Janna Wagner

One for All

Janna Wagner liked to visit New Haven when she was in her mid-20s. Her mother was still here and she adores her mother. Some of her closest friends from her undergraduate years at Yale had stayed on to get advance degrees, so she got to see them too. She was also sure that she would eventually settle in New Haven. “I knew I would come back when I was at my age now, in my middle age,” she says with appreciative irony. But it was the 1990s, and Wagner had been teaching and going to graduate school in New York and Boston, “where every night’s a discotheque. The world is my oyster. Why would I go back to New Haven?”

It was All Our Kin that convinced her. The organization, through which Wagner and a “super-expanding” team of specialists help low-income parents to become childcare professionals, is about to enter its 20th year in New Haven. At the time, it was just an idea, pitched to Wagner by Jessica Sager, a Yale Law School colleague of a friend. In 1996, President Clinton had signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, restricting welfare assistance by, among other things, requiring recipients to return to work or undergo career training after a maximum of two years. This posed an acute challenge—a catch-22, really—for many parents surviving on welfare: Being unable to afford childcare, how could they look after their kids while they were training to qualify for a job?

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Sager’s solution was that they could study to become childcare professionals and thus bring their children with them. “That the unique idea—that they’re continuing to receive benefits and they’re learning how to be an early childhood educator by working with their own children and other peoples’ children,” Wagner says. As such, All Our Kin began as something like a cooperative and a childcare laboratory. “We trained over nine months to run a childcare program,” Wagner explains. “And they learned hands-on in a little childcare we had for half of the day. And the other half of the day, they were in classes with me learning theory.”

Wagner’s teaching experience and her degrees in both child development and education made her an ideal cofounder of All Our Kin. But growing up in New Haven, she was also unusually attuned to how such resources could be available to and invisible to the disadvantaged at the same time. Her mother was savvy about getting her into “nerd camps” and other education programs. “And a lot of my friends just didn’t have that. They didn’t have an advocate who could negotiate the system and knew about all the opportunities. My mom had the cultural capital to know that as a white woman she could demand it or find it or know that it even existed.” Wagner grew up happily in an integrated neighborhood and went to public schools where she was part of a white minority but, nevertheless, “all the advanced classes tended to be white kids with a couple of kids of color.”

Yale University was itself both an available and an invisible resource for a kid growing up in “the flats” (Wagner’s fond term for her old neighborhood, wedged between Fountain Street and the Wilbur Cross Parkway at their steepest and Whalley Avenue at its most congested). She remembers Yale as both “a looming beast” and, for locals, easy to ignore. As a young student, she had participated in the Yale-administered Ulysses S. Grant summer program (which, not incidentally, she now chairs) for New Haven school kids, but even so, “Yale being in the middle of New Haven exacerbat this feeling of being left out.”

Her reaction as a New Havener who got into Yale was to try to open the gate from the inside. She joined the Democratic Committee for Ward 1 and registered her classmates to vote in New Haven elections. She rounded up Yale friends and took them out of their college hangout orbit to the Daily Caffe, a now-defunct but once-“rockin’ coffeehouse” on Elm Street full of locals, loud music, art and poetry. (The Daily Caffe continues to represent a somewhat lost, “New Haven-grown” New Haven in Wagner’s imagination.)

Given its founders’ affiliation with Yale, it was difficult at first for All Our Kin to bridge similar gaps. Referring to herself and Sager, Wagner says, “We were young and we both had Yale degrees. And New Haven people have seen a lot of Yale students start things and then leave the residents high and dry. So they’re naturally skeptical of any newfangled idea that some Yale student has. Because the worry is like, ‘Are you going to leave? Is this just a stepping stone to something better?’ Why was I caring about kids that didn’t look like me?”

Wagner continues, “But I think after a handful of years, people realized we weren’t going anywhere.” All Our Kin then evolved from something of a headquarters for childcare providers to the hub of a network of childcare providers, all now running their own headquarters. This was in large part due to another provision of the 1996 reform law, which ended assistance altogether after 5 years. Also, the sustainability of all those new childcare businesses became the more urgent priority. All Our Kin could continue helping them with “programs and pieces”—nightly workshops, an advice warmline, on-site coaches and a zero-interest loan that might enable a provider to buy books or kid-sized furniture, as well as a toolkit to get providers through the knotty bureaucratic process of getting a state license.

One of the most recent pieces involved a series of workshops at the Yale University Art Gallery. “If you’ve never been to a museum,” Wagner says, “you might think you don’t belong because the docents can be kind of grouchy and scary, because they follow you around with their eyes, and you don’t realize, they do that to everybody—not just you.” What the providers were being shown was the way that art could be used to teach visual literacy, but a broader aim for Wagner was to take a cultural resource that was available to anyone and make it visible. “After the series, a bunch of our providers then brought their kids and families. And this is like a whole Spanish-speaking community that would never go to the museum because they don’t feel like they belong.”

The various activities that Wagner is locally famous for have that in common. While she was starting All Our Kin, she was also looking for a social scene. So she started one, disguised as a club—albeit one anybody could join—called The Group With No Name. Joiners participated in happy hours and picnics, plus a decade of annual scavenger hunts called Clue Fest. “We ended on a high. There were more than 200 people , and the party was at the carousel at Lighthouse , and it was a rager. It was awesome. And that grew from the first year, like 12 people were participating.”

The Wagnerian touch is that the namelessly named group was also a way to get people into meetings at City Hall and onto the boards of civic organizations—to put people where they only think they don’t belong. She credits the people who have accompanied her but also sees something receptive in the city itself. “There’s something special about it, almost intangible. Everybody is committed to making New Haven better. The potential of New Haven to do even better by its citizens. It’s almost like you can see that possibility.”

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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