This is a series of profiles of people making Oakland Smarter and Stronger.
Jennifer Cabán, Alameda County Social Services Agency
Oakland Starting Smart and Strong is made up of community groups, early childhood educators, and school district, city and county leaders. Some of us focus on early learning in formal settings; some on family, friend and neighbor care; some on healthy development – and we’re all connected by our shared commitment to create a strong foundation for Oakland’s youngest children.
One of the Lead Planning Team members whose work requires a broad view is Jennifer Cabán, Management Analyst with the Office of Policy, Evaluation, and Planning at the Alameda County Social Services Agency (SSA). We asked Jennifer to talk about how her work relates to OSSS’ vision, and what policy and systems change means to her.
Why do you do what you do? My primary role is to track and analyze local and state legislation as it relates to early childhood education and child welfare policy. I offer recommendations, in these policy areas, for the County to pursue a position of support or opposition on bills that could impact SSA services, programs, operations, and most importantly the children and families we serve.
Why do you do this? Because my mission in life is about being able to provide access to quality, loving, safe learning environment for children and their families. I happen to come from a family where I lacked access growing up. Up until 6th grade I attended 7 different schools, all poor performing. I spent my youth exposed to many of the challenges our children face today. What was eye opening for me was having parents who were resourceful in getting things done, especially my mom. She was one of those “I’ll figure it out” kinds of people. Just seeing how she had to navigate all these complicated systems to get the needs of her children met, really impacted me and helps me to reflect on the systems we have today.
I consider myself fortunate to be in a position today where I can help inform and make recommendations on how policies and systems can work better. I involve myself in this work because if I don’t like the way something functions, then I can’t just complain, I have to be part of the solution.
What does systems change mean to you? That phrase does get thrown around a lot these days. I often focus on influencing systems to be more reflective of how our families are actually accessing services, including child care. A lot of the time, many of us think that services and child care happen in one singular space or place. But the reality is that’s just not how our families live their lives. Our families are beautifully complex and the systems change is that we are collectively aligning to meet our children and families where they are. I believe Oakland Starting Smart and Strong is working on this. This is a collective that focuses on early education through the lens of healthy development and formal and informal systems.
You’re working on a project to make data on early childhood more available. Tell us more. I’ve been working on creating a Child Care Monthly Report for the Agency to showcase the children who are served by our roughly $16 million in child care subsidies. The data seeks to highlight the type of subsidy used to serve a child, the type of care, and to identify the areas of highest need. This effort has been a long time coming and we intend to share the information with the public soon. This will be a first for the County – and likely for the state – in terms of how a public agency shares child care data.
Through this report, we’ll know a lot more about who we’re serving and how – which will help us understand what is needed to fill the gaps. I see this a step towards systems change.
How is all of your work making Oakland smarter and stronger? I think of myself as a bridge between the big picture and the in-the-weeds work. I try to be a translator and liaison for these two worlds as best I can. I often see this type of translation needed in legislation and collaborative efforts; in theory something can be a great idea on paper, but in implementation it doesn’t quite look so nice.
I am privileged to sit at a number of tables working towards better support for children and families. My contribution in this work is to find opportunities in alignment of efforts and ensuring our conversations and strategies are centered with those we seek to serve. When I'm ever in doubt, I look internally…. If I’m not supporting my mission of creating equitable access for our children and families, I'm not doing the right work.