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Case Study: Minnesota Retirees Join Forces to Advocate for Infants and Toddlers

Case Study: Minnesota Retirees Join Forces to Advocate for Infants and Toddlers

When Jane Kretzmann and Jim Nicholie retired in 2014, they saw an opportunity to take the knowledge and expertise they had gathered about early childhood education during their careers to a whole new level. With like-minded colleagues they formed Elders for Infants — a small group of retirees who meet once a month to discuss issues critical to pregnant women, infants, and toddlers in Minnesota, focusing particularly on racial justice for young families.

Thanks to a connection with State Representative Dave Pinto, a primary activity of Elders for Infants involves hosting Prenatal to Three Quarterly Forums. The forums are geared toward early childhood advocates, nonprofits, caregivers, policymakers, lawmakers, medical providers, and community leaders across the state. At these free forums, attendees gain knowledge, share plans, and explore issues from across the state regarding early childhood support systems. They also build statewide relationships to help Minnesota’s early childhood advocates coordinate their work across distances and disciplines.

Elders for Infants remains an informal grassroots effort that operates with no funding or grants. “We weren’t interested in forming an organization,” Kretzmann said. “It’s more about having people get acquainted with the new science of child development and what we know today about how to apply it in culturally sensitive ways. It’s a starting point. People don’t have to have all the answers, but we need to have a conversation.”

The Purpose

Elders for Infants centers around the shared passions of seven retired people and one state representative who want to give back to society by building better support systems for Minnesota’s youngest residents. “We want to contribute and use the knowledge and experience we already have,” Jane Kretzmann said. “Sometimes we ‘elders’ can say things that other people can’t.”

For example, in a 2019 guest post for the Think Small coalition, writing on behalf of Elders for Infants, Kretzmann boldly noted that although Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it’s now also the “land of 10,000 pilot projects.” She explained that the situation is due in part to a forty-year shift in the political landscape from generous public funding on education and children to limited government spending. This shift has greatly affected early childhood support networks. As a result, Minnesota is left with a “patchwork of programs (e.g., Early Head Start, scholarships, Nurse-Family Partnership, School Readiness) and stand-alone independent efforts, a diminished safety net, and agencies disrupted by financial scarcity and policy swings.” (“Elders Provide Historical Context“.)

Given the current lack of sustained public support for infants and toddlers, Elders for Infants is particularly concerned with fixing systemic problems that have a direct bearing on infants and toddlers, their families, and caregivers. “We’ve got to get people back to working on the system,” Jim Nicholie said. “Governments tend to fund policies related to institutions – schools, social work, child protection – but infants and toddlers who aren’t involved with child protection don’t have those institutions built up. They’re invisible. We’d like to make children more visible to the system so the system responds in a developmentally appropriate and equitable way. We know governments can’t do everything, but they can do a lot more.”

Mary Kay Stranik from Elders for Infants added, “There might be good government policies in place, but sometimes the implementation of things goes askew, so we go to the system and say, here’s what you need for infants and toddlers. We’re talking to the governor and the cabinet now, and we’re very concerned about the systems of government.”

The Model

At the core of Elders for Infants is a working group of seven volunteer retirees who meet once a month to “share reconnaissance” regarding their most current activities and learning experiences, according to Kretzmann.  Major concerns include Family Friend and Neighbor child care and the impact of housing instability on infants and toddlers, beginning prenatally. In addition, Elders for Infants also helps organize quarterly forums, where they arrange speakers and handle all logistics. Various partners donate time and facilities to the effort, including the University of St. Thomas and St. Catherine University, who provide the space for the quarterly forums and do media outreach and publicity. Additionally, State Rep. Dave Pinto brought in a network of tech-savvy constituents who donate their time to run a website for the group and provide IT support.

The forums started out very small in 2016, Kretzmann said, and grew largely through word of mouth. There are no grants of any kind involved. As people saw what Elders for Infants was doing, they kept coming back. Today the forums typically see an attendance rate of more than 200 people, with the full list of participants now reaching about 500.

“It has really and truly been a grassroots effort,” Kretzmann noted. “Many more people are interested in prenatal-to-three policy development than in the past.”

Forum agendas include reports from various advocacy groups, state agencies, and legislators. Topics discussed at the forums are wide-ranging in scope: home visiting, prenatal development and care, fatherhood, early childhood mental health, family literacy, trauma across generations, pregnancy in prison, and early childhood systems reform, to name a few. There are also sessions dedicated to critical issues among African American and immigrant/refugee communities. (See “Past Forums.”)

Why It Works

Elders for Infants is a small group with a breadth of experience that became its greatest strength. “Each of us comes at it with different backgrounds and interests,” Kretzmann said. “A few in family education, a few in fatherhood, another person in mental health. We kind of feed the group with the passions and interests that we each bring.”

She added that since Elders for Infants does not seek grants or funding from anyone, they have an advantage when asking for support and legislative attention. “We’re not interested in getting credit for ourselves, and that disarms people,” she said. “We’re not neutral brokers because we do stand for something, but we try very hard to be honest brokers.”

According to Stranik, another part of the story might be that early childhood issues had reached a critical point across the state: “Part of the reason it’s grown so big is that we saw our issue was very much a slow-burning issue in Minnesota’s communities. When we presented knowledgeable people from different fields, it was timely and relevant to all those communities.”

What You Should Know

Elders for Infants provides a simple, inexpensive model for change. The group requires no funding and asks only for in-kind donations from partner organizations. Retirees are free to share their expertise with others, Kretzmann and Nicholie noted, and underfunded early childhood systems can benefit from that.

“The parents are stressed,” Nicholie said, “and that’s where the elders come in.” He referred to an old quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”