Agency for Change- Jessie Rasmussen, President of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund » KidGlov

Announcer:

Welcome to Agency for Change, the podcast that brings you the stories of people creating positive change in the world. We explore what inspires these change makers, the work they’re doing, and how they share their message. Each of us can play a part in change, and these are the people who show us how.

Lyn Wineman:

Hi, everyone. This is Lyn Wineman, president of KidGlov. Welcome to another episode of the Agency for Change podcast. Today’s guest, Jessie Rasmussen, has dedicated her whole career to improving the lives of children and families. She is currently serving as the president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, where she manages investments that support the best of what is known about early childhood care, development, and education in ways that directly improve the lives and learning of some of the most vulnerable preschoolers in Nebraska, and across the country. Wow. Jessie, welcome to the podcast.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Thank you.

Lyn Wineman:

Now, there’s a statement on the website for Buffett Early Childhood Fund that really gets us quickly to the heart of the matter. It reads, “Here’s the problem. Too many children arrive at kindergarten already behind. What’s worse, far too many children keep falling further behind and never catch up. Yet, some might think that kindergarten is the real beginning of the educational process.” In your experience, why is this a problem?

Jessie Rasmussen:

Well, it’s very interesting that motivation for the creation of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund really came from a former superintendent of the Omaha Public Schools, who responded to Susie Buffett when she said, “How can I help children who are living in under-resourced communities to be successful in school?” He said, “You know what? Don’t give us the money. Put it in the earliest years because the children are arriving at school one to two years behind.” Then like that quote says, the research shows that they tend to stay behind in spite of all the efforts to intervene and change that trajectory. Why does it happen that they’re behind? Because when you live in communities that are under-resourced, and often marginalized, you don’t have the same experiences in terms of books, reading opportunities, summer programs, quality early childhood and preschool programs.

Jessie Rasmussen:

All those things are not available to every child. My experience, over a lot of years, is almost every parent wants really good things to happen for their children, and they want them to be successful. When given the opportunity to take advantage of opportunities that really focus on those most critical years of development, they jump at the chance. They are eager to partner, to make their child’s life trajectory the best. We know the other factor is, birth to five, learning starts at birth. Children are born wondering, exploring. I always say they’re natural scientists. They need to be in environments that are safe, that are consistent, with nurturing, caring adults, to really fire up those synapses in the brain to develop the foundation for all learning in the future.

Jessie Rasmussen:

I mean, we now know from the brain science … I don’t know if you’ve ever seen some of this, where they put all the stuff on the kid’s head. It monitors what’s going on their head. They’ve learned that there’s about a million synapses that occur every second in the earliest months and years of life. When you respond to the child, those synapses are strengthened. When you don’t, they fade away. A certain amount of fading away is good, but too much means that you don’t have all those strong synapses that form the foundation for future learning. So, being able to share that kind of information with parents, help them to know what they can do to take advantage of this critical period of development, but also to provide resources that can support this healthy growth and development. That was a long answer, Lyn.

Lyn Wineman:

Wow. It was amazing though.

Jessie Rasmussen:

It is the answer.

Lyn Wineman:

It was scientific. It was emotional. You know what? What you just said there, I probably never fully appreciated the fact my mother had a master’s degree in early childhood development. I remember we learned to read on Dick and Jane books. I know Dick and Jane books aren’t what they have in schools anymore, but Run, Spot, Run was one of my earliest memories. I need to be more appreciative of my mother’s work that she did with us early on.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Well, you know what? Go ahead. I was just going to say it’s not realizing that even the simplest interactions that fire up and strengthen those synapses, a mother gazing into the eyes of their baby, mother or father touching the hands of their child, them hearing mom, and dad, and others read to them. A lot of people think, “Well, you don’t start reading to kids until they’re about three.” No. You start really early, because they hear it, and it’s making an impression on the brain. Just understanding. That’s not just about families with low income. I’ve worked with lots of different socioeconomic classes. A lot of people don’t know just how important those earliest months and years are. So, sharing all the simple things they can do to strengthen those synapses. It’s fun, and it pays off.

Lyn Wineman:

I love that. I remember when my kids were little. I don’t ever remember reading any material on strengthening their synapses, but that’s what we were doing when we played peek-a-boo, and did all of those things.

Jessie Rasmussen:

That’s exactly right.

Lyn Wineman:

Let’s talk about though, there are some kids who don’t catch up. There’s a ripple effect there. Right? Not even just in kindergarten and early school, but how does this affect kids as individuals? What are the long-term outcomes for families, and even communities? I mean, this really isn’t an issue of just individuals. Is it?

Jessie Rasmussen:

When all children are doing well in their earliest years and months, we all benefit from it. The child benefits from it, the family does, the community does. One of the scientific researchers we have funded is Dr. James Heckman at the University of Chicago. He’s an economist.

Lyn Wineman:

Really?

Jessie Rasmussen:

He actually won a Nobel Prize for his research on the return on the investment of creating strong foundations and environments in the earliest months and years. So, we know that children who get off to a great start are more likely to be successful in school, reading at grade level, at grade three, graduating from high school. We also know that they don’t get in trouble with the law as much. So, there are savings there. They become productive contributing members of their communities. Now we know, from his research, they’re healthier as adults. We don’t exactly understand what’s going on, but things like blood pressure, heart conditions, even mental illness are dramatically reduced when children who have lived in the stress of poverty, when they get good experiences happening in the first five years, they turn out to be healthier adults.

Jessie Rasmussen:

So, he would say, you could pay for quality early childhood for all kids, especially the kids who live in communities with very few resources, that you could pay for it by the health savings alone. But bottom line, we just end up with a stronger economy. There’s a whole organization called Council for a Strong America, and they really gather up, what I call the unusual voices, to advocate for the importance of early childhood. So, General Powell will talk about the importance of early childhood, because they don’t have enough young people that are eligible to go into the military service. He’s backed it up and realized it’s related to whether or not kids start out with a successful experience in learning and developing in the earliest years.

Jessie Rasmussen:

You hear it from business leaders. You hear it from other economists, that this is one of the smartest investments we could make because of the pay off. Again, not just for the success of the children, but for the strength of our community and the strength of our economy as a country.

Lyn Wineman:

So, there’s good data out there on the importance of early childhood development, and how that impacts humans. Then there’s also great data on how it affects the economy and the return on investment. I mean, you would just imagine money must just be pouring in for early childhood development then, right?

Jessie Rasmussen:

I wish, Lyn. I wish that was true. I must say, I’ve been doing this for over 50 years, if you start back when I was an early childhood teacher in a Head Start program in north Omaha. But this does seem to be a moment that people are recognizing more and more, on both sides of the political aisle, this is really a good bi-partisan or non-partisan issue. Because they’re recognizing how important it is, again, for the children, for the families, for the communities, and for our country, to make this smart investment in the earliest years. The other thing is the pandemic, as awful as it has been, in so many ways, it really has highlighted that access to quality childcare is a critical component of our economic infrastructure.

Lyn Wineman:

Absolutely.

Jessie Rasmussen:

If you don’t have childcare … Remember, early on, there was a scramble to get childcare for essential workers, particularly in the hospitals, because so many of the childcare providers, it’s a very fragile system. It couldn’t withstand the loss of income that came when so many families no longer needed childcare because they got laid off, or didn’t want to put their children in childcare for the fear of COVID. But it really highlighted the role that childcare makes in a viable workforce. It’s an issue that many are worried about, that many women are struggling to go back to work because they do not have good childcare. It’s women in particular. I shouldn’t say it’s just women, but it’s hardest hit on women.

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah.

Jessie Rasmussen:

So, it’s going to be interesting to watch, but it has created a lot of attention to the importance of childcare, as well as recognizing the importance of the early years on the development of young children.

Lyn Wineman:

So, all of these facts, Jessie, coming together, and the importance of early childhood development, and its impact on the economy, it just seems like over the years, these issues have bubbled to the surface. So, these are the things the Buffett Early Childhood Fund is working to overcome. Is that correct?

Jessie Rasmussen:

Yes. We invest in three key areas. We invest in early childhood practice. We invest in research, like I referenced on Dr. Heckman, the Nobel Prize winning economist. We also invest in people like Jack Shonkoff, who heads up the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard, who was really instrumental in translating brain science, and implications for policy, and a lot of other things. So, practice, research, and then the third major area is policy. Policy, both state and federal, and both administrative and legislative, is how we’re going to get to all of the children having great starts. The private community, as much as it’s given to this work in Nebraska, as well as nationally, can’t be the sustaining support for quality early childhood, for all kids, especially those that are coming from communities that are experiencing the stress of poverty.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s fascinating. So, those are the key areas that you fund. Can you share some of the key programs and initiatives of the fund?

Jessie Rasmussen:

So, our most significant investment in practice is the Educare Learning Network. Back, again, when Susie began to get interested in the importance of early childhood, her mother connected her up with a philanthropist in Chicago, Irving Harris, who was quite visionary. A business man, recognized what the research was saying about the importance of the early years, especially thinking about birth to three, as well as three to five. So, he was a major supporter, and actually, probably a promoter, of the creation of the Ounce of Prevention in Chicago. They had just created the Educare model.

Lyn Wineman:

Wow.

Jessie Rasmussen:

They had just opened this Educare School in the south side of Chicago. When Susie saw that, she said, “That’s what I want for Omaha. I want one in north Omaha, and I want one in south Omaha.” It was appealing for many reasons. First of all, it was driven by the science. Second of all, it was for children living in communities with limited resources. It was a full working day, year round program to support families that were working to advance out of poverty. So, she asked the Ounce to help her duplicate it in Omaha.

Jessie Rasmussen:

I have to say that was probably going to be the end of it, but then George Kaiser from Tulsa, Oklahoma, another businessman who had seen the research, says, “I like what you’re doing. I want to get with you and do this, too.” Her brother, Peter, who was, at that time, living in Milwaukee, said, “We need one of these in Milwaukee.” So, my point was, organically, we recognize the need for a network that demonstrated more recently than some of the old studies, like the Perry Preschool, or the ABeCeDarian, which are over 50 years old. Something more recently that would demonstrate what difference quality early childhood experiences can make in the lives of children and families who are living in poverty.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Organically, that network now has grown to 25 schools in 14 states, plus DC, and the Tribal Nation of Winnebago in Nebraska. The network was never intended to be a franchise operation. It was to learn and demonstrate what quality early childhood is, and how then that can be shared with a broader field to influence both policy and practice, for all children. We have the Educare Network, and we provide the fundamental backbone support for that operation, via the Ounce of Prevention, which by the way, just changed its name to Start Early. So, Start Early really provides the backbone for the professional development, for communities to practice. It’s a wonderful coalition of highly aspiring leaders who are never satisfied, who never think it’s quite done yet, and doing right by children and families.

Jessie Rasmussen:

So, that’s one of our major investments. Then we invest locally in the Educare Schools in Omaha. There’s two schools in Omaha, although we also help to support the development of three birth to three centers in Omaha. They’re called the Omaha Early Learning Centers. That was in response to the very high demand for quality early childhood and care for children birth to three. Then we support the one in Lincoln, and we help to get the one initiated in Winnebago. I would say in Omaha and Lincoln, we have a very strong partnership with the public school system. It’s a partnership I would like to see expanded to more early childhood programs. Really, thinking about the continuum of learning and education from birth through 12th grade.

Jessie Rasmussen:

That’s a big focus on our practice. Our research is in people like Jack Shonkoff at the Harvard Center for the Developing Child and Dr. Heckman. It’s also every grant we do, we require an evaluation. We have a national evaluation of all the Educare Schools. We believe in the power of research to help us not only make the case, but do the best possible job in the practice world. Those are a few examples of the practice, in terms of research. Then the policy work, we and other funders help create the Alliance for Early Success, which is the skate-based advocacy group. They actually support advocacy groups in all 50 states. The funders give to the alliance, and they re-grant support to the advocacy organizations. They also grant dollars to national orgs to work with the state, their advocacy agenda for early childhood, which can be about early learning. It can be about health. It can be about economic security. It’s a broad view of all the variables that impact healthy growth and development.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Then at the federal level, again, we partnered with other funders to create the First Five Years Fund. It focuses on federal policy, and has been highly effective in keeping the attention of elected officials at the federal level, but also keeping this issue bi-partisan. This isn’t about one party versus the other. This is about something that’s good for our families and our country. Then we support the First Five Nebraska as a policy advocacy group in pushing state policies in Nebraska. I would say we do a lot of this work in partnerships with other funders. We’re part of a national collaborative that’s taking a 10 year view on transforming the early childhood workforce, to have competencies drive educator preparation, to support the existing diverse workforce, and promote diversity in the workforce.

Jessie Rasmussen:

So, children and families can find those programs that represent their culture, their lived experiences. It’s also looking at one of the biggest issues, Lyn, and that is how poorly paid early childhood professionals are. Even if a lead teacher in an early childhood program has a degree, and oftentimes a master’s degree, they’re paid way less, usually, than a K through 12 teacher with the same academic preparation for this work. There’s a long history to explain why this has happened, but workers in general in childcare programs are some of the lowest paid. Yet, that’s really some of the most important work.

Lyn Wineman:

Really important work. That does seem like a mismatch. Doesn’t it?

Jessie Rasmussen:

Yes. It is. Yeah. But if we can’t figure out this compensation issue, we can’t attract the best and the brightest. We can’t keep them. Because it just doesn’t work for people financially. Their passion and their commitment will take them so far, but they also have to support their family. They can’t do it, generally speaking, on the wages that are traditionally found in this world. So, we have a long way to go in terms of figuring out that answer. Compensation is directly related to the quality that is important to achieve.

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah. Jessie, it’s not easy work either. I think back when my kids were in early childhood programs, the parents would come in and volunteer to help with parties and things. I just always remember leaving and, first, feeling like, “That’s amazing.” The people, the teachers, the people who ran the program and interacted with the kids were just amazing. My second thought was always, “I need a nap.” Right? It’s tiring. It’s tiring work. I just have to compliment you. Sometimes you read the name, Buffett Early Childhood Fund, and I imagine people just think of you as a bank. But you are doing so much more than that. With being in particular in how you’re investing those funds, and the work that you’re doing to really advance policy, and so forth, I think, is amazing.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Yeah. We work a lot on systems and structures. I would say, Lyn, we’re giving even more attention than ever to applying an equity lens, particularly a racial equity lens, on all of our work. Like so many structures, and systems, and policies in our country, there is systemic racism and structural racism built into our history, as well as our present day operations. So, that’s even tougher work, to unwind that history and to also … I don’t know if we can unwind it. You can’t unwind history. Learn from our history, learn from our history, and do things differently today, in a way that requires us to be much more thoughtful about how our policies are impacting all populations, not just the ones that represent our own lived experiences, but all.

Jessie Rasmussen:

We have to be careful that well intended decisions don’t create or exacerbate the disparities between racial groups. So, we have a long way to go on that one, but it’s a very important part of the focus of many of us in the underworld in early childhood. We don’t have all the answers. We’re all trying to learn. But that’s the only way we’re going to say that every child gets an opportunity to have a great start in life, but also one that is sensitive and reflective of their racial identity and their culture. That’s a lot, but we need to do it.

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah. If there is another good thing that’s come out of the past year, it’s just increased awareness across the board on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. To a certain extent, I think at one point, maybe two years ago, it felt, maybe, okay to, “Hey, I’m just not doing anything wrong,” to today, it’s like, “You know what? We’re really awakening to issues that we need to be more proactive and solve for.” I know that you are doing a lot of good work in that area. I’d like to circle back a little bit, too. We started to talk a bit about the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it’s impacted all of our lives. What effects are you seeing on children and early childhood education as a result of the pandemic?

Jessie Rasmussen:

Well, it came close to decimating the very fragile childcare system in this country.

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah.

Jessie Rasmussen:

At one point, up to 40% of the existing childcare programs had either closed, some permanently and some others were just hanging on, facing potential closure. It’s been very hard on the early childhood community. It’s also been a challenge to figure out remote learning for an infant or a toddler, for a three year old, for a four year old.

Lyn Wineman:

It’s one thing to just get your teenager, or as an adult, to be on Zoom all day for work, but the thought of a young child, I just don’t know how that would work.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Yeah. I have to admire the creativity and the adaptiveness of many providers, who figured out ways to do it. We know that putting a little kid in front of a screen is not how they learn. It’s not particularly good for them. But people were very creative about using technology to do parent-child coaching and support.

Jessie Rasmussen:

But that happened for those programs who had the resources to make those adaptations. Not all programs had that, nor do all families have the technology, or the internet connections, or the bandwidth. The bandwidth is a huge thing. To do learning that way. So, it is not ideal. Again, there really wasn’t a strong infrastructure there. In Nebraska, providers that were trying to stay open, particularly to serve essential workers, they couldn’t get the hygiene supply, the PPE supplies that they needed. Everybody was scrambling for them, particularly in rural communities. But it was true in the urban centers, too. It was very hard to get some of the basic issues, sanitary wipes, gloves, masks. All that stuff was …

Lyn Wineman:

I blocked that from my mind, but I remember just trying to get a few containers of Lysol wipes for my home. It was nearly impossible. I can’t imagine a large enough supply for an early childhood center.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Yeah. It was a struggle. I must say, there was some great … Funders quickly redeployed money that was designated for other activities to meet those immediate demands. With the CARES Act, money that’s come in, they’ve been able to give grants to programs to help support their operations. Overall, to say it’s been extremely difficult. What we don’t know yet, although we’re starting to hear, programs are seeing more challenging behaviors when the children are returning to school.

Lyn Wineman:

Oh, I wondered. Yeah.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Yeah. I mean, think about the stress we, as adults, felt.

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah.

Jessie Rasmussen:

But the loss of routine, the lack of predictability, the lack of interaction, parents who were trying to work, and at the same time, be the full-time parents and teachers for their kids, it is a lot of stress. So, it’s not surprising that we would see more challenging behaviors, which I think we’ve always said, “It’s important to pay attention to the healthy growth and development across all the mains, not just intellectually, but socially, emotionally.” In fact, they’re intertwined. You really can’t learn if you’re all messed up emotionally.

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah.

Jessie Rasmussen:

You can’t learn if you’re all messed up socially. To lose those experiences, it’s hard on kids. So, I can’t tell a full story yet, but we suspect that just like when I think we’re hearing it with K through 12, we’re hearing it with adults.

Lyn Wineman:

With adults. Yeah.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Yeah. That stress takes its toll.

Lyn Wineman:

Absolutely.

Jessie Rasmussen:

We know from the brain science that stress actually interferes with the development of the brain. I mean, we could see the impact of stress, and how it interferes with early learning. It all fits together. The pandemic’s been hard in that regard.

Lyn Wineman:

It will be really interesting to see how things play out for the generation of children that grew up through the pandemic. You think about how it impacted the generation of children who were certain ages during major affects like 9/11, or the past wars, and the pandemic was a long time. It was a long time, and it was a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of stress. It will be interesting.

Jessie Rasmussen:

I know that learning loss is a major issue. We hear a lot about it in the K through 12, particularly the early elementary. Learning loss also occurs in young children under age five. It’s like I say to people, you can’t put a two year old on pause. Their minds are still growing, or not. So, learning loss occurs for them, too. It may look a little bit different than what we see in K through 12, but it is an issue for young children.

Lyn Wineman:

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. You are going to have, I think, a lot of work to do in the years to come, new research to do, new policies to put in place. I’d like to talk a little bit more about just the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. I mean, the Buffett name is, obviously, well known in Omaha, and across the country. Can you tell us more about how the organization came about?

Jessie Rasmussen:

Well, it really came about because when Susie started doing more of her philanthropic work, she understood the importance of the early years, important enough to really establish it as a separate 501(c)(3). She also, of course, has her Sherwood Foundation that does a lot of wonderful work through a social justice lens, K through post-graduation, from high school. I recognize the importance. It started with two people, my predecessor, and someone who really was managing the HR and fiscal operations, and then it grew to four, with the addition of myself and my colleague, Mike Burke. He originally worked at the Ounce of Prevention for many, many years.

Jessie Rasmussen:

So, there were four of us. That happened, maybe, 12 years ago. Since then, we’ve added three additional people. So, we were small but mighty, an organization of seven, seven people who bring different experiences into this work, different life experience, as well as different professional experiences. It’s a great team. We don’t take unsolicited grants. We don’t have a regular grant cycle. We work with people to co-create. We’ll recognize a need. We’ll look at potential responders to that need, and then work with them to co-create a plan.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Let me give you an example of that, Lyn. Sixpence is an early childhood program targeted for children birth to three. That’s a whole nother wonderful story, how that happened. The annual evaluation from Sixpence for two or three years straight in a row reflected that when you got outside of Lincoln and Omaha, there weren’t the resources to really support healthy social and emotional development in the very youngest children. So, we said, “But we’ve got to figure out a way to respond to that.” So, we worked with the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, and they helped design a program called Rooted in Relationships, which is really trying to build capacity all across Nebraska, with childcare providers, with health providers, with school people, all of them, to be able to support families in promoting the healthy social and emotional development of young children.

Jessie Rasmussen:

So, that’s a good example of responding to a need. We also serve as a catalyst to start something, but we always think about what’s the off ramp? If this is so important, how do we institutionalize this? So, that’s when we start thinking about policy and public support. That’s how we respond to an issue we see that, either in Nebraska or nationally … We invest nationally, as well as in Nebraska. Then I would say the other thing is we almost do all of our work in partnership with other funders or public-private partnerships. We rarely do something solely by ourselves, believing that we’re going to get a much better result if we work with others.

Jessie Rasmussen:

So, that’s, I think, a pretty good description of how we operate. We’re quite flexible. Unlike some foundations that are really big, there’s a lot of processes to get projects and ideas approved, and get the financial support for them. We get a designated amount of money from Susie, via the Sherwood Foundation, each year. We can respond quickly. Oftentimes, when we partner with other funders, we’re the ones that can get something going while they’re going through their process, and then can come in …

Lyn Wineman:

Because they have more red tape than you. Yeah.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Yeah. Yeah. So, that’s a real luxury for us, that we can do that. It’s a fun organization. It’s a great team. Keeps me excited about going to work, remotely or in-person, all the time.

Lyn Wineman:

I can hear the passion in your voice, Jessie. I love to talk with people who are doing things, who have made careers out of what they’re passionate about. I’d actually like to talk a bit about you. I’m curious how you got involved in this work. What has your journey been like?

Jessie Rasmussen:

I was one of those college students that didn’t really know what they were going to do. I went to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. At that time, my mother was the professor in the Department of Nutrition in what was then called the School of Home Economics. She said, “You know what? Maybe you ought to look at child development, because you really like …” I got a lot of babysitting. So, I started taking courses in child development at the University of Nebraska and fell in love. I mean, literally, fell in love with learning how children grow and develop.

Lyn Wineman:

Wow.

Jessie Rasmussen:

So, to this day, I can still sit and watch children, and marvel at what’s going on in their heads and what they’re doing. I will tell you then, I decided that was really what I wanted to do, was work with young children and promote their growth and development. I had the good fortune of getting a job at a Head Start program in north Omaha that was designed specifically for children who may have differing abilities, special needs. So, one of the things I learned in that program, first from a mentor who said, “It’s wonderful that you’re doing great things in that classroom. But you have to think about the broader field. So, you need to be an advocate for good policy.” So, that person got me into that. I also realized in that experience, I watched how a system designed to help a child can actually harm a child.

Lyn Wineman:

Oh, yeah.

Jessie Rasmussen:

So, it’s a story of recognizing the importance of paying attention to systems, and how they impact children and families, even when people are horribly well intentioned in how they design those systems. I began, I not only was interested in policy, I became interested in systems. Then I just have to tell you, Lyn, doors opened for me. One would say it’s clearly white privilege, people I knew, the connections I was given. So, I was happy doing my practitioner work, but someone said, “You know what? You’d be good at policy work.” So, they talked me into running for the state legislature. So, I ran for the state legislature to be a promoter of good policy for children and families.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Then I had the opportunity to go into administration. One would say I got fired because one governor left and a new one came in. But a new door opened for me. That was really to get into administrative side of state policy. That’s when I had the good fortune of going into Health and Human Services, and I was actually running that organization in Nebraska, and then, again, when there’s a governor change, ran it in Iowa until there was another governor change. So, I had those good experiences. So, then after that, I had an opportunity to work on policy again through a grant from BECF, to the Nebraska Children and Family Foundation.

Lyn Wineman:

Oh, wow.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Who then hired me to do that. Then ultimately, my predecessor said, “Okay. We’d like you to come on to BECF.” Because at that time, it was just the two people. Neither one of them had the academic preparation or the professional experiences in the world of early childhood. So, they wanted that on the team. So, that’s when I was given this opportunity. I’ve been here since. Believe it or not, Lyn, that’s the short version. I could have gone on longer with that, but …

Lyn Wineman:

It does feel though, Jessie … It feels almost like, as you look back, your career was perfectly patterned. All of the different pieces fit together to culminate in what you’re doing now. I think that’s pretty neat to see. Once again, I can really feel … I can feel your passion for this. I’m curious what advice you have for other people who realize they have a passion for early childhood development? They want to make a difference for kids. What advice do you have for them?

Jessie Rasmussen:

Well, I would say do what makes you happy. I would like a world where really good early childhood educators get rewarded for staying in the field, and staying in the classroom. We have a tendency to think, “Well, the next step up is becoming a director.” That can be a pathway, but I would like to get us to a point where we recognize the value of those that are doing that day-to-day interaction with children. I would also advise to recognize the importance of policy.

Jessie Rasmussen:

You’re not doing your work in isolation, the policy. So, you ought to know what it is.

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah.

Jessie Rasmussen:

And what it should be. Be part of the movement, whether it’s the voice from your personal experience and professional experiences, or whether it’s getting actively engaged in policymaking, whether it’s getting people elected, getting yourself elected. But know that policy makes a huge different, and look for that pathway. As an aside, I would tell you we and another foundation have been funding projects designed to create early childhood policy tracks in institutions of higher education. Because most of them are focused on the preparation of the classroom practitioner as opposed to the policy.

Jessie Rasmussen:

There could be people who are very passionate about this work. Being in the classroom is not where they’re going to contribute the most. It could be around policy. So, policy is so important. I would just say, too, know there are pathways in research. We don’t have all the answers yet. We have a long way to go about what is implicit bias in the early childhood world, and how do we address it? So, we don’t know. We could say, “80% of the children who go to this program are thriving in school on par from their peers from resourced families,” but what happened with the 20%? There is so much more we need to learn about this period of important development. I guess what I’m trying to say is know there are lots of different pathways and lots of different positions in which you can make a difference in impacting children and families in a positive way.

Lyn Wineman:

Absolutely. I mean, I think I heard you just highlight four: the classroom practitioners working with the kids, the administrators running the centers or the programs, the policymakers, and the researchers. I bet there’s many, many more. That’s a very broad number of pathways that people can focus on early childhood development.

Jessie Rasmussen:

You know what, Lyn? Since you said four, and you should always have a fifth one, the fifth one is to be in an institution of higher education that is preparing the next workforce.

Lyn Wineman:

Absolutely.

Jessie Rasmussen:

I mean, that’s another whole role.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s good advice, too, to always have five. Right? I’m glad we went over that because we just identified one more. So, Jessie, you are a very inspiring person. I always love to ask this next question because I am inspired by words of wisdom. Could you just give us a few of your own Jessie Rasmussen words of wisdom to motivate our listeners?

Jessie Rasmussen:

One that immediately comes to my mind was one my father gave me: pick your fights.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s a good one, a good one for a policymaker, too.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Right. But also even if you’re working inside a program, that everything is not what you’re going after, but stick where you’re going to have the greatest impact, and put your time and energy in that.

Lyn Wineman:

Oh, that’s good.

Jessie Rasmussen:

I think the other is stay humble about what you know, and what you don’t know. Continue to learn how to fill that gap. When you think you’ve got it all figured out, I think you’ve made a mistake, whether it’s about practice, whether it’s about equity lens, whatever. So, stay humble about what you know, and that you need to still learn. I guess the last thing would be don’t go it alone. Find others, whether it’s other teachers, other directors, other policymakers. You need the support. You need the opportunity to learn from each other. You need the strength of a group to accomplish whatever it is, and whatever role you’re playing, and to do it well. I’ve not been asked that question, Lyn. So, that was totally off the top of my head.

Lyn Wineman:

That was very good. I love those words. Very good. Very good. So, for our listeners who’d like to learn more about the work that you’re doing, how can they find out more about the Buffett Early Childhood Fund?

Jessie Rasmussen:

The fund does have a website (http://buffettearly.org/). I will openly admit it’s somewhat limited. We don’t put a lot of time and attention into it, as you probably have discovered. But it is a way to get better acquainted with what we do. We love taking calls.

Lyn Wineman:

Okay.

Jessie Rasmussen:

If you want to learn more about what we do. We have grantees that we’ve supported for a long time, like the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation. More recently, the Nebraska Early Childhood Collaborative, the Educare Schools. So, there are people who know our work. That’s the other way to get to know who we are. Then it’s probably harder to track us down because we’re part of several coalitions on the national level. But it’s still another way to be where we’re trying to have some kind of impact. Again, our team likes talking to people. We fully appreciate most people are talking to us because they’re hoping to get some money. That can’t always be the case, because we also think we should use our position and connections to connect people.

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah.

Jessie Rasmussen:

And to share knowledge and information with them. So, we don’t mind getting those calls directly, too.

Lyn Wineman:

Sounds good, Jessie. We’ll make sure to put the website address in the show notes, as well, for anybody who wants to find it. I know your phone number and all of that information is there, as well. So, as we wrap up our time together today, what is the most important thing you would like people to know about the work that you’re doing?

Jessie Rasmussen:

I think it’s based on science, it’s driven by passion, and we’re still trying to figure it all out.

Lyn Wineman:

Good stuff. I just want to say, Jessie, bravo on all the great work that you’re doing. I thought I knew quite a bit about Buffett Early Childhood Fund. Today, you have taught me way more. You’ve shared some really enlightening information. I really just thank you for joining us on the Agency for Change podcast.

Jessie Rasmussen:

Well, thank you for having me. It’s been a fun conversation. I hope it’s been helpful to you and others.

Lyn Wineman:

Absolutely. Thanks, Jessie.

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