Melanie M. Acosta, Ph.D. Mother of 5, Wife, Christian, Busines Owner, & Assistant Professor of Education-FAU
When my son was about to begin kindergarten, like most parents, I was excited! As a woman of African descent born and raised in the U.S. (in the South), education and schooling were always described as freedom tools. I was always encouraged by my elders to, “Go and get my education because what I got it, they could never take it away”. So education and learning were presented to me as something that I could obtain within a U.S. society that had unjustly taken so much from my people; but it was also something that I (and my parents) would need to safeguard from Eurocentric institutions determined to keep me in bondage through miseducation (Woodson, 1933) and undereducation. And I carried these freedom-focused ideas with me into adulthood as I stepped into my role as parent.
What I wasn’t prepared for though, was how my attempts to be an involved, engaged parent would be met by some schools. In my mind, an engaged and involved parent was one who:
• Is knowledgeable of the way school systems work and demonstrated this knowledge,
• Attends school meetings with an active presence that shows up in the form of asking critical questions, raising critical issues, and sharing the expectations,
• Makes recommendations for what her child needs, listens carefully to school concerns and comments,
• Advocates for teamwork across the adults involved in schooling her child.
To my shock, dismay, and then later righteous outcry, this was not the definition my children’s’ schools had in mind—at least not for me. I learned quickly that African American parent engagement from some schools’ perspective meant:
• I silently accept whatever information I was given by the school,
• I submit to the authority and credibility of the educators,
• I “show up” only how the school desired me to (giving money for fundraisers, posing in pictures for the website, paying money to join —but not lead the PTA, etc..).
And when I didn’t show up the way schools wanted me to, I got labeled as, “THAT” parent. You know, the parent who always causes “trouble”, the parent who is always unsatisfied, the parent who is always asking what more can be done, demanding better be done, and doing so unapologetically. Initially, I was hurt that my attempts to be the “engaged, involved parent” schools were saying they wanted was rejected. I was also hurt that I was being labeled as someone who was difficult to interact, it just didn’t make sense to me and I got discouraged. Then I started asking other African American parents, especially women, about their experiences and learned theirs was the same. But I also got the greatest piece of encouragement from Janet. Janet was an African American woman parent of a brilliant Black boy with disabilities. She was older than I and her son was a bit older than mine. As I poured my heart out to her about my experiences with the schools, she listened intently then shared, “Melanie, you better advocate for your children. Because if you don’t nobody else will!” All at once I felt the wisdom my ancestors telling me to get my education so it can’t be taken away. My purpose was renewed. Janet’s words helped me love the thought of being “THAT” parent, but I redefined it! Now, to me, being “THAT” parent means everything I thought being an engaged parent meant before, but it also includes:
• Speaking up and out so that your child can get an education that can’t be taken away,
• Asking hard questions about racism and schooling,
• Challenging the differences in quality that often accompany attending school while Black or Latinx,
• Showing up ready to listen and learn, but also ready with my own expectations, goals, and ideas for how I want my children’s school experiences to go.
So to all my parents out there pushing hard for the quality education that your children deserve and have been labeled as “troublemakers”, I am with you. I salute you and I stand with you. Be “THAT” parent. To all my parents out there afraid to be “THAT” parent because you are worried about what folks may think of you. I see you too and I hear you. I encourage you to look into your child’s eyes and remind yourself that they are worth it. Finally, to Janet—Thank you. Your words of encouragement over 15 years ago have never left me and I owe my children’s schooling success to your wisdom.