Panel spotlights the Black Lives Matter movement’s meaning for early childhood

Beginning with the idea that all children and families deserve access to quality child care, education, and services to help them learn, grow, and develop, a panel of early childhood professionals and community activists gathered at Erikson Institute in January to share ideas about overcoming and breaking down social and policy barriers to living healthy lives.

The discussion, organized by Erikson faculty and staff, focused on the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement in ­relation to the field of early childhood while also serving to honor the legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose commitment to ensuring equality for all Americans closely aligns with Erikson’s guiding principles.

“Unfortunately, many social injustices are occurring right in front of our eyes, and we are compelled to contribute to the discussion and further social justice through action,” said Jie-Qi Chen, Ph.D., senior vice president of Academic Affairs and dean of faculty at Erikson.

Candace Williams, second from left, Erikson’s Master of Social Work program recruiter, participates in a panel discussion about what the Black Lives Matter movement means for young children.

Candace Williams, second from left, Erikson’s Master of Social Work program recruiter, participates in a panel discussion about what the Black Lives Matter movement means for young children.

Moderated by Erikson professor Tonya Bibbs, Ph.D., M.S.W., the conversation touched on social issues such as poverty, violence, mass incarceration, the “preschool to prison pipeline,” and school environment, while panelists addressed how societal problems impact children’s normative development, particularly among low-income and minority families. Many shared stories about their experiences working with children and families to draw conclusions about optimum ways to address some of society’s most pressing problems.

“Children learn to matter in context of relationships and belonging to community,” Dr. Bibbs said. “Many families are not getting that experience of mattering.”

Social Issues Are Early Childhood Issues

“Failing schools and under-resourced communities lead to systemic oppression,” said panelist Candace Williams, Erikson’s Master of Social Work program recruiter. “If parents can’t find jobs or if they don’t even have the education that enables them to get jobs to help them have viable lives, what does that mean for them and their children?”

Many children of color live in communities where childhood behaviors and activities such as playing outside don’t always happen because of a threat of violence or fear of police, Williams said, noting that even walking to the store can be difficult because of a lack of viable businesses in the immediate neighborhood. When children feel they have no freedom to do normal activities, their development can become stunted, she said.

Shelley Quiles, left, a Chicago-based social worker and owner of Performing Art Therapy, answers a question during a panel discussion at Erikson about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Shelley Quiles, left, a Chicago-based social worker and owner of Performing Art Therapy, answers a question during a panel discussion at Erikson about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Panelist Shelly Quiles, a social worker who also owns a company called Performing Art Therapy, said that in many Chicago public schools where she works, students have families who have been impacted by incarcerations or death from violence. Yet, the schools don’t always have adequate support staff to help students deal with trauma in the family, and as a result, children can begin to act out. “That’s a deficit of resources,” Quiles said. “It’s unacceptable, but it’s actually the norm in many schools.”

Change Policy, Build Relationships

The panel discussion focused on how children grow up hearing narratives about their communities, such as the idea of “black-on-black crime,” that often lead them to form negative perceptions of themselves. These narratives, compounded by the lack of social services, quality education and mental health resources, can lead to a feeling among both children and adults that their lives don’t matter, said panelist Aislinn Pulley, an organizer involved with the Black Lives Matter movement in Chicago.

“We say we wonder why is there’s violence, but we know why,” Pulley said. “It’s extreme divestment in communities – there’s a direct correlation. It’s not unique to black communities, either. It happens across the board wherever there is poverty. What creates crime is intrinsically linked to what creates poverty: Poorly constructed social policies.”

Adenia Linker, M.Ed., left, project manager for Erikson's Calm Classroom K-2 program, asks a question during a panel discussion at Erikson honoring The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy.

Adenia Linker, M.Ed., left, project manager for Erikson’s Calm Classroom K-2 program, asks a question during a panel discussion at Erikson honoring The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

While overcoming some of the society’s most pressing problems can be difficult without political will, strengthening relationships among people of all ages can go a long way toward fostering positive growth and development in communities that are impacted by violence, poverty, and a lack of essential services. For example, Charles M. Payne, Ph.D., Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, expressed his advocacy for cross-age tutoring, which helps create healthy relationships between older and younger children.

“We have to be in the relationship building business, always using our privilege to assert opportunities for others,” Quiles said. “We have to speak out against things that hurt humanity as well as build bridges with students, peers, and clients. We are all human and all have something to share with one another.”

Dr. Bibbs, explained that students at Erikson learn about the need to be sensitive to children’s cultural backgrounds, and it’s important for the adults in children’s lives, including educators and social workers, to draw on children’s cultural strengths in order to help them learn and develop. Meanwhile, panelist Valerie Papillon, an organizer with Black Youth Project 100, noted a need for collaboration among communities that span different races, genders, and sexual orientation to facilitate change.

Putting Ideas Into Action

The discussion drew an audience of early childhood professionals, local activists, and members of the Erikson community including faculty, staff, students, and alumni. For Katie Gleason, M.S. and M.S.W. ’12, the discussion was eye-opening to her as a social worker in African-American communities in Chicago.

“I wanted to not only gain more insight about the Black Lives Matter movement, but I also wanted to learn how to start to have meaningful conversations about issues in Chicago and across nation that impact the communities I work with,” Gleason said. “I work directly with kids, parents, and teachers, and it’s important for me to be able to support them when they talk about what it means to grow up as a young black person.”