By building authentic relationships among diverse groups of parents through structured dialogues about their backgrounds, race and equity, and goals for their children, Laura Wilson Phelan has developed a proven model that allows school communities to embrace the goal of “collective well-being,” champion equity, and change children’s life outcomes far into the future.
The New Idea
With the vision that freedom from poverty, isolation and oppression requires community, connection and collectivism, Laura is building a parent-driven movement that advances equitable educational outcomes for all children. She is introducing the concept of “collective well-being” by building coalitions of diverse parents that deeply understand that the well-being of their children is inextricably linked to the well-being of all children.
Laura’s work is grounded in the understanding that social change needs an institutional home, and she believes that the school system—which undergirds collective identity and reinforces racist paradigm—is the most effective place to start. Her organization, Kindred, aims to dismantle systemic oppression by taking parents from racially diverse schools through a dialogue-to-action process. This 3-step process begins with parents sharing very personal stories that shine a light on the tangible ways children of color face structural barriers in accessing the opportunities that white and/or affluent kids take for granted. Kindred then harnesses the parents’ shared understanding of inequitable access to opportunity to take collective actions that lead to significant changes personally and for the whole school.
Through this process of building trust, empathy and community, Kindred catalyzes parents’ natural drive to do more and to be their best selves for the good of all. Since 2016, Kindred has partnered with 13 schools and more than 500 parents in Washington, DC. Beyond the individual shifts the parents have experienced, Kindred is shifting school cultures to prioritize equity and family engagement with a focus on amplifying the voices of parents of color from low-income households through very tangible policy and norm changes in their schools. Early results suggest that after about three years of engagement with a school, financial, social and political power begins to shift in favor of advancing equity.
Moving forward, Laura is not simply seeking to multiply the number of Kindred parent communities throughout the U.S.; she seeks to build a movement that mobilizes and supports a national network of parent advocates that collectively advance equity and dismantle systemic oppression across the nation’s education system.
Sixty-five years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawed school segregation on the basis of race, many school districts across the U.S. are still as segregated as they were in 1964. Despite numerous studies that demonstrate that children attending integrated schools are more likely to succeed academically and socially, from the Reagan administration onward, countless policies undermining school integration have gone into force. Though there is a direct correlation between such policies and widening opportunity differences along race and class lines, the political will to mobilize for equitable educational outcomes for all children has been largely absent.
In Washington, D.C., approximately half of traditional and charter schools enroll families of diverse backgrounds. Across the U.S., over 4 million children across 32 states attend schools in districts and charter schools with socioeconomic integration policies. Yet, even in desegregated schools – schools where one racial group accounts for less than 90 percent of the student body – second degree segregation is a common experience. Though a school may be labeled as “diverse”, students of color are often faced with more limited academic options than white students, harsher and biased discipline practices, and generally subjected to reinforcing of white dominant culture.
This type of inequity continues to happen, even in desegregated schools, in large part because of institutional, interpersonal and internalized racism. School leaders concerned with trying to close the racial divide often do not have effective channels to engage Black and Brown parents most disadvantaged by educational systems, leading them to develop supports without their input that tend to be grounded in dominant culture norms. Consequently, the opportunities for parents to access resources for their children unfairly advantage the parents who benefit from dominant culture and unintentionally disadvantage parents for whom these unspoken rules are unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable. Across the U.S., this inequitable access plays out in the differing academic outcomes between children from low- and high-income backgrounds and between white students and students of color. To address this disparity, Kindred is forging a path that enables parents of different backgrounds build connection and empathy with one another and with school leadership to fuel their motivation and capacity to work together to build more equitable, inclusive school communities.
Kindred starts by building authentic relationships among diverse groups of parents through structured dialogues about their backgrounds and goals for their children and about race, class and educational equity. Providing a safe and brave space for parents to open up and build trust with one another is a critical first step that sparks a transformative process. Parents share ideas and resources that benefit students—first with each other, and then with the wider school community, transforming the norms, and influencing the policies and practices operating in that school. Over the course of three-to-four-year partnerships with traditional public and public charter elementary schools, Kindred creates a more welcoming, representative and active parent body so that participating schools have the necessary information, tools and support to provide all students with what they need to succeed.
In year one, Kindred puts a lot of work upfront to recruit roughly 20 parents per school–split up into two groups of ten–that are representative of the racial and socio-economic make-up of the student body. The recruited parents commit to participating in at least eight of ten sessions of structured dialogues about their backgrounds, race and equity, and goals for their children.
Over the course of the first few sessions, parents begin to bond with each other and discover some of their shared hopes and dreams for their children, as well as some of the stark differences in the types of concerns they may have for them. While a white parent may never have considered the possibility that their child may not graduate high school, it is a preoccupation Black and Latinx parents often share in these initial sessions. This makes conversations about systemic racism unavoidable. Meanwhile, parents of color may be surprised to learn that some of their white counterparts are among the first generations in their families to be living out of poverty. These conversations help parents see each other as nuanced individuals. It also brings them to understand how their group is representative of a national trend of unequal access to opportunities for children of color, especially children from low-income households. The resulting bonds enable parents to better understand how each parent in a school contributes valuable ideas, time, and resources that can benefit all children. Parents culminate their dialogue group with an action they take together that addresses the root cause of inequity in their school.
Mindful of the fact that a small group of 20 parents in schools that average roughly 400 kids will not be sufficient to shift the overall culture of the community, Kindred trains roughly eight of the parents who participate in the program in Year One to lead their own dialogue groups in Year 2. By the end of Year 2, roughly 20 percent of the school’s parents have undergone this transformative experience–a tipping point for cultural change. They are bought into taking collective action that supports a culture of equity and inclusion. This way, parents start to eliminate advantage differences in their schools, engendering further collective and individual action in support of each family and student.
By the Year 3 of engagement, Kindred works with parents and the administration to create or strengthen their parent organization and continue the work they have begun.
To date, Kindred has implemented its program in 13 schools in the District of Columbia, reaching more than 300 parents. Since year one of the program, Laura has prioritized getting the work evaluated independently to ensure their programmatic decisions were guided and backed up by objective data. Those studies reveal that the organization has made a significant impact at three different levels: a) parents’ behavior change; b) changing school cultures around equity; and c) shifting school resources to better support equitable student outcomes.
The most significant change in parents was the fact that their advocacy within the school is now entirely focused on shifting policies, norms and beliefs that align with collective well-being -- advancing the needs of all children and not just their own. Thanks to the trusting relationships they had built, parents also started to share resources with each other, whether it relates to their children’s health care or academic resources – a step in the right direction in terms of closing the opportunity gap.
By the end of year two, the administration is typically moved to invest new resources into this work – be it by hiring a family support specialist (a recognition of the value of engaging diverse networks of parents as co-designers of the school experience); or by responding to parents’ desire to have an equity committee or racial affinity group in their schools. Parents have advised principals on how to attract and retain teachers of color. In a (non-bilingual) school where students are 40 percent Latinx, parents have asked to have one class where instruction would take place in Spanish to send children a signal that speaking Spanish is a valuable asset. Next year physical education will be conducted in Spanish in that school. Parent teacher organizations have seen their membership increase, become more representative of the student body and shift their focus from fundraising to equity.
As for students’ academic outcomes, it is still too early to tell, but preliminary data suggests that the achievement differences by race in one school are starting to shrink in part as a result of Kindred’s work. Though Laura is eager to find ways to measure her work’s impact on educational outcomes, she also knows that test scores will never tell the full picture. Kindred will work with several research partners to design a “collective well-being” metric that could be applied to all schools and which parents would gradually rely on to determine whether a school is a the right fit for their kids. Rather than focusing entirely on standardized test scores, schools would also be evaluated on whether they are building citizens that are informed and strive for equity and opportunity for all. This would signal a significant mindset shift for school administrators and parents and could lead to radically different resource allocations.
Kindred’s budget has grown from $80,000 in FY17 to $1.35 million in FY20. This current of funds is fed by individual donations, foundations, corporate giving, and revenue generation. Additionally, Kindred has been able to tap into existing funding allocated to Title 1 schools for parent engagement, making this program accessible to even the most under-resourced schools. Laura is determined to grow less dependent on donor money over time.
Moving forward, Kindred strives to train school-based staff to adopt its family engagement model, which could help the organization scale its work dramatically in the near future. While still in the planning stages, this approach will start with a pilot to ensure the program retains its effectiveness. Should it prove successful, Laura sees this as a clear path forward to scale Kindred’s activities to school districts throughout the country. She also foresees a scenario where Kindred licenses out their practices to parents interested in bringing this work to their schools. She is currently piloting these two strategies to learn from them before choosing the best path forward. What is sure, is that there is both a need for this across the U.S. and significant demand that Laura is determined to address. Laura is also eager to open up her model for independent replication beyond the education system.
Early data collected shows that Kindred is retaining parent activists at five times the industry average (56% vs. 10%). As parent coalitions multiply, Kindred is building out a national network of parents advocating for fairness and equity in education. One of the pillars of Kindred’s work is that the parents are in charge of determining the priorities for their schools. The same would be true for this future national membership organization’s policy mandate.
Laura grew up as the ninth child in a poor family of 13 children living in an affluent white suburb. She always felt different. Her experience led her on a path to understand why there was such unequal distribution of resources in such a rich country. Since her childhood she has been driven to figure out “What drives people to share?”
Laura’s commitment to service started in high school when she raised money to participate in Yale’s Junior Statesmen of America (JSA) summer program. Upon returning home, she established a JSA chapter at her school, which continued to grow and flourish long after she graduated. At the age of 19, she convinced her university to let her design her own study abroad experience in El Salvador and got four professors to sponsor her. She went on her research trip to El Salvador with the wide-eyed, yet sincere, hope that the country’s reconciliation process post-civil war would shed light on her questions surrounding poverty in the US.
Early on in her career she joined Teach for America (TFA) and taught in East Palo Alto – a low-income community juxtaposed next to one of America’s wealthiest. This experience helped her grapple with the role of systems vs. the role of one teacher in enacting change. It also led her on a path of needing to understand how race and race relations played a role in perpetuating inequities.
After her time with TFA, Laura joined the Peace Corps and went to post-apartheid Namibia. She thought that if she could figure out how people who had fought one another could work together to form a new country, she could understand more about how to help Americans share better. In Namibia she learned myriad lessons; among the most powerful was that forgiveness holds the power to transform oneself and others.
Before leaving Namibia, Laura saw a need for rural workers to be able to compete with their urban peers. With some creativity and tenacity, she was given a grant from Hewlett Packard for 9 computers and a server to build a lab. Today, that endeavor is still supported by the Namibian Ministry of Education. Upon her return to the United States, she was determined to move from grassroots work to working at a systemic level. Laura decided to go to graduate school in international development and later joined USAID and the State Department where she became a key advisor on legislative policy and strategy to the departments’ leadership. This experience allowed Laura to see how far the system can be pushed to make changes and what types of results that can lead to sustained results on the ground. There she learned all kinds of lessons, prime among which: budget is a huge lever for change.
Laura was drawn back to the world of education wondering how much more quickly change could be enacted within the world of social entrepreneurship rather than government. She was the first full-time hire of Teach for All – the international offshoot of Teach for America. Having her own kids however, renewed her keen awareness of the question of deep inequity in her country and in her neighborhood, leading her to run for office and become a member of the DC State Board of Education. Through this experience, Laura saw first-hand how families of power and privilege shape policies and practices in schools, and how this pattern perpetuated educational inequity. After all of these years of intrapreneurship, Laura was ready to take the leap into entrepreneurship. She founded Kindred in 2016.