What is your PTO doing to be more racially equitable? How are you reaching out to parents who don’t speak English? How do people of different cultures and backgrounds know you want them to have an equal voice?

School parent groups are asking these questions, but the answers aren’t simple. While the ethnic backgrounds of Americans and their children are ever more diverse, change in parent groups can be slow to happen because of cultural, historical, or sensitivity issues that have to be addressed.

Some robust conversations with leaders in PTO Today’s PTO and PTA Leaders & Volunteers Facebook group and an expert on equity in education have pointed toward earnest paths for moving forward with inclusiveness within parent groups.

Adjust Thinking and Goals

If you’re thinking in terms of inclusion, it’s a fair and well-intended start—but there’s a difference between just “inviting” and true inclusion.

“Being ‘included’ in a system that was not designed for your family’s goals and edification is not a gift,” says Jennifer Malone, PTO copresident at Longfellow Elementary in Oak Park, Ill. “Be sure you ask what your Black and Brown families want to see and need to see change. Just inviting is not necessarily welcoming. People who are disenfranchised are not going to just show up unless they believe they will actually get a seat at the table.”

Allyson Criner Brown is the associate director at Teaching for Change, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that coordinates a variety of programs to encourage teachers, students, and parents to build a more equitable, multicultural society through education.

“Inclusion and inviting are two different things,” she tells PTO Today. “There’s a difference between saying you are invited and ‘this has been created with you in mind.’”

Instead, says Criner Brown, consider the big picture of how your parent group is structured. Not everyone uses email or can attend an evening meeting. Finding ways to encourage and engage those parents is a key step toward true inclusion.

“How do your meetings look? How does your outreach look? How do you change these structures of your group? That’s when you get into real inclusion,” she says.

For Tonisha McNish Walker, PTA vice president at Dolphin Bay Elementary in Miramar, Fla., putting a focus on authenticity and building bonds leads to the type of inclusion that makes parents feel welcome in the group.

“It has been my experience as a Black woman in America that no matter what organization I am a part of, when people are authentic everything falls into place,” she says.

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Focus on Language and Communication Barriers

While many schools and groups have worked to overcome language barriers, others say they’ve had a hard time breaking through to non-English-speaking parents because of it. As well, whatever their primary language, some parents just don't use (or have access to) email, texting, or social media to communicate.

“This is a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot for my school,” says Leah Fallon, PTA vice president at Frederick Douglass Elementary in Leesburg, Va. “We have a diverse school with a large population of non-English speakers. I would love to get them on board and have a voice at the table.”

It’s not easy, but it’s an important part of inclusion efforts. Even if you can’t fully close the language gap, continuing to try to find ways to do so will let parents know you want them to have that voice.

If many parents speak a language other than English, add a bilingual parent liaison position to your board. You could also see an uptick in participation simply by finding bilingual parents or high schoolers in your community and asking them to wear a button to meetings that identifies them to non-English speakers. A button might say "Yo Hablo Español" (in English, “I speak Spanish”) or convey the same message in another language.

Other steps toward overcoming a language barrier include offering culturally relevant materials, programs, and training that resonate with diverse populations of parents.

Criner Brown says that in terms of overall communication, some leaders don’t realize that not every parent has access to email or texting, and that they need to find ways to reach those parents, too.

“Start with simple questions,” she says. “Say hi. Find out who they talk to. There’s always that trusted teacher… start a conversation with that person to get some insight to your approach.”

Create a Diversity Committee

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others, many companies across America have taken a deeper look at the issue of racial justice by forming in-house task forces or committees—and some parent groups are doing the same. A diversity committee would be a forum for discussing communication strategies, planning culturally diverse events, and making other efforts toward equity and inclusion.

Some parent groups have used other models for creating spaces that promote idea-sharing. At Tyler Elementary in Washington, D.C., PTA president Elsa Falkenburger used a concept she’d helped implement at her work—“affinity groups”—to give Black and Spanish-speaking families a safe and comfortable place to be heard and then to address issues that arise.

“[The groups] were pulled together after feedback from Black PTA parents in the fall that they needed a safe space to talk and share ideas and concerns,” says Sarah Bainton Kahn, PTA fundraising chair at Tyler Elementary. “It took a few months to identify leaders and to get the groups meeting. They had only met a couple times before COVID but their input/readouts at the last PTA meeting we had were powerful. So even though ours was in a nascent stage I’d highly recommend schools consider this model.”

Ask for Suggestions

Some parent groups have had gotten help with figuring out the types of changes that would be beneficial and positive from people of color on their school staff.

“We just started collaborating with the director of the afterschool program (who's Black) to help engage more Black families,” says Heather J. in the Facebook group.

However, Criner Brown warns that while people of color on staff may have insights on racial dynamics at the school, asking them to lead or direct these efforts ultimately could place the onus on them. There is a delicate balance between asking them for solutions and inviting them to share any thoughts or suggestions to inform your school's approach.

Share Cultural Experiences

Getting families together to share different aspects of their culture can be another tool in building and strengthening relationships.

At the Howard C. Reiche Community School in Portland, Maine, where 29 languages are spoken and 22 countries are represented, it can be challenging to find the right event to bring the community together. For instance, some families aren’t comfortable with auctions or evening social gatherings because of their religious or cultural beliefs.

But the PTO found a perfect fit with their annual multicultural potluck, a “wonderful, feel-good event that’s made us proud of who we are,” says Jeanne Swanton, former PTO cochair and treasurer.

Other ideas include movie nights with subtitles in another language, bringing in speakers and performers to celebrate other cultures, and events that celebrate a particular culture or event, like Cinco de Mayo or Juneteenth. Ask parents with those cultural backgrounds or experiences to help plan and volunteer at the event, and don’t charge for them—remember that your goal is to engage families.

Don’t Give Up—It Will Take Time

Recognize the fact that although you want to make changes and you have the right intentions, there’s no “silver bullet” to convince people who’ve historically felt left out that they have an equal say, says Criner Brown.

“The traditional model for parent engagement is built around a white, suburban, middle-class model that says parents can be fundraisers, chaperones, members of parent-teacher associations—or come to parent-teacher conferences or back-to-school nights and read to their child at home,” Criner Brown says. “For the families we work with, mostly low-income families of color, that is just not the most effective model.”

And with a system so historically oriented toward “this is the way it’s always been done,” she says, there could be a disconnect between what groups say they want to change and people believing it’s genuine.

“If [a group] doesn’t get an immediate response for rolling out the red carpet, allow that it hasn’t really been rolled out until 2020,” she says. “Have patience for hesitancy.”

It’s also OK if not every attempt is perfect. Don’t let a fear of not knowing exactly the words to use or steps to take keep you from trying to do better. The key, says McNish Walker, is to keep listening.

“Schools that have an all-white school community and don’t know where to start need to start with listening. Listen to the people of color around them no matter how small the population is. How do they want to be represented?” she says. “Once it is said, honor it. Don’t over-speak and over explain, just allow them to be represented in their way. If they say they don’t like certain terms, traditions and ideas, then get rid of them. No matter how embedded it may have become in a school’s tradition, once you realize that it offends a group of people, it’s time to do away with it.”

Over time, that kind of listening is what can lead to real change.

“If you’re listening to gain experiences and build with them…It’s not always going to go right, but it is worth doing,” Criner Brown says.


Equity and Anti-Racism Tools

Teaching for Change Equity and Inclusion Tool

Teaching for Change offers a downloadable PDF designed to help parent organizations and leaders within those groups pursue equity and inclusion, and to disrupt practices that support racism, classism, and other –isms, whether intentional or unintentional.

Kindred

Kindred builds trusting relationships between parents of diverse backgrounds and supports them to work with school leadership to drive equity and diversity in their schools and communities.

National MultiCultural Institute

NMCI works with individuals, organizations, and communities to increase communication, understanding, and respect among people of diverse backgrounds, and addresses important systemic issues of multiculturalism.

Teaching Tolerance

Teaching Tolerance supports the efforts of K–12 teachers and other educators to promote respect for differences and an appreciation of diversity.

PTO Today also recently published a list of helpful links for talking with children about race, protests, violence, diversity, and activism in today’s world.

Evelyn Beck and Rose Hamilton contributed to this article.