United Way Success By 6 — Charlotte, NC

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The text of a speech by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, at the United Way Success By 6 in Charlotte on May 23, 2003.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege to be with you this morning. (As it is a privilege to be part of a movement in behalf of high-quality early childhood development, care and education.) You have heard these past two days from people with expertise and experience, people of wisdom, people with financial and other resources that could make the vision become reality. My mission this morning is not to make the case for high-quality “school readiness.” You already know how vital all this is.

What I can give you this morning is how I came to be involved in all this, what I have learned, and my sense of what it takes to build a real movement for “readiness.” We have made great progress, but we are not yet close to the promised land of high-quality basics for all children. We must, for their sake, and our own, get much closer.

If you took me back just seven years ago, I could have told you almost nothing about the topic about which I speak this morning. Yes, I am the father of five children, now ages 18 to 38. Yes, I think our own children were raised by the health-and-education-and-nurturing principles of early childhood development, care and education. But back then, and for many years after, I knew none of these as “principles.”

If you had asked me back then to define “education” in America, I would have given you the pretty typical, semi-standard definition encompassing children in a classroom –- kindergarten through senior high, then perhaps college. And I would have told you that “real education,” whatever that is, begins in kindergarten or first grade. How little I knew. How wrong I was.

I did know, of course, how important it is to build great elementary and secondary schools. I did know how important it is to build a world-class higher education system. What I did not know then, but came to know, is that greatness can never fully emerge from classrooms whose students get off to a lousy start in school. What I came to know is that the wisest resources we could spend would be time and money on the front end of the lives of children from before birth to age 5. What I came to believe is that Florida’s future – indeed, the future of all states — literally depends on children getting off to a strong start in life.

But I didn’t know that then. All my thinking energies were otherwise focused. In a career of 35 years, I was a newspaperman, through and through. I worked at seven newspapers — one of them The Charlotte Observer — as reporter, editor or publisher. On call 24 hours a day. Someone who loved his work, loved it so much that I never missed a day of work all those years. It was a privilege to come to work. The people you might meet. The stories that might be done. It certainly was not all glamour — the tough, frustrating days were not infrequent — but then again how many people get to interview the President of the United States and Fidel Castro? How many people actually meet the Pope? How many people have the privilege of working for a community institution that every single day has the opportunity to reveal wrongs and do right…to make a difference in the lives of so many people?

But there did come a time when the frustration levels grew higher. A time when I came to need a change. Like so many people who have been in a craft or a profession for many years, I came to believe that too much had changed. I came to love newspapering less as the “business” became, in fact, more of a business.

I also acknowledge that for all my love of this business for so many years that there were moments and people that made me feel less warmth. I like to tell audiences, by way of example, about reader Nicholas Burczyk, a resident just north of Miami. He wrote me for years, invariably sending a copy to Pope John Paul II. Mr. Burczyk’s central theme was this: “Holy Father, why do you tolerate the likes of Dave Lawrence running a newspaper.” So it was in the Christmas season that Mr. Burczyk wanted the Pope to be aware of The Herald “paganizing” South Florida. The only proper course, Mr. Burczyk advised the Pope, would be excommunicate me from the Holy Roman Church. Now my style is that if you write me, you are entitled to a response. From me Mr. Burcyzk received a brief letter, the entire text of which I share with you:

“Dear Mr. Burczyk: Someone under the influence of Satan has signed your name to a letter. You may want to get in touch with the police. This man is spewing and spreading hatred. God bless you.”

And I sent a copy, of course, to the archbishop and the Pope!

To be fair about it, I heard mostly from good people with honorable thoughts. I also witnessed daily evidence that newspapers at their best make a great difference in people’s lives. But I did come to need a new perspective on life. In my mid-50s, I came to want to see how I might make a difference in other ways that would take advantage of my idealism. Some sort of public service. But what I did not know.

Serendipitously, something else did “show up.” Seven summers ago, Florida’s then governor, Lawton Chiles, an especially decent and honorable public servant, asked me to join the Governor’s Commission on Education. I was then the publisher of The Miami Herald, and this would be another civic commitment, all of which I considered part of the job, all of which I loved to do, all of which gave me another opportunity to contribute to my community and my state. At that first meeting, I was somehow euchred into chairing one of six committees — Readiness. The mandate, I was told, was to find out how we can make sure that every child in Florida enters formal school fully prepared to learn.

Back then, I wouldn’t have known how miserably my own state ranks in national rankings of how children do in our country. Back then, the word “readiness” would have set off no bells in my head. Back then, I had no awareness of the nascent national movement for readiness. Back then, I had no idea whatsoever of this state’s public-private Smart Start program. Or Georgia’s universal pre-K for 4 year olds. Or California’s tobacco tax that raises hundreds of millions of dollars a year for birth-to-5 programs. Or Vermont’s series of compassionate “family development” initiatives. Or Cincinnati’s major effort in behalf of “home visiting.” Or the Defense Department’s commitment to quality child care, a commitment that ought to be emulated by the civilian community. I visited and learned about every one of these efforts, and many more.

Back then, the matter of brain research had never crossed my mind. But I came to know about the “explosion of learning” that occurs right after birth. I traveled, in this country and to France, Sweden and Italy’s Reggio Emilia. I listened and I read. The imagery in the next five sentences from “The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains and How Children Learn” sticks in my mind: “What we see in the crib is the greatest mind that has ever existed, the most powerful learning machine in the universe. The tiny fingers and mouth are exploration devices that probe the alien world around them with more precision than any Mars Rover. The crumpled ears take a buzz of incomprehensible noise and flawlessly turn it into meaningful language. The wide eyes that sometimes seem to peer into your very soul actually do just that, deciphering your deepest feelings. The downy head surrounds a brain that is forming millions of new connections every day.”

Predicated on that image and that science, I came to believe that it is tragic that so many children start school so significantly behind where they ought to be. I came to believe it is a most preventable tragedy.

So, yes, I have discovered what should be done. The hard part, of course, is doing it. This morning I share with you the first several chapters of a continuing story.

Begin with me, then, in early 1999, upon my “retirement” from journalism. In those early months we brought together hundreds of Miamians…each with a passion for children, each with a special interest in the early childhood years. Invariably, in each of these forums, someone would stand up to say: “I’m with you. Now if you can get my program some more money, I promise you that things will be better.” Ah, but I am getting older…and maybe wiser… and I am less sure these days that money is as much at the core of the matter as I once might have thought it was. Besides, while I am not cynical — never was, never will be — I was a paid skeptic for 35 years. I recall, fondly, my old boss, the former publisher of this town’s newspaper, reminding me of the newspaper reporter’s ancient axiom — that being: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out!” My life experience told me that the reality for real “readiness” is this: What really matters is outcomes — real and measurable ones — for children.

That spring of 1999 we gathered 177 people who work in child care and health care and education and other areas that have much to do with whether children get off to a good start in life or not. For 2 ½ days political, civic and business leaders, education and health professionals, caregivers and leaders in the faith community met to write a strategic plan with this mission statement: “To ensure that all children in our community have our attention, commitment and resources – and, hence, the chance to develop intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically so that they are ready and eager to learn by the time they reach first grade.”

That summer we held 21 community forums — in English, Spanish and Creole — and asked hundreds of parents to tell us what they thought about the plan. That fall of 1999 we gathered 4,500 people in the Miami Beach Convention Center for the Mayor’s Children’s Summit. There, thousands of people voted electronically on which parts of the strategic plan to take on first; there we announced four major task forces to carry out those priorities: Early Development and Education, Child Health and Well Being, Parent and Family Skills, Services and Information, and Prevention and Intervention of Violence, Abuse and Neglect.

All this was exciting. All this was energizing. But where, eventually, might this take us? What would it really do for the futures of children and of my community? I was unsure and increasingly nervous. My insecurity on the subject increased over the ensuing months.

I came to the beginning of the year 2000 pretty sure that we would never make enough progress on the path we had taken. We were well intended — so purposeful, so hard working; but I came to think that unless we could create real “public will” for real change — most particularly the public awareness on the part of parents for what their children really needed — we were doomed to making incremental rather than genuinely meaningful and large-scale progress. I believed then, and believe even more so now, that if parents ever knew what their children were entitled to, and needed, in a society of decency and fairness, we could create a mighty army for change.

How is it, I had wondered back in 1998, that we then had only 17 accredited child care centers and homes in Miami-Dade County when there are, in fact, more than 1,400 licensed facilities in my community? The answer eventually seemed obvious to me; I came to believe it was because most parents, even traditionally well-educated ones, simply had no idea that “accreditation” was the emblem that told them that there was real evidence of a stimulating environment for children within.

I came to think about “supply” and “demand.” That is, I came to believe, we could never create enough “supply” of the high-quality basics until we could create the “demand” for such. While so much else good in the early childhood arena was going on in my community, while so many were engaged in the important work of building the supply of basics, I decided I would focus an increasing measure of my own energies on building “demand.”

Hence, I asked six advertising agencies to compete for a significant, years-long campaign in behalf of public awareness, with the first target being parents and caregivers. We said we’d pay real money because pro bono campaigns tend to get bad space and bad time. We raised more than $2.5 million — most of it from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and United Way Success By Six in Miami. Two years ago we launched a multi-year campaign called Teach More/Love More. It’s a name that underscores the crucial nature of “teachable moments” in the first several years of life as well as the necessity of love and nurturing in growing successful children. (These are billboards that have appeared on the streets of our community.) We prepared television, radio and print ads. Those commercials seek to build a “demand” for high-quality early childhood basics. (Let me give you two examples in English, one in Spanish.)

Now, let me play you a jingle – first in English, then Spanish, then Creole — that accompanies our radio ads. While all this was going on, we involved 35 early childhood experts in producing the best local early childhood website in the country, accessible through teachmorelovemore.org. That website changes five days a week with the latest early childhood news and research. Meanwhile, we also have 24-hour, seven-days-a-week phone lines staffed by trained volunteers able to answer questions about child care, health insurance, breast-feeding and much more. Everything we do is in the three languages of most preference in our community — Spanish, English and Creole.

Then, on the “supply” side, we announced three significant items, all supported by private-sector dollars as well:

First, in a partnership with 38 neighborhood health clinics, 13 birthing hospitals and 5 birthing centers in our community, we give every expectant mother, for free, a copy of the first of six videos covering the first several years of life. This is a partnership with the national I Am Your Child Foundation. Second, after birth and in a partnership with those birthing hospitals and centers in Miami-Dade County, we give every new parent, again for free, a high-quality baby book, published by Little Brown, and in Spanish, English and Creole. That is accompanied by a message speaking to the crucial nature of reading with your child way before the child’s first birthday. Third, once more for free, we give each new parent a preview copy of a locally produced, high-quality Teach More/Love More newsletter, all focused on helpful tips for parents. Parents can order this free newsletter to be mailed 11 times a year. As of this week, 13,381 parents are receiving this newsletter at their home.

Moreover, in a partnership with all 39 of our community’s libraries, we give all new parents a temporary library card as well as a free one-time round-trip bus pass to their closest library to get a permanent library card and access to all sorts of early childhood resources.

Everything free. Everything available in any one of the three basic languages of my community.

But maybe I am telling you too much about the trees and not enough about the forest.

Overall, what are we really trying to build in Miami and Florida? And what might be the real lessons of our experience for other communities and other states?

Begin, please, with the sure knowledge that we have more than our share of challenges in the place where I live. Ours is the most interesting and challenging big place in America. Great wealth and great poverty. Great beauty and real misery. Our 2.3 million people make us larger than 16 of these United States. Diverse? No community is more diverse. 58 percent Hispanic, 21 percent African American or black (and they are not necessarily the same in Greater Miami), 21 percent non-Hispanic white (and only 15 percent of the babies). More than half the people in my county were born in another country; there is no other community of any real size with any percentage approaching that. We are on the “cutting edge” of the America to come. We are living the “great American adventure.”

I live in a state, the fourth biggest in the country, that does not do very well in most educational indicators. Just for one example, 40 percent of those who start ninth grade in Florida do not finish high school. That is 2 out of every 5 students. In dropouts we are a dead-last No. 50 in the country. “Increible,” as we say in Miami. Up to 30 percent of our 6 year olds start first grade way behind –- socially, emotionally, cognitively and/or physically – and there is ample evidence that most of those children never really catch up. If you think your state’s situation with first graders is much better, much different, I would encourage you to check again.

In my community, no one has been, or will be, elected “children’s czar.” We are too big, too fractious a place for that. I wouldn’t recommend it anyway. We simply will never be a one-size-fits-all place. Nor will you. But there are people in this audience – many of you, in fact –- who could be the convenors of communities. And that is a real and crucial role for people like you and me… people who understand that the real power of America is to be found in communities.

Our mission, community by community, must be to build an integrated, comprehensive approach, covering health and education and nurturing for all children between birth and age 5.

Built in the belief that our work is not about “other people’s” children, but about everyone’s child.

Built in the belief that we cannot afford to do anything less than provide high-quality early childhood care and education to all children who need it. Built in the belief that we cannot afford to do anything less than provide first-rate health care for all children. Built in the belief that we cannot do anything less than commit to every child and every parent that we are prepared to devote the resources, in public and private partnership, that will give every child the chance to be truly ready for school and for life.

Ladies and gentlemen, a good future for children depends on our building a “movement,” a movement in behalf of all children in their early childhood years.

Think now of “movements” and of the lessons of history. Think, perhaps, of the Civil Rights Movement or the Feminist Movement. Both of those movements, in their earliest moments, were marginalized by others. And frequently ridiculed. And oppressed every chance some people got. Eventually, when most people came to understand that these were movements that spoke to every person and an American sense of “fairness,” they came to be part of the accepted foundation of this country. I well recall that back in the Sixties, those in the Feminist Movement were mocked as “bra burners” and “silly.” Those who spoke up for women’s rights were seen as “radical,” just as women a half-century earlier were mocked for their support of a woman’s right to vote. Today, it cannot be coincidental that half the seats, or more, in most law and medical school classrooms are occupied by women. This progress is a direct consequence of the struggle for women’s rights and the Feminist Movement. That movement is, in fact, about standing up for everyone’s rights in our country. Likewise, the Civil Rights Movement was not just about African Americans, but about everyone.

Let me use kindergarten as an example of a “movement”:

I frequently ask audiences to guess when kindergarten began, and usually I hear back that it was 40 or 50 years ago. In fact, kindergarten was “invented” in 1837, and came in this country a century and a half ago. Taking more than a century to be genuinely widespread, kindergarten was frequently fought as unnecessary and, even, “anti-family.” For decades, kindergarten was seen as mostly for society’s worst off and society’s best off. Only when it became a “movement” in behalf of everyone’s child did it become a full reality. Today, a high-quality kindergarten experience for all children has become an expectation on the part of every parent of every 5 year old. Kindergarten is still not “mandatory” in my state, and eight other states, but is there a parent of a 5-year-old today who wants anything less than a high-quality kindergarten-like experience for that child?

I promise you that we can never build a real movement for “school readiness” unless we do so for everyone’s child.

All children need all the quality early care and education that your children and my own need: Love and nurturing. All their shots. Real relationships with medical caregivers, not the emergency room as basic medical care. Excellent nutrition. The fullest opportunity to be safe. Stimulating early care and education experiences. Child care that engages the mind, not the “warehousing” that most children receive.

Our mission must embrace what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of — that is, “all of God’s children.” That is not the way it usually works now. Instead, most often, well-intended, good-hearted people target one deeply disadvantaged neighborhood or another, and then devote extra resources (which, because those resources are disbursed in such a non-holistic way, so often add up to precious little progress for children). Meantime, the rest of the community sees how we target our resources, and reasons: “Oh, I see, it is about those children.” But “readiness” is not and should not be, just about those children; rather, “readiness” should be about, and for, everyone’s child. That is my very definition of a “movement.”

Ladies and gentlemen, know, please, that I am not here today bragging. To know me is to know that I always run scared. I fully acknowledge the distance remaining to travel in my own community and my own state. But we have made significant progress because we have embraced in our thinking all 31,000 children who are born in my community each year, all 200,000 children who are born in my state each year. Our work is quite nonpartisan. In my state Gov. Jeb Bush, most assuredly a Republican, is a key part of this as was his most-assuredly-Democratic predecessor. I, a registered independent, am part of this. We believe it is in everyone’s interest to be part of this. Like you, I live in a state of increasing emphasis on accountability and high-stakes testing. Just in my own county 7,800 of our third graders may well be held back this year. Almost 5,000 high school seniors are unlikely to receive diplomas. But we’ll not find the answers in the third or the 12th grade. The answers are found in the first several years of life. Were we ever to make the necessary investments in “school readiness,” we would have made the greatest possible contribution to “public education reform” in America.

Had we not thought about everyone’s child, we never would have become the second state in the Union, behind only Georgia, to make high-quality pre-K available for all 4 year olds in Florida, beginning in the school year 2005. We started toward this goal four years ago. We induced good people to introduce good bills in behalf of “universal pre-K” in the Florida Legislature. Those bills never emerged from committee. When the powers-that-be decide bills won’t be heard, they aren’t. So we had to take another path. I went to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, a real champion for children, and he raised a million and a half dollars for a petition campaign. We needed 488,000 signatures to get it on the ballot; in fact, we received a total of 722,000 signatures. The people of Florida passed this constitutional amendment last November – and did so 60-40.

I give you another example of thinking in terms of everyone’s child and building public will: Florida has a law that permits people, county by county, to raise their property taxes to create a dedicated funding source for children. This was tried in Miami-Dade County in 1988, in a campaign led by the respected state attorney — Janet Reno was her name; you may remember it! — and it went down to a crashing, 2-1 defeat. Two and a half years ago we began the hard work to put it once more on the ballot, and pass it. It would provide up to $60 million a year to be spent on early intervention and prevention, half to be invested in the early childhood years, all of it overseen by an independent public private board. Called The Children’s Trust, it passed last September — by an overall margin of 2-1 and in every one of the 39 identifiable neighborhoods of Miami-Dade County encompassing every racial and ethnic grouping, every economic level. Our campaign was built on the premise that passage would have real meaning to every family in our community and, indeed, for the very future of our community.

I told you before I was not cynical. Never have been. Never will be. If you build a movement that encompasses everyone, the people will be wise enough to sign on.

To achieve high-quality early childhood care and education for all children who need it, do we appeal to people on the grounds of human decency? In God’s world, surely every child is entitled to a decent beginning in life. Or do we argue this in practical terms? In the words of the author James Baldwin: “For these are all our children…. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”

Readiness is, of course, also a matter of business investment and the self-interest of all of us. An educated community is a safer, more prosperous, more optimistic community for everyone. The research most clearly tells us that if we were ever to spend a dollar wisely up front — that is, from pre-natal to age 5 — we would not have to spend seven dollars at the other end on police and prosecution and prison, and remedial education of all sorts. You and I have ample evidence that we either will pay a few dollars more up front in children’s lives, or we will pay many more dollars when they get older. We have every reason to know a more educated, contributing citizenry literally depends on children coming to first grade eager and able to learn.

We cannot build this movement unless we can build genuine collaboration, unless we can involve both public and private resources – the education and health communities, the non-profit and foundation community, the faith community, elected leaders, the law enforcement community. Some of the most visible leaders must come from the general community, including the business community. Success By 6 and United Way are so vital in that. In my own community, over the past decade, Miami’s Success By 6 has provided innovative programming that laid the groundwork for Miami’s early care and education movement. Success By 6 Programs have demonstrated that providing health care screenings improved child outcomes, that quality child care is crucial, that parents need our respectful help in partnership so they can be their child’s first and most influential teacher. With Bank of America funding, our Success By 6 has developed provider training modules and program models that are being replicated by several community-wide initiatives to raise the quality of early care. United Way Miami has invested and leveraged well over $10 million for our community’s youngest children through Success By 6. By the end of next year, that will lead to the opening of Center for Excellence in Early Education — with state of the art, research-affiliated child care facilities for 140 Miami children.

In my community, or yours, the top leaders of “readiness” need to be seen as in no one’s “camp,” people open and responsive to all, people with a vision that encompasses all children, people who truly understand what “holistic” means, people both open and tough-minded, people with a long-term commitment and passion for this issue.

You are leaders, and this is all about leadership. Leadership is problem-solving, but it is much more than that. It is great and purposeful energy. It is teaching. At its wisest and best, it is embracing and inclusive. It is to dream. (In the eloquence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream.”) It is a belief in a higher purpose. (“We were born,” said Nelson Mandela, “to make manifest the glory of God within us.”) Leadership is, in the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, “to dare mighty things.” Leadership is a reminder that the greatest stories in human history are those of individuals who made a great difference in behalf of others.

Frequently I am kidded –- at least I think it is kidding –- about my slightly “driven” persona. Know that I take refuge in these words by the long-lived playwright and social reformer George Bernard Shaw: “This is the true joy in life: Being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, and being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is a privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die; for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.”

So let me close this morning with the words of Robert Greenleaf in “The Servant and Leader”: “Not much happens,” he wrote, “without a dream. And for something great to happen, there must be a great dream. Behind every great achievement is a dreamer of great dreams.”

Ladies and gentlemen, ours is an audience of dreamers. Let us dream. Let us do.

Let us go forth with energetic optimism to achieve. Let us build upon what so many already have constructed. Let us do so with the certain knowledge that our work could make the very difference in the lives and futures of our children and in the lives and futures of our communities and our country.

It is there to be done. Let us believe in the future of everyone’s child. Let us help make those futures come to pass.

Thank you. And God bless you.