In her role as Director of Leadership Programs for the Institute of Early Education Leadership and Innovation, Lynne Mendes is much more than an educator, trainer, and facilitator. She is an evangelist for the field.
“We already have leaders working throughout early care and education. They might not think of themselves as leaders. But they’ve worked in every setting you can imagine,” says Mendes. “They come from all over the world and they’re so talented, so we just draw from that.”
One of the first things Mendes teaches the family child care and small business owners in the Leadership Institute’s Small Business Innovation Center program is that that they are, in fact, business owners. Through the course, which is anchored with the Leadership Institute’s curriculum on entrepreneurial leadership, participants go through a shift in mindset where they begin to see that their work is just as vital to the life of local neighborhoods as the pizza shop, hair salon, or insurance agency.
“They go through this process where they say, ‘Wait! I’m like the hardware store?,’” Mendes says. “And we’re like, ‘Yes! You’re important to your community. You’re the reason why people can go to work. You’re taking care of our most valuable and important asset, which is our children. You’re creating the future!’”
Mendes is quick to point out that many of the women who run these small businesses don’t think of themselves as business owners and community leaders because they’re not treated as such. “First, they’re women, and second, most of them are women of color,” Mendes says.
She gives the following analogy to illustrate her point. “If you grew up in the suburbs, studied at an expensive private school and are fluent in Spanish, you will be treated a certain way. Your ability to speak two languages will impress people. But if you grew up in the Dominican Republic, studied at a community college, and started a family child care business, you can probably speak three languages. But being trilingual with that background won’t necessarily impress anyone. Nor will people see you as an entrepreneur, they’ll see you as a babysitter.”
In addition to the Small Business Innovation Center, Mendes also oversees the Post-Master’s Certificate (PMC) in Early Education Research, Policy, and Practice. There, she works with educators from around the state who come from private child care programs, preschools, family child care, and out-of-school time programs.
Oftentimes, these groupings of students come to the Leadership Institute already thinking of themselves as leaders because they might hold a job with that title, such as center director. But they still go through the same process of self-discovery and shifts in mindset that her Small Business Innovation Center student do, Mendes says.
“A lot of our PMC students are over achievers. They come to the PMC program excited to learn, but they think it’s going to be easy,” Mendes says. “But it’s not easy. It’s a demanding program that really challenges students to connect policy with practice and think of concrete ways that they can change the system of early care and education to make it better.”
All of the students who enroll in a Leadership Institute program receive instruction in the same entrepreneurial leadership curriculum that’s been shown to shift the mindset of experienced early educators so they see themselves as innovators and influencers.
“It doesn’t matter which program our students experience, we hear over and over again from them about how meaningful the leadership learning is,” Mendes says.
So how did Mendes, who grew up in a suburb of Boston with a dream of becoming a kindergarten teacher become a leadership guru? Through myriad and diverse work experiences and rejecting the “dominant paradigm” that devalues women, children, and families. She’s taught kindergarten in Boston and Mexico. When she ran a small child care program in a poverty- and violence-stricken neighborhood of Boston, she and her staff supported families in numerous ways by connecting them with other services that could help with housing, clothing, and food. On staff at Child Care Resource Center in Cambridge, she worked with highly-trained small teams of educators who identified cost-effective, practical ways to improve program quality.
“I love my job,” Mendes says. “I work with people who are changing the world one child at a time. And I’ve been doing this long enough to see that it’s working. Some days it doesn’t always feel that way. But it’s working.”