At the Heart of Family Learning: Promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion through family leadership

Greetings to our community members! Past blog posts of my monthly column have focused on defining a Family Learning System and how building coordinated and aligned systems of family literacy, family engagement, and family leadership create pathways for families to find educational success and economic prosperity. This month, I’ll explore family leadership, one of the three components within a Family Learning System, in greater detail.

Graphic with Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith's headshot and a red ribbon in the shape of a heart. The text reads At the Heart of Family Learning with Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

NCFL sees assets in every parent and caregiver and strengths in every family. When traditional stakeholders in a community—leaders in schools, government, nonprofits, etc.—are working to address challenges, families must have a share of the leadership. Challenges within communities are best solved by those who are closest to and experiencing those issues. Family leadership programs are designed to support parenting adults and caregivers with knowledge and skills to build confidence in themselves as leaders in their communities. 

A system for family learning should be a community agenda designed to support families across a number of equity domains including education, economic opportunity, neighborhoods and infrastructure, justice and government, and public health. The ultimate purpose of family leadership programs is to encourage parenting adults to use what they learn in the program to become engaged advocates contributing to equitable and thriving communities. This, in turn, activates their leadership skills in ways they may not have ever imagined.

In February, NCFL announced a three-year initiative that brings together parents of young children and early childhood practitioners to develop inclusive and equitable early childhood programs in communities across the country. In order to address the persistent equity issues facing Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) this initiative seeks to elevate voices in the BIPOC community which are oftentimes underrepresented on key issues within early childhood education. The Activate! National Network is a strong example of a family leadership program establishing a new norm in the field. Our approach to pairing parenting adults with organization leaders and practitioners has created inclusive spaces that support racial equity, shared leadership, and learning. By bringing these key groups together to advance early education practice and policy, we are carrying out a dual capacity-building approach—the “gold standard” for creating effective partnerships between parenting adults and practitioners. 

Last fall, I had the pleasure of attending the kick off of the first Activate! National Network cohort. The conversations and presentations by parents were a stark reminder that the solutions to barriers and challenges within communities are among the people in these communities. Every family has expertise, assets, and strengths to contribute. Equitable family leadership means a commitment to co-design, ensuring that we have family voices at the table to unite, elevate, and incorporate the knowledge, strengths, and lived experiences of those furthest from opportunity. 

Photo of Activate! National Network participants at the kickoff convening in November 2021
Activate! National Network participants at the kickoff convening in November 2021.

Family Learning Systems, which include family leadership as a fundamental component, help establish systems of support for parents and caregivers in communities that are designed to meet the needs of our youngest learners and their caregivers. Families facing the greatest external and structural barriers to engagement are still being left behind because current family engagement opportunities may not be accessible or relevant to them. Often, many strategies are designed and implemented without input from the families for which they are intended. 

Hence, the Activate! National Network, which flips the script and combats these issues by centering BIPOC family leadership, representation, and advocacy. NCFL is committed to a transformational process to reimagine early learning systems with parents and caretakers as equal partners in the work. I look forward to watching this network grow and guide conversations around effective policy considerations and practices to be implemented at the local level.

If your program or community is interested in supporting families by offering family leadership programming, please contact us at

For more information:

The Activate! National Network is generously funded by W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the PNC Foundation in support of its early childhood education initiative, PNC Grow Up Great®. Read more about the Activate! National Network leadership program here.

Learn more about NCFL’s 60×30 Campaign by exploring my previous blog posts


Dr. Felicia Cumings Smith

A lifelong educator and national thought leader for teaching and learning, Dr. Felicia C. Smith brings decades of valuable experience to advance NCFL’s mission of working to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families. Having served in a variety of leadership roles in P-12, higher education, nonprofit, and philanthropy, her career has allowed her to experience leading systems and develop a unique vantage point of a learner’s educational trajectory from preschool to adulthood. Smith holds an Ed.D. in education leadership and administration from the University of Kentucky, and an M.A. in elementary education with an emphasis on K-12 literacy development and B.S. in elementary education from the University of Louisville. 

Follow Dr. Felicia C. Smith on Twitter and LinkedIn.