Evidence Can Help Transform Lives


December 29, 2014


I recently reminded supporters of the Black Parent Initiative (BPI)—a community-based, “culturally specific” nonprofit in Portland that I co-founded—that their actions empower a parent just down the street, protect a child who sits next to theirs in school, and make the community in which we all live stronger. Madeleine Leininger, a nursing expert, defined culturally specific organizations as those in which programming is designed to preserve and instill historical values that contribute to optimal health and well-being, and reorder, change, or greatly modify behaviors or practices that are harmful/detrimental. Through our work, BPI assists the parents of black children make sure their kids grow up healthy, educated, and prepared for life.

I am often asked why we are called the “black” parent initiative. Why is black important? What does the name communicate? I believe that culturally specific nonprofits such as ours are uniquely positioned to promote better academic outcomes for children of color and break the cycle of poverty while addressing traumas caused by past history. Our staff has the empathy, skill, and contextual knowledge necessary to develop trust and deliver services that are well received and put to positive use.

Are we succeeding in our mission? Yes. In 2013–14, we provided nearly 500 hours of engagement to 24 teen parents, served nearly 400 new families through our Parent University events, and hosted symposia for nearly 300 parents. More than 90 percent of the parents attending the symposia rated the information and resources we provided positively and said that they were likely to use that information in their parenting. I know these things because BPI partnered with Education Northwest, a local nonprofit organization that provides evaluation and technical assistance, to track data on our services. BPI staff meets monthly with our colleagues at Education Northwest to review and make sense of the data. These meetings and the data allow us to make program improvements. But, as useful as this help is, it is not enough.

As do many other nonprofit leaders, I struggle with the fact that our organization is underfunded. We don’t have enough resources to provide services adequately—let alone undertake the level of comprehensive data gathering and analysis and rigorous evaluation that would allow us the opportunity to clearly establish how our approach differs from a white parenting organization that serves black parents.

I have concluded that organizations like ours can do more, but we cannot necessarily do better without more and stronger evidence—and the capacity to use it well. We need evaluators to partner with us and our community experts to figure out whether our services, which are often based on our cultural knowledge and personal life lessons, truly work and are having impact, and how we might do better by altering our actions. We also need funders to support our increased internal capacity to use data and research. I know I need that type of support, and I believe my nonprofit colleagues need it as well.

Oregon nonprofits focused on empowering parents, children, and youth should rejoice that Governor Kitzhaber has announced a budget request that makes a serious investment in meeting the educational needs of many in our communities. I know I do. I applaud his leadership as well as those of our legislative leaders. I also recognize the deep commitment I’ve seen from local funders to support culturally specific providers. But, I often worry that many culturally specific programs do not have adequate resources to fully invest in clearly articulating what separates us from our white counterparts.

Policymakers and foundations are beginning to recognize that culturally specificity is critical in the delivery of effective services. I hope they will invest in our ability to fully study our approach. Daily, I feel an obligation to provide the highest quality, most effective services to the parents and children we serve. So, I want our services to get better over time. Evidence can help me get there. I urge the legislature and funders to invest in data use and evaluation services and partnerships that work with organizations such as mine to ensure a bright future for each and every child in Oregon.