Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2022 National League of Cities’ City Congressional Conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
Demetrus Coonrod’s path to Chattanooga’s City Council had obstacles, including time in prison. But her personal journal also serves as a guiding path for others, showing the power of resilience, belief in oneself and education.
Chris Riback: Councilmember Coonrod, thank you so much for visiting us at the studio.
Demetrus Coonrod: Absolutely. Thank you for the invitation.
Chris Riback: It’s great to have you. How is it that you’re sitting here today? What was your journey like? Straight path for you?
Demetrus Coonrod: Oh, I took a route, had experienced some challenges on the way to becoming a council person. I experienced a little time in prison and then now I advocated for the things that are the most important in my community. And so, I ran for office.
Chris Riback: Life is not always a straight path, is it?
Demetrus Coonrod: At all, no. It’s not always a straight path and it’s okay, because you can come back around and end up on a straight path.
Chris Riback: Did you always know that?
Demetrus Coonrod: I didn’t. I learned the hard way.
Chris Riback: What inspired you? What motivated you to run for office?
Demetrus Coonrod: Well, I had a grandmother that was always telling me that I was capable of accomplishing and becoming whatever I desire to become. And part of that education started early, just hearing it repeatedly, over and over and over. And I had to believe it in myself and I’m a firm believer. And if you want to be the one who want to impact change, then you just have to do it. You have to go for it. So, that just motivated me even more to do it because of the challenges that I had done experience.
Chris Riback: And that was told to you, even as a child?
Demetrus Coonrod: Right. Absolutely.
Chris Riback: Early childhood learning has a purpose, doesn’t it?
Demetrus Coonrod: It does.
Chris Riback: What’s the purpose? Why does it matter?
Demetrus Coonrod: Oh, early learning, it matters, even from when you are embryo, just developing because that important is that relationship that you’re building from the inside to out, is very important because kids need to understand at an early age, they’re learning and they’re developing even when they can’t formulate words. What they’re seeing and watching and hearing, the things that you do and you say to them and having to pick that up at an early age, that’s where it begins to move us forward. Right? And when you instill those morals and values and education matters, they’re going to continue that.
Chris Riback: What is the state of early childhood learning in Chattanooga?
Demetrus Coonrod: Now, we’re pushing it because it’s very important, right? We have a mayor that’s on boards who expand the early learning education, the seats to give people the opportunity who don’t have access, who can’t afford it. And making sure that we are training the right individuals to be the teachers, because that first point of contact outside of being a parent is the teachers that’s going to instill in them too, that educational values that we need for them to thrive.
Chris Riback: Speaking of the parents and caregivers, we all have gone through COVID, it affected everyone. How do you talk with parents? How do you encourage parents who have so many challenges, so many stresses, so many responsibilities? How do you say to them, “Yes and please make sure you focus on early childhood learning”?
Demetrus Coonrod: Right. So, what we would say is that we know that we’re in a pandemic, but when we look at all the pandemics that we’ve had previously or the challenges and crisis that we go through in life, education has to be a priority, it has to be a priority. And just make sure that you’re taking whatever measures that are comfortable for you and your family, so you can make that happen. Right. And then also just pushing parents to play an aggressive role in your child’s education opportunity. That’s attending a PTA meetings, emailing and conference calling the teacher. So, you can stay in the know of how you can still help your kid, because the teachers are only going to be able to do so much, but as a parent, you got to hone that in with your kids. So, that spending valuable time as well is very important.
Chris Riback: And how do you encourage your colleagues, other members of the city council, a mayor, other local, or even state leaders to move them and help them realize these parents need help, these caregivers need help? Here are the tangible things we need to do. How do you bring them along?
Demetrus Coonrod: Well, it’s just illustrating it in a way, because a lot of us didn’t come from the same background and don’t experience the same challenges. So, you got to paint that picture so they can see it, right? Like everybody from a two-parent household or they don’t have the experience of having that stay-at-home parent to where they can be engaged. We have a lot of latchkey kids and that’s a different experience for some, but you have to continue to push and let them know and show them in a painted way that this is the life for a lot of people and particularly the black and brown community. This is what we experience and not having that parental figure in that home, because they’re constantly working several jobs, or the father is removed from the home. It gives it a different conversation.
Chris Riback: I know councilmember, as well, that you are deeply involved in criminal justice reform. How does that connect for you with early learning?
Demetrus Coonrod: Oh, the connection is that, we know what the data says, that if you’re not reading at the third grade, that they’re already filling beds, preparing bed space for people to go to prison. So, we want to interject to change that. Now, we want our kids to be able to read on grade level. We want them to be able to have access to the different opportunities that’s going to make them successful, so they won’t fall into that pathway of going to prison, or making sure that they have the wraparound services that they need, not just for the kid, but for the whole entire family, because we just don’t know or understand a lot of times the challenges. And as a parent, when you are afraid to say, “Hey, I need help.” That’s a bigger picture in itself, but we got to be able to address whatever core issues, or root issues that’s affecting that entire family that’s going to trickle down to that kid.
Chris Riback: None of us likes to brag about ourselves. Do you see yourself as a role model?
Demetrus Coonrod: Absolutely. I consider myself a role model to many people, because I broke that barrier, that chain of what people would think, as a black woman growing up in poverty and having to experience both of my parents addicted to drugs. That was a different struggle, but I prioritized my education no matter which path that I was on. And it’s always been a value to me and to my life. And I want others to see that, no matter what path that you’ve taken, prioritized that because that’s going to give you… You’re going to be able to compete with other folks, right? They’re going to listen to you. They’re going to see you. They’re going to believe in you and champion you. And we have to make sure that we’re doing that for the younger people that’s coming after us.
Chris Riback: Thank you for sharing your story.
Demetrus Coonrod: Absolutely.
Chris Riback: Thank you for visiting us at the Early Learning Nation Studio.