When Lisa Early was a kid, she pledged allegiance to the flag every morning at school with her hand over her heart.
“I believed it described America, and that my nation was principled and good,” she says. “I later came to believe that I was in fact pledging to do the work necessary for our nation to live up to this credo, to become the principled and good nation that America aspires to be.”
Early does her part in that work by running Orlando’s Families, Parks and Recreation Department while also serving as the city’s Director of Children and Education. By replicating Harlem Children’s Zone in the city’s lowest income neighborhood, she saw a 66 percent decline in juvenile arrests, a 73 percent reduction in teen births, a 48 percent drop in child abuse and neglect cases, and a 270 percent increase in the number of children attending preschool programs there.
America’s Promise spoke with Early to learn how the City of Orlando is working to improve outcomes for young people throughout the city. Read the full spotlight below to learn more.
How does your work help create a GradNation for all?
I help create a GradNation by advocating for public policies that support the academic, economic, and social success of Orlando’s children, especially low-income children, from cradle to college and career.
And I help create a GradNation by operating programs serving 11,000 low-income Orlando children and increasing their high school graduation and post-secondary attainment rates. I also help by engaging, training, and empowering the next generation to carry this work on into the future.
What successes in your community are you the most proud of?
I’m most proud of the generations-long legacy of our Families, Parks and Recreation Department’s work in low-income neighborhoods (where 90 percent of the children we work with live). And how 150+ of the neighborhood youth—all the first generation in their family—have now gone to college.
I’m proud that we have leveraged state, federal, and philanthropic dollars to scale up these practices citywide, and that we invest in teachers, AmeriCorps members, and STEM and cultural arts programs at every middle and high school and 17 neighborhood centers throughout Orlando. I’m proud that the data proves our efforts are having a positive impact.
I’m proud that we served over half a million meals to 5,000 hungry children at 26 locations last year. I’m proud that when we had to slash services and staff during the recession, we held our children’s programs sacred, and didn’t cut a single program or make parents pay anything for their children to attend.
I’m proud of the 750+ high school seniors we worked with to complete college applications and fill out FAFSA forms so they can start their post-secondary adventure this Fall.
I’m proud of the compassion and commitment of my team, including my amazing group of 25 black and brown men who dedicated themselves over the past five years to creating and operating a mentoring program for 100 boys at three elementary schools as part of our My Brother’s Keeper Orlando initiative. And I’m proud of the 800+ youth, ages 15 to 25, who work in my department, because we are building the future of our community.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?
Fifteen years ago, I left the nonprofit world to lead a municipal government department. I moved from a world where staff, volunteers, families, and virtually everyone who came through our doors gave everything of themselves for the greater good of children in our community.
The experience of working in city government has given me a more nuanced, mature, and realistic perspective. Children’s interests are often sacrificed for more powerful interests. Loud, gnawing voices of citizens who advocate for trivial personal interests, the pothole in their street, the tree branch that annoys them and needs trimming, the black child on a bicycle that seems somehow suspicious, the demands for more police, jails, punishment.
They have more power than we do. But as Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in Women Who Run with Wolves, “It does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up.”
What principles guide your work in education and youth development?
When I was a child, I pledged allegiance to the flag every morning at school, with my hand over my heart. All men are created equal. E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one. Liberty and justice for all.
I believed it described America, and that my nation was principled and good. Then, after ten years living in the world’s poorest nations, I came back to America and was stunned to see neighborhoods in Orlando where children lived in conditions worse than in the poorest places in the world. I came to believe that I was in fact pledging to do the work necessary for our nation to live up to this credo, to become the principled and good nation that America aspires to be.
Describe what makes your work unique in three words or phrases.
Well, it’s a little longer than three words, but municipal colleagues who care about children’s issues often tell me they wish their own Parks and Recreation departments, with their large budgets and plentiful neighborhood facilities, would serve a purpose greater than promoting leisure and recreation. Perhaps we in Orlando have hijacked a slice of city government to pursue a greater good.