Course Teaches Parents About Political Activism

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Berkeley resident Barbara Garrett said she never knew how to navigate the bureaucratic maze of schools and city government until she took a 20-week course that taught her how to lobby on behalf of her children.

A mother of three, Garrett said the application-based course taught her how the government works and how a bill becomes a law, inspiring her to feel more confident when dealing with those in authority.

"Schools and organizations do not give you the power to be heard," she said. "But this course gave us information on how to move up in the world and on how to take courage to deal with our problems. We now have the skills and confidence to wait to be heard."

Garrett was one of the 21 mostly underrepresented minority parents who graduated Saturday at the Alumni House amidst a whirlwind of speakers, samba dancers and screaming children from the first course of its kind in California.

Funded by both the state and the city of Berkeley, the course encouraged parents to become politically active.

Garrett said that, as a result of the class, some parents hope to seek political office, while others plan to lobby the city for better child-care facilities.

"This is just the beginning," she said. "We are celebrating our advocacy for children, and we plan to go further and further to make a difference."

The class also enabled a diverse group of parents to overcome their racial differences and work toward a common goal, Garrett added.

"This class meant a lot to all of us," she said. "You have (21) people in a room from all walks of life - anything could happen. There was a lot of group dynamics because we were thrown together without knowing each other at all, so there was some pain in learning how to interact with each other and learning how to agree."

Assemblymember Dion Aroner, a Democrat representing Berkeley, lauded graduates on their achievement and said their collective efforts can effect change.

"It's a very important role you're going to play now," she said. "The issue is what can you and I do as community leaders? You can make a difference as individuals and you can make a difference as a group."

Aroner complimented project leaders on their success and said the graduating class seemed energized and excited by the class.

"You're honored today for your wisdom," she said. "Now you need to bring that wisdom into the community. I look forward to see you in the state capitol - we have a lot of work to do."

Berkeley City Councilmember Margaret Breland said she helped gain city funding for the class and that she wants to expand the program next year.

"This is beautiful - we needed to have this," she said. "I hope it grows bright and goes on for many years. There's a lot of parents who need touching."

UC Berkeley associate professor Pedro Noguera, speaking at the graduation, said parents should use their newfound activist skills to work toward better education for their children.

"Parents bring a perspective to issues that is different from other people, especially in education," he said. "Parents have very little tolerance for nonsense - and so much of what goes on in education is nonsense."

Noguera, who teaches in the Graduate School of Education, said his work at Berkeley High School demonstrates the way in which schools can ignore underrepresented minority children.

"Berkeley High School, on the face of it, is a great school. It sends some students to the top schools in the country," Noguera said. "But if you're a kid whose parents don't have the resources, you have a very different experience."

Noguera told the graduating class that he once met with a high school principal who kept an angry group of underrepresented minority parents waiting for 45 minutes.

At another school, Noguera said school officials proceeded to yell at two truant students - until they saw their mother, dressed in a business suit, coming in the door behind them.

"Changing the school is a political process," he said. "We have to make sure that the parents of the kids who are not served well can advocate on their children's behalf. Where parents count, our children get a better education. People who work with them know that they can learn and that they deserve to learn."

Noguera said most parents care deeply about their children's education but they lack the tools to lobby school officials.

"Even the most dysfunctional parents I know care," he said. "They want what's best for their kids."

Noguera said education has become a major issue in the political arena but that no politicians are talking about the ever-widening gap between inner city and suburban schools.

"We are living at a time when education issues get more attention than at any other time, but the issues that matter are not being addressed," he said. "There is no talk about raising teachers' salaries. All we have now from this governor is a policy of humiliating kids by ranking schools."

As part of his push for educational accountability, Gov. Gray Davis ranked each public school in a statewide index this year and gave underperforming institutions an ultimatum to shape up or face a state takeover.

"There's no more important work we could do than to work with parents to change the conditions of our schools," Noguera said.

Alan Watahara, president of the Partnership for Children and Youth Policy and sponsor of the course, said he hopes empowered mothers and fathers will eventually replace paid lobbyists in speaking for children.

"This course gives parents the skills to be more involved in politics and more involved in their families," he said. "Right now, parents are not actively involved in policy-making decisions. We wanted to give them the skills to be more active in the state capitol. Parents become advocates on behalf of child-care issues."

He said parents are often excluded from making policy decisions about their children.

"Up until now, they simply did not have the skills or the knowledge of issues that are really important," Watahara said.

Class members are expected to bring the knowledge they have gained to the state capitol, he said.

"This graduation is not an end, but it's really a celebration," he said. "It's a party. It's a new beginning. We're trying to break down the walls that are around politics."

Stephen Andersen, the only man in the graduating class, said parents must make their voices heard in politics.

"To be a parent is to be apparent - to be readily visible or understood," he said. "It's the balance of being embraced and praised instead of being shunned and criticized."

He said parents' ability to communicate with legislators often determines whether their children receive the services they deserve.

"It is our ability to be apparent that often decides whether or not we can perceive and utilize the resources we have available," he said.


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