It’s All About Social Justice

Blog Post
Jan. 22, 2019

To facilitate interaction among ideas presented in Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators, Series Editor Stacie G. Goffin offers opening comments. For readers new to the Series, her introduction explains the series' intent.

Defining ECE social justice as the balance between equity and equality, Nilsa Ramirez helps further unwind ECE's thorny knot by adding another dimension to the series' discussion about inclusion. In the process, she speaks to the knowledge, skills, and vulnerability necessary to authentically engage with the field's diverse population of children and families. She contends that "Professionalizing early childhood educators goes hand-in-hand with how we as a field represent, understand, and internalize our individual voices and the voices of the children and families being served."

As we consider how to untangle early childhood education’s thorny knot, I can’t help but notice that missing from the conversation are the authentic voices of those who are most impacted — early childhood educators and the families they serve. If we want to cultivate quality practice and professional identities, social justice — the balance between equity and equality in education and the actions we take to get there — needs to be put at the center of ECE’s work.

Series’ authors Luis Hernandez, Jamal Berry, and Fabienne Doucet raised the risk of diluting the field’s diversity if early childhood education (ECE) were to require degreed or credentialed early childhood educators. Frankly, I think the ongoing debate between these two options misses the point. Neither will be successful if ECE caregivers aren’t asked what they want and need and if ECE continues viewing social justice as a secondary concept in debates about the ECE workforce because social justice is central to these debates. Without its inclusion in debate on this issue and others, I believe the choices made too often will fail to achieve the balance essential to children’s early learning and development.

As Sara Mead noted, “conversations about elevating the ECE workforce…rarely address the organization of ECE delivery or the culture and capacity of organizations that provide ECE programs.” While she wasn’t specifically referencing diversity, inclusion, and issues of implicit bias and systems of oppression, the message was still clear to me: to untangle ECE’s thorny knot, the interaction of its entangled threads with larger societal issues has to be understood.

The ECE field should be investing in its diverse workforce as its strongest asset and embracing social justice as the glue to better advance the ECE system. Towards this end, we should be elevating the voices of educators and families so a two-way partnership can be formed in service to articulating a shared agenda for children’s learning and development. As Michele Cox-Miller notes for us “While parents are young children's first and best teachers, they rely on early educators as partners in preparing their children for success” (bold font added).

I’m learning firsthand how becoming authentic “partners” with families helps educators uncloak socio-cultural inequity in their classrooms and incorporate social justice into their identities as early childhood educators. As site director for the Rauner Family YMCA child care center on the west side of Chicago, I’m getting a close look at how unearthing implicit biases can be tackled in daily practice. At the Rauner Y, this has meant amplifying community voices inside our classrooms with children and with our families outside of classrooms.

If social justice is to be achieved, better connections need to be made among content, pedagogy, and the social-cultural contexts of the communities being served. As Sherri Killins-Stewart argued, policies need to recognize the value educators can bring when it comes to informing culturally and linguistically relevant practice and policies. I’d contend, though, that cultural and linguistically relevant practices and policies are not enough. Social justice also needs to be represented—in partnership with families—in classrooms, and most especially as part of early childhood educators’ identity development.

In the last few years, the Rauner Family YMCA teachers, assistant teachers, and I have participated in peer-based professional learning communities focused on altering instructional practice through anti-bias education and social equity. We’ve dug deeply into issues of race, culture, socio-economic class, gender identity, family structure, and religion. We’ve challenged our beliefs, discussed our personal biases, and importantly, connected these socio-cultural contexts to how our teaching and learning in ECE settings can be improved.

It has been incredibly difficult work. But it has empowered the center’s teaching staff, and me in my role as the site director, to take risks in our practice and test strategies for working with children and families that feel meaningful and relevant in the context of the broader societal context. This unique combination—partnership with families, focus on quality practice, and core values linking social justice and equity—has cultivated a sense of pride in our work that is translating to our practitioners’ identities as early childhood educators.

The social justice lens we’ve applied to our practice extends to policy as well. We, as Y staff, are now better equipped to come to policy tables with insights relevant to ECE preparation and professional development that can improve educator practices and better serve children and families.

Professionalizing early childhood educators goes hand-in-hand with how we as a field represent, understand, and internalize our individual voices and the voices of the children and families being served. Most likely, for reasons mentioned throughout this blog series, decades will be needed to untangle ECE’s thorny knot. Nonetheless, I agree with Carol Brunson Day that the time has come to move beyond the “best” educational pathway debate. In its place, let’s pull up a chair, make room at the table, and hand over the microphone to the educators we too often act as if we can speak for, and to the families they serve. Only then can we authentically advance ECE’s workforce for the demands of the 21st century.