In mid-August, while enjoying the beach, dining, and the usual vacation amenities with my family in Charleston, S.C., I received an unexpected invitation from the White House to attend a special forum, 50 Years Forward: Building Ladders of Opportunity. This event was to be part of the weeklong celebration of the anniversary of the March on Washington. With panels, discussions, and speakers, it would focus on President Obama’s vision for the future and how his plans to build “Ladders of Opportunity” to the middle class can get us there.
I was honored, of course, to receive the invitation and regarded it as a tribute to our efforts to disseminate Help Me Grow across the nation. I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to listen to the veritable Who’s Who of speakers from the Administration, including Attorney General Eric Holder; Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz; Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett; and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan. The invitation promised the opportunity to provide advice and input on the efforts to move the President’s agenda forward.
On August 27, about 120 fellow invitees and I navigated a series of Secret Service security clearances to gain entry to South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of The White House complex. The amphitheater-style seating created a surprisingly intimate venue, with only eight or so rows of seats and ten seats per row on either side of a central aisle. The image of The White House seal, projected amidst flowing, Old Glory blue curtains, befitted the majesty of the event and the prominence of the speakers. Speakers’ acknowledgments of audience members, including Martin Luther King III, Marian Wright Edelman, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), Lisbeth (Lee) Schorr, and 94 year-old Chicago civil rights activist Timuel (Tim) Black, conveyed a sense of warmth and significance.
The speakers, while diverse in their styles, were uniformly impressive and effective. Attorney General Holder and Secretary Donovan essentially delivered policy speeches, with the former declaring the imperative of defending voting rights and the need for a “fundamental new approach to criminal justice,” and the latter passionately calling for “building bridges of tolerance and understanding.” Ms. Muñoz and Ms. Jarrett were more extemporaneous in responding to questions posed by moderators and the audience, referencing the Affordable Care Act as a “transformational moment” and emphasizing the imperative of focusing on early childhood education.
I attended a break-out discussion on “Improving Health Outcomes” at which, much to my delight, child health was the sole medical specialty represented among the approximately 20 participants. Colleagues Neal Halfon, from the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families, and Communities, and Robert Hall, Associate Director of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Washington Office, joined me in emphasizing the critical importance of promoting the optimal development of vulnerable, at-risk children, as opposed to an exclusive focus on “scorable savings” from redesigning care for children with complex medical conditions.
Perhaps most notably, the themes expressed by multiple speakers throughout the event were tremendously validating and encouraging of our own work with Help Me Grow. Such themes included a focus on prevention; the virtues of place-based policies; the call for evidence-based practices driven by sound metrics; the need for holistic (e.g., cross-sector) programs; the return on investment from early childhood programs; the importance of economic development strategies that offer cost benefits; and the role of marketing and communications in system development.
We are so privileged to be part of this critical national discourse. Because we are working together, our voice is being heard. Despite our progress, however, all speakers reminded us of how far we must still travel. We reaffirm our commitment to the long-term system building so essential to ensuring the best outcomes for our children.