April 22, 2024

Groundwork Ohio Roadshow Listening Tour: Setting the policy agenda for young children

Shannon Jones, President & CEO, Groundwork Ohio

As the only Ohio statewide organization advocating exclusively for the well-being of children from birth to 5 years old, Groundwork Ohio strives to keep our work tightly focused. We know that the right investments at the right time can transform the lives of our most vulnerable children, and by extension their families, their communities and even the state’s economy. 

But this doesn’t mean our priorities are static. Needs, circumstances and opportunities evolve, and our strategy needs to do the same. To be sure we get it right, we start by turning to the experts — stakeholders and advocates for young children across the state, but also the families and community members directly affected by state policies. 

It’s a two-year cycle that repeats with each General Assembly, and right now we’re near the beginning, at one of the most exciting and rewarding parts: the Roadshow Listening Tour. We’ll spend the late spring and part of the summer visiting every part of Ohio (see the work-in-progress schedule here), holding conversations about the challenges facing Ohio’s children and the best ways to tackle them. The events are open to the public, with some space limitations. 

We want to hear from as many Ohioans as possible about what they see as their communities’ greatest needs for young children and, just as important, what policies already in place are working well. 

Groundwork Ohio grew out of the early-learning movement, and advocating for access to preschool and child care will always be at the core of our mission. It’s hard to imagine how it could be otherwise, when you consider how many children can be positively impacted by this one intervention. The pandemic only made the gaps in the early-education system worse and the needs more urgent. 

But we continually learn more about additional issues, beyond access to preschool and child care, that are equally important to our stakeholders. Concerns about mental health have grown societywide, but not everyone realizes the extent to which children younger than 5 are susceptible to mental health stress. They belong to families; if the adults in their lives are under stress, even the youngest kids feel it. 

Ohio’s unacceptably high rates of maternal morbidity and infant mortality, especially for Black women and babies, are an urgent concern. And the pandemic heightened our awareness of kids in special populations with unique health care needs. 

There are a number of wins to celebrate around these issues, but the most significant is that a broader group of stakeholders is beginning to understand the essential truth that drives our work: We can’t wait for kindergarten to start thinking about these kids and addressing their needs. If they start school behind, they’ll likely stay behind, and that has lifetime consequences — for them, for their families and communities, and for taxpayers. 

Those stakeholders also are realizing that, to make a real difference, we have to address the communities that vulnerable kids come from. Are they living in healthy homes, free of lead so their brains can develop? Is it safe for them to play outside? Do their families have access to healthy food? 

While Ohio is lucky to have in Gov. Mike DeWine a leader who truly prioritizes the needs of young children, the political environment nonetheless can be tough. Young children don’t have superPACs; they don’t make political donations. That’s why Groundwork Ohio focuses as hard as we do on being part of the policy process, and that’s why the Roadshow Listening Tour is so important. 

We’ll kick off on April 25 with an event in Wilmington where we hope to hear from folks in Clinton, Fayette, Madison and Warren counties. While there’s a basic template for the events, the content for each will be shaped by the organizations serving young children in those communities. 

Even as the Roadshow unfolds, so will other parts of our policy process. Our internal advisory councils are engaging in research and surveying that will culminate in a report to be shared with the public this fall. In the first two quarters of 2025, as the Executive, House and Senate versions of the 2026-27 state budget are hashed out, we’ll be in the trenches advocating for young children. On March 12, 2025, we’ll make our biggest public statement via Groundwork Ohio Advocacy Day at the Statehouse. 

All of this effort has one outcome in mind: that Ohio’s public priorities, as expressed in the state budget, will include more of the investments we need to make it possible for our most vulnerable children — and thus all of us — to have bright futures.