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Champions for Children: Kim Pattillo Brownson

When Kim Pattillo Brownson brought home her first-born child several years ago, she was met with her first moment of deep uncertainty as a new parent.

“There was that moment where I thought, 'Do I remember how to swaddle her? And if my baby cries for more than a minute, should I assume she’s in imminent peril?’” she recalled.

Fortunately, she remembered her training and classes with the hospital nurses, who taught Kim everything from swaddling to breastfeeding, changing diapers to calming her baby. That support – and the guidance and caretaking she received from her own mom and mother-in-law – helped positively propel Kim into parenthood.

“For a new parent, the stakes are incredibly high for getting it right.” -Kim Pattillo Brownson

Yet Kim knows she was lucky. Not all new moms in Los Angeles County have access to resources like classes for new parents and experts to answer questions without judgment. Without these, the greater a new mother’s challenges of encouraging a child’s healthy development, preventing child maltreatment, improving school readiness and spotting developmental, behavioral and social delays. 

"For a new parent, the stakes are incredibly high for getting it right,” Kim said.

As the new Vice President of Policy and Strategy for First 5 LA, Kim advocates for a plethora of perinatal and parenting supports for new parents in L.A. County, from increased breastfeeding practices at Baby-Friendly Hospitals to Welcome Baby and Select Home Visiting programs that offer visits by professional parent coaches who provide information and support to help pregnant women and new moms through the journey of pregnancy and early parenthood.

Advocating for young children, new moms and families requires compassion, drive, knowledge and skilled communication. Kim’s early role model was her mother, whose compassion for children led her into a career in special education shortly after Kim entered kindergarten.

“She was very clear that the way you build a better world is by building stronger kids,” Kim said of her mom, whom she called her first Champion for Children. “She taught me that education is the great equalizer, and that all kids should have a fair shot at success.”

As Kim grew, with these lessons instilled daily by her mom, the calling to help others blossomed within her. During elementary school, she visited a friend’s house, where she noticed that the cupboards were practically empty of food. So she began sharing her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the friend during lunch. In junior high, Kim met a “super bright” student whose parents had mental illness and drug issues, and eventually became homeless and dropped out of school.

“These are challenges no child should have to face, but for too many Angelenos, this has become the new normal,” Kim said, looking back at the moments in her life that shaped her thinking, and her desire to make an impact today. Consequently, she added: “I knew pretty early on I wanted to be involved in work that would make children’s lives better and fairer, regardless of what life circumstances they might have been born into.”

Kim dived into learning how to do this kind of work – with a particular passion for policy and systems change: “I understood that you want to create public systems where you don’t just give people fish, but systems where everyone gets to learn how to fish.”

She drove herself to do the best she could in school, thanks in part to her mother – who told her that even getting an “A” was not acceptable if she did not try her best – and her high school principal at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, whom she called her second Champion for Children and a role model for social justice and mobility.

“My school was mostly kids of color from working class families like my own.” -Kim Pattillo Brownson

“My school was mostly kids of color from working class families like my own,” Kim said. “It was so tiny, we were a high school on a middle school campus and we didn’t even have chemistry lab equipment. But our principal helped us see that it didn't matter what you didn't have; it only mattered that you were willing to work hard and be creative to get whatever you needed to learn, including fundraising for chemistry sets. And she had incredibly high expectations of her students. Anything less than going to college was not going to happen on her watch. And everyone in my graduating class had post-secondary plans and the vast majority went off to college.”

Kim’s learning journey led to Harvard University, where she graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Studies. At Yale Law School, she earned a Doctor of Law degree. Her early legal work included clerking for the Honorable Dolores Sloviter on the Third Circuit Court of Appeal and the Honorable Louis H. Pollak in Pennsylvania. She followed this as an attorney in the private sector and as an education attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, where she focused on educational equity issues in California schools.

Prior to joining First 5 LA in 2016, Kim served as the Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization engaged in policy and systems change to foster upward mobility in communities most impacted by economic and racial injustice. In this capacity, she led the Advancement Project’s policy and advocacy staff across Sacramento, Los Angeles and the Bay Area and provided strategic direction to their work on early education, school funding, and school facilities, public budgeting transparency, governmental relations, and state and local campaign advocacy. 

Along the way, Kim’s savvy and effectiveness as an advocate for educational equity and social justice has earned high praise from those who have worked with her. 

“No one understands the intricacies of local and state politics and public funding for education like Kim,” said Advancement Project Executive Director John Kim. “Couple that with her tenacity and willingness to always go the extra mile – it’s hard to find a more effective advocate.”

“First 5 LA is very fortunate in having Kim Pattillo Brownson join their team leading policy and strategy,” said Los Angeles Unified School District Board President Steve Zimmer. “Her deep knowledge of the issues, her commitment to ensuring all students have equal opportunity and her effectiveness as an advocate and a strategist will make sure their work becomes even more grounded and powerful.”

“First 5 LA is very fortunate in having Kim Pattillo Brownson join their team leading policy and strategy.” -LAUSD School Board President Steve Zimmer

With First 5 LA’s emphasis on implementing policy and systems change under the 2015-2020 Strategic Plan, Kim’s new role as V.P. of the Policy and Strategy Division will help strengthen the organization’s profile and influence on local and statewide public policy, legislative and advocacy efforts impacting young children and their families in L.A. County. In this capacity, she oversees First 5 LA’s departments of Strategic Partnerships, Public Policy & Government Affairs, Communications and Community Relations.

The work has already begun in earnest. An effective communicator in her own right, Kim has been featured regularly speaking out for First 5 LA on issues affecting young children on KPCC radio, EdSource and other media. And she recently joined the First 5 LA delegation at First 5 Association Advocacy Day in Sacramento, where she met with state legislative leaders on issues ranging from early childhood education to home visiting.

But there’s more to be done. Among Kim’s top three priorities (with commentary):

  1. To make sure Los Angeles has a voice in the state capitol so that the needs of young children and their families are understood. 

“Some in Sacramento have a view that the challenge to provide opportunities and services in L.A. is insurmountable. Part of our role is not just to bring our problems to the legislature, but to provide solutions – a roadmap – to develop the types of policies that help support children and families.”

  1. Bolster the capacity of our partnerships.

“First 5 LA cannot do this work alone. We can help amplify the voices of our nonprofit partners, community and parent leaders, philanthropy, government, higher education, labor and business so that the chorus is strong and our push for kids is compelling.”

  1. Be creative and opportunistic to find sustainable revenue streams to grow the systems that children need.

“There is a clear urgency to look at new revenue streams that may live at the state, local or federal level.”

Ultimately, Kim would like to level the playing field for young children in L.A. County by putting an end to issues like educational inequity, health disparities and homelessness that she saw impact other kids in her youth. 

“If we get our society’s priorities together, the luck of the draw of a child’s birth won’t confine some kids to the lowest rungs of society or put other kids on the glide path to the top,” she said. “If we help our kids build a strong foundation in the early years, we can build a fairer and more robust L.A. County, and that's the L.A. that's worth fighting for.”

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