Building a Movement to Nurture Connection

By David W. Willis, MD
Senior Fellow, Center for the Study of Social Policy

Nurture Connection


We have been thrilled with the response to the launch of Nurture Connection earlier this month. Nurture Connection is a movement to promote strong, positive, and nurturing early relationships and to build healthier, resilient, and more connected communities. As we move into this next stage of development, the teams at Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) and Health+ Studio reflect on the journey that got us here and are reminded of the shared values of equity and justice and our commitment to all children having the strongest start in life, so they are able to achieve their unique, boundless potential.

The Launch Story

CSSP, Reach Out and Read, Nurture Science Program, and Einhorn Collaborative began a collaboration in 2021 with a vision that each and every family and community experiences the transformational power of parent-child emotional connection (EC) and Early Relational Health (ERH).

This vision is bigger than what any one organization (or four) can achieve and requires a network of engaged and committed partners who are connecting, learning, and collaborating towards a shared vision. This started us on a journey to develop a “community of communities” with parents, innovators, influencers, organizations, and advocates to foster a social movement to support greater success of the next generation and to build healthier, resilient, and more connected communities.

We began our work to promote strong, positive, and nurturing early relationships by partnering with parent leaders to guide and lead the work. The ERH Family Network Collaborative (FNC) was established to intentionally partner with parent leaders from a variety of cultural traditions and lived experiences of underrepresented communities. Each of the six parent leaders represent a different constituency group: Black and Brown families receiving home visiting services; tribal community families; parents receiving services in a southern state; Spanish-speaking immigrant families in the NE; fathers of a state fatherhood council; and parent leaders of families with children with special health care needs. These six parent leaders then engage and receive input from ten families in their own communities to bring the insights of 66 families to the mission, vision, and strategies for Nurture Connection.

Along with the FNC, we also leaned on the knowledge and wisdom of the National ERH Network, which is composed of committed parents, practitioners, child health systems, thought partners, early childhood system builders, and policy and network champions committed to cocreating, innovating, testing, and disseminating strategic activities to advance an ERH frame.

To round out our shared leadership model, we also created a 12-person steering committee to provide strategic leadership and guidance for the initiative. The steering committee is composed of FNC parents, pediatricians, researchers, policy and systems leaders, funders, and nonprofit leaders. The steering committee began with a co-discovery process to better understand the opportunities and barriers that families and communities experience around ERH. This included learning from each member’s knowledge and experience as well as conducting a series of virtual listening sessions with other leaders and thought partners, who brought diverse perspectives from various sectors across the US on the topic of ERH and EC. From the co-discovery process we learned:

  • Equity and parent partnership moves by the “speed of trust”
  • We need to understand who parents trust and begin to engage with those trusted messengers in neighborhoods and communities
  • There are a variety of systemic and structural barriers that get in the way of families experiencing ERH
  • The term Early Relational Health works for some communities and not others
  • The inspiring work that is happening across various communities to support strong, positive and nurturing early relationships.


From this deeper learning and understanding, it was clear that in order to start raising visibility and awareness of this issue we needed to create a bigger tent or movement that welcomes all interested in early childhood and family well-being. The steering committee began to see the importance of connecting individuals, organizations, and communities to learn from one another, leverage each other’s work, and collaborate to improve outcomes for young children and their families.

Social movements require the development of strategic messaging, including branding, that uniquely identifies the movement and one that will resonate deeply with a broad range of partners. A couple naming options were generated by our partner, Health+ Studio. The steering committee and the FNC participated in reviewing the naming options within their respective communities. We received considerable and informative feedback during team discernment meetings, that pointed toward a developing consensus for branding the movement, Nurture Connection. Of note, our FNC elevated the challenge of translating Nurture Connection into Spanish, where nurturance, connection and relationships have a deep cultural meaning, inherent to intimate loving relationships. A similar discerning process was utilized as the teams developed the brand narrative and the visual identity, ensuring that these elements of our communication strategy captured the voice and values of the movement.

In parallel, the steering committee and FNC dove deeper into what it means to build a social movement and what Nurture Connection’s unique contribution to the field might look like. We coalesced as a group to articulate our vision, mission, and values for the movement and with careful attention to style, content, messaging and visual representations of Early Relational Health, the Nurture Connection website was
born. The steering committee and FNC continued to partner in the website’s articulation of the movement’s work, vision, and leadership structure as well as a wealth of resources for the field and parents.

As we move into 2023, we are working towards our goals of increasing awareness and visibility of Nurture Connection and growing our engaged and networked community of communities. We will further our strategic priorities of building connection, raising awareness, building understanding, transforming systems, and advancing policy to advance ERH so that all families can experience the joy and lifelong health benefits that come from strong, positive, and nurturing relationships in early childhood.