Ascend-ing the Mountain in Aspen: Early Childhood, Health, and Beyond


“I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American.” – President Barack Obama

Base Camp. Aspen Institute trustee Mike Bezos opened Ascend’s forum on Early Childhood, Health, and Beyond by saying, “Ascend is shining a new light on two-generation approaches.” A policy program of the Aspen Institute, Ascend is the national hub for cross-sector and cross-issue leaders working to move forward two-generation approaches. Two-generation approaches are a response to the growing economic inequality facing our nation; they provide opportunities for and meet the needs of children and their parents together. This first gathering of new Ascend Network partners convened diverse leaders from the early childhood field, mental health specialists, philanthropists, brain science researchers, health and workforce policy experts, and parents—creating the conditions for innovative thinking in the idyllic setting that is the Aspen Institute campus in Colorado. Ascend Network partners Marni Roosevelt of Los Angeles Valley College Family Resource Center, Sandra Gutierrez of Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, and Lorelie Atalie Vargas of ANDRUS described how the core components of two-generation approaches play out in practice, as each of their organizations work to move children and their parents toward increased education, economic security, social capital, and health and well-being.

Camp 1: Parent Voices. At Ascend, we believe the voices and perspectives of families are central—and the starting place for good program design and policy development. Thus, the highlight of the first evening was a dynamic panel of parents, who shared their powerful stories of creating a legacy of economic security for themselves and their children (teaser: stay tuned to hear from these inspiring parents—Monique Rizer, Eloisa Duarte, and Benzel Jimmerson— on the Ascend blog soon!). 

Camp 2: Research and Practice. We moved from parent voices to practitioner perspectives, examining new research findings from a survey on two-generation approaches in communities conducted by the University of Michigan, developed in partnership with Ascend and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. This led up to a thought-provoking research and practice discussion (complete with brain imaging!) on the impact of toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences on child development. Participants then “boarded the train” around the mountain with four stops at sessions on key design elements of successful two-generation programs: 1) segmentation, 2) high-touch support, 3) partnerships, and 4) data-driven design. Over lunch, participants were wowed by the latest research on science-driven parent engagement and brain-building moments from the dynamic duo of Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute and Jackie Bezos, who leads the Bezos Family Foundation.

Camp 3: Policy. From practice, we moved into creative discussions on the potential for federal, tribal, state, and local policies to help scale and support two-generation approaches. Participants learned about two-generation state policy innovations in recently introduced legislation in Connecticut and Colorado, as well as the potential for two-generation policy impact in Montana—looking across a range of policy issues including child care, unemployment insurance, and other social welfare policies. An analysis of health policy as a lever for two-generation approaches followed, building on a working paper developed by Ascend partner National Academy for State Health Policy and focused on the Affordable Care Act’s role in supporting two-generation family outcomes.

The Summit: Top 10 for 2-Gen. The forum culminated with a blue-sky discussion about Ascend’s working paper on policy ideas to advance two-generations efforts, which we call the Top 10 for 2-Gen. These ideas cut across policies from Head Start to the Child Care and Development Block Grant to home visiting to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, financial aid for student parents, mental health, and more. With such a diverse and dynamic group of leaders around the table, the Top 10 sparked another 50 ideas! There is much to distill and synthesize, as we work our way down the mountain and back to sea level. Our charge is to work with the Ascend Network to move the creative ideas and thinking from the forum into action, with the ultimate goal of a brighter future for children, parents, and families across the nation. To track the Ascend Network’s progress and to learn more, follow us on Twitter @aspenascend or visit our website.