Inside Napa Valley 

Winter-Spring 2021

By Tracy Skelton 

What are the needs and inequities emerging from the pandemic that are affecting Napa County’s young children and their families? What do our community’s children need right now? These were the questions circling at First 5 Napa county as life-as-we-knew-it came quickly to a halt in the spring of 2020.

Within weeks of shelter in place orders, the nonprofit child advocacy organization pivoted to leverage its county-wide First 5 Napa Network in order to begin a community-wide dialogue that has continued ever since.

Although it was tempting to go straight to what was perceived as “the problems” created by the pandemic and offer “solutions,” First 5 Napa Executive Director Joelle Gallagher and her staff of three were prepared to take a different approach. They went directly to families with young children and conducted a survey to find out how the pandemic was affecting their lives. Over 300 families participated.

“We wanted to hear from parents and to hear people’s stories,” Gallagher explained. “The goal was to understand the community’s real needs, not just needs based on assumptions.”

The survey revealed that priorities and needs differed in Napa County based on race. It also revealed inequities such as information access issues.

Gallagher described entire families relying on one cellphone, making it difficult to manage schooling and other information needs. Childcare for families was also a worry.

Concerned about such inequities going overlooked, First 5 Napa drafted a report summarizing its findings and distributed it directly to local elected representatives- including the Board of Supervisors and City Council members – as well as many other diverse members of the community. Consequently, when local leaders decided how to spend pandemic-related resources and funding, the survey results were available to help inform the process.

“I read the survey and attended the virtual meeting going over the results, I found it to be very informative,” said Mary Luros, Napa City Councilmember. “Their survey showed that childcare continues to be a struggle for families, and many providers are concerned about their ability to remain in business and support working families.”

First 5 Napa’s response to the pandemic was a reflection of the organization’s radical new way of approaching its work in the community. Although First 5 Napa has been a fixture in the county for over two decades – created following the passage of Proposition 10 in 1998 – there was recognition that it was not seeing big changes from its efforts.

“We were doing it in the traditional way, funding programs and wok being done in the community,” explained Elba Gonzalez-Mares, chair of the First 5 Napa County Children and Families Commission, which oversees the work of First 5 Napa, “but the needle was not moving very much.”

Gonzalez-Mares recalled that First 5 Napa’s founding director was retiring in early 2017, just as the Commission was ready to enter a new phase focused on systems-level change.

“We knew we wanted to go in that direction,” said Gonzalez-Mares but the Commission was unsure about implementing the change: “What does that involve? How do you do that work? And what is the role of First 5 in doing that work?”

The Commission then hired Joelle Gallagher as Executive Director. “Joelle brought us the tools to define the issues and areas we want to tackle. She put us at the forefront of the work, because of her leadership.”

To make the big, system-level changes the commission sought, First 5 Napa started with itself. Shortly after her arrival as Executive Director, Gallagher attended a one-week immersion course at Stanford to learn an emerging technique for understanding and improving social systems known as “human-centered design.” It is a process that enables organizations to intentionally connect with community members in order to hear people’s stories and allow the information gathered to guide social system changes.

“It is about really being curious: what is it about your story that can tell us something about our system that needs to be addressed?” explained Gonzalez-Mares. After returning from the workshop, Gallagher presented human-centered design tot eh Commission. “She came back tot eh Commission saying: ‘This is how we want to do this. This is how to do the work.’” Gonzalez-Mares recalled. “I was sold.”

“Human-centered design is reverberating throughout the state. Napa County Frist 5 is working in parallel with First 5 California, which is taking a similar approach,” explained Gallagher. Central to First 5 Napa’s human-centered design approach is equity. Equity for children and families is described in First 5 California’s Strategic Plan, 2019-2024, as a touchstone value from which all other values emanate. By teaching and applying human-centered design on a broad scale, Gallagher seeks to identify the inequities embedded in the community in order to directly address them. “We seek to call out the inequities in our community and do the work to repair them.”

Gallagher soon had her staff trained in human-centered design, then set her sights on the Napa County community to begin the First 5 Napa Network.

“We are not just working within the childcare or preschool community,” said Gallagher. “We all have a stake in our children’s wellbeing.” The concepts of inclusion, equity, and community interconnectedness run deep at First 5 Napa and informs all of the work that it does. Recruiting community members for the first cohort of the Network was no exception. Diversity – of gender, race, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation – was a key goal in order to achieve representation from an authentic cross-section of the county. Once recruited, the group- named Cohort 1- was brought together and taught the framework of human-centered design through a series of meetings and workshops. Gallagher described this as “embedding the human-design process into the community,” akin to planting seeds, so that human-centered and equity-centered work can enter into eh processes of other local community-based organizations.  Next, Cohort 1 was presented with a set of challenges that had emerged from community data sets and experts in the early childhood realm.

Cohort 1 members then began a months-long dialogue – among themselves and with the community – to seek authentic, creative solutions to the identified challenges.

“It was a radical experiment in approaching the work from a very different lens,” reflected Gallagher. No one knew what they would find or what solutions would emerge. “The work is very organic and very intentional at the same time.”

As Cohort 1 began collaborating in early 2019, the equity work began to take shape. Rainbow Action Network (“RAN”) emerged as a design project from Cohort 1, with the intention of addressing the experiences of LGBTQ parents and LGBTQ youth in the community who were reporting that they did not feel connected, heard or understood when accessing services. Conversations with LGBTQ families sought strategies for helping to build connection and empowerment. What emerged was a Rainbow Play Date in June of 2019, celebrating Pride Month and building connection among LGBTQ families and the greater community. The event was so well received that RAN playdates continued- now virtually – with funding from First 5 Napa, as a platform for diverse family gatherings.

Leading up to June of 2019, RAN also lobbied the city of Napa to fly the rainbow flag in celebration of Pride Month. The intention was the build visibility and support for the LGBTQ community and their families, as well as to show inclusion for all marginalized groups in the county.

“The movement that occurred behind raising the rainbow flag brough in members from other marginalized communities; people who also want a sense of belonging and respect in the community,” reflected Gonzalez-Mares. “I’m glad we had that moment. The rainbow flag belongs to all of us.”

In total, seven rainbow flags flew at City Halls and county office locations and four ordinances were passed to fly the flag every June.

Today, RAN is developing and distributing Rainbow Kits for Early Childhood Education to provide preschools with gender-inclusive materials.

“The kits contain ‘everything a classroom needs to be LGBTQ and gender inclusive,” said Anne Sutkowi-Hemstreet, Community Programs Manager at First 5 Napa and Director of RAN. Training is also available for teachers through the program.

“Feeling that you belong in a community protects from the sense of isolation that can lead to serious health problems, for kids and adults,” said Sutkowi-Hemstreet. “The Rainbow Action Network is about inclusion and celebrating diversity.”

After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, RAN was used as a prototype for supporting social and racial justice initiatives, including Black Lives Matter. RAN used its platform to send out “calls to action” across its expanding community network. For eight consecutive weeks, RAN hosted Chalk for Justice as a kid-friendly, peaceful protest opportunity to calk walkways around the county in artistic and creative ways to promote inclusivity.

In June of 2020, RAN, with the hacking of First 5 Napa Network, successfully pushed the city of Napa to support a resolution identifying systemic racism and discrimination as a public health crisis. First 5 Napa views the resolution as a concrete way to hold the city accountable for future funding and spending. Discussions continue with the city and civic leaders about how to convert the resolution into action.

“First 5 is willing to have uncomfortable conversations to make change,” said Sutkowi-Hemstreet. “all of our work is committed to early childhood, even if solutions benefit other groups, such as older children or adults.”

Building on the success of Cohort 1, a new group of diverse community leaders were recruited to launch Cohort 2 in early 2020. The pandemic quickly halted in-person meetings, but the Network switched gears to move online and continue on, aware of emerging pressing inequities revealed by the pandemic.

“With the pandemic, equity is just staring everyone in the face,” said Gallagher, adding, “of course, inequity is highlighted by the pandemic and racism.” The decision was also made to integrate Cohort 1 members into Cohort 2 in order to collaborate on two emerging initiatives: community mental health and anti-racist parenting.

“Cohort 2 decided to do short projects that are pandemic-related, involving members of both cohorts,” said Jeni Olsen, Prevention Director of Mentis and the lead on the mental health initiative.

In order to center the work, the cohort began with open-minded “empathy interviews” with local parents of young children. Therapists who work with young families were also interviewed. Olsen and her team her team used the information from interviews to direct their work, resulting in the launch of virtual “wellness Cafes.” The cafes provided space for parents to connect with one another and talk with a child development expert who shared advice and answered questions. The facilitators also provided parent with information about community resources, should anyone wish to receive formal mental health support.

Although some Wellness Cafes had to be postponed due tot eh 2020 fires, two were successfully help in late fall of 2020, one in English and one in Spanish. Olsen anticipates the work shifting again after cohort members have the opportunity to convene and reflect on what was learned from the community through the Wellness Cafes.

“The goal of the work is really to create support within the community for parents with young children, so they don’t feel so alone. Supporting parents results in supporting their children and results in better outcomes for the children throughout their lives,” Olsen explained.

She cited the Center for Disease Control and Prevention – Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study which shows hat as a child’s number of “adverse childhood experiences” go up (for example, experiencing violence, abuse or neglect), so does that child’s risk of negative, long-term health impacts.

“If we can step in as community leaders and help our children get a head start early in life, the better health outcomes they will have and the stronger community we will have,” said Olsen.

The anti-racist parenting initiative was routed through RAN and, after interviews with a diverse group of parents, manifested as parenting kits prototyped over the summer of 2020. The anti-racist parenting kits included books and directed materials aimed at providing families with young children the tools to talk about race and bias.

James Thompson known by his initials, JT, joined the First 5 Napa Network as a mental health professional and member of Cohort 2. Thompson knows from personal experience that children as early as four years old can compare skin color with judgment. Thompson believes that the work of First 5 can help motivate families to talk about race and how it be anti-racist.

“it is super important that this gets out into the community,” he said. “Education has to start when kids are young- the younger the better.”

With the first round of prototypes completed, Sutkowi-Hemstreet described an evolving project based on ongoing dialogue between cohort members and the community about how best to present the materials and support parents. “It’s a hard conversation no matter what,” she said. “Almost everyone was excited to have directed materials.”

In addition to assisting fellow cohort members with anti-racist parenting kits, Thompson, in collaboration with First 5 Napa, spearheaded the Napa Strong Enough campaign in response to George Floyd’s death in May of 2020. The campaign produces yard signs stating, “Napa Strong Enough to stand up to racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, transphobia.”

Thompson is optimistic that the message will have a ripple effect.

“I had this idea,” reflected Thompson, “after the fires in 2017 there were ‘Napa’s Strong Enough’ signs; if Napa is strong enough to handle the fires, then Napa is strong enough to fight these other things – race and gender inequality- as well. I feel like, through personal experience, I can see the micro-aggressions, the soft racism. We need to intervene at a macro-level.”

The Napa Strong Enough campaign communicates: “this is what we stand for and what we stand against.” Most recently Thompson and First 5 Napa unveiled “We Welcome” business signs for local Napa County businesses and organizations to place in windows to show they are anti-racist and inclusive. Commitment cards are provided with the window sign, providing businesses with recommendations for embodying the message.

With two cohorts now trained in human-centered design and a third in the recruitment stage, First 5 Napa and the Commission are seeing its vision for system-level change take hold. Each member of the cohort is now part of Napa’s First 5 Network, linking community leaders together as collaborators and allies to advocate for a diverse, equitable and inclusive Napa County.

Thompson described it as a spider web effect.

“First 5 has offered the experience of gathering with folks who have the same dreams and visons for the Napa community. Relationships are key to this whole thing. We have a network to work within as things come up in the community.” Thompson added, “There’s going to be a lot to come from First 5 that will have a major influence on the community.”

Gonzalez-Mares agrees. “This is where the answers are- with the people.”

More information about First 5 is available at For more information about any of the programs mentioned in this article – including signing up for RAN newsletters, ordering Napa Strong Enough sign, or expressing interest in joining a future First 5 Napa Network cohort- email Anne Sutkowi-Hemstreet at