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Cross-Sector Allies Together in the Struggle for Social Justice: Diversity-Informed Tenets for Work With Infants, Children, and Families

Kandace Thomas, Irving Harris Foundation, Chicago, Illinois; Carmen Rosa Noroña, Child Witness to Violence Project, Early Trauma Treatment Network, Boston Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts; and Maria Seymour St. John, University of California San Francisco Infant–Parent Program, San Francisco, California


The Diversity-Informed Infant Mental Health Tenets (St. John, Thomas, Noroña, & Irving Harris Foundation Professional Development Network Tenets Working Group, 2012) synthesized efforts to integrate principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion into the infant and early childhood mental health field. The Tenets were born of a recognition that social forces conspire to interfere with the capacity of some groups of children and families to thrive. The Tenets are a response to the persistent and urgent need to expand our professional capacity and deepen our work with families by increasing awareness and developing intentional action for individual, organizational, and systemic change. This article presents a revised and expanded edition of the Tenets. The authors introduce a new name—Diversity-Informed Tenets for Work With Infants, Children, and Families—and describe the productive struggles, deepened understandings, sustaining alliances, and critical insights that brought this edition into being.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted with permission from the Tenets Initiative and the Irving Harris Foundation. The original article is available online at and

There has long been consensus among infant and early childhood professionals that meeting diverse families’ needs requires dedicated professional knowledge bases, skillsets (Zeanah & Zeanah, 2009), and learning from practice. But something else is equally critical: cultivating self-awareness. For example, a well-meaning home visitor was dismayed to notice upon exiting the home of a family they1 visited for the first time that the shoes of each family member were lined up neatly outside the front door. In their eagerness to meet the family, the home visitor had crossed the threshold without registering this household convention and removing their own shoes. As they drove away, they wondered what additional missteps they may have made.

There are many socio-cultural conventions, such as leaving shoes at the door, that service providers must acknowledge and respect. Such a convention might be specific to family culture or might signal the family’s tie to a broader socio-cultural circle—to the family’s religious, ethnicity, tribe, socioeconomic, or national cultural identifications, for example. Such considerations are also central to a child’s emerging identity and sense of self. To be effective, any service a family receives must be assessed and understood through these layers of meaning so that they are valuable to the family in their context. And it must begin with the professional’s capacity to reflect on their experience of and with the family. Openness to others and awareness of the self are indivisible.

Photo: Young Swee Ming/shutterstock

There are many socio-cultural conventions, such as leaving shoes at the door, that service providers must acknowledge and respect.

There are other influences on people’s experiences that can be hard to pinpoint but hazardous to ignore. These are the forces of oppression that impact everyone in diverse ways: the families who are the recipients of services or excluded from them, the subjects of research or writing and how they are studied or described, or the beneficiaries of policy and advocacy work that benefit some but not all individuals, families, and communities and the infant, children, and family professionals (also members of families) who are doing this work.

Racism is a prime example of a force of oppression that impacts everyone, though in radically distinct ways depending on how a person is positioned racially. As Solomon (2018) noted in a report regarding the gross disparities in mortality rates for Black mothers and infants in the United States, “research and data continue to show that racism is the evergreen toxin permeating all aspects of American society—and it is killing black women and their babies.” DiAngelo (2018) explained that racism may impact some White people by their/our seeing themselves/ourselves as if race does not matter, and possible anger that they/we are connected to racism, are racist, and/or uphold and perpetrate racism.2 White people often talk about race as if race only pertains to non-White people (Vargas, 2015) and therefore implying that White is not a race, and only non-White groups are racialized. Racism as a force of oppression plays out for others outside of the Black–White binary in American society as well. Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, Arab Americans, and multiracial and biracial people are often ignored in this conversation.

Furthermore, there is an aspect of contemporary social stratification, linked to racism and other systems of oppression, that is generally overlooked (Asad & Clair, 2016) and critically important to highlight. Immigrant children and families within the United States and other countries around the globe are facing overt racism and xenophobia by individuals and systems. In the United States, some immigrant families experience discrimination in their communities as assumptions are made about their documentation status based on their phenotype and English proficiency (Córdova & Cervantes, 2010). The attention that anti-immigration policies create on deporting undocumented immigrants further fuels negative beliefs and stereotypes that immigrants contribute to greater social problems (Casas & Cabrera, 2011). Moreover, anti-immigration policies tend to racialize legal statuses consequently increasing ethnic discrimination, racial profiling, and prejudices which adversely affect the rights and welfare of some immigrant communities (Casas & Cabrera, 2011) more than others.

We are all affected by racism, xenophobia, as well as all other forces of oppression. The infant and early childhood mental health and related fields are dedicated in theory to supporting the development and well-being of not some, but of all infants, children, and families. In practice, many things mitigate against this, such that certain families and groups of families face barriers to accessing needed services. How can we overcome barriers to being fully inclusive? What guidelines might we follow in order to promote equity in and through our work? How do individuals expand self-awareness, and how do institutions and systems undo systemic oppression? These are the questions that originally spurred the collaborative articulation of the Diversity-Informed Tenets for Work With Infants, Children and Families (see Box 1).

Box 1. Diversity-Informed Tenets for Work With Infants, Children, and Families Central Principles for Diversity-Informed Practice

1. Self-Awareness Leads to Better Services for Families: Working with infants, children, and families requires all individuals, organizations, and systems of care to reflect on our own culture, values and beliefs, and on the impact that racism, classism, sexism, able-ism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other systems of oppression have had on our lives in order to provide diversity-informed, culturally attuned services.

Stance Toward Infants, Children, and Families for Diversity-Informed Practice
2. Champion Children’s Rights Globally: Infants and children are citizens of the world. The global community is responsible for supporting parents/caregivers, families, and local communities in welcoming, protecting, and nurturing them.
3. Work to Acknowledge Privilege and Combat Discrimination: Discriminatory policies and practices that harm adults harm the infants and children in their care. Privilege constitutes injustice. Diversity-informed practitioners acknowledge privilege where we hold it, and use it strategically and responsibly. We combat racism, classism, sexism, able-ism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other systems of oppression within ourselves, our practices, and our fields.
4. Recognize and Respect Non-Dominant Bodies of Knowledge: Diversity-informed practice recognizes non-dominant ways of knowing, bodies of knowledge, sources of strength, and routes to healing within all families and communities.
5. Honor Diverse Family Structures: Families decide who is included and how they are structured; no particular family constellation or organization is inherently optimal compared to any other. Diversity-informed practice recognizes and strives to counter the historical bias toward idealizing (and conversely blaming) biological mothers while overlooking the critical child-rearing contributions of other parents and caregivers including second mothers, fathers, kin and felt family, adoptive parents, foster parents, and early care and educational providers.

Principles for Diversity-Informed Resource Allocation
6. Understand That Language Can Hurt or Heal: Diversity-informed practice recognizes the power of language to divide or connect, denigrate or celebrate, hurt or heal. We strive to use language (including body language, imagery, and other modes of nonverbal communication) in ways that most inclusively support all children and their families, caregivers, and communities.
7. Support Families in Their Preferred Language: Families are best supported in facilitating infants’ and children’s development and mental health when services are available in their native languages.
8. Allocate Resources to Systems Change: Diversity and inclusion must be proactively considered when doing any work with or on behalf of infants, children, and families. Resource allocation includes time, money, additional/alternative practices, and other supports and accommodations, otherwise systems of oppression may be inadvertently reproduced. Individuals, organizations, and systems of care need ongoing opportunities for reflection in order to identify implicit bias, remove barriers, and work to dismantle the root causes of disparity and inequity.
9. Make Space and Open Pathways: Infant, child, and family-serving workforces are most dynamic and effective when historically and currently marginalized individuals and groups have equitable access to a wide range of roles, disciplines, and modes of practice and influence.

Advocacy Toward Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in Institutions
10. Advance Policy That Supports All Families: Diversity-informed practitioners consider the impact of policy and legislation on all people and advance a just and equitable policy agenda for and with families.

1 Note that the authors of this article intend the use of pronouns to be inclusive of all gender identifications and gender expressions.
2 Note that the authors of this article identify racially as Black, Latina, and White.

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