Five ways to build the child advocacy movement

A conversation with Marquita Little Numan, the new Executive Director of the Partnership for America’s Children


Image courtesy of Jennifer Missouri Photography.

“Everything we do in the child advocacy movement is in service to the families and the children,” says Marquita Little Numan. “So everything that I do here is in service to how we strengthen that child advocacy movement.” 

A long-time advocate for children and families, Marquita Little Numan approaches her new role as Executive Director of the Partnership with humility, grace, and an infectious laugh. In this interview, Marquita shared her vision for the vibrant network of advocates that makes up the Partnership, and how together we can build an even stronger child advocacy movement around the nation.

1. Recognize & strengthen the central role of families and children

One of the most welcome trends Numan sees nationwide is a shift towards centering the lived experience of parents and children in advocacy. She sees organizations going deeper to collaborate with families and youth by truly listening and amplifying their voices. 

Organizations are taking on a whole new set of challenges to do their work differently. But the result is much greater accountability, when families and youth are not just reacting to a policy agenda that was already set for them. Instead, they’re actually at the priority-setting table to determine what those policies will be.

2. Listen to the specific needs and challenges of a rapidly-changing leadership cohort

“I’m careful about saying, ‘I’ve been in your shoes,’ because you can’t totally understand someone else’s experiences,” says Numan, “But as someone who has been on the ground as a state-level advocate, I have a certain level of empathy and understanding for what they’re navigating.” Numan was speaking to the rapidly changing nature of advocacy.

Advocacy organizations have a very different set of needs than they had ten or fifteen years ago. As long-time leaders have retired and transitioned to other roles, incoming leaders have more diverse identities, like race, ethnicity and gender identity, and are from various sectors. Since the pandemic, the nature of work and advocacy has also changed altogether.

“The best thing that we can do,” says Numan, “is just ask these leaders, ‘How can we best support you?’ There are common challenges that every leader will face, but I think there really are unique challenges and opportunities as well. We strengthen child advocacy by helping to support and build strong, diverse leaders.”

3. To advance equity in a politically-polarized environment, use both strategy and empathy

“We won’t get to where we need to be from a policy standpoint if we don’t do the race equity and inclusion work,” says Numan. “Because for so many of the issues that we’re advocating around, certain groups of children and families are disproportionately impacted.”

In Numan’s view, working for equity may look different in different places. In one state, an organization’s equity work may mean a more internally-facing commitment to build an anti-racist workplace culture or beginning to disaggregate the data to analyze policy issues better and understand who is most impacted. In another state, an organization may build a public-facing campaign around equity in education or closing the racial wealth gap for families. 

As an Arkansas native Arkansas, Numan says she often struggled with the inherent tension between racialized politics and personal values. “What matters most?” she asks, “Are we changing policy or changing hearts? I would love to change hearts, but the reality is, that’s longer-term work in many places. In the meantime, children and families are being impacted today by oppressive policies.” The strategies then should be adaptable because it looks very different in different places.

4. Bring a servant’s heart to the work

“As I was growing up, my mother never said to me, ‘Treat people well. Be an advocate. Stand up for fairness. Even if you don’t have a lot of resources, there’s still something you can give.’ She never said any of that to me. She just did it.” 

Marquita’s mother, Connie, recently retired from a 27-year career in hunger relief and food insecurity. Raising her own children, she also mentored other young mothers throughout her career, even as she helped organizations build hundreds of after-school feeding programs and food pantries.

“She reminds me to always remain humble, to always lead with a servant’s heart,” says Numan. “You will never lose sight of where you’re headed when you prioritize being of service to others and doing it with humility.”

5. Start with one-on-one relationships

Numan joins the Partnership at a time when the organization is undertaking a new strategic plan and vision. Building trusting, strong relationships throughout the membership is one of her top priorities to make that vision a reality. To strengthen the child advocacy movement, there has to be professional trust among the members. 

“If we haven’t built that, how can we have transparent conversations?” asks Numan. “How can we talk about what it is we really need? How can we talk about how the Partnership can become better? These are the conversations that make us all stronger.” Her starting point is one-on-one conversations to cultivate those relationships – and though it may take time, she intends to have those with every member. 

“I’m just incredibly excited about what we are building,” says Numan, “because I really think we’re going to build something great.”