There is a warrior for children in Connecticut who battles day after day, year after year, on their behalf. She fights for better schools. She fights for safer schools. She fights for parents to have options when it comes to educating their children. She drives across the state to be an advocate, to testify and, perhaps most importantly, to hold the hands of mothers and fathers and grandparents and even great aunties who are being mistreated by a system that was never really set up to serve them in the first place.
Meet Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union. She is a mother of four (though she tragically lost her son Jemel in a car accident in 2016) and she is a grandmother, too.
She doesn’t align with any political party nor does she have an allegiance to any one kind of school over another. On the contrary, she cares about children. Other people’s children. And despite personal tragedy and pain, she fights on.
How Does She Do It?
Gwen finds a way to fight tough and spread joy at the same time. Six years ago she launched the The Parent Express’ “‘Tis the Season to be Reading” bus tour which makes stops in 10 Connecticut cities to give away books to children in need, distributes hats and scarves, and even finds ways to support older kids whose needs are different than those of the children in Head Start.
While the effort targets Head Start and early childhood development, Samuel said, it also helps older children.
‘From the womb to college, we support them. It’s about meeting children where they are,’ Samuel said. ‘All children matter.’
Older youth get assistance with job applications and registering how to vote. Boys get free ties and help in learning how to tie them.
‘Everything is so tense right now in terms of politics,’ Samuel said. ‘People are always saying children are the future, but what are we doing today?’
After 10 days of criss crossing the state, most people I know would have gone home to get in their pj’s and watch some TV or curl up with a good book. Not Gwen.
She and her organization hosted a one-day symposium entitled, “The Perils and Promises In the Education of Black, Latino and Poor Children in Connecticut,” in Hartford. Panelists flew in from Philadelphia and Indiana and the keynote speaker came in from Oklahoma. Educators, coaches, parents, advocates and elected officials also sat on the panel.
In the audience, where I spent the day, there were elected officials and attorneys who specialize in children’s rights and people who run schools. But most importantly, there were also parents and guardians who are living the day-to-day experience of inequity and systemic racism in their children’s schools.
There were tears. And I could see pain and fear. But I also heard each of them talk about how Gwen has given them hope and how lost they felt before they found her.
Hearing the Voices That Matter Most
The panel consisted of all people of color. And that was important because far too often, the “experts” don’t look anything like the people around whom their conversation is based. This was a room full of people from the community with a few guests there to impart their own experiences, and subsequent wisdom in this work, talking about an urgent need for change.
The two main areas of focus were the disparity in suspensions and expulsions for Black and Brown students and the lack of options that Connecticut parents have when it comes to schools for their children.
There wasn’t agreement on everything and that’s a good thing. But the conversation was honest and robust and there was an openness on the part of everyone to learn from one another and find ways to work together moving forward.
I’m so grateful that Gwen invited me to see her in action and to meet many of the people who are committed to doing better for Connecticut’s children. And the added bonus is that I got to give a big hug to my friend Sharif El-Mekki, whose work as a school leader in Philadelphia and as the founder of the Black Male Educators Fellowship (and as a father of six!) is making a difference not only in his own community but around the country.
I’m proud to know both of these warriors for justice who wake up every day believing that we can and must do better for our children and who aren’t afraid to call out the systemic injustice that permeates the lives of far too many children and families in America.