From Our President-Elect. Unabashed and Unapologetic Advocacy: Creating a Safe Space for Each and Every Child
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World-renowned child psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner said, “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.”
As I begin my term as president of NAEYC’s Governing Board, I want to share with you some of the reasons why I felt compelled to run for the position and why I believe NAEYC should be unabashed in advocating for young children and the field of early childhood education.
Growing up, I had plans to become a child psychologist. I had a terrifying year in elementary school, with a teacher who far too often showed anger and frustration with us 9-year-olds. School had always been a happy place, a safe place before then. So when I started having regular nightmares and was scared to go to school, my parents—my biggest champions and protectors—not only spoke with the school administration but also took me to a child psychologist. There, I drew pictures and described what I was feeling and experiencing.
Over time, my pictures transformed from thunderclouds and dark images of the scary voices that I was hearing to happier and more colorful images. One day I drew a picture that included every color in the box of rainbows, flowers, and smiling faces. That was my last session: through my parents’ and this professional’s words and actions, I was able to finish the school year successfully. Through this experience, I learned the value and the necessity of advocacy, professional competencies, and genuine care of a child.
My parents were “irrationally crazy” about me. I was born in East Chicago, Indiana, at the same hospital as my mom and in the same area where my maternal grandparents settled in 1920. I grew up surrounded by a large, loving, Mexican American family with hard-working parents. My dad worked in the steel mills, and my mom stayed home with us. Later, she worked part time in a child care setting—perhaps spurring my interest in early learning. In this nurturing context, I gained confidence and the ability to dream.
Between my parents and my experience with a nurturing child psychologist, I developed a strong desire to create a safe space for each and every child. I thought that would be in the field of child psychology. It wasn’t until I attended graduate school at the Erikson Institute that I truly learned the definition of advocacy on behalf of children. I also learned about NAEYC and its mission to advocate on behalf of all children and those who care for them. One of NAEYC’s core values, that children and adults achieve their full potential in the context of trusting and respectful relationships, squarely aligned with my personal values and my dream. I realized that I had found an organization that matched my beliefs and aspirations, and I wanted to be part of its efforts. I felt compelled to run for president because of my fierce commitment to the mission, values, and beliefs of NAEYC.
One of NAEYC’s core values, that children and adults achieve their full potential in the context of trusting and respectful relationships, squarely aligned with my personal values and my dream.
I am honored to step into this role. Taking the reins from the incomparable Ann Terrell, who has been a mentor and friend to me over this past year, is an absolute privilege. My most sincere thanks to Ann for being the consummate professional and advocate for NAEYC. She has done this organization proud.
There is still much work to be done as we continue to adapt and emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and its crushing impact on children, families, and educators. With the field still being ignored by federal investments and still not being funded in the necessary ways to create an equitable system, it is no surprise that early childhood educators are leaving. Our current system is unsustainable, and we urgently need viable solutions. Now more than ever, NAEYC is and will continue to be unapologetic in our advocacy and commitment to the field.
That commitment includes raising up educators marginalized because of their race, culture, and other aspects of their identities. As I begin my new role at NAEYC, it is not lost on me that I am the first Latina to serve as president of the Governing Board of Directors. It is also not lost on me that while NAEYC has a priority and obligation to represent and reflect the field, NAEYC membership from the Latino/a community is woefully behind compared with other demographics. Just under 4 percent of members self-identify as Latino/a. Part of my work as president will be to connect with the Latino/a community and develop meaningful ways to engage with Latino/a educators, members, and advocates. Our promise to Brown and Black children and their educators is more important than ever before.
I have dedicated my professional life to turning my beliefs into action, and there is hard work ahead. It will require our continued attention, resilience, and commitment. Whether you are in the classroom or the halls of Congress, you are an advocate, and I want to hear from you. Look to this column and NAEYC’s other resources for updates and opportunities to join me in the unabashed and unapologetic work with and for young children and our field.
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Natalie Vega O'Neil is president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.