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Deconstructing Early Childhood Racism and Inequity

A young Black male student in a classroom

Youth, Family, and Community Sciences (YFCS) is one of the less well-known degree programs at NC State, but the research and outreach it provides are invaluable. Ebonyse Mead, both a former student and lecturer of the program, has had an impactful tenure in advocating for disadvantaged children.  

Mead’s beginnings as a Chicagoan often exposed her to the harsh reality of an inequitable world. It was in Chicago where she developed a sense of determination to rise above her environment. She attributes much of this determination to her family’s support and positive reinforcement.

“From the time I was a child, my family has always told me that I was not a product of my environment. When you grow up in a zip code that is written off because of social ills that are rampant in the community, one can internalize the messages that you are unworthy, not deserving, unintelligent. I was able to rise above the challenges in my neighborhood with the help of my family, encouraging and inspiring me and telling me that my life had value and setting high expectations.”

It was not until college that it became clear to Mead that the great things she wanted to achieve would come from advocating for racial equity. After taking a course on how racism severely impacts children, Mead knew she wanted to focus her work and research on early childhood development.

Mead’s advocacy for combating racial inequality in early childhood brought her to North Carolina to serve as program manager for the East Durham Children’s Initiative. Mead then went on to work with the North Carolina Partnership for Children, where she promoted racially equitable teaching practices for early childhood programs.

Before coming to NC State University, Mead met Kimberly Allen, associate professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences. The two became good acquaintances, and their friendship evolved into a fruitful partnership.

“I have Dr. Allen to thank for so much,” Mead said. “She was one of the first people that reached out to me when I got to Raleigh. I never would have expected the amount of support and guidance I received from her. We have worked on so many different projects like the lecture series we conducted on diversity and inclusion and constructing the ‘Be Safe’ program.”

As a lecturer in the YFCS program, Mead has led discussions on race and racial inequality. Mead says that she hopes that conversations like these in academic settings will help people perceive racism that so often goes undetected.

While attending Concordia University Chicago in 2019, Mead’s doctoral thesis focused on the implicit biases that people hold in daily life, a timely topic. She extensively researched the racial inequity in early education.

“My dissertation topic focused on the cultural disconnect in early childhood education. More specifically, how teachers perceived their level of preparedness to educate and engage with racially and ethnically diverse children. What I found was that most teachers felt somewhat prepared to educate and engage with racially and ethnically diverse children,” Mead said.

Another finding in her dissertation was that teacher education programs do not offer coursework that explicitly discuss race, racism and its impact on children’s development and learning. 

“These findings are important as teachers unintentionally perpetuate discriminatory practices when they do not have opportunities to learn about children’s culture and reflect on their implicit racial biases,” Mead said.

When it comes to the college experience as a person of color, Mead has gained a unique perspective. Mead’s undergraduate experience took place on two very different campuses: the predominantly white University of Illinois – Chicago and the historically Black Clark Atlanta University. 

The experiences heavily influenced Mead’s understanding of what it means to be a student of color as well as giving her a stronger sense of identity. At Clark Atlanta University, Mead said she was able to truly find a sense of belonging with peers who closely resembled her. Her experience at the University of Illinois – Chicago gave Mead a further appreciation for the importance of having peers with similar experiences to hers. Her advice to students of color at predominantly white institutions comes from a place of understanding and knowing what it is like to be in their shoes.  

“I would tell students of color that they should be secure in who they are,” Mead said. “Finding groups of other students that look like you or that share your values can really go a long way. And don’t be afraid to demand more of your administration. One of the most important things you can do is to have your voice heard. Some people may not like what it is you have to say, but voicing your concerns and problems is sometimes the only way to get others to know you have an issue with the way things are going.”