Founder and President, Child Care Counts
In my role as the founder and president of a small, local, non-profit, Child Care Counts, I hear the term “systemic change” used a lot. Systemic change is the gold standard in the not-for-profit sector; we are all working for the day when our organizations are no longer necessary because the problems we are addressing have been solved. When it is used as an excuse to withhold support from smaller not-for-profits, however, I have a problem with it. True systemic change is HARD and takes a long time: decades, centuries, even millennia. While we should never stop striving for it, we simply cannot stop supporting local efforts that lesson the pain and suffering in and around our communities in the meantime.
Maybe I need a thicker skin, but it stings a little when someone says “I’m only giving to organizations that focus on systemic change” to explain why they are not giving to Child Care Counts. Although the speaker may think of it as a polite refusal, it ends up feeling dismissive and belittling. Worse, it calls into question the worthiness of the work an organization does and yokes that work to the current, failing, system.
In a way, all not-for-profit organizations are bringing about systemic change when we educate people and get them to care about an issue. Education and getting people to care are two key ingredients of systemic change and without them, it is almost impossible to make significant changes. Every single day, not-for-profits, big and small, are doing the hard work of informing people and hopefully, getting them to care deeply enough to vote for the right candidates and policies, to change their mindsets and behaviors and to stand up for what is right, when necessary. These grass-roots efforts are the glowing coals that help ignite the fire of systemic change when the time and events are right.
If you have been reserving your charitable giving for organizations that focus on systemic change, consider instead, “is the world better off because of the work an organization does?” Consider if they enable people to achieve potentials that were previously unattainable. Organizations whose missions focus on easing suffering and injustice, one person at a time, while the wheels of systems change turn, are important and necessary too. To borrow from the Talmud, even if only one life is “saved,” it is as though the whole world is saved. That sounds systemic to me.
Founder and President, Child Care Counts
We are often urged to express gratitude these days and, indeed, we should. For even the least prosperous of us, in the United States, fare better than those in so many war-torn, terrorism-plagued countries. But after we have thanked our lucky stars for the blessings that we enjoy, I would like to encourage everyone to remember generosity. Or, maybe, it should be the other way around…
Hopefully, one begets the other. Being thankful implies that we are aware that at least some of the things we enjoy, are not necessarily deserved, and so, hopefully, we are prompted to “pay it forward” for the benefit of others. Conversely, if we are generous, we realize that not everyone experiences the same level of comfort in their lives and this knowledge causes us to feel thankful for the things we might, otherwise, take for granted. They really go hand in hand and it’s pretty hard to have one without the other.
But generosity gets short shrift these days as we read one post after another on social media reminding us to be grateful. Being grateful is important but it is passive – we feel good but unless it prompts us to do good – it is useless to everyone except ourselves. Generosity, on the other hand, is active. We have to do something for someone or something that is not ourselves, to be generous. Generosity is better, than gratitude, as a way to connect with the world around us and that connection is really what gives life meaning.
Many people think you have to give a lot of money to be generous, but generosity doesn’t have to be a huge donation to a charity. It’s definitely not so many gifts, given by people, out of ideas, to other people, who have just about everything. Generosity can be a door opened for someone or a heart-felt thank you to a clerk or cashier finishing up a long shift. These little gestures can touch someone who might be struggling in ways you cannot imagine, and that human connection actually releases hormones in your body that produce a “giver’s high.” So, both the giver and giftee benefit.
Not feeling very generous these days? That’s understandable. We have had a very tough year. Thankfully, generosity is like a smile. Even if it doesn’t feel real at first, if you practice it often enough, soon it will. Let’s do each other a huge favor and practice generosity every day and out of this practice, gratitude will happen automatically.
Founder and President, Child Care Counts
Now that we, as Americans, are adjusting to the new realities of face masks, several people have pointed out that we once thought seat belts were ridiculous and vigorously resisted wearing them. In 2020, however, at least most of us would be very uncomfortable not wearing a seat belt in a moving vehicle. Heck, I sometimes feel uneasy sitting in my parked car, without one on, if there are moving cars around me! My point in mentioning this is that Americans can sometimes be stubborn people when it comes to change – even if the change is a good idea. Once we get used to a reasonable thing, however, we embrace it as part of our collective values. It is my dream that within my lifetime, all of us will come to embrace safe, quality, affordable early care and education as a necessary and sound investment for families and for our country as a whole.
Some of you may be surprised to learn that free public kindergarten is relatively new in the U.S. and as recent as the 1960s was not the norm. In Prince Georges County, MD, where I grew up, my sister and I were the first free Kindergarten students in my family. My older brothers went but there was a fee and parents were required to volunteer regularly. My mother, a stay at home mom, realized the benefits for socialization and early learning that it provided and excitedly signed us up. Ok, so maybe she just wanted a break for half a day but I have to believe that she also thought it would give her shy, quiet daughter, a chance to explore new things and make new friends before “real school” began.
I remember being very nervous that first day with Miss Weinfeld – a young, pretty teacher sporting a lightly teased hairdo and a nice smile. During my tenure as a kindergartener I got to experience sitting in the corner once – that was the 60s - for making too much noise with my empty milk carton after snack time. Really, I was just mimicking what several other kids were doing and it was, for sure, a learning experience about not following the crowd. I was still pretty shy for several years after kindergarten but I had no trouble transitioning to first grade, had learned some valuable lessons, made new friends and figured out how to work cooperatively with others and stay out of the corner.
These days, public, full-day kindergarten is a given. Very few of us would wish for anything different. The family unit was not destroyed because of it, as some people have feared about universal pre-k, and children have mostly reaped the benefits throughout the years. Given this, it’s hard for me to understand why universal, free (or at least affordable) preschool is so difficult to bring people on board for. In my humble opinion, early child care and education, like kindergarten, should be available to anyone who wants/needs it starting at birth.
To be sure, improving the quality of early care and education and making it affordable to all is complicated and teams of experts that include noted economists and highly regarded educators, have studied the issue for decades. I don't pretend to be anything close to an expert but I know what I've seen on the ground after running a non-profit that provides child care scholarships to working families in need for the past five years. We need more federal support for sliding scale vouchers and more state investment to be able to take advantage of all available matching federal funds. We need tax incentives for corporations to open on-site child care centers and/or contribute to child care costs for their employees. We need public investment in our provider network so that we have the best quality teachers that earn a wage commensurate with their public school counterparts without driving the cost of care upward. We need accessible training programs that don’t cost an arm and a leg, for young people who want to get into the early care and education profession. This doesn't have to be an all or nothing approach, but we should start somewhere – and start now.
All of the stimulus money the federal government has doled out during the pandemic has been helpful in the short term. In the long run, however, when the stimulus money is spent, our families will be back in the same boat and our country will not have moved forward as a whole. Maybe we should stop using a band aid approach and start thinking about using funds to invest in long-term solutions that make our country stronger. I can’t think of too many things more important and worthy of investment than the education of our youngest citizens.
Is mask wearing really necessary in a pandemic? After much resistance, most of us have come to accept and embrace that it is. Is Kindergarten considered a luxury? We could save a lot of money if we eliminated it. You would be hard pressed to find takers for that proposal. We should feel the same way about affordable, quality, early care and education - starting at birth. It should become a permanent part of our country's fabric.