Funding Rural | Episode 3 | Focus on The Children with Kali Thorne Ladd

In a society that often places people into boxes based on one or two factors, Children’s Institute Leader, Kali Thorn Ladd, distinguishes herself as an advocate for children and families — and she reminds us to recognize the humanity in each other. C.I. is a good example of an organization who recognizes the throughlines discovered between rural and urban communities. By showing up and listening, we can better understand and truly see each other for who we are — human to human.

“I think we underestimate how much the health of the mother in particular has such a huge impact on the health of the child, particularly in those early years. And we don’t have systems that I believe support women in the way that we need to.” – Kali Thorne Ladd

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More about Kali Thorne Ladd

Kali Thorne Ladd is Children’s Institute’s chief executive officer.

Previously, Thorne Ladd was the co-founder and executive director of KairosPDX, a culturally specific organization dedicated to eliminating educational opportunity and achievement gaps for historically underserved children. Through that work, and as a visionary leader in multiple capacities in the region, Thorne Ladd has a long track record of working to transform early learning and healthy development for children and families in Oregon. This has included serving as the chair of the board for Portland Community College, serving on Governor Brown’s Early Learning Council, and serving on the board at the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation based in Portland.

Thorne Ladd has also worked on education strategies in the mayor’s office in the City of Portland and at the Oregon Department of Education. She holds a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and psychology from Boston College.

“I think it’s important for people to check their biases at the door. And it takes a level of self awareness for people to realize that they carry these biases, and to really just say, ‘Hey, I’m going to place them here. And I’m just going to connect human-to-human. And we’re going to work on this together.’“– Kali Thorne Ladd

Discussion Questions

  • Kali talks about the link between maternal health and health of the young child. What barriers are women and mothers facing in communities you work with? 
  • Children’s Institute is a program based in Portland but works statewide and this can be problematic. Kali has done things differently in her leadership. How does your organization prioritize traveling to and understanding communities you work with? 
  • Are there commonalities you could see in communities you are comfortable working with versus those your organization has yet to build relationships?



“I think our society is broken, and that we’ve forgotten to see one another as human beings. And we have put people in boxes. And I think our political systems and our social media channels just perpetuate these narratives that are devastating to our country, and to the state and to children, and I just have no interest in it. I don’t have to agree with everything someone believes, to come forward and treat you with respect, and expect the same, and work on things for children. It doesn’t have to be this way.” – Kali Thorne Ladd

Transcript: Funding Rural Episode 3 “Focus on the Children” with Kali Thorne Ladd

Erin Borla 0:10
You’re listening to Funding Rural. I’m Erin Borla with the Roundhouse Foundation based in a small town in Central Oregon. Going to school in a small rural community may be wildly different from going to school in an urban community but there are some through lines that funders can and should be thinking about. I invited Kali Thorne Ladd to join me on Funding Rural for a conversation about education and philanthropy. Kali’s background is in teaching, she founded and ran a charter school in Northeast Portland, Oregon for almost a decade. She’s passionate about children’s development and setting up kids for success, no matter where they’re growing up, or what their family situation may be. Now she’s the CEO of the Children’s Institute. CI is a nonpartisan organization that is working to make Oregon the best place to be a kid. They focused on the importance of maternal health and how it relates to kid’s development, as well as issues that impact children up to age 10. As always, stick around after the interview, and I’ll share some of my takeaways. Kali and I started our conversation around what she feels is the most important and her work.

Kali Thorne Ladd 1:11
I’m really concerned about how we support children in early relational health. I think we’re seeing a lot, schools are seeing behavior outburst. But those are often linked to hard hardship in early years and really starts when children are in the womb. The stress of the mom impacts the cortisol levels of the child, which impacts their ability to adapt and while neuroplasticity exists. So you’re not destined for something that, you know, our brains change, we are not proactive in supporting mothers and those birth to two years as well as babies. I would say birth to five and 90% of brain development – 90% of brain development happens between birth to five. So when I see children having big emotions and having to do classroom clears because of behavior, I know that that is linked to something that happened much earlier. And I’m concerned about the mental health and well being of our children, and the families that support them.

Erin Borla 2:09
And I think and this is changing right now. That we’ve seen a shift in when we traditionally have thought of early childhood education, we thought of literacy and we thought of math. And now we’re thinking way earlier about mental health, behavioral health. And that’s a lot of the background that you have.

Kali Thorne Ladd 2:28
Yes, yes. And I think the I think we underestimate how much the health of the mother in particular has such a huge impact on the health of the child, particularly in those early years. And we don’t have systems that I believe support women in the way that we need to.

Erin Borla 2:44
Yeah, no, I think you’re right, I think and so this show specifically is about accessing things in rural communities and places that are a little bit further away. But I think we see some of those barriers, whether they’re real or perceived barriers, there’s through lines through different communities that that are having challenges accessing those services, and so CI is working statewide. Tell us about how, how you’re hearing from different communities in different places.

Kali Thorne Ladd 3:07
Yeah, you know, I think it’s been such a privilege to be able to travel throughout Oregon, and really listen and spend time with different communities. And, you know, some would say, if you’ve seen one rural community, you’ve seen one rural community. And so just like any group of people, they’re not monolithic. And as a person belonging to a racial minority group, I know very well that we can make a lot of assumptions about people without actually understanding their story and their narrative and making vast generalizations about a group of people is just dangerous when it comes to doing meaningful work in community. So I have felt really fortunate that I feel like I’ve been welcomed into community to hear story, to listen to the challenges being faced by both families and children. By both systems, I think I have been made more aware of how our systems are jaded, in Salem towards an urban focus. And so a lot of the policies that are coming out of state government have been more reflective of urban perspective than rural perspective. And then, while something may be a solution for, say, Eastern Oregon, it doesn’t make it the same solution for Southern Oregon. And what you see in Douglas County is not the same as what you see in Jackson, Josephine County and just understanding the unique challenges that communities face. Not walking in with assumptions and I think I was guilty of having assumptions when I started. But as I listened, I you know, I, I learned and I already understood it intuitively as someone as a person who people make assumptions about because of the skin that I’m in that oh, wow, like, these are not true. And actually, they’re harmful. And we’re creating policies that at times impede children thriving, even though that is not the intent because we are not taking time to listen and be in the space and understand the realities.

Erin Borla 5:08
Yeah. Oh, my goodness. So tell me about some of like, you’ve traveled quite a bit like, what’s been some of the things that have been most surprising to you as you travel to these places that, that you hadn’t yet been to?

Kali Thorne Ladd 5:22
I think one of the big surprises early on my first trip in rural Oregon was in Douglas County, and I had the privilege of sitting with a group of women. All mothers and a community that Children’s Institute has done a lot of work in Yoncalla, which is a very small community in Douglas County. And as I listened to the women talk about the challenges, both not just with their children, but in their lives, I was, I was shocked to see that I could have closed my eyes and been in North Portland with predominantly black women listening to the exact same thing. And through three lines of similarity were shocking to me. And you know, our socio political dynamics, put labels on things and talk about these people in those people. And I all I could think was, wow, how often do the urban you know, women, black women in North Portland sit down with a group of rural white women and Yoncalla? And would they ever know that they have so much in common with the challenges that society presents to them for raising children? And I think if you are from a marginalized community, and you struggle with poverty, it doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are, in terms of like, there are struggles that are just acute. And it made me feel like how do we work together better across differences with children as a focal point? Those things aren’t political, and they don’t have to be. This is about how do we support children. And one thing I love about Children’s Institute is we are a nonpartisan organization. We were not interested in in choosing sides politically, we want everyone to focus on how they support children and families to be successful. But that first visit I, I laughed at, you know, I had tears in my eyes, like I just, I thought, Oh, my goodness, what a travesty it is that our society has been drawn up in such a way that these two groups of people will likely never be in the same room together. And how much more could we do so powerfully together for children if that weren’t the case?

Erin Borla 7:23
Yeah it’s that the concept of being othered? Right? {Yeah.} And how do we how do we encourage people to get to know others so we feel more connected? {Yeah}. And that’s what I’ve been so impressed by the work that you do is by actually going out and talking to folks. And as we talk about philanthropy, and we talk about funders, the majority of those dollars are based in some of those larger cities, just by the nature of the way that philanthropy has worked. {Yeah} Where more capital is, {Yeah.} And and we hear that question a lot of like, well, how do I get out to I just don’t even know how to meet people.

Kali Thorne Ladd 7:59
Just go. Yeah, I mean, and like I said, I was nervous. I mean, you know, for many reasons. But there was definitely a welcoming vibe there. You know, there’s, there’s reserve, of course, I’m an outsider, but I think you would, I would find the same thing in my own cultural community. If someone outside came in, they were not going to be, you know, necessarily, they’re going to be reserved, they’re gonna wonder what is this person about? That’s human. So but there was kindness and vulnerability and thoughtfulness and we are not philanthropy, right. So we’re not offering a carrot of, of resource in the same way. We’re just saying we want, we care about your kids, and we want to be able to shape policy and have impact that matters to you. So it was, I feel like philanthropy needs to just get over any nervousness and take time and having spent my career in education I will say that there has been I see it a leaning towards urban centers in education, whether it’s early learning or K-12. The work that Children’s Institute has been doing in Yoncalla is such an exciting project, because we have lifted up, through partnership, how a rural community has through its own agency, we provided some resource, some research and best practice, but the agency already existed in the community. And I think anytime you underestimate a community you them no services and I, this was a situation where we believed in the community, we said, hey, we’re there to partner not to tell you what to do. And here’s research and best practices is what we do, and we’re happy to share it. And this community changed dramatically. And now they have, you know, 180, 180 children in their preschool. There was a fledgling preschool they have their district itself is growing people are moving into Yoncalla, because of the focus on early childhood, but this was a community that people would easily write off their rural, their poor, generational poverty. This is a community that people make a lot of assumptions about. And I think there’s something in me personally, that’s just so like over that, and it’s like, no, no, no. And I’m just glad that this community decided we are not going to be the things that people assume we are. We are better, stronger and powerful. And yes, we have challenges. And yes, we have barriers. But that doesn’t define who we are and what we’re capable of. And I think if philanthropy spent more time in rural communities and listening to the success stories they would see this to be true. And they would be investing very strategically in these communities. But I think it’s important for people to check their biases at the door. And it takes a level of self awareness for people to realize that they carry these biases, and to really just say, Hey, I’m going to place them here. And I’m just going to connect to human to human. And we’re going to work on this together. {How did you do that?} Come with humility. {Yeah.} I believe strongly in the importance of seeing one another’s humanity, I think our I don’t want to get too much on this in on a rant, but I think our society is broken, and that we’ve forgotten to see one another as human beings. And we have put people in boxes. And I think our, our political systems and our social media channels just perpetuate these narratives that are, I think, devastating to our country, and to the state and to children, and I just have no interest in it. I don’t have to agree with everything someone believes, to come forward and treat you with respect, and, and expect the same and work on things for children. I, you know, we don’t, it doesn’t have to be this way. And I think there is a core need for everyone to be seen and valued. And so when we other people when we it happens on both sides, I see it all the time. Dehumanization is never a good idea. And we have become comfortable with dehumanizing each other. And that is a travesty. So I think it’s just really remembering who we are as human beings and being willing to see the humanity of another person at all times.

Erin Borla 12:16
And how so I think the work that you’re doing now to we are talking a lot about mental and behavioral health for really young children. So how has that been really digging into that a little bit more? I know, you’ve really laid the groundwork, even here today, talking about how it impacts your reading levels and everything else. But what are some of those supports that we can be paying attention to as funders, as community members, as people that care about the well being of young people?

Kali Thorne Ladd 12:42
Well, I think certainly supporting training of educators and childcare workers and those, the childcare workforce is woefully understaffed, and many of them have expressed feeling as though they don’t get enough training and support to support children. And so investing in modules or coaching for early ed workers and the workforce varies, you know, whether it’s a para educator or a preschool teacher or Learning Center Director, or you know, all those pieces. I think people feel they’re dealing with a lot right now. And the behaviors have increased, there are many that feel that children have become more violent, and they don’t feel safe. They’re underpaid, too. So investment in slots that can be reimbursed in a rate where they’re getting a living wage is like a huge thing. But I don’t know that philanthropy alone can resolve that matter. {That’s a systemic issue} That’s a systemic issue there. But really providing like I said, coaching and training, Children’s Institute has this Early Learning Academy, we also have the early school success work, and that’s working with districts in both urban and rural areas. We have touched over 160 educators in our early learning academy that have touched over 70,000 children. And it’s really about the early years early grades alignment. And helping schools and early learning centers and preschools understand how to work together to have that seamless alignment and bringing in families in meaningful ways and then supporting from a child development standpoint. And we, philanthropy has supported us to provide this cohort coaching to schools. I think we need to be doing more of that. The outcomes that we’ve heard from the people participant participating have been very positive. {Yeah.} And I think schools feel like they need more of this early learning spaces feel like they need more of this. And it’s only recently as I said, that mental health, early relational health, has been part of the educational ecosystem that has always been over here. And so when we bring them together, the systems don’t always align right. The systems aren’t taught so how do we create space for these people in the educational side to have access to these other systems?

Erin Borla 15:06
So talk about working with funders. How, what do you find most effective in working with philanthropy? What do you, what do you think is working really well? What do you think is like, oh, I wish that wasn’t happening that way.

Kali Thorne Ladd 15:18
I think there’s a lot of opportunity for philanthropy to work collectively and in resolving some early childhood issues. So I think when philanthropy invests in education, they invest a lot more in the K 12 system than they do in early learning. And I think part of it is because it’s a more disparate system, it’s for profit businesses, like there’s their reasons for why there are some very tangibles, as I was saying earlier with these community navigators and anchored in hubs, there are very specific things that I could see the system benefiting from that philanthropy, if they collectively invested in them, could make a difference in like, very tangibly and our experience with philanthropy has been good, I think, as an organization that does work with educators. So our our work on the ground is with communities and with the adults that are touching children, but we, we don’t run tutoring programs or things that are direct service to children. Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand who we are, and Bridgespan group, which is the National sort of research Think Tank Group, they have done this work recently on what they call field catalysts. Which are organizations that are catalytic for a particular field and changing the game. And I think Children’s Institute is a field catalysts organization for early childhood. And I think they are doing this work to help funders very specifically understand the importance and vital role that these intermediary system change agents play because we are a bridge between community and government, often between urban and rural, between K 12 and early childhood, between early learning and health and you need these nongovernmental organizations who are apolitical to be bridges to tie these systems together, because there isn’t really trust amongst them. There is not relationship and I have found that helping philanthropy understand that has helped us with, you know, getting investment. Where sometimes I say we’re sort of like the wind and the trees. we move things, but people don’t always see us. But you know, the Department of Early Learning and care talks to us regularly trying to understand and unfortunately, government doesn’t have the capacity it needs either. They’re they’re woefully understaffed. And I think people have lost a lot of polling suggests people have lost faith and trust in government. So Children’s Institute coming in is a little different than than a government employee coming in. And then when you deal with communities who are undocumented, and like, then, it’s, you know, there’s, there’s so many layers. I still, I don’t retract what I said before people need to go, they’re never going to build a relationship if you never show up. {Yeah.} And in fact, it just justifies you know, the anger and animosity, so show up for people, and maybe there’ll be good to build trust with government. You know I think our governor has started to do that she said that she visited 39 counties in Oregon, and I don’t know how often the governors have taken the time to spend, not for campaigning, just to be present and to listen, and that’s really important. And you know, I don’t know I don’t know if it will radically change people but at least I know her policy and decision making is going to be informed by realities of Oregonians across the state, and that is important sometimes it’s not what you’re gonna get but what you can give as well.

Erin Borla 18:19
You touched a little bit on workforce too. And in getting those trained professionals and, you know, even talking in that K-12 space or early childhood for students that have those higher needs. How do we support the Workforce Development for, how do we make it exciting for people to want to get into that work? It’s increasing the wages it’s…

Kali Thorne Ladd 18:39
Yeah, I mean, what I’ve seen so Central Oregon has done a really good job. Deschutes County, I think private philanthropy in the bend Chamber of Commerce have really invested in with Central Oregon Community College workforce training programs, specifically for the Early Childhood space, and so they have fast track programs and others that are focusing on beefing up the workforce and have gotten investments, like I said, public/private. And there’s just, fortunately, the business community and in the Bend area sees this as a huge economic development issue. They are hearing from their workers, that they can’t afford housing, they can’t afford childcare. And there’s not enough slots. And so they just decided we’re gonna prioritize this. I would love to see more, more communities prioritizing it, but it’s a trifecta of partnerships. And I think even in smaller communities, there are opportunities, assuming there is either a community college or workforce investment, sort of training programs. You know, some of early childhood, it’s I think apprenticeship models are more appropriate than sort of your degreed. That’s controversial people could differ, but I think there’s a lot of opportunity to support the development of these programs that both recruit and train, and then there’s retention mechanisms as well. Blue Mountain Community College is also doing some really innovative work to recruit and retain that early childhood workforce.

Erin Borla 20:06
So just briefly, I want to touch on preschool promise, just for folks that aren’t familiar with what preschool promise is, can you give sort of just a quick landscape?

Kali Thorne Ladd 20:15
Yeah, preschool promise is a subsidy. That is a public subsidy that supports low income families to act, to have preschool slots. And the, I think big differentiator between preschool promise a and OPK is that the reimbursement rate is higher, and the salaries connected to a preschool promise slot is larger. The intention when preschool promise was started was that this was sort of the pilot and would be expanded to incentivize the system to pay more and to, you know, have greater reimbursement rates. And so what I’ve seen in some of the Early Learning Centers, so in some communities, particularly some of the rural communities that are larger, Baker County is a perfect example. They have Baker Early Learning Center, and it’s made up they use a blended funding model. So they’re using both Headstart, OPK and preschool promise slot dollars, and there’s private pay, and all of those children. So you don’t know who is what people are based on the requirements. They’re matching them with the families, but they, this is, you know, 100, 150 kids in one Early Learning Center, made up of both toddlers rooms, preschool, and preschool three and four rooms, and kindergarten rooms. And so they use a blend, and they serve everybody. And many feel that that’s a good model, because then you’re not differentiating kids by income, or their families, you know, by income. They’re just all learning together. And there is a lot of research that say multi income communities are beneficial for all. And so I don’t know if that that answers your question, but it really I see that it varies how people use those dollars varies from place to place.

Erin Borla 22:00
Well, and I think that example of having, especially in a smaller community, when you know, everybody, yeah, it’s nice to have everybody together. {Yeah}. Like, oh, sorry, you’re in that class, and everybody else is in this class. {Yeah.} So.

Kali Thorne Ladd 22:12
I think it’s much better. Yeah. Well, it doesn’t marginalize children in any way.

Erin Borla 22:16
Right? It’s the great equalizer. Right? Great. Well, anything, any last minute things you want to share, you want to talk about and touch on? I just, I so appreciate you being here.

Kali Thorne Ladd 22:26
Yeah, I mean, I guess I would just encourage communities to continue to think about how they anchor their community around children, not just the learning environments, or the health environments, but the built in environments as well. There’s a lot of community design and infrastructure being built, we just passed a $50 million infrastructure fund for child care facilities. Specifically, we would love to see those dollars get out into communities across the state. And it can be for new builds, it can be for renovation of existing, it could be for expansion, it’s really important to us, we know that if the 50 million is spent quickly, it puts us in a better position to get more resource. And we know that infrastructure is one of the things that are prohibiting the expansion of childcare. And so know that that’s out there. Know that we have a desire to grow that that pot of resource and and that’s another way for philanthropy to also step in and match dollars to build infrastructure that supports early childhood. So the workforce and the built environment are the two things that I think are most important to provide access to childcare and early childhood spaces. And never underestimate the impact you can have on a child’s life, whether they’re your own child or not. Yeah, centering our communities around children, I think will help us as a society, resolve a lot of issues that we are contending with now.

Erin Borla 23:53
It’s been so great, thank you for spending time and talking about all of the things that you’re working on at Children’s Institute and your expertise, your ability to get into community and build trust and connect. It’s so inspiring, and I just so appreciate you.

Kali Thorne Ladd 24:06
It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Erin Borla 24:15
Thanks so much for tuning in. I always love talking with Kali. I think she has done so much great work around child development and really truly understands the ecosystem that all these different programs come together in. And I think in the big picture, we need to think about education holistically. There are systemic problems that make it hard to zero in on where we as philanthropic funders can have the most positive impact in the education system. We certainly can’t fund education all on our own. We are working alongside state and federal partners to be able to do this work and so we have to work in work within that system. And working within that system means that that we have to understand the boundaries of that system and where we can push a little bit. I think it’s also it’s important that we Look at all the pieces that affect education in a community. It’s living wages for teachers, but it’s also Housing and Economic Development. And infrastructure. Like talking about aging school buildings, new curriculum needs, new updates for the library, or the technology, access to green space and outdoor space that is safe and comfortable in places to play. There’s so much more that goes into creating a vibrant school and a community. And that doesn’t matter if it’s urban or rural. I think funders need to invest in early learning in particular, I think Colleen mentioned that the need is really great out there. There’s lots of opportunities. We’ve invested at roundhouse through professional development, for Early Learning educators for tracks for early learning for professional development. So those those folks that are looking to get new steps certifications, can get access to those without actually having to leave the classroom. There’s opportunities for those to do that work while they’re in the classroom. I think we also want to talk about behavioral issues and those impacts how teachers teach. It’s hard to educate when we have behavioral issues happening in the classroom. And if we talk about some of those things that are creating some of those issues, we can have those early learning experiences, and parent education and supporting programs, programs and projects like parent trainings or relief nurseries that provide those opportunities for parents to really get clear understanding on how to best support their young family as it grows. I think we as funders need to be thinking about this key question, which is how we get more people to be excited to be teachers, and how do we support them through that process? And I think it’s providing some of those additional supports holistically in the community and centering children. Thanks for being here with me. We have links to all kinds of extra reading and information from Kelly and Children’s Institute, as well as a transcript of the episode at




Published On: March 12th, 2024 / Categories: Funding Rural Podcast /