Watching pint-sized preschoolers at play, I think about how I’d never have expected to work with kids this young if you asked me a few years ago. When I went to Palestine, most youth work I’d done had been with teenagers. I approached the art class I taught at Tomorrow’s Youth Organization with a healthy dose of fear amidst my excitement. Though my students were ages 8 to 13, the core program at TYO is a preschool. It was there that I first got exposed to the importance of early childhood education and the value of school-readiness programs for children who don’t have other learning opportunities.
In fact, the similarities between Head Start and TYO were among the chief reasons I applied for this job. As a substitute, my training sessions are sporadic, but when I’m in them the kids in Nablus are frequently in my mind. What is the difference between training in human services in Harrisburg and orientation to childhood development in Palestine? Both are holistic—discussing how to consider home life and family circumstances in students’ behavior and development, yet doing so in Palestine is inescapably political. You can’t know why a child regularly wets the bed, for example, without learning that Israeli soldiers have entered their home at night and blasted through the walls to arrest a neighbor.
In human services in Pennsylvania, we may look at the context for what we see at work—like when an infant arrives at daycare with only socks and no shoes, despite the fact that his parents know he will be expected to go outside for an hour each day—but we don’t necessarily talk about how that context is at its root a political problem. Some families can’t provide the basics for their kids not because the parents are any less capable, but because our society is set up so that some people are born into poverty. People who weren’t born into poverty can also end up there through what we blindly call “tough luck.” Either way, the possibility to get out of such circumstances is restricted by unequal access to education, family resources, unavailability of jobs, and so on.
The way we identify problems determines how we strategize for solving them. Programs like Head Start are important to improving individuals’ lives, but we must also understand and address the political dimensions of poverty in order to change it on a larger scale.