#AskThem: The Power of Youth of Color

– Sponsored by Boeing –

On March 16th we celebrated the power of youth of color in our community! During the #AskThem​ panel we featured two of our Rock Star Awardees, who are making inspiring strides towards advancing racial, gender and economic justice.

The Rock Star Fund provides young women of color between the ages of 12 and 24 living in DC with up to $2,000 to invest in their own learning, leadership, ideas, and community projects. We designed the Rock Star Fund as participatory grantmaking. It goes beyond traditional grantmaking, allowing our Youth Advisory Board fellows the opportunity to review applications and decide awardees.

#AskHer​ / #AskThem​ is an interview series featuring women and gender non-conforming leaders, and The Women’s Foundation’s partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. We curate in-depth conversations around complex issues affecting our constituents. Issues ranging from racism, racial justice, women, girls, intersectionality and more will be covered.

#AskHer: Malinda Langford, Northern Virginia Family Service

Our #AskHer series is an interview with our partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. This interview is with Malinda Langford, Senior Vice President of Child, Family and Youth Services for Northern Virginia Family Service. The interview was conducted by our Communications Manager, Mercy Chikowore. 

Mercy Chikowore: Thank you for taking the time to do this. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS)?

Malinda Langford: I started with NVFS as a Training and Technical Assistance Specialist from the Office of Head Start in 2005. At that time NVFS had an Early Head Start and Head Start grant and I was assigned by the Office of Head Start to provide support to the agency in developing and implementing policies and programming that would follow Head Start Performance Standards.  I did that for about five years and in 2010 I became an employee with the agency.

I have been an Early Childhood Educator for more than 42 years.  I worked in the Atlanta, GA and the Alexandria, VA Head Start Programs and also in both private nonprofit and for -profit Early Childhood Programs in the Northern Virginia area before joining the Training and Technical Assistance Specialist team for the Office of Head Start.

I’m now Senior Vice President of programs with NVFS, and under that umbrella is the Head Start and Early Head Start Programs where we serve 486 children and families. This program supports children 0-5 in school readiness with an emphasis on both academic growth and development as well their social and emotional well- being. Simultaneously, the program provides individual case management for the parents that addresses the social determinants of health for the families.

Another program under my umbrella is our Healthy Families Program that is designed to mitigate and /or prevent child abuse and neglect. This program serves primarily first-time mothers of children up to age three.  We know, and not just because of COVID-19 that new mothers, regardless of their income can have a level of stress that might negatively impact their ability to bond with their new baby as well as their understanding of the emotional changes that they are experiencing after the birth of their child. New mothers receive a weekly 90-minute home visit from a Family Support Specialist who assists both the mom and dad in their abilities to build a positive and nurturing relationship with their child using the Evidenced Based Curriculum: Parents as Teachers. The program is not income-based, however the majority of our participants are referred to us by the local Health Departments in the communities where we serve.

The other program that I oversee is our Therapeutic Foster Care program, which contracts with the Child Protective Service agencies within local governments in Northern Virginia to identify a temporary, safe, and nurturing home for children when their homes have become unsafe. The program recruits and trains families to foster children, using the PRIDE model of practice: Parent Resources for Information, Development, and Education.

MC: That’s a lot.

ML: I guess when you say it out loud it is but on a day to day basis, it’s what we do.

We are going to reopen our Head Start and Early Head Start centers for in-person services to a limited number of families, due to our limited in-person staff capacity.  In order to be supportive of our staff and to make sure that they can support their children in their virtual learning process, we allowed our teachers to determine which option would work best for their families. Teachers who felt that they could return to an in-person service, are doing so and those who need to be home to support their children in the virtual learning process will be virtual Head Start and Early head Start teachers. We will have a limited amount of spaces to serve children in-person so across the Northern Virginia area between Arlington and Prince Williams counties we’ll serve about 134 of the 486 children enrolled in the programs in person.

We’re in the final stages of our reopening plans that began in April 2020. Using the CDC guidelines to determine if we could do this safely, we’ve been working on the reopening plan for nine months. We opened for in-person back on November 16th, offering full-day services from 7:30 in the morning till 5:30 in the evening.

MC: Congratulations! That kind of leads into the next question — how has the pandemic affected the work that you do?

ML: In our each of our service areas, public schools closed on March 13th, 2020 and we follow the school system guidelines. We have some Early Head Start community childcare partners in Prince William County, VA and those centers never closed. But we did suspend services in the EHS classrooms because we recognized that the centers would not be able to implement all of the COVID-19 protocols.  Because we are federally funded directly, we have access to resources that our community childcare partners do not as sub-contractors. They could not afford the level of mitigation practices that we would have in our own centers. We suspended the EHS classroom services in those centers and continued our financial support of the childcare center staff, by paying the salaries of the teachers who had been Early Head Start teachers so that they could be available to provide services for any children that came into the program. This financial support helped our child care partners stay open until our EHS classrooms there reopened on September 15th.

We started virtual services around the 23rd of March for our preschool families. We provided grocery cards for all of our families to supplement any needs they had from a nutrition perspective. We also provided diapers, wipes, and formula for our families with infants and toddlers.

In April, we revised our lesson plans for virtual learning experiences and developed activity boxes to align with the revised lesson plans.  Those activity boxes were delivered to the household by the classroom the teacher every two weeks.

Each family enrolled in the Head Start and Early head Start program has an assigned Case Manager who supported the families in accessing the resources within the communities such as the rental supports, utility emergency assistance, and food.  We have been able to support our families with some levels of technology so that they could be full participants in their preschooler’s virtual learning experience.

MC: And how did your staff take the changes?

ML:  The Office of Head Start allowed programs the flexibility to design their services and ensured that all the Head Start and Early Head Start staff would continue to be paid their full salaries and benefits. Our agency made a commitment to all employees to maintain all staff through June 30th. As an agency we were subsequently able to apply for some funding through the CARES Act. We decided as an agency that we would not have in-person services unless they were absolutely necessary. Our essential services such as our Homeless Shelter and Hunger Resource Center (food pantry) did not close. There were other essential services that we provide that were altered in their service delivery but has remained open to those who needs them.

Our ECE staff have actually blossomed in this space. It’s been interesting to step back and look at how well they have adapted to being virtual teachers and supportive of their own children at home. There was never a time that anyone needed to fear that they had to come into a place of work that they may not have felt safe about. Subsequently, they really threw themselves into making the virtual experience for children as great as it could be.

Our teachers really stretched themselves in their technology usage and supported our families in their usage as well. They identified some Google applications that translated all of the lessons into the first language of the parents and this allowed the parents to have follow-up lessons with their children that supports the continuous learning opportunities for their child.

MC:  That’s really important.

ML: Now that we are reopening some of our centers our staff had the opportunity to decide whether they wanted to be a virtual teacher or they felt comfortable and wanted it to be in-person.  After determining the number of staffs that wanted to be an in-person teacher we prioritized the families that we could serve in- person. We decided that working families would have the first opportunity to return to in-person services.

MC: What else should people know about NVFS during the pandemic?

ML:  Some of the Northern Virginia counties that received CARES Act dollars that flowed from the federal government to the state engaged NVFS to help distribute the funds because we have a history of and the capacity to get direct assistance funding into the communities. We have kept our food pantry and shelter open, and we have been a conduit for families to get support and relief due to COVID-related issues. We stood up an Emergency Relief Response Team that can provide direct information about the resources available and how to apply for them. We triaged callers to determine who may have only needed minimal help in identifying resources to those who may have needed more case management support. Our Institutional Advancement Team did a wonderful job in appealing to organizations and individual funders to raise unrestricted dollars in support of those living in our communities who may have been able to access resources provided through the CARES Act.

MC: Have there been any local government responses to the pandemic that have impacted your organization in unexpected ways?

ML: No, our standing relationship with our local governments was the reason we were able to support their distribution of relief funds within their communities.

MC: So, we already talked about how your staff have pivoted and how they’ve been creative. Do you have a sense of how they’re feeling or how they have been feeling through the pandemic?

ML: At the beginning of the pandemic, I think everybody was nervous. We have provided lots of platforms and feedback sessions for staff to talk about their anxieties and to ask questions. Any decisions that we make include staff input so I think that they are in a good place.

MC: How are they feeling now as the pandemic continues?

ML:  I believe that they are doing well because they are armed with information about what good mitigation practices that they can continue to engage in to be safe. For those who will participate in the in-person services, they are comfortable with the level of PPEs that they are being provided and the very strict protocols that we will have in place to keep children and staff safe.

MC: So, in time, in terms of the families you serve, looking ahead what do you think they need the most when we enter the reconstruction phase?

ML: Families will likely need new job training opportunities, continued support around rental relief and more affordable, quality community child care spaces to support their abilities to go back to work.

MC: It’ll be interesting to see how people continue to get through the holidays but hopefully it just means that supporters will give even more.

ML: They might give more during the holidays but we know that over time there will be giver’s fatigue and that the pandemic will be with us for a while.

MC: Considering we’ve been in the pandemic for a few months now, what is this month, eight now, I think…

ML: That we have been working on a reopening plan for 9 months and we are about to birth this baby (laughter)

MC: Oh man. Yeah, I didn’t even think about it like that but you are right. We do not want to name this baby but what would you say have been the most important lessons you’ve learned during this time, if at all?

ML: I’ve learned the real value of communication, and inclusion. I’ve learned that to decide about reopening really required input from every single person who would be affected by the center’s reopening. And I started with staff. Each and every staff had an opportunity to weigh in on what they felt about reopening the centers and what options they felt they could function best in. We developed our reopening protocols based on the April 2020 CDC guidance on determining what a preschool would need to do to be ready to reopen their program.  We met with our staff first and foremost because they would be the people implementing it. We brought in our governance bodies, our parents, we talked with our board of directors, with other community agencies like our county child care licensing entities. Because Head Start and Early Head Start are federally funded programs, we conferred with the Office of Head Start as well.

I’ve learned the necessity of engaging everyone who will be affected by any decision that will be in the decision-making process. When everybody is offered an opportunity to be part of a group conversation, we can problem solve and create an environment where everyone is comfortable with the decision that is made. We feel comfortable that we will do a good job of mitigating the spread.

And what we learned about the tenacity of people, and the willingness of people to do what needs to be done when they have had a hand in determining how it will be done.

MC: That’s fantastic. Is there anything else you want us to know about you and your work?

ML: I want you to know that our families are resilient. A lot of them have made difficult journeys to be where they are, both literally coming across deserts and figuratively making a decision not to leave once they were here. Those are hard decisions when you are turning your back on sometimes your younger children, sometimes your parents, your native land, and everything that makes you what you are at this point in your life.  They do the hard work of just existing in a land that can sometimes be very complicated and seemingly cruel.  Because they are resilient, they bounce back and keep pushing forward. They value education, they hard work and they want to give their children, the absolute best.

MC: I love it. And they clearly are, especially with your help.

ML:  Our role is to be a partner in their journey. We’re not mechanics, we don’t fix things for people, nor do we fix people. We function more as gardeners, our supports and engagement with them help to fertilize a soil so that they can grow.  We provide the family with both resources and   information so that they can make the best for them.

I wake up every day excited about the work that I do and the people that I work with.  Thank you for the opportunity to talk about our agency and the work that we do!

Find out more about Northern Virginia Family Service on their website.

#AskHer: The ‘SheCession’ & How It Affects Women and Girls of Color…

On February 9th, we discussed the “shecession” – the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women and girls of color and how this affects childcare and paid leave. Our special guest was Dr. C. Nicole Mason, President and CEO of Institute for Women’s Policy Research, who was interviewed by Martine Sadarangani Gordon, Vice President of Programs, Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

#AskHer is an interview series featuring women and gender non-conforming leaders, and The Women’s Foundation’s partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. We curate in-depth conversations around complex issues affecting our constituents. Issues ranging from racism, racial justice, women, girls, intersectionality and more will be covered.

#AskThem Webinar: Healing Justice

On December 10th Cara Page, Black Queer Feminist cultural/memory worker, curator, and organizer and Richael Faithful (they/them), a multi/interdisciplinary folk healing artist, healing culture strategist, conflict worker, radical lawyer, complex conversation facilitator and visionary creative joined us for #AskThem. Attendees listened to a poignant discussion on healing justice and how it can benefit women, girls and gender-expansive youth of color.

#AskHer / #AskThem is an interview series featuring women and gender non-conforming leaders, and The Women’s Foundation’s partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. We curate in-depth conversations around complex issues affecting our constituents. Issues ranging from racism, racial justice, women, girls, intersectionality and more will be covered.

#AskHer Series: Chloe I. Edwards, Advocacy & Engagement Manager at Voices for Virginia’s Children

Our #AskHer series is an interview with our partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. This interview is with Chloe I. Edwards, Advocacy and Engagement Manager at Voices for Virginia’s Children. The interview was conducted by our President and CEO, Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat. Voices for Virginia’s Children is one of our Grantee Partners.

Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat: Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself and your role at Voices for Virginia’s Children?

Chloe Edwards: I have a long background in advocacy and have personally been impacted by all that I specialize in from foster care to kinship care to trauma-informed care and now social justice.

Prior to my work at Voices, I served as Director of Connecting Hearts, an organization with a mission to find each and every child a permanent, loving home through kinship care, re-unification, or adoption. I went into kinship foster care at the age of 14 with my grandparents. That experience influenced my desire to learn about the way in which systems impact people at the community and individual level. I went to the Minority Research and Law Institute at Southern University’s Law Center in 2013. In 2015, I graduated from Hollins University as an English Major with a double concentration in multi-cultural literature, creative writing, and social justice in an effort to highlight systemic issues through creative writing. In 2019, I graduated from the Sorensen Institute’s Political Emerging Leader’s Program. This year, I graduated with my Masters of Public Policy with a Leadership Concentration from Liberty University.

Currently, at Voices for Virginia’s Children, I serve as the Advocacy & Engagement Manager and specialize in cross-disciplinary issues. In my role, I practice policy analysis, advocacy, and outreach and engagement. In particular, I was hired to serve on the Campaign for a Trauma-Informed Virginia, where I liaise a feedback loop between local and regional partners and community networks to Voices policy team. The concentration of my work has been trauma-informed policy and practice; however, quite recently, the work has shifted to an intersection between trauma and equity through the launch of Racial Truth & Reconciliation Virginia.

At Voices, we are a multi-issue child advocacy organization, and we’re home to the Kids Count data center. We specialize in child welfare, mental health and health, early childhood education, family economic security, trauma-informed care, resilience, and research and data.

JLS: How has the work around trauma-informed care and racial truth shifted as a result of the pandemic?

CE: A lot has shifted in our work as a result of the pandemic, which is partially why Racial Truth and Reconciliation VA was born. Voices for Virginia’s Children achieved so many successes in the last General Assembly session, but all of that changed because of the present economic crisis. We shifted our attention to what we felt needed to be prioritized and protected rather than trying to advocate to keep all of our successes in each of our issue areas. That was the prominent change… we remain resilient as an organization, and we kept going.

In addition, we enhanced our capacity in order to work more at the federal level. We are a state advocacy organization, but many federal funds have came from the stimulus package—the CARES Act—so we’ve shifted our work to saving child care, prioritizing community-level prevention funds, stabilizing and investing in our child welfare workforce, telehealth, family economic security, and more.

Virginia also convened for session this August, which is an emergency session and is quite historic. Special Session introduced police reform bills and COVID-19 intervention amendments, but we also wanted to make sure children and families were prioritized and had their basic needs met.

Our trauma-informed care work completely shifted. In recognizing the inadvertent impacts of cultural, historic and racial trauma. Our work has shifted in an intentional manner and is further concentrated in the intersection of trauma and equity on a broader spectrum.

JLS: Special session – how does that process look different in terms of advocacy?

CE: It’s all been virtual. In a normal session there would be over 3,000 bills introduced. It wasn’t even a quarter of that in special session, so seeing fewer bills.

Our team has been working virtually currently. We’re not sure what the 2021 General Assembly session will look like… we do plan to introduce some advocacy trainings and to host advocacy days. We will let advocates know more once we know all the details of what the session will look like.

JLS: Can you talk a little bit about how the Racial Truth and Reconciliation Week came to be and the next steps?

CE: We recognized the inadvertent impact of COVID-19 on communities of color in addition to the resurfacing of the modern day civil rights movement. Many times, leaders of color are left to find the solution to the oppression that impacts us. I recognized that communities of color are underrepresented in the trauma-informed space and took it as opportunity to do an intentional temperature check with the Trauma-Informed Care networks that are particularly led by leaders of color, which there are five out of 26. After that conversation, we decided to respond. In May, we supported Resilience Week, which increased awareness of trauma on a broader spectrum. However, there is a general discomfort across the nation as it relates to addressing and understanding the inadvertent impact of cultural, historical, and racial trauma as a whole. Collectively, we wanted to be very intentional in focusing on those three traumas: cultural, historical, and racial. We came up with the mission and the goals of the week collectively. It’s truly a community-led initiative, and that’s how we came up with the mission to empower the voices and experiences of marginalized communities in acknowledging truth to promote healing, reconciliation and justice. The goal is to ultimately move the mission forward in pushing past the discomfort and biases that leave us complacent and to work collectively and communally to dismantle systems of oppression and racism at all levels, individual, community, and systemic, to enact authentic change.

We didn’t expect it to grow as large as it did, but it spread like wildfire. We wanted to involve the Governor’s office. We didn’t expect to gain support of his Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer with the little planning time we did have, but we were pleased to have Dr. Janice Underwood’s support.

We envisioned that individuals impacted by organization’s missions should be the loudest voices in the room, and that’s how we came up with the Give Us the Mic series between politicians and partners. We view youth as not leaders of tomorrow, but instead today, and that gave us the vision to bridge intergenerational gaps through the Our Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams series, the elder chats, and the youth-led Q&A with the Virginia Legislature Black Caucus.

There were over 50 community leaders engaged, 30+ events, 35+ partners in solidarity, the Facebook page grew to 850 followers in one week. Now it’s a longer-term initiative—Racial Truth and Reconciliation Virginia. With over 300 supporters so far through our Coalition listserv, and our Facebook page has over 950+ followers now. We have broadened our social media and can be found @RacialTruth on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Now we’re starting to structure our committees, which are: executive, advocacy & activism, education, engagement, and partnerships. We have co-chairs and chairs of each and are beginning the recruitment phase for committee members.

JLS: Can you say a little more about the Trauma-Informed Care Networks?

CE: My colleague, Mary Beth Salomone Testa and I, tag-team on a technical assistance through policy analysis in providing support to the Trauma-Informed Care Networks across the state. There are 26 multi-disciplinary networks with professionals from different fields across the state. Each year, we search for themes around best practices to implement trauma-informed care and challenges to the implementation of trauma-informed care and connect to policy opportunities and each policy analyst chooses one issue, and we create a unified policy agenda. The targeted demographic has been the Trauma-Informed Community Networks in order to create a unified policy agenda. We provide advocacy trainings and policy updates throughout the year and mobilize advocates during the General Assembly Session. The goal is to promote trauma prevention, mitigation, and intervention.

JLS: How is the racial truth work shifting and moving forward?

CE: We are describing Racial Truth & Reconciliation VA as the intentional evolution of the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Virginia. It further concentrates our efforts on the intersection of trauma and equity. Voices is implementing our strategic plan and working towards our organization’s equity transformation. One component  of the strategic plan is to empower those impacted by policy to ignite the change that they want to see in their communities.

With our equity transformation, each staff member has an equity component to their workplan in order to implement the work. Racial Truth naturally gives the organization the opportunity to have an opportunity to engage with the initiative across departments, at the board level to policy to data and development, through which we can analyze the way which we fundraise at Voices.

Through our action teams, we are broadening our reach, expanding demographics, and ensuring equity is at the center of all of our work, in order to ensure communities are authentically represented internally and externally.

We’ve created the committees for Racial Truth work: executive committee, partnerships committee, education committee, engagement committee, and advocacy and activism committee.

In terms of Voices policy initiatives, we plan to make racial equity impact statements within our areas of specialty and disciplines. In addition, when it comes to issues that Voices may not have an area of speciality, we are supporting the work of partner coalitions in order to still make stance. Lastly, through the work of Racial Truth & Reconciliation VA, we are creating partnerships with youth and family-serving organizations to provide advocacy and social change coaching in order to empower them to ignite change at, whether its systemic or social, local or state, or within the institutions that impact them.

JLS: What has Voices internal process been in terms of incorporating racial equity and how you’re operationalizing it across the organization?

CE: The components of the strategic plan include: 1. To promote effective child-centric statewide policies and laws 2. To empower local communities who guide laws and policies that affect the lives of children and families and 3. For equity to be centered in our work internally and externally.

Tactics affiliated with the first goal include educating public officials by expanding their knowledge of policies in order to address the needs of families and children through policy and data analysis to create equitable solutions. In our strategic planning process, we also communicated with stakeholders, who communicated that, while there is a need for state-level advocacy, there is room to further engage at the local-level to achieve local community empowerment. Our goal is to mobilize families and children to influence change in their communities.

Equity was the consistent theme across the board as a lens that can be applied internally and interdepartmentally effectively. An indicator at our KIDS COUNT Data Center highlights that 47% of children in Virginia are children of color. In order for Voices to adopt principles of equity in all of our programs, we are in the process of race equity transformation and have developed a race equity assessment plan to monitor our growth as an organization. We will use data as a guide to shape the internal race equity needs of our organization and adopt it to promote just and equitable outcomes for our staff in addition to the communities of color impacted by our mission. We hope other organizations can view us as an example and also model this within their organizations. It’s recommended that organizations begin this work internally in order for it to be done in an authentic way externally.

JLS: I’m curious, as we think through federal, state, and local budget cuts, how does this impact your advocacy and the need that you’re seeing in community, particularly when you’re working so hard to center the voices and experience of those most impacted so that they are front and center?

CE: We’re not quite sure what our 2021 advocacy agenda will look like because of the negotiations with the budget. But on one end, we have a lot of community members that are very excited, within the coalition particularly, to advocate on behalf of opportunity gaps that have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. Opportunities like new laws around food justice, police reform,  juvenile justice and increased support personnel in schools- the opportunities are exciting. However, limitations come with the economic impact of the pandemic.

We will likely be protecting a few items that, once again, need to be prioritized around child welfare prevention, family economic security, ensuring children have basic access to mental health and health services, and policies that promote trauma-prevention and equity. This may mean that we may not have as quite a robust policy agenda that we have had in the past. We also have to balance making sure that people who have been involved in marches and different advocacy initiatives still feel like they’re getting their voices heard and still feel like they’re creating a sense of community and solidarity around civil rights, particularly in racial justice. Simultaneously, we also have to work at the policy level to ensure that we’re connecting the needs of families and children’s basic needs to the policy opportunities and protecting those few policy opportunities that we may have because of the restricted budget.

This is also the last year of the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Virginia, and we’ll be transitioning to Racial Truth and Reconciliation Virginia. We’re having a joint advocacy day to connect the two different demographics: The Campaign for a Trauma-Informed VA: Racial Truth & Reconciliation Advocacy Day. The advocacy day will likely be virtual with traditional legislative meetings, but we are also having an in-person day to create that sense of community and solidarity; this will likely be held on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We are working on collaboration with partners to shape the day.

JLS: How are you doing today, and how is the team doing? How has the staff and the team at Voices transitioned to virtual work and how are you managing what we really call two pandemics—the racial reckoning as well as coronavirus? 

CE: That’s a very layered question. So, with the equity transformation, I’m hoping that other organizations can see Voices pursue the process and view it as an example. It’s hard work for the people of color impacted by a transformation and also the allies involved. It’s not easy. It’s not beautiful. It requires everyone to form an increased sense of self-awareness and mindfulness. All are encouraged to get comfortable with being uncomfortable; as a result, everyone has homework to do. All of this is also layered with the lived trauma that staff members of color have experienced and is further challenged  by external factors, today’s modern civil rights movement. For many of us, this has created even more work, because the needs of families and children have been further exacerbated. I’d say that our team is very resilient. We are all very passionate about Voices mission to champion public policies to improve the lives of Virginia’s children. That ambition and the desire to make an impact has definitely kept us moving forward. The goal is to consecutively and consistently move the mission forward.

Find out more about Voices for Virginia’s Children on their website.

#AskHer Series: Voter’s Edition w/ Alencia Johnson

On October 28th, we talked to Alencia Johnson, Chief Impact Officer and Founder, 1063 West Broad, about the role women of color play in the election, the power of Black voters, voter suppression and why centering women and girls of color in the election is so important.

#AskHer is an interview series featuring women leaders, and The Women’s Foundation’s partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls. We curate in-depth conversations around complex issues affecting our constituents. Issues ranging from racism, racial justice, women, girls, intersectionality and more will be covered.

#AskHer Series: Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Opal Tometi

On October 1st, we were joined by human rights leader and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Opal Tometi. We had a timely discussion about Black Lives Matter, activism, protecting Black women and girls, and what policymakers and philanthropy can do to advance racial justice. Please support Opal’s new project: https://www.diasporarising.org/

#AskHer is an interview series with women leaders, our partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls.The webinar series is for in-depth conversations around complex issues affecting our constituents. Issues ranging from racism, racial justice, women, girls, intersectionality and more will be covered.

#AskHer Series: Ai-jen Poo and Fatima Goss Graves

On August 27th we were joined by Ai-jen Poo, co-founder and Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. Moderated by The Women’s Foundation’s Program Officer Claudia Williams, we discussed what policymakers and philanthropy can do to advance the care workforce and respond to their needs during the pandemic. We also discussed the role and value of their respective organizations, the ways in which philanthropy needs to change, and why centering women in the care workforce is so important.

#AskHer is an interview series with women leaders, our partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls.The webinar series is for in-depth conversations around complex issues affecting our constituents. Issues ranging from racism, racial justice, women, girls, intersectionality and more will be covered.

Watch the interview now!

#AskHer Series: Dr. Dean, Executive Director, Bright Beginnings, LLC.

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.


#AskHer Series: Teresa Younger, Ms. Foundation for Women

#AskHer is an interview series with women leaders, our partners, community members and supporters who work tirelessly for women and girls.The webinar series is for in-depth conversations around complex issues affecting our constituents. Issues ranging from racism, racial justice, women, girls, intersectionality and more will be covered.

Our inaugural #AskHer webinar series was a poignant discussion on the role and value of women’s foundations, the ways in which philanthropy needs to change, and why centering women and girls of color is so important with Martine Sadarangani Gordon, Vice President of Programs, Washington Area Women’s Foundation and Teresa Younger, President and CEO, Ms. Foundation for Women.   Missed the live webinar?

Watch the recap now: https://wawf.org/AskHerJulyRecap