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FINE Newsletter, Volume III, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Emerging Leaders in Family Engagement

Voices from the Field

Zakiyah Ansari is a parent and community organizer with the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ), a citywide collaborative of parents and educators organizing around issues of educational equity in New York City. In this piece, Ansari shares how CEJ empowers parents and community members to advocate for education reform at the local, state, and federal levels.

I have a vision that my city (New York), state, and country will make a real investment in parent, youth, and community involvement in education. I am a community organizer today because someone took the time to invest in me, help me understand how to facilitate a meeting and organize, and provided me with information on relevant education laws and regulations. I speak in front of parents, Department of Education officials, and other decision makers, but I didn’t get to where I am overnight. This investment in community organizing requires taking time to connect with parents where they are. It can’t go directly from “Hey, how’s Johnny?” to “Let’s go to the State Capitol.” Some people can make that leap, but usually it needs to go from “How’s Johnny?” to “Would you like more information on your school?” and then, “Come to a meeting.” It is a long process, but it has the power to shift whole communities.

Sometimes the investment is in one parent at a time, but we also have to prioritize investments in community involvement citywide, statewide, and at the federal level. As a parent, I know this process works and that parents will become interested because it is about their kids. Whether or not you speak the language or were born in this country, you want the best for your child. Everybody can relate to that. In addition to parents, my vision includes engaging young people in the conversation because they are going to need to fight for change going forward.

Success in this field is not just a “win” on one particular issue or another. The richness of our work and the real end result is empowerment. At our most recent lobby day at the State Capitol, we had over 1,400 participants, including parents, community members, and youth. I saw young people excited for the next step, and that is true empowerment. Success is seeing a parent or community member come to an event not thinking they could engage and then becoming totally absorbed. Success is when a parent leaves the meeting asking, “What are we going to do next?” Our goal is not just to get parents to attend any one event, but to support ongoing, sustained parent and community engagement.

Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) is a citywide collaborative of parents and educators organizing around educational equity. Parents facilitate our monthly steering committee meetings where we strategize about the core issues such as school closures and the budget, and we prepare for upcoming meetings and events. After the steering committee meetings, parents representing eight local organizations take our discussions back to their communities where our plans are vetted. Community response comes back to us in real time. When we have “wins” and “losses,” community members feel them as they happen. Instead of parents’ being told what we are going to do, they are part of the planning conversation from the beginning. It is a slow process, but is necessary for getting buy-in.

This year, in partnership with the Urban Youth Collaborative, we organized parents and youth at schools that were being closed. We met with school community members to get their feedback on what they wanted to see happen. We made it clear that we could not fight for them. Instead, the question was “Are you ready to fight for your school?” and the answer was, overwhelmingly, “Yes.” Folks who had been in the community for 30 years said, “We know what this school was and what it can be.” People who didn’t want to speak publicly at the beginning became so motivated by what they were hearing, good or bad, that they found their voices. When parents were asked what they thought when 1,500 youth, parents, and teachers led a walk-out at a Panel for Education Policy (PEP) meeting on school closings they said, “It was great, but what is the next step?”

One “next step” our parents are now taking is making connections between city-level and state-level policies. CEJ partners with the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), a statewide organization working on funding equity, to complement our city-level work. AQE and CEJ are working with the same communities—those living in high-poverty areas, immigrant families, and Black and Latino families. AQE is able to share their connections to State Assembly, Senate, and the Board of Regents, allowing us to influence policy. Prior to 2010, we have together helped to prevent $2.4 billion dollars in state education-related budget cuts.

At the city level, in New York, for example, we need the current administration to commit to involving parents in conversations around what happens in schools. We need a city-level office dedicated to real engagement, parent representation on the PEP, and posters in the subway that send a clear message from the mayor and chancellor to families that our voices and input are needed and respected. A real shift would mean that when parents go to a meeting, they are truly heard and are asked to particpate in further discussion.

We also need a shift at the federal level. In the past two years, we have worked with over 30 organizations from across the country on the parent and community engagement piece of the ESEA legislation. Our parents met with congressional representatives and staffers, and realized that policymakers had a limited understanding of the importance of parent engagement. We are working to improve our messaging to advocate for an increased investment in family, community, and youth engagement.

Finally, data can take parent passion and experience to the next level. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform supports CEJ by providing data and making research actionable for parents. With school closings, we are provided with such information as: Which communities are these schools in? How are graduation rates? Do they have high percentages of special needs, ELL, or homeless students? We also look at data on schools that might become eligible for closure so that we can proactively engage parents at those schools before closings are announced. Parents can then use this data when presenting and speaking to policymakers to support and strengthen their presentation of their own experiences in their children’s schools. We have heard many elected officials say, “Wow, your parents are really knowledgeable!” That is what happens when you invest in parents.

For more information about how Ansari and CEJ are helping to build the field of family engagement, please see the following resources:


© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project