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Building an Antiracist Early Childhood Environment: Adventures in Learning with Alyssa Dituro

If we want to be the change in the world as the adult, first we have to look at ourselves and say, this is something we value, and then tell our children that we value that because we want every child to be seen, heard, and valued. We want every family to be seen, heard and valued.

In this episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast, Dr. Diane chats with Alyssa Dituro, executive director of the McNeilly Center for Children in Nashville. Alyssa is an early childhood expert with more than ten years experience directing high quality early childhood programs. In this post, I share highlights from the podcast episode, where we chat about the importance of antiracist education and what that looks like in an early childhood setting. We also share a range of beautiful picture books designed to help every child feel accepted, seen, and loved. Plus, read on for booklists and resources designed to help you on your antiracist education journey. You can follow Alyssa Dituro on Linked In, Instagram, or Facebook.

How did you get to where you are today?

Alyssa notes that she is very fortunate to come from a family that is very learning heavy. "My grandma, my grandpa, my mom always had a book in their hand, two books at a time," she says. "Mostly they were very adamant about me reading the newspaper and really just being a citizen of the world and knowing my environment. And so that was really my Adventures in Learning start."

But I've also just always been passionate about what you can get out of learning. You can just change your whole mindset. I'm amazed sometimes at what I've learned and where I'm at because I've taken the opportunity to just deep dive on things.

Alyssa says she first understood that learning is powerful for others when she was working in her church preschool nursery in high school. Being inspired by that spark and early learning led Alyssa down a road that includes her M.Ed, as well as her IMH-E certification (Infant Mental Health Endorsement). "The igniting that happens in the brain is so exciting," she notes. "So I myself, I love saying I'm a lifelong learner. I learned how to paint last couple of years during the pandemic, I took up acrylic painting as a hobby. I hula hoop as a hobby as well, and I'm always, always reading."

I think that learning is critical. It is the most powerful tool we have to change the world that we live in.

What is the McNeilly Center?

Alyssa is currently executive director of the McNeilly Center, which was established in 1916. Check out the video to get a sense of the beautiful work they do. The McNeilly Center sits on four acres in Nashville. "1916 was a long time ago, and the world has had a lot happen, right?" Alyssa notes. "But the one thing that's consistent is that people need child care to work. And so what we do is really help our families, not only with childcare, but with community resources. So we have 150 children currently that we're caring for every day." The McNeilly center is very literacy focused, with two reading instructional coaches that work with the program directors and teachers to make sure the children are meeting the kindergarten readiness benchmarks. "They're more than ready to read before they leave us," Alyssa says.

The McNeilly Center also boasts a monarch garden, pear trees, and fig trees, and plenty of outdoor learning. "We have chickens on site that we get to play with," Alyssa says. "And of course, during the egg shortage, people kept joking we should sell them as a fundraiser."

[05:24] Dr. Diane: To be able to learn through play, to add the literacy, to include the STEM, and to have the nature. You guys have it all.

[05:33] Alyssa: It is amazing. We have a new outdoor classroom we just broke ground on just a few months ago. So, of course, that is big. We're excited about it. The kids are all out there, but seeing them in the mud kitchen and bringing the classroom outside and really getting that science and just doing it right there in the moment, using the math in the critical moments like that, too.

I don't think that people realize that they are little scientists in the crib. They're little engineers and mathematicians. They want to tinker. That's what their brains want to do. It's the adults. We are the people that hold them back sometimes.

[06:15] Dr. Diane: Well, and I think that as teachers, we sometimes get afraid of the science and the tinkering and all of that.

[06:26] Alyssa: Yes. And the myth that if we play, science is so messy. I had this conversation with somebody. They're like, oh, we're not a playdoh household. And I was like, what? How can you not have playdoh when you have little kids? Because it is such a right. That's texture and tactile. Let's be real. They're going to taste it. We can build with that. We can mold with that. In our block centers, we try to have posters, let parents see. Yes. They're building with blocks, but really, they read a book about the Taj Mahal earlier today, and so what they're doing is building the Taj Mahal and figuring out, okay, what works together and how high can we build things and how wide can we build them, how many tall and how. I am like, you guys, these are architects. You all they're doing really cool stuff. You've just got to see it at their level.

[07:19] Dr. Diane: Exactly. And it's an opportunity to introduce them to diverse architects and engineers from across the world. My favorite book right now is Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building, and I love that book because it shows the kids in their element, but then it shows the real world inspiration, and then you've got the backmatter that gets you a little bit to teach about real people. And so suddenly you've broadened the world with one picture book and one play opportunity.

[07:47] Alyssa: Or baking. I tell people all the time, I'm like, y'all, baking is science. That's why not everybody can bake, right? Sometimes people's cakes come out flat. My six year old, he loves, loves to bake, loves cooking shows, but the measuring, that's math. We have to measure. What does a fourth cup of flour look like? What does this look like? We're going to set the timer. That is math, what they're doing. Yummy math. Yummy science. I don't think people realize how much STEAM is easily integrated into everything we do in the early childhood sector.

Alyssa notes that the garden and outdoor space of the McNeilly Center lends itself to STEAM learning. "We talk about the weather and the growing cycle because we do have the garden and so the children can see live what a growing cycle looks like," she says. Students take home fruits and vegetables and use them for Zoom family cooking classes led by center teachers. "But again, a nice, easy way to interact, not only with family engagement, but we're doing science, we're doing math together," she says.

[10:07] Dr. Diane: And I bet you already know about this book, but as you're talking, I'm thinking about Farmer Will Allen and his Growing Table.

[10:14] Alyssa: I love that one. And [holds up book] this was one we loved at Thanksgiving.

[10:21] Dr. Diane: We Are Grateful, I love that book.

[10:24] Alyssa: Such a good one. It's so beautiful. But talking with the children while we were doing all of our fall activities and raking the leaves on the playground about what is right, because we have four acres and so it's important for us to be good stewards of the acreage we sit on and the children

to have the respect for that the land

and the grass and the air and everything.

[10:59] Dr. Diane: And if our listeners don't know that book, one of the things I love about We Are Grateful is you're not looking at indigenous people as historical figures. You're looking at them in everyday life here and now.

[11:11] Alyssa: Yes. And that is the most critical thing. I know STEAM is important, of course, but books are the best way. I have the book. It's a children's book about the inventor of the super soaker and it's a Black man. [Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super Soaking Stream of Inventions]

[11:27] Dr. Diane: I love him.

[11:29] Alyssa: When we learned about George Washington Carver, we made peanut soup, right? Because that's a real thing that you can make. It is a Black recipe, a Southern recipe. We learned about George Washington Carver, then we made peanut soup and we talked about peanuts. And it's easy to bring the multiculturalism in, in a multitude of ways, right?

This is one of my favorites too [holds up book], Sing Don't Cry. This is about a grandpa who visits from Mexico and they don't share the same language, and they're going to miss him, but they all know this song. And so right. Talking about some families and how some families have to communicate differently through song in other ways because they don't speak the same language.

[12:23] Dr. Diane: And that goes so well with Drawn Together, which looks at that same thing, but it's looking at it through drawing and through the art and that language barrier.

Alyssa Dituro and members of her team

Why is it important for us to create antiracist multicultural classroom communities?

[14:00] Dr. Diane: So you have leaped right into where I wanted to go, which is how do we first of all, why is it so important for our children that we create these antiracist multicultural classroom communities? So we'll start with that and then we're going to go into how to do it.

[14:43] Alyssa: Yes. So it's critical for all of the research reasons that we know. We know that children of color, especially, we know that preschool, not just school to pipeline, but the preschool to prison pipeline starts early. And that when children are marginalized and othered that continues. But more importantly, that research shows us that black children are, even by the black adults that care for them, are seen as a behavioral problem and a behavioral issue. And that children who are second language learners are also marginalized in the classroom, children that come in a dress and people don't understand.

If we want to be the change in the world as the adult, first we have to look at ourselves and say, this is something we value, and then tell our children that we value that because we want every child to be seen, heard, and valued. We want every family to be seen, heard and valued.

The easiest way for us to change the world that we currently live in is through our youth, right? Through empowering them to be the real people and humans in their full selves. Because we know when people feel fully seen, they grow and they can express themselves. I get so excited about the work, the social emotional competency I see, not only in my staff as we've taken on antiracism and anti bias work, but right in our families and in our children and the tough conversations that they can have that we should have as adults that we just don't have the capacity to. And so it's important that our children have the tools and resources so when they see something wrong, they know that they have a support system behind them to do the right thing.

[16:39] Dr. Diane: I love that and I think you're absolutely right. It is absolutely critical that we pass on the appropriate tools and recognize the humanity in every one of our children because they do each have that magical spark. And the only way we're going to be saved as a world is if these little guys know how to empathize with each other, how to collaborate, how to give each other space to be uniquely themselves.

[17:06] Alyssa: And not be afraid of differences and really celebrate them. We all have differences and we all have good and bad about us as humans, right? Just individual humans. But at the end of it, we all deserve love, kindness and respect. And our children deserve that as well, many of them, and especially they're not getting that at home. The world is really hard right now for families and they have to have a support system that says we are here for you as a whole family.

[17:51] Dr. Diane: And I think that's really critical that family and whatever component family looks like for the child needs to be welcomed into and a part of the preschool, I know that was crucial to us at Millbrook Community Preschool. And I know for you guys at the McNeilly Center, that's a central point of what you do.

[18:12] Alyssa: Absolutely. You can't just care for the child, right?

We can't just care about the child. We have to care about the family. And truthfully, part of the work that we're doing in early childhood around antiracism is having the tools for our families to have these conversations, because it's a lot for them to navigate or they want to put it off because they're young.

We know that children can see race as young as infancy and they have a preference for the race of the caregivers that they care with. And the things that families say and societal messages are the reality, right. The dominant culture lives around our children and so we've got to make sure, if our families need these resources as well, that they know that they can come to us because they're having these tough conversations. And we want to make sure they're equipped.

How do you set up an antiracist preschool?

[19:06] Dr. Diane: Exactly. So what does that look like on a day to day basis at the McNeilly Center How do you set up an antiracist preschool or an antiracist childcare center?

[19:15] Alyssa: One of the biggest things that you need to do first and foremost is have that statement.

Your parents need to know what does it look like here for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and what does that mean here?

So we make sure our families understand that. It means we are breaking down the barriers. We are doing the work to make sure that you see that we are putting our money where our mouth is. Our whole staff has done anti bias education training. My management team will be working with the state to do a deep dive eight week course on antiracism and what that looks like. We've done some book studies as the staff to talk about those things and they're not always comfortable conversations. But we have to know that if we're not actively working towards being antiracist, we're just sitting in the middle and that everybody has racist tendencies. I work in a 99% center of color. However, these are still conversations we have to have because there's racism within every group and we have our own opinions and that we have to dismantle about the families that we work with.

One of the best examples is are we mispronouncing names? Are we saying everybody's name right? If we're not sure, can we ask for the pronunciation? Are we promoting the people of color that work within our centers? If it's white owned or if it's a corporation, what does that look like? The leadership team? I know this isn't necessarily just antiracism, but if you do have men working on site, and especially men of color, are they the default disciplinarian? Are we relying on those people to be the disciplinarian out of a stereotype? And then is there any DEI equity focus strategy? Is that a conversation that's even been had with your families, with a survey? If you have a board, is that something you're doing? What focus areas exist and have they even been identified before we can start to build these centers that are really antiracist?

How do you create an antiracist environment in early childhood?

Alyssa notes that the center uses conscious discipline and Frog Street curriculum. All of the students participate in baby doll circle time. "Everybody does baby doll circle time, which is one of my favorite things because it's very social, emotional minded." She says the circle time helps create empathy and break down stereotypes.

It's reminding our staff of language, reminding the parents that we are inclusive in every single way.

Alyssa notes that inclusive language is important in creating an antiracist environment. She also notes that the physical environment is important, from the books used in read alouds and centers to the way the classroom is decorated and put together. "What does the classroom actually look like?" she asks. "What does it look like? Do you have diverse pictures on the walls? Are the people on the wall BIPOC people? Are they women? Do they represent the world at large, not just the community you live in?"

Alyssa also stresses using community resources to build partnerships in creating an antiracist environment. "If you need an interpreter for families, is there a community group you're working with?" she asks. "Are we printing things in more than just English? Are we printing things in English and Spanish? And if in the case of Nashville, English, Spanish and Kurdish are our biggest languages."

Alyssa suggests knowing families and their cultural preferences -- and respecting them, whether children or staff members need to pray at a certain time of day or need to eat specific foods. "Having those conversations and remembering that everybody is different, there's no right or wrong way," she says. "Everybody just has a different culture, and we can learn from those things."

Another key component is making sure that staff is treating children and families with respect. "Is the staff treating children differently?" Alyssa questions. "And that really is, like as an administrator, really having to be making sure children aren't being talked to or othered because of their race. In the past, I've had a teacher say, well, her dad probably isn't even in the picture, right. Discussing a child of color. Okay, so we're going to have that conversation about why you said that, why you assume that, and where we can go forward because this isn't what we do here. And then I think, another thing, assuming certain families don't care because of their race, or certain families will care more because they're white. It's looking at ourselves."

What do the books look like in our center? What do the pictures on the wall look like? Do we have signage that says, we are welcoming here? We do not discriminate on the basis of race, color and creed. And of course, we think in 2023, why would I need to write that? Because the reality of the world is that there's places that don't feel that way, and we have to be that safe place for the families to know that their children will be safe there and valued as a whole human.

[26:10] Alyssa: Yeah, is absolutely just the most wonderful resource. Again, families want to do the work. A lot of people are assuming families don't want to do the work on this. It's too much, or they're overwhelmed. And that is not true.

Our families very much want to do this work. It is important to them, no matter their race. They are like, we want to do this work, we want better for our children. And that is our responsibility, is to give families resources.

What are some of your favorite picture books to share with young children?

[28:49] Alyssa: This is one of our favorites that we keep on the shelf.

[28:53] Dr. Diane: I love Antiracist Baby. Ibram X. Kendi has done so much to promote empathy and kindness in the field.

[29:02] Alyssa: And I love the way he explains it. And [reads] Antiracist Baby doesn't see certain groups as better or worse. Antiracist Baby loves a world that's truly diverse.

[29:15] Dr. Diane: I think that's beautiful.

[29:18] Alyssa: Yeah, it is such a good book. And children need to hear that that is a thing, that they can be right.

[29:27] Dr. Diane: And that we value it.

[29:29] Alyssa: We value that, and that even my six year old, I'm like, even you are an advocate. You're an antiracist when you say to people, hey, you don't say things like that. Or I don't like that. Or, we don't talk about people like that. And I'm like, yes, that is what we do in the world to dismantle it.

Children are pretty accepting, it's the adults that need the mind switch. Children understand all people are equal and valuable. It's how do we keep pouring that message into them versus a different message?

And Skin Like Mine is one of my favorites.

[30:12] Dr. Diane: Oh, that's a beautiful book. And that's actually you're transitioning right into what I wanted to do, which was to ask you about some of your favorite books that you like to share at the center. So share away.

[30:24] Alyssa: Yeah, those are two of my favorite. I absolutely love Watch Me: A Story of Immigration and Inspiration. Again, being antiracist doesn't mean we put just MLK books on the shelf. It’s making sure that that diversity is there. But this one is written by an author who immigrated from Sierra Leone, and so his journey of immigrating as a child and becoming a doctor, Watch Me. He kept getting told by people that you don't speak English as a first language and how are you ever going to become a doctor? And so it is a very great book.

[31:04] Dr. Diane: Oh, wow.

[31:05] Alyssa: Princess Hair.

[31:08] Dr. Diane: That looks amazing.

[31:10] Alyssa: Yeah. Princess Hair is one of our favorites to read, and it just talks about this party that they're having. [Holds up page] This princess has bantu knots. And so it is a book about natural hair, princesses with dreadlocks and showing just different — not every princess has the same hair, but every princess loves her princess hair.

[31:36] Dr. Diane: What a great message.

[31:38] Alyssa: Yeah, it is a really wonderful book about the different ways that princesses even right, buns. [holds up

page] They love to run with their buns and curls and pearls and teeny weeny afros. So just showing all the diverse hair that girls can have. Princess Hair is one of my favorites. And then this is another one: I Am Every Good Thing.

[32:04] Dr. Diane: Love that book.

[32:06] Alyssa: Yeah, it's just such a beautiful book. I love Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut too by him.

[32:15] Dr. Diane: And what a great way to lift up our young boys.

[32:19] Alyssa: Yes. I'm big on affirmations for our young men. This is another one. I love Snow in Jerusalem. [holds up page] It's just a peace and friendship story about

these two boys who end up in Jerusalem during the snowfall and really becoming good friends.

[32:46] Dr. Diane: I like that.

[32:48] Alyssa: Love this book. It is so beautiful. Again, right? Men and boys having a quality friendship and having a soft moment together. This is another good one: The Skin You Live In. I love this one. Just talking, I mean, we've done a lot of work with our kiddos about skin. And again, it's really easy to add antiracist things to your center Do we have multicultural crayons? Do we have multicultural markers? Do we have multicultural paper?

[33:25] Dr. Diane: Exactly. And that's an easy thing to stock in your different centers. Looking at different play experiences and making sure they reflect different environments, stacked with different books, different art materials, different images.

Alyssa notes that creating an antiracist early childhood environment is an excellent opportunity to connect to nearby cultural centers, community organizations, and museums. "We had the National Museum of African American Music come in and teach us how to play spoons. And so the children were able to learn the history of why spoons are important in the community and learn how to play them. We've had a Vietnam couple that has a restaurant do a presentation on that. Or somebody came and made enchiladas."

How are we letting people bring their culture into the center instead of taking it and using it and then putting it back?

[34:21] Dr. Diane: I used to love bringing the community into our preschool and engaging the kids and taking them for walks. Because we were in a village, we were able to go for walks in the community and go into other people's spaces as well. And so they had a real appreciation.

[34:35] Alyssa: The children love it. It's important for them to see people in non stereotypical ways.

[34:43] Dr. Diane: Exactly. And adults in all different roles.

[34:46] Alyssa: We want them to see that this world is beautiful and diverse in so many ways. We always talk about that at school.

What is it that we bring that’s special? With our staff, too, we've got to do the work at the teacher level and admin level for it to work with the kids. But how are we looking at our biases and breaking them down and having the tough conversations? Because if we can't do it with ourselves, how can we do it with kids?

[35:23] Dr. Diane: Now, that makes total sense. And also, I think, giving ourselves grace to be able to stumble, to make mistakes, to ask the wrong things, and then to fix it.

[35:33] Alyssa: Yes. The journey. It is absolutely a journey. And our families have to know we’re not always going to get it right, but we are asking for your help along the way to get things right. When September is coming, do you have anybody in the group and your community or in your center that would love to come for Hispanic History Month and do something fun or even with Rosh Hashanah? Let's have these foods brought in. Let's try them and talk about it, because othering foods is a very racist thing to do. So let's try other people's foods. And why do other people eat certain things? And what does it look like? What does it taste like? Because kids are curious and it's easier, I always tell people it's easier to have this conversation with a curious four or five year old with love in their eyes than an adult who's already just asking out of an angry way. A child, if they're like, can I touch your hair? They truly want to know.

[36:42] Dr. Diane: Right. It's very different than an adult asking that question.

[36:45] Alyssa: Yes, or a child saying, that's a Black person. It's like, well, yes, let's talk about that, and so not shaming them for having these questions.

Children are curious by nature. They're going to notice differences. We all notice differences. It's okay. Our differences should not be hidden. They are what makes us wonderful. We have to encourage children to have the right questions about differences and ask the questions. They're supposed to be curious about where we can connect and get to the same place. And where do we share the same loves and passions? Where can we see each other's full humanity.

[37:33] Dr. Diane: Exactly. And then how do we join together on this journey and support each other?

[37:39] Alyssa: Yes. And again,

Ultimately, our children have to see us doing it. They have to see us doing this work and saying, we value people that are different than us, and we include them. We welcome the community and anybody that wants to come talk about their life experiences in so we can learn more.

Want to learn more? Here are some helpful resources.

Nurturing Antiracist Kids (14 Anti Bias Books for Preschool and Kindergarten, Rebekah Gienapp)

Even Babies Discriminate (Bronson & Merryman, 2009)

Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors (Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, 2015)

Note: I am a Bookshop.Org Affiliate. If you click through and make a purchase, I may make a small commission. I offer these lists as a service to you, and I love Bookshop.Org because proceeds benefit local indie bookstores. Feel free to use the lists to purchase at your local bookstore or to visit your library.

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