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Toward a Diverse Leadership in Early Ed: Q&A with Christine Nicpon

  ·  Nyki Salinas-Duda

We at the Latino Policy Forum congratulate the Illinois Early Childhood Fellowship on its third cohort of distinguished Fellows. As one of the program’s original host organizations, the Latino Policy Forum is proud to announce welcome our new Illinois Early Childhood Fellow, Christine Nicpon.

The Fellowship, founded in 2008, is making a long-term investment in the field of early childhood. The ultimate impact of the Fellowship is clear: by recruiting (diverse) emerging leaders (of color )to the field of early childhood in Illinois, the program establishes a talent pipeline that will address the need for  leaders who reflect the communities they serve, especially as the state’s zero-to-eight population is in the process of undergoing a dramatic demographic shift.

Through a rigorous application process, five Fellows are selected; they represent a diversity of experience and skills but share a commitment to the field of early childhood. This year, the Fellows will work with influential organizations in the field in Illinois, including Illinois Action for Children, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Ounce Prevention Fund, and Voices for Illinois Children.

The Latino Policy Forum is proud to host Christine as one of Fellowship’s five host organizations. As the youngest Fellow in the history of the program and a former participant in an early childhood program, Christine and her work represent a synthesis of practice and policy.

I sat down with Christine to chat about her experiences in the realm of early childhood, her life growing up in Chicago, and the influences that inspired her to advocate on behalf of Latino children.

Where are you from, and how did you get here?

I’m from Pilsen and grew up in different parts of the city, but currently live in Bridgeport. My educational journey started at Carole Robertson Center for Learning with their Early Head Start program. From there, I entered the Chicago Public Schools system, where I met a teacher who helped change my life’s direction, Ms. Hardison. She was a strict teacher intent on preparing her eighth graders for the transition to high school but with a reputation for demanding a lot of her students.

I admired her for that, but when Ms. Hardison encouraged us to apply for a scholarship to an all-girls Catholic school, I initially decided against it. But with a gentle nudge, I went on to apply for (and eventually receive) the Daniel Murphy Scholarship, which landed me at Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts. I went on to earn a bachelor of arts in anthropology at Franklin & Marshall in Pennsylvania, which led me to study abroad in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico.

But in the end, I came back to Chicago. My family is here, and I wanted to get back to my roots. Since returning to the city, I have working with undocumented youth at Heartland Alliance as a family reunification specialist, and later, as a case manager for pregnant and parenting teens at UCAN. During that time, I also completed a research internship at Illinois Action for Children, and interned at La Casa Norte working with youth experiencing homelessness. I now also hold an AM in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago.

What inspired you to work in advocacy?

My passion for advocacy stems from my experience as a participant in early head start programing at Carol Robertson Center for Learning.  As a young single parent, my mother knew she wanted to provide a better life for the children than the one she’d had growing up, to break the cycle of poverty she had experienced as a child.

When she came across the Early Head Start program—which provided both a quality education to her daughter and her special needs son—she realized it would allow her to reenter the workforce and begin the climb out of poverty.

Of course, the journey was difficult, and she could not have succeeded without wrap-around services offered by the Center, as well as the friendships she developed back then and still has today. I would not have achieved my educational milestones—would not be a part of this Fellowship—had it not been for my mother’s tenacity and perseverance in her struggle to provide better opportunities for her children, or for the resources that helped her along the way.

Why did you choose the Illinois Early Childhood Fellowship?

I am proud to be a part of the Latino Policy Forum as an early education fellow, especially as the Forum has participated in the Fellowship since its inception. This participation demonstrates the Forum’s dedication to influencing and cultivating future leaders within the field of early childhood education. 

My work in direct service had started to wear on me. I decided to transition out of direct service when I realized that the issue isn’t with the motivation of the parents I was working with. The real issue was that service providers and recipients alike were forced to navigate a web of systems that are both complicated and often incompatible.

Working in public policy and advocacy, I have the potential to impact change that can work to change those inefficient systems. My work will now affect families all over Illinois, rather than just those families I had the capacity to work as a service provider. This Fellowship is the perfect opportunity to make that transition and to begin to broaden the scope of my work’s impact.  

I’m honored to serve as an Illinois Early Childhood Fellow at the Latino Policy Forum to continue to pay it forward through policy and advocacy. It’s another way for me to advocate for those children and families that deserve the opportunity to access high-quality early childhood education as a vehicle to achieve economic self-sufficiency and better educational outcomes for the Latino community as a whole.

What will you be doing here at the Forum? And what, more broadly, do you hope to achieve?

On a concrete level, I will contribute to research and synthesize some of the already-existing research the Forum has to make it applicable to various populations and Latino children specifically. More broadly, I will carry out program evaluations; participate in the Forum’s early childhood advocacy efforts in Springfield; and generally furthering the birth-to-eight conversation. I hope to achieve that by bridging the gap between birth-to- three services and K-3 services.

Personally, I hope to provide a voice to parents and kids who can be excluded from conventional policy conversations and legislative advocacy. To provide a face to the children and families that benefit from early childhood programing that can get lost in the research and discussions around funding. These are the lives of children and families that hang in the balance that will determine the prosperity of our communities.

What is your vision for early childhood?

My ideal is an early childhood landscape that adapts to a diversity of populations. We need to understand that there is no quick fix, no standard model, even among Latinos. We’re not all English Language Learners, we’re not all living in abject poverty, and we’re becoming less and less urban. But we do have some common challenges as a community, and those challenges can only be addressed through an integrated strategy.


Posted In: Education, Leadership, Strengthening Leadership