By Clara Bonzi Teixeira '24
Dr. Shantel Meek, founder of the Children’s Equity Project, joined the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy on March 22, 2023 to discuss her career in child and family policy. Meek’s most recent career move has been to launch the Children's Equity Project (CEP), a multi-university initiative at Arizona State University that focuses on closing opportunity gaps and dismantling systemic racism in learning settings to ensure that children reach their full potential. She came to this work after serving as an early childhood policy advisor in multiple roles during the Obama administration.
Meek volunteered with Obama’s presidential campaign while working as a clinical interventionist working with youth with autism. At the time, Meek thought she wanted to do intervention work and research and was pursuing a PhD in Family and Human Development at Arizona State University. While in graduate school, Meek visited friends in DC and went on a White House tour. The tour happened to include some White House interns, which was something Meek had never heard about. She learned that there were multiple offices within the White House that utilize interns, and that prior campaign work was a bonus when applying for such positions. Meek returned to Arizona and applied for a White House intern position. She was offered a position and worked with her advisors to make it fit in her PhD timeline. She spent a few months working in the White House in the Presidential Personnel Office, the office responsible for filling political appointments. At the end of her time there, she expressed interest in working as a political appointee if any positions around child and family policy opened up.
By the end of her PhD, Meek realized she saw herself working in the policy arena instead of in clinical settings. Luckily, around this time a political appointment position for a senior policy advisor for early childhood development opened up in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Through her connections at the White House, Meek learned about the position and was able to apply and be appointed. Meek spent the next four and a half years in this role advising the administration on issues in early childhood development. During her time in the administration, Meek worked on policy statements on preschool discipline, the inclusion of children’s with disabilities in preschool settings, and dual language learners, all of which were heavily focused on equity. On all of these issues, in addition to doing research and writing the policy statements, Meek then worked with various federal agencies to embed the work in federal rules, regulations, and laws. She also worked with partners at the state and local level to support work at the those levels.
One of the lessons Meek took from her years working in the federal government is that policy change moves slowly and that progress is more likely if you “jump on existing trains that are moving and figure out how to embed your issue on things that have momentum already.” She said doing this allowed her work to have a bigger and more lasting impact. She pointed to the inclusion of suspension and expulsion within the Child Care Reauthorization bill and the technical assistance put in place to help states and communities enact the recommendations in the policy statements they issued as examples of the lasting impact of her work.
In the talk, Meek emphasized the importance of utilizing one’s network to scope out interesting opportunities. At the end of the Obama administration, Meek left her role the DHHS, where she had been a political appointee. When President Trump entered office, “there was no home, no appetite” for the work she had been doing, Meek admitted. When she reentered the job market a year later after the birth of her first child, she was able to touch base with her former supervisor, who was starting a new wing at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Having this contact allowed Meek to move back into equity work just in a different space.
Networking remained a key priority for Meeks years later when she began the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University. She had never done funding work before, but wanted to continue working on addressing equity in early childhood at the national level. She saw many national organizations working in early childhood, but none that were focused on equity as their core mission. Meek had extensive contacts from her five years in government - this network provided her with a number of resources when she launched the Children’s Equity Project. ASU provided the Project some start-up funds before they got their first grant, and it took off from there, Meek said.
Meek highlighted that for students interested in following her path, there are two main pathways to getting into policy work on administration side: participating in political campaigns and internships. She said she would not have found her path if she had not “taken risks and identified ways to get real world experience…that internship [in the White House] was really huge for me and hugely influential [in my career].”