An Interview with Astrid Newell on Envisioning the Best Possible Future for Children

Over the last decade, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of early childhood.  In Whatcom County, community leaders have prioritized a focus on young children and families as part of the Whatcom County Community Health Improvement process, recognizing that investing in our youngest children from the start is the most effective approach to improve health, reduce disparities, and advance health equity. Organizations, community leaders and individuals in Whatcom County have heard the call to action to invest in young children and have responded. 

The Opportunity Council and Whatcom County Health Department sponsored a Future Search Conference to focus participants on identifying future aspirations and determining what they are ready and willing to do individually and collectively to support young children and families in Whatcom County. Astrid Newell, Community Health Manager for the Whatcom County Health Department sat down with us to share about the conference and Generations Forward: Envisioning a Future Where All Whatcom County Children Thrive.


Let’s set the stage for our readers, can you tell us what the Future Search Conference is, how it came to be, and who is involved? 

A Future Search Conference is a task-focused planning event. The method has been used across the world to address various issues. The purpose of the Generations Forward Future Search Conference was to envision the best possible future for young children and their families in Whatcom County. The desire to focus on young children and families, and to bring together diverse stakeholders around this topic grew out of the Whatcom County Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP 2012-2016).

During the CHIP process, community leaders recognized the critical importance of investing in young children and families to set the foundations for lifelong health, academic success, economic prosperity and equity. They also recognized the importance of elevating community voice, hearing directly from community members and service providers about needs and solutions, and aligning existing efforts to achieve greater impact. 

Initially, the Opportunity Council and the Whatcom County Health Department (conference co-sponsors) convened a small planning group (Core Team) and hired a project manager with funds from the Whatcom Community Foundation. After deciding to pursue the Future Search method, a larger planning committee was established including stakeholders representing parents, educators, social services, the medical community, and community-based organizations. Along with an experienced Future Search facilitator, the Core Team and Planning Committee met over a six-month period to plan the conference and ensure a diverse group of participants from nine sectors including: Parents and Caregivers, Early Learning, K-12 Schools, Behavioral Health and Safety Supports, Health Care, Private Sector and Funders, Policy and Government, Family Support and Basic Needs.Chuckanut Health Foundation, Whatcom Community Foundation and conference sponsors provided funding to support conference facilitation, food, facility, parent stipends and child care vouchers. 

The conference was held at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal on October 10-12, 2017. The 3-day event brought together 74 community stakeholders (including 20+ parents) to discover the values, purposes, and projects they hold in common.  


What was the Future Search Process? 

The intent of the Future Search model is to get the whole system in the room to plan together and find common ground. The process relies on the knowledge and experience of the individuals who have daily involvement in, can influence, or are affected by the conference topic, rather than “outside experts”. The process focuses participants on identifying future aspirations and determining what they are ready and willing to do individually and collectively. By the end of the event, participants develop a set of strategic goals and actions they can begin to implement to work toward their shared vision. 

The initial gathering is really just the beginning of the process. Quarterly check-in meetings are held to support ongoing collaboration and action. Additional people are invited to join the work.   


What is the biggest challenge that the Generations Forward work group determined for prioritizing a focus on young children and families in relationship to improving health, reducing disparities and advancing health equity in Whatcom County? 

One of the biggest challenges in addressing the needs of young children and families is securing adequate and sustained funding for services and supports, including prevention and health promotion efforts. While investments in early childhood are known to offer some of the highest societal returns, as a nation our overall investments in this stage of life pale in comparison to what we allocate to address complex health and social needs that could have been prevented or mitigated with interventions earlier in life. 

Another challenge is to recognize that in order for children to thrive, their families must thrive. Currently too many families struggle to make ends meet, to find affordable, quality child care, to maintain stable housing, to get the mental health services they need. A disproportionate number of families of color are impacted by these issues. Ensuring that families have concrete supports to meet basic needs, as well as pathways to move out of poverty into prosperity are critical to reducing disparities and advancing health equity. We, as a society, need to do a better job of taking care of our families, all of them. 


What surprising lessons have you learned along the way while planning and attending the Future Search Conference? 

I was surprised (happily) by the level of interest in the Future Search Conference model and the focus on young children and families. The enthusiasm, energy, and engagement of the participants was exciting to see. One of the most remarkable things about the conference methodology is the process of getting to common ground and shared commitments among a diverse group of people.  

From a practical standpoint, I learned how important and valuable it is to provide funding support (stipends and child care vouchers) for parents who are not attending as part of a paid job. Having strong parent voices was a highlight of the conference. Tribal and other cultural representation was also an important component of the meeting. 

You are well versed in the indicators that contribute to health disparities due to your connection with the community and career. What is something that you would like those that are less immersed to know that will help respond to the call to action? 

Several things come to mind. First, when we look at health indicators for Whatcom County, we look pretty healthy overall. Our statistics show that we generally do well in areas such as low birth weight, obesity, and life expectancy compared to other places in the state and nation. But when we dig into the data, and look at specific population groups (for example, low income or non-white) or specific geographic areas of the County, we see a different picture. For example, when we look at life expectancy at birth (how long, on average, a newborn is expected to live if death rates do not change), we see significant differences between census tracks (geographic areas/neighborhoods) within the County.

We also find that low income or non-white populations are more likely to experience poor health status as well as less access to opportunities to be healthy (e.g., living wage jobs, stable housing, access to health care, access to safe places to walk or bike, etc). In order to improve health and equity, we must 1) address the underlying social inequities in opportunities and resources needed to be healthy, 2) target efforts to produce greatest health benefits for disadvantaged groups, and 3) evaluate our impact by measuring change in outcomes for disadvantaged groups as well as closing opportunity gaps. 

What commitments to action were made from the Future Search Conference attendees? 

 The participants committed to action in each of the following areas: 

  • honoring and supporting all families in Whatcom County with equal opportunity through building on cultural strengths, celebrating diversity, and working across generations

  • intentionally building neighborhood/community capacity and resilience through place-based gathering to celebrate, heal, and grow thriving individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities

  • developing coordinated support, mentoring, and education for parents, families, and guardians in order to strengthen and foster safer, more stable and more nurturing relationships with growing children in Whatcom County

  • improving access and reducing barriers to family-centered services in centralized physical and virtual cooperation

  • pursuing an integrated healthcare system, including prevention, wellness, specialty care, and behavioral healthcare, that is affordable, accessible and provides care that families need when they need it

  • responding to the widespread need within Whatcom County for affordable, quality child care services and early learning programs

  • removing barriers and creating opportunities for families to achieve upward economic mobility and stability with support through a gradual transition out of services and benefits

  • advocating for initiatives that increase safe, affordable, low-barrier, non-segregated family housing opportunities that are integrated into all neighborhoods and communities throughout Whatcom County

  • investing in every Whatcom County child and family through reliable efficient financing that people understand

Can you tell us about the next steps in the process for the Generations Forward Conference? 

Nine action teams (corresponding to the commitments above) were formed at the conference. Each team developed some initial action steps and will be working on those in the next couple months.  

The first Generations Forward quarterly follow-up meeting is on December 6, 2017, 1:00-3:30 pm at the Hampton Inn’s Fox Hall (near Bellingham Airport). Action teams will be reporting on progress and needs. Others who are interested in joining the effort are welcome to attend this meeting. For more information contact: Allison Williams at 


Thank you, Astrid, for your time and we look forward to hearing more about the progress after the December 6, 2017 follow-up meeting. 

A healthier tomorrow begins when every child has a healthy start and receives the care they need throughout their lifetime – improving the well-being of children and their families today will create the best possible future for us all.

Heather Flaherty