Diverse schools are taking a new approach to anti-racism: Training white parents

Amid the blowback over anti-racist lessons for America's schoolchildren, another effort to grapple with structural racism has gained steam: training white parents.

Lessons can be as simple as lunch.

White, affluent volunteers have been overheard commenting to kids about the nutritional value of a meal like Lunchables, said Christina Feliciana of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Social Welfare, in a 2020 YouTube video.

But a parent’s decision to place “junk food” in a student’s lunch may be the right choice. Calorie-dense food is often cost effective – and a way for a caregiver to show love to a child. The food may be a reward recommended by a therapist. Feliciana’s co-presenter and colleague, Robert Watts III, added that students with special needs can have rigidity around texture. Allergies can rule out alternatives. Plus, people derive value from hewing to family and community traditions around food.

In response to an offhand remark like “That’s not healthy” or “Tell your mom to pack you fruit,” Feliciana said, a child whose family already felt disconnected and disempowered might repeat the message at home, making the family even less likely to engage with the school.

Lessons in cultural humility like this one have been a feature of teachers’ professional development for quite some time. But trainings have largely focused on how students are treated, not families, and they’ve been targeted at school officials, not parent and caregiver volunteers.

That’s changing, especially in neighborhoods experiencing gentrification and in predominantly white areas grappling with issues of race and class. In Missouri, New York City, Virginia and other places across the country, school communities are tackling the work of facilitating connection across racial and socioeconomic lines, often starting with white people, through trainings led by people of color.

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Every interaction with families is crucial

The benefits associated with family engagement and trust in education are well-documented. Individual students with involved parents are more likely to get better grades, score higher on tests, have better attendance and go on to postsecondary education, regardless of family income and background. According to the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, elementary schools are 10 times more likely to show improvement in math and four times more likely to show improvement in reading with strong parental involvement than without it.

Vameka Davis, a certified athletic trainer and entrepreneur, said she and her husband were wary as their children approached school age in Washington, D.C. In their own schooling, they had both experienced what she described as “Black voices not being heard, or this pseudo, ‘We care, and we are going to do something,’ and then it never happens.” Later, Davis had watched as her cousins’ and nephews’ educational needs were overlooked and ill-served.

She’s far from alone. When parents in underserved groups, including those who speak English as a second language, have a history of negative interactions in schools, Feliciana said, they “just feel like it won’t make a difference” to be in touch with teachers or participate in school activities.

Vameka Davis stands with her daughter, Jax, 5, for a portrait outside their home. Davis served as the PTO president at Washington, D.C.'s Garrison Elementary School. Jax started school at Garrison in 2019.
Vameka Davis stands with her daughter, Jax, 5, for a portrait outside their home. Davis served as the PTO president at Washington, D.C.'s Garrison Elementary School. Jax started school at Garrison in 2019.

To change that, schools have tried to move beyond parent-teacher conferences, focusing on training teachers and administrators to communicate with families effectively all year long and conduct home visits.

But school officials aren’t the only ones interacting with students and families. Parent volunteers are, too. And that can go a lot more smoothly when they’ve been given training or opportunities to connect with parents from different backgrounds.

Programs from Kindred Communities, a Washington-based nonprofit, aren’t your typical training. They involve three years of small group dialogue, with the expectation that the groups will produce an action plan to advance racial justice and equity at their school. The process gives white parents “a deeper understanding of how our own socialization leads us to play certain roles, to say certain things in mixed-race spaces that are not well received,” founder and former executive director Laura Wilson Phelan said.

Davis participated in 2019, when her oldest child began kindergarten at Garrison Elementary School in Washington. Just three weeks after school started, parents in the program were able to tackle difficult topics effectively in a multicultural setting. “We can actually have a conversation about what we felt,” Davis said. “I’ve never experienced that in my life.”

As a white woman from New Hampshire, said Alison Ray Cavanagh, “my exposure to different races and ethnicities growing up was very limited, and my family never talked about race.” Then she participated in a Kindred program at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington. Before, she’d hesitated to approach people of other ethnicities for fear of saying the wrong thing. Now, she said, she had a “tool box” – and determination.

Alison Ray Cavanagh picks up her daughter, Elsa, 7 from E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, on Thursday December 16, 2021.
Alison Ray Cavanagh picks up her daughter, Elsa, 7 from E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, on Thursday December 16, 2021.

“The more conversations you have, and the more practice you have, as the white person, you get better at leaning into that discomfort and owning it.”

Davis says not all white parents at Garrison were on board, but many of them were, and they acknowledged they didn’t have all the answers. Growing up, she never encountered this type of humility.

As a parent, she was used to white parents being overrepresented in PTA positions. At Garrison, Davis became president of the parent-teacher organization. (She and her family later moved to Brandywine, Maryland.)

Her goal: Re-create Garrison “so that it’s for everyone.”

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Experts’ advice for white parents

Most directives for white parents boil down to an overarching piece of advice: Don’t assume you know what’s going on or what’s best, and don’t impose your own values and norms onto other people. And don’t forget, no one is perfect.

Feliciana routinely reminds others to use inclusive language like “your grownup” or “your caregiver,” because not all kids live with a parent. And yet one day at a park, she observed a young girl being bullied and beginning to cry. Feliciana asked her where her mom was, and the tears redoubled as the child said, “I don’t have a mom.”

“We all make mistakes, no matter what our training is,” Feliciana said in her 2020 video.

This type of explicit permission to be imperfect can partially allay the anxiety white parents feel around issues of race, said Macheo Payne, a social work professor at California State University, East Bay.

Without such coaching, attempts at anti-racism can go off the rails.

Anna Lodder, who is white, got involved with an organization called Integrated Schools and decided to enroll her child at a Los Angeles school, where approximately 75% of students were Latino and 86% received free or reduced-price meals.

Lodder described other white parents advocating for a theater program, a garden and a PTA. She too had shown up ready to invest and make improvements.

“I found out the school didn’t need me to save it,” she said. “I saw how alienating it was that we had all these ideas and that we weren’t listening and following the lead of the parents already in the community.”

What to do when a whiter, richer group moves in?

When cities experience an influx of higher-income residents, changes to a neighborhood include displacement of preexisting community members. A big surge in that phenomenon dates to the early 2000s, which saw more white college graduates interested in raising children in an urban setting, said Maia Cucchiara, a professor at Temple University’s College of Education and Human Development.

But different people talk about the phenomenon differently, Cucchiara said. Some look at white parents investing in public schools in places like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and say: “This is so awesome. Thank God these people have come along.” The other common take, she said, is: “Look at these super obnoxious white parents.” Integration generally benefits all kids, she said, but both narratives are problematic.

Training along the lines of “how to be a white parent in an integrated school without being a total jerk” can provide a nice middle ground, she said. But for all families to feel comfortable at school, it’s not enough to make parents nicer.

US history is complex. Scholars say this is the right way to teach about slavery, racism.

Instead, school leaders should ask, “How can I help advocate that (disadvantaged) families be actively included and their voices heard in broader, schoolwide conversations?” said Alexandra Freidus, a parent of school-age children and an educational leadership professor at the University of Connecticut.

At Garrison, the current principal ensures families understand the school’s history, who it traditionally served and how gentrification changed things, Davis told USA TODAY. “Everything that he talks about is about equity.” This type of administrative buy-in is essential, not only for changing interactions between individuals, but also for advancing systemic solutions.

To do just that, Teaching for Change, another Washington nonprofit, created a do’s and don’ts list for PTA leaders after running a November 2019 workshop for Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia. It includes directives such as: “DO communicate in all major languages spoken by families,” and “DON’T only communicate with parents via email or listservs,” as well as “DO pay attention to the times of meetings — who can come and who cannot?”

After watching white, more affluent families turn away from Richmond public schools, Kim Gomez launched STAY RVA. In October 2019, the group did a workshop she described as: “If you do show up, here’s how white people often do it wrong.”

Examples included snapping up leadership roles and clustering with other white parents on the playground. After a pandemic break, the organization resumed STAY Talks, which Gomez said are mostly Black- and brown-led panels in conversation with a multiracial audience. Attendees have received such input as, “Hey, when you pass me on the sidewalk, don’t just talk to my kids. Be sure you talk to the adults.”

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Parent-teacher groups working together

In University City, a streetcar suburb of St. Louis, four elementary schools feed into one middle school. Until recently, their parent-teacher organizations worked in isolation.

Fundraising power often tracks with white students. In University City, where students are about 80% Black and 11% white, that means extra funding for Flynn Park Elementary, which has a good percentage of the white students.

“Most of the families, especially the families who go to Flynn, have very serious stereotypes about the other elementary schools, even though they have never set foot in their schools,” Tricia Sanders said of white parents like herself.

So Sanders started an effort called “One U City,” kicked off just before the pandemic began, with the four schools taking turns hosting events for all district families.

At Flynn Park, the PTO put on a districtwide “Witnessing Whiteness” program and a “Raising Equity” series. They wrote a new mission statement and tried to reexamine longstanding norms.

For example, Sanders said women like her traditionally say thank you with gifts, often expensive ones. Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley pointed out how problematic that can be, telling Sanders: “Stop. Just say, ‘Thank you.’”

Although privately raised funds have yet to be shared beyond bankrolling One U City events, plans to pool resources, doing away with separate PTO accounts and prohibiting school-specific fundraising, are in the process.

But is all the training for parents making a real difference?

Programs that address more concrete, child-centered scenarios and inspire empathy — like the Lunchables exercise – seem most promising.

Imagine being an 8-year-old, said Payne, who has conducted many such trainings: Having an adult at school approach your background as if it’s questionable “is devastating to one’s academic identity.” A child might internalize the lunch comment and feel like they’ve done something wrong.

Or worse, Payne said, a child might think: “Somebody just reminded me that I’m a bad person, that I have a bad history, that I come from a bad community.” To the extent that these programs reduce microaggressions, he said they undoubtedly make a difference, even if only to a handful of children.

Yet anti-racist training for white people has its critics, and some for good reason. It can devolve into an exercise in white navel-gazing, among other pitfalls.

But with persistence, it works, experts insist. “The truth is, doing this work is like riding against gravity,” said Barbara Gross of the Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative in New York City. “The gravitational pull is back to racism and white supremacy culture. So you can’t take even a six-month workshop group and then be like, ‘I’ve got this.’”

Gail Cornwall is a writer in San Francisco, where she once served on her children’s school council alongside Christina Feliciana. She has participated in anti-racist trainings led by Be the Change Consulting.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Anti-racism: Diverse schools train white parents amid race debates