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Victor Jones is raising his two young daughters in New Orleans, Louisiana. He works as an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center where he leads the Louisiana Children’s Rights Practice Group. And 30 years ago, he graduated from Head Start. Victor has built a career around his dedication to fighting for children, a passion he credits to his early education in Head Start.

He has translated the Head Start mission into his work, first as a kindergarten teacher and today as an accomplished social justice attorney. Victor’s commitment to lifelong learning and his everyday efforts to make the world a more equitable place for children make him a true inspiration for the Head Start community.

Here’s Victor’s story, as told in an interview with NHSA.

We are excited to learn about your Head Start story, Victor! When and where did you attend Head Start?
Iam a 1989 graduate of West Tampa Head Start, located in Tampa, Florida. My mother and I only lived in Tampa for two years, and these were the two years I attended Head Start. Thereafter, we returned to where I was born and raised, in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Do you have any memories from your time in Head Start? Favorite activities, classmates, teachers?
Iremember my class was always out and about — going on field trips to Busch Gardens to see the animals, going to the park, taking trips to the grocery store and learning about fruits and vegetables. I also remember the times when doctors would visit us and check our eyes and ears and hearts, and I’ll never forget the day a giant toothbrush walked into our classroom and we learned about the importance of dental hygiene. I even still remember a few of my classmates’ names, though this was 30 years ago.

I can also still picture the uniform we had to wear on field trip days — it was a red shirt with an image of a panda bear hugging a bamboo tree, with black shorts or pants, and a black visor. And for the strangest reason, I remember that my classmates and I had to learn the song “Shower Me With Your Love” by an R&B group named ‘Surface’, as part of our graduation ceremony. The few times I’ve since heard that song, I immediately think of my time in Head Start.

Head Start was also one of the very, very few instances from my Pre-K to 12th grade journey in which I was taught by teachers who looked like me. I think having such vivid memories of my experiences in Head Start is a testament to just how positively impactful the program was for me.

How do you think Head Start impacted your later school years? Or even your goals and career accomplishments beyond school?
Head Start directly impacted my professional trajectory. Because of the program, I’ve always wanted to serve children in some capacity. Before practicing children’s rights and disability law, I was a public school kindergarten teacher!

What did your educational and career journey that led to your current position look like?
After graduating from high school in Mississippi, I attended Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically-Black college located in New Orleans, where I majored in literature and double minored in history and political science. I then received a master’s degree in education from Harvard University.

I then taught kindergarten, and thereafter, returned to New Orleans to attend law school at Loyola University. While in law school, I took courses in civil rights and child advocacy. I spent six years as a private practice attorney at multidisciplinary law firms in New Orleans, and then , in 2018, I returned to my original passion for serving children by joining the Southern Poverty Law Center as a senior supervising attorney of the SPLC Louisiana Children’s Rights Practice Group.

That is a truly remarkable journey. Now what sort of work do you do in your current role with SPLC?
I lead the Louisiana Children’s Rights Team at SPLC in its efforts, through litigation, public policy, and outreach, to fight the school to prison pipeline, fight for education equity, and protect the access to mental health services for Louisiana’s most vulnerable youth populations, including children with disabilities, children of color, and children from low income families — that is to say, many children from the Head Start population.

You also recently authored an article published by the American Bar Association about youth access to mental health services. Why is it important to bring attention to this issue?
From my work as a former schoolteacher and children’s rights attorney, I regard the access to mental health services as the civil rights issue of our lifetime: under-treatment, or no treatment at all for any variant of mental health issues adversely impacts a child’s educational, physical health, and social engagement outcomes, as well as a child’s overall quality of life. I see this in the clients I serve, and I saw this in my kindergarten students.

This issue is also of personal importance to me.

I regard myself as a survivor of the school to prison pipeline — throughout my childhood, I was frequently mislabeled as being a behavioral problem, when really, I was a smart child who needed to be challenged and also needed support, including mental health support, to deal with the experiences of being fatherless and struggling with my own identity and esteem. I was raised by a single mother with limited financial means, in the radicalized deep south Mississippi.

Note from NHSA: Access to mental health support and trauma-informed services is also of great importance to the Head Start community. We have been advocating for greater investment in these services. We know Head Start children and families will benefit from this because there are long-lasting adverse effects on health and well-being when children don’t receive the support they need.

Victor, what advice do you have for current Head Start children and families?
Know that your child’s involvement in Head Start will be the best investment in their educational experience that you can offer them. The holistic approach to learning — physical care for self, care for your peers, and learning how to exist in the world around you, is an approach that I, as a former early childhood educator, can say is unique.

I am now the father of two daughters, ages 1 and 5, and I always say that I wish that they were able to have received a Head Start education like I did.

Anything else you would like to share with the Head Start community?
I always say that I went from “Head Start to HBCU to Harvard.” I am eternally grateful for Head Start because it shaped me into the person that I am today, someone who aspires to be a fierce advocate for marginalized children.

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