Busting Myths and Making Change

It’s a gray Friday morning, but the East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI) halls are bright with color and song. Over the muffled chorus of the children’s song “Baby Shark”, David Reese and Barker French share the core beliefs that steer their incredibly successful organization.

EDCI’s mission is to create a pipeline of high-quality services, from birth through high school graduation, for children and families living in a 120-block area of East Durham. Reese, the President and CEO of EDCI, is quick to set straight the biggest myth about the organization.

Many assume that EDCI is just like every other organization—that they make change because of the hard-working staff and a clear goal. But what really sets EDCI apart is the community ecosystem they have convened.

“We’ve got an amazing team here,” says Reese. “The folks creating the magic are our families, our partners, our staff, and all the people who line up with us to move children along the continuum through their lives, from birth to college or a career.”
This emphasis on community and partnership is the core tenet of EDCI’s work. Early in EDCI’s inception, Reese and the founding members heard a lot of the same thing: community members did not trust that they were here for the long haul. Over and over, East Durham residents saw organizations pop in, do some research, and leave.

Barker French, a founding member and the current Board Chair of EDCI, says they used the collective impact model to drive their decisions.

To provide a pipeline of services, EDCI collaborates with more than 35 partner organizations, including public schools, city and county agencies, health providers, civic organizations, universities, and other nonprofits.  A complete listing of EDCI’s partners is available at http://edci.org/en/about/partners. The EDCI Collaborative funded by the United Way is a perfect example of collective impact at work. The EDCI Collaborative brings together nine organizations, including Family Connects, Healthy Families Durham, Child Care Services Association, Durham’s Partnership for Children, Duke Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, Durham Literacy Center, Duke Pediatrics, Durham Public Schools and EDCI to provide families with a continuum of early childhood supports to ensure children are prepared for kindergarten and to support parents in advocating for their children’s education.

“The folks who live in the community know best,” says French. “We’re not here to tell anyone what to do, we’re here to find out what they need and see if we can help. If those same people are saying we’ve made a difference in their lives, that’s success.”
Instead of starting with a pre-existing vision, the founding team started by asking questions. At their first community kitchen event, over 100 community members came together to share their input and be a part of the solution.

From their first gatherings, EDCI has asked the community what they need, what they think works, and where they want to see change—and then, they work together to put action behind the answers they hear.

“When we think about our programs, our success, we have to start here: what does success mean to the parents, to the 9-years-olds, to the 4-year-olds who are transitioning to kindergarten next year?” says David. “We have to be accountable back to these people, more than anyone else.”

Above all, EDCI wants to make sure that people feel they are better off being involved with EDCI. The answer seems to be a resounding yes: their approval rate with enrolled parents and caregivers is impressive; 97% say that their Advocate provided helpful information to improve their child’s education and 99% say that EDCI helped them to feel more connected to their community. And while the staff and board use thorough data in addition to anecdotal evidence, it’s the enthusiasm and appreciation of their families that they care about most.

“Having our families and the people we are connected with say we’ve made a difference in their lives is what matters,” says French.

EDCI’s success has garnered lots of attention from neighborhoods across Durham and cities across the state. But that’s where another myth shows up: some people believe EDCI can duplicate their work for any other neighborhood in a similar situation, and achieve the same positive outcomes.

Reese is careful to explain that EDCI can serve as a model for other communities, but because its programs are driven by community input, a version of EDCI in any other community would look different. As French points out, not all of Durham is made up with the same people that have contributed to the program in the EDCI zone. Even in Walltown, another Durham neighborhood with similar challenges to East Durham, starting a program would require a significant investment of time to build the relationship with that community.

“EDCI started with an outgrowth of a community effort to drive change,” says Reese. “And we don’t have success if we don’t have leadership on the board and in the community.”

Along with their achievements, EDCI is facing its own questions about their changing community. As gentrification moves across Durham, the EDCI zone is changing. Families that have long been a part of the organization are moving outside the 120-block scope of the original program. EDCI kids are in schools across the city. The EDCI team are asking themselves what’s next.

While cloning EDCI in different areas is not the answer, it is possible to replicate the model. But French and Reese believe that process must start with listening to communities and building authentic relationships.

Here’s the third big myth about EDCI: despite its name, EDCI is not just about East Durham. The accomplishments they celebrate and opportunities they face are about all of Durham. It is about making Durham a more equitable place for all its residents.

“Every young person in Durham should have the opportunity to have the same success,” Reese says. “All kids deserve what EDCI has to offer. You might call that a challenge, and it is a challenge—it’s daunting! But it’s also an opportunity and that’s what keeps us excited.”

Wherever EDCI turns its attention next, their collaborative spirit will guide the way. They remain committed to learning from each other, from the parents and children in their programs, and from their partner organizations.

On the way out to a meeting with a partner, Reese and French stop by story hour in the room down the hall. Shouts of “Hola, Mr. David! Hola Mr. Barker!” greet them at the door. They leave with smiles on their faces.

“If you can’t tell,” Reese says, “we really enjoy doing this work together.”