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We're happy to announce the launch of the EmbraceRace Podcast!

From 'Best' to 'Next' Practices in Family Engagement for Educational Justice

Talking Race & Kids

Major racial injustices play out in our schools every day - from unequal access to resources and teachers across school districts to segregation and marginalization within our own schools, from the classroom to the principal's office and the PTA. These racialized power dynamics often play out in the moment-to-moment interactions between parents and teachers or principals, leading to especially bad consequences for Black, Native and Latinx children.

Our guest, Ann Ishimaru, has been working with a network of scholars, educators, families, and community groups to fundamentally reimagine how parents and communities might engage with schools. Watch this eye-opening conversation about the principles and practices families and communities of color are using to challenge dominant narratives about race and class and bring about promising new possibilities for transforming power and fostering solidarities across communities in education. Also read the action guide Ann created just for us: Tips for collaborating with other families for educational justice. A lightly edited transcript follows. Find the list of mentioned resources after that.

EmbraceRace: Ann Ishimaru is joining us from Seattle for this conversation about best and next practices for building power across communities and transforming education, for educational justice.

We're really glad to have you, Ann.

Ann Ishimaru: Glad to be here!

EmbraceRace: Now for a quick intro.

Ann Ishimaru is a mom to three mixed-race Asian-white kids and is associate professor of Educational Policy Organizations and Leadership at the University of Washington's College of Education. She co-leads the Cultivating Capacity for Racial Equity Project and the Family Leadership Design Collaborative. Through these efforts, her research seeks to understand how schools might better leverage the expertise of minoritized students, families and communities in systemic change toward educational justice and community wellbeing.

Her first book, Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Families and Communities, will be published by Teacher's College Press at the end of December. Congratulations, Ann, and on that and thank you so much for doing this work.

Ann Ishimaru: Thank you!

EmbraceRace: I feel like, we've been talking about how to most effectively and equitably get parents and community involved in the education of our children forever, and have, broadly speaking, a long way to go to get it right. The EmbraceRace community is made up of mostly parents and educators, and we know from the questions that were submitted beforehand and even from a couple of emails, that a lot of people are trying to figure out how best to do this work in their local communities or local schools and districts. So to the extent that you have some insight to offer, we'd love to hear it.

Beyond the obvious, normalized, everyday injustices baked into how schools work

Let me start with a very basic question. You talk about how racial injustices play out in our schools every day. Can you lift up a couple things that are really striking to you after all the work you've done in the space of racial justice and education?

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah. I think I'll start just because, a lot of times the conversation starts with things like the test score gaps between different racial groups. We've been hearing a lot of that in the news. Part of what's really problematic about that narrative is that it obscures histories as though history doesn't exist. Our schools have been, they're part of centuries of colonization and oppression and assimilation. Those indicators that get a lot of the news media are often just the tip of an iceberg of what's really baked into our systems. I think some of the things that really strike me are the kinds of injustice that are unfolding every day that have become very normalized.

And so, there're all always these sort of extreme examples. Like on social media right now, we have a lot of conversation about the discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline or the nexus as people have been calling it. We have these sort of extreme examples now of video capturing how young children, especially black children, are being treated and those are really distressing, and those are things that have been going on. That's not new, it's just that we have video to capture those kinds of things.

But I think about things like the history of redlining and the racial covenants in our real estate. It just shapes where we live. It shapes the schools that we have access to. Where I live in Seattle, gentrification is happening on a very active basis. We have displacement happening of communities of color, especially black communities. That really shapes the resources that are available to kids in schools.

We might think also just about things as seemingly simple as fundraising by the PTA. Increasingly, we're becoming aware of how that can fuel and reinforce the inequities that already exist. When there are some families that communities who can pay for extra enrichment, who can pay for school counselors or instructional aids. In essence, some scholars call that buying a better education, and that's very tied up also in what some scholars call “opportunity hoarding.” Things that just seem like, "This is just what's best for my child," but what does it mean for some children to have those opportunities and the quality of education and not others? And, which children are not going to have that kind of access?

EmbraceRace: Let me, Ann, just say, you mentioned a few terms along the way that may have been unfamiliar to folks. Let me just lift up a couple of them. You mentioned redlining. I think a lot of people know that in the 20th century, especially banks, literally drew a red line around black neighborhoods to indicate that, supposedly, these were unsafe places to lend. It's amazing how much those same neighborhoods continue to reflect that kind of disinvestment today, the continuing impact of history and historical practices continue to the present. You also mentioned the racial covenants. Can you say a little bit about what those were?

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah. Often, there might be real estate papers you need to sign when purchasing a home. There might be things actually written into the covenants, into the agreements to purchase homes, that would require that it only be purchased by white families, for example. It seems like the distant history, but ... I used to live in Oregon and had friends who said that such covenants showed up in the real estate papers they were asked to sign. Even when they're no longer in the paperwork and active in our legal documents, those things still shape how our neighborhoods have come to be.

When "opportunity hoarding" is considered good parenting

EmbraceRace: OK, you also mentioned "opportunity hoarding" and segregation. I just want to make a note about how those things go together. How much easier it is for racially-defined communities, certainly white, largely or predominantly or exclusively white communities, to hoard opportunities on services when they're geographically distinct.

Ann Ishimaru: That's right. I think for a lot folks, [what we call "opportunity hoarding"] just feels like doing something good, because you're doing something good for your children or neighbors. There've been some studies about people trying to get each other jobs. And so, people are trying to get each other, get their family or their neighbors or the people who they know well and live closely to. But because of the historical segregation and the lines of marginalization of race and class, those folks tend to be the folks who already have those kinds of resources when it comes to particularly white families and individuals.

EmbraceRace: That is, I mean, another sort of way that that shows up, I think is in neighborhood schools. The fight for neighborhood schools, right?

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah.

EmbraceRace: Some people have an idyllic vision of, "Oh, don't we want to go to school with our neighbors," and don't realize that that's how schools get segregated especially in the North. That's our history. So there's a lot to know, right?

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah.

EmbraceRace: And if you haven't lived in a (once) redlined neighborhood, you don't know that “neighborhood school” means something very different on the other side of the tracks.

We tend to think of racial inequality and inequities as being perpetuated by bias against.

Ann Ishimaru: That's right.

EmbraceRace: The point you're making is, sometimes it's a bias in favor of, right?

Ann Ishimaru: Mm-hmm.

EmbraceRace: It's a well-meaning action in favor of people, our family members, our kids, those may know. Getting a job for your friend's child, whatever, in the summer. But, again, if there's a sharper racial skew or class skew on that, clearly that means there're people who are not being helped.

Ann Ishimaru: That's right. Yeah. And I think that can feel really big and it is really big, but these things also play out just in the everyday. It's also the ways that people are treated on an everyday basis, so parents going into any given school will be treated differently.

We know, we've looked at the research. There might be a white parent who's advocating for her child, and that will get framed by educators as being an involved parent, being engaged parent. Another parent may come in, a black mother might come in, advocate for her child as well, but that often because of these broader racial dynamics and narratives and stereotypes, and also just sort of expectations and norms that will often get framed as being disruptive or problematic.

So on the one hand they're these really broad, historical scales, and on the other hand, they're also like very day-to-day interactions where these kinds of things play out.

A researcher's personal investment in educational justice

EmbraceRace: So I wonder, a lot of folks who do this work have real deep personal investment in it. Long before they came to whatever it is they're researching or working on right now. So I'm wondering what the story is for you in that respect?

I also wonder if I can add on about Seattle where you are, because there's so much happening in the education space in Seattle. I hear, "Oh, you're worried about testing," or whatever, "look at what they're doing in Seattle." That comes up a lot and I'm wondering why that is?

Ann Ishimaru: That's interesting. OK.

For me the entry point is my own upbringing and my own family and community's history. I'm a Yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese-American. My whole family was incarcerated during World War II in the Japanese-American Incarceration Camps. So, from a very young age, my family was teaching me not only about that history, but also the kinds of things about the culture and the values, but also forms of resistance. My parents were of the generation, the Sansei generation, that fought for reparations. And so, that was a really powerful lesson to me, both about the teaching, the powerful lessons that families and communities hold for young people, but also about a kind of responsibility that we have to justice and to working towards justice.

The other entry point for me, of course, was schools and having learned all kinds of things, really positive things, in schools, but also growing up in predominantly white middle-class schools and communities in which racism was a pretty much every day interaction and encounter. Especially when I became a teacher - we have a discourse about parents being the first teachers and being very important, but it was striking to me to realize how much of that ended up being lip service. If you look at the research as well, the insights and teaching of families and communities, especially families and communities of color, is often dismissed. Then, when I became a parent myself, I was a grad student in the beginning and was in treated very much as a low-income immigrant parent.

We have a discourse about parents being the first teachers and being very important, but it was striking to me to realize how much of that ended up being lip service. If you look at the research as well, the insights and teaching of families and communities, especially families and communities of color, is often dismissed.

I began to feel a real disconnect between my own experiences, the lessons that I had learned from my family community, and then the disregard that I experienced as somebody who was within the educational system. It wasn't until I had an opportunity to be involved in community organizing and then also to be part of study with Mark Warren and a group of other people, where I began to really see parents and communities working together collectively and enacting really powerful change. And so, that was a really profound inspiration for the work that they do, and also grounding back to those powerful lessons from my own background.

You asked about Seattle. Seattle is a very complicated place as I mentioned. It's a place of great wealth in some ways and great disparity in other ways.

One of the studies that I was able to do was of a school called Rainier Beach High School [in Seattle]. They've experienced many decades of disinvestment, the kind you were talking about, and there was a group of parent leaders in tandem with the principal and community leaders and then the young people there, who really turned the school around. [But Rainier Beach High School] is a really inspiring, but also against-all-odds kind of story. As we think about the kind of money that exists here in Seattle, and then what's happening to, especially communities of color in the midst of how much money.

EmbraceRace: Yeah. The against all odds story. There's no shortage of wonderful turnaround stories, schools that were struggling in one way or another that managed to turn it around. I think the question a lot of people ask is, are we learning things that can be applied to a range of contexts that will make these turnaround stories or just these good stories, especially in the public school context, not exceptional? So that, ideally, we wouldn't be talking about turnaround stories. We'd just be talking about wonderful school that serve communities and kids.

So, we mentioned two of the big research projects you're involved in, I think there's at least one more that we didn't mention. But could you give us an idea of some of the threads that go through all of these pieces, that really define your interest and what's at stake here?

Families have expert knowledge school systems need

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah. One thread has to do with leadership. Some of my work focuses on the role of formal leaders. We have a tendency in the dominant culture to think of leadership as associated with a particular role, so in schools we might think of leadership as associated with the principal or with the superintendent. I think that, one of the things that community organizers and other communities as well recognize though is, that leadership is something that can be enacted across a collective of people. That it can have nothing to do with a formal title or a paycheck from a particular institution.

I also study and think about how to cultivate the collective leadership of families and communities and especially the kind of expertise that our schools are often so lacking and seeking out. We have an increasing awareness I think from schools and districts across the country of the kinds of racial injustices that we were talking about at the beginning and, at the same time, a sense that folks are grasping for, how do we make change, where do we find the expertise we need? How do we go about this very challenging work? One of the suppositions of a lot of the work that I have undertaken is that, some of that expertise lies right there in front of us, in the knowledge and the practices and the insights and understandings of families and communities in those systems, the ones who are experiencing those injustices.

EmbraceRace: Let me ask a follow up on that, Ann, because that's, on one hand, often experts are understood in a conventional way as having degrees or titles. I don't mean and I don't say that dismissively, I just meant to sort of define that conventional understanding of expertise. On one hand, many of us are used to hearing people talk about, yes, how parents and community members really are experts in their own lives and that expertise needs to be respected. I do think we probably hear it more often than we see it. One of the things that certainly drew me to the work you're doing is the serious collaboration between researchers on one hand, community folks, school personnel, parents. I don't know how much children actually are actively involved, but I wonder if you could say a bit more about, for people who might be listening and are thinking, "That's sounds good. I think it's right, but I don't actually know what that means to say that committee members have expertise they can bring to bear," what tangibly might that look like?

One of the suppositions of a lot of the work that I have undertaken is that, some of that expertise lies right there in front of us, in the knowledge and the practices and the insights and understandings of families and communities in those systems, the ones who are experiencing those injustices.

Building solidarities vs. perpetuating individualistic norms for interacting with schools

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah. Well, I think that part of what you're talking about is a national project called the Family Leadership Design Collaborative. That's a network of over 50 practitioners, scholars, family leaders. I co-lead that work with Dr. Megan Bang who's at Northwestern University, as well as a number of other incredible scholars and collaborators.

What we've undertaken in that context is something we call solidarity-driven co-design. Really what it means is starting the conversation with local communities and addressing the issues that are most pressing to those communities.

So here in Seattle, for example, there's a group called SESEC. It's a Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. It's a coalition of community-based organizations. They are, at this moment actually, in the process of collecting data from a family engagement survey that they co-designed.

They are using the collection of that data as a vehicle for rebuilding trust. Then they're collaborating with a number of schools to bring that data to those schools to think about how they can better work with and collaborate with families. So the focus is different depending on the context of that community.

In some communities, like in Salt Lake City, they're really focused on budget decision making. There's something there called School Community Councils. And so, they're thinking about, how can they reshape those structures so that families, especially from, in their contacts, from low-income immigrant communities, have real influence on the decisions that get made? Instead of rubber stamp dynamic where the educators say, "Hey, we need XYZ." Okay. They're starting conversations to say, "Well, you know what, let's think about what is it that we see as the pressing priorities," and starting the conversation from those places.

So a lot of it has to do with where the conversation starts, and then the kind of decision making processes. Sometimes there are formal decision making processes and sometimes they can be at the level of a conversation between a parent and a principal about a discipline issue, for example. I'm happy to talk a little bit more about that.

1. Black/Latinx Solidarity Work in Los Angeles

One of the partners is CADRE, they're in South Los Angeles, and they're doing some really powerful work to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, but they're thinking hard about, how does that actually play out on the ground? They have done some really important work on policy, but their experience of any of their parents was that a lot hadn't changed on the ground. So they're thinking about how to reshape the conversations they have on an everyday level to humanize educators and the parents themselves and to disrupt what can often be a divide-and-conquer dynamic that can emerge.

EmbraceRace: If you could say more about that - you talk about transforming power across race and class. I wonder what that looked like on the ground, maybe using the example of the organization CADRE.

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah. CADRE is a parent organizing group and Maisie Chin is the lead there. One of the things that they talk a lot about, and I think this is a great example of transforming power, is that, it's not about getting a bigger piece of the pie, it's about changing the rules. And so, one of the things that they have talked a lot about is the way in which especially Latinx community and the black communities can get pitted against each other within those contexts. Because the conception is it's a zero-sum game and there's a small pie and there's a dynamic that can get set up where people feel like they're trying to grab a larger piece of the pie. What CADRE does is they said, "We need to build a collective to really challenge the terms of engagement and the rules that shape those dynamics."

So they are practicing, in a sense, they are using role plays in their context to think through how a particular conversation around setting discipline policy, for example, might get reshaped, especially as parents are trying to enact solidarity between each other.

I think that that's a really powerful shift, because so much of the way that schools approach parents is on an individual level. It's very individualistic. And so, when parents instead build relationships with each other and try to move in solidarity, so if your child is having an issue and you're trying to negotiate that with the school authorities and I come in as a parent just to support you and to be in solidarity, that shifts the dynamic in a profound way. Those are the kinds of things that CADRE is working on.

2. Resources for Building Solidarities

EmbraceRace: And you gave us a resource for communities wanting to build these solidarities. Could you tell us what that is?

Ann Ishimaru: Yes. The Family Leadership Resource Guide [created by the Family Leadership Design Collaborative (FLDC)]. It was developed by the folks who are in phase two [of FLDC’s solidarity-driven co-design project].

Our first phase was, we have 10 different sites and then we sort of honed in on four in particular. One of the things that evolved out of that is that those groups were really thinking about facilitative practices for developing these kinds of collaborations. So that resource guide has examples for each, it talks a little bit about the process of solidarity-driven co-design, and how that's different from a listening session or one-off engagements. Then it gives particular examples from each of the different four sites in that case, and some of the practices that they used to be able to undertake this work.

You asked about involving children. One of the facilitative practices that they undertook was thinking about, how much of our work in schools and family engagement is an adult-only spaces? In fact, we both were talking before we got on about like, "Oh, my kids are wandering through. I hope they don't pop in here." SESEC started to realize, when they reflected on their work, how much they like so many other groups are doing adult-only spaces as they're working on educational justice.

And so, they began to think about, what are some facilitative practices, so young people can be part of these conversations? So that sometimes, when they're very, very young, they're in our midst, but they may not be participating but we are also planning and designing for that? Then as they get to be a little bit older, they can actually participate and become very powerful contributors and leaders in their own right towards the justice work, because they're the ones who are actually in the schools on a daily basis.

EmbraceRace: One point you have emphasized both about your work in general and, certainly, about CADRE in particular in South LA, is the importance in forging relationships among parents. Right?

Ann Ishimaru: Mm-hmm.

EmbraceRace: I think we tend, when you talk about parents in school relationships, we tend to think the main piece of action is between the parents and the schools. Right?

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah.

EmbraceRace: Sometimes, it can be challenging, it can even feel antagonistic. I actually had a great conversation with Maisie Chin [of CADRE] a year ago. One thing that stuck out for me that really just underlines what you're saying is, all the work that they've done, building relationships between black and Latinx parents such that, for example, when they have a meeting with school administrators, the black parents are as or more likely to call for Spanish language translation as needed for their Latinx friends and colleagues then the Latinx parents are.

Ann Ishimaru: Mmm hmm.

3. Solidarity and your PTA

EmbraceRace: They're really showing up and advocating for each other.

Then, two, that I wanted to know, you talk about the cross-class stuff and the importance of that. Of course, race is one category and it cross cuts with class and all these other things. But we don’t always think of class as being a cleavage line. I mean, we know it and we act like it, but we think much more about race as a possible line that can be hard for people to get across. Can you say a little bit about how the class piece may show up, and what's the work look like?

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah. A lot of the work is not as focused on class. We know that race and class are intrinsically linked to each other. I think that's some of the, a lot of times I'm approached by parents especially in a more privileged context, who are struggling because they're concerned about these issues, but they don't know how to begin.

One of the dynamics that can happen, for instance, the issue that I was talking about with PTA fundraising, there's a recognition that there are those kinds of disparities. Sometimes, they're two responses that play out along class lines. One is, "Well, why don't we just give money to these other schools?" And that can create a really weird dynamic between schools if there's a paternalistic dynamic that can unfold through there. I think the other one is, especially when we think about the conflation of race and class, we know that for middle class families of color they also experience racism and oppression in school and there are affordances that their class privilege allows them in schools.

Sometimes, that has to do with the ability to choose the neighborhood that they're going to live in. And so, then, they'll have a different relationship to the school than the folks who didn't have that kind of choice. We actually have research that's about the variability and the differences say between working-class and middle-class black parents and their interactions with schools.

So it's complex space and it's really important, I think, especially middle-class and middle to upper-class families of color who are thinking about this work, to recognize that there are always at stake the, yes, racialized and oppressive experiences, and a kind of privilege that's at play that we have to own and contend with.

And to really not fall into certain kinds of traps around, on the one hand a set of assumptions about a meritocracy. Meaning, "If only those people would just work hard, they would be as successful as we are," and that plays into the bigger piece of the pie set of assumptions [i.e., a zero-sum game]. So that’s, on the one hand, what we have to watch out for. And on the other one is a paternalistic dynamic.

One of the things that's happened in our city is that there have been schools that are meeting up to try to build a different kind of relationship and to try to think together about how might they bridge these kinds of socioeconomic disparities that are happening across these different schools.

4. Solidarity-drive parenting is good parenting

EmbraceRace: And I'd really bring that home, because these are their children. Again, going back to the term you used, “opportunity hoarding,” and the way that through much of the country, for white and/or privileged parents, schooling is really the hard knot of the problem in many ways.

Many would surely say that they understand about the disadvantage for some and advantage for others like their own families and so on. But, again, this is where so many of us have been led to believe that being a good parent means doing all you can for your particular child.

Ann Ishimaru: Actually, that is huge. Again, it's kind of watching that set of assumptions that we're operating from and the individualistic approach to thinking about parenting and just recognizing that ... And I think that's where the power lies in building solidarities [across race and class]. So if you deeply understand those histories and have relationships across those lines, it becomes very difficult to think about your child as this, "I'm going to get my child what's best at the expense of other people." When it's abstract and we're so segregated and in our daily lives, it's easy in some sense, to think that I'm just doing what's good for my own.

[I]f you deeply understand those [racialized] histories and have relationships across those lines, it becomes very difficult to think about your child as this, "I'm going to get my child what's best at the expense of other people." When it's abstract and we're so segregated and in our daily lives, it's easy in some sense, to think that I'm just doing what's good for my own.

EmbraceRace: Ann, you were talking about moving away from sort of an individualistic, interactions between schools and parents. You mentioned getting away from listening sessions. I'm imagining getting away from school committee meetings as well? These are usually spaces that [don’t foster deep solidarities], where bridges are not being built. In part because there's, maybe not in every school committee meeting, but when it's a big public forum and people go up to the mic, Not everyone's going to be comfortable going up to the mic.

Then there's sort of these ... I see that one of your projects is called Cultivating Capacity for Racial Equity in Education. That’s related to something we're trying to do with EmbraceRace, to move the discussion. There can be such a lack of understanding about how race works for people on the ground, and then there are these, you were saying sort of stereotypes or these dominant ideas, like [the virtue of] neighborhood schools. And those dominant ideas or ideologies are in the room with everyone and feel true to many - "Oh, that makes sense. Neighborhood school" - and they're often not countered or not countered powerfully enough or not countered in the three minutes you have to talk.

There needs to be a different forum, a different way, in order to be able to take in the complexity and live in the gray and rethink power. We need to be asking, what do we want [what’s the end goal]? For example, this white supremacy thing isn't working so well. But what does that mean I want instead? Whose supremacy I we want? Or do I actually want to share power? What does that look like if all I've seen is you're on top or you're on the bottom? Can you share what the alternatives forums you’ve seen are, other than the typical ones that parents find themselves in trying to interface with school systems?

5. Building solidarities through Indigenous practices in Chicago

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah. Well, I think that you asked a ways back of like, "What's an example of the kinds of expertise that families and communities of color might have?" I think this is a great example that we have a set of structures and ways of doing things. We have like Robert's Rules of Order or the PTA meeting, and that's operating in a particular set of norms and expectations associated with whiteness.

If we learn from, I'm thinking about the group that came together in Chicago, they were looking to build global indigeneity. They were folks from, for example, the American Indian Center but they were also working with folks from the Aloha Center and thinking about, what are the forms and formats and structures that are used in, for example, indigenous communities to share information or to make decisions? [See more in the Family Leadership Resource Guide.]

They're very different kinds of structures. And so, that's a good example I think of the kinds of practices that we can begin to think about. We don't have to sort of make them up off the top of our head. That's maybe a tall order, especially for educators who haven't experienced anything else, but there are those kinds of practices that have existed in the case of indigenous communities since time immemorial that we can learn from. Those begin to be places where we can construct different ways of doing things. Even restorative practices, sitting in a circle, having a specific time for each person to share their perspective, a lot of those practices draw from indigenous practices.

I was hearing about a story from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who wrote An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. She was talking about a time when she was meeting with all these Lakota elders and community members round a Supreme Court case. Just the thinking about how they would gather, and it was hundreds of people, to talk through the day's legal strategies and try to make a decision and thinking it through.

You know what, that didn't happen because each person had an allocation of three minutes to give their testimony in a very combative environment. So, I think that there's a wealth of practices from many different communities that can begin to be starting places for constructing new ways of enacting and building relationships with each other.

Put it into practice

Tips for Collaborating with other Families for Educational Justice by Ann Ishimaru

These 5 guidelines offer starting points for families working to lead change in schools to foster racial and educational justice.

Community Q & A

What's the place of white parents in building these solidarities?

EmbraceRace: We have a number of questions from white folks, some parents, but some in the school context who were wondering, looking for practical advice on how to move on different particular things, but also very aware of their own position as white people. In some cases, essentially, perhaps advocating for or wanting to work with and perhaps even on behalf of people of color. Let me mention one particular example.

This as a woman in Massachusetts who says, "It's clear that we need to foster a parent group where immigrant parents and parents of color feel comfortable, invited and motivated to voice their concerns and challenges so they can have a voice and be heard. It's a tall order and I'm wondering where to start." She's feeling a bit daunted about starting a parent group that encourages attendance and a participation across races and communities without a framework especially as a white a woman who's aware of her own blind spots or is aware that she really them.

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah. Increasingly, there are ... I guess to start with recognizing that there are groups of parents that already exist in most schools. You're not going to find them on the website, but there are networks that exist amongst those families already, and there are probably folks amongst them who are playing leadership roles. And so, identifying and figuring out just talking to people and developing some relationships and figuring out, where are those networks, who are they, who are some of the folks who are sort of taking leadership roles? Those are the folks to really work with and develop the relationships with.

You're not going to find them on a website, but there are networks that exist amongst [marginalized] families already, and there are probably folks amongst them who are playing leadership roles.

Also, having some dedicated space for different families can be a really powerful and important starting place. So it may not be that a white parent would automatically want to jump to a cross-racial space, it may be productive for different families, families from different communities to come together on their own in the beginning in a kind of affinity or caucusing groups to be able to talk through the kinds of issues and challenges that they face and then to come together across those lines.

How does social-emotional wellbeing factor into building solidarities?

EmbraceRace: That makes sense. We have another question: “How do mental health services and the and the larger issue of social-emotional wellbeing factor into your model of collaboration?”

Ann Ishimaru: Well, I think there are a couple of different ways that I can address that.

One is, when you talk to parents and communities in deeper ways, people will generally get to a place, especially in a collective conversation, it's clear that what we want for our children goes beyond good test scores or even just graduation and a good job. People are looking for their children to be whole, well beings. For their children to have a sense of responsibility and understand how to interact with other people. For a sense of, well, broader wellbeing. That's part of what we hope for our children in schools.

[W]hen you talk to parents and communities in deeper ways ... it's clear that what we want for our children goes beyond good test scores or even just graduation and a good job. People are looking for their children to be whole, well beings. For their children to have a sense of responsibility and understand how to interact with other people ...That's part of what we hope for our children in schools.

We have so many examples where schools are oppressive places or damaging places for children. I think that that's part of the, when you talk about hopes and dreams, is that the schools would be part of a broader set of institutions and supports and people who would foster the wellbeing of our children, both as individuals and as members of families and communities. So I think that's one piece of it.

I think another piece though is that the existing curricula out there for social-emotional learning, I think that that's, on one hand, a really productive development that schools and districts and formal systems are beginning to see the need to move beyond say just achievement test scores as indicators of what's happening in schools. There is a broader conversation that's emerging.

As that happens though, the danger is that the curricula and the standards that get developed are undergirded by a set of normative assumptions associated with whiteness. so we have a set of assumptions about what it means to be well or what are the expectations for behavior and interaction that aren't necessarily shaped by the families and communities who are impacted by educational injustices.

So I think that that's another place that we commonly see that coming into this space is it becomes a really important and, potentially, powerful place for families and communities from minoritized backgrounds especially, to be able to shape, what does it mean for our children to be socially-emotionally well? When we talk about safety, we might think about physical safety, we might think about other forms of safety. Thinking about, what does it mean to feel like you are belonging and a part of a community that you can be your whole self?

EmbraceRace: You used just now a term you that I used in introducing you in your bio, I just want you to explain it, minoritized. Not minority students, but minoritized students. Can you just say something about the distinction?

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah. Terminology is challenging because, I think on the one hand we want to recognize the complexity of many different community's experiences. On the other hand also, recognizing that even when there are large numbers of people in a majority, they can still be minoritized. There are processes through which they can be marginalized, because we exist within a broader system in which whiteness, and I don't just mean white people, but the sort of norms and assumptions and structures and processes and power, shape how people are treated and how they experience schools and other institutions.

The complexity of cultural racism

EmbraceRace: Let me ask you a ... here's a question from someone, "Can you discuss," and I'll quote it, "Can you discuss challenges with how to serve minority students who require extra support for learning or behavior, but the school district resists wanting to label or qualify them for services? Also, how to help teachers understand the learning differences or being sensitive to cultural differences and systemic racism and bias?”

Ann Ishimaru: That's a very complex question. I think, the work of a number of scholars, especially who are focused on the intersections between ability and race and the ways in which we have in some cases over referrals of students to special education services, and then also in other cases under referrals, just points out the complexity of those intersections. Because, our whole construction of ability, it's shaped by a set of ideas about what's "normal." We don't have sort of ... Yeah, I talk a lot about, schools are not magical places that exist outside of time and space, and the racialization processes exist in our society. And so, I think one of the things that we have to think a little bit about though is that our default model is one of remediation.

That's to say that, John Diamond and Amanda Lewis have talked about this. [Ann highly recommends their book: Despite Best Intentions - How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools.] A number of other people talk about this idea of a cultural racism. This idea that to address racism, to fix racism, that people who experience it are the ones who need to change. We do have a broad default model of remediation towards trying to fix individual students and families, that I think we have to be very thoughtful and careful about, as that is always being our sort of first move.

That isn't to say that individuals don't have challenges and need support. So I think that that's of the complexity that we need to hold is, on the one hand recognizing that there are individual issues and dynamics and trauma that we need to be able to support and address and not pretend like those don't exist. But on the other hand, also recognizing how much of that is shaped by the way that our schools are structured, by the way that we put labels on children and by the resources that are available and the opportunities that are available to them.

So I don't think a simplistic either/or, there needs to be a both in there, how do we support this individual child and their family who may be experiencing particular challenges? At the same time, how do we not just default to fixing individuals and recognize that there are these broader dynamics that are always at play in the ways that families and communities and the young people at the center of schools are experiencing those environments and experiencing their learning?

How school policies marginalize particularly lower-income families of color?

EmbraceRace: A great answer to a complex question and lots of further references for exploration, which is great. Thank you. Here's a question about volunteer policies. “If you can speak to parent volunteer policies that inadvertently work to exclude poor families of color and exacerbate oppression and the school-to-prison pipeline.” I'm wondering, besides volunteering policies, if there are any other examples of how the unintended consequences of popular school policies that you’ve seen.

Ann Ishimaru: Yeah. I mean, I think that those end up being, again, one of those things like. I think you were saying earlier like we sometimes think of these dynamics as something that someone is willing or choosing, but so much of the way these things unfold has to do with policies that are maybe well-intended or not necessarily intended to reinforce injustices, but that's how they play out. I'm thinking maybe that the volunteer policy, one example of that is where increasingly people have to go through a whole system to be approved as a volunteer and they have to get fingerprinted.

That's a big issue in a number of schools. There are parents who don't have papers, and so then there's fears that get raised around that. Even something as simple as, one of the schools that I studied decided it was too chaotic in the morning. There were too many people running all over the place, so they decided what they would do is, they wouldn't let parents walk their kids to their classroom. They'd all meet outside and the parents needed to stay outside of the classroom. The net result though was, there were families who wanted to bring their children to the classroom. The message inadvertently was, they didn't have a place inside the school, and that they need to leave their child outside the school.

So I think that, then a lot of those policies are things that we can intentionally surface when we listen and learn deeply from the families who are experiencing them. Because on the outside, it may just seem like there's a good policy for safety reasons, but when we understand and listen to those families we can think about where they're actually exacerbating existing inequities and think about how we might change them. So I think that's one of the pivots from a kind of input or feedback or even listening model.

The traditional model at best is, "Okay, I want to hear these voices and I'll consider that if I'm," say, "the principal," or something. Now, "Okay, I've heard your" what Megan bank calls, "trauma on display.” Now I'm going to go back to my office and shut the door and figure out how I'm going to address that if I'm going to address that."

Involving families in decisions about policy implementation

The pivot that, part of the work of the Family Leadership Design Collaborative and also the Equitable Parent School Collaboration is really to say, "Actually, what if we work together and try to figure out something different?" So there have been spaces where parents are part of reshaping the policies. They actually do address whatever the issues the policy was initially intended to address, but it also reshapes how those get played out. So I think that's one space where parents can actually play a very powerful role in reshaping those kinds of policies.

But the other thing to say about policies, and I study the implementation of policy, is recognizing, again, that that's the work of leaders. And so, there's often a great deal of leeway between the formal policy up here and then what plays out on the ground. The leadership can often figure out ways to uphold the policy and the sort of broader policy intent of that, but also do it in a way that invites families and shares leadership with them.

Another example of that is, for example, a principal hiring process. There's a process through which, ultimately, this principal supervisor in this district that I work with was the person who was supposed to make the decision, but he actually reshaped the process so that there were multiple families and teachers and young people students and also other district players who were involved in that process. And so, he took the final step of saying, "Okay, this is what this group decided," but he was able to reshape the process within that broader policy.

Asking together, what is education for?

EmbraceRace: We're at time, unfortunately. I'm going to say one thing that I love about your work. Maybe 15 minutes ago you said that, you talked about how, really isn't it true that parents want so many things for their children out of the educational experience as opposed to, let's say, simply high test scores. Yet, it seems that, for a lot of people high test scores have become at least a shorthand for what they think that they want or simply they want their kids to be able to go to great colleges.

What I love about your process is that it seems that in having and engaging the deep engagement among parents, between parents and schools and community that you were talking about, you're really, it sounds like having a conversation about the purposes of an education. How it can be served. How it might serve, that we, including parents often understood to be “involved” are actually not helping very much. We’re not talking about, what is the fundamental purpose of education? How can I be thoughtful about that? How can we all be thoughtful about that, so that it can be better served? So that is a huge service.

Thank you for your work and for this time, Ann. And thank you everyone who joined as well.

Make sure to check out the action guide that Ann created [Tips for collaborating with other families for educational justice], that is really a lovely sort of starting-place guidelines for building equity across families in this work for educational justice. There are many other references she made that we’ll get to you [see Resources below]. Thank you so much, Ann. Thank you for that work and thank you for I know the colleagues who are involved.

Ann Ishimaru: All right. Thanks very much to you all. Thanks everybody for joining us tonight.

EmbraceRace: And congratulations on your book, Ann. [Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Families and Communities]. It comes out next week.

Ann Ishimaru: All right.

EmbraceRace: Bye everyone.

Resources Mentioned

Family Leadership Design Collaborative - The Family Leadership Design Collaborative (FLDC) is a national network of 40 scholars, practitioners, and family and community leaders who seek to center racial equity in family engagement by catalyzing an expansive national research agenda and developing “next” (beyond current “best”) practices, measures and tools.

Equitable Parent-School Collaboration - The work of the University of Washington’s Equitable Parent–School Collaboration research project is driven by a desire to expand how schools and districts recognize and tap parental expertise and leadership in improving student learning. For the past three years, UW researchers have partnered with schools, families and community organizations in the Road Map Project region of South Seattle and South King County to develop pathways and tools that will foster authentic parent and family engagement.

Despite Best Intentions - How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools by Dr. Amanda Lewis & Dr. John Diamond

An in-depth study with far-reaching consequences, Despite the Best Intentions revolutionizes our understanding of both the knotty problem of academic disparities and the larger question of the color line in American society.

Family Leadership Resource Guide

Resource Guide for Co-designing Research, Practices, and Measures for Educational Justice and Community Wellbeing. Includes on-the-ground examples.

Recasting Families and Communities as Co-Designers of Education in Tumultuous Times

This policy memo, jointly released by the National Education Policy Center and the Family Leadership Design Collaborative, explores how justice-based approaches to family engagement can enable parents and families, particularly from communities of color, to contribute as fellow leaders in transforming schools and educational systems to better serve all children, families, and communities.

Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Families and Communities by Ann Ishimaru

Just Schools examines the challenges and possibilities for building more equitable forms of collaboration among nondominant families, communities, and schools. The text explores how equitable collaboration entails ongoing processes that begin with families and communities, transform power, build reciprocity and agency, and foster collective capacity through collective inquiry. These processes offer promising possibilities for improving student learning, transforming educational systems, and developing robust partnerships that build on the resources, expertise, and cultural practices of nondominant families. Based on empirical research and inquiry-driven practice, this book describes core concepts and provides multiple examples of effective practices.

Ann Ishimaru

Dr. Ann M. Ishimaru is mom to three mixed race Asian/white kids and is Associate Professor of Educational Policy, Organizations, and Leadership at the University of Washington's College of Education. She co-leads the Cultivating Capacity for Racial… More about Ann >
Dr. Ann Ishimaru