Program Director Haji Shearer is Our Man on a Mission

Program Director of the Boston Basics since September 2017, Haji Shearer is the former Director of the Fatherhood Initiative at Children’s Trust, published author, mindfulness advocate, and father of two adult children.

In our conversation he shares how he got involved with the Basics, and how he helps organizations integrate the five core principles into their daily work with families.

Welcome Haji! Please tell us how you learned about the Basics and came to join the team.

I met Ron Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) at Harvard University, and founder of the Boston Basics, at the Massachusetts Fatherhood Leadership Summit in April of 2017. I was intrigued by what Ron was doing with the Basics and wanted to get involved. I followed up, and while I thought that I was persuading the Basics team to create a position for me, it turns out they already knew they wanted to hire me.

Wow. That's great! What did you think you could bring to the initiative?

The Basics grew out of Ron’s work with the Achievement Gap Initiative. When I met him, the Basics wanted to build a strong presence in the community to support partners in adopting and sustaining the Basics in their programs. Because of my work in the community for 25 years, I knew I could be the right messenger. I’m a licensed social worker with a family systems approach who’s also an experienced trainer and interested in how the entire community can support child development. When I started in the early 90s, it was clear to me that fathers greatly impact children’s lives but weren’t adequately included in parent support programs. And because nature abhors a vacuum, I decided to fill the void. Family support with an emphasis on fathers was a great niche for me.

I worked on fatherhood initiatives for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for over a decade, providing professional development and technical assistance. I’d covered center-based programs, home visiting programs with young families, and school systems, so I understood the range of professionals who work with families.

The Basics can reach families in all these areas to give children a strong start in life. Being an unrepentant trainer, I’m excited to help build capacity to make it happen!

Now that you are on the Basics team, what has the feedback been from fathers you've met?

Across the board, both moms and dads are happy to have a clear approach—we call it a fun, simple and powerful approach—to parenting young children. Fathers, and mothers, are happy to see dads featured in our videos and other materials. Dads aren’t in the videos as an afterthought, they are there because the Basics team wanted fathers citywide to know that they are important. And when dads see themselves in the videos, it makes them feel good even if their own fathers weren’t involved in their lives. It’s great modeling to see other men talking about and demonstrating how important being a father is.

You are right. Examples of fatherhood in the family unit are so important. I'm happy the feedback from moms and dads alike has been positive. Earlier you mentioned helping build capacity to share the Basics. How do you measure that?

One way, is that we have developed a rubric that helps organizations identify their maturity in implementing the Basics. It’s a scale from one to four. Level one is “Pre-Implementation,” meaning the organization is just beginning to learn about the Basics but hasn’t really taken any steps to implement them. Level four, “Mature Implementation,” means that the Basics are used systematically—that they are institutionalized—across the organization. For example, there is a point person who really owns the project and actively supports staff to embed the Basics into their work. The videos are used to spark conversations with parents; there are Basics posters and printed materials in common areas; staff are leading parent groups using the Basics, or providers are talking with parents about these principles when they come in for well-baby or school visits. That’s actually the most common way, just building it into conversations. Organizations may also share information about the Basics on social media or other platforms where they communicate with families.

We want to make it easy. Part of my job is making organizations aware of the free tools that are available, as well as helping them figure out where they can implement these tools in work with families.

Nice! So you are working with established organizations. Why would a provider choose to integrate the Basics into their work?

A powerful aspect of the Basics is that they are recognizable ideas that most early childhood educators have been talking about already. The beauty of the Basics is that starting from the scientific studies that proves their importance, the AGI codified language that we can use in lots of different places. Folks in every part of the community can use the same words to talk about these weighty ideas in a way that feels natural, but that’s also pretty comprehensive. The language makes it simple for people in faith communities, housing developments, health centers--everywhere that families with young children interact--to be confident in talking about early childhood development.

For example, people have been talking about early childhood literacy for years. Having videos and tip sheets that parents can use to encourage them to not just read to their kids, but to discuss the stories with their children as well, is a value added.

Same thing with counting, grouping and comparing. It’s not just about counting fingers and toes, which is great by itself. But also encouraging parents to compare sizes of objects, talk about different shapes, and play games involving grouping and regrouping objects. These are all simple ideas that build strong brains.

A great technique in helping providers share the Basics with parents is reinforcing what parents already do well. We reinforce the importance of maximizing love and managing stress and help providers feel confident talking with parents about it. Asking questions like, what are you doing to manage your stress is critical, because we know when parents are stressed it gets passed along to their children. It’s essential to create space in professionals' daily interactions with parents to talk about these powerful topics.

To build relationships with the greatest number of families, our approach is to reach out to trusted leaders in the community because they are the ones who already have rapport with parents.

I like that the Basics team focuses on building rapport and engaging trusted messengers in the community. As the Program Director, do you have any interesting partnerships that you are working on right now?

Haji Shearer (center in blue shirt) with leaders from Community Based Organizations. Photo Credit: Mari Barrera

One interesting partnership is captured in this photo, at an orientation meeting last month with staff from six organizations we’re working with thanks to a grant from Boston Children’s Hospital’s Collaboration for Community Health. Three health centers (Codman Square Health Center, Mattapan Community Health Center and the South End Health Center) are linked with three early learning centers (Mattapan Head Start, Epiphany Early Learning Center and Harrison Ave Head Start) to share the Basics with families in their care. In this project, we partner with Families First. While our organization trains staff to share the Basics with parents, Families First provides an in-depth exposure to the Basics for about 20 families in each neighborhood cohort in their Power of Parenting program.

I am also very engaged in East Boston, which is an active hub for activities around early childhood development. The Family Engagement Network, through the leadership of East Boston Social Centers, has been a key early adopter in helping spread the Basics.

Left to right: Ron Ferguson; Gloria Devine and Justin Pasquariello – East Boston Social Centers; Haji Shearer; Magda Rodriguez, Families First

I love it. So how is implementation going overall?

Great! We recognize this kind of public health approach to social change takes time, but we’re seeing progress every day. While most of my work is directly with the provider community, it also brings me joy to work directly with parents of young children. I love hearing parents say, “I never thought of that!” or “I plan to do more of that (Basic),” or “I’m so happy to have these tools.” I’m excited to be able to promote something that brings more goodness, health, and wellness to the world, and that’s what the Basics approach does.

Thank you Haji for sharing how the Basics is supporting Boston's children and families! How can a provider that wants to become involved get in touch?

They can reach out to me directly by email Even before that, they can visit our free toolkit online, follow us on Facebook and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on what’s going on with the Boston team.

This interview was conducted by Dominique, blogger behind DommiesBlessed.