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Defining Parent Leadership and Organizing

In this study, we focus on parent leadership and organizing that seek to advance social, racial, and economic justice. This section outlines key definitions, developed at the start of the study with the help of 27 collaborators including parent leaders, staff of leadership and organizing groups and funders.

In this study, we focus on parent leadership and organizing that seeks to advance social, racial, and economic justice. This section outlines our key definitions, developed at the start of the study with the help of 27 collaborators including parent leaders, staff of leadership and organizing groups and funders. (See Appendix A for the broader list of collaborators.)

Key Definitions

A “parent” is any caregiver who plays a major role in the life of a child, including grandparents, siblings, and other extended kin.

 The term “family” includes members of an immediate or extended kin system— parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and neighbors — who contribute to a child’s learning and development (Mapp et al., 2022). We recognize that other people in the community are also invested in different capacities towards ensuring children and their caregivers thrive. Some parent leaders include teachers, corner store clerks, pediatricians and more as part of their families — anyone who is “actually listening and helping,” in the words of one parent leader. This expanded definition of family uplifts interdependence and mutual support.

Parent leadership initiatives uplift and validate the innate power of parents. These initiatives include nurturing both individual needs, strengths, identities, and capacities, while also helping to foster group unity, respect, solidarity, and collective power (Geller et al., 2019). As we mention in the introduction, parent leadership initiatives can range widely. These efforts largely focus in a sustained manner on the leadership of parents and families so that parents may identify and work on issues that matter to them.

Our collaborators agree that leadership initiatives “tap into the power of parents,” and further equip parents with the tools and coaching to advocate for themselves, their children, and other parents in their communities and across the country.

Some of these leadership areas include resources about their rights, opportunities to connect with others facing similar circumstances, mutual accountability, and a critical analysis of systems. Through parent leadership initiatives, parents often build relationships, further develop their capacity to be the “go to” person in their neighborhoods, and bring the voices of others into decision-making processes. These initiatives sometimes culminate in organizing campaigns.

Parent organizing involves parents collectively challenging, building, and exerting power to create change for children and families. Parent organizing groups use a range of strategies to build power including but not limited to: door knocking to recruit supporters or new leaders and to gather information to inform campaigns; meeting with elected officials; writing petitions or policy proposals, hosting campaign planning meetings; and or leading a rally or community action.

Although this is in line with other forms of organizing, collaborators suggest parent organizing is distinctive in that “you have something in common, and that’s advocating for children and for families,” (Ariel DeNey Rainey, Hustle Mommies) which can bridge groups together that may otherwise not collaborate in other movement spaces. Parent organizing makes clear that the personal is political and in need of collective resistance (hooks 1989, 32). Identifying the power structures that impact individual people or families is the first step towards collectively pushing back against these imbalances of power. Beyond creating social change, organizing can build lasting bonds among participants and their families (also see Findings Section II on engaging the children of parent leaders).

One staff member noted parent leadership initiatives may “shy away” from using the word “organizing” because groups seek to work in collaboration with decision- makers and avoid confrontational direct actions that could make decision-makers uncomfortable. We find organizing can include both collaboration with and direct action towards decision makers. Finding the right balance is something groups may struggle to navigate.

Key Features of Parent Leadership and Organizing

Focus group participants identify two key features of parent leadership and organizing: caregiving and the need for a grassroots approach to decision-making.

Caregiving is Leadership

Caregiving is the essential work of attending to one or a group of people to sustain their health and wellbeing. This includes a range of activities of coordinating, washing, cooking, feeding, and many other demanding tasks that are often disproportionately placed on women (Cossyleon & Geller, 2022). Being a caregiver requires planning, nurturing and other skills that directly translate to community leadership. Parent leaders describe having the baseline tools to be community leaders because of their caregiving and family leadership.

Parents often join collective spaces with immediate concerns about their children and families and use their lived experiences to speak for themselves and on behalf of others towards that change.

“Our children are usually the place that we start because we’re advocating to make sure that they’re safe, that they’re getting the best education, that people are treating them with dignity and pride… but oftentimes it takes us to so many other spaces because most of the issues that are negative are rooted in systems and policies. So our lived experience of what negative impact was within that system or policy then becomes our opportunity to implement the change that we know needs to happen…we want things to change for ourselves, for our children, and for 1,000 generations." -Rosazila Griller, Community Organizing and Family Issues and UPLAN

Tired of being socially and economically marginalized, parent leaders like Rosazlia share a desire for their children to be uplifted and nurtured in the spaces they navigate. Several parent leaders recall generations of ancestors organizing without calling it organizing, making sure children in the neighborhood had what they needed, were safe, and looked after. Parent leaders see themselves as continuing this tradition and recognize caregiving as a leadership asset.

Keep it “Grassroots”

Parents, staff and funders emphasize the need for parent leadership and organizing groups to uplift the priorities of parents from the start. For instance, creating a parent advisory position to justify an already drafted policy without any parent input is not parent organizing. It is tokenism. One funder emphasized that parent organizing through parent leadership initiatives or organizations must center parent leaders in their governance structures. Another funder noted the importance of ensuring that the issues put forth by parent leadership organizations are actually “grassroots,” “authentic,” and originated directly from parents, even if paid staff support these campaigns (which is often important for capacity reasons).

Although the models, strategies, and approaches carried out by the parent leadership and organizing groups who participated in the Parent Power and Leadership Survey vary widely, our conversations with parents, staff, and funders reinforce the following key features of parent leadership and organizing groups (Geller et al., 2019; W.K. Kellogg Foundation, n.d.):

  •  Recognizing caregiving as an act and extension of leadership;
  • Involving parent leaders in the decisions about issues, strategies, structures, and operations of the organizations with which they work;
  • Valuing relationships and creating supportive spaces for parents to connect to each other and have a seat at decision-making tables;
  • Listening to all voices, especially those that have systematically been excluded and working together to amplify these voices.
  • And helping to build parents’ capacity to voice their concerns and take collective action.

The seeds of parent organizing often sprout as an act of caregiving and survival, and the reality is this happens with or without funding.

Toyin Anderson from the Parent Leadership Training Institute and United Parent Leaders Action Network (UPLAN) shares: 

When the parents on my block come together, and say ‘hey you know the cars coming down the street are going just way too fast, we need to figure out how to get the speed bumps on the street.’ And literally we come together… We are here to protect the safety of our community, so that’s organizing.”

We believe it is our collective responsibility to figure out how to support parent leaders so they do not have to carry the financial and emotional burden of organizing for justice alone.

Shereese Rhodes from Washington State Association (WSA) Parent Ambassadors and UPLAN states a component of organizing that is less talked about:

“There’s always a sacrifice even though we know the importance of us being at the table… I have to take away something [from] my household in order to be [at the table].”

Read Methods Section