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.
Dr. Lee Johnson III doesn’t just run NBCDI’s Policy Fellowship program, he graduated from it. Now, with a new cohort who joined the18-month program, Dr. Johnson and his colleagues are advancing “Breakthrough Action Leadership” that focuses on growing responsive, self-reflective leaders. As well, the group is addressing the climate and environmental concerns that also affect early childhood development in many communities.
Chris Riback: Dr. Johnson, thank you for coming by the studio.
Lee Johnson III, PhD: Thank you for having me.
Chris Riback: What is the NBCDI Policy Fellowship?
Lee Johnson III, PhD: The NBCDI Policy Fellowship is an 18-month program for leaders that are black, who are responsible for programs across communities, who are focused on making sure that the leadership at the national level reflects the population being served. I was part of the inaugural cohort of fellows-
Chris Riback: Yes.
Lee Johnson III, PhD: Which there were six of us, the only guy in that cohort. And now we have our second cohort, which is made up of 14 fellows of incredible early childhood and policy leaders from across the country. And the Policy Fellowship is really rooted in this model called Breakthrough Action Leadership that really focuses on being responsible, being self-reflective as a leader, and then also creating collective leadership, which is essentially encouraging others to be responsible and self-reflective as well.
Chris Riback: Why is climate such an important focus area for you?
Lee Johnson III, PhD: From an early childhood perspective, we know that when young children are developing, particularly in the ages from birth to age eight, there is so much rapid brain development that is occurring. And so their exposure to toxins and either lead or challenges around navigating flooding or even navigating storms, it can actually disrupt the very development of young children as they’re navigating those experiences. And so it’s very important for parents, but also folks on the policy level to know and understand that there is no substitute for a secure attachment relationship. And during that attachment relationship being formed between the child and the caregiver, we want to make sure that that process is not interrupted.
And so navigating climate really adds on to a very adventurous moment in childhood, but also, understandably so, children are learning and figuring out the world around them, how to navigate it, and oftentimes climate and the impacts of climate can devastate their communities, can uproot their families, and can cause trauma.
Chris Riback: And so many of the words that you just used, the adventurous and changing, obviously we all feel that with climate right now. It seems to be changing every day and it too often is one heck of an adventure. What about things like water and other health related, climate related, but health related impacts? Are those also areas that you focus on?
Lee Johnson III, PhD: Absolutely. So at the National Black Child Development Institute, and you’ll notice at our conference this year, there’s a graphic. The graphic really speaks to our eight essential outcomes for black child development, one of which is that we envision a world where every black child can breathe clean air and drink clean water.
Chris Riback: Yes, breathing the air as well. Yes.
Lee Johnson III, PhD: Yes. Yes. And it is so important. We’ve seen the news of the wildfires, but we also recognize that many of the particles that are invisible to the naked eye can find their way into the water sources that our children drink.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Lee Johnson III, PhD: We also know that even just the pipe structures in old homes and old buildings-
Chris Riback: The lead.
Lee Johnson III, PhD: Or the lead can be a contributing factor to neurodevelopmental challenges of young children.
Chris Riback: So is part of your remit helping educate parents and help them be aware? Because parenting is hard enough without also having to figure out, “What are my pipes? Where am I getting my water from? What’s the quality of the air in my community? Which by the way, I can’t control anyhow.” Is it about educating parents, helping empower parents with knowledge, and/or is it about influencing policymakers?
Lee Johnson III, PhD: I would say it’s both, and. And the reason I say that is I often share with my colleagues and friends and parents who are friends, is that childhood is not an adventure we choose, but it is chosen by adults familiar and forever unknown through the experiences they create for us. And so when I think about what we’re doing when we’re sharing knowledge or raising awareness about the impact of climate on the development of young children, particularly young black children, it is a point of education. It is an opportunity to equip them with the resources so that they can connect with their policymakers and really influence them.
As we know, policymakers live and breathe on hearing from their constituents. And so it’s really critically important for parents to know, understand, and recognize how critically important it is to grasp these issues, but also really speak to the urgency of the moment that we’re all in if we do not act from a policy space.
Chris Riback: And as you mentioned at the start, you were once one of the members of the cohort, you were a student. Was it cohort one you were a part of?
Lee Johnson III, PhD: Cohort one as a policy fellow.
Chris Riback: You correct me if I’m wrong now, you run the darn thing?
Lee Johnson III, PhD: I do.
Chris Riback: Which is more fun, being a student [inaudible 00:05:59] or running it?
Lee Johnson III, PhD: I would say they’re equally fun because-
Chris Riback: You’re sounding very political Senator.
Lee Johnson III, PhD: I will tell you, I am a student of life. I am constantly learning about this wide, wondrous thing, human existences. As a student or as a fellow in the cohort, you have your fellows that you can learn from, glean off from, get energy from, challenge, coach, and really navigate experiences of leadership that many of them absolutely understand. Being on the other side, I actually carry the stories that they shared with me into how we lead the program now, how we understand the nuance and context of what our current cohort is navigating and faced with and challenged with. So I find joy in both the carrying of the stories that I learned in cohort one, but actually applying the lessons from those stories to lead more effectively for cohort two and beyond.
Chris Riback: Well, those are wonderful lessons to be a student of life and to find joy as you just described. Dr. Johnson, thank you for your work. Thank you for coming by the studio.