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Advocating for early childhood education

Advocating for early childhood education

November 21, 2016 | By Ron Spreeuwenberg
This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #19 "Advocating for early childhood education”.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi I'm Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.

In this week’s episode we examine advocacy in early childhood education – what it means, methods, implications, trends and channels – with someone who is, herself, a passionate advocate for quality early education for all children, regardless of socioeconomic status. Our guest, Viktoria Bitto, a Registered Early Childhood Educator, works with the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care and as part of her advocacy work has initiated projects such as Portraits of Child Care that uses art as a form of advocacy. We also delve into the relationship between advocacy for child care and advocacy for woman’s rights, including wages and working conditions for early childhood

If you're interested in hearing firsthand from a passionate young lawyer about how you can put yourself out there stay true to what you fundamentally believe in an advocate with a clear honest and genuine message. Then stay tuned for this week's episode of the preschool podcast.

So Viktoria thanks so much for joining us on the preschool podcast. It's great to have you as a guest on the show. I'm just going to jump right into my first question which is your role as an advocate in a lot of different domains and areas and how that has shaped your views in work as an ECE?

Viktoria BITTO: That's a really good question. So for me I was a frontline worker I was an early childhood educator for a few years before I decided to kind of make this transition to advocacy full time. And I think that what really propelled me to leave the frontline sector which was really really hard for me to do to be honest. I started working in school age care, not even a year after I'd graduated. It was just something I was so passionate about and kind of seeing the lack of connection ties support that a lot of early childhood educators had for school age programming and kind of the professional development surrounding that and kind of you know the culture around school age programming. And so I really saw that there was a lot of work to be done and that work involve that work involved you know getting more information about the importance of school age programming high quality care the benefits of licensed child care for school agers versus rec programs you know. And I kind of just became really active in the community and it all really started from my school agers wanting to show the community that yeah although we're you know inner city and although yeah we may not have the most beautiful environment like other programs has the kind of content and the kind of heart and soul of our program and of our class was really important to them and they really wanted to show that to the community.

So we did this project approach a curriculum based on advocacy and bringing the community into our space. And you know we did a lot of advocacy through art, we did a lot of advocacy through literacy and through different forms of expression and the kids loved it. It was incredible for me as an educator to just watch and support and really navigate but not really control or direct their ideas or their play. And how incredibly supportive the community was when we were finally able to kind of give a face and give some visuals to what we're doing and how we're learning and the importance of that for these kids right. The self-esteem and the betterment of the community. So I became really involved that way and I was very fortunate that I have you know a lot of really wonderful friends who were advocates and researchers themselves. And when this position became available at the coalition they called me and I took it right away.

SPREEUWENBERG: There's quite a few people who will have been exposed to a similar situation is you working in the front line in a school age program perhaps also in inner city in different parts of Canada or the U.S. and they see the struggle in some of those classrooms. But you were prompted to take action. What was it that made you so passionate to really do something about it?

BITTO: I think a little bit of a selfish initiative and a selfless initiative so selfishly, myself growing up in a situation that I did immigrating to Canada in 96. Single parent you know didn't really you know have a lot. As in as a young person and then I lived on my own from a very early age. Like I moved out when I was 15 and lived in in group care till I was 19 and so I really just connected with the community and the challenges with the community because they were the same challenges that I faced as a young person. And I know from my experience how important it was to have teachers and support in place for me to really make me feel worthy of something better than the life that I was that I was living in and the circumstances that were surrounding me because oftentimes you know we hear this idea that children are the victims of their circumstances. And I think that's such a belittling thing to say because kids are so resilient and so thoughtful and they have so much more to give and it's about breaking that cycle of poverty and breaking that cycle of violence and breaking that cycle of oppression and really lifting those kids out of that. And giving them their own voice.

So you know when I started doing more advocacy work and started learning more and started reading more and becoming more active a little part of myself found peace each time I did something that I felt made me a stronger advocate or stronger community member and then selflessly I was able to take those experiences and the knowledge that I had and really make it relatable and really help people understand the importance of high quality care and of early childhood educators for those children especially.

SPREEUWENBERG: So one of the things you mention which I'd like you to touch on a little bit further was how you felt it was important and had a project approach to involve the community a bit more and some of the work you were doing with the school aged children. How did you go about doing that and why was it important to you?

BITTO: It's a really good question. I mean at first I think a face that barrier that a lot of early childhood educators face where you're burnt out you don't have a lot of resources you don't have a lot of time and this doesn't matter if you're in Canada or the United States it doesn't matter. You know what province or state, everybody has these challenges because of the kindness and culture that we have surrounding child care. Right. And so I mean I was in the same boat where I didn't really know where to start. So I thought you know the one thing I do know a lot about is programming because that's what early childhood educators do best. And so I just thought I'm going to take this idea of a project approach which is taking one initiative from the group of children right and building on that in different capacities using different forms of teaching and learning experiences. Right. And I thought if I just kind of let them take it from there. I can support them and I can foster the ideas that they have.

The only way that this project is going to be genuine is if it comes from the experiences of the children that I'm there to serve and educate. Right. So really giving them an opportunity to give me feedback and teach me about the community and get me involved in a way that I wouldn't have been able to do if I just went ahead and directed it myself. And from that you know the project that now the Ontario Coalition for better childcare which is the organization I work for now the project that we have called Portraits of Childcare the photo documentation project is really a vivid way that I can show everybody across the country about the importance of using art as a form of advocacy and how far that can take you and how accessible it is for educators to recreate this kind of work that it is possible for them to do it you know

SPREEUWENBERG: And how has the work that you've done impacted your work on the advocacy side and you mentioned for example the portraits of child care like is that an example of that?

BITTO: Yeah absolutely. So when I you know my first day working here at the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care I turned to my colleague Carolyn Ferns is our public policy coordinator and I said to her I know it's my first day but I have this idea and I fundamentally believe in it. Because a lot of times when we talk about the impact of high quality care and the impact of professional trained high quality early childhood educators and child care workers as well. We talk about those things laypeople everyday people that may not use child care that may not have children that may not even really understand the difference between a market based system and a publicly funded system right.

It's really hard to explain to people who haven't seen that who don't care the importance and the impact. So I really really wanted to make a visual statement and Portraits of Child Care being a photo documentation project. It gives faces to the impact that gives faces to that high quality programming and it gives you an idea of what would our societies look like if we all invested into child care and that if we all understood the importance of having universal high quality affordable child care for all families. I just feel like that's something that's really important and that's the work that ECEs are doing in the field already with their documentation. I just found a way to bring it out of the centers into the public.

SPREEUWENBERG: Presenting a statement or you know any point you want to get across visually as is quite powerful as well. And I just I just want to touch on that point of universal talker a bit further. So you're passionate about a national child care system for Canada. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that is and why you're passionate about that?

BITTO: Oh absolutely. So currently you know we have a market based system for childcare. You know it's the responsibility of you know the municipalities in the province to decide how the funds for child care are distributed and that that means for profit and nonprofit and my vision and I know a lot of advocates vision is a universal child care system. So what that means is accessible affordable child care for all families not just the families that can afford it. And it also means that when you're building a system of high quality universal child care. Right. With government investments and proper strategic planning for those financial investments you're also keeping decent work at its heaty.

And what does that mean. That means working towards closing the gender wage gap which in Ontario is 31.5% still and we're 97% female dominated workforce. You really got to look at that systematically as well. Why is child care where childcare workers and ECEs undervalued and underpaid? Because it's systemic it's a system issue. So if you are building a system of universal high quality care decent work has to be at the heart of it. Right. And that means better wages and working conditions for ECEs as well. That's what a universal system would look like.

SPREEUWENBERG: Totally OK. And so you mentioned 31.5% gender wage gap and that's in Canada?

BITTO: That's in Ontario

SPREEUWENBERG: Got it. OK. So what does this mean to you. What can we do differently to close this gap. What are the things that me as an individual or perhaps your organization you're working with. What are you guys doing?

BITTO: That's a really good question. I mean the Equal Pay Coalition we work really really closely with many many organizations advocacy organizations lobby groups unions grassroots initiatives women's organizations we work with as many people as we can to collaborate to try to find those you know strains of some similarities in struggle and in you know what we're asking for from the government and the Equal Pay coalition put out their recommendation to closing the gender wage gap. There are 13 recommendations and the first recommendation was having an accessible universal childcare system because it mobilizes women in the workforce and it gives that professional pay for professional work to women mainly women who are early childhood educators. Therefore you're closing that gap by valuing that work that you're not long and you're no longer looking at it like it's just women's where you're looking at it like this is shaping the future not only the future of the economy for Canada and for Ontario specifically but for all of its people. Right. You're investing in the most vulnerable groups of people which are tiny humans and women.

SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely 100%, 100% agree. And that's something we've talked about quite extensively on the podcast is about increasing the profile early childhood educators who are used as you say or 95% or even higher than that, women. And so and getting them you know the pay and the profile that they deserve, and you yourself, have also been an advocate for this. Even beyond early childhood education for women's rights how has that influenced your work specifically in the early childhood education space?

BITTO: It's something that I it's an ongoing process right. It shapes and it morphs and it changes with every passing day and with different people in different situations that I find myself in. I think the best decision I ever made as a young woman in my life was to really be proud to call myself a feminist and to work towards building equitable opportunities for all people. And that's you know making sure that I'm intersectional in my feminism as well so we're not leaving out trans folk and female identified folk you know and to really learn that everything that I do especially when it comes to advocating for child care comes back to women's rights and women's issues.

And that's really important to me because as a young woman who faced you know violence and also poverty and had no one ever really tell me that there's always going to be someone there to have your back and to support you. Oftentimes you know women feel like we have to compete against each other that you know we have to be better than better than. Instead of thinking how can we support? How can we lift one another up to build a stronger collective where everybody is exchanging information and everybody is valued based on their experiences and what they bring. And I think that when I started really assessing where some of my shortcomings were and where some of my prejudices where I was able to really become a stronger educator and a stronger advocate for all people.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah I like that point about working together to move things forward as a group as opposed to working against each other. Now I would say that you're an advocate in that you're putting yourself out there. And I might go so far as to say you’re leader in early childhood education. What can other ECEs learn about your experience in getting your message out to the world and having people pay attention?

BITTO: That's a really good question. I mean everybody is different in the way that they feel comfortable advocating. You know we oftentimes say in childcare it's not one size fits all and that that you know pertains to programming and funding in every aspect. It's not one size fits all it has to work for that community and that person. And it's the same thing with being an activist or being an advocate. It has to be genuine. It has to be based on your passions and your experiences and it has to be rooted in fearlessness and that looks different. Some people are very quiet, but they're still fearless in their convictions and the messages that they're getting out than other people are much louder. And are you know much more comfortable doing interviews and going on the public and reputation that it doesn't mean that that's better than or less than right. It just means that it's a different way of advocating for my advice is always be true to what you fundamentally know is good for you your community and your people and fight for that because there is nothing more powerful than a group one individual or a small group of people.

I mean that's how change is really made. Is when you really become involved and you really put yourself out there and not be afraid to always be true to what you fundamentally believe. I mean there are going to be people that are going to say not such nice things about you and disagree with you and sometimes fight you but that's OK. That's a part of being a part of a social democracy. People are allowed to have differences in opinion. Your job is to ensure that your message is clear and it's honest and genuine. And I think that that's probably one of the most powerful things you can do as an advocate.

SPREEUWENBERG: Totally. And I think when you're fighting for gender equality and for better outcomes for our youngest children it's kind of hard to not feel passionate How about that. Certainly some good things to fight for.

Cool. Now a couple of questions I'd like to ask all of our guests so we're also passionate about sharing content and knowledge in this whole community of early childhood education. Where do you go to network with people get information of what's happening in early childhood education.

BITTO: - It's a really good question and it gives me an opportunity to plug the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care a little bit. I mean yeah we're Ontario's central advocacy body right which means that we really connect with all different kinds of communities to bring concrete and condensed information about public policy legislation changes you know to our work force kind of the initiatives that we're taking to fight for and or work alongside other coalitions and organizations. So the Ontario Coalition for better child care is a really good spot to go to. And the website is childcareontario.org.

And it's just a good hub to get concrete information and connect with other organizations. And definitely you know going and being out in the community and just asking people face to face those conversations are really important. You know what organizations are you involved in what you interested in. What's going on in your community. And then I always tell people to be really be really comfortable with going on your municipality's website so your city hall is website or you know your province's Web site or your state's Web site like wherever you have that condensed information about the early years sector you'll have a lot of different links and opportunities to find out what's going on in your community because it's so different based on where you're located right.

SPREEUWENBERG: Totally. OK. Awesome. And what excites you most about what's happening in early childhood education now?

BITTO: There's two things that are really exciting for me. One is the young people that are graduating from the early childhood education programs across the province here in Ontario especially I'm very fortunate that I get to mentor work with a lot of those students and the passion the drive the humility and the compassion and that you know is very evident in a lot of the early childhood education students that I work with. It's really inspiring and very exciting because it means the future of educators is going to be one that is passionate and determined to make that change.

SPREEUWENBERG: Why do you think they are passionate and they have these traits that you've mentioned?

BITTO: - I think that we're becoming a more socially conscious community in general. I think that people are more willing now to kind of speak out against injustices or speak out against those kind of oppressive mind new things that you know we would have never even thought about before. Now there's more dialogue around that there's more dialogue about building a society that really is based on equity and understanding. And what does that look like. You know and I think that now looking at these young people coming into the field and I mean I'm a young person myself I'm only 30 years old but I'm talking you know 19, 20, 21, year olds coming into the field. There's just so much more engaged and aware than even I was at that age going into the field you know so it's really inspiring to see that. And they're very committed to making that change.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. Very cool. And the second thing you mentioned there is two things that you're excited about.

BITTO: Oh my second thing. Yes. I you're right. Thank you for reminding me. The second thing that I'm really excited about is more people getting involved in understanding that you know what it's not about I'm only going to care about childcare if I have children. I'm going to care about child care because I fundamentally believe that every family should have access to high quality care that I fundamentally believe that every child deserves the best start in life regardless of their socio economic status or their parent’s ability to pay for it. It's having that that belief the same belief that we have in the public school system the same belief that we have in accessible healthcare for example right. That's the same mentality that I'm seeing the shift towards child care that people are really starting to understand the importance of those early years and the impact that it has on all families not just vulnerable families.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah I think I'm actually a perfect example of that because before HiMama existed I didn't know very much about early childhood education. And the reason that I've become passionate about early childhood education is just because a higher quality child care with more investment just makes sense from so many different perspectives. It's so hard to not promote that.

Finally, where can people find you online if they want to get in touch with you?

BITTO: Like I said childcareontario.org is the Ontario Coalition for better child care Web site. But also if you're interested in the portraits of Child Care Project which is a beautiful beautiful photo documentation project very proud of the Web site is PortraitsofChildCare.org. And you can see all of the work and get in touch with me there and my email address and all my contact information is there and I'm always looking forward to hearing feedback from all different kind of communities and all different kinds of people and the more that I get to collaborate and reach out to you know the stronger it makes me and the better it helps me serve the communities that I need to serve.

SPREEUWENBERG: Cool sounds like a very good project.

Thank you for coming on the show it's been really great having you and learning more about your advocacy work and your passion for early childhood education and speaking out for early childhood educators everywhere. It's awesome to hear that story

BITTO: Thanks so much. I really appreciate you taking the time and for doing something like this for our community and it's quite wonderful.

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