Us: The Once and Future Openers

This is part two of three part series following the Marshall Ganz Public Narrative Framework (Self-Us-Now). For my Self narrative of why I believe in the Open System (Self), click here.  

I’ve always found it ironic that those of us in the family and community engagement space are often lonely people. Not by choice (because usually we’re extroverts) but because of the way systems usually think about family and community engagement.  

You see, within our districts, schools, and organizations, we are usually the only ones charged with the responsibility of working with families and parents. School systems typically have a handful of folks charged with this responsibility. Very rarely do they have budgets, and even more rarely do they have missions and purposes focused on the broader opening work.

How wild is it then, that the very people often charged with “building community” or working with “the people” find themselves alone in the system, fighting major battles against decades of system dispositions? Changing a system to think about openness is no small matter and it’s really the responsibility of everyone—not just one person.  

Even in a district like Denver Public Schools, dedicated to the work of family engagement, it often felt like our Family and Community Engagement Office was a small group working within a giant system, with a million priorities that diverged from our specific mission. And even in this fortunate situation, convincing more teams to focus on family engagement independently from us was always complicated. We ran into a buzzsaw of biases, challenges, and structural blockages that sometimes routed the problem solving right back to us—which meant we ended up doing the work ourselves, anyway.

Now, as more and more school systems are creating roles for folks to focus on family and community engagement, I meet many people who are on similar islands in their system. These folks are often charged with job responsibilities ranging from “work with families,” “ensure communications to parents and families are strong,” and sometimes even “lead equity work.” Imagine if your role was to convince an entire district or charter management organization (CMO) to engage families, confront racial bias, and work with skeptical community organizations? This happens frequently in school systems.

More often than not (indeed, in the vast majority of the cases) the leaders charged with family and community engagement are people of color, and in many circles they are almost exclusively women of color.  Not only are they charged with the previously mentioned workload, but they are also faced with confronting systemic oppression and biases. They are asked to push the system from every which way - and are given (or perceived to be given) little room to maneuver or runway to land.  

This is the tough, and needed work for the future.  These are the Openers.

If you identify with the previous paragraphs, do this work or attempt to do this work —you are an Opener.  

So who are we as “Openers”, and where did we come from?

The Openers

More and more Openers are showing up in education. They are in charter school management organizations, foundations, school districts, public schools, nonprofits of all sorts, and other places, as well. They are pushing the boundaries of co-creation, co-leadership, co-development. They are sharing power and interrupting bias. They are pushing through decades of closed system thinking and pulling down barriers. They push for public transparency and accountability. They show a willingness to continually adjust, reflect, and bring others along to adapt the openness over time.  

Blessed with opportunities around Colorado and the nation, I’ve come to see that we Openers are definitely not alone and that we definitely stand on the shoulders of giants. We need to begin to name these people and see our cause stemming from their cause. These people, who have fought to open systems for generations, are the ones we need to learn from the most. There is an entire pantheon of these leaders who have been at this work for decades, even centuries. These are leaders who have been cracking open closed systems everywhere.  

Anne Henderson is one of those people. One of the earliest leaders in the family engagement space, she has worked tirelessly over the course of her career to make the case for family engagement and the open system. Those who have seen Anne speak  know she is an incredible historian. Her first words to our Flamboyan Fellowship still resonate with me:

“Family engagement is really about democracy, isn’t it?”

In her talk, she connected our work to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. She illuminated the fact that during that time, there were all these folks fashioning regulations and systems designed to solicit community and family feedback. These Openers had a big bang moment and they took advantage of it, creating thousands of cracks in systems nationwide. They allowed openness and sunlight to break through using programs and initiatives such as Head Start and Title 1. These all had family engagement and community dialogue components.  

Patsy Roybal is another one of these amazing individuals. Patsy is the godmother of family engagement in Colorado. As the Deputy Director of the statewide parent coalition, she worked to build Parent Teacher Leadership Teams (PTLT) at schools across the state of Colorado.  PTLT is a powerful example of an opening mechanism: the building of shared power across stakeholders. I’ve seen PTLT work firsthand at Valverde Elementary where the principal used family engagement to build back trust in the school, thanks to Patsy’s foundation.  

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An amazing group of Openers - the Family Empowerment team at DPS

I couldn't write an article article about the "us" without mentioning the amazing Family Empowerment team at Denver Public Schools. A high performing, diverse and exceptionally thoughtful group that asked each and every day how we could open up a different part of the system to do more work for our parents and families.  Working with them was an honor of a lifetime and through that work, I began to see what being an Opener was about.  

How do you know if you are an Opener?  

Openers are the folks doing work like Patsy or Anne - the people wondering how to build the Open System. But they are not looking to build just any system, because Openers seek one that is fundamentally more adaptive and responsive than what was built before.  

Openers do not seek a small, technical regulation change in D.C. or a central office to make sure a school district talks to parents and communities. Instead, Openers seek a broader, more adaptive transformation towards an open education system that co-creates and builds with the people it serves.

When I’m around Openers, we talk about listening and learning from others. We explore the frontiers of power sharing. We think about and propose various ways to solicit feedback on initiatives and grow our coalitions. We struggle with short-term versus long-term openness capability of the system. Sometimes, we have to say no to small openness now in order to achieve larger openness later.

We value public leadership, public accountability, coalition-building, inclusion, cultural distinctiveness, history, the stories of those we work with, as well as different languages and manners of engaging. We strive to be anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-sexist and anti-colonialist. We seek out others who are lonely in the system and invite them into our workgroups and initiatives and can always think of a way for a department or team who doesn’t even think their work relates to parents to co-create with families.  We loathe bullies and those who can’t share airtime with others.  

We are the ones in the system often quoting Robert F. Kennedy, asking:

“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

Fundamentally, an Opener is an inquiry-driven person who asks the questions.

What kind of questions does an Opener ask?

  • How can we better share power and include families and communities?

  • Who else in this system could I work with to increase responsiveness to families and communities?

  • How can our organization face difficult truths about our past and current actions?

  • How will our system break a cycle of closedness to build a cycle of openness?

  • How can we commit to interrupting our own biases in order to ensure we work effectively with communities and families?

  • Are we interested in holding space for tough conversations about institutions in our community?

  • Are we willing to take the time to build trust so that the hard conversations can take place?

The Opener asks others...

  • To a school leader: How are families welcomed at your school? How are you bringing them into decision-making and allowing them to advise you on your important moves?

  • To a family member: What are your hopes and dreams for your child?

  • To another department: How can you rethink what is possible for working with families and co-creating the future of our system?

  • To organization decision-makers: Are we committed to adequately funding our engagement staff? Are we committed to building and creating open processes to support our family and community engagement initiatives?

  • To a district leader: How are you exercising public leadership to ensure transparency and accountability? Where do you see the spaces for co-creation and co-leadership with our families?

  • To a community partner: How can we bring you in to help us see our own blind spots?

And maybe, most fundamentally, an Opener asks themselves:

  • How will I work with others to ensure our systems serve families and communities, not the other way around?

If you’ve asked these questions or are in the process of asking these questions—you’re an Opener. 

If you’ve had a conversation with someone else about this in your school, district, or community—you’re an Opener.  

And especially if you want to help me figure out our next stage of open systems—you’re an Opener.  

This is the second of a three part series.  The next and final section, the Now, will be out soon and discuss the critical nature of building the Open System in this moment in our history.