Want to Close Achievement Gaps, Close the Relationship Gap

Earlier this week I spoke at Launch’s luncheon. Launch is a fabulous organization providing preschool and out-of-school time care with an eye towards supporting the whole child and family. A colleague asked if I could share my speech, so here is an edited version.

What I want to talk about today is relationships and why relationships matter.

In my job, I focus a lot on relationships. I’m fortunate to work for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. SESEC is a community based coalition of nonprofits, schools, parents, and allies focused on closing opportunity and achievement gaps and doing it WITH communities of color. As a coalition, we use a racial equity lens and we work to deepen and widen the network of support for our students.

Our SE community is diverse. If you walk around neighborhoods in SE you’ll see and hear kids doing their thing – taking part in robotics programs, speaking in Somali, Chinese, and Spanish – maybe even simultaneously on the playground. You may also see Launch teachers walking their preschoolers in matching Pepto-Bismol pink or neon orange t-shirts on field trips to the Wing Luke Museum, or walking to the library for storytime.

These things show our community is strong and resilient in the face of poverty, having to figure out how to deal with the under-funding of schools, and supporting families who are stressed because of threats of deportation. Because we have a strong community we can face these challenges and better protect children.

One of the ways we do this is by listening to our community, especially families of color. A recent project was a community wide survey on family engagement with schools. This survey was unique, it wasn’t like the surveymonkey links we get over email. Our community owned it and drove the entire survey process. We asked ourselves what is the value of the survey, and we landed on trust. At every step or when we got stuck on questions the design team asked “How is this building trust with the community?” We worked hard to live this value and check ourselves against it.

It was an amazing survey process. We gathered over 600 survey results, primarily from families of color, it was translated into ten languages and offered oral interpretation if needed, and the results are being used in so many different ways.

I want to share with you one finding, how families like to receive information.

Launch Luncheon

As you can see there are huge gaps in the bars. White families prefer email, while families of color prefer in-person communication or phone calls. Seattle Public Schools is now 54% students of color, which means these results are magnified and will continue to grow if we leave them unchecked.

The data from the survey tells an important story. This slide is demonstrating a relationship gap, which translates into opportunity and achievement gaps. If we can’t communicate effectively we aren’t going to close achievement gaps.

Many times, we default to what we know and what is easy, such as email. This is fakequity – fake equity. Fakequity is taking the easy route. How it plays out sounds like this “We translated the email into different languages, they should have read it…” or “we don’t have time to make personal calls or schedule meetings.” These messages place blame, instead of stopping to examine why there is a communication and relationship gap.

Email is a one-way passing of information. Even if it is translated cultural nuances are missing. As an example, when we were working on our survey translation a Somali partner said:

“This isn’t a Somali survey. You took an American survey and translated it, that doesn’t make it a Somali survey. We speak directly and we ask open ended questions.”

This feedback was critical, we changed course and worked with our Somali partners to collect survey results differently. Many of them used interviews to collect stories. In one case a Somali parent who was collecting surveys went door-to-door and was invited in for tea and through that relationship they talked and prayed about their hopes and frustrations with their children’s education.

When we shared this data with families of color many of them said the data resonated. They saw themselves in the data and understood the results. As an example, some of our immigrant families said receiving information in-person and via phone allows them to ask questions, an email or flier doesn’t allow for this relationship building.

So, what does this mean for our schools and for all of us today? It means we need to slow down and take time to build relationships. Relationships are the glue that holds our communities together and it gives us the empathy to want to create change.

One of the reasons I am a fan of Launch is I see how they want to build relationships. From the moment, I drop my child off we are greeted with a warm hello from Ms. Florence. I also see Launch investing back into the community. They are at community events and supporting the schools they are in. When Beacon Hill International School rebuilt their playground Launch staff was volunteering. These relationships make change possible. When Launch, staff saw the data on how families like to receive information they used the data to reshape how they interact with families, focusing more on in-person and family engagement. We need more people pushing for change.

We also need more people to be brave and kind in talking about race, racism, privilege, hope, and community. We need to be able to talk about these things the way we talk about the Seahawks. They aren’t taboo topics, as we saw from the data snapshot, race is impacting outcomes. By being brave and voicing what we believe about race we change the narrative. When we talk about race, we can begin to change. Not talking about race allows the status quo to continue hurting all students, including white students and students of color.

Students can’t wait for slow incremental change. We need to extend our relationships and begin to ask hard questions of ourselves and of our schools.

Your work and my work is simple and hard at the same time. We need to pay attention to race. We need to notice how race and relationships show up in our everyday interactions and in our systems.

Systems are what are left when everyone leaves the room; it is the policies, the practices, and the relationships that either drive us toward equity or maintain the status quo.

Pay attention to elections and ask candidates hard questions and hold them accountable when they are in office. Strong relationships help us remember what we are accountable to and why.

This is also why it is important to grow relationships beyond our comfort zones. I hope you’ll extend yourself and get to know someone outside your comfort zone. These new relationships will deepen and widen the networks of support our kids need from us.

Thank you.

Posted by Erin Okuno

[Edit 7 May 2018: A special thank you to UW College of Education, Drs. Jondou Chen and Ann Ishmaru, and Aditi Rajendran for their partnership on the survey project. SESEC’s Mindy Huang and Michael Flor and our SESEC partners for contributing to the project featured.]

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