Interview with Jen Neitzel, Ph.D. from the Educational Equity Institute on Equity and Social Justice in Early Childhood Education
About Jen Neitzel, Ph.D.: Jen Neitzel is the Executive Director of the Educational Equity Institute (EEI), an organization that fights against systemic inequities in education by providing targeted trainings for educators and education leaders in social justice, the trauma of historical racism, and community engagement in developing anti-racism programs and policies. As Executive Director, Dr. Neitzel develops and updates the curricula for these trainings alongside her colleague, Ebonyse Mead, Ed.D., who is President of EEI. Dr. Neitzel also works closely with school systems, social justice advocates, and members of the community to help them collaboratively address the ongoing trauma of racism.
Dr. Neitzel specializes in early childhood education and improving educational and behavioral management practices to promote student well-being and engagement. She brings state and local governments, school districts, students and their families, and independent stakeholders such as early childhood programs and political activist groups together to find solutions to educational inequities. A prolific scholar on the relationship between early childhood development and racial and social justice, Dr. Neitzel also published the book Achieving Equity and Justice in Education through the Work of Systems Change, which outlines a framework for enacting systemic change in a variety of academic settings.
Dr. Neitzel earned her bachelor’s degree in Child Development from the University of Pittsburgh, and both her Master’s degree in Early Childhood Intervention and her Ph.D. in Early Childhood Education and Teaching from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Could you elaborate on your bachelor’s degree in Child Development, your Master’s degree in Early Childhood Intervention, and your Ph.D. in Early Childhood Education and Teaching? What inspired you to pursue your studies in behavioral health and child development? How did your degrees prepare you for your career journey and current role as Executive Director of the Educational Equity Institute?
[Dr. Jen Neitzel] As a child, I often played ‘teacher’ with my dolls and stuffed animals. I grew up in an educator household – my mom was a teacher – and in a family where justice (not racial justice) in society was inherent. Always underneath, there was this spoken, but often unspoken, notion that making the world a better place for all was a collective responsibility.
I attended the University of Pittsburgh as an undergrad, where I initially wanted to be a psychologist for children of divorce because my parents had been so hard on me. First semester freshman year, I took a Women’s Studies course which was life-changing for me. I took every class that I could and actually ended up with a double major. During this time, I learned about the intersectionality of race and gender and the role that Black women played in the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
At the end of my freshmen year, I changed course and decided that I wanted to pursue a Bachelor’s in Social Work. During my sophomore year, I took classes to complete some pre-requisites for admission to the program. I ended up taking a Black Families class which was foundational for me. I was admitted to the BSW program; however, the summer after my sophomore year, I received information about the program and saw that the Child Development program was housed within the School of Social Work. When I saw this, I knew that is where I belonged. I called the program, and they allowed me to switch over.
My undergraduate degree in Child Development taught me about how to work with children in typical classrooms, as well as with children with disabilities. I was exposed to children with autism during my senior student teaching experience. I was hooked. I knew that I wanted to learn more, so I applied to the Early Childhood Intervention program at UNC-Chapel Hill and made the move the following fall.
After graduation, I taught in a classroom for toddlers with autism for two years. I loved being a teacher, and I sometimes miss it. However, I do feel that I use my love of teaching now in crafting learning experiences for adults. I had a significant mentor during my teaching experience who knew everything about early intervention. I also saw the difficulty that parents had managing the transition from infant-toddler to preschool services. I watched as one of my ‘star’ students got expelled from one preschool program after another because teachers were not prepared in how to work with him. He was a young Black child. I knew that I wasn’t done learning and wanted to be a voice for greater change. So, I pursued my Ph.D. in Early Childhood at UNC-Chapel Hill.
I am a firm believer that every experience in our lives can be a stepping stone to the next – if we listen to our inner voice and make choices along the way. My life. My childhood. My personal trauma as an adolescent. My entrance into the School of Social Work. My teaching experiences. My healing. They have all led me to this point in my life. Each experience led me to the next and ultimately my purpose in life, which is working towards racial equity and justice in early childhood.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we have an overview of your role and responsibilities as Executive Director of the Educational Equity Institute (EEI)? Could you elaborate on the trainings that the Institute provides, and their reach across different organizations and educational institutions? How do these trainings incorporate the latest research on education equity and the education disparities facing diverse communities and students nationwide?
[Dr. Jen Neitzel] I started the Educational Equity Institute in 2018. I soon asked my partner in crime, Ebonyse Mead, to join me. From the beginning, everything has been grounded in shared decision-making and power. We make all decisions about EEI together. So, much of what we have accomplished in the few short years we have been doing this has been grounded in shared values and understanding of racial equity. We generally use this definition of racial equity: “the proactive reinforcement of policies, practices, attitudes, and actions that produce equitable power, access, opportunities, treatment, impacts and outcomes for all.”
Having an understanding of child and human development is absolutely critical when designing our trainings. Much of current equity work is in the intellectual space, which is important. However, we need to move into the heart space where we understand the issues from a shared humanity perspective. This helps us move from the abstract (e.g., numbers, statistics) into a way of knowing where we see families and children reflected in the data. We offer a variety of trainings that support the emotional and intellectual development of our participants. Our two most popular are our Introductory Paradigm Shift Training and Historical Trauma.
The first training is focused on (1) helping participants generate a shared language around race, racism, and equity. Too often there is confusion or misuse of certain terms. To address equity effectively, we must have a common understanding of key terms (e.g., race, ethnicity, different forms of racism, diversity, equity, inclusion, prejudice, discrimination) while also identifying the root causes of the ongoing inequities, specifically whiteness, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy. We must talk about the social construction of race and how these concepts show up in early childhood.
(2) Historical Trauma: In this training, we dig into the history of our country because we believe that we can’t know where we need to go without understanding how we got to this point. We talk about slavery, the American Genocide, Indian Boarding Schools, and Jim Crow. We also dig into the history of the area where we do the training because participants must understand that these are not abstract things that happened somewhere else. The trauma of our nation is in the ground, and it continues to determine outcomes for Black children and families and other children and families of color.
We, as early childhood educators, often think that we are immune to the reach of racism; however, it shows up in every system and institution within our society, including within early education (e.g., access to high-quality education, over identification in early intervention for certain diagnoses, suspensions/expulsions). We understand that these are hard conversations; however, they must happen. We can’t keep talking about equity as a check the box, surface level issue. If we are committed and serious about improving the lives of young Black children and their families then we must get uncomfortable. Social justice work is holy work.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Prior to your role as Executive Director, you worked at the FPG Child Development Institute at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 20 years. Over the course of your time there, what were several of your key research achievements and takeaways in the areas of child development, behavioral management in academic settings, and systemic education equity?
[Dr. Jen Neitzel] Being on the outside of academia for almost 7 years now, I understand the push and pull between research and everyday practice. Yes, research is important; however, very little of it will ever have a broad impact on the lives of children and families. Academia is steeped in white supremacy culture. That is, we worship the written word. We operate from a sense of urgency and perfectionism that does little to make the lives of children and families better. I have learned far more about equity being on the outside of academia than within it.
Within early childhood, we are still grounded within a band aid approach to equity. That is, we design and study specific interventions that are supposed to improve literacy, math, or social-emotional skills. Yes, these interventions can serve a purpose, but they don’t consider the larger systemic issues that create and sustain the ongoing racial inequities in early childhood.
For example, we spend too much time on promoting high-quality early childhood education; however, we don’t address the larger community problems, such as lack of access to high-quality pre-natal care, food deserts, community violence, lack of safe, affordable housing, and historical and racial trauma. All these factors directly influence how children come into this world, their social-emotional well-being, and ultimately success in school. We will not achieve equity and better outcomes with high-quality early childhood education alone. That mentality is probably the greatest barrier to ongoing equity work within early childhood. That is status quo thinking.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] In 2020, you published Achieving Equity and Justice in Education through the Work of Systems Change, which maps out a systems change framework that can empower teachers, education leaders, policy makers, and members of the community to address the root causes of education inequities. May we have more information about this framework, how you developed it, and how stakeholders in an education context can implement it?
[Dr. Jen Neitzel] Band aid solutions are basically interventions and curricula that individuals develop to improve outcomes in a certain area (e.g., literacy, math, social-emotional) rather than addressing the root causes of the ongoing inequities. The components of systems change that I talked about in the book have largely remained the same. However, as with everything, our perspectives and understanding of the issues change over time based on experience.
I will give a brief example of how we are approaching systems change in the work that we are doing. Currently, we are working with an early childhood organization that oversees many programs (e.g., child care centers, Head Start). Our goal with this organization is to develop a promising model to reduce the suspensions and expulsions of young Black children in their early learning programs. We are doing this over a three-year period of time. In Year 1, we are (1) establishing the strategic planning team, (2) conducting a series of trainings with all staff (e.g., Intro, Historical Trauma), and (3) conducting the same trainings with the strategic planning team.
As I discussed in the book, it is critical that those who are most affected by the problems help determine the solution going forward. On this team, we have parents, providers, a County Commissioner, someone in K-12 leadership, and someone from the Department of Social Services. In Year 2, the strategic planning team will meet monthly to determine the vision and mission for the community, as well as outline goals, strategies, and resources for reducing suspensions and expulsions. Year 3 will be focused on implementation. On another project, we are working to incorporate that community organizing component that I talked about within the book. We must shift the power back into the communities so that they can determine what is important to them and what they envision as a more just and equitable world.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] In addition to your book, you have published numerous research articles discussing education equity in early childhood education (ECE), and in particular how the trauma of racial inequity in ECE has immediate and long-term effects on student learning. What advice do you have for educators and education administrators who are dealing with challenges to equity at the classroom, school, and district levels?
[Dr. Jen Neitzel] The one thing that we tell people in our trainings is that equity work is going to take time. It took us over 400 years to get here. It is going to take time. That non-closure is difficult, but essential because we are so focused on quick fixes and checking boxes. Creating anti-racist educational spaces takes commitment, intentionality, and a new way of thinking.
To address these very large and complex problems, we must move beyond this status quo way of thinking that we just continue business as usual. We have been trying to address the achievement gap for decades with no success. What we are doing is not working. To move beyond the status quo, we are going to need to get out of our siloes in which each system operates in isolation and works to address inequities in their own way. Rather, all the systems that touch the lives of children and families must work together. These are not just educational issues. They are community level issues that require a united approach.
Of course, this requires humility and letting go of egos, which is another barrier to equity work. A large part of equity work is shared humanity work – where we see ourselves in others and understand that none of us has all the answers. It also means that families, providers, and teachers have a seat at the table where there is shared power in addressing the problems. That is why humility is so important because our society has told us that individuals with degrees and titles are the experts.
However, families, providers, and teachers know how the systems work better than anyone. Their voices are essential in working towards equity and justice in education. We also must understand that each community is going to have their own issues and concerns (i.e., rural vs. urban). We can use the same systems change approach; however, the community must determine the issues and what is keeping the inequities in place.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Throughout your 20+ year career in child development research and education equity advocacy, how have you seen the field of K-12 education evolve, and what challenges and opportunities do you see on the horizon? What role do you see the Educational Equity Institute playing in this new future?
[Dr. Jen Neitzel] The past several years have been busy and have become increasingly challenging. After the murder of George Floyd in the latter part of 2020 and all of 2021, we were very busy. Everyone wanted to address equity, which was great. Throughout 2022, we saw a dropping off of this work because (1) organizations had checked the equity box, (2) organizations went back to the status quo, (3) organizations do not know what to do next, and (4) many organizations lack the commitment to make time to engage in hard conversations about how white supremacy shows up within ourselves, within our organization, and within the work that we do with children and families.
Racial equity work requires a long-term commitment that many organizations do not have. We are stuck in the status quo of business as usual because of our sense of urgency to meet deadlines, meetings for the sake of meeting, and a way of thinking that promotes high-quality education as the solution. We also are seeing a tremendous amount of pushback – an unwillingness to be curious. The current climate within society is definitely an issue that is influencing the work. There is fear, questioning about why we are doing this work, and an unwillingness to believe a person’s story because it might be different from our own. The issues are incredibly deep and complex, which makes this work very challenging.
My hope is that more educators will become courageous and not be afraid to right the wrongs of our past. We need more seed planters who are committed to having hard conversations about whiteness and anti-Blackness and promoting deep transformational change. Even though we think that we have come so far in terms of racism in our society, much of what Dr. King and James Baldwin wrote about during the Civil Rights Movement is still true today. My challenge to all educators is to be brave, be bold, and commit to doing things in a new way. Let go of the status quo. Commit to the hard work of equity and justice.
Thank you, Dr. Jen Neitzel, for your excellent insight into equity advocacy and systemic social justice change work!