Parents as Advocates: Influencing Policymakers to Improve Public Policies for Families

Posted November 14, 2014
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog parentsasadvocates 2014

Any effort to improve the lives of low-income fam­i­lies should include those fam­i­lies in dis­cus­sions about over­com­ing the chal­lenges they face. As experts on their sit­u­a­tion, fam­i­lies — more specif­i­cal­ly, par­ents — should have a place at the table in craft­ing solu­tions to their problems.

A new report from Com­mu­ni­ty Orga­niz­ing and Fam­i­ly Issues (COFI) cap­tures how par­ents play an active, hands-on role in chang­ing pub­lic pol­i­cy and sys­tems to ben­e­fit their chil­dren, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties as a whole. The report, Pol­i­cy and Sys­tems Change: The COFI Way, details how low-income moms and grand­moth­ers of col­or have used COFI’s col­lab­o­ra­tive orga­niz­ing mod­el to influ­ence pol­i­cy­mak­ers and elect­ed offi­cials to strength­en pub­lic pol­i­cy that affects their families.

For near­ly two decades, COFI, a Chica­go-based non­prof­it, has helped moth­ers and grand­moth­ers influ­ence pol­i­cy and bring new oppor­tu­ni­ties to Chicago’s low-income com­mu­ni­ties. Using a five-step mod­el, these grass­roots par­ent lead­ers have had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on pub­lic poli­cies and sys­tems. They’ve won the return of recess to the Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) and got­ten sus­pen­sions banned for chil­dren below sec­ond grade. They’ve per­suad­ed CPS to scrap zero-tol­er­ance poli­cies and instead adopt restora­tive jus­tice prac­tices, which help stu­dents learn the impact of their behav­ior and give them a chance to take respon­si­bil­i­ty and repair the harm done to the com­mu­ni­ty. And they’ve cre­at­ed and won fund­ing for a peer-to-peer ear­ly learn­ing ambas­sador pro­gram in which par­ents go door to door in low-income com­mu­ni­ties to con­nect fam­i­lies with high-qual­i­ty ear­ly edu­ca­tion pro­grams and information.

These pol­i­cy cam­paigns are root­ed in the expe­ri­ences of low-income fam­i­lies of col­or and pri­or­i­tized by the par­ents them­selves, focus­ing on cre­at­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for their chil­dren to suc­ceed. By incor­po­rat­ing par­ents’ voic­es into pol­i­cy­mak­ing, poli­cies are strength­ened and work bet­ter for the very con­stituen­cies for which they are designed.

The report doc­u­ments how pol­i­cy­mak­ers, includ­ing those in charge of CPS’ dis­ci­pline pol­i­cy, came to see COFI par­ent lead­ers as trust­ed allies.

Where the par­ents are sen­si­ble and on point, there’s room to include them in school deci­sion mak­ing,” said for­mer Wells High School Prin­ci­pal Ernesto Matias, one of the offi­cials inter­viewed for the report. “[COFI par­ents’] voic­es are con­sis­tent­ly hum­ming about alter­na­tives to sus­pen­sions and zero tol­er­ance — a pol­i­cy that doesn’t work. That’s one thing COFI and their par­ents do real­ly well. They are per­sis­tent on the issue and are respect­ful about work­ing with us to find solu­tions because we’re los­ing too many kids.”

As the peo­ple who will ulti­mate­ly par­tic­i­pate in pro­grams, par­ents view hav­ing a say in how they are put togeth­er as essen­tial to their suc­cess. Stake­hold­ers need to be part of the deci­sions and imple­men­ta­tion for a pro­gram to real­ly work,” said par­ent leader Rosa­zlia Gril­li­er, a sin­gle mom from South­side Chicago.

For pol­i­cy­mak­ers, the keys to COFI‘s suc­cess lie in the fact that par­ent lead­ers are:

  • con­nect­ed to each oth­er and their communities;
  • authen­tic in their under­stand­ing of issues;
  • informed about the issues they are look­ing to address;
  • col­lab­o­ra­tive in seek­ing pos­i­tive solutions;
  • per­sis­tent over time and ded­i­cat­ed to achiev­ing their goals; and
  • effec­tive in pro­duc­ing mean­ing­ful change.

Par­ent involve­ment is essen­tial to achieve bet­ter out­comes for kids — and a key part of our two-gen­er­a­tion approach to reduc­ing pover­ty, which aims to help the entire fam­i­ly suc­ceed. This report shows that low-income par­ent lead­ers work­ing togeth­er can real­ize their vision for their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties and, through part­ner­ships with pol­i­cy­mak­ers and sys­tems lead­ers, effec­tive­ly influ­ence large, tan­gi­ble changes that improve children’s lives on a broad scale.

Check out the report to learn more about the pow­er of includ­ing par­ents in deci­sion making.

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