You are the new executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT. For those who may not be familiar with it, can you give us an overview of what Kids Count does?
Rhode Island KIDS COUNT is a statewide children’s policy and advocacy organization that works to improve the health, safety, education, economic well-being, and development of Rhode Island’s children with a commitment to equity and the elimination of disparities by race, ethnicity, disability, zip code, immigration status, neighborhood, and income. We focus on the state as a whole and on each of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns, emphasizing the four core cities of Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket where 68% of the state’s Children of Color and 64% of the state’s children in poverty reside. We provide information on child well-being, stimulate dialogue on children’s issues, and promote accountability and action across policy areas. We recognize that persistent, unacceptable disparities by race and ethnicity result from historic, systemic, structural racism which must be dismantled in order to achieve equity, and provide equitable opportunities for all children, youth, and families to succeed.
You succeeded Elizabeth Burke Bryant, who retired after a distinguished career as head of KIDS COUNT. What parting advice did she give you?
I was fortunate to work alongside Elizabeth for four years before this transition and then given a second gift of a full month of intentional transition and learning time with her before her departure. She gave me a ton of advice and wisdom that I will take with me as I move forward in my leadership. One thing she said is leadership is hard, but having a good, strong team makes it doable. She also encouraged me to listen to my gut because it can often lead you in the right direction.
Before becoming executive director, you were Senior Policy Analyst at KIDS COUNT. What did that job entail?
As a Senior Policy Analyst, I was responsible for policy analysis, advocacy, and project management in areas related to education and economic well-being. I advocated for the needs of Rhode Island students and families by testifying on budgetary investments and legislation that impact economic stability and mobility, school curriculum, school culture, and college and career readiness initiatives and worked to ensure children and youth in low-income families, Children of Color, Multilingual Learners, and students with disabilities receive the resources they need to succeed. I did a lot of research and writing of publications related to education and economic well-being. I served on coalitions and advisory boards, gave public presentations, and led workshops and learning sessions for youth, parents, educators, and community members.
Give us a bit of your background.
I was born in St. Louis, MO, and moved to Trumbull, CT when I was young, after my mother earned an incredible job opportunity in New York City. My parents instilled in me a strong work ethic, the importance of education, a respect of our Black history, a sense of responsibility and duty to my community. They taught me to be tough and aggressive, to never be taken advantage of, and to be a bright light in someone’s else’s dark day. They nurtured my curiosity, loved my idealism, and encouraged deep self-reflection.
I moved to Rhode Island to attend Providence College where I majored in Public and Community Service Studies and minored in Black Studies. During my time at PC, I co-founded the school’s first LGBTQ+ student organization (SHEPARD). Founding SHEPARD is how I unearthed my passion for social justice, advocacy, and grassroots organizing.
After PC I worked at Youth Pride, Inc. where I led LGBTQ+ safe school programming and attended Harvard University Graduate School of Education where I earned my Master’s in Education Administration, Planning, and Social Policy. From there, I followed my passions and had the amazing opportunity to work and volunteer with high-impact non-profit organizations like Youth in Action and Books Are Wings. I also was a teacher/advisor at The Met Center where I taught and learned from the most amazing group of youth and their families. I’m also a trained modern dancer and had the great fortune of fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a professional dancer with Fusionworks Dance Company.
One thing people don’t know about me is my age. I’m often seen as younger than I am-which I think also means I must come across as cool and hip so I will not give away my secrets! However, my wife, 10-year-old son, and 11-year-old daughter adamantly disagree with this conclusion.
The pandemic has caused loss and suffering for so many Rhode Islanders, including of course, children. What are some of the key issues kids have faced?
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted children and youth in many ways, from concerns and fears about the illness, grief and loss of loved ones, loss of parental employment and financial stressors — to school closures and distance learning/hybrid models. These challenges resulted in significant loss of instructional time, increased mental health concerns, and exacerbated inequities. The COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on stark economic, education, and other disparities and challenges to children’s success.
Did children of color pay a disproportionate price?
These challenges loss and suffering caused by the pandemic especially affected Children of Color. Nationally, Black children are 14% of the total child population in the U.S. but accounted for 20% of all children who lost a parent to COVID-19 through early 2021. Higher economic insecurity, increased housing instability, increased child hunger, and school closures and transition to hybrid learning impacted the academic opportunities and mental health of many Black, Latino, and Native American children and increased educational disparities.
Describe the mental-health challenges all kids faced, including during the long periods students were able to physically attend school?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, children experienced many changes in their daily lives, including school closures and virtual learning, isolation from their peers and caring adults, disruptions in their schedules, economic insecurity, increased stress and uncertainty, and the loss of parents, caregivers, and other loved ones. Nationally, children and youth were experiencing mental health challenges before the pandemic, but since the onset of the pandemic the number of children experiencing anxiety and depression has increased. We are currently in a mental health crisis both nationally and in Rhode Island.
Can you give us a list of some of the critical steps the state – and Washington – should take to improve the overall well-being of all children in Rhode Island?
To improve the well-being of Rhode Island’s children, lawmakers must prioritize equitable solutions to ensure that children and families receive the health, educational, and economic supports they need to move forward and thrive. To support families through the pandemic and recovery, we need to make important, cost-effective investments in child care, RI Works, mental health professionals in schools, support for Multilingual learners, out-of-school-time programs, and continuous health insurance coverage for all children through age 5. We must invest in a comprehensive mental health system of care that supports children, youth and their families that emphasizes prevention and early identification and provides the right care, at the right time, in the right place and supports children as they grow and transition to adults.
And what can residents from all communities do to help?
Poverty, health, education, early development, and safety impact all communities in Rhode Island. Residents across the state can learn about how these issues impact their local community by visiting www.rikidscount.org and viewing the Rhode Island KIDS COUNT Factbook or download their Community Profile.
Your time is a valuable resource that you can share with your community by volunteering and getting involved with a local organization dedicated to addressing children’s well-being. For those interested in improving the policies that impact our communities, visit the Rhode Island KIDS COUNT legislative tracking page to see what bills have been introduced by the General Assembly. Write to or call your legislator to advocate for the kids in your community or come testify in a committee hearing. You can also join the conversation and stay updated by following our Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram page.
What advice would you give the state’s children as they move into their futures?
I would remind our children and youth that they are not only our futures, but they are the leaders of today. There’s no magic age of wisdom — you are wise and experts in your own experience. Share your expertise while also learning from those around you. Build relationships with adults that can mentor you, provide opportunities for your growth, and recognize the incredible gift you are to this world.
What advice would you have for parents, guardians and others who are central to children’s growth and well-being.
You are your child’s best and most important advocate. Take care of yourself as you fulfill this important job.
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Always put “wake up,” “breathe,” and “survive” on your daily to-do list. It will remind you of the importance of these simple tasks and acknowledges that living is an accomplishment.
What people – and what experiences – prepared you for travelling the road you did to get to the top position at KIDS COUNT?
My journey has been full of both beautiful experiences that taught me how much we as humans can love and uplift each other and I have also experienced tragedies that have painfully taught me how unpredictable, frail, and hard life is. I’m uncertain if these
moments prepared me for the road I now travel, or if instead the road I’m on was paved by the joy, laughter, tears, and heartbreak of these experiences.
I am grateful for the people who have paved the road, helped me navigate the terrain, and shuffled the playlist (singing along with all the wrong lyrics of course) as I drove into this adventure. My parents, Gwendylon Jackson and Willie Parks, were always and will forever be my inspirations and heroes. My brother, chosen sisters, and aunties are my biggest cheerleaders. Sarah, my life partner and wife of 20 years has been my steady rock who nurtures my soul.
As a child and youth, I was engaged in community service work that influenced my life tremendously. My mother and I regularly volunteered at our local soup kitchen where we served meals to and built community with the hungry.
My chosen family at Providence College accepted me when I came out of the closet, when at the time, there were only a small number of suspected gay students, and none were People of Color. This family embraced me, loved me, handed out petitions and flyers with me, and comforted me when times were hard.
One of my first bosses, mentors and now best friend, Rachel Legend, helped me take ownership of my leadership, to become an assertive advocate, and to not be afraid of my own voice. Elizabeth Burke Bryant recognized my leadership, fed my passion, and gave me opportunities to develop, grow, and fly.
My children ground me and remind me that even the smallest gestures, interactions, and affirmations make a difference. My squad of incredibly gifted, fierce, joyful, and courageous nieces and nephews remind me of what’s at stake.
What are your goals for Rhode Island KIDS COUNT now that you’ve taken the helm?
Rhode Island KIDS COUNT will continue to be the state’s leading children’s policy and advocacy organization that provides independent, credible, comprehensive information on Rhode Island children and youth. We will lead boldly and courageously with and for Rhode Island’s kids until we achieve equitable public policies and programs that improve children’s lives. Under my leadership, I envision expanding the reach of our data to be even more accessible to communities for whom data is collected and for those most impacted by these policies and, in collaboration with partners outside and inside of government, to expand opportunities for youth and parents and caregivers to be leaders in policy change.