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Washington Area Women's Foundation

#AskHer Series: Chloe I. Edwards, Advocacy & Engagement Manager at Voices for Virginia’s Children

Our #AskHer series is an interview with our partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. This interview is with Chloe I. Edwards, Advocacy and Engagement Manager at Voices for Virginia’s Children. The interview was conducted by our President and CEO, Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat. Voices for Virginia’s Children is one of our Grantee Partners.

Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat: Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself and your role at Voices for Virginia’s Children?

Chloe Edwards: I have a long background in advocacy and have personally been impacted by all that I specialize in from foster care to kinship care to trauma-informed care and now social justice.

Prior to my work at Voices, I served as Director of Connecting Hearts, an organization with a mission to find each and every child a permanent, loving home through kinship care, re-unification, or adoption. I went into kinship foster care at the age of 14 with my grandparents. That experience influenced my desire to learn about the way in which systems impact people at the community and individual level. I went to the Minority Research and Law Institute at Southern University’s Law Center in 2013. In 2015, I graduated from Hollins University as an English Major with a double concentration in multi-cultural literature, creative writing, and social justice in an effort to highlight systemic issues through creative writing. In 2019, I graduated from the Sorensen Institute’s Political Emerging Leader’s Program. This year, I graduated with my Masters of Public Policy with a Leadership Concentration from Liberty University.

Currently, at Voices for Virginia’s Children, I serve as the Advocacy & Engagement Manager and specialize in cross-disciplinary issues. In my role, I practice policy analysis, advocacy, and outreach and engagement. In particular, I was hired to serve on the Campaign for a Trauma-Informed Virginia, where I liaise a feedback loop between local and regional partners and community networks to Voices policy team. The concentration of my work has been trauma-informed policy and practice; however, quite recently, the work has shifted to an intersection between trauma and equity through the launch of Racial Truth & Reconciliation Virginia.

At Voices, we are a multi-issue child advocacy organization, and we’re home to the Kids Count data center. We specialize in child welfare, mental health and health, early childhood education, family economic security, trauma-informed care, resilience, and research and data.

JLS: How has the work around trauma-informed care and racial truth shifted as a result of the pandemic?

CE: A lot has shifted in our work as a result of the pandemic, which is partially why Racial Truth and Reconciliation VA was born. Voices for Virginia’s Children achieved so many successes in the last General Assembly session, but all of that changed because of the present economic crisis. We shifted our attention to what we felt needed to be prioritized and protected rather than trying to advocate to keep all of our successes in each of our issue areas. That was the prominent change… we remain resilient as an organization, and we kept going.

In addition, we enhanced our capacity in order to work more at the federal level. We are a state advocacy organization, but many federal funds have came from the stimulus package—the CARES Act—so we’ve shifted our work to saving child care, prioritizing community-level prevention funds, stabilizing and investing in our child welfare workforce, telehealth, family economic security, and more.

Virginia also convened for session this August, which is an emergency session and is quite historic. Special Session introduced police reform bills and COVID-19 intervention amendments, but we also wanted to make sure children and families were prioritized and had their basic needs met.

Our trauma-informed care work completely shifted. In recognizing the inadvertent impacts of cultural, historic and racial trauma. Our work has shifted in an intentional manner and is further concentrated in the intersection of trauma and equity on a broader spectrum.

JLS: Special session – how does that process look different in terms of advocacy?

CE: It’s all been virtual. In a normal session there would be over 3,000 bills introduced. It wasn’t even a quarter of that in special session, so seeing fewer bills.

Our team has been working virtually currently. We’re not sure what the 2021 General Assembly session will look like… we do plan to introduce some advocacy trainings and to host advocacy days. We will let advocates know more once we know all the details of what the session will look like.

JLS: Can you talk a little bit about how the Racial Truth and Reconciliation Week came to be and the next steps?

CE: We recognized the inadvertent impact of COVID-19 on communities of color in addition to the resurfacing of the modern day civil rights movement. Many times, leaders of color are left to find the solution to the oppression that impacts us. I recognized that communities of color are underrepresented in the trauma-informed space and took it as opportunity to do an intentional temperature check with the Trauma-Informed Care networks that are particularly led by leaders of color, which there are five out of 26. After that conversation, we decided to respond. In May, we supported Resilience Week, which increased awareness of trauma on a broader spectrum. However, there is a general discomfort across the nation as it relates to addressing and understanding the inadvertent impact of cultural, historical, and racial trauma as a whole. Collectively, we wanted to be very intentional in focusing on those three traumas: cultural, historical, and racial. We came up with the mission and the goals of the week collectively. It’s truly a community-led initiative, and that’s how we came up with the mission to empower the voices and experiences of marginalized communities in acknowledging truth to promote healing, reconciliation and justice. The goal is to ultimately move the mission forward in pushing past the discomfort and biases that leave us complacent and to work collectively and communally to dismantle systems of oppression and racism at all levels, individual, community, and systemic, to enact authentic change.

We didn’t expect it to grow as large as it did, but it spread like wildfire. We wanted to involve the Governor’s office. We didn’t expect to gain support of his Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer with the little planning time we did have, but we were pleased to have Dr. Janice Underwood’s support.

We envisioned that individuals impacted by organization’s missions should be the loudest voices in the room, and that’s how we came up with the Give Us the Mic series between politicians and partners. We view youth as not leaders of tomorrow, but instead today, and that gave us the vision to bridge intergenerational gaps through the Our Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams series, the elder chats, and the youth-led Q&A with the Virginia Legislature Black Caucus.

There were over 50 community leaders engaged, 30+ events, 35+ partners in solidarity, the Facebook page grew to 850 followers in one week. Now it’s a longer-term initiative—Racial Truth and Reconciliation Virginia. With over 300 supporters so far through our Coalition listserv, and our Facebook page has over 950+ followers now. We have broadened our social media and can be found @RacialTruth on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Now we’re starting to structure our committees, which are: executive, advocacy & activism, education, engagement, and partnerships. We have co-chairs and chairs of each and are beginning the recruitment phase for committee members.

JLS: Can you say a little more about the Trauma-Informed Care Networks?

CE: My colleague, Mary Beth Salomone Testa and I, tag-team on a technical assistance through policy analysis in providing support to the Trauma-Informed Care Networks across the state. There are 26 multi-disciplinary networks with professionals from different fields across the state. Each year, we search for themes around best practices to implement trauma-informed care and challenges to the implementation of trauma-informed care and connect to policy opportunities and each policy analyst chooses one issue, and we create a unified policy agenda. The targeted demographic has been the Trauma-Informed Community Networks in order to create a unified policy agenda. We provide advocacy trainings and policy updates throughout the year and mobilize advocates during the General Assembly Session. The goal is to promote trauma prevention, mitigation, and intervention.

JLS: How is the racial truth work shifting and moving forward?

CE: We are describing Racial Truth & Reconciliation VA as the intentional evolution of the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Virginia. It further concentrates our efforts on the intersection of trauma and equity. Voices is implementing our strategic plan and working towards our organization’s equity transformation. One component  of the strategic plan is to empower those impacted by policy to ignite the change that they want to see in their communities.

With our equity transformation, each staff member has an equity component to their workplan in order to implement the work. Racial Truth naturally gives the organization the opportunity to have an opportunity to engage with the initiative across departments, at the board level to policy to data and development, through which we can analyze the way which we fundraise at Voices.

Through our action teams, we are broadening our reach, expanding demographics, and ensuring equity is at the center of all of our work, in order to ensure communities are authentically represented internally and externally.

We’ve created the committees for Racial Truth work: executive committee, partnerships committee, education committee, engagement committee, and advocacy and activism committee.

In terms of Voices policy initiatives, we plan to make racial equity impact statements within our areas of specialty and disciplines. In addition, when it comes to issues that Voices may not have an area of speciality, we are supporting the work of partner coalitions in order to still make stance. Lastly, through the work of Racial Truth & Reconciliation VA, we are creating partnerships with youth and family-serving organizations to provide advocacy and social change coaching in order to empower them to ignite change at, whether its systemic or social, local or state, or within the institutions that impact them.

JLS: What has Voices internal process been in terms of incorporating racial equity and how you’re operationalizing it across the organization?

CE: The components of the strategic plan include: 1. To promote effective child-centric statewide policies and laws 2. To empower local communities who guide laws and policies that affect the lives of children and families and 3. For equity to be centered in our work internally and externally.

Tactics affiliated with the first goal include educating public officials by expanding their knowledge of policies in order to address the needs of families and children through policy and data analysis to create equitable solutions. In our strategic planning process, we also communicated with stakeholders, who communicated that, while there is a need for state-level advocacy, there is room to further engage at the local-level to achieve local community empowerment. Our goal is to mobilize families and children to influence change in their communities.

Equity was the consistent theme across the board as a lens that can be applied internally and interdepartmentally effectively. An indicator at our KIDS COUNT Data Center highlights that 47% of children in Virginia are children of color. In order for Voices to adopt principles of equity in all of our programs, we are in the process of race equity transformation and have developed a race equity assessment plan to monitor our growth as an organization. We will use data as a guide to shape the internal race equity needs of our organization and adopt it to promote just and equitable outcomes for our staff in addition to the communities of color impacted by our mission. We hope other organizations can view us as an example and also model this within their organizations. It’s recommended that organizations begin this work internally in order for it to be done in an authentic way externally.

JLS: I’m curious, as we think through federal, state, and local budget cuts, how does this impact your advocacy and the need that you’re seeing in community, particularly when you’re working so hard to center the voices and experience of those most impacted so that they are front and center?

CE: We’re not quite sure what our 2021 advocacy agenda will look like because of the negotiations with the budget. But on one end, we have a lot of community members that are very excited, within the coalition particularly, to advocate on behalf of opportunity gaps that have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. Opportunities like new laws around food justice, police reform,  juvenile justice and increased support personnel in schools- the opportunities are exciting. However, limitations come with the economic impact of the pandemic.

We will likely be protecting a few items that, once again, need to be prioritized around child welfare prevention, family economic security, ensuring children have basic access to mental health and health services, and policies that promote trauma-prevention and equity. This may mean that we may not have as quite a robust policy agenda that we have had in the past. We also have to balance making sure that people who have been involved in marches and different advocacy initiatives still feel like they’re getting their voices heard and still feel like they’re creating a sense of community and solidarity around civil rights, particularly in racial justice. Simultaneously, we also have to work at the policy level to ensure that we’re connecting the needs of families and children’s basic needs to the policy opportunities and protecting those few policy opportunities that we may have because of the restricted budget.

This is also the last year of the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Virginia, and we’ll be transitioning to Racial Truth and Reconciliation Virginia. We’re having a joint advocacy day to connect the two different demographics: The Campaign for a Trauma-Informed VA: Racial Truth & Reconciliation Advocacy Day. The advocacy day will likely be virtual with traditional legislative meetings, but we are also having an in-person day to create that sense of community and solidarity; this will likely be held on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We are working on collaboration with partners to shape the day.

JLS: How are you doing today, and how is the team doing? How has the staff and the team at Voices transitioned to virtual work and how are you managing what we really call two pandemics—the racial reckoning as well as coronavirus? 

CE: That’s a very layered question. So, with the equity transformation, I’m hoping that other organizations can see Voices pursue the process and view it as an example. It’s hard work for the people of color impacted by a transformation and also the allies involved. It’s not easy. It’s not beautiful. It requires everyone to form an increased sense of self-awareness and mindfulness. All are encouraged to get comfortable with being uncomfortable; as a result, everyone has homework to do. All of this is also layered with the lived trauma that staff members of color have experienced and is further challenged  by external factors, today’s modern civil rights movement. For many of us, this has created even more work, because the needs of families and children have been further exacerbated. I’d say that our team is very resilient. We are all very passionate about Voices mission to champion public policies to improve the lives of Virginia’s children. That ambition and the desire to make an impact has definitely kept us moving forward. The goal is to consecutively and consistently move the mission forward.

Find out more about Voices for Virginia’s Children on their website.