Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.”
INTRO:On episode 45 of the show, we talk about the impact of authentic core values in an organization with Jenny Volpe, Executive Director of Make Way for Books, an organization that provides books to under-resourced childcare sites and offers early literacy workshops to educators and parents in Tucson, Arizona. In our conversation, we talk about the team effort involved in developing meaningful core values and how upholding them is a process of conscious reflection. Make Way for Books believes in empowerment and applies it to every aspect of their work, especially when it comes to the communities that they serve.
Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Jenny, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.
Jenny VOLPE:Thanks, Ron. I’m really happy to be chatting with you today.
SPREEUWENBERG:It’s awesome to have you here as a guest on the show because I was looking at the Make Way For Books website, and the core values behind Make Way For Books. And it was super-inspiring. So I wanted to have a conversation with you about those core values. And how about we start off with the question of why you have core values?
VOLPE: Yeah, that’s a great question. So we have core values because when you’re trying to make change in our world and in our early-childhood world, whenever you can be a great change maker you’ve got to think about, what are these principles that will inform every aspect of what you do? It’s kind of how you do the work, because how you do it always informs the progress or the change you’re going to be able to make. So we sat down as an organization and really thought through these together. So the whole organization authored these core values. And we tried to capture, “What is it that makes Make Way For Books tick? What is our unique way, or the unique things we’re contributing? And how we do this work, and how we’re able to achieve success with so many partners?” We work with 180 preschools and childcare centers, and we impact 30,000 kids every year, and thousands of parents. So it’s kind of thinking through both how we’ve been able to achieve the success and really capturing it, and then ensuring that these core values really inform every single relationship down to how we interact with each other and what we value about our work together here as staff members, and with our volunteers at Make Way For Books, to every interaction that we have out in the community. So it really is our authentic kind of way of being that we’re guided by these principles, and we always come back to these principles. They inform, like I said, pretty much everything that we do and how we design our programs, essentially.
Our tip-top kind of core value is it’s all about empowerment. And for us empowerment simply means that we believe everyone has what it takes to be great and to contribute something meaningful and contribute their unique gifts and talents to this world. And so they all kind of center from that [in terms of] how we go about achieving this kind of empowerment and breaking down barriers and building on everyone’s strengths from that, to each child that we work with to every teacher that we work with, to our colleagues, and all of our community partners.
And really these core values, what they really bring is a love and joy for this work, and it kind of infuses everything that we do. When people kind of walk into Make Way For Books, they’re kind of like, “Whoa, this place is, like, Hope Central.” And I’m, like, “Yeah,” because we live and breathe these core values. We really are so passionate and caring about what we do, that we think through how it is we do what we do, constantly.
SPREEUWENBERG:It’s very interesting because you said it’s all about how you do it. So I know all organizations are always focused on results, and I’m sure Make Way For Books cares a lot about the results of the work that you do, too. But it’s almost like saying the journey of getting to those results is equally important.
VOLPE:That’s so key, Ron, yes. And that makes better results. So what we’ve built here at Make Way For Books is, it’s all about reflecting on that journey. And so everyone here every week, we talk about what we’re grateful for. What did we learn? What were our challenges this week?” And so we’re constantly reflecting about that journey because then everyone is sort of re-infused and reinvigorated for the work next week. So we’ve so consciously tried to do that, that it really is about the journey and that we know we’ve gotten better results by focusing and creating this really reflective culture.
And what’s cool about operating with these core values is that that reflective culture isn’t just the people at Make Way For Books, the staff and the volunteers. We infuse that into our processes with everyone, with our educators. We work with 700 early-childhood educators and parents. And so in everything we do, whether it’s through coaching with our educators or in our parent classes there’s a there’s an element of reflection built into every session and everything that we do, because that’s really how you make learning conscious, for children, for ourselves. So it really is about seeing it as a journey. Like, we’re all in this together, and so constantly reflecting. And that actually improves all kinds of results, because it becomes this really integrated process. So we really take our reflecting in our journey seriously here.
SPREEUWENBERG:Very cool. Let me ask you a question: Have you ever heard of a book called The Happiness Equation?
VOLPE:I haven’t read that. I would love to read it butI haven’t read it.
SPREEUWENBERG: Because this conversation reminds me a lot of the book. It’s taking the concept that you’re talking about and it kind of applies it to life in general. It says the normal equation that we’ve been taught in life is: you work really hard, you get an education, and then you get a job, and then if you do all that you’ll be successful, and then you’ll be happy. And they say, actually, that’s completely backwards. It should be the other way and you should be happy first. And if you’re happy then you’re going to be successful. And it flips that equation around. And it’s kind of the same thinking about the journey, right? That journey about how you live your life and how you are trying to make an impact is so important to the results.
VOLPE:Totally. And what just struck me as you were speaking: we’re all about early-literacy, right? And so many parents get this message: “You should read with your child 20 minutes a day, read with your child 20 minutes a day.” Well for us it really isn’t about “should”. It’s about the joy of reading, of that process. And that’s also how we break down barriers. We’ve got families that with parents – who may have low literacy themselves – understanding by the end that they love reading with their kid. They have a lot to contribute, that it isn’t just, “Oh we’ve got to sit here and slog through this book for 20 minutes and that’s it.” Parents have these kind of amazing “a-ha’s” when they realize, “This is fun! This is all about the joy and the love and the connection we’re going to create around these books together.” And so it really is about spreading that message, too, of joy. And yes, there’s lots of “should’s”, and we know what works. But it’s really, “Let’s focus on how we’re going to do this together.”
SPREEUWENBERG:Totally. And I remember seeing in one of your videos, one of the parents was talking about that, that the time she spent with her child reading together was her favorite time of the day. That was the time she had to connect, right?
VOLPE: Absolutely. Parents have these incredible realizations that not only [is] their work is serious some level, that they’re going at what they’re doing right now in these early years is the most important precedent or foundation for their child’s success, but yes, they realize that there’s so much love and bonding involved, and that we get a lot of this from dads, too. So we work with a lot of new dads, and what we get a lot is that dads who realize, like, “Now what I want to do with my son is read. I don’t want to watch TV.” It’s just because it’s this incredible way to connect with their children. And actually educators have these same kinds of “a-ha’s”, because once they realize… we help facilitate really developmentally appropriate experiences.
So in the parent realm it’s kind of like, “I thought my kid didn’t like to read.” Well, your child is 2, and what you think reading is isn’t sitting. It isn’t sitting for 15 to 20 minutes. So it’s a lot of just breaking down those initial ideas of what reading should look like. And it’s really like, “Well no, this is what reading is”, and these are wonderful opportunities for language development, and the opportunity to develop social-emotional skills. And so it really stems from all that, that books also themselves provide these wonderful opportunities to connect on such deep levels.
SPREEUWENBERG:Now let’s stay on that question for a moment. Make Way For Books focuses on early literacy. Now, you work a lot with parents. But because you specialize in this area of early literacy, any thoughts for the early-childhood educators out there that are listening to this podcast about things that you might suggest for them to do, whether it be with the classroom or working with families, to encourage more reading and early-literacy skills?
VOLPE:Yes, we do a lot of work around this. And I think for early-childhood educators listening, that really to remember is about this communicating this joy of books and really filling your classroom with stories that you love and want children to have the opportunity to experience. We do a lot of helping both educators and parents understand that they can turn every moment into a learning opportunity. So that a lot of our work in childcare centers is helping our teachers take transition moments, for example, and learning how to sing songs or do different literacy activities throughout their day. And so it’s really that literacy and reading isn’t just story time. It’s much more than that. It’s the wonderful conversations that you’re having with children, the open-ended questions that you’re learning to ask.
And I think that’s one thing we emphasize a lot, is that how you read the book matters so much with young children. You know, really giving them enough time to respond and pause, and really having deep conversations about books even with our 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, and asking them really kind of higher-level questions that they can answer. You know it’s not just, like, “Point to the red circle.” It’s really helping because books are conversation starters, and they’re all about springboards for developing our thinking, our emotional vocabulary. And so it’s really looking at books as these incredible springboards for all kinds of activities, and that books can be a part of everything that you do. They can be in the in your play areas. And that we do a lot of work with helping teachers do really open-ended activities and using everyday items to spark conversations with language with children.
SPREEUWENBERG:Awesome, some great ideas there. I just want to jump back to the core values. So this was one of the things I really wanted to focus the conversation on. We talked a bit about why you have core values. There might be some listeners out there – teachers or directors or administrators – who want to go back to their childcare programs and say, “We should do this, these core values in our program.” Can you tell us a little bit about the process? I know you mentioned that you sort of got the whole organization together. How did that work?
VOLPE:We got the organization together, and we began with a conversation about, “What are the values that we care about together?” And so first I had people kind of reflect in writing, just jotting down stuff before they contributed to the group. And then we kind of talked about them as a group. And then we drafted kind of a list, and then we chipped away at that list and we added and took away. And for us we have a lot of core values – there’s 16 of them listed. Now we could have kept whittling it down but we really see them as our poetry, kind of as our kind of our manifesto.
Some organizations have, like, five core values. [With] ours there’s a lot of them. And then we wanted to infuse them with pictures of what these are. So if you look on our website – and please do check them out, anyone who’s listening that wants to check out these core values, they’re are on our website in the “Who We Are” section – and you’ll see that these are photos of our children, of our parents, of our teachers. And so we came to them, and the process took almost about two months to just kind of sit with them and revise them and work them out to create something beautiful that we all are very proud of.
SPREEUWENBERG:Awesome. And I just want to hit on one point again: You had everyone in your organization independently documented what they felt the core of you were before you discussed it as a group.
SPREEUWENBERG:So you put together your core values, and you’ve got 16 of them. Can you tell me what a few of them are? Maybe this will get the creative juices flowing for people to understand what core values look like and what some core values might be.
VOLPE:Sure, absolutely. So I mentioned earlier in our conversation that the key to all of this is empowerment – that’s what we’re about. So, for example, that core value of empowerment, we wrote… there’s a little bit of language underneath the word “empowerment” that just says: “We are in the business of realizing potential. We all have what it takes.” So empowerment is the first one.
Another one is that we believe in leading and inspiring. Like we often call our work… we’re like a laboratory for inspiration, right? Because that’s how you create any kind of change. So with that core value we kind of reflect it and the words that are kind of underneath that core value, they simply say: “We embrace and drive change with bold vision,” because doing this kind of work to be inspirational and to really lead requires courage. And so that’s another core value is hope and courage, that we imagine and truly realize that there are infinite possibilities, and each one of us might come up with a different way. And so part of what we do together is we examine those, and we’ve also got the courage to believe that we can do it, once we decide whatever our new idea is, how we might how we might carry it through.
Another one, of course: respect is a very important core value, and there’s so much in that. Really for us respect is about love in action, truly. And we realized when we came together and started talking about these core values that that we do is based on relationships. Everything in life is based on the quality of our relationships. And really we do this work family-by-family, child-by-child, teacher-by-teacher. And every relationship matters. And so we kind of thought through, “What [does] the fabric of a successful relationship look like? How do we build trust with our parents, with our children, with our teachers, with our community partners?” And so really understanding and looking at respect as coming down to love in action and compassion, and really understanding that what we like to do at Make Room For Books is make everyone feel special, and that they’ve got something to contribute.
And then of course we do things here to with exuberance. So one of our core values is actually enthusiasm, because that’s contagious, right? If you’re out in the world doing your work and you’re doing it with joy, people want to be around that. And so we really do. Everyone here really believes in what we do, and so it’s exhibiting that passion in every day, in every interaction that you have out in the world doing your work. And so we believe that positivity, people want to be around that. It infuses everything with energy that people want to be around.
And that’s related to connection, which is another core value that we have, that we really believe in partnership and achieving common goals and really helping to be a conversation starter for our community, and creating the space to allow those important conversations and connections to happen. And then fun is of course one of our core values, and gratitude. So every week we reflect on what we’re thankful for individually, and then monthly as a group. So those are some of them. And then the last core value is one of my favourites: it’s grit. And it simply says with that core value, we decided to write, “We persevere. Period.” And it’s this just gorgeous picture of this little boy, Asa. It was his last day of participating in one of our literacy programs, and he’s ready for kindergarten. So it’s just his really beautiful, determined face. And so really everyone here is really about rolling up their sleeves and figuring out what it is to do so that we always persevere and can make that impact that we want to make.
SPREEUWENBERG: Amazing, amazing examples. And also for our listeners that’s another great book, if you haven’t read it, Grit; it’s a really good book. Now let’s take this one step further because one thing that really amazes me about Make Way For Books is not only do you have core values – and there’s other organizations who have core values – but you see to actually live and breathe your core values. And that I think is actually even more unique. So let me ask you about that, because it’s one thing to have core values but it’s a whole other thing to actually execute and implement those core values as opposed to just write them down and sort of post them on the wall and say their thing.
SPREEUWENBERG:So how do you do that?
VOLPE:So this is what I love. This is why I love to be the leader of this organization. Someone just asked me the other day, ”How do you know how to do this?” And I said, “Well, really, I run this organization like how I ran my classroom,” which is essentially about building a beautiful community together, right? And so the reason why we’re able to live, [and] we do really live and breathe, these core values is, first, we created them together, right? It’s kind of like with your classroom, if you’ve got older children you sit down and you make your agreements, right? You sit down together and make your… you know, some people call them rules. I never called them rules. “This is our way of being together. How are we going to do this together?”
And so there’s buy-in because, first of all, everyone creates them and they aren’t just posted on the wall. We use them. This is how we design our work in the community. Our programs are built on this. So for example, you mentioned the book Grit, and the work of Angela Duckworth. So we teach consciously about grit to our teachers and to our parents, so we have our parents understanding what a growth and fixed mindset is. So on some level these are built into everything that we do, both with our partners and with ourselves. And we’ll weigh actions that we’re choosing to do. We’ll decide, “Are we going to go forward with this?” We weigh it against our core values, like, “How does this fit in?”
And so all of our team leaders care about these and believe in them. And so everyone is kind of operating… we always go back to this to these values. And they’re actually living in our building. We have this one room where we all make decisions. They’re life-sized, they’re a whole, entire wall. You have to make them. You infuse them and kind of everything you do when you weigh your actions and your decisions against these core values. And we also talk about people… we reflect here how we’ve exhibited these core values. Every week we not only talk about how we’re grateful, but what we’re proud of. “What were you particularly proud of, this week, having accomplished? And which core value does that relate to?” So people actually are always reflecting on these.
And also people know that they’re living and breathing and we could change these. Because these could change, and we could say, “You know what? I think it should be this instead of that.” And the core values, we didn’t just decide, like, “Oh these are great things, let’s just write them down.” They were on some level already inherent in the way we were doing things. But it was important for me – for us – to articulate them so they could become this living, breathing culture, and really inform the culture of what we do at Make Way For Books, if that makes sense.
SPREEUWENBERG:– I actually think that’s a super important point because I think where some people might go a little bit wrong with the core values is to come up with core values that are really super aspirational about what they want to be instead of who they actually feel they already are, in which case it’s going to be very hard to actually live and breathe that every day, because you’re not there yet.
VOLPE:And then they’re not authentic. That’s what people comment on, too. It’s like, that’s why I said ultimately our core values are about kind of teasing out how we make great relationships, right? And that you figure out, What is your niche? Like, really, what is your core value? What might be your core value as opposed to my core value? Your core value might be joy or something. We all do things differently. So you’re right, it’s really thinking through, “What really is our goal? How did these match kind of what we do?” And really they can also be aspirational, but they really have to be authentic.
And I think the other thing that came out of that for me was, as a leader of an organization or a company or a child care program, if you are going to come up with your core values you have to be committed and responsible for being accountable to those going forward.
Well, this is really an inspirational conversation. These are phenomenal, phenomenal core values and an awesome organization. I would love for listeners to go to Make Way For Books and read up a little bit more about this. And what is your website, Jenny?
VOLPE:It’s simply our name: MakeWayForBooks.org. And we also have a free early-literacy bilingual app that educators and parents can download. It’s entirely free, and you can get to that app, you can see it on the website, too. I forgot to mention that in terms of resources. But there are a lot of resources on the website as well. If you’re an educator you can sign in and get … we do some early literacy guides for different books and concepts and themes So do check it out because I’m sure there’s something there for you.
SPREEUWENBERG:Wonderful. Thanks so much, Jenny. The power of core values, I think, is super, super important for any organization, if you can be authentic and really be accountable to those. I think Make Way For Books has done a great job with. So thank you so much for sharing your story about it.
VOLPE:Thank you, Ron. It was a pleasure to speak with you today. And to all of your listeners, Thanks for doing what you do to improve our early-childhood community