Community Connectors: Jamie O'Leary

News — May 7, 2024

Community Connectors: Jamie O'Leary

May 2024

Community Connectors is a monthly series highlighting Ohio State staff members who have shown leadership in partnering with our communities to make an impact.

Jamie O'Leary, MPA
Associate Director, Policy and External Affairs
Crane Center for Early Childhood Research & Policy at the College of Education and Human Ecology

At the Crane Center we have worked on several policy evaluation contracts to analyze child care policy in states including Ohio, Colorado and Wyoming. The projects occur at a really fascinating and important intersection between policy, research and practice - with the core aim of that work being to make recommendations that can improve child care access, affordability and quality. During these projects, we have engaged policy leaders and stakeholders as well as child care providers and teachers, to better understand their lived experiences and how their work could be improved through better policy. Their insights have been critical toward drafting policy recommendations that account for and address the challenges they face. It is very humbling work - to realize just how much we ask and require of early childhood educators who nurture, educate and care for infants, toddlers and preschoolers during the most important developmental window of time. I hope at the end of the day, our projects provide research insights that underscore the need for greater investments in birth-to-five and for more champions of early childhood in every space and sector.

Why is engaging the community important to you and your work?

To improve policy we have to understand how it impacts people day-to-day - whether early childhood teachers, families or children. Very often, what seems like a good idea on paper may not have the effect we think it will - this is common with policy reform and change. We often research or try to legislate on matters that we think we understand, but only have partial understanding of - and in doing so we miss the opportunity to design solutions and systems that could have a greater impact on the community. I've been very fortunate to be part of projects where my colleagues and policy partners are committed to understanding the experiences of families with young children and providers who work with them - even when those insights are tough to hear and may indicate that our current policies and programs aren't working for them.

What lessons have you learned from the community that have helped you as a university staff member?

No matter how much research, data or information we have at our fingertips, there are critical insights from the community that we cannot gain unless we do the work to connect with them. For example, during focus groups and interviews with child care providers in Ohio and other states, each and every time I have walked away with deeper understanding that could not be captured through a literature review. For instance, in our project to analyze the costs facing child care providers, one home care provider described the very real costs imposed by something as simple as a requirement to change gloves before applying sunscreen to the children in her care. She explained the basic math - how many pairs, per child, per day/recess, per week - and how that ended up costing her hundreds of dollars especially when there were unforeseen increases to supply costs from inflation. Often times, what may seem like a good idea from research or policy has many unintended consequences as it is implemented, with real effects on the people on the ground doing the work. It is so important to build in intentional processes to ask them for their feedback, create more space for them at tables where decisions are made and amplify their expertise and insights wherever possible.

What has been your favorite moment from your community-engagement work?

Across all of our policy projects and community engagement work, I think the one area that has given me the most hope has been realizing that folks from across all of these spaces - research, policy, practice and community - for the most part really want to learn from each other. It's just that the systems typically are not designed for them to do so. People are busy in their regular work, and until/unless we develop intentional ways to engage and learn from the community around us, it does not just spontaneously happen. Some of the best and most memorable moments have occurred during and at the close of conversations where folks have admitted - wow, I never knew that - particularly when those insights are ones that uplift practitioner or family voices and build stronger champions for families and children. It takes a lot of patience and an underlying belief that a diversity of voices, experiences and perspective will make our work better - whether that work is research or policy or anything else.

What advice do you have for other staff members who are interested in getting involved in community engagement?

Start connecting with colleagues and learn about what programs are happening and ways you can get involved. Attend webinars and events, ask to learn more, sign up for newsletters and be open to opportunities to collaborate across units or departments. Ohio State is truly a multidisciplinary place and there is a need for your expertise, passion, and skills, no matter what they are!