Skip to main content

Sep 25, 2023

A Conversation with Caitlin Jensen of Zero to Five Montana

This interview is part of our inaugural impact report, The Ripple Effect.

Zero to Five Montana is a statewide, bipartisan early childhood policy advocacy organization focused on increasing access to early care and education, supporting families, uplifting parent voices and empowering small businesses and communities. Their promise is to stabilize, innovate and build the early childhood system in Montana so that families and communities can thrive.

Headwaters Foundation is proud to support Zero to Five Montana’s vital work to move the needle on early childhood in our state. We sat down with their Executive Director, Caitlin Jensen, to hear about how they have collaborated across sectors and engaged parents to drive change. We also sought Caitlin’s insights about their unique partnership with Headwaters Foundation.

Can you talk about the ‘Zero to Five Network’ and how you work with groups across Montana?

From the beginning, we knew that we couldn’t do this work alone. There are so many other critical voices in the early childhood sphere and from other sectors. We wanted to be a catalyst for partners to work together on this issue. We have done this through various coalitions and by acting as the ‘glue’ for local Zero to Five collaboratives. One of our roles is to look at the big picture — how we move systems as a state, knowing that communities have different needs.

What has been a recent win or success?

Montana Childcare Business Connect has been a big success, which came out of a coalition. In the last year, we have created critical programs and capacity-building services like mentoring, training and technical assistance for childcare providers and businesses. It has been amazing to work alongside communities and see their innovative approaches. All the while, we have kept our eye on the policy implications this could have as our state looks to invest in early childhood, and acted as a voice on this issue, sharing these successes.

Can you tell us a story about someone who has benefitted from your programs?

We have been able to build relationships and credibility across the aisle and be a resource to legislators as they work to address this problem. Our policy research was valuable to them during the session, especially our easy-to-digest, solution-oriented one-pagers which we were always excited to see around the Capitol. Navigating the policy system isn’t easy, so we also provided avenues and education for advocates, such as regular calls where they could get updates and ask questions and by encouraging people to write letters or testify.

Tell us about how you engage parents to raise their voices for policy change.

We know that to spark policy solutions, we need to know what’s happening in local communities and have parents who are ready to speak up to their representatives. That’s why, last summer, we launched Montana Parent Voice. It was amazing to see champions from this program and local collaboratives turn out at the Capitol for Have a Heart for Kids Day and specific legislation during the session. The voices of parents are so important, and we are intentional about making sure there are easy pathways for them to get involved. Some of us on the team have young children and we know how hard it can be.

You have a 2-year-old and a baby on the way — what is your vision for your kids and how this work could impact their lives?

Being a parent of young kids and engaged in this work is hard but powerful. It has given me a lot more perspective around the realities for families. We all want our kids to have opportunities and get a good education. We also know how important the first 5 years of life are, and it’s painful to feel like we don’t have systems and structures set up to help our kids thrive and reach their fullest potential. That’s where it gets real – we don’t have time to wait!

How has your partnership with Headwaters Foundation been beneficial?

I first encountered Headwaters Foundation when Zero to Five was just a vision, and what resonated with me was that it was clearly rooted in community. Since that time, our partnership has been very collaborative. The Headwaters team has lived into their trust-based values, and I have felt a strong sense of respect and ability to grow and expand. It’s a unique approach that more funders are catching on to, which is great for organizations just starting out, because things are bound to evolve and change.

Thank you to Zero to Five Montana for the vital work they do for Montana families, and to Caitlin for sitting down with us for this interview!

To get involved with Zero to Five Montana, sign up for their newsletter and follow them on Facebook or Instagram. You can also reach out to their team to let them know how you would like to engage.

Find more interviews with Western Montana changemakers in The Ripple Effect.

Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.