Start Early. Start well.

September 09, 2021

Thriving Children Speaker Says Early Childhood Can Be Life-Changing, and Communities Can Play a Key Role

Rosemarie AllenRosemarie Allen, whose career in the early childhood field has spanned four decades, has plenty of experiences and hard lessons learned to share with attendees at the 2021 Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference on Sept. 27.

By Erin Duffy

Rosemarie Allen, one of two keynote speakers at this year's Thriving Children, Families, and Communities Conference, believes in the power of early childhood education to change lives, and she wants you to believe, too. You can hear her message at this year's virtual event, scheduled for Sept. 27. Learn more about the conference and register here.

She wants to remind people of one compelling finding: that every dollar spent investing in quality early education programs pays dividends in the future, helping kids grow up healthier, better educated, less likely to turn to crime.

“When we look at the return on investment and not only the intellectual growth, but what it does for a child for health outcomes, social determinants of health, the likelihood of incarceration, teen pregnancy,” she said. “I want people to know that, but I want to bring it to life.”

And she wants you to know that every member of a community can help nurture, support, and build better systems for kids and families—no teaching degree or specialized experience required.

She wants legislators to understand their power to craft needed policy and laws. She wants pastors to realize their influence at Sunday school. She wants the barbershop owners who pass out books while cutting kids’ hair to be recognized as leaders, too. Expect these types of powerful messages and more at the Thriving Children conference. The other keynote speaker is researcher and economist Bina Patel Shrimali.

The event, now in its fourth year, is free and online, and focuses on the connections between early childhood education and community and economic vitality. The conference attracts community leaders in fields like business, education, and economic development from across Nebraska and the country who want to build a better early childhood system, with built-in opportunities to network, connect, and share ideas. Last year’s conference attracted 700 registrants from 99 Nebraska communities and 20 states.

Allen’s career in the early childhood field has spanned four decades—she has plenty of experiences and hard lessons learned to share with Thriving Children attendees.

She’s worked as an early childhood teacher and director. She headed a state licensing program for providers and served as director in the Divisions of Early Learning and Youth Corrections in Colorado.

She currently teaches at the School of Education at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where she helps teachers understand concepts like equity, privilege, and culturally responsive teaching practices. And she is the president and CEO of the Center for Equity & Excellence.

Allen got into education to right some of the wrongs she experienced as a young child, which she details in a TEDxMileHigh talk that has more than 130,000 views on YouTube.

When a young Allen dug a hole in the playground to see if she really could burrow to China, school staff started labeling her: destructive.

Incorrigible, they said, after she climbed to the top of the school auditorium to get a birds-eye view of her surroundings, inspired by a lesson about maps.

She was suspended multiple times.

“What if my teachers would have seen me as a geologist rather than being destructive?” she says in her TED talk.

She remembers picking up on an unsettling feeling in fourth grade: her frustrated teacher didn’t seem to like her.

“I remembered how sad I was because I loved school so much,” she said. “It was that day I decided ‘I want to be a teacher, and I want my kids to know I like them.’”

She learned to work with students with challenging behaviors. She realized the importance of gaining the trust of families and communities—the child care division she led in Colorado had a $98 million budget but she said in retrospect the agency too often lacked the voices and perspectives of the parents and families they were serving. She discovered that just because she was excited about a project, that didn’t mean all staff and stakeholders were automatically on board, too.

And she knows that to build strong partnerships, leaders need to assess and identify community assets—not just the mayor or school board members, but the Little League coaches or community activists who have deep roots and respect in a neighborhood or community.

“We make no decisions without communities and families,” she said.

And that’s the core of Thriving Children—bringing communities together to solve challenges facing early care and education in Nebraska, share both obstacles and stories of success, and build a better future for the children and families of the state.

Erin Duffy, the digital communications specialist at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. As a journalist, she spent more than five years covering education stories for daily newspapers.

Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at

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