Book Review: Child Care Justice: Transforming the System of Care for Young Children - Early Learning Nation

Book Review: Child Care Justice: Transforming the System of Care for Young Children

Child Care Justice: Transforming the System of Care for Young Children
Edited by Maurice Sykes and Kyra Ostendorf
Teachers College Press
197 Pages

Child Care Justice: Transforming the System of Care for Young Children examines how systemic patterns of injustice play out in the U.S. system of early care and education. A volume in the Teachers College Press Teaching for Social Justice series, this deeply uncomfortable, profoundly challenging book examines a past as fraught as any in our nation’s history and makes the connection between our present early-care calamity and its beginnings in the country’s “original sin” of slavery.

The Latin origin of the word “radical” is radix or root, and in that regard, this book is a profoundly radical work, digging down to the historic, structural, racists roots of our child care system. As this volume deeply argues, that system is anything but just.

Child Care Justice comprises research-based chapters by guest authors with deep connections to the field of early care and education (ECE), edited by Maurice Sykes and Kyra Ostendorf. The editors and panel of 10 authors were asked to examine the historical, political, economic, educational and cultural barriers that have oppressed and continue to oppress ECE workers. The authors then met monthly to discuss and work together on the chapters, creating a “community of practice” in which they exchanged ideas, provided feedback and emotionally supported each other throughout the process.

Child Care Justice: Transforming the System of Care for Young Children is intended as a catalyst for change, a call to action and marching papers for a national grassroots movement of those committed to addressing the racial, gender and economic injustices endemic to the ECE field.

Contributing Authors: Dr. Rebecca Berlin, Dr. Sarah Ross Bussey, Michael Gramling, Dr. Ed Greene, Dr. Iheoma U. Iruka, Dr. Alexis Jemal, Dr. Denisha Jones, Dr. Hakin M. Rashid, Joey Sanders, Dr. James C. Young.

The first chapter, “Wet Nurses, Nannies, and Mammies,” was eye-opening in that way that makes one wonder what else one doesn’t know. Sykes, who authored the section, provides chapter and verse of how the histories of slavery and child care in the U.S. have always been intertwined, with enslaved Black women forced to serve as wet nurses to their owners’ children. This relieved the white mothers of the necessity of breastfeeding their own children and set up the view of this fundamental act of caring for children as befitting only the “uncultured lower class.” Household work was stigmatized as the work of “negro” women, history’s “girls,” who were “drawn in disappearing ink.”

From the country’s beginnings, the care of children has related to the commodification, oppression and exploitation of women, specifically women of color. Though the economic model has shifted from “legal ownership to legal, unethical control over wages, status, and economic mobility,” Sykes writes, the caste system and mental model for how child care workers are perceived, treated and compensated is deeply imprinted on the American psyche. He observes, rightly, that it’s astounding how little progress we’ve made since the wet nurse and mammy days in the social status and compensation of those who work in child care. Though Congress approved the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, slavery’s residuals linger as the “neo-slavery performed by the servant class … workers in child care, health care, home care …” carried out primarily by women and disproportionately by women of color. This “servant class,” Sykes writes, is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S., with low-wage earners representing 44 percent of the workforce aged 18 to 64.

This current situation is, and it isn’t only born of slavery. It is and isn’t only rooted in white supremacy.  Class as much as race has created the caste system of which Styles writes. The colonial mindset baked into this nation’s beginnings has always exploited the labor, resources and lifeblood of its poorest and most vulnerable populations—regardless of race—to enrich itself and create the ease that allows it to lord its lifestyle over others. Wherever three or more are gathered in the name of privilege, you’ll see them standing on the backs of others poorer, most likely darker and more female than themselves. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

Chapter Two, “Liberatory Education: We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For,” is grounded in the work of Paolo Friere, the Brazilian educator and philosopher whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed is foundational to the critical pedagogy movement, which views teaching and learning as the access to social justice and democracy. Through education and consciousness-building, those who had been oppressed become “think tanks and action incubators to transform their world,” authors Alexis Jemal and Sarah Ross Bussey write.

The chapter outlines the Critical Transformative Potential framework grounded in Friere’s work and discusses practical (though not necessarily easy) ways those in the ECE field can address their own inequitable treatment and that of their students, who frequently come from marginalized communities as well.

Steps Forward, Steps Back

Iheoma U. Iruka’s chapter, “From a Pedagogy of Poverty to a R.I.C.H.E.R. Framework,” connects the dots to show how classism is interwoven in U.S. history to ensure the continued power of the wealthy and well-connected. (R.I.C.H.E.R. refers to a framework that focuses on re-education, integration, critical consciousness, humility, erasing racism and re-imagination.) Uruka offers infuriating evidence of the many missed opportunities to right or at least mitigate the wrong of slavery, beginning with the derailment of the post-Civil War Freedmen’s Bureau, which could have been an agent for change that permanently and positively altered this nation’s future. White Southerners engineered the highly effective bureau’s closure by 1872, less than six years after its founding. In that time, the bureau built hundreds of schools for Black people, including those that would later become Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).

Since then, the nation’s history has been one of two steps forward, more steps back for Black Americans, such as the GI Bill that provided financial resources for veterans of World War II to purchase homes, attend college or pursue vocational training—to this day the greatest wealth transfer in U.S. history. The Black veterans who had fought as heroically and endured as much loss as their white peers were, however, were excluded from this opportunity for dramatic economic progress.

Caution: You can’t read this book without sometimes feeling sick. It’s full of hope and possibility, but also undeniable instances showing that the stifling of liberty and opportunity for people of color has never been accidental: It is and has been by design—a fact we must face if we are ever to dig out of this mess.

Multiple Approaches

Each chapter of Child Care Justice is penned by different authors, so each is different in tone and writing style, though all lean heavily to the academic. The collective approach has many strengths but also can result in a certain lack of objectivity. In this case, one wishes the authors had been more rigorous with each other in calling for judicious trimming of overlong and redundant passages. Several segments would have been stronger with a greater economy of words.

Child Care Justice: Transforming the System of Care for Young Children is intended as a catalyst for change, a call to action and marching papers for a national grassroots movement of those committed to addressing the racial, gender and economic injustices endemic to the ECE field. The transformation of child care is long overdue—as readers of Early Learning Nation know too well—as we’ve been at this for a very long time.

We’re now at an inflection point in our society as the pandemic laid out the fissures in the ECE system in high relief. If you have children or are an employer trying to retain workers, you’re aware of how broken our child care system is. We can’t help but see the inequities baked into the system if we’re even tangentially connected to it. Child Care Justice aims to make certain the reader pays attention and seeks to support them in “working relentlessly to become an antiracist.”

Denisha Jones’ excellent chapter, “Child Care Justice, Lessons from #BlackLivesMatter,” engages with the question of how a movement for child care justice can learn from BLM how to “turn a moment into an international movement.” Job One is to name the injustices that have necessitated the moment and explicitly pinpoint those problems as part of the vision for a better future. We’re at a ridiculous societal confluence right about now: when we most need to be taking a hard look at our history of racism and how systemic racism impacts the child care system upon which our economy rests, politicians and school boards are trying to prevent even talking about racial justice so white people won’t be offended.

In condemning the “woke mind virus,” a segment of American society has become allergic to acknowledging that their—our—past includes profound ugliness. But vision and a new direction begin with pointing out what isn’t working. If they don’t, if racial justice isn’t front and center in the movement for child care justice, all we’re doing is fussing with the salad forks on the Titanic.

K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.

Get the latest in early learning science, community and more:

Join us