It’s no surprise that I work in education. It’s in my blood. My grandmother Alberta, a proud Chicana, lived in the projects in downtown Denver and was in a gang. She dropped out of school, got pregnant with my dad and went on welfare. She realized the only way to end this cycle of poverty and violence was through education. So, as a single mom of three, while my grandfather was incarcerated in prison, she crossed the street from the projects to Auraria campus, got her GED, bachelors, and masters and became a social worker for Denver Public Schools for 25 years.
She went to college, my dad went to college, I went to college—and now my two Afro-Latino children, Trey and Avianna, will go to college. My grandmother single-handedly transformed my family’s trajectory for generations to come by pursuing an education. And that’s why I wanted to become a teacher—to transform the lives of other Latinx and students of color like me.
My first job out of college was as a third grade teacher in a low-income community in Los Angeles. It was a closed campus, meaning families were not allowed on site. They dropped their children off in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon. What happened in between was none of their business.
Soon I realized this is a common mindset among teachers, principals and superintendents across the country—that families don’t have a place in education. Time and time again, I’ve heard fellow educators say things like, “families don’t care,” “they’re too busy,” “they don’t value education.”
So, at worst, families are not included in their children’s education at all. At best, families are asked to do volunteer activities like chaperoning field trips or organizing bake sales—neither of which have anything to do with actual education or academic achievement.
But here’s the thing—as a teacher, I saw how much our low-income families and families of color wanted to be involved in their children’s education. They just weren’t given the chance, and no one showed them how to do it.
And then I realized—families are a sleeping giant. Once they’re awakened to the inequity that exists in our school system, there is nothing they won’t do to ensure that their children receive the excellent education they deserve, and the education system will never be the same.
And we, as educators, must make it a top priority to engage them. The only question is how.
I co-founded RISE Colorado to focus on family engagement full-time. We’re based in Aurora, Colorado, an official refugee resettlement city and one of the most diverse school districts and cities in the state with families from over 130 countries, speaking over 160 different languages.
At RISE, our theory of change is that those most impacted by the inequity that exists must lead the movement for change themselves, just like Dr. King and African Americans led the Civil Rights Movement, and Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez led the Farmworkers Movement. For education, that means we need low-income families and families of color to lead the movement for educational equity with us alongside and behind them as allies.
With back to school season in full swing, it’s the perfect time for educators and families to become true partners. That means:
- Families are seen as decision-makers and have seats at decision-making tables.
- We trust families to surface the complex challenges they’re facing and create their own solutions.
- Educators are co-creating learning experiences with families to improve academic achievement, and trusting families’ expertise and guidance.
If we do not support low-income families and families of color to lead the movement for educational equity, we’ll be having these same conversations in the next 10 or 20 years. Students of color will continue to graduate at levels far below their White peers until the system is changed. Our fates are intertwined—if our education system is failing students of color, then it’s failing all of us.
Families are ready to lead. It’s time to awaken the sleeping giant!