On Connecting The Dots

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting pieces from our Founding Mission List Members. Every day, these women are using their influence to shape their communities and create positive change at home and abroad. The below post is from Jen Barth. I’m writing this from an airplane ride back from the East Coast, returning from a trip with my 5-year old daughters. As they dive into their Connect-the-Dots coloring books, I observe how focused they are as they extend each point into the next, and the thrill they experience as the end result is revealed. It occurs to me that my recent experiences in early literacy activism have been a lesson, too, in connecting the dots.

What a difference a few years can make. As I researched preschools for my daughters shortly after moving to Oregon in 2009, I discovered the massive divide that existed between what they would experience, and so many others would not. I also learned about the strong connections between early language exposure and school readiness, and the widening achievement gap in my new community. Eager to learn more, I applied to represent Oregon at the Mom Congress on Education & Learning, a conference that brings together moms from every state to collaborate on parental engagement in the fight for better schools.

At Mom Congress, we tackled many issues, but when Reach Out and Read  Founder Dr. Robert Needlman shared with us that the ratio of books to kids in low-income ZIP codes is 1 for every 300 —and I reflected on our own overflowing bookshelves — I knew I wanted to do more.

From this idea, Books Make it Better was born. We’re a mom-driven, grassroots movement powered by Mom Congress delegates who have collaborated to create a Step-by-Step Toolkit with advocacy tips, discussion guides, sample social media calendars, and more. So far we’ve collected 7,000 books in 7 cities for more than a dozen nonprofit partners, and raised funds through a virtual book drive to support Reach Out and Read.

And yet, even though I’m no stranger to advocacy  —my favorite childhood t-shirt said “A Woman’s Place Is In The House…And In The Senate,” and I’ve worked with nonprofits professionally and as a volunteer throughout my career — I made some mistakes along the way.

I’m sure it’s no accident that when I began “connecting the dots” between my personal passion for early literacy and my professional expertise in branding & marketing, I saw a significant shift in my ability to communicate our story and engage others in our growing movement. (For more on this, read Learn From Me, Please: 5 Tips From The Branding Trenches To Support Community Engagement.)

The most important dots I’ve connected, though, are with my daughters. As a working mom I struggle daily with how to balance my desire to champion social causes with the reality of the time it takes away from our family time together. Engaging them in the process has been one of the most meaningful outcomes of this experience: they hang signs, count books, attend book drop-offs, and gave up gifts at their birthday party in lieu of book donations. We’ve also started a preschool “Community Connections” program where families participate in a monthly community service project and engage in dialogues about giving back.

I recently came across a photo of my daughters taking their first steps. How quickly those early, awkward movements turn into another connecting of the dots, as they soon move to sprints across the playground. I think advocacy is really no different; we can all take a small step in the direction of change each day, and watch the larger picture unfold before us. What an honor to be part of this new community of women who share a passion to connect even more dots in our communities together. Join us!


 Jen Barth is founder of Big Small Brands, an award-winning small business and nonprofit branding & marketing firm founded in 2010. Jen brings to her client work more than 15 years of experience in corporate, agency, and nonprofit marketing & revenue development, and senior management roles at leading strategic branding, research, and interactive marketing firms. She is Oregon's 2011 delegate, and a national 2012 mentor, for the Mom Congress on Education & Learning, and Founded Books Make it Better, a national grassroots early literacy movement. Jen was also recently named Executive Director of Schoolhouse Supplies, a leading Oregon education nonprofit organization operating a free store for teachers and students in Portland, Oregon.