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Parent Leadership for a Healthy Democracy

Jan 17, 2022

In the midst of a global pandemic that has nearly affected every single person on the planet, health is something that is top of mind. We should not miss this opportunity to see health as only a state of being free from illness, we also need to examine health through the lens of democracy. 

My colleagues and I were brainstorming on a new tag line that would embrace the story of our collective work and efforts to elevate the field of parent leadership in cities and towns, when my colleague Zulema had the most brilliant phrase that embodied our hopes and dreams for parents and their children – Parent Leadership for a Healthy Democracy.

Civically engaged parents leading for and on behalf of their children bring about the change — the much-needed change in Connecticut and through every neighborhood in the Capitol region. “Change” in this context is such a big word with enormous depth and complexity. Change may look like inclusive curriculum, community school models that support the whole child/student, open choice that has inclusive equitable transportation and scheduling, true language justice throughout our cities and state government systems that support all residents, housing equity, economic mobility and stability or something as simple as adding a stop sign on your block – the list goes on and on.

As we consider the complexity of change, oftentimes, key stakeholders are left out of the re-imagining or re-visioning. Often those voices are the voices of parents, whose voices should be valued and esteemed as key stakeholders in almost every system. Research tells us that engaged parents positively impact their schools and communities. Parents are not always given opportunity and access to the tables and environments where they can share their insights, opinions and lived experiences. And quite frankly, some parents don’t believe that their voices will be heard once there. 

Almost 30 years ago, Elaine Zimmerman, Executive Director of the once existing Commission on Children, surveyed parents and hosted community discussions to better understand why parents were not engaged.  Even though parents had good ideas and solutions, the number one response she received was, “but I’m just a parent.” Parents felt ill equipped to engage – not knowing how systems worked or how to communicate and partner with others effectively to be change agents. 

In 1992, the Parent Leadership Training Institute was created. The Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI) is a family civics initiative of the current CT Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity and Opportunity (CWCSEO).  It is a 20-week evidence-based curriculum that facilitates a process whereby participants explore personal leadership and the tools of engaging in our democracy; by empowering parents with leadership and civic skills, community health is promoted through personal efficacy. 

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The 2021 evaluation of Connecticut PLTI conducted by Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at NYU, indicated Parents showed growth in all four of the civic outcome areas measured: civic confidence, civic knowledge, knowledge of elected officials and use of social media for civic/political purposes. 

Parent leadership is the capacity for parents to interact within society with purpose and positive outcomes for children. How does parent leadership encourage a healthy democracy? In a lecture titled “What is Democracy”? Larry Diamond (2004) gave an overview of what in his opinion is [a healthy] democracy. He describes four key elements of democracy: 1) A system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; 2) Active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; 3) Protection of the human rights of all citizens; and 4) A rule of law in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. 

The field of Parent Leadership especially emphasizes number two: active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics, and civic life. The caveat here is that in parent leadership, no one is excluded – there is no citizenship requirement to engage in democratic process or practices. Parent Leadership initiatives like PLTI support and inspire parents to become change agents for their children and community with applied learning. 

Connecticut is making strides in elevating the voices of parents and creating leadership opportunities for them within state government and agencies – but we need  more of this in order to have healthy democratic processes in the State and the Capitol Region.  There are bright spots though. Connecticut has a statewide, bipartisan 2Gen Advisory Board. It convenes members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as well as private sector partners and parents to collaborate across to drive down costs and promote economic success and stability for families. 25% of the 2Gen Advisory Board is comprised of parents. Big win! 

Under the leadership of Commissioner Beth Bye, the Office of Early Childhood (OEC) recently created the OEC Parent Cabinet to engage parents as partners in decision-making and improve internal policies, programs and practices. Additionally, the Governor’s Workforce Council (GWC) has invited parents to be part of the existing sub-committees bringing their lived experience as those engaged in workforce development programs or seeking employment/training. 

Finally, the CT State Department of Education, no newcomer to the party, has for many years worked to transform parent engagement and leadership through their Friday Cafés, The Commissioner’s Roundtable, their collaborative work with the CT Family and School Partnership (CFSP) Council and their nationally recognized framework for Full, Equal and Equitable Partnerships with Families.  Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker continues to see the value parent leadership and continually seeks to support it. There are other initiatives and programs that support parent voice and leadership. However, while these all seem exciting opportunities for engagement, they only scratched the surface of what is needed.

To further support parent leadership for a healthy democracy in Hartford and beyond, two scarce commodities must be present – truth telling and funding.  Funding may be the easier of the two. Municipal leaders must genuinely want to add more seats to the table for parent voices and they must be receptive to truth telling. They must be good listeners and receive truths from families that might be hard to digest. A seat at the table requires an invitation, a welcoming environment, and action.  Second, school and community leaders as well as elected officials must join efforts to secure funding to implement parent leadership initiatives that encourage parent leaders to impact their community through civic projects and advocacy. 

Budgets are a key indicator of what is important to organizations, school districts, and government entities. Budgets speak to what’s important and what is not. In order to get to the heart of a healthy democracy, civic budgets need to reflect their intention to ensure true representative practice, allowing the voice of the people to be their guide.

A healthy democracy truly requires us to say less and do more. I encourage your best thinking on how these words lead to action in creating a healthy democracy where parent leadership is a strong foundational pillar.

Melvette is the Director, Parent Leadership and Family Civic Engagement at CT Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity and Opportunity (CWCSEO) and leads the Parent Leadership Training Institute in Connecticut. Growing up in New York City shaped her world views and continues to fuel her passion and commitment for racial equity, social change, and civic engagement.