Connecting with Families During the Pandemic and Organizing For Change

I am a parent leader at my daughter’s school in Redwood City, California, and also work as a community canvasser at a nonprofit educational advocacy organization called Innovate Public Schools. My role at Innovate is to connect with families in the community, and find potential leaders who want to get involved in parent groups working to transform their public schools. The population we work with are mostly  immigrants from Latin America, and have children in low-income schools that are the most impacted by the academic gap. My position is usually public-facing; I spend my days knocking on doors, speaking to people, and organizing in-person meetings. 

However, since the start of the quarantine period, my job has completely changed. Now I work through phone calls, and am also transitioning to making video calls via Zoom. I’m glad to be able to connect and listen; we all need a compassionate ear. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed many parents are facing big problems. By staying at home, some suffer from depression and anxiety. Others are facing severe financial problems, such as being laid off from work. Many believe they will not be able to get their old jobs back. They cannot make rent, buy food, or pay for basic needs, like utilities. For tenants, rent is a huge concern. Although the state of California and our County of San Mateo has paused rents, they will still have to repay everything owed, which is very stressful. Home and small business owners are also experiencing similar issues. 

I do my best to connect the families I speak to with resources. While they are very grateful to receive donations from foundations and community organizations, it’s not enough. There’s still a serious shortage of resources, especially for this population. Many people in my community do not have documents, which disqualifies them from most of the resources the federal government offers, such as stimulus checks. They also fear that if they apply for aid, they will not qualify for citizenship in the future. 

Although many parents are struggling daily to survive, I greatly admire how they remain so concerned about their children’s education. In each call, I ask if their children are getting enough support from their schools. With the current situation, parents are realizing they need more support. They want to participate and take action. Although many parents and schools are not used to collaborating so much, now parents want to be more involved in their schools’ decisions, such as attending “Cafes with their Principal,” and educational workshops on different topics. In my group of Innovate parent leaders, we meet regularly with politicians and school district leaders to express our opinion and learn from them. During the pandemic, we’ve continued to organize. Last week, we organized a meeting with the San Mateo County Superintendent of Education’s Office, and 40 parent leaders. We shared our concerns about the lack of adequate education during quarantine, and asked for more support for children and families. 

It’s important to listen to the families most impacted by the crisis, because they have very clear ideas of their needs. In community organizing, we have a principle that says, “stay within the experience of your people.” I’m happy to talk with parents, and listen to their concerns. I also tell them that the shelter in place is a temporary situation, and when our children return to school, we need to support them in being successful. I invite all parents to organize themselves virtually (through online forums perhaps) and share their experiences while communicating what they need for their families’ well-being. We invoke the solidarity of our community; there are many generous people. Working together, we will all succeed.

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Vanessa Carbajal

Vanessa Carbajal

Vanessa Carbajal is a parent leader at Kipp Excellence Community Prep, and a community canvasser who works with Innovative Public Schools in Redwood City and East Palo Alto, California. She has lived in Redwood City since 2016, and has two children, Liam and Genesis. Vanessa was born in the Dominican Republic, a beautiful island in the Caribbean Sea. She immigrated to California four years ago and her daughter started her classes at Rocketship Redwood City Prep, then moving on to KIPP Excellence Community Prep. Three years ago, Vanessa became more involved in her daughter's education; attended meetings, parents' coffee, festivals, etc. She realized the active participation of parents is essential for students to be successful. A year ago, she decided to become a parent leader because she observed that students face many obstacles and only with the help of parents and good organization can they acquire everything they need to be successful students. A very happy moment for her was when the parents organized last year; they went to Sequoia High School District, demonstrated their need for a new quality high school, went to the offices of politicians who have the power to make decisions, and all parents were confident that their work was going to pay off. Finally, the children got what they deserve: a new quality high school in East Palo Alto, which will begin next school year.

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