By Anne T. Henderson and Kate Gill Kressley
There is nothing like listening to parents! To find out what happens when parents at the political margins have the chance to develop their leadership skills, we have been talking with parent leaders from all across the country, as well as to public officials they have influenced. We want to share what they have told us.
All parents care about their children and want the best for them, but many have told us they did not understand how to advocate for their needs or how the education system works. As one Head Start parent told us, “I was just a mom. I had no platform to work from.”
Learning how to do what leaders do – preparing and giving testimony, meeting with public officials, developing and sharing proposals – transforms parents. As one parent leader said, “We become more than ‘just parents’; we become people with clout and credibility, people that public officials want to listen to.”
Drawing on their own authentic experience, parent leaders take the initiative to solve problems that others haven’t considered, such as making the childcare subsidy system more accessible, or improving recreational facilities in low-income neighborhoods, or changing the biased selection system for gifted programs to include more children of color.
Parents describe becoming a leader as a profound personal transformation. As they begin to make change in their community, they see their strengths and abilities unfold, attracting recognition and respect. They realize that they can make life better for themselves and others. As one parent said, “I learned that the power in setting a foundation of success for me and my kids was in my hands, and that I can actually create the life I want, need, and deserve for me and my children.”
The public officials they approach begin to understand that parents who are prepared to be advocates and leaders are truly assets to the community. As one legislator put it, “The Parent Ambassadors have become the eyes and ears for my legislative committee. We used to rely on program administrators to tell us what was going on; now we can find out firsthand from parents.”
Parents take collective action when they partner with like-minded groups to amplify their voice. This gives them leverage to call community leaders to the table and hammer out solutions to tough issues like high suspension rates for African American students and poor transportation service for Head Start children. They can facilitate listening sessions in the community to help local leaders learn from the residents’ authentic experience.
Over time, parent participation invigorates the democratic process, expanding opportunities for more people to have a voice in decisions about policies and resources that affect their lives. As one city council member told us, “The city sees that Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI) grads are prepared, talented advocates who don’t have a narrow agenda. When city officials are looking for people to fill seats on committees, task forces, and commissions, they call PLTI.”
At one focus group, a parent leader summed up the session: “Our city is diverse. We have people from all across the world. Our community leadership, from PTA to city council, should reflect this diversity. We can no longer have a handful of White citizens making all the important decisions that affect our children and the community.”
How should parent leadership initiatives be evaluated? Our work has led to a Theory of Change that we call “Capturing the Ripple Effect,” to describe the pathways that parent leaders take to apply their new knowledge and skills. The next phase of our work, which is already underway at AISR, will be to develop a toolkit of indicators, measures, and methods to guide researchers in assessing their impact. We hope you will join our list serve to stay tuned.
Anne T. Henderson and Kate Gill Kressley are independent consultants and co-authors of AISR's new report, “Capturing the Ripple Effect: Developing a Theory of Change for Evaluating Parent Leadership Initiatives.”