Greensboro’s Robin Britt, the voice on early education, retires – Winston-Salem Journal

Posted: October 20, 2019 at 8:57 am

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GREENSBORO Robin Britt has nearly cleared his office of any semblance of decades of a life in early childhood education when he starts his final visits to the classrooms at the other end of the building, which takes up a city block.

In a classroom of 4-year-olds, the retiring president and CEO of Guilford Child Development joins their semicircle and asks what their favorite subjects are.

A young girl with braids yells out "science," and a boy across the room "math."

On a table behind them are the pieces of a spaceship they've been making out of papier-mache and plastic cups, that, when assembled, will tower over them. The students, who head to public school and kindergarten next year, are using measurements and numbers as part of this work.

"They don't see limits," Britt will later say.

The 77-year-old, who served in Vietnam and upon graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill was recruited by one of the best law firms in the state before he was elected to Congress nearly a decade later, resisted the possibility of a lucrative career as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

As he worked back home for the children of Guilford County, his ideas caught on elsewhere even landing him on the cover of The Wall Street Journal. Instead of lobbyist, he became a national voice in early childhood education and recognized leader in the war on poverty.

While in office in the 1990s, former Gov. Jim Hunt asked Britt to take on an idea he had about a statewide early childhood education initiative that would make sure children were healthy and ready to learn on the first day of kindergarten.

The Smart Start Initiative would have local controls and strong state support and would go on to win the coveted and high-profile Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University and the Ford Foundation.

"I looked all over the state to pick the person that I thought had the heart, the energy and the commitment to do early childhood education in a different way from any place in the country," Hunt said earlier this week.

"Robin went to work on it like a man possessed," Hunt said. "It was just what he believed in. It worked in the way that I thought things should work. It was some of the best work thats ever been done for our state."

Britt will be honored for those decades of work on Tuesdayduring an Early Childhood Champions Luncheon at the Koury Convention Center with Gov. Roy Cooper among the other honorees.

The Asheville native, who says his work is part of his spiritual journey, understands that his own life could have been very much like that of the children for whom he advocates.

"I think a lot of times your calling is connected to your pain," Britt said.

Both of Britt's parents died when he was 4 and his older sister, who was 22 and working a factory job at the time, took in him and their other brother, who was 10.

"Probably for three years we were living below the poverty line but didn't know it," Britt said.

When his sister later married, they became part of the middle class.

The Morehead Scholar at UNC was drafted after graduation and spent a year as a crew member of the USS Kearsarge before returning to law school.

It was former 6th District Congressman Richardson Preyer who talked Britt, then a lawyer with Smith Moore, into running for office.

Preyer had lost that seat to Gene Johnston, a Republican, as part of the first Ronald Reagan landslide in 1980.

"And I was running for Congress," Britt said.

The young tax lawyer beat Johnston and would serve on the Select Committee on Hunger.

"If you had asked me what percentage of children in the richest country in the history of the world were in poverty, I would have said 3%, 4%, " Britt said.

It was 20% of the children in America higher when you factored in minorities and single female-headed households.

After losing the next election to Howard Coble, Britt could have gone back home to that lucrative law practice where he was a partner or taken a well-tread path as a lobbyist.

Instead, he went back home and founded Project Uplift, a program to help disadvantaged preschoolers that was set up in the basement of a church near the Ray Warren public housing community. The program was chosen early on as one of President George H.W. Bush's 1000 Points of Light.

Britt had hired Angelia Lester Faison away from UNCG, where she was a teacher in the education lab, as the center's director.

He saw a learning gap, but also a services gap in the communities that needed help the most.

"My thought was how is he going to make that happen?" Faison said. "He always used the term 'quality care.' He always used the term 'qualified staff.' He always used the term, 'Children deserve the best.' "

Businessman Mike Weaver, a member of the Project Uplift board, made a donation of $150,000 over five years to encourage others to give. The group also went after public funding as it worked on both those gaps.

Britt entrenched himself in the research to dig deeper about the stress of living in poverty and ways it's magnified, such as domestic violence and neglect. And it fueled his need to be part of the solution.

"All of these things create a toxic stress in our families, which is very venomous for young children," Britt said.

And it has tremendous impact on schools and even the workforce, he said.

"If you're in the woods and you see a bear and your adrenaline starts pumping and your heart is beating fast, that gets you out of there," Britt said.

Others might "live with the bear," he said.

"If you are in this constant state of fear and your adrenaline is constantly running, you lose the ability to control your emotions. There's no thermostat. And what might mildly make you or me uncomfortable in an interchange with a teacher they explode, they don't have control of their emotions.

"And that can lead to dysfunction, dropping out, incarceration," Britt said.

In the classrooms, teachers tried to provide learning opportunities that other children might have.

Once, the children talked about places they had never been but would love to go, like the beach. Britt found a UNCG professor who could create virtual field trips. The children then "went to the beach" and examined the ocean through the images on the oversized screen. And then they made replicas of what they had seen.

The program was an early forerunner to efforts that would catch on decades later on how best to help at-risk and low-income children, which included requiring parents to be involved.

Parents who didn't have jobs could help prepare lunch, lead children's activities or chaperone field trips. Working parents could help with after-school events.

Project Uplift also offered self-help programs for parents through workshops and helping them with training and resources, such as financial literacy courses, at GTCC.

Faison recalls asking Britt why he invited so many people from various organizations into the building.

"I remember saying to him, 'We have so many community people here, was that necessary, Robin?" Faison said. "He would say, Angelia, it's more than bringing them in and their sharing their talents. They are meeting people from public housing. They are learning unity. They are learning that people in public housing have strength."

Hunt, the longest-serving governor in the state's history, would later ask Britt to be secretary for what is now theN.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and later his policy adviser for children, families and nonprofits.

Britt joined Guilford Child Development in 1998 after leaving Raleigh.

Among ideas he put into place is the critically-lauded Guilford County Nurse-Family Partnership.

The program, which has been replicated in 20 states and has drawn national recognition, provides nurse home visitation to low-income, first-time mothers. The nurse educates the mother about the growth and development of her baby and helps her be more self-sufficient.

Early on, officials with the Duke Endowment, one of the nation's largest foundations, worked to expand the program in hopes of making a difference in the lives of more poor children in the Carolinas by garnering longer-term public and other private support.

Rhett Mabry, president of the endowment, recalls going to Raleigh with Britt, who taught him a lesson in patience.

"Robin knew the value of having conversations with policymakers and stakeholders and not expecting immediate change but planting the seed for the long term," Mabry said.

The nurse-family partnerships are now funded by the state and are in both North and South Carolina.

"I think it has enabled thousands of low-income children to get off to a great start so that they can reach their potential," Mabry said.

When the United Way of Greater Greensboro launched a unique 18-month pilot program that focuses on the root causes of poverty in the city, the group chose Britt's Guilford Child Development as lead agency.

Britt, named one of the Top 20 CEOs by The Triad Business Journal, gives a lot of credit to his staff, the teachers in the centers, and the parents for helping children succeed.

"He uses 'I' lightly," Faison said. "He would say 'we' made it happen or 'you' made it happen."

Britt says he feels good about turning over the agency he says remains valuable to the community to Maria Layne-Stevens, the agency's former chief operating officer, who was hired after a national search.

He calls his replacement an excellent manager with vision who is everything the agency needs.

"Some people have vision, but they don't how to make things happen," Britt said. "Some people can make things happen, but without the vision, can make the wrong thing happen. She knows how to make things happen."

He says he plans to follow advice retirees swear by, which is not to make too many commitments right away.

He does plan to spend more time with his six grandchildren.

"I'll still be around," he said.

Robin Britt announces his run for Congress in April 1982.

Robin Britt talks with 3-year-olds at Morningside's day care center in March 1983.

Britt, also a leader in the war on poverty, is shown in December 1983 serving cornbread at the Urban Ministry in Greensboro.

Robin Britt sits in the kindergarten/nursery room in December 1992 of Union Memorial United Methodist Church that was transformed into a new classroom for children in Project Uplift.

Then-U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford (left of center) listens to Uplift president Robin Britt at a meeting to discuss the problems of poor and troubled kids in April 1991.

Robin Britt with his wife, Susan, and three children (from right) David, Robin Jr. and Elizabeth in this undated photo.

David Britt gets some spending money from his dad, Robin Britt, in June 1983.

Robin Britt asks children what their favorite things are before saying goodbye at Guilford Child Development in Greensboro on Thursday.

Robin Britt asks children what their favorite things are before saying goodbye at Guilford Child Development in Greensboro, N.C., on Thursday, October 17, 2019.

Robin Britt asks children what their favorite things are before saying goodbye at Guilford Child Development in Greensboro, N.C., on Thursday, October 17, 2019.

Britt, 77, took time Thursday to visit children at Guilford Child Development in Greensboro to say goodbye as he retires after decades of working to help children.

U.S. Rep. Robin Britt (center) tours a farm in Guilford County in 1983. Britt was a first-time candidate when he won in 1982, recapturing the 6th Congressional District for Democrats.

Robin Britt, executive director of Guilford child Development, addresses educators during the nonprofits 50th anniversary celebration at the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro, N.C. on Oct. 18, 2017.

Executive Director of Guilford Child Development, Robin Britt talks about the pilot program in his office, Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Greensboro, N.C.

Then-U.S. Rep. Robin Britt speaks with Claudette Burroughs-White (left), the chairwoman of the Youth Conference, at Guilford College in October 1983.

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Greensboro's Robin Britt, the voice on early education, retires - Winston-Salem Journal

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