In this blog, two early education leaders reflect on the reasons they created a fellowship for equity leaders who want to increase their knowledge, skills, and understanding of leadership and management relevant to today’s early childhood professional communities.
What Brought Us to Equity and Social Justice Work?
By LaWanda Wesley, Director, Quality Enhancement & Professional Development of Early Learning, Oakland Unified School District and Neva Bandelow, Early Learning Program Manager, Alameda County Office of Education
We may have taken different routes to get there but we both arrived at equity and social justice work with a strong desire to create the change we see as needed.
When I (Neva) went back to school for a master’s degree, I started looking at equity andsocial justice in a way that previously, as a white woman in middle-class society, I hadn’t. Having experiences with diverse colleagues, helped me to understand the systemic social injustice that occurs. Being a fellow in the Equity Leaders Action Network (ELAN), and having an opportunity to think about where my community and I could hold impact, were also key.
I (LaWanda) came to this work via my lived experience. I knew I was moving up the administrative ladder, but I remember it always being a lonely struggle. In addition, I started to notice there were fewer and fewer folks who looked like me sitting at the decision-making tables. During research for my doctorate, I found that participants in my study also felt that the uphill climb to leadership was an isolated place. There were three who had their doctorate but weren’t advancing. I wondered why the struggle was so hard.
We joined forces to create Alameda County’s Emerging Leaders Fellowship in Early Care and Education: A Professional Development Opportunity to Achieve Racial Equity and Systems Change, a pilot fellowship for participants who were interested in leading efforts for equity and wanted to increase their knowledge, skills, and understanding of leadership and management relevant to today’s early childhood professional communities. In this blog, we reflect on the reasons why we created it, some of our experiences providing it, and the ways in which it still is resonating, long after it has ended.
Our Project’s Aim: Disrupt the Status Quo on Behalf of Children, Families, and Early Childhood Education Leaders
In this country, we marginalize children and families when we put policies and procedures in place that are designed from a Eurocentric viewpoint. Part of disrupting the status quo involves focusing on the policies and procedures that are contributing to what we see in our data, particularly third-grade data, i.e., the kids who are falling behind are children of color, dual language learners, and kids with special needs. We wanted to see policy change and we also wanted to see curriculum change. Students must be provided with learning activities that are concrete to them and that consider their own culture and family background. We need to examine who is providing services, i.e., do the teachers speak the same language as the families and do administrators understand their cultures? They can’t write effective policies for staff and children if they don’t understand what community they’re serving.
Another way we planned to disrupt the status quo was by ensuring early childhood education leaders reflect the values of a diverse population. We were trying to disrupt the existing macro-system that lets certain people in and keeps other people out. We made sure that wouldn’t be the case for the fellowship we were designing. We also knew that the micro-system was mirroring the macro-system. We knew that the same societal issues that existed outside the doors of early childhood programs found their way inside the door of those programs. The only way to disrupt them is to say we are going to laser in on whatever institutional barriers exist in our society and make sure they don’t exist in our program. So, even from the way the fellows were selected, with their supervisors being a part of their support system and sanctioning their participation, we realized those supervisors could be the same folks that served as a barrier for them, e.g., they didn’t promote them or said they weren’t good enough or they weren’t a good fit or “not right now” – whatever they did or however they explained away year after year why these folks didn’t advance in their careers despite the experience they had.
Pilot Project Successes and Challenges
Early on, we saw that sometimes a supervisor wouldn’t be the one to attest to the skills of a particular fellow. But we realized we could turn to someone in the community who would vouch for him or her. As we moved along in our sessions, there were a couple of supervisors who put up barriers to fellows’ participation in parts of the fellowship, even though they had signed off on their full participation in advance. For instance, one supervisor refused to allow one of our participants to attend a mid-week opportunity to present her own project to the Alameda County Early Care and Education Planning Council. This opportunity was to serve as a strong lever for her professional growth. We had to work through that and actually go beyond her immediate supervisor to make sure the written agreement was in fact realized. In this case, we connected with the executive director of the program (her supervisor’s boss) to discuss our concern. She was granted time away with pay.
As for a success, we had embedded mentors into the program to help with the administrative pieces and for the fellows to learn some skills they may not have had administratively. The mentors were only expected to come every other meeting but they were getting so much out of it, they came every meeting. They decided they wanted to learn right along with the fellows. It was a tremendous experience of learning with no expert in the room. This was a huge success.
We witnessed teachers who, given the space, were willing to be vulnerable and honest without fearing repercussions.
Our assumption was that the fellowship was for the fellows’ benefit and that it would later benefit the broader community. We discovered that the project was holding impact almost immediately. As we presented our project to our broader stakeholders, such as the Early Care and Education Planning Council, our State Contractor’s group, and others, they also benefitted. The projects that many of the fellows had taken on were ones that many of these stakeholders had thought about themselves. The fellows were giving voice to the lack of equity shared by others who weren’t ready to go public.
As a result of our project, broad systems change for our county has taken place. The project is transitioning into the California Early Childhood Mentor Program, which will eventually be part of our QRIS, so it will go statewide. In addition, we have had the opportunity to present our pilot nationally, statewide, and regionally. Others are replicating it, leading to more systems change.
The participants themselves are creating systems change: one is running for a school board position; many have moved into leadership roles; others have decided that they wanted to stay in the classroom but they’re changing policies of those classrooms. One of our fellows is working with a mayor. Another went on to teach in college. It’s as if they are their own micro-system and they are carrying that microsystem into all the spaces they enter.
The pilot ended, but it feels in some ways that our work is just beginning. Our desire to advocate for change was cemented by the fellowship experience and is now reflected in our work with the California Early Childhood Mentor Program, our work at early learning convenings, and looking for opportunities to advocate for equity in our daily lives.
Dr. LaWanda Wesley recently joined Oakland Unified School Districts Early Childhood Department to support over 200 teaching staff with QRIS, quality enhancement, and professional development efforts. Neva Bandelow is the Early Learning Program Manager who leads the Alameda County Office of Education’s (ACOE) support of high-quality early childhood education.
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