Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

I take every opportunity I can to encourage people to invest in giving all our children the strong start they need to thrive in school and life. And the importance of intentional, ongoing support of families with young children is even more urgent given pandemic-related academic losses and trauma. So I was particularly honored to share this message with hundreds of women during a keynote speech at the 2022 Women United Bruncheon of the United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County.

It was a powerful moment and event. It was Women United’s first event since before the pandemic, and my own first speaking appearance since then as well. It offered an opportunity to reflect on accomplishments and, more importantly, to examine how we can do more in a world where Covid has compounded already weighty challenges. 

In my address, I argued that we need to advocate for policies that support children and families:

“Now imagine what happens if we all continue to work. If we work at preventing the reading challenges we can, and intervening early for those we can’t prevent. If we work at bolstering families’ access to books, early-literacy best practices, and high-quality reading instruction. If we work at advocating for paid parental leave, high-quality and affordable preschool, and better teacher training.

“I think our collective efforts could change the life trajectories of millions of students. Improve their job prospects, health, and self-regard. I think it will work.  I think we should try.”

You can watch the full speech below, or scroll down for a transcript.

It is a rare honor to deliver a keynote message to such an esteemed group of women. And particularly so at your first post-pandemic gathering. 

When a small group of leaders, some of whom are in the audience today, came together in 2002 to ponder ways to make a difference by forming a women’s initiative, pandemic-wrought global shutdowns were not on their minds. A time like this when I can stand before more than 400 of you in person and more via livestream anywhere in the world was not on their minds. 

The women gathered instead with a very urgent mission in their hearts—to make Milwaukee a safer, healthier place for girls and women. This was a substantial undertaking. After all, they were talking about life-threatening issues like violence, victimization, and the circumstances that lead to children bearing children. 

But the women, brave and unshrinking, looked at the problem head-on, had the tough discussions, aired the concerns, and worked through the tensions. Then they did what needed to be done: 

  • Gathered evidence to define problems and solutions
  • Selected a vulnerable demographic to focus on
  • Convened and organized a large and powerful coalition of partners
  • Delivered an intensive intervention
  • Assessed and improved upon results
  • Took what worked to scale 

The fruits of this labor? Fewer children born to children. But that wasn’t all. The wins were better high-school graduation rates, better adolescent health, better lifetime earning potential. The wins were lower likelihood of poverty, incarceration, and foster-care entrance. The wins were fewer children born at high risk of being underweight at birth, being unprepared for kindergarten, having the behavioral problems and chronic medical conditions often correlated with being born to an adolescent parent.

The wins also included personal transformations among the women involved. They learned how to pursue big civic goals with vision, collaboration, and consistency over time. They learned how to be a part of a far-reaching, long-term movement. They learned how to be Women United.

There’s a quote that Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact, uttered years ago that speaks to this intent to stay the course. 

She said, “We said early on that we need to make a commitment, internally and publicly, that the initiative will be sustained even beyond our end-goal of lowering the adolescent pregnancy rate by 46 percent. In fact, it is not an end-goal, it is our first goal. Even when we get to a 46 percent drop, that is still too many kids having babies. We will continue to press and not become self-congratulatory.” 

I love that. Continue to press. Do not become self-congratulatory. 

Continue to press. Do not become self-congratulatory.

And so United Way leaders, Women’s Leadership Council, Women United, and esteemed guests, here we are 20 years on from the start of something great. Here we are more than 1,600 people strong in the largest Women United network in the world. Here we are with a unique opportunity to continue to press and make the next 20 years of action on behalf of women and girls something worth celebrating in 2042.

We know there’s much work to do. We know that whatever problems we had prior to COVID have only intensified since. Earlier in this program CEO Amy Lindner spoke of the hopelessness, desperation, and fear so many felt amid the pandemic. She spoke of the heightened food insecurity, increased housing fragility, soaring family violence, and more. 

From my work in education, I’ve seen countless ways that the pandemic has had a severely negative impact on kids’ academic prospects as well. And to be frank, the situation is especially dire in Milwaukee, because educational disparities were extreme to begin with.  

Here’s the current reality:

  • The picture of literacy in America has been grim. We’ve had stagnant reading scores for decades pre-Covid and devastating learning loss since. And, now, as schools close for the year, a mass summertime academic slide will begin its predictable descent. 
  • Already poor reading achievement dipping to new lows in Covid times has been dubbed “the kindergarten crisis” and an estimated third of early elementary students will need intensive support to learn to read.
  • But that’s not the worst of it. Kindergarten is merely a point in time when headline-grabbing data is captured. The condition is pre-existing. 
  • New evidence suggests that babies’ and toddlers’ neurodevelopment and cognitive performance plummeted in the pandemic, hurt by caregiver stress and isolation.

And I know that each of you can cite examples from your own industries and personal experiences of the ways that the pandemic has taken pre-existing challenges and ramped them up to crisis levels. Businesses and nonprofits alike have struggled mightily with recruiting and retaining qualified staff, managing finance and revenue, and delivering programs, products, and services.

Given all of this, the question becomes: what would it take for each of us to do our parts to raise Women United’s bar of service, leadership, and philanthropy in our community to meet the even more complex and urgent needs of today and the next 20 years? 

The answer, I believe, is doubling down on our strengths as individual contributors to society, and expanding and deepening our connections to others who share our vision of a better world for women and girls. As author Molly Carlile put it, “This is what will change the world … a ground swell of people pouring their energy into manifesting their ‘preferred future’ instead of being worn down by disillusion and disappointment.”

With its mission to “mobilize a powerful network of women who strengthen our community through an investment of talent, compassion, and philanthropy,” Women United is part of the groundswell. What makes the network powerful is the positive energy each of us pours in.

We’re each a “node” in the network. We each represent different organizations, different demographics, different resources, different expertise. Take a look at the women at your table. Then take a look at the women at the next table over. And the next table. Seriously, look around and imagine your reach, your influence—your power to shape Milwaukee’s future—expanding with each new connection.

Our relationships with one another are the invisible architecture that upholds the network. When we connect across our table, across our differences, we can foster stronger flows of information, smarter allocation of resources, greater recognition of opportunity, and better results. 

I was reminded of the power of networks when I attended my 20th college reunion earlier this month. The event gave me a personal occasion to reflect on the span of years from 20 to 40. The years saw young women who once skulked around campus in rumpled peasant tops, platform flip flops, and pocketless bootcut jeans transformed into dynamos that had founded publicly traded companies, led think tanks, run for Congress, produced films and television shows, written consequential books, and more. 

Yet in each case, the accomplishments were clear extensions of the students we’d been as 20-year-olds. The successes weren’t inevitable. But they weren’t surprising, either. 

The seeds of whatever we accomplished post-graduation were in the subjects we studied,  the papers we wrote, and the dreams we cast when we were still in school. The seeds were also in the groups we joined, the friends we made, the contacts we shared, the relationships we cultivated. 

And 20 years later, we weren’t just at the reunion to reminisce. We were there to strengthen our ties to one another and to our college. We were investing in the network and benefiting from it too.

In order for Women United to leverage the power of its sizable network, each of us, individually, personally, has to get clear on what we have to give. The experiences, skills, connections, and perspectives we can bring to the table.

I’ll give you an example from my life. When my daughter, Zora, was three years old, I dove headfirst into an exhaustive search for the best school for her. I quickly discovered that Austin had some amazing schools with skilled teachers, innovative curricula, and beautiful facilities, but they were concentrated in certain neighborhoods and didn’t reach or serve all Austin children. In fact, at most of the so-called great schools I visited in those early months, I saw a jarring lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity. 

I saw the same division, disparity and inequity over and over again from different angles.  

I saw it in heat maps showing concentrations of people of color living in poverty and experiencing low educational attainment. 

I saw it in groups of primarily brown and black children learning in portables with outdated books featuring characters that didn’t resemble them. 

I saw it in reports showing how the zip code children were born into could predict how well-prepared for kindergarten they would be, how much experience their teachers would have, how strong their reading skills would become, how much support they would have on the path to and through college. 

I wanted to understand for myself what was really going on and how to turn it around. So, I read hundreds of books and articles on reading instruction and children’s literature. I interviewed expert practitioners and researchers. I spent thousands of hours volunteering as a book buddy, parent coach, library assistant, and advisor to numerous literacy organizations. I led community outreach for literary events, granted funds to libraries statewide, curated author experiences for children living in poverty. 

I learned so many valuable lessons. But what mattered most for making a difference wasn’t what I knew but who I connected with. Who I asked questions of, who I shared information with, who I worked alongside.

Eventually my personal effort to better understand what it takes to raise a reader tipped into a larger mission to help all parents learn what’s needed to do this vital work. And during the pandemic I buckled down to write a book, called Reading for Our Lives: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six.

And when I shared that I was moving to Milwaukee, a contact from a foundation featured in the book introduced me to a host of people here at the Office of Early Childhood Education, Marquette, UWM, Next Door, Penfield Children, and more. And they, too, have made introductions that have expanded my network and my impact.

This isn’t the transactional kind of networking that one writer described as “the unpleasant task of trading favors with strangers.” Rather, it’s transformational in nature. It’s the joyful work of exchanging ideas, support, and expertise with neighbors.

All of these partners in my newly expanded network share a commitment to spreading the message that, while it’s crucial for schools to teach what students need to learn (from phonics and math to history and science), it’s just as imperative that parents and caregivers are well-equipped and supported to lay the groundwork kids need in order to learn well when they arrive in school. 

We’re all working in different ways (research, programming, advocacy) to highlight the fierce urgency of better supporting families during the first years of children’s lives, when caregivers’ nurturing, supportive back-and-forth verbal engagement shapes kids’ brain structure and function for life. 

By around two years old, the major brain circuits and networks are in place, according to evidence from anatomical, physiological, and gene-expression studies. From there on out, brain development is mostly about refining what’s already in place. 

We all have unique resources and expertise to give. One of my favorite examples of this comes from someone I met while volunteering with an affordable permanent housing program years ago. 

He’d been homeless in four different states. He spent his entire 20s in prison in Mississippi, but even there, given his circumstances, he found a way to give back.  He was one of the few fully literate inmates there and worked with a nun to teach other prisoners to read. It was in the 80s and they used a program called Hooked on Phonics. It worked, he said.

It worked at giving him a purpose during his incarceration.  It worked at teaching adults who had failed to learn to read every single year of their youths how to read. It worked to help them read letters from their families on their own for the first time. It worked to help them feel a direct connection to home and imagine new possibilities for themselves upon parole. It worked.

Now imagine what happens if we all continue to work. If we work at preventing the reading challenges we can, and intervening early for those we can’t prevent. If we work at bolstering families’ access to books, early-literacy best practices, and high-quality reading instruction. If we work at advocating for paid parental leave, high-quality and affordable preschool, and better teacher training.

I think our collective efforts could change the life trajectories of millions of students. Improve their job prospects, health, and self-regard. I think it will work.  I think we should try.

If we did, it would be a great tribute to the founding women who first united to create this network. Those who had a vision and pursued it. Those who ran meetings and raised funds, volunteered time and donated money. Those who charted strategy, wooed partners, and held everyone accountable. 

In short, we should be Women United. We should continue to press. 

Thank you.