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Access Equity: A Multi-dimensional Pathway to Reducing Inequity in Early Education

Access Equity will increase access and advance equity in early care and education for disadvantaged and marginalized children and families.

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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

The core concept of Access Equity (AE) is still based on creating a virtual community dedicated to developing equitable approaches/activities for the early childhood community. Access Equity seeks to build the ECD system’s capacity to address these inequities through four strategies: 1) Build the sustainability of ECD programs serving vulnerable populations; 2) build the data management and research capacities of ECD programs; 3) Establish a national platform for advancing equitable ECD practices); and 4) Build a national (and eventually international) network of “content experts” (diverse professionals and funders) and “context experts” (community members with lived experience of the social problem being addressed) working together to increase ECD access and equity through coordinated action, community engagement, and collective impact. The key change to our idea was to focus on the proper sequencing of our activities as indicated above. This would give us an effective starting platform in technical assistance and then use our connections to build the other key strategies focused on connecting agencies and people to equitable practices and each other!

Name or Organization

UMass Donahue Institute (UMDI)


UMDI has offices in MA and across the U.S.; Access Equity will be delivered across the US and beyond

What is your stage of development?

  • Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD


  • University

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Research & Early Testing: I am exploring my idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.

Describe your submission in one clear sentence

Access Equity aims to apply technical assistance, data management, compilation, and professional/community networking to address the lack of equity/diversity in early education, particularly in thought leader activities ranging from capacity-building, policy development and large-scale service delivery.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

Access Equity's comprehensive approach can be a game changer in several ways. First, our TA provision would strengthen the capacity of ECD serving vulnerable populations. Secondly, helping ECD agencies increase their data management and research efforts also can strengthen their operations and possibly inform the field on innovative practice. Thirdly, the entire ECD community can benefit as more equitable best practices are given their proper due. Finally, by creating a virtual community of diverse professional and community stakeholders, more diverse talents can contribute to the ECD field.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Platform: Creating a community or market that facilitates interaction between users and resources.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

Access Equity tackles one of the most persistent issues preventing young children from achieving positive outcomes – inequality early in life. Even the most cutting-edge ECD interventions will have limited success if families cannot access them or are marginalized within their own communities. Among ECD professionals, inherent bias in professional networking isolates professionals of color, their lived experience, and their expertise. Access Equity seeks to build the ECD system’s capacity to address these inequities through four strategies: 1) Establish a national platform for advancing equitable ECD practices; 2) Connect ECD agencies to state-of-the art data and research resources; 3) Build the sustainability of ECD programs serving vulnerable populations; and 4) Build a national (and eventually international) network of “content experts” (diverse professionals and funders) and “context experts” (community members with lived experience of the social problem being addressed) working together to increase ECD access and equity through coordinated action, community engagement, and collective impact. By combining these strategies, Access Equity will create a foundation for enabling proven and promising equitable practices to emerge and be implemented until they are part of the “fabric” of the ECD system. Access Equity will serve as a catalytic agent for building ECD networks that are diverse, support diverse ideas, and close the cultural gap between practitioners and solutions.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Inequality in life circumstances for young children is directly correlated to disparities in health, well-being, and school readiness. According to a 2015 AIR report, “Families that have systematically experienced socio-economic disparities face greater obstacles to achieving optimal outcomes at all phases of human development.” Access Equity will position the ECD system to more effectively support these highest need communities, including those facing persistent racial and economic inequality.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

Through engagement of early care and education providers, advancing equitable practices, and building a network of culturally competent leaders, Access Equity will increase access and advance equity in early care and education for disadvantaged and marginalized children and families, initially in the U.S. and expanding to other countries over time. Key focus areas of Access Equity will include: -Increasing the sustainability of ECD providers serving vulnerable populations. Financial instability is an ongoing issue for ECD providers, compounded by the fragmentation of the ECD sector. Access Equity’s national training and technical assistance platform will provide on-site consultation, as well as in-person and virtual workshops to address core fiscal issues, including subsidy management, fund development, long-term sustainability, and cost allocation. Access Equity will also be positioned to build significant capacity in this area by capitalizing on the Donahue Institute’s direct relationship with the UMass Eisenberg School of Management and University Without Walls. - Connecting ECD agencies to state-of-the art data and research resources. One of the key challenges for ECD providers is the need to build capacity around data management and research. Although ECD providers are increasingly collecting data, many lack the internal capacity to successfully process their program and community data or use their data to tell a cohesive story of their program’s impact on vulnerable children, families, and communities. Access Equity will develop a national network of key data management resources with the potential to provide on-site and virtual guidance on core data management principles for ECD service providers. - Establishment of a national platform for developing, implementing and showcasing equitable ECD practices. While significant work has been done on the negative impacts of inequitable circumstances on young children (including household financial instability, toxic stress and implicit bias), there is no national resource dedicated to collecting and sharing these studies and best practices for the ECD community. Moreover, there is a robust set of national and local efforts underway designed to foster collaborations, break down silos, and bridge science and community to transform institutional practices and inform policy change, so that every young child has an equitable opportunity to thrive and attain their best health. Access Equity will identify, gather, and disseminate these proven and emerging equitable practices while also serving as a catalyst for new ideas and building an ECD knowledge-base that represents and supports diverse contributions from both content and context experts. Through our substantial expertise and contacts, as well as our current activities in advancing ECD equity and cultural competency with the federal Office of Head Start and Office of Child Care, UMDI’s Access Equity team is ideally positioned to develop this critically needed platform. Our team is not only racially and ethnically diverse, with each of us bringing between 12-20+ years in the ECE field, but our expertise also spans a wide array of ECD competencies. - - Supporting a network of leaders well versed in cultural competency. One of the most pervasive issues facing ECD professionals of color is the inherent bias of existing ECD professional networks. Simply put, professionals of color lack opportunities to network – there is no diverse thought-leader base supporting a natural, organic comfort zone that fosters diverse participation and diverse ideas. This is a huge problem for the ECD system not only because key practitioners are marginalized, but also because their expertise and knowledge about what is needed and how to innovate in disadvantaged communities is either ignored or lost altogether to the field. Access Equity will connect, both virtually and in-person, a diverse network of content and context experts to share, learn together, and nurture an organized community of racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse thought leaders. In turn, these experts will work one-on-one with organizations to increase access and advance equity in early care and education. This approach to evidence-informed system-wide change will be grounded in relational trust, authentic collaboration, ownership of change, and the power of collective impact. Given persistent racial inequality, including in early care and education, evolving policies negatively affecting refugees, Muslims, and undocumented immigrants, and the devastating effect of opioid addiction on families, Access Equity is essential to positioning the ECD system to more effectively support our highest need communities, programs working with migrant and undocumented immigrant families, Native American Tribes, and low income, marginalized/ disadvantaged rural and urban communities.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Access Equity will benefit the ECD system as a whole, ECD provider organizations and ECD professionals, and, by extension, vulnerable and disadvantaged children and their families across the country. Over time, we anticipate extending Access Equity’s key program components beyond the U.S., to vulnerable communities in other countries. UMDI has 15 years of experience supporting the ECD system in the U.S., including currently as the Office of Head Start’s National Center on Program Management & Fiscal Operations (NCPMFO). One of six National Centers that form the cornerstone of Head Start’s training and technical assistance (T/TA) System, NCPMFO showcases and delivers capacity building assistance focused on research-based practices in program and financial management, governance, and leadership development. We support over 1,700 Head Start programs (serving over a million children and their families) in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories, including American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Migrant/Seasonal communities. In addition, although UMDI does not currently engage with the ECD community outside of the U.S., since 2004, UMDI has worked with NGOs in Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Argentina. These programs have been funded by the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and embassies in Iraq, Pakistan and Indonesia. These established relationships provide a strong foundation for expanding Access Equity internationally.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” (Barack Obama) By engaging a network of content and context experts to provide leadership to this initiative, as well as facilitate change at system, regional, and local provider levels, Access Equity is positioned to drive system-wide change that is resistant to reverting to the way things were. Because it will be achieved with, by, and for the beneficiaries it is seeking to impact, it will result in ownership that makes the change enduring and resistant to being forgotten. The entire initiative is designed precisely to foster systemic positive change. In our current work, we have seen how broad dissemination of effective, research-based, proven management and fiscal practices can have a profound and long-lasting positive impact on ECD providers’ ability to run high quality, cost-effective programs. As the Head Start National Center on Program Management and Fiscal Operations, we are charged with fostering system-wide change every single day, and this impact extends across the entire ECD system. Based on our own experience, we know that Access Equity can drive this same level of system-wide positive change focused on reducing inequities that prevent children from realizing their full potential. And that, in turn, will catalyze positive changes in the lives of disadvantaged children and their families.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

Access Equity seeks to drive system-wide change to improve outcomes for particularly hard-to-reach and vulnerable low-income families, including those with limited English-speaking abilities and those who are marginalized or isolated due to geography or other factors (e.g. immigrant/refugee status, migrant workers). Because low-income and homeless families are highly diverse, it is not enough to address the needs of “low-income families” – programs must also ensure that their systems and services are responsive to the needs of children and families from diverse linguistic, cultural, and racial backgrounds. The UMDI team developing Access Equity is keenly aware that the ECD system not only serves diverse populations across vastly different regions with various levels of support/resources, but that ECD provider agencies are themselves staffed and managed by individuals from a wide range of cultures, races, lifestyles, and experiences, each of whom brings unique strengths and faces unique barriers. Thus, Access Equity’s approach takes into account institutional inequality and barriers that are unique to each provider agency, local community, and target population of children and families. Most importantly, system-wide ECD change must address the needs of all young children, many of whom are from communities of color. When this group of young children benefits, all children benefit, and we build our human capital for the future.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (1500 characters)

Access Equity takes several core concepts (technical assistance, data management/research training, best practice compilation and professional networking) and applies each of them in a coordinated fashion to vulnerable populations and EC leaders of color. Each activity is designed to inform the other so that as the comprehensive platform is designed, ECD agencies, concept and people are linked together in an effective fashion. As we consider the networking activities of the AE platform, we would develop apps to serve as a catalyst for connecting people to the platform as well as forming concept groups where participants could explore an issue of interest in early education. Additionally, through our NCPMFO work with Head Start, we co-developed the Head Start Management Systems Wheel, which is a visual schematic of the Head Start Management Systems. This schematic is accompanied by guiding questions which help the user discover what management systems are strong and which ones need further growth. Additionally in our Head Start work, we have developed a knowledge base in data management, which helps ECD program managers take the data from various activities and synthesize it in a way that they can be effective in outlining their impact

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

We anticipate that Access Equity will drive policy, practice, and research, as well as a network of leaders devoted to increasing access and advancing equity in early care and education for disadvantaged and marginalized children and families across the U.S., and eventually in other targeted countries. The ultimate beneficiary population, of disadvantaged children and families, is potentially vast (at least a million children). Because we already work with an established network of Head Start providers and other ECD agencies across the U.S., we will be able to scale this program through that network to reach approximately 2,000 providers. Barriers to scaling are twofold: 1) Barriers to reaching families/children and engaging context experts from the most marginalized communities, including immigrants, migrant workers, refugees, and undocumented individuals and families. 2) Limited funding for this work. To address this second barrier, UMDI is seeking to leverage private foundation and government support for Access Equity. In our conversations with several large national private funders, we have learned that, for many, enthusiasm and interest in this work, including funding, has become a high priority over this past year.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

While our proposal is ambitious, UMDI has been a leader in the ECD system for 15 years, and we have demonstrated the ability to work successfully on a national level to affect broad-based systemic change. We have already begun to leverage funding for this initiative, and are in conversations with several national funders, all of whom have expressed interest and support for this concept. Moreover, the Access Equity team, a racially and ethnically diverse group with significant experience in the field and advancing cultural competency, is also connected to key networks seeking to foster changes in the ECD culture and thinking. As recently affirmed at a regional convening of ECD professionals and funders, we are deeply committed to “galvanizing efforts to shift the narrative about the actual root causes that contribute to disproportionate adverse life experiences among young children living in poverty.” Access Equity will be delivered through UMDI’s Early Care and Education (ECE) Program. Established in 1971, UMDI is a public service, research, and economic development arm of the UMass President’s Office. Providing capacity building assistance and conducting research under contract to numerous federal, state, and local government agencies, nonprofits, and NGOs over the years, UMDI is a knowledgeable and innovative provider of organizational development programs in a variety of content areas. For 15 years, UMDI has served as the New England Regional Training & Technical Assistance (T/TA) provider for Head Start. In addition, in 2015, UMDI was awarded a five-year, $30 million contract to serve as the Office of Head Start’s National Center on Program Management & Fiscal Operations. Over the years of working with ECD providers, UMDI has thus played a crucial role in fostering cutting edge solutions and promoting uniquely effective forms of collaboration, communication, coordination, and interactive technologies. We also have numerous organizational partners and contacts across the country, built over our long history of working in partnership with the Office of Head Start and Office of Child Care to deliver innovative, evidence-based T/TA, strengthen and improve systems, and foster parent, family and community engagement on behalf of young children. In addition to our ECD capacity building work, we regularly access expertise provided through other divisions within UMDI, in particular Nonprofit Funding & Fiscal Solutions (sustainability planning, community mobilization, and fund development); Applied Research & Program Evaluation (program and impact evaluation of ECD capacity building efforts); and Economic & Public Policy Research (cost-benefit analysis, census/population data, and social/demographic indicators). UMDI provides both infrastructure and administrative and financial management support to enable us to fully develop and deliver on the promise of Access Equity now and in the future.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (1500 characters)

We believe that as Access Equity gains its footing, we could look at creating revenue streams through the effort by charging (at below market rates) for technical assistance, as well as consideration of finders fees for our networking platform.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (1500 characters)

In addition to the examples given in the Tell Us About You area, another key reference point for the Access Equity idea comes from a historical perspective, namely the Negro Motorist Green Book (the Green Book). This was a guide published from 1936 to 1966 as a means of helping African-Americans navigate U.S. roads. This was necessary due to the fact that African-Americans faced discrimination in many parts of the country in addition to the South. The guide contained recommendations on what states were hospitable to black travelers as well as key resources (hotels or private homes) that welcomed African-American motorists. To be clear, Access Equity is not being launched in such an oppressive atmosphere, yet the fact remains that people of color face uphill battles in trying become part of professional and informal networks, not to mention losing out in getting hired to early education project grants. Access Equity is designed to make that networking (and therefore visibility) easier. In addition, the technical assistance aspect of AE is designed to help ECD agencies serving vulnerable populations develop stronger management practices that will help them continue to serve children of color.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

The inspiration for Access Equity stemmed initially from a request for help that we received eight months ago from a major national funder who was seeking some way to address the needs of a Native American Tribe in the Dakotas whose families were being devastated by opioid overdoses and deaths. Numbers of children were being left without parents, providers (scarce or nonexistent) were unable to find the resources to respond, and the foundation hoped that somehow, as a National Head Start T/TA Provider, UMDI’s team would know of some solution. This call was soon followed by information we were hearing about children being left when their parents were deported, followed by our visit to Puerto Rico after the major hurricane there, where we came to understand just how much the disaster had fractured the island’s network of Head Start and non-Head Start ECD providers. There was no obvious fix for any of these situations – resources from state and federal sources were woefully inadequate to formulate a meaningful response. At the same time, we felt the urgency of the need – as ECD professionals with decades of experience with providers in the field, we understood both the gravity of the situation as well as the importance of communities having both the voice and the power to affect change on their own behalf. Access Equity was born out of the need to act, to translate theory into action. We believe that the approaches advanced through Access Equity lay an important foundation to radical change of the ECD system – change that can alter the trajectory for the most devastated and needy communities across the country. Our team has considerable experience in the ECD field. Access Equity draws its personnel from staff currently working with the Head Start National Center (current team members are described at Our diverse group of innovators brings experience in a variety of areas, such as working with American Indian, Alaska Native, and Pacific Island programs; directing urban and rural ECD programs of all sizes; and holding leadership roles with groups like the Young African American Boy’s Project and Institute for Racial Equity and Excellence, to name only a few. In addition, team members have previously held management or board positions with the Knight Foundation, Danya International, Tribal Early Childhood Research Center at the University of Colorado Denver, Administration for Children and Families, US Department of Agriculture (Child Welfare, Child Care and Food Stamp Programs), American Red Cross, and National Children’s Defense Fund (as director of the Early Childhood Development Division). Access Equity is driven by the passion and commitment of our staff, our ability to leverage our current position as leaders in delivering National Head Start T/TA, and the clear need that we experience every day in our work across the country.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (500 characters)

Our current work in Head Start, as well as our team's expertise in various aspects of ECD, give Access Equity a great base of partners that we can build out from. Having said that, we could also use partners with the following skill sets: - Conducting and compiling nontraditional research and sources - Technology/design of networking platforms - Application of continuing education principles to system-wide change/development - Knowledge of equitable ECD practices

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

We are seeking the most innovative approaches to addressing systemic inequities, and we are particularly interested in cross-collaboration with respect to apps that might be designed to connect team members, content and context experts, and links to communities to inspire new approaches and networks. We envision the creation and use of an app that might be used to forge these connections, along with an annual virtual and in-person summit that would advance new ideas and solutions. Join us! We’re excited at the possibilities we can imagine – and those you have that we haven’t yet considered.

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters) [Relevant only for Early Submission Deadline]

We would appreciate mentoring support from anyone that can help us refine our idea, as well as bring expertise to our discussion related to building cultural competence within the ECD field, building new diverse and visionary networks, and solving some of the most consequential challenges facing disadvantaged communities, families, and their children across the U.S.

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? [Relevant only for our early submission participants] (1500 characters)

Fred Dillon from HopeLab conducted a mentoring session with us. From that meeting, we were able to gain additional insight into the Access Equity proposal, particularly around human-centered design and amplifying our current Head Start activities. From this meeting, we changed the sequencing of our activities and played up our current role as a Head Start National Center

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

Linked In Profile: John R. Williams II, MPA IST Manager, Governance/Program Management Specialist Mr. Williams has also been active in early childhood systems building as a senior consultant with DCA, Inc. for 10 years and as a program director with the John and James L. Knight Foundation for six years. He also worked in education and technical assistance with the California Community Foundation and the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.


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