Emerging Leaders for Racial Equity in Education

Interview with Founders Neva Bandelow  & Dr. LaWanda Wesley

Emerging Leaders for Racial Equity in Early Childhood Education is bringing to light the needs for a racial equity lens in education as well as fostering diverse leaders to rise in the field. Neva Bandelow and Dr. LaWanda Wesley founded the organization two years ago to address the critical need for racial equity in early childhood education and create pathways for leaders committed to the racial equity lens to train in a fellowship model with partnered mentors in the field. Recently, I interviewed the founders to learn more of their vision for the program and their current projects.   

The Founding of the Organization

Neva Bandelow and Dr. Lawanda Wesley found that there was a need for succession planning and leadership in early childhood education. As a result, they formed the Emerging Leaders for Racial Equity in Early Childhood Education program to address leadership policies and practices as well as issues of race equity. So far they have run the leadership institute for 2 cohorts and the feedback from participants has been positive and transformative.

The founding of the organization started with Neva Bandelow’s fellowship with The Equity Leaders Action Network (ELAN), which works to advance equity in early childhood systems. The leaders of ELAN worked on a 3-year BUILD Initiative across 20 states, D.C., and Guam to build racially equitable early childhood systems so that children can reach their full potential without discrimination or bias. According to Sherri Killins Stewart, Director of the ELAN, when BUILD refers to its equity goal, “We mean that race should not be a predictor of health status, education, birth outcomes, or the community conditions for young children and their families.”

The 38 fellows working at a state or county level worked collaboratively and with ELAN faculty to initiate projects that would overcome inequities based on race, ethnicity, language and culture. Additionally, the current group of 34 members has advocated for equity in state-level policy, health programs, early learning, and family support.

When fellow Neva Bandelow was asked to reflect on outcomes of her participation, she said that she couldn’t have started the Emerging Leaders for Racial Equity program without ELAN’s support. The knowledge, the opportunities, and the structure of ELAN is what has provided her with the knowledge she needed to launch a program like this.

At the same time, Dr. LaWanda Wesley was writing her dissertation on the preparedness of African American Leaders and quality preschool programs. She wanted to learn from African Diaspora administrators about their experience leading preschool programs and what makes them effective leaders. Through a study of nine participants that shared their challenges, she then took those lived experiences and transferred it into a methodology research framework for race, equity, and leadership. Around the same time, Dr. Lawanda Wesley met Neva Bandelow and they were doing similar work, so it made sense to collaborate. In formulating their nonprofit leadership program, they found it critical to call out race equity issues and insist that race equity be in the title of the program, despite pushbacks from higher administrators who were uncomfortable with the title. Dr. Lawanda Wesley said, “We couldn’t find any other name and be true to the work”, so they were able to eventually advocate for it and it was named Emerging Leaders for Racial Equity in Early Childhood Education.

Highlights on Last Year’s Program

There were several highlights last year that were exciting in seeing participants grow their leadership skills. One was creating a diverse pool of mentors, people from different lenses of public school districts vs. more community based projects. Through putting mentors together from diverse experiences, they were able to have a healthy discourse related to racial equity policies, processes, and leadership in their own work environments.

Additionally, two mentors shined at a conference at the First 5 Southern California Conference for QRIS (Quality Rating Improvement System for Early Childhood Education) by leading a facilitation and impressing the professional community with their research and leadership abilities. It was a strong professional development leadership experience for them, as it was their first time facilitating at a conference.

Moreover, there was an activity that stood out where participants mapped their first experiences with racism throughout the years and reflected back to cohort members to diversify their lens. It was extremely powerful, not only in their experiences, but it as an opportunity to hear from very diverse people in the realities of their lives. Part of that was to understand one’s own biases, and then to be able to reflect back and see if anything has changed, now that the participants had materials on the topic, had guest speakers, and heard from other’s experiences in their cohort.

Another highlight was a guest speaker, Nicole Anderson, who spoke on the layers of oppression including individual, interpersonal, structural, and institutional. She also discussed marginalization in the education system including the history of education and how it was set up as a system against those of color. She spoke of  the history of who education was intended for, and the system and laws in place starting from the 1800’s education system which continue oppressing people by race today. She also discussed funding models and the power for them to influence who received quality education.

Surprises from the Process Last Year

Some issues that came up in the process were varying levels of understanding based on exposure to diverse people and learning about racial issues. Some struggled with a white fragility stance and made generalizations that these issues were not just related to people of color when certain things were shared from a people color lens. Realizing that people have had varying levels of exposure to racial bias and racial equity issues, the founders may consider offering different entry points to the course, to better address the levels in which they need to start the conversation. The founders realized that the more one begins to understand the issue, the more one changes the way they see it and the world. Exposure and knowledge are key, and it takes time, as everyone is at a different level of understanding. People talk about the pandemic of racism, but people need to see it, they need to see all of the structures, systems, and constructs in place that have actually led us to the reality that we face today.

Current Projects

The founders are working on new projects this year in related fields and hope to collaborate and refer each other’s organizations in a collective for racial equity, leadership, and trauma informed care.

Neva Bandelow is working on succession planning and including 2 fellows as co-founders for her new nonprofit called Center for Leadership Equity and Research in Early Learning (clerel.org). Diverse co-founders from Colombia, Iran, and the U.S. will lead the organization. She has also been thoughtful on building a diverse representation geographically including regional and national board representation, which consist of a mix of more seasoned and more developing leaders. CLEREL will also offer personal consultation on leadership impacts and changes. They are touching on all of the biases (racism, sexism, LGBTQ bias, ableism- bias against people with disabilities) and the intersectionality of those experiences. They are addressing how our system has set many people up for failures, especially black and brown communities. Also, CLEREL will be doing organizational consultation on policies and practices towards racial equity in leadership, and personal consultation on leadership and race equity.

Dr. Lawanda Wesley is also doing succession planning, letting new leaders come in and seeding it now. She is working on trauma informed care with the Center for Equity in Early Childhood Education (ceece.org). The program examines how trauma affects people of color, as well as other marginalized groups such as LGBTQ. The program hopes to cultivate a system that is trauma responsive including community based organizations, district-run organizations , and organizations that link with these issues such as children’s hospitals. She wants to holistically look at the people and systems that work with children to create a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Vision for the Future

Overall, their vision for the future is to have different business canopies to share the work and a referral system within their networks to include leadership, racial equity, and trauma informed care. They hope to continue the work from a holistic lens and grow a community of working groups, educators, administrators, and community based organizations that really address the pressing need for new systems and processes in racial equity in early childhood education, leadership pathways, and trauma informed care.


If you would like to contact Neva Bandelow regarding her racial equity and emerging leaders consulting and educational work, please contact her at nbandelow@clerel.org. If you are interested in the services of the Center for Equity in Early Childhood Education, ceece.org, and their consulting and educational work in trauma informed care, please contact Dr. LaWanda Wesley at  lwesley77@gmail.com .


Neva Bandelow’s career in early care and education has spanned over 30 years as an educator and administrator. She is a  fierce advocate for young children and their families, educators, and strives for educational systems change. Neva serves as adjunct faculty at local community colleges where she teaches early education focused on social justice, anti-bias analysis of curriculum, educational standards and assessment, and teaching practice.  Neva is passionate in raising equity issues and is honored to be a graduate from Build’s Equity Leaders Action Network, a national fellowship.  She holds degrees in liberal studies, early childhood education, and human and community services, and a Master of Arts degree in 21st Century Leadership.

LaWanda Wesley currently serves as Oakland Unified School District’s Director of Quality Enhancement and Professional Development of Early Education. She supports a cadre of dynamic 200-plus teachers and an early leadership team. Dr. Wesley also co-directs a statewide leadership fellowship titled the California Consortium for Equity in Early Childhood Education Fellowship and is the Co-Founder and Co-Director for the Center for Equity in Early Childhood Education in service of disrupting race inequities at its root cause. Wesley is the co-author of the second book in the trauma series titled Culturally Responsive Self-Care for Early Childhood Educators and contributor to the recently published California Department of Education document, Responsive Early Education for Young Children and Families Experiencing Homelessness. Additionally, Dr. Wesley trains on trauma responsive practices and healing in a highly specialized area for the Center for Optimal Brain Integration. She is audaciously dedicated to changing the lives of all children, especially those from communities of color, poverty, and furthest reach from opportunity.


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