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Q&A | Dogwood Health Trust on why to watch western NC for early childhood solutions

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Dogwood Health Trust, a philanthropic foundation serving 18 counties and the Qualla Boundary, awarded 10 grantees a total of $8.3 million in December for efforts to strengthen the early childhood workforce in communities in Western North Carolina. Go here for the full list of grantees.

EdNC spoke with Ereka Williams, vice president of education at Dogwood, about why the foundation chose to focus on the early childhood teacher workforce and what she hopes will come next in North Carolina. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

EdNC: Why did Dogwood choose to create grants in early care and education in the first place? 

Williams: It was absolutely critical that, as we launched the beginning of a long-term strategy for this new philanthropic group in the West, that we started at the beginning.

Everything begins in those first five years, figuratively and literally. We know those first 2,000 days represent the most significant human growth and development that will happen for a human being. I taught human growth and development in the UNC System for over 15 years. I can tell you that I knew long before I showed up with this work and to be charged to lead this on behalf of Dogwood, that what we don’t do in those first five years, we will spend a lifetime trying to repair and fix.

So it was critical that we started, with everything we needed to think about, with getting kids to high-quality early care and education settings with women and men, primarily women, that were the best of the best in this profession. I think about that quote by Frederick Douglass: “It is better to prepare strong children than fix broken men.”

EdNC: Why did you choose to focus on the early childhood workforce in the context of Western North Carolina’s current early childhood landscape? What challenges were you seeing that needed intervention?

Williams: That 2019 study done by Child Care Services Association really laid out what the picture was. We’re talking 2019, pre-pandemic, and it showed us this cliff that we were headed for — even if all things were held constant and no worldwide plague came — we were already teetering on a crisis that we could not return from. And then COVID came.

When I started two years ago, I asked for permission to first extend what we saw in a snapshot for Buncombe County to capture our 18-county landscape data. You can’t paint Western North Carolina with one brush.

We lost a significant amount of those family care providers. Talk about ecosystem disruption, in those years prior to and after COVID. We lost one of the primary groups of providers that families in that region lean on. Family care providers, for example, for lots of families, provide the kind of care that families trust. Those are women that live in those communities, that have the values of those families, they often have flexibility with scheduling that works with families.

We really saw that we had parts of our region that were bleeding and hemorrhaging when it came to slots, when it came to the variety of the slots, when it came to the type of slots that families needed. We saw a lot of regionally contextualized data that told us that of everything to tackle, it was absolutely critical that we went to the workforce issues first. That’s where we were hemorrhaging the most for our communities.

EdNC: What stuck out to you about the proposals of these grantees?

Williams: I was so encouraged by what I would call grounded, focused attention to the three buckets that we put out there that we hoped that people saw as significant for their work: Improving working conditions for those that are already there, increasing access to ECE credentials so that we can invite people into the workforce but then also continue to scale up people that were there across the career ladder, and then we also saw a nice mix of attention to attracting new people to this area — high schoolers, career transition adults looking for other options that were maybe a little more amenable to their families.

We also saw a good mix of approaches. One thing that we’d hoped for is that we would see proposals that equitably attended to either an approach, or something curriculum-based, or something with training that was really innovative, or needed, or a blind spot of what was already out there. And we saw that.

On the front end of this, there was careful attention, both in what we received and how the team filtered requests, in making sure that that ecosystem was not disturbed. That there were a balance of proposals that address family care providers, family neighbor care, public, private, you name it, and that we saw representation or proposals that really did cover our whole 18-county footprint.

EdNC: What are you most excited about when it comes to early childhood workforce development in Western North Carolina?

Williams: Those stabilization grants run out in a few months. And so first and foremost, let’s just be very clear, without another safety net lined up immediately, I’m excited that at least for our 18 counties, for these communities, for these individuals, some of whom have been fighting and waging in this space for decades, trying to do their best by early care and education, the opportunity to continue those stabilization efforts from those grants is something that I’m thankful for. I’m excited to see what happens when we continue to invest in those ideas and that innovation.

Part of our responsibility in philanthropy is to help build and curate and convene and build capacity of organizations and communities to carry on and live the work beyond us, and to also cross-pollinate in ways that matter. I’m excited about the lessons we’re going to perhaps learn from the capacity-building piece we built in, and with the equity academy.

I am excited that Western North Carolina will have exemplars to help build a very robust statewide advocacy/policy agenda for the state and for this nation. I’m excited about what not only the rest of North Carolina, but the rest of our country, will be able to look to and learn from this region. North Carolina has always historically been a model for early care and education and K-12 education. It’s exciting for Western North Carolina to be at the forefront of that quite possibly.

EdNC: What is the equity academy?

Williams: We said, you decide if there’s a space here that you want to filter your work through in service to the communities that you serve. Every one of those grantees chose one of those 14 areas (within the Children’s Equity Project’s research) that they wanted to infuse, improve, embed within their work.

It’s going to be another one of those potential models that we’ll learn a lot from. It will end with an equity dashboard, where each of those metrics that those partners chose to lift up will be captured and tracked over time so the community can say, “Here’s where we’re growing in these spaces. Here are these elements of the things that matter to our communities that we’re making progress in.” It’ll be captured in an equity dashboard that the Frank Porter Graham team will be curating for us. So this work is going to live on beyond these five years.

EdNC: What are you most concerned about? What are some of the underlying challenges to this work?

Williams: One of the commitments that we’ve made is we will be patient with our impatience. When you’re addressing an issue that’s systemic, when you’ve spent your life and your career really working in service to families and communities, you can grow a little weary and a little tired. That’s not the case right now, though. I’m very encouraged and excited about the momentum, the bipartisan momentum I’ve seen in our state with early care and education.

It’s not concerned as much as that I’m holding a lot of hope and promise in the momentum that I’m seeing and the bipartisan commitment that is brewing. I’m holding a lot of promise and hope in my heart for local leaders doing the same. I hear the momentum. I hear business and industry and the North Carolina chamber talking about early care and education workforce now. I’m hearing these conversations in spaces where once upon a time I kind of only heard K-12 being talked about.

And yet I grow concerned about: When will we make the commitment? What will the commitment look like? The National Academies of Sciences predicted that fourfold gap between our current annual investment in early care and education versus the $140 billion plus that we really need for a sustainable, fully-funded zero-to-five system in our country. How close are we really? I’m hopeful that we’re a lot closer, and that we’re almost there.

I don’t want this momentum to be lost. I don’t think our system right now of low wages for workers and high costs for families is a system that’s going to continue to be propped up. And I’m just concerned that our momentum may be lost if decisions aren’t made a little sooner. That’s what concerns me.

EdNC: What do you hope other parts of the state learn from the work of these grantees?

Williams: Some of our partners in this region have been working, leading, championing these needs for five decades. When I first met Sheila Hoyle when I got here, Sheila greeted me by giving me her 50-year career in this space. When I look at the Sheila Hoyles, when I look at the CiCi Westons of the Christine Avery Learning Center here in Asheville, a historic Black family that is a multigenerational early care and ed provider, a leader in this region, a leader in the state. When I look at the Amy Barrys, who’s kind of the guru of Buncombe County early care and education.

When I look at those women, women like them in this region, women like them across this state that have done this work with no fanfare, very little rewards. They know what needs to happen. They’ve told us where the gaps are. They’ve talked to us about subsidy rates. They’ve talked to us about the leaky pipes in terms of people coming into the profession, but then because we have a different pay scale for pre-K teachers, they get them but they lose them. They’ve told us and they’ve shown us. Then they showed us through the stabilization grants what can happen.

Let’s show up for these folks. Let’s give them what they need. Let’s support them. Let’s get out of the way. It’s beyond time for all of our stakeholders, the local and state government, industry, businesses, every business that comes to the state, every legislator that takes an oath, every family, everyone has to be all in on this. I think that we’ll see examples from this, just as we did with the stabilization grants, of affirming what we know must happen. We have the evidence and we’ll have more.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.