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Apr 20, 2022 |
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Greetings to our community members! Past blog posts of my monthly column have focused on defining a Family Learning System and how building coordinated and aligned systems of family literacy, family engagement, and family leadership create pathways for families to find educational success and economic prosperity. This month, I’ll explore family leadership, one of the three components within a Family Learning System, in greater detail.

Graphic with Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith's headshot and a red ribbon in the shape of a heart. The text reads At the Heart of Family Learning with Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

NCFL sees assets in every parent and caregiver and strengths in every family. When traditional stakeholders in a community—leaders in schools, government, nonprofits, etc.—are working to address challenges, families must have a share of the leadership. Challenges within communities are best solved by those who are closest to and experiencing those issues. Family leadership programs are designed to support parenting adults and caregivers with knowledge and skills to build confidence in themselves as leaders in their communities. 

A system for family learning should be a community agenda designed to support families across a number of equity domains including education, economic opportunity, neighborhoods and infrastructure, justice and government, and public health. The ultimate purpose of family leadership programs is to encourage parenting adults to use what they learn in the program to become engaged advocates contributing to equitable and thriving communities. This, in turn, activates their leadership skills in ways they may not have ever imagined.

In February, NCFL announced a three-year initiative that brings together parents of young children and early childhood practitioners to develop inclusive and equitable early childhood programs in communities across the country. In order to address the persistent equity issues facing Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) this initiative seeks to elevate voices in the BIPOC community which are oftentimes underrepresented on key issues within early childhood education. The Activate! National Network is a strong example of a family leadership program establishing a new norm in the field. Our approach to pairing parenting adults with organization leaders and practitioners has created inclusive spaces that support racial equity, shared leadership, and learning. By bringing these key groups together to advance early education practice and policy, we are carrying out a dual capacity-building approach—the “gold standard” for creating effective partnerships between parenting adults and practitioners. 

Last fall, I had the pleasure of attending the kick off of the first Activate! National Network cohort. The conversations and presentations by parents were a stark reminder that the solutions to barriers and challenges within communities are among the people in these communities. Every family has expertise, assets, and strengths to contribute. Equitable family leadership means a commitment to co-design, ensuring that we have family voices at the table to unite, elevate, and incorporate the knowledge, strengths, and lived experiences of those furthest from opportunity. 

Photo of Activate! National Network participants at the kickoff convening in November 2021
Activate! National Network participants at the kickoff convening in November 2021.

Family Learning Systems, which include family leadership as a fundamental component, help establish systems of support for parents and caregivers in communities that are designed to meet the needs of our youngest learners and their caregivers. Families facing the greatest external and structural barriers to engagement are still being left behind because current family engagement opportunities may not be accessible or relevant to them. Often, many strategies are designed and implemented without input from the families for which they are intended. 

Hence, the Activate! National Network, which flips the script and combats these issues by centering BIPOC family leadership, representation, and advocacy. NCFL is committed to a transformational process to reimagine early learning systems with parents and caretakers as equal partners in the work. I look forward to watching this network grow and guide conversations around effective policy considerations and practices to be implemented at the local level.

If your program or community is interested in supporting families by offering family leadership programming, please contact us at

For more information:

The Activate! National Network is generously funded by W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the PNC Foundation in support of its early childhood education initiative, PNC Grow Up Great®. Read more about the Activate! National Network leadership program here.

Learn more about NCFL’s 60x30 Campaign by exploring my previous blog posts


Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

A lifelong educator and national thought leader for teaching and learning, Dr. Felicia C. Smith brings decades of valuable experience to advance NCFL’s mission of working to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families. Having served in a variety of leadership roles in P-12, higher education, nonprofit, and philanthropy, her career has allowed her to experience leading systems and develop a unique vantage point of a learner’s educational trajectory from preschool to adulthood. Smith holds an Ed.D. in education leadership and administration from the University of Kentucky, and an M.A. in elementary education with an emphasis on K-12 literacy development and B.S. in elementary education from the University of Louisville. 

Follow Dr. Felicia C. Smith on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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NCFL Partners

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Toyota, one of the nation's most successful corporations, began a partnership with NCFL in 1991. In addition to a commitment of more than $50 million, Toyota has also contributed a wealth of in-kind support — including advertising, planning and management expertise — to form one of the most progressive corporate/nonprofit partnerships in the nation.

Three major programs have been developed through the Toyota partnership based on the family literacy model of parents and children learning together. These models have influenced federal and state legislation, leveraged local dollars to support family literacy and led to successful programs being replicated across the country.

Read more about Toyota's commitment to communities

William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust

NCFL received its very first donation in 1989 from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust to promote and implement family literacy programming, first in Kentucky and North Carolina and later nationwide. The Kenan Family Literacy Model in part laid the groundwork for 30 years of subsequent family literacy and family learning programming developed by NCFL.

Kenan has continued to support NCFL’s place-based family literacy programs since our inception. Most recently, it has invested in our organization’s Sharon Darling Innovation Fund, which will launch emerging ideas and programmatic evolutions in the multigenerational learning space.

Learn more about the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust

Dollar General Literacy Foundation

The Dollar General Literacy Foundation began partnering with NCFL in 2006. A signature effort of this partnership is the National Literacy Directory, a resource that launched in 2010 and strives to guide potential students and volunteers to literacy services, community education programs, and testing centers in their communities.

The National Literacy Directory contains over 10,000 educational agencies located across the United States and has a dedicated toll-free number to help support those wanting to pursue educational opportunities in their communities.

Dollar General also provides support for development of NCFL’s innovative family learning resources centered on financial literacy and Parent and Child Together (PACT) Time®.

Learn more about the Dollar General Literacy Foundation

PNC Grow Up Great

PNC Grow Up Great believes deeply in the power of high-quality early childhood education and provides innovative opportunities that assist families, educators and community organizations to enhance children's learning and development.

PNC Grow Up Great has partnered with NCFL since 1994, most recently in Louisville, Kentucky, to support Say & Play with Words, our pre-Kindergarten vocabulary-building initiative.

NCFL's work is also featured on the PNC Grow Up Great Lesson Center website. The Lesson Center includes over 100 free, high-quality preschool lesson plans and research-based instructional techniques and strategies. All lesson plans contain Home/School Connections printouts, in English and Spanish, to help families extend and reinforce the learning at home.

Learn more about PNC Grow Up Great

U.S. Department of Education

Initiated through the U.S. Department of Education in 2018, the Statewide Family Engagement Centers (SFEC) program provides 12 grantees and 13 states with five-year, $5 million grants to promote and implement systemic evidenced-based family engagement strategies. NCFL was selected to lead SFECs in two states, Arizona and Nebraska, and is a primary partner for two other SFECs in Kentucky and Maryland/Pennsylvania. 

The SFECs work to support family engagement through state- and local-level agencies while providing both professional development to school districts and direct services to families related to children’s academic outcomes and overall well-being.

Learn more about the U.S. Department of Education

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

NCFL was named a recipient of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s "Voices for Economic Opportunity Grand Challenge," which seeks to elevate diverse voices in order to broaden the conversation about the issues inhibiting economic mobility and generate deeper awareness along with actionable understanding. NCFL will develop and launch a podcast series that will highlight the remarkable stories of low-income, diverse families across the U.S. who have improved their communities through Family Service Learning.

Foundation Website