A St. Paul nonprofit aiming to curb racial bias by starting with the youngest kids has launched its first preschool pilot programs in Minnesota, and plans to add a dozen more sites in 2023.
The organization, called Before Racism, has developed a curriculum geared for kids ages 1 to 5 to prevent racism and bias from forming. The first pilot programs started earlier this year at three child care centers in St. Paul, Eagan and Inver Grove Heights, along with a fourth site in western Massachusetts.
Organizers plan to open 12 more sites in 2023, mostly in daycare centers in Minnesota and Massachusetts. Over the next decade, they hope to expand the curriculum to preschools and centers in every state in the nation, reaching 25 million children a year.
"If you're going to prevent [bias] … focus on the very youngest of children as they're growing up where these things take seed and help to assure that those seeds don't grow," said founder Bill Svrluga, who is white and leads the all-volunteer team, which is made up of both white leaders and people of color. "We're very encouraged by the initial results."
Researchers say that children start to notice differences and develop judgments at a young age, and that racial and gender preferences may already be set by the time they're 3 to 5 years old.
Across the early childhood education field, there's a growing focus on diversity and inclusion research and resources, said Minneapolis preschool teacher Marie Lister, who also teaches early childhood education at the University of Minnesota.
When Lister started teaching 15 years ago, she couldn't find diverse children's books to include in her classroom. Now there's a growing supply of books featuring characters of all backgrounds and races, in recognition of the fact that children want to see themselves represented in books, toys and art supplies.
Lister was one of the coaches tapped by Before Racism to teach the curriculum to teachers at pilot program sites. When a white 5-year-old refused to play with a peer because they had brown skin, the teacher was more prepared to talk to the children about racism after the training, she said.
Preschool teachers are used to having difficult conversations with children about various topics — whether it's a death in the family or how to be kind to one another — and race is no different, Lister said.
"We know that young children experience racism [and] witness racism, and if we don't name those things for them, then we're running the risk of leaving them adrift to figure these things out by themselves," she said. "We have this real developmental window where we can help children make sense of that in a really beautiful way, and then hopefully we establish this framework where they grow up understanding people are different than me, and that's OK."
Svrluga said he's heard almost no concerns from parents about Before Racism's curriculum, but he expects that to change as the program expands. Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives involving race and gender have become political lightning rods nationwide, from drag queen story hours at libraries to critical race theory — which isn't a part of Minnesota schools' curriculum standards.
"This is a very sensitive subject," he said. "We're not labeling children. … We're helping people believe that they're important, valuable, worthy and lovable human beings, and that everyone else around them is the same."
Before Racism relies on donations to fund free training for child care and preschool teachers, which is conducted over several months. The nonprofit has raised nearly $400,000 this year and wants to raise at least $200,000 more by the end of the year.
Initial evaluations by Wilder Research, at the St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation, show the program has been effective in helping staff members know how to prevent children from developing bias. Before Racism is also designing a tool kit for parents.
Dianne Haulcy, CEO of the Family Partnership in Minneapolis and one of more than two dozen advisory board members at Before Racism, said it's important that parents talk to their children about race early. She hosts a podcast from Minnesota Public Radio called "Early Risers" about teaching anti-racism to young children.
"As children learn to talk about race, they will actually be comfortable with it as they grow up," Haulcy said. "And the more comfortable you are talking about something, the more you're able to actually do something about it."
Svrluga participated in the famous Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965 and helped start two Minnesota-based nonprofits including Ujamaa Place, which helps young African American men. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, he was moved to launch Before Racism after Michael Brown was killed in 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
"I'm kind of a child of the civil rights era," he said. "We've made great progress in the areas of overt racism: where you can go to school, where you can work, where you can shop. … But the thing that was really lagging behind is covert racism — how people think and feel about people who are different than them."