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This article is part of Mochi’s Fall 2022 issue on politics. In the late ’60s, the slogan “The personal is political” came out of a second-wave feminist movement, presenting an alternative thought that politics is about one’s dignity and agency. As Asian Americans, we know this to be true, since even our identities are political. In this issue, we talk about what politics mean to us — from the politics of our identities to political dynamics in our relationships and communities. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.

As soon as children enter kindergarten, they’re oriented into the school system. They learn about standing in lines, the rules on the playground, and social and behavioral norms in the classroom. Parents, on the other hand, don’t get the same type of orientation. They might meet teachers, learn about curriculum, and memorize school schedules. But when it comes to understanding their roles in the school, parents have to navigate this on their own. Unfortunately, parent engagement in schools tends to be prescriptive, revolving around the values and needs determined by the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) and school, rather than the needs of what may be of a greater representation of parents and the skill sets they have to offer. This is particularly challenging for families of color (FOCs), who hold a range of cultural, social, and academic experiences that don’t fit neatly into a structure and system built around dominant white culture.

The PTA — or, in some cases, Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO), which are parent volunteer groups not affiliated with the National PTA — is typically where parent engagement opportunities stem and is a starting point for parents to get plugged into the social and volunteer lifeline of the school. Parents have opportunities to meet, be in the know about school news (and gossip), and participate in the decision-making process as members and officers. PTAs typically organize fundraisers, host school-wide events, and are a platform for parents to advocate for their children’s needs. Because schools are often underfunded, PTA-raised funds cover the costs of field trips, assemblies, school supplies, technology upgrades, enrichment activities (like art and music), and sometimes even salaries. 

However, in many schools, FOCs — specifically low-income families of color — are missing from the PTA table, whether due to lower educational levels, language barriers, lack of bandwidth, perceived discrimination from other parents, or other factors. This increases the risk of PTA priorities reflecting those of the more affluent and involved parents, as mentioned in an article in “The Atlantic” about how marginalized families are pushed out of the PTA. The article describes how advantaged parents, many of them members of parent organizations, wield their influence on school policy. They often push for programs that would benefit their own children, even placing pressure on leadership above the principal to get their way — something lower income parents rarely do.

History of the Parent-Teacher Association 

The National PTA organization, initially known as the National Congress of Mothers, was started in 1897 by Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst. These two affluent white women believed in the collective power of mothers to advocate for their children’s needs, especially in the form of influencing policy. In 1926, Selena Sloan Butler formed the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, which focused on helping Black children in segregated communities. The two associations worked side by side, demonstrating the focus on putting children first — a mission that united white parents and parents of color. The groups officially became one entity in 1970.

Credit: National PTA

Today, the National PTA continues to be an advocacy association, raising awareness of and advocating for laws and programs that improve children’s education and overall well-being, and encouraging state- and school-level groups to do the same. The national association offers school PTAs resources around communication, family engagement, and fundraising to help improve their impact. Without these resources, parent volunteer groups likely would have to start from scratch.

The Influence of White Supremacy Culture in Parent Volunteer Structures

Vivian van Gelder, Director of Advocacy and Policy for Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), an organization dedicated to improving education for children, speculated that the discomfort many parents feel around the PTA structure may be its unintentional alignment with “white supremacy culture.” The characteristics of white supremacy culture, as described by educator and writer Tema Okun, include perfectionism/one right way of operating, paternalism, a narrow definition of who is qualified, power hoarding, quantity over quality, and urgency.

“To the extent that these groups operate according to that sort of culture, they will feel more welcoming to anyone who’s internalized or feels at home in that culture,” said van Gelder, who, as a white parent herself, has served on multiple elementary and middle school PTAs and the Seattle Council Parent-Teacher-Student Association. PTAs have the reputation for being a fundraising group, despite their focus on advocacy. Fundraising attracts people with nonprofit or corporate experience, which generally overlaps with white supremacy culture, and conversely excludes people from the working class who are trying to support their own families, much less raise money for the school. 

Not all PTAs are oblivious of their white-centric environment. In fact, the National PTA offers extensive diversity, equity, and inclusion resources to guide local chapters to improve in this area. Some parent groups recognize the tendency for their leadership to be all white and are dedicated to being more inclusive, but the struggle is figuring out how to do that. Van Gelder cited situations where all-white PTA boards resigned en masse in hopes that FOCs would take over (which didn’t happen), or how enthusiastic FOCs got involved only to be burnt out from intense pushback or being tokenized.

“What needs to happen — and is happening in some places — is for white PTA leaders to demonstrate that they are interested in genuinely working in true partnership with FOCs to redefine what a PTA is — not just ask FOCs to come and participate in this established thing which they are already wary of, and then assume that when they don’t show, it’s because they don’t care. White PTA leaders need to relinquish control over the future direction of their groups and create a collaborative space where their whole community can be part of defining what that is,” van Gelder encouraged.  

Engagement from the Perspective of Families of Color

True collaboration and rebuilding of the parent volunteer system requires recognizing that FOCs bring our own school experiences and ideas of what engagement looks like — a lens that often isn’t understood in schools. The power structure within schools and the value of white, middle- and upper-class, heteronormative, cis-gender standards often deter families that don’t fall into those categories from engaging, said Nathanie Lee, an assistant teaching professor at University of Washington-Bothell’s School of Educational Studies and former research assistant for the Equitable Parent-School Collaboration Project. “Involvement, or the degree to which [parents] want to be involved, stems from their own personal history as a student and what they saw their parents go through, or how they were treated by the school,” Lee said.

Priscilla Manickam-Seng, a parent in Seattle and former PTA President, sends her children to a school with a high refugee and immigrant population. As a daughter of refugees from Cambodia, Manickam-Seng recognizes that many of the families there are simply trying to understand the school system in the United States — just like her parents did when she was younger. Manickam-Seng’s parents sent their children to school and trusted that they were being cared for, without realizing that additional involvement on campus was an option.

Credit: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

“My parents didn’t know that a lot of events were even happening,” Manickam-Seng remembered. “They were new [to the school system] so they didn’t think of how they could find out [about being involved] because my mom didn’t speak the language very well and my dad was still learning and navigating life in America.”

While FOCs may be less visible in formal parent volunteer structures, this doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t engaged in the school or invested in our children’s education. It simply looks different than how white parents do it. Manickam-Seng noted that parent engagement among FOCs at her children’s school often takes the form of bringing and serving food at an event, donating snacks and supplies, volunteering during field trips, or helping with the school soccer team — roles that play to the parents’ strengths and don’t require extensive communication or planning, which they may not be confident doing. 

Oftentimes, FOCs come up against an unspoken barrier, as power typically resides with those who hold social and cultural capital. “Most of the PTA board members and active members know exactly how the school system is run and what it takes to be successful,” said Lee. “They know who to ask to get what they want, like where to get donations, who to go to in the community to get whatever they need.” Lee contrasted this with the example of a Spanish-speaking mom who has strengths that are valued within her culture and community, but may not be recognized by the school or other parents.

During Lee’s 10 years as an elementary teacher, one of her most consistent volunteers was an African American mom who helped out on a weekly basis, yet never got involved in the PTA. At the time, she was starting nursing school, but still made volunteering a priority. Years later, this mother told Lee that she wanted her son to see his parents as an integral part of his education. Role models like this mom could set children on a trajectory toward continuing a cycle of engagement with their own children. 

Creating an Inclusive and Welcoming Parent Volunteer Organization

Despite these pervasive systemic challenges and cultural barriers, many parent groups are taking the initiative to reframe parent engagement. But what does this look like for Asian American parents, teachers, or students? We often talk about straddling two identities — not being Asian enough, but also not being American enough. Living in the liminal actually puts us in a unique position of being “American enough” to understand the school system and speak the language, but also “Asian enough” to empathize with cultural and language barriers. In this space, we can be a bridge between the school community and other FOCs.

One of the simplest and possibly most important ways to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment is by building genuine relationships, which requires intentionality and initiative. When Manickam-Seng was PTA President, she and others prioritized building community over fundraising — even changing the name of the PTA to reflect this new focus.

“I try to focus on parents who I see have the desire to volunteer, but they just don’t have the confidence,” Manickam-Seng said. “So I tried to build relationships with them, not necessarily to get them involved with the PTA, but to just get to know their families and their kids.” Looking out for a familiar face or being personally invited to an event increases the chance that parents who otherwise may not show up will be more motivated to attend or engage. 

Building relationships also can be done in group settings, and this may require breaking from the norm and conducting meetings differently, in a way that creates inclusion. Erin Okuno, executive director of SESEC, encouraged PTAs to identify the purpose of their meetings. Are they for business? To create relationships?

“If it’s for business, then let’s be honest about it and say, ‘Do we need everybody here?’ If this meeting is supposed to create community, then let’s focus on that and the business becomes secondary. If you’re running a PTA meeting as a business meeting, there’s automatically exclusion,” Okuno said. When Okuno facilitates meetings, she opens with a relationship builder or ice breaker, which invites people to interact differently and to not simply default to normal business protocols.

Credit: RODNAE Productions

Becoming a more inclusive group goes beyond extending a blanket invitation to everyone; think about shifting who holds power at the meetings. At minimum, leaders can create a more welcoming environment by providing interpreters, translating meeting invitations and graphics, and providing childcare and meals, but control is usually still held by the main body.

One level beyond that, Okuno explained, is programmatic racial equity, referring to a mapping tool that she uses to analyze racial hierarchy in group settings. An example of programmatic racial equity could be giving partial control of an event to FOCs. The budget, ownership, and final decision-making for the event still reside with the PTA, but the planning and details are turned over to FOCs. The ultimate goal is structural racial equity, which is “ridiculously hard to get to,” Okuno said, “because it really takes reframing everything and turning it inside out in a lot of ways. The best description I’ve heard is that FOCs turn inward, and allies — white allies, in particular — are on the outside asking, ‘How can we support you? What do you need?’ Leadership and decision-making are held by the FOC community.”

In some schools, organic connections are forming among communities of color. For example, affinity groups based on language keep in touch via WeChat or form a Facebook group. Some groups have individuals serving as liaisons — sometimes as a paid position — with the PTA leadership to ensure that their voices and concerns are integrated. Examples of increased inclusion at other schools include replacing formal meetings with community dinners where PTA business is just part of the agenda, organizing school-wide multicultural events, forming racial equity teams, hosting listening sessions with families of color, and setting up “phone trees” so more families are reached personally and individually about school information.

“[Engagement of FOCs] confers a lot more legitimacy on the parent group,” van Gelder noted. “Here are people who not only can authentically speak for the parent community, but have chosen to be leaders in this particular organization, that this is an organization that can work for parents of color. And then hopefully that creates a virtuous cycle where more parents of color want to become involved, and then the organization becomes truly representative and welcoming. That is a good thing for everybody.”

Cover credit: Antenna/Unsplash

Author

  • Melody Ip is the managing editor for Mochi magazine and a freelance copy editor/writer when she's not singing along to movie soundtracks with her three kids. She loves the trees and rain of the Pacific Northwest, still sends handwritten letters, and always has at least five books on her nightstand.

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