In June 2013, a “still jet-lagged” Hillary Clinton addressed the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting in Chicago—her first major appearance since stepping down as U.S. secretary of state four months earlier.
She announced that early-childhood development, “which ha[s] been close to my heart my entire adult life,” would be part of her portfolio at the philanthropy, now that she had entered private life.
Clinton’s time as a private citizen was brief. But the initiative she launched at that meeting——continues its work, focused on encouraging parents to see themselves as their children’s first teachers and enlisting such partners as hospitals, television writers, playground developers, and city-based philanthropies. In the case of a Clinton victory in next month’s presidential election, Too Small to Fail’s profile could rise even higher by virtue of its focus on domestic issues. Former President Bill Clinton has said the foundation would stop taking foreign money if his wife were to become president. The foundation’s high-profile international work would spin off to other organizations, leaving its focus on issues within the borders of the United States.
“Healthy kids and loving families need no economic justification. That’s what everyone should want and work for,” Hillary Clinton said at that 2013 meeting, in a speech that was seen as laying the foundation for future political aspirations.
“But ask yourself: If we don’t apply what we know to helping our kids to the best of their abilities, to take their role in our country and the world, are we really going to be able maintain the American dream?”
Too Small to Fail is a joint project between the foundation andin Berkeley, Calif. The Opportunity Institute is a nonprofit spinoff of Next Generation, a San Francisco-based policy and communications organization that was the original partner with the Clinton Foundation on the initiative.
Funding for Too Small to Fail comes from the two organizations. The operating expenses are handled by the Clinton Foundation and in 2014 were a portion of a $13.8 million line item for “other programs.” The Opportunity Institute, as a new organization, is still in the process of compiling income and expenses for the Internal Revenue Service. Next Generation, the former Too Small to Fail partner, spent about $5 million on child and family issues in 2014, which included both Too Small to Fail and California-focused work.
At 3 years old, the initiative is young—but it has developed an extensive strategy to envelop families in the message that talking, reading, and singing to their young children, from birth, is essential.
“We were influenced by new brain-science research” and about the critical role that parents play in their children’s early development, said Patti Miller, who co-directs Too Small to Fail from the foundation side. Ann O’Leary, a senior policy adviser to the Clinton campaign, was Too Small to Fail’s first director at the foundation.
Kara Dukakis, who directs Too Small to Fail efforts for The Opportunity Institute, said “that evolved pretty quickly to involve the role of communities. How can we weave into the fabric of communities these opportunities to engage in these activities?”
Marketing Their Efforts
Borrowing terms used in politics and in advertising, the initiative has organized its work around an “air game"—mass media messaging—and a “ground game,” or person-to-person efforts. The Clinton Foundation oversees more of the marketing effort, while the Opportunity Institute has focused on some of the partnerships with various groups that work directly with families.
Too Small to Fail, a 3-year-old initiative of the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and the Opportunity Institute, provides information and tools to encourage caregivers to talk, sing, and read to their children. Among its projects:
Pequeños y Valiosos
(Young and Valuable)
A campaign that focuses on Hispanic families by showing literacy-enrichment public-service announcements on Univision.
At the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland’s primary-care clinic in California, pediatricians deliver messages about early brain development at well-baby visits, along with tote bags full of tools for parents to take home. In 2016, the initiative started delivering information on early math development as well.
‘Kids and Family’ Spotify Channel
In August 2016, Spotify, the music and video streaming service, relaunched its Kids Category, called Kids and Family, with help from the initiative, which provided information and research on early-childhood education and expertise on early brain and language development.
Five thousand coin laundries nationwide are distributing early-literacy activity/coloring pages and parent tip sheets. They also feature posters outlining language-development tips.
The initiative has collaborated with Hollywood writers and producers to incorporate literacy and language-development information into prime-time network and cable programming, including “Law & Order: SVU,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Orange Is the New Black,” and “The Fosters.”
Source: Too Small to Fail
For the air game, “how do we reach parents where they are?” Miller said. One important connection was considered to be through television. So initiative leaders met with television writers and producers to ask them if they would consider embedding messages about talking, reading, and singing in popular television shows.
That led to scenes such as in “Orange Is the New Black,” when the character Maria Ruiz tells her taciturn boyfriend he has to talk to their baby to help with her development. He surprises Maria by chatting with the baby during a prison visit. “Mommy’s staying right here, so we can see her, kiss her, and tell her all about our day,” he says.
Similar messages have also been incorporated into other prime-time programming, such as “Law & Order: SVU,” “Jane the Virgin,” and “Criminal Minds.”
Another focus of this work has been a partnership with Univision, a public-service campaign called “Pequeños y Valiosos,” or “Young and Valuable.” The campaign features announcements and other events aimed at a Spanish-speaking audience. Celebrity mothers have also participated in English-language PSAs.
The ground game encourages parental interaction through “trusted messengers” and “high-quality tools,” such as books and other materials that encourage parents to use every opportunity to interact with their children, said Dukakis, with The Opportunity Institute.
That has meant renovating or building playgrounds that have brightly colored prompts for parents to talk to their children about shapes or colors.
The messaging has extended to other places not commonly associated with literacy, such as coin laundries. Too Small to Fail joined with a pre-existing initiative in Arkansas to offer story time at laundromats, where parents often bring their families and that have a lot of forced downtime.
Vicki Collet, an assistant education professor at the University of Arkansas, was the co-founder of the Laundry & Literacy Project in northwest Arkansas, which started in 2011. The foundation enlisted her help as an adviser for an expanded project called Wash Time Is Talk Time, which provided colorful signs and coloring sheets to interested coin-laundry owners.
“One benefit from our collaboration is that [Too Small to Fail] is really good at pulling together a lot of resources,” Collet said. For example, the foundation was able to get a publisher to donate books to distribute to children.
Enlisting Medical Partners
Another effort has been centered at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, a children’s hospital in California.
Susan Greenwald, the manager of community-partnership programs for the hospital, said the organization was already involved with the nonprofit Reach Out and Read, but that partnership was limited to the hospital’s primary-care facility.
“That had not had as much of a hospitalwide impact,” Greenwald said. “What we tried to do with Too Small to Fail is to see how we could promote the theme hospitalwide.”
Visitors to the hospital now can see prompts everywhere similar to the ones used on the playgrounds and in the coin laundries, encouraging parents to talk to children. The hospital also distributes books, T-shirts, and other learning materials during well-baby visits.
Greenwald says that public-information campaigns like that are not new. This effort attempts to take all the science and boil it down to one message: “Talking is teaching.”
“This is more like the ‘back to sleep’ campaign, or when we try to educate people to stop smoking or about immunization. It’s reaching a broad group of people with a very simple message,” Greenwald said.
Too Small to Fail, unlike other early-childhood advocacy organizations, has not gone beyond this message to press for political changes in policies. But advisory board member Dana Suskind, the founder and director of theinitiative, said that focusing on literacy and closing the “word gap” between affluent and lower-income children means investing in parents as well.
“Parents can build their children’s brain without a doubt, but they can’t do it without the right supports,” said Dr. Suskind, who learned of the importance of talk though her work as a cochlear-implant surgeon. “This is a strong mandate that we have to invest in families.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2016 edition of Education Week as Literacy Program Reflects Clinton Policy Agenda