When opportunity knocks...

You answer, right? So when I received an email from the White House inviting me to a Community Outreach Summit I made plans to attend. Although I'm from Louisville, and don't necessarily consider Columbus, Ohio to be an integral part of my community, I was excited by the opportunity to meet with other regional leaders and discuss "An America Built to Last."

As conference calls prior to the event took place and I learned I could bring other guests, I immediately thought of fellow Mom Congress delegate and friend, Hilary Frambes, who lives in Columbus. After all, if the event taking place in her backyard, she should be there to connect with those in her community, right? And as Hilary is also an arts advocate I thought there might be an opportunity for her to speak with leaders in the city with whom she might not have an opportunity to engage with (due, quite often no doubt, to scheduling conflicts, not a lack of interest in her thoughts/ideas). In addition, since the over arching theme of the summit seemed to be about building "sustainable, livable cities" (which means rather than having everyone working toward that goal by working in a silo), I felt that we needed to have an opportunity to collaborate and communicate with one another so as to celebrate and promote best practices rather than continually duplicate our efforts. 

Myrdin Thompson, Julie Miceli (Deputy General Council/Department of Education), and Hilary Frambes
White House Community Outreach Summit, Columbus, Ohio, March 16, 2012

Over 300 community members and White House staff from not only the Department of Education, but from the Departments of Energy, Commerce, Labor, DOT, HUD, HHS, EPA, FEMA, and others, gathered to engage in a conversation. Not a workshop presentation. Not a lecture. But a dialogue. This event was about participation. About problem solving, or at least sharing some thoughts and ideas that might solve a problem, or even having the ability to identify a problem. We broke into smaller groups to meet with others and conversed about the importance of creating a cohesive vision about sustainable communities, how education is connected to affordable housing is connected to health is connected to jobs is connected...to opportunity. 

For instance, in our breakout session with Julie Miceli, we talked about the importance of college affordability and changing the current drop out rates (from both high school and college). And while all in the group agreed that being college and career ready is important, the focus kept turning back to this idea: we can't make college a part of a student's reality if we don't support them starting in early childhood as well as supporting their schools and teachers. That the current economic climate is negatively impacting a school communities ability to educate effectively and that until those issues/concerns are addressed, we will not be on track for future success. 

In addition, we heard from Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about how 1 out of 3 children in America is considered overweight or obese. About Let's Move and how we need to do better to provide health care to our most vulnerable citizens. How eliminating food deserts can help an entire community thrive and be, well, sustainable. 

Attendees were encouraged to create sessions of their own, where those in attendance could have a "coffee talk" about an issue, or concern, and try to propose solutions. I spoke to a group about the idea of "authentic parent engagement and school success"* as well as about how a sustainable community must include a robust parks and recreation system for all and how we need to eliminate "play deserts."** For that idea, and others, go to the White House Community Partnership Summit Forum. You can learn about ideas from past summits (held in Atlanta and Philadelphia) and engage in the conversation by adding comments. You can also experience the event (and future ones) on twitter by following #WHSummit (they even "storified" the day for you! Here's an interactive way to engage-see how many times my posts appear!)

Here's Hilary's perspective on the event:

"I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Community Partnership in Columbus, but I was thrilled to be invited by my Mom Congress friend Myrdin. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was all about collaborating and connecting with different government and community entities. Since I’m a Columbus area resident, it was great for me to meet representatives from all sorts of area organizations and entities. What was great about the Summit, was the exchange of ideas across these different organizations. 
Myrdin and I got to tell Julie Miceli, Deputy General Counsel of Department of Education about “STEAM”, which includes an “A” for the arts in the “STEM” curriculum, as both of us are strong supporters of arts education.In the college affordability session I attended, much of the talk centered around affordability for high school students entering college. I brought up the issue of adults going back to school and making sure that option is affordable to them. As a mother of two in her forties in the midst of getting her master of art education, I wrangled with the decision to take out student loans go back to school. As President Obama has stated numerous times, we need to train adults for the skills of the workforce of the 21st Century. It only makes sense to have a cost effective way for all people… younger and older enhance their education and skills. 

At the end of the Summit, I felt the largeness and the smallness of Columbus all at once. Regarding largeness, it became apparent that we have so many great resources and smart people here. We have smallness in the connectedness and commonality we all share. When it comes right down to it, don’t we all want the same things? Even through some of us may work for the Transportation Department or the Department of Aging, all of us wants to live in a community where we all work together for the benefit of all our of community members."

I think Hilary really said it best: "all of us wants to live in a community where we all work together for the benefit of all our community members." We have to share the vision about what a healthy, robust, thriving community looks like. We, at times, will have to agree to disagree on how to get there, but we must discuss respectfully how to achieve that vision by establishing goals together. Louisville calls itself "The Possibility City." In order to turn possibility into probability, we have to understand what possibility looks like to all citizens. We also want to be known as a compassionate city. In order to do that we need to invite everyone together (as the Mayor is doing with his ""My Give A Day" event in April) to work towards achieving that moniker. That's why I'm part of Mom Congress, that's why I volunteer in the public schools and in other ways in my community, and that's why I urge you to find out if there is an event happening in your city. Contact the White House and ask. 

Sometimes you have to be the one knocking on the door to create the opportunity. But once you do, make sure to do something with that opportunity. Connect. Collaborate. Communicate. Create. 

"To improve the golden moment of opportunity, and catch the good that is within our reach, is the great art of life" - 
William James

*For some great resources about Family Involvement/Engagement go to the Harvard Family Research ProjectParent Involvement MattersPTA, and the U.S. Department of Education

** check out the work that KaBOOM! is doing in that area and how to map your community to see if it is a "Playful City."

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