“A person has truly become a PTA member when his circle of concern stretches
beyond his own child to include all children.” – Unknown
October is upon us. At National PTA, that means it is the Month of the Urban Child. This month’s campaign gives emphases to our education advocacy work as it relates to reaching communities where they are: in urban areas. National PTA comprises millions of families, students, teachers, administrators, and business and community leaders devoted to the educational success of children and the promotion of family involvement in schools. While PTA members may be in agreement with the PTA mission overall, urban areas have a uniqueness that warrants a focus on the effectiveness of our education advocacy work in those areas.
The beauty of the urban area is that it is as diverse as its citizens. This diversity, a broad range of backgrounds, religious beliefs, education values, and ethnicities, are unique characteristics that breathe life into the fast-pace, energetic, and close living style of the city!
I’ve had the pleasure of organizing in urban, rural and suburban areas. Regardless of the location in which the organizing work was conducted, the key aspect of my experience has been the importance of relationship building. First, you must build a relationship, develop trust, and address the community’s issue (not yours). Then you can begin to take action. You must first show a community that you care about them, you respect them, will not judge, and that you care about the desire for quality education for all children.
During my experience organizing around education issues in an urban area, I did my homework, researched the community, and knew the education issues facing the schools, economics issues facing the city, and apathy that existed for civic engagement. I was ready to take the community where it needed to go. However, I quickly realized that even with the significant training and abundance of resources at my disposal, I could not instantly require community members to move at my pace, and on my issues (regardless of how lofty). I presented the evidence of what chronically failing schools were doing to diminish future opportunities for children in the community. But the community was more focused on speed bumps for the safety of playing children and the lack of attention to ongoing bed bug outbreaks within the public housing complexes. Only once these concerns were addressed through an issues campaign (the latter receiving resolution) were parents ready to focus a campaign on school funding.
Urban communities can make their own decisions, brings themselves together for a common cause, and rely on each other, but leaders can only be effective if they can be trusted. I have always believed that where there are problems, there is also the opportunity for solutions. The challenges I encountered organizing in an urban area, including cultural differences, overwhelming economic issues, a lack of time, a revolving door of short term well-intended organizations with grant funding (staying as long as the money lasted), and a lack of confidence that decision makers would listen, were not as insurmountable as getting communities and parents to agree and own the fact that they can be effective at advocating for their children. Confidence and trust is achieved through the evidence of action. Keep in mind, the outcome of advocacy work does not have to result in everyone getting what they want. Sometimes simply the process of learning to advocate, speaking up for any issue, and having decision makers actually listen and take some kind of action, can be effective. Once communities experience or see the evidence of this process, they are more open to advocating for education issues.
If you have access to communities that might benefit from an education focus, take the first step and find out what the most pressing needs are. Use the PTA online advocacy toolkit to aid your efforts to expose parents and communities to advocating the PTA way. You might be pleasantly surprised at the receptiveness of our urban communities.
Stella Y. Edwards is mother, wife, special education teacher, community organizer, education consultant, radio talk show host (FM 91.3 WVST), and former United States Army Officer. For over eighteen years, Ms. Edwards has served at every level of the association. She is currently chairman of the National PTA Legislative Committee.