Creating Community and More Through Friday CAFE

Friday CAFE is a learning community for family and community engagement professionals. Friday CAFE takes place one Friday morning a month, and includes time for networking and conversation, a brief presentation, and spirited discussion. Membership is broad and open to all. Friday CAFE is administered by the San Mateo County Office of Education and funded by First 5 San Mateo County. 

I first experienced a Friday CAFE gathering in 2019. As a parent leader of Parent Voices, I was invited by Janelle Fine, community organizer, to attend Friday CAFE and share my story about how access to quality childcare closed generational poverty for my daughter Alexis, now a senior at USC. I was invited back to Friday CAFE in 2020 to speak as a Conversation Catalyst about racism and diversity, and most recently I was invited to serve as an advisory board member for Friday CAFE. 

From my experience, Friday CAFE provides a space that sparks innovative thinking, builds connections, and strengthens the field of family engagement, making a difference for this field and the people in it. 

Sparking innovative thinking

Friday CAFE offers the kind of space that welcomes and embraces diversity. The space promotes innovative thinking, especially about how we partner with marginalized families. Families of diverse identities are embraced to come as we are. Building a community of support around and in partnership with parents, caregivers, and family engagement professionals is a transformative approach to systems change. Across these systems, we have centuries of prevailing racist ideologies that oppress, marginalize, and separate us. Friday CAFE provides a safe space where providers and parent leaders can speak truth to power and be heard, valued and embraced. Bringing parent and family voices to both the planning and implementation sparks innovative thinking.

Building connections

At Friday CAFE, I have made connections across race, class and gender, with women, women of color, and fathers. As a woman of color and a single mother who has earned a Masters degree and has over a decade of experience working in the family engagement profession, it is important to stay connected with other professionals who are exceptional and amazing and who can relate to my story or who dare to embrace all of me in professional and community spaces. Serving as a conversation catalyst and as an advisory board member has allowed me to not just be Mom (who I am 24/7) but it also has allowed me to stay connected with professionals—including my own professional self. That brings me to…

Strengthening the family engagement field

Participating in Friday CAFE has provided me the opportunity to continue my involvement in and contribution to the family engagement field. Friday CAFE provides the opportunity to learn from and with other family engagement professionals and parent leaders. The diverse participants in Friday CAFE is its strength—and the strength of the family engagement field. Through our discussions, we are able to inform the field, keeping the practices and ourselves connected and relevant. Together, we help one another overcome our challenges, systemic and personal, to find ourselves as change agents. We have the agency to keep the family engagement field relevant and meaningful!

Creating a restorative experience

Friday CAFE has truly been a sacred space. I have been empowered to share my authentic stories about motherhood, life, trauma and resilience, and that has been restorative. Friday CAFE is a holistic outlet to connect with others and to take time out for myself, away from myriad of never-ending household duties, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to Friday CAFE and the funding provided by First 5, I have been able to reconnect with myself as a professional, and I have been supported through a journey of introspection where I am currently re-evaluating my circumstances and resetting my intentions in the field of family engagement, and in life as a woman of color, a single mother, a parent leader, and a professional. It has been transformational.

As a former foster youth, single mother, a woman of color, and first-generation college graduate, Valerie Higgins has fought for social justice, has survived, and persevered to make a better life for her and her family. Valerie refuses to allow her income, or lack of it, to define who she is. She believes in the transformative power of education, family, love, perseverance, and prosperity have helped her go from a GED to a Master’s degree. Valerie is an advisory board member of Friday CAFE.

“I am not poor. I am rich in spirit, irrespective of my life circumstances. Like Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and yes, Angela Davis, I am a work in progress, I am becoming. I am becoming the woman I was destined to be and although I still don’t know her completely, I know who she is. I am Valerie.”


Kitty Lopez has served as the Executive Director of First 5 San Mateo County since 2012, focusing on policy, advocacy and communications development. Additionally, she is the Chair of First 5 Association of California. Kitty previously served as the Executive Director of Samaritan House, one of the leading safety-net nonprofit agencies serving low-income families and individuals in San Mateo County with food, shelter, clothing, health care, counseling, education classes, and holiday assistance from 2002 to 2012.

Kitty taught kindergarten, second grade, and high school in the Bay Area and in Santa Barbara, and was a consultant in schools with children who have autism and special needs. Additionally, Kitty worked in a residential substance abuse treatment center in San Francisco and psychiatric hospital in San Diego.

She attended University of California Santa Barbara earning a California Teaching Credential and B.A in Psychology. Kitty is active in her community serving on several community boards including HEART (Housing Endowment and Regional Trust of San Mateo County), STEP (Success Through Education Program), and Past President and Current Member of the San Mateo Rotary Club.