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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information on the research summarized in this digest, please contact the author at the address below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

This research is part of a larger examination of the relationship between intraorganizational cultural norms and external political strategies amongst community-based organizations. I investigated four case studies of predominantly Latino and African-American organizations that work on education organizing in the Bronx in New York City: Mothers on the Move (MOM), Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC), ACORN Bronx (ACORN), and United Parents of Highbridge (UPOH). These organizations have been working on education campaigns for 7 to 12 years. As NWBCCC's name suggests, it is actually a coalition of smaller organizations, including nine neighborhood associations and Sistas and Brothas United (SBU), a coalition-wide youth group. Over the course of my fieldwork, I found that SBU's activities and norms were distinct enough to merit an additional case study. Therefore, this research includes five cases.

Research Methods

Data were collected via archival research of the organizations' newsletters, flyers, and other documents; direct observation over a period of 14 months at meetings, rallies, and retreats; and semi-structured interviews. I attended over 100 events over the investigation period; while most events were 2-hour meetings or rallies, some were day- or weekend-long retreats. For each of the five case studies, I also interviewed both organizers and core leaders, for a total of over 30 participants, for 1 to 3 hours each. Some participants were interviewed a number of times over the course of a year. Initial interviews followed a protocol of 10 questions, which served as starting points for in-depth discussions of the organizations' activities, norms, and political strategies. These questions included “How did you get started with this organization?” and “Has your experience changed your views on education reform?” Finally, I interviewed external experts and public officials familiar with education organizing in the Bronx.

Research Findings

This research digest emphasizes two key findings: Education organizing is defined by multiple approaches and strategies, and educational organizing groups must be open to change.

Multiple Approaches
First, there is no monolithic model in education organizing. Both NWBCCC and ACORN have successfully used tactics like door knocking and accountability sessions with politicians in the past, but school reform campaigns have led the two groups to develop distinctly different strategies in leadership development. While NWBCCC's leaders are incredibly well versed in policy and critical analysis, ACORN's strength lies in its participation in a regional network, so that it can participate in citywide events that demand large turnout, such as elections.

Among groups that have focused on education from the beginning, MOM and SBU have garnered commitment from members not only via their continued efforts for social change, but by creating nurturing tight-knit relationships. These cultural norms are as dependent on bonding during overnight retreats and repeated in-depth conversations about life goals, as they are on nuanced discussions about school issues and politics. Finally, UPOH is part of Highbridge Community Life Center, where the bulk of activities lie not in organizing but in classes, counseling, and other services. While services and organizing are traditionally viewed as dichotomous or even contradictory activities, one UPOH member described their effects as complementary: “I feel like I owe Highbridge. I have a commitment with them that's not easily broken…. I was unemployed at the time…. So Highbridge offered…a lot of services…. So whether they have the money or they don't, I would do the [organizing] job the same.”

Change From Within
Second, to create social change in the public education system in shifting political contexts, each organization also had to build (or accept) change from within. MOM, for example, began as a primarily confrontational group in their work to replace a racist superintendent, but their present work calls for a more nuanced balance between collaboration and confrontation. As one leader stated, “Before…we would go out and campaign against [public officials], put a hit on them. But now…MOM has already made a statement of who we are, and how far we're willing to go to bring about justice…. So agencies are more apt to sit at the table with us than they originally did 12 years ago.” With an automatic seat at the policymaking table, MOM has developed new strategies to decide when to sit down and when to walk away.

In this study, change inside the organizations occurred in several ways. In one case, major staff changes precipitated a new period of evaluative introspection. Members reaffirmed vision statements and goals, and new activities were accordingly implemented. In another case, as SBU grew both in size and power, its successful outreach methods and meeting protocols (such as the practice of opening meetings with member-written spoken word poems) have been adopted at some NWBCCC-wide events. Finally, universities continue to provide a valuable resource for data analysis, strategy and fundraising. The organizations' strong connections to New York University's Institute for Education and Social Policy and Fordham University open other venues for sharing ideas and best practices that, in turn, lead to changing practices within and between community-based organizations.

Implications for Practice

Based on findings in this study, there are at least two clear ways to improve parent engagement in education:

  1. Community-based organizations can maximize the effectiveness of parent involvement interventions by coupling them with other social services. When accompanied by individual attention and respect, classes and job assistance can do more than build capacity; they also build a sense of empowerment and obligation in parents. Since the number of settlement houses and services agencies venturing into education organizing has surged in the past few years, this is an area of great potential.

  2. By making room for youth-based organizations, it is possible to bring all participants together, greatly improving the effectiveness of education campaigns. Students tend to be highly active, provide engagement within the high school (where parent involvement tends to be low), and provide unique insider perspectives on the problems that need addressing. In this study, some of the most innovative policy proposals came from SBU.

Celina Su
Ph.D. Candidate, Urban Studies
Urban Studies and Planning
Massachusetts Institution of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139

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