Lesson from National Nonprofit: To Lift Children Out of Poverty, Empower their Parents

“Mommy, I press the button!?” Murray says, bouncing up and down. He wants to go up the elevator, really badly. Murray and his mom, Talisha, are heading to a parent coaching session at LIFT, an organization that empowers families to break the cycle of poverty. Talisha heard about LIFT from her son’s early learning teacher. It’s for parents of young children, and it’s just a few floors upstairs, same building.

They get off on the third floor.

“Hello!” Tony Eccles says, shaking hands with Talisha and waving at Murray. Eccles is head coach at LIFT. He works with parents to discuss their strengths, surface their career goals, and plan a path forward.

After a few introductory questions, Eccles and Talisha dig into the reasons for Talisha’s visit. She wants to boost her career, she tells Eccles. Right now she does not know where next month’s rent will come from—but she is ready to do what it takes to provide a stable household for her son Murray.

LIFT At Work

“In my next job, I want to keep learning. My body is slow, but my mind is alive,” she says, stirring up a smile on both of their faces.

The coaching process is new for LIFT, an organization that has worked with parents for more than 20 years. It has required them to invest significantly in research, staff trainings, and partnerships, according to D.C. LIFT Executive Director Kristy Arnold. But she says it’s worth it.

“We help parents be the CEOs of their own family,” says Arnold. By coaching parents to overcome difficult circumstances and achieve their career goals, LIFT can “help end poverty—not just put a band-aid on it.”

The Importance and Challenge of Working with Parents

A wave of research has shown that programs make more progress when they involve parents. Analyses by Child Trends, a leading child and youth research organization, has shown effects on child’s health, education, and behaviors when parents are involved and supported at schools.

Yet not every organization that wants to impact kids works with and for parents.

Why not?

America’s Promise Alliance asked this question at the Recommit to Kids Summit, where Communities In Schools, Zone 146, parents, youth, and many youth-serving organizations offered their perspectives. A few themes came up.

20th Anniversary Workshop
More than 40 participants attended a workshop on empowering parents and families at the Recommit to Kids Summit. Photo credit: ©2017

First, organizations recognize that to help the most vulnerable kids, they need to help parents and caregivers tackle some of the most complex issues relating to poverty, such as financial stability, education, and inadequate support for mental health. One in five parents is low-income, despite having a job or multiple jobs, according to recent census data.

Participants at the summit said that addressing these core parent needs can truly boost a parent’s ability to best support their kids—more, perhaps, than popular parent engagement strategies such as parent handbooks. However, these issues are harder for organizations to address. Issues surrounding parent poverty go beyond any one organization’s expertise, and beyond many organizations’ traditional scope of work. There is an opportunity for youth-serving non-profits and institutions to collaborate to address these cross-cutting issues, and positively impact the whole family.

Second, organizations recognize that support for parents and caregivers will look different for every organization, and for every community. Families are diverse in terms of unique needs, culture, language, and preferences—and therefore require different approaches. In order to understand a community’s parent population, organizations need to make space for their programs and staff to develop relationships with parents. Without a “foundation of trust,” as one parent participant put it, “You can never make progress with parents.”

By cultivating relationships with parents, organizations can begin to think about creative ways to empower and support them.

Parent-centric and Parent-positive: The Call for a Culture Shift

Though the problems parents face are complex, LIFT Chief Strategy Officer Molly Day says the solution starts with a simple step: seeing things through a parent’s eyes, which she calls a “parent-centric and parent-positive perspective.”

“If we have a culture shift—where we presume positive intent from parents—and begin to understand the other things that happen in a parent’s day, we can start to more thoughtfully knit together our programs and services,” Day says.

With the right perspective, organizations can consider how they fit into the “parents” picture. Not every organization should provide supports in mental health or switch to two-generation programming. However, every organization that works with children and youth can consider what is the appropriate approach they can take to support parents, and why. 

Tony Eccles and LIFT participant

The recent report Our Work poses a set of questions to spur reflection for organizations: What kind of parent support would help realize our mission? Can we create effective partnerships with systems and services currently working with parents to provide resources and support to

our parents? Do our programs take into consideration parent schedules, needs, and desires?

Answering these questions, of course, means talking to parents themselves.

“If you make it a habit to ask parents for their feedback, and make intentional time and space for that, parents will appreciate it,” continues Molly, who has set up a survey and listening mechanism for the programs at LIFT. “Listening is key—but then making changes closes that loop. And from what we’ve seen, both parents and providers are very receptive to that.”

Turning Strength into Greater Strengths

At the end of their session, Eccles wants to know about Talisha’s dreams and her ideas for how to get there.

“I want to open up a home for children and young teens,” says Talisha. “A place for them to be safe, and supported. I already have a child care certification—and I can use that to start.”

“That would be a beautiful way to put that certificate to use,” Eccles agrees.

Talisha reflects on how she must have inherited this dream from her own mother. “My momma would take in everybody, provide them with shelter. She had a big heart,” Talisha says, as her little boy sits atop her lap.

“So in this life, I want to take my mom’s good strengths, and turn them into greater strengths.”

Talisha and Murray’s names were both changed to protect their privacy.

This story is part of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, marking the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and calling the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth.