Five questions with: Cynthia Coleman, chief philanthropy officer, Voices for Virginia’s Children

Children’s voices matter. Whatever their backgrounds, children’s wellbeing is important not only in their own day-to-day lives, but in shaping the world we will live in.

Headshot of Cynthia Coleman, Voices of Virginia's Children
Cynthia Coleman, chief philanthropy officer of Voices for Virginia’s Children

Voices for Virginia’s Children works to ensure that public policies that directly affect childhood – whether they concern foster care and adoption, health and mental health, or family economic security—that those policies are just, fair and have the best interests of children at heart.

Cynthia Coleman, chief philanthropy officer of Voices for Virginia’s Children, shared her perspectives and some telling data on how the pandemic has impacted youth and families. Coleman also revealed her passion when it comes to advocating for equity and diversity.

We ask Coleman our favorite five questions to learn more about Voices for Virginia’s Children, and how it serves our local community.

What’s Voices for Virginia’s Children’s core mission?

Our mission is to champion public policies that improve the lives of Virginia’s children. 

What problem does Voices for Virginia’s Children address during the pandemic? Can you characterize the extent of the problem locally?

The more we learned about infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths, the more something became clear. This pandemic – which was taking a huge human and economic toll – was doing so disproportionately in communities of color. The last 12 months with COVID-19 has highlighted the appalling lack of equity in our society. These are problems we are familiar addressing.

For Virginia’s children, their race, ZIP code and family income determine their life expectancy and ability to succeed. The data from our KIDS COUNT Data Center confirms the impact of COVID-19 on families of color:

  • The economic security for families has weakened, especially for Black and Latino families. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly half (49%) of all adults with children in the household lost employment income.
  • More families were going hungry. Prior to the pandemic, one in 10 families reported sometimes or often not having enough food to eat. These numbers have increased during the pandemic to 14% and are significantly higher for Black (24%) and Hispanic (32%) families.
  • Without policy interventions we will see a spike in housing insecurity. Virginia’s eviction moratorium has allowed for our families to keep pace with the national average (21%) when it comes to paying rent or mortgage on time. However, 25% of Black families expressed no confidence in making these payments on time.
  • Black and Latino people are hospitalized at a greater rate for COVID-19.

The problems that existed statewide also existed locally. Fortunately, Voices was able to continue our work in championing policies and safety net programs to protect our children during the 2021 General Assembly session. More than $257 million was allocated in state and federal funds for new initiatives for children and families.

What do you think most people don’t realize or understand about these issues?

Many of the issues Voices identified during the pandemic are long-known, systemic issues that have go unaddressed for years, sometimes decades. Children, youth and families living and working in under-resourced communities have been dealing with lack of access to broadband internet, little to no mental health services available, decaying schools and overall poorer health outcomes. The pandemic strained our local, regional and state-level safety net systems and communities, but communities that were already struggling, suffered more intensely from these known issues. We continued our concentrated efforts on policies in the areas of early childhood, foster care and adoption, health and mental health and family economic security.

What kind of work do volunteers/donors do to help Voices for Virginia’s Children?

Voices does not provide direct services, so we do not utilize volunteers in the same way that other nonprofits do. It has always been our approach to incorporate the feedback of those implementing policies—child-serving professionals, educators, human services administrators, social workers — into our policy priorities and to help us identify challenges. However, what we learned is that hearing the stories of those with lived experiences is necessary for effective policy development and having those same people share their stories and advocate on their own behalf is critical. So, we shifted our focus beyond feedback to family and youth volunteers. Through our engagement process, Voices’ staff builds trust with these families and children, increasing access and encouraging their participation in the legislative process.

One way that Voices is able to incorporate volunteers is through our events such as the Carol Fox Awards and Racial Truth & Reconciliation Week. Racial Truth & Reconciliation Week (RTRW) is a community-led initiative to empower advocates with lived experience to ignite the change they wish to see in their communities. Recognized by Gov. Ralph Northam, RTRW took place Aug. 2-8, 2020, promoting the reckoning of Virginia’s past to reconcile our present and future. RTRW is an awareness week aimed at empowering marginalized communities to promote healing, reconciliation and justice for children and families. The success of last year’s event has led to a second RTRW that took place Aug. 22-28, 2021. We had more than 57 organizations, executives, policymakers, advocates and activists from around the commonwealth presenting and facilitating discussions on key issues impacting Virginia’s children.

If $100,000 fell from the sky tomorrow, how would you spend it?

Voices is most effective at developing a unified policy agenda when we can bring people with lived experiences, advocates and other nonprofit, child-focused organizations together. As mentioned earlier, our mission is to amplify the voices of children, youth, and families.

If $100,000 fell from the sky, Voices would use that money to continue growing our efforts to bring a diversity of people and advocates together in “cohorts.” We would use that time to learn the immediate challenges confronting them to assist in effective policy development and seek the acceptance of those most closely impacted by those policies. Cohort participants would be compensated for their time. A diversity of cohort participants also helps us ensure that equity is centered in our work by proactively ensuring equitable policies and laws for children and families are identified and created.

All Voices’ policy development work is supported by data. We are home to the KIDS COUNT Data Center for Virginia. This “data warehouse” is responsible for the largest multi-issue, social determinant data tracking system for children within Virginia, and is the best source for child health data in Virginia. By providing policymakers, educators, the media and the public with benchmarks of child well-being, the Voices Data and Research program advances local and state efforts to improve the lives of children and families. $100,000 would also give Voices an opportunity to grow our Data & Research department, allowing us to partner with other nonprofits and organizations to provide custom analyses and presentations that address trauma and disparities found in our data at the local and regional levels. Organizations can then develop approaches to improve the lives of children specific to their communities’ needs.

If you’re interested in learning more about Voices for Virginia’s Childrenvisit its website or follow it on Facebook and Instagram. You can donate directly here.

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