Academic journal article Advancing Women in Leadership

Parent Advocacy in a Gendered Organization: Participatory Research, Action, and Analysis

Academic journal article Advancing Women in Leadership

Parent Advocacy in a Gendered Organization: Participatory Research, Action, and Analysis

Article excerpt

Hegemonic gender relationships pervade the organization of schooling in America (Marshall, 1992, 2000; Yeakey, Johnston, & Adkinson, 1986; Young, 2000; Young & Laible, 2000). Men generally occupy privileged roles as administrators. Women ordinarily serve in subordinate positions as teachers and parents (read: mothers). The exercise of authority in schools, then, has come to be associated with the male voice: hierarchical, rule-oriented, dispassionate, and even harsh (Jones, 1988; Shakeshaft, 1989, 1998). Hegemony silences women's voices so that their calls for compassion and connectivity become "non-authoritarian, marginal pleadings for mercy-gestures of the subordinate" (Jones, 1988, p. 121).

Hegemony of gender served as the fundamental premise of this study of four women as they struggled to achieve social justice for their children with disabilities. The mothers created a grassroots organization called Face-to-Face and, for two years, battled the male-dominated school administration and Board of Education. The study examines the gendered organization of schooling in one, small, rural school district in the American Midwest, and serves as a lens for viewing the hegemony of gender in American society.

Methodology, Data Sources, and Research Ethics

Two academic researchers (Andrews and Lee) and the four women of Face-to-Face selected participatory action research as the methodology for this study. Like community organizers, Andrews and Lee collaborated with the mothers to challenge the structures and mechanisms of their oppression (Sohng, 1995). Participatory action researchers engage disenfranchised people as researchers in pursuit of answers to their own questions and solutions to the problems of their everyday lives (Brown, 1985; Fals-Borda, 1979; Freire, 1970, 1974; Hall, 1981; Tandon, 1981). The inquiry process encourages participants to create the changes they want to see in their world (Gaventa, 1988).

Participatory research is a means of putting research capabilities in the hands of deprived and disenfranchised people so that they can identify themselves as knowing actors; defining their reality, shaping their new identity, naming their history, and transforming their lives for themselves.... It is a means of preventing an elite group from exclusively determining the interests of others... (Sohng, 1995, p. 4)

Andrews and Lee, activists for the rights of the less powerful-women and children, made no attempt to create an illusion of objectivity and neutrality while collaborating with Face-to-Face to conduct this study. We openly asserted our bias. In fact, as women and mothers, we saw ourselves as insiders who had privileged access to the worldviews and experiences of the four women (Foley, Levinson, & Hurtig, 2001). Our study is epistemologically valid based on our identification with the four women, our sensitivity to the gendered nature of schooling, and our shared commitment to the aims of improving the learning and life chances of their children (Foley, Levinson, & Hurtig, 2001; Noddings, 1984, 1992).

Both Andrews and Lee are university professors. Andrews was participant-observer, an insider who lived in the rural community where the study took place. The parents regularly sought her advice about how to deal with the schools. With Andrews and Lee serving as advisors, the women formed Face-to-Face, a grassroots organization of parents learning to advocate for the education of their children with disabilities. Throughout the two-year struggle, Andrews maintained ongoing communication with parents, school board members, the newspaper editor, and district administrators.

Lee, an outsider, assumed the role of observer-participant; conducting interviews, analyzing documents and artifacts, and participating in community activities related to the ongoing struggle. The women of Face-to-Face collaborated recorded field notes, collected documents, took photographs, participated in tape-recorded interviews and conversations, analyzed data, and reviewed and approved written accounts. …

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