When Jayd Rodrigues was 12 years old, she wanted to be a pediatrician.
“But not because I was interested in anything medical. It was because I liked working with children,” she says.
Today Rodrigues is the executive director of early education at Horizons for Homeless Children, a Boston nonprofit, where she oversees 22 classrooms. She’s also a member of the second cohort of Strategies for Children’s Advocacy Network.
Rodrigues’ story starts in Cape Verde where she was born.
“I immigrated here with my family when I was 2 ½ years old,” she explains. “So I’m from Boston. I grew up in Dorchester, as the middle one of five children, and I’m still in the neighborhood.”
Rodrigues’ parents, who have been together for 53 years, don’t speak English, so Rodrigues speaks English and Cape Verde creole. When she enrolled in Suffolk University, she did so as the first generation in her family to attend college.
“My parents are the catalyst for where I am today. Even though they don’t speak English, and they haven’t gone to college, they consistently are my cheerleaders. And they’ve allowed me always to be who I am without hesitation.” Which includes, Rodrigues says, her life as a member of the LGBTQ community and her role as a foster parent.
“Near the end of my time at Suffolk, Jumpstart came and did a presentation about their AmeriCorps program, which trains college students to provide language, literacy and social-emotional programming in preschool programs.”
Rodrigues signed up for Jumpstart and worked alongside students from Harvard, Boston University, and Wellesley College, but found herself sharing less than she might have – until a Jumpstart coach who saw Rodrigues’ passion for children said, There’s something special about you.
“It was how I connected, and how I helped solve little people’s situations,” Rodrigues recalls. “It just came naturally to me. It felt effortless.”
Rodrigues has worked with children ever since, working in urban and suburban preschool programs, and seeing how urban children sometimes faced more adversity. She also saw that some early educators hadn’t had the education they needed to “understand child development, the learning process, and trauma.”
“Working in classrooms,” Rodrigues says, “is the hardest work I’ve done, because it requires constant attention and constant adaptation. The work is physical and psychological. And good teachers have to learn the nuances of working effectively with individual families.”
As much as she loved her work, low pay eventually drove Rodrigues out of early education, and she spent several years working as a nanny.
But 15 years ago, she came back, and she began working at Horizons for Homeless Children, where her sister worked in the finance department.
Rodrigues arrived with misperceptions of what children who were homeless would be like.
“I was ignorant. But when I walked in and saw the kids, I thought, Oh, these children could be our children.”
She learned about housing insecurity and family homelessness and how the state’s shelter system works.
“Now my passion for doing this work is to support all children’s wellbeing and close the gaps for our black and brown children.” She is also passionate about “the success of early educators who love being in this field but are underappreciated and are not being paid a livable wage.”
Horizons pays teachers more generously, but this isn’t always enough. One teacher, Rodrigues says, asked for a demotion so she could earn less and keep the state-funded child care voucher she had for her own children.
“Luckily, we didn’t have to do that,” Rodrigues says, because the Department of Early Education and Care has a pilot program that helps early educators manage their own child care costs.
What drew Rodrigues to the Advocacy Network was the chance to find her own voice as an advocate.
“I wanted to learn and network with peers. I want to take the advocacy that I do for Horizons and do it for the masses,” Rodrigues says of the larger community. “I want to learn more about how the system works, so I can bring my thoughts and ideas forward for change.”
What has she learned so far?
“That there’s actually an art to advocacy. You can be yourself, but you also want to make sure that in addition to bringing your personal perspective, you bring your larger message, and you make a lasting impression.
“I’m learning how to understand my why, and how to articulate my why, and still be true to myself.”
Rodrigues’ why is her passion for early educators, “because I know that if we can really see them and give them what they need, that’s the only way we’re going to improve the lives of children, especially children in our program, who are going through adversity.”
In Boston, Rodrigues works primarily with children of color, but she’s keenly aware of the needs of white children who are homeless and facing other challenges.
“I think every child should have full access to education, but that education has to be high quality.”
As part of a larger project being done at Horizons, Rodrigues is working to track the trajectory of homeless parents to see how they fare with accessing benefits like child care vouchers and other financial support. She also wants to learn more about the legislative process at the state and federal level.
How confident is Rodrigues that positive change can happen?
“I’m an optimistic person,” she says. “I see my parents and my teachers as proof that change can happen, that we can pay educators well, and that we can do what’s best for children.”