Facing Collective Trauma, Prioritizing Protective Factors

Anat Weisenfreund is a fierce advocate for Head Start children, families, and staff. Since 2009, she has been the director of Community Action Pioneer Valley (CAPV) Head Start and Early Learning Programs in western Massachusetts. They serve pregnant people, infants, children, and families in center-based, home-based, and family child-care options in a 1,700 square mile, mostly rural service area. Under Anat’s leadership, CAPV has adopted a strengths-based and trauma-informed approach in which families are valued as essential partners and staff also are valued, cared for, and recognized as each other’s most valuable resource. As the pandemic hit, Anat knew it would put this approach to the test. Would staff and families truly feel supported and empowered as they were engulfed in such collective trauma?

“Through the unprecedented disruptions of 2020, we learned that it works,” Anat says. “Consistent, empathic, and reflective listening and messaging to staff resulted in a workforce that felt deeply supported and appreciated. They were then able to offer the same connection, recognition, and support to children and families.”

While addressing the physical and emotional needs of her own staff and families, Anat was also able to look at the bigger picture. She recognized her staff as essential workers that showed up each and every day, enabling parents to return to their essential jobs. And yet, they were not being prioritized for testing and vaccination with the same priority as K-12 educators.

Anat initiated and led weekly meetings for all Massachusetts Head Start grantees to support and learn from each other and identify important advocacy items. She leveraged her position as Chair of the Massachusetts Head Start Association and Board member of the Massachusetts Association for Infant Mental Health, and her strong relationships with national, state, and community leaders to influence national and state guidance, which resulted in revised requirements, increased flexibilities, and eventually the prioritization of the early childhood workforce for COVID vaccinations.

In her own words:

“At the center of my work and deeply aligned with the mission of Head Start, is to use all possible resources and strategies to ensure the healthy development of the youngest, most vulnerable children and families. On an advocacy level, energized by the urgency of the pandemic trauma, I learned to trust my instincts and my voice as never before. My advice: build strong, diverse teams invited to think and speak independently so that you have true partners in this difficult work. Seek and receive regular reflective mentorship so that you can become increasingly effective. With vulnerable babies and families always at the center, know that it’s the strength of relationships that will determine the quality of care.”

Explore more BOLD stories from this series:

  • A Bold and Decisive Leader in Times of Crisis
  • Preparation and Collaboration Serve Families in Crisis
  • Culturally Responsive Leadership During COVID-19
  • Creating Community despite Challenges of 2020
  • Therapy Dog helps Family and Staff cope with COVID

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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