Dr. Leah Austin: Unleashing the Promise and Genius of Black Children & Families - Early Learning Nation

Dr. Leah Austin: Unleashing the Promise and Genius of Black Children & Families

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.

NBCDI President Dr. Leah Austin discusses how the 52-year-old national organization that focuses on the healthy child development of Black children takes its mission and message to all U.S. communities, working with key local leaders, educators and parents to improve education, as well as offering key lessons from the NBCDI’s Early Years Climate Action Task Force.

Chris Riback: Dr. Austin, thank you for coming to the studio. Thank you for having us at this incredible conference.

Dr. Leah Austin: Awesome. Thank you for inviting me to the studio and thank you all for being here.

Chris Riback: So give me the pitch, what is NBCDI and what do you hope for from a conference like this?

Dr. Leah Austin: NBCDI is a 52-year-old national organization focused on the healthy child development of black children. And our conference attracts over 500 educators. So in particular, we are providing educators with tools, with resources, with knowledge, anything they need so that they can be better in their roles as educators, improving the education and development of black children.

Chris Riback: And what are you hearing at the conference? What are the biggest concerns that people have?

Dr. Leah Austin: A couple of things we’re hearing. One, I would say that we’re hearing from educators that they need a space like this, that they actually need a place where they can go and they can focus on black children, especially in this time where we have a context where that’s not as easy as it one, should be and maybe used to be.

So that’s definitely feedback we’re hearing. And then some of the other challenges that we hear from educators are things around just materials and resources that they have available to them and just trying to be connected to partner organizations that can help them find the tools and resources that they need.

Something else we hear from our attendees is really around, they’re continuing to want to build a stronger relationship with parents, and it’s both a, I think a challenge and an opportunity that they’re seeking. And so they’re talking a lot about how can they partner with an organization like NBCDI so that they can actually engage and reach more parents as they’re fulfilling their mission to educate children.

Chris Riback: So the theme of this year’s conference is unleashing the promise and the genius of black children and families. What are some examples of genius that you are hearing about?

Dr. Leah Austin: So we’re really, really focused as an organization on ensuring that we talk about black children from a strengths-based, assets-based positive approach, and using positive and more accurate language, quite frankly. And we know that black children are often labeled in ways that aren’t really good for them and aren’t actually accurate to who they are in their development.

And so we’re heavily focused when we talk about black genius or the genius of black children, it’s really about understanding that we’re speaking about children that are between the ages of birth and eight years old. Right? So they’re young, early childhood. And so we’re really focused on just what does it mean to be a child during that stage of life. Right? There’s an innate joy, there’s a happiness, there’s a curiosity.

You want to know so much about the world. Their eyes are lit up, they’re so happy, so excited, and they just want to know and they’re hungry for more knowledge. And that’s a major factor in being a genius, right? Is really this curiosity to learn more. And we want to make sure that black children are not, that they don’t lose that.

And it often is lost because systems are not set up to support that joy and support that genius. So we see this kind of convening as an opportunity to really double down on the fact that that genius is there and it’s all of our jobs and our responsibilities to make sure that we preserve it and we promote it.

Chris Riback: And create the room and the space for it. You mentioned a moment ago a little bit, you kind of hinted at the political environment. What are the political realities that you’re seeing and what can you do to help contribute constructively to the political environment?

Dr. Leah Austin: Absolutely. So a major challenge, again, given our audience is really primarily educators, is that educators are very confused about what they can and cannot do, what they can and cannot say. And many are feeling powerless because they want to teach children about who they are. And it’s not just about black children seeing themselves in books, those resources. Those things absolutely matter because that’s the affirmation that helps them with their racial identity and their development.

But it’s also important for all children to see themselves and to see others so that we’re all expanded and so that when they grow up, they’re able to relate to different people because they’ve had this experience where they’ve both seen themselves and they’ve seen other people in their learning environments. And so that’s something that we hear from teachers, but they do. In this day and age, it’s very, very hard for them to figure out exactly how they do that.

Chris Riback: Yes.

Dr. Leah Austin: When they’re in a moment where they could literally lose their jobs if they say the wrong word or something that’s considered divisive. So what NBCDI has done is in addition to this convening and them being able to be here and share that and get resources, literally go to the vendors and buy books and get resources that they can use in their classrooms and at home with their families, we are also an advocacy organization.

And so we’ve done some work with our affiliate network around understanding the legislations that have passed and what the actual language means and where it does prohibit and where it actually doesn’t, things that they can do and say in Georgia. We hosted with our local affiliate, BCDI, Atlanta, a summit with GEEARS, our Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students organization, and just talked honestly about how these concepts even got to the place where we, the people believed that they are divisive and what we can actually do in classrooms with teachers to change that.

Chris Riback: Let’s turn slightly, and I want to ask you about climate.

Dr. Leah Austin: Okay.

Chris Riback: You are part of the Early Years Climate Action Task Force. What is that task force? What inspires you to focus on climate? I thought we were talking about early education.

Dr. Leah Austin: Right. That’s a good question. So the task force is focused on the impact of climate change on our youngest people, our little ones, and understand just from the data that just by way of their age, right? This group of children are vulnerable, they are because they’re developmentally completely dependent on adults. And so what adults have to understand is that everything we do or we do not do impacts them.

And because they are physically developing at a different pace and in a different way than we are as adults, things like living in a neighborhood where there’s a factory that’s next door. Or I’m in Atlanta, so living in a neighborhood where literally a highway has been built and cuts through your neighborhood.

Chris Riback: Yes, it does.

Dr. Leah Austin: And you’re outside playing. You’re not just outside playing and they’re cars going by, you’re outside playing and there are emissions and toxic air that you’re now breathing in. And for a little person, there’s a lot of air that’s going into their bodies and is literally physically changing them. And so the task force is focused on what climate change means for the early years and for our youngest people.

Chris Riback: And if I’m not mistaken, you have some recommendations?

Dr. Leah Austin: There are some recommendations in the plan, yes.

Chris Riback: Give me a couple of those.

Dr. Leah Austin: Yep.

Chris Riback: And is it too early for progress or are you seeing any progress against any of those recommendations?

Dr. Leah Austin: Yes, I would share. One, is around supporting early learning centers. So we know that centers and schools are actually a place where there’s a lot of pollution and toxic air because of things like school bus, just in the way centers are often and schools are often built. And so there’s some recommendations there around rethinking how we use green space and even rethinking just the building of schools and just really making sure that they’re actually more appropriate in terms of the build out. I would say in terms of progress, I feel like there’s always some progress happening, but it’s very slow.

Chris Riback: Yes.

Dr. Leah Austin: And so we want to be hopeful and keeps sort of that positive mind, but it’s a slow and steady pace. And I think the fact that we’ve even, the progress that we’re really seeing is that we’re having the conversation, even to your point around the conversation of linking climate change to little people, that’s progress within itself. And now we have to take that conversation and actually put it into some action.

Chris Riback: So coming out of this conference and the 500 people from across the country and the ideas and the inspiration that you’ve heard, and I’ve gotten to hear as well, what’s next for NBCDI and what’s next for you?

Dr. Leah Austin: Oh, absolutely. So we want to keep growing our network and really seeing affiliates in every single state because we know that for so much of this work, the power, the advocacy power is at the state level. And so we want to make sure that we have leaders that understand, that respect our, not only our organization, but the lived experience and expertise of black people.

And so that’s definitely a next step for us and a goal that we have. I think for myself, it’s just continuing to build the organization, continue to amplify who we are, our voices and the voices of the network, and just making sure I have this dream and goal, I guess, dream that one day every single person will know the National Black Child Development Institute and will respect and understand it and be a part of it given its importance to black children – and that importance then being to the entire country.

Chris Riback: And if you had a governor or a state education secretary in front of you, is there a single message that you would give?

Dr. Leah Austin: The single message I would give is that we need to invest more in the early years and we need to invest more in ways that we just talked about very comprehensively. So yes, we need to invest more in their schools and the early childhood education component. We need to make sure that we are paying the workforce, actually paying them well so that they are not struggling themselves, but that they can really thrive and they can focus on the learning that they actually want to provide young children.

Chris Riback: Yes. Well, that’s a message that I think will be very clear to understand and your efforts through NBCDI are impacting communities across the country. Thank you for your work. Thank you for coming by the studio.

Dr. Leah Austin: Thank you for having me. This is wonderful.


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