Note: No blog post next week – time to soak up the final week of summer. I’ll be back in September.
Earlier this week I joined a small group of family support staff for a school district just outside of Seattle. As we talked the group shared they were all immigrants from different parts of the world, yet this shared identity was a jumping off point for the conversation. They shared how they understood the hardships of being new to the county and having to navigate US housing, employment, education, and health. The staff also talked about the tension and burdens of being navigators of the system with newer immigrants. They want to support families in finding success, as they had, and helping to make the journey a little easier.
My presentation and conversation points include a lot of food analogies and conversation prompts including food. Thanks to being primed to think about food, one of the participants shared how their role is like a sandwich where they are in the gooey middle. There is pressure from the top and the bottom – the school system is on the top telling them what to do and families they are working with are on the bottom seeking and asking for aid and support. At times that middle part of the sandwich is satisfying for them to be in because they can bring flavor and sustenance, other times it can feel like being the wilted lettuce or soggy tomato making both sides of the sandwich mushy.
This middle part is important to pay attention. Often staff in the middle of the system and family have the best knowledge of what is happening with families. They act as cultural and language interpreters and translators, they know of needs, and have direct connections to families. Yet many times staff working with families are our front-line workers. They are the first to feel the real stresses of a situation, to see needs popping up. They rarely have the power or authority to make systemic changes on their own, which is a hard spot to be in – pulled and pushed on by both sides and having to make do or work around existing power structures to get needs met or having to tell families no.
While spending time with the group today one of the values they wanted to make sure we focused on was appreciation. They valued each other and appreciated the knowledge, diversity, and relationships they have with each other. As we chatted, they shared how they impress this value of appreciation with others and work hard to gain the trust of families and to share their knowledge with teachers and administrators. We need to do a better job of showing our appreciation back to our partners and staff who work directly with families.
We also need to share power and resources with our frontline staff. At the end of last school year a family support staff member asked for help to keep his school district owned cell phone. During COVID he was issued a cell phone since the staff were working remotely and he wasn’t expected to be at the school building. Now with the return to school, his phone was being turned off, but he was desperate to keep it since families use it to text him, he had information and resources saved to the phone, it has become an important tool. If the bosses asked, he could probably point to some other resources that could be stopped or ended that weren’t as impactful if budget considerations needed to be made. If we asked the families or looked at existing data on how immigrant families prefer to receive communication they say in-person, phone, and text ranks pretty high – all of which a cell phone (more than a desk phone) facilitates meeting these needs.
How to Support the Middle
As the family support staff mentioned they want to share their appreciation and knowledge. They also want to be appreciated. While we may say we appreciate them, do we really? If we stopped and looked at who’s in the middle there are probably ways we can work to show our appreciation and make their jobs a little easier, here are a few that came up during our conversation:
- Sharing access to databases they need to support families – if you inventory your information databases there are probably a few they would like access too. As an example, do they know which families applied for free and reduced priced lunch or other programs of the like? If they don’t they probably have to make 3-5 calls/emails to learn this information.
- Do they have the tools they need to communicate with families?
- Have you asked what is something they do but they feel they want to stop doing? We often pile things on without asking staff what they want to stop doing.
- What language groups do they see emerging that we need to start hiring for? Hint: Pashto and Dari/Farsi, spoken by Afghans.
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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.