Early Childhood Justice: Moving Forward

On October 18th 2016, experts in housing, health and employment; students, and early childhood advocates met at Loyola University’s Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law to discuss progress, explore new data on the race and poverty disparities of health, and develop a trajectory for future research in the field of early childhood health. This conference, titled, Justice from the Start: Exploring Racial Disparities in Access to Services for Babies and Toddlers, included keynote speaker Olivia Garden, Executive Director of Loyola’s Center for Law and Social Policy, and featured Dr. Aisha Ray, Professor Emeritus at Erikson Institute.

In Chicago, Hispanic children are two times as likely to be born into poverty, and among African American children, this statistic increases to three. The mission of Shriver Center is to “promote justice, and improve the quality of life and opportunities for upward mobility for those living in poverty.” To best identify and address the needs of our most disadvantaged communities, advocates must approach system change with the application of a “race lens.” As Olivia Golden presented: young children of color are the poorest population among children aged 0-3; and a child born poor, is more likely to become an adult who is poor.

A theme throughout the conference was the intersection of race and poverty and their impacts on health of young children and their families. Early exposure to poverty impacts the lives of children in many direct and indirect ways. Increased food or housing insecurity, a lack of health care services, racial discrimination, and limited proximity to early childhood centers compound the challenges faced by young children and their families. Those who are invested in the fight to break the cycle of poverty in Early Childhood to break the cycle of poverty: must prioritize racial justice. This approach will impact the lives and stability of parents, and as a result the health and wellbeing of their young children will be improved.

Participants explored the importance of structural racism and equity in the development of policies, services, and programs targeting the needs of infants and toddlers. In Chicago, across the United States, race remains a controversial subject, and racism as a barrier to health needs to be included in our nations dialogue of health equity. Structural and institutional factors, such as early childhood education centers or screening programs, influence childhood health outcomes; however, we need to recognize how we exclude the most at need when we frame future laws and policies. The following are examples of policies that impact health equity in Early Childhood:

  • Proximity of high quality, bi-lingual early childhood programs to the infants and toddlers most in need;
  • Policies which allow the expulsion or suspension of preschool-aged children;
  • Implicit bias and lower expectations of children and families of color;
  • Quality of programs or curricula used with children in poverty and of color.

Beyond recognizing the many challenges and barriers Early Childhood advocates face, participants had the opportunity to discuss areas where we can advocate. With an accumulation of research focusing on equity in early childhood, there is an increasing wealth of data that can be leveraged to strategize future steps. To reduce structural racialization and implicit bias, we can target different levels of change. Through personal and interpersonal change, individuals become more effective in relating to others and interpersonal conflict in reduced. Individuals and groups can collaborate to address structural and systemic inequities, such as biased hiring practices and promotion, policies, and a lack of inclusive institutional cultures. Participants then discussed how to address these systemic inequities. The following are some examples of proposed strategies:

  • Improve data collection to make up for inconsistent data
  • Focus on structural racism systemic inequality rather than personal prejudices
  • Broaden the representation of diverse individuals and communities most affected by early childhood policies and programs
  • Develop a highly qualified, culturally, racially, and linguistically diverse early childhood workforce.

We are tasked with the responsibility as professionals in early childhood to challenge these barriers to equity. With further research and a greater understanding of new data on race disparities in early childhood, advocates can ensure that all children have equal access to services, regardless of their race or poverty status.

Written by: Paula Satariano, MPH Candidate 2018 and Irving Harris Early Childhood Scholar