We’re empowering parents to step out of their comfort zones, to become acquainted with the leader within themselves, and to organize with other parents to create lasting change.

There I was standing in front of eight parents who were expecting me to teach them something when I felt like I had nothing. In a shaky but determined voice, I welcomed the group. I gathered my nerves and spoke the one thing that set the stage for the entire training: “We here are all equal! I am here to facilitate but that does not make me more of a leader than you. We are all leaders!” It was my first Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) workshop, and it was my job to empower these parents to dream big, think big, and set personal, family, and community goals. Though I was nervous, I needed to help them find the leader in themselves because I knew that most of them, like me, questioned whether or not they had the power to change their communities.

In October 2018 I was a parent leader with The Great Start Parent Coalition, a group dedicated to informing and shaping early childhood initiatives, and helping families raise children who are supported and prioritized. Through this work, I learned about a community organizing training opportunity that was fully parent led and I was excited to participate. I didn’t know it then, but that was my introduction to COFI. The training took place with several other family-centered organizations. For four days, I was trained on how to empower parents, helping them to bring out the leaders within themselves by setting personal and family goals then working to accomplish them. I was trained on how to help parents realize they were already leaders in their homes and that this experience was going to help them become stronger leaders.

The team-building portion of the COFI work involves doing a project in the community. Our Kent County, Michigan cohort, the Game Changers, put together a community event to inform parents about Michigan’s Read by Grade Three Law. This law states that third graders may repeat third grade if they are more than one grade level behind, beginning in the 2019-2020 school year. We knew that this law would come as a big shock for families in the community and we wanted to make sure parents knew their rights, how to fight for them, and what it meant if their child had an individualized education plan (IEP) and how that was aligned with the provisions of the law. We centered our event around the Success Basics (Love, Talk, Count, Play, and Read), which are practical ways parents to help their children get a good start and thrive in school. We provided free food sensory activities, story times, and resources from organizations that support families. Every child left with a big smile, a bag with school supplies, a free book or two, and a stuffed animal they adopted to read their stories to. We expected to serve about 100 people but we had more than 200 people from the community attend our event. I was so very proud of our cohort of the parents who completely organized, planned, and executed those plans to put on such a great event for the community.

My work with COFI in my community taught me how to find my voice and how to cultivate relationships. As a steering committee member of the Parent Leader Network, I knew COFI would be a great addition to the Network’s Learning and Action Agenda. COFI taught me to facilitate even through my mistakes and to balance roles and responsibilities with a co-facilitator. I learned that leadership is not about leveraging what you have for your benefit, but for the benefit of others. I knew COFI training would help PLN members empower other parents in their own communities. 

In November 2019, a group of 30 parent leaders and staff from each community in the PLN traveled to Chicago to be trained in Phase 1 of the COFI model, which focuses on creating supportive parent teams, setting goals, and establishing plans. We have taken what we learned back to our communities and are in the process of implementing the training for parents in our respective areas. Although we are all in different stages in Phase 1 of COFI, we are all learning from one another and encouraging each other. We’re empowering parents to step out of their comfort zones, to become acquainted with the leader within themselves, and to organize with other parents to create lasting change.

Excerpted from Center for the Study of Social Policy with permission from the author.