A Wonder & A Dream

Joanne Hurt is the Executive Director of Wonders Early Learning + Extended Day, Inc., wonderslearning.org and one of the original partners of the Equity in Early Learning Initiative (EELI)

“But, we were raising our daughter to be colorblind.”

It was the week of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., birthday observance, and I was on the phone with an upset mother. The night before, her three-year-old daughter had announced at the dinner table that their family was white. As the Executive Director of an organization which puts social responsibility at the center of its work, our leadership team had agreed that teachers would share age-appropriate stories and biographies with children in our care.  We viewed this collective focus as an important and timely way to educate children about fairness, social justice, and advocacy.

It was not surprising to me that a white parent might think that she was teaching her child about equality by not mentioning race. But children as young as three begin to notice difference, and skin tone is one of the first physical differences that young children express curiosity about. As a white mother myself, my perspective and approach to teaching about race differed.  I would often follow my children’s lead when questions would arise, incorporating into our discussions what I had learned about anti-bias education and racial identity development. The conversation with this parent was more difficult for me to navigate because I was challenging what she considered to be her good intentions.

This conversation sparked a period of reflection, which eventually taught me that as an organizational leader, educator, and parent, I had to do more to create space for broader conversations about race.  While I had done a lot of personal and professional work around diversity, I realized that as a white person and a person in a powerful role in many families’ lives, I had the capacity to influence – and therefore the obligation — to dig deeper into the work that the teaching staff had been engaged in and expand our learning opportunities to the broader school community.

Wonders’ focus on the teachings of King grew out of the work of the Wonders Diversity Committee.  Beginning in 2004, to support children’s identity development and strengthen teachers’ confidence in engaging in conversations, this voluntary staff committee met monthly to educate ourselves on the principles of an anti-bias approach and strategies for implementation. Throughout our organization today, there is a shared commitment to nurture an environment that supports individual identity development and social justice advocacy.  

Since January 2018, Wonders, along with partners School Readiness Consulting and The Campagna Center, has been actively engaged in a regional pilot of the Equity in Early Learning Initiative (EELI), which was funded by the Early Care and Education Funders Collaborative, housed at Washington Area Women’s Foundation.  EELI seeks to develop best practices in early childhood leadership, teaching and learning, and family engagement around equity-focused practice; as well as a clear agenda to elevate the DC metro area as an exemplary early learning model for equity leadership and social justice education at the programming, systems, and policy levels.

Through discussion and facilitated training, teachers report feeling more confident in integrating practices that build children’s healthy identity, talking openly about differences, as well as helping children recognize and work against bias and injustice. Parent focus groups identified the need for resources to help families feel more prepared to build their child’s healthy identity, talk openly with their child about human differences, and help their child recognize and work against bias and injustice. Early childhood leaders have learned strategies for leading their respective organizations with a vision and framework for equity.

As a collective, we have defined educational equity as, “the recognition and undoing of historical and systemic injustices that occur within a system. Educational equity is the result of eliminating individual, organizational, and institutional policies and practices that prevent the realization of children’s lifelong learning and self-actualization, regardless of racial, cultural, economic, or any other social factor.”

I am grateful that our work has grown from the early days of the Wonders Diversity Committee to the regional effort that is the Equity in Early Learning Initiative.  Each year when we celebrate as a nation the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I think back to my conversation with the mother who called me all those years ago, and I wonder how my conversation with her would be different today; and I am reminded that equity work is a personal journey, as well as a community responsibility.