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

Parents Who Lead on Racial Justice in Their Communities

There have always been parents, grandparents and other caregivers organizing for child-centered racial equity in their communities. Today, their efforts are as vital as ever.

Watch this latest Talking Race & Kids conversation for which we are joined by a parent leader from Jacksonville, Florida who shares the community project she helped develop through a local parent advocacy training initiative called Parents Who Lead, supported by the Parent Leadership Training Initiative (PLTI). We are also joined by her local PLTI facilitators and by a representative its parent organization, the National Parent Leadership Institute. Together, they talk about the value and impact of child-centered, anti-racism, parent advocacy and partnership. And they tell us where their work together is taking them in this national moment of vigorous conversation around race and racism. As always, we take questions and comments from attendees.

The transcript of this conversation follows. Also check out the related resources and guest bios.

EmbraceRace, Melissa: Welcome to Talking Race and Kids. Conversations brought to you pretty regularly from EmbraceRace. I'm Melissa Giraud. I'm a multiracial Black/White woman.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: I'm Andrew Grant-Thomas. We are a couple. I'm an African American and also a Co-Founder of EmbraceRace with Melissa.

EmbraceRace, Melissa: We have two kids upstairs who are pretty settled in, so they might not interrupt tonight. EmbraceRace is a community for parents, for grandparents, for teachers. For people who want to raise kids, help raise kids, guide kids who are informed, thoughtful, and brave about race. These Talking Race and Kids conversations are a way to enlarge everyone's circle in terms of bringing knowledge and expertise from all kinds of arenas. But also widen our circle of concern to understand what's going on in our own communities, and communities that we're less familiar with. We're really glad you're here.

Tonight, we're having a conversation called Parents Who Lead on Racial Justice in Their Communities. We hear from lots of parents who are leading on racial justice in their communities, whether they're doing it with their parent hat on, or with their teacher hat on, or policymaker hat on, whatever their job is. Tonight, we wanted to feature a group of parents doing just that in a particular place. And talk a bit about how one parent in particular moved from doing racial justice or anti-racist work on herself in her home, and thinking about how to take that outside and the people she met who helped her do that. We're excited to highlight new ways to get out and be active around these issues. We're excited.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: Welcome, Tia Leathers. Dr. Maira Martelo. Donna Thompson-Bennett, and Whitney Touchton. We are really glad to have all of you here. Donna, I'm actually going to start with you, but ask the same question of each of you.

Donna, what is the work that brings you here? What is "the work" as you understand it? How did you come to that work?

Donna Thompson-Bennett

Donna Thompson-Bennett, Executive Director for the National Parent Leadership Institute

Donna Thompson-Bennett: Greetings, beautiful people, especially Andrew and Melissa. It's always great to be with you. What is "the work?" The work actually begins with the "who." Over 25 years ago, I had transitioned into a new community here in Connecticut and had the joy of meeting Olga Brown, who invited me to be a part of this meeting to start the Parent Leadership Training Institute of Stamford, Connecticut. The Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI) was founded by Elaine Zimmerman, who co-created the curriculum itself. It's a family civics initiative. She was having this meeting to engage people in the community to bring this family civics leadership initiative into Stamford, Connecticut.

This family civic initiative grew in such a way throughout Connecticut that it was in at least 20 something communities. It has existed now for close to 30 years here in Connecticut. We started getting calls. I say "we" because I became an active member of the Design Team. I became a facilitator, all of that. But what led me to even getting engaged after that invitation from Olga was the audacity of Elaine Zimmerman, over 30 years ago, to say that democracy happens in conversation across difference. That difference included race, gender, culture, language, social economics, and other differences. And that this curriculum was designed to engage the people in democracy.

Because I'm a recovering attorney, Political Science major, a child of amazing parent leaders who really inspired me and my siblings to seek to do the best not only for ourselves, but to seek the best in justice for others, this resonated with me. Out of the growth of PLTI in Connecticut, there was interest outside of Connecticut. We now have about six throughout the nation. We're able to do this through the organization I have the joy of leading known as the National Parent Leadership Institute (NPLI). At NPLI, by way of PLTI, we actually believe that concept that Elaine introduced over 30 years ago, that parent leaders working across race, gender, culture, language, socioeconomic, and other differences, have the power to generate equity, opportunities, and outcomes for children and families. Especially those who have been marginalized, denied, or limited because of their race.

Race equity is both a value and a verb for us here at NPLI. As the slide indicates, we are a parent centered anti-racist organization. We have the joy of partnering with parents and other community leaders to increase racial equity and policy in practice. I'm joined tonight by one of our partners of Jacksonville, Florida, who leads PLTI there in Jacksonville, Florida. Maira?

We actually believe... that parent leaders working across race, gender, culture, language, socioeconomic, and other differences, have the power to generate equity, opportunities, and outcomes for children and families. Especially those who have been marginalized, denied, or limited because of their race. Race equity is both a value and a verb for us.

Donna Thompson-Bennett

Dr. Maira Martelo

Dr. Maira Martelo from the Jacksonville Public Education Fund

Maira Martelo: Thank you so much, Donna. Thank you to Melissa and Andrew for this amazing opportunity for us to share. How I came to the work, I always have to talk about my parents. I'm originally from Columbia. I have to say, part of my journey is I grew up in poverty. I grew up seeing my mom getting parents organized. That's just the way because we don't have a strong government. We are not reliant on anyone but each other to solve basic problems. That is my trajectory. I work at the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, which is a local nonprofit that really our goal is we want to help to close the opportunity gap.

That's an important topic when you talk about equity and racial issues. One of the beautiful things that happened to me, and I'm excited to be here to let the parents speak, is that really we brought these initiatives. We brought PLTI to Jacksonville as a community project. Like I always said, and when I talk to Donna, we feel really proud that we were able, with our community, to take a year to really learn about this program. Because as many of you, I'm sure you know, you see programs that come and go. But they are not really responding to our community needs. That is really critical for us. Tia Leathers, my colleague who worked at the local school district, also joined us to say, "We want to bring this the right way." We have four organizations. The Jacksonville Public Education Fund is the main sponsor, but we have an MOU with the county public schools, which Tia is my partner in that.

We also have the library, the Jacksonville Public Library. You ask yourselves, "Where are the parents?" Either they are in the schools or they are in the libraries. That's unfortunately most of the places where the civic life takes place. Also, we have the main funding organization for children's program in this city that is called the Kids Help Alliance. That's how we bring it to this. I will share with you later on, equity can be such a beautiful word that everyone is using. But it's very interesting, and sort of my role has been always, how do I challenge myself, my organization to say, "Okay, what are the facts? What are the specific things that you can really say, 'This is what I mean by that?'" I'm going to turn it now to my colleague, Tia Leathers, so she can share what brought her into this magnificent opportunity for us.

Tia Leathers

Tia Leathers, ED of Family and Community Engagement, Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, FL

Tia Leathers: Sure. It's ironic that you started with Shirley Chisholm because I went to my purse and pulled out a picture of the two of us. She and my grandmother were friends. This is where I start then, because that's the way that you shared it. My grandmother always said that I should get her autograph. I thought, why? I was a child, but I remember that she wrote, "Always aim high." Those were the three words she put on the paper. With that, I think it's so important that we remember people who look like me. I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, which is the south, to a grandmother and parents that were friends with Shirley Chisholm.

You can imagine everything was a fight. Everything was for people who looked like me, and to make sure the least of these were served with excellent care and with quality. I am really, really honored to work for our public school system as the Executive Director of Family and Community Engagement so that I can work on behalf of families all across this district. But of course for families who may sometimes get overlooked, or who we may use vehicles by which they're just not able to access, especially in a pandemic. Anyway, one of those very, very special parents is Whitney Touchton. Whitney brought us a really valuable experience that I know we're here to discuss this evening. I guess I am now tossing it. I would love to introduce you to Whitney Touchton, one of our amazing parent leaders in Duval County.

EmbraceRace: Whitney, we're happy to come to you. Of course we'd love to hear about you and about this project. Tia, I would love to come back to you a little bit to hear about the appeal. You didn't have to engage when Whitney made her approach, but you did and the school did. I'd love to hear a bit more about that. Whitney, please.

Whitney Touchton

Whitney Touchton, parent and racial justice advocate

Whitney Touchton: Thank you so much for having me on. Thanks, Tia, for that introduction. I got connected with Parents Who Lead a couple of years ago, when the initial cohort came to Jacksonville. I had been on a personal journey of self-education with anti-racism work with another organization called Be the Bridge. They really helped me to come along in my understanding of systemic racism. I knew that I wanted to do my community project on that topic. I was looking for avenues to do it outside of my own home and my own circles.

As soon as I heard about the parent advocacy training through Parents Who Lead, I knew I needed to check it out and see what opportunities might be available. It was a fabulous program. I was thankful to be learning from such brilliant woman of color that are leaders in our community that really helped to pave the way for me to be able to initiate this project. It was a group effort. I knew it needed to be on the topic of anti-racism, but really just trying to figure out how to implement anything specific. Do you want me to go ahead and talk about the project now, or do you want to circle back?

EmbraceRace: That would be great. I'm curious about one thing. Unlike you, Tia, you, Whitney, didn't necessarily grow up in a home which emphasized the importance of race or racial justice, perhaps even social justice more generally. You came to that later. You said you worked with Be the Bridge in that program. Then you knew.

Can you give us insight into the beginnings of your work? What resonated with you that made you say, "I need to do more of this [anti-racist work]?"

Whitney Touchton: For sure. Yes, I definitely did not grow up in a household that that was a part of our conversation, nor most of my adult life. I had heard about Be the Bridge through actually some church organizations. That's how I was introduced. When I first started participating, we have a Facebook group, as well as they do small community groups all around the country. Their whole platform allows to have multicultural small group discussions around racism, to bring not only awareness through educational materials. But then also just to be able to have community and discussions with people from different backgrounds, to be able to actually have these conversations. And not it be something that's vague, or especially for White people often have never, ever had a conversation like this. Have never engaged in this topic.

I really spent a couple of years really learning a lot. Listening, reading books, podcasts. Then I started to lead some community groups of my own in my home, and engage friends and other people that I came in contact with. It really became a burden of mine, because I saw how big the problem was. I really felt like I couldn't not do anything about it. I just couldn't leave it as something I learned about. Something needed to be done about it.

Maira Martelo: Can I add something that just picks up how interesting Whitney was? I will never forget. To get into PLTI, in Jacksonville we call it Parents Who Lead, but it's PLTI, you have to go through an interview process. Well, Whitney had her youngest daughter was having a surgery. She was in another city. Despite all of that, she's like, "No, I want to be part of this." I was by that, just before getting to know her, I was just like, "Wow. What kind of motivation and commitment does this mother have that she's having a surgery with her youngest daughter and she's still like, 'No, I want to make it work?'" We had to go around. Before I met her, I was so impressed with that level of commitment.

EmbraceRace: Can we hear more about the project itself?

Whitney Touchton: Sure. I felt like a good launching place would be implicit bias training involving the public school system in some capacity. The big dream was to bring it to all stakeholders in the district, but we had to start somewhere. I was able to fundraise for one of the district employees to be certified in implicit bias training. The first step was I was able to lead an implicit bias panel discussion at a TEACH conference. It's an ongoing project. The next step was then bringing someone certified through the district to be able to offer implicit bias workshops.

We have a district employee that has done that through currently online platforms with COVID. But previous to that, she was doing trainings with teachers in the district. Then we were able to move it to an online platform for the summer and open it to the community. I know Tia will share more about that. Then we have future plans also for other workshop opportunities within the district, to be able to further the reach of the implicit bias training as a stepping stone to engage in the conversation.

Tia Leathers: I'll jump right in. I can see from the chat also that there's some questions about implicit bias. I'll share that. Implicit bias has been such a great vehicle for us as a system. When you talk about a public school system, we're full of educators and folks who generally are... we know what to say, and we know how to do things, and what types of things are acceptable. We're trained in that regard.

However, there are some things that exist that no one knows about. There are some things that we walk into a room thinking that no one knows about, and sometimes we don't know about. I think for us, this particular vehicle has been extremely beneficial in terms of how to uncover some things that many of our educators and colleagues and administrators and leaders just don't realize they walk into a room with already. The training has been one that, as Whitney shared, has been utilized with teachers and administrators through our School, Climate and Culture Department.

What we did this summer is however, as a mom, speaking of parent leadership, my daughter told me she wished that her dad were White. When I asked her what that was about, she said that she don't want him to get hurt. As her mom, I actually had not realized that the death of George Floyd and the protests and everything that was out there was affecting my eight-year-old. At that point, our district has something called the Parent Academy. We partner with the Parent Leadership Training Institute through Parents Who Lead to really take our parents who are right for parent leadership, and train them at the next level.

Knowing this training already existed through Whitney's community project, we put it out there. I wrote a letter to everybody in our district and sent it home, and invited them to participate in this virtual opportunity with me. Because I wasn't sure if there were things that I was doing in front of my child, or even comments that I may have been making based on what was on the news, as you can imagine. What are things that I could do to give myself better tools around my child? And then how could I share that with our family? Through that, we have been virtual. We've had 478 people to join in this work.

It's 10 weeks. Each week, Wednesdays at noon, we plug in. Our School, Climate, and Culture supervisor teaches us. Through Whitney's project now, our district has paid for me to get trained. I am now trained in the same curriculum. We're also hiring a Director of Equity and Inclusion to work with students and listen to their voices, and hear what's going on with them in terms of race relations. From one parent project, one passionate parent and her leadership, there are many additional layers of this work that are about to take place within our district. I'm really, really proud of the way that those things have grown. The training in and of itself allowed us to ease in. In a public system, you can't be too direct sometimes also. I think it's been a really good vehicle for us.

Implicit bias has been such a great vehicle for us as a system... [Implicit bias training] has been extremely beneficial in terms of how to uncover some things that many of our educators and colleagues and administrators and leaders just don't realize they walk into a room with already.

Tia Leathers

EmbraceRace: There's a question about whether or not you believe implicit bias training works. I want to say, Tia, I love the way you framed that training as a vehicle and as a catalyst. You imagine when you have almost 500 people coming through, district employees and so on, and parents, think about the conversations you're having.

I think it's a mistake and certainly overly reductive for people to think that implicit bias training is successful only if it reduces the implicit biases that we carry. Actually, I think much more often, it's aimed at helping us become aware of those biases and manage those biases. To interrupt between the link between the bias and the behavior. Again, you point to so many other things that it's catalyzed for your community. Which really I think is probably the way we need to be thinking about what this work can do.

Kudos to you both. Yeah, if people define it as, and many do, implicit bias training as training you to not have bias, then no, it does not work. Then you probably will be disappointed. Right. You have to practice, and have a community to practice within. Which is also what I love about parents organizing and developing, what is a practice? Being able to, if you're all trained in it, you can hold each other accountable after.

Maira Martelo: Exactly. The beautiful thing additionally to this is, remember, this has been so powerful. Because unfortunately, the way any system sees parents is they don't recognize that parents are leaders. They are not just only caring about their children. One of the things that I review, we review all different models. The reason we picked PLTI is because this is about how to really strengthen the skills, and just giving more tools to the toolbox that parents already have. But not only for their own children, which is the fascinating part of all of the community projects.

In some of the cases, you can see, and I love that you asked Whitney so right upfront the question. She's White. She doesn't really suffer the effects of racism, but she's a true advocate for all children. This is not only about her. I love, and I always like to ask Tia if she can share, how has been the change in the district to see these parents that they were like, "Oh my gosh, what did we do wrong?" Because again, parents are coming to us because we did something wrong. But also, I want to say for the question is, I like to say to people, "Of course, the training is absolutely important. But it's just the first step." It's just like, how do we just normally say, "This is how we're going to talk about these things?"

Imagine, this started with her "little" community project. We didn't know there was a certification. None of us. Even the people who were experts. We learned about this through Whitney's project. Now in my organization, what we're going to do is, we're going to fund a small grant for parents who come to the new cohort, so they can continue working on this topic. Because we recognize it's like, "Great! The training is the first step. There's more work that we need to do." I just love because Tia is a better story teller than me.

How has been the reaction of the district employees understanding that parents come with a different role?

Tia Leathers: Generally when a parent comes, something is wrong. Period. We all find our inner leader when somebody bothers our child or something isn't going right. We can be shy as whatever. They all show up at that point. Every parent is a leader at that point. I think the way that it's shifted then is that when we as a department are able to bring parents to the table and say, "This parent is here to help you. There is work that needs to happen here." In Whitney's case, we couldn't afford it.

We didn't even know if there would be a value, especially not to spend quite a bit of money to travel to this place and do things like that. But she raised it and sent the employee there. I mean, how do you say no to that? As a district, I think just being able to start seeing the value. Not that we didn't. We certainly see the value in our parents helping with homework or showing up to parent nights. But the ability for them to get involved in change that will impact positively all of our students, I think that's kind of our culture at this point. We look to our parents to make us better because we realize we're all working with this together.

Donna Thompson-Bennett: Tia, that's such a great example of what we find with PLTI when there's real authentic parent partnership. We are finding that that's not only happening in Jacksonville. What's great about NPLI and having all these partners through the nation, we're seeing that in other communities. What you described, we have recent examples, particularly around the whole racial equity and racial justice issue, Rochester parents were actually meeting with and organizing for Black and Brown children, in terms of the reopening of schools. They were doing it in partnership with schools, and actually having conversation with superintendents.

They're creating these joint councils that include parents at the table. As you referenced Shirley Chisholm at the beginning of this, and the whole concept of, okay, you may not be invited to the table. She said, "Just bring your folding chair and pull it up." Well, in PLTI and NPLI, we're starting to say, "Sometimes you just create your own table. You don't have to wait."

What's great is when the partnership could happen, either from district leaders recognizing the resource and the real value of parent leaders, or parent leaders setting the table and inviting the district or other civic leaders in the conversation, to make sure that we are not leaving anyone out as we look to have a more equitable system, wherever that system is. I really am excited to hear the shift, but I also think the shift happened because of Whitney's leadership, and other leaders of PLTI, Parents Who Lead. But also because of you. As a parent leader who doesn't take off that hat as you come to your work. I think that's important too. I think both you and the energy that you admire and bring to this shared work.

EmbraceRace: I wanted to pull back for just a moment, Donna. I was interested in when you put up the slide, and when you described the National Parent Leadership Institutes of Work, you described it as racial equity focused. But I remember you talking about its roots, and Elaine Zimmerman's roots in Connecticut. I think you emphasized race and all kinds of difference.

Why did you make the doubtless, deliberate decision of elevating racial equity as the focus?

And another question. One of the questions we're seeing is, "How do I do this in my community?"

Donna Thompson-Bennett: I think one of the things that we do is that we're responsive to parent leaders. PLTI started from Elaine listening to parent leaders about their ideas of what would be best for legislators and others to consider as they were thinking about school readiness policy and legislation. Out of that came issues of equity. It's always been a thread woven in PLTI. Of course, part of that equity was around race. But we've also found that as we have been working with PLTI graduates, alumni like Whitney and others, they are saying that we have to elevate and really put a stronger lens on racial equity.

We did a racial equity think tank. Melissa and Andrew, we're grateful you guys were a part of that, but that was our first think tank. That was because we were being responsive to parent leaders who said that as a result of working and going through the Democracy and Civics course of PLTI, they learned more around difference and working across difference. But they wanted to be able to learn how to have those courageous conversations. To be able to address things in terms of anti-racism. To be able to have the conversation to move something in terms of policy and practice in their community, if it was seeming to be an issue of inequity particularly around race. We did a racial equity think tank and began to say, "What can you do? What would you like to do in your community as alumni of PLTI, as parent leaders, to address that?"

We literally began more of a focus because we heard from parent leaders that we should. Our curriculum is not done by us. It has always been generated by the thoughts, the ideas, the insights of parent leaders. From that, we've built and we've updated our curriculum to have more of a racial equity focused lens. It still has those core values of democracy and civics. But if we're honest, how can we really have a full conversation about democracy in this nation without really elevating the lens and really focusing in on the impact of race in the build of our democracy?

EmbraceRace: Thank you so much. I think that's so important. I do want to give a quick opportunity to anyone else who wants to weigh in on that, knowing there are all sorts of equity issues and all kinds of dimensions of equity work.

Maira Martelo: One of the things that we did, because we were privileged to take a full year and a half in the planning of this. What we decided, and of course, this is through my lens of coming from Latin America. I find that Americans, for the most part, are so fascinated with the concept of access. Most people think, we just create this lunch and everyone is going to come. It's equitable. I'm like, "Not really." You can create all these things, but actually, if you want some people at the table, you have to remove additional barriers. Because you have to be intentional.

It's like if we want the immigrant communities, and we offer the classes only in English, well, good luck with that. What we did with Tia, we created a diversity matrix. We went and looked for these parents. We were intentional. We wanted racial diversity, different abilities. We must have parents or caregivers, which is the other concept. Because as we know, the demographics in this country are changing so vastly. We have a lot of grandparents, uncles, and other adults who are caring for our children. We are intentional about recruiting people. Where are the people with different gender identities? It's the intersectionality. We have this matrix.

Is it perfect? It is not. But we know. I have to confess, even though I'm Latina, we haven't had a Latino who has graduated from the program. Because of course, now I'm like, there are other barriers that are not only the language. It's a 20 week real commitment, that really doesn't end in the 20 weeks. Because Whitney can tell you she graduated almost two years ago. She continues, and she's going to have a new community project. I think that equity has to be really actionable. Otherwise, it's just like a façade. Yeah, you will look different. It's like, no, we even tried to recruit diverse ways of thinking. We asked them. We don't care where your politics are, but we don't want just people thinking the same way. Because there's no growth if we are all part of the same club. I think the intentionality, we have gotten to a different level. I have to tell you, it is not easy.

I think that equity has to be really actionable. Otherwise, it's just like a façade.

Dr. Maira Martelo

Maira Martelo: It's a lot easier to say, "We'll just put it here on Facebook. Whomever saw it, great. If they didn't..." I'm like, "No." There are people that you actually... okay, how do I remove barriers? Part of the classes, we provide transportation. We provide childcare, and it's not any childcare. We provide food. It is truly the most intentional. I hope you hear my excitement. It's a dream come true for me. The real partnership that we have created in Jacksonville is amazing. Now, we're going into the third year. We have people writing saying, "We want to be part of this." I'm like, "Okay, yeah. Absolutely." Because we don't want this to depend only on one organization, which is the other thing that happens. What happens if whatever, the priorities of my organization, change? It's not going to go away, because we built it as a community partnership. There are many other agencies that can take it on.

EmbraceRace: We were really impressed when we first met you all. We went to Hartford, there was a thing. Then we went for the training. Then we went to the training to participate, to talk about EmbraceRace at the training in Rochester. Both times, I was really struck with how diverse, how many men that were there as well. Still dominated by women, but still men. Just the conversations were very diverse and always a translator. You guys wanted us to have a translator for this. We weren't able to in the time. But you certainly held us to account. We're going to do that in the future. I just love all thinking about all of that.

I'm very happy that you bring up the challenges, because we've talked about some of the bright spots. I think people need to hear the challenges a bit. You have gotten into it Maira, because it's hard work. We don't want people to give up when it gets hard, because it's inevitably going to get hard.

What are some of the challenges of doing this work? What's hard about it?

Tia Leathers: What isn't challenging?

EmbraceRace: Right.

Tia Leathers: What isn't? Oh gosh, it's all challenging.

EmbraceRace: Exactly.

Tia Leathers: I think even when the topic comes up it's like, uh oh. Right now we're talking about what? It starts there. I even had difficulty just saying, "What account do you want the money is? She's paying for it. What account? What account?" Finally I said, "Put it in my department's account. I'll pay for it." It can be uncomfortable for some people to even walk this particular path, but we got it situated. We got her trained. I think another one of the challenges honestly as leaders, I think is just continuing. The 478 people who signed up, not allowing the voices of the 10 nasty grams I got for even doing it, to keep me from continuing to engage the 478.

Honestly, in a system like this, we've had people who have called my office screaming and hollering, "The audacity of you to do such a thing, to invite us to do whatever this is. I'm pulling my child out of your system." The beauty of the pandemic is, there may be others that are just not wanting to send a child in our system anyway, so bye. I can't say that, but that is challenging. That is challenging because when you serve the public and you have the heart to do good, there are times where you think to yourself, hold on. Was this the right call? And it was. Just keeping that in mind, and staying attached to people that remind you that you're doing the right thing also.

The budget. There has to be money for it. Even if you get this great idea, we have the one person trained, but we're in a school system with 130,000 students. The one person is great, but now what? Just the ability to say, "I want to do it too." Then the next thing you know, I have it. They sent me. We're getting this director. I didn't add that the director is coming with two specialists. We are growing our team specifically for this area, but it is challenging because it takes board members. It takes the superintendent. It takes all of the decision makers to say that this is a worthwhile commitment. Money, people, ourselves.

It's all a challenge, but a worthwhile challenge, and one that... you have to do it. There are days that you just think you want to tiptoe out the back door and let somebody else have it. Then you think to yourself, if you got out of your seat, who is going to sit in it? What are they going to do? You just stay in it and you keep going. Anyway, Whitney, you may have challenges from the parent perspective also. I know I've shared mine from a system perspective. But I think the biggest piece is just planting both feet in the ground and not caring what those challenges are, because they will come at you.

Whitney Touchton: I would just add that I wanted to encourage parents that they can still be involved in this work, even if they don't have this fabulous network and support system that we've worked on in Jacksonville. Because you might not have that in the community that you're in, but there's still work to be done and there's still progress to be made. I would just encourage people to really start with self-education. That's something that is severely lacking in most people. There are phenomenal everything. Books, podcasts, Facebook groups. Any type of medium that you can think of, there's someone doing anti-racism education.

Seek those out. I know we're going to probably put some of those recommendations out with this webinar, but definitely seek out that work. Make sure it's from people of color that are involved in anti-racism education specifically. When you educate yourself, being step one, then you can start to see everywhere around you where there's some work to be done. You pick a spot and you go for it. Even if it's just in your neighborhood, even if it's just in your child's classroom, in your PTA. There is a way. There is a place. You can get involved. You don't even have to get involved as a PTA at your own school. If a child goes to a school that is doing well, successful, has all the resources it needs, go find another one that doesn't. You can participate in their PTA and you can get involved that way.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: That's persistence. That's wonderful. I wonder actually, this question that we're getting not surprisingly, so many questions about essentially, how do I do this? Especially from the perspective of people wearing different hats. Parents and teachers, or educators in general for sure, and other people too.

How does one do this work? What 5,000 level foot wisdom, in addition to what Whitney has said, would you suggest for people who want to do this work?

EmbraceRace, Melissa: I just wanted to add that, picking up from what you all have been saying, it would seem to be that one of the important components is that you start with people who are motivated. You don't necessarily, like Tia said, "I invited people." It wasn't like, "You must come to this training," because that kind of thing can really backlash.

EmbraceRace, Andrew: Motivation is huge.

Maira Martelo: It is. I think the motivation, but also the commitment. Advocacy is hard work. This is not, "Oh, I tried. It didn't work. Goodbye. I'm going to move on to the next thing." It's just not going to happen. One of the things that Tia and I talk about this all the time, even though we have four organizations partnering. We decided we're going to make this work no matter what. We can tell you the many red tapes. Just imagine, the district is 130,000 students. Seven board members. Add to that another nonprofit organization. I also have a board.

We communicate all the time, to the point that sometimes I have to say to the superintendent, "Dr. Green, by the way, I don't work for you. I know you see me here all the time." Because that's what it takes. What I will say is sometimes we underestimate the power of one person. I come from Columbia to tell you it took my mom 40 years to get our street paved. 40 years. But she was able to achieve it because she never gave up on it. Did she have obstacles? Absolutely. I think when you think about this, and one of the things that I always admire of Whitney is, these are not technically her kids. But all children are our children. If we are not having not only the bold conversations, when you say, "Yeah, I'm Latina. Guess what? I also have biases against Mexican people. I see them as less than me for whatever reason."

I find that when you're honest and you say, "We're going to make this work, but buckle up. Because there will be people who attack us. There will be people who say, 'This is too hard.'" For me, I have to confess, I have to learn how to be a real partner. Because whoever is paying for it is like, "You make the decisions." Tia will say, "Excuse me, ma'am. Can we talk about this?" I'm like, "Oh yeah, never mind. That's true." It's also being courageous enough to question your own thinking.

I think that is really the hard work. It is not easy, but this is the work. This is what parents need to continue to do. I know many of you are doing it, and I know it's really challenging. Another thing is you put implicit bias towards having a kid who has special needs. Things get more complex. It is doable, but you have to be relentless. Sometimes there are days that Tia and I finish the day saying, "Oh my gosh. What are we doing?" Then it's like, "Okay, tomorrow is the next day. We're going to keep doing it." It's not easy, but it's doable.

Donna Thompson-Bennett: I would just add that if people are hearing from Whitney and hearing from us and there's interest in PLTI coming to your community, I believe it's probably in the chat. Or we can make sure to contact us at our website in terms of Parents Who Lead. But we will connect you with some incredible people. You heard Melissa talk about our team. I'm sitting before you, but I am here along with all of my team members and my board. I particularly want to highlight Zulema Gomez, who is our Senior Implementation Specialist. She was the technical assistance, the guide, and is still the guide for Jacksonville and other communities throughout our nation. We are fortunate that we have Melvette Hill, who is the Director here in Connecticut for any of the sites. They will be an amazing resource for you as you think about how you build this work in your community.

We've had people call us who were parent leaders who were interested in PLTI. We've had organization members. We've had school districts, health systems call and say, "How do I do this? How do I bring this in the community?" And that year experience that Maira talked about, we're working alongside with you. You're not expected to just say "Poof," and there's PLTI in your community. The whole concept of building with and partnering, and understanding that this democracy family civics initiative happens within community. That's represented by bringing community together, including pairing of the community leaders to make the initiative happen.

That's one thing you can do. Understand that not only do you deal with and address things in terms of racial equity, but you look at systemic change in a number of different domains. Oftentimes, parents are most concerned about education. Those community projects that Whitney talked about, that her project sprung from, 40% of parent leaders who go through PLTI throughout our country have a focus on education. But there are also those who are interested in health, safety, financial wellness, social and economic mobility. We work and partner not only with systems, but with other community organizations. Sometimes even civic organizations like The City of New Orleans, who want to make sure this parent leadership initiative is in their community in order that they can have the authentic parent leader partnerships that Tia and Whitney and Maira have described, that are happening in Jacksonville.

This is not something that we're keeping to ourselves. We are sharing this. We've been sharing and replicating this for some time now. We are open to have conversations and help you build. Tia did not lie when she said a challenge is budget. We understand that. We understand that in the midst of current circumstances, it can be even more challenging. But we're willing to work with you and share any resources and connections that we have for you to think about for making this happen in community. Andrew, I wanted to share with you, you had asked why did we change? How did our focus get elevated? I have to give another honest answer.

It's what's happening always in real time in our democracy that also impacts what our focus is in PLTI. I can remember when some years ago, we were about to start a training. We recognized that our community as a nation had been affected because of the murder of Trayvon Martin. We knew that if we were going to be talking about bringing people together across race, and all types of difference, that we could not ignore what we often referred to as the elephant in the room. It's not just creating a kumbaya moment around race. It's having the challenging conversations when even today, I was like, "How are we going to do this?" Because we know that we as NPLI have stood with and have partnered with others to declare Black Lives Matter. We are still having to call and add names to the role call.

I think about Trayvon Martin years ago, and us having to address that in real time. I can't help but think about Jacob Blake and Trayford Pellerin right now. Because this happens in our democracy, in our nation, in our country, these are parents often. These are children who are connected to parents and people who loved them. We as NPLI, who are seeking to generate equitable and better outcomes for children and families, we can't ignore that. Sometimes something gets elevated because there's a need to elevate it. Not just in our curriculum, but in our practice. And to be able to look at it and say, "What can we do to make things better to change?" I just wanted to share that, because this isn't simply about the work of Jacksonville, Rochester, Solano County, Connecticut sites, Everett, Washington. It's about us as a nation. Really, we believe it's about us as a world. Being able to examine and to challenge and to work towards something better and different.

EmbraceRace: Tia, I wanted to come to you to start this next question. Again, we're getting some variations on this. But when we talk about circumstance, which can pose both challenge and opportunity, of course COVID and certainly the murder of George Floyd. All of the other things around it. Yes, all of the names Donna, as you just said, Jacob Blake more recently.

There are so many challenges for schools. What are you seeing in your work? Layered on top of everything that you've been dealing with as parents, and school is a big deal. How has the world changed? How has that changed in light of these new but very sharp circumstances?

Tia Leathers: In many ways. I think the most obvious of course is job loss or resources that may have already been stretched. Then they've gone from stretched to not at all. In our particular instance, what we did was go out and fundraise immediately. As we started serving lunches to students on the buses, we gave out school supplies. We gave out masks. We gave out crayons. Whatever we could get, we continued to pour into the homes because they had to go home for school. We realize that there were things that we could do as a district to try to make our homerooms, which is what we call our online platform, more equitable. Because some people went home to a library full of books. Other people went home to not one book or a parent who could read it.

We read the books electronically. We put them online. Do you have online? Then we started mailing things. We went back. We had to go back. Even with a letter that went out for the training, it was snail mail, because you might not even know what's happening in the district. We did a full out parent guide, a little magazine. We sent it home with everything we could think that you needed to know. Because as a system, we were telling the media. That's where all of our updates were. But if you weren't watching television, or the lights have already been off, or whatever that looks like, that is just not an effective way to communicate with our families. From the financial barriers to the mental issues that took place if you return to trauma, that's where our children look forward to getting out of when they come to school. What resources did we have there? Which we did, and we also had to share what those are.

We sent folks to homes. We knocked on doors. I think the pandemic has allowed us to go back to where old school school systems began. Knocking on doors, speaking to families. Seeing what's going on and providing resources. It's really allowed us to do that, with a mask.

EmbraceRace: Great. You are in Florida. I know there are some issues there.

Tia Leathers: Right.

EmbraceRace: Whitney, I just wondered, do you want to weigh in on whether or how the landscape, the opportunity has shifted in light of what some are calling a racial awakening? Especially perhaps among White members of our society.

Whitney Touchton: For sure. There's definitely been a hugely increased opportunity for conversation. Unfortunately, an unfortunate reason as to why, with more death. It has been an increased opportunity to be able to have conversations with people that were previously not interested. It definitely allowed the opportunity to expand the reach of the district's implicit bias training offerings, because there were more people that were interested in learning and listening for the first time. That's been encouraging. It's been a little bit of a double edged sword because in some ways, COVID has distracted a lot of this work. But then in other ways, it's elevated it. It's just another season that we have to walk through and keep pushing through, and finding ways to continue to have the conversation for anyone that's willing to participate.

Tia Leathers: Can I just add the value of a face like Whitney's versus a face like mine? You expect me to care. What's nice is that you should see some of the emails Whitney sends to shake us up. She's like, "Do you think this is the best school leader? Have you seen the demographic of this school?" Then when they meet her they're like, "Wait, that was you?" But I think it allows for us to not just give that, oh, you should care. There's a reason why you care. Why does Whitney care? I don't know why Whitney cares. I'm just grateful that she does because her face and her voice and her work, her advocacy, speaks differently than mine will ever come across. Because they expect me to care. The opportunity for, and I'm just going to call it out, because you embrace race, right? Stand up! Speak up. We need you. There are principals who have come back to me and said, "I'm so glad you sent that letter. I was afraid. I was afraid to speak up, but my team will be a certain type of way because I'm not afraid to mention that anymore."

But if nobody gets ahead of it and gets out there, even those principals receive the letter because they are a parent. Because they are a school system parent. We didn't send that to employees. But because they have students in our system, they received it anyway. The value of a face that shouldn't care, we cannot leave the call without giving a quick little nudge and hats off to folks like Whitney and the like. We are all in this together. We are extremely thankful when you do come alongside us or ahead of us and allow us, because we're exhausted.

Let me just tell you, we're exhausted. We're exhausted personally. We're exhausted professionally. But when someone else says, "I haven't even talked about this my whole life. I'm ready and I'm fresh." Then it gives us a lot more stamina to run the race. Anyway, thank you Whitney. For folks like Whitney, we appreciate you and we need you.

Donna Thompson-Bennett: Whitney has some others in the chat. You said "Those like Whitney." I'm seeing some of the flow of the chat. I kind of glanced over. Whitney, you are not alone. There are other White allies and parent leaders who are in this session with you, from different places in our country.

EmbraceRace: That was some of the advice in our county. We were having kind of a school integration fight. One of the things in talking to people doing similar work in a similar sort of community, like in San Francisco. We're in a small town, but progressive. What they said was, "You've got to let more White people do the talking. Get an ally, and people will listen to it differently. Because they just keep hearing you and hearing you, and not hearing you." It's true that we really need to build the capacity of everybody. You can't sit it out. Your ideas and also your privilege is needed in these conversations.

Well, we go back to George Floyd. You've reflected a lot on that, I know. Think of all that Black people in particular, in that place had done over the years. The man who put his knee on his neck, on George Floyd's neck, had 20, close to 20 complaints against him. We take the videos. They go viral. We do the lawsuits. We do the protests. You do what you're supposed to do. Yes, it's clear that as much as Black people and other people of color, and Indigenous people have been carrying that flight, we clearly could use some more support. All of our interests are deeply located in how it turns out. Amen, Tia.

We don't have very much time, but there was a comment in the chat that I'd love to get your ideas about.

Someone who said that they're a White ally said they're trying to learn when to listen and when to lead. How do you work that whiteness, and know when to step back?

Whitney Touchton: I'm actually glad you brought up that question, because I was hoping for an opportunity to say that. Because I do appreciate the acknowledgement but it shouldn't be that. That shouldn't be the truth. Part of the learning is actually to do more listening than talking. And to use whatever voice that I have to redirect to people of color that have already been doing this work, and already have this knowledge. I didn't get this knowledge by being White. I got this knowledge by listening to people of color and learning from them. That's really important, is that we, as much as possible, take a back seat. Do the work, but take a back seat. The spotlight doesn't belong on us.

Part of the learning is actually to do more listening than talking... I didn't get this knowledge by being White. I got this knowledge by listening to people of color and learning from them... Do the work, but take a back seat. The spotlight doesn't belong on us.

Whitney Touchton

Maira Martelo: I wanted to add, just answering your question, it's also really being able to ask the question. Instead of coming with your preconceived notion about what people need. We as a nonprofit, we have different partnerships with the district, but we asked them for the first time in many years. I remember calling Tia and asking her, "What do you need? How can we be helpful?" Instead of us saying, "But I need the parents to do this. I need to teach them." I'm like, "This is a different moment." Regardless, we all have some type of privilege. Yes, I'm Latina, but I'm documented. I'm bilingual. I have a PhD. If we're not using our privilege to bring others with us, then what are we doing? I think that's the most inspiring thing. We can all do something, particularly for those who have been traditionally oppressed for many reason. Your skin color is one of the many reasons.

Of course, it's undeniable, the amount of discrimination that Black people in particular, but also Indigenous people have faced, and Latinos, and many others. But I would just really say, thank you so much. This is inspiring work. It's hard work. Don't think that this is easy. If you get into this, there will be moments where you are like, "Okay, I'm done. This is too hard." It is so worth it. If you think about the demographics of this country, we will be shortly a majority minority country. Those are our children.

EmbraceRace: They're all our children.

Donna Thompson-Bennett: All our children. The only thing I would add, once you listen or while you're listening, also lead by doing your own research. And not always thinking that Black and Brown and other people of color can be the source of your information, even to be listening. There's so much out there. We live in this wonderful age. Now, you've got to fact check things, but there's the age of internet access to information about real things that have occurred in this country through the lens of race and culture. Explore that.

Then the other thing I would say is lead by speaking out, joining in the conversation. Maybe gathering people to have the dialogue. You don't have to just stay in the background. I think Whitney is absolutely right that there's a time to really learn by listening. Then once you learn, lead out. Have the courage that Whitney did to say, "I'm going to move this beyond me and beyond my house. I'm really going to be an active bridge in community."

EmbraceRace: Stay with it. It's not a one-time thing. Thank you, everybody. That was really great. That was wonderful. That time went quickly. I know a lot of people are going to want to go to You can also find the resources when we post them. We'll post the video tomorrow at There will be contacts, ways to get in touch with these folks. Yeah. Thank you so much. Not only for being here, but more importantly that work that you do every day. You guys are amazing. And for being so real with it, so candid. It's hard stuff.

Maira Martelo: Thank you.

Donna Thompson-Bennett: Thank you for the platform to be able to share.

EmbraceRace: We'll do it again. Take care, folks.


Donna Thompson-Bennett: Be well, beautiful people. Be well.

Whitney Touchton: Thank you.


The National Parent Leadership Institute - The National Parent Leadership Institute is a parent-centered, anti-racist organization that equips families with the civic skills and knowledge to be leading advocates for children at home, school, and in the community. They are also the parent organization that connects our guests for this conversation. For more information visit the site and/or contact Carolyn Lee-Davis at:

Whitney's recommendations

"I find it helpful to educate ourselves on the broad history of systemic racism in our country to be able to have a foundation from which to discuss and advocate for specific solutions."

A recommended organization: Be the Bridge - training people to be antiracist bridge-builders in and across communities.

A helpful study: Bias Isn't Just A Police Problem, It's A Preschool Problem

These Books:

  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

These Documentaries:

  • Teach Us All
  • 13th
  • True Justice: Bryan Stevenson
  • Harvest of Empire

Resources (return to top)

Tia Leathers

Tia Leathers is the Executive Director of Family and Community Engagement for Duval County Public Schools, the 21st largest in the country, serving close to 130,000 students. Tia is also certified facilitator for the Parent Leadership Training… More about Tia >
Tia Leathers

Maria Martelo

Dr. Maira Martelo leads the Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF)'s strategic engagement and partnerships, including Parents Who Lead, an initiative in partnership with Duval County Public Schools, the Jacksonville Public Library and the Kids… More about Maria >
Dr. Maira Martelo

Donna Thompson-Bennett

Donna Thompson-Bennett is Executive Director of the National Parent Leadership Institute. She is a parent leader and retired attorney who has 30 years in advocacy experience, with 25 of those years centered on parent leadership and civic engagement.… More about Donna >
Donna Thompson-Bennett

Whitney Touchton

Whitney Touchton is passionate about changing the world through her local community, most especially in the area of racism, bias and equity. She advocates through various organizations such as Be the Bridge, Parents Who Lead, her county PTA board,… More about Whitney >
Whitney Touchton