A group of 20 parents gather in a small cafeteria at the Oakland Housing Authority at 12th Street and Union. They sit at six tables with vases of flowers in the middle, and each draped with a tablecloth.
They’re here for a weekly Parent Café put on by Oakland Parents Together, an organization seeking to do just that: build community among parents.
“Two fingers up!” Kwame Nitoto, program director at Oakland Parents Together says, garnering attention from the room. It’s first things first at the Parent Café, so he dismisses the tables one at time for plates of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.
“Food is tremendously important,” Nitoto says. “You’ve got to have food, and you’ve got to have good food. If you have bad food, people will leave talking about bad food and not come back.”
A warm meal is the starting point for a conversation at Oakland Parents Together. It’s all a part of a strategy to get parents engaged in each other’s lives and in the lives of their children. Groups across Oakland are working towards the same goal, but I talked to two particularly concerned with the future success of our city’s youth.
“Apathy and poverty are our biggest battles,” Nitoto says, offering $10 gift cards to families who show up to the cafes, “but parents have power and responsibility. It’s not the school’s job to educate your child. If you want the school to do everything, your child will be at a high disadvantage. You have a responsibly to be involved.”
The café is designed to empower parents to realize their voices, and each begins with parents pairing off and talking to one another, each for five minutes. They can talk about the chosen question of the day or they can talk about anything else. The important part is no interruptions, no advice, just eye contact, smiles and an open ear.
After the dyad, trained parents run a discussion at the table revolving around a preselected question. Parents offer their opinions on family dynamics, child rearing and spirituality. The point isn’t the answer, but the interaction.
In the past, Nitoto has used another strategy to engage parents and their children he called “bringing mom and dad love to the school.” In East Oakland, near the Fruitvale BART station, Urban Promise Academy is putting that into practice. As a result, it’s seen measured progress in student success.
Glendy Cordero, a soft-spoken woman who acts more like an aunt than an administrator, runs programs for parents out of the middle school’s Family Resource Center.
“One of the challenges is that parents think when their kids are middle school age, they are old enough to make their own decisions,” she said. “To overcome that we have classes for the families, and make sure the parents hear from kids that have parents involved how good they feel and how safe they feel when parents are around.”
When Cordero first arrived at Urban Promise Academy nine years ago, there was no family resource center, just her own desire to be involved in the education of her two daughters. Six years into volunteering, the school offered Cordero a full-time job reaching out to other parents.
Now parents walk the halls daily, getting to know the students and helping in the school’s garden. These parents are part of what Cordero calls “Family Champions,” and they run everything from supervision in the gym an hour before school to a salad bar that feeds and educates students and parents about healthy habits.
“When I think about all the things that happen in this room, I’m amazed,” Assistant Principle Dennis Guikema said. “It’s a community hub, more than just a place for academic support. Our families have access to student progress reports and the Alameda County food bank. It’s a lifeline for families, and often the first stop for help with immigration, counseling and mental health.”
For Cordero, it’s the parents who make all the difference. “Family is really the center of this school,” she said. “We couldn’t do this work without the families that are engaged. They love this school as much as we do.”
Those words ring true to Nitoto’s message, that building a strong community around your school, and in your neighborhood, is what will ultimately show positive results in a child’s life.
“You’re going to need parents that understand other parents can’t do it alone,” Nitoto said, “and if it’s one of your friends you see everyday knocking on your door, it’s going to be more successful.”