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August 27, 2014

I posed a philosophical question on Twitter this week: “Can systems really be changed from within?”

A couple of years ago, I got drafted into the PTA at my kids’ school. I say “drafted” because I initially volunteered for something else entirely, but was talked into taking it on when no one else would do it. I was moving out of a season of political and social activism, and I wanted to throw that energy into something closer to home. In everything I do, I want my kids to see how important it is to engage their community, and for them, it doesn’t hit any closer than working in their school.

Most people think of the PTA and they think about the stereotype.

bake saleHonestly, that’s what I thought of, too. But the PTA as an organization has a long history of social change, and a lot of it has centered on creating more diversity, protecting the poor, and advancing a democratic philosophy of education. Our school has some demographics that to me, made the prospect of PTA work more interesting. For one, our school is only 28% white, 40% of our students are hispanic, 16% are Asian,10% are black, the rest of the students, 5%, fall into that nebulous and pejorative racial designation “other.” Our school is also a Title I school, and half of our students are on free and reduced lunch. I was interested in getting involved in a PTA that served these families.

Cultural appropriation, FTW

Cultural appropriation, FTW

But when I got there, there wasn’t too much that defied the stereotype. We had a couple of people of color on the Board, but it still didn’t look like our school. I was at the helm, another white lady, and most of the Board was white as well. Most of our Board was from the more affluent segment of our families. And many of the programs and activities were institutionalized, driven by the “we’ve always done this” factor. Most of our Board, however, was likeminded in wanting to see an increased inclusivity in the organization. The national PTA’s standards for family engagement call for shared power: between parents, between parents and the school, and between teachers and administrators. The goal is partnership, with the understanding that both parents and educators want children to succeed and discover their unique capacities so they can contribute to the betterment of society for all people.

The first year, I just struggled to keep up. Being a part of a new class of leaders while veterans were still hanging around in Board-level positions meant dancing between preservation and innovation, history and future. We made some strides, but were really hoping to do more as sophomores. The second year, we worked to set up the next class of leaders, hoping they would build on what we started when we set out to create an environment of invitation for new stakeholders to participate. But this new class has their own ideas. Most of them are in sync with what we wanted to see change, but they’re compelled to do the same dance.

This makes me loopy.

This makes me loopy.

Because in the PTA, the power resides with those who show up. There’s often talk of “those parents” who don’t come out to meetings or volunteer. But there’s not a lot of curiosity about what holds parents back from PTA involvement. Rarely do we talk about how a PTA can “show up” for families.

In my time as President, and even now in my current role as membership chair, I’ve seen the best in PTA leadership: parents volunteering for hours, working full-time jobs and enduring thanklessness to make our school better for our kids and families. I’ve seen moms and dads who show up for teachers (who themselves spend their own time and limited funds on the kids in their classes). I’ve seen leaders at the district level pushing for restorative justice rather than punitive procedure in school disciplinary policies. I’ve watched them agitate for healthier meals and a more dignified treatment of children receiving free or reduced lunches.These people are champions for children. And a number of them are empty-nesters without any kids in the system.

But I’ve also seen the worst in PTA leadership. I’ve seen parents “in it” for their kid alone. I’ve seen leaders cut budgets for student activity scholarships arguing that “scholarships only benefit a few of our students,” “it’s not fair to the kids who CAN pay for us to adjust programs just because they’re completely inaccessible for poor families.” I’ve heard diatribes about parents who “don’t care enough to come to meetings/volunteer like we do.” I’ve seen leaders stand in front of our Superintendent and say their academically gifted student should be “penalized” by efforts to move kids into a mainstreamed, diversified setting. I’ve heard them say they didn’t want to shift school boundaries because they might end up at “that school” and on and on. I’ve seen elitism run amok and a concern for the bottom-line that compels poor decision-making and in-fighting over which kids get served. Every time, kids with special needs, kids living in poverty, kids that need language services (which at our school is 38% of the student body), are pushed to the margins.

Writer Suzannah Paul articulated my frustrations this week in her tweet:

fundiesSee, the argument I’m getting into with my colleagues 90% of the time is a disagreement about two things: 1) what we see and 2) how we respond to it. Several of my cohorts are blind to the disparities that exist in our population, and even the disparities between the work of our school and the work of our PTA. Our educators know they have to diversity their instruction: that one size does not fit all. They *see* the population we’re serving, and they adjust their strategies to get all our kids to a point of confidence and success. They don’t always hit the mark they want to hit, but at least they aren’t wearing a blindfold and just throwing punches in the dark.

I see what you did there.

I see what you did there.

So we need to be serving the school we have, not the school that, in all our privilege, we wish we had. Secondly, we need to get real about the solutions. “Treating everyone the same” will not help all of our kids succeed. I’m very attached to this “share power” idea, and I like what Suzannah says about privileging the margins. I have no idea how I can help our current Board, myself included, take a back seat and elevate the voices of the unheard and “uninvolved” parents, but it has to be done. I’m a little concerned that our efforts to diversity leadership thus far have only achieved tokenism, window-dressing change, and not a real shift in power.

I actually got a little riled up (shocker) at a recent meeting and after several attempts to calm me down, looked at my colleagues and said, “I’m passionate about this because our PTA doesn’t exactly represent our school. Someone has to speak up for the people who aren’t at the table here.” But I’d rather have people at the table than speak *for* the marginalized. If anyone has ideas on this, please please please share them with me in the comments. Perhaps I’m taking up space by participating at all. But I’m hoping in this role that I can reach out and bring new folks into the organization, and maybe by sheer numbers, we can begin to see people with different perspectives and ideas enter and voice those ideas.

I don’t know if organizations can be changed from the inside. I don’t know if an institution can be “reformed” this way. I keep thinking about what Audre Lorde said, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.” But given that the PTA is a membership organization of teachers and parents, I’m inclined to think that there’s a possibility for it to be what *we* make it. Maybe that’s naivete or romanticism. I’m open to that possibility. And I’m open to investing my efforts elsewhere, but for now, I won’t give up the ship on it.

Feel free to disabuse me of my hopefulness or to offer practical suggestions or encouragement below. I’m still working this out, so I’m pliable, y’all.

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