The Brain Architects Podcast: Place Matters
In June, we hosted a webinar about our latest Working Paper, Place Matters: The Environment We Create Shapes the Foundations of Healthy Development, which examines how a wide range of conditions in the places where children live, grow, play, and learn can shape how children develop. The paper examines the many ways in which the built and natural environment surrounding a child can affect their development, emphasizes how the latest science can help deepen our understanding, and points towards promising opportunities to re-design environments so that all children can grow up in homes and neighborhoods free of hazards and rich with opportunity. Corey Zimmerman, our Chief Program Officer, moderated a discussion around these themes between Dr. Lindsey Burghardt (Chief Science Officer) and Dr. Dominique Lightsey-Joseph (Director of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Strategy) which has been adapted for this episode of the Brain Architects podcast.
Tassy Warren: Welcome to The Brain Architects, a podcast from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. I’m Tassy Warren, the Center’s Deputy Director and Chief Strategy Officer. Our Center believes that advances in the science of child development provide a powerful source of new ideas that can improve outcomes for children and their caregivers. By sharing the latest science from the field, we hope to help you make that science actionable and apply it in your work in ways that can increase your impact.
In June, we hosted a webinar about our latest Working Paper, Place Matters: The Environment We Create Shapes the Foundations of Healthy Development, which examines how a wide range of conditions in the places where children live, grow, play, and learn can shape how childre
During the webinar, Corey Zimmerman, our Chief Program Officer, moderated a discussion around these themes between Dr. Lindsey Burghardt (Chief Science Officer) and Dr. Dominique Lightsey-Joseph (Director of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Strategy) which we’re happy to share with you all on today’s episode. To access the full Working Paper and related publications, please visit our website at developingchild.harvard.edu.
Now, without further ado, here’s Corey Zimmerman.
Corey Zimmerman: Hi, everybody. Welcome. I’m Corey Zimmerman. I’m the Chief Program Officer here at the Center on the Developing Child, and today we’re going to be discussing a paper, the name of it is Place Matters: The Environment We Create Shapes the Foundation of Healthy Development. This paper was written by our National Scientific Council on Developing Child and was released earlier this year in March.
We see this webinar as an opportunity to begin to understand a broader frame for thinking about what influences early childhood development, the role that inequity plays in influencing the environment children are in, and third, some early thoughts on new actors or sectors that might be called upon given this broader frame, to be able to join us in our collective effort to improve outcomes for all children and their families.
Okay. With that, let’s get started. It is my pleasure to introduce you to my two colleagues, Dr. Lindsey Burghardt, who is the Chief Science Officer here at the Center on the Developing Child. And then second, Dr. Dominique Lightsey-Joseph, who is our Director of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Strategy here at the Center. Okay. So we’re going to start with a brief overview of the Working Paper, Place Matters from Dr. Burghardt.
Lindsey Burghardt: Thank you again, Corey, for that introduction. And thanks to all of you today who took time out of your day to join us and to hear about this new working paper from the National Scientific Council. So the overall focus of this paper is really to broaden the frame of how we’re talking about early childhood development and health. And we’re going to look upstream today and consider all the different factors that influence how kids develop.
So we all experience this continuous influx and flow of influences from our environments, and they begin before birth right in the earliest days of the prenatal period, and they continue throughout our lives. And these influences include the environments of relationships and those environments–that environment of relationships–is just as important as it’s ever been. And children also experience exposures and influences from the physical environment that surrounds them and their caregivers.
So particularly the built and natural environments. And there are a really wide range of conditions in places where children live, learn, play and grow, and all these conditions have the ability to get under the skin and affect the developing brain and also other biological systems. So the immune system, the microbiome and the metabolic system, among others. And beginning before birth, these environmental conditions are shaping how children develop and that, in turn, has the ability to shape their lifelong physical and mental health.
So the built and natural environments and the systemic factors that shape them, like policies that influence where people are able to live and how resources are distributed, interact with each other and they interact with a child’s social environment in really deeply interconnected ways. So this is really what we mean when we say that place matters. So every environment is infused with a combination of influences, and these influences can have positive or negative effects on health and development.
And it’s also really important to recognize that level of exposure to risk and access to opportunity for children are not distributed equally. So in 2004, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child described the effects of early life experiences on the developing brain and its first working paper called Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships. And over the two decades that followed, this concept really helped to make the case for caregiver-child relationships is sort of the active ingredient in how environments can influence the architecture of the developing brain. So the environment of relationships includes the presence of responsive relationships, the presence of significant stress and adversity, caregiver well-being, social connectedness, community support, faith and cultural traditions. And so more recently as our understanding of how early the early origins of health and disease have advanced, we’ve also really started to understand how early experiences affect multiple developing biological systems beyond the brain. So thinking about the immune system, the metabolic system, the respiratory system, and actually how these systems are interacting with each other and shaping each other as well as the brain. So the environment of relationships again, is just as important as it’s ever been, but these environments–that environment or relationship–it doesn’t exist in isolation; it exists in the context of is much broader environments that include the built and natural environments that surround children.
Exposures from the natural and the built environments also directly shape the development of biological systems inside the body, and they interact with adult-child relationships in a really deeply interconnected way. And these exposures can be positive or negative, and they can include things like air quality and temperature that children breathe, the purity and availability of their water supply, their ability to access safe green space and healthy housing and whether or not they’re exposed to things like environmental toxicants.
So we can take the example of lead is one that many people are familiar with. So lead is one factor in the built environment that connects to safe and healthy housing, connects to clean water supply and to exposure to toxicants. And we’ve known now for a really long time that lead is harmful to children’s development, particularly in the prenatal period and in the earliest years. And lead is still a challenge for a lot of families that today that are still dealing with this and the ongoing situations in Flint and in Jackson speak really clearly to this issue. So the presence of lead in children’s drinking water directly influences and affects their development, and it also shapes the environment that their caregivers are in with the burden and stress that it puts on them. So if there’s lead in the water supply, caregivers often have to seek out alternatives, and it’s typically at a cost, they may need to find in time for additional doctor’s visits and follow up. And all this can cause stress on them, and that can impact their ability to be in a caregiving relationship. So when we look at an environment, one that provides lots of positive influences is more likely to support children’s healthy development, and just as an environment that provides or imposes more negative influences is going to be more likely to result in disease and in poor health outcomes.
So let’s widen the frame one level further, because there’s also these really broad systemic influences that play quite a powerful role in shaping the environments our children live. So these systemic influences are going to shape children’s development directly and they’re going to shape them indirectly through their influence on a child’s environment of relationships and their built and natural environments. And these influences include things like current and historic public policies, systemic racism and intergenerational poverty, among others. So it’s really important to acknowledge that conditions in our built and natural environments are not experienced equally among children. They vary widely and the adverse effects of systemic racism in particular have deep historical roots whose impacts continue to the present day and many present-day policies continue to perpetuate these inequities and their ongoing effects. So there’s an example that we’re going to dive deeper into a little bit later on in redlining. And redlining strongly influences where many children of color live today. And although this practice is now illegal, it has modern day implications like the home appraisal process that continues to shape the environment where young children grow. So increasingly, data that has been provided that shows deep analysis of these differences at the community level. And there’s one that’s provided by the Childhood Opportunity Index, or COI, that’s cited in the working paper. And then we’ll again talk in more detail later on. But the COI demonstrates that in the United States, neighborhood opportunity is highly segregated by race with black and Hispanic children having access to significantly less neighborhood opportunity than white children.
So let’s shift a little bit now to talk about the timing, which is so important. Well, it’s really clear now that it’s not just our genetics and it’s not just our environment, that influence health and development. It’s both. And the influence that our genes and our environment have on our health is also really depends on the time during which we have certain experiences or exposures. And people differ in their sensitivity to influences from their environment at different points throughout their life course. And children’s biological systems in particular have different periods when they’re really sensitive and more sensitive to various environmental exposures and influences, even within the same biological system. So one example is the developing microbiome in our gut, which is very sensitive to influence from the built and natural environments around the time of birth and in the first few years of life.
So in general, the sensitivity of the brain and the other biological systems that we’ve talked about is typically greater in the prenatal period than it is in early childhood. And in general, young children are more sensitive to influences from their environment than older children who are in turn more sensitive than adolescents. And in general, adolescence will be more sensitive than adults to many environmental exposures, and this is really important when we consider the importance and the impact of environmental exposures because of a greater sensitivity in early childhood.
When an exposure happens during a fetal development or in early childhood, it’s going to have a very different impact and potential effects than if that same exposure happened later in life. So when we think about it, actually the first place where a child’s development is affected by place is the intrauterine environment during pregnancy. And during fetal development,immature biological systems are developing a very, extremely fast pace and their development is powerfully shaped by the environment around them. And these systems read the conditions in the womb as predictors of what they’re going to encounter after birth, and they sort of adapt accordingly. And so because these systems are still differentiating, they’re still becoming specialized and figuring out what they’re going to be, the exposures can result in really different outcomes depending on the time during development when they occur.
And we can take a look here at the example of air pollution. So air pollutants can be absorbed in a variety of ways and can cause problems in developing organs and entire organ systems. But the nature and the severity of any potential effects will be different depending on the time during childhood and during development when the exposure occurs.
So, for example, in the prenatal period, exposure to air pollution is associated with things like adverse birth outcomes in prematurity and in low birth weight. And in early childhood exposure to air pollution is a known risk factor for a variety of health effects, including asthma and children who are exposed to higher rates of outdoor air pollution during the first year of life may have diminished functional lung capacity as teenagers. So this is only one example of how the nature and the extent of an exposure that occurs very early in life may not even be fully apparent for years or even decades later.
So let’s talk a little bit about climate. So climate and our changing climate is a really important factor in how children experience place. So we’ve talk today about how environment shape development and health, and we’ve discussed that what surrounds us quite literally shapes us.
So let’s go back to thinking really broadly about what’s surrounding and shaping children in their environment. We talked about the quality and the temperature of the air that they breathe, the purity and availability of their water supply, their ability to access safe and healthy housing, their ability to access nutritious foods and the quality and density of the buildings in their neighborhoods. So climate is modifying the environment where these kids are living in a number of ways, it’s increasing the temperature of the air that’s surrounding them and making that air less pure. And it’s altering the availability and purity of the water supply, and that’s making housing less predictable through displaced men and through increasing energy costs. And it’s making nutritious foods for many children around the world even more scarce.
So climate is changing children’s environment and it’s doing it unequally across groups. Let’s just take a moment to look at heat as an example. So higher temperatures actually lead to a really wide variety of negative outcomes on development and health, including adverse birth outcomes like prematurity and low birth weight. It can have impacts when it’s experienced even in early childhood on academic achievement that can persist for many years later and heat increases the effect of air pollutants which are known to worsen conditions like asthma. So more heat will intensify the effects of air pollution and we’ll see more problems with asthma as a result. And heat is increasing in all children’s environments all over the world, but it’s not increasing equally among communities. So urban areas that already have a higher density of buildings, already are experiencing higher temperatures and have less green space, are going to be more impacted than suburban or rural areas. And the disparities then, in exposure to heat and the intensified effects of air pollution are going to be different depending on where you live and how you’re experiencing our changing climate. And as a result, we’re going to see a disparate impact in the contribution to disparities in rates of diseases like asthma that are already based on where children live.
So we feel that the implications of this really rapidly growing science on this front are clear. Understanding the really powerful effects that the natural and built environments have on the early foundations of health and development is calling for increased attention to really important influences that fall well beyond what we all consider the traditional boundaries of the early childhood field. So this demands that we have to incorporate a more intentional early childhood perspective within the current concerns of things like urban planning, rural development, environmental protection, climate change, anti-discrimination policies, many others. And doing this requires that a much broader range of policy domains must work together to address racist and other discriminatory policies, and we have to achieve greater equity.
All communities have aspects of their built and natural environments that have been designed through intentional decisions made over time, and they can be redesigned to support healthy development. And supporting healthy development is still very much about encouraging and supporting caregiver-child relationships, and it’s also about bringing communities, businesses and governments to work together to assure a supportive and healthy environment for all young children with particular attention to the built and natural environments that are currently falling far short of that goal.
So working together across various policy domains beyond the early childhood field and sector, we can reshape environmental influences with a science informed lens and a shared goal of achieving fairness of place so that all children can grow up in homes and neighborhood that are free of hazards and rich with opportunity.
Corey Zimmerman: All right. Thank you, Dr. Burghardt, for that overview of the paper. So many rich insights. I’m actually really excited to dive into this more now with you and Dr. Lightsey-Joseph. Thank you. All right. That was a great overview. And now we’re going to shift into the panel part. So, Dr. Burghardt, this first question is going to be for you.
You mentioned that every environment is infused with a combination of influences and that those influences can impact children in positive and negative ways. And I was wondering, can you give us an example of an environmental influence that has an important impact on children and families? But maybe that’s not something that we typically think of as related to early childhood development.
Like, help us dimensionalize a little bit. What would be an example?
Lindsey Burghardt: Yeah, thanks for the question, Corey. So one of my favorite examples here is green space. So our knowledge of the health effects of green space is really increasing as we’re learning more and more of the science behind how green space exposure affects health and development in children. And we have a growing body of science that’s demonstrating that the benefits of access to safe green space around the prenatal period has a variety of benefits and a variety of health outcomes in children.
So later on, benefits to the immune system and benefits really on children’s mental health in a number of ways. And there’s also a really growing and exciting deepening knowledge about how green space can offset some of the more negative environmental exposures that I spoke about, like heat and air pollution. So, you know, as we talked about earlier, children are experiencing the built and natural environment really differently based on where they live. And right now, children’s opportunity to access green space is not equal. But I think that given the robustness and the rapidly growing science in this area, around the really wide range of benefits, this kind of disparity of place is one that really demands greater attention. And in particular when when it pertains to green space. There’s also, I think, really interesting and significant what we call co-benefits when we think about bringing together in conversation and action children’s health and their environments.
So, for example, if we’re decreasing concentrations of air pollution, including through ways like increasing green space, then we can improve the air quality that children are breathing and potentially make problems like asthma less likely to occur. And these types of interventions, as we spoke about earlier, they’re really needed most in communities that have the lowest concentrations of green space right now and also the highest rates of asthma.
Corey Zimmerman: So many thoughts. That’ sparking so many different ideas, and that’s an example that’s close to my heart as well. So I really appreciate that one. Dr. Lightsey-Joseph, I want to bring you in. I want to ask about this concept of fairness of place that Dr. Burghardt mentioned. And I was curious if you could tell us a little bit more about the social history that’s led to this unequal distribution of environmental influences.
Dominique Lightsey-Joseph: Sure. Thank you for having me today, Corey. And good to see you, Dr. Burghardt. Yeah, sure. I can answer that question for you. I think in understanding the unequal distribution of environmental influences, we have to name the historical practice of redlining in the U.S., which is a policy in the thirties by the Federal Home Owners loan Corporation, in which neighborhoods, particularly those that were populated by Black residents, were color-coded based on perceived financial risks or real estate investments. And those areas that were color coded red were seen as the riskiest and the most undesirable neighborhoods. And this process resulted in these communities being systematically denied vital services and opportunities for economic advancement in this country. And despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which officially outlawed redlining, the economic disparities that resulted from these discriminatory practices persist.
An example of this would be, there was a 2020 report that was conducted by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which found that 74% of neighborhoods initially redlined in the ‘30s remain economically disadvantaged today. And this is characterized by lowered home values, higher rates of poverty and things of that nature. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that the impact of redlining, it doesn’t just end at financial implications. They stretch deep into the health and environmental qualities, too. And as Dr. Burghardt mentioned earlier, we can take Flint, Michigan, for instance, which is discussed in the paper, and the city’s water crisis, which subjected a predominantly Black community to dangerous levels of lead exposure has roots in the long term consequences of redlining. It was that facilitated segregation of that city all of those years ago that resulted in this higher concentration of poverty and exposure to these environmental hazards.
In comparison to, you know, other neighbor of neighboring areas in the state. So to really answer that question, Corey, I think the influence of redlining has pervasively shaped the socioeconomic and environmental contours of our neighborhoods, and consequently, it has defined the environments where kids are raised and the opportunities or lack thereof, they have to grow up healthy.
Corey Zimmerman: Thank you for sharing that. And I want to pull it forward now and ask you a follow up question, Dr. Lightsey-Joseph, around the Child Opportunity Index that Dr. Burghardt mentioned earlier and is in the paper, I think that’s a way of kind of quantifying also some of the ongoing pieces that you’re talking about. So, the Index lays bare the many ways in which disparity of place continue to exist across communities today. And I was curious about what this powerful dataset has to offer us as we think about how to create health promoting environments for all children. So I was curious your thoughts about that.
Dominique Lightsey-Joseph: Yes, the Child Opportunity Index, or the COI, it really does lay bare the fact that these disparities across communities exist. And I think it quantifies it to your point in a way that there’s that felt anecdotal knowledge of it, but to see it in the form of the COI, I think is invaluable. So it’s a tool that really does help us to understand these disparities across communities. And it uses a range of indicators, as Dr. Burghardt said earlier, within the educational, health and environmental domains, that really examines the conditions that are vital for children’s healthy development across neighborhoods in the U.S. And one of the most significant insights by the COI is that the substantial disparities in child opportunity are often racialized in nature between different neighborhoods, cities and regions. And for example, in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas , a turn of the decade analysis of the COI, found that Black children are 7.6 times more likely than white children to live in neighborhoods with substantially lower opportunity to grow up healthy. And Latine children are about 5.3 times more likely to live in neighborhoods with lower opportunity. And so the COI beyond that, right, it allows us to identify these environmental disparities across neighborhoods within the same city as well.
So as you both know, I’m a transplant from California, has deep roots out there. And there’s a neighborhood in West Fresno that has consistently been ranked as one of the neighborhoods most burdened by population in the state of California. And subsequently it ranks really low on the COI as well, due to the high air pollution and the limited green spaces. But in contrast to that, neighborhoods with a higher ranking within the same city, literally across the tracks, right, often have less pollution and more parks and playgrounds. And I think the data that is offered by the COI is really this powerful resource, right? That not only allows us to identify these spaces, but it also allows us to address these disparities so that they can inform where these targeted interventions and resource allocations in neighborhoods that require more attention to infrastructure and investment is necessary.
And I would say that it’s important to note that neighborhoods in Flint, like we mentioned a few times and Fresno, are still impacted by being redlined all those years ago, the environments in which our kids live, grow, play and learn, they were not fixed, and these outcomes are not inevitable. They are the products of decisions that have been made over time and they can be reimagined and restructured.
And so I think it’s the responsibility of us, like researchers, government officials, advocacy groups, policymakers, just to name a few. But it’s our responsibility to really work collectively with community leaders to invest and restructure these built environments. I think we have to work together. That’s the only way that we’re going to be able to support healthy development for kids, regardless of their race, their ethnicity, or their socioeconomic status.
Corey Zimmerman: I love that. This is a product of decisions that have been made over time and we have an opportunity to redesign. And I find such power in that. There’s such agency actually in that this is changeable. We can do this differently. And so, Dr. Burghardt, I want to actually ask you, with that lens in mind, there is an opportunity to redesign neighborhoods in communities to support healthy development. And I was curious, can you say more about your you had a last point in your presentation that was around the extended role for actors in other sectors outside the traditional early childhood field. So I wondered if you could expand on that a bit.
Lindsey Burghardt: Yes, absolutely. Thanks, Corey. And I think I’m going to +1 what Dr. Lightsey-Joseph just said. And that I think for me, like the thing about the COI that really stands out is her point that she made about the geographic proximity and the starkness of difference. Like I feel that we can’t emphasize that point enough. If you look at cities like Milwaukee, I think is a good example of one where literally adjacent to each other some of the highest levels of opportunity in the state and the lowest opportunities in the country right next to each other. And I think that it just highlights that that intentional decision making of where to allocate and distribute resources is a really stark example. And if you check out the, if anyone’s interested, you can go to the website actually and learn a lot about the COI in your particular area. And you can it kind of translates, I think, to what we experience and know from our own experiences. So I’m not adding anything more eloquent than what Dr. Lightsey-Joseph said, but I think just a really, really valuable tool when we’re thinking about where we can invest and where we can focus on health promoting environments.
So, to get back to your question, Corey you know, in the beginning of our time together, I talked about broadening this list of policies that we’re thinking about as affecting the foundations of early childhood development and lifelong physical health and mental health. And the list I gave is by no means exclusive. But I think that looking at things like environmental protection, climate change policies, in particular, mitigation, housing, urban planning, zoning requirements, which helps to redress things like redlining, economic development, criminal legal reform and the criminal justice system and anti-discrimination policies. We can bring decision makers from all these different sectors to the table, even though they haven’t traditionally considered their work perhaps as impacting childhood development and lifelong health. We can again think about how all of the decisions we’re making–literally, every one–is affecting childhood health and development, and I think many people who are here today are already doing that in their work. But it’s thinking about who else can we bring in and who else can we share this messaging with, because we can make a child assessment, you know, impact assessment in every policy and program that we do. We should be looking at every single decision we make, even the ones that on the surface you think, well, there’s no way that that could affect children. Most people here could explain how it, in fact, would. So everything from minimum wage laws to zoning laws, they will affect children’s development, they will shape those environments and those environments will shape children’s health and development. And we really need to demand that kids are considered and that the impact on them is considered when all of these decisions are made.
Corey Zimmerman: Okay, so we have reached the point in the session, I feel like I should readjust my chair somehow, like we’re going to switch into the Q&A session now. So we’re going to switch over from the questions that we have sort of prepared and now respond to questions that have come in through the through our social media channels, through registration links. So a big thank you to Dr. Lightsey-Joseph and Dr. Burghardt for your responses so far and for your upcoming now next set of thoughtful responses also. Alright, the first one I’m going to start with is this one. It’s for you, Dr. Lightsey-Joseph, given what we’ve been talking about. And the question is, can you talk more about how and connect this to how does this align with protective factors and resiliency? Curious your thoughts about that.
Dominique Lightsey-Joseph: I love that question. So in these neighborhoods, right, there, there are these strong community-based organizations and social support structures that already exist, and they have long been providing emotional support, the practical help, the collective strength and resilience, which in turn nurtures the well-being and empowerment for the kids and families residing in these respective communities. And I think acknowledging these protective factors is important because they are invaluable for sure. I also think it doesn’t negate the need to confront and address the systemic injustices that have resulted in such disparities and made resilience so necessary in the first place. So these protective factors are present and they, to me, serve as a really good starting point from which we might begin to foster a healthier and more equitable environments for these kids. And so I think, to Dr. Burghardt’s point earlier about, you know, approaching this from a holistic perspective and looking at all of these other sectors, that we have to come together and work collectively to restructure these environments, but the approach in how we do that should be guided by the insights and the experiences of those within the communities and not merely outside speculations, assumptions or perceptions of the challenges.
So while we might use data to help us identify where these areas are, I think pairing that information with an approach to the wider systemic challenges and keeping it community-led and community-guided can really give us a real shot at transforming these opportunities that are available to kids on a national scale.
Corey Zimmerman: All right. I’m going to keep this going. Dr. Burghardt, this next question is for you. And you touched on this a bit earlier, but I think this is an opportunity for us to go deeper. And this is a topic that I care a lot about, and I swear I didn’t plant this question. Somebody else actually submitted it. And so the question is, how does the impact of climate change on the built in natural environments shape the foundations of development? And I’m excited to see this question, too, because I think there’s a lot of energy in this space right now. So I’m curious for you to add a little more thoughts from what you did earlier.
Lindsey Burghardt: Yeah, thanks, Corey. I appreciate the chance to come back to this topic and to talk more about it. You know that I share this passion with you, but I also think it’s a real opportunity for those of us in the early childhood field who kind of understand how there’s all these different influences, how they affect children’s health and development, to bring to conversations into the same space that maybe aren’t happening as much as they could right now. So climate change and children’s health are two things that I think once we can kind of explain the connections between the two make a lot of sense, but aren’t necessarily intuitive, especially for some of those sectors that I mentioned before, that kind of sit outside of what we consider the traditional scope of the early childhood field. So when we think about how we can tell the story, we’ve discussed today how children’s environments shape their development and health, and we know that environments affect development and that climate change affects each of the environments that we talked about today and that it does so unevenly across these different groups. So climate change, again, is modifying in many, many ways, both the built and the natural environments where children are living. And heat is one example that we discussed, but there are many others. So if we think about the availability of a pure water supply and access to nutritious foods as other examples of things that are impacted by climate change. So if nutritious foods are less available, for example, this can directly affect children’s developing biological systems, especially in the prenatal period and early childhood. So when we take what science has already demonstrated and what we already know about the importance of nutrition or lack thereof in the prenatal period in early childhood, and then we think about how that’s modified and changed by climate, it becomes a really clear and compelling story about why this is a really important issue that’s going to affect–and is affecting today–children’s development and health. And then things like natural disasters and flooding are going to increase the number of families who are displaced from where they live, and that’s going to significantly alter the physical environment that surrounds those children and it’s going to directly affect their developing biological systems as well. And so while climate change is an urgent issue that’s affecting how children are experiencing place, there’s also in this space a really wide solutions space that’s already available to us now at every level from high, broad, reaching goals also to more immediate things that many of us may have a potential to act on fairly quickly. And there’s actually a really big, what we call co-benefit that exist when we look at climate change and early children’s development and health in the same space. Because many of the solutions that we all know about that promote early childhood development, healthy development, are also climate promoting policies and programs like access to green space and decreasing air pollution by decreasing fossil fuel combustion. All of these things are really good for children and they’re really good for our climate. There’s a strong financial case that we can make here too, so there’s good research that’s demonstrated that for every dollar we put into decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, we see up to almost at least $6 gained in child related outcomes. So that’s pretty compelling and maybe something we can take out into the field when we have these conversations.
Corey Zimmerman: So much richness there. I really love the like as we think about place matters and then how climate modifies place and why that is such are and see and attention and this idea of co-benefits that there are solutions that are good for the planet and good for helping us reduce the effects as well as are good for children and their outcomes.
So we can spend another hour there. But that’s not what this webinar is for. Okay, let me keep going in questions. Dr. Lightsey-Joseph, this one is for you. This is a theme we’ve been touching on throughout and it’s sort of expanding beyond early childhood. But this one is particularly about how can government agencies and nonprofits reach influential leaders like business to advocate for young children?
Dominique Lightsey-Joseph: So I think this in the same vein as Dr. Burghardt’s presentation earlier, at the time of our start together, I think the key to reaching influential leaders like those in business is to first recognize that there is this intersectionality of children’s lives, and so the environments that they are growing up in are influenced by so many sectors outside of just the early childhood arena. So really anybody, everybody can contribute from their respective domains and it’s going to take that kind of a holistic approach—there’s that term again–to you know, to make this change happen. And I think to answer this question more directly, I might use what we do at the Center as an example. So we have the knowledgebase on early child development as it relates to the brain, and we do the work to turn that scientific information into practical action, and we develop partnerships to engage with leaders–some within ECD and some outside–and we address what we bring to the table to their respective contexts. And then that enables those leaders to go out and advocate for and restructure programs and policies that favor children and families within their own unique contexts.
And so from my perspective, I see advocacy being more about more than just persuading others to act. It’s equally about investing that time into empowering one another to act. And I think the aim of government agencies and nonprofits should be to provide open access to our insights and our resources, develop outreach tactics that are content-specific and relevant. And I think we need to partner with leaders with respect for their unique contexts. And when we approach these leaders, we need to make sure we’re not approaching them merely as benefactors of our resources. They are our partners in doing this important work.
Corey Zimmerman: I love that, there’s so much–like it’s a two way interaction here—like, what do we bring and how do we engage together in this world. There’s so much. I think it connects actually in some ways to this next question that we have. The next question is for you, Dr. Burghardt, and it’s asking about what are possible changes that schools can make? So now coming at it from kind of a different lens and different set of partners. What are possible changes that schools can make to have a positive impact on healthy development? And maybe there are some particular calling out of early care and education centers to within that. But the question asked first about schools.
Lindsey Burghardt: Yeah, it’s a good question and it’s tough because, you know, most schools are already taking on like really substantial, really difficult efforts to meet the basic needs of a lot of students and teachers. So how we think about talking about adding in and layering in things like place-based support in those spaces, I think really has to be done in alignment with the needs and the priorities of people who have been working and are working in that space for a really long time to make schools the health promoting environments that they are. And I think, as in any program or policy domain, it’s really important to call out what Dr. Lightsey-Joseph said, and involving and working with the community who is there and affected and in those schools to understand what the needs are and what their priorities are, whether it’s related to air quality in schools, to high temperatures in classrooms, or to access to clean drinking water. And one resource that I do refer to that I think is useful for some concrete tools is the Environmental Protection Agency has a website they created with Office of Children’s Health Protection and it has really specific recommendations about how to pursue, and different options for pursuing, health promoting environments and specific categories within schools. It even has a list, I think it’s called Top Ten Ways to Make Your Schools Healthier, and it has a really specific breakdown of each item in the list that contains action steps and kind of a guide for how to approach these things that can seem very kind of large and overwhelming to tackle on an individual level. And the list has things like, you know, items that are indoor and outdoor air quality, radon, you know, lead in drinking water and how to approach–if you’re interested–you know, each of these different factors. I think we can also think about on green space the issues that we talked about earlier and thinking about if there’s local context or opportunity to bring green space to children’s learning environments even, and especially the early care and education environments too. You know, we know that there’s benefits to having children access green space. And if they’re able to do that locally in their school environment, I think that’s really potentially powerful.
Corey Zimmerman: Thank you. And I think there’s so many creative solutions out there right now, too, around how to schools and that outdoor learning environments and what they’re being able to do and it’s a great resource. Thanks for sharing about the EPA one. I think we have time, I think for two, maybe three questions we’ll see here. So the next question, Dr. Lightsey-Joseph, is kind of touching a little bit on what we’ve talked about earlier, but how might we use data better to identify neighborhoods for higher investment and what needs are most prevalent so we know where? I’m curious on your thoughts.
Dominique Lightsey-Joseph: One: yes, data critical. It’s a critical role in informing policy decisions and identifying neighborhoods in need for that higher investment. And we’ve been talking about it, as you said, with the COI being one example, which we’ve been discussing. But I want to pick up too on what Dr. Burghardt was saying, in terms of looking at the data on environmental conditions of neighborhoods, I think that has a really rich–it’s a really rich data source that we can tap into as well. And that could include looking at the data on pollution levels, access to green spaces, quality of housing, just to name a few. And we know from these studies, right, that children growing up in these areas with high levels of pollution or limited access to green spaces are more likely to suffer from health related issues like asthma and have lower levels of physical activity. We can also look at access to health resources such as primary care providers, nutritious food options, because those are critical to children’s physical development and overall well-being. And I think there’s also data out there on social determinants of health, such as poverty rates or employment opportunities, that that can also be critical in understanding the challenges faced by neighborhoods. And I think cross-referencing all of these data points on top of one another might be the way that we can identify those neighborhoods that are most in need of investment. A neighborhood that might run low all of those indicators I mentioned would be a prime candidate for some form of or community-based participatory intervention. And I know that’s a mouthful: community-based participatory intervention. But I say that because it goes back to what I said earlier. It’s not just about identifying where these neighborhoods are. Any interventions would need to involve and partner with the communities and the local organizations who are already doing this work to really understand those specific needs and strengths within the context of the neighborhood.
Corey Zimmerman: I love that. So many pieces that are connecting to what we’ve been talking about. I want to draw out–this question’s for you, Dr. Burghardt–and just one particular dimension actually, of what we’ve been talking about, about where there’s inequity and actually and there’s a lot of data. I was wondering if you could talk about–So this is a question that had come in and it was curious about can you address the unequal exposure to air pollution and talk some more about that?
Lindsey Burghardt: Yeah, I think it does. It’s a nice question too. I think it ties together some of the points that Dr. Lightsey-Joseph was just making. I’ll put out there first, you know, we use the term air pollution a lot. Air pollution really means a bunch of different things that are put out into the environment that are harmful for human health and development. But it’s generally a mixture that comes largely from fossil fuel combustion. So we can think about things like cars, busses like manufacturing sites and the amount of air pollution that a child is exposed to depends on where they live. So children who live closer to highways or roadways, closer to transportation depots or near manufacturing or combustion facilities are going to be exposed to higher rates of air pollution than children who live further from these sources. And we’ve discussed throughout the hour that where children live is impacted by historical policies like redlining and modern-day policies that kind of perpetuate where people are able to live and what type of neighborhood opportunity they’re able to access. But in neighborhoods that were previously redlined, and Dr. Lightsey-Joseph explained this very well earlier, there was an inability of the residents who live there to accumulate wealth by getting favorable mortgages or access to high paying jobs. And through that inability to accumulate wealth, they were therefore unable to gain as much political power to oppose the building of things like highways and transportation hubs, manufacturing sites in their neighborhoods. And so many of these air pollution producing factors are more commonly situated in neighborhoods that were previously redlined. And so, as a result, children who live in these areas are exposed to more air pollution than children who live farther from highways, manufacturing sites, transportation terminals. And that translates to a difference in the rates of things like asthma and other diseases that are caused by–or can be influenced by–exposure to air pollution. And we see higher rates of asthma in children who live and previously redlined neighborhoods than children who have access to neighborhoods with lower rates of air pollution. So it’s very clearly influenced by where you live.
Corey Zimmerman: There’s some sobering facts in there, just sort of pieces you were sharing and lots of reactions. All right. So last question. I’m going to squeeze one last one in here. This one’s for you, Dr. Lightsey-Joseph. It’s a question around how do you–how do we think about promoting change and do that in a way that keeps in mind people’s cultural norms, whether those are regional or local, but just thinking about how to promote change while keeping in mind those cultural norms.
Dominique Lightsey-Joseph: That is such an important question, Corey, for so many reasons. I think was sticking out for me is is important is an important question because there are so many well-meaning institutions that do run the risk of perpetuating a savior complex if their solutions aren’t representative of the communities that we’re trying to serve. And so what is being asked speaks to that importance of respect and understanding that change should never mean dismissing the ways people have lived for generations, but rather promoting change should involve working within those cultural frameworks to improve conditions in ways that really do resonate within the community.
And I think for sustainable change we’ve been talking about, you know, throughout our time today, we need to first understand and respect the context of these communities we’re engaging with. And this can be achieved in a number of ways, whether it’s active listening, engaging in learning opportunities of community-building relationships, collaborating with our communities, our members across different events. It’s really about amplifying those voices and insights rather than imposing our own. I think we also need to recognize that there is not a one-size fits-all approach to problem-solving solutions that work in one context or in one neighborhood might not work in another. So we have to really develop these framework targeted strategies that align with the specific realities of a respective community. And then I think the last thing I would say is it’s really about building capacity and empowering communities too, by providing access to the knowledge that we have. So the goal is to make sure we’re respectful of the cultural aspects in these communities while promoting and supporting programs, conditions. And I think to achieve this, our approach has to be rooted in empathy, respect and most importantly, not most importantly, but also very important is partnership.
Corey Zimmerman: What a great note to end on. All right, I’m pulling forward the theme that there are these universal concerns and ways we can use data that really having an approach that’s rooted in empathy and respect and partnership. And with that, thank you. A nd we wish you the best in your continued work supporting children and families.
Thank you for all that you’re doing. I’m really thrilled to be on this journey with you. Thank you.
Tassy Warren: The Brain Architects is a product of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. You can find us at developingchild.harvard.edu, where we will post any resources that were discussed in this episode. You can find us on Twitter @HarvardCenter, Facebook at Center Developing Child, and Instagram @DevelopingChildHarvard. Our music is from freemusicarchive.org.