Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Naila Bolus, the Chief Executive Officer of Jumpstart, a national early education organization that advances equitable learning outcomes for young children in underserved communities by recruiting and supporting caring adults to deliver high-quality programming to children and drive systems change through teaching, advocacy, and leadership.
1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
Prior to joining Jumpstart for Young Children in 2011, I had the privilege of leading a foundation focused on building a safe and secure future. The early childhood field was new to me – though I had worked in the nonprofit sector my whole career – and I quickly learned two fundamental truths of the field.
First, early childhood education works. Studies consistently show that high-quality early learning programs generate an extremely high return on investment (Heckman, 2019, Wilder Research, 2012, et al). That kind of evidence just didn’t exist in my previous experience. And second, there is a deep disparity in who has access to these critical opportunities. Centuries of systemic inequities have meant that many children – often just by virtue of their zip code or the color of their skin – have less access to the kinds of early learning opportunities that contribute to school success. That has to change.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to close that opportunity gap and reach Jumpstart’s mission of advancing equitable early learning outcomes for young children in underserved communities. But for nearly 30 years, our approach has been effective because we rely on evidence to improve and evolve our work across multiple dimensions of the early childhood education field: curriculum development, workforce training, and political advocacy. As a result, we have trained more than 60,000 college students and community volunteers, prepared more than 135,000 preschool children for kindergarten, and we now operate in 15 states and D.C.
2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?
I have to say the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic upended the early childhood education sector, exacerbating existing inequalities within early learning and its already struggling workforce. In June, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the combined number of preschool and kindergarten students decreased by 13 percent last year—the largest decline since the turn of the century. Importantly, we are seeing that children of color and those from historically underserved communities are among those most impacted by the effects of the pandemic.
At the same time, a recent survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that 4 out of 5 child care centers were struggling with staffing shortages. A critical component of our work at Jumpstart is to grow and train the next generation of early childhood educators through our Corps Member program. Without the workforce and infrastructure to educate early learners, our vision of the day when all children have access to high-quality early education will never be achieved.
Given these dire circumstances – and the impact the pandemic has had on our organization’s staff members – leading with agility is more important than ever. As leaders in this moment, we must embrace change, be nimble in our decision-making and be unafraid to change course; it is key to the future of our organization. With these values guiding my work, I am called to challenge the status quo, resist the temptation to become defensive in times of adversity, be calm in the face of difficulty, and remain open to learning. It’s a challenge, but it’s what is required.
3. What inspires you most about your work?
Right now? Educators. For the past year and a half, educators innovated during a period of many unknowns. When face-to-face interactions were untenable, teachers went outside and talked to parents from a safe distance or contacted them by phone, text, or email. They thought about new ways to engage young children in remote learning. Now they’re exhausted, and yet they persevere. It is the job of organizations like Jumpstart and leaders in a position to affect change to ensure that educators have the resources they need and deserve.
Our recent survey of Jumpstart alumni showed that the most common reason among those who left the early childhood education field was “inadequate salary,” accounting for 66 percent of this group. This matters, especially because about half of our Corps Members are first-generation college students and 67 percent identify as BIPOC. There is a need for a professional, stable, and well-compensated early education workforce to support the development and extend the tenure of professionals in the field, both of which are necessary to provide high-quality early education opportunities for all children.
Our job at Jumpstart is to channel our inspiration for early childhood educators and enact change. That’s why we advocate at the federal, state, and local levels to increase compensation and benefits for the early education workforce and strengthen support for federal work-study programs.
4. How does your gender identity inform your work?
The early childhood education sector is heavily dominated by women, and I see my role in the sector as an opportunity to uplift and empower early childhood educators of all gender identities who are under-compensated for the work they do for our nation’s children. In fact, the National Education Association (NEA) found that across the country, teachers are paid 21.4 percent less than similarly educated and experienced professionals. As is typical of the economy as a whole, female-dominated jobs pay less on average than male-dominated jobs, and when you break it down for women of color, the gender pay gap is even worse.
In education, the high costs associated with obtaining a degree, historically low pay, and limited-to-no professional development or health care benefits remain an obstacle to prospective early educators and further contribute to gender and racial pay disparities.
In addition, just as we seek equity for the children and college students served by Jumpstart, so, too, do we aim to ensure equally high outcomes for all Jumpstart employees, removing the predictability of success or failure that historically correlates with any social or cultural factor, including gender identity. Our systems, structures, and supports must ensure that career advancement is equally accessible for all, and accountability is implemented fairly. Both inside and outside of our organization, we commit to interrupting inequitable practices and to removing barriers that prevent us from achieving our mission.
5. Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?
Throughout my career, I have sought to understand and value differences among individuals, groups, and cultures. I aspire to lead with cultural humility and that has required me to build awareness of my own identities – gender identity and other identities – and those identities’ connections to systems of power and privilege. It’s a journey and a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, continually examining my biases and personal blind spots.
As CEO of Jumpstart, I hope to model inclusive leadership (one of our organization’s core values) so that all of our staff members experience a professional culture where we actively seek to learn about each other; where we expect open-mindedness and vulnerability; where we promote constructive conflict; value new perspectives; recognize and eliminate exclusion; and avoid assumptions or judgmental attitudes.
I believe that the wide range of identities embodied in our Jumpstart family – differences in race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, gender, ability, beliefs, and professional and general lived experiences – are essential to our collective success. In fact, our effectiveness in achieving our mission depends on our ability to recruit, support, and sustain a network of staff, volunteers, board members, and partners who truly represent the uniqueness and vibrancy of the communities and world in which we live and work.
6. How can philanthropy support gender equality?
Over the last year, one silver lining is the newfound recognition of the importance of child care and early education. It’s a topic of conversation at dinner tables and in the halls of Congress. There is a unique and perhaps unprecedented opportunity to translate public will into real policy change by making high-quality early education accessible to all children and ensuring that the early education workforce is properly compensated for its essential work at a comparable rate to professionals with similar education and experience.
During my tenure, I’ve focused on diversifying Jumpstart’s funding base, ultimately increasing donor awareness around how investing in early childhood education and the female-dominated teacher workforce is essential to children, families, workers, and our economy as a whole.
Through our program, we recruit and train thousands of college students to implement the Jumpstart curriculum in preschool classrooms, helping to bolster the early education workforce and create a pipeline of diverse and well-prepared educators who reflect the communities they are working in. Our commitment to developing the early childhood education workforce has never been so vital to also creating more opportunities for people of all gender identities and supporting families. By investing in early childhood education, we are investing in the future of our country.
7. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?
I can’t separate the movement for gender equality from the larger movements for social justice and racial equity. Our mission at Jumpstart requires that we address systemic injustices, especially racial and socio-economic, that contribute to substantial opportunity gaps for children of color and children from underserved communities. All children have the potential to be engaged and successful learners, and as the great Marian Wright Edelman once said, “The question is not whether we can afford to invest in every child; it’s whether we can afford not to.”
I am an optimist by nature, and I believe that if we relentlessly champion a more equitable world, we will catalyze the needed investments to create learning environments that are responsive to each child’s abilities, learning needs, identities, and culture, supported by teachers who are well-prepared and well-compensated. We will be that much close to realizing our vision of a world in which every child has the opportunity to thrive.
About Naila Bolus: Naila Bolus is the Chief Executive Officer of Jumpstart, a national early education organization that advances equitable learning outcomes for young children in underserved communities by recruiting and supporting caring adults to deliver high-quality programming to children and drive systems change through teaching, advocacy, and leadership. Before Jumpstart, Naila served as Executive Director of Ploughshares Fund, the largest grant-making foundation in the United States dedicated exclusively to security and peace funding, and co-director of 20/20 Vision, a grassroots organization that sought to promote democracy through helping members communicate with national decision makers. She also helped found the Women Legislators’ Lobby and served as the organization’s political director, successfully recruiting one third of female state legislators to lobby for environmental protection, human services, and peace.