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Greensboro's Robin Britt, the voice on early education, retires

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.

It’s time for goodbyes.

In a classroom of 4-year-olds, Britt, the retiring president and chief executive officer 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.

This is Britt’s legacy.

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 last 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 that’s ever been done for our state.”

Britt will be honored Tuesday for those decades of work during an Early Childhood Champions luncheon at the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro 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.

Britt, who was chosen for the prestigious Morehead Scholarship 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 his congressional 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 U.S. 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-trod path to being a lobbyist.

Instead, he chose to return 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 “thousand points of light.”

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

He not only 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 the N.C. Department of Health and Human Resources and later his policy adviser for children, families and nonprofit organizations.

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, the 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 Carolina 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 started 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.


Z-no-digital
An interesting article in today's paper

Homecoming week: From its step show to its concerts, N.C. A&T’s annual celebration offers lots to do for students, alumni, community. Page A6


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Back in D.C., Budd and Walker look toward uncertain 2020

As the storm clouds continue gathering around his tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, President Donald Trump can count on strong support from the two Republican congressmen who represent the Greensboro area.

U.S. Reps. Ted Budd of Davie County and Mark Walker from Guilford County say that during Congress’ recently concluded work period in their respective districts, they heard nothing from constituents to change their opinion that, in general, Trump is doing good things for the nation.

Budd said in a telephone interview last week that as he traveled across his five-county 13th District, which includes much of Greensboro and southern Guilford County, he heard from “very few” who criticized the president.

“Infinitely more people spoke in support of the president,” Budd said.

Walker acknowledged during a recent taped appearance on the locally produced “Triad Today” public-affairs TV program that Trump projects the image of a “real-estate playboy tycoon” who takes a sometimes abrasive approach to governing.

“He may leave scorched earth, but the American people wanted somebody to go to Washington to get things done,” Walker told host Jim Longworth during the “Triad Today” taping on Oct. 9. “He may not always do it in the most sensitive way, but that’s what he’s accomplished in the last three years.”

During their joint appearance on the “Triad Today” segment that is scheduled to air in two weeks, Walker and Budd generally aligned with each other and GOP orthodoxy on issues ranging from gun control to immigration policy.

Together, they touted the president’s leadership in such areas as tax cuts, deregulation and the appointment of conservatives to the federal judiciary.

But on returning to Washington last week after the district break, they went in different directions on a House resolution that some observers saw as revealing fissures in Trump’s heretofore solid base of Republican congressional support.

Walker voted with the majority in favor of the resolution that criticized Trump’s “decision to end certain United States efforts to prevent Turkish military operations against Syrian Kurdish forces in Northern Syria.”

Budd was among five GOP congressman not voting on the measure. But after it passed overwhelmingly, he submitted an official statement that his vote would have been “no” had he been present to cast it.

The issue rocketed to a prominent spot in the nation’s political discourse earlier this month when Trump abruptly announced the pullout of U.S. troops from a pivotal area of Syria, leaving America’s Kurdish allies vulnerable to an attack by the Turkish military, which in fact began shortly thereafter.

Walker said he sided with those in the GOP who felt that as staunch American allies, the Kurds deserved better and should have continued receiving protection from a relatively small number of U.S. troops.

While not in favor of putting American soldiers in the path of “every major skirmish,” Walker said in a telephone interview last week, “there is a middle road” where the nation fulfills its moral obligations while also protecting its self interests.

Budd said that had he voted, he would have gone the other way because he believes the resolution was aimed solely at the Oval Office’s current occupant.

Budd said that like Walker, “I support the Kurds,” but that in his opinion, the resolution “was a political exercise to hurt the president.”

“And I don’t want to make this a political issue,” Budd said of the Kurds’ fate.

The resolution passed by an 85% margin, with Walker and 128 other Republicans joining 225 Democrats. “Nays” numbered 60, all cast by Republicans.

Back in North Carolina, Democrats would love to oust Budd and Walker in the 2020 elections, but they are dubious of their chances because the current congressional districts are drawn to favor GOP candidates.

“Both of them have aligned themselves very closely with Trump,” said Nicole Ward Quick, the chairwoman of the Guilford County Democratic Party. “As his popularity falls, that could come back to bite them.”

Walker already has attracted 2020 opposition from Chatham County resident Angela Flynn, a Democrat who works as a musical director at a Durham church — similar to ordained pastor Walker’s chosen profession before he was elected to Congress six years ago to represent the 6th District, which includes parts of Guilford County and all of Rockingham County.

Quick said she also knows of a Democrat who plans to challenge Budd but can’t disclose who it is “because the person is not yet ready to announce.”

Second-term officeholder Budd solidified his grasp on the 13th District in 2018 by beating back an aggressive, well-financed Democratic challenge by civic leader and former immigration lawyer Kathy Manning of Greensboro.

But Quick rates Walker as the more skilled politician “who has probably done a better job of reaching out to the various communities in his district” — particularly the black and faith communities.

Democratic strategist and blogger Gary Pearce agreed with Quick’s overall assessment, saying that Trump’s standing with voters is likely to be a turning point for some of North Carolina’s congressional races in 2020.

“We don’t know what it will look like in a year but right now, things don’t look great for Trump,” said Pearce, onetime campaign aide and press secretary for former N.C. Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.

Quick and Pearce also noted that North Carolina’s congressional map is at issue in a partisan-gerrymandering lawsuit that is moving ahead in state court, a process that conceivably could lead to the creation of entirely new districts more favorable to Democratic candidates.

Budd and Walker said in separate interviews last week that they are watching as that court case unfolds but aren’t obsessing over the outcome because the matter is out of their hands.

Walker said that after his district was redrawn last election cycle as the result of a racial-gerrymandering lawsuit in federal court, he was on the receiving end of a 50% change in the territory he represented.

But he said that in the reshuffling, he gained part of the N.C. A&T campus and the opportunity to form “a great relationship with Chancellor (Harold) Martin, someone I respect tremendously.”

So there can be positives even in political situations that seem like “a heavy lift” at first, Walker said.

Both he and Budd said they are very concerned that what Congress could do to help the nation during the remainder of this two-year term will be sidetracked by the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry into Trump’s behavior.

Budd said the momentum behind good pieces of legislation stalls when “the oxygen gets sucked out of the room” by the highly partisan impeachment process.

“They don’t have a reason yet. It’s unclear why they are trying to impeach him,” Budd said. “I really think this is a media war intended to damage the president.”

House Democrats began the inquiry after a whistleblower came forth with accusations that Trump had withheld military aid to the Ukrainian government in order to compel it to begin a criminal investigation of a political rival, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter.

The inquiry has broadened since then to potentially include other Trump actions that critics say also violate constitutional restraints on presidential conduct in office. They range from publicly urging China to investigate the Bidens to, more recently, vying successfully to host next year’s G-7 Summit of international leaders at his financially struggling resort in Doral, Fla.

Walker said the impeachment uproar has left the general public with a sense that it “has taken away from what they feel members of Congress should be doing.”

Both congressmen said they hope that approving the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement is among things Congress can accomplish in the last half of this term, thereby creating a new trading relationship with those two bordering countries.

The pact would supplant the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, that was much criticized for costing the U.S. thousands of manufacturing jobs that were sent elsewhere,, and suppressing the wages and collective bargaining power of the remaining production workers in this country.

“We have between 60 and 70 Democrats whose districts would benefit greatly,” Walker said of the new trade pact’s positive effects.

Budd said that with Democrats in the majority, House leadership has been reluctant to bring up the so-called USMCA for a vote because its passage would be a feather in Trump’s cap.

“We have found very much bipartisan support,” Budd said. “Factories are in red districts and blue districts, too. It is not a partisan issue.”

He said other pieces of legislation he’ll be working for in the months ahead include the FLEX Act that would formalize some of executive branch reforms the Trump administration has made to health insurance.

Among those changes, nonprofit associations of business, professional or other organizations could offer group health insurance plans to their members.

Advocates say small businesses should benefit greatly from the more affordable health coverage they could offer to their employees as part of larger, associationwide plan.

Budd said he also will be working to promote the Justice for Victims of Sanctuary Cities Act, giving people the right to sue city government if they have been hurt by an undocumented immigrant in a community that has declared itself a sanctuary for the undocumented.

Walker said he is throwing his support behind a “prison to prosperity” initiative that aims to help inmates successfully reenter society after they have served their sentences.

Walker said he also will be busy on behalf of the Student-Athlete Equity Act he introduced earlier this year, which would revoke rules preventing amateur athletes from accepting payment for the commercial use of their name or image and force the NCAA to change its policy in that regard.

In the meantime, nobody seems to know for sure what Trump’s next move might be as he becomes ever more deeply enmeshed in the whirlwind of impeachment politics.

But the Greensboro-area congressmen both assert that they are unafraid to call him out if Trump does something they think is wrong.

“Absolutely not,” Budd said on “Triad Today.” “I’ve had personal time with him. He’s been a gentleman, he’s been cordial.”

Walker echoed that more recently after voting for the resolution criticizing the administration’s handling of the Kurdish situation.

“Not at all,” he said. “I have been in the Oval Office and I have expressed myself honestly with the president.”