Danielle Hardin and Heidi Harris

Danielle Hardin (L) and Heidi Harris (R)

Danielle Hardin and Heidi Harris talk about Family Engagement

Family Engagement involves ongoing efforts to build meaningful, collaborative relationships between schools, communities, and families. Forging those relationships does not always come easily, given the many different perspectives, priorities, backgrounds and needs that people bring to the table. 

In a recent conversation over Zoom, MASFEC’s Danielle Hardin and Heidi Harris shared their insights into the challenging work of creating a culture where relationships can form and grow over time. 

Your work with school districts and parent-led groups involves facilitating dialogue and training people to be prepared to come together into conversation. What does that look like in practical terms?

Danielle: MASFEC has longstanding relationships in some of the communities we work with, so in many cases there are experienced family engagement professionals already working with the families and district leaders to support collaboration. We might come in to provide workshops and trainings in support of their stated goals. 

Heidi: Our approach always involves collaborative and interactive work with parents as community leaders–teaching them to find their voice and build authentic partnerships with the schools and district. The goal is to disrupt the usual pattern of parents in one corner, teachers and administrators in another corner–and really building towards an equitable partnership. It’s also about amplifying the bank of knowledge and voice of parents, and helping district leaders learn how to listen in an authentic way. 

Danielle: We have also been taking a deep dive approach to a research-based program developed by the Federation for special education families. Our question has been, are we including all families in this work? And if not, how can we do that. 

MASFEC provides technical assistance to school districts, and you have recently been working with several districts where families and administrators want to have deep and productive conversations about educational inequity in their district.  What seems to be the impetus for having these challenging conversations? 

Heidi: I don’t know where it originates, but both stakeholders have embraced this as a necessary point of conversation. There is an impasse. It’s not just racial equity – it’s any marginalized group that feels that they are disconnected from the partnership and the learning experiences of their kids. And from the school perspective, we’ve got all of these kids who don’t fit neatly into any one box and we need to figure out how to work with them. 

So, you can call it equity, you can call it belonging – that is the table. Equity is not a side dish, which many districts have traditionally treated it as–disconnected from teaching and learning – disconnected from the lens that instructional leaders need to have. It’s not a standalone initiative, it’s a part of teaching and learning. This involves talking about curriculum, talking about practices and policies. It’s about disrupting systemic barriers. 

In your workshop at the statewide Family Engagement Conference, you talked about creating Brave Spaces for these necessary conversations. What does that mean? 

Heidi: When we talk about creating brave spaces, we’re talking about developing a mindset and getting that empathy muscle going. You need to see equity and diversity as an asset–but  something that you need to actively work at.

 When you bring people together into a room, it’s about getting people to connect with their own identity – because probably everyone has experienced some part of their multiple identities being marginalized. Woman, gay, old, young, conservative, liberal – some part of your identity has been marginalized and “othered.” 

When you can get someone to sit in that space and feel what that is like, you can get them to begin to think about how can I bring this knowledge into my work – how can I bring that into creating a win-win. 

Danielle: When we come into a space together, we validate everyone. There are educators who feel overworked and overwhelmed. The administrators have their own pressures and certain boxes they need to check to satisfy the requirements of their roles. Then the families come in, and they don’t want to hear about boxes you need to check.

Heidi: Their perspective is, I don’t want to hear about policies, I want to talk about my child.

Danielle:  Parents keep their children at the center. They also bring their identities into the room, whether as women, as Black women, as parents–their past experiences cause families to approach relationships with schools with their guard up.  

And so Heidi and I work to bring people together–bringing all of who they are. When we do that, we realize everyone has a story. Many educators right now are new and fresh, others are very burned out by the system. There are so many disconnections in the system that have an impact on them. The goal is for educators, administrators and families to be able to really see one another. If we do our job, every child will be seen as an individual and will be supported to succeed. 

Heidi: It’s about helping families express, “this is who my family is.” “This is who my child is.” 

Danielle: Family engagement and equity need to be woven into everything educators and professionals who work with families do. Heidi and I may have a particular focus in our work with a school district community, but our message is always: incorporate equity and family engagement into everything you’re doing. Ask families to tell you how their children operate. You’re not going to get that from a bake sale. 

What advice would you give to administrators and professionals to support the success of these conversations?

Heidi: You have to understand that this is a journey and no one person owns this work. This is a life-long process. Higher Education and healthcare have been doing this work for awhile longer, so in elementary and secondary education, in many ways we are just trying to chart our way through this–to understand the intersections of disability and race, culture and disability, and so on. It’s new and evolving territory. We’re all trying to figure out the model and it will continue to change. Five years down the road our work will look different. 

Danielle: It’s important to think about creating opportunities and spaces where people will want to partner and work together to support the children. Some people may not be open to this work. In sessions that we facilitate, there might be one person who’s not getting it in the room, and if we’re not careful that person ends up absorbing all the focus, and they take away from the experience.  So it’s important to remember that it’s not your job to change anyone’s mind. Instead, invest in the other people in the room and really get through to them. Sometimes we go into spaces thinking we’ll change people’s mindsets, but that’s not what it is. It’s about bringing everyone’s focus back to the needs of the children–holding the child at the center. 

What does success look like, in this work?

Heidi: Our work is successful when we can see a thoughtful partnership form, where everyone has a shared intention of co-creating a healthy, equitable space for all kids.

Danielle (to Heidi): You are so skilled at creating that space for the educators, the administrators, and the families–creating that aha! moment in all of their minds.

Danielle: For the educators, it’s about making sure they understand that when families express anger or emotion it’s all grounded in fear for their kids. We try to help them understand and hold space for that. 

Heidi: The educator has the power to do that. It’s really powerful when an educator learns to say, “I’m not your enemy, I want to help, we’re on the same side – team child.” As the educator, you can step back and change things in the interaction. It’s very difficult, I know, but when the educators show their humanity, that’s when families relax. It’s so powerful when the person in the role of professional asks, “I don’t know the answer, but how can we work together to figure this out?” 

Danielle: Often when there is deep conflict in a community, what they need is a moderator. We have been invited to sessions where everyone is coming to the table but nobody is feeling like they are being heard. People feeling like they are being disrespected. We have come into conversations with plans for what we thought the district needed, but as we listen, a different understanding forms. So, it really is about learning how to listen and have empathy for one another. 

Heidi: There are a lot of different activities that we might bring into a district to support this process, but it’s not one size fits all. For each person in the room, it’s about me seeing you, and you seeing me as a human being that you are going to build a partnership with.