Carrying the Hope of the Inauguration into a Commitment to a More Equitable Future
By Brigid Ahern, President and CEO, Turnaround for Children
On January 6, we saw White supremacist mobs storm the Capitol to stop the certification of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris’ election to the highest offices in our nation. As they broke windows, ransacked congressional offices, and chased down elected officials, they flaunted the hate and racism that permeates our society and impacts the experiences, opportunities, and lives of our young people — especially young people of color. Earlier this week, deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. surpassed 400,000. We are living against a backdrop of illness, death, injustice, economic instability, fear, anger, and hate. This is what young people — what all of us — wake up to every day.
Amid this challenging time, we witnessed and reaffirmed hope at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris. We saw hope in the firsts that Vice President Harris represents: first woman, first Black woman, first South Asian woman in the White House. We saw hope in Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s poetry as she acknowledged an unjust past and shared hope for a more perfect union, reciting: “And the norms and notions / of what just is / Isn’t always just-ice / And yet the dawn is ours / before we knew it / Somehow we do it / Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed / a nation that isn’t broken / but simply unfinished / We the successors of a country and a time / Where a skinny Black girl / descended from slaves and raised by a single mother / can dream of becoming president / only to find herself reciting for one.” We saw hope as President Biden openly named White supremacy, growing inequity, and the sting of systemic racism. And when he stated, “We can teach our children in safe schools. We can deliver racial justice,” we saw a different future for our students.
This future starts with confronting what all of us who work at Turnaround for Children are grappling with: that while education has the potential to be the great equalizer, it has been a tool for White supremacy, reinforcing and perpetuating inequities in opportunities and outcomes. Today, we have the chance to redesign education to become a tool for racial justice. To do this, we must deeply understand how young people learn and develop and design for that.
Among the most powerful insights from science is that context — the environments, experiences, and relationships that all of us are exposed to — shapes how we grow and learn, the expression of our genetic makeup, and who we become. The context that nearly all children have been exposed to in the last year has been one of challenge, stress, and strife. This has been particularly true for many Black and Brown children as their communities continue to disproportionately experience violence at the hands of police, economic hardship, illness, and death. This unjust reality has deepened existing inequities both in and out of school.
Science also tells us that brains are malleable, talent is everywhere, and that every child has potential. This means that educators, parents, and caretakers must value each individual for who they are and who they can become, and we must intentionally build positive contexts for children’s learning and development. We can value each child for who they are now and unleash their potential when we design schools to become healthy developmental contexts. Specifically, by using the principles of Equitable Whole-Child Design, we can build learning environments that create equitable and authentic opportunities for learning, growth, and success in school and beyond.
In “A New Vision for a New Administration: Whole-Child Development, Learning and Thriving” (condensed version and full version), Turnaround’s Founder and Senior Science Advisor Pamela Cantor, M.D. names ways to do that. In these memos, which were shared with President Biden’s Education Transition Team, Dr. Cantor summarizes core insights from learning and developmental science and articulates key recommendations for how the new administration — and anyone invested in educational equity — can apply these insights to transform our education system into a tool for racial justice and equitable learning opportunities for all of our nation’s children and young people.
This goal is at the heart of Turnaround’s work. We are committed to confronting the ways that our learning settings do not meet the needs of young people and collaborating with others to change that. We have much to learn, but we have hope, commitment, and belief in the possibility of change. As Amanda Gorman recited: “We will not march back to what was / but move to what shall be.”