include housing, equipment for self-employment, day care centers collectively, and safe streets. The program measures appropriately diverse and healthy economies in the community in terms of reduced poverty with such measures as:

MELD is working with the various groups to begin to negotiate appropriate indicators of all the capitals that make sense to the group participants, to the parents, to the volunteers, to the coordinators, to the central organization, to the partners, and to the funders.

The methodology says that you must look first at the outcome, the big picture of why this is occurring. The outcome is basically to create a better society, particularly in the place in the community where the group meets and the parents and children live. It includes a healthy environment, economic viability, and social equity.

Measures that are transparent, that are understandable to everyone involved and that can be tracked over time are used. These are measures of indicators, which are only a piece of the whole. Good measurement of outcomes, outputs, activities, and inputs is best if it is parsimonious, picking just a few pieces from the whole that research and local experience have shown to be related to the desired outcomes and outputs. These should be easily understood and can be gathered on a regular basis.

Instituting a program that can carry this out involves building participatory measurement tools so that parents, as well as MELD, can begin to determine if the various capitals are indeed increasing and whether a healthy environment, economic viability, and social equity through empowered citizens taking charge of their own lives results.