Improving access for vulnerable children and families has long guided the work of Rochelle Haynes MPA-URP ’06.
After graduating from Princeton University, she returned to her “hometown” of New York City to work for several NYC government agencies on programs and policies impacting vulnerable children and families, from affordable housing and social services to homelessness.
Today, she serves as vice president of US social impact at Sesame Workshop, where she leads the Sesame Street in Communities initiative. This program provides hundreds of bilingual, multimedia tools to help kids and families enrich and expand their knowledge during the early years of birth through six in the areas of literacy, numeracy, healthy habits, and managing through difficult times.
In this Q&A, Haynes, who serves on Princeton SPIA’s Advisory Council, explains how her own personal “mission statement” helped guide her career in ways she hadn’t originally imagined.
Q. What is/are the most important policy issue(s) facing us today?
Haynes: First and foremost, Covid-19 is one of the most important issues facing us today, as well as racial injustice, which, when examined, are very much interconnected. This is a time when inequities in systems, programs, and policies have come to light. In particular, Covid-19 has put a spotlight on the lack of access to health care and the quality of care that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) people, and particularly the Black community, have long encountered when engaging with the health care industry. The BIPOC community has also disproportionately been affected by Covid-19, while also serving as the essential workers needed to offer services and care while being disproportionately impacted by unemployment. Unfortunately, these inequities always existed, and the pandemic has exacerbated them. Now, the most prescient question of today is: How do we start to look at policies and programs that may be causing some of those inequalities? And how do we innovatively redesign policies and programs to close the gap on inequities in the long-term?
Q. What are you most passionate about? What current project or initiative are you most excited about?
Haynes: Sesame Workshop has been around for more than 50 years and includes the beloved show Sesame Street as well as the Muppets — Big Bird, Elmo, and Cookie Monster. The show began in 1969 in an effort to equal the playing field in early education, by using TV to teach the ABCs and 123s to all children with a lens toward increasing access to early-education resources for vulnerable children of color.
Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit organization on a mission to help kids grow up smarter, stronger, and kinder. Sesame Street in Communities is the workshop’s signature domestic initiative, which creates resources that help children with literacy, social emotional development, and building healthy habits. We also support children and families as they work through difficult times and discuss tough topics — family homelessness, parental addiction, and grief. In my role, I have the pleasure of integrating these bilingual, multimedia resources into programs serving children and families throughout the country. With Sesame Street in Communities, we’ve been able to harness the brand and trust of Sesame Street and its lovable Muppets to put a spotlight on overall childhood well-being. We do this by providing families research-based materials to facilitate conversations and activities that strengthen social emotional development skills, ensuring that children are ready for school and most importantly building resilience — especially during these challenging times. We are located in 12 communities across the country including direct-service provider organizations, early-education programs, as well as group and individual counseling sessions and home-visiting programs.
For example, in three of our new communities — Baltimore, Miami, and Maricopa County in Arizona — we are working to address parental addiction and highlight its impact on young children. This includes how to build resiliency skills in the face of adversity. The magic is in using a Muppet to talk to a child about what it feels like when a parent is in recovery and assure them they are not alone and also reassure the adults in their lives that there is no shame in asking for help. That’s the part of the work that truly resonates with me, as it levels the playing field and destigmatizes the issues families are managing on a day-to-day basis. The key message is there is no need to face addiction, homelessness, or grief alone.
Q. Over the course of your career, what are the most important skills/strategies you’ve learned?
Haynes: When I attended Princeton, I focused on health policy and housing. After graduation, I worked in the area of strategic planning for NYC’s affordable housing development agency. About two years into my role, priorities shifted at the agency due to organizational changes, and I found myself questioning what was next for me. My mentor at the time pushed me to think beyond access to affordable housing, about what I was most passionate about, and suggested I come up with a mission statement for myself. And, what became clearer was that while affordable housing was important to me, what I was driven by most was the desire to work on programs and policies that would end the cycle of poverty — a cycle where access to quality, affordable housing, education, and health care would assist vulnerable families. This realization opened doors for me. It allowed me to have a broader viewpoint on what was next. And today, while I’m not directly working on policy, the issues Sesame Street in Communities highlights and the partners and communities we serve all tie to back this personal mission. Through my role, I can be of service to vulnerable children and families.
Now, I spend my days thinking not only about how we can raise awareness, but also how we can move the levers of power. The work I did in government was about solving issues upstream, for adults. And, when I peeled back the layers, I quickly learned that education and the early years were foundational for adult outcomes. The early years are critical as almost 90% of the brain is developed in the first five years of life. These formative years are shaping outlooks on the world, interpersonal skills, as well as behavioral, cognitive, and long-term health outcomes. This is why I feel the work we are doing with Sesame Street in Communities is so powerful.
Q. In what ways did the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs prepare you for your career? How do you think the School trains students to be policy leaders? What were the tactical skills you gained while at the School that you still employ today?
Haynes: I use the analytical skills I learned at the School daily. I still remember taking the 501 class, which requires students to analyze and digest large amounts of policy and data on a given topic and be able to formulate a concise recommendation in a one-page memo. After serving in several roles, I quickly realized that no one is going to read a 10-page report; you have to figure out how to get your ideas across and make strong arguments. Thanks to 501 and my other coursework, I feel confident in my ability to digest and present information in clear and concise ways. I also feel confident that I have the framework to look at all angles of an issue and evaluate new innovations and approaches by balancing policy, economics, statistics, and then weighing the options. Thanks to my Princeton training, I understand policy and have the economic framework to thoroughly evaluate new innovations and approaches.
In past roles, I always felt sorry when the policy and programmatic team presented their analysis to me, as I would drill down in the way that only the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs could teach one how to do.
Q. How can young people entering the workforce be successful?
Haynes: I’ve always deeply admired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the Civil Rights Movement, also known as SNCC. They were a group of students fighting for equality and justice when it came to voting rights and the desegregation of public spaces — to name a few. It was Ella Baker, Julian Bond, Diane Nash, and the incomparable late Rep. John Lewis who bravely took up this mission and used their voice to move this country forward.
None of them knew this would be their calling, but they leaned into the twists of life and their careers, turns, and the pain of their segregated reality to step into their purpose.
For me, young people entering the workforce will be successful bringing that energy to their environments and by bringing new, diverse, innovative ideas to the table. They can be successful by entering the workforce willing to be challenged, to grow, to actively listen, to take the time to learn the levers of power and build allyship.
It is by design that we are at this crossroads in the world as diverse, innovative voices are entering the workforce. It is truly a moment of transformation. They should not shy away from the heaviness of our current reality. But rather think about what they can add and contribute. Now is the opportunity for those young people to further define what will be their path, what will be their purpose, and to lean into the twists and turns along the journey — because that’s when true callings are able to reveal themselves.
#Changemakers: Alumni Making a Difference is a Q&A series featuring alumni of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.