Gbemisola Saunders helped form the Welcoming Equity Committee at Minneapolis' Hale Elementary six years ago. She stayed involved because her son, who is Black, repeatedly came home talking about being bullied for his skin color.
She wanted other parents to know — and do something about — what he was experiencing. And she wanted their equity efforts to go well beyond simply planning a Black History Month celebration.
Similar parent-led racial equity groups have recently sprouted or attracted new interest at other elementary schools, including Burroughs, Armatage, Kenwood and Northrop. Their work to address racial disparities in Minneapolis schools has taken on more urgency after the death of George Floyd and amid the controversial redesign that will reshuffle the racial demographics at schools citywide. But so far, many of the groups are at white-majority schools and consist of mostly white parents.
Longtime activists in the district are cautiously optimistic about the wave of white parents setting out to combat inequities. But Kenneth Eban, director of policy and advocacy for the Advancing Equity Coalition that formed in 2019 to hold the district accountable, said it's important for the groups to commit to work that goes beyond the "fuzzy, good-feeling version of equity" while also not causing harm.
"These groups can potentially be a good thing, but we need to make sure they're representative of the whole school community," Eban said.
As more of the committees form in affluent, white neighborhoods, he said, members need to be conscious of how their efforts impact the distribution of resources across the city, particularly for students of color and Indigenous students.
As Saunders sees more groups coalesce around the model of the Hale committee, she said she wants them to stay true to the mission of advocating but not drown out other voices.
"I don't need a white parent to speak for me," she said. "But I'll never say no to someone who wants to partner with me."
Last year, during discussions about the district redesign, Ellen Guettler heard white Minneapolis parents echo the same phrases she'd listened to when she attended St. Paul schools and was in the minority as a white student. They talked of not wanting to send their children to "dangerous" schools in the "inner city" and then grew defensive if anyone suggested they were biased against Black-majority classrooms.
"Parenting and schools are areas where there hasn't been a lot of pressure to confront the embedded racism," she said. She, and parents like her, hope to help change that, even if it means confronting bigotry in their own school communities. Shortly after Floyd's death, Guettler helped arrange the first meeting of Kenwood Families for Equity and Justice, which has about 10 active members.
Districtwide, parents are also getting involved in the local chapter of Integrated Schools, a grassroots movement encouraging white or privileged parents to take an active role in integrating schools.
And Guettler is leading discussions of the podcast "Nice White Parents," which explores efforts to build a more equitable school system and the ways that white parents can get in the way of doing so. For instance, the first episode explores the ways white parents pushed their own agenda in a New York City school that was predominantly Black, Latino and Middle Eastern.
Guettler aims to move the group beyond discussions and into action-oriented advocacy. But she knows that will take listening to and partnering with others across the district — and she remains conscious of the potential problems of a group of mostly white parents discussing the issues solely among themselves.
"I'm not even sure if these groups are good or bad and I'm leading one," she said. She attended one of the meetings of the Welcoming Equity Committee at Hale and sees that group as an example she wants to follow.
The Hale committee (which also includes parents at Field Middle School) has worked to create a structure to include parents of color and ensure the group's mission is shared with school leadership. It meets regularly with the staff equity group at Hale and has representation on Hale's site council and in the school's Parent Teacher Association.
"That lets us be more effective and aware so we can plug into other initiatives," said Shilad Sen, one of the Hale group's leaders.
Meetings usually start with discussion time to allow parents to express concerns, which then guide the group's priorities. In addition to working with school leaders, the group hosts film screenings and discussions and publishes a monthly newsletter, Sen said. The goal is to help parents as individuals and then come together to communicate with a broader community, he said.
"It's really about challenging preconceptions and building relationships," he said.
That can be frustrating for parents who want to jump into action. After Floyd's death, many people came to the group asking, "What should we do?" But Sen said there's no one uniform answer to that question.
"People have to think personally, 'What is the best thing that I can do?' and we can help them with that," he said.
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440