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Education Is Our Ticket Out: Yes We Can

Joyce Parker shares her experience and path to helping better African American education.

Joyce ParkerJoyce Parker is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts in Educational Excellence for African Americans.

My selection as a White House Champion of Change is truly a highlight in my life and, needless to say, an unexpected one. I was told that this recognition is being done to spotlight the contributions I have made in my community to further African American Education. I must admit that there are so many folks traveling with me that I was almost reluctant to accept this honor. But, as I thought it out, I realized that I must accept it on behalf of all of those who have been and still are on this journey of ensuring that the children of our community, our state, and our nation receive the best education possible. They deserve it, and we owe it to them. Anything I have done and can do to make this happen has been in the midst of all of my colleagues, allies, family members and friends.

I am the great-granddaughter of a slave who raised her granddaughter. My 96 year old mom was married over 70 years to my dad who would have turned 103 on March 18th of this year (he passed on his 94th birthday). My mom received an eighth grade education and my dad a sixth grade education. She was a cook and he was a cab driver. They valued education and passed it on to me and my siblings. They had four of my siblings enrolled at Jackson State University at one time. My dad made two trips (over two hours each way) to pick up my brother one night after not being able to locate him. I will never forget the humility and commitment of my parents to be parents, providers, and supporters of me and my siblings. My mom was on the PTA and actively participated in our school lives. She was and still is the driving force behind what I do. She always believed in us, and she and my father spared no pain in making sure we reached our full potential. But what they both brought to the table was that notion that we would not travel this road alone: we must bring others with us by lifting as we climb, something I am sure my mom got from her grandmother, who always made sure that the other families on the plantation shared in whatever she had. My mom became a dean of Christian Education and has and continues to write her life story. She has read the Bible through and through and still reads it daily by opening it up to a page and trusts that this is her word and/or mission for the day.

My philosophy is deeply rooted in these great souls that I call family. I do not have children and truly applaud every parent. However, all of my sisters and brothers have children and, according to my nieces and nephew, everyone needs an Aunt Joyce. The reason is because, according to them, I feel guilty when I say NO. Therefore, unlike their moms and grandmom, my usage of no is ultimately ineffective.

I am optimistic and this has driven the work that I do with parents and students because, when I look at the world through their eyes, this is what they seem to need more than anything. I am the "yes we can" person. I am the encourager to those who dare to dream. It is so exciting to me to take on the challenge that families in our communities face daily just trying to do what is so natural: to ensure that each generation has a better life that the one before it. For African Americans, education is our ticket out. I work with families of children with disabilities to overcome the stigma that is attached and the low expectations associated with this population of students. My role is to be the person that sees the vision and works hard to make sure others see it and find their role in making it happen.

We work with families by forming support groups where parents and students come together to work out their paths to success. One group of parents wanted to have their children more integrated in the community and not be invisible, so I had the bright idea to host events that would make this a priority, such as a picnic in the park where our youth group and their parents hosted and did the cooking for this group of children and their families. We take a picnic for granted, but one of the parents shared her gratitude and said that it had never been possible before for all of the family to come out together because someone would have to stay home to be a caregiver to the challenged child. Now, for Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends, we do breakfast and a movie with these families. We also found that we needed to give these parents a visual that would support them as they developed their children’s IEPS so we give them educational gifts that could be used in the classroom and at home. They could speak about the socialization component that is not truly effectively addressed in IEPs. This parent support group has taken it even further by using the model of the picnic and the movie to forming the only camp in the Delta of Mississippi for children with limited abilities called Camp Looking Glass.

I attend IEP meetings as well as disciplinary conferences that, in my opinion, always have academic implications. We formed a support group call Parents on Patrol for Success to meet the needs of a group of mothers who had been called to the high school in response to a rash of fights involving their children. Our organization was called in to this meeting, and found a group of frustrated mothers who did not know where to turn or what to do. We met with these parents and asked “if they could do something to stop the fighting, what would it be?” Their suggestion was to become parents-on-patrol in the building for success versus arrest. We bought t-shirts and got the district to agree to provide these parents the opportunity to become part of the solution. Within two weeks, the halls were clear, the fights subsided, and these parents were applauded by the staff of the school, the students, and other parents for their willingness to make the sacrifice for our children.

Others on this journey with me are those parents and students who meet and come up with strategies and plan about how to get everyone to believe that all children can be educated, one child at a time. My mentor, Leroy Johnson, coined the phrase that, in low wealth communities of color, those who are impacted the most by policies are rarely those who are part of the making of policies. Thus, our theory of change relies heavily on the notion that parents and students must become the “Architects of policies and not just the objects of policies.” A quality education is a human right that can no longer be denied if this country is to survive and grow into a nation of the people and for the people.

Joyce is the Director of Citizens for a Better Greenville