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A novel role for parents: community organizers

When the school district planned to close their neighborhood school, a group of parents in Chicago weren’t going to stand by.

Instead, they organized.

Last week, I traveled to Chicago to learn from an organization called Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI). I’m very impressed with the incredible history of community organizing initiatives in Chicago. They have been doing it for a long time.

As part of the training, we went to Genevieve Melody STEM Elementary School in the Westside of Chicago. That’s where I heard the story of the parent leaders who fought to keep the school open by merging two schools.

At this school, parents are real leaders. At least five of them volunteer every day as peace keepers in the Peace Center, which handles discipline through a restorative justice approach. Instead of punishing kids by suspending them from school, parents in the Peace Center listen to kids and help them resolve their conflicts.

Each of these parents has an amazing story, but a parent named Dexter (pictured on the left in the photo below) stole my heart. He shared how much being a parent leader has changed his life. “Helping kids to solve their conflicts through peace circles has made me a better person,” he said. To me, this is restorative justice at its maximum expression.

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Here in Jacksonville, I have been proud to partner with Duval County Public Schools and the Jacksonville Public Library to launch our inaugural program, Parents Who Lead, which trains parents in civic leadership skills. The COFI approach adds another element to engaging parents by training them to act as community organizers who work with other parents in their neighborhoods on a shared initiative. Instead of working on individual projects, parents working with COFI have a shared set of priorities, such as physical education and health, that other parents can join.

One thing I especially loved about the COFI approach is they take an equity perspective, working specifically with low income parents of color. Oftentimes, the parents are women. The participants in the program I saw reminded me of my mother - they are always at the forefront solving problems for the community. They can become powerful leaders through the process of discovering their own resources and goals.

COFI believes that people working together can build power to make change. They have found that communities don’t need others to make change for them.

I’m looking forward to learning more from this incredible organization and exploring with our partners how we can bring this approach to our community through Parents Who Lead.