Don’t engage families: Liberate them

One of REACH's Literacy Liberators celebrates graduation with her son. Courtesy of Oakland REACH.

I set out to reflect on parent engagement as we settled into another school year in the U.S. where 84% of Black eighth-graders lack proficiency in reading. And then something happened. 

On the evening of Sept. 19, more than 30 Oakland, Calif. mamas, grandmas, dads, and uncles graduated from the Oakland REACH’s Literacy Liberator fellowship. Our fellowship is a six-week learning experience that provides both leadership training and teaching skills to parents and caregivers who want to be literacy tutors.

The “Liberators,” as we call them, have the opportunity to then become paid tutors in one of 30 Oakland Unified School District elementary, middle, and high schools that need extra support. They will now join over 150 tutors across 65 schools in OUSD. Some of these tutors now work at the same school their child attends. 

During the graduation ceremony, our parents and caregivers received a completion certificate and stipend of $1,650. I watched as their children ate cake, vigorously smiling from both the sugar high and their parents’ accomplishment. They know their mama is about to change her community. I thought to myself, “This is power. This is transformative.” 

Graduation night for the Literacy Liberators. Courtesy of Oakland REACH.

Misconceptions about parent engagement 

During graduation, one mom, Danielle, shared with the group that “it takes a village,” which was met with smiles and a sea of finger snaps. Shortly after, I addressed the graduates, and in the spirit of Danielle’s comment, I reminded them that they have been the missing part of that village. 

I also exchanged numbers with Danielle, because she has been placed at my youngest son’s school, and – Black mama to Black mama – I asked her to keep an eye on him. She smiled, and understood the assignment.  

Which pulls me back to “parent engagement.” Parent engagement misses the mark on what it promises Black and brown parents and caregivers. Families are conditioned to believe that their children will do well in school if they are “engaged,” for example, by regularly showing up at school, attending information sessions, and speaking at board meetings. We initially believed that, too, and we spent our first few years organizing and training our parents with these activities. We won a couple of policies, but our children were still not reading or doing math on grade level.

Graduation night for the Literacy Liberators. Courtesy of Oakland REACH.

When we built the Virtual Hub during the pandemic, we shifted to focusing on the actual instruction students are receiving. And this evolved to building the Liberator model, a multi-generational approach giving parents and caregivers the skills to provide evidence-based early literacy instruction. Now, we’re launching the same thing in math.

Most parent engagement opportunities start and end with talking about the status quo. We don’t need to have that conversation again. We need to invite parents into solutions. We need to be tapping into their skills and unleashing their power. REACH has replaced talking with building. 

We’ve replaced parent engagement with parent agency. 

At 7:30 p.m. on graduation night, when both our Liberators and the audience were over-stimulated from applause, photos, selfies, and good food, I looked around the room and saw so much power. All of the Liberator fellows successfully completed the fellowship. 

Our Liberators are proof that parents can indeed make change happen when they are included in the emerging solutions for systems change. Community-building can be as old-school as “keep an eye on my child” and transformative as “thank you for helping my child read.”

Parents are powerful. If you’re just engaging them, you’re wasting their time — and worse, you’re failing to unlock a key asset of that “village.”

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