Dr. Tonja Rucker: Building Strong Cities Starts with Building Strong Families - Early Learning Nation

Dr. Tonja Rucker: Building Strong Cities Starts with Building Strong Families

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.

As American cities rebuild after the pandemic, much of the focus is on infrastructure. For Dr. Tonja Rucker, Director of Early Childhood Success at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families, that means not only physical needs like roads and bridges, but also the family structure, starting with its youngest members. As Dr. Rucker notes: “If the youngest residents are healthy and doing well, then the rest of things kind of fall into place and families get to be able to meet their needs.”


Chris Riback:                 Tonja, thank you for coming to the studio. It’s great to see you again.

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          Thanks for having me, Chris.

Chris Riback:                 How is the conference going?

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          Oh, it’s going great. We’re excited. This is the first time in over two years that we’re in-person, we get to see our members and it’s been fabulous.

Chris Riback:                 What are you hearing and what have you been seeing as you’ve been preparing for the conference? What’s the state of early childhood learning in many of our cities and local communities?

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          Sure. I’m hearing from our member cities that there’s just a need to reconnect and get back together. It’s been a challenging two years, and elected officials have been faced with numerous challenges on the physical infrastructure, as well as human infrastructure. So now with the passage of so much federal legislation and investment in cities, this is a great opportunity for them to get together and kind of compare notes.

Many have submitted plans of recovery plans, and now is the time to really execute and implement. So, this is a conference that’s designed to bring members together to do that kind of peer-to-peer learning and to share ideas, and to share their challenges and strategize as the ways to overcome those challenges.

So I’m hearing optimism, as well as it’s a hard time. I mean, every day families are faced with new challenges, and as elected officials at the local level, you have to be present and you have to be responsive and meet the needs of your residents and your constituents. So it’s much challenging time, but it’s also an opportunity to really meet those needs like never before.

Chris Riback:                 What are you hearing from them about the ability to prioritize? So hard. I mean, you know all of the challenges that our cities face, I know some of them. Health, environment, education, jobs, higher learning.

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          Yes.

Chris Riback:                 The list goes on, infrastructure. How do they think about prioritizing early learning?

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          Yes. Well, I think what we’ve been doing, Chris, is we’ve been working with our member cities not to see early childhood as something separate over in the corner, but that those human infrastructure needs, whether it’s roads or bridges or housing, whatever the issue may be, there is a direct connection to early learning. So I think when we are able to make the case using data, using science about the importance of the early years, how that kind of lays the foundation for everything else.

So if the youngest residents are healthy and doing well, then the rest of things kind of fall into place and families get to be able to meet their needs, meet the challenges of the day. It’s important for us to help our elected officials have the resources in place so that families can meet those needs, so that they can maximize their potential and be successful. So, we’re working hard to make sure that there is an integration and alignment with those bigger city issues and early learning, because there is a direct connection.

Chris Riback:                 Have you heard anything about what was lost and how that translates into opportunities?

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          Yes, I think the in-person connection and the loss of feeling connected. I think when folks were asked to isolate and to stay in, we had to redo how we think about showing up every day, and those-

Chris Riback:                 Every day and everything, yes.

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          Every day at every level. Even the youngest residents, our little ones, not being able to socialize, it’s such an important part of life. Whether you’re five years old, three-year-old or an adult, and those social connections and those human contact points were just such a loss for folks. So now as we safely emerge, our leaders were very much prioritizing safety and the wellbeing of their residents. So as we’re kind of coming out of this, I think the opportunity exists to kind of reconnect and address some of those social-emotional challenges that came from the isolation.

So I do think there’s an opportunity for elected officials to connect across their city landscape with residents to reengage and to listen, because I think life has changed for so many, and so we want to make sure that our members are in a listening mode and that they take that information and go back and design programs and policies that are responsive and that are meeting the lived experiences of their residents. So, I think it’s an opportunity to really do that and restructure how city government works for the benefit of all their residents.

Chris Riback:                 When you talk about that structure and the connectedness, you mentioned how early learning is connected to safety, is connected to infrastructure. What are you hearing from the business communities? They have a lot of challenges as well. What is their role in this and what are you hearing from them?

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          Oh, I think the business community plays a tremendous role in this kind of recovery. If we’re going to have an equitable recovery, I think the role that they can play to join their elected officials and the bully pulpit to really elevate for those folks that may be a little not quite certain and see those direct connections. The business community having that added voice to government could really kind of solidify the messaging, and using that bully pulpit in a way that brings everybody on board.

I think many elected officials want strong economic development and growth for their cities, and so being able to partner with their business leaders, along with parents and along with community-based organizations, anchoring a collective vision for their cities is very important, and business leaders play an important role in that.

Chris Riback:                 Tonja, what’s next for The National League of Cities?

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          What’s next? I think for The National League of Cities, I think the next level is to make sure that we help cities think about equitable recovery in an authentic way. We want to make sure that all children in all communities, and that means big cities, medium size, small cities, towns and villages, how do we provide the resources and the tools necessary to meet folks where they are who live in very different spaces and different lived experiences?

So I think if The National League of Cities and the institute where I work, where we are directly responsible to help our members think about the human infrastructure, I think if NLC can help bridge the human and the physical infrastructure across those different geographic regions, I think we can really make a difference in the lives of kids and families. So I think if we can bridge that human and physical infrastructure, we can make a difference for kids and families and for folks who live on the coastal cities, as well as mid- America, south, north, east, and west.

Chris Riback:                 All cities.

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          Yes.

Chris Riback:                 Everyone needs a bridge, don’t we?

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          Yes. Yes, they do. Yes, they do.

Chris Riback:                 Tonja, thank you. Thank you for coming to the studio, thank you for putting on such a wonderful event.

Dr. Tonja Rucker:          Thank you. We’re so excited to be back in-person again. It’s going to be a great year for cities, Chris. Thank you.


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