Mississippi’s Forum for the Future sets a new tone in the early childhood development community

Published by Emile Creel on

By Bethany Deuel

Mississippi’s first  “Forum for the Future: Communicating about the Early Years” hosted earlier this month was a success with over 160 participants.

The Child Health and Development Project: Mississippi Thrive! (Mississippi Thrive!), the Children’s Foundation of Mississippi, and the Mississippi Early Learning Alliance all teamed up to host this virtual event on January 12, 2021. The free forum included a keynote presentation from Junious Williams, three plenary speakers and 10 concurrent presentations.

Callie Poole works in the Social Science Research Center’s (SSRC) Policy Research and Systems Change Lab and from the beginning played a vital role in the creation of this event. Poole wanted the forum to be a collaborative effort involving the entire childhood development community to increase the trust and strength of relationships across the field.

The presenters themselves were a mix of experts from Mississippi and national organizations, allowing for a blend of different perspectives. The presentations given throughout the day covered a wide range of topics, including equity in education, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child development, and addressing healthcare disparities for mothers and children.

Heather Martin, a project manager within the SSRC’s Policy Research and Systems Change Lab, hosted a presentation titled “Do You See What I See? The Power and Opportunity in Perspective Taking (Mind in the Making) and also enjoyed hearing from the other experts.

“It wasn’t just one voice; we had different sources as well,” Martin said. “It was a kaleidoscope of data about Mississippi, and it really painted a picture of where we are and how we can work together with different organizations to move forward with what we’ve learned.”

Another success of the forum, Poole said, was the emphasis on striving for racial equity across the board. Integrated into several presentations during the day, this topic also flowed through many of the rich discussions that participants formed.

“I love how the theme of equity, specifically racial equity, was woven into every presentation. We set that up in the presenter prep sessions and had the guidance of the Collective Impact Forum, the FrameWorks Institute and local experts. At the end of the planning, it was at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” Poole said.

While the event was initially designed to be in-person before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, hosting the forum online brought some surprising bonuses. Lisa Long, a research associate working with Mississippi Thrive!, helped facilitated the technical transitions throughout the day. Long said the presentations being recorded beforehand helped presenters be more focused and thoughtful in their message.

Martin added she was blown away by the eagerness of participants—including teachers, healthcare providers and researchers—to engage in the discussions after each presentation.

“I wonder if we had all been in the room face-to-face if the discussion would have been that rich. It was people talking with each other and working together. It really did set the tone for a new day in Mississippi. It was a wonderful experience,” Martin said.

Moving forward, Heather Hanna, principal investigator of Mississippi Thrive! and an assistant research professor at the SSRC, hopes the connections formed through the forum can lead to future collaborations for childhood development. Hanna believes this is possible because of the success of the forum.

“I feel like we set a new tone in the early childhood community. It was a tone of inclusion, cooperation, and shared leadership,” Hanna said. “I think that’s the most successful part.”

Access to the recorded presentations and discussions can be found at http://forum-for-the-future.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/.

About the Mississippi Early Learning Alliance

The Mississippi Early Learning Alliance (MELA) was established in 2018 through the vision and support of the Tallahatchie River Foundation. MELA drives collective impact with diverse stakeholders to achieve systemic change leading to the holistic development of Mississippi children in their first 8 years of life. MELA’s work is centered around coalition-building, disseminating pertinent information about Mississippi’s early childhood system, and achieving shared goals with partners for positive early childhood system change. Learn more at www.msearlylearning.org.

About The Children’s Foundation of Mississippi

The Children’s Foundation of Mississippi is a new, independent operating foundation focused on improving the policies and systems that affect the well-being of children in our state. The Children’s Foundation was founded in 2019 to serve as a convener, facilitator, advocate, and catalyst for positive change. In addition to new signature initiatives, the Children’s Foundation of Mississippi is home to Mississippi KIDS COUNT since 2020. Learn more at childrensfoundationms.org.

About the Child Health and Development Project: Mississippi Thrive!

Funded by the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA), Mississippi Thrive! Is a project of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s (UMMC) Children’s of Mississippi, and Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center (SSRC). Since brains grow rapidly during the earliest years, Mississippi Thrive! provides information and resources to improve developmental health for children from birth to age five. One in six children experience developmental delays but identifying and addressing these delays early helps them have more successful outcomes. Mississippi Thrive! is working to create a comprehensive system of early childhood screenings and interventions. When our children thrive, Mississippi Thrives! Learn more at mississippithrive.com/.