Visit to Washington, DC

Open Arms Executive Director Sheila Capestany traveled to Washington DC in June to participate in a meeting of Administration for Children and Families (ACF), for their Early Learning Communities Initiative. She was joined by John Bancroft from the Puget Sound Educational Service District and together represented the work currently underway in our Thrive by Five project community, White Center. Sheila spoke as a community partner in the White Center Early Learning Initiative (WCELI) on a panel discussion to pull out best practices across the country.

Just for a little background, ACF is developing a place-based framework drawn from successful community models of comprehensive and continuous early childhood services. The development of this framework is part of a project called The Early Learning Communities Initiative, which is designed to encourage dialogue between and within communities, and to spur local action. The outcome goals include healthy pregnancies and births, toddlers who are thriving, and young children who are prepared for success in school and well-being of families. Open Arms and WCELI fit perfectly into this and have a model which is working for many families here in the Puget Sound area.

Much of the initial discussion on the panel centered around Geoffrey Canada’s place-based initiative in Harlem through the Harlem Children’s Zone. This is a very interesting initiative for those of you who might not be familiar with it, and it’s been very successful and held as a model. Check them out.

However, one of the most interesting things about the discussion was that the topic of doulas came up early – and continued to be the topic of conversation on the panel for quite a while. Why? Because it is becoming clear to many – and this is a new, radical idea in early learning circles – that birth work is foundational to early learning. Very, very few early learning initiatives in the country include services for families during pregnancy and through birth and most (if not all) of those that do, address only first-time parents. Open Arms’ work in the White Center Early Learning Initiative was of great interest to many of the participating groups because we do serve our clients during the perinatal time and do not restrict our services to first-time parents. In fact, we do not place any limit at all on the number of children a woman might have had before receiving our services.

Birth is the foundational building block for a child. It is also a potentially transformative time in the lives of women and families – and we at Open Arms have found that it’s true not only of a first birth in a family, but with subsequent births as well. Many participants were interested in this because the commonly held belief is that families are not open to services after a first birth. We have not found it to be limited in that way. Each birth is an opportunity for a family to connect, change, grow and achieve greater health and contribute to an enriched learning environment for all of the children in the family. Families must be healthy and empowered in order to take advantage of other policies and services later on. Otherwise, much of the effort put into these services is lost because families are not in a position to take full advantage of them.

Birth is the only time in a person’s life when a person is admitted to the hospital healthy. There’s nothing wrong with a woman during labor – she’s just pregnant, and everything is normal. Yet our medical model of birth does not mirror that. Certainly medical events can occur during birth and hospitals and medical interventions are sometimes necessary, but some of the countries with lowest c-section and maternal – infant mortality rates are those with large numbers of women birthing out of the hospital in either birth centers or at home, and served by midwives rather than obstetricians. (Note it is also true that societies without birth support whatsoever have some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates, so this obviously is a statement about planning and good support, not the absence of health care.) Many of the families we serve are from cultures where this medical model of birth is not familiar. When doulas are able to be cultural bridges between clients and the American way of birth, bias and misunderstanding can be minimized.

Open Arms is looking forward to more national discussion on issues around the importance of perinatal support to early learning, and we’re proud to have a program which is being looked at as a model for others across the country.

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