New St. Paul nonprofit wants to nip racism in the bud through early childhood education

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The next frontier for preventing racism and bias starts with the littlest Minnesotans.

That's the premise on which Bill Svrluga is basing his new St. Paul nonprofit: an early childhood education program to block prejudice before it takes root, in Minnesota and across the United States.

"Minnesota could be a leader in this kind of new frontier," said Svrluga, who is white and has run a nonprofit consulting company for years. "The return on the investment of working on preventing [racism] vs. turning it around is pretty clear. Changing minds and hearts is hard to do."

His organization, Before Racism, is being led by an all-volunteer team of specialists who have set a goal of raising $100,000 by Saturday to develop the curriculum, geared toward curbing racial bias in preschoolers.

Children aren't born racist, Svrluga said. But they start to notice differences and develop judgments at a young age.

"Experts in the field are very clear with us that no one is providing a focused, comprehensive and integrated program to prevent racism in very young children ages 1 through 5," said Svrluga, who helped start the Jeremiah Program, among other local nonprofits. "If you don't intervene early on, you miss an opportunity."

The public misconception that children are colorblind has been disproved by researchers who have found that racial and gender preferences may already be set by the time kids are 3 to 5 years old.

"There is a growing realization around this topic of young children and race and equity," said Dianne Haulcy, senior vice president of family engagement at Think Small, a St. Paul early childhood nonprofit.

Learning to combat bias

Haulcy isn't involved with Before Racism, but she hosts a new podcast called Early Risers on MPR, focused on teaching anti-racism to young children — an increasingly important priority, she said, especially after George Floyd's murder last year.

Haulcy recommends that parents have open conversations with their children about race early on.

"To my knowledge, there is nothing like this right now," she said of Before Racism. "That's just what we need to really be able to look deeply at not only how children are learning these [biases], but then how can we combat that."

At the University of Minnesota, Charisse Pickron is researching the ability of infants to differentiate and categorize faces by race, which could be a precursor to later social biases and judgments.

"Children notice race and it's not something that has to be explicitly taught," said Pickron, a research associate at the U's Institute of Child Development.

She's found that babies from 6 to 9 months old are clearly shaped by their environment — such as who their primary caregiver is — and that even at that point they have a hard time distinguishing faces of people of an unfamiliar race, such as a baby raised by a white woman who is met by two women of color.

"That doesn't mean that a 6-month-old is necessarily racist, but it does mean that this is an age period where having experience with a wide group of people is probably really valuable," Pickron said. "It's not a malicious intent. It's what are children being exposed to, who do they see and who do they learn from."

'More needed to be done'

Since Floyd's murder sparked a global racial reckoning, racial justice work and funding have intensified among foundations and nonprofits across Minnesota, which has wide racial disparities from education to employment rates. Nonprofits have sought to distribute grants more inclusively and increase diversity of employees and board members.

"The murder of George Floyd has opened the eyes of people all over the world," said Mary K. Boyd, a former St. Paul school administrator who serves on Before Racism's board of advisers. "It would be great if white children were brought up to understand that all people have value."

Svrluga's goal is to raise $200,000 by the end of the year to develop and launch curriculum, with pilot programs at three or four Twin Cities preschools and early childhood centers at the start of 2022 before expanding across Minnesota and nationwide.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Svrluga started the nonprofit more than two years ago. He's met with early childhood experts and other consultants and is developing the curriculum — which will use storytelling, play, artwork and other elements geared for young learners.

"I've been working in this area for a long time and I've seen great changes," said Svrluga, who participated in the famous Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in 1965. "But more needed to be done."

"White people need to step up and do what they can and help — largely other white people — not develop bias," he added. "This is not something we need to ask Black people to fix. We created this problem. It's our job to fix it."

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