Dr. Gail Christopher: Building a Culture of Health through Early Learning - Early Learning Nation

Dr. Gail Christopher: Building a Culture of Health through Early Learning

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

What does a culture of health look like? Dr. Gail Christopher, Executive Director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity, explains why so much of it happens outside medical system – and how bringing equal access and quality to early childhood education is a key place to start.


Chris Riback:                 Dr. Christopher, welcome to the studio.

Dr. Gail Christopher:      Thank you.

Chris Riback:                 Thank you for coming.

Dr. Gail Christopher:      It’s my pleasure.

Chris Riback:                 Congratulations – You are in the first month now in your role with the National Collaborative for Health Equity.

Dr. Gail Christopher:      Yes.

Chris Riback:                 I just want to make sure, is it what you thought it would be and, probably more importantly, is it what they told you it would be? Was it a true bill of sale they gave you?

Dr. Gail Christopher:      I created this organization a long time ago…

Chris Riback:                 You knew what you were getting into.

Dr. Gail Christopher:      I knew what I was getting into, and I think the potential is amazing, so I’m very happy to be involved. Yes.

Chris Riback:                 Excellent, so you have no one to blame but yourself.

Dr. Gail Christopher:      This is true every day.

Chris Riback:                 I read where one of your key goals, perhaps your top goal, you’ll tell me if I have that wrong, is to help America develop a true culture of health. What does a culture of health look like?

Dr. Gail Christopher:      A culture of health embodies the conditions that we know promote health and well-being. It’s the evolution of the social determinants of health framework where we began to realize that, really, 80% of those things that contribute to health and well-being, they happen outside of our interaction with the medical system, so it has to do with the quality of life which, in a country that’s built on the fallacy of a hierarchy of human value, the quality of life is often less for people of color, and so when we talk about health equity, we really know that we have to make the changes in our society that create conditions that will truly promote health for all.

Chris Riback:                 Health isn’t about what happens in the doctor’s office. It’s about what happens everywhere else. Connect it for me to early childhood education. What in the world does a culture of health have to do with early childhood education?

Dr. Gail Christopher:      So many concepts have emerged in the last few decades. One is called the Life Course Perspective, and it understands that what happens to us both in utero and in early life affects our vulnerability for disease later in life, and so I like to think that the unifying concept is stress and distress, so, when we can create environments for children that optimize their ability to develop normally and naturally and minimize the trauma and the adversity and the stress, we’re actually creating an environment that is conducive to health, we’re creating a culture of health in the classroom, in the early childhood learning setting, and we’re actually developing young people in ways that will reduce their vulnerability to illness later in life.

Chris Riback:                 Last night, you gave the opening keynote address here at the NAEYC Conference, and one of your messages was we must promote equity and diversity in early childhood education. What does equity look like in early childhood education, and why is it so hard to attain?

Dr. Gail Christopher:      Equity looks like, quite honestly, equal access to quality early childhood education for all children, and it doesn’t matter the neighborhood, the ZIP code, the real estate value. It is quality education, and we know what it takes to promote and support optimal development for children, so equity means that we find ways to fund and assure access for all children, and it doesn’t matter their race, their religion, their gender, their location, so that’s one of the challenges.

Dr. Gail Christopher:      The other thing is that resources make a difference, so we have to assure adequate funding investment in this very important phase of life, and that actually means paying the educators, the early childhood educators, the salaries that they need to experience less stress and to be more effective in their work, a living wage really.

Chris Riback:                 A living wage, and, in listening to you, equity maybe begins with access, but, if I’m interpreting you right, access is just the starting point in talking about equity.

Dr. Gail Christopher:      We have to understand what are the barriers to equity, and part of the barriers are the basic lack of belief that all people deserve to be treated equal, and that’s another part of the work. Once we address the barriers, we then open up the stream of motivation to genuinely care and take the actions that are required.

Chris Riback:                 Where do you expect, where do you hope, where would you insist the leadership to come from? You’ve worked in nonprofits. You have worked at Harvard University evaluating innovative approaches to government. I’m going to assume at some point in your life you’ve had some job in the private sector as well. Where does the leadership need to come from?

Dr. Gail Christopher:      In a democracy, I’ve learned that it’s a multisectoral strategy that’s required. In my last role at the Kellogg Foundation, we were able to orchestrate a mass collaboration of over 140 organizations to launch a truth, racial healing and transformation effort. The key there was that every sector, business, nonprofit, philanthropic, public, all sectors need to be represented. We do need strong leadership from the government and from the public sector. I think, if we put all the philanthropic dollars on the table, we would not be able to solve our societal needs, so we do need public sector leadership for sure, but I think collaboration is key.

Chris Riback:                 Speaking of dollars and on the idea of equity, you provided testimony to The Helsinki Commission, the Briefing on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, where you noted that, “The inequities caused by racism cost our nation almost $2 trillion annually in lost purchasing power, reduced job opportunities and diminished productivity,” and that made me think. Isn’t early childhood education in fact the place to start, that if we are thinking about the back end of society and that financial gap that you just identified is spending, investing and closing the gap at the front end, perhaps a place, the place to start building the foundation?

Dr. Gail Christopher:      No question. You are absolutely right, and this is where the truth, racial healing and transformation becomes a necessary imperative, because most of the children in America today are in fact children of color, and so we have to get to a place where we really care that our future receives the investment that’s necessary to assure viability in a democratic society, and so universal access to quality early childhood education should be foundational to America.

Chris Riback:                 Thank you. Thank you for coming by the studio. Thank you for the work that you do.

Dr. Gail Christopher:      Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.



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