Thursday, August 02, 2012

Building and Sustaining Education Reform through Relational Power

AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education

Building and Sustaining Education Reform through Relational Power

Sara McAlister and Cassandra Tavaras
The success of community organizing is rooted in the idea of relational power – power developed collaboratively with others, rather than power over others.

Recently, a new set of education advocacy groups that define themselves as a children’s and parents’ lobby has attracted attention by their involvement in debates and activity focused on teacher tenure and evaluation, charter schools, parent “triggers,” school funding, and a host of other issues. While these groups claim to represent the interests of parents, especially those who’ve been poorly served by public schools, their engagement of parents and community members is often limited to signing petitions, joining a website, and attending occasional large events. Rather than working with parents and students to identify their most pressing concerns and develop solutions together, these groups promote agendas shaped largely by political insiders.
These newer groups have garnered considerable media attention for tapping into families’ disaffection with current school realities. But another set of organizations across the country has been working for decades to build meaningful, sustainable avenues for parents, families, and community members to improve and enrich local public schools through community organizing. Organizing starts from the proposition that those most directly impacted by a problem are in the best position to solve it. By developing their own leadership skills and knowledge and acting collectively to alter the power dynamics that perpetuate inequities in opportunity, the communities that have been least well-served by our education system can generate real change in their local schools.
This long-term work helps community organizing groups build the power to demand and win changes that genuinely represent families’ and communities’ interests. Organizing groups often describe this as “relational power” – power developed collaboratively with others, rather than power over others. Parent- and community-led organizing groups across the country have used relational power as the basis for collective actions to win major new resources and more equitable district and school practices.
For example, Teach Our Children, a parent organizing group in New Haven, Connecticut, has won improvements to the New Haven public schools discipline policy and expanded access to translation services. The congregation-based organizations that make up the Massachusetts Communities Action Network (MCAN) have won improved access to after-school programs and English as a Second Language services and have developed programs to improve family-school partnerships, including a successful home visit program in Springfield.
In New York City, two education organizing collaboratives supported by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR) – the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) and the Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC) – have built durable power, enabling parents and students in communities of color to influence education policy citywide. CEJ and UYC have won major investments in the city’s lowest-performing middle schools, academic intervention services for struggling students, Student Success Centers to help high school students prepare for college, and more equitable and responsive school discipline practices. 
All of these groups’ successes rest on a foundation of relationship building, careful work to develop shared leadership, and deep roots in local communities. Teach Our Children reaches out to families by knocking on doors and reaching out at school pick-up and drop-off sites, community centers, and parks, making a particular effort to engage parents who don’t participate in PTAs and other more traditional avenues. MCAN’s affiliates – made up of religious congregations, community development corporations, and unions – draw on the longstanding relationships and trust present in those member organizations. Through the one-on-one conversations and small group meetings that are staples of community organizing, parents and community members develop relationships with each other and begin to identify shared concerns and problems.
Outreach and relationship building are constant features of organizing as groups work to expand their base of parents, students, and community members and ensure that the issues their members have identified resonate broadly. Organizing is guided by the “iron rule”: Never do for others what they can do for themselves. Rather than leading the work themselves, community organizers help develop members’ leadership skills, engaging them right away in making decisions, facilitating meetings, doing research, and meeting with public officials. Veteran leaders take responsibility for engaging new members and supporting their leadership development. In order to develop workable solutions to local issues, leaders learn how the education system works, conduct research on education policies and practices, and explore issues with educators and experts.
In this way, the work of community organizing is carried out by those with the most at stake. Organizing is not a glamorous process – it rarely attracts national media attention or investments by billionaire philanthropists. But careful organizing builds an agenda for education reform that resonates deeply with parents, students, and community members because demands are drawn directly from their own experience with local schools and their research and insights on solutions. Most importantly, the deep roots and thick webs of relationships built through community organizing translate into social capital that lasts well beyond specific campaigns. Organizing develops broad and long-term community capacity to press for change and to hold public institutions accountable for implementing change equitably and sustainably.

292 Interested in learning more about building and sustaining strong education organizing? Check out AISR’s recent webinar: Getting Started in Education Organizing.


Based on the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s work to support CEJ, UYC, and other education organizing work across the country, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) has partnered with AISR to support nascent community organizing efforts in five New England school districts. NMEF has made major investments in student-centered learning reforms in these districts: Burlington and Winooski, Vermont, Portland, Maine, Sanford, Maine, and Pittsfield, New Hampshire. Recognizing the potential of authentic community engagement to strengthen and sustain education reforms, NMEF is investing in developing the long-term capacity of families and communities to act collectively to improve schooling.

Mediratta, K., S. Shah, and S. McAlister. 2009. Community Organizing for Stronger Schools: Strategies and Successes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Skinner, E. A., M. T. Garretón, and B. D. Schultz (eds.). 2011. Grow Your Own Teachers: Grassroots Change for Teacher Education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Warren, M. 2001. Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Warren, M., and K. Mapp. 2011. A Match on Dry Grass and the Community Organizing and School Reform Project. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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