Last year, I joined the board of directors of the Institute for Child Success (ICS), a Greenville, South Carolina-based research and policy organization dedicated to the success of all young children. My first board meeting featured a discussion of “Hello Family,” a new initiative ICS was launching to provide a continuum of evidence-based services for all children born in the neighboring City of Spartanburg from prenatal care through age five.

In discussing the prospects of success, a key leader of this effort paraphrased the noted educator, author, and business leader Stephen Covey, noting that, “these things move with the speed of trust.” Little did I realize the relevance of this concept to work we would subsequently commence in Hartford.

The U.S. Department of Education’s awarding of a five-year, $30 million Promise Neighborhoods grant in late 2021 to support the North Hartford Ascend Pipeline (Ascend) is a potential game changer for children and their families living in the city’s federally designated North Hartford Promise Zone. Ascend just concluded its first year and we are now reflecting on our progress as we look ahead to what Ascend will accomplish in its second year.

As the grant recipient, Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health is working with the city of Hartford, Hartford Public Schools, the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut, The Village for Families & Children, the University of Hartford, residents and community-based organizations, and many other partners to implement Ascend. The project is a cradle-to-career effort to ensure that children and youth have the supports they need to reach their full potential by strengthening developmental outcomes and academic success while enhancing long-term well-being and quality of life.

Within a week of receiving notice of the award, city leadership convened a town hall to engage with residents, community-based organizations, and advocates. Residents of Hartford’s North End were extremely vocal in sharing their lack of confidence in our commitment to engage them as partners in grant implementation and participants advocated for timely actions to strengthen community trust in the project and its leaders.  Shortly thereafter, the importance of trust again arose when Geoffrey Canada, the visionary and renowned founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone which inspired the Promise Neighborhoods movement, visited North Hartford and the transformed Swift Factory. Canada emphasized that community engagement is secured through building trust, and that building trust is a block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood effort.

For Ascend, trust building actually commenced during the grant preparation phase as interviews, focus groups, and surveys sought to identify community priorities.  With grant implementation, Ascend is employing a variety of strategies to ensure that community-residents, organizations, and leaders-have trust in the process to build the Ascend pipeline. Select examples include:

  • Releasing Ascend’s budget in response to residents’ questions and concerns as to how grant dollars will be spent;
  • Recruiting individuals with lived experiences in North Hartford neighborhoods to fill key staff positions;
  • Engaging community leaders who are viewed as trusted messengers to facilitate community conversations and design meetings, surveys, and advocacy sessions;
  • Hiring a marketing firm with lived experience in North Hartford to conduct focus groups to understand resident marketing and communication preferences and develop a multi-platform, community-centric marketing and communications plan;
  • Incentivizing resident engagement in Ascend activities by compensating them for their participation in focus groups, planning sessions, and committees;
  • Obtaining grant funding from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to provide food and child care at all events;
  • Embedding residents, community leaders, partner organizations, and other stakeholders within the governing and leadership structures that oversee Ascend;
  • Recruiting parents to serve on consumer panels throughout the project period; and
  • Taking action as a visible signal of our commitment to meaningful community improvements, such as partnering with Hartford Youth Service Corps members to clean and brighten public spaces.

The overarching goal of Ascend is to strengthen families so they can promote their children’s academic achievement and long-term well-being. The success of Hartford’s application in an extremely rigorous national competition validates the merit of plans for the pipeline.

However, notwithstanding the strength of the grant, ensuring co-ownership by the community will be the critical determinant of its ultimate impact. Our second year of funding will focus on building out the pipeline of programs and services and ensuring families’ access to address their priorities and needs. 

Only through continuing to build community trust will Ascend make a meaningful difference in the quality of life of North Hartford Promise Zone children and families.

Paul Dworkin, MD is executive vice president for community child health at Connecticut Children’s and project director of the North Hartford Ascend Pipeline.