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74 Interview: Black Mothers on Parent Activism, Self-Determination and the Fight for Educational Change Post-Pandemic

By Mimi Woldeyohannes | March 9, 2021

Ashley Virden, Deirdra Reed, Alisha Thomas Morgan and Lakisha Young

This conversation is the latest in our ongoing series of in-depth 74 Interviews (scan our full archive). Other notable recent interviews: Former NYC City Council Speak and Mayoral Frontrunner Christine Quinn on helping homeless students through the pandemic; journalist Paul Tough on class, race and the pursuit of college, and researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings on culturally relevant teaching.

Since the late 19th century, Black women have taken a more active role in leading organizing efforts in their communities. From churches to beauty shops, to bus stops and schools, they carried out coalition-building efforts that drove change and, as a result, helped shape some of our most notable social movements.

More recently, we witnessed Black women, such as Georgia voting rights powerhouse Stacey Abrams, become the backbone of political organizing, proving to our nation that when they lead, communities at large benefit.

Building on the collective organizing efforts of parent choice pioneer Annette “Polly Williams” or civil and women’s rights champion Fannie Lou Hamer, Black mothers in the educational equity movement have refused to accept the status quo and are actively leading organizing efforts in their communities to ensure that all students have access to quality educational opportunities.

“Without the voice of parents in education and education policy, we will never see the gains our students deserve. More than educators, the delivery system, policies or laws, it is parents who know what’s best for our children,” says parent activist, Alisha Thomas Morgan.

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Morgan, author, entrepreneur and former Georgia state representative, will join Deirdra Reed, policy and advocacy partner at The New Teachers Project; Education Freestyle founder Ashley Virden and Lakisha Young, founder and CEO of The Oakland Reach, to discuss these issues at a SXSW EDU panel titled, “Mothers Stand Up: The Rising Voice of the Black Mother.” Their session will air March 10 at 2 p.m.

Mimi Woldeyohannes, The 74’s special projects and community manager, moderated the panel and had the chance to go deeper with these four women on the future of parent activism and the role of Black parents in the educational equity movement in a post-pandemic world.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The 74: Can you tell us more about how you got involved in the parent activism movement and what is your vision for parent organizing work in your respective regions? 

Ashley: I got involved in parent activism because I got fed up with the fact that my son was getting suspended frequently while he was only in pre-K. Since then, I’ve worked hard to figure out what the issue was and how I could be a part of the solution. I stay in the fight because I realize how the public school system failed me and I don’t want my children to have the same outcomes. Our ultimate goal is to build a community of families and educators to bridge the gap between the home, school and community, so that we can work together to create realistic expectations that we can hold each other accountable for.

Lakisha: The Oakland REACH is made up of the mamas, grandmamas and fathers who the system has failed — and who refuse to let that reality be the reality of our children and grandchildren. And through our work, we show what is possible when the system listens to parents — when leaders trust parents about what our kids need. Over the past five years, our team has poured our lived and career experiences into different levers to advocate for quality education. We have conducted over 5,000 one-on-ones with parents in Oakland’s most underserved communities and trained almost 400 families through our family fellowship program to create a team of informed and organized parent advocates fighting for quality schools. Through this mobilization, we were able to pass legislation, The Opportunity Ticket, to fight for priority enrollment. We built a citywide literacy coalition with 30-plus partner organizations focusing our city and the country on literacy for the whole family. When COVID hit, we moved urgently to build a Citywide Virtual Family Hub to provide high-quality instruction and wraparound supports for the whole family. As we build each phase of this work on the ground, we’re also building our influence in local and national conversations about what a quality education looks like.

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Alisha: I got involved first as a state legislator wanting to see kids in my district have access to the highest quality schools in our area regardless of their zip code. It became even more real for me when I became a mother. Having access to the school that works best for your child is one of the most important rights we must have. It was my parents exercising choice that changed my life’s trajectory. I want that opportunity and access for all kids, including my own.

Deirdra: I am a single mom that has navigated the public education system for myself, my siblings and my own children. Early on, my lived experience taught me that the system of education was broken and intentionally demonized the role of families and community in supporting the educational outcomes of our own children. So, I am an organizer from WAY back and now, I’m working with TNTP to create powerful spaces for parents and community to engage around the issues within this broken system. My vision is for parent organizing centers and addresses the concerns of parents in real time. It asks the question: How do we change schools right now? Yes, there are issues that parents may or may not be aware of, but true democracy allows for parents to critique the system from their vantage point while offering them alternative thought around “what is possible”. Through TNTP, we are working to provide resources to parents who are concerned about their child’s educational experience. Individual parents, students and parent organizations can visit our website to read our reports on how schools could better support student learning and download our advocacy tools.

The 74: What do you think the ultimate purpose of education is right now? What do you think it should be?

Ashley: Being in a complete state of turmoil, I believe that the ultimate purpose of education is to support the kids and families in whatever ways are needed, not only for academic support, but for social-emotional support as well.

Lakisha: All we are asking for is a shot — a shot to compete in college, compete for a career. But even before COVID-19 hit, less than 30 percent of Black and brown students in Oakland schools were reading on grade level. That means the kids growing up with Silicon Valley in their backyard have no chance to compete for a good job there. That’s a horrific failure. We shouldn’t have to fight this hard to access quality. We shouldn’t have to fight this hard for a shot.

Alisha: Right now, the ultimate purpose of education seems to be to perpetuate a system created decades ago for a different era. It is creating employees who learn material to take tests. The ultimate purpose of education is to create thinkers, innovators, problem solvers, and good humans who will lead our communities and nation into the future. It is my hope that our current education system will become more relevant, teach our students both the core subject areas and about the world around them. To also teach them to be citizens of the world who make great gains in science, industry, technology and humanity. I also envision a day when schools expose our students to practical life lessons, such as homebuying, credit, taxes, and management. We will help develop them into more responsible adults who will be equipped to navigate the world more effectively.

Deirdra: Paola Freire sums it up: There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom. From my perspective, the purpose of the K-12 experience has been reduced to lessons of conformity. We have not, at scale, reimagined education in ways that aren’t about creating workers and/or inmates. For those students who, by design, have been denied the access to information and skills but still face the choice of conformity or freedom. Only those elite are exposed to information that calls for critical analysis of the world that we have inherited. That is the definition of a caste system. So, I am forced to grapple with our education system’s purpose is to uphold the American caste system. My hope for the educational system is that it lives into the power of children and community! Education is EVERYWHERE and the pandemic and TikTok proves that daily! For me, education is social and political. It is about getting information to young people so that they can grapple with the world and find their place in it. It is rooted in love and justice. So, that we are intentionally addressing systemic “isms” and bias while creating space for students to learn and ideate on what they are learning.

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The 74: What are your thoughts regarding parent activism gaining more visibility in education policy spaces, such as the creation of Powerful Parent Network and how do you think the pandemic has affected parent empowerment as parents took a front row seat in their children’s education? 

Ashley: I am so thankful that parent activism is gaining more visibility in education policy spaces. The Powerful Parent Network and other parent groups have done a great job of showing other parents what’s possible if we come together to demand better and how we can begin to reimagine what education can look like for our children.

Lakisha: I’ve been leading this work in Oakland for half a decade, and now we are leading through a pandemic. Through all of this, my vision around parent organizing for The Oakland REACH is centered around building solutions and leveraging advocacy to bust barriers on that pathway. We have too long demanded and shouted at systems that either never change or change is unacceptably slow. It’s important that we push systems to “do this” and not just “do something.” We know they are failing our students, so let’s show them how to stop failing our students and then hold them accountable for doing it! We’re doing exactly that with our Virtual Hub. Now they have no excuse.

Alisha: Without the voice of parents in education and education policy, we will never see the gains our students deserve. More than educators, the delivery system, policies or laws, it is parents who know what’s best for our children. We know what they need, what makes them thrive, and no system will have higher aspirations than parents. We ought to have the strongest and most powerful voice in efforts to create change. I think the pandemic created the perfect storm to help parents have an even greater appreciation for teachers, for education, and how our children learn. Too often parents feel intimidated by the system, thus making them afraid to advocate or they simply accept what is handed to them. The pandemic has caused us all to become more expert in the needs of our children and better understand their learning needs. It has also afforded us the opportunity to engage even more in their learning and within the schools. It is my hope we only get stronger and more powerful post the pandemic.

Deirdra: I do not want to romanticize the pandemic or parents, especially working and low-wealth parents who are fighting every day to survive this economy, racism and bad/uniformed policies, both in school and in life. Yes, parents have a better view of where schools are failing their children. And yes, in places like Oakland and Memphis, where there are organized parents — this is an opportunity for them to show their power! But for the majority of parents who are primarily unorganized, there is work to do to get them connected and supported both with their “basic needs” as well as helping them navigate an education system that was ill-prepared to respond to this crisis. My hope, however, lies in families ability to “vote with their feet”. Districts and school leadership are feeling the real-time effects of keeping parents at arm’s length. If districts want to see those students and families return, they will have to meet them where they are!

The 74: When it comes to decisions being made on whether or not to reopen schools anytime soon, many of our parents are caught in between a rock and a hard place. As we know, school closures have hit the mental health and academic achievement of Black and brown children the hardest, but many of the families that are in need of in-person education are the most wary of returning. In particular, Black parents have expressed their concern about schools reopening for in-person learning because of the lack of trust in public school systems. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 62 percent of white parents strongly or somewhat agreed schools should reopen in the fall, compared with 46 percent of Black parents. What are some ways that districts and networks can help gain the trust of Black families in the midst of the pandemic? 

Ashley: Many of us really like that we have a voice in what is going on right now. Districts need to increase communication before decisions are being made on how to proceed. Parents have to become true partners in education by having districts and networks be more intentional about bringing them to the table to not only listen to them, but by finding meaningful ways to implement their suggestions. This is also a great time for districts and networks to be more transparent about what’s happening in the educational landscape.

Lakisha: Honestly, too much of this conversation is focused on getting “back to normal” as the answer. Our parents don’t want to go back to normal. Going back to a system where less than 30 percent of Black and brown students are reading on grade level is not a solution — and it’s certainly not a win. If the system wants to earn our trust, they need to show us a real plan for getting our kids access to high-quality instruction. We showed that it’s possible — virtually or in person — with our Citywide Hub. Last summer, we kicked off our Hub offering high-quality, live academic instruction remotely for 200 students kindergarten through 8th grade. We delivered real, academic gains: 60 percent of the students in the REACH’s K-2 summer literacy programming moved two or more levels on the district-wide reading assessment; 30 percent of students moved three or more. We have continued running our Hub, doubling our enrollment, and tripling our academic enrichment offerings, while also piloting our model within our school district. We are increasing our impact from 200 to 1,000 students in less than a year. If the system wants our trust, they must match — better yet, exceed — what we have been able to build on our own!

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Alisha: This is a complex issue. Decisions need to be made based on the federal, state, and local resources available to provide a safe and healthy environment for all students, teachers, and school personnel. That decision needs to be made at the local level. Some parents have real reason to distrust schools and systems that may not be taking this pandemic seriously and don’t want to put their children in danger. As a parent, I have the privilege of working from home as well as the choice in my school district to select virtual while some parents have selected face to face. Choice is the key factor. For those parents who prefer face-to-face because they have to go to work, have concerns about learning loss, or believe in-person is the best option, they should have that option. Schools and systems have to do the hard work to hear from parents, secure resources to serve all families that wish to be served, and rebuild trust where trust is an issue. What we can’t do is fault parents or even systems who make different choices based on the circumstances of their district.

Deirdra: More than “trust”, parents and families need “power” and seats at the tables of decision-making at the district and school level. If districts continue to hoard power and create “strategies” in isolated spaces that don’t include parents then, there is no real dialogue and therefore, no trust. If district leaders truly want Black students and families at school, then they need to be invited as equals and not as “consumers”.

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The 74: What are you hearing from Black families right now in regards to how they would like to approach educating their children moving forward? 

Ashley: It’s funny hearing stories about Megyn Kelly removing her children from their private school because they are moving too far left and taking a social justice approach to education. For Black families, it’s extremely important for us to approach educating our children through a social justice lens.

Lakisha: Our families are rightfully worried that going back to school is accepting failure. We have lived through a global crisis that totally disrupted the education system — but it still feels like nothing will change. They want to know how they can continue to access high-quality instruction, like they got from our Hub, for their kids when schools reopen. And they want hybrid options available to be able to determine the best option for their kids. They also know that for any education model to be successful, it must integrate the academic needs of families, along with the socio-economic ones. You can’t just throw a laptop at a kid and assume it will work. That laptop needs to include tech support and computer training for families. That’s what our Hub was all about — computers for each student, hotspots for households that needed it, family liaisons, tech trainings and support, family workshops and stipends. And it worked! During the summer, The hub had 83 percent attendance compared to the district’s 35 percent attendance that spring. We also had a 90 percent parent satisfaction rate.

Alisha: According to a survey conducted by the Coalition for Parent School options, 70 percent of Black parents across the country want to see a virtual option offered post-pandemic. More than 70 percent want to have a choice for their children’s educational experience regardless of their zip codes. For those parents who were able to immerse their children in non-traditional experiences, they are realizing that we no longer have to accept the one-size-fits-all model. It’s critical that we take the lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic and vow to never to return to business as usual in education.

Deirdra: Oh! The movement for Black Lives is leaving an indelible mark on the world and in particular, the Black community. The cry “Do Black Lives Matter” is making its way into the school setting. First, around school discipline and police presence in schools, but also in school curriculum and in teacher/faculty representation. The internet has provided a backdrop for “what they haven’t taught you in school” … so, “Who is teaching?” and “What are they teaching and from whose perspective?” This framework has opened the door for students and families to question the dominant culture’s narrative and what is expected from school. The notion that school can go back to “normal” will remain to be seen. At TNTP, we are launching a project called “Elevating the Voices of the Community” that will focus on giving parents and students of color a platform to talk about their lived
educational experience. We want to hear MORE from those families and community members and help them to navigate their collective educational concerns. If you are interested in connecting with us or know a parent or student that could benefit from this project, please have them reach out by texting “SPEAK” to 797979.

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The 74: What advice would you give to Black parents right now? 

Ashley: Parents don’t be afraid to ask for the support that you need. We don’t have to pretend like everything is OK and that we have it all under control, 100 percent of the time. We must remember that our kids are watching and now is a great time to show them how to build resiliency as a community, so that we can work collectively to make it through this double pandemic.

Lakisha: 1) No one is coming to save us—we need to build the solutions our families need; 2) You deserve to be trusted—you know what your kids need after all; and 3) Self-determination is liberation.

Alisha: Keep pushing. Keep asking questions. Follow your gut and know that YOU are the expert when it comes to your child. Don’t be intimidated by the acronyms or all of the “data” used. Those are important, but you know what’s best for your child. We only get one shot to get this right for our kids. Be fearless in going for what you know is best for them. You and they are worthy!

Deirdra: Don’t give up! I truly believe that we have the ability to change these broken systems, but it will take a two-pronged approach of creating new structures that prove that change can happen and fighting for policy shifts that help to anchor the changes we seek.

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