Parting Thoughts with Community-Minded Enterprises’ Lee Williams
~December 2nd, 2021
Community-Minded Enterprises’ CEO Lee Williams has announced she will be retiring from her position effective Dec. 10.
Named CEO in 2018, Williams previously served as the organization’s early learning initiative director.
Community-Minded Enterprises aims to meet the needs of low-income, multiethnic, and marginalized communities with addiction recovery services and gainful employment services, and by providing people with disabilities and physical limitations emotional support and assistance. It arguably is best known for Community-Minded Television (CMTV14).
Williams’ greatest passion, however, has been leading the organization in its role in early childhood care and education. Her interest in the field started in 1981, when Williams was a young mother involved in a parent co-op preschool with her oldest daughter. She was fascinated with discovering the ways in which children learn and creating learning environments for them.
She received her associate degree from Spokane Falls Community College with a focus on early childhood education and continued on to Eastern Washington University, where she received her bachelor’s in elementary education with a minor in special education. She taught kindergarten through third grade for a couple of years, but craved a return to early childhood education, a term used to refer to the period of time when a child is born through when they enter kindergarten.
She attended a conference in which she learned about a new program that was starting in Washington state and across the country: child care resource and referral. The program is based on a model through which child care programs and other services are provided for parents and employers in the community.
In 1990, she became involved in this new program and developed a passion for advocacy and using her voice to help transform children’s and families’ lives.
The Journal recently sat down with Williams to discuss her career in advocacy, early childhood education, and what is in store for her retirement.
Early childhood education is a very specific time frame in a child’s life. What drew you to it and why is it so important?
It started from understanding myself as a parent and wanting the wider community to understand the importance of how the baby’s brain grows so rapidly in the first three years. Those are the most important years. In the first three years, we have more brain growth than we have the rest of our lives. That just shows the importance of giving a stimulating environment to children, to caring for them so that when they cry, we pick them up and they develop that trust with us.
We provide stimulation so that they learn and want to move, to crawl, to walk, and all those things. The sooner that a parent can receive support, the better. To me, it was just the core of everything. If we can make a difference here, we can make a difference for the rest of a child’s life.
The other part of early learning I feel really passionate about is the importance of also teaching the parent and have them understand what’s going on with the child. When parents don’t receive help … and they are not capable of being the parent that child needs during those first three years, that can affect the child adversely for the rest of their life.
It encourages or allows that inadequate and harmful parenting to pass along to the next generation, because it’s hard to do something you haven’t seen or experienced or read or learned about. We never really get through being parents. We might get through certain parts of being a parent, but the parenting goes on. That generational passing of information between parent and child is teaching them how to be a parent to a child and for that child (to grow up) to be a parent.
In what ways does Community-Minded Enterprises support Spokane families?
Our goal is to surround individuals and families with what makes sense for them to be successful.
Through a period of time, the resources that we have learned to provide are programs such as state-funded preschool, affordable housing, addressing food security, and providing items like winter clothing for their children. The state-funded preschool that our organization operates is called a two-generation approach. We teach the child, and we also work with the parent to have the parent understand how we’re teaching the child and be involved in building goals around the child.
For those in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, we provide a peer service and invite them to join the recovery café. Our recovery coaches who operate the program are people in long-term recovery, so they are able to empathize and be compassionate with where people are coming from and suspend judgement.
It’s different from Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous in that (participants) agree to commit to come every week and be part of that cohort and support each other. It often becomes like an extended family that they can reach out to even when they are not here.
In what ways have you seen parents grow and become advocates?
I’ve had the privilege of being involved with legislative visits where parents come with me, and they speak with the legislator. Regardless of party, that is a huge difference to that legislator, to hear directly from a parent. Maybe they were a single parent, and they were struggling. They knew they weren’t doing the best for a child but really didn’t know how to do better.
Through being involved in state-funded programs like preschool and Head Start or the Early Childhood Education and Assistance program for their child, it made it possible not only for their child to enter school being ready to learn, but for them to be supportive parents and understand the importance of a child being ready to learn. To me, that’s the heart of what we do.
What do child care resources look like for Spokane?
Pre-pandemic, we were at a crisis point. Spokane did not have enough child care resources. But because of the pandemic, there has been this realization about the importance of early learning, why it’s important to get affordable housing, and why it’s important to have shelters and food security. I think it’s because we were all in the same spot. We all experienced scarcity.
First responders had to go to work, and there weren’t any child care programs open. Suddenly, I was getting calls saying, “What are we going to do about child care?”
Schools were closed, and employers realized that nearly half of their employees had school-age children and that they needed to support those parents for their employees to properly do their work. There were foundations that stepped up and offered support in form of grants like Providence Foundation and Avista Foundation. The CARES Act allowed us to help parents pay for child care.
What are you looking forward to in retirement?
Well, I am not going to give up my advocacy. I’m going to stay involved. I know that this work makes a difference and hope that I can make other people see it makes a difference and encourage them to step forward. I look forward to enjoying time with my family and spending time with my husband doing the things we like to do like hike and travel. But I will definitely stay involved as an advocate.