Parent Organizing for Positive Change


Parent Organizing for Positive Change

In 2021, the William Penn Foundation awarded Lift Every Voice Philly’s (LEV) very first grant to begin building an organizational home for parents to lead the multi-racial campaigns necessary to transform schools and communities. LEV’s two-pronged approach seeks to unite parents across race and class to support systemic change by establishing:

  1. School-based chapters in Philadelphia schools with families who are primarily Black and living on low-incomes among other criteria; and
  2. Solidarity chapters composed of parents with race and class privilege throughout the city.

It is work, says Founding Executive Director Shanée Garner, that is centering parent power to advance racial, economic, and education justice in order to effect meaningful change in struggling schools and across the city.

Last year, in its first year of organizing, Lift Every Voice established its first two chapters: the flagship member chapter at W.C. Bryant Elementary School in West Philadelphia and a Citywide Solidarity chapter of parents representing 10 schools across the city. Currently, LEV is expanding to two more school-based chapters by summer 2023.

We spoke with Garner about her inspiration for starting Lift Every Voice Philly, the milestones of the first year, and the role she hopes LEV will play for parents, children, our public school system, and city.

WPF: What is the story of Lift Every Voice Philly? What inspired you to begin this work now?

Garner: Lift Every Voice was founded to fill a critical void in our city by building an organizing home for parents, who too often are shut out of decision making in our most struggling schools. Our hypothesis is that if we can build a coalition of parents and caregivers who are as committed to other people’s children, as they are to their own, we will see concrete benefits. Our vision is for a city united by values across race and class lines, where we take action that benefits all kids, by prioritizing families and communities who are most impacted. 

Generations of children and communities have been failed by our public systems, and we’ve had massive reform done to communities and for communities. LEV is taking action with the idea that those who have lost the most and have the most to gain must be supported to lead collectively and with dignity.

We use a solidarity model for our organizing and advocacy. During our planning year, we interviewed over 100 parents, representing 40 schools and 15 zip codes. Every parent we talked to, from our most struggling to our most esteemed schools, were united in their desire to see broad change. So many felt deep isolation and had a desire to be more connected to each other and involved in change efforts. For LEV, our charge is to build a clear pathway for them to enter into the urgent work that’s needed in our schools. LEV is meeting parents where they are, investing heavily in leadership development, and prioritizing the urgent concerns of parents in our most disinvested communities. We are also building a bridge and training parents with race and/or class privilege to unite around shared values and a new vision for our public schools.

WPF: Bryant Elementary is your first, flagship parent chapter. How did the work begin there?

Garner:  We followed the data to develop some criteria of community and school-wide markers that were aligned with our mission to support communities closest to the pain.

Our school based chapters are at least 95% low income and 85% Black. For community indicators, we chose school catchments with gun violence rates that are 50% higher than the citywide average and with diminished opportunities for community members like unemployment and health outcomes. At the school level, we chose schools with a track record of top-down reforms or restructuring that haven’t resulted in improved outcomes for students so we factored in suspension and absentee data and the absence of an active formal parent group at the school.

Unfortunately, a significant number of schools meet our criteria. With Bryant, when we arrived at the school, the interest that we got from parents demonstrated tremendous commitment and potential for success; we’ve been inspired by the welcome of parents and caregivers there.     

WPF:  How does the organizing process with parents work?

Garner: Our team is outside of schools three days a week, meeting parents where they are during arrival and dismissal. We engage through open-ended questions, and our organizers meet with parents one-to-one, which is critical. It’s where we learn about parents’ hopes, dreams, and vision for their schools, families, kids, and themselves, and we share our message about LEV’s values.

Once folks have digested that, they’re invited to formally become members where they commit to attending meetings, voting on campaigns, and setting personal leadership development goals.

We hold member meetings every two weeks where we problem solve, strategize, and train folks. It’s a critical part of combatting some of the isolation and displaced, often internalized, shame that we all bring with us. Our members learn early on that their problems are not their own and that so many of their struggles are connected to broader failings. Members then pick issues, conduct research, and launch campaigns. As the organizing team, we don’t tell people what they should be fighting for; our role is to facilitate a process that’s aligned with our organizational mission and values. For our part, it’s been really exciting to see our members lead us down a path where they’re embodying our values of dignity, parents as experts, collective action, and public education as a fundamental right.

Bryant parents’ and caregivers’ first campaign was to push for a monthly meeting with their principal and bi-weekly updates on their children’s academic progress. To some people that might seem small, but many of our parents didn’t even know who the principal was or what their children were working on at school. They knew that many of their kids were not reading or doing math at the levels they expected, but they didn’t have a venue to express those concerns.  For months, parents sought to get a meeting with their principal. After months of no progress, we brought in our Solidarity chapter to bear witness, share their own experiences with their principals, and state their support of Bryant parents. That was the turning point. I think it was a powerful moment for both of our chapters, to see that they had each other’s backs. Our Bryant members consented to calling in back up, and our Solidarity members were happy to be taking action.      

WPF:  What’s the most important thing for people to understand about Lift Every Voice?

Garner: Over the last few years, institutions and individuals alike have navigated big questions around race, class, and social justice. It’s my hope that LEV can be an example of what it means to put those learnings and commitments into practice. We can build a vehicle toward a path forward right now.

When we started at Bryant, not one of our members could name another parent at the school. Now they’re working on their second campaign and excited to build chapters at other schools. Our Solidarity members showed up in support of our Bryant chapter because they understood that they can make an important strategic contribution that aligns with their values.

I’m a strong believer that there is no wealth greater than our relationships and there is nothing more important than the accountability we have to each other. Organizing puts relationships on steroids – you don’t forget the people who showed up for you, or who you showed up for. It’s invigorating. We envision a school district where parents across race, class, and geography unite around stronger schools, which is going to make for stronger, safer neighborhoods and a stronger, safer city.

Lift Every Voice is building a model where community can step into a space of dignity and power together and build the leaders we need while pushing systems to be more democratic and effective.

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