Interested in Racial Justice? Invest in Early Childhood Education. October 8, 2020

by Ashanti J. Bryant, MSW, MEd
IFF Director of Early Childhood Services

Ashanti Bryant

Ashanti Bryant, IFF.

Twenty-seven years ago, I taught 2- and 3-year-olds at Sara Swickard Preschool on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI. As a deep-voiced, African-American male standing at 6’4”, I was a bit of an enigma in the environment; only 2% of all teachers are Black males, with even fewer serving in early childhood. Even then, I observed and was acutely aware of the staunch differences in what my preschoolers were learning versus the experiences of Black and brown young children living on the north and south sides of this small town. It was a travesty of justice then, and it is still today.

I’m not disconnected from this; this is my story. I’m a middle-income, experienced professional now – but I am just hours away from the environment of poverty and “hustle” where I grew up as a child in Detroit. My saving grace was having a fierce, single mother who was relentless in her fight for her children. She plugged us into the best child care settings and schools she could find as we bounced around the city and did the best we could to survive.

It was 1962 when the Perry Preschool Project began in Ypsilanti, MI, changing the trajectory of early education forever. The landmark study and project proved that when we invest in and provide high-quality, early childhood education for children who live in poverty, we can see cycles of generational poverty broken and powerful, positive life outcomes for children and their families. A powerful vision for the future of children, the policy priorities and actions below would provide a foundation for a different future:

  • Ensure that demography doesn’t determine destiny for young children in communities across our country.
  • Expand enrollment in and access to high-quality early childhood education, driven by authentic data and need
  • Bridge the definition and understanding of “early childhood education” to include the nurture, care, and education of infants/toddlers.
  • Raise the early childhood education investment (funding, programs, compensation, facilities) nationwide and watch communities rebound, as the workforce is stabilized because families have accessible child care
  • Build and support family well-being by intentionally, systematically, and simultaneously working with children and the adults in their lives.
  • Embrace the science that supports what we know about the highest quality, safe physical environments and facilities for young human beings to learn and develop.

Children living in poverty – particularly millions upon millions of Black and brown children across our country – are especially vulnerable to stunted academic development, often connected to the historic and systemic perpetuation of economic and environmental conditions they have to survive. Beginning with their prenatal experience and continuing through early childhood, they are surrounded by environments that may have love and potential, but are steeped in opportunity gaps that stand in the way of them being able to fully realize their potential and access the American dream. Absent the access to high-quality early childhood education as an intervention during this development period for young children, it is no wonder we see children arrive in Kindergarten not ready and already years behind.

To dismantle systemic bias and complex systems that have been rooted in historic racial injustice is not going to happen easily in our country, but status quo is not acceptable. Still a believer in the equalizing powers of a high-quality education, we can get this right and reimagine communities with open doors of opportunity vs. remaining stagnant and comfortable with historic, enduring disparities and inequities that rob generations of children of hope and possibilities.

I am heartened by the relentless and heroic efforts of early childhood pioneers across the Midwest who inspire and demonstrate a commitment to pursuing a new narrative for the children and families in their communities. For example:

  • In St. Louis, MO, Ellicia Lanier is not only the visionary of Urban Sprouts Child Development Center; she also is a leading voice for “Ready by 5” – a momentous campaign to ensure local investment in early learning for children from birth to age five.
  • Fearless and passionate, Dr. Nkechy Ezeh leads the Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative — unyielding in calling to action corporate, philanthropic, education, and community leaders to support high-quality early care and education programs in neighborhoods of Grand Rapids, MI.
  • In Chicago, Tami Doig is Head of School at Daystar Academy and an early childhood guru — innovatively structuring the tuition model so that their Wonder Zone preschool program can provide opportunity for young children from some of the city’s poorest families to learn right alongside children from affluent families in the city.
  • Zina Davis, a fierce advocate for children and families, is the Executive Director of Children of the Rising Sun Empowerment Center – one of our Learning Spaces grantees. Amongst those phenomenally resilient and resolved Detroiters in the last decade, Zina has stabilized and grown Children of the Rising Sun from a home-based program to a holistic center with 54 slots, and with plans to design and build a new center on the east side of the city.

Like these remarkable early education leaders, let’s do our part to arrest racial injustice by investing in the education of our youngest citizens – in every neighborhood, in every community, for all and for a different future.