The Parent Leader Network (PLN) provides a space for parents in EC-LINC communities to collaborate with and support each other, represent the parent perspective, and advocate for parent voice and leadership in early childhood systems. Over the past year, members of the PLN have presented in their local communities and at national convenings on race equity, parent leadership, and early childhood. Many of their presentations introduce audiences to the Manifesto for Race Equity and Parent Leadership in Early Childhood Systems. Parent leaders also came together at the inaugural PLN Summit to plan the future of the Network and strategize about what it takes to radically change the way parents are seen and included in early childhood programs and systems. The PLN hopes to share its work with a broader audience and this blog post is the first of many which will share the impact PLN members are creating in their communities and beyond. Nicole Burman, the author, is a member of the PLN Steering Committee and lives in Kent County, Michigan. She is also featured in the PLN video.
There I was standing in front of eight parents who were expecting me to teach them something when I felt like I had nothing. In a shaky but determined voice, I welcomed the group. I gathered my nerves and spoke the one thing that set the stage for the entire training: “We here are all equal! I am here to facilitate but that does not make me more of a leader than you. We are all leaders!” It was my first Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) workshop, and it was my job to empower these parents to dream big, think big, and set personal, family, and community goals. Though I was nervous, I needed to help them find the leader in themselves because I knew that most of them, like me, questioned whether or not they had the power to change their communities.
Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) is a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that works with parents to become leaders and make their communities more family-friendly. COFI uses a family focused organizing model that connects parents to one another, building parent leadership and parent-led organizations. COFI’s mission is to strengthen the power and voice of working families and families experience low income who are at all levels of civic life—from local institutions and communities to local, state, and federal policy arenas.
In October 2018 I was a parent leader with The Great Start Parent Coalition, a group dedicated to informing and shaping early childhood initiatives, and helping families raise children who are supported and prioritized. Through this work, I learned about a community organizing training opportunity that was fully parent led and I was excited to participate. I didn’t know it then, but that was my introduction to COFI. The training took place with several other family-centered organizations. For four days, I was trained on how to empower parents, helping them to bring out the leaders within themselves by setting personal and family goals then working to accomplish them. I was trained on how to help parents realize they were already leaders in their homes and that this experience was going to help them become stronger leaders.
The team-building portion of the COFI work involves doing a project in the community. Our Kent County, Michigan cohort, the Game Changers, put together a community event to inform parents about Michigan’s Read by Grade Three Law. This law states that third graders may repeat third grade if they are more than one grade level behind, beginning in the 2019-2020 school year. We knew that this law would come as a big shock for families in the community and we wanted to make sure parents knew their rights, how to fight for them, and what it meant if their child had an individualized education plan (IEP) and how that was aligned with the provisions of the law. We centered our event around the Success Basics (Love, Talk, Count, Play, and Read), which are practical ways parents to help their children get a good start and thrive in school. We provided free food sensory activities, story times, and resources from organizations that support families. Every child left with a big smile, a bag with school supplies, a free book or two, and a stuffed animal they adopted to read their stories to. We expected to serve about 100 people but we had more than 200 people from the community attend our event. I was so very proud of our cohort of the parents who completely organized, planned, and executed those plans to put on such a great event for the community.
My work with COFI in my community taught me how to find my voice and how to cultivate relationships. As a steering committee member of the Parent Leader Network, I knew COFI would be a great addition to the Network’s Learning and Action Agenda. COFI taught me to facilitate even through my mistakes and to balance roles and responsibilities with a co-facilitator. I learned that leadership is not about leveraging what you have for your benefit, but for the benefit of others. I knew COFI training would help PLN members empower other parents in their own communities.
In November 2019, a group of 30 parent leaders and staff from each community in the PLN traveled to Chicago to be trained in Phase 1 of the COFI model, which focuses on creating supportive parent teams, setting goals, and establishing plans. We have taken what we learned back to our communities and are in the process of implementing the training for parents in our respective areas. Although we are all in different stages in Phase 1 of COFI, we are all learning from one another and encouraging each other. We’re empowering parents to step out of their comfort zones, to become acquainted with the leader within themselves, and to organize with other parents to create lasting change.