A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Advancing Equity: Our children are watching; help them grow up in a nation that lives by its creeds

Part of a series by NKY’s nonprofits who stand together against racism and any acts that dehumanize people.

By Denise Steward
Learning Grove

Learning Grove’s ask of our families and our communities is to pair the words “equity” and “urgency.” As a result of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent broad and enduring civil protests, there is a growing awareness that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we have constructed the systems that undergird our society. Systems from health to education to housing to jobs and beyond are corrupted by institutional bias. These systems must be disrupted and reconstructed if we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to the belief that all men are created equal.

Learning Grove, one of our community’s premier early education organizations, is a “first chance” solution to generational racial biases. Our equitable and safe environments in which fairness and celebration of differences are core to children’s social and emotional learning prepare children to create an equitable future. If nurtured at home and in school, those seeds of love and compassion are the best hope for our country.

However, damaged systems damage people no matter how loving their upbringing. If our youngest citizens are to live up to their potential for an equitable future, we must now change those systems before they corrupt our kids. This understanding did not come easy to our organization. For years we were content to congratulate ourselves for our “non-racism.” We were clueless about the need to be actively “anti-racist.” Now I would like to share a bit of that history.

Learning Grove is the organization formed by the merger in 2020 of two 40-year-old organizations with rich histories of serving young children and their families. Children, Inc., founded by Rick Hulefeld, earned the reputation as one of the largest providers of the highest quality of early care and education programs in Northern Kentucky. Cincinnati Early Learning Centers gained the reputation of operating the highest quality of early care and education programs in Greater Cincinnati, with seven centers stretching from Harrison, Ohio to East Walnut Hills, all of which have earned 5-star ratings from Ohio’s Step Up to Quality initiative.

The CEOs of Children, Inc. and Cincinnati Early Learning Centers, Shannon Starkey Taylor and Patti Gleason, have collaborated on various initiatives in the past and realized that they might accomplish more for the families in our region if they worked together. When the boards of both agencies met in 2019, they agreed that it made sense to become one and to expand our impact in the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region. Our Boards unanimously voted in favor of the merger and to change our name to Learning Grove.

Denise Steward

Equity has always been a goal for our agency. We serve families in some of the richest as well as some of the poorest neighborhoods in our region. Over the past 5 years, we have come to understand that racial equity does not exist in many of the communities we serve, operating in several neighborhoods that are predominantly African American and/or have significant Hispanic populations. In 2018 we were challenged to examine institutional racism and how it has influenced the ways that our programs are structured. We also realized the lack of diversity in our agency leadership. In 2019 I was promoted to the new position of Senior Director of Equity and Diversity so that our agency could intentionally focus on racial equity in all areas – recruitment, hiring, programming for families, communication, and supply chain management. That summer I, along with several members of Cincinnati Early Learning Centers’ executive team, participated in the Racial Equity Institute’s Groundwater and Phase I training, graciously sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. We continue to collaborate on the newly formed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force and have gathered Learning Grove employees from all agency programs to participate in this important work.

When we had to close our programs because of the pandemic, we were, fortunately, able to continue our equity work remotely. We hosted several staff chats via Zoom that included discussion of NAEYC’s Position Statement on Equity in Early Childhood, and discussions of children’s books that depict diverse characters. We shared with our program directors and teaching staff links to a variety of resources about diversity and equity in early childhood education.

Then May 25 happened. We were horrified to see George Floyd murdered, in broad daylight and in the presence of a crowd, by police officers in Minneapolis. I remember thinking, “Not again!” I didn’t just remember the unarmed black men and women who were killed by police in 2020, but also the countless others over the past 20 years. I couldn’t believe that in 2020 we were still fighting the same fight against racial injustice. I remembered the lessons from the Groundwater training – that racism is built into the foundation of the United States of America; that racism adapts its operations from decade to decade, generation to generation; and that racism will not disappear until we change the “groundwater.”

Since George Floyd’s murder and the protests that have continued since that day, our efforts to promote racial equity at Learning Grove have become even more intentional and focused. We were pleasantly surprised at the responses to the invitation to join the DEI Task Force, and the desire of our teaching staff to learn more about creating equitable classrooms. Our Task Force meets monthly and is developing committees to tackle all aspects of equity within our organization. We have hired a consultant to begin discussions with Learning Grove leaders, from the program director level on up, about the impact of racism on our lives and our attitudes towards people of different races. Our most recent audit of staff demographics demonstrates a continued lack of diversity in our agency leadership.

Shannon Starkey-Taylor

Our Executive Team has been reading and discussing White Fragility by Robin Diangelo and will continue discussions as we read other books to help us to function as anti-racists. We are also planning a series of teacher conversations about how to talk to children about race and racism. We are examining the classroom libraries in all 21 of our early learning centers to make sure that we have adequate books that depict positive images of children and families from all cultures, and to remove books that might contain subtle racist undertones. We will also look at widening our sources for recruitment so that we increase the number of minority applicants for all positions. These actions and many more are written into Learning Grove’s Equity Action Plan.

For the first time in my career, I feel hopeful that some change might finally come. The demonstrations against the injustice of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmad Aubery, Breonna Taylor and others did not cease after a day or two. Peaceful demonstrations of diverse crowds continue, demanding racial justice, police reforms, and equitable access to jobs, health care and education. Major corporations have acted against racist symbols and rhetoric. Employees have been terminated for making racist statements and demonstrating racist actions. Statues of Confederate soldiers are being removed from State buildings, college campuses, and other public places. Corporations are investing millions of dollars in schools to improve access to quality education; and to organizations that promote access to quality health care, housing and food. More and more people are willing to talk about racism, as uncomfortable as that may be.

Shannon Starkey-Taylor, Learning Grove’s CEO, had a vision of the equitable agency that Learning Grove could be when she became Children, Inc.’s CEO in 2018. She arranged for our leadership staff to participate in training sessions on institutional racism and realized that our agency needed to intentionally focus on racial equity at all levels. She has totally supported and actively participated in Learning Grove’s diversity and equity work, truly demonstrating that she is my ally in this important endeavor.

Learning Grove will continue to bring the message of equity and urgency to the community at large. At our 2019 community luncheon and celebration we were pleased to have Dr. Wendy Ellis from George Washington University, one of the nation’s leading experts on racialized trauma as our keynote. We view her message as a call to action for our Greater Cincinnati community.

Our hope is that the community continues not only to discuss racism, but to work to eradicate it. If we never name the problem, we will never solve it. I hope that the Boards of all Northern Kentucky Nonprofits will support the work that is necessary to achieve racial equity and justice. I hope that the Mayors and Police Chiefs of our Northern Kentucky communities will also speak out and act on the promotion of racial equity. Silence is the ally of the enemy.

Our children watch our every move and listen to every word we speak. We owe them our continued efforts to eradicate racism in all its forms so that they can grow up in a nation that lives up to two of its creeds – “All men are created equal,” and “One nation, under God, indivisible with truth and justice for all.”

Denise Steward is Senior Director of Equity and Diversity for Learning Grove.

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