Wendy Sims-Moten: It seems appropriate to be talking to Jon Clark, president of the James S. Bower Foundation, as we end this year’s Talk, Read, Sing campaign with all of our trusted agency partners. The James S. Bower Foundation has made a sustained investment in early childhood care and education over many years. What led the trustees to make this decision?

Jon Clark: Actually, that started with our board chair. Decades ago, Harvey Bottelsen visited Bali. Being a perceptive person, he noticed the children there were different from what he was used to, and he started looking into why that was. What he found were that child-rearing practices in Bali were dramatically different from in the United States and were very intentional. That began his personal journey into the vast potential that exists in our youngest humans, way before it was a “thing.” As the foundation came into its current form, the board explored that topic and decided that the best time to invest in human potential was as early as you can. Our secret motto is “earlier.”

As the foundation became more active, early childhood was becoming a more serious topic of discussion. A combination of brain imaging and more social science research made very clear the difference that a loving and caring early experience — or, conversely, a traumatic one — made on the core physiology of young children and their outcomes over time. People started to realize that, as a society, we have drastically undervalued these early years and were paying the price for it.

While this was emerging in a lot of fields, it seemed to be most connected in a comprehensive way to the concept of school readiness, and that conversation was bringing together people who hadn’t connected their work before. There were a number of people in Santa Barbara ready to take up the challenge of how we could make a difference on school readiness on a neighborhood and community level, which is just what we were looking for, so we jumped in.

WSM: What factors affect your decision to give financial support?

JC: In some ways, you have to think small to think big. Compared to this or any societal challenge, the amount of private philanthropic resources available are tiny, so you have to look at ways to leverage limited capital to have an impact. For us, this means you look at ways to influence systems. That might mean a school system, a medical system, or it might mean a market system or even more importantly a system of thought. Therefore, the ability of a particular grant to ultimately change the system is a major factor.

Jon Clark

Jon Clark, president of the James S. Bower Foundation

Another is the recognition that for any of these issues, no one program or intervention is likely to make a difference at any sort of population level, be it a neighborhood or community. We try to understand how all of the pieces fit together to be able to, hopefully, make the broader change, and then also understand how a particular grant opportunity fits into that overall picture.

Finally, there is just the human side. We need to have partners we trust and are in it for the long term.

WSM: What have you learned as a result of sustained investment in the same issue areas for an extended period of time?

JC: That is a great question. Mostly, we’ve learned from our mistakes, and for better or worse, we’ve learned a lot. I guess I’d summarize it into three things.

The first is that this issue, like all others, evolves over time. There are times where you go backward, times where you crawl forward, and times where the wind hits your back and big change can be made quickly. In terms of systems change, there are times when advocacy is what is needed, and times when what you are focusing on is proving up an idea, and then times in which you are focused on scale. While this is not linear and never super clear, it’s helpful to have a sense of where things are in the evolution of an issue, and what is coming next.

Second, all of these issues are hard, resolution takes time and a lot of folks have been living it for years. You have to approach issues and people with patience, humility and respect.

Finally, we think one of the roles of philanthropy, particularly in a private foundation, is to be risk capital. That means things aren’t always going to work and you have to be comfortable with the process of failing and learning forward. That is easier said than done. I happen to have a board that encourages the process and to the degree we have been successful at anything, that is why.

WSM: What changes have you seen in the community as a result of sustained investment in the same issue areas for an extended period of time? What changes do you hope to see in the future?

JC: In terms of early childhood, the top line measure for school readiness has moved substantially, in most cases in the neighborhoods we have focused on, from the mid-teens to the mid- to high 30s and even higher. That is actually kind of a big deal. That said, there is a lot we don’t know that we should, like what the long-term impact of that change is in our school system, what specifically drove that change and what are our next steps.

We can do better, and in a lot of ways I think we are in the “now what” moment in this movement. I think we want to live in a society where the circumstances you were born into does not determine your opportunities in life or limit your potential. That’s a big goal, and we can move a lot closer to that here in Santa Barbara than we are right now.

Kindergarten readiness

The change in Carpinteria children ready to enter school, as measured by the KSEP tool developed in Santa Barbara County and now used broadly. (Carpinteria Children’s Project)

WSM: What efforts in the ECE arena have been energizing or encouraging to you lately?

JC: The growing recognition of the connection of ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) to lifelong health outcomes, and engagement of the medical community, and in particular pediatricians, in screening for ACES and the working with groups like CALM and other agencies to support those children and families is really important. This creates a chance to meet and support families very early in the process. It also engages the medical system in this broader work of early childhood. Santa Barbara is emerging as a leading community in this work, and we are making it a significant focus over the next several years.

WSM: At First 5 Santa Barbara County, we work within the state and around the nation promoting the importance of the Protective Factors in building resilience to face ACEs. The Bower Foundation’s investment in raising awareness of the ACEs impact is huge and relatively rare in comparison to other regions. We’re really building a strong network of support for children growing up in Santa Barbara County. Where did you attend kindergarten?

JC: My first school was on the Army base in Landshtul, Germany, where my dad was stationed.

WSM: What traditions does your family have around talking, reading or singing?

JC: Reading has always been a big deal in my family. Growing up, my dad worked a lot, and living on bases we kids were pretty feral during the daytime, so the vast majority of my memories of my dad during that time ware in the evening, after dinner when he read with me. I still have a bunch of those books, and when I hold them I remember those times and really feel his presence. We did the same with our kids, and I fantasize that someday our kids will be reading Goodnight Moon, or something like that, to their kids, and somehow all of us will be together in that moment.

— Wendy Sims-Moten is executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County. Click here for additional columns. The opinions expressed are her own.