Advocating for children and families in the current political climate

Episode #126: Making your voice heard when advocating for young children and families can be challenging given the divisiveness of opinion in the current political climate. How would you navigate a space where “alternative facts” or “fake news” is touted in mainstream media and disseminated through social media? In this episode, Cathy Grace, Co-Director of the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning at the University of Mississippi gives her two cents on how to engage with different levels of advocacy, staying true to the facts and why geography specific needs can have a huge impact.

Resources in this episode:

Episode Transcript

Cathy GRACE: We’re not thinking in terms of where children are living, zip code or otherwise, and how just the fact that they reside in a location puts them in the hole before they ever get out of the hospital, almost, and how we need to work to ensure that all children have that same desire, drive and interest when they start school.

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

Cathy, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

GRACE:Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m glad to be able to talk with you today.

SPREEUWENBERG: And we’re here today to talk about advocating for children and families in today’s political climate. Should be an interesting conversation. We’ve got Cathy Grace on the show. She is co-director of the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning at the University of Mississippi.

It’s great to have you on the show, Cathy. Let’s start off learning a little bit more about you in how you got involved in this particular subject, and as co-director at the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning at the University of Mississippi

GRACE: Well, I started out as a first grade teacher in a very rural part of Arkansas. I moved to a rural part of Mississippi and started to experience some of the inequities in the education of children, particularly low income children, and felt convicted that there had to be a better way and that in this country children were deserving of more of an education than what I found and what I was a part of.

So I went back to school, got my doctorate at the University of Mississippi and then went to work in an HBCU – which is the Historically Black College University in the Mississippi Delta – and was there for four years and went to the Mississippi Department of Education and actually was responsible for helping to develop and implement public kindergarten in all of our school districts, which was in the 80s. And Mississippi was one of the last states to do that.

So fast-forward, I found myself more or more engaged in advocacy issues and working at different universities with that as one of my focuses and was given the opportunity to leave Mississippi and work for the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington with Marian Wright Edelman. I could not turn that down; that was a gift and I certainly enjoyed my time in Washington. And [I] then realized I needed to come back home. And so I’ve been back now and doing work in the field as well as working in policy and working to continue the upward struggle for a lot of our families and children in rural parts of the country – not just Mississippi, but rural areas of the country all have some similarities as far as the need for equitable opportunities. And right now our children just are not getting them.

SPREEUWENBERG: And how did you end up focusing on early [childhood] learning? Was that through the kindergarten implementation you did in the school programs? Was that part of that transition?

GRACE:Well, to be honest with you, when I was in the third grade as a student went to a rural school. And my third grade teacher was burned in an accident in her kitchen, and instead of hiring a substitute for two weeks someone decided that another young student and myself could teach the class. So we taught the class of our peers with the principal stopping in just to make sure that we weren’t tearing the room up. And it was amazing to me that they listened to what I asked them to do.

And so from that point on I decided that I think teaching was one of the things that I would find most enjoyable. And then as I got older I realized that my heart was really in teaching, but also teaching children who had a lot of difficulties in a lot of situations they had to overcome just to be able to get to school every day. So I became more and more I guess of an advocate as well as a teacher, and then a teacher educator. So it was actually when I was about eight years old when all this started.

SPREEUWENBERG: Wow, that’s interesting. Certainly not a story you hear every day about Grade 3 students teaching their peers as their full-time gig. That’s interesting.

GRACE: Not in this day and time, for sure.

SPREEUWENBERG: No, that’s for sure. I don’t think they would do that in 2018. Okay, so that’s interesting. And so we’re here to talk today about advocating for children and families in today’s political climate. Can you, I guess, maybe to set the context, [explain] what we mean by “political climate” and why that’s relevant and what that means for advocating for our children? And those are a lot of questions, but I guess kind of focusing first just setting the context on political climate.

GRACE: Well, I think that in our country, and at the state level as well, there seems to be more divisiveness, more than I can remember in 40 years. And how to work through what some people refer to as “alternative facts” or “fake news” or the social media I think has changed the complexion of what we need to be aware of as we set up advocacy campaigns or how to address social media from a positive standpoint and try to remain true to the facts. And a good advocate is one who remains true to the facts and tries to find common ground. There’s not been good legislation passed with that compromise.

I think in this day and time we get centered on, “It’s my way or no way”. And then that usually ends up in nothing happening at all. As we’ve seen several years now in Washington and in some statehouses we can’t get anything passed because nobody’s willing to compromise. And so for us in this day and time when we’re looking at young children and what’s best for young children then certainly the art of compromise has to be top of the list.

And so if we have the best outcomes for children in mind regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum, what can we do to work together to get those better outcomes for kids and families?

GRACE: Well, first of all I want to tip my hat to Helen Blank and all of the work she’s done through the years as far as trying to build coalitions to address childcare funding for low-income children. And believe it or not in this current Congress we actually got an increase in funds for children that are eligible for the low-income, based on their families or their parents’ income. And she has worked with people on both sides and she’s developed relationships with them. And so it’s about the relationships that are developed at whatever level that you choose to advocate for.

Even in a community levels there are lots of programs that can be implemented and sustained at the community level. But we sometimes forget and jump to the state or the federal arenas. I think that the real issue today is being able to take what we know is best for children, as you see it based on research and practice, and economic investment in children and put that into a political space that is void of politics, if that makes any sense, so that we can get legislation passed, we can get funding. And therefore we have a better-educated workforce, which then falls into a need for improvements in local development, the economic development, moving our workforce into higher paying jobs, all of those things that people don’t necessarily think about when they think about an early-childhood program.

In my state of Mississippi, we’re one of six who have the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, and that’s the federal base. And the state can go with the federal base if they choose to. How does that affect early childhood? It affects early-childhood education; it affects early-childhood health, mental health. Because we’re looking at families that can be working 60 hours a week and still be in what is defined by the government as “in poverty”. And so I think we have for years thought, “Well, people who are not making the money are lazy. They’re not employed. They choose not to work.” But if you really looked at data then you would find that in many, many, many cases that’s just not true.

SPREEUWENBERG: That’s shocking. If you’re an early-childhood educator with your experience and education, the difficulty of your role in making $7.25 an hour is certainly not commensurate with that.

Okay, so there [are] different types of advocacy, as you say, at different levels. And looking beyond just federal and state level for advocacy, for example. And let’s say I’m an early-childhood educator and I’m passionate about this and I do want to advocate for children, regardless of the political climate, what are some of the actionable things I could do today to really make my voice heard and make the voice heard for those children that need it most, as you mentioned sometimes in those low-income brackets in rural areas?

GRACE: Well, I would first of all encourage you to study. Do your research, do the part that’s not fun and get your facts straight. Go to reputable, non-partisan websites or think tanks so that you’re not inadvertently using information that is to promote one agenda over the other. But looking at census data, looking at data that’s reported by the Center for Children in Poverty, looking at data like Kids Count, those are examples of the truth, if you want to just sum it up. And then look at it in terms of where you live, if you’re looking at your state or your community. Departments of education in states release reports that will tell you how children are in their entry into pre-K or kindergarten, if you’re interested in that level. A lot of states have quality rating and improvement systems that can tell you the conditions with regard to criteria that is research-based in terms of the quality of your childcare facilities.

So gathering your facts is [the] first point I would encourage people to do, and then to look at where you feel you have a voice in terms of existing professional organizations or advocacy groups so that you may find like-minded people. They can help you be better prepared to start your advocacy, whether or not it’s through writing a letter to the editor, writing newsletters, writing op-ed pieces, or whether or not as presenting in some type of format at a professional conference or talking to the school board.

I just finished a year and a half of training school board members in our state own early-childhood education. School board members people forget about, but they are making big decisions about where money is spent in public schools – same way with city councils and mayors offices. So again, look at where you feel you have the greatest opportunity, and also you do a self-assessment of your strengths – Are you a good public speaker? Are you a better researcher? Are you someone who is a good organizer? – so that your talents can be best utilized by a group or by people who have already started a campaign of whatever it is that you’re advocating about.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, those are some good points there. And one other point I would add to that could be an interesting part of your fact-check to bring into your own geography is other case studies. I know I did a podcast with someone from Tulsa, Oklahoma and they’re doing some really interesting things there. So it’d be cool if you could if we could bring some thought leadership from different parts of the country and try those across other areas. One thing I did want to ask you a little bit more about was, you made a distinction about know rural early learning and how that might be different from maybe urban centers. Can you tell our audience a little bit more about why that difference in quality might exist?

GRACE: Well, in our state we still don’t have broadband for all communities . So we’re trying to pass a law at this next legislative session so that we are guaranteeing broadband across the state. So in this day and time if you have uneven access or no access to an internet then you’re not going to be able to benefit from professional development that is delivered online, which a great deal of now has been transferred to online downloads or podcasts like this or working in whatever field. Whether it’s medicine or education a lot of it now is dependent on your ability to utilize internet services.

So we have a problem with access to high-quality professional development for teachers. We have an access problem with healthcare. We don’t have public transportation in some rural areas of the country. We have had budget cuts where health department hours have been shortened. We don’t have library systems that are functioning in all of the rural areas in states. So if you look at what you would assume would be understood, almost basic of an urban area like public transportation or close proximity to some sort of health clinic or healthcare or some type of schooling opportunities for childcare providers or teachers who are struggling with wages, not able to pay tuition for a community college degree necessarily, but, again interested in professional development, then we have those challenges, plus the fact that there are not a lot of younger people who want to move into rural areas when they don’t see resources there that they consider to be necessary for raising a family and having access to the high-quality education and all those things that I’ve already mentioned.

So we have a lot of work to do on raising up rural children back to the equity issue because we’re not thinking in terms of where children are living, zip code or otherwise, and how just the fact that they reside in a location puts them in the hole before they ever get out of hospital almost and how we need to work to ensure that all children have that same desire, drive and interest when they start school. And the skills – do you have skills before you even go to school that you need in order to succeed in school?

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, and I think it further reiterates your point of all advocating locally in your community because clearly access to different types of services varies from one area to the next. And oftentimes, rural areas are underserved. And particularly when it comes to the inner point about internet access, that could surely be maybe not quite the ultimate equalizer but in terms of access to information it surely would be and would be a great step forward. So it’d be great to see that happen at a minimum.

Okay, Cathy, so we’re quickly running out of time. You’ve spent quite a bit of your career in early-childhood education and working directly with children and families. Can you provide any tips or insights or recommendations to our early-childhood educators out there who are just starting their careers or [are] early in their careers in early-childhood education?

GRACE:Well, I think a couple of things I would say based on what I have learned the hard way ,and that is first of all: Don’t burn out. Make sure you have a balance in your own life so that you save a little bit of yourself for your own family and your own children. And also be very mindful of time management. Preschool teachers, teachers in early elementary school, they make decisions almost minute by minute. They can affect a child’s later school success and it can wear you out if you do it correctly.

So I think we need to be mindful of the importance of our own physical health. I tell young teachers new to field that they need to get in shape just like going into a tennis match or a boxing match, that they need to walk so many miles a day if possible; they need to watch what they eat; make sure that they have the best possible rest versus a wait time, because it is a physically demanding job when you teach your children. And sometimes folks don’t recognize it or they don’t do it correctly, and therefore they’re not doing the best by children.

I would also say that getting within a group of teachers who have some good, strong mentors or people who can guide them through the first year or two in a school is very important because sometimes you can feel isolated. And again, we don’t want folks to leave the field. We want them to stay and feel rewarded and gain in a leadership role so that the next group that comes along, they can feel adequate to help them move on down the line as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: Those are some excellent tips, and new ones – sometimes we hear some consistent themes and recommendations and advice, but these are excellent. Just to reconfirm them, so the first one: Don’t burn yourself out. And time management, very important. Physical health, very good point, it’s a very physical, physically demanding job and exercise and rest is important. And third: Get a mentor or mentors, especially if you’re earlier in your career. Some great tips there, Cathy.

It’s been awesome having you on the show. If I’m listening to the podcast right now, Cathy, and I want to get in touch with you. Can I go to find you? Is there an email address or a website or anything like that?

GRACE:My email address is

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. Cathy, thank you so much for coming on the show and for bringing your wisdom to our listeners. It’s been great having you on the Preschool Podcast.

GRACE:Thanks for the invitation. Bye bye.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.