Why I Was Invited to the Rev. Al Sharpton's Birthday


Photo by White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans

Photo by White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans

I lived in New York City for five years, so traveling back to speak on a panel focused on racial equity in early learning was something I was really looking forward to. I still remember the passion and energy in the city around equity.
The attendees and panelists at last week’s event certainly didn’t disappoint. The Educational Summit was organized to celebrate the 60th birthday of the Rev. Al Sharpton. He requested an action-oriented event bringing together leaders in the field to develop solutions for what he calls the civil rights issue of the 21st century: education. Only a nationally recognized leader for civil rights and equity would have that as his birthday wish!
The Rev. Sharpton’s organization, National Action Network, put on the event, and by inviting Thrive to participate, it recognized Washington state as a leader on racial equity in early learning. This is a real testament to the work that Early Learning Regional Coalitions and committed advocates in our state have been doing. You – our partners in Washington – have raised awareness about how children are faring as they enter kindergarten and what our early learning system can do to make sure all children enter school ready to succeed. It takes building on what works and being willing to change what isn’t working.
FullSizeRenderI spoke on a panel, Early Bird Gets the Worm: Preparing Young Learners Before They Get to School. It was moderated by Dr. James Peterson, associate professor of English and Director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, and my co-panelists were Tobeka G. Green, president and CEO of the National Black Child Development Institute; Vanessa Perez, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College; and David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
We began focusing on the importance of using strength-based language when we approach our work with families. I started off by making sure folks knew we use the term “opportunity gap” in our conversations because we believe that’s the root cause of disparities. It’s not an “achievement gap.”
We talked about how valuing the parent’s role as a child’s first and most important teacher is also key to how we should be interacting with families. Examples of the messages developed through Washington’s “Love. Talk. Play.” campaign illustrate how you lead with strengths, providing families and caregivers with simple tools to promote quality interactions that help prepare their children for school and life. We know from experience with our community partners that those messages have been impactful in connecting to communities furthest from opportunity.
Dr. Peterson, the moderator, really wanted to get a sense for what interventions can promote equity, and the importance of home visiting and quality child care was something that really popped out in that discussion. I made sure to touch on the building blocks of the racial equity theory of change and how important they are to develop an early learning system in a different way. To live in a state where race is not a predictor of future success for young children, we must:

  • have community voice at the table
  • value the lived experiences of families
  • urge decision makers to strive to be responsive to the unique needs of children and families
  • design the system itself with an equity lens

For the past two years, I’ve been talking about this work in the Pacific Northwest, where I expect head nods and polite smiles from participants when my words resonate. It warmed my heart to be back in New York City, getting that verbal confirmation from the crowd that we’re on the right path. A few shouts of, “That’s right!” never hurt anyone.