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MBEP Member Spotlight:

First 5 Monterey CountyBuilds Collaborations to Support Child Development, Increase Early Childhood Investment

The struggles parents face when it comes to finding affordable, quality child care are not new: Is the staff qualified? Is it affordable and safe? Conveniently located? Do its hours fit my work schedule? And is there even an opening?

The pandemic compounded those challenges, bringing them into excruciating sharp, public focus.

The perfect storm of factors — COVID restrictions, school shutdowns, the demands of remote learning on parents, and so many others — led to the temporary closure of some child care centers and child care homes, parents — particularly mothers — dropping out of the workforce as a result, and employers in sectors from fast-food to finance struggling to retain or hire the workers they needed. 

Thanks to local collaborations, Monterey County was less impacted by child care closures than neighboring counties, says Nina Alcaraz, director of Policy, Advocacy & Communications for First 5 Monterey County (F5MC), but facility closures and the exodus of early child care workers from the workforce created huge dilemmas for far too many households.

The pandemic has forever changed the conversation around child care, as employers recognize that affordable, reliable child care is an economic issue that can no longer be ignored.

“When childcare centers started shutting down, people couldn’t go to work, so now people are realizing this is essential to the way the world functions,” said Alcaraz. “We’re seeing this evolution of people recognizing and valuing child care as an immediate need for the employer, for the worker, and for the children.”

Because recognizing and valuing the voice of parents is critical in ensuring children are cared for in quality, affordable environments, First 5 Monterey County co-founded the Central Coast Early Childhood Advocacy Network, also known as The Network. The Network empowers parents to take leadership roles in telling their stories to influence public policy, something that’s particularly important in the political system where parents may feel intimidated by language barriers or education levels. 

“We engage the community in speaking up for their needs and challenges,” says Alcaraz. “We need to advocate on issues together, and where we need to be leveraging more power is in parent voices, so we’ve been working on building the capacity for parent leaders.”

That starts with making sure parents understand how government works: How to participate in public comment at a Board of Supervisors meeting, for example, or how a bill gets made, and why speaking up to your congressional representative matters. From facilitating meetings and setting agendas, parents across the region are learning to make their experience and needs as caregivers heard: Several of those parents recently spoke at a bilingual community town hall with U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta. And last year, First 5 Monterey County hosted a Virtual Advocacy Day where parents and early childhood advocates met with Sen. John Laird, Assemblymember Mark Stone, and representatives from Assemblymember Robert Rivas’ and Sen. Anna Caballeros’ offices.

The number of child care openings is just one part of the discussion, says Alcaraz: A robust child care infrastructure benefits society as working parents engage in the workforce, local employers gain access to qualified applicants, and the local economy grows as a result. And that can’t happen without building capacity for a well-prepared, adequately compensated child care workforce that, in turn, provides early childhood education that helps children be successful in their learning, brain development, and eventually, in their careers.

And after two years of a global pandemic, people have plenty to say about not just child care, says Alcaraz, but also about mental health supports, racial equity, valuing and honoring culture, and receiving service with dignity.

“The best people to advocate for change are the ones who are experiencing it,” says Alcaraz, who recalls a phrase she heard at a conference: If you’re not at the table, you’re the meal. “It’s important for people to get involved in advocacy and setting policy. Policy can feel ‘other-y, but we’re trying to break that wall down so parents have a direct voice.”

Progress is being made, says Alcaraz, and the understanding of child care’s vital role in the economy — as essential infrastructure — is one that legislators and policymakers have increasingly begun to embrace, and First 5 Monterey County is helping to keep that agenda front and center.

At the state level, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2022 budget proposal included additional child care slots for low-income families. Locally, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors allocated $1.5 million in federal stimulus funds to attract and retain early childhood teachers and caregivers, support the increase of child care facilities, and provide stipends for families that do not qualify for pandemic subsidies. This increase in support is heartening to Alcaraz. However, she knows that more is needed and more can be done. The Network recently conducted a survey with parents and community members to identify policy priorities for the 2022 year. Child care continues to present itself front and center as a challenge for families and an opportunity for legislative change. 

The collaborations that First 5 Monterey County continues to foster are working toward building child-friendly policies and practices, advocating for changes in systems that are holding problems in place, and by funding quality, coordinated programs.  Since its inception in 1998, First 5 Monterey County has supported more than 600,000 children and families through advocacy, resources for parents and families, programs for dual language learners, community outreach, and collaborations with other local organizations. All of this is done to achieve First 5’s vision of ensuring that all children reach their unique potential in a family and community that values, respects, and invests in early childhood. Learn more about First 5 Monterey County here.