Family Engagement – How do you greet people?

As we reemerge into real person life, and our kids return to schools, summer camps, and programs we need to brush up on our family engagement mindset and beliefs in people.

How will we greet families, will you greet them all, will process and procedures be the first glimpse families have of your program and school or a warm welcome? All of this with the backdrop of COVID precautions still going on.

Logistics and Parking

One of my kids is in an in-person summer program. This is our first time using the program and while it is close to our house the program is very outside of my social or professional circle. The program is heavily sought after, organized, and responsive. Yet my first interaction with them in person was less than positive.

During the first day of drop-off I walked my kid to the designated drop off area and was warmly greeted and that went smoothly. Pickup was another story. During pickup cars were queued and waiting in long lines. As I was waiting, I saw the program director had come out to direct traffic. I had walked over and was waiting on the sidewalk. I recognized the program director from the Zoom orientation held a week before. He greeted a white parent by saying hello, then when he saw me, he asked if I belonged in any of the cars—implying if I had left my car I needed to get back to it, kinda being scolded without being scolded. It was an innocent remark, but it got me thinking – this was my first interaction with him, he didn’t bother to greet me or welcome me into their community, and everything with this program so far has been transactional. This program has also gentrified and continues to gentrify the neighborhood. I wanted more and I feel my community deserves more than being treated as a commodity, a piece of land for their program, and we’re only welcomed when we follow parking rules.

Family Engagement

As we return to post-COVID life (or even continuing COVID life) we need to revisit family engagement beliefs and strategies.

During pre-COVID times many schools and programs had worked hard to build practices of welcoming families in to visit their programs and build trusting relationships. Our elementary school teachers would make a point of inviting families in for class writing celebrations, allowing for a small window into the class. Programs welcomed families to join in by volunteering in different ways – bringing snacks, joining field trips, etc. Many of these known ways building relationships are no longer available while we still practice COVID safety precautions. But this doesn’t mean family engagement can stop.

For many of our communities of color trusting institutions (i.e. schools, government, etc.) to do right by our kids doesn’t come easily. Historically there have been many systemic ways schools and governments, and institutions (churches, nonprofits, etc.) have brought harm.* The historical trauma and systemic racism is still there and when not attended to can lead to a lot of mistrust, especially when the messages are – you can’t enter the building (even because of COVID), communicate with us but only in this way, support networks are not allowed into the institution, etc.

In a survey the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition conducted right before COVID lockdowns, they found families of color preferred in-person and telephone communication more than email. When we asked why, the families of color said it allowed them to build relationships with teachers and staff, the communication was more likely in their home language, and they could check for understanding. Email communication didn’t allow for this and they said it was a one-way passing of information.

We need to find new ways to stay connected and engaged with families that is mutually beneficial. Positive communication to families that is personal and warm is important. What if instead of my first interaction with the program director hadn’t been asking if I was mistakenly outside of my car, but a greeting of “Hi, so glad you’re here. What is your student’s name? I hope they had a great first day. Call me if you need anything.” That sort of warm reception would have stuck.

Not Commodities or Transactions

We need to stop treating family engagement as a transaction or commodity, something we can say we did versus a belief system. Programs need to value people and their human interactions, especially building strong relationships with our Black and Brown families. As we return to an abnormal normal, we must prioritize family engagement with our poc communities. Trust is fragile, leaders at all levels need to work to build and maintain trust with families. My friend Amber Banks, PhD, is a brilliant researcher and consultant on trust building. One of her lessons to me is trust needs to be active and practiced.

One of the ways we can practice trust building is seeing people as people, and not as commodities (e.g. tuition, kids in seats, cars waiting for pickup, etc.) or transactions (e.g. I called this many families this week, I said hello to ten families, etc.). Another lesson Amber recent reminded me is Black families (and poc families) want to be listened to. Our job now coming out of COVID is to really listen and to find ways to deeply interact (even with COVID precautions) with our families of color. Early on in COVID many of us realized we don’t want to go back to the old normal, maybe this is one place where we can develop new and better ways of being together post-COVID.

*Out of respect for my POC relations I won’t delve deeply into the examples of how schools and institutions have harmed POCs. If you need some examples research: the school to prison pipeline, Native/Indigenous boarding schools, abuses by churches, and there are many other examples.

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I am writing from the ancestral lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small action to hopefully repair and work to be in more justice based relations.