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FINE Newsletter, Volume II, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Innovations in Family Engagement

Voices From the Field

Moria Cappio and Melanie Reyes from The Children’s Aid Society share their experiences reinventing family engagement strategies in their East Harlem Early Head Start/Head Start program to reach out to immigrant families by including parent civic advocacy. Cappio and Reyes also describe how using an advocacy evaluation tool helped them navigate these uncharted waters. 

Four years ago, our Early Head Start/Head Start program located at The Children’s Aid Society East Harlem Center began the accidental voyage of reinventing our family engagement strategies to include parent civic advocacy. Our program serves nearly 90 families with children from birth to age 5, the vast majority of whom are recent Mexican immigrants. Our journey began as our staff became increasingly aware of parents’ fear and distrust of the police. In parents’ eyes, Immigration Services and the New York Police Department (NYPD) were synonymous, which was leading to serious public safety concerns. Thefts, unsafe housing conditions, and gang activity were all going unreported because parents feared deportation.

Advocating for the Rights of Undocumented Families
To improve the situation, we formed a partnership with our local police precinct. Police began spending time in our program in nonthreatening ways, parents took tours of the precinct, and together we hosted community forums geared toward educating families on their rights. Parents also took the lead in organizing trainings for rookie cops so that new police graduates could learn from the parents how to be sensitive to the needs of the immigrant community.

Parent Testimonials*

Two mothers who became involved in advocating for improvements in safety conditions in their building reflect on how this experience changed their perceptions of themselves:

Antolina F. (2 years with Early Head Start/Head Start):  I underestimated the NYPD at first, but little by little I noticed changes in my building. I was nervous to go to the precinct and talk about drugs, but they listened to me. Now I am able to walk down the steps and into my home without feeling scared. Before I was not able to really trust anyone because I thought to myself, “Why would they listen to me? I have no authority… they might just act like they are listening and pretend to help me and my family.” But then I started participating in the events at the program. I met officers at the Christmas party, and I spoke with them at the forums. Little by little I noticed changes in myself. I felt confident enough to speak out and actually stick up for the safety of my family. I have lived in New York City for the past 5 years, and finally I feel I have the power to deal with difficult problems.

Gabriela G. (3 years with Early Head Start/Head Start): Before, because I don’t have any papers, I was afraid to talk to the police. But then I got to know them at the center. The officers read books to my child in her classroom, and the captain gave us a tour of the precinct. I also met with new cops and shared my family’s story so that the officers could better understand our neighborhood. Many of my neighbors and relatives are still afraid to talk to the police, but I teach them what I’ve learned. I’ve learned that the police are not Immigration. We don’t need to be afraid of them. I’m proud to be a role model for my kids, my neighbors, and my community. 

*Names are pseudonyms. Testimonials are translated from Spanish.  

Through this work, parents helped forge collaborations with the Mexican Consulate, which resulted in nearly 3,400 East Harlem residents receiving either a Mexican passport or a Matricula Consular ID card or both in a 3-week period.1  These partnerships led to our involvement in the East Harlem Against Deportation movement, which was led by our state senator’s office. Parents organized a letter-writing campaign and contributed to a policy agenda to protect undocumented immigrants in New York City and State.2

An Innovative Solution to a Communication Problem
By the fall of 2009, parents and children were streaming into our program in unprecedented numbers and becoming involved in parent activities and their children’s learning in ways that we had never seen before. Parents felt safe in our programs and had built trusting relationships with other families and our staff. However, it was becoming difficult to communicate internally to our agency and externally to our funders the importance of and rationale behind advocacy work of this type. We began to ask ourselves, “How can we better communicate our purpose to those within our agency as well as to external funders?” and “How can we use data to track our growth in this area?”

We came across the advocacy evaluation tool, A User's Guide to Advocacy Evaluation Planning,3 and decided to use it as a framework to reflect on our work midstream and to strategically plan for the upcoming year:

1. Focus. The advocacy tool forced us to think about who might use any data we might collect and how the data could be used. The tool helped us think beyond the parent and child data we were accustomed to collecting, such as attendance rates, developmental checklists, and satisfaction surveys. We began to think about more specific advocacy data, including media tracking, coalition building, and changes in parents’ confidence levels and knowledge as a result of advocacy involvement. We agreed that data would help us make informed strategic decisions and communicate more effectively with our agency, funders, and external partners.

2. Map. The tool helped us to define our impacts, policy goals, and the tactics we use to achieve those goals. We agreed that we were looking to empower parents about their rights as immigrants in their community and to decrease public safety concerns. Already we had been involved in a number of advocacy activities, such as using electronic media, building coalitions, and hosting briefings, and it felt good to finally name and categorize the work we had done.

3. Prioritize/Design. We realized it would be very difficult to track the child outcomes and improvements in public safety associated with our goals. We therefore decided to focus on increasing our efforts and better measuring our advocacy activities (outputs). For example, we actively set out to build our coalition by creating a network of home visitors in the East Harlem area and to track their involvement in our advocacy efforts. Our Early Head Start home visitors had been trained to talk regularly with families about documentation issues and parents’ rights, and by partnering with other home-visit programs we are able to expand the reach of our message.

In listing their own priorities and goals, many parents indicated they wanted to improve their education and especially to learn English. Thus we sought out and acquired new funding streams to support a collaboration with a nearby university to provide ESL classes to parents.  In line with our quest to document changes in parents’ knowledge and confidence, we used simple pre- and post-class surveys to measure impact. Finally, we are making concerted efforts to build program visibility by increasing the number of blog posts we write and are tracking these with a simple Excel spreadsheet. We regularly ask parents to provide testimonials and talk about parents’ rights and the effect that advocacy has had on their lives.

By taking an organic innovative effort and scaffolding it with our interpretation of an advocacy evaluation framework, we are now more prepared than ever to advocate for the rights of undocumented families.

This article is part of the May 2010 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the FINE Newsletter Archive, visit

1. A Matricula Consular is an official ID card issued by the Mexican government through its consular offices. The Matricula operates as a Mexican citizen's identification and proof of residency in Mexico. Within the United States, a cardholder, regardless of documentation status, can use the ID as proof of identity and to gain access to buildings and events for which a form of ID is required.


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Published by Harvard Family Research Project