Leading from Strength: Centering the Voices and Experiences of Women of Color

Judy Jablon and Nichole Parks
4 min readDec 20, 2023

By Nichole Parks, LFC Deputy Executive Director

As a woman of color in early learning leadership, I know firsthand how pernicious assumptions can be and how important it is to create spaces of acceptance, where women of color can come as their whole selves, unfiltered. Thinking about this topic brings me back to a time when I attended a meeting at the state level. I entered the room, and one of the other women in attendance looked at me and asked, “Why are you here? This is a meeting for coordinators.” We had the same role — both coordinators — but she immediately assumed I didn’t belong. I felt invisible and hyper-visible at the same time, knowing that my effectiveness in my work would never be the first thing many peers would see when I walk in the room. My right to “sit at the table” would always be questioned. My confidence dropped, and throughout the meeting, I was hesitant to share my thoughts and ideas. I felt isolated in the moment, which unfortunately is a feeling and experience all too common for many women of color across the early learning sector.

An Inequitable Early Learning Landscape

Women make up 97 percent of the early learning workforce, and 38 percent are women of color. Few women of color hold leadership positions in early learning, due to a range of racial inequities and structural barriers to decision-maker positions. Those of us who do hold leadership positions are often the only women of color leaders within our organizations, which creates a host of challenges. We might be seen as the representative of our racial group and feel the pressure to address race in all circumstances. This can be emotionally fraught, as Kelsey Blackwell writes, “If you’re a person of color, the reality of racism is neither optional nor conceptual; it is deeply and painfully felt. This is known as ‘embodied inequality,’ which describes how discrimination raises the risk of many emotional and physical illnesses among people of color.” Women of color are so rarely acknowledged in the fullness of their humanity. Yet by creating safe spaces for women of color to come together, share their wisdom, and learn in partnership, we can begin to reshape the way women of color experience early learning environments.

As WOC in leadership we are so mindful of how we make other people feel but no one is thinking about how we feel. No one is paying attention to what’s happening for us. How what they said triggers emotions for us.

Creating a Safe Space for Women of Color in Mississippi

In 2022, Leading for Children partnered with the Mississippi Early Learning Alliance to create a mutual learning space for women of color in leadership positions. The group brought together members from across Mississippi to support their personal and professional growth. In a safe space, members elevated each voice by exchanging wisdom and problem solving while sharing their authentic stories. What resulted was a lasting network of connections, with deep impacts for women of color in Mississippi.

My role was to develop LFCs Leading from Strength program and guide the conversations, offering prompts for reflection and suggesting opportunities for members to extend their learning. I brought my experience as a woman of color and an early learning leader, and it was important to me to both create a safe space and create opportunities for members to co-create their learning experiences. I noticed that as the relationships strengthened, the more open the conversation became and as each women became more confident and comfortable using their voices across multiple settings, and looked to the group to fortify positions of advocacy. A member shared, “I saw others are interested in what I’m saying, so I began to value my voice more as an early childhood advocate, and it strengthened my voice.”

Building Supportive and Collaborative Networks of Relationships

As members shared stories with honesty and authenticity, I also noticed how they were engaging in collaborative problem solving, harnessing the power of their equitable partnerships to strategize ways forward. A member explained how the group shared wisdom to support each other: “We’re more open to offering support and asking support of the group. It’s not unusual to hear questions such as How can I support you with this? We’re dealing with this problem at work. What’s a great way to manage that or facilitate that discussion.” From their shared experience as women of color in leadership positions, they found the motivation to elevate each other.

Through their partnerships and the mutually supportive conversations, the group set the stage for impacts of their mutual learning experience that create a ripple effect in the statewide early learning landscape. For the members themselves, the experience afforded them a lasting network of trusting relationships that will support them as they advance their careers, yet it also instilled in them a conviction to create similar supportive spaces for younger women of color, to move toward a society that prioritizes safe spaces of learning and growth for women of color. As one member reflected, “It built a network of trust, and opportunities opened up in the field of work. We’re able to be promoted to other positions. It gave us a lot of hope and empowerment and encouragement, and we got there from each other.”

If we want to achieve true equity in early learning, it’s critical to have spaces where women of color can thrive in leadership positions. And for that to happen, they need spaces where they can bring their whole selves to the room, be open and honest about their experiences, and know that they will be understood. We not only have to remove structural barriers but also create spaces; that goes beyond token representation to true inclusion and embracement. In these spaces, we can acknowledge challenges while also finding strength in the collective wisdom we bring. From here, we tap into resiliency and strategize together.

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Judy Jablon and Nichole Parks

Leading for Children is a national nonprofit that empowers adults across the early childhood ecosystem to be leaders and learners.