The month of March is among the most exciting times of year at the Social Innovation Forum. Our annual lineup of Social Issue Talks brings together hundreds of members of our community of funders, philanthropists, nonprofits, business leaders, government officials, and others interested in learning more about social issues facing greater Boston. We welcomed more than 300 guests at seven events across the city. For those of you who weren’t able to join, we’ve provided a recap of the events below.
Advancing the Safety and Security of Children in the Foster System
March 7 - Julie Boatright Wilson, Harry Kahn Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Harvard University, gave an overview of the history and evolution of the foster care system. Milestones included the publication of Dr. C. Henry Kempe’s paper, “The Battered Child Syndrome” in 1962, which presented the medical model of child abuse. Definitions expanded over the years to include physical and sexual abuse, psychological maltreatment, and physical, educational, and medical neglect. The system we have today emerged in the 1970s. The process begins when someone reports a suspected case of child abuse and neglect to the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Reports go through an initial screening, some move on to an investigation, and some of those move to assessment. In 2014, nationally there were 3,029,371 cases of child abuse and neglect that were subject to an investigative report, and 663,701 confirmed victims of maltreatment. While what children need varies by age, Professor Wilson argued that all children need stability, love, and support and that CASAs, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, have the well-being of the child as their sole responsibility.
Social Innovator Charles Lerner of Boston CASA spoke briefly about his organization’s work training and matching CASA volunteers. According to Charles, “These volunteers advocate for these children as if they were their own children.” Boston CASA sees this work as a social justice issue and has ambitious growth goals to ensure all foster children have a CASA.
Expanding Leadership Development in the Social Sector
March 9 - Dan Pallotta, Founder and President, Advertising for Humanity and the Charity Defense Council, made a compelling case for developing leaders and building the capacity of organizations in the nonprofit sector. He shared the ways in which double standards around money hold the nonprofit sector back, preventing critical investment in leadership development, advertising and marketing, and risk-taking. For those of you who missed the event, Dan’s 2013 TED Talk “The way we think about charity is dead wrong” is worth watching.
Social Innovator Yolanda Coentro of the Institute for Nonprofit Practice said hearing Dan’s talk made her feel “emboldened” about the work INP is doing and emphasized that education, networks, and skills make you better at your job. She warned of the leadership vacuum the nonprofit sector faces when the Baby Boomers retire and argued for a “new narrative on what it takes to make social change.”
Advocating for Change in the Juvenile Justice System
March 16 - Commissioner Edward Dolan of the Massachusetts Probation Service introduced himself by saying, “I’m a bureaucrat, that’s my skill set.” He then went on to give a fascinating history of the juvenile justice system over the past few decades. The system 20 years ago viewed kids as little adults. Today, kids have full legal rights but special consideration based on development science. Commissioner Dolan argued that systems change has been made through “successive iterations of small strategic interventions” and was complementary of the role advocacy organizations play in pushing the system to improve According to Commissioner Dolan, “A vibrant advocacy community is more important now than ever.”
Social Innovator Naoka Carey, Executive Director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, gave an overview of the four focus areas of CFJJ’s work: treating kids as kids; prevention (keeping kids out of the system); fairness of the system; and addressing racial and ethnic disparities. Naoka noted that Massachusetts, while a leader in many areas, has some of the worst racial and ethnic disparities of any state. She acknowledged that shifting a big system is really challenging work.
Revitalizing Southeastern Massachusetts
March 21 - Michael Goodman, the Executive Director of the Public Policy Center at UMASS Dartmouth, described the various economic challenges facing New Bedford in a presentation that was rich in data and statistics. Professor Goodman focused on topics ranging from education, crime, and business and noted that, while the Commonwealth is in the midst of its most sustained economic expansion this century, the benefits of this expansion are uneven across the state. In New Bedford, widening income inequality fueled by an “educational achievement gap” hold back growth. Twenty-nine percent of New Bedford residents have not completed high school, compared with 10% of MA residents. High crime levels prevent the external investment needed to revitalize neighborhoods. According to Professor Goodman, “If social and economic conditions are to improve, a long-term concerted effort and significant amounts of external investment will be needed.”
Social Innovator Corrin Williams, Executive Director of the Community Economic Development Center, shared the work that her organization is doing to “build bridges to a more just local economy." CEDC’s work focuses on creating partnerships and engaging volunteers, community leaders, organizations, and local and state government around projects and programs that yield economic impact for working families in New Bedford.
Supporting Immigrants through the Citizenship Process
March 27 - We broke our own rule about having an event on a Monday morning (since people often forget), and we were glad we did. We had great turnout at the Boston Foundation on Monday morning for a panel featuring Congressman Joe Kennedy, U.S. Representative for the 4th District of Massachusetts, and Veronica Serrato, Executive Director of Project Citizenship, a 2017 Social Innovator. The conversation covered both immigration reform as well as the path to citizenship for immigrants who have greencards, which is the work Project Citizenship does. Representative Kennedy acknowledged that it is a “disheartening and challenging time” to be an advocate for these issues but said that in order to see progress people must 1.) Speak up and make their voices heard, 2.) Channel efforts into something organized, and 3.) Expand to other communities and convince people outside the immigrant community that this affects them as well. Veronica noted that since November 8, call volume to Project Citizenship has tripled, but that the organization needs resources in order to scale up to meet the need. Both of our panelists were inspiring and highly quotable. Among my favorites from the event:
Veronica Serrato: “I just see us. We are the same people with different backgrounds.”
Representative Kennedy: “Some of our greatest moments as a nation have been when we stand up for people fleeing violence and destitution.”
Developing Innovative Approaches to Maternal Health and Healing
March 28 - Sharon Scott-Chandler, Executive Vice President/COO of Action for Boston Community Development and member of the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care, gave a fascinating presentation on issues affecting the health and well-being of children in their earliest years. According to Ms. Chandler, the first thousand days of a child’s life are crucial and nurturing during this time is critical to brain development. Poverty and its related issues, including maternal depression, can impede nurturing, which is why “two-generational” interventions, which focus on both the family (often mother, but also fathers and other caregivers) and child are proving successful strategies for improving early child development and changing a child's life trajectory.
Robyn Carter of Room to Grow shared her organization’s two-generational approach to healthy and holistic child development. Room to Grow begins working with mothers in their third trimester of pregnancy and continues until the child’s third birthday, with a three-pronged approach that includes 1.) comprehensive parenting education and support, 2.) customized referrals related to the family’s unique situation and 3.) $1,000 worth of essential baby items per visit, delivered via coaching relationships. The program has seen a decrease in maternal depression and increased confidence in participants’ own parenting abilities. According to Robyn, “Parents who believe that they can, will,” leading to healthier mothers, healthier families, and healthier children.
Addressing the Disadvantages of Adversity in Early Childhood
April 3 - We had great attendance for the final (and rescheduled because of snow) event in our Social Issue Talk Series. Al Race, Deputy Director and Chief Knowledge Officer at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, gave a fascinating overview of how the brain develops, particularly in a child’s earliest years when the brain is at its most plastic, and a sobering look at the way toxic stress disrupts the development of brain architecture. He highlighted the difference between “tolerable stress,” which children can learn to respond to with the help of supportive adults and “toxic stress,” which is severe, long-lasting, and unsupported by adult relationships. Risk factors for toxic stress include poverty, parental mental illness and substance abuse, and housing insecurity, among others. Fortunately, resilience in children can be strengthened by supportive relationships and skill building and by providing children with positive experiences to outweigh the negative.
Bob Monahan of Julie’s Family Learning Program, a 2017 Social Innovator, shared an overview of Julie’s approach, which works with mothers and children at the same time. Mothers enroll in Julie’s holistic life-skills and educational programming for up to 20 hours per week, while their children attend Julie’s licensed infant, toddler, and preschool Montessori center. Julie’s helps mothers achieve their goals of being the best parents they can be and children who participate in Julie’s enter first grade above grade level.
Want to hear more from our 2017 Social Innovators?
Join us on Tuesday, May 2 for the Social Innovator Showcase, where you will hear all seven of our 2017 Social Innovators share their solutions to our community’s toughest social issues.