July 18, 2023

Building Parent Power: A Q&A with Kids First Chicago’s Daniel Anello


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Too often in school systems across the country, parents are left out of decision-making — particularly those who are low income, first-generation, immigrants, and/or Black, Latino, or Native American. They aren’t in the room where decisions are made about policy and funding. Frequently, they aren’t even invited into the building. 

In this Q&A series, hear reflections from leaders at effective parent power organizations across the country who do this work every day, in their own words. To learn more about Building Parent Power, click here, and join us in an upcoming webinar series. 

Daniel Anello has been the CEO of Kids First Chicago since 2015. (Note: Responses edited for clarity and length.) 

Krista Kaput and Kelly Robson Foster:

What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you started Kids First Chicago (K1C)?

Daniel Anello:

Parents want to fully engage. We underestimated the full potential of letting parents lead and drive decision-making. We knew they were missing from the education discussion in Chicago, and we had a sense that, given their proximity to issues, they would offer really powerful and rational solutions. But we didn’t fully comprehend their desire to be as deeply involved in shaping the solutions — which, in hindsight, makes sense given how solutions impact their children in very direct ways. And we didn’t fully comprehend how powerfully their voices would resonate when they demand action or change on a given issue.


What’s the best advice a parent or community leader ever gave you?


The best advice I received was that the messenger matters. We had a group of parents tell us that they were taking a K1C presentation and research and presenting it to their own community. They told us that they needed to be the ones who led that work — work about their own backyard — and they just needed our support in refining the presentation. 

It was a great reminder that, even with the best of intentions to take the burden of that work off of parents, we were being paternalistic. We were doing it for them, rather than with them. By allowing parents to just take the presentation, tell us where and how to support, and then lead it — we saw that our collective efforts could go much further. Our presentations also improved once we were pushed to convey information for everyday parents.


What are the two to three key practices that K1C uses to ensure parents are centered in organizing and decision-making?


No. 1: Walk in assuming you’re wrong (humility first).

Recently, our team talked about entering every conversation on an issue assuming we are wrong. Our job is to share the facts and not to persuade anyone about potential solutions.

That means checking your opinions at the door and allowing parents to consider, discuss, and really dig into the issues. Once they have done that, they come to very rational conclusions, because they have kids at stake. Most parents make apolitical decisions that cut through ideology. Parents want to have choices for their children, their schools, and their communities. If we truly acknowledge that we haven’t always been “right,” it frees us up and allows us to be guided to a more inclusive, equitable decision.

No. 2: Bring parent voice into the organization’s governance.

In 2018, K1C established a Parent Advisory Board to provide strategic guidance on our core priorities and represent Black and Latino family perspectives in the Chicago public education system. This has been a crucial sounding board for our team. However, it was only an advisory role. Last fall, we added two at-large members from our Parent Advisory Board who now have a seat on K1C’s board of directors. This has significantly improved the gravitas of our strategic board-level conversations.

No. 3: Language and accessibility matter.

We continually review our internal practices and external communications with an eye toward accessibility and inclusion. For example, our hiring practices include recruiting bilingual staff, who can engage Spanish speakers in their native language, and bringing on K1C program alumni, who can speak firsthand about their experiences in Chicago public education and help improve our programs for families like theirs. To ensure parents — many of whom are single, working mothers — are able to fully participate in our learning sessions, we provide stipends for all participants, onsite child care for in-person events, and virtual options at the times of day that work best for parents’ busy schedules. All of our communications (from social media posts and presentations to research briefs) are published in English and Spanish, with an eye toward language that builds understanding. Our goal is to meet parents where they’re at.


What has K1C accomplished that you’re most proud of?


Seeing leaders find their power and voice. While I’m very proud of what our team has done to stand up some big, systemwide initiatives that better serve Chicago families, what makes me most proud is when parents we have worked with are out there on their own driving local change or getting elected or appointed to legitimate decision-making bodies where they can make education work better for their communities. We have countless examples where parents feel like something has been unlocked, they feel the agency to pursue change they want on their own, and they go out and do it.



What is the thing you’re proudest K1C said ‘no’ to in order to keep on mission?



We have told a couple of funders that we can’t take their support if it intends to tell parents what to do. We have heard this kind of expectation with the best and worst intentions. From questions that ask, “Do these people really know what they need?” to “What if the parents lack the expertise on a specific issue, say teacher quality?” 

Our position has been that parents need to have some voice and power in decisions that impact their child, just like parents do in wealthy communities, regardless of a specific expertise. Walking away from dollars is difficult in the short term, especially early on in K1C’s tenure, but maintaining the integrity of our model has been essential to our long-term success.


What is K1C’s “secret sauce”? What are a few of the key reasons K1C has been successful?


Our secret sauce is staying 100% true to our model. We inform, listen and activate real parents with kids in the school system. They have the most to lose and the most to gain. That means we check our opinions at the door, help them understand the ins and outs of an issue, and then help them pursue the solutions they come up with. That is and can never be about spoon-feeding them something, or trying to convince them of something we believe. We work for parents and work in deference to them. Our job is to inform them as fully as possible, just like consultants do for corporations, and then allow them to decide on the best way forward.


Looking ahead, where do you see your organization in the next five years and what what do you hope to accomplish?


I hope we build a citywide coalition of active, engaged, and informed Black and brown moms and dads that other parents choose to join, and, importantly, that no decision in Chicago that involves education is not first vetted by this group. Just like we see organically in wealthy school districts, we want parents in Chicago to have that same privilege and role.

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