Last month, Wheelock College hosted 150 people at the 8th Annual Community Dialogue on Early Education and Care. The theme was, “Raising Our Voices: The Power of Advocacy – The Time for Action is Now!”
Throughout the day, participants asked a common question: How can we get better at telling our story? Good answers came from elected officials, advocates and child care providers.
Advice from Elected Officials
During the morning session a panel of elected officials offered a range of advice for reaching out to government.
“We need people like you to come to the State House,” State Senator Sal N. DiDomenico (D – Everett), said in the conference’s first session. “A lot of what I do in the State House is a reflection of what you tell me.”
One of the first lessons that Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley learned was “not to be self righteous.” She also called on advocates to tell the moral story about early childhood education and the economic story.
Don’t underestimate the power of aides, Pressley and DiDomenico added. Talking to elected officials’ staff members and policy directors can have a powerful impact.
“If you’re a little intimidated,” to talk to legislators said State Representative Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke), “Find someone who is not.” And he added, “Invite us to your events.”
“Be succinct,” in presentations and goals, said Westfield City Councilor Agma Maria Sweeney, who added that, “We have to break those barriers of ownership and really pull in the same direction.”
“If you can talk to a really angry parent,” former Northampton Mayor Mary Clare Higgins said, addressing early educators in the audience, “you can talk to a legislator.”
“Or you can run for office yourself,” Higgins said, calling on people to get directly involved in the political process. “Not all of you have to run,” she joked, “but more people should consider advocating for change by running for and serving in an elected office.”
Specific efforts were discussed in concurrent meetings that covered:
- Increasing advocacy around raising salaries for early education teachers
- Understanding how market-based education reforms such as standardized testing affect children
- Supporting English language learners
- Creating new ways to finance the renovation or new construction of early childhood spaces
- Pushing toward universal pre-k at the state and national level
- Understanding the state budget
In these sessions participants encouraged each other to reach out to elected officials, educate parents about early education issues, collaborate with libraries and other cultural institutions, and work with other advocacy groups.
Pay attention to the “We” in “We the People,” Nancy Wagman advised in her presentation, encouraging people to engage in government. Wagman is the MA Kids Count Project Director at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget).
“The state budget represents the choices we make about what we want our government to do, and it affects every single kid in the commonwealth,” Wagman said in her presentation.
To help craft the budget advocates need stories, and to get stories, Wagman said, advocates can consult MassBudget’s new Children’s Budget website. The site “describes every major program that serves children, including how the programs work, their goals and their funding history.” Links go to specific budget line items, state resources and background information on a range of public policy issues from hearing tests to Head Start to home visiting programs, as well as housing, domestic violence and nutrition.
The Acting Commissioner
“I want you to marry your state legislator,” said Tom Weber, the acting commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC), in his appeal to early educators to advocate for their issues. “If you’re already in a relationship, I apologize.”
Weber said that support in the Legislature for early education is broad, but that legislators can’t know the issue as well as professionals in the field – another reason why advocacy is so important. Weber also acknowledged that the early education and care field lacks the resources it needs to achieve the state’s ambitious educational goals.
“I’m aware of how much work we have to do to provide more children with the opportunities my own children have,” Weber said.
The Commissioner provided an update on his department’s work, including QRIS, and he spent significant time answering questions from the audience.
A Call to Action
In the afternoon, activists from MassLEAP (the Massachusetts Leadership Empowerment and Action Project) encouraged people to stand up and speak out.
- Dawne Browne, Program Director, ABCD Mattapan Head Start
- Erin Butts, Teacher/Director, Haggerty Preschool, Cambridge
- Evett Cortes, Director, Project Hope Children’s Center, Dorchester
- Sarah Montoya, Early Education and Care Consultant
- Peggy Bandarra, Director, Maples Little Angels at Maples Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, Wrentham
Each panelist recently completed the LEAP class offered through Wheelock College. This course is designed for people from a wide variety of roles, experiences and training in leadership, organizing, community action and advocacy. A primary goal of this course is to encourage individual leadership development and to support and nurture each student in developing and achieving their personal and professional leadership goals.
During the discussion, each panelist shared their personal story about leadership development and how they translated learning about advocacy in class into action.
Because Massachusetts is still crafting its early education and care system, it is essential that early educators use the power of advocacy and raise their voices so that the commonwealth benefits from their insights and experience.