Families are experts on their children and by extension the programs intended to support them in strengthening their families and addressing challenges. It is for this reason that Illuminate Colorado looks to parents and caregivers with lived experiences as the driving force within coalitions and networks focused on systemic change. We connected with three Coloradans giving voice to their experiences through two collective spaces “walking the walk” so to speak when it comes to the family voice movement to get their reflections on the impact Illuminate is having in the field.  

Increasingly, there is an effort to involve parents and caregivers from all walks of life in the decision-making process of systemic change, as well as program improvement. “Nothing for us without us! It is important that we listen and honor lived experience. We need to uplift and celebrate lived experience by saving them a seat at the table,” said Heather Hicks, a mother of two and a family voice representative for the Colorado Partnership for Thriving Families. “The Partnership”, as it’s more commonly known, is a collaborative space aiming to create conditions where children and the adults in their lives can thrive. The Partnership is building collaboration at the state and local level to align funding, priorities, regulations, outcome measures and implementation – across sectors and jurisdictions to create a strong family well-being system that supports families. As the backbone support team for the Partnership, Illuminate is guiding vision and strategy, supporting aligned activities, establishing shared measurement practices, cultivating community engagement and mobilizing resources in support of this collective effort. 

“I have worked in various spaces similar to the Colorado Partnership for Thriving Families. I have been the parent that professionals have refused to listen to. I have been that parent that professionals look in the face and nod their heads then do nothing. I have been the parent that has continued to cry out and strive for equitable spaces for families so that they come and participate in the decisions that are being made for them. I have been the parent that has spent years fighting for change and has seen very little transpire from it. So to come from that and walk into a space where Illuminate has opened their arms and hearts to not only hear what we have to say, but to boldly act upon what we have to say – it is a beautiful thing,” said Hicks. 

Hicks and Fikile Ryder, another mother of two engaged as a Partnership family voice representative, have been involved in this collaborative space for more than a year now. They both co-founded the Partnership Family & Caregiver Space and serve on the leadership team for the Partnership. “Illuminate is an unsung leader in the equity charge for lived experience. What makes them special is that they lead with compassion and heart. As an organization, they have unconditionally supported our asks and needs,” shared Ryder.

When the two women spoke to the Partnership leadership team about fair compensation for families and lived experience working with the Partnership, they said it was an extremely awkward and difficult conversation to have. As women, they felt the social constraints against them that make it even more difficult to advocate and ask for compensation for their time and talent. Reaching out to Illuminate to talk about how they were feeling was a moment the women recognized as the moment “the tables turned a little bit and they felt like equals who were being valued and heard”, crediting Illuminate for acting quickly to strive towards a solution. “We were met with support, kindness, advocacy, ideas, kind words and overall love. This was a turning point for the Family and Caregiver Space,” said Ryder.  

From that moment on efforts were made to demonstrate a real commitment to equity within the Partnership by compensating family voice representatives for their time away from their personal and professional lives, increasing pay for family voice partners to $50 per hour. And while Illuminate is heartened to hear that the process of getting to this milestone in family voice compensation felt positive and swift, Illuminate is also quick to credit philanthropic support and a shared desire among all of the Partnership Leadership Team for this additional investment. It is unique among the collective spaces that Illuminate supports right now, however, honoring the lived experiences of families is not. The Colorado Substance Exposed Newborns Steering Committee was established in 2008 and is a subcommittee of the Colorado Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force. In 2019, the Family Advisory Board (FAB) to the steering committee was formed in order to elevate the voices of families who have experienced, directly or indirectly, the impacts of substance use during pregnancy.

Diane Smith is a mother of three who has a leadership role within this steering committee, as well as the Family Advisory Board. “It is important to involve families with lived experiences as voice partners in program improvements and systemic change because it is the best way for our systems to evolve. When people are trying to identify what works, what doesn’t work, and how we change things for the next family, it is important for families to give input and share their experience,” said Smith.   

The FAB has been instrumental to the understanding of barriers in seeking support, health care, including treatment and other services, and informing of priority-setting within the steering committee to raise awareness and best serve the needs of families impacted by substance use. Stepping into an advocacy role like this one can be hard for parents and caregivers and Smith points to a strong relationship with Hattie Landry, Illuminate strategic initiatives manager for making her experience a positive one. 

“It is important for FAB members to feel like they are vetted into the situation and feel comfortable with the group of individuals before they share their story. Hattie makes us feel comfortable, she shows a lot of empathy as a person and colleague,” said Smith. When asked what decision-makers can do to support family voice partners and what non family-voice partners can do to create spaces where everyone feels valued and heard, Smith reminds organizers to be flexible and meet families where they are at by communicating by phone, email, text or even in person to ease the stress of sharing their story. 

Five Things We've Learned from Collaborating with Family Partners

Illuminate’s work within the Spectrum of Prevention fostering coalitions and networks to ensure continued progress on policy priorities, identify opportunities to protect existing policies that are serving families and enhance policy implementation has expanded over the last several years. The organization now supports eight different collaborative spaces to advance child maltreatment prevention in Colorado, with Landry facilitating discussions with family voice partners across many of these spaces. She gives five quick tips for organizations and collaborative spaces based on what we’ve learned from collaborating with family partners: 

  1. Ask family voice partners what their goals & visions are for systems-level projects.
  2. Involve family voice partners from the very start of projects.
  3. Don’t make assumptions about what families need. Ask questions, listen, learn, adapt, and grow.
  4. Provide equitable compensation to family voice partners for their time and expertise.
  5. Support family voice partners and non family-voice partners to create spaces where everyone is and feels valued and heard, creating equitable decision-making processes. 

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