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Latinx Leader Spotlight: Pilar Torres

December 3, 2021

This spotlight highlights Latinx early childhood leader Pilar Torres. Pilar is co-founder and president of LUNA Latinas Unidas which provides advocacy and professional and business development services to Latina early childhood professionals.

Pilar Torres

Pilar is co-founder and president of LUNA Latinas Unidas which provides advocacy and professional and business development services to Latina early childhood professionals. LUNA was selected as a Promising Ventures Fellow 2020. ESCALERAS, LUNA’S flagship training model, was the Pilot Track Winner of the 2018 Harvard-Zaentz Early Childhood Innovation Challenge. Pilar is currently consulting with the National Workforce Registry Alliance to support its work towards greater equity accountability and with The BUILD Initiative on developing supports for Home-Based Child Care. Pilar has provided consulting services on early childhood policy to national advocacy organizations, state governments in the US, and national governments in Latin America. She has over twenty years of experience designing and implementing human services that focus on access and equity. Pilar has served on several state and national boards and advisory groups including the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC) and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). Her awards include the NAFCC’s 2021 Maria Otto Leadership Award. Pilar is currently an Ed.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

A Call to Action on Behalf of Latina Home-Based Child Care Providers: A Proven Solution

Pilar Torres, a nationally recognized advocate for Latina caregivers, saw a need for Latina home-based child care providers to improve their digital literacy in order to become licensed home-based child care providers: this would enable them to formally enter the early care and education system and qualify for subsidy payments from families they served. In 2017, a dozen of these providers came together in Philadelphia and, in less than a year, achieved this goal using a training and licensing model Torres designed. Called ESCALERAS, Spanish for “ladders“ or “stairs,” it offered them the required training and support in their native language. In 2018, Torres won the first-place award from Harvard’s Saul Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge. We spoke with Torres about her plans for the model.

Scaling it Up

Torres now aims to take ESCALERAS to scale, offering a virtual, national Community of Practice, technical assistance, and advocacy, under the name Latinas Unidas por los Niños de America (LUNA). LUNA launched in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, providing training and support to more than 1500 Latina family child care providers struggling to stay open and provide child care for Latina workers in essential retail, trade, health, and other professions. Advocacy efforts have included championing greater, more targeted investments in this population of providers in Maryland and connecting, for legislators and decision makers, school readiness data with no access to quality care in specific communities. Advocacy efforts have also included two classes offered in Spanish to help Latinas apply for PPP loans, helping them advocate for themselves in states such as New York and Illinois, submitting comments to NAEYC’s Power to the Profession effort, and BUILD’s Dual Language Workgroup, which convened to make statewide systems responsive to the cultural and linguistic diversity of children and families and to ensure that ARPA funds are distributed equitably.

In 2020, the same year LUNA was launched, it was selected as a Promising Ventures Fellow. Torres is working with Latinx elected officials, state leaders, and early childhood education advocates to establish LUNA as a technical assistance hub that provides a pathway to licensing, starting in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Georgia.

Shattering Myths

But for this pilot effort to be successful, some myths must first be debunked. Torres noted the notion of child care “deserts” in underserved rural and urban communities describes a shortage of formal child care. But this notion makes the vast numbers of home-based child care providers invisible, many of whom are Black and Latina. That invisibility has led to an absence of actionable knowledge and data to help them succeed. For example, if the ECE system is not connecting to these providers, or even recognizing their role in providing essential care, how can we design policies and strategies that address their unique needs? Torres said:

No one is concertedly looking at this population of providers. They appear in different programs and there are some strategies in some specific localities, but there is no one we can find that is looking at this on the national scene to gather information on what they want, what they need, and what is happening to them.

Another myth is that Latina home-based providers don’t seek licensure because they want to avoid state child care regulations. According to Torres, it’s a false narrative that lets too many local, state, and federal policymakers off the hook for not doing more to help Latina providers navigate the system. She noted:

Our experience is that these women have never been offered a clear, welcoming, and achievable way to become licensed. No one has ever spoken to them or, if they have, they are connected to one little piece of the system and it can be a very unpleasant experience, filled with rejection. They hear things like: ‘Why don’t you speak English?’ or ‘Your education credentials are not valid here.’

LUNA: An Answer to Apathy

These and other myths have generated decades of inertia when it comes to supporting Latina entrepreneurs, increasing access to quality child care in low-income communities, improving the odds of school success for children learning English, and assuring the US Latina workforce can get and keep good jobs. LUNA offers a roadmap to those outcomes but getting its training platform to scale means changing the status quo of the nation’s early childhood system when it comes to Latina home-based educators. This is no easy task. Torres said:

We are hitting every nerve – proven training, advocacy, being methodical, being recognized by national organizations. Why is it that we cannot find and identify an entity to support this work? Equity is when the rubber hits the road, and this means distributing resources and power more equitably. Everyone says they want innovation and equity and out-of-the-box-thinking, but then it appears to be a little too much innovation and equity, and the system remains entrenched in ‘one-size-fits-all/this is how we’ve always done it.’ Equity requires innovation, and innovation requires risk. If we are authentically trying to reach underserved populations, then we must recognize that what we are doing doesn’t work for these providers who may be invisible to the system but have been serving families for decades with no support from the system.

Calling on Policymakers

Policymakers are listening, according to Zuly Vazquez, an Atlanta-based Early Head Start education manager who has enlisted dozens of home-based care providers into LUNA. But she says that listening is not enough: “When you come up with ideas to support Latinas, they listen — they nod their heads and say ‘okay.’ But we need action. That is the part that is missing. The policymakers support equity. But where is the action?”

Give Latina Home-based Providers What They Need to Succeed

A July 2021 report sounded the alarm about Latina and other home-based care providers not getting federal COVID relief dollars because they lack licensure, a fact that’s causing despair among the providers. Torres said:

There is no LUNA meeting where someone doesn’t cry. We are taking care of babies for essential workers to reopen the economy, and placing our lives and those of our family at risk, so why are we not getting the resources that we need? Open the path. Make it welcoming and provide a little bit of support, language, a space to connect – then, these providers will be unstoppable. Latinas are willing and able to step up to the challenge given the right opportunities. They see this as their American dream. This is why they came here – to start a business – to provide for their families.

Torres has done the heavy lifting. She saw a problem and developed a proven solution that has been recognized by national organizations. It’s up to policymakers and funders to support her vision of providing licensing opportunities for Latina family child care providers.

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