Academic journal article Social Justice

Cultural Exclusion and Critique in the Era of Good Intentions: Using Participatory Research to Transform Parent Roles in Urban School Reform

Academic journal article Social Justice

Cultural Exclusion and Critique in the Era of Good Intentions: Using Participatory Research to Transform Parent Roles in Urban School Reform

Article excerpt

PARENTS WHO HAVE EXPERIENCED MARGINALIZATION BECAUSE OF THEIR RACE, SOCIAL class, language, or immigrant status have a rich critique of the structures of inequality that disadvantage their children, but they are seldom invited to express or act upon this critique. More often, in public school settings parent critique is censored, silenced, or condemned; busy educators dismiss it as individual expressions of frustration by angry or "difficult" parents. Yet the critique of marginalized parents contains insights that could suggest solutions to some of our most entrenched educational problems. In an era in which racial inequality in education takes place without the consent of the law, what Mica Pollock (2008) has termed "the new civil rights era," the critique expressed by parents and students of color is both necessary to combat inequality and, paradoxically, condemned by education professionals who view themselves as already working in the interests of these students and parents. Well-meaning educators who sincerely aim to serve communities of color are often the least willing to admit or recognize how their everyday actions unwittingly reproduce the structures that silence and marginalize parents and students of color. The situation calls for spaces and processes that help to transform parent critique from something perceived to be threatening and divisive into a source of new insights and visions for change.

In this article, I explore a critique expressed by Latino immigrant parents in an urban school reform movement and the ways in which a participatory research group called Madres Unidas (Mothers United) transformed the critique from a stigmatizing force into a catalyst for positive change. The work of Madres Unidas took place within a citywide organizing movement that aimed to reverse inequities in the Oakland public schools in part by giving new roles to parents and community members in the design and creation of small autonomous schools. The small schools movement was an especially difficult context in which to voice critique because the teachers and administrators involved were, according to one reform leader, "some of the most well-intentioned people in the district." The new small school that Madres Unidas helped to found was intended to be a "community school" where, according to its proposal, "parents' voices will be valued and they will play a vital role in the decision-making processes of the school." The teachers who formed the design team to start the school were committed to social justice and were determined to create better educational opportunities for the diverse immigrant families of Oakland's flatlands. Yet a three-year ethnographic study completed by the author on the parents' roles in the reform (Dyrness, 2004) revealed that many Latino parents were angry and disillusioned by reform processes that often excluded them. This painful paradox is not an anomaly, but rather an increasingly common feature of what I call the era of good intentions. In an era in which racial inequality is not condoned by the law or by most Americans, and often occurs through "benevolence" (Villenas, 2001), efforts to counter this inequality become more complicated and are likely to be met with defensiveness (Pollock, 2008). I argue that participatory research is one way to help parents and teachers analyze and embrace critique as a necessary step toward the goal of creating more just educational practices and outcomes.

In the pages that follow I detail two types of transformation that were necessary to unleash the creative potential inherent in parents' critique of reform in the new small schools: a transformation on the part of the parents and on the part of the teachers. Parents had to move from a place of isolation, in which personal feelings of exclusion were often turned inward and resulted in disengagement from the school, to shared or collective critique, in which the realization that other parents shared their experiences and feelings of exclusion generated new confidence to confront exclusionary practices. …

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