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.
Maya Martin Cadogan founded Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE) in 2016 and is its executive director. (Note: Responses edited for clarity and length.)
Q: What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you started PAVE?
Maya Martin Cadogan:
In my early years leading PAVE, I thought that if we just did more we would get the policy change our parents sought. There was always so much to do and if someone asked us to do something, how could I say no?
As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I realize that sometimes you have to accept that this work is a marathon not a sprint, that issues are not going to get solved overnight because the problems are more complex than even just the education system can solve, and that you can never do enough. It’s better to figure out what you’re best at rather than try to do more things than a small team and parent leaders can bear. Those lessons have taught me how to only take on the things that fit in with our model and that are core to what we need to do to effect change — and have created more sustainability for me, our parents, and our staff as leaders.
What’s the best advice a parent or community leader ever gave you?
The first (and best) advice that I ever received from PAVE parent leaders still shapes and guides our work today: Parents must be partners and leaders with schools and policymakers to do this work.
Our first board of directors were all parent leaders who helped me to write the mission and vision for PAVE. And as we were sitting in a room for hours workshopping what words we wanted to choose to say who we were and what we were hoping to accomplish, I started with “parents are leaders” and they really pushed me to say, no, Maya, we also want to partner with schools and policymakers in this work. They said that the reason that I had access to the rooms that I did was not only because systems leaders saw me as a leader like them but also because they saw me as someone who would work with them to get the work done. And that’s what they wanted to do at PAVE as well — yes, share their voice and push on the system, but also partner with the system to make it better.
It is because they pushed on that with me that the vision of what we want to be true in education today starts with “parents are partners and leaders.” And I really think it is because we play this role of both being outside of the system and also getting inside of the system to strengthen it that our work is transformational for kids.
What are the two to three key practices that your organization uses to ensure parents are centered in organizing and decision-making?
Our primary practice is recognizing that PAVE is a democracy run not just for the people but by the people. As the executive director, I sign onto coalitions or letters in my individual capacity but whenever a sign-on request requires PAVE to participate, I have our team take that decision to our parents. I also have our team present any changes in our programmatic direction to parents as a proposal, and we have a conversation where they can ratify that decision or throw it out the door.
A good example of that was in our early years when we first started our Parent Leader in Education boards. I assumed that no parent was going to want to commit more than one year to this work, and I presented PAVE parents with a proposal for how we could build an entirely new board for the next year. They looked at me like I’d grown three heads and said, “absolutely not, we can bring new people in but PAVE is our organization and we’re staying on the boards for next year.” And it was the right decision because by bringing in new board members with returning members, we created more consistency in PAVE’s model and a greater understanding of who we were and how staff and parents collaborate and learn from one another.
A second critical practice is making sure that all the work we do reflects the culture, values, and backgrounds of our parents. Our staff think it’s funny but our parents love ginger ale (as do I, it’s a healing ointment in my cultural tradition especially amid a pandemic) and I’m always asking before meetings and events, “do we have enough ginger ale?” But when the food and drink doesn’t reflect what our parents want and like, the room isn’t built for them. So, while in other organizations that may seem like a little thing, at PAVE, we care deeply about the little things — colors in the room, gifts, delicious food, child care providers who know the kids’ names, beverages of choice, and musical selections — that our parents want and that make them feel like PAVE isn’t just for them, it’s all about them.
A third practice that I’d stress is the importance of being someone that parents trust to give them “real-deal” information about what’s going on in the system. That’s something parents stressed to me since Day One — they wanted to know that whatever PAVE told them about our leaders and schools was going to be the unfiltered truth, that we’d present multiple perspectives on how to interpret that information, and that we wouldn’t hide anything from them. At its core, organizing work is about trust; and so much of trust is based on objective, timely information that does not shy away from revealing the gaps in our schools and education system to enable parents to be knowledgeable partners and leaders to fix it.
What has your organization accomplished that you’re most proud of?
I’m most proud of how PAVE pivoted during the COVID-19 pandemic. That was an unprecedented time in the world that presented particular challenges for organizing, teaching policy, and sharing voice through advocacy. But we did it and didn’t miss a beat.
Our parents wrote such powerful statements on pandemic recovery and they turned up on more Zooms than I ever care to count to meet with policymakers, elected officials, and one another. They learned how to use Twitter and responded to many, many texts that we sent. And our team got resources to parents during the pandemic like food, rental assistance, Chromebooks, and even mental health counseling to support them not just as leaders but as a part of our PAVE family. I hope we never experience a pandemic again, but I’m proud of how we kept our work going during that difficult time.