Barbara Bowman ’50:
Keynote Speaker

Graduates of Sarah Lawrence 2020: I am deeply honored to have been asked to say a few words at your graduation. I was asked to speak in the pre-pandemic days and at that time I thought I would begin by telling you how wonderful it was to be back at Sarah Lawrence. I thought I could tell you about Sarah Lawrence in the 1940s and I am sure you would have been impressed to hear about seminars with social science greats like Lois Murphy and Helen Lynd and knowing that one afternoon I watched Stephen Spender and T.S. Elliot play cricket with students on the lawn outside of Westlands. However, even before the events of the last few months, I decided you will have your own memories of Sarah Lawrence and don’t really need mine. Instead, I thought I would focus on the challenges to children and families that those of you in the human services will face in your professional practice.

Luckily you have had a Sarah Lawrence education to support your work. It is an education that not only gave you the information you need but embedded it in a commitment to equity. My Sarah Lawrence education was life changing for me. I trust it will be for you, too.

I arrived at Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 1946. The war was recently over and as an African American I was looking for a career path that led to racial equality and opportunity. I found that path in the study of child development. Traditionally, people believed that child outcomes were set at birth. How children developed was attributed to the will of God, or a predetermined place in society, or the color of their skin, or genetic determinism. At Sarah Lawrence, we learned that development was textured, complex, and changeable. Most importantly, however, it was made clear that we should have the same developmental goals for every child. Understanding development held the promise of disrupting generational patterns of stunted growth. We could use developmental science to change outcomes for children and for society.

Over the last 70 years, we have made good progress in explaining the personal and cultural factors that mold the raw DNA to form a developing human being. We also have had an explosion of research demonstrating the effectiveness of early interventions.  Unfortunately, we have not made as much progress leveling resources, altering attitudes, and realigning power to meet our equity goal. Many children and families continue to struggle against odds we can change. Let me point out some of the areas that concern me and I believe will need your leadership.

Individualism is an increasing problem. As old as the nation and dear to the hearts of many Americans is the belief that society is best when it does not limit individual freedom. Note the difficulty we are having getting laws passed that require children to be inoculated against diseases that are controllable and put other people’s children at risk. We think long and hard about government intruding into our lives no matter how good the cause. Under the banner of individual rights, we reject laws controlling guns, taxes, cultural and racial biases, and even wedding cakes, though the freedom of some compromises the rights of others. As families have scattered and neighborhoods become more ghettoized, it has become harder to see "other people’s" well-being is related to our own. As leaders, you will carry the responsibility to promote the values that underlie healthy development for all.

Jim Heckman, the Nobel laureate in economics, complains about the underfunding of preschool education for low income children. He points out that this failure is expensive. It is in our economic self-interest to prepare all children to meet the educational demands of the 21st century, yet we still do not invest enough to accomplish this. We don’t serve all the eligible children, and equally serious, we don’t serve them with the necessary quality, primarily because of the low wages for teachers and caregivers. Perhaps the care and education of young children is devalued because it has traditionally been the work of women, often black and brown women, but the downward pressure on wages compromises the education and training of the workforce. Large numbers of children are entering school unprepared to succeed. Your work can help convince the public that not funding high quality early childhood programs is penny wise and pound foolish.

Another of our problems is that we, professionals as well as the public, are easily seduced by the needs we can see—like hunger, disease, abuse, abandonment—and we fail to focus clearly on the causes of the problem we want to address This was illustrated in a Head Start program where I was introduced to a grandmother and the mother of one of the enrolled children. The teacher proudly acknowledged the grandmother and her daughter had attended this same Head Start. No one questioned why three generations in a family were eligible for the same anti-poverty program.

Instead of focusing on economic, social, and political system inequities that are the major causes of stress in families, we focus on the symptoms. Free meals, scholarships, calming exercises, home visits, and parent education all make life easier for recipients, and make the rest of us feel better, but they do not solve the problem of three generations of poverty, disenfranchisement, and poor health care, etc. You will need to think and talk about these issues so there is shared understanding of what is required to really change outcomes for children.

The early childhood field itself often adds to my list of concerns as it creates artificial dichotomies in programs and services. We have created either/or paradigms around questions of program content (should children play or learn their ABCs), curriculum models (Montessori or Reggio), training requirements (should caregivers have academic degrees or is experience enough). The issue is not if one option is right and the other wrong; all are right or wrong depending on the context—one size doesn’t fit all. You will need to help practitioners link program characteristics to child and family needs rather than ideology or cultural bias.

I have only mentioned a few of the challenges in store for you. What I hope you have heard is that it is not enough to see yourselves as narrowly concerned with your own programs. We need you to communicate the knowledge and commitment you got at Sarah Lawrence to families, practitioners, colleagues, researchers, policy makers, philanthropists—to all who hold the lives of children in their hands.

Today, the world is a different place than it was six months ago. The pandemic is and will continue to challenge us personally and communally. It is helpful to remember this is not the first local or global event to require changes in our adjustment to the environment and to each other. I can assure you that looking back over the last 91 years, I have frequently said, “there has never been a time like this” and asked, “how can we manage?" Yet, we have always made the necessary adjustments and moved on.

Nevertheless, you are facing difficult times. You must now help many children and families cope with unexpected illness and death, unemployment, hunger, and the myriad of problems associated with quarantine and restricted activity.

I am sure you are well prepared. I am proud that Sarah Lawrence is in the forefront of the human service education. As you work with our youngest citizens and their families, you will have the professional tools you need to do the job. We rely on you to light the way. I welcome you to the field and look forward to hearing about the work you will do.

Remarks as prepared for delivery