Twenty-five years ago, Kim Johnson turned to the Women, Infants and Children program — WIC — for help as a new mom. Now as director of the California Department of Social Services, she is responsible for deploying billions of dollars to support children and families in poverty with dignity, in a way that puts them on a path to economic mobility.
“I haven’t met anyone in my lifetime that hasn’t needed help at some point,” Johnson said during the closing plenary of the 2023 Cradle to Career Network Convening. “I had the phenomenal experience of receiving a home visit in my first week of becoming a new mom. The way that the home visitor immediately recognized the strengths of what I was doing right, answered my questions — I was completely overwhelmed, did not know how to sleep and take care of my brand-new infant, but (the home visitor) connected me to needed resources.”
Johnson shared how California is strengthening home visitation for new parents in a strengths-based way, disrupting poverty by keeping families together and creating career pathways that lead to economic mobility.
She also joined a fireside chat moderated by KQED reporter Daisy Nguyen, Mission Economic Development Agency Chief Strategy Officer Richard Raya and StriveTogether Chief Advancement Officer Colin Groth. They talked about how investments by states in children and families can be maximized by a place-based approach tailored to the needs of the community.
At the state level, Johnson said, it’s exciting to see and learn how place-based strategy can bring safety net and poverty reduction programs together for tailored solutions by having aligned outcomes with partners.
Raya shared how his organization shifted from focusing solely on helping immigrants start businesses in the Mission District of San Francisco to rallying the community around improving academic outcomes. A federal Promise Neighborhood grant enabled them to work more deeply with the community, creating wraparound services like family success coaches and advocating with parents for affordable housing. Over the last seven years, academic milestones such as kindergarten readiness and high school graduation have improved, along with more families accessing consistent, comprehensive, culturally relevant and compassionate medical care and the preservation and creation of 2,000 more affordable housing units.
“When the pandemic hit, our neighborhood infrastructure put us in the position to respond at scale to the needs of the community,” Raya said. “The city reached out to us; they knew we could reach families quickly because families were just a text away from us. The city and philanthropy relied on us to distribute millions of dollars of income relief, housing support and vaccine information. The collaborative muscle that we had been developing for years was put into play. And I think we have proof of concept now. This is a good way of working, of collaborating, sharing data, having common goals, aligning with the city and school district.”
Mission Promise Neighborhood is now partnering with the City of San Francisco to bring this cradle-to-career, place-based strategy to other Bay-area neighborhoods that had been historically redlined.
Groth challenged the 600 network members and partners to reimagine systems from neighborhoods to national. He shared the story of a young girl who persevered in a school system that treated her differently because she was an English Language Learner. A teacher advocated to ensure she had the same access and support as her classmates. This resulted in the young girl having the choice of going to Stanford or Harvard for college.
“It shouldn’t be the heroic teacher —that’s great, but it should be the reliable system that is surrounded by the amazing and comprehensive services and supports with a city and county infrastructure that aligns those supports and getting those state resources invested,” Groth said. “We have to reimagine our systems from neighborhood to national and invest in the infrastructure that brings this to life.”