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From the President: Emerging Issues

 Coalition Grows to Extend Life Expectancy in Missouri and Kansas

Eva S.JPG

By Eva Creydt Schulte, MA, Diaconal Minister
President and CEO, Communities Creating Opportunity, Kansas City (Missouri and Kansas)

At Communities Creating Opportunity, (CCO) we believe that the only good economy is a moral one – one that puts families at the forefront of decision-making. How do we know whether our economy is moral or not? Simple: we judge the standard of living and length of lives lived. In Missouri, we are losing life expectancy in one-quarter of our counties. In fact, girls in our state no longer outlive their mothers.

This dramatic change occurred over 25 years after a series of public policy decisions that led to disinvestment, predation and the removal of pro-family support systems. In 1995, Missouri numbered 24th in life expectancy compared with other states. Now, Missouri ranks 36th, having been surpassed by eight states that are making different decisions and experiencing an aggregate of longer and more quality lives. Kansas lags even further behind.

This is a problem that 290 community leaders from the Midwest and across the country pondered during May’s Moral Economy Summit. How could this happen? More importantly, what can we do to turn course so that everyone in the heartland has the opportunity to thrive?

Communities Creating Opportunity is a constituency-rooted and values-based organization committed to prioritizing human dignity in public life through community organizing, activating citizenship and building prophetic community and life expectancy campaigns. Four years ago we co-located with the Kansas City, Missouri, public health department. This decision solidified our conviction that public health prevention efforts and systemic change through organizing are two sides of the same coin. Now public health professionals and community organizers across our region come together to drive new breakthroughs for health equity and social justice. Last year, Kansas City’s collective power building was awarded with the coveted Robert Wood Johnson Culture of Health Prize.

In 2014 we decided that together we would utilize the soon-to-be pre-released film "The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation" to challenge the status quo around early childhood education. The film was developed as a teaching tool to present the "social ecology" that children need along with scientific evidence to demonstrate how pro-family policies and investments in early learning lead to dramatically improved outcomes from infancy to age 3 that position young people for success throughout their entire lives.

Communities Creating Opportunity and the Missouri Public Health Department successfully used California Newsreel’s earlier film "Unnatural Causes" with our leadership base to impel a new narrative about inequality in our nation. When we began we did not know the extent to which the next film, "Raising of America," would catalyze a movement in the heartland.

In early 2015, we publicly launched the Raising of America Coalition to show the film at a regional event recorded live by our local public television station. After the film showed, we facilitated a discussion between participants: the Kansas City-Missouri Mayor Sly James, medical doctors and the child advocacy organization Kansas Action for Children. Hundreds of people pledged to show the film with their constituency groups, including Children’s Mercy Hospital, local religious congregations, city government and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. And they did. CCO secured a pre-released DVD and through a simple memorandum of understanding, we coordinated across diverse sectors to ensure that those watching the film would do more than view a movie. As a result we have seen significant public policy progress, new innovations in workplace family support and a growing base of grassroots supporters and civic leaders who are committed to comprehensive universal pre-K campaigns.

Here’s what’s happening: Over 1,500 people saw the film before it was officially released last October. We developed a locally contextualized tool kit with the resources provided by Raising of America and support of the Black Community Fund of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. The coalition’s primary focus is to recruit as many people to watch the film as possible. We are building a constituency base committed to seeking systemic solutions through 1) exciting broader cross-sector partnerships and 2) deepening organizational awareness of the intersectionality of issues impacting how a child starts off in our community. To date we have:

– trained dozens of facilitators, primarily from area public health departments and our community organizing teams

– gathered nearly 1,000 pledge cards from individuals who are committed to share their stories, host a film viewing or build a voting or issue specific base of community leaders who drive a policy or programmatic breakthrough related to the film and

– secured early education continuing education credit hours for providers who watch the film.

Most importantly, immediately after the mayor hosted his own viewing of "Raising of America," he and the city manager pledged to advance a municipal ordinance, in coordination with the city council’s unanimous support, to adopt a six- to eight-week, full-pay parental paid leave policy for all 6,000 public employees. It is one of the more progressive ordinances in the nation, with growing momentum for replication in neighboring cities across Missouri and Kansas. Additionally, the Women’s Foundation launched a partnership on index measurement for how friendly a workplace is to women and families, called WhenWorkWorks.org.

We have a new moment for health equity and social justice that has the potential to break through our current life expectancy trajectory. Communities Creating Opportunity and our public health partners are committed to building the Raising of America coalition in Kansas City and beyond. Over the next year, CCO will work to build a voter base of 5,000 people — people who are committed to early childhood education breakthroughs and revenue investments to put families first. We are not far from achieving our goal of comprehensive, universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds in Kansas City, Missouri; just a few more film viewings, an integrated voter engagement plan and the continued momentum of our cross-sector partnerships keep us away.

The Rubik’s Cube of bureaucracy we live in is depriving girls and boys of the full lives we want them to live. We have the tools to discover the pattern that will free families and children from the bondage of inequity, lack of quality education, inadequate health access and racialized disparities. We know the code to extend life expectancy in our communities. We have a plan. Now onward! Join us in building your own Raising of America coalition in your region.