Our Experiences Go Deeper Than We Thought
A child’s earliest experiences not only leave a lasting impression on them, but studies now prove that early stressors can literally alter genetic structure. DNA is Not Destiny: How the Outside Gets Under the Skin (Episode 5 in The Raising of America documentary series) vividly portrays how stress in early childhood can impact future health and behavior. At a recent viewing, Superintendent Michael Watkins welcomed an audience of teachers, health care and early care administrators and providers, local judges, business leaders and elected officials saying that “a strong start is the birth right of every child born in Santa Cruz County.”
This documentary series is part of a public engagement campaign produced by The Raising of America, which uses film to ignite community dialogue about how we can do a better job taking care of our children. The Raising of America is spurring political action in more than 750 cities nationwide.
Motivated to initiate a local children’s movement by troubling information in the Childhood Advisory Council’s 2016 Needs Assessment for Early Care and Education, Superintendent Watkins is increasingly concerned that one in five children in Santa Cruz County are suffering the stressful impacts of growing up in poverty, such as housing scarcity, food insecurity and poor health. The cost of living in the county is 1½ times the national average, placing a burden on families to be able to afford the basic necessities of food, housing, transportation and child care.
Can Poverty Modify the Epigenome?
DNA is Not Destiny dramatically illustrates that children living in poverty are exposed to more environmental hazards, more noise, emotional hardship and violence than their wealthier peers. Supportive, nurturing environments and improvements in the daily environment such as better nutrition, safer neighborhoods and improved income opportunities lessen the impact of early stressors and improve a child’s chance for a healthier, more productive future.
Keynote Speaker and Gubernatorial Candidate Delaine Eastin offered high praise for the powerful documentary’s message. “I loved the film. Understanding that social and emotional stressors from childhood can last a lifetime is significant. So is understanding that improved conditions will provide a biological foundation that can help our lives be better. The science is clear. What we need is for public policy to follow the science.”
Following the keynote address, a panel of elected officials offered their responses to the film and talked about the real-world issues they are attempting to mitigate.
Oscar Rios, Mayor of Watsonville
“For Watsonville, one of our biggest concerns is housing. Without that stable foundation of a good home in a safe neighborhood, it’s really hard to have a secure family and a safe community. I came from El Salvador. And I know how hard it is for immigrant families. They want the best for their children. And now that I am on the city Council I want to see how we can use our budgets to make more of our resources go for 0-5 and at the same time, improve our economies as a whole.”
Martine Watkins, Santa Cruz City Councilmember
“I have so much passion for this topic. I think that health policy is all policy. It’s housing, it’s neighborhoods, it’s education. It’s about creating a social fabric that’s going to allow people to thrive. With limited resources and all the different needs in our communities, it’s challenging to say ‘this is our top priority and this is what we have to invest in.’ That’s where all of you come in. We need your support to say to the council, (We support you in investing in young children).”
Ryan Coonerty, Santa Cruz County Supervisor
“As Delaine Eastin says, our budgets are moral documents and they reflect our values. Our community spends less than one half of one percent on children 0-3. When you look at the science of brain development, that is not adequate. Zach Friend and I started the Thrive by Three because we have to start investing early, and we have to start investing right. We need to grow this program and other programs that help reduce trauma and stress and offer support to moms and their babies so that we do give them an equal opportunity in life. With your support and with your pressure and with you asking us to do more, we will be able to do more. We need your help.”
Anna Caballero, California Assemblymember, District 30
“Let me thank you very much for the opportunity to be here today. I would like to get a copy of this film because I’d like to show it in Sacramento. It brings up some huge issues that I’ve been dealing with for a long time and I’ve had a hard time explaining why I’m so passionate about it. I’ve said it’s the right thing to do. It’s the moral thing to do but this film gives us the science to back that up.”
Mark Stone, California Assemblymember, District 29
“Last year was the first year that we spent more on higher education than we did on prisons. And that was true for the first time in 35 years. (Delaine Eastin also pointed out that, since 1980, California only built six colleges and universities, but constructed 22 prisons). We can get money out of that system for early care and education, but we can’t do that until we start closing the prisons. We’re putting people in prison who really don’t belong and they need to have available to them health services, educational services, and the things they need to be resilient. When we give them those opportunities, they will respond.”
Is This a Safe World?
Prompted into action by the screening of another The Raising of America episode, last October, County Supervisors Ryan Coonerty and Zach Friend, authored Thrive by Three, a dedicated local funding stream for early childhood development to help pregnant mothers and their infants overcome the cumulative effects of poverty. Thrive by Three’s investment in effective interventions during the prenatal period and for the first three years after birth can help to prevent or even reverse the damaging effects of chronic stress, trauma and adversity.
Following statements from the panel, the audience expressed their support for current efforts and offered ideas for ongoing political change.
Christina Cuevas of the Santa Cruz County Community Foundation said the film series inspired her to action. “What’s really important about this film series and about these conversations that are going on in our community is that it raises awareness about the importance of this issue of taking better care of our children. I left the last event that we had in October really inspired. I realized, yes, there is something we can do even if we have limited dollars. We can’t support all the child care needs in our county, but we could do something to help early childhood professionals get the word out and educate the rest of the public that doesn’t really understand the complexity of this field so they can advocate to our public officials.”
Members of the audience spoke out about issues central to their personal and professional experience such as the need for child care to remain a high priority in the budgeting process at all levels, as well as the importance of securing a stable source of funding for the Cabrillo Lab school, which trains the much-needed child care work force. Others pointed out how much good work is being done locally, such as a new program that makes dental care available to all county children and a new state bill authored by state Assemblymember Anna Caballero that seeks to give participating counties more local control over child care subsidies. In their final comments, the panelists urged the audience to continue their optimism and to advocate for change right here at home.
Rachel Poulain, The Raising of America film series Associate Producer and facilitator for the panel discussion, concluded the evening’s inspirational event, saying, “What does change mean? It means a shift in our culture. It means thinking about our work in a different way, realizing that a win in housing is a win for child care, a win in child care is a win for living wage jobs, a win in living wage jobs is a win for responsible urban development. We’ve got to start seeing that interconnectedness.”
A number of California cities are already in the process of creating a dedicated funding stream for children’s programs, including San Francisco, San Mateo, Humboldt and Oakland through the creation of a special tax. “Santa Cruz has a long way to go in creating a healthier start for all our children,” says Superintendent Watkins, “but by educating the community and bringing elected officials into the conversation, Santa Cruz is taking its first big steps.”