The event that anchors our Leadership and Innovation Network—the Leadership Forum on Early Education, Research, Policy, and Practice—was held this year in a virtual format May 15. More than 150 emerging and established leaders in early care and education (ECE) logged on to share their ideas and innovations in the areas of quality improvement, racial equity, systems change, and other areas of practice and policy, making for an inspiring and informative day.
“This was a VERY SPECIAL experience!” one attendee shared in a survey after the conference. “Like the [Post-Master’s Certificate program] this forum embodies the spirit of leadership diversity, whole-person, whole-community: from the music to the bringing together of folks from all different “sectors”, places in ECE, experiences in ECE, to the very welcoming and supportive atmosphere of the presentations, all rooted importantly and necessarily in the inherent value of children, families, communities, equity, dignity, diversity. Thank you so much!”
This year’s conference marked the first time that Spanish translation was available to attendees, in addition to a Spanish-language breakout session, thereby allowing for greater accessibility for our students and other community members in attendance.
More than 30 students from Leadership Institute programs presented their leadership projects during eight breakout sessions, addressing such topics and issues as supporting non-English speaking family child care providers through their first licensing cycle, creating an integrated professional learning system, developing family engagement coursework for equitable, inclusive, and supportive school communities; family child care licensing, data and infrastructure, and liderazgo empresarial para la atención y la educación tempranas (entrepreneurial leadership for early care and education).
In opening the conference, Early Ed Leadership Institute Executive Director Professor Anne Douglass praised students, graduates of leadership programs, and other ECE professionals for persevering throughout the pandemic, which made painfully clear the vital role of early educators in the economic health of our communities as well as the racial inequities that harm Black and Brown children in education—including ECE.
“This moment was made for bold, strong, innovative, passionate, persuasive, and racially and linguistically diverse leaders from across our field who can define or redefine the problems we face and put forward solutions and act on them,” she said. “And we are meeting that moment.”
Among those acting to make change are Theresa Loch, an education and training specialist in early education at the Lastinger Center for Learning and a 2021 graduate of our Post-Master’s Certificate in Early Education Research, Policy, and Practice (PMC). One of the conference’s three alumni leadership speakers, Loch drew on her Cambodian heritage to liken her growth as a leader to the ancient East Asian art of origami, in which paper is sculpted into decorative shapes and figures through repeated folding. (Watch a video of Loch’s talk here.)
“Sometimes you have to do the same thing over and over to get the desired result—and there comes a time when we need to rethink how we are doing things and completely change it and do a 360,” said Loch. At other points, a project can look like a complicated mess just before a breakthrough in which everything falls into place. “Sometimes things look the worst right before something beautiful emerges,” she added.
Indeed, Jessica DeJesus Acevedo, owner of Little Star of Ours Childcare, early education doctoral student at UMass Boston, and a 2020 PMC graduate, leveraged the challenges of shepherding her Cambridge business through a pandemic-related closure and reopening process to advocate for desperately needed emergency ECE funding. Acevedo, the conference’s second alumni speaker, participated in a press conference organized by MA Congresswoman Katharine Clark, who has led efforts to support child care providers during and beyond the pandemic, to bring attention to the needs of ECE business owners. In February, Clark invited Acevedo to be her guest at President Biden’s State of the Union address, giving Acevedo another large platform from which to make the case for ECE investment. In addition to other speaking engagements, Acevedo also appeared on the popular NPR podcast “It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders” to discuss pandemic child care.
Acevedo credited the PMC program with influencing and enhancing “my leadership skills and my notoriety in the field,” and structuring the program in a way that was affordable and allowed her to remain a full-time business owner while attending school full-time.
“It has been a pleasure to share the hardships of my program, team, and my families’ experiences due to COVID-19 with a figure in Congress to advocate for federal funding at the beginning of the pandemic and then have her virtually visit our classroom months after re-opening,” said Acevedo.
Acevedo challenged others to consider what a successful, equitable early education system looks like and then work to make it a reality. “Federal and state funding must be distributed with an anti-bias, anti-racist lens and more of a holistic and whole child-focus,” said Acevedo. “I believe as we evolve as early education leaders and entrepreneurs we must redefine an education, economic and social structure that allows inclusion, equal opportunity and major early education budgeting and policy reform.” (Watch a video of Acevdeo’s talk here.)
The final alumni speaker, Dottie Williams, owner of Dottie’s Family Childcare in Dorchester, and a 2020 graduate of the PMC program and a 2018 graduate of our Small Business Innovation Center (SBIC) program, spoke about how our PMC and SBIC programs helped her find ways to contribute to policy discussions as the owner of a family child care—a sector that is often overlooked by policymakers. It was particularly important during the pandemic, said Williams, who noted that over the past year she spoke to her local newspaper about pandemic child care, received several grants, and joined Strategies for Children’s speaker’s bureau.
“I have been able through these programs to find my voice and to lend it to a community that deserves someone to speak up, to share their experiences to let people know what we are going through, what we have experienced … because people make assumptions and they don’t know what it is day in and day out to survive,” said Williams. “Now, my business is stronger, [as is] my intent in terms of what I do each and every single day. Now I know what my purpose is.” (Watch a video of Williams’ talk here.)
Attendees also heard from Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, who said she came to the realization that the ECE system needed complete reform while working as an early education teacher and coach. At each program she visited, said Aigner-Treworgy, she was struck by the perpetual exhaustion of the teachers and seeing the pressure directors were under to maintain staffing ratios and other requirements while still striving to provide the highest quality care and education.
As difficult as it has been, the pandemic has provided a chance to begin making some of the systemic changes necessary to keep children and families at the heart of EEC’s work, Aigner-Treworgy said, while also making it more sustainable. “Hopefully” she added, “this is an opportunity that’s not squandered.” (Watch a video of Aigner-Treworgy’s talk here.)
Following the breakout sessions, UMass Boston Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco received a warm welcome as he addressed the conference and congratulated the newest class of PMC graduates. The chancellor emphasized the importance of rebuilding an ECE system in which access and quality were all-inclusive given the demographic changes underway in Massachusetts and the country. (Watch a video of Suárez-Orozco’s talk here.)
“The only sector of the population that is growing is the Asian American/Pacific Islander sector, is the Latinx sector, is the Black—both immigrant and nonimmigrant—sector,” said Suárez-Orozco, one of two featured speakers at the event. “It is of utmost urgency that all our early childhood education programs move with an ethic of care, an ethic of responsibility, embodying the fundamental principles of engagement, excellence, diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Dr. Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD, an associate professor of pediatrics at BU School of Medicine and founding director of the Vital Village Community Engagement Network. (Boynton-Jarrett ran last summer’s Action Lab Network) followed Suárez-Orozco. As a pediatrician, said Boynton-Jarrett, her partnerships with parents and educators “were truly transformative” in her work to improve outcomes for children in the Boston area over the past 14 years. She counseled educators to “fail forward.” Even if things don’t go as planned, you will still learn and find new opportunities. Boynton-Jarrett pointed out, for example, that while the pandemic upended life and work as we know it, it exposed problems like widespread systemic racism that we can now work to dismantle by thinking more intersectionally as we build back our businesses, communities and our economy. She added that sustainability must be built into any ECE reform so that educators and providers can provide high-quality ECE, manage their business, and also maintain their emotional wellness. “The opportunity for you to be renewed, restored and inspired,” said Boynton-Jarrett, “is as important to sustainability as economics.” (Watch a video of Boynton-Jarrett’s presentation here.)
Indeed. We think this year’s conference provided some of the renewal, restoration, and inspiration that Boynton-Jarret mentioned, especially amid the many pandemic challenges.
As one attendee wrote after the fact, “I want to thank the organizers for an event that was so well-run, impactful, generous, and spirited. This reflects not only an immense [amount] of work but also a sincere devotion and love. It is appreciated.”