In this hour-long episode of Talking Race & Kids (recorded on May 29, 2018), Melissa Giraud and Andrew Grant-Thomas of EmbraceRace are joined by Laura Wilson Phelan and Sangeeta Prasad of Kindred. Hear how Kindred works to mobilize hundreds of parents to engage each together across lines of race and class in the fight for equity in their schools. They share lessons and take questions/comments.
The video recording is glitchy but the content is on point. An edited transcript follows, starting with the framing conversation, and then to community Q&A further down the page.
Laura Wilson Phelan is Founder and Executive Director of Kindred. For over 20 years, Laura has led social change efforts at grassroots and management levels across the non-profit and government sectors. She is currently an elected representative to the DC State Board of Education and formerly held senior leadership roles at the Flamboyan Foundation, Teach For America and Teach For All. Laura’s career began as an inner-city bilingual middle school teacher with Teach For America. She comes from a low-income family of 13 children and is the proud mother of twin elementary students.
Sangeeta Prasad works with Kindred as a senior advisor and parent dialogue facilitator. Dr. Prasad was formerly a psychologist at the Lourie Center for Children’s Social and Emotional Wellness and an adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Human Services and Social Justice program. Her areas of experience include early intervention to prevent the continuation of transgenerational trauma in families and cultural training focused on adapting psychological practice to better meet the needs of minority communities. She currently resides in Washington DC with her husband and two daughters.
EmbraceRace: What is Kindred? What are you doing? What's the basic work of Kindred and to what end are you doing that work?
Laura: Kindred is a non-profit organization currently operating just in D.C. We are building parent coalitions within elementary school that are interrace and interclass to build and engage parents in equity-driven schools and equitable outcomes for children. And we do that through dialogue - through mixed-race and mixed-class dialogue groups that start small and over time grow in a school and take on more and more responsibility for engaging both with the school administration and doing their own work in ensuring that equitable outcomes are possible in the pathway for all children.
EmbraceRace: Sangeeta, how would you add to that?
Sangeeta: Yeah, I think often in our society we are very focused on doing things, and the thought and process we put into how we strive to do these things is missing. We jump into action, and I think that that's part of our culture. What makes Kindred something that I was really passionate about joining and becoming involved with is that it really allows parents the space that each of us deserves to have in community with other adults who are loving and caring. And that is sort of the means of getting to this change in the school and that is the change itself - is kind of how I conceptualize it -because we can't really shift our school communities unless we shift our parent communities.
EmbraceRace: So can you give us a sense of scale? So Laura, you already said you're in D.C. When did you start? You know, how many schools are you in, and roughly how many parents are involved right now?
Laura: Sure. So we started about two years ago with two groups in one elementary school. And that's the school where Sangeeta's children go. And now we're in four schools. This year we have had 95 parents directly engage in dialogue - or had, we just finished up our formal dialogue process for the school year. And then there are over two hundred additional parents who have expressed interest in Kindred and about five hundred who are touched from our work.
EmbraceRace: And what brought each of you, personally, to do this work? Laura, I see in your bio that it says that you come from a low-income family of 13 children. Pretty unusual the 13 in particular. So I wonder, you know, why you included that in your bio and how it relates to this work you do?
Laura: Sure, sure. Well I think that for me and particularly this journey that I am on and the work of Kindred is all about how we come together as a community to be the best versions of ourselves, and in doing so really ensure that we're bringing out the best in one another.
The ideals of democracy require that we do that... If it were truly functioning the way that it should. For that to happen, that means that we need to understand one another better. I grew up low-income but almost in an entirely white community. And what that meant for me was that my education related to U.S. history sort of stopped when it came to Reconstruction, and then picked up with Martin Luther King Jr.
EmbraceRace: That experience of being in a school and only learning European American history is a lot of people's experience attending school in the U.S., even people of color.
Laura: And I think that, for me, understanding that the way that I was raised and socialized was, and can be, so damaging to other people was a real wake up call. And that because I grew up very low-income, and because I grew up believing that all you need is effort and bootstraps to get ahead in life, I felt like I had something particularly strong to share with other white people who also grew up believing, were socialized to believe these things. And I felt that it was really important for me to talk with and engage those individuals who hold a tremendous and disproportionate amount of space and resources in our country.
And then really the origin story is what we're watching and noticing what's happening in Washington D.C. as many families with more means and families who are whiter are moving into the city and choosing to go to our local neighborhood school and seeing the tremendous opportunity for families to connect with one another to build empathy, to build understanding, and to collaboratively influence the way that public education is actualized. But just seeing that opportunity completely missed.
Sangeeta: Yeah. So after I finished college, I was a caseworker for a couple of years and realized that was late in the (developmental) game. So I became a pre-kindergarten teacher and decided that even that was not the right place. And so I started working with parents, and that has been what I have specialized in over the last 10 years or so - early intervention work with parents and children. And I repeatedly see, have seen, schools generally fail my patients who have high levels of trauma in their families of origin.
I grew up in Wisconsin, so moving to Washington, D.C. was a huge shift for me. It took me many years to realize that I could work in an organization that outwardly confronted race because that had not really been my experience up until I started working with Laura. And so I think thinking through what this looks like in different areas for the people who are listening is really important. Every school community looks somewhat different. And so thinking through what these parent-child relationships look like and thinking through how to support parents so that parents support children so that schools become more responsive to families, is really central in my mind.
EmbraceRace: So Sangeeta, you just there sort of neatly captured, what I'm hearing is sort of the two-fold goals, right, of Kindred. I mean I'm hearing a process goal, right, which is about parents connecting with each other across race and class lines. And Sangeeta, you said you really see that as the work, right?
Sangeeta: It’s one part of the work yes, but I think it's a very important part of the work.
EmbraceRace: So there's that part, and then there's the racial equity part. The work that the parents, connected in this way, can do together. Can you say something, give us a sense of some good things that have happened on either or both fronts - the racial equity front and the parents connecting front - that probably would not have happened without Kindred?
Laura: I think Sangeeta, you should answer that, especially because you were a parent at Marie Reed before Kindred was there.
Sangeeta: Yeah. I can speak from my personal experience.
I was involved only in my children's classrooms. I think attending a PTA meeting or the other more dominant ways of engaging in the school, felt not good to me. Then I met Laura and ended up having an opportunity to facilitate these groups with her and really realize that, oh it doesn't have to be predetermined how we engage in a school. It doesn't have to be as top down as it appears to be. And what I see is many other parents feeling the same way.
Parents who really would not engage in the parent bodies that already exist in the school because of the way that they are run. The real focus on fundraising and on concrete goals and tasks and in building community, but only for some. And so what I have seen is some parents take more trust building to get there than others. But now there are many more diverse parents who are engaged in the school community and are really working just really hard to make shifts at the school. And I think having this opportunity to say "This matters and is important and we're striving for this." To have the principal come in and talk about it, to have these alternative ways of engaging, has made a tremendous impact at my children's school.
EmbraceRace: In the work that you're doing, there are challenges, right?
One is getting parents to the table. There is going to be huge variation in how easy it is to do that, how readily people come to the conversation to begin with.
And the second is getting them to engage, especially across lines of difference where, you know, they're not used to talking perhaps across race or across class or both or other differences, cultural issues, etc.
So first, how do you get parents/caregivers to the table to begin with?
Laura: Sure. It's all relationship building. There isn't really anything secret about it. We use really pretty typical organizing practices which would be a one-on-one meeting and warm introductions through people who know one another. I think if there's anything that might be unique about our approach it's the number of times we reach out to families before we sort of give up, if that is even an appropriate action ever. And that's a minimum of seven. At that point we feel like we're harassing a little bit!
But that includes all kinds of modalities. So text, phone call, one-on-one, showing up at the school during drop off or pick up, attending some kind of event where different types of groups might be there, whether that's a back to school night or some kind of elementary school celebration. But just really being present, being part of the community as much as we can, and building relationships one by one in order to create trust first with us as the facilitators. But over time transferring that trust so that it is exists between parents and they feel compelled to come because it just feels so good to be part of that group.
Sangeeta: Yeah, I think having representative people recruit parents has also been important. Like I think if I'm recruiting at a school and Laura's recruiting at a school, different parents are willing to share information and engage. And I think in the same way we talk about the importance of representative parent bodies, like who is doing the recruitment probably matters, in the framing of it and then also in who reaches out to who and in what way.
EmbraceRace: And Sangeeta, what are you inviting them into? So literally when you approach a new parent say.
Sangeeta: Well, I know that people are calling in from a variety of places and the context will matter. Where I did the most recruitment was at a school that is a bilingual school where parents are committed to diversity and culture and it's part of why they send their children there. So at that school I am pretty explicit. I say, "You know, our school has work to do to make education equitable for all children. And we have to build communities here because community is something some families at the school enjoy a great deal of and for others something they don’t have at the school. And so it is our responsibility as parents in this community to build that together. And we have to address race and class at our school so that we address the real needs of children here. I'm very frank about it.
But I also think, I've heard other parents do the recruitment where they're like, "You just come and make friends," and that's all they say. And people show up. And so, I don't think that there is one way that fits all. I think it's understanding who you're talking to and reading the cues that they gave you to see how you're doing and also understanding the community that you're in.
EmbraceRace: So that’s very high touch. Seven touches, 7 points of contact before giving up at a minimum? Can you all give an example or two? Maybe there was someone where you just thought, "Wow they're going to be really hard to get," and they ended up coming and what the touches were.
Laura: In our very early days when Kindred was an unknown quantity - we still kind of are but this was even earlier. And there was an individual at Sangeeta's school who was kind of expressing interest in Kindred but then wouldn't really call me back or engage in text or talk with me. I knew that she waited for about 10 minutes outside while she was waiting for the kids to be dismissed at the end of the day. So I showed up at pick up! We started talking and that engaged her enough to feel like she could trust me and that this might be something she was willing to try.
And then I think the other key is when we start our group we don't dive in such that it might feel very uncomfortable. It's really a gradual turning up of the knob, if you will, in terms of talking about issues related to race and class, because you have to emerge gently into those conversations, for most people. Some people have this kind of a level of comfort in talking about race and class and are willing to dive right in. For others we want to make them feel like this is going to be a great space. And so it's a lot of fun in the beginning. And a lot of getting to know you and building trust and that's really important too to have people coming back.
EmbraceRace: It's a lot of fun in the beginning and then it changes dramatically, is that what you're saying?
Laura: Well, I mean it is fun but you're also sharing your personal history and your parent's history so that you're not just "so and so's mom" with no history of your own. And so there are components that are fun and then there are components that are heavy! But they are the real lived realities of the people in the groups. And that's so important to also understand, who is in your group and why? So our groups don't look like the typical school meeting.
EmbraceRace: So let's take that a step further. So we've covered the how you engage folks, and it sounds like it's persistence, and then there's some sort of idiosyncrasy in the various approaches of people like you, Sangeeta, who actually engage the parents and pull them in. Once they're around the table, clearly there's a lot of relationship building, right, and trust building, comfort building going on. But I'm mindful of this racial equity piece. So how do you move from ok, there are a bunch of people around the table or around a circle to developing an agenda that you can actually act on that, they can act on in the context of their school?
Laura: You want to start, Sangeeta, or should I?
Sangeeta: You start. I'm processing.
Laura: Okay. I would also add that our engagement is deeply authentic and loving. We love the people we work with and that's one of the criteria we look for in the members of our team, are that you can't be afraid to show genuine care and love even though that is emotionally taxing sometimes. So I would also say that love permeates everything that we do. And so we go from talking about the personal and your own identity, to talking about what the shared experiences are that people are hearing and how they process these differences, because inevitably these experiences that Sangeeta was referring to related to your own history with education and the history of your parents, are going to be different based on your own background. And so we asked for constant reflection on that kind of difference and how do people process that? What are they thinking about? What is this bringing up for you?
And then taking those kinds of reflections and ideas to a systemic level. And there's a portion of our dialogue that addresses systemic oppression and what systemic racism has looked like in our country. I mean it's a very small part of our work in terms of what we impart or share with families frankly just because of time, there's so much more that could be said and done and we hope that we're triggering enough for there to be curiosity to learn more and for us to build a conversation about why in order for parents to understand how this plays out in their own school.
So we go from personal to systemic to how does this play out in the lives of your children and how they're experiencing school, and how do differences look in terms of outcomes for children, shorter term and longer term, in the school community? And once parents start to see that as it's broken down by race in particular there is a lot of anger understandably because at this point parents love each other and then they see that there's this set of standardized tests that is associated with predicting college persistence and graduation and it's totally segregated! And so then they want to do something about it. So we take them through an exercise where from their perspective they go into the root cause of why it is like that at the school. And we just keep asking, "Why? Why? Why?" until they get to a point that's actionable.
Sangeeta: I was reading the chat and saw the question around how we ensure that people are not retraumatized by the groups. And I do think lived trauma in the day to day is what racism is, is what discrimination is. And for many parents who join our groups, it is rare to find spaces where there are people in the group across lines of race – it’s different with each school community. In our first school community, there's a lot of agreement and some kind of cultural norm in the school [to value racial and social equity].
In other groups, there was a lot of tension between different racial groups in the school, and we adjusted the curriculum for them. We went through stereotypes about different races of people to be able to make it more explicit and processed. And I also think when there are groups where there are a lot of things coming up, then we do have more trained facilitators who can step in and manage conversations. So it is context dependent but ultimately what I've seen in each of the groups that we ran is really that people walk away feeling like it's not hopeless. There is a way to act and make change, even if it's incremental and it's small steps like, and that engagement, what we know about discrimination, is that we like have the shields of identity and advocacy. And so in part we work on both of these things in in the groups that we have.
EmbraceRace: We have so many great questions coming in so let me draw from those. It sounds like if you're starting with love and you're getting to systemic problems where there's already relationships so people can sort of hang with it even though they're differently situated. You’ve also shared that it is high touch getting people to meetings. You must also have a lot of meetings? So how do you structure that? Is it sort of a limited number of meetings to really not make it seem overwhelming but allow that evolution to happen for people?
Laura: We are really clear that it is twelve sessions and that by joining you're committing to attend 80 percent. Now, in reality, not everyone fulfills the 80 percent. But more than two thirds of our participants have, well the average of the two thirds of our participants, is 83 percent in attendance and for half of our participants it's 88 percent attendance this year. So parents take that really seriously. And a lot of this is also individual work, right? So if someone isn't coming, we try to understand why, and there's individual outreach to understand why. And we ask them to build shared and collective responsibility around that. But it's really important that the majority attend the majority of sessions in order for that work to be done.
EmbraceRace: I'm wondering about how the schools, how the administration feels about Kindred and your work? Most schools will surely say in principle we love what you're doing the relationship building among parents. But you’re doing it in part to create more equitable schools, likely posing a challenge to the school and the way things are done.
Laura: We strongly believe in working with school administration, and we commit to that. And we also work with administrators who are interested in parents' voice. So that is part of our prerequisite for partnering with a school, is that there is a principal and other leadership who want to hear from parents and want to be influenced by the parents of the school, a representative set of parents. And what we have found in Washington D.C., it's fairly new that our traditional public schools have a mix of families from different racial backgrounds, and that kind of support that we are providing to try to engage diverse voices is welcomed.
The way that I've been phrasing this lately is that it's this living organism of public education and it's a yin and yang. And the yin is the school itself and the education and learning they're disseminating. And the yang is the parent and community body. And they should be mutually influencing one another and changing shapes and growing together. That is public education. That's what it's supposed to be. And so we try to share and impart that idea with the schools with whom we're working.
Sangeeta: My sense of the school system is that schools that have done work on racial equity or feel that they are community-based probably are that in comparison to other schools. I also sense that as we enter year three at a school, we start confronting more of the issues coming up for the parent community that are maybe not being addressed in the way that the children in the school really need them to be.
In the same way that we build trust with our parents, we build trust with the schools so that we can confront difficult realities. And so my suspicion would be that in the same way that dialogue groups are not always like happy places where everybody feels that they love each other, there are moments of tension and discomfort and difficulty. I think that the same will likely be true between the parent and the school community, but that already exists, it's just not spoken to. So I don't think that we're fostering it or increasing it. We're giving voice to what is already in existence and hopefully a vehicle to shift things to better meet the needs of children in our classroom.
EmbraceRace: What's the hardest thing about what you at Kindred do?
Sangeeta: I think the hardest thing is reaching the families who need to be reached most. That's what I think is the hardest because – when you’re living with realities that make you feel like you do not matter. That is a very hard thing to undo and it's very hard to create space for the parents in my community to be present and listened to and respected.
Laura: I would add to that – the hardest part is doing it in a way that truly led by parents and also to do it in a way that doesn't replicate dominant culture. So even the very nature of what we're doing - meeting twelve times over the course of four to six months in a school setting at the same time every other week or every week- that is not something that appeals to all cultures or that is not something that feels accessible or welcoming. And so what we're really puzzling with, and there's so much more we have to learn and figure out, hopefully with the large community that you're engaging today, we can help think through some of these things together. How do you create space within a dominant culture society that truly is inclusive and is outside the box - for me of my white dominant culture socialization - and do it in a way that you can still raise money from that dominant culture to persist in the work? And that is something I puzzle with every day, to be truly led by the families we're engaging, and at the same time, try to fit within this box that requires that I revert back to a very institutionalized, systemic way of operating. That is a huge, huge challenge for me personally.
EmbraceRace: We have the challenge as well. And in the comments there’s a commentary which speaks to that. This writers says: “There needs to be a deeper reach to communities of color. Unfortunately, even with the webinar, minorities are being discussed as ‘studies and data.’ The reality is, there really needs to be a better effort. I don't mean to be rude but as an African-American, I can't tell my Italian friends how to make gravy. So why would there be an expectation for minorities to listen to non-minorities? The failure will continue as long as there's no audience. You gain an audience by going into a community and asking what ‘they need.’”
Sangeeta: That’s how we develop at our schools. At our first school, the parents who took on becoming facilitators and who are representative of the community said, “We need affinity groups. We need to have safe spaces for parents to be able to come together.” And so next year that's what Kindred will do solely. We won't run the mixed race groups. We will run affinity groups. And that came from the parent community because the mixed race groups don't reach all parents in the way that we want. And we hope that the affinity groups, run by parents who are facilitators supported by Kindred in terms of providing food, child care, doing our best to get rid of obstacles that get in the way of parents attending meetings. We hope that there are spaces created so that communities who cannot make a commitment to come twelve times, who can come at 7:00 in the morning before they go to work or at 8:00 at night, can have the spaces to be able to show up when they can to give voice that then gets propelled into like something bigger.
So that it's held by Kindred and the information - the very important knowledge that they have about what their child needs - can then be carried by people who get listened to. Unfortunately that's what we hear over and over again is the real differential treatment of parents in schools that occurs. That's been common in every group that we've had.
EmbraceRace: And then also I imagine you're not only dealing with racially dominant groups and minority groups but people of different education, people who speak and don’t speak a dominant language and that must all be stuff that you have to really be mindful of. Do you feel you're getting pretty good representation in the schools that you're dealing in terms of what the student body, the parent population is like and who showing up to meetings?
Sangeeta: Racial diversity is something that is common in our groups. We don't do as well in terms of socio-economic diversity. I think the parents who have the most economic difficulties also have the hardest time to come to groups and so that that's something that we're struggling with and trying to figure out.
EmbraceRace: Ok. Taking more comments and questions. Robyn observes, "I'm a parent at a school which is striving to be a social justice school. Our intention is to serve in particular first generation families. Students will be first generation of their family to go to college. We are in diverse Oakland, California, and are struggling with racial tension between students especially between black and Latinx. These attitudes and behaviors seem to be brought from home. And so we - some families - are pushing the school to do more to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” So not a question, but maybe an experience you can speak to, what do do when there is racial tension between various groups of color in your school?
Sangeeta: Yeah that definitely happens at every school I think that we are at. And we see it play out between the parents and our groups. I think there's a real denial in some, at least that I've seen, in some of our groups around addressing the tensions between minority communities. And I think for many families, and I would say in particular people who have been taught that you do not talk about race and class but who are minorities - as I think can often be the case with immigrants. What we see is this is an unprocessed space for a few parents in our groups. We feel it’s really important to encourage these spaces and to be able to engage in really hard dialogue about what diversity means and what inclusion means and what equity means. There are such complicated words. And also to really acknowledge the bias that every one of us has. We all have bias. We all internalize discrimination in some form or another and so really being able to speak to that and model it and be able to sort of create the spaces for parents is really important if the kids aren't going to act out those same interactions within the school.
EmbraceRace: There's a question here about kids. Kids are obviously the ones who are central to the experience of education and schooling. Is there a way in which your groups try to directly get the voices of children and students?
Laura: We’re all parent driven. We try to create this space and we bring structure to the space so that there is a way for people to communicate in a really productive way. But beyond that, we try to be very parent driven. So our hope is that if that is something that parents want in the school, they're going to problem solve together to figure out how to make that happen.
EmbraceRace: We're getting a question from Abby asking for examples of actionable items that have resulted from these parental dialogues from creating communities of trust?
Sangeeta: Our actions have been diverse in nature. I can give a few examples. One was a survey with questions like: "What do you wish you had known when you became a parent here?" And then the parents look at the results and run with it.
One group marketed to diverse parents with a photo of the group and the message, "Do you want friends like this?" and posting it at the school to try and recruit parents into the groups. And one of our actions is like shifting the orientation to become more diverse and more accessible to create spaces for parents to be able to engage with other parents and to have sort of like a choose your own adventure way of engaging in the school that is not as kind of like focused on curriculum, focused on instruction but also like more community engagement events.
Another idea one of our groups came up with for next year is to run a parent-teacher group at a school that has high levels of violence in the school. And so really facilitating dialogue about what bias looks like and how to kind of bridge the divide between teachers, administration, and parents. And in that particular group the parents said, "We'll do group for another year because this was really hard and we're not done. And so we will do this again with the teachers." Those are some examples.
Laura: And one more. One of the schools we serve is a bilingual school and 53 percent of the parent population is fluent in Spanish. And yet the PTA meetings were all held only in English. And so one of the actions of one group was to meet with a PTA president, talk about how he could make the meetings more accessible. And now every other meeting is held predominantly in Spanish. So it just also creates a different dynamic when it's not always the second language speakers of English with the headsets on. And that's the kind of culture we're trying to help create and cultivate - shifting up what it looks like to be part of the school community, shifting up whatdominance looks like.
EmbraceRace: Piggybacking on that response, Krista asks about other forms of accessibility. So physical and neuro diversity, etc.?
Laura: Yeah, for example, we had a deaf parent and so we had a translator come to our groups to meet her needs. We try and recruit every parent we can recruit. And we'll try and accommodate any parent who is willing to participate. I think that worked well for this particular parent. I hope that any parent who wants to participate in our group can and that we would accommodate them in order to do so.
EmbraceRace: You know so I'm wondering about, I'm going back to the question of sort of agenda setting right the racial equity and whether or not there is a tension between your intention to have racial equity be a goal of the work. A goal, a purpose, a reason to get together here. Obviously you're seeing a need. And clearly part of what you do is assemble racially diverse and class diverse groups. At the same time you're looking to have these groups be really, as you say, parent driven, right? So they're establishing the agenda.
There are a lot of things that you might see as race inflected. And maybe they are maybe, they aren't, but certainly the parents in many cases may not see them as race inflected, right? For example, a parent may say: "The issue is that we're just under resourced. And all the kids in the class suffer from the same under resourced and the teachers have to dip into their own pockets. And you know some teachers have more means and others that's the issue."
Sangeeta: We confront it. When I've had people discount race for class or discount racism, I may say, in a nice voice: "I think it's very important for us to acknowledge how race plays a role in this. As a society, we tend to shy away from talking about race. Given that this is a race and equity group we really can't do that here” and then open it up to the group.
I think there are times when, depending on who that parent is and what the relationship looks like, that may have been within the group or there are times we're like, "Ok, this seems important to come back to," and then we would meet with the parent outside of the group and then come back the next time depending on sort of these individual considerations.
EmbraceRace: So Meghan has a few great questions here. First, are there are teachers in some of these schools having parallel professional development? That institutional support for this work.
Sangeeta: I think we have been really fortunate. Often the principal visits to our groups are inspiring and motivational. At our first school, now there is an equity focused teacher group and they’ve attended two of our Kindred group’s meetings and they will work with our group on planning a more inclusive parent orientation that is meeting the needs parents are voicing rather than orienting around the school's needs. And yes the teachers have their principal’s support. We work with principals who are committed to addressing these realities.
Laura: So we think there's really important work to be done in a parent community that's best done by parents together. And we think there's really important work to do within the staff and school staff community that's really important for them to do together because what drives them to do this work are different things.
If those groups are combined from the beginning, it's easy to put all of the emphasis on what teachers should be doing because they're the paid staff. And it's really easy to dismiss responsibility and ownership associated with what parents can do because we don't necessarily have a very clear picture across our country about what is possible when parents truly unite around believing that equitable outcomes matter with every fiber of their body.
And so we're trying to help families reimagine that role well beyond a bake sale, so that’s where we think it has to start. And so we're seeing that at the end of year two, this beautiful intersection of teachers and families who are trying to understand one another as human beings first to figure out how they can build the kind of school community that's really going to best serve all families, and the staff as well, and meet their needs.
Sangeeta: We work with families at the schools so that every family can be reached and feel cared about, like truly cared about, in the community. Our hope is that that's true for every staff at the school, too. Because you see hierarchy play out in schools. And I think given the diversity in social class at the schools that we work at, really thinking through the meaning behind these hierarchical relationships based often on race and class is also really important.
EmbraceRace: Lee asks this, a very on point question.: ”The school says that the schools [in my area] tell you they're very committed to equity but in their minds it seems to be an exclusively academic equity. Have you had to do any work to get folks to understand that social equity and inclusion are crucial to achieving academic excellence?” Are you having to make that argument to expand the idea of what excellence and equity mean?
Laura: This is such a hard question. So I wouldn't say we're doing any of the convincing. Really, parents again are driving the change they want to see at their school. I personally feel more imperative not to be the driver of any kind of change at someone else's school because that isn't my community. I mean, my broader community yes, but I've seen too much in international development go wrong in that regard.
And so what I would say is it's parents and creating space for parents to speak with staff and administration about what they're feeling and believing. What I would also add is this, and the reason why I say this is so hard is because, at least in Washington D.C., academic outcomes as measured by standardized test scores still are the predominant way that certainly families from dominant culture think about school quality, and how the system rewards and incentivizes school quality. There are now a number of other factors that are part of how we talk about it. But really the absence of other measures is a huge barrier for I feel like for us personally, as I think about the importance of the work that we're doing. And we're hoping that over time we'll be part of creating a new measure related to social cohesion in a school that, we're just using that term for now, that stands alongside as academic excellence as an equal partner and contributor to broader outcomes for children, but also for our society as a whole. And so we hope that this is one step in that direction.
Sangeeta: Yeah and I would add, as a mental health practitioner, I think that the lack of resources devoted, and I don't think it's just money, like it's high quality resources devoted to parent well-being - seeing the child as separate from their family really doesn't make sense. You can't be ready to learn if you have horrible things happening in your household or in your community. And so the idea that it's all so much of it is around instruction and also the idea that the level of services received in schools by children are adequate I think is problematic.
EmbraceRace: So obviously this is high touch work, it's relationship building work at its core. It makes sense that you're going in school by school to do it, you know you're talking about dozens and eventually hundreds of parents which, you know isn't millions, right? In five years, if you have an A in terms of outcomes, what does that look like?
Laura: We're joking 'cause we have conversations about being very present in our work and thinking longer term all the time. So in five years, my hope is that we have figured out a lot more of what we're trying to do and do it well. I think there will probably be more questions that open up the more we dive into this work, and that it's just an endless series of questions the deeper we get into it. However I hope that we have figured out enough to be able to share it in a cost effective way with others, and figuring out what that means.
And part of what we intend to do to help figure out what that means is to create a large online community that starts with the work of the families in school and partners with groups like EmbraceRace to figure out, what does it mean for parents to drive equity in a school community? What lessons can they share with one another? What spaces can they create that might not always be in person but works for some groups to be able to promote these longer term visions and goals of truly equitable outcomes for all children. And what I would just say is we're figuring that out. We hope we're much bigger. We hope we're in more cities. But what being in more cities looks like, I'm not exactly sure yet.
Sangeeta: I think part of the conversations we have about scaling is how important it is that this does not look the same in any two schools because I think the moment it again feels top down, again feels like someone is coming in telling a community how to solve something, it fails. And so I think it's really figuring out how you create the spaces for parent voices in the community to express needs and have them met effectively.
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