SEATTLE – When Somali refugees began arriving in the Seattle area in the 1980s, many of the women created small businesses that tapped their culture’s passion for raising children and provided them a way to support their families in a new land far from the wars of East Africa.
In those days, they could easily get state licenses to open home-based child care businesses as long as they offered safe places for children.
Then in 2012, the state launched an ambitious effort to improve the quality of teaching in preschool and child care centers big and small, based on decades of brain research showing children need much more than baby-sitting to thrive intellectually and emotionally.
But the new requirements made many in the East African community fear the state wanted to shut them down.
But thanks to the efforts of a few young child care professionals raised in the East African community, that has changed.
As of May, 94 percent of the 243 Somali-speaking child care providers in King County had signed up to become part of the state’s effort, called Early Achievers.
That’s way above the county average of 78 percent (which includes preschool centers) and even exceeds centers run by native English speakers.
Many credit the improvement to a group of young professionals who, with their nonprofit Voices of Tomorrow, arranged for training in East African languages and earned the community’s trust because of their professional and cultural credibility.
Zam Zam Mohamed, one of the co-founders of Voices of Tomorrow, was 12 years old when her family came to the U.S. in 1999, fleeing a civil war in Somalia that had torn that country apart.
She grew up in south Seattle, where she became part of Washington’s Somali community, which one estimate pegs at 30,000 people, and is thought to be the third largest in the U.S., after Minnesota’s and Ohio’s.
Mohamed knew many women who started small child care businesses, mostly serving families who wanted their children to be cared for by someone from their own culture.
Mohamed herself worked in a bigger child care center, Tiny Tots Development Center in Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood, where she was the first Somali teacher. That’s where she met Iftin Hagimohamed, who was later hired at Tiny Tots as a lead teacher and now works for the city of Seattle’s Department of Education and Early Learning.
Their experiences at Tiny Tots – and for Hagimohamed, at the city – put them in a good position to understand what Early Achievers, and its new rating system, was trying to do.
When they realized home providers didn’t have a good grasp of the program, they founded Voices of Tomorrow, with the goal of bridging the gap between the state’s Department of Early Learning and the East African community.
When they started, that gap was wide.
Dealing with the state’s bureaucracy was complicated enough, especially for those who want to offer care to low-income families who receive child care subsidies from the state.
“The current licensing infrastructure is, at best, not helpful,” said Frank Ordway of the state’s Department of Early Learning.
In 2014, Voices of Tomorrow started offering training in Somali, which made a big difference.
Voices of Tomorrow tried to keep the community in the loop, but its mission became much more urgent in 2015 when the Legislature decided that any provider who wanted to accept state subsidies had to sign up for Early Achievers and receive at least a three-star rating by 2020.
“Everyone was scared of this,” said Roda Abdullahi, one of the East African providers in King County.
Mohamed and Hagimohamed tapped the expertise of two more young women from the East African community – Ikran Ismail and Asha Warsame, who joined the Voices of Tomorrow executive board in early 2015.
Ismail and Warsame were both working in the University of Washington’s Childcare Quality & Early Learning Center, which had led to the development of Early Achievers.
Because they understood the jargon of early childhood education, they were better able to explain Early Achievers in the providers’ own languages.
Voices of Tomorrow held its first conference in 2015, which attracted more than 200 East African women, and Ismail and Warsame persuaded many to get even more training.
Computers are not widely available in the East African community, so Ismail and Warsame took registration information over the phone. They helped sign up more than 100 women for an Early Achievers conference a few months later, which included classes taught for the first time in Somali.
“All of them are mothers,” said Mohamed. “All of them are caring for the children in their communities: their sisters, their friends, their neighbors. And they want successful children. They want quality care. And we say: Exactly, Early Achievers is the same thing that you want, except it’s in a different language.”
And given Voices of Tomorrow’s success, the state sees it as a model that could help with other ethnic groups.
“It is helping us as an agency to rethink how we engage these communities,” said Genevieve Stokes of the Department of Early Learning.
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