Sarah Zyburt, mother of a seven-year-old child, is from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and now lives in Flint. She serves on the Michigan Parent Leaders in State Government workgroup, and Postpartum Support International, Michigan. Formerly, she served as a parent leader on her Home Visiting Local Leadership Group, the Great Start Collaborative for Genesee County and the Statewide Parent Leaders group for home visiting in Michigan. Sarah enjoys volunteering as a co-facilitator for a local postpartum support group for new moms as well as with the Parent Coalition in Flint and Genesee County.
Parent Leadership and What Potential Partners Need to Know: A Parent’s Perspective
Parent leadership and my journey to becoming a Parent Leader has changed my life – and other families’ lives — for the better, so much so that I see my potential as a Parent Leader to leave a legacy that will support families for years to come. In addition to helping improve programs, initiatives, and movements in my community and state, my seven-year journey as a parent leader has resulted in personal skill-building and the improvement of services and programs for families with young and school-age children with and for whom I have worked. I also see the impact other Parent Leaders and I continue to have on our systems. For example, professional partners who have seen parent leadership in action are now valuing parent contributions, feedback, and partnership to such a degree that as they serve in other capacities or in other groups, when decisions are being made for families, they are asking the question, “How are you including recipient parents/families in this process?” This exemplifies the high level of partner buy-in on parent leadership in our state, particularly when it occurs in spaces in which Parent Leaders are not yet present. How has Michigan arrived at this high level of partner buy-in?
Our State Understands the Value of Parent Leadership
One explanation for our state’s success with buy-in is that partners have come to see and understand the many benefits to their programs, organizations, or initiatives of including Parent Leaders. They have witnessed that we:
- Have a better understanding of what families want and need.
- Have varied talents, specialties, and interests we bring to the work, which makes us useful as thought-partners.
- Bring our lived experience as parents engaged in the challenges, joys, and heartbreaks of parenting.
- Know firsthand about the quality, accessibility, and even visibility of programs and services. We can speak to gaps and assets and bring innovation and possibility to your efforts.
- Help programs increase equity when we are partners in development, design, assessment, and planning for sustainability.
- Create opportunities for connections between programs and initiatives through our social networks through which information flows and we hear and share feedback. We have connections to and with other families in our neighborhood, faith community, our children’s child care or school. and other families who participate in extracurricular activities with our children. Parent Leaders help partners reach other parents through these channels and can harness these connections with other families for recruiting and feedback, and identifying and welcoming additional parents into the work.
- Bring passion and dedication when we have been well-served by the system.
Provide the Supports Parent Leaders Need
Respect is the number one ingredient to a successful partnership with parents. Recognize that parents intrinsically have a lot going on; adding the responsibility of parent leadership (i.e., attending meetings, events, participating in strategic planning, sustainability planning, or serving on hiring panels) is another pull on our already precious and limited time. In addition, to sustain engagement with me, I need to feel welcomed, valued (but not singled out!) and, I want to feel like my contributions are useful and helpful.
To show respect and to ensure equity, it is critical to provide supports for participating parent leaders. We are giving you our time and the benefit of our lived experience. We, in turn, expect:
- Networking and leadership opportunities, including chances to practice our leadership skills and to contribute in ways that are meaningful for us.
- Financial support in the form of an honorarium and reimbursement for childcare and travel to and from meetings and activities with you, at the federal rate. I advocate that these supports aren’t extra or a bonus. They are necessary and must be in place to ensure accessibility for Parent Leaders.
- A staff person who can answer questions and work with parents respectfully and with a partner mindset.
- A thorough onboarding and orientation process.
- Mindful scheduling that considers parent’s timing needs (avoiding childcare/school drop off and pick up, for instance).
- Meeting/event follow-up and reminders.
- A learning community of peers.
My recommendation is to have a menu of options for ways in which parent leaders can engage with your work. Share all policies, expectations, and reimbursement processes in writing, ideally via email as well as snail mail. This way, parents can always refer to it when they have questions.
Provide the Supports Needed in Your Specific and Unique Community
It is critical to include parents from marginalized communities and to provide them targeted supports. For example, where I live in Flint, Michigan, we have Michigan School for the Deaf, so we have a large population of deaf/hard-of-hearing children and families who need translation support to participate. Parents whose first language isn’t English may also need translation support, both orally and on any written documentation, to authentically participate. And, regarding diversity, the more the better; parents of various ages, genders, and abilities should be included in your outreach.
Where to Begin
Parent Leadership can be a powerful instrument for change when it’s implemented for the right reasons, with adequate support, and the right people in the right places. If you’re interested in creating a parent leadership structure or movement, I would urge you to first invest. If possible, secure funding to hire a consultant with experience and passion who can work with your group or program to assess your readiness to engage Parent Leaders successfully. Then, based on the assessment findings, the consultant will know what you should focus on to increase your readiness to invite and engage Parent Leaders sustainably.
I started this “how-to” by noting the impact parent leadership has had on me personally. I end here with one of my most powerful learnings as a Parent Leader and advocate for families at a local, state, and national level: I have come to understand that when I attend a meeting or conduct a training on parent engagement, it is an honor and a privilege in and of itself to get to participate in this work. That is why it is critical for me to remember that my role as a parent leader includes advocating for all families and specifically for marginalized families who don’t have a seat at the table because their time and energy are focused on their own/their children’s safety and basic needs. As the Parent Leader being included as a partner and thought leader, I believe it is therefore my responsibility to raise up their voices and struggles and, further, that this is the fundamental and most important purpose of parent leadership. All parents in every state should have the opportunity to be heard – and listened to.
This case study describes Michigan’s parent leadership program model, one that was 30 years in the making. The model, a concept tested over the last eight years, can be replicated within any early childhood system or program.
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