We have an abundance of talent that is ready to reimagine early childhood and well-being in America for our youngest children and families, but we do not have an abundance of leadership experiences that nurture, propel, and position them as the dynamic leaders our country urgently needs.
Leadership that reflects the full diversity and genius of our communities, sectors, identities and lived experiences matters now more than ever. In Toward A More Equitable Tomorrow: A Landscape Analysis of Early Childhood Leadership, we uncover the essentials for future leadership investments that value and center equity—especially racial equity and inclusion—to surface new possibilities and equitable prosperity moving forward. Insights from stakeholders including state and federal cabinet directors, service providers, funders, and parents offer powerful perspectives to guide the future early childhood field, and guide those who seek to accelerate families’ well-being, educational success, and economic mobility.
Ascend at the Aspen Institute is embracing this moment as a renewal, and also as a redoubling of our commitment to remake our systems and our society. This means centering children and families with a focus not simply on eliminating persistent inequities such as poverty, polarization, and racism, but on ensuring pathways to prosperity and well-being.
With support from the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Bezos Family Foundation, Ascend undertook a robust landscape analysis of the early childhood field. More than 80 leaders—from research, practice, policy, philanthropy, and families with young children—shared their insights for this report. It was augmented by a review of 20 mission-aligned leadership efforts. Our inquiry was grounded in an intentional focus on racial, economic, and gender equity; respect for the advances made; commitment to innovation; and an open mind to new approaches, possibilities, and power.
What came through loud and clear with every parent and partner we spoke to is that this moment demands leadership that reflects the full talent of our country, and that is courageous, collaborative, and visionary. If we are serious about a bold new path for early childhood, we must invest in the leaders who will shape and sustain the policies and systems needed to change the trajectory of our youngest children and families.
More specifically, there are six priorities that stand out for cultivating transformative leadership.
- 1. Curate racially diverse leadership cohorts and design experiences for learning and growth that are centered around racial equity as a value, behavior, and outcome.
- 2. Enable work across systems, bringing together siloes for more effective and efficient work with lasting outcomes, making this a field and policy expectation.
- 3. Make better sense of the economics that drive care now, to build a system that makes sense for the care workforce and for those who need services.
- 4. Integrate lived experience; don’t leave it on the sidelines. We need families’ expertise to improve and transform systems and services of care for our families and children. Parents and caregivers are partners well-positioned to offer insights and ideas so our policies, practices, and systems are respectful, culturally resonant, and work better.
- 5. Our leadership forces need to be strong case makers. Change isn’t easy and a contagious vision is essential to build support for bold action. Leaders need to excel at telling stories that capture our imaginations and motivate us to do more for our families and children.
- 6. Finally, if we do the same thing, we’ll get the same results—and that isn’t good enough. We need leadership that is open to innovation, that is eager to apply what we have learned can improve the lives of children and families, and is able to see failure as the source of valuable lessons rather than a reason to avoid risks.
Without considering these six priorities, we settle for tweaks and incremental change instead of transformation. Children and families deserve more than settling. They need bold leadership.
Please join Kristin Bernhard, Dr. Meera Mani and me for an in-depth, virtual briefing on the report on Wednesday, June 15th from 1:00 – 2:00 pm ET (9:00-10:00 am PT). Together, we’ll dig into what we learned and what this leadership moment requires.
Our Ascend team looks forward to working with you to seize this generational moment to build a powerful cadre of leaders that reflects the full talent and diversity of our country, accelerating the well-being, educational success, and economic mobility of our very youngest children and their families. This is our shared transformation opportunity.