Brionnea Williams-McClary: Thoughts on the CDA® and Social Justice

February 23, 2022

Brionnea Williams-McClary, the Council’s new director of public policy, heard a heartrending story some years ago when she was teaching women’s studies to college students. It concerned a young mom who’d graduated from a homeless program in Cincinnati, rented a place of her own and found a full-time job. She was making too much money to qualify for a child care subsidy, so she had a babysitter come in each day to watch her two young children. One day the babysitter didn’t show up and the mom needed to go to work. So, she put her kids in a portable crib in a closet. She tried to make sure they would be okay by putting them in double diapers and leaving food in the crib. But, of course, the children cried during the day. A neighbor heard them and called 911. As a result, the woman went to jail and lost her children. It was a tragic fate that points to a flaw in our system when you see the broader issue behind the case, Brionnea points out. “The woman was prosecuted for not being able to afford the high price of child care.”

And the mom’s case struck a personal note. “She had been in a homeless program that I worked at about 20 years ago,” Brionnea says. “As an employment specialist coordinator, I assisted women in finding jobs and getting education, whether that involved finishing high school or enrolling in college. I was the person who helped them get to a place where they could reach their goals.” And one of the challenges they faced was securing quality child care services they could entrust with their children while they went to the grocery store or work. “Many of the women told me, ‘I don’t have money to pay for that,’” as Brionnea recalls.

The close tie between women’s work and child care is a broad social justice issue that has concerned Brionnea throughout her wide-ranging career. She has worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Office of Child Care, as well as the Office of Head Start, where she focused on underserved families. She’s been a professor of women’s studies, a role where she talked about how society values the work women tend to do—including child care—less than that of men. And Brionnea has worked as a preschool teacher, so she knows just how much competence and commitment it takes to educate young children.

Brionnea also has knowledge in a wide range of fields due to her extensive education. She earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative women’s studies from Spelman College, a master’s degree in women’s studies from the University of Cincinnati, and finally a juris doctorate in law and policy from the Salmon P. Chase Law School at Northern Kentucky University.

“I had always planned to go to law school,” Brionnea explains, “and be a judge or counsel on social justice and policy issues. But you can’t specialize in law school.” So Brionnea prepared herself in college and grad school by focusing on the social issues that concerned her most. “I wanted to find ways for women to get employed and become self-sufficient so they could take care of their children,” she says. “My mission was always to support policies—whether at the local, state or federal level—that could lead to positive change in women’s and children’s lives.”

She pursued that goal during her most recent job as a program specialist for child care programs at the Department of Health and Human Services, where she worked on issues dealing with policies and laws, besides providing technical assistance to Head Start centers. “When I went into the field to work with child care programs,” Brionnea recalls, “I didn’t have any coursework that related specifically to early education. So, my bosses at HHS offered to send me back to school to earn a degree in educational curriculum. But I decided, instead, to go for a Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™ because it helps you learn exactly how to be an early childhood educator. It’s an efficient process that gives you all the concentrated knowledge you need, and you can do it in less than six months. It’s also very hands-on in the way it shows you how to design activities for young children. And it’s so practical I even applied it when I had my first child after law school.”

That’s when the high cost of child care made a personal impact on Brionnea’s life. She wanted her daughter to attend a Montessori school, but it wasn’t affordable because Brionnea had put her law career on hold for a while to be a mom. Fortunately, an opportunity opened up after she asked the program if she could come work for them. “They told me they didn’t have any positions in management at the time,” she says. “But they needed teachers, and offered me a 50 percent discount for my child if I would fill in as a sub. So that’s how I started out being a teacher.”

And she went on to become a program lead for four years before going to work at the Georgia Association for the Education of Young Children. In her two years there, she coordinated the work of Strengthening Families Georgia with that of the Stewards of Children. Together, the two groups trained child care centers, family child care providers, community members and parents in low-income Atlanta neighborhoods.

Sadly, many parents can’t afford teachers with the proper training, as Brionnea points out. “They bring their children to a neighborhood woman to make sure they are safe. But the children don’t get an education.” And that’s an example of how equity in education relates to economics. “It doesn’t cost too much to leave your children with that neighbor, but high-quality early learning is expensive. Sure, you can get by when you pay someone between $120 and $150 a week. The program could be okay, it might even be good. But if you’re paying $250 a week, you’re getting something way better for your child.”

The high cost of child care is workforce issue, Brionnea points out, since it tends to exceed what families can pay. It’s also a women’s issue because 90 percent of the folks who provide early care and learning for young children are women. Like many fields dominated by women, early care and education has never received the respect it deserves.

But COVID has inspired needed change by leading to a severe child care shortage, Brionnea explains. “Women, including many early childhood teachers, are leaving the workforce because they don’t have child care,” she says. “So, for one of the first times in our nation’s history “federal government, men and husbands are beginning to be aware that we must value teachers and give them the fair, reasonable pay that would let them remain on the job.”

It’s going to take “multiple messaging” to get the point completely across, Brionnea says, and that’s brought her to the Council. “Working here gives me the chance to put all my different passions together. I can use my background working in low-income communities and shelters for homeless moms, my experience in federal policy and my expertise in women’s studies, as well as my time as an early childhood teacher. Everything I’ve done has convinced me that you have to look at early care and learning through a multifocal lens that encompasses economics and equity, workforce and women’s issues. That’s the value I believe I bring to the Council.”

And as part of her work, Brionnea will be involved in ways to advocate for the early childhood profession, including the Council’s upcoming Virtual Capitol Hill Day. “We’re developing our own policy framework, which includes ways to empower PD Specialists more and get our CDA holders the recognition they deserve. We’re going to take a stronger position than we have in the past to produce change,” Brionnea explains as she looks to the months ahead.

And her wide range of experience and education makes her just the right person to get the message across to lawmakers and the public. “If you have never worked in the child care profession,” she says, “and don’t have a CDA or any coursework in education, how do you know what it feels like to be in a classroom full of toddlers who are all crying out for attention at the same time?”

Understanding these lived experiences matters, Brionnea points out, when you’re deciding how much funding you’re going to give for teacher training, including the CDA. “Of course, I’m not suggesting that members of Congress need to go work in the classroom,” she laughs. “But they do need to understand how hard our early childhood teachers work and how important it is for them to get the right training.”

Lawmakers also need to realize the close ties between equity, economics and early learning, as well as the way we often devalue women’s work. “If we don’t address these issues together, we’re going to stay stuck where we are,” Brionnea says. And she’s convinced we must move ahead for the sake of our economy and our ideals. For Brionnea, investing in early learning is a matter of social justice.

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