WEPOWER Thinking Bigger for Kids

When WEPOWER was awarded a $150,000 Think Big for Kids grant by YouthBridge in 2020, it was an investment in change. Change led by communities of color for communities of color in the system disparities that are limiting their potential to thrive. “The funding has been transformational,” says Charli Cooksey, WEPOWER Founder and CEO. “At the same time, YouthBridge has proven themselves more than a funder, but a real champion of our work.”

Founded in 2018, WEPOWER supports everyday people, through leadership and action programs, with advocating for education, healthcare and economic policy changes that will ensure systems are just and equitable for all. The grant has helped the organization build out its infrastructure, including hiring key staff and growing a dynamic Board of Directors. Cooksey says YouthBridge CEO Barbara Carswell also will show up at WEPOWER events and had a hand in designing The Playbook, an action plan to transform early childhood education in the region, by providing a funder’s perspective. “We need more philanthropy leaders like YouthBridge to walk alongside us,” she says.

Cooksey describes WEPOWER’s greatest strength as rallying and activating leaders, providers, parents and community members around “tangible solutions for broken systems.” Recognizing the lack of affordable, high-quality early childhood education (ECE) through the public school systems in St. Louis City and County, WEPOWER successfully mobilized more than 1,000 individuals and organizations to create an 84-page action plan, The Playbook, to help increase access and quality.

“There is so much research telling us that early childhood programs not only prepare our children for kindergarten, but for life. The first five years of life forms the essence of who we are and how we function as human beings for the rest of our lives,” says Cooksey. Yet, she says, ECE is not a viable option for many low-income communities of color, stemming from a lack of investment in what many still view as childcare or babysitting. “ECE simply isn’t treated as a professional industry and therefore is woefully underfunded and fragmented, without quality standards and oversight. Lack of funding also makes it difficult to attract and keep high-quality teachers.”

The Playbook, she says, provides recommendations to improve ECE funding and access, quality, workforce development, governance and coordination, and family wellbeing. It’s been shared with parents, providers and local officials and, so far, has resulted in the establishment of the Gateway Early Childhood Alliance, a regional coordinator who will advocate for ECE as a priority, develop a set of standards and create a centralized data hub for the ECE community. The plan also served as the catalyst for a ballot measure that passed last year which will raise an estimated $2.3 million each year for ECE programs and services, prioritizing St. Louis City children and families with the highest need.

“There is power in the collective we, and we build momentum around solutions by building relationships with system providers, policy and decision makers, and with each other,” says Cooksey. “It’s how grassroots movements are born and can effect lasting change.”

If you would like to donate or have any questions about this organization, please contact Allison McDonald.