Washington Area Women's Foundation

#AskHer Series: Mau Castro & Melissa Lorenzana, Briya Public Charter School

Our #AskHer series is an interview with our partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. This interview is with Mau Castro, Bilingual Child Development Specialist and Melissa Lorenzana, GA Early Childhood Coordinator at Briya Public Charter School.

Equity in Early Learning Initiative (EELI) seeks to sustain the development of best practices in early childhood leadership, teaching and learning, and family engagement around equity-focused practice; and the development of a clear agenda to elevate the DC metro area as an early learning model for exemplary work in equity leadership and social justice education at the programming, systems, local policy and state/national advocacy levels. EELI partners include Bright Beginnings and Briya Public Charter School in DC; The Campagna Center in Alexandria, VA; Wonders Early Learning + Extended Day and School Readiness Consulting in Maryland.

Briya Public Charter School’s mission is to strengthen families through culturally responsive two-generation education. In this special edition of #AskHer, Mau and Melissa, both Briya PCS staff and participants in EELI highlight their roles both at the school and within the initiative.

  1. In one sentence, tell us why you joined Briya PCS?

Mau Castro: I wanted to be able to make an impact in children’s lives, one way or another, and I found that training the future generation of teachers was my place to be.

Melissa Lorenzana: I joined Briya PCS because of its mission to strengthen families as a whole in order for both parents and children to strive and prosper in life and education.

2. Briya PCS is one of the Partners of the Equity in Early Learning Initiative (EELI). What is the main purpose of the EELI?

Mau: To me, the purpose of this initiative is to start the conversation and train our staff in terms of equity and social justice in early childhood (EC) education.  Briya has been doing a great deal of work in that regard and the EELI was particularly insightful for our EC team. Through the training and conversations, I was able to understand and reflect on my own experiences and biases. Recognizing where they are and why is, to me, the first important step towards a better understanding of what equity looks like in our practice.

Melissa: The purpose of EELI is to help us, as an organization, to be intentional about equity and social justice in early childhood education. To confront our own biases and take action steps towards eliminating racial and cultural prejudices. To celebrate differences and acknowledge similarities among the population we serve. 

3. In one word, how would you describe the EELI?

Mau: Insightful

Melissa: Transformative

4. What should people know about Briya PCS and/or the EELI that they may not otherwise read or hear about?

Mau: Briya PCS is committed to offering programs that are equitable, not only for the children we serve but their families and all adult learners.  We have been working for years on how to ensure our programs are equitable spaces where students and families can learn and improve their quality of life. Yet, we do so in a learning environment that recognizes, acknowledges, and celebrates our differences and who we are as members of a larger community. 

Melissa: I agree with what Mau said!

5. As we get back to building better, what hurdle is Briya PCS facing in furthering its equity work?

Mau: At Briya, there is still work that needs to be done and, I think, there always will be. We have an ever-changing and growing group of staff members who need to be constantly reflecting on their own practice and how can they improve. In my opinion, for us, teachers, to have a positive effect on our students’ positive racial identity, it is imperative that we have recognized and fostered our own. That way we are nurturing and modeling self-love, acceptance, a positive attitude toward who we are, and how we contribute to society. 

On that same note, we also need to keep working on diversifying our staff to truly reflect the community that we serve. The impact is immeasurable when students, regardless of their age or developmental level, can see themselves reflected in their teachers, counselors, and people they trust.  That relatable factor can only be materialized when the staff “looks like” the community that we serve.

Melissa: Time is always a hurdle and will be a hurdle for us as we continue our equity work at Briya PCS.

6. What’s one of Briya PCS’s accomplishments as part of EELI you would like us to know?

Mau: We created a series of trainings and workshops for our early childhood practitioners that has been interesting and revealing, in my opinion.  We have seen staff members who once were reluctant to participate but are now not only engaged but reflecting and being part of the conversation. We also extended the work we started with the EC team to our adult education department with a successful series of trainings as part of their professional development as well. Again, this is just the beginning; however, it is exciting to see people interested, concerned, and even uncomfortable, because that means that the conversation is working.

Melissa: We will begin to use the EC equity focused classroom observation tool this school year. The tool will serve as a guide for teachers and to support professional development and coaching this school year.

7. With unlimited funds, what would you do with the EELI?

Mau: I would develop the initiative until it becomes a stand-alone training that we can offer to all members of our staff, as well as our adult learners and families. I have this crazy idea that if were to start teaching and promoting the development of a positive racial identity from a very early age, along with fostering family engagement through an equity-focused practice, our communities will be different after a couple of years. I realized this is a colossal dream of mine, but we must start somewhere.

8. Here’s a quick lightning round of questions for you as individuals

DC Spring or DC Summer?

Mau: DC Spring!

Melissa: DC Spring

Local or federal?

Mau: Local

Melissa: Local

Monuments or Museums?

Mau: Monuments

Melissa: Museums

Favorite female icon?

Mau: Frida Khalo, Michelle Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg — Does it have to be just one?

Melissa: Issa Rae

Favorite part of the Washington region?

Mau: Looking at The Mall from the Lincoln Memorial and Adams Morgans

Melissa: Access to different parks to relax and/or play sports with people

What’s one thing you can’t get enough of?

Mau: Cherry Blossoms

Melissa: Starbucks 😊

What should we abolish forever?

Mau: Interesting question! Standardized tests, racial segregation in public education (Yes! It still exists); education and religion in the same building; politics and health in the same conversation. I can go on and on with this answer.

9. Is there anything you want to be sure that we know that we haven’t already discussed? 

Mau: In my opinion, there is a group of us doing a great work in equity in education, but it is not big enough. I think this conversation must be extended to other groups that haven’t been included yet. I think it is a great initiative to have included early childhood practitioners, but we still have a long way to go.

Find out more about Briya PCS here!