Read "Bending the River," a publication of the Family Leadership Design Collaborative presented at the Institute for Educational Leadership's national Family and Community Engagement Conference in July 2019.

At a moment in which immigrants, people of color and other marginalized groups face another wave of systemic violence, educational systems need new strategies to meaningfully engage families and communities contend researchers in a new policy memo released today by the University of Washington’s Family Leadership Design Collaborative and the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Education Policy Center.

In “Recasting Families and Communities as Co-Designers of Education in Tumultuous Times,” the authors describe how justice-based approaches to family engagement can enable parents and families, particularly from communities of color, to contribute as fellow leaders in transforming schools and educational systems to better serve all children, families and communities.

“At this moment in the United States, the blaming and criminalization of families of color represent extreme examples of the rationales that shape how American public institutions like schools often approach families of color,” said co-author Ann Ishimaru, a professor of education at the University of Washington College of Education and principal investigator for the Family Leadership Design Collaborative

The justice-based approaches described in the memo are grounded in the understanding that families and communities possess historical and lived knowledge about how to persist through such challenging times, and that they bring critical expertise to efforts to advance educational justice and community well-being.

“This stands in direct contrast to current U.S. policies that are traumatizing young people and families,” said Michelle Renée Valladares, associate director of the National Education Policy Center and affiliate faculty in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “At the most fundamental level, high quality schools and safe communities are basic human rights that all children in this country should enjoy. But ensuring that families can access these rights means we must reimagine how public school leaders and others engage with families and communities to support them rather than further harm them.”

FLDC co-principal investigator Megan Bang, a professor at Northwestern University and Spencer Foundation senior vice president, noted that blaming parents and caregivers has often been used to justify the systemic inequities in education that impact families of color and those living in poverty.

“We must refuse family-deficit models as the foundations for our theories of action for educational change — or for any forms of policy,” Bang said. “Rather, healthy communities — and, by extension, nations — rest on healthy families. There is no formula for a healthy family; they can be small or extended, a single parent head of household, two moms, two dads, three co-parents, or multi-generational, among many other possibilities. How our systems see and support families to thrive matters for who we are and what we can become as a nation.”

Drawing on the FLDC’s years of work with a national network of researchers, educators, and family and community leaders engaged in co-designing educational change, the memo outlines several recommendations for school, system, state and federal decision-makers.

1) Build and set the co-design table

  • Support initiatives that tap into and develop the collective leadership of families and communities of color in improving schools, communities and broader systems, rather than programs that seek to change parent behaviors to better support schools’ agendas. Design agendas and activities with family and community members rather than approaching them as passive recipients.
  • Prioritize school change efforts that engage families and communities with educators and seek to build solidarities across racial and professional divides through work to disrupt inequities.
  • Provide funding and resources for sustained, reflective work to imagine and implement transformative change. 
  • Partner with community-based organizations and public agencies to enact educational change. 
  • Invest in building and supporting the capacity of local leaders (not policy elites) to facilitate meetings and conversations across racial, cultural and other differences. 

2) Engage in co-design

  • Recognize histories and systemic inequalities shape how families and communities experience and participate in formal spaces, and that patterns of inequity tend to reassert themselves despite good intentions. Support strategies that intervene productively in interactions that reinforce hierarchical power.
  • Begin processes with the priorities, experiences, concerns and issues that already exist in the communities that schools serve, rather than with the agendas of schools, funders or policymakers. Policies and funding should aim to strengthen work already happening in communities, rather than impose a new program.

3) Sustain co-design

  • Redesign key educational decision-making processes (e.g., hiring, policy development, resource allocation, school improvement) to ensure those directly impacted by racial inequities have influence, not just token “input.”
  • Ensure programs have the capacity and flexibility to respond to the broader sociopolitical context and dynamics that shape daily realities for nondominant families and communities.
  • Provide support for partnerships to reclaim data for reflection, improvement and measuring progress towards educational justice and community well-being. Partner with researchers to identify or co-develop “metrics that matter” to local communities.

The Family Leadership Design Collaborative and its research is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.


Ann M. Ishimaru, Associate Professor of Education, UW College of Education

Michelle Renée Valladares, Associate Director, National Education Policy Center

Megan Bang, Senior Vice President, Spencer Foundation and Professor, Northwestern University

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