Providence Talks Replication: From participant to program director in Detroit


In 2019, five U.S. cities were selected to receive a three-year grant to replicate the widely celebrated Providence Talks early literacy program. As the grant period draws to a close, we’re sharing their stories of what worked. In this post: 313Speaks in Detroit.

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Six years ago, I gave birth to my beautiful baby girl. While I was confident I would be a good parent, I was also fully aware that I was not at all in control of the journey that parenting would take me on. I was committed to being an intentional parent, and that in and of itself would not be an easy task. For me, parenting would require consistent sacrifice, authenticity in my own humanity, and a surplus of patience. It would demand that I think creatively and embrace flexibility in my approach to meet my daughter’s needs.

The vision I had for my daughter included a childhood in which I had an active and predominant influence on her day-to-day activities, including a commitment to homeschooling. With this in mind, I stepped away from my corporate profession during her first year of life and instead embarked on an entrepreneurial journey that enabled me to keep my daughter by my side. In our many adventures, we frequented the public library. I loved to check out the bulletin board at the library because there were always new and exciting resources and events that we could participate in. In 2018, that’s where I learned about LENA Start.

Victoria Washington was a LENA Start participant before becoming Senior Project Director of 313Speaks.

The LENA flyer promoted a program where I would receive age-appropriate books for my daughter and weekly data reports on how much interactive talk we experienced together. This sounded incredible to me. As a scientist, I loved data. It was very exciting to know that I’d receive feedback not only on the number of words I spoke to my daughter, but also the number of times that I patiently awaited her response. I was eager to share this new program with my family and even recruited several of my friends to join in! My family was very supportive and was hands-on with engaging with my daughter on her LENA Days, when she wore the “talk pedometer” device.

I looked forward to the LENA classes every week. Given that we were in the winter months, I was bummed when we got snowed out. The curriculum was so robust and offered very tangible tips to increase engagement with my child. It was a huge help that staff provided on-site child care inside the meeting room so that I could focus my attention on processing the presentation and actively building community with the other parents. Knowing that it was all in fun, we even created a friendly competition to see who would improve their word count and conversational turn count week over week.

In 2020, after several successful years as a food entrepreneur, I learned of the city-wide initiative called 313Speaks, designed to promote the very LENA program in which I had participated. The project needed a program director. I was eager to pursue and accept this new role.

I attribute my success in managing the LENA program to my direct experience as a participant. For instance, one of the challenges facing our demographic of participants is distrust with the recording device. Several families have expressed concern with the perceived invasiveness of the LENA program. Because of my firsthand experience, I have built trust with potential participants and actively speak to the truth of how the device works. I am grateful each time that a person decides to give the LENA program a try. They are usually the most emotional at graduation about the positive impact that the LENA program has had on their family.

Victoria’s daughter sporting a LENA vest and a sparkly crown.

I am motivated to do this work because I know that LENA had a substantial influence in my daughter’s love for reading and encouraged me as a parent to faithfully develop a habit of reading in our family. I have seen this manifest in my daughter’s drive to read fluently at the young age of four, and it continues to pay dividends with each year that passes. It was during my participation in LENA Start that I solidified my commitment to read with my daughter every single day. Reading together was and still is a beloved part of our nightly routine. I’ve had to replace her bookshelf more than once to accommodate the extensive library that we continue to grow.

As I manage LENA’s program offerings in the city of Detroit, I encounter a vast group of parents who come from all walks of life and are facing varying degrees of demands. I will never forget the mother of four nonverbal children on the Autism spectrum. She shared that her children heavily relied on music therapy, and she was concerned about what the LENA reports would reveal about the amount of electronic noise they encountered. After attending an orientation and learning more about the program, she was willing to take a chance and enrolled one of her children.

I was amazed and touched by the level of commitment this family showed. The mother was eager to share the new advancements that she witnessed in her children over the course of the 10-week program. She found that she was easily able to apply the Talking Tips to her other children as well. This journey had become a full family experience. Most encouraging of all was to hear that the children’s pediatrician and other medical specialists were very curious to know what she’d been doing differently with her children. They had witnessed such positive changes. Beyond my firsthand experience, I have seen so many other confirmations of the impact that LENA has on families.

As the program director for 313Speaks, I have learned so much about the mechanics of a successful cohort. Families thrive in environments that are intimate and personal. Leaning in to increase communication with your child is a personal experience. It pulls on your capacity as a parent to give your child uninterrupted attention and to foster an environment where your child is empowered to speak and be heard.

I am encouraged to know that the children and families here are better equipped to communicate with one another and to prioritize the crucial first years of a child’s life. My hope is that our program continues to reach families and to embrace the diversity of their family dynamic. I am confident that with their commitment to the program, families will continue to reap the benefits of the LENA curriculum and be able to speak on its benefits years later, just as I have done.

Webinar — Providence Talks Replication: Celebrating and Working Ahead

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Victoria Washington

Victoria Washington is the Senior Project Director of 313Speaks in Detroit.

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