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Leadership Matters But Socially Diverse Leadership May Matter Most Of All

February 26, 2020

This excerpt from remarks by Dr. Aisha Ray, BUILD Initiative Distinguished Fellow, during a panel discussion at QRIS 2018, call for socially diverse leadership in early childhood to accurately reflect the racial, ethnic and linguistic make up of the field and to develop effective strategies that tackle structural racism, disproportionality, and other inequities in child and family serving systems.

I believe that equity, justice, and early childhood systems change requires that leaders reflect the complex social diversities present in the children, families, communities, and workforce served in all early childhood systems and settings. In systems-building work, we continue to face thorny problems, such as systemic inequality, disproportionality in the workforce, underfunding, inadequate compensation, and fragmentation. If we intend to solve these and other challenging problems that characterize early childhood systems, we need leadership at policy tables (e.g., municipal, state, federal) where key decisions are made that is socially diverse (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation). This assertion is not simply my opinion but is based on decades of research from psychology, demography, sociology, and organizational science. Socially diverse groups compared to groups where everyone is the same (e.g., all heterosexual males, all White, all Latinx) are more innovative, make better decisions, are more creative, respond more effectively to unanticipated challenges, and are more inclined to search for new information, which in turn appears to lead to better problem solving and decision making. How groups function matters and understanding how group composition influences group decision making is essential in our field. While I acknowledge that diversity is a tough issue, I believe that understanding why social diversity helps us is a way to lean into diversity work, even when it may at times be difficult.

According to Katherine Phillips, a leader in this research area, socially diversity makes us smarter. She argues that we need to recognize that informational diversity is the key driver of positive group performance, and “that people who are different from one another in race, gender, and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand”…and that is a good thing. It is good because, on average, socially diverse groups develop better solutions to tough problems. For example, research on decision making in small groups in which some groups were racially diverse and others were racially homogeneous indicate that the racially diverse groups significantly outperformed the homogeneous groups. Homogeneity appears to lead people to assume that group members share common perspectives and information. This belief tends to negatively influence their processing of information which, in turn, makes them less creative and innovative. In addition, when individuals know that the group is racially like them or shares their gender, they tend to prepare less rigorously than when they know that the group will include people who are different from them. This suggests that socially diverse groups work harder because participants anticipate that people will come to those groups with different knowledge and experience from their own. Phillips concludes that, “Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.” When we work in socially diverse groups, it is more likely that we will be more creative and find better solutions to the challenges before us than when we work in groups with no-to-minimal social diversity.

There is an added benefit to having evidence-based research that demonstrates the relationship between social diversity and positive decision making and creativity because it may make moral arguments, which some may resist, unnecessary. Social diversity is not important only because of issues related to equality of opportunity. It is also not only relevant because of the demographic imperative that is creating a society with “no-single racial majority.” To me, but perhaps not everyone, those issues matter a great deal too.

There are socially diverse leaders working in early childhood systems and we need to know more about them, their professional paths, current work, networks, and aspirations. But the current reality is that we do not appear to have sufficient social diversity in leadership at all levels of early childhood systems (e.g., city, state, and federal), in numerous roles (e.g., program administrators, state policy leaders), or all domains of work (e.g., practice, policy, research). For example, our child and family populations in all settings of early learning (e.g., childcare, home-based, center-based) is very racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse, and continuing to be more diverse. The teaching workforce in the early learning system, both home-based and center-based, are between 40 percent and 50 percent women of color, depending on the type of program we consider. While this social diversity in early childhood education and care programs is impressive, this level of diversity does not appear to be present in state and federal policy leadership.

How do we change that? How do we begin to make the policy tables, for example, more representative of the workforce that is made up of nearly 50 percent women of color, and how do we interrogate and dismantle the hidden and explicit ways in which structural racism, disproportionality, and inequities influence and shape the development of socially diverse leadership in our own field? Building a field that not only values social diversity but begins to design, fund, and initiate creative strategies and initiatives to support socially diverse leadership for policy change would be very innovative and very smart.

At QRIS 2018, Dr. Ray facilitated a panel on socially diverse leadership in early childhood. Watch the panel discussion here. We’ll cover important topics like socially diverse leadership and much more at QRIS 2020. Find out more and register here.

Speakers: Lea J.E. Austin, Center for the Study of Child Care Employment UC-Berkeley; Cemeré James, National Black Child Development Institute; BB Otero, Otero Strategy Group; Aisha Ray, the BUILD Initiative.

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