Family Voices: Engaging Families, Community, and University to Strengthen Capacities and Opportunities

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Family Voices originated in 2002 as a School of Human Ecology (SoHE) funded outreach effort to build a continuing relationship of the School with African American families in South Madison. A community-based coordinator, Stan Woodard, convened monthly dinners engaging African American parents and grandparents and others in the Black community concerned for families.

These forums provided opportunities for deep listening by Boyd Rossing, now an Emeritus faculty member and Margaret Nellis, University Health Services partnerships staff member, each affiliated with the Department of Civil Society and Community Studies of the School. Two central concerns emerged over two years of engagement: supporting improved connections and performance and opportunities of children and youth in school, and supporting improved connections of parents, while tapping and building their strengths.

Today the Family Voices community-university partnership continues with help from, having evolved over the years with changing partners and funding, more diverse families and UW mentor-tutors, shifting developmental priorities, and an ever developing program design. The partnership today brings UW units together with the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County (BGCDC). The partnership provides a Saturday morning mentor-tutor-enrichment (M-T-E) program with significant parent engagement, that supports the development – socially, culturally, and academically – of youth participants in grades 1-8.

UW students serve as mentor-tutors for children/youth in the program. Mentor-tutors are recruited from diverse student support programs like Diversity Programs of UW Housing, the Multicultural Learning Community in Witte Hall, the PEOPLE, Posse and First Wave programs of the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement, and others. Students in the Chancellor and Powers Knapp Scholars have served as mentor-tutors and as volunteers for special program events. Mentor-tutors are also recruited from the Black Student Union and fraternities and sororities that engage diverse students. In addition students in selected service learning classes serve as mentor-tutors for service learning credit. And friends recruit friends.

Slow Food UW, a student group promoting and practicing healthy relations with food – growing, preparing and socially enjoying- partners with Family Voices. Interns purchase, prepare and serve locally grown foods each Saturday for a concluding lunch.
2014-15 has been a signal year of partnership growth and transition. A grant from the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement enabled a unique arrangement for joint funding with the Boys and Girls Club of a Family Voices youth program coordinator based in the Club. Malissa Dietsch, a graduate student in the Urban and Regional Planning program with prior experience as a BGCDC staff member serves in this post. The Community-University Exchange unit of the Morgridge Center for Public Service houses a Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment funded project that has provided key leadership for strengthening the mentor-tutor and parent components. The Morgridge Center also provided funding for broader program support.

Also, this year the Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies, based in SoHE, joined the partnership to facilitate continuation and future development. Family Voices brings it’s spirit and practice of ongoing inquiry, relationship building and improving program design within dynamic community contexts to the Center. The Centers capabilities in community partnering, action research and informational exchanges can help deepen and extend this spirit and practice in the BGCDC centered partnership and perhaps other community contexts.

UW students serve as both mentors, building continuing relationships with an individual youth that can influence self-confidence and aspirations and support individualized pursuit of interests. Where needed, they also serve as tutors supporting youth in academic subjects. Reflecting on the most satisfying thing about being a mentor-tutor, one student said:

“positively affecting the lives of the younger generation. We live in a society where younger children needs are not met and this program is all about the children. Growing up, I never had the opportunity to participate in these programs and no one really helped me, so giving back and helping children is very important to me. The fact that these children look up to me and are happy to see me every week is one of the greatest feelings in the world.”

Family Voices added a special new feature this year to deepen engagement of mentor-tutors and build their team spirit around a community of practice concept. Marian Slaughter of the Baldwin funded project facilitates mentor-tutor discussions each Saturday before youth arrive. They discuss the meaning of mentor-tutoring, relationships with parents, the concept of modeling and related ideas to enhance their relationships with and impact on youth.

Finally, the project has operated with a spirit of parent partnering and engagement. Parents are encouraged to engage in the program by attending Saturday events at BGCDC and by accompanying youth on field visits whenever they wish. Family Voices also provides a forum for parents to support each other and to learn about youth, family, education and related topics important to them and to advise on and support Family Voices programming. A parent group meets bi-weekly concurrently with youth engaged in the mentor-tutor-enrich program. Within the group parents share and build their collective knowledge of youth and parenting through interacting with resource persons and sharing their own knowledge.

For more information please contact Emeritus Professor Boyd Rossing, brossing@wisc.edu

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