Advocacy plays a huge role in the early years sector, not only because we are passionate professionals but it is also a responsibility outline by the College of Early Childhood Educators in our Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice.
“RECEs communicate the value and importance of early childhood education in their communities and to the broader public. RECEs advocate in the interest of children, families, early childhood educators and the early years sector.”
(College of Early Childhood Educators, 2017)
For the past two years, the Licensed Child Care Network(LCCN), Fanshawe College, and Strive have been working together to advocate for, research, and promote a National Childcare Strategy for Canada. Our aims have been to advocate for the entire sector, with a special focus on the unique needs of those working in the early years in the London/Middlesex region.
Like many other organizations, advocacy groups, and individual early years professionals in Ontario, we were thrilled when our province signed on to the Federal Child Care Agreement in March of this year! Though not all the details of this agreement have been shared with the sector yet, some have. To dig into her perspective on what this means for Early Years Advocacy in London and Middlesex, we interviewed Kara Pihlak, RECE, Executive Director at Oak Park Co-operative Children’s Centre, and Chair of the LCCN Advocacy Subcommittee.
STRIVE: Thank you for making the time for this interview Kara! To start out, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what led you to a career in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC)?
KARA: Sure! All throughout my childhood I worked in summer camps, and then during my university career, I worked at an after school program which was an awesome experience. I actually graduated from King’s University College at Western in 2015 with a BA in psychology. So at the end of my BA, I thought to myself, “You know, I don’t want to be a psychologist, I love working with children, especially young children.” So, from there I applied and was accepted to the ECE FastTrack Diploma program at Fanshawe College. I graduated at the end of 2016.
I worked at London Bridge and I just loved it; my work with the infants, the organization, all of it. But even though I was only 23 at the time, I was coming home exhausted. I was caring for infants, lifting, giving a lot of emotional labor. I realized then that I couldn’t really stay on the floor if I wanted to make an adequate wage to, you know, exist. I was a single woman. I wanted to have an apartment and a car, but I was still living at my parents house because I couldn’t afford to move out on my own. I applied for a supervisor position because I wanted to move up in the organization thinking I might make a little bit more money that way. I think sometimes folks are judged for making career decisions based on financial reasons, but it’s really to survive and find some kind of quality of life.
I worked for the Y in the Toronto region for a while, then in 2018, I started as executive director at Oak Park; where I am now.
STRIVE: Was it that recognition and understanding of the profound weight of care? The physical and emotional labour, exhaustion, and inability to support yourself on your wages that led you to advocacy?
KARA: Sort of, but really it has been a lifelong experience. Again, I loved working in that infant room. Some of my most treasured memories with children came from that first experience in the field. I loved my boss, I loved my coworkers. I loved going there every day, but I just couldn’t make a life for myself. I couldn’t afford a one bedroom apartment in London. I couldn’t buy myself a vehicle and I thought, “How is this field going to be sustained? Like, I’m not sure how that will be possible at these wages.”
Throughout my career I have seen really hard working women working long shifts for not much recognition or pay. Witnessing and being a part of the devaluing of our work is what led me to being such a strong advocate for ECEC specifically.
STRIVE: That leads me to this third question, which is: What does it mean to be an advocate?
KARA: To be brave. To me, it is standing up for people who might not have the opportunity to stand up for themselves. ECEs are working hard every day, eight, nine hours a day. They may not have the energy or the opportunity that I may have to advocate for themselves. It’s amplifying those voices. The voices at the heart of the system.
I love being an ED, it’s great, but I recognize that I have benefits that they don’t. Like, I can sit down here with you and do an interview. I can check my phone. I can go to the washroom whenever I like. But it’s ECEs on the floor, working eight hours a day, committed to the children who don’t always have the chance to speak up.
I think we need folks like us, who are in these different types of leadership roles, to be their voice because they are rightly tired. They’re busy and we need to stand up for them.
STRIVE: Can you tell us about the role of the LCCN Advocacy Subcommittee and when it was established?
KARA: We started it back in May 2020 with Barb Jackson and Diane Gordon (Co-Chairs of LCCN). I was a member of LCCN when I first started as an ED. I was younger. I was 25, 26. So LCCN really took me in, these mostly women leaders who supported and mentored me. I felt so privileged. Back then the meetings were in person and I took the minutes for a year.
When COVID hit in May 2020, there were a lot of questions around our funding, specifically our general operating grants and the wage Enhancement Grant. I thought, you know, this is the time we need funding the most. It was wild to me that there’s confusion. So that’s really how it started. Barb and Diane gave me the go ahead to start the group and it just snowballed from there.
STRIVE: What is your biggest wish for the ECEC sector?
KARA: My biggest wish is more respect and recognition. You know, the federal government is so excited that all the provinces and territories have signed the federal child care deal, and that’s great. But I think there’s an elephant in the room, and that the workforce. They’re not going to be able to build 80 thousand child care spaces without an adequate workforce plan. We won’t be able to build a workforce without raising wages. Again, bearing witness, watching everyone around me, I see and hear stories of Fanshawe students going to Teachers College instead of staying in the early years, people leaving the field.
As a young, unattached woman without children, I see clearly the point of view of younger people coming into the field. They’re not going to want to work in, and stay in a field where they’re making $18 an hour. They want, need, and deserve it a professional, living wage starting at $25 to $30. Careers in care are in high demand – EAs, PSWs, teachers, nurses – what the government isn’t realizing is that in order to make those 80 thousand new child care spaces a reality ECEC is competing with the other caring professional to attract and retain passionate professionals and we can’t compete with low wages.
STRIVE: It’s true, right now the average cost of rent for a one bedroom apartment in London, Ontario is $1400 a month. And that’s not inclusive.
KARA: I think that because I like to see things through many lenses, that wage piece is the personal rights lens. But, as an advocate, I want to also view the situation from the provincial government’s lens, which is quite different. Their lens is access and voice for families which means spaces, spaces, spaces. This is where these lenses intersect, you can’t create and fill the spaces without raising the wages, benefits, and respect. My motivation is different from theirs, my motivation is caring about people and wanting their rights to be respected and for them to be able to afford to have a home, but regardless of motivations, fair wages and respect for the profession are the only road forward. Otherwise it’s like filling a bucket with a hole in it.
STRIVE: That reminds me of something I heard you say earlier this week at the LCCN meeting, about your advocacy being focused on the things you can control. Can you tell us a bit about that approach to advocacy?
KARA: I’ve been doing this for two years and I definitely have at times burned myself out emotionally. The past few months I’ve been reflecting, and we need to take care of ourselves. To do this, I just focus on what I can control. I can’t control who is the premier, I can’t control or decide wages for ECEs. I wish I did! All I can control is sharing my story and gathering the stories and experiences of others. So that is the only thing I focus on. If we get into negative spirals of, no offense, just complaining about things beyond our control, it doesn’t really get us anywhere.
If I hear that there are centres in London that can’t open rooms because they don’t have staff, that’s a story, a fact I can share. If I hear that more ECEs have left centres to go work for the school board, that is another truth I can share. I focus on sharing facts and truths without stressing myself out. The workforce is in crisis, so we all just need to be louder and share those stories, while we also focus our energy on what we can control.
STRIVE: How has the signing of the federal child care agreement affected the focus of your advocacy going forward?
KARA: Well, I just keep going back to the workforce. I know I sound like a broken record, but it seems like the agreement is very parent fee focused, which is great. I’m very excited for the families at my center who will get discounts or fees reduction! But I’m anticipating parents being quite disappointed in the future when there aren’t enough childcare spaces to fill demand. There’s no spaces, there’s no people to fill them. So again, my focus is the workforce because it’s just the heart of a key of the system.
I’ve said in the past that I want ECEs in childcare to have a professional structure much like teachers in that I want there to be a salary grid as soon as you join the profession. It’s firm, it’s reliable. Folks feel confident making a career in ECE and staying at the centre because they have a standard contract, benefits, paid vacation they can rely on.
As for what the Advocacy sub-committee is up to, the provincial election is June 2nd. So we’re waiting for news from each party and statements about where they stand on professional wages for professional work. We’re working on some questions to send to all the candidates in London and Middlesex. These questions centre around plans for the workforce and their plan (if any) to consult with the sector. One of the things we felt was lacking when Ontario signed the federal child care agreement was consultation with the childcare sector. We’re hopeful that going forward, that can be a part of the deal and future plans as they roll out.
We had a successful meeting with Darryl Wolk, Manager of Policy Development and Public Affairs, at the Ontario Municipal Social Services Association (OMSSA) on April 28th where we shared our stories, and spoke to the struggles of London, Middlesex, and help advocate for us to the Ministry of Education. We are also continuing our partnership with Fanshaw and will be welcoming Early Childhood Leadership students as interns over the summer as well as collaborating with Dr. Céline Bourbonnais-MacDonald on her child care framework prototype for London/Middlesex.
In the two years leading up to the signing of the federal child care deal, the LCCN Advocacy Subcommittee was working tirelessly behind the scenes. Below is a brief list of only some of the stellar advocacy work this passionate group of professionals accomplished in 2021-2022 alone:
- On February 22, 2021, we launched the #IAmEssential campaign. This campaign is part of our ongoing effort to bring greater attention and awareness to the child care sector and to further our call for a National Childcare Strategy.
- On March 17, 2021, City of London Mayor, Ed Holder sent a letter to the Honourable Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development (now Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion), and the Honourable Todd Smith, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services (now Minister of Energy), voicing his support for the creation of a National Child Care Framework on behalf of the City of London.
- On Thursday, April 29, 2021, members of the LCCN had the opportunity to meet and discuss the current and future state of child care with Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, Ministers Monte McNaughton and Jeff Yurek, and members of their staff.
- On Wednesday, November 24th, 2021, the LCCN, along with partners from Strive and Fanshawe College hosted our 2nd Annual Early Years Town Hall.
- On Thursday, January 27, 2022, members of the LCCN had another opportunity to meet with Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce. We shared the ongoing impacts of Covid-19 on the child care sector and discussed the increasingly urgent need for Ontario to sign onto the federal child care plan. Following this meeting, LCCN’s Advocacy Sub-Committee drafted an Open Letter to the Minister, echoing our key messages and in particular emphasizing the need for a comprehensive workforce strategy and strongly recommending the implementation of a wage grid with a minimum starting rate of $25/hour.
STRIVE: Last question, how can folks get involved in advocacy?
KARA: I would say share your stories. We all have a story to tell in this community. Speak to your co-workers and your colleagues, speak to the managers at your childcare centre and ask about advocacy, and what your organization is doing to advocate for the sector. Folks can also join our mailing list or even reach out to myself! So yeah, join our mailing list, follow us on social media, attend a meeting and then share your stories – you can even share them with your members of parliament! Maybe your MP honestly doesn’t know much about the child care sector or how ECEs are affected by poor working conditions and low wages and they need to hear it from you.
STRIVE: Thank you for sharing your story with us, Kara! And for all you do for the sector.
What does advocacy look like in your professional practice? Have any ideas on how folks can get involved in London/Middlesex? Please share them in the comments below!