Speaking Up for Every Child: Tips from a Parent Advocate

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Episode 65│Speaking Up for Every Child: Tips from a Parent Advocate

Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022

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Show Notes

Rosazlia Grillier

What does it mean to be an advocate for all children and how can you jumpstart your own advocacy journey? We discussed the answers to these questions and so much more with Rosazlia Grillier, a founder and governing council member of the United Parent Leaders Action Network (UPLAN). She shares her own experience, how you can find the leader in you, and how to get connected to a network of advocates and take action.


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Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit PTA.org/BackpackNotes for more resources from today’s episode.


Kisha DeSandies Lester: Welcome back to Notes from The Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester.

Helen Westmoreland: And I'm Helen Westmoreland. And we are your cohosts.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yes, we are. Our topic today is advocacy, which is the foundation of what we do at PTA. As the oldest child advocacy organization in the country, National PTA has a long history of standing up for children's learning development and well-being and I can say as a parent, a new parent, a newer parent, one of the things that surprised me early on was how early I have to advocate for my kids. What about you, Helen?

Helen Westmoreland: Absolutely, Kisha. It starts immediately.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: But I think the biggest thing is how do you advocate? Like, it seems like a word that we say, but then when you're in it, parents just don't really know.

Helen Westmoreland: That's so true, Kisha. There are lots of barriers that keep parents from becoming advocates, whether they feel like they don't have the time or they're not sure what to say, or they're afraid they might get in trouble for what they say. But advocacy is something that we can practice in our daily lives, and I am so excited to have our guest on the show to share more on this topic.

Today, we welcome Rosazlia Grillier, affectionately known as Miss Rose to the show. Miss Rose is currently President Emeritus of Power Pack Illinois, Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew Policy Action Council, the advocacy arm of community organizing and family issues, or COFI, as we call it. She's one of the founders and governing council members of the United Parent Leaders Action Network, UPLAN, she's received multiple awards and was previously named a Chicago Hero and honored nationally by Allstate and the King family. She sits on the board of NAFSCE and COFI. Miss Rose is the mother of two daughters. Welcome to the show, Miss Rose.

Rosazlia Grillier: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Helen Westmoreland: Thank you so much for joining us. We're really excited for today's conversation. We'd love to just start out with a big open-ended question about your own advocacy journey. What compelled you to become an advocate?

Rosazlia Grillier: Oh wow. I hope we have enough time for that answer. So can I start by saying, I think advocacy is something that is bigger than one's self. It is an investment. into something that you believe in. And it's not enough to just believe in it, but you care enough to actually be a part of what you believe needs to change. So you're willing to dive right in and help improve that. And I think that sometimes it's a journey to that, especially for parents. We care for everyone except ourselves most of the time, and it's really hard to see yourself as an advocate or as a leader, but no one makes us leaders. We're born that way, and sometimes within our journey folks help us identify, what that path actually looks like. And I think that that speaks to my own story. Actually my road to advocacy, really started, and COFI was very instrumental in that, I had been diagnosed with terminal cancer all over my body. And hospice told my family make me comfortable. And I went through all of these rounds of chemo radiation, spinal chemo, during that journey I realized, there were goals that I, myself aspired to and COFI helped me start there. And I think that's where we have to start. We have to start with what motivates us? What are our concerns? And that's usually where people begin their advocacy journey. It's wrapped and rooted in the things that are impacting us the most.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yeah, I think that's spot on because I definitely am one of those parents that care more about my kids than myself so that, you know, fierce advocacy started with just speaking up for my own kid. What would you say if a parent is struggling to get their child's needs met at school, and where would you advise them to start?

Rosazlia Grillier: So, Kisha, let me say, you are absolutely right. Our children and families for that matter and their wellbeing is usually the things that motivate us the most, and it's the greatest motivator. I had gotten into a really bad state of depression, and I think that when hope is gone, we definitely feel powerless and we don't see ourselves as champions for our children. But we are absolutely the best champions for our children. And I think that once we start to think about our own situation and how do we become those advocates and those people for our children, and there are a lot of spaces and places that parents need to advocate for their children. And I think once we're motivated, to understand that our voice and our lived experience matters in those situations and we, I wanna always encourage people to follow the process because, you know, sometimes things happen, especially with our children in systems, and it makes us angry and we react.

As opposed to building those relationships and establishing those spaces and places where we can communicate to the powers that have decision making power or that are in place to service our children, that we're making sure that they understand, that we know our rights, one within those systems and that our children are human beings and they need the best and most equitable things working on their behalf. And so then it allows us to be able to articulate to those different entities, just that fact. And so we're heard as opposed to reacting the way that oftentimes is warranted for us to react. But we have to, we have to have restraint so that we're more effective in those spaces and places would be my best answer to that.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's awesome, and Helen, you and your team have been doing a lot of work to strengthen those relationships. Do you wanna talk about that?

Helen Westmoreland: So Ms. Rose we've been working hard at National PTA to update what we call National Standards for Family-School Partnerships, right? Which are guidelines for schools to be good partners to parents. And one of those standards, and the one we honestly wrestled the most with is around sharing power.

So I'd love to ask you, having been in all kinds of dynamics and situations with school systems, health systems, otherwise, what are some good examples of sharing power? Like what should we be looking for? What is, what does that sound like, feel like to you?

Rosazlia Grillier: So, Helen, you know me. You know, I'm super candid and this sharing power conversation has so many curves. We can't possibly dress or cover up all those curves today.

Helen Westmoreland: I know we won't let you. Yes, yes.

Rosazlia Grillier: But I will say that the first and foremost thing for me is that our children and families and communities for that matter, they're at the forefront and there is no successful process without understanding, you know, my favorite phrase, there should be no decisions made about us without us. And in thinking about that you can't plan around. people.

Helen Westmoreland: you can try, but it won’t work.

Rosazlia Grillier: Right, , That's the point. These are our children at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day, and in between.

And we have privileged and appreciate those folks who will interact with them in between those times and spaces. But by no means can we be kicked out, left out, or not a part of all of those conversations that will impact our children and ultimately our families and our communities at the end of the day. We should be at every table, from beginning to implementation about anything that will be impacting our children.

Helen Westmoreland: Kisha, what are you wondering?

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Well, I wonder if you can offer some tips to our listeners about how they can become involved in trying to share this power in advocacy. Really organizing the advocacy on a systemic level. So not every ask, so to speak, is starting over. Like we have a pipeline where there's a need or there's a concern and we can just put that in the pipeline and work our advocacy?

Rosazlia Grillier: Kisha, you are spot on. There is no shortage of issues.

 Kisha DeSandies Lester: Especially now.

Rosazlia Grillier: Right? And, and there's no shortage of folks who are working intensely on these issues. And it's really my firm belief that there is a leader in every one of us. It's a matter of identifying what motivates you? What's your passion? What's your wheelhouse? And especially what are your gifts and talents? And sometimes we make it feel like this big, heavy monster, that's too much for us to lift. Mm-hmm. If you start anywhere, you started somewhere. And so it doesn't have to be this big production. Even if you are a mom who develops a relationship with your children's teacher, just so that teacher knows that they have an ally, it's going to benefit your child.

But there are plethora of initiatives. For example, COFI trains parents. We started out as a citywide and then we became statewide, and we've trained parents and entities all across the country in leadership development and skills. And the COFI model really shows how policy and system issues are at the root cause of most of the reforms that we need to have happening in this day and time, and even before now, even before Covid, which you like to blame everything on Covid. But a lot of these systems have needed reform even before Covid came along.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's right.

Rosazlia Grillier: And so locally in your community, find out who's doing what you're interested in being a part of the change you wanna see.

And then nationally, of course we have UPLAN. And UPLAN is comprised of amazing parent-led organizations all across the country who are doing this work on the ground. And then they come together to change policy systems in early education, early childhood, immigration, real parent engagement, all of those things.

And we partner with everyone to make sure that we know where the connections are and what we need to be doing to see the change that we're talking about seeing. I love all of these different spaces and places, and the reason I'm a part of all of it is I want everybody to really get this: It is all connected. We might be talking about education, but hunger issues are connected, violence issues are connected, poverty absolutely is connected. And equity, all, everything social, emotional, mental wellness, I got a whole list and I know I need to stop, name all of these things.

Helen Westmoreland: No, no you don’t need to stop.

Rosazlia Grillier: But I want people to really understand that we need to start disseminating, breaking down these silos, because it's all connected and we can spend those efforts figuring out how they're connected. Mm-hmm, and how we can be of support to one another as opposed to everybody fighting over this one little pot of money. There wasn't enough in the first place. How do we be strategic and intentional? To bring back human.

I want all of our children, no matter where you're from or what your background or history or any of those things, all of our children have a right, for us to make sure that they can live their best life and thrive and be protect. And it behooves us cuz this is our future. Mm-hmm. You wanna be creating sound strong, fervent adults and I just need us to start to make those concerted efforts to do whatever we can do. Your little bit becomes much when we put it all together.

Helen Westmoreland: Ooh, I like that.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: I do too.

Helen Westmoreland: Your little bit becomes much. So one thing I was actually thinking about earlier is going back to your journey a little bit, Ms. Rose, cuz I think sometimes we like to tell stories here on a podcast and sometimes a story really illustrates, right, like, advocacy can seem so abstract. Could you share with us? Win or advocacy sort of campaign that you've been involved in that might illustrate some of the principles you're talking about.

Rosazlia Grillier: Oh my God, Helen, we don't have enough time for all that .

Helen Westmoreland: We do.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: We have time.

Helen Westmoreland: We make the time.

Rosazlia Grillier: COFI was a part of helping me recognize the leader in myself, and I think it started with my children

I think about my oldest daughter who's technically a genius, but she's a diverse learner. And as a parent, I really didn't understand a lot about that. And I've come up in a culture where, you know, first of all, it's my way to the highway.

COFI helped me learn that process through some of the tools in their training that, you know, the, my way or the highway wasn't always the best way. And it opened up a line of communication with my girls that, oh my God, I thank God every day for it because it built trust and it put them in a feeling that they could come to me about anything. So I was fortunate that my oldest daughter, because she's a diverse learner and a lot of our children are, and this makes me angry, are slipping through the cracks of what is not their fault, because they learn in a different way than that one size fits all pathway that society has created. And some of these children are brilliant, but because they learn different and they don't test the same way, or they don't grasp the same way, doesn't mean they don't grasp at all.

But I was fortunate enough to have a counselor and a principal who knew me and they had words with me and they saw things were happening with my daughter, and they called me in and they said, we don't know what's going on. We know she's brilliant and she's in jeopardy of getting it, getting an F in several classes and what's going on?

It turned out at the end of the day that she was a diverse learner. And because other students in her class, maybe the teacher had to go over it more than once or twice, she was over it after the first time she grasped it, and she figured, Oh, I'm done. I'm not, y'all could keep talking about that, but I'm moving on. But you can't just do that. Right? And she didn't understand how all that worked. And so they were like, she did turn in these process. Come to find out she had done every stitch of the work but didn't bother. It was beyond her - to turn, to turn it in. Interesting. Yeah. So, but I was able to work with the principal, the teachers, and the counselors, and they said if on today she could bring us all of that work, we'll grade it fairly. And whatever that work says she ends up with will be her grade.

Wow. Now, trust me, I don't, I don't miss appreciate and understand how blessed I was to have that happen. But that is not what happens for the average child. And so it made me get busy and it made me get to work to make sure that first of all, all of our parents understood their rights within IEPs and how that system worked. And we started inviting folks from CPS, the Chicago Public School System diverse learners department to speak to, forums and town halls full of, parents, so they understood their rights. So this is what I mean when I say everything that happens to us should be the motivation for us to make change within that for other people. And, and that really motivated me.

She ended up going they put her in another school that, could keep, could keep up with her pace. Mm-hmm. And she was tutoring other students. She ended up graduating Valedictorian all that. Oh wow. I was blessed. Yeah. And I knew that I couldn't just take that blessing and not make sure that other children who were facing this, who maybe didn't have advocates like I had on their side. That they wouldn't fall through those cracks as well. And so to date, a lot of our parents have gone through those different trainings. They understand that process. We've even had folks from CPS come in and sit in on some of those IEPs and change the whole dynamic in that meeting from parents being told mm-hmm.

Oh, well, that's it. That's all. No, and they knew their rights and they had those. That were the heads of those offices. In those meetings, those people was jumping and dancing and, and doing what they were supposed to do.

Helen Westmoreland: It makes a difference.

Rosazlia Grillier: And you don't have to change everything, but I encourage you to change something.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: It's right.

Helen Westmoreland: I love that. Thank you.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Well, one thing I can say. You talked about what motivates a parent and I think about, my son is in first grade, Ellington, and he was in kindergarten last year, which is right when most schools were going back full time, or at least in a heavy hybrid situation in the school. And it was so hard to watch my son, get acclimated and navigate through kindergarten and not be able to be in the classroom.

So it was essential that I built a relationship with the teacher mostly during over zoom and email. But I loved how you were sharing that. When you start building that relationship, good or bad feedback just hits different, you know, when you already have open conversation. What do you recommend for families as far as how they can really just build a strong relationship with the teacher and with the administrators in the school?

Rosazlia Grillier: There is so much going on in our schools and we have, and this is the reason we have so many campaigns, and when you were talking, it brought me back to even through our elementary justice campaign. Once upon a time in Chicago, they were putting kindergartners out, suspending, expelling. Even there was an incident of an arrest of a kindergarten.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Oh my goodness.

Rosazlia Grillier: And to me, that is a travesty. And so through our work, we worked hard to change a lot of the school discipline policies that handbook that, first of all, most parents didn't even read, because it says student uniform discipline. And so they thought it was about what uniform children wear, and they weren't even, you know. So having language that everybody understands what we're talking about, first of all. And then changing within that, some of the policies we've been able to remove booking stations out of schools.

We've been able to change whether or not they can suspend children first, second grade, so on and so forth. And the level of expulsions, which we know oftentimes is targeted to black and brown communities. I will say it again starts with parents. There are so many issues. But if you can go and get to know your children's teacher, and I know oftentimes it's hard if you have more than one child, there are multiple teachers, but it's an investment as far as I'm concerned, because letting that teacher know is benefit both ways. It's a benefit to you because the teacher can already understand that they have an ally, as I said earlier.

But it's beneficial to the teacher, because they don't feel alone or afraid to talk. And especially in culturally diverse communities there are not always teachers in place who understand the dynamic of that community. And so you can be that liaison that destroys some of the myths and some of the absolutely, the bad narratives have that have been established, especially that parents don't care, or welfare mom, you know the list of things that are said about us. So that parent gets to know you as an individual and gets to know that you don't fit in that box, that society has so-called, put you in.

So then you become partners in making sure that your child's educated well. I think about a time they had this silent lunch thing going on at that school.And these children are at school all these hours. And then they have a plethora of homework when they get home. So that's a big part of their day, and there's no break in the day. And these are human beings, animals at the zoo get a break in the day. That was the same premise behind our recess efforts when we brought recess back to Chicago. And it was the same premise for me within this charter school. This is a human being. You're not gonna work a 10 to 12 hour job and not take a break in the day, because you're a human being and our children, don't deserve less than that. And so I said, you need to come up with a better system. That is not gonna work.

And I rolled up there. At that time I was still in my chair and I said, We have to have a conversation. I didn't go up there, and this is the difference I want parents to understand. Sometimes it's, you're not wrong, so don't make it wrong. And we make it wrong with our approach sometimes. And I'm not saying you're not supposed to be fired up and angry, because I was, but I am saying that we have to understand that our child is more important than our feelings, and we have to start, and try to approach this in an intelligent way. So that we are heard because what we have to say is important. And so I need you to hear me and I got a loud mouth. Maybe everybody doesn't have loud mouth, but you can still hear me with a soft voice, if I am articulating to you what I am not willing to accept from you and suggested to you a way that you could make it better.

So they ended up with something that was really a compromise for me, they ended up putting a stoplight in the lunchroom and when it was green, you were acceptable level. And when it was yellow, be careful cuz you guys are getting way out of hand and when it was red, okay, you're over the top. No, that's not ideal. But it was a compromise to you telling my child as a human being, they can't talk at a space at time, which is lunch, that they should be able to talk and consult with their friends and their peers. I had to meet in the middle with them. But sometimes you need allies. Because sometimes one voice is whistling in the wind. And I don't have no problem with going around the parents to say, did this happen to you? That's right, have you heard about this? How do you feel about this?

Rosazlia Grillier: So reaching out to other parents who are having this experience and finding out that you all are on the same page and coming up with a plan where you all go in there together and say, This is what we need to happen. This is what we don't like. This is what we're here and all of those things. But not just complaints, but solutions, recommendations.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Mm-hmm. Yeah. You said it best. Our children are more important than our feelings, so yes, we have to channel it. I've been in that situation before, and you don't wanna make it wrong because of your response.

Rosazlia Grillier: And sometimes it's a misunderstanding, this is why communication and relationship building is so very important. And again, I thank God that I was blessed that my children had teachers and administrators who cared. But I also am aware of the fact that not all children have that.

Helen Westmoreland: That's right. I love it. Well, that might be the, you could let that be your parting words if you want, but you've shared so much wisdom with us. Ms. Rose, this has been an incredible conversation but we do wanna give you the opportunity for parting words, so any takeaways, if anything you've shared or not shared that you wanna just leave at the front of the mind for our listeners?

Rosazlia Grillier: You can do it. Hmm. You can be, a part, if not the catalyst for the change that you wanna see. And it's not as hard as we make it. Again, you know, something that seems like little bit of nothing has grown into campaigns that have now gone national that I, myself and other amazing parents have been at the forefront of, but it just, it just takes, to try, identify how much, when and where you wanna give it. Mm-hmm. And, and, and, and make people value you. Mm-hmm. Your lived experience and your voice absolutely matters, you have a PhD in . Your child, in your, you're a family and in your community. So don't look at other people's paper, use your own.

Helen Westmoreland: Hey now, if our listeners want to connect with you, Ms. Rose, or learn more about the work you're doing or any resources, do you have any websites or resources you'd like to share with them?

Rosazlia Grillier: Absolutely. So check us out at cofionline.org. we don't cause people to reinvent the wheel. Everything we've done, we make publications so you don't have to start over. You can take what we've done and see where it fits what you're trying to do. Then, unitedParentleaders.org, look at the work we're doing nationally and even beyond that, look in your own neck of the woods and see who's doing what and what you're interested in being a part of, and just be a part of it.

I would like to, to recommend, there's this new book called Everyone Wins, and it's by Dr. Karen Mapp and, and, and Anne Henderson and some other Harvard research folks. I I, I don't like getting into name calling cuz I'm gonna mess up and not remember everybody's name. But it's amazing because the title is so, important. Everyone wins. Just think about that. And that's the kind of atmosphere we have to think about when we're talking about our schools and our children and all the systems that will help develop them into what we hope to be really courageous, strong, productive human beings. They've done research. And it suggests that engaging families in education not only improves student achievements, their social emotional development, but it is also filtered in making, helping make stronger families. And we all know stronger families breed stronger communities. And there are so many things going on in our society now. We need stronger families and stronger communities.

But in addition to that, it boosts teachers and administrators effectiveness in the realm of education. And so I would further suggest that if we're intentional about making sure that these systems are working effectively and productively, and all of these questions that were asked will really be answered if we're thinking about it as a collective.

Helen Westmoreland: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us Ms. Rose.

Rosazlia Grillier: Thank you guys for having me. You all are so cool. Helen. I love you, miss you. Kisha so great to meet you. It's so wonderful. Have a wonderful week

Kisha DeSandies Lester: So wonderful to meet you. Yes, Ms. Rose.

So I just thank you so much and to our audience listening today. Thank you for joining us. For more resources related to this episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com.

Thanks for tuning in and join us next time.