Weighing in on "Parent Engagement Through a Lens of Equity"
As a privileged white woman in a position of power and authority, committed to diversity, inclusion and radical co-creation, I’ve been trying to sit this one out. I’ve been trying to let my actions speak louder than my words and to use whatever energy and influence I have as an ally to make way for voices at the margin to come to the center and to speak for themselves in this conversation that is bubbling to the surface in our field. I’m aware that sometimes the most important thing I can do to promote equity is to shut up and encourage, and sometimes even coach others to say what’s in their heart and on their mind.
But I have something to say: this sh*t is annoying.
Why? Because it’s the same conversation over and over. It hasn’t moved our field forward significantly in the last 30 years and it’s not rocket science. I suspect that the lack of movement is not because we don’t understand what needs to be done, but that we just don’t want to do it.
At the risk of being accused of over-simplification, the whole “parent engagement through the lens of equity” conversation hinges on one central question: “How would this whole situation / discussion / decision be different if we were talking about a white middle class family (or parent) instead of a low-income family (or parent) of color?” If my child was sitting on the front steps outside my home in my nice affluent neighborhood and someone called DCFS because he was locked out, how would I be treated? What would my expectations be? What would my resources be vs. those of a colleague of mine in a low-income, urban neighborhood anywhere in the United States? How would I be engaged vs how would they be engaged by the child welfare system? Is that fair / equitable? Whose fault is it? Unraveling these mysteries gets to the core of foundational inequity at the heart of our structurally patriarchal, racist, and classist society. That problem is too big to be easily solved by us, but it is the elephant in the room, always. Until we can agree on that, that there is an elephant with a heap of elephant dung right in the center of the room, we won’t be able to significantly transform any system. Like any other living entity, the field of human services requires food to sustain itself; people in need of services are our system’s nourishment.
The individuals working in the system can be and are big-hearted, kind, smart, well-meaning professionals and still they perpetuate the inequity as they serve and as they make the money that feeds their families. We are all complicit. I like to think that my advocacy, about this when I was a board member of Alia, influenced that nonprofit’s decision to focus on creating an” un-system” to replace the child welfare system.
That being said, another level of the complex, dynamic, non-linear system, are multiple dimensions of equity, which Be Strong Families attempts to live. There are organizations that do it better than we do. Find them. Build on their models. Scale their practices. But as CEO of Be Strong Families, I’m just going to speak to how we think about it and what we do related to these issues to try to move in a spirit and practice of equity to engage parents.
1. Economic equity: Pay for the contributions of the parents you want to engage. Treat them as you would your staff. Don’t expect them to volunteer and act as if they’re somehow money-grubbing or not serious about their goals if providing “incentives” boosts their engagement and participation. Their contributions are important and valuable. Value them the way it is common in our capitalist system to do so: show them the money! In the BSF parent cafe model, which is about engaging parents to engage other parents to strengthen their families and communities and build protective factors, we’ve done this from jump. All our parent cafe table hosts, and cafe hosts are compensated well for their time because we value their time. Whenever we do a focus group or ask for input on our products or services, we pay for people’s time as well. Some of our partners with successful, long-standing parent cafe efforts compensate parents for attending cafes as well. Oakland Parents Together has 45 parents at their weekly parent cafe for nearly 7 years now. They give a small ($5) gift card to every participant. The moms who come appreciate this little bit of discretionary income and it makes a positive difference in their quality of life. Build this into your budget as a legitimate program expense. Economic equity also extends to hiring parents as staff and cultivating their greatness and promoting them. That’s also part of the following dimension of equity.
2. Political Equity — This dimension has to do with sharing power and doing more than talking about parent leadership. This means not only creating room at every decision-making table, but also structuring the conversations at the table so that all voices are heard and respected and valued. It means acting on decisions that come out of democratic processes and not overriding or tipping the scales to benefit the representatives of the center (in the paradigm of margin vs center). Parent cafes afford participants the opportunity to practice at active listening and encountering and appreciating the wisdom of people they may have unconsciously written off before they sat down at the table. Be Strong Families has a diverse program staff that is long on lived experience and shorter on credentials. We use appreciative inquiry and a team-based accountability structure to ensure participatory leadership at the staff level. Our individual and organizational performance evaluation processes are participatory (360) for everyone. We have an organizational commitment to co-creating our products and services with the people they are intended for (which started with developing parent cafes). We have Regional Parent Engagement Advisory Groups that assist with this effort and each RPEA has a representative seat on our board of directors (per our bylaws). Finally, we have a culture of continuous learning with an Outcomes and Impact function that consciously creates tools to measure how we’re doing with respect to diversity and inclusion, for example as part of peer assessment of the quality of our training. We invest in all-staff training on diversity and inclusion, pushing ourselves and each other gratefully beyond our comfort zones. All of this allows us to stand for political equity when it comes to engaging parents. We walk the talk. We know the work is better when vulnerable parents are empowered to engage, because it’s who we are, it’s how we were born. So, for us, this piece isn’t something we have to learn or add on or figure out: it’s what we naturally radiate.
3. Social equity — While political and social dimensions of equity are critical, perhaps the most important dimension of equity is the human side: social equity. This has to do with navigating interpersonal relationships in real time, with the recognition that we all have baggage and that our experience as well as the social context informs our attitudes and behaviors. At BSF, this dimension has to do with trying (and I say trying because it’s not easy) to live our shared values as we pursue economic and political equity, internally and externally. These values include family, authenticity, vitality, spirit, excellence, liberation, collaboration, and love. We know that whatever we do with each other internally, will be reflected into the work we do in the world; we first strive to embody these values with each other. We understand that we are different; we have different strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are easier to deal with than the weaknesses: both in ourselves and with others. We strive to weave our commitment to Abrazando Diversidad (diversity and inclusion) throughout our planning and implementation of everything we do by showing each other grace and by creating safe space for people to be able to speak their truth and for others to be able to hear their truth. Again, the parent cafe agreements have taught us how to do some of this, taught us how to have difficult conversations. We are now extending the topics of those conversations, intentionally, into the social justice arena with our A More Perfect Union cafe deck. These questions, organized by the same Strengthening Families protective factors, encourage people to share their experiences, their pain and their resilience and their accomplishments as parents assisting their children with navigating a complicated and often unjust world. The point about social equity with relation to parent engagement is that it is a practice and it requires practice, but practice that comes from a deep, soul-level commitment to diversity and inclusion, to a caring community.
Ultimately, we are one human tribe, one human family. When I was speaking about this issue of parent engagement through the lens of equity, with one of my mentors, Yoland Trevino (who walks this talk as well as anyone I know and has for the past 30+ years) she said, “I think the reason this is so difficult is the same reason it’s difficult for us to look a homeless person in the eye: we are one and we all know this in our heart of hearts. It is painful to be in touch with our emotions and suffer the suffering of others without it affecting us, so we create the separation between us and them, so we don’t have to feel the shame and the guilt; we don’t want to go there.”
Living our principles requires going there. For this reason, I am humbly grateful and awed by the courage and the love and the grace and the compassion of those who are promoting and calling for action to dismantle systemic oppression, subtle and overt, as a way to engage parents. And as an organization whose mission is about transformative conversations, we value the dialogue. Moreover, we are coming to the realization that engagement through a lens of equity needs to be embodied and realized, not just discussed. We are far from perfect (myself included) and we are committed to making the path by walking our talk.
What are you willing to do to promote and nurture political, social, and economic equity in the service of parent engagement and in the service of a healthy, strong, joyful, peaceful human family? How will you move the needle beyond rhetoric to concrete policy and practice reality in your world? Who will you include in making your plan and how will you compensate them? The steps become rather obvious once you ask the questions and listen to the answers with an intention to act.