CCCR’s Interview with Renowned Child Advocate Jack Levine
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to interview renowned child advocate, Jack Levine. Jack is giving the keynote address at The Apple Blossom Awards on April 14th, and will be speaking on the topic ‘Wise Investments in our Children and our Future’.
After a 25-year tenure as president of Voices for Florida’s Children, a statewide advocacy network, Jack founded 4Generations Institute to promote inter-generational policies and innovative programs that benefit the young, their parents and grandparents. In addition, Jack is President of Advocacy Resources, a consultancy specializing in communications strategies, public policy initiatives, and creative resource development. He holds a Master’s Degree in Child Development and Family Studies from Purdue University.
CCCR: How did you become an advocate for early childhood education?
Jack Levine: My interest began in my own childhood. I grew up with lots of old people; my dad was 60 when I was born. I was part of immigrant culture. Both of my maternal grandparents and my father came from Russia. My father was uneducated formally, but had great interest in social issues and community. My Dad became blind in mid-life, and my family asked me to be helpful to father by reading to him. I was a child with a duty, and, at the time, I did not realize the upside of it. His blindness was a gift to me, because my interest and ability in reading and writing began in those early years.
My brother was seven years older than me and married. In the 1960’s, when I was in high school, I was given additional duties to help with my nephews. This family obligation too became a gift to me later. I quickly realized the phenomenal communication between these young children. They weren’t just little kids, they were a gang! That was always a fascination to me. After teaching English for a few years to Puerto Rican children in the Bronx, the interest that began with my nephews led me to go to graduate school for Child Development. My interest in the world of early childhood development with those early experiences and family needs.
In the mid-1970’s, I found Purdue University but was somewhat hesitant. I’m a New Yorker, and I worried that I wouldn’t fit in in the Midwest. Cornfields and cows were not in my comfort zone. However, I was surprised by how much I liked it. I met a sweetheat who eventually became my wife and was introduced to the intricacies of how you do scientific study. We had a lab, and I was the assistant to a noted professor. My responsibility was to recruit 2, 3, 4, and 5 month-olds (with parental permission!) to be videotaped interacting with different entities: parent, strangers, and babies communicating with each other. Yes, babies can communicate with each other! It’s also fascinating how early babies show avoidance of those people they’re not used to. Eventually we found that babies like to be comfortable through patterning. Babies are perceptive! They don’t like loud noises or to be moved too quickly. These observations were put into writing and published in journals.
After finishing my Master’s Degree, my sweetheart, Charlotte, wanted to pursue a social work degree. Florida State University would give her a free ride if she would go south. Again, at first, I was not thrilled about a new environment, but Tallahassee has been a wonderful place for my family, for our two sons, and for me to do my advocacy work.
CCCR: Tell us what it means to be an advocate?
Jack Levine: There are three important things to know about an advocate. First, I am not an attorney. Second, I do not represent any individual child or family. As a public policy advocate, I do my best to translate what is known, from research and program knowledge at the community level, to the media and people who make critical decisions, like the legislators. It’s a translation service, not like French to English, but from complicated to digestible. The art of advocacy is taking a great collection of information and making it understandable. Elected officials are public servants. They are not experts in child development, and they have a lot of issues to deal with. To create a niche in their agenda for children and families when it may not be in their professional background, we need to give them a bright light of knowledge and understanding. I try also to help them relate personally. We were all children once, and more than 80% of people have been in some parenting or grand-parenting role. I say, “Tell me about yourself.” People have a story to tell, because it’s their story. Perhaps they were somehow challenged by early learning problems; there are common threads that run through all of our lives.
A key theme to my advocacy has been prevention. I sometimes translate prevention as “keeping bad things from happening.” We can associate that with taking care of ourselves physically. In policy, prevention means finding key opportunities to make our lives such that we have a greater ability to succeed than to fail. Considering early childhood development, for example, we know that two-thirds of children in this country, younger than age five, are in households that have two working parents or are living with a single parent. The economic question becomes: who’s watching the kids? I was excited to accept the invitation to speak at the Apple Blossom Awards because we have to find ways of recognizing and honoring those who have made the choice professionally to be quality caregivers and educators of our young children. They are more than caregivers, more than teachers; they are a connector to the family who wants to do all they can for a positive future for their child. There are some who call the role babysitting; babysitting is a very small part of the role. The role is big– it’s being a positive influence for the love of learning that requires a whole lot of time and attention and resources. Advocates are still working on the last part, resources. It’s not a question of knowing what to do. We know what to do. The question is who has the resources to do what we must do. For example, we have great scholarship programs for college. I would like to see more scholarships for early education.
CCCR: That’s a primary focus of the work CCCR does, giving scholarships for early childhood education and care.
Jack Levine: Yes, and that’s a wonderful thing. There is an enormous body of research showing that giving support for early education is not just a good thing to do, it’s the fiscally prudent thing to do. Is it good for this child, yes, but it is also good for the entire society and economy. When we can elevate the debate to this, it invites a higher level of action.
CCCR: Yes, I read in your article that for every dollar invested in early education and preventive health for young children, it saves society $7.
Jack Levine: The building blocks of that argument, cost avoidance, is that by providing quality early education we prevent the need for costs like educational remediation. When it comes to children, it’s not whether we pay, it’s when. Productivity, the love of learning, curiosity…these are all rooted in early childhood experience. Building blocks is a phrase, not just relating to something fun, it’s architecture. Every time we create an environment that fosters the love of learning and curiosity, we are paving a path to success.
How do we improve our children’s chances for success? Now I am going to get a little controversial. All the technological advances day by day, the technology available on our devices, the speed of the internet, the capacity to communicate around the world….to some degree they are all antithetical to child development. The effects of putting our little ones in front of screens must be discussed, studied, and researched.
The cause of healthy child development is relationships with real people. If we are not careful, the addictive powers of technology will be more important than the safety of human beings. While the technological advances are very rapid, the study of their impact on young children is lagging behind. This is where there is the need for some really cutting-edge research.
We all want the best for our children. I subscribe the education philosopher John Dewey’s dictum “What the wisest and most compassionate parent wants for his child is what we should all want for all our children.”
This interview was conducted by JoAnn Lawrence, Director of Marketing for CCCR