Our #AskHer series is an interview with our partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. This interview is with Dr. Marla Dean, Executive Director of Bright Beginnings, Inc. The interview was conducted by our Vice President of Programs, Martine Sadarangani Gordon. Bright Beginnings, Inc. is a Stand Together Fund recipient.
Martine Gordon: Tell me a little about yourself and how you came to Bright Beginnings.
Dr. Dean: Bright Beginnings truly believes that the only way you can impact the lives of children is to be working in partnership with their parents. We really are a two generation organization. We believe in that concept deeply and so our goal in this moment and in all moments is to support parents and families so that their lives go in a different trajectory to help ensure their children’s lives are on a different trajectory. We are trying to eradicate intergenerational poverty and the scourge of homelessness.
My own road to early education has been a winding one. I am a thirty-year educator. I spent most of my education life in traditional k-12 public schools. I was a teacher in Detroit Public Schools. I taught high school English and social studies, and government, and I loved teaching. It’s a profession that does not get enough credit for what it offers to the world.
In Detroit, I taught at a neighborhood high school, a magnet school, and at a school for kids who had been expelled from their neighborhood school. I became an assistant principal and then a principal. When I was working on my doctorate, one of my cohort members recommended I apply to a position in Montgomery County, Maryland. That was my introduction to the DMV area.
Eventually, I became a turnaround principal of a middle school in Prince George’s County. It was a consistently low achieving school, what they called a “dangerous” school. When I got there, I found out that the school had large numbers of children who were in foster care, whose parents were incarcerated, who were homeless. In fact, the school had the largest number of students experiencing those circumstances than any other school in the district.
That is the time when I discovered the “whole child” concept to support children in being healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. I applied to be a part of the whole child network through ASCD, and 10 schools internationally were selected into this learning cohort. From there, I started to think about all of the elements for parents to be involved, and then I went on to become a high school principal and central office administrator.
While I was working at the central office, one of my colleagues sent me a posting for Bright Beginnings’ Executive Director opening. Ultimately, what made me what to come to Bright Beginnings was that it was committed to children being in a safe, nurturing environment; kindergarten readiness; and serving parents.
Bright Beginnings serves children and families in a two-generation approach for families experiencing homelessness. I always try to work in places where I’m working with the most marginalized, and to think about children who start off their academic careers experiencing homelessness, that pulled at my heart.
MG: How has Bright Beginnings had to shift to continue to support families during this pandemic?
DrD: When COVID first hit, I was committed to Bright Beginnings continuing to serve families because our families are experiencing homeliness or they have just come out of it, and they still have a great degree of instability. If they did not have a safe place for their children, how could they keep their jobs? They are on the margins, and so much was at stake.
Eventually, the Mayor of DC decided to go into an emergency state, and I had to think about what that means for our staff. It became clear we needed to close for a while. We closed on March 13th.
My team and I were working 80 hour weeks that first month or so. We had to convert everything – the back office functions and all the business services, as well as the educational and family services – to at home learning space or virtual space. Because we offer health and wellness services, therapeutic, home visiting, workforce development and more, we built an at-home learning platform so teachers could continue to support parents.
We don’t call it “distance learning”. When you’re supporting children birth to five, there’s no way a parent can’t play a role. It’s “at-home learning”. We model story time, circle time, music, and social emotional learning. We had to pass out educational resources so learning could happen at home. We had one of our foundation partners give us a grant to provide all of our families with a tablet and internet services so they could access these resources.
We had to produce videos that modeled different aspects of our program so parents could see how to read a book to a child, how to support vocabulary exposure. And then our teachers had classroom time where they were online with parents conducting class virtually. It was a yeoman’s task.
We had distribution and delivery days where our program services team delivered cleaning supplies, groceries, and whatever needs the families had to make sure people were fed and could make it through this perilous process.
This was all before some of the legislation started to kick in. There was a lot going on, and we had some really long days, and then just as we began to hit our rhythm to support families at home, we decided that we needed to come back online because some families were starting to hear that essential workers were in danger of losing their jobs if they couldn’t find child care. We didn’t want them to lose their jobs, so we went into a phased reopening.
Phase 1 was training for the staff. We practiced everything we talked about. We created new policies and manuals. Then in phase 2 we brought back children of families who had full time employment so they would not lose their jobs. But, social distancing meant we needed a dual model. So, we are operating an at-home learning model and on-site model at the same time.
We also had to think about PPE and electrostatic cleaning and all these things that we just didn’t know about a few months ago, and we wanted to make sure our teachers and staff are well protected because there is no such thing as social distancing in early education – certainly not at the infant level. So, we had to put up screens, invest in face masks, gloves, and scrubs for some staff depending on their role. Staff members depended on that. We didn’t want our staff to be exposed to COVID or other diseases.
It’s been an exercise in innovation and humility to pull this off. My staff has just been phenomenal to sacrifice so much to support others.
MG: You have been a vocal advocate for early education in DC, and even more so recently on the need for child care and early education during this pandemic. What do you want people to better understand about the early education space?
DrD: The reason I went on the radar recently is a piece I did for The Washington Business Journal about the peril the sector is in. Most child care centers operate on the margins. I really wanted to make people aware that child care is what enables everyone to be able to go to work in all other businesses and for our economy to come back. Once I wrote that op-ed, people started reaching out. Even middle class parents reached out about being stressed. They’d say, “I’m trying to work and educate my child.” If middle class parents had new stresses, you can imagine the stress level of parents who were already living at the margins.
We have to come together and figure this out because just to start back up at Bright Beginnings, we spent about $55,000, and we expect to spend $250,000 in added expenses over the next year to support staffing ratios with less kids in classrooms and buy PPE, and cleaning is not cheap.
What I want everyone to know is that we have got to think thoughtfully about [the entire child care] industry because early childhood education is child care, but it’s more than care. The first three to five years of your life, your brain is developing in ways that we know are critical. If we want to be competitive as a nation, as a region, we have to be committed to early education and child care. People think this is babysitting on steroids. No. My teachers have bachelor’s degrees, some have their master’s. I want everyone to know about what we’re trying to do and why it’s important.
MG: Tell us about how your team is doing. How are they approaching their work, and how they are feeling right now?
DrD: It’s important in this moment that employers think about how they are supporting their teams. [Bright Beginnings is] trauma informed, but most of the time when we say that we’re talking about the children and their families and the impact trauma has on their growth and development. But, our staff absorbs all of that.
We have a partnership with the Early Childhood Innovation Network and House of Ruth that was awarded by The Women’s Foundation’s Early Care and Education Funders Collaborative. Through that project we have someone for our staff to talk through all of this. This was pre-COVID work for staff to talk through their experiences and how to handle everything that is placed upon them on a daily basis from serving vulnerable populations. Then COVID hit and we needed to add that layer to the conversation of supports. Then when we started talking about re-opening our program, we had to add that layer. What does it mean to come back to a place where we don’t know the true risk? What does it mean to serve families while concerned about your own health?
Our staff is resilient and steeped in service. They are being asked to do an incredible task, so it’s imperative that we figure out ways to support them financially, mentally, and emotionally. Some days, we’re great. Some days you can tell people are concerned. They are concerned for their bills, their families. It’s an emotional ride for everyone.
MG: What do Bright Beginnings’ families need right now, and what does the early education sector need right now?
DrD: Initially, I think families were doing better than they are now. At first, families were like, “ok. I’m going to tough it out.” But, I’m starting to see the mental and emotional fraying of families. I think everyone tried to put their best face on initially and practice any level of resiliency they had. Now, people just don’t know when they are going to have some level of normalcy. Even if that normalcy wasn’t sufficient before, it’s less than sufficient now. And with government not giving clear signals at the federal level of what supports are going to be in place, people are asking: are we going to have mass evictions? Are people going to continue to get unemployment support? What do TANF and SNAP benefits look like going forward? Not to mention all of the social unrest that people were already aware of but now get to see every night. People are spent and frayed.
As a sector and an organization, you wonder about what the future is going to be. [Bright Beginnings is] fine financially right now, but we don’t know how long that is going to be. Bright Beginnings is funded 40 percent by federal Head Start dollars. We’re fairly confident those dollars will continue, but we also get a significant portion from DC government, donors, and philanthropy, and as this all unfolds, we’re just not sure what that other 60 percent of our budget that helps us provide services will look like.
Everyone just wants to know how much longer this will last. If we know, people can muscle through that, but not knowing when it’s going to be over, that’s the part that is most upsetting and dismaying and alarming, and every other kind of word you can think of.
MG: Recently Bright Beginnings was awarded a grant from The Women’s Foundation’s Stand Together Fund to provide cash assistance to some of the early educators on your team who are themselves struggling to find and afford child care right now so that they can return to work. Why was this an important focus for you as a leader?
DrD: As I was writing the op-ed for Washington Business Journal, and thinking about the cost and the scarcity now of child care, I thought of the families we serve. Knowing that I was going to have to bring them back to campus to our center, it struck me, “Wait a minute, what about our educator’s children?”
These are largely black and brown women. They are not wealthy by any means. It is a stretch to say they are middle class. So, when The Women’s Foundation reached out, I thought about these women who we ask to do so much and yet, they are deeply concerned about their own children. How will they be safe? What about their education? I wanted to defray any cost to support them in figuring this out.
Again, we don’t know how long we’re figuring this out for, so I wanted them to know that we understand their sacrifice and the hard choices they are making. The cash assistance was something to demonstrate that. Publicly, everyone is saying [early educators] matter, but how do we demonstrate they matter and the sacrifices they are making matter? This is what [the grant] allows and will demonstrate.
We don’t have infinite resources at our nonprofit, but where you put your resources is a reflection of your values. I’m grateful to The Women’s Foundation to help us resource the ability to demonstrate our values.
MG: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned as a result of the pandemic thus far?
DrD: The most significant thought that I have is about the humility of the moment. In leadership people always say they don’t have all the answers, but that’s not really how they feel. You feel obligated to have answers. But, right now, I don’t.
If you think you’ve figured out this moment in time, then you don’t understand the gravity of this moment in time. I don’t think I’ve truly processed. When I finally land on thinking through this moment, the lessons I’ve learned about myself, my leadership, and my place in the world is all up for negotiation.
Find out more about Bright Beginnings, Inc. on their website.