Skip to content
Mel Gravely

What are the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging Requirements for Head Start Programs?

In a recent blog this past January, we posed the question: What’s the big deal about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) in Head Start programs? While you have likely heard about DEIB before, you might think that it’s only something done by corporations with sprawling HR departments or government agencies in large marble buildings. Surely it’s not something a small, local Head Start designee needs to worry about.

We wrote that Head Start programs at all levels DO need to care about DEIB. Firstly, because it’s now a federal requirement; and secondly, because it’s the right thing to do.

That was the first time we talked about DEIB on our blog, and our article was primarily meant to help introduce our new training on the subject. We admittedly didn’t go into much detail about the concept from a practical standpoint. For example, where did the phrase come from? Why is it now part of Head Start? And how does it affect our work?

The concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion have been discussed and advocated for much longer than the term “DEI” has been in use. I don’t think we need to go through the long history of the fight against discrimination for the purposes of this blog. But I will say that naming something is often the first step into fully flushing it out. DEIB as a shorthand for these separate, yet interconnected concepts, allows us to properly define and then develop frameworks for them in a more meaningful way.

According to a search on Google Ngram Viewer, which tracks the frequency of words and phrases in books, the term “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) began to gain traction in the mid-2000s. We at The Gravely Group were unable to pinpoint a certain book or person who first utilized that specific terminology.  However, we do know that it has been utilized as a human resources concept for both public and private entities for at least the past two decades, with a marked increase in popularity within the past several years.

In an online newsletter for the nonprofit Global Research and Consulting Group, one author wrote, “DEI, which was once seen as a sub-component under the human resources department, has now evolved into a core business function that large and small businesses alike have been aggressively investing in.”

Just a couple weeks later after that article was written in June 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order (EO) 14035, the “Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce.” This order requires federal agencies to develop comprehensive DEI strategic plans, enhance DEI in the federal workforce through recruitment, hiring, training, and retention programs, and promote equity in government policies and programs. (Note: We recommend reading the order, if only to find out how the federal government formally defines these terms.)

“The Federal Government is at its best when drawing upon all parts of society,” the order states. “Our greatest accomplishments are achieved when diverse perspectives are brought to bear to overcome our greatest challenges, and all persons should receive equal treatment under the law.”

EO 14035 follows in the footsteps of Executive Order 13985, signed on President Biden’s first day in office in January 2021. The “Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government” aims to address systemic racism and promote equity in federal policies, programs, and institutions. Specifically, it directs federal agencies to assess whether their programs and policies disproportionately harm communities of color and other underserved populations and to take steps to address these disparities. It also establishes a task force to advance equity across federal programs and agencies.

“Affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our Government,” EO 13985 states.

Together, these two executive orders could allow the federal government to transform the distribution of opportunities and resources over the next decade in a more equitable way, first through the billions of dollars it allocates to local and state entities every year, and second as the nation’s largest employer.

In response to these two orders, the Administration for Children & Families (ACF), which the Office of Head Start (OHS) is under, released their comprehensive plan in January 2022, which they dubbed “Equity in Action.”

“We recognize that the federal government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all,” ACF writes. ”ACF has made equity a central part of how we operate and deliver on our mission; developed a robust approach to advance equity across our programs and processes; and engaged parents, youth, and families to inform our strategy.”

In addition to the ACF’s overarching Equity in Action plan, each division under the ACF was required to submit their own plan, including the Office of Head Start:

“OHS is committed to reviewing policies and programmatic decisions to identify any disparities that create barriers to full and equal participation for families,” OHS writes. “This includes advancing efforts to develop and operationalize input from advisory structures along with creating a comprehensive and systemic approach to equitable training and technical assistance (TTA) opportunities for grant recipients.”

So now we know a little bit of history about how this new DEIB focus came about and why it’s now part of the Head Start mandate (as it is with all federal agencies). Let’s talk about what upcoming changes you can expect for Head Start.

From a government standpoint, this initiative is still very, very new. It is still in the early stages of implementation. It’s going to take some time for ACF’s Equity in Action plan to come to fruition.

For example, OHS says in its plan that it will be hosting parent focus groups that will “help OHS better understand the experience of families to provide input and feedback on OHS policies, systems, and services.” The plan states that those focus groups should have been scheduled for the Fall of 2022, but as of now we do not yet know the outcomes of those focus groups and what policy changes they may inform.

Keep in mind that the Head Start Performance Standards is still the primary governing document for all Head Start grantees. The Equity in Action initiative will not change how grantees approach their day-to-day work. But what the ACF is asking, is that grantees refocus some of that work through the DEIB lens.  Think about ways you could expand or tweak some of your existing tasks to allow you to reach a more diverse audience or make others feel more included and valued.

For example, new DEIB activities could look something like this:

In my opinion, Head Start is in the perfect position to implement DEIB principles into our programs. Even before it had a name, these principles have been part of Head Start since the beginning. It’s who we are. It’s in our blood.

In a podcast released by OHS called “Our Role in Equity,” Dr. Eva Shivers, founder and Executive Director of the Indigo Cultural Center, agrees.

“I think Head Start has been attending and attuning to equity for a very long time,” she states. “I think the inception of the program came from systems and policies and visionaries in our country that understood equity way before the rest of us started using that word, so I think in its bones, in its DNA, equity lives as both process and outcomes.”

In short, Head Start just needs to do what it has always done (and do it well) in order to meet federal DEIB guidelines. Tasks such as a reliable community assessment, proper ERSEA procedures, authentic family engagement, culturally-appropriate instruction, and a properly-trained and engaged staff are just a few of the ways that Head Start has prioritized DEIB for many years.

Now is the time to take a critical look at all areas of your Head Start program and ask yourself where there might be opportunities for improvement and to incorporate DEIB principles in your day-to-day operations.  Contact The Gravely Group to see how we might be able to help.

Tags: , ,


  1. Janet says:

    Does that go for staff also? Head Start is NOT diversified in either at present

Leave a Comment