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Lead Partner Perspective: Cory Mathews of Community Education Workers

Posted by Sagarika Ravishankar


Our Lead Partners assume significant leadership roles for SVP and invest substantial time, expertise and energy to steward our investment of human, social and financial capital. They take it upon themselves to oversee the important work we pursue in the community by guiding our capacity building partnerships and keeping both SVP and the Investee we’re working with accountable to our goals. They serve as the primary liaison between an Investee and the SVP partnership, and they are pivotal in developing a trusting and collaborative relationship. It’s no small commitment, and we’re constantly inspired by their perspective and their dedication.

This month, we’re talking to Cory Mathews. He serves as Lead Partner for our investment in the  Community Education Workers (CEW) program. We invested in CEW in 2014 to support early parent-child learning in a community-driven, culturally specific way. Launched initially in Latino, Native, and African-American communities, the model addresses the root causes impacting Kindergarten Readiness, parenting strength, and community empowerment. We asked Cory about his experience as a Lead Partner, and for his perspective on CEW’s work and progress.  

Why did you decide to join SVP?

I joined in conjunction with my wife, Christyn Dundorf, who is an early childhood professional. We had heard many positive things about SVP’s efforts, and I really liked the venture philanthropy model. Since joining, I have been amazed by the dedication and energy that Partners put into projects. Wendy Weissman, for example, as the “Lead of Lead Partners” has been a tireless coach and model for me, and I’m still amazed she can track so many projects at once.  

Why did you decide to be a Lead Partner?

SVP approached me about becoming a Lead and seemed to have a strange confidence that I could fit the role. My experience is primarily in human services in government and various non-profits working with teens and parents, currently as a court-connected family mediator for Clackamas County. The role of Lead was described to me as a sort of liaison between SVP and the Investee, which piqued my curiosity as a mediator and facilitator. I had little idea what this work would entail, but the prospect of being paired with a project that is doing the hard work of empowering families as they navigate the early childhood landscape was intriguing.

What about CEW spoke to you?

The Community Education Worker project has its foundation in community health work, which tackles social problems at a macro-scale. I come from a different academic background in conflict resolution, but really admire the CEW approach of addressing the challenges facing families in the big picture of structural inequities around them, rather than pathologizing families like other alternatives. CEW is an inherently strengths-based model because it draws from and practices within the communities it serves. Community Education Workers connect with families in their own neighborhoods and in their native languages, advocating, educating, and facilitating entry into systems that are often intimidating, confusing, and less than inviting for communities of color. CEWs empower family members to advocate for children entering the early childhood system and local schools.

What about this experience has been valuable for you?

While much of these past six months I have been learning how to be most helpful to the Investee, I have been impressed with the collaborative relationships we have built–with the head of CEW, Arika Bridgeman-Bunyoli, and her CEW crew, and with the fellow SVP partners in the SVP-CEW “team”–Lauren Johnson, Wendy Weissman, Ellen Macke, and Oscar Mayer. Together, we have tackled thorny issues as they have arisen and figured out how to navigate changes and transitions on the teams. There is always something to work on, and I feel supported and inspired by the talented people surrounding me in it.

How does CEW create system-wide changes in early childhood education?

CEW is a relatively young program but has attracted attention and energy from providers and institutional supports far beyond its current size. Latino Network spearheaded an effort in the legislature that would have launched the CEW model across the state but fell short of funding votes in the end. This led to an ongoing conversation about a regional push for CEW certification. CEW brings a culturally-responsive approach to families and children, and while the factors that influence school readiness are many and complex, it helps families to transition into early childhood education. Many questions remain, such as how CEW training and experience may map onto the Oregon Registry Program for early childhood providers. And more work needs to be done as CEW expands its scope and impact.  

How does the collaborative work and partner with culturally specific organizations and schools in the community?

CEW currently consists of four nonprofit, culturally-specific organizations gathered around a central collaborative: NAYA, Latino Network, Urban League, and IRCO. Each organization provides supervision and institutional support for its specifically-trained Community Education Workers, who each have a vote in their consensus model. They meet monthly as a steering team, and also as the supervisors team, to make decisions on the direction of the group. While the model is adapted to meet the specific needs of each of its current five cultural communities, CEWs do home visits, facilitate groups, and participate in school service programs like SUN schools.

Have there been any “aha” moments?

Yes, recently on a Friday I volunteered for a CEW family night at the Children’s Museum. IRCO staff arranged an evening for CEW families at the museum, and dozens of families turned out with their children for the event. CEWs provided the food, including some amazing samosas brought from IRCO’s Africa House. The director of the Children’s Museum greeted each family, and the entry echoed with children’s voices in Somali, Zomi (from Myanmar), Spanish, and English. It was truly a multicultural night, and I watched the CEWs navigate between the families with ease. The message was one of welcoming and embracing all, and the families seemed to appreciate it. As a hopeful model of inclusion, respect, and empowerment, CEW is the antithesis and in many ways a remedy for the anti-immigrant, anti-inclusion messages that have become so vociferous over the past year. CEWs are trusted resources within the very communities that can feel targeted and denigrated right now, and they bring a very different message of support and encouragement.

With SVP’s investment, how is CEW able to prove and improve their impact?

I believe that SVP has provided invaluable support for the CEW program at its beginning, fostering conversations about the model and its direction. SVP has financially supported the evaluation of the model as it has grown. SVP Partners advise and serve on the evaluation team convened by Dr. Noelle Wiggins. Their work documents the program’s effectiveness and culminates in an evaluation report. Beyond this, SVP has provided human capital in the form of its support team, and in current projects like writing a strategic framework in concert with the CEW team, which is leading to conversations about further potential needs like a marketing and messaging plan for approaching its institutional funders as CEW determines ways to expand and grow its impact.

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