Voices that Matter

I recently attended a convening sponsored by the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC), Joining Forces (which is coming up to its first anniversary) and the US Department of Education.  The event was designed to identify a series of immediately implementable solutions to some of the challenges vexing military-connected children.

These young people confront a plethora of issues when one or both of their parents are in the armed services, including frequent moves causing academic and psycho-social disruption, parental absence for extended periods, and loss of or injury to a parent. We know there are more than a million school-aged children of current service members and many more whose parents served post 9-11, making a focus on military-connected children a responsibility we owe to our military families who have served our nation with honor.  It is an issue on which the US Department of Education has been focused, including encouraging the Interstate Compact that facilitates student transition from one school to another across state boarders.

The convening was led by Patty Shinseki, a member of the MCEC Science Advisory Board and wife Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, and Dr. Mary Keller, President of MCEC, both of whom ensured that the proceedings stayed on task and on target.  Also in attendance were a wide variety of committed, visionary senior stakeholders, all engaged in finding quality solutions.  In short, there was real talent in the room being leveraged to help military-connected children.

What was most powerful to me throughout the day, though, were voices of those needing our help — the children of military families.

The program commenced with two high school aged military-connected children on stage reading a script that revealed the array of struggles experienced by children of military families.  They described the common challenges military-connected children face when the family moves and parents deploy.  Then, there was a video, with military-connected children sharing their stories.   There were drawings done by children of military families in the meeting rooms where we worked. There were also copies of ON THE MOVE, the official magazine of MCEC, in the program packets, containing photos of military-connected children and, among other articles, a description of the MCEC student art displayed at the Department of Education in 2011.

But, the real way in which military-connected children’s voices were heard was in the suggestions that emanated from each adult group grappling with solutions.  As we strategized, every group’s final suggestions addressed the critical need to listen to the children of military families — to understand what they are experiencing and what suggestions they might have to address their situations.  For example, there was strong group support for use of social media and new apps to link military-connected children who had moved to the teachers and students they had known in their prior school.  Who better to design a prototype for such an app than military-connected children, including perhaps through a contest, including one with a prize attached?

Stated simply, the day was energized by a willingness to listen to the voices of those experiencing the effects of having a military parent – the voices of military-connected children.

There is a broader lesson here, too.  We are often tempted to come up with well-meaning solutions to the many problems we see in our world.  To be sure, these solutions are often informed by deep years of experience, academic literature and empirical assessment.   But, it is well worth pausing to remember, as the Dean of Students at the college I led kept reminding me, that the best source for information and solutions can often be found by listening to those experiencing the problems we seek to remediate.  We just need to create listening opportunities and then listen well and carefully. And, when we do, our solutions will stand a vastly better chance of demonstrating measurable positive outcomes.

Karen Gross is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Department of Education