Black History tells the stories of dreamers, leaders, organizers, dissenters, and pioneers. Head Start is full of such stories. This month’s spotlight features Dr. Iris Cumberbatch. She shares how participating in the first Head Start in her community laid the groundwork that led her to a lifetime of learning, leading, and soaring.

Dr. Cumberbatch is the senior vice president of corporate affairs at ECMC Group, where she leads  communications, public relations, community outreach, and government affairs to broaden and deepen the company’s impact with customers, employees, media, community, and government stakeholders. We are grateful to her for sharing her story.

To call 1965 consequential in American history is an understatement. The year delivered a series of tipping points that urged the nation’s conscience to move closer to reaching its ideals.

As part of his Great Society program, President Lyndon B. Johnson‘s Administration launched several initiatives to address health, political and economic disenfranchisement, and education, to name a few. Head Start was one of those initiatives.

This national focus on the country’s youngest learners had a lifelong impact on me. At the time, we were living in Washington, D.C. My mother, Eula Mae, had been raised by her grandfather Hughes, whose parents had been enslaved. Hughes learned to read as an adult, and he instilled a love of learning in my mother that she passed on to me and my sister Carol. When my mother learned about Head Start from a relative, she signed me up. As was happening across the country, our community launched its inaugural Head Start program. My mom canvassed door-to-door to encourage neighborhood moms to send their children—a testament to Head Start’s beginnings as a grassroots movement. I didn’t know it then, but we were taking part in history!

Most of my memories of Head Start are distant, but I clearly remember my class in a basement with green walls, and we napped on green cots. My best memory is that it was a safe space in which books were plentiful, and reading was a daily activity. Interestingly, though memories have faded, Head Start set the foundation for a hunger for knowledge that has permeated my life.

Head Start’s holistic approach has given me the building blocks necessary to pursue a path of educational advancement and excellence that has opened countless doors. I have seen the promise of education fulfilled in my life, from my academic pursuits that led to a doctorate in leadership and change, to my professional journey as a journalist, to leading high-performing communications and marketing teams for major financial firms and other institutions.

In my current role, I am fortunate to be able to make a difference with an organization that advances access and opportunities to postsecondary education with a particular focus on historically underserved students, including low-income, first-generation, and BIPOC learners. As I reflect on the historical opportunity I received as a young, curious little girl, I am grateful to be a part of building the bridges that prepare students and their families to achieve their wildest dreams.

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson is NHSA’s first-ever director of alumni engagement. Back in Cambridge, Head Start is where she made her first best friend — and now, she’s inviting Head Start alumni to connect with one another, share their unique stories, and help keep Head Start strong for generations to come.

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