Today’s What I Learned post comes from Anita Dualeh (who also wrote Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab for the Let’s Talk About Hijab series). She writes about wrestling with issues of race and diversity in the Parent Teacher Organization at her children’s St. Paul, Minnesota school.
This past September our oldest son started kindergarten at a public school in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. At the first meeting of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) I learned that the school now has fewer than half Caucasian children in its student body. The PTO, however, does not reflect the diversity of its students. There were a few parents of color at the first few meetings of the year, but the only people who consistently show up are white moms. Leaders in the PTO have been talking about how to increase the diversity of the organization. They formed a mosaic committee, which has met twice I believe. I haven’t ever heard an exact number, but I’ve gathered that the committee charged with helping figure out a solution to the lack of diversity is mostly, if not all, white.
I thought about joining this committee, but it seems like it is doomed from the start. My husband, who is from East Africa, isn’t joining either. He has things to say on this topic, but he’d probably never say them in such a setting. Many minorities may feel like he does. They have little spare time because they’re working hard to provide for their families. Why would they show up at meetings where the goals are nebulous and where they are fairly certainly people don’t really understand them? If they have input, would anyone take it seriously? Some of them probably feel that the major decisions have already been made and there isn’t room in the conversation to tell the group that they aren’t convinced of the need for their children to sell frozen pizzas or kitchen gadgets from a glossy catalogue to people who don’t really want to buy them. They probably won’t bother to say that they have no intention of going to a bar on a Saturday evening to bid on silent auction items they don’t have room in their budget to buy. (I never said that aloud either, though it was how I felt.) And they may not understand the point of going to school on a frigid night in January for family fitness night. But that does not automatically mean they are uninvolved or apathetic parents.
At our school there are parents of every color who care deeply about their children’s education. But ideas of what an involved parent looks like may vary from one culture to another. And how it plays out in the day-to-day could look quite different from what those in the dominant culture might expect. For starters, the mass emails or letters sent home from school probably aren’t reaching everyone the PTO wants to reach. Indeed, some parents may respond better to personal invitations to help out with existing activities or programs, but I have a hunch that even a more personal touch won’t achieve a really high response rate. It’s a hunch based on personal experience. For the school’s literacy night, another PTO-sponsored event, I talked my husband into telling some traditional tales from his culture for one of the storytelling sessions. He didn’t want to. “Do it for your son,” I pleaded. So he agreed. But if my son and I wouldn’t have been here to talk him into it again on the snowy evening of the event, he may have never gone. He really did it just for us. I asked our neighbors from Togo to participate in the storytelling that evening as well. They declined. Even though I’d recently started taking care of their daughter after school and I thought they sort of owed me a favor.
Rather than just inviting individuals of color to join us in what we’re already doing, perhaps we need to take a step backward. Maybe we need to start with questions like, “How should we collectively support our children’s learning?” Certainly, we need to make it a conversation that includes a lot more people. But to those like my husband, even this appears to be little more than lip service. I asked him why he thought parents of color are generally not involved in the PTO. “Because they don’t feel like they belong,” he said. “Look at the staff at the school. They’re all white.” In his view you’re not going to get parents of color to participate in volunteer activities when the school doesn’t demonstrate they value diversity enough to hire teachers of color. What if they can’t find such teachers? He doesn’t believe that’s the problem. (I have heard once that city schools in our area have found it challenging to hire licensed teachers that reflect the diversity of their students, but don’t have any facts to prove or disprove that statement.)
What my husband is suggesting is that perhaps the root of the problem is structural racism, which is something the PTO alone can’t fix. It sounds overwhelming. But for the sake of our children I hope we don’t give up. I hope we continue to ask the hard questions. I hope we make a commitment to listening to minority parents. To do that well, parents from the dominant culture first need to reach out to parents of color with no agenda beyond friendship. As we each diversify our own pool of friends, diversifying the PTO might just take care of itself.
Anita Dualeh, who lives in St. Paul with her husband and two sons, leads her church’s Refugee Life Ministry team. She blogs at www.1stteacher.wordpress.com
*image via Flickr