Mid-September through Mid-October marks Hispanic Heritage Month, a time dedicated to celebrate the cultures and contributions of Hispanic Americans. In September, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics awarded 230 organizations with the title of “Bright Spots” in Hispanic Education. Bring Spots awardees have wide-ranging missions and goals, but all support Latino educational attainment and excellence.
One Bright Spots winner is RISE Colorado, a nonprofit based in Aurora, Colorado that works to provide low-income families and families of color with the knowledge, skills, and resources to identify and work on issues they feel are necessary to create educational equity in the public school system. Founded in May 2012, and currently led by Milagros Barsallo and Veronica Palmer, RISE Colorado has educated 1,070 families of 1,914 school-aged children about the opportunity gap and worked with these families to organize campaigns and assume decision-making positions at school and district levels.
RISE Colorado is flipping parent advocacy on its head with a community-focused model of organizing. Barsallo and Palmer’s journey as young, Latina women entrepreneurs breaking the mold in a crowded advocacy space has not been an easy one, but their victories thus far and the passion of the families they work with fuel their desire to push forward. I spoke to Barsallo and Palmer over the phone to learn about the impact RISE is making in Colorado since its founding, the policy areas of most interest to the families they work with, the progress they’ve made, and the challenges they face.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Kaitlin Pennington: There are a lot of advocacy organizations in education. Some may even argue that there are also several parent advocacy organizations in education. What space is RISE filling?
Milagros Barsallo: In our landscape in Colorado, but also in the national landscape of family engagement, what we see are two different types of opportunities for families to get involved in the school system. On the one hand, we see opportunities for learning either through a liaison in schools or an educational organization that might provide workshops for parents. For the most part, families are not being offered big picture information that the rest of us have about the opportunity gap or opportunities tied to action. On the flip side, we’re also seeing a lot of opportunities that involve action, like opportunities for families to write to their legislators or get involved in testimony for policies. In these situations, low-income families and families of color are asked to get involved in the 11th hour after somebody else has made the decision about what’s best for their communities, and they are not part of that decision-making process. RISE was founded to fill that gap.
Veronica Palmer: Our families are architects of policy, not objects of policy. We have a theory of change that is also very different from other organizations. We believe that those most impacted by the inequity that exists must lead the movement for themselves. Women led the suffrage movement, Cesar Chavez and farmworkers led the farmworkers movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and African Americans led the civil rights movement. Who is most impacted by educational inequity? Low-income families and families of color, therefore they must be the ones to lead the movement in order for us to ever truly achieve educational equity.
Pennington: RISE educates, engages and empowers parents. What does this look like?
Barsallo: We created our model to meet families where they’re at. First, we educate them about the opportunity gap that their kids are facing through workshops that we do in collaboration with schools and community partners. Then we engage them and teach them how to organize and take on the campaigns they want to take on and offer solutions that they think will improve academic achievement. Then we empower them to seek elected or appointed leadership at school or district levels so that they can actually implement those changes and see academic achievement improve for low-income children and children of color.
Palmer: We actually don’t see ourselves as an advocacy organization because the definition of advocacy itself is doing something on behalf of somebody else. Our model is that we don’t do anything for our families that they can’t do for themselves. We believe that they can change the system themselves with the right knowledge, opportunities, and supports. We see ourselves as a family engagement organization that empowers families to rise up to be change agents to create the systemic change we need in education.
Pennington: Can you talk about how you identify the communities you work with? Continue reading