Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2023 National Black Child Development Institute’s annual conference in Charlotte, NC. We had rich and illuminating conversations with early learning researchers, policymakers, advocates and practitioners of all ages. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
With experience from around the world, the President of BCDI-Carolinas compellingly synthesizes what she sees as the root challenge to early childhood learning: Mindset. Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt outlines the five ways she and her colleagues have set out to tackle that obstacle, with special focus on excessive disciplinary actions in preschools.
Chris Riback: Dr. Govan-Hunt, thank you so much for coming by the studio.
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: Absolutely. Thank you for inviting me.
Chris Riback: So I really enjoyed getting to read about you before this conversation. There’s much I want to talk about, BCID Carolinas. But one thing that really struck me, you’ve lived in Charlotte now for, I guess, about 10 years, something like that. And in only that time, you’ve already served as the site coordinator for the Dell Curry Foundation and assistant director for the Wellesley Child Development Center, and then became a child development specialist, the president of the Mecklenburg Childcare Association, co-chair of the … The list goes on and on and on. Why is this work so important to you?
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: That’s a great question. I am one of those individuals who truly believe that I am walking in my purpose. So I look at it as some of the experiences that I had growing up, various school districts, various countries, various states, and seeing some of the same issues across borders, it became very apparent to me early on that this wasn’t a coincidence and that maybe I was put here on this earth to actually help change things, to work in systems change. And I feel like I can best serve that purpose in the field of early childhood education.
Chris Riback: Be the change you want to see.
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: Absolutely. This is passion work for me.
Chris Riback: And what’s the root cause of the challenges around early childhood learning that you come across?
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: Mindsets. And what I mean by that is unfortunately we all exist in a system that was built, I don’t care what country you’re in, where you in, on systemic racism, where socioeconomic status is a challenge, where race is a challenge. It doesn’t have to be, but it is. So there are mindsets that exist around early childhood education where it’s looked at as babysitting. It’s not that important. “Oh, the kids are so cute.” But people don’t understand that right here we’re building a foundation for future academic success, and that’s at the root of systems change. Once we can massage people and get them to understand how critical early childhood education is, how important it is for the future success of all of our children, whether they’re in class together or not, and how supporting people who are in early childhood spaces is, then it’s going to be a challenge.
Chris Riback: So tell me about the work that you are doing locally, and I understand soon to expand beyond Charlotte to capture all of the Carolinas, I think. What areas are you focused on?
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: We are focused in five different buckets of work, and that’s going to sound like they’re all over the place, but they really do connect to surround the whole child. So we take a whole child approach. So we focus on families. We center lived experiences. We center the genius that parents bring as their child’s first and most important educator to this conversation. We focus on policy, because we understand that in order to make differences, policies have to be written differently in order to protect our children, health and wellness, literacy, and then, of course, early childhood education itself.
Chris Riback: You are a statewide leader to eliminate harsh and unfair disciplinary action in preschools.
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: Yes.
Chris Riback: Now I have read about this, and I’ve talked to people like you who work on it and study it in high school. And this is, maybe you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, I think especially challenging for black boys. I’ve read about it, heard about it around high school, around middle school, around elementary school. You’re talking about preschool. What is that reality and what does it mean when a child and their parents experience that at such a young age?
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: Absolutely, and it’s difficult to even say. We do this work every day, and I still get choked up when we say that-
Chris Riback: It’s difficult to hear about.
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: … three-year-olds are being suspended from their early learning environments. What does that mean? That means that our black children don’t make up the majority of our preschool population, but they make up the majority of out-of-school or out-of-center suspensions and expulsions. It means that our children are being adultified. That means that we have people in classrooms that have been conditioned by a system that was built on systemic racism to look at our black babies in a particular light. They are displaying some of the same behaviors that are developmentally appropriate, that may not go across as developmentally appropriate when they do it, but when they’re counterparts that don’t look like them necessarily do it, then it’s a different response or reaction.
Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes it’s not. And what happens is we get a child who is suspended from an early learning environment, that changes that child’s trajectory. So now we talk about when we cross them over into the K-12 system, a kid who’s already learned that this is not a place for them. School and education is not a place for them. We’ve got a family who struggles with economics because now you’ve got to take time off from work to find another early learning environment. So it’s a domino effect. It’s one that people don’t like to talk about. They don’t think that it exists, but we have numbers. A large number of our children, percentage of our children, are being pushed out of their classrooms and not being protected.
Chris Riback: This makes me think about the mindset that you mentioned. What can be done?
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: We all have to be brave enough and willing enough to say it out loud. I have this conversation with my team. I have this conversation with the state level leaders that we work with around this topic on a regular basis. Just because we have taken the for colored signs only from off of buildings, we’ve taken signs off of water fountains, it does not mean that we’ve arrived. We still have work to do. We still have to be able to name barriers that exist and why they exist. We have to be willing to say that we are going to walk in equity, we’re going to share power, we’re going to center people first, and we’re going to hold each other accountable. We’ve got to be willing to do that first out loud. We have to love all of our babies first if we’re going to shift mindsets.
Chris Riback: And what kind of reaction do you get from policymakers?
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: We get, “Yes, you’re right,” or “Absolutely correct,” but still nothing. Sometimes they make efforts to do something different, and sometimes they just don’t get it because there’s a disconnect between head knowledge and heart knowledge. So once we’re able to figure out, we know what we need to do in order to support early childhood education, we know what we need to do to make sure that all of our children, particularly speaking our black and brown babies, have a just and equitable future, we know what it takes to do that, but we have to be moved to do something different. So that’s what I mean by the head knowledge and the heart knowledge. We’ve got to connect that.
Chris Riback: And what’s next for BCDI Carolinas? What’s next for you besides, I guess, raising two daughters who I’m willing to bet might be running Charlotte someday?
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: We’ll see what happens.
Chris Riback: We’ll wait on that.
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: We’ll wait on that part.
Chris Riback: More immediately, what’s next for BCDI Carolinas and for you?
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: Absolutely. So next for BCDI Carolinas is to continue to build a groundswell of support. It is our responsibility to arm our community, our families, our parents first, and our early education leaders with the resources and information they need in order to advocate for themselves. We feel like if we can take a ground-up and a top-down approach, we might get to where we need to be quicker. For me, I’m going to continue to learn, to listen to our elders, to listen to our community members so that I am speaking the right message, I’m fighting for the right things, I’m standing in the right places, I’m sitting at the right tables in order to help massage things and put folks who need to be in the room in the room.
Chris Riback: I am certain that that’s where you will be and that you will be doing that work ground-up, top-down, heads and hearts.
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: Absolutely.
Chris Riback: Thank you for coming to the studio.
Dr. Devonya Govan-Hunt: Absolutely. Thank you for having me, and thank you for listening.