Sonia Manzano grew up in an America where she never saw people of color on television. Where she was taught to “behave and memorize” in elementary school before struggling to catch up in a more difficult performing-arts high school. Where she made sense of the domestic violence and struggle of her home by watching “Queen for a Day.”

She went onto teach generations of Americans their ABCs and numbers and how to be a good friend for 44 years as Maria on Sesame Street. Her story is an example of the resilience of children and of the progress in society over the last 50 years — progress that could be in jeopardy, she said.

“Not seeing myself made me feel invisible. What can I contribute to a society that doesn’t see me?” she told the crowd gathered for Triangle Community Foundation’s What Matters event on Wednesday. She worried that her past might be the future. “I wonder if people of color are at risk of becoming invisible,” she said.

In a speech that was equal parts funny and poignant, Manzano talked about a life dedicated to early childhood education and social justice. She lamented the current focus on testing and measuring, both in schools and in children’s television, and instead suggested that we focus on what each child needs, when they need it, and how we can help them.

Nearly 600 attendees, the biggest attendance for What Matters yet, gathered April 26th to be inspired by Manzano to work under the overarching topic of “Our Kids.” Triangle Community Foundation wanted What Matters attendees to focus on how Triangle residents can come together to positively improve early childhood education in the state.

Lori O’Keefe, president and CEO of Triangle Community Foundation, explained why “Our Kids” was the theme of What Matters. Nearly half of all students in the Triangle cannot read on grade-level by the end of third grade. And the number is higher for kids in low-wealth communities, she said.

“Policies, and funding, and methodology do make up a portion of that statistic, but I’d like us to explore the fact that there are structures in place and other significant barriers standing in the way of our kids and their access to education, ” said O’Keefe. Structures, she went on to explain, like poverty, hunger, homelessness, limited access to programs, and mobility for the children in our state.

“We are gathered here, rallied here, around our kids. Around the notion that it is up to all of us to help them – to ensure that they all have access to the educational opportunities they need to succeed, to ensure that they have the tools and programs in place to so that they can read by the end of third-grade, to ensure that they can and will become successful members of our community, for their future and ours.

Board Chair-Elect Pat Nathan closed the luncheon, asking attendees to join the Foundation in this work in three ways – By taking time to learn about about and understand the issues surrounding access to opportunity in education, by spreading that knowledge and being an advocate for our kids, and by connecting with the organizations directly addressing literacy through their involvement in the Campaign for Grade Level Reading.

“We can change the future for our kids. But we must choose to do that. Let’s make that choice together,” Nathan said to the crowd.