We’re thrilled to wish Amy O’Leary a happy 20th anniversary! She started working at Strategies for Children on June 24, 2002.
We sat down with O’Leary to talk about this milestone.
“I have to say how grateful I am to have been at Strategies for Children for the last 20 years,” O’Leary says. “I would have never imagined that I would have this kind of job.”
O’Leary’s work with young children started at Skidmore College where she earned a degree in psychology and early education.
“I didn’t do a traditional K-12 education major,” O’Leary recalls, “because I was very interested in understanding why children did what they did, and how they sat in the context of family and community.”
O’Leary’s campus job as a financial aid student was working as a classroom assistant at the Skidmore Early Childhood Center, a laboratory school affiliated with Skidmore’s Education Department, where she also did her student-teaching.
“It was such an important part of my college experience to have that world where I could go three times a week, whether it was to my campus job or [for] student teaching, and develop relationships with families.”
“I don’t think I realized how wonderful the program was, and how it prepared me for my next job as a preschool teacher in Boston.”
That job was at Ellis, where O’Leary taught preschool for three years and then became the preschool’s director.
“When I became a director is when I became interested in advocacy and policy.”
A challenging issue in those days was financing. O’Leary combed through the fine points of admitting private pay families as well as families who needed government funding. O’Leary also worked hard to understand and meet parents’ needs.
“It wasn’t just about their child care. It became about what was happening in their families.”
And when the unthinkable occurred, O’Leary persisted:
“I was a director on September 11, 2001,” she recalls. “It was that day that I realized the enormity of our responsibility. People were calling and saying, Are our kids safe? And that has stayed with me to this day because they were safe… but we just couldn’t imagine this new world and what it would look like for children and families.”
Less than a year later, O’Leary’s passion for advocacy led her to her first job at Strategies for Children, working with Strategies’ founder Margaret Blood, a fellow Skidmore alum, whom O’Leary had connected with when she first came to Boston.
“It was my dream job to be the early education field director… It was so exciting to be part of an organization that was just starting out, and one that really valued my experience as an early educator, which I had come to learn was not typical,” O’Leary says.
O’Leary enrolled as a part-time student in Suffolk University’s Master of Public Administration program, where she met entry-level professionals and seasoned veterans who spent decades working in state government.
It was also an exciting time in research and policy. Scientists were talking about how young children’s brains developed at an astonishing rate – and they were arguing that public policy should protect and promote this growth. Policymakers were thinking about how to shape early education and care, whether early educators should have college degrees, and how to collect data that would show the impact of early childhood programs.
Business leaders were paying attention and taking action. Strategies for Children’s Early Education for All Campaign was led by Paul O’Brien, the chairman of New England Telephone, and Mara Aspinall, who was at the time the president of genetics and pharmaceuticals at Genzyme.
Philanthropies were involved. In 2001, the Pew Charitable Trusts “launched a new campaign to highlight the evidence and advance policies at the state and federal levels to provide voluntary, high-quality pre-kindergarten for every three- and four-year-old.”
Then, in 2005, based on community feedback, Massachusetts opened its Department of Early Education and Care.
Through the years – and today – a key goal for O’Leary and Strategies has been including and amplifying the voices of early educators.
“As I was growing up, adults in my life told me I could do what I wanted to do… As an adult it became clear to me that maybe everyone wasn’t told that they can do whatever they want.”
So O’Leary decided to tell them.
“One of the reasons I wanted to get a master’s degree,” she says, “was to teach in the Leadership Empowerment Action Project, which I had gone through in Boston.”
She taught a leadership course at Wheelock College – which later merged with Boston University. The course was designed by early educators for early educators, and it explores advocacy, policy, and finding one’s voice. O’Leary has also taught at Quinsigamond Community College and Cambridge College.
“I tend to make leadership and advocacy a thread no matter what I’m teaching because I believe so strongly in the power of people figuring it out; having opportunities to learn and then practice; get feedback and get better.
”And it has just been extraordinary to watch educators, no matter what they come in with or how they’re feeling about topics, really thrive and just do things they never thought they could do.”
Strategies is also using grant funding to run advocacy training programs.
“Titus DosRemedios and I both had this dream of supporting educators through a structured process, both through a Speakers Bureau… and then through developing this network of advocates across the state.” DosRemedios is Strategies’ deputy director.
Among O’Leary’s proudest moments is the creation of the 9:30 Call, which kept early educators connected when the pandemic hit and has now become a tool for statewide advocacy. “We started with a small group of 15 or so people in March 2020. We’ve grown the 9:30 Call list to more than 800 people, and the calls have continued as the pandemic has waned. We’ve learned that there really was and is a need for convening spaces for our field, to connect with one another, and get timely, useful information.”
Another victory is connecting early educators to legislators, so that public policy can be informed by the people who do the work of caring for and educating young children.
Through the years, a rich resource for Strategies has been its diverse staff.
“I have been so fortunate to work with so many incredible, smart, thoughtful people at Strategies,” O’Leary says. “Each person added to our organization and we would not be where we are today with all the contributions over the years.”
And yes, O’Leary wants to thank and acknowledge each person, listed in order of appearance: Margaret Blood, Amy Kershaw, Christine Lopes, Sheila Engdahl, Carolyn Lyons, Heather Barondess, JD Chesloff, Kyle Sullivan, Coleman Nee, Joe Gianino, Sara Nadig, Charlie Stefanini, Joan Wasser Gish, Anne Hunt, Lee Payton, Ophelia Navarro, Tom Weber, Brooke Freeland, Diana Meyers, Chad d’Entremont, Kyle DeMeo Cook, Irene Sege, Seema Rathod, Mike McLaughlin, Emily Levine, Kelly Kulsrud, Kate Anderson, Chris Martes, and Laura Healy.
“And now, I am thrilled to be working with our current team: Titus DosRemedios, deputy director, Marisa Fear, associate director of Research and Policy, Diagneris “Nery” García, director of communications, Marge Mahoney, director of finance and operations, Alyssa Haywoode, Eye on Early Education blogger, and Tanya Lazar, our graphic designer from Lazar Design.”
O’Leary is also proud of and grateful for the many interns who have contributed to Strategies work.
“We’ve talked many people out of going to law school and going to policy school instead,” O’Leary says. “For us it’s about supporting the next generation of leaders, not just in Massachusetts but across the country.”
O’Leary’s vision for the future of Strategies for Children is to continue investing in early educators and others who want to be connected to policymakers so they can share their educational expertise. O’Leary says it’s crucial for early educators to be at the table – and, when necessary, to create new tables, so that they understand “how powerful their voices are for implementing change.”
“We are excited to plan for the next phase of Strategies for Children. We have learned so much over the past 20-plus years. We are grateful for our Board of Directors and will be expanding and growing our Board to help guide our work.”
Strategies for Children also has a three-year strategic plan that is building on the spirit of the 9:30 Call by launching new convenings for the field to create a shared, high-level advocacy agenda. We will release more details on this work in the fall.
Finally, if you know O’Leary, you know she loves sports, so we asked her about that.
“One of my favorite sports moments was the 2004 season of the Red Sox when they finally won the World Series. I was in graduate school… and we all would come in wearing our Red Sox hats and our professor would let us go at 7 o’clock so we could watch the 7:05 start.
“That season being in Fenway Park when David Ortiz would hit a home run at the bottom of the ninth and they would win a game just reminded me about how powerful believing in something is and staying true to that belief even when the chips are down.”