Sharon Scott-Chandler

Sharon Scott-Chandler has spent years trying to make change.

“When I went to law school, I wanted to be a public defender. I wanted to represent my community. I grew up in Mattapan, and I wanted to provide people who couldn’t afford really good attorneys with a really good attorney,” Scott-Chandler says, recalling the days when she attended Northeastern University’s School of Law.

“But when I was in law school, I did a couple of co-ops,” Northeastern’s required, full-time job experiences, “and I decided being a public defender wasn’t the right place for me to make change.”

The right place, it turned out, was in the community.

Late last year, Scott-Chandler became the president and CEO of ABCD — Action for Boston Community Development — one of the country’s largest community action agencies. And ABCD’s mission is rooted in change, in helping people go “from poverty to stability and from stability to success.”

A big piece of this work focuses on young children.

Scott-Chandler was exposed to early childhood policy in the 1990s when she worked for Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, and she was inviting Dr. Barry Zuckerman to conferences. Zuckerman was a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center as well as the co-developer of the Reach-out and Read literacy program, and a powerful advocate for protecting children by promoting the well-being of their parents.

When Harshbarger ran for governor of Massachusetts, Scott-Chandler imagined working for change from within the governor’s office. When Harshbarger lost, however, Scott-Chandler found herself at a crossroads. She could stay where she was and work for a new attorney general or she could do something else.

A conversation with the late Robert Coard, the former CEO of ABCD, led her to make a professional change.

“Bob was one of the people that I talked to, not because there was a specific position I applied for, but just to get a sense of what my next steps might be, and he encouraged me to come to ABCD.”

“I felt like what I had been doing was further away from having a direct impact on people, so I thought, I want to do community work. I want to provide direct services. And because ABCD was such a great organization. I took the leap.”

Scott-Chandler joined ABCD in 1999, becoming the director of Child Care Choices of Boston, one of the state’s Child Care Resource and Referral Programs. The work included supporting parents, training child care providers, and managing a $50 million budget.

“It was an unusual move,” Scott-Chandler says, “but it’s almost as if Bob knew it was the right move. And being on the ground, providing that direct community service did feel like the right thing.

“I developed this passion for early childhood education because I could see that families wanted the best for their children. They didn’t have money, they didn’t have any resources, but they really wanted the best for their children.”

The work became personal, years later, when Scott-Chandler became a parent and saw for herself and her family “how valuable early childhood education is.”

Scott-Chandler went on to become ABCD’s vice president of Head Start and a champion of the program’s holistic, comprehensive, two-generation approach of helping parents and children.

“If a child is hungry, that child can’t learn. If a child is emotionally traumatized, that child cannot learn. If the family is emotionally traumatized, or in poverty, which all our families at ABCD are, then that child’s development can get delayed.”

Head Start helped families make positive changes.

Ask Scott-Chandler what has gotten better over the years, and she says, “I wish I could be more positive. I wish I could say that I have seen systemic change. But I’ve been at ABCD for 24 years, and I feel like communities, families, and children are all facing many of the same barriers to getting out of poverty”.

However, “I do see change at the individual level. A child who isn’t verbal and may be introverted comes to our Head Start program, and they leave more than ready for kindergarten. Not only have they experienced an appropriate developmental curriculum, they have eyeglasses, they’ve had their hearing tested. And their family has gained the skills and confidence to be able to advocate for them.

“I can also tell stories about youth who had their first summer jobs at ABCD and went on to become doctors, police chiefs, lawyers, and legislators.

“But as a society we haven’t moved the needle on things like the wealth gap. A lot of the resources we have are focused on crisis management and surviving poverty. We have to think about what our priorities are and what success looks like.”

“Addressing the barriers to more broad-scale change is what I want to focus on as ABCD’s CEO.”

What are some of the levers for broad-scale change?

“Thinking about ways to bridge economic mobility and evolving economic circumstances. Government programs shouldn’t pull the rug out from under people just as they’re becoming more stable,” Scott-Chandler says, pointing to examples like how a recent increase in Social Security benefits caused some elderly people to lose their SNAP (food stamp) benefits, and how parents whose earnings go up a small amount can lose their child care vouchers.

“We also haven’t made the paradigm-shifting investment that we know early childhood needs which can not only sustain but grow and enhance the field.”

And like other early childhood programs, ABCD is struggling to maintain its early childhood workforce, a function of low salaries and Boston’s high cost of living, including its high apartment rents.

“Competitive salaries is an area where we have to see change.”

One overall solution, Scott-Chandler says, is “to also focus on connecting people to opportunities that offer a really good education that can lead to a good job. But what we see on the ground is that not enough people have access to opportunities. Too many people face barriers.”

As the pandemic showed, Scott-Chandler says, public innovations are possible. She points to Chelsea, Mass., where city officials shifted from providing food to residents to providing cash assistance so residents could buy their own food. The program, Chelsea Eats, is being analyzed by Jeff Liebman, a Harvard Kennedy School professor, who found that families were spending more money overall on food, according to The Boston Globe.

“The challenge is how can we collectively work on making systemic change.”

“At ABCD, it’s also about making things easier on the ground for people who are low income. It’s hard to get help. There are so many hoops you have to jump through. Too often government programs and rules are based on suspicion. It shouldn’t be more difficult for families who, because of systemic inequities, are starting out with nothing and trying to create a better future for themselves. We should be giving them what they need.”

Scott-Chandler is also committed to forging community partnerships.

“It goes back to ABCD’s roots. Bob Coard started the model and emblem of what community action is really about, which is the voice of people and the voice of change. It’s about working with people. I want to make sure that we’re not just providing people with support, we are participating with them to make a change.

“I’m not advocating for people; I’m advocating with them.”

Which is a very promising path for change.