PUBLISHED: Monday, November 11, 2019 by JO

Fiona Stewart

Published: November 11, 2019

Fiona Stewart has worked as a teacher and director in early childhood programs, a college instructor, grant administrator, program director and consultant and trainer. She is currently the Program Director of the Child Care Alliance of Los Angeles, a network partnership of the child care resource and referral, and alternative payment agencies across the county. She oversees county-wide collaborative programs, including the Gateways for Early Educators™ professional development system and the California Early Care & Education Workforce Registry. Fiona holds a Bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and Master’s from Pacific Oaks College and was recognized as a Master Leader from the Exchange Leadership Initiative.

Fiona’s first book with Redleaf, Building Together, is a journey focused on the leadership necessary for today’s early childhood education system building. This book provides a road map to what effective leaders do, how they do it, and the leadership necessary to work towards collaborative systems level change. Fiona took the time to talk with us about collaboration, equity, and three key leadership traits.

Fiona Stewart

Can you share a brief timeline of your educational and professional life?

I knew I wanted to work with children and began to explore that idea as an undergraduate studying Human Development and Family Studies at Cornell University. I then worked for 10 years as a preschool teacher and then became a program director at a center before heading back to graduate school. I began working collaboratively back then, with parents and colleagues and working with local ECE partners to develop cross-agency initiatives. My graduate studies at Pacific Oaks College built on my core values and mission and broadened my scope and approach to my work. Since then, I’ve worked collaboratively to improve services and outcomes for children and families with colleagues across multiple agencies, projects, and programs.

What is the role of collaboration in systems building for early childhood?

Throughout the early childhood education (ECE) field, systems work is increasing as communities strive to improve or better align programs and services. The ECE field is a natural fit for collaborative systems-building projects. The focus on helping children learn, providing families with support, fostering relationships, integrating services, and positively affecting communities provides ample opportunities for collaboration, systems alignment, and integration. Sometimes it takes multiple stakeholders working together to best serve a child, family, or community. Working collaboration also has many benefits with systems building in the early childhood field including cost-effective use of scarce resources, higher quality and more integrated services or products, and increased ability to achieve outcomes.

What do you think are the 3 most important leadership traits?

Vision – I think great leaders have vision. They see opportunities for change in the bigger picture and hold out the vision to champion the way. They shine a light on critical points and can focus attention on the truths that will inspire change and move the work forward. Effective leaders are forward looking and can idealize other possibilities. They are aspirational in their desire to work toward long-term goals and solutions. But more than that, they create hope and inspire others to work toward a vision.

Integrity – Integrity is critical to quality leadership while building systems. With integrity, leaders can hold out the potential of what could be above all individual and organizational self-interests. A leader with integrity continually strives toward the loftier goal beyond her or his ideas or self-interests. Ultimately, integrity is about doing the right thing even when no one is looking. It is about always staying true to shared goals even when things get difficult. Integrity enables leaders to remain true to the higher cause of the work while effectively bringing together all system components and programs.

Openness – Leadership is about possibilities, and that requires embracing change and being open to the idea that things will be different tomorrow than they are today. Therefore, I think it is critical for those in leadership roles to be open to different people, viewpoints, and ideas. Remaining open as a leader creates space for new information and new opportunities. I also believe that openness provides the ability to champion inclusivity and transparency. Effective leaders recognize the value in others and are committed to ensuring all have access to the process and the information.

What is the relationship between leadership and equity?

Leaders can bring voice to social justice issues and endeavors to create high-quality programs and design systems that lift all children up so that all have equitable opportunities. This work includes looking at the structure and model of leadership. If leadership is seen as hierarchical, with only some having power, then the model begins to systemically build in inequities. Leaders must be intentional and vigilant in creating a system where all have value and all have a voice to give input and contribute. A leader’s role is to champion equity and authentically work to include and stand up for all involved.

At a system level, leaders can work to ensure that there are strong programs and organizations in place to promote social justice and that all practices strive to level the playing field and not perpetuate system inequities. To do this, we must first take a hard look and be honest about any possible inequities. When developing systems, we must be mindful about reframing accountability to eliminate the inequities and move the field forward. Wherever and whenever possible, the goal should be to share power. With a commitment to social justice, leadership for ECE systems building must strive to ensure that all have a voice and an equal say. The goal of an effective system is to develop a model for shared power and ensure an equitable playing field for all involved.

Can you give an example of when the employment of collaborative leadership produced a desired outcome in early childhood?

One example I wrote about in my book, Building Together: Collaborative Leadership in Early Childhood Systems (Redleaf Press, 2019) was a collaborative early childhood literacy project. Working together, multiple organizations focused on increasing child care provider’s knowledge of the importance of literacy in the early years and of increasing access to providers and children and their families to literacy activities and experiences. A local college provided courses on early childhood literacy while coaches from the local R&R visited every participating child care site throughout the year to support implementation of new knowledge. In addition, the local Head Start programs and public library provided lending libraries, storytellers, and literacy activities to the child care sites to model and embed these activities at the child care sites. And all partners helped bring hundreds of families to the public libraries to participate in literacy activities, get library cards, and check out books to take home to increase their engagement in their child’s literacy and sustain the child’s access to books.

What is your own personal leadership model?

I think my own personal leadership model is about staying open to the journey. I always try to live my life with integrity and stay true to my vision and persist towards the bigger goals. And I remain dedicated to my values while staying curious and open to the possibilities of what could be. I know that there will be twists and turns along the road and that others will contribute in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Leadership is an ever-evolving path, with continuous growth, change, and opportunities if one stays open to new knowledge and ideas and flexible through times of change.

What is on your professional or personal bucket list?

On my personal bucket list is definitely to travel more. I have quite a few places I hope to go someday. As for my professional bucket list, I’d like to continue to work towards a strong early childhood education system – one in which the professionals working with children are well-prepared and well-compensated, the field is valued and supported by the public, and children are thriving and ready to succeed in school and life.