OUR REPORT
OUR REPORT

Building
Child-Centered

Communities

Building
Child-Centered

Communities

The environments where children grow up have immense impact on their health and wellness. And places where children can thrive are places where all of us want to be. What do child-centered communities look like? And how might we work together to create more of them in America?

Over the past 9 months, Raising Places explored these questions in six diverse U.S. communities. This report is a synthesis of the trends, insights and lessons we’ve learned.

A healthy environment has an outsize effect on children. And places where children can thrive are places where all of us want to be. What do child-centered communities look like? And how might we work together to create more of them in America?

Why do child-centered 
communities matter?
What do child-centered 
communities look like?
How do we create 
child-centered communities?

How do we create child-centered communities?

Creating places where all children and families can thrive is about more than addressing issues; it’s about radically resetting expectations. This section explores how the Raising Places process reset expectations at every step: from framing to engagement to creation to sharing. We also provide ideas for how people working in different sectors might carry this work forward.

STEP 1: FRAME

Set the conditions for success

We shaped the work around a powerful intersection: kids and place.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is working with people across the country to build a Culture of Health so that all people can reach their full potential—no matter where they live or who they are. In the case of children, community conditions not only influence their current health and development, but also their future outcomes, which multiplies both the urgency and the impact of this focus.

In Raising Places, framing goals around the well-being of children helped a wide variety of stakeholders to see themselves in the work—everyone from city leaders and policymakers, to developers and funders, to architects and planners, to educators, health care professionals, parents, organizers and social service providers. It also invited a more inclusive and less siloed conversation around fraught issues. As Sara Kendall of Kite’s Nest, a Raising Places convener in Hudson, NY, said, “There is convening power in a child-centered framing. On the surface, it sounds really sweet, but it also allows us to step into the most challenging and complex issues that our communities face.”

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We prioritized places and issues based on children's needs and assets.

Children’s direct environments play a critical role in both their daily lives and their futures, so Raising Places asked applicants to start at a neighborhood scale when defining their version of “community.” And a child-centered lens puts a magnifying glass on community issues. As Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogota, Colombia said, “Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”

To frame the Raising Places work locally, community teams applied by conducting an application workshop where they explored the question, “What are the barriers to children and families thriving in our community?” Teams discussed the experiences of local children and families, then identified their top three community-level issues driving those experiences. And at our first lab, a two-day workshop called the Kickoff Lab (read about one Raising Places community’s kickoff lab, North Wilkesboro), we conducted further focusing exercises to ensure that we were tackling root causes of inequities for children and families, rather than only addressing symptoms. This continual focusing enabled teams to keep children and families top of mind.

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How to move this work forward

  • People working in funding
  • In order to build an evidence base, invest in research around the impacts of child-centered initiatives. Because there is still a lot to be learned, provide flexible dollars that support both data gathering and iteration.
  • People working in research
  • We know a lot about the ways communities affect kids, but there is less evidence about the ways kids affect communities. Create new indicators, or build upon existing indicators of child well-being, such as diversitydatakids.org, that validate a two-way relationship.
  • People working in place-based efforts
  • Similar to Policylink’s work around the competitive advantages of racial equity, child-centered communities can impact local economic development. Gather enough local information to make the case for being child-centered in your community, using tools such as the County Health Rankings and the Social Impact Calculator.

STEP 2: ENGAGE

Reach and enlist champions

We facilitated meaningful cross-sector collaboration

Creating child-centered places requires working at multiple intersections: child development and community development, youth and adults, services and infrastructure and policy. People from diverse perspectives must ultimately share a common vision. And this mix of individuals looks different depending on the community context.

Our process asked conveners—community-based organizations who would lead this work on the ground—to identify and bring together a Design Team, comprised of 10-12 local leaders from across sectors, who would ultimately carry out the work of Raising Places. And we knew that collaboration was about more than just getting people in a room. Our facilitation balanced structured leadership with community ownership. Believing that people embrace the change they make together, the labs were designed to foster a sense of connectedness between participants.

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We engaged children and families directly in the issues that affect them.

Reaching out to kids is not always easy or comfortable for adults. As Dirk Butler of the Annie E. Casey Foundation put it, “I think if you’re going to listen to the youth, you have to be ready to hear stuff that you don’t want to hear.” And yet, the voices of children and youth amplify community development in so many ways: they are experts in their own experience, honest beyond expectation, and able to offer elegant ideas that simplify complexity. The key is to support meaningful contributions that leverage their strengths and abilities, without tokenizing them. Once engaged, they serve as important leaders and advocates for the work going forward.

Raising Places design teams included people with both access to local decision-making power and direct connections to the community. The teams engaged a wide range of community residents and stakeholders, including children and families. During the sprints between labs, teams conducted in-home interviews, activity observations such as grocery shopping with families and ride-alongs with police, and hands-on exercises such as home tours, Lego prototyping and neighborhood scavenger hunts. In addition to one-on-one engagement, each Raising Places team hosted events that brought the community together, inviting input and open-ended participation from all.

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How to move this work forward

  • People working in funding
  • Community leaders don’t always see themselves as having a role in child-centered work, and may need to be specifically invited to the table. Offer funding opportunities that intentionally promote cross-sector collaboration among unlikely partners, or that fund community engagement, mobilization and organizing across boundaries.

    Money is often dependent on projected outcomes, and evaluated through quantifiable metrics. Cross-sector collaboration to respond to complex issues can be slower to see tangible results. Expand funding opportunities and success metrics to include building relationships and collaborative infrastructure across sectors.
  • People working in place-based efforts
  • Learn about the ways specific community elements affect the everyday lives of children. You can gather research and data from sources like Kids Count, as well as talk directly with children and families and spend a day in their life to learn about how their community affects their life.
  • People working in program & service provision
  • No matter how excellent the program or service, its positive impact is mitigated by the conditions where children live, learn, and play. Educate staff at all levels on the research around neighborhood-level influences on children, and get them involved in bridging across sectors.

    Take an active part in the decision-making processes that shape community environments. Attend community meetings, appeal to policy-makers, and collaborate with housing developers in the area.
  • People working in policy
  • In order to build internal capacity to be more child-centered, find ways to coordinate efforts across agencies, similar to the New York’s Children’s Cabinet. Or create child-centered policy vetting tools, such as the SHELBY Child Impact Assessment.

    No effort is complete without youth at the table. Formalize mechanisms for sharing decision-making power with youth, such as San Francisco’s Youth Commision or a Participatory Budgeting process. Likewise, prepare adults to share their authority. The ultimate goal should be for youth and adults to collaborate on equal footing, with each side respecting what the other brings.

STEP 3: CREATE

Make the future tangible

We co-created a wide range of ideas.

As soon as a complex problem becomes clearly defined, the tendency is to want to solve it with the first idea that comes to mind. But the first idea is not the only idea, nor is it necessarily the best. Creating solutions to multifaceted community challenges requires brainstorming with a diverse group of people. Yet far too many brainstorms are cut short by unproductive power dynamics and non-inclusive processes.

The Raising Places labs created a safe and inspiring space for participants to share ideas, no matter who they were or what their idea was about. We posted a set of brainstorm rules at the Ideas Lab to encourage a judgment-free zone. The teams wrote prompts, called “How Might We’s,” that sparked ambitious yet achievable ideas. There were many ways to contribute ideas, including talking, writing and drawing. And design team members modeled good listening in order to build on the ideas of others. From this approach, every community generated over 100 ideas, which they then narrowed down based on both team passion and where they saw energy from the community.

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We tested concrete concepts in the real world.

In a world of committees and coalitions, Raising Places aimed to be as action-oriented as possible. This meant not only generating innovative ideas, but making, testing and gathering feedback on these ideas, in order to build community buy-in and speed the process towards implementation. Community leaders often hold back from pilot testing and data gathering until they’re sure that a new program or service will create the desired outcomes. In contrast, human-centered design advocates for making ideas tangible, as quickly and cheaply as possible, then gathering feedback in order to iterate and continue along the path of development. There is always risk associated with trying something new; prototyping is a method for mitigating this risk.

Raising Places ideas first became tangible at the Ideas Lab, where we asked participants to sketch what they were thinking. Design teams then grouped these point ideas into larger concepts, and translated the rough sketches into concept sheets. Next, team members created visual prototypes—paper-based mockups that preview the larger idea—and shared them with community members for feedback. Finally, at the Action Lab, design teams planned small-scale pilots of their most promising ideas, and worked with partners to launch them within a few months. Throughout this process, teams learned to be vulnerable enough to open themselves up to critique; to narrow and let go of ideas that had less traction; and to truly invite others in, making every remaining idea stronger.

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How to move this work forward

  • People working in funding
  • Embed child-centered work in how you do business. For example, create and integrate child-centered scoring criteria into current funding mechanisms, in order to support the work without creating additional streams of money. Private funders might take existing innovation, research, or general operating grant requirements and revise them to include questions around how the grant supports a child-centered lens. Public funders might include child-centered scoring rubrics when reviewing tax credit applications or awarding transportation, housing, or other grants to improve community infrastructure.
  • People working in policy
  • Rather than keeping funds for children in a separate bucket, braid and blend public and private dollars across silos in order to integrate a child-centered lens into existing efforts.

    Consider establishing an initiative or framework for action in your municipality, using UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities and Communities Handbook.

    A completely new stream of funding may be needed to generate a local movement around child-centered communities. Consider implementing a penny tax, such as the one in Greenville, SC, or creating a children’s trust, such as the one in Miami-Dade County, in order to both cover monetary costs and raise awareness.
  • People working in place-based efforts
  • For children and families to participate in community change, every project should incorporate a distinct set of child and family-friendly input methods. Public Workshop and Growing Up Boulder are examples of what these approaches look like in action.

    Creating child-centered communities can’t be done alone, so invite child- and family-serving organizations to place-based tables, and incorporate their needs into your plans. For example, housing developers can build units that accommodate multi-generational families, and Chamber of Commerce leaders can focus on attracting family-friendly businesses.

    Consider establishing a child-centered certification or integrating child-centered standards into existing certifications, similar to the Well Building Standard or Eco Districts.

STEP 4: SHARE

Help others see themselves in the work

We continuously invited people into the conversation.

For community change to be sustainable, it must be shared with a wide range of local people and groups. Expanding ripples of invested stakeholders provide both support and accountability for the work to continue. More people spanning diverse backgrounds means more ideas, more ownership and buy-in, and a greater likelihood of plans turning into action.

As the work of Raising Places was happening, we created opportunities for greater groups of people to engage with the ideas. For example, to attract residents and other stakeholders to the labs, we created postcards and flyers (in multiple languages) that were shared physically and digitally. We also customized emails for local audiences, including local media to spread the message to a wider audience, and local funders that could potentially support the implementation process. At the Ideas Lab we shared content in multiple languages to ensure that diverse stakeholders were able to participate meaningfully. And at the Action Lab, we created posters to share refined concepts and gather additional ideas and feedback in the form of open questions and project sign-up sheets. Finally, after each lab we shared updates via the Raising Places website. This kept local audiences informed throughout the process.

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We reached out to diverse audiences at multiple scales.

Local work can have national implications. It’s important to capture and share learnings on the ground with both national thinkers and local leaders from other communities, as these audiences have the capacity to scale or replicate successful elements of a model. In Raising Places, both our local and national audiences consisted of folks working or living at the intersection of kids and place: residents, funders, policymakers, place-based practitioners, organizers, researchers and program & service providers.

In order to share our story, as well as create space for conversation, we developed a media and communications strategy early in the process. We established brand and tone, while identifying key media outlets, organizations, and influencers to target our content towards. We designed the raisingplaces.org website to outline the process and insights through blog posts, which we periodically shared through social media as well as a subscriber newsletter. And lastly, we designed and executed the Raising Places National Convening, an intimate and intentional gathering of leaders from the six communities, our advisors, a group of youth and other national leaders already working on or relevant to the conversation around child-centered communities.

While doing our part in sharing stories, we also encouraged the six communities to get the word out in order to highlight the very important work happening on the ground. Several media outlets covered parts of the process and helped cast a much wider net. These storytelling efforts, both local and national, not only built the momentum around the work, but in some cases even helped to move it along. For example, in the South of Market community, the team was able to generate interest and potential funding for implementation of one of their concepts.

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How to move this work forward

  • People working in funding
  • Support storytelling efforts around children and families. Some examples of storytelling efforts are Adobe Youth Voices or the Chicago Youth Voices Network. Ensure compensation for the people whose stories are being told.

    Partner with existing platforms, such as NextCity or the Build Healthy Places Network, to share stories and resources. These networks already engage people with an interest in community development, health and equity, and can help to spread messages to a large audience.
  • People working in policy
  • Elevate constituent voices, particularly children and families, throughout the policymaking process. Listen to the people whose lives are impacted by potential policy changes, and then share those stories broadly, through channels such as policy briefs or national convenings.
  • People working in programs & services
  • Capture the most powerful stories of the children and families you serve. Share them with researchers and local leaders to better inform the design of community environments.

    Share stories with existing platforms, and write Op-Eds for local media or your own existing communications channels, such as Medium.
  • People working in research
  • New research should focus on the financial, social, and physical impact of this work, not only at the individual and community levels, but also at a systems level. For example, the What Works Cities initiative of Bloomberg Philanthropies provides cities with technical assistance to incorporate data into their decision-making.

    Put out quantitatvie and qualitative data in a manner that is compelling and easily accessible. Storytelling acan happen across media that reach a wide range of audiences, such as video shorts, docuseries, or podcasts such as The On Being Project or 99% Invisible. Ensure compensation for the people whose storeis are being told.