How One Head Start Trailblazer Fought Against Racial Inequality

“Head Start came out of the Civil Rights Movement, a lot of folks don’t want to make that connection — but it came straight out of the Civil Rights era,” says Ron Herndon, former National Head Start Association board chairman. For the past four decades, he has served as the executive director of Albina Head Start in Portland, Oregon, a program that sets the standard in the Head Start community as a trailblazer in innovation and school readiness.

Ron has led many initiatives combating racial inequalities and discrimination in Portland. He led the Black United Front, an activist group, in protests at local board education meetings and fought against forced bussing of African American children out of schools in their own communities to schools in white communities.

Ron was also responsible for establishing a partnership with nearby Nike World Headquarters, which resulted in an agreement in which the Nike Factory Store in downtown Portland shares a percentage of sales with local community organizations. This is just one of a handful of his many community success stories.

Growing up in a small town in Kansas, Ron credits the local black community for instilling within him life-long values that he works to pass along to students, staff, and parents. He said that they shared the mindset that “though the system is rigged against you, you are not going to give up. We expect you to succeed, and it will take hard work.”

“Those were the values that I got at a very early age and every institution in the community emphasized those values,” he said.

After finishing college in 1970, he opened an independent school for African American children in Portland, Oregon, with a couple of his friends. In this role, he built relationships and trust within his community, and was encouraged by parents to get involved with Head Start.

“The only reason I ever got hired at Head Start was Head Start parents,” said Ron. “It’s only because of the confidence that Head Start parents had in me — were it not for that, I would not had been at Head Start.”

Under the leadership of Ron Herndon, Albina Head Start continues to raise the bar on innovation in the Head Start community. For example, the program is one of the first nationally-recognized Mandarin dual language programs.

Although he may not see it this way, Ron is a Head Start trailblazer for social justice.

“At no point, at least in my mind, was there the thought that in doing this we were going to make a dent in social justice,” he said. The only thing they were thinking was that “if we do this well, then these young children will have the possibility of living more independent and fulfilling lives.”

In honor of Black History Month, NHSA highlighted the legacy of influential Head Start champions. In addition to Ron Herndon, we featured Dr. Marvin Hogan’s story and his life-long commitment to Head Start children and families as the Executive Director of Friends of Children of Mississippi Inc. Head Start/Early Head Start in Jackson, Mississippi.

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.

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