Grassroots Parent Organizing
This list is a supplement to Learning to Roar, from our Fall 2009 Magazine. Families with Power/Familias con Poder used grassroots organizing principles to create a thriving organization of low-income families of color. Here are a few of the lessons they learned along the way.
Use community spaces like living rooms and community rooms, rather than institutional spaces like schools.
Use small spaces so it feels crowded, full and cozy. People will drive or get a ride across town for a meeting in someone’s living room, but they might not do the same for a meeting in a school cafeteria. It is a question of comfort level, not distance.
Create visible critical mass at school events. Invite families to recruit a critical mass by making face-to-face invitations to other low-income parents of color. Parents need to hear someone say, “I’ll be there too.” Invite parent leaders to hold visible and vital roles as activity leaders and greeters to welcome and engage families meaningfully as they arrive. One parent said: “I understood the way she (another Puerto Rican parent) explained the game. I figured if she could do it, I could do it.”
Start small. If you run a small event and just a few families come, it isn’t a failure or an embarrassment. Leaders should make it clear they are looking for a few people who would like to commit to and help lead the project.
Minimize meetings. If one or two parent/guardians aren’t willing to coordinate a project or activity, it probably isn’t worth doing right now. Only the leaders of a project need to meet to plan, and even that should be done succinctly.
Families should decide and plan the activities, including the details of day, time, place/space and food. All of these should be authentic and match the needs, habits and interests in the community.
Parents/guardians (not teachers) should be up front, running events. If teachers are present, they are there to support parent leaders.
Interpretation should be handled flexibly, as needed, by the families.
Plan events for entire families, including babies/toddlers, elementary, middle and high school students, and family members with disabilities. Don’t forget grandparents. “If I get a leaflet inviting the fourth grade student with a parent,” said Eneida Garcia, a single working mother of three,“I figure they don’t want us to come. Either we all go, or none of us go.”
Create informal time and space within activities for socializing with others. This networking is invaluable in connecting new families to important community resources and can create important bonds to counteract the sense of isolation that so many families feel.
Provide childcare or a stipend for childcare when an event involves only adults.
Remain independent from school and district administration funding and control. Use donations and small grants to fund your activities.