Over the past two years we have seen a surge in parents organizing in their communities and mobilizing to advocate for public education. Parents were alarmed when, in March of 2019, the Ford government announced cuts and changes to public education that they knew would be harmful to kids, including increased class sizes, loss of the Local Priorities Fund, and the mandating of four e-learning course for students.
Parents do not have an embedded organizing structure the way workers do with their unions. Typically, parents might get involved with the local School Council or with the Board, and/or they might be community activists. Prior to the latest crisis, aside from some great pockets of activism from organizations like Fix Our Schools, there had not been any larger-scale social movement of mobilizing parents since the days of Mike Harris.
That changed just before the March announcement as activist parents anticipated the upcoming cuts, and started organizing in different spaces—some online, some in their neighbourhoods.
Those working in education and parents are natural allies. Many education workers and teachers are parents. And we share the same core goals—we want kids to be happy, successful, and have the tools to make the change they want to see in the world. Power brokers rely on creating artificial wedges to reduce community opposition to cuts. For this reason, it is of critical importance for education workers and teachers to authentically connect with, and support, public education parent activism.
Let’s take a look at steps those of us working in education can take to support parent organizing:
- Centre on equity
It is essential that parents feel that their experiences are being reflected in the fight for public education. Fighting back against cuts, or fighting for a fully-funded public education system should always be centered in equity. Particular attention should be paid to listening to communities and ensuring that racialized and low income communities are part of the advocacy work to make sure their concerns are reflected in the organizing.
This is where mobilizing and empowering our own membership can be a powerful tool and why diverse representation within our union structures is so important. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) education workers and teachers often experience the structural oppressions that our BIPOC students and parents do, and these individuals are also connected to community. Campaigns for fully-funded public education should be paired with demands that reflect community calls for justice and equity; these demands might include decolonizing curriculum, addressing white supremacy, ending anti-Black racism, and calling for housing and food security.
- Be clear
Launching the most recent organizing efforts was done with the belief that if parents fully understood the impact of Ford’s decisions then they would naturally be motivated to act in support of publicly-funded education. Education policy is overly complicated as it is, and the Ford government went out of its way to use smoke and mirrors to further confuse the public. Education workers, teachers, and their unions have an important role to play in clearly communicating critical information at any time, but especially in times of crisis.
It is always wise to craft public communications from the perspective that your audience is not completely familiar with the topic you are presenting. Take big issues, zoom into their finer details and contextualize the issue from a local perspective to make them meaningful for those in your community.
- Meet them where they are
Political action means very different things for different people. It is important to value all types of political action and not to create a hierarchy that makes people feel as if their contributions are inadequate. For example, in the summer of 2020, when the education community and parents joined together to create the Safe September campaign, actions ranged from sending a tweet to physically taping up a sign at a local MPP’s office. Space was created for each type of engagement in a focused way so that everyone’s contributions felt valued. This scaffolded engagement strategy also motivates some people to try a new tactic after feeling they have effectively mastered their preferred method.
- Break the silo
In elementary schools, education workers, teachers, and parents tend to be more closely connected by virtue of the younger age of students and the connection to the single classroom teacher. In secondary schools, establishing a connection can be more difficult. In years when there is not a lot of political strife, communications typically take place via report cards, student support team tables, occasional phone calls home, OSSTF/FEESO representatives at School Council meetings, and parent-teacher interviews that pull in a small percentage of parents. It is typically the principal that communicates school-wide issues to parents. In times of labour strife, when Boards shut off communication pathways, it can be even harder to establish an authentic connection. And of course, the government does its best to command the airwaves.
Consider creative connection set-ups to break up the siloing & division that serves the interests of power and compromises community solidarity. Reach out to School Council Chairs about establishing a non-Board mail list for communications to parents about labour issues. Regular messages can provide updates that cut through messaging spin and offer the opportunity for solidarity initiatives like the school walk-ins in the No Cuts to Education fight. Consider running a town hall that affords a forum for education workers, teachers, and parents to come together and talk through issues.
- Show up for them
Relationships are about reciprocity, so if you are hoping that community members will engage in your campaigns, make sure you are actively engaging in other local community issues. Actively monitoring education issues is important but it is vital to also regularly scan social media to see what other types of organizing is happening. It is greatly appreciated by other community organizers when we actively reach out to those organizing around other causes and offer support in whatever ways we can.
Support could be as simple as sharing information on social media, offering posters, and markers, or even attending a rally. All of these small, simple actions build community relationships that can prove vital when we need parents to show support for solidarity initiatives like going outside a hotel where bargaining is happening. They also help grow genuine contact lists for when the media needs to interview community members about parent perspectives in labour disputes.
The work that we in education can do to engage with parents will make our campaigns to protect our schools stronger because it will serves to unite the public and can allow us to promote the work we do as a Federation. The solidarity initiatives that took place during the No Cuts to Education fight had a significant impact on mitigating some of Ford’s intended cuts. We have an opportunity to take the lessons we learned about community connections over the past year and to make them a permanent part of our communication and political action strategies going forward.