Q&A: UNICEF’s U.S. Programs Director Explains How the Organization’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative Will Elevate the Needs and the Voices of All Children and Adolescents

For more than 70 years, UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, has been working to ensure that children across the globe have the access they deserve to food, shelter, safety, education, and a dignified childhood. And while they work in the world’s toughest places to reach the most disadvantaged children and adolescents, they remain committed to protecting the rights of every child, everywhere. In fact, they have recently expanded their programming and partnerships to realize the rights of children here in the United States, an economic superpower with many socio-economic gaps. Last summer, UNICEF launched its Child Friendly Cities Initiative (CFCI) in the United States. CFCI is a worldwide program established in 1996 with the goal of bringing together stakeholders and UNICEF to create safe, inclusive and child-responsive cities and communities.ProgressReport.co caught up with Danielle Goldberg, the Managing Director of U.S. Programs and the Child Friendly Cities Initiative at UNICEF USA, to learn how it might work in conjunction with or in parallel to UnidosUS, its Affiliate Network, and its partners in the Latino policy and advocacy realm.

A: UNICEF works in over 190 countries and territories, but primarily in low-income countries, helping all children to survive and thrive. Ultimately, UNICEF’s mission is to promote and protect the rights of children, and that is universal—the rights of children everywhere, without discrimination. That’s the lifeblood of everything we do, from our programs and operations, to policy and advocacy work to collaborative partnerships in communities. That is why UNICEF National Committees like UNICEF USA are engaging in advocacy and programming in higher-income countries around the world. At UNICEF USA, we look for opportunities that allow us to add value and have local impact for children, drawing on UNICEF’s global expertise and examples. All we have to do is stop and look at child well-being data in the United States, and we see that there is need and opportunity to help move the needle for children—particularly the most vulnerable—by putting child rights into action right here at home.

Danielle Goldberg,managing director U.S. Programs and the Child Friendly Cities Initiative at UNICEF USA

UNICEF USA has been doing just that in various ways in the United States. We are working with U.S.-based non-governmental agencies to assist migrant children on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico. We’ve worked with local partners in Puerto, Houston, and Bay County, FL to meet the immediate relief and longer-term psychological needs of children and families impacted by natural disasters. We’ve also been working to address the mental health needs of vulnerable communities hardest-hit by COVID-19, in partnership with the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban in Brooklyn, NY, and the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health in Navajo and White Mountain Apache communities.

We hope to only strengthen this work through UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative in the United States, formally launched this past August, on International Youth Day. To date, we are working with a cohort of six pilot communities, including the cities of Houston, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Prince George’s County (just beyond the beltway of Washington, D.C.) to implement this ambitious two-year process toward recognition as a UNICEF Child Friendly City. We aim to do this by building upon the good work of our city partners, adding two key ingredients: first, a commitment from the city and community leadership to put children firstand infuse equity and child rights in their policies, and second, a commitment to ensure that children and young people have a seat at the table and are treated as partners to help solve the problems they are facing.

Q: How did you collect the data in order to build the right programming?

A: We look at extensive global, national, and local data on child well-being and input from leading experts from UNICEF and across the United States—including young people themselves, who are experts in their own lived experiences—to inform our U.S. programming. When we look at global data on child well-being, we see that our children in the United States are not faring as well as children in other wealthy countries around the world. In fact, a recent UNICEF global study found that the United States ranked 36 out of 38 among high income countriesin terms of child well-being—looking at mental health, physical health, and job preparedness. Additionally, UNICEF USA had previously conducted its own national situation analysis of every possible issue impacting children in the United States. Our findings revealed what should be no surprise to those working on children’s issues in the United States: that significant gaps in meeting children’s rights occur in every state and in every sector, from health and nutrition to education, protection from violence and exploitation (physical and psychological), and youth participation.

In conducting our own rapid gap analysis since COVID-19 crisis struck, we found the high degree to which both the pandemic and issues of racism only further impacted efforts to achieve equity for every child and family, particularly for those most at risk. Our findings showed that cities in particular are struggling to meet the basic needs of children and young people—such as providing essential mental health, education, nutrition, and child survival services. Additionally, we found that cities typically do not have emergency plans in place that address the needs of children and families, especially the most vulnerable.

Despite these local challenges, cities and communities are also at the forefront of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, are core providers of many essential services, and the first points of contact for citizens. So, now more than ever, we see a lot of opportunity to partner with local leaders, children, youth, families, and to put this child rights approach that UNICEF has developed for other cities around the world into practice here in the United States. Using our CFCI framework for action, our pilot cities and county are acting as local and national leaders in building child-friendly emergency response and preparedness plans as part of a larger citywide child rights strategy grounded in promoting youth voices and social justice and equity.

Youth participating in UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative. Photo Courtesy of UNICEF USA.

Q: While it would seem we all understand that children have rights, what in UNICEF terms do those rights include?

Child rights are human rights and they should be universal. They should cut across religion, culture, and politics. This gets into the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, which is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. It looks at everything—the child’s ability to thrive depends on civil, economic, political, social, and cultural rights. Without a shared framework for children to unify everyone’s work, usually organizations and agencies working for children end up working in silos. Maybe they’ll just look at education, such as reading and math levels, or they’ll look at access to nutritious foods, clean air, or water, health and sanitation, or housing concerns. A child rights approach says these are all interconnected, that we need to look at them all holistically, from the prenatal years to age 18, because all of that development impacts a child’s opportunities.

Child rights also looks at another aspect we don’t always think about—a child’s right to be heard, to participate, and to be taken seriously—in an age-appropriate way—on the issues that affect them. Children should be seen not as passive beneficiaries but as social actors. When you ask kids about problems they’re facing, and then ask them for help in finding solutions to those problems, you get better outcomes. It’s a cultural shift, and that’s what we’re trying to do in partnership with our CFCI partners in communities across the country. We’re trying to shift the way we see, engage with, and invest in children.

Q: So how can the UnidosUS familia—our Affiliate Network, partnering organizations, or policymakers and thought leaders get involved?

I love that you asked that question. Where our pilot cities and UnidosUS efforts overlap, I can envision opportunities for your local Affiliates to collaborate with CFCI leaders around youth and civic engagement efforts. Additionally, regardless of where members of the UnidosUSfamilialive, there are a couple of immediate ways get involved:

First, they can help advocate in support of child-friendly cities by reaching out to their mayor and urging them to put children first in their city be texting CFCI to 52886 or going to act.unicefusa.org/cfci.

By texting UNITE to 52886 or going to unicefusa.org/unite, they can also join our UNICEF UNITE volunteer community, to learn more on how to get involved and sign up for alerts about legislation affecting children, invites to our events, and meet-ups happening near you.

Finally, for those interested in learning more about the Child Friendly Cities Initiative in the United States, I encourage people to visit our website at https://www.unicefusa.org/mission/usa/childfriendlycities.

Youth participating in UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative. Photo Courtesy of UNICEF USA.

Q: As an American, as the director of this newly minted U.S.-based UNICEF initiative, what makes you excited about connecting people in this country to the rest of the world? Why is it important for thought leaders and concerned citizens of this country to reference and compare notes with those outside their own nation?

One thing I’ve learned through my career promoting human and civil rights in the United States and around the world is that no one country or set of individuals have a monopoly on good ideas and solutions. And, when it comes to child rights, these are equally applicable to every country. As part of a global child rights organization, UNICEF USA is in the unique position to be able to crowdsource expertise and good practices from around the world to help inform the challenges we are facing to improve the lives of children and youth right here at home.

Though UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative is new to the United States, it has been successful in countries around the world. In fact, last October, a delegation of our CFCI local partners, including youth, joined a global delegation of 600 leaders from more than 180 cities at UNICEF’s first Global Child Friendly Cities Summit in Cologne Germany to exchange good practices to advance child rights at the local level. Our U.S. delegates came home with a wealth of great examples from fellow participants—from approaches to child-friendly budgeting to child participation in local policymaking to what local governments can do for migrant and displaced children.

These global CFCI best practices, alongside experiences regularly shared among our U.S. pilot cohort, is helping our city partners to ensure a child-centric response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s also informing their approach to addressing ongoing challenges impacting the most vulnerable and marginalized segments of their population, whether it be addressing issues of racial injustice, closing the digital divide between students, or ensuring equitable access to quality mental health services.

The cities of Houston, Minneapolis, and San Francisco for example are strengthening cross-sectoral collaboration as well as their youth participation mechanisms to influence not only their emergency response and recovery efforts, but also their overall local-level decision-making, planning, and budgeting.  In doing so, they are working to become more responsive to the needs of children, young people and families, building back better through safer, more inclusive and equitable communities for everyone.

The January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol was the latest and largest reminder that the United States’ democratic system is going through some unprecedented times. This is hard on everyone, including children. What measures is UNICEF taking to help participants of the Child Friendly Cities Initiative cope?

The events of January 6 give new urgency to our work to champion the rights of all people, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized, through the Child Friendly Cities Initiative.

By chance, CFCI partners from across the country met on January 7. As we collectively reflected on the prior day, we were renewed by the fact that that the Child Friendly Cities Initiative is at its heart a participatory democratic planning process based on evidence and supported by youth voices. Such civic and youth engagement activities can help cities support their kids to be critical thinkers, to combat misinformation, and to come together in productive ways. 

We applaud the initial steps taken by the new Biden-Harris administration toward promoting inclusion, supporting global health efforts and providing platforms for young people. At the inauguration, National Poet Laureate, 22 year old Amanda Gorman captured our hearts and imagination with her inspiring poem. As part of CFCI, we look forward to supporting and raising this generation’s voices nationwide.