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Panel Discussion: Advocating for Early Racial Learning in Your Community

This panel conversation about the work that we can do together to defend and celebrate early racial learning in our schools and communities took place at the first EmbraceRace Early Childhood Summit on December 3, 2022. The panelists were state senators Machaela Cavanaugh and Stephanie Change, and Anastasia Ordonez of Race Forward's HEAL Together. Darcy Heath of EmbraceRace moderated. Watch more of the Summit and find out more about the contributors here. The transcript of the conversation and information about the panelists follows.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace: Hello and welcome back from your break. My name is Darcy Heath and I am one of the EmbraceRace Early Childhood Community facilitators. At this time, I want to begin by recognizing what an honor and privilege it has been to be in this space of learning with the powerful speakers that we've already had today. Dennis, Trisha, Nicole, and Nadia, thank you for helping us to gain a greater understanding of the historical and current context of racial inequity in our country. Thank you for sharing your personal story on centering the joy and celebration of early childhood. There are so many things that I am taking away, but two statements that really stood out to me were Dennis's "building a bigger we" and Trisha's words, "You will never accomplish anything alone." Those beautiful words serve as the perfect segue into the next portion of our summit, a conversation on the topic of advocating for early racial learning in your community.

This conversation will be all about the work that we can do together to defend and celebrate early racial learning. I am thrilled to be joined today for this conversation by three amazing women who have been advocating for early racial learning in their communities.

Anastasia Ordonez, who is Public Education Leadership Project Director at Race Forward, and a former Amherst School Committee chair. Anastasia has 20 years of experience working on high profile progressive media and issue based campaigns. She lives with her family in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she served on her local school board, the Amherst School Committee and Amherst Regional School Committee for almost four years, sharing the Amherst School Committee for two of those years. Thank you for being here, Anastasia.

Anastasia Ordonez: It's great to be here, Darcy. Thank you.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace: We also have joining us Senator Stephanie Chang. Senator Chang is the Democratic state senator from Michigan and is the first Asian American woman to be elected to the Michigan Legislator Legislature. She worked as a community organizer in Detroit for nearly a decade before serving two terms in the Michigan House of Representatives. The senator also is a co-founder and past president of Asian Pacific Islander American Vote Michigan, and she served as a mentor with the Detroit Asian Youth Project. She lives in Detroit with her husband and two young daughters. Welcome, Stephanie, and I'm so glad to have you here.

Sen. Stephanie Chang:

Thank you so much. Excited about the conversation.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

Finally, Senator Machaela Cavanaugh. She's a Nebraska state senator, a democratic Nebraska state senator. Senator Kavanaugh is an Omaha native with nearly 20 years experience in community engagement and public affairs. She worked at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. Proud to say she was a colleague there. Machaela serves on the Board of Directors of Inclusive Communities and is a member of the Preschool Advisory Committee. Excuse me, committee at Morningstar Preschool. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband and three young children. So thankful to also have you here today, Machaela.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh:

Thank you, Darcy, for inviting me.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

All right. One of the things that I want to start by saying is this. We're grateful to our panelists, we're grateful for their experience, but we also want to acknowledge that all three of them are moms. As such, they have children and it's Saturday and children may be at home. We ask for your grace and understanding if we do have some background noise. But that's what we're all here for. We're here for the kids. I am sure, as we engage in our conversation today, our participants will have questions for our esteemed panelists and guests. I encourage you to add those questions into the Q&A feature. We will make sure and save time to share those questions at the end of our panel. To get our conversations started today, I'm going to invite each of you to share a little bit more about yourselves and about your stories for advocating for early racial learning. Senator Chang, can we start with you?

Sen. Stephanie Chang:

Sure. Well, thanks again so much. I'm excited to be here for this exciting conversation. My name's Stephanie Chang. I'm currently a state senator in Detroit and here in Michigan. I'm a daughter of Taiwanese-American immigrants who came to this country looking for better opportunity. I'm the mom of two young daughters, one who is doing some type of arts and crafts project over here. Before I ran for office, I was a community organizer. Actually, in thinking about this panel and this conversation, I thought about just what the past couple of years has been like for many parents like myself. I have a seven-year-old and a three-year-old, and I was thinking back to just the past two and a half years of a number of things that I never... Things that I've had to explain to my seven-year-old in particular.

First, explaining, "Okay, here's what Coronavirus is," in March 2020. In May 2020, explaining to her what happened to George Floyd. The next year, in March 2021, explaining what happened to Asian-American women in Atlanta. The fact that I've had these conversations and that she actually really, I think, understands at a very basic level, I think all of this speaks to just why this topic is so important, because as parents, it's our responsibility to talk about these things, but also I think is very much an important responsibility of our schools and our school districts to be ensuring that kids are learning about their racial identity, to learn about culture, to learn about history. The other thing I was thinking about for today is that today's Saturday, I grew up going to Chinese school on Saturdays. Normally, my older daughter would actually be in Chinese school right now, but they're closed today for some reason. I also just have been thinking a lot about the fact that when I was growing up, just learning about my own identity as a young Asian American girl or young woman, I had very two separate lives of Chinese school on Saturday and then American school sort of the rest of the week. And the experience that I want for my daughter is something where she is who she is as a young, black and Asian girl, to be fully who she is no matter what setting she's in. And I think a big part of that is going to be learning about her own identity and about her history and about the history of all each of the communities in our community, in our nation in a way that I did not and that many of us did not. So I'm really excited about this conversation because as a mom and as a lawmaker, I just think it's really important. And Machaela, I know you're also a mom and also a lawmaker. Would love to hear your experiences.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh:

So Stephanie, I really appreciate the perspective that you just were explaining. I have similar, but of course different, because I'm white and my children are white. But again, when George Floyd was murdered, having to have those conversations with my children. And really as both a policymaker and a parent, I try to focus a lot of my energy on how to raise my kids to make this world a better place and how to enact policies that are going to undo some of those systems that are entrenched in every facet of everything.

And when we talk about how we can address race and equity in early learning, as a policymaker, one of the things I really try to focus on is policies that are focused on those things that we don't necessarily associate with education, like food and housing and making sure that our learners are all on equal footing from day one. Oh, I need to speak up. I'm talking slowly but not loudly. I apologize.

So I was saying that focusing on some of those essential needs to help kids just from day one, have the learning at the same level as everyone else by having access to food and housing stability are really important. And at least in Nebraska, specifically in Omaha, we are a very segregated city and we have coded language for our segregation. We have a part of town that's called North Omaha, and that's black Omaha. South Omaha is primarily Latino Omaha, but it is also just where our immigrant populations tend to end up. And then the rest of Omaha, which is white, and the further west you go is where the white flight really happens.

So we are a diverse city and a segregated city and a lot of that goes back to redlining, but you can see it in our early learners and it's something that I'm very dedicated to trying to undo while I have the chance to. But I'm going to turn it over to Anastasia. I'd like to hear a little bit more. She's also a mom. We got a bunch of moms here. Mom power. How have you seen this in your work and as a mom?

Anastasia Ordonez:

Thank you, Machaela and Stephanie also. Yeah, I mean, I think for me, obviously early racial learning starts in the home, when parents and families accept the fact that young children in toddlerhood already understand racial differences. And those parents can help their young children learn about race with intention and love, but it can't stop with a home environment or it doesn't blossom only from the home environment.

I grew up in the New York City metro area. I was the only child of a single immigrant mother from the Dominican Republic who fled the revolution there when she was a young teenager. And growing up, we bounced around a lot, didn't have a lot of money, and we were always on the move looking for affordable rent and jobs that my mother could do while still taking care of me. She delivered newspapers, she cleaned houses, she worked in low paying office jobs. Life was really hard for us.

And the one thing that kept me grounded and within striking distance of a better future was the public education that I received. And there were educators who believed in me and pushed me to work hard, counselors who connected me to resources like scholarships, daily breakfast and lunch to keep me fed. And schools weren't always perfect and I had bad experiences, but on balance, public schools shaped me. They made me who I am, and they were where I learned really valuable social and emotional skills, in the clubs that I joined, where I was exposed to other languages, religions, skin colors, cultures, where I could take out as many books on topics from the library that I never learned at home and they helped to open my mind.

So we know that public systems, public schools and libraries are what connect us in our communities. Regardless of our income level, our race, gender identity, immigration status, physical ability, we all gather and we all make use of these public systems. We share ideas, we collaborate on projects, we access information and resources, and we have a long way to go to make public systems really truly equitable, but they're a necessary starting point.

And the work that I've been doing, we believe that public schools prepare students to become effective, engaged citizens. That's our early racial learning. And at its best, public education prepares students for a multiracial democracy by creating a space where students of all backgrounds engage with one another and they can work toward common goals. Public education also creates those connected communities that are united to provide the next generation with the knowledge and the skills to shape a better future where everyone can thrive. So the need to protect multiracial, well-funded public schools where students can thrive and communities can come together are what drove me to run for school board in my town of Amherst six years ago.

But I think that in order for public schools to serve as that foundation for a just multiracial democracy, they have to have the tools and the resources to provide that honest, accurate education to all students. And that can start and should start in preschool, which should be accessible to all students and should be accessible to all children. And all of our schools must be fully funded so that students and educators can access what they need when they need it.

So we know that since the Civil Rights Movement, which called for the integration of public goods and spaces, there's been an ongoing strategy to privatize those goods and spaces instead of sharing them. And I think Darcy, you had mentioned Dennis Chin talking about the bigger we earlier in the summit, which sort of centers belonging and equity and reclaims those equitable and inclusive public systems that create opportunity for us all. So that was a little long winded, but that's sort of my thinking about early racial learning and my place in that world.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

Thank you, Anastasia, Machaela, and Stephanie. It was, I enjoyed getting to hear a little bit more about your personal story.

And so our conversation today is really around advocating for early racial learning. And Anastasia, you started that topic a little bit as you were talking about how important it is that we start with our very earliest learners and that starts in our homes. One of the most common questions we get asked as early childhood facilitators in the embrace race early childhood community is what action can our teachers, can our families, can our caregivers take?

So I want to put that out to you, and you can answer it in either way. Sharing what was the first action you took towards advocacy? Because pretty sure none of you started out your journey as state senators or school board members. There were small steps before then. So share, if you would, with us your journey towards advocacy and also perhaps some suggestions that you have for our participants on the call today. So Machaela, can we start with you?

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh:

Yes, absolutely. My first suggestion is be a squeaky wheel. I am a very, very squeaky wheel on every issue that care about, and any issue that I've been able to move forward is because I just am persistent and I don't really take no for an answer.

So when my oldest ... I was going to say youngest. When my oldest was just a baby in childcare, I was walking into this building and it was really not in good shape. And it was on a campus of a university that had a lot of money and talked about childcare and advocates for it a lot. And the sidewalks were crumbled, the steps were dangerous, all kinds of things. And I just spent a year talking to any person who would take a meeting with me at the university about how terrible this was. And they just kept telling me it wasn't a priority, it wasn't a priority. And I was like, "This is where some of your students send their kids. This is supposed to be an advantage to going here, is that you can have a place to send your kids and it's not really a safe place, and I sent my kid here."

So then I started a parents group that they didn't have at that time and just got them other parents to be squeaky wheel as well. And eventually they decided that in their billion dollar budget that they could afford $20,000 to fix the concrete and put up a new playground. And they did a big ribbon cutting about it. I wasn't invited, but that was just something that I just did. I saw the need. I mean, obviously it impacted my child's surroundings and I want those to be better. And from there I just started to wake up to paying attention and being really, really squeaky about it. Anastasia, your children are in Michigan, correct?

Anastasia Ordonez:

They are ... we are in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh:

Yeah. Oh, Massachusetts. I thought Michigan.

Anastasia Ordonez:

Really close to Michigan.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh:

Really close. Almost a mitten. How old are your children?

Anastasia Ordonez:

So I have an 11 year old and a just turned 13 year old.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh:

So those early days of childcare, probably a wonderful, expensive memory. Do you want to share your experiences?

Anastasia Ordonez:

Yeah, absolutely. And I will start before sharing my personal experience with answering the question that Darcy put to us about what can parents and educators and early childhood caregivers do? And it's the answer that I give so many people these days is to run for your local school board, which much both Stephanie and Machaela understand, we need more people like all of us to run. We need more advocates for early racial learning and for folks who are working on equity-related issues to run and serve in our local school boards. It's an important and accessible elected office, and it is very, very local because it is community-based. And many parents and even some early childhood caregivers are not aware of the role of local school boards in developing and defending equity policies in their public school districts and in stopping racist moves like book bans that we've been hearing about across the country.

And they don't know until it's too late that school boards approve public school budgets and they oversee how district resources are used. We need parents with young children and we need early childhood educators and those who have done work on early racial learning to help inform the policies and ideas that govern our K through 12 education or even preschool through 12 education.

And I know how challenging it can be for parents. Machaela, you were just talking about childcare and all of that. It's hard. It's really, really hard for parents with young children to get involved in local politics. When I first ran for office, my youngest was four years old and my husband told me I was crazy. It's exhausting. And when you are already exhausted from childcare duties and your nine to five job and all the other demands on your life, it's hard to think about adding one more thing to your overfilled plate.

And if you have early trauma in your life, adverse experiences that you've dealt with or your family is dealing with, that makes it even harder. But we need your voices in the mix. If you can swing it helps to lean on your support network for help with childcare and moral support. But we need you.

But the one thing that I would say is even if you can't run for elected office, to get familiar with your local school board and watch their meetings when you can. Get together with other community members and take turns watching and reporting on those meetings. We need to be a presence in our school board meetings, especially during budget making times ... usually they're like right around this time of year ... and when key policies are being decided. You can familiarize yourself with upcoming agenda items by going to your local school board's website and looking for past and upcoming agendas. Usually it's like board docs or some other similar platform that are linked on those sites.

But those are what I would say are really important, extremely important actions that parents and families and educators can take. And I'm curious, Stephanie, from your perspective, in legislature and also as a parent, how have you experienced running for local office and advocating in the way that you have?

Sen. Stephanie Chang:

Yeah, well, I definitely ... so I started in the legislature in 2015, pregnant with my first daughter. So it's been this simultaneous journey of learning to be a mom and doing the best I can and then also learning to be a good public servant. So just past eight years of momming and legislating all at the same time has been great and also challenging.

But I think it's really shaped a lot of the way that I both am a mom in the way that I am a legislator, and ... one of the things that ... so I served on the house education committee my first four years, and one of the things that just really stood out to me was that there are really just not a lot of voices at the Capitol for just parents and students, but there are organizations for every other entity that are just there every day at the Capitol. And so I really feel like it's so important that we get more voices of teachers, of parents, of students, people who just really want kids to have the best education possible, to be active voices in our policy-making process, whether that's at the school board level or at the state legislative level or at the federal level.

And so whether that is, like you said, showing up to a school board meeting, which are more and more and more important, especially given who is running for these school boards on the other side, and also going to lawmakers' coffee hours and saying, "What are you doing about this?" So I've got legislation related to ensuring that that students are learning Asian American history and black history and indigenous history and Arab-Chaldean history and Latino history just don't ... it's just not happening in Michigan. We're so inspired by this wave across the country post ... well, during COVID of all of these states, from Illinois to New Jersey, doing all this in Rhode Island, most recently instituting new laws regarding requiring the teaching of Asian American history.

And we need to do that in Michigan. We need to do that in every single state. And I just really remember after the spa shootings in March 2021, there was a lot ... I was a part of ... I don't know, felt like a million different conversations about what do we do? What do we do? And obviously the initial reaction was what do we do in terms of knowing our rights and what do we do in terms of combating discrimination and hate crimes? But then the very next thing right away was all these parents coming and saying, "Why are our kids not learning about Asian American history in our schools?" And this is a really important conversation and maybe if our kids learned this stuff, we wouldn't end up with the type of hate that we see. And so it was really inspiring.

So actually this question about what people can do to be advocates if there's local level or in the community, we're starting to see more and more of that, of these ... I'm Asian American, so Asian American parents in particular I'm seeing in the past year and a half of getting more involved and being ... finding out, first of all, who's even on the school board, or who is the superintendent? What are the ways to get involved locally? And then contacting me and their own state legislator to say, "Let's pass these bills." And I think for a lot of these folks, they've never done that before.

And so it's really exciting and it's actually very inspiring that we're seeing more and more people getting engaged. And I also think that this is a necessity. When we know that folks on the other side are extremely organized and are able to mobilize people in the hundreds to go to these meetings and advocate for banning books or not teaching certain things in our schools, it's even more important that our voices of reason and of inclusion and embracing race are there. So there's so many levels of getting involved. Find what's what is comfortable for you, and then do the next thing too that might be slightly uncomfortable.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

I love that idea of pushing into our growth zone or that zone of proximal development, which is what we talk about in early childhood. Do what's comfortable and then take it a step further into that point where you're uncomfortable, because that's often times where that action and advocacy happens. Machaela.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh:

I was just going to say both I appreciate both Anastasia and Stephanie talking about school boards because that has become an essential thing here in Nebraska as it has everywhere else. And one of the things that people can do locally is write to your local paper. Most papers have a public pulse, and they will publish public letters.

And I personally didn't feel that our media was covering some of the really divisive issues and some of the negative attacks that were happening because it's become so normalized to them. But it's not normal, and it's okay to push back on those things. And if you're a parent and you're seeing a school board person, somebody who's running for school board or somebody who's on the school board and running for reelection being attacked for things that you know to not be true, defend that in the public arena. And I mean, Facebook, social media are also great tools, but put it in the paper. And that's I think an underutilized resource, is just making the media accountable to make sure that we're paying attention to what's happening. And that's true of any issue, not just a school board election. If you see something, say something. And you can use your voice.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

Thank you, Machaela. I know specifically in Omaha and Papillion, which is a suburb of Omaha, there was a really divisive situation with a read aloud of a book. And in fact, Embrace Race hosted a webinar around that. And so I don't know if one of my colleagues can drop a link to that webinar in the chat box. That would be great.

So one of the things that I want to address as a parent, but also as a former classroom teacher, a really easy place for our families to start is by paying attention to what is coming home with your children. And when you see things that are racist in nature, activities such as for Thanksgiving, creating an indigenous name. Speak up. Speak up. Another really simple thing you can do is ask for books. Most public libraries and school libraries take requests. Ask them to order diverse books.

So we are going to spend a few minutes now really thinking about some of the questions that we have in Q and A. And I want to start with one, and this actually comes from Christina, one of our co-hosts. And so she says, "If folks are in friendlier areas where racial learning and education is not terribly divisive and is generally supported, what can they do to help make a difference in communities that aren't theirs?" So we have some communities who really are doing a great job. I want to call out an Amherst Mass, like they've done a lot within their schools. What can our caregivers, our educators who are in places like that do to help speak up for other communities? Stephanie, Machaela, Anastasia, anyone want to take that on first?

Anastasia Ordonez:

I think you mentioned Amherst, Massachusetts, which is an incredibly progressive community in Western Massachusetts. For folks who don't know, we are in the five colleges area, that's what we call it. This is a Connecticut River Valley where we have multiple universities, a lot of very highly educated, but also progressive folks who live here. And typically, many of the policies or ideas that we have put forth to increase equity and race related social justice policies are embraced by our community.

That's not to say that we can't always do better and that there aren't always folks who disagree or push back depending on the resources, perceived resources or real resource challenges that we experience in our school districts.

So I can share one example, a recent one when I was serving on the school board of folks who had begun advocating for the needs of our growing Spanish-speaking student population. For context, we had an over 30% increase in Latinx students from 2007 to 2017, and an increase of over 35% in English learners in that time period. And while our schools are great, and we have a lot of strong programming, the achievement of current and former Spanish speaking English learners were lower than average. And our ELs or English learners were falling behind, both in building their first language skills, but also in their English skills.

And research was pretty clear ... has been pretty clear over the past 10 years or so that there are both academic and social emotional benefits to cultivating a child's first language. So the district and the school board began to consider the idea of starting a dual language program and seeing that as an opportunity to reduce the achievement gap among English learners in particular. But an equity-based dual language program has to ensure that the children from Spanish-first families are given priorities so that they benefit from the attention and educational development in their home language. Dual language programs can easily become vehicles for white families to get access to yet another valuable resource for their children, and it doesn't necessarily help children of color in any way.

So as we began considering this program and how we would start it, our school board worked with the district to ensure that our dual language program would prioritize enrollment by children from Spanish-speaking families, and that the program would begin in kindergarten to enroll the youngest children in that school. We worked with local preschools to share news of the program and to get their input, and we met with both Latinx and non-Latinx families across the district to share the benefits of this program and get their input.

And the end result is not perfect. We're still working on this program, but it's a good example of how school boards and districts can work together with communities and families to strengthen early racial learning and equity based programming in their schools. And that's ultimately, I think what we're aiming for is to use our voices and our advocacy and our allyship to ensure that all communities that are in our immediate community and district are benefiting from the same resources. And even in progressive communities like ours, it requires intent and focus and partnership with all of our different entities and individuals and groups that are in that community to make sure that we have a successful program.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

Thanks, Anastasia. Senator Chang, thinking about Michigan, are there any examples or even just your personal thoughts on what communities can do, who maybe have more resources or more access?

Sen. Stephanie Chang:

Yeah, so it's a good question. And so I was reading the question ... it also looks like the question was about communities where there is more acceptance of understanding why racial learning is important, which may not always be communities with resources.

So I think on both ends, it's a really good question. I mean, on the question of communities where there's resources and communities where there's not, I think obviously there's a lot of chatter in the chat right now about just literally books and material and making sure that even if things aren't required in certain schools because the school district or the school may not have gotten there yet, just literally donating materials I think is huge. And then if there are maybe communities where the institutions aren't yet there, but the parents are, maybe a subset of the parents are interested in certain things, finding other ... is there a non-profit that could host these materials? Or is there a really cool librarian that is on board that will take some of this material? And just getting creative. And even if you can't necessarily make the institutional systemic change yet that you're looking for, finding ways to inch closer to it by getting that stuff there.

And then as far as ... I was thinking about the question about if there's a community where it's very progressive, very liberal or very, which doesn't always necessarily equate to being focused on or understanding racial learning, but for communities that have that understanding and wanting to help other communities that are just more conservative or just not there, one of the things that I actually came to my mind was ... so our state superintendent, Michael Race, who he came under some fire for ... this is more to do with gender identity, but he came under fire for a webinar, I believe ... I might be getting the details wrong ... a webinar that was put together for teachers around working with students who don't identify as a girl or a boy.

And so I just remember he was getting attacked by a number of organizations for this webinar and he stood by it and it was really powerful I think, actually, to see our state superintendent standing by his staff who put together this webinar that was about ... and basically saying to teachers, "This is how you can respond to the needs of your students and not necessarily understanding that some trans kids may not be out to their parents and so not ... don't go to the parents first," is basically what the advice was.

And so he came under a ton of fire. And it's just the example came to my mind because obviously he's a state superintendent. He doesn't necessarily have the ability under our state law the way that we're set up to mandate certain things across all of our districts. However, he's an important voice and so there might ... seeing him I can imagine probably inspired a number of educators or a number of principals across our whole state who may not necessarily be in a district that is friendly to these ideas, but maybe that extra boost might have given them the inspiration to be able to just keep going to do that. And so I think sometimes even if you're not in that same district or if you're not in that same district or if you feel like saying something publicly might not make a difference, it probably will because people are paying attention. And especially for marginalized communities, seeing someone in a position of authority saying something and speaking up for a community can make a huge, huge difference. Regardless of where you are and how many miles away or whether or not you actually have an ability to influence that district.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

Thank you so much for that, Stephanie, and somebody said in the chat, "Great definition and example of allyship," and I would a hundred percent agree with that. It also leads right into another question that we have, and this one is directed specifically at Machaela, and says, "What experience or experiences have you had that made you think the way you do to help others that may look differently from you?" Is it your parents or teachers? Your neighbors, your friends? And the reason they're asking is because we need more folks that look like you, especially from I would say largely conservative communities such as Nebraska, we need more people in the struggle for equity. So tell us your secrets.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh:

I don't know what my secret is, because I had a very traditional white Midwestern upbringing. I went to Catholic school where there was two kids in the entire time I was there that were not white. And my high school, there were two kids, again, different children that were not white. In my all girls Catholic high school. I went to a Catholic university in Minnesota. So yeah, nothing about that.

My first professor of color, I was asked this at a Buffett early childhood staff training. My first professor of color was in graduate school. I was almost 30. So I really wasn't exposed to a lot of diversity, but I would say that my parents are public servants at heart and they have spent their entire lives dedicated to trying to make the world better for other people. And so that's probably where I get my sense of social justice from.

I've just been surrounded in life around wonderful people who have big, generous hearts. And when I came to the legislature, oh, hello there, I see a little friend. When I came to the legislature, there were no women of color. There was one black man who's very famous here in Nebraska, Ernie Chambers, longest serving member of the legislature. And there had previously been some women of color, very few. But I had read an article right before I started about California and The Crown Act and I was like, oh, we should do that in Nebraska. So that was literally it. I was like, oh, this should be a thing in Nebraska. And that sent me on a journey to learn more about the Black community here in Omaha, about the challenges that are facing specifically Black women. And the fact that there wasn't anybody really advocating for women's issues in the color community. I just kind of dove in.

I started pursuing how do we improve health outcomes for Black mothers, because they have the worst health outcomes. And if we improve their health outcomes we'll hopefully improve everyone's. And have had the great honor and privilege of working with some great women of color in this city on making sure that we're addressing those issues. And I just try to be a vehicle, because I'm a white lady with a lot of white experience. I think it's important when you're in a position of power to use your power to benefit people who aren't in those positions. And so that's what I try to do, and I try to be intentional about that. I'm only here for, I was just reelected, so we have term limits. I have four more years, only have eight years to do this job. And I want to make sure that I do the most good for the most people as much as I can.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

Thank you, Machaela. As a fellow white woman doing this work, I would also just offer the most important thing that you can do or encourage other people to do is begin with their self and begin educating themselves. Embrace Race is a great place to start. We have lots of resources. We have our early childhood community. You'll get that link again to sign up to join us, but learn about the other communities in your area. Learn about some of the things that Dennis and Tricia talked to us about today, the history of genocide, the history of racial inequity, gerrymandering and redlining, and all of these different things that maybe as a white person I didn't realize. And get those stories directly from communities of color. Listen to their voices and take their lead on how to advocate for racial justice.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh:

In this journey I've made a lot of mistakes and you have to be willing to acknowledge that you're going to make mistakes. It's okay, you're learning, but you need to acknowledge when you do and you need to work to rectify that. And I will say that at the start of this, I described Omaha, South Omaha as Latino, and then Anastasia said Latinx. And I was like, ugh, I should have said Latinx because that's much more inclusive. So see, that was a mistake, constantly learning and educating myself.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

Thank you. Right. Another question from our Q&A is, are there examples the panelists could share about how the community, so parents, neighborhood groups, community organizations, support individual teachers in doing this day to day work before there's an attack? Now, Andrew talked a little bit about this earlier. Oftentimes right now teachers are self silencing because they maybe don't feel supported. So what can we do as community members to support teachers in this? Anyone want to share?

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh:

I would like to share an example, something that just happened in Omaha this week, and it was my colleague Megan Hunt, who is the first bisexual, really the first LGBTQ member of our legislature. And so she's been very active in a lot of these issues. And one of our school districts, a principal at one of the high schools directed all LGBTQ flags or stickers that were signs of support, teachers would have safe space stickers, to be taken down. And somebody reached out to Megan and she made it very public. The teachers that had those signs had to take down the signs saying safe space. And so those teachers weren't named publicly, but now they know that there are people that appreciate what they're doing and will stand by them. I don't know how we do it more proactively, but I thought that that was a really good example of how it is important when these things happen to stand by our teachers.

Anastasia Ordonez:

And I would jump in just also to add to that, Machaela, there are a lot of resources out there that are being offered by educator groups, educator focus groups, unions, the NEA (the National Education Alliance), has an entire website that's devoted to building equity in our public schools and supporting teachers, providing educators with the resources, toolkits, even curriculum that they might use in their teaching.

And I'm not encouraging parents and families to start sending curriculum advice to teachers, but instead to help provide the supportive environment for educators to understand that these resources exist, to talk with them. Ask them questions, what are your ideas around all of this? How can we support you to make sure that if you want to do this work in your classroom, that you can do this. When there are book bans that are being presented, it's important for parents and families and community members to show up again to those school board meetings and express support for our librarians, for our educators, who want to teach from those resources, from those materials, who have been teaching from them for so many years, and they're actually part of our canon, education canon, and should continue to be so.

There are so many ways for us to provide that support to our public school educators. And it starts with building relationships with them and seeing them as partners and seeing even our unions as partners in this effort, because it's not enough for all of us to be siloed. And that is what the far right has been using for forever. This is part of their toolkit to keep us all separate from each other, to keep us isolated and fighting with each other. And it's important for us to think about that and to think about ways that we can build coalitions between parent groups, educators, unions, youth led groups, and school board members in communities so that we can help make sure that our public schools and our early learning is taking place.

The work that I've been doing at Race Forward is part of an initiative called Heal Together, and I saw that there were some resources that were put in the chat just recently with the Heal Together pledge and a few other things. But we are working with locally led parents groups and educators and unions in communities around the country. We're working in about 14 states right now in places like North Carolina and in Michigan, Georgia, New York, New Hampshire, and a few others. And we are expanding those networks. The initiative is only about a year old, but it is an opportunity for a conversation about coalition building and working together because that is really where we're seeing a need right now, is to break out of those silos and find ways to connect back to each other so that we're not just providing support to our educators one on one, but we're doing it in community and we're doing it with each other.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

Thanks. So Stephanie, one of the questions that is in the chat box that I would love to get your perspective on is that I'm a public school educator, what can I do to get this started, especially when I don't know that I'll be supported? And the fear of retaliation. Do you have any suggestions or ideas of ways that educators can begin to step up in this really important work of advocating for early racial learning?

Sen. Stephanie Chang:

That's awesome. So this example is from a high school level, not preschool, but I'll just share it anyway because hopefully it'll be somewhat relevant. So one of my former teachers actually last year I think created an Asian American history elective summer class. He had all this content, he designed it and he knew it was going to be pretty tough to get it institutionalized as a requirement, but he knew that there were students that were interested. So he put it together and advocated for it. There were a lot of students who advocated for it and now it's a thing. And so now I think that they're going to be doing it for a second time. So it is pretty amazing because I don't think that's ever happened before in Michigan. So it's just an example of there's this teacher who had all these resources, you knew there were support, and then just figured out a way to make it happen.

At the preschool level, it's a really good question. I wonder about maybe talking to some of your fellow teachers and asking them from their thoughts and just doing some organizing there. And then also maybe talking to some of the parents of the kids and saying, "What are they looking for? Would they be interested in some of these things?" I don't know the context of the person who asks the question, but just starting that conversation. And especially if you, through working with the children, have noticed an interest in certain topics, actually going to their parents and saying, "Oh, I noticed that your child is really interested in X, would love to explore that more." And building through one-on-one conversations, which is what organizing is, and seeing one by one if there are more and more people who can then start to build in more as you can into your classroom and then see where it goes. If you continue to build, the possibilities are endless, maybe you can end up actually convincing the leader of your preschool that this is something that should be done in every classroom. But if you start small and if you start with those one-on-one conversations, just see where it goes.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

Thank you for that. The other thing, again, as a former educator, a classroom teacher, that I would encourage all educators to do a self audit of what you are teaching in your classroom, and what resources you are using. Because oftentimes, yes, you may have a curriculum, you may have standards, you all have standards that you have to teach to, but you have more leeway often in the resources and the voices that you choose to highlight while teaching those standards. So that's a great place to start.

So we have just about eight minutes left, so we had a great question in the chat box, and I want to maybe have each of our panelists just speak to it, and I am going to change it a little bit. And it says, "What can a white parent do to help their own children of color?" But what I would like each of you to speak to is what can parents do to help strengthen racial learning, and we know it starts in the home, right? So whether you're a white parent, whether you're a parent of color, what's one or two tips or strategies that you could share with our participants? And Anastasia, if you want to start.

Anastasia Ordonez:

Yeah, thank you, Darcy. That's a huge question. Again, I think with parents who are so busy and have so much going on in their day to day, it is important to, as we were talking about earlier, start where they feel they can. Whether it's watching their local school board meetings, having those conversations with their educators, their children's educators, their principals, superintendents, to learn what is happening in their schools, to learn how they can be allies in the fight for greater equity in our schools, in our public education system more broadly. Those are places where parents and families and other caregivers can get involved in actionable, meaningful ways.

I think also attending summits like this one, participating in the myriad resources that are out there at this point to connect parents and families to each other, to provide capacity building in so many different subject areas, those are all incredibly important. And the last thing I would say is also just to give ourselves a break. This is really, really hard work, and it's work that is exhausting, and it's important for us to be able to live another day, to be able to do this work and continue this work.

I mean, just watching Stephanie during this conversation, bringing her little one up on her lap and juggling all of this. In a better world, we are making space for all of that, and we're making space for our elected officials to be able to breastfeed in public and to have our children with us and to acknowledge that we are human beings and that we have other needs and that we have to balance all of that. But it's also just to give ourselves some grace and a break in understanding that we can't be everything all the time, but the steps that we are taking, the attending summits like this, whatever it is that we feel we can act on and do, that that is valuable and important to improving this world that we live in.

Sen. Stephanie Chang:

So this question about what parents can do, parents are so powerful, parents are making things happen for their families and for their communities. We also know that parents are exhausted. Like Anastasia said, everyone's working, so everyone's doing a million things, just trying to get through each day each week. So we recognize that. I think that the power of parents in organizing and in speaking up for the needs of our families and our children is so important right now. I fully believe that parents and this idea of parental rights and this type of stuff has been co-opted and is being used in a really, really harmful way. So I think that it's really critical that parents who want our children to live in communities where every single person is valued regardless of who they are, where they're from, and who they love, or what their identity is, that parents are talking to one another about what's going on in schools, what they would like to see change.

In Michigan and Detroit in particular there's an awesome group called 482 Forward, which started with parents, and it's really amazing because the idea of a citywide parents organization just didn't exist. And so now they exist, they're doing awesome stuff, they're advocating for change, and they're advocating for equitable funding and for many other things. And so it's really, really exciting. So I truly believe in the power of parents, and I do think it starts with those one-on-one conversations, like I mentioned, of parents talking to other parents, parents talking to teachers, and also asking your student obviously what's happening at school.

Children have such amazing ideas too about what it is that they want to see in their own classrooms as they get older. They're just thinking about, I've seen some incredible high school students organizing and advocating for changes at their schools in an amazing, powerful way in the past few years in particular. So I really believe in the power of young people as well.

Darcy Heath, EmbraceRace:

Thank you Stephanie. And Machaela, I hope you can maybe jot some of your thoughts in the chat box. I apologize, but I cannot believe we are out of time, y'all. What an amazing conversation this has been. And if you want to continue engaging in these types of conversations, we encourage you to take a look at the three calls to action that we have for you.

First of all, join our early childhood community. And Chris, if you can just put the slide up, that would be fabulous. Thank you. So join the Embrace Race early childhood community by filling out that little survey, sign the Heal Together pledge. They have amazing resources and information for you on how to advocate in your local communities and schools. And then finally get involved locally. Many ideas were shared during our conversation today. And I hope each one of you will choose one idea that you can do, push yourself a little bit out of your comfort zone, to begin or continue or grow in your advocacy. So again, thank you, Anastasia, thank you, Stephanie, thank you, Machaela for your wisdom, for your stories, and for being here today.

Check out other contributors and talks from the EmbraceRace Early Childhood Virtual Summit 2022 here.

Machaela Cavanaugh

Senator Machaela Cavanaugh represents Legislative District 6 in the Nebraska Legislature including Omaha. She serves on the Health and Human Services Committee and Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. She made history in 2019 as the… More about Machaela >
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Stephanie Chang

Senator Stephanie Chang, the first Asian American woman to be elected to the Michigan Legislature, worked as a community organizer in Detroit for nearly a decade before serving two terms in the Michigan House of Representatives.The senator also is a… More about Stephanie >
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Anastasia Ordonez

Anastasia Ordonez has 20 years of experience working on high-profile progressive media and issue-based campaigns for the labor movement, foundations, and nonprofit organizations. In addition to helping organizations with their communications… More about Anastasia >
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