As we closed out Women’s History Month, I sat down with two researchers who have been tracking the living history of parent — particularly, mother — organizing. Dr. Joanna Geller, director of policy research and evaluation at NYU Metro Center and Dr. Jennifer E. Cossyleon, senior policy and advocacy manager at Community Change, just released a first-of-its kind landscape analysis of over 180 parent leadership organizations across the United States, based on a national survey. The project focuses on the effect that leadership development and collective action has had not only on grassroots movements for policy change, but on the growth and learning of children and families.
What made you decide to work on this Parent Leadership and Organizing for Justice landscape scan?
Dr. Joanna Geller: I’ve been working with parent leadership organizations for over a decade and I’ve seen the transformative impact they’ve had on people, families, communities, institutions, and policies. I knew that if I was seeing these organizations in my work, they had to be everywhere. And I wondered what the impact would be if every community in the country had a parent leadership organization that was as powerful as the ones I’ve seen.
Dr. Jennifer Cossyleon: People want to know what sustainable community organizing looks like and what the results are. There has been a lot of focus on the ability of grassroots organizing to change laws, raise awareness about issues, and change culture — but what’s not always seen is how it can be transformative for the people who participate and the people who are closest to them, including, in this case, their children and families. We wanted to understand how collective action not only changes policy, but also people. But first, we had to step back to see the scope and range of this work nationwide — and that’s where the national survey comes in.
If there’s one thing you hope readers take away from this report, what would it be?
Cossyleon: Organizing is a form of caregiving. This is a project about shedding a light on that labor. Mothers of color are engaging in leadership development and organizing across the country, in urban and rural places, mostly through organizations with small budgets, and their work is making often unacknowledged, generational impacts not only on policy change but also on their children and families. Take the first supplemental nutrition program which later developed into WIC [Women, Infants and Children] for example, that policy came from a movement of Black women who fought for their children to be fed. And that work inspired their children and neighbors to fight for their needs and make it happen, too. The report is a small snapshot of what’s possible — it is great to finally have more than just anecdotal evidence that this is true when organizations are holistically supportive of parent leaders.
Geller: To listen. Let these parents lead, share their ideas, support them, collaborate with them, and provide them leadership opportunities. They come to the table with expert knowledge about their children and communities and cultures, but they might not necessarily know what it takes to affect policy change or all of the jargon of the system. Supporting them in that leadership development, combined with the skills and knowledge they already have is what will create change.
Your report shows parents organizing for a wide-range of issues – do you see a trend among them or anything that connects all of them in their efforts?
Geller: Most of these organizations focused on creating humanizing spaces and developing a strong sense of community among mothers to motivate and encourage each other. Many of them also connect parents with what they need: child care services, legal aid, home heating. It’s not about mobilizing parents toward a predetermined end goal, but about meeting them where they’re at. Ninety-six percent of the groups we surveyed said parents are involved in the decision-making about what the organization decides to focus on.
Cossyleon: I agree. That’s just good organizing and practice. Take schools for instance, they may set up parent meetings at dinner time and no one shows up. Do they assume parents just don’t care to be involved? If we want parent engagement in organizing, we need to be intentional about reaching parents where they are — have food there, childcare, interpretation, and create a supportive environment where dreaming can happen.
Geller: One of the organizations in Kentucky, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, runs a leadership development training called the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership. In 2021 they expanded it to a suburban area with a growing immigrant population and implemented training with Spanish-speaking parents. Those parents were able to learn about how to advocate for their children’s rights and affect change in the school system. The following year, those same mothers who went through the training facilitated the next year’s group and created a “godparent” program where they paired families new to the area with other parents who were bilingual and could help them navigate the school system. That’s the ripple effect of this work that benefits more children.
Cossyleon: There’s also an emphasis on racial equity and racial justice for these groups. From the organizations who took the survey, 84 % said they work with two or more racial groups, 75% said they focus on racial equity in their leadership development, and 65% said racial equity was one of the issues they work on. Specifically, they named repealing anti-immigrant policies, removing police officers from schools, advancing restorative justice practices, eliminating fees and fines in the juvenile justice system, and more. Two other trends — 88% said children are attending organizing events with their parents, so they are modeling what it looks like to be civically engaged; and 59% said getting out the vote was an issue they primarily worked on.
We hear a lot about the more conservative ‘parents’ rights’ movement – from the issues you’re laying out here, the type of parent organizing you’ve captured in your report sounds very different.
Geller: The groups that are heavily funded by the national conservative movement are the loudest in every school board meeting, they’re threatening lawsuits, they’re in the media all the time — but you’re not hearing the stories of the Black and brown mothers and grandmothers who have been following a tradition of organizing that’s been in their communities for decades, if not centuries. Their stories are the ones we wanted to elevate.
We focused on families who were advocating for the well-being of all children — Black, brown, lgbtq+, kids with disabilities, all religious groups and speaking different languages — not those seeking to exclude any groups from a quality education. And in contrast to these conservative parent’s rights groups — the parents in the groups we surveyed are the ones identifying the issues that are priority for them. They want to reduce lead in homes, expand mental health services. And they’re willing to work collaboratively with government agencies to affect that change.
Cossyleon: We learned in the survey many of the social justice groups are grassroots, founded by parents and most have smaller budgets, they’re not these big funded groups. But it does raise some questions, outside the scope of this research, about how we can understand these other parents and what drives their work — perhaps there could be commonalities there to work on everyone’s thriving and growth.
You mentioned a tradition of organizing among these mothers — have you found these parents have been organizing consistently over the years or are you seeing a resurgence? Has anything lately seemed to spark more of a resurgence?
Cossyleon: If you ask parents if they had been organizing before joining these groups, many of them would tell you no, but then you ask them about all of the things they do as a mother in their families and communities to make things better — add a stop sign to their street, feed their children, you name it– they come to understand that’s organizing and they’re like yeah, I’ve been doing that. For many people, it’s been an act of survival. These spaces give parents a language to analyze power structures and the policy context of their lived experiences.
There’s one mom we talked to who has literally fed and nurtured 200 kids in the past decade after school, on a food stamp budget. It’s mind-blowing how mothers are able to stretch and make things work for their communities. They had the leadership all along, and in some cases they now have support from organizations to help develop that leadership.
Geller: Ten percent of groups we surveyed said they’d been in existence for 0-4 years – that’s 18 new organizations that popped up. And these are only the ones with a leadership development component, not informal groups that have popped up after things like the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that sparked action. I’m from Boston — it seems like every suburb in greater Boston has a parent group now that is committed to making our schools more equitable and inclusive, that wasn’t true before 2020. We’re also seeing a new trend over the past decade of a lot more coalition work among parent leadership organizations. One of those — United Parent Leadership Action Network — has around 35 member organizations, which is double what it was just five years ago.
You’ve also created a parent power map and directory – how do you imagine this being used by organizers, media, funders?
Geller: We hope this can facilitate connections between parent groups — whether they’re in similar geographies, or working on similar issues, or looking for advice on branching out into new issue areas. It’s also great for parents who are not yet connected to a group and don’t know where to start. I think school districts who care about family engagement can also use it to partner with one of these organizations. As for funders, many have said they don’t know what they can’t see — so now they can find the groups who aren’t always in the spotlight.
Cossyleon: It’s also great that these groups can actually see each other on a map of parent power, reach out for support, follow each other on social media. It’s a dream of mine to witness a gathering of these groups to share wins, strategize organizing tactics, celebrate and move the work forward. I can’t count the number of times people have thanked us for creating space to share their story, their work, and why it matters. Mothers of color, they’ve all been in rooms where nobody looks like them, or understands them. We are happy to be one small part of shedding a light on them and their important work.
For the media — I hope they’ll seek out varied voices. They now have a list of more than one hundred organizations they can contact for comment, hear a different perspective.
Geller: When I think of the usefulness of this for the media — I’ll repeat something I said at the beginning: Listen to parents. Ask them what they think and listen.
Geller and Cossyleon would like to acknowledge their co-authors Parker Foster, Sara McAlister, and Dr. Wendy Y. Perez. And to thank the organizations who took the survey, the dozens of parent leaders, staff, and funders of leadership and organizing groups across the country who helped to develop the survey, and the Spencer Foundation for their support of this research. You can learn more at their Parent Power and Leadership Project website.