Phase 1: Co-Designing Community Wellbeing & Educational Justice

Phase 1:

Developing a Transformative Research & Practice Agenda

The goal of phase 1 was to collectively design a transformative research agenda to center family expertise and leadership in creating equitable student learning and systems from early childhood through secondary schooling. To do this we engaged in co-design at national and local levels to design and implement new forms of partnership.

National Co-Design

Nationally, we created a collaborative of over 40 multidisciplinary scholars, practitioners, and community leaders to help us identify aperturas, or strategic “openings” for theorizing and co-designing community wellbeing and educational justice and a research and practice agenda for leaning-in to these aperturas.

Born out of critical pedagogy, the term “aperturas” is a Spanish word that emerged to describe the convergence of personal, political and social phenomena that brings a group of people together to create transformational change for students, families, and communities.  These aperturas represent different entry points for new research and intervention that reconfigure nondominant families and communities in racial equity.


Educator Professional Learning and Practice

Openings and Opportunities: A number of converging dynamics represent key opportunities to address the need for preservice and inservice teachers and formal leaders to work more closely with families and work in communities that may be socio-economically and/or racially different from their own. The United States Department of Education’s Dual Capacity Building Framework is an example of a policy lever that acknowledges the two-way relationship between families and schools in supporting student success. New partnerships have emerged between university-based educator preparation programs and community leaders to prepare early childhood educators, new teachers and formal leaders and build inservice teacher capacity to engage with families. In addition, there are new standards for formal leaders to lead for equity and cultural responsiveness. These efforts provide new orientations to power and the opportunity to reshape relationships between teachers, formal leaders, families and communities.

These opportunities emerge from a context in which university-based teacher and formal leader preparation programs have historically problematic orientations to power, relationship building, and families’ ways of knowing. This limits opportunities for families and educators to interact, learn from one another, and/or explore issues of race, power and decolonization. In addition, the faculty in many teacher and leader preparation programs do not reflect families’ diverse socioeconomic, cultural, racial and linguistic communities and in many cases the admission and certification requirements for early child educator, teacher and formal leader preparation programs run the risk of perpetuating existing inequities in the labor force.  

Multi-Organizational Racial Equity Initiatives

Openings and Opportunities: There are promising efforts around the country to build cross-community solidarities and capacity among education leaders to deepen their awareness, knowledge, and abilities to address issues of race and equity across the birth to career continuum. By coordinating agencies, organizations, and institutions towards education across the lifespan in both formal and informal learning environments, these solidarities seek to eliminate institutionalized inequities, such as disproportionality of discipline and criminalization of youth of color, particularly boys of color, and long-term disparities in individual’s academic achievement, community wellness and self-determination. These initiatives focus on creating opportunities and access to rich engagement in learning that leads to academic achievement and whole child well-being from infancy through adulthood, while continuously innovating so that pathways to success do not become static or based in middle-class, white, norms and practices. Examples of multi-agency efforts building solidarity include: racial equity initiatives taking place in schools and districts, particularly those focused on boys of color, coalitions focused on halting the school to prison pipeline, cross-sector partnerships such as collective impact and cradle to career partnerships and organizing efforts led by unions, parent organizing groups and social workers.

While there are many isolated examples of multi-agency solidarities in the United States and abroad, a look at the historical trend of these collaborations highlights the ways in which building and maintaining equitable and transformative solidarity can be unsustainable. This can be because people tend to revert to norms and practices that reinforce the status quo or because of the personal and professional toll it can take on people to advance racial equity within and across systems and/or communities. Additionally, pressures to support individual students, families, and communities in a political and economic moment may constrain possibilities for transformative imagining and collective action. There remain many opportunities to support boundary-spanning individuals and organizations to counter racist norms and practices and sustain actions that counter institutional racism and/or oppression. We have the opportunity to leverage our collective resources and efforts to approach education equity in broader, more equity-conscious ways that build solidarities across communities and re-situate power in relations between organizations, systems and communities. In building solidarities, we must also deepen understandings of the trajectories and particularities of communities’ histories.

Family and Youth Leadership

Openings and Opportunities: There is a growing recognition of the strengths and ways of knowing that students, families and communities engage in. This recognition creates openings  to fundamentally transform the role that families and youth play in the current education system through new forms of power sharing and collective decision making between students, families, and schools. Already, students, families and communities are mobilizing at the local, state and federal levels to make sure their voices are heard and to advocate for policies and practices that promote students and families’ success and well-being. For example, students and families in California are working with school and district leaders to make decisions about school budget priorities and allocations through the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula.

Supporting this work in schools and districts, there is a growing community of researchers who are reframing deficit-perspectives of families and students to focus scholarship on the strengths and power racially, culturally, socioeconomically and linguistically diverse families and students bring to the table. Intergenerational tensions and divides within communities are a part of the context in which opportunities emerge to transform the role of families and youth in our current education system. Communities are dynamic and layered in places where relationships are built and broken across and within a multiplicity of identities. Acknowledging and creating spaces for intergenerational mobilization through youth and family leadership can drastically improve relations within and between communities, families, and educators while supporting community wellness as a whole.

Learning Across Contexts (education beyond schools)

Openings and Opportunities: Over the past 15 years there has been a significant increase in research and programming focused on learning across contexts and creating openings for broader forms of family engagement towards racial equity. This means attending to learning in places beyond schools like after-school programs, museums, and in community life wherein programs often aspire to a wide range of learning opportunities including: developing social skills and leadership, resourcing interest driven learning opportunities, strengthening communities, improving academic achievement, and much more.  Though often very different from schools, these spaces are important contexts in which educators, youth, and families interact. This growing network of programs and activities represents an important opportunity to reimagine the context of learning and family engagement that is deeper and more nuanced that traditional unidirectional, school-based program participation. Indeed, these learning spaces could be effective leadership development and relationship building spaces as well.

While children and families constantly navigate informal and formal learning environments in their daily lives, “high quality” informal learning environments are often construed as resource-rich after-school programs and institutional settings such as zoos and museums. While energy and scholarship should be devoted to developing culturally appropriate and rich materials and engagement strategies for communities of color in and with these settings, it is also critical to acknowledge and build up spaces and programs that account for communities’ varied and dynamic ways of knowing. This includes a depth of scholarship that expands current conceptualizations of rich learning and knowing as well as funding streams to support these dynamic programs.

Design Circles

Locally, we supported “design circles” situated in each of the aperturas across 10 racially, linguistically, culturally, and geographically distinct communities across the nation. In collaboration with Collaborative members, we decided to use “design circles” instead of conventional one-time focus groups to improve our emerging framework, catalyze new and ongoing site-specific work, and enact local decision making. Beyond voicing and naming challenges (for instance, barriers of racism and poverty in communities of color), these circles built relationships, conceptualized root causes of inequity, and facilitated emergent family and community leadership, theories of change and solutions.  Concretely, these design circles entailed three or four co-design sessions and planning meetings between sessions to analyze transcripts and identify strategies to open generative dialogue and social change-making spaces.

Key products culminating from these design include papers presented at the American Educational Research Association, practice briefs, research briefs, and tools!