Advancing equity in the early childhood workforce

ZERO TO THREE Fellows Natasha Byars (Southwest Human Development), Raquel Munarriz Diaz (Lastinger Center for Learning at the University of Florida) and Sandipan Paul (UNICEF Pacific) collaborated on a ZERO TO THREE journal article focusing on advancing equity in the early childhood workforce, which was published in May 2020. The article explores “hiring practices, strategies for equipping a diverse workforce, and the actions necessary to realize equity and inclusion through organizational change using interviews with early childhood organizations across the US and data from a project in Tanzania.”

The early childhood workforce should be founded in equity, which is defined as “the state that would be achieved if individuals fared the same way in society regardless of race, gender, class, language, disability, or any other social or cultural characteristic.” The 2012 publication of Diversity-Informed Tenets and the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s 2019 statement Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education were important steps toward defining early childhood work as social justice work, charging early childhood educators with the responsibility of advancing equity. The call for the early childhood field is to integrate these ideals into daily individual and organizational practice. To this end, the authors highlight four of the Diversity-Informed Tenets: Make Space and Open Pathways, Allocate Resources to Systems Change, Champion Children’s Rights Globally and Advance Policy That Supports All Families.

Hiring practices and holding space are two organizational operations informed by Diversity-Informed Tenet #9: “Make Space and Open Pathways.”

One significant way early childhood organizations can work toward having a workforce that is more representative of the communities served is through hiring practices. While many leaders have made concerted efforts to hire a diverse workforce, multiple studies across fields have shown that “implicit bias often leads managers to hire others who are like themselves, and that implicit bias is often a stronger force in decision making than objective job qualifications.” Though no one is immune to bias, intentional hiring practices can support more equitable decision making. One organization highlighted in the article Jewish Family and Community Services, East Bay in California. Across all interviews, their Parenting and Youth Services department has utilized more diverse interview panels – including non-supervisors and staff who are people of color – to bring new perspectives and voices to hiring decisions.

The article also featured efforts by Southwest Human Development, as Early Head Start and Head Start director Mindy Zapata worked to build relationships with communities represented in the Head Start programs and foster trust and responsiveness to community needs. These efforts also supported goals to recruit family members of Head Start children into Southwest Human Development’s Child Development Associate credential program, ultimately leading to a more representative, diverse workforce. Along with organizational advantages that come from a diverse workforce, studies show that children benefit from teachers who look like them. Changes to interview processes, resources provided for trainees, and additional religious accommodations required adjustments to what had been usual practices, though realized as necessary steps to having a workforce that truly reflected the community.

As part of holding space, the authors propose affinity groups and Communities of Practice (CoPs) as “strong, relational levers in advancing equity.” Affinity groups can be used to bring people similar identities together, providing space for connection, reflection, and action to advance equity in unique ways. CoPs are intentionally-created groups for professionals across organizations to engage in “in reflective, critical conversations focused on improving outcomes for children and families.” Fostering “reflection, inclusion, shared wisdom, and critical feedback,” these facilitated groups focus on diversity and inclusion. The University of Florida Lastinger center created a framework to effectively implement a CoP which outlines four key considerations: content, conditions, processes and structures.

The article also explores Diversity-Informed Tenet #8: “Allocate Resources to Systems Change,” stating that advancing equity in early childhood systems “requires an investment of resources, including time, energy, emotion, and money.”

Research shows that a diversity in an organization provides benefits on multiple levels and that within that, leadership diversity is essential, leading to “some of the most significant gains diversifying offers to organizations.” Additionally, as programs and organizations seek to advance equity, considering who is brought to the table, various levels of data, and the concrete resources available to support realizing these ideals are key components of the work.

In exploring Diversity-Informed Tenets #2 and #10: “Champion Children’s Rights Globally” and “Advance Policy That Supports All Families,” the authors use an example taken from work in Tanzania, in which the Tanzanian government had to navigate unintended, negative impacts on children’s access to early childhood education. The case example underscores the need for balancing equitable access and workforce realities, and being responsive to the local environment, in pursuing policy change.

The authors do not shy away from the difficult work that faces the early childhood field. Advancing equity “is messy, it is not linear, and it requires continuous reorientation and rebalancing from the status quo.” It requires persistent effort, self-reflection, and practicing a new way of thinking that recognizes “discomfort as a signal for learning rather than an excuse for withdrawal or defensiveness.”

To ensure that “all babies and toddlers have a strong start in life,” we must work together to “build a workforce that advances equity and access for all families—a task that requires adaptive and courageous leaders.” All levels of the workforce have a role in putting these ideals to action and are able to make this change – not just executive leadership. Each early childhood professional can find ways to improve their individual practice and contribute to broader, programmatic and systemic change. The authors urge early childhood professionals “boldly, lead from where you are.”