Ann Linehan: Honoring a Lifetime of Service


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December 15, 2021

photo of Ann Linehan and Dr. T. Berry Brazelton
Ann Linehan and Dr. T. Berry Brazelton

BTC’s Executive Director, Joshua Sparrow, MD, recently interviewed Ann Linehan, following her retirement as Deputy Director of the Office of Head Start. Here, he reflects on their conversation about Ann’s lifetime of service and the meaning of Brazelton Touchpoints in her work.

“Don’t overthink it. It will reveal itself,” Ann Linehan, Deputy Director of the Office of Head Start since 2011, told me in a recent conversation about her retirement—the next chapter in a life committed to children and families.

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Ann, watching her in action, leading the Office of Head Start. Head Start is a multibillion-dollar Federal program serving more than a million children and families living with poverty all over these United States, territories, and sovereign Tribal nations. In senior management positions for the past 25 years, Ann has helped chart its course through the shifting tides of Republican and Democratic administrations, always inspiring its workforce of thousands—to stretch and reach and search, and to hold on to hope.

I feel like I’ve known Ann forever. We both spent the first chapters of our working lives in Boston Strong, learning from strong, brave, beautiful children facing all kinds of challenges. And we both grew up in balkanized Boston, Ann in an Irish Catholic family in Brighton, and me in a soulless suburb where those who’d arrived a century or so sooner fled as the newly assimilating invaded. When she’s back home, the beautiful Boston accent comes back.

Ann knows her strength comes from her family background and history. Of the many tributes honoring her contributions to Head Start as she steps down, Ann jokes, “No one says I’m smart.” Instead, “they called me ‘frank, calm, and candid‘ and said that I ‘told the truth,‘ including the hard truths. Ann explained, “It’s the commoner in me, the blue collar background.” Her father, she once told me and Berry Brazelton, was “a cop”—her brave, strong, loving, and beloved father who died suddenly and much too young. Yet part of Ann’s strength comes from always reaching, stretching beyond, always searching.

Ann told me that she went to parochial school and that “my life had always been very parochial.” From the beginning of her working life, Ann was propelled by the tension between what she knew she didn’t yet know, what she couldn’t yet do, and her potential. Before each next step, there was a mentor who helped her see that potential before she herself could, and who pushed, nudged, cajoled, exhorted, and loved her into risking the next reach, the next stretch. This is what Ann has always tried to bring to the many fortunate learners whom she has mentored.

When she began her career in the 1970s, Ann’s first teachers were children—11 children, six children in wheelchairs, five children who were called “emotionally disturbed” back then. They taught her to watch and listen very carefully for the tiny increments of growth, and to find the joy in these “miniscule progressions.”

The challenges that progress bring were also Ann’s teachers. It was her job to implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act when it was still brand new. It was her job to help children with disabilities enter public schools where “no one had ever seen a child wearing a helmet” (e.g., to protect children with uncontrolled seizures from head injuries) or a “head pointer” (for children without spoken language or use of their upper arms who point to symbols on a board to express themselves). These children were guiding Ann to search, to reach for the truth and stretch—embracing and recognizing all children, and preparing her to encourage and mentor so many of us to do the same.

I think I first met Ann in Durango, Colorado, in May of 2001, at the Tribal Early Head Start Directors Retreat. Berry Brazelton and I had been invited there to introduce the Touchpoints Approach because of the quiet, respectful listening and observing that is its hallmark, and that was Berry’s way of learning about newborn babies. A few wise friends of ours and of our future colleagues in “Indian Country” thought that this way of being with would be of interest and service there. Our time at the retreat was, according to the elder who offered an opening blessing to bring in good spirits, a “meeting of the eagles”—and that is a very good and powerful thing.

That night, serendipity sat me down at dinner next to Ann. As with just about everyone Berry introduced me to in those days, I was star struck and intimidated. As I struggled to decide what to order, Ann—like Berry, always extra-terrestrially sensitive and generous—leaned over and laughed: “Honey, always order the salmon. It’s good for your skin.” I was immediately smitten. As Berry would have said, it was love at first sight—kindred spirits inspiring each other to hold onto hope, see the potential, and to act on the shared vision.

That is also what Berry Brazelton did for so many of us—as Ann says, “lifting people up to see the opportunities that they can’t yet see for themselves.” Berry and Ann adored each other. They were both rebels and renegades, and were not afraid to speak the truth.

Helen Taylor, the first African American Associate Commissioner of what was called in her day the “Head Start Bureau,” summoned Ann to Washington to begin her career there, and told her “I need you here!”

Ann is clear that Head Start also needed Berry Brazelton. It was his paradigm-shattering research on infancy and the first years of life, she said, that inspired Early Head Start. His brilliance was matched by the simplicity of his disarmingly clear and direct messages. He helped everyone who cared deeply about babies and children at the Office of Head Start but who worked as some distance from them to feel closer to them, and to feel more deeply how much their work mattered. He helped us all understand how important it is for every parent to know they matter, and that they can be the parent they want to be, regardless of what they’ve been through and where they started from. No one from a background like Berry’s had ever created such deep, trusting, and long-lasting relationships with Tribal leaders and families around the country, relationships that Berry respected and cherished as only he could.

I invited Ann to speak in Boston at the celebration of Berry Brazelton’s life—a month after his death, and a month before what would have been his 100th birthday. Ann came even though it was the Trump Administration’s new Office of Head Start Director’s first day at work. Ann wrote to tell her what she would be doing on her first day,  instead of welcoming her. The new Director, Dr. Deborah Bergeron, emailed back, “Oh my God, he’s been my hero my whole life. His books got me through raising my three children!” Berry was still connecting us, for children’s sake, even after his death. Ann read Dr. Bergeron’s email at the celebration.

As Ann steps now into this next Touchpoint of her life, she’s not over thinking it. Despite the overwhelming challenges of the last years of her Head Start tenure, she’s hopeful: “I wish we’d had the ‘Me Too’ movement when I came to government. We’ve now got women in a much better place, and men too. And we used to speak of a melting pot, but now we are truly becoming multicultural and people are spreading across both red and blue states. We have a long way to go, but diversity, equity, and inclusion are finally taking off.”

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