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Equity in education: Creating a haven for anti-racist work in early childhood

  • Every child deserves a quality education.
  • Drs Jen Neitzel and Ebonyse Mead are pioneers in the field of addressing equity-related issues in early childhood.
  • Neitzel and Mead act as the standing Executive Director and President of the Educational Equity Institute, respectively, based in and across the USA.
  • They aim to change mindsets and transform systems that engender deep disparities between Black and White students in early education.

In recent years we have witnessed debates that all children, regardless of their background, should be entitled to equal opportunities in education, and that early educators have a responsibility to encourage this. The message that educators must be critical of their received opinions and reflective of their practice through learning is central to the ethos of the Educational Equity Institute and its proponents, Drs Jen Neitzel and Ebonyse Mead, based in and across the USA. Research Features was privileged to discuss the genesis and mission of the Educational Equity Institute, and the validity of other approaches drawn from their longstanding careers in the field of early childhood education.

Could you please tell us what led to the Educational Equity Institute’s founding?

Jen: When I was a Researcher and Technical Assistance Provider at FPG Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, I got engaged in racial equity work and became more interested in providing training and other services to educational organizations. So, I started the Educational Equity Institute. Ebonyse was doing similar work; however, we did not know of each other. She and I met when we submitted almost identical proposals on implicit bias to an early-childhood conference in North Carolina. They asked if we would work together, and we both said, ‘yes’. We did not meet in person until the day of the training, and it was like we had known each other forever. It was a natural partnership for Ebonyse to join me as the President of the Educational Equity Institute, and we have been working together since then to build and develop it.

How did you both become involved in addressing equity-related issues in early childhood?

Jen: In my previous role at FPG Child Development Institute, I was put on a project to examine the disproportionalities in suspensions and expulsions of young Black children. When I saw the data, that Black children were up to four times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White peers, I had two choices: I could look away because the data did not affect me, my children, and family in any way, or I could be a part of the solution going forward. Obviously, I chose the latter.

Interactive, creative play is an important aspect of early development.
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 has sparked US-wide protests and helped the international Black Lives Matter movement gain momentum. fizkes/

Ebonyse: I worked with an early childhood organization in North Carolina. I was asked to sit in on a workgroup to help North Carolina draft a policy to address preschool suspensions and expulsions. After reviewing the data which illustrates the disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion for Black boys, I was compelled to action. Being the mother of a Black male child makes you think and pray differently. I know firsthand the fear and joy of raising a Black male child in America. As a mother and an early childhood professional, I have a responsibility and obligation to be a voice for Black children who are often marginalized, excluded, silenced, or labeled because of their racial background and or the zip code they live in.

We continue working towards being a haven for anti-racist work in early childhood.

The Institute’s mission is ‘to create paths toward racial healing through authentic engagement and relationships that empower communities to engage in disruptive transformation of the educational system.’ How are you achieving this?

Recently, we started working with several organizations in year-long contracts that are focused on really digging into the issues that perpetuate the disparities between Black and White children. For example, with one organization we are focused solely on racial healing. In another organization, we are addressing workplace culture before they can expand their racial equity efforts in the work they do with children in families. We also have two grants right now that are helping us to address the disparities in suspensions and expulsions with young Black children and promote family advocacy efforts. Both projects are working towards helping communities engage in deep, transformational change.

The Handbook will be released on 15th April by Brookes Publishing and can be purchased here.

Which of your upcoming projects are you particularly excited about?

We’ve recently received funding for two very different projects, both equally exciting. For the first project, we are implementing a promising model to address the disparities in suspensions and expulsions of young Black children in early-learning programs. Our approach for this project is designed to bring about deep, transformational change within one community by: 1) building capacity through trainings focused on equity, historical trauma, and systems change; 2) engaging a strategic planning team made up of parents, providers, and county officials to develop a road map for change related to the suspension and expulsion of young Black children; and 3) working within the community to implement the strategic plan. The second project that we are excited about is to encourage family empowerment and engagement related to the early childhood system. With this project, we are focused on: 1) engaging traditionally marginalized neighborhoods in healing sessions designed to address past and ongoing oppression of Black families and other families of color; 2) implement a parent/caregiver advocacy academy where selected family members will learn key skills needed to advocate for change around issues that are important to them; and 3) expand the family advocacy efforts using a community organizing approach.

Promoting training and reflective practice in the workplace is an important step towards achieving educational equity. fizkes/

What are your long-term objectives at the Educational Equity Institute?

Since the founding of the Educational Equity Institute in 2018, we have changed individually and as an organization. When we first started, we were very much engaged in cultural competence work. There is a time and place for this work; however, after the murder of George Floyd, we realized that we needed to place an emphasis on racial healing and diving into the root causes of the inequities (eg, White supremacy, Whiteness, anti-Blackness). Because of this, our work shifted significantly. We revised our Introductory Paradigm Shift Training, as well as our Historical Trauma Training. Our work has evolved and continues to evolve because the nature of this work is ever changing, as we continue to unpeel the layers of White supremacy and face increasing opposition to anti-racism work. As we look to the future of the Educational Equity Institute, we envision an all-encompassing resource for those working in early childhood who are dedicated to addressing the inequities between White children and Black children and other children of color. We would love to host an annual equity-related conference, anti-racism academies where practitioners can get certificates in anti-racism, summer institutes, and webinars. We understand that these are big goals, but we continue working towards being a haven for anti-racist work in early childhood.

Culturally responsive anti-bias practices and anti-racist pedagogies are good for all children.

What are the most significant barriers faced by practitioners in the field?

Following the murder of George Floyd, there was a renewed openness to learning – a curiosity among early childhood professionals to engage more deeply, to learn and grow. This continued throughout most of 2021. However, now that early childhood organizations have checked the box of equity through training, we are seeing a complacency that was present prior to 2020. This complacency and return to business as usual is a significant barrier within early childhood right now. We also are seeing increased pushback and opposition from White individuals who are using terms such as ‘woke’ and ‘Critical Race Theory’ to sabotage the work. This pushback is rooted in shame and is fueled by fear of change. Our call to early childhood practitioners right now is to remain determined in the face of this opposition and challenge complacency and engage in deep, internal work. This is where the work begins. We each must do our own work in challenging Whiteness and anti-Blackness within ourselves so that we can translate that transformation in the work we do with children and families.

There must be a commitment to learning and unlearning all that we have been taught about ourselves and our society, including how Whiteness and anti-Blackness shows up in early childhood.

What will be key focus areas for future child inequity interventions?

We are a huge proponent of culturally responsive anti-bias practices and anti-racist pedagogies because they are good for all children, and they help practitioners create learning environments where all children and families can see themselves. They know that when they enter a classroom, they matter simply because they exist. Getting to a point where there is mass implementation of these practices is going to be challenging because of the barriers we discussed previously. We also understand that change will take time – it took us over 400 years to get here! The issues are too deep and complex to solve within a single training. Deep, ongoing work within organizations is critical. There must be a commitment to learning and unlearning all that we have been taught about ourselves and our society, including how Whiteness and anti-Blackness shows up in early childhood. So, the key area of focus right now is engaging in work that pushes people towards their own deep, transformational change. After that, we can begin to change policies and practices without continuing to do harm because we have not done our own work first.

Organizations must collaborate to fully understand the issues that perpetuate the disparities between Black and White children.

You have recently published The Handbook of Racial Equity in Early Childhood Education. Why should people read it?

When we were approached to write this book, we really wanted it to be an all-encompassing resource for those working in early childhood education. The layout and content of the book was, of course, very intentional. The first part of the book is designed to give practitioners a deeper understanding of the issues related to racism in early childhood. One chapter is devoted entirely to helping individuals understand and differentiate key terms, such as equity, equality, discrimination, oppression, etc. We also have chapters on racial healing, Whiteness, and historical trauma. The second part of the book outlines the current issues involving equity in early childhood, such as suspensions/expulsions, data collection, positive identity development, culturally responsive anti-bias practices, and culturally responsive family engagement. The remainder of the book is dedicated to providing organizations with a path forward towards deep, transformational change. Each chapter ends with tips and suggestions for continuing the work, both on an individual and organizational level. Our hope is that early childhood educators who want to address equity and justice in early childhood education will read with open hearts and minds; childhood educators will be challenged, but will lean into the discomfort because that is the context for change.

Related posts.

Dr Jen Neitzel

Dr Ebonyse Mead

Contact Details

Dr Jen Neitzel

Dr Ebonyse Mead


Twitter: @EdEquityIns
Instagram: @edequityinstitute
Linkedin: Educational Equity Institute

Cite this Article

Neitzel, J, Mead, E, (2023) Equity in education: Creating a haven for anti-racist work in early childhood. Research Features, 145.
DOI: 10.26904/RF-146-4106763520

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(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Creative Commons License

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