By Karen Howard, Senior Policy Director
Alliance for Early Success
As I reflect on the ways that early childhood advocates can advance racial justice, I can’t help but think about the remarkable life of the late Rep. John Lewis, a titan of the Civil Rights Movement, who risked and devoted his life to freedom and equality, and who inspired generations to make “good trouble” to create an America where all lives are valued equally.
Born the son of an Alabama sharecropper in 1940, Lewis was called to activism as a teenager when he began organizing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and Freedom Rides for voting rights for Black Americans. At just 23 years old, Lewis was among the chief organizers of and a keynote speaker at the 1963 March on Washington.
Of all of the things Rep. Lewis is known for, and there are many, he is most remembered for the courage and leadership he displayed on March 7, 1965. On that day, he coordinated and led over 600 peaceful protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to demand their constitutional right to vote. When the marchers crested the top of the bridge and knelt to pray, Alabama state police brutally beat and tear-gassed them in what would become known as “Bloody Sunday.” Rep. Lewis himself would sustain a fractured skull during the march, which historians credit for turning public opinion in favor of the movement and ultimately leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Years later, Rep. Lewis would sum up the importance of that day by saying, “Selma gave us the Voting Rights Act in the same way that Birmingham gave us the Civil Rights Act of 1963.”
I had the honor of meeting Rep. Lewis in 2009 during a chance encounter in the congressional dining room in the U.S. House of Representatives. I stammered to thank him for what his life’s work meant for my life and the lives of so many Black and brown children who came of age after the Civil Rights Movement. He waved off my attempt to thank him and asked about my work, which at the time was to help secure federal funding for home visiting services for children and families. Gracious and humble to a fault, he thanked me for all that I was doing! In his deep Southern accent, he encouraged me to “keep up the work for the mamas and babies, keep the faith, young lady.”
Like Bloody Sunday, our nation has yet again seen the brutal executions of Black Americans in the past few months. And again, our nation faces a pivotal time in history, a moment where we have the opportunity, if not the obligation, to create an antiracist society.
How do early childhood advocates accomplish that?
At the Alliance, we ask ourselves that question frequently, and while we do not have all of the answers, like so many of you, we’re searching for them. Here are a few things we have committed to doing to make the kind of “good trouble” that defined Rep. Lewis’s life:
Learn American History We Were Never Taught: The history of the founding of our nation, the peculiar institution of slavery, the Reconstruction era, the age of Jim Crow and the era of mass incarceration is part of American history. The genocide of Native American peoples, the forced removal from their lands, and the kidnapping of Native American children from their families is part of American history. We must embrace all of our history, the unspeakable atrocities, both past and present. We cannot begin to understand the racialized history, racist policies and practices, and their present-day impacts on our political, economic, educational, health care, housing, child care, child welfare, transportation, policing, incarceration, and social systems, and on Black and brown children and families unless we commit to learning the history we ignored or were wrongly taught.
Acknowledge Racism is about Power and Policies: Most of us were taught that all that is needed for racism to flourish is ignorance and hatred, but new thinking highlights a different perspective. According to Dr. Ibram Kendi, power is the root of racism. He argues that “from slavery to Jim Crow, from redlining to mass incarceration to the unequal largesse, power has been the first link in the chain. Power devises racist policies for economic self-interest and then justifies the racist policies with racist ideas of hierarchy, inferiority, necessity, greater good and otherness.” According to Dr. Kendi, the smart antiracist identifies racist policies and attacks the racist ideas justifying it. At the Alliance, we recognize that power is central to racism and that racist policies and the ideas that justify them cause the racial disparities we see in health, education, and economic outcomes of Black children and children and families of color. We further recognize that we cannot begin to achieve our mission of lifting up every child in every state unless we dismantle racist policies with antiracist policies.
Declare That There is No Neutral Ground: In our fight against racist policies, there is no middle ground, no room to take a backseat or remain silent. We recognize that we are either actively working to be antiracist or we are complicit in perpetuating racism and racist policies and ideas. While we recognize the urgency of now, and we commit to being on this journey for the long haul throughout our lives.
Know That We are Not Alone: We know that we are joining this journey after others have laid the groundwork long before us, and while others have yet to enter this arena. In fact, many of our state and national allies have done impressive work to embed racial equity into their policy and advocacy work. We take heart that while we must learn and grow into this work for ourselves, we have much to learn from them, and much to offer. We also recognize that countless organizations have and are leading the way. We strive to be allies and accomplices with them.
In all, we are guided by the simple, yet bold truth of Maya Angelou’s instruction to “Do the best you can until you know better. The when you know better, do better.” We are working every day to know and do better for ourselves and for children and their families.
Karen Howard is a Senior Policy Director at the Alliance for Early Success, where she leads a portfolio of state and national Alliance partnerships and investments focused on home visiting, child welfare, family economic stability, and racial equity policies for young children and their families.