We were just in your feeds a week ago with Congressman Bobby Scott, but we couldn’t wait to get this episode out.  

Dr. Ann Ishimaru is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, where her work focuses on the intersection of leadership, school – community relationships, and education equity.  With a focus on both formal power structures, and on the more informal power that can come from community, she believes that leadership can play a vital role in creating equitable learning environments for all kids, particularly those who have been historically marginalized in education.  

Through her research, which she has documented in a new book, Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Family and Communities, Dr. Ishimaru highlights four key principals for empowering family and community to drive positive change in schools: Begin with Parents and Community; Transform Power; Build Reciprocity; and Undertake Change as Collective Inquiry.  

She joins us to discuss these themes and more.  


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The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.

This episode was produced by Andrew Lefkowits and Molly Wheeler.  It was edited, and mixed by Andrew Lefkowits.

Music by Kevin Casey.



Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver.

Molly Wheeler: And I'm Molly, a White mom from New Haven.

Andrew: And this is “Family Engagement and Equity”. We’ve got a great episode today and I'm thrilled to have Molly as a guest co-host for this episode. Molly, tell us about yourself.

Molly Wheeler: I'm so happy to be here with you, Andrew. I have a bunch of kids ranging in age from four to 21, and I've learned a lot through that span of years as my partner and I have made different and more informed, aspiringly anti-racist choices. Having older kids, they can talk and share clearly about their own school experiences. And youth, man, they know what's up. My story of coming to Integrated Schools is the same as so many. A phone conversation with Courtney Mykytyn led to a friendship, led me to this great community, and you.

Andrew: Yeah, well, we're very fortunate to have you. You're an integral part of Integrated Schools and I'm thrilled to be able to introduce you to our audience. And this episode today really came about because you came across the work of Dr. Ann Ishimaru and it really resonated, right?

Molly Wheeler: Yeah, that's right. Dr. Ann Ishimaru is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and I first came across her work a couple of years ago when I was really trying to think about how to participate in a parent and guardian community with a better understanding of how family engagement is usually considered in schools.

There were patterns I was seeing at one of my kid's school that were so entrenched yet so many in the family community wished it was different. And I was lucky to see that she had an upcoming book, Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Family and Communities, which I pre-ordered and totally waited for like some fangirl. 

Andrew:  Totally.

Molly Wheeler: Her work is, um, yeah, an important companion in how we think and talk about showing up and interacting with schools.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. I was not familiar with her work until you brought her to my attention. And I'm really glad you did. Her, her focus on improving educational leadership, is, is great, but I think what makes her somewhat unique, at least from other things I've seen out there, is just her focus on both the formal structures within a school system and then, you know, maybe even more importantly, the more informal family community forms of leadership.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah, Dr. Ishimaru seems to really believe deeply that building families, student, and community leadership and power in schools, particularly for communities that have been historically marginalized in education, is the only way to achieve real equity. And her book puts into focus how our consideration for what's best for our children in the abstract is really different when we're in community with others.

Her book animates just what we're talking about when we say, Show up, step back, and listen to those already there in global majority schools and how family engagement is often held in a White normative frame versus something that is enacted across the collective.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. The power and the expertise that exists in communities and the ways of elevating that and of building systems that recognize that is so important to this work. And I think, you know, as, as folks with privilege, it's on us to understand and to recognize that expertise as well.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah. And I love that she talks about privilege and Whiteness and where they overlap and where they don't. We've been thinking a lot about the “and/or privileged” piece of “White and/or privileged”. And I'm grateful for Dr. Ishimaru addressing that in this conversation.

Andrew: Yeah, me too. But enough of us. Let's hear the conversation. 


Andrew:  Maybe you can just start by introducing yourself.

Dr. Ishimaru: I’m Ann Ishimaru and I am on thefaculty at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, and the home of the Duwamish and the Coast Salish peoples. And I'm also a mom of three kids and an auntie to three more. I have done some research on the role of families and communities in educational change and in leadership for more equitable schools.

Andrew: And why do you care about that? How'd you come to focus your career on parent involvement? And why do you care about equity?

Dr. Ishimaru: Yeah, a lot of it comes from my own experiences growing up. Learning from my own family and community about the deep histories of injustice in this country. In particular from the experiences of our community as Japanese Americans. So my father was born in an incarceration camp in Poston, Arizona, which is on the Colorado River Indian Reservation.

So from a very young age, my family taught me about both the injustices in this country and also the power of resistance and the power of education both inside of school and outside of school, to make the world a better place. And so there was a kind of disjuncture for me as I began my career as a teacher, as a community leader, about the ways in which our formal school systems treated parents and families and the knowledge that they brought to the table. 

And so I really began to question how schools engage with families, especially families of color, and wonder if there were opportunities that our schools were not yet taking up.

Molly Wheeler: When you think about parental leadership and involvement in schools, how do you see that playing out historically? And how has that impacted who has power in schools?

Dr. Ishimaru: Yeah, the first thing we have to do is just recognize that there's a very long history of schools engaging parents and families and they are engaging them in one of two different kinds of ways. For decades, the dominant model of parent involvement has been one that emphasizes a set of normative, White middle-class behaviors. And the idea is that parents’ role is to support individual children at home and following the school agenda and going to the PTA meetings and raising money at the bake sale, attending the parent teacher conference, ensuring that their child understands and follows the rules at school, and that the family follows the expectations of the school. Cool. And that works great for a certain group of families, especially historically. 

And the other strand that's been going all along for centuries, especially in relation to families of color, has been one in which schooling has been actually used in ways that have reinforced the kinds inequities and oppression and colonization that exists in the broader society. 

So for instance, the boarding schools in Indigenous communities actually literally stole children away from their families. And it was all about assimilating them into White Western Christian culture.  And so we have far more subtle means of that these days. But in some ways, not more subtle. As we think about the experiences of Black families in relation to school discipline and over-referral to special education and the ways in which especially Black and Indigenous and Latino children are punished disproportionately.

So we have this two-tiered way of dealing with families, neither of which is actually taking seriously the power of parents as leaders in changing schools to become more equitable and to serve all children. And I think that's a kind of starting place for a lot of the work that I’ve done, is can we think about a different model or approach or role for families that goes beyond one of these two approaches, neither of which is actually serving all of our children well. And neither of which is moving our schools towards educational justice.

Molly Wheeler: So these two approaches are either support your kid at home, come to the PTA, raise some money; or assimilate to our vision of good parent, good student, and allow yourself to be colonized in effect.

And I wonder if part of this is fed by what you refer to as racialized scripts. Here at Integrated Schools, we talk a lot about how we are all individuals, we contain multitudes, but because of White supremacy culture, we often as White and/or privileged parents, we show up in, In very predictable ways.

And so I was particularly interested in your racialized institutional scripts. Could you talk a little bit about that and not just the scripts of White parents?

Dr. Ishimaru: So one of the things that theorists in organizational behavior and institutional theory have begun to recognize is that we have a set of scripts or unspoken things that seem normal or acceptable or common sense to us in the ways that we interact with each other. And those dynamics in schools are very specific. 

So we have a certain set of expectations about what a teacher is supposed to be and do, and how we interact with the teacher. We have a certain set of expectations about what a principal is and how parents are supposed to behave in a school.

And one of the things that, drawing on critical race theory and other theories, I brought together ideas like actually, yes, there are particular roles and expectations of parents, but they are racialized roles and expectations.

Andrew: Right. So, so not just the roles we play, be it parent teacher, administrator, whatever,  inform the expectation of how we'll behave, but that race also affects that, that the expectations for those roles are different depending on the race of the person in the role.

Dr. Ishimaru: That’s right. There are lots of examples where parents will talk about coming to the front desk, maybe unexpectedly without a meeting. And the reception will be very different if it's a Black mother showing up to talk about some issue that has come up with her child and a White parent who has come to talk about a similar issue. 

So some research by Annette Lareau and, um, and her colleagues, actually looked at scenarios like that and identified that the same kind of advocacy behavior that you might see for a White parent would be interpreted as like a good involved parent, Oh, that person's very engaged in their child's education. And for a Black parent the same advocacy would be interpreted by educators as being a problem or being disruptive or being a barrier to their child. 

So those racialized scripts aren't just something we make up in the moment. There are things that we draw from a broader set of narratives and stereotypes and assumptions that exist out in society, but they play out in very specific ways in schools. There are different kinds of scripts that are associated with different groups of parents. So especially for Latinx parents, there's a very deficit-based racialized script about them not caring. So they didn't show up to the X Y Z parent teacher conference or the math night or whatever it is.

And so rather than ask what are all the different possibilities for why those parents weren’t... maybe it was because it wasn't in English, maybe it was during a work time.

Andrew: Did you translate the flyer?

Dr. Ishimaru: All those kinds of things, the easiest thing, the racialized script that all of us have been socialized to think of first is it's like a not caring kind of script, associated with, Oh, that culture doesn't care or something like that.

Andrew: Value education.

Dr. Ishimaru: That's right. Yeah. So  I think that we often think that we're acting just off of our own thinking, my own individual thought process, and are not as aware that there are these invisible scripts that are running in the background that make certain things seem logical or common sense without our conscious intervention.

Andrew: Right. You talk about like the White normativity in parent engagement and this logic of deficiency, which I think is such a powerful framing for it. That the problem is not that we have different expectations for the same behavior. The problem is that we force a view of a deficiency onto non-White participants in school, that the same behavior, the exact same behavior, generates different responses from the power structures in a school. And that I think that can go on even regardless of the racial makeup of the power structure at the school, that this is not just if there is a White school leader than this is what happens, but that these scripts are so baked in that we all fall victim to them.

Dr. Ishimaru: That's right. And I think that's one of the things that is striking to me having done work in some very different contexts across the country, is how common some of these scripts are even in very different geographic locations and very different demographic makeups of schools. There's something very powerful about the institution of schooling in particular and the ways that translate these racialized dynamics.

Molly Wheeler: In your work, how do you see schools pulling in parents in these sort of patterned ways? You talk about how parents as first teachers is largely lip service. That we say that, we don't mean it, and that schools certainly don't recognize that. So how do you see teachers or educators pulling parents in and likewise, how do you see parents showing up in those spaces?

Dr. Ishimaru: So I think that there's a dominant approach that I see a lot. And it's not to say that there aren't schools and educators who aren't trying. There are many who are trying. 

And I think one of the things in my book that I really tried to profile is there's the kind of conventional approach and here are some examples of ways that folks are really pushing and trying to move on a different kind of path. So I think we have not as many examples as what it looks like to move on that path, as we need. And there isn't like, here's the conventional, normative, problematic deficit-sizing process or approach and then here's the perfect approach. There's this journey that happens in between and we never actually get to the perfect approach because there isn't a perfect approach. It's an ongoing process. I think we see, especially right now in this moment, even as they're all these controversies around reopening schools.

For example, there are a lot of surveys people, districts are sending out surveys. You all may have gotten a survey like that. And…

Andrew:  Many. About one every two weeks it seems.

Dr. Ishimaru: Yeah, so there's a sense that systems know, especially right now, they have to be considering what parents are saying and experiencing and their perspectives because all of a sudden families and parents have become the center of what's happening in schooling. And that has become unavoidable given COVID. And so those are an important starting place for folks to recognize that the insights and perspectives and priorities of parents matter in these high-stakes decisions.

Andrew: Right. So, so the fact that everyone is home with their adult caregivers is really forcing districts to be more attentive to parental needs which, which leads to this plethora of surveys and listening sessions, et cetera.

Dr. Ishimaru: Yeah. The problem though, is that those don't go far enough. They can sometimes unintentionally reinforce the problem, actually for families of all different backgrounds, in that they can make it seem like that schools and districts are making an effort to listen but then often the decisions don't substantively consider or center what they are hearing from those spaces. 

So on the one hand, you've got that dynamic that's running across all parents, and a sense of like, Why are you asking our opinion if you're not taking it into account in any real way when you're making decisions.

And then on the other hand, you've got a dynamic with these surveys, especially where the responses are very predictable in terms of who responds to these surveys. They tend to privilege the folks who are already very centered in the conversations about schools. It tends to privilege people who speak English, who have technology, ‘cause they tend to send them out via email. So then there's ways in which the kind of default approaches to getting parent voice can actually recenter the privileged voices. So you've got that kind of dynamic going on. 

Molly Wheeler:  Those are the standard approaches, but in your book you highlight a lot of the places where people are trying to really do things differently. Could you talk about some of those?

Dr. Ishimaru: That's really what I tried to focus on in different chapters of my book. And I think that there are some powerful examples of it at the teacher level and individual level. And we're actually seeing quite a lot of that in different places, where the teachers who have strong relationships already with their students or with their families are able to find ways to continue those connections. And there are some schools that have developed some systems to do that.

There are fewer whole systems and districts that have been able to do this in robust ways. And I think a crisis like COVID are really highlighting the lack of robust systems that we have for addressing these needs right now.

And then also taking this moment, this opportunity to really say, Wow, like everything we thought we knew about schools is... got blown up the last couple of months. What if we took this moment right now to actually do something very different and to bring in some of the expertise that we've been missing right now to reimagine, to do something very different.

Andrew: Yeah, I think, there's, yeah, a feature of White supremacy culture is, Okay, if this system isn't working, then give me the step-by-step to have the better system. And what I hear you saying is like, there isn't one answer out there. There's not, If everybody just adopts this method, you will have perfect parental engagement. And I feel like that's some, sometimes we think, I read this book and it said to do this one thing and I did it and the parents still didn't show up. But it feels to me, at least like from your work, that the thing to push back on that is re-imagining where we view expertise to lie . That if the experts are the teachers or the administrators or the superintendent or the school board people and not the families, then the experts can rejigger their systems as much as they want. They're never going to get to a place where there's actual sort of shared power, where they're actually relying on the expertise of the community.

Dr. Ishimaru: That's right. And frankly, there's a limited lived experience space for folks who are professionally employed in these systems. There are for sure educators who have experiences of their own as parents or families or community members, that can relate to these things.

But as a system, to really understand what the lived experiences of all of these well-intended efforts to engage families or to get them to support their child's learning and to meet their needs, all of these kinds of things. They can play out very differently on the ground. And without the actual experiences of those families at play in the deliberations about what we should do and how we should do it, we're gonna miss every time. 

And so that's the irony of it. It feels like everywhere I go, I hear from educational leaders and district leaders and folks who are reckoning with the deep racial inequities in schools and they're searching always for experts. They want to find the expert here, the expert there. And the expertise is in their own backyard. 

Molly Wheeler: Right. They're looking in the wrong direction. Finding an expert on parent engagement isn't as helpful or effective as empowering the expertise that exists in your own community. It's like leaders are just missing this valuable source of knowledge.

Dr. Ishimaru: The challenge is that I think it takes a particular skill to recognize and hear and leverage and tap that expertise. 

And I think that one of the things, I know many of your listeners are thinking about this, especially around these questions of integration. I've just been listening to “Nice White Parents” and found it very powerful, and I think a lot, even, I think about John Diamond and Amanda Lewis wrote a book, Despite Best Intentions

Dr. Ishimaru: And it ends with, Why aren't the educators making these kinds of changes if they know how important and how deep these things go? And it ends with, Because of the fear of White parents. 

And, I've been thinking a lot about that in this moment and this move towards the pandemic pods and all that kind of stuff. And, and just thinking about how much even these well-intended efforts there were that you've got parents who are like, let in a low-income kid into our pod, or we'll try to make it racially diverse or whatever.

That they're operating on this very individualistic level still. And there's this way in which I think, Andrew, you were mentioning those sort of norms and expectations of White supremacy, are about individualism. They've reinforced this kind of notion of individualism.

And I keep thinking about what would happen… a colleague of mine, Erica Turner, actually created a guide about this: what would happen if instead of all of these more privileged White parents focusing on the individual level efforts to get what they need for their kids, if they were to put those energies towards systems change towards a collective kind of set of solutions, and to actually try to move in solidarity with families of color? That's something I've, I just think that it's a very different set of opportunities and solutions could emerge.

But there's a way in which, again with those kinds of racialized scripts, that feels like the logical thing to do. Just figure out and spend my energy on what has to happen with my own kid. And I totally get that as a parent of three kids in school, totally get that. And trying to think about, how do our individual actions... I've just been reading Robin D. G. Kelly, who's a historian at UCLA, who does some really powerful work. And he points out that there's that logic, that neoliberal logic makes folks think about their individual actions and expressions as the only thing they're accountable for, not their groups. Action is not a recognition of how their behaviors and actions are actually part of a group. So when you've got a large group of folks who have systemic power, who are all doing this individual thing, it has this collective impact on the system as a whole.

And what would happen if we put that energy and focus on the systems change instead?

Molly Wheeler: Yeah. And I think about how, when you talk about things happening on such an individual level and people thinking so small and only about their children, how many large hurts are going on on small personal levels. 

So when a parent only thinks about their own child and their own situation, and then wants to invite a parent of color in, or their child into that space, the sort of establishment of relationship, though in the moment that things should be opened up and some new thing formalized, we're actually just specifically telling people in our community that, Oh yes, so we do in fact tokenize them. And so I just think about, we can think of that so easily and how that is just happening everywhere right now.

Andrew: There’s one little thing, that just feels like this one individual thing. That is what is systematized. This is when we talked about it a bit with JPB Gerald, like the system is us. We are the system. Like our choices are what makes up the system. And we say, the system is broken. So I'm just going to look out for myself. But everybody making that decision is why the system feels broken sometimes.

Dr. Ishimaru: That's right. That and there are broader efforts that are being entertaken in some places, but because we all have a limited amount of energy and focus and voice and leverage, if it's all going towards that and we're all limited, then it's not going towards these other kinds of changes.

So for example, because one of the huge dynamics, I know that you all talk about this too, is just the segregation in terms of where people live, how much that dictates who we go to school with and who our social circles are with. There's a district that's trying to think about how could we disrupt that in this moment because we're all online anyway? Can we do something to develop relationships between kids in different spaces and places, are there ways that we can construct classes where kids from different parts of the district might actually be able to be in class together? Maybe we could have older kids doing something with younger kids and get creative in a way that we haven't been able to before.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah. You just mentioned, like older students, perhaps having some roles with younger students. And in your book, you talk about youth-led leadership and how we could really reimagine and harness the expertise that youth have. 

Dr. Ishimaru: That’s right.

Molly Wheeler: Could you talk a little bit about ways that you see that or that you envision that happening more?

Dr. Ishimaru: Yeah. I think it's happening all over the place right now.  There are broader discourses of learning loss and disengagement of youth right now, especially those who are impacted by educational injustice already. And then the irony is that you've got these amazing, powerful movements of youth leadership happening, especially around decriminalizing schools and disrupting the school to prison nexus and those are forms of deep, powerful engagement and leadership that we are seeing from young people right now. 

We also, in a local district that’s near me, there's a group of youth leaders who are saying, We need to have a voice in all these key decisions about who to hire as teachers, as principals. We need to have a voice in whether or not schools are gonna reopen because we're the ones who have to be there. And I think that a lot of times our systems have a tendency to interpret those as aggressive, problematic. Agitation.

And what would happen if we actually said, Wow, there's this group of young people who are bringing their expertise to us right now. And maybe we should learn from that. And they become a powerful avenue for then expanding those conversations. 

So I also am familiar with quite a few school leaders who are doing this with the young people in their schools, who are really trying to, in this moment especially, be in close touch with them and to leverage their voice towards the kinds of social justice focused change that they've been working at all along but is particularly right potent in this moment.

Andrew: Right. Can you, can you talk about some of the, and I do, and I just pointed out the kind of White supremacy culture  tendency to say, Give me the checklist or what steps do I need to take to do this better? And so I don't want to, I don't want to fall into that, but are there some sort of like guiding principles or high level concepts that seem to be in places where there is small change?

Like you said, there aren't really any kind of systems that seem to have nailed this, but are there guiding principles that you think about in terms of helping make it work better in places where it is?

Dr. Ishimaru: Yeah.  There are four principles that kind of thread across the work that I've done and in the book. And the first one has to do with beginning with families and communities. And so that one can apply to all different kinds of contexts. It might even just be starting a conversation with the experiences of families and communities and not the school's agenda. But that could apply also to much larger scale reform efforts as well. So I look at that thread across these cross-sector collaborations across multiple institutions. And then that also can go all the way down to individual interactions. 

There's a school that has rejiggered their conversation in the parent teacher conference, where it starts with the parents sharing about the brilliance of their child and the questions that they might have, and that becomes the primary focus of the conversation. And that's a really simple little change. But you think about how different it...

Andrew: Just the agenda. The order of the agenda.

Dr. Ishimaru: Yeah. Yeah.

Andrew: And all of a sudden you’re having a wholly different conversation. 

Dr. Ishimaru: That's right. There's another example where someone was talking about these IEP meetings are complex because you've got one parent usually. And then you've got all of these specialists around the child. And the one time these folks did it a little differently and the parents set the agenda ahead of time and came in and the parent was the one who was running the agenda. And even though she didn't have other people in the room with her, it actually really shifted how that conversation proceeded. So that's one thread. 

Another one is transforming power and that kind of runs across everything as well. An original idea here is just to recognize the disparity in power. So we can't just bring people together. People are always like, Oh, that sounds great. Let's like, let's get this diverse group of parents and teachers and principals and district people. And we'll put them all in a room together and then magically, poof collaboration will emerge. I've got it. We'll just create this council or this advisory committee and it'll be made up of all these representative people.

And yeah, we all know I think from being in some of those spaces, that power plays out very differentially in those spaces. And so that might be at the level of district and decisions about whether or not to reopen, or it might be in the context of a school committee that's trying to make a decision about what are we going to do with this $200.

And very quickly there are voices, of especially the more privileged professional folks, will emerge and begin to dominate the conversation. So we have to have very skilled ways to intervene in that. And it's not to say, if it happens. It willhappen. And those individual dynamics are a kind of microcosm of what we see on the broader system.

Andrew: On that transforming power thing. The idea is that we can't pretend that those power differentials disappear just by putting people in the room. That we have to name them and call them out and be aware of them and then look for the ways that they are infecting our conversations and stuff? Because if we ignore them, if we and No, look, we got this diverse group of people in the room, which even that, like that's a challenge and in many places anyway, but let's say we got them in the room in the first place, then we still have to name those and face them head on.

Dr. Ishimaru: That's right. That's going to play out in different ways. But I think that it takes some skilled facilitation. And so that's one of the things that I think we need to, all of us who are doing this kind of work, need to develop our capacity to do, where especially some folks are, like, we're like a tension averse. We don't like to lean into the tension. But if we don't figure out how to lean into those tensions, then we're not going to change and grow and learn, and we're going to inadvertently reinforce and reinscribe the same thing that we've already done. So then we've put in all this effort and energy and we've just recreated the system as it already is.

Andrew: Right, so you were going on to the third principle.

Dr. Ishimaru: These are principles, yeah, because I think that, one of the things that we're coming to is that it's really about the process that, I think we sometimes get overly focused on in a kind of mechanical or technical kind of way, like what's the outcome? And then let's work our way backwards step by step in a very kind of technical way.

And often what happens is the process itself determines the outcome. So if we go through a different kind of process then a different kind of outcome can result. And so really the third one has to do with building reciprocity and building agency. So that, even as that example I gave earlier with the listening sessions, one of the critiques that my colleagues and I bring to them is that they tend to how, even if people feel listened to, then the person in power goes back to their office, closes their door and maybe they meet with a couple of other people in charge. They make a decision. And then if they're really quote unquote responsive, they'll go back and tell people what they decided, but it really consolidates the power actually, in the formal decision maker. And so what would it look like instead to build the agency of all of those people to come up with a solution together and to, to try to implement those things?

So that's really what co-design is about. 

Andrew: It's interesting. You can convince people that they need to listen to the community. The district here in Denver does a lot of quote unquote listening, which usually means like you get to come shout at us in three minute increments and then we're going to go and do what we were going to do in the first place.

But it does seem like even the next step beyond that of, as you were saying, really meaningful conversation, if the power and the decision makers are still going back and making the decisions behind closed doors, it's almost like they've weaponized that parental engagement. That those people can now say, No, look like I met with all these parents and this is what they said they wanted. And so I'm not making this decision for me, but I'm making this decision for them. There's no sense of, We are making this decision.

Dr. Ishimaru: That's right.

Andrew: All right. So we have: Begin with parents and communities, we have transformed power, we have build reciprocity and agency. And what is the fourth principle?

Dr. Ishimaru: And so the last one has to do with how do we undertake these kinds of change efforts as collective inquiry with a recognition that, yes, we're missing some expertise in our system, but once we bring that in, as we get to trying to come up with solutions and to make change, we all need to learn and grow in order to figure that out.

So I give the example in the book of a parent leadership academy that existed in a particular district. And the parents created their own curriculum and developed a set of lessons that really focused on the issues that were closest to home for them, and actually explicitly address issues like racial inequities and how race plays out in schools, how race plays out between kids in terms of bullying, but then also how parents have to navigate that as they're trying to advocate for their kids and support them, both the kids who are, the, on the receiving end of bullying and the kids who are the bullies.

I think there's a lot of examples that have arisen as well at a systems level. The last chapter in my book really looks into some of those, I've been working with systems-level leaders and things like hiring  a new principal. So one of the principal supervisors, who was a student of mine at the time, co-designed a different process for hiring a principal.

And he said at the end of the day, it's, it's very likely or possible that he would have chosen that same candidate himself, but the process of going through and having parents and teachers and the students themselves go through a deliberation built a kind of agency that didn't exist before because they actually did get to make that decision.

And it for some parents actually repaired some of the damaged trust from the kinds of dynamics that you were just talking about. 

So what I say now to folks is that often the tendency is to think about, Oh, where can we do something where we could engage parents and co-design? I, my response is always like, Where are you making a decision that matters to children and families right now?

Andrew: ‘Cause that's where it should be.

Dr. Ishimaru: That's where we need to be engaging in these kinds of processes.

Andrew: And not like a token, Okay, like we’re, like we're going to get a new drinking fountain. Let's let the parents decide where to put it, but like anything that actually matters for kids. 

Dr. Ishimaru: Yeah, that is meaningful to parents and kids. I think that we do have actually a robust way of, practice of saying, Oh the parents are going to put on a multicultural night. Let's let them decide 

Andrew:Which cultures.

Dr. Ishimaru: What, yeah, which culture is and what food to bring. And that might be a, like a starting place, if that's really where parents are feeling it, especially at this moment, I think that there are much higher stakes kinds of decisions that we need to have all of these perspectives to be a part of.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah, those nights usually happen with a parent community never having before spoken about what multiculturalism is in their school. We pull it out as a banner night.

Dr. Ishimaru: Right.

Molly Wheeler: But don’t… like when you talk about co-creation and being able to recognize what your school is together, that those are real missed opportunities, too.

Dr. Ishimaru: I think we see, unfortunately, a lot of those kinds of dynamics and here's the tension is especially in schools that are predominantly White and don't have as many kids of color or Black kids, especially in this moment, then the emotional labor and the expectation that they're going to be the ones to make things happen is often what happens.

And I think that it's important to just name like the flip side of recognizing expertise. That doesn't mean that it's now suddenly their unpaid jobs to educate and facilitate and coordinate all of the work that's going to happen to address these issues.

And so that's a tension I see in a lot of schools. One of the things that is always, it shouldn't be surprising to me,  given how segregated our social circles are, but how often there are conversations emerging amongst parents, White parents, especially, about equity, which I think is really encouraging and exciting.

But then when I ask, to what extent are you doing this work with families of color in deep ways? Do you have those existing relationships? It's sometimes a surprise where they go, Oh yeah, I guess we haven't yet actually deeply talked with, engaged, built relationships with those folks.

And there's often a, But I have no idea how, I don't know them, or haven't made the effort to reach out to them even if they are in my school community. And I...

Andrew: Or like, I sent them a text message and they never came to the.. 

Dr. Ishimaru: Yes. Yeah. And I think there's also, we do have these ways in which things are structured to make that more challenging, but we also, there's a kind of comfort dynamic. And  it's almost like it's comfortable to get with other people like us and then get outraged and talk about issues of equity and let's make this thing happen. And it's less comfortable though to engage with the families of color who are most impacted by those things. And to sometimes be told, Actually that's not what is the main concern for me right now. 

So for, like an example that came up very recently within the pandemic issue is that there's a group of mostly White PTA parents who are really concerned about the inequities that are unfolding with the all-online learning. And so they came up with a, a plan to have other community organizations step forward and be able to provide space for the families who have to work and so that their kids can go to these spaces. But they didn't talk to enough Black and Latino families, in particular, in this particular context, because many of them were saying, Even if we do have to work with, we don't feel safe sending our kids into these public spaces, we know that our communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID and so we're going to choose our kids' lives over schooling in a building and they're actually, they have some networks and opportunities to lean on each other.

We're seeing Black families who are it's the auntie or the grandma or the neighbor even who are helping to care for kids and oversee what's going on with their schooling. And turns out that's a kind of longstanding cultural practice that already exists in those communities that maybe we could be learning from.

Andrew: Right? Right. 

Molly Wheeler: As we're having this conversation, so much of it's about White parents, but it's not exclusively about White parents. At Integrated Schools we purposely say White and/or privileged and in community with parents of color that hold privilege, we hear what draws them to Integrated Schools. They see community and conversation about their own learning and unlearning. Could you speak to the role of privilege, separate from race?

Dr. Ishimaru: Yeah, I appreciate that, you naming that. There are, race is never the only thing. We know that it intersects with other kinds of oppressive dynamics and those are maybe distinct given different kinds of communities. So in the Black community, class is a big issue and you can see that playing out a lot of times in these contexts.

So there are certainly commonalities that Black families experience in relation to how schools treat them. But there's actually been a good line of study to examine how middle class Black families mobilize their social capital in ways that are different and often more effective, than working class Black families. And so there are, there are sometimes divides that we also have to acknowledge and name and lean into within communities. 

Within the Asian American community, there are some huge divides that we have to reckon with. On the one hand, there are dynamics of anti-Blackness that exist in Asian communities across the board. On the other hand, there are very different Asian and Asian Americans within that diaspora and the experiences with school vary dramatically within those groups. So you've got East Asian Americans and South Asians and then a very different kind of experience from Southeast Asians, for example.

On the other hand, you also have a dynamic of newer immigrants versus folks who have been here longer. And you've got a dynamic, especially amongst many new immigrants from countries like China, where the parents are very much taking up the mantle of meritocracy, of... colleagues of mine call it the sort of margin of advantage ,of trying to ensure that they not just secure what's best for their child, but what's always like better than, for other kids.

And I think that's a dynamic that we have to reckon with, that is racialized, but it's also shaped by these dynamics of class and by language, citizenship status, and all of those kinds of things. It ends up getting, it can for sure cross racial lines because we have these other intersecting lines of oppression.

So I think that those are things that we actually have to be very frank about and recognize, especially as more privileged parents of color, and I'll include myself in that, the ways in which we are navigating these challenging spaces as well. And trying to use our energy and our resources and focus in ways that are, yes, naming the dynamics that we're experiencing but also recognizing the privilege that we have amidst that, and trying to seek out and center the voices and priorities of the folks who are most impacted by these injustices.

Andrew: Yeah. It seems like one of the things that you keep coming back to as a way to push back against all of these things, is this idea of solidarity. So the idea of being in community, of working together. Can you just talk about what's the power in solidarity? How do you view solidarity? What is it and why is it a powerful antidote to some of these things?

Dr. Ishimaru: The scholar Derrick Bell talks about this idea of interest convergence and his theory, I think it's very much a way to understand how a broad scale change in terms of racial justice advances have taken place and continue to take it place, it's this notion that those advances will happen when it's in the interest of the more privileged community or group as well.

Andrew: So the idea here is that change will only happen for marginalized people when privileged people view it as being in our own self-interest, when our interests happen to converge with the interest of those more marginalized.

Dr. Ishimaru:  And one of the things that a lot of us think about is, is interest the only way that we're going to make change or that we're going to try to make change? And I think the end of his career, Derek Bell was like, no, that shouldn't be the only way. He says that's a historical tool.

We also have to reckon with racial realism, the fact that racism is dynamic and will continue and will keep changing no matter what we try. But at the same time, solidarity becomes for me a different way to think about that we can actually not always make decisions that are just solely premised on self-interest. But that we have other ways of being and doing things and moving and deciding, How should I do something? 

And yeah, in the context of families, I talk about this, like sometimes with my young kids, I'm staying up really late at night ‘cause somebody's sick or in pain or something like that. And it's not, I don't stay up with them out of self-interest, so right...

Andrew: Maybe the opposite. I am very self-interested in going to bed, thank you.

Dr. Ishimaru: That's right, exactly. So it's, it's out of love and we have, that's a context we have, we all understand that we're motivated to do something out of something other than self-interest, right?

And I think love is something that a lot of folks are talking about in, in terms of the beloved community and some of the work that other folks have done there. And I really think about solidarity as another possibility that might move us to say, What does it mean for, because we desire a more just society and a more collective wellbeing of all of our communities and what does it mean to actually then to say, yes, we are different. We do need different things and we are interdependent. So solidarity becomes a way to think about an alternative way to make change and to move and to be.

Andrew: That's beautiful.  Thank you. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for all the work you're doing. and yeah, just really deeply grateful to you. 

Molly Wheeler: Yeah. Thank you, thank you so much.

Dr. Ishimaru: Excellent. Thank you so much for having me.


Andrew: Huge. Thanks to Dr. Ishimaru. 

Molly, I think one of the things that I'm still thinking about are these like four principles that guide her work, which she calls in her book, I think, the new rules for engagement. And they are: begin with parent and community, transform power, build reciprocity and agency, and then undertake change as collective inquiry.

And I wonder if maybe it's worth just kind of like stopping and thinking about each of those and what they mean as, as parents engaging with the school you know, begin with parent and community. What do you hear when you, when you hear her talk about that kind of important starting point of trying to drive change in schools?

Molly Wheeler: Yeah. I guess I think about the absence of that, that I've seen in a lot of different school communities and felt really hopeful by the example that she gave of the parent teacher conference or the other example she gave about the IEP meeting. I know a teacher in New Haven that had piloted this program about 10 years ago where the parent teacher conferences were really led by the students, which I know is something that has taken off and people are doing more and more, but this was done so intentionally as to engender a real feeling of co-leadership when the parents came in.

And so what was really at the center was the student's relationship with their family. And so the students would choose work that they felt represented their presence in the class. So it could be an academic focus, it could also just be something that they felt represented the relationship that they had with their classmates, with their teachers. And then they had the opportunity to tell this story and what was covered in that was also a revelation of what they struggled with and the teacher could share their experience of the student as well.

Andrew: Right. It's fascinating to think about the sort of simple shifts that you can make in these already existing structures that can just reframe who has the power. And I think that sort of leads nicely to the second piece of transform power that, that we have to acknowledge the ways that kind of society disproportionately empowers some people over others.

We can't just pretend that that doesn't exist, but we have to acknowledge it and then work to build new forms of power. And so some of that might be in the same thing, like empowering a student to drive the parent teacher conference. But then in, in bigger settings, like thinking about as we're engaging in change in a school community, how do we empower everybody to have voice in that. How do we acknowledge the ways the system might respond differently to different people while still elevating, you know, all the voices who are engaged in that work?

Molly Wheeler: Yeah, I think the IEP example, while sort of nestled in the first principle, is such a powerful example in terms of transforming power. So, I mean, I as a parent have been part of those, and the school staff, they know our child well, and they care very much. But the power dynamic was really intense, right?

Like you walk into this space, you're sharing the space with your child and then a large number of staff that then sort of tell you what they've been working on with your child. And there isn't a lot of space for you to talk about maybe some of the things you've been trying at home, the frustrations you've had sometimes it feels more like you have just walked into a space to learn more about your child.

Andrew: From the quote unquote experts, like ignoring your own expertise in your own child.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah. 

Andrew: Yeah. And so, so I mean, in some ways that, that like ties nicely into the third principle of building reciprocity and agency and focusing on co-design. That if you are given the agency to bring your own expertise in, that there reciprocity there. That it is not just a one way process where those who are the experts are telling you what's going to happen or what to do, but there is really kind of a back and forth and your expertise and your agency is valued as much as the, you know, quote unquote experts, then there's the ability to sort of co-design a process.

And I think you, you take that out of the kind of individual IEP setting and into broader questions about district level or even school level policies and stuff too.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah, it makes me think about the structure of PTOs and PTAs and how often, just the way they're constructed and bylaws and officers, I see the structures of PTOs as often something that, um, there's an inheritance of a way of doing things and so how would we ever transform power if we don't really start to think about what a new structure of power would look like.

Andrew: Right. The sort of best intentions in a problematic structure are going to have a really hard time counteracting that. And I think you hear this everywhere, Like we really wish our PTA was more diverse. We really wish we had more voices in our PTO. And I think it's like a constant refrain that you hear.

And, and yeah, at some point you have to wonder, is there something inherent in the structure of the way that it's built, the way that we think about it and talk about it that is the, the root of the problem, not the kind of best laid intentions of the people who are running the PTA currently.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah. People do have an expectation, right? It's like the White normed expectation of what a successful PTO is, you know, it's very much tied to fundraising, it’s tied to certain kinds of events.

Like, I think about one school that we were a part of, the PTO had been run by White neighborhood parents for a long time. And then a Black woman that had been in the school community for a long time was in charge of the PTO and really leaned into it. She wanted to do these amazing things, really saw this as an opportunity for a new leadership position. And there was a lot of critique that the PTO wasn't good that year because fundraising wasn't a goal.

Andrew: Hmm. It wasn't fitting into the role that we think PTA is supposed to play.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah. Yeah. And it was really seen as an opportunity to build community. And again, that didn't look a certain way to certain parents. And so when the PTO tended White the next cycle, suddenly it was kind of back on track. 

Andrew: The way that like the community talked about it...

Molly Wheeler: Yeah.

Andrew: It got like off of it's, off of its role. And now it's like back on track doing what a PTA is supposed to be doing and, and sort of ignoring the, what could have potentially actually been better for the whole school community in that other year.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that mother stepping in was a ripe opportunity to transform power.

Andrew: Yeah.

Molly Wheeler: But it's not set up that way.

Andrew: Yeah. And then this, this last piece, undertake change as collective inquiry. I love this idea that the destination is the journey, that there is no end point of, if you follow these six steps you achieve parent empowerment Nirvana. It's like the, the goal is to be constantly evaluating how it's going, rethinking it with the input of everybody.

And it is our collective job, our collective inquiry to figure out how do we improve systems together now that we started with the parents and the community, we’ve made sure that we're acknowledging power differentials, we've transformed the way power works, we have some sort of reciprocity and agency amongst all the participants to work together to design it. It's not enough to just say like, okay, now what are we going to design? It has to be an iterative process. You have to constantly be reassessing what's working and what's not with all of the voices in the community.

I think that leads nicely to the  other piece that really stuck with me from the conversation, which were these racialized institutional scripts and it's one of those things, like when you hear it sort of like, well, of course that exists, but until you hear it, it's hard to recognize. It's hard to see where those things are showing up in your life.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah.  And I guess once you become aware of these racialized scripts, you know, as she put it, there are these invisible scripts that are running in the background that make certain things seem logical. And like, we don't even know that they're happening and it can be really disconcerting to sort of realize that, uh, you're a cliche, you know, you're just this kind of trope of a White parent showing up in school.

Andrew: You know, what's interesting is that I don't think we are as surprised when we find ourselves falling into those scripts about gender. Right? Like we easily see it. We were like, Oh yeah, there we go again. You know what I mean? There's still like work to do. They definitely exist and they're still there, but I feel like they, they're not as hidden from our view  as the race ones are.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah, that's true. Like with gender when we catch ourselves, it's like, Oh, that's how I was raised, I have this responsibility. And so with this, with realizing the way that you're showing up as a White parent, there's a responsibility that the realization of the racialized scripts brings

Andrew:  Yeah, it's like everyone is terrified to be racist, but, but nobody is terrified to be misogynistic. You know, it doesn't bring the same degree of White fragility or like defense mechanism up when you're like, Uh, yeah, you know what, I did just like, say, well, you should probably get pink ‘cause it's a girl, you know?  I think it's much easier to say, That's how things are, we should probably work against that. It's easier for us to like set that on the culture and feel less like inherently bad about it than it is when we realize we're participating in these racialized scripts.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah.

Andrew:  It does bring up, I like what you're talking about, a personal responsibility. Like if you realize that there are these racialized scripts that you are participating in, then what does that mean? What's your responsibility? What do we do when we recognize those racialized scripts in ourselves and acknowledge that they happen. What's our responsibility in that moment?

Molly Wheeler: Yeah. That we really have to shift our behavior, shift our expectations. And what Dr. Ishimaru was really talking about is that us changing our behavior and our understanding of community, also schools acknowledging these racialized scripts, can really start to shift the school's expectation, the anticipation of us, which felt hopeful.

Andrew: Yeah. If we can recognize the scripts, if we can disrupt the scripts for ourselves, for other people, that we can acknowledge the White normative framework that we use to think about parent engagement. We can look at this, what she calls like the logic of deficiency, and acknowledge it and then try to kind of disrupt it.

Molly Wheeler:  Yeah. I mean, the only way towards system change, or is she puts it a different set of opportunities and solutions... When we aren't in community with others and we make choices based on our, only our own experiences and even worse, right, like make decisions based on what we think others’ experiences are. Then we know what sorts of things are born and thrive when we aren't in solidarity, right?  That's where saviorism quickly comes up. Uh, really just like further entrenched racism. And then as, as she talks about, vastly unequal outcomes for children, which is ultimately why this all matters a great deal.

Andrew: Right. If we are not in community, if we are not moving in solidarity that yeah, systems may change, you know, systems respond to, particularly to White and/or privileges parents demanding change, systems will change, but will they change for the better and will they change for the benefit of all kids rather than just our own kids?

And I think that, that her point, that unless we were moving in solidarity and that's maybe another place where there's some hope in her work is that, you know, she was saying like, maybe we don't have to wait just for interest convergence, maybe we don't have to wait for  the needs of more marginalized people happen to coincide with the needs of White and/or privileged people. But if we can get into community, if we can find each other's shared humanity and we can be in solidarity, then that can actually be the thing that drives us to, to try to make the system change for the benefit of everyone.

Molly Wheeler: Yeah, and maybe along the way, sort of save the soul of White people. I mean, we could stand to learn so much in solidarity.

Andrew: Hmm. That's beautiful. Thank you, Molly. Thank you for helping me out with this episode. Thank you for all you do for Integrated Schools. 

Molly Wheeler: My pleasure. It’s been great. Thank you.

Andrew:  Uh, let us know what you think of the episode. Send us an email, [email protected] Check out our Patreon: patreon.com/integratedschools. Help support this podcast, keep it commercial free. Um, Molly, I think would do a great job of trying to sell underwear in the middle of the episode, we'd rather not have to do that sort of thing. Check us out on social media at Integrated Schools. 

And as always, it's an honor to be in this with you as we try to know better and do better. See you next time.