Re-imagining How To Support Black Parents

There are a host of support programs offered to black parents specifically, and for the most part, these supports were designed to ‘fix’ black parents. Beginning within a deficit model, we still tell ourselves that we take on a strengths-based approach- that we build upon existing strengths. That is contradictory. We say we build on strengths, but we focus on perceived deficits.

The aim of most parental support and empowerment programs is to build capacity in some area of their lives. What we actually are doing and saying is that black parents lack certain skills and abilities and we seek ways to help them along by leveraging the competencies we determine characterize a ‘strength’. “Who decides what constitutes a ‘strength’ and by what set of standards?

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Instead of identifying self-defined strengths, we determine the traits that should be recognized as strengths. From program design, the focus is on what we value, instead of what parents value. In  the education system where most of the adults and teachers are white, we devalue and dismiss the true assets of black parents and their children and ask that they adjust, adapt and cope with what we value.  From the start, we should learn about them, their culture, values and strengths. Our school systems already devalue black people, erases their contributions and prioritizes teacher comfort over the learning and rights of black children, and also villainize their hair, clothes and language.

With so many ‘deficits’ ascribed to blacks, there’s scarce room left for those strengths to be built upon or frame engagement. Moreover, it is common phrase to state the objective of parent support is to build capacity. The general definition of parent support programming assumes that black parents lack the expertise to contribute to conversations about parenting their own children. Actually, should they be given full respect, the capacity that must be built, should refer to educators and practitioners. It is they who need to listen, value, partner and make proper adjustments to their own mindsets, skills and competencies.

Black parents need not be ‘fixed’ and neither do their children. That is problematic when the onus is on parents to accommodate whites to make them comfortable. It is dismissive of who they are. It has alienated and marginalized them, and left black parents to feel little trust in the systems they navigate. One parent said, during one of the group sessions that they feel  that they and their children are ‘under ‘siege’. Another parent said that she feels that her children are more well-behaved than white children; that they are arrested, accosted and harassed much more. How is that for wisdom? For a people who have been criminalized for normal everyday behavior, they recognize the disparities.

In their defense, when whites, and some other blacks, see a group of youngsters standing in front of a building, in a park or just walking together, they are suspect. In most of the communities where this can be seen, there is no where for them to go for leisure. On a cool Summer evening, or a warm afternoon, what are they expected to do? Stay indoors, without air conditioning? What about their developmental needs for social interaction?

There are no movie theaters, skating rinks, structured social clubs or clubhouses in their community. No swimming pools or soccer fields. No backyards or recreation rooms in their homes. When given very few options for leisure or play, what else are they to do? Where else are they to go?  Yet, if peacefully congregating, they still see themselves being held face down into the pavement or up against a wall. It makes sense that this is the interpretation. It is wisdom supported by example. This parent, with the agreement of every other parent in my group, laid out their reality and lived experience, and outlined the areas in which ‘systems’ need to change, not them or their children. That scenario demonstrated wisdom, providing targeted areas   for system changes.

Black parents possess tons of wisdom and  insights that would shed light on the racism and discrimination they face and can provide vital information and deeper perspectives on racism that can help systems to undermine it. Not only do black parents need a seat at the table to use their voices, they should be the ones who set the table. This ensures that they set the tempo of conversations, thus ensuring they are heard.  Sit back and actively listen.

It is evident that systems  have not been successful in eliminating disparities and improving outcomes for black families. The missing component is the families themselves.Why continue to ask them to cope when they should be allowed to heal, while the bulk of the changes needed falls at the feet of everyone else. Besides, all of that which we say we wish to change was not their doing. It was a few cruel   whites who created designs that deliberately continues to perpetuate poverty, illiteracy and dependency upon a system designed to keep them marginalized.

Schools should begin each academic year with a listening circle or wellness circle. These circles will be gatherings designed to place educators in the position of ‘listener’. Parents take the floor and lay out their concerns, need and desires for their child’s achievement and true partnerships. Partnering with families here are no absolutes and the terms aren’t dictated by schools or organizations. This is where parents tell us what they need relative to their realities, not ours.

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No one knows better how to navigate their lives, their children’s lives or navigate systems better than parents themselves. What systems can do is listen and hear what their lives are like and identify areas in which they can eliminate unjust and undeserved barriers. Black parents and their children are expected to dismiss their cultural values and strengths, trading them in for ours.It is this one-sided relationship that continues to demonize and criminalize aspects of a culture born in America.

Black families, parents and children, possess incredible wisdom, strength and resilience that is greatly feared.  In overcoming those fears, systems must aim fot equity through cultural responsiveness, collaboration and teaming with parents and other stakeholders. These efforts cannot be partisan, as the politics have no place in evidence-informed supports and services. Multi-tiered supports systems  will be the rule of thumb, and all such supports will include the providers.

A communal approach that structurally and financially demonstrates respect for Black parent wisdom strike a sharp contrast with the majority of parent support programs: As psychologist Stephanie Coard has asserted, most parenting programs have been problematically designed by whites looking to fix the parenting of Black people.  Black parents do not lack any parenting expertise, rather quite the opposite. They know what they and their children face on a daily basis. Parents do their job in response to the social climate and culture.

Convene parent forums, specifically to share their collective experiences, and to collectively determine what they need from us. If the vast majority of one group of people share similar experiences in one particular environment, that is wisdom shared that informs systems that it is not parents but systems that need fixing….each system, education, health care, child welfare, justice and others.

Invite parents to share and sit back and listen to the wisdom they share. No responses from you are necessary. If you provide immediate responses and answers, you haven’t been listening. That will sum up the central concern-no one has been listening. Listening to black parents share their wisdom when they are ready to do so with you, may indeed present logical questions for clarification. NO MORE ASSUMPTIONS.

For example, in school settings, schedule a convenient time for parents to share among themselves before you step into the room. It can be the day of a parent conference or when there is an already planned event at the school. Designate a space for parents to get together at least a half hour before the main event. This allows them to share and build their social capital in that environment. This is their time to talk and your time to listen using your ears, not your eyes. Then you may ask questions for clarification.

imagejpeg_1(6)_resizedYou can count on at least 5-10 parents in attendance, which is enough for a task-oriented group to be productive. Provide them with an agenda, no scripting. Something like, “Changes we want for us and our children at school”. Ask the group to designate a parent or staff spokesperson to relay this info after and to maintain some protocol during this process to maintain productivity. Another option is to assign your school’s parent facilitator to ensure all voices are heard and respect and any conflict is peacefully resolved, reminding parents why they are there. The last thing we want to do is put words into their mouths or lead them in any way. It is about them, not you.

There are may ways to achieve this goal. Once information is gathered, that has uncovered a theme, this informs schools of the work they must do in order to shift their policies, programs, services, and instructional strategies towards one that will encourage and foster partnerships and equity. Similar to the teachers who find learning to be less challenging when high interest instructional materials frames the lessons, parents appreciate that as well.

Once again, the task of adaptation, adjustment and adopt new practices is you, not the parents. Respect their perspectives, related expertise, and their absence of perfection. You will find out what parents know, what they want for their children, and what teaching strategies would likely be successful with Black students. Even more, when we approach parents with information to explore, Black parents will not only deepen our understanding of the issues facing Black families but also contribute to the work themselves.

Listen to the dreams and frustrations of parents, and notice that many of them are passionate about the same issues: their children don’t trust their teachers; their children weren’t interested in the lessons; and there wasn’t enough Black history being taught. View these concerns as valid critiques. Through listening sessions, staff will realize that black parents have been experiencing the same processes of dehumanization as their children. Black parents were clearly articulating their realities and acutely identifying the root causes of how schools were failing them and their children. However, due to the white supremacist motivations of schools (e.g., worship of the written word), the genius of Black parents was being overlooked and undervalued.

Once focus is shifted appropriately to align with the wisdom of black parents, system policies, processes and promises of empowerment and equity will be fulfilled with more reliability. At the present, we insist that families conform and cope,. That isn’t working. We must give them space to heal from generational harm, and undoubtedly  parenting practices will adjust appropriately. Listen to their wisdom and expertise.


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