By Reed Swier
In 2020, not only did the United States government fail in supporting the country’s most vulnerable and historically marginalized families, many of our schools did as well. In my work with school districts I have witnessed firsthand how leaders continue to think of family engagement as an optional gesture; how manifestations of white supremacist thinking are exerted through controlling student and community dialogues and even how key community organizing efforts for teacher training become thwarted and backburned. This inevitably allows white dominate school cultures to maintain power and control.
I have also continued to see the age-old pattern of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) carrying the weight of efforts to create more racially just schools, all while disproportionally being impacted by our country’s failed response to a global health pandemic. In thinking about my work with teachers, families and school leaders this past year, it is increasingly clear that schools need to radically shift how they approach family engagement. In doing so, school leaders in particular must ask themselves these questions: What have they learned about family engagement and equity during the last year? What does a foundational paradigm shift grounded in antiracism and culturally responsive pedagogy look like? What immediate steps will they take to center the voices and expertise of families of color? Below, I further engage these questions and offer a couple of examples of what this work can look like moving forward.
Taking a race-conscious, antiracist approach to family engagement calls us to understand and foster space for what critical race theory scholar, Tara J. Yosso, defines as community cultural wealth – recognizing the expertise and unique forms of capital that Communities of Color bring to our schools, while simultaneously understanding that Communities of Color continue to survive and resist a system that has always worked to exclude them (2005). Fostering community cultural wealth pushes us to move past deficit ideology, past beliefs in a culture of poverty and past our participation in systems of anti-Black racism. It pushes white educators to unpack our own default cultures and reckon with the fact that we have been agents of forced assimilation. This is in stark contrast with much of what educators are trained to believe and what white people in general are socialized to think. Even frameworks like Joyce Epstein’s seminal Six Types of Community Involvement become whitewashed, race-neutral entry points that still allow educators to hold deficit, racist ideologies for BIPOC. Without intentionally and systematically training educators to be race-conscious and critically self-reflective, approaches to family engagement will continue to maintain systems of disproportionality and delusions of white supremacy.
Two examples of how we can move forward:
Commit to antiracist and culturally responsive education training for all school stakeholders – particularly pushing white educators to do the work.
In our trainings through The Metro Center’s Innovations in Equity and Systemic Change at New York University, we have pushed participants to examine their connection to power and privilege, deepen their understanding of equity, antiracism and culturally responsive pedagogy, all in an effort to create more welcoming and affirming school environments. We ask schools and districts to identify lead learners that will ensure that this work becomes systemically embedded in the district. This learning community becomes particularly powerful when it is made up of a variety of multi-racial school stakeholders (e.g. school and district leaders, teachers, parent/guardians). That said, to shift societal and school cultures and truly reimagine how to be more responsive to families of color, the work sits with white folks and how we step into carrying the weight of our actions. This balance of adaptive (heart) and technical (systems) training becomes the foundation for a new relationship to family engagement. Adaptive work occurs through critical self-reflection – sharing personal narratives and fostering a transformative training space. Connecting the self-work to a broader understanding of how systems themselves maintain racist and deficit ideologies about families of color allows individuals to move toward becoming agents of systemic change. This process specifically calls on educators to develop more responsive school-family partnerships, like auditing school curricula.
Commit to auditing curricula
Our colleagues at The Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative (EJ-ROC) developed a powerful tool called the Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard. The scorecard is designed as a rubric to help identify the level of cultural responsiveness in a given curriculum, framed with questions pertaining to identity representation and social justice orientation. For example, one of the questions in the scorecard asks if, “The curriculum recognizes the validity and integrity of knowledge systems based in communities of color, collectivist cultures, matriarchal societies, and non-Christian religions.” It works to interrogate what we maintain as normative culture in our schools. In completing the scorecard, you are able to see to what degree the curriculum is culturally responsive or culturally destructive. Moreover, scorecard experts Natasha Capers and Megan Hester, both emphasize that the power of the tool lives with the dialogue that happens with those involved. Inviting family members (and youth), particularly families of color, to sit at the table to unpack their children’s curricula becomes a building block to a critical paradigm shift in family engagement. This dialogue is particularly fruitful after educators have already had antiracism and culturally responsive education training. In doing so, the dialogue becomes much richer and limits the potential for microaggressions and other violences against the BIPOC that may be participating. Moving into this new year, we will no doubt continue to see families of color and allies lead efforts to demand equitable schooling. Inspired by movements such as the historic Freedom Schools that started in the 1960s, current organizing efforts such as the Liberation Schools in New York City will continue to fight for racial and economic justice in schools. Families of color will continue to survive, organize and resist. But what will our school leaders and district administrators do? How will white educators in particular respond to the realities of this past year in a way that foundationally shifts how we think about the role of families in our schools?
Tara J. Yosso (2005) Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth, Race Ethnicity and Education, 8:1, 69-91, DOI: 10.1080/1361332052000341006.
Reed Swier is a Senior Equity Associate at the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, where he provides training and technical assistance to districts and educational institutions throughout the country. He has taught in elementary schools in Oakland, California and New York City. As a school administrator and teacher, Reed has supported staff, students, and families by promoting culturally responsive teaching and developing a school culture imbedded in restorative approaches. In 2018, Reed was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Edinburgh, participating in the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program. Reed holds a B.A. from the University of Michigan, an M.S. in Teaching grades 1-6 from Pace University and an M.Ed in Learning and Teaching from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.