By Paul Kuttner
If you stop by the University Neighborhood Partners office in Glendale on a Friday night, you just might find the lights on and the office filled with families: children playing in the basement, older youth keeping an eye on them, parents gathered in a circle discussing a community project or sharing concerns about their children’s schools. In the midst of this activity you will undoubtedly find Almaida “Alma” Yanagui, staff member at University Neighborhood Partners and organizer of this group, the Community Advocate Network (CAN).
Born in Texas to a family of migrant workers, Alma moved all across the US in her early years, settling into Salt Lake City in her early teens. As she grew, she took on increasing responsibility for her six siblings as well as her mother, who was battling mental illness. Even though she enjoyed school and did well at it, she found herself missing it for months at a time. “As I got older it got to be too much, too stressful. I had a lot of other things on the table that I needed to worry about more than school.” Alma’s caregivers over the years did not focus heavily on her schooling. “The people around me that cared for me were more worried for my physical survival than my education…and they never really stopped to think that education was a part of that survival.” She stopped attending after 10th grade.
When Alma’s first child entered school, Alma was more involved, making sure her daughter was at school every day. Like many parents, particularly from outside the U.S., she saw her role as ending at the school door. “I was raised to give a lot of respect to teachers. They know what they’re doing, and it is no place for parents to tell a teacher how to do their job…I kept a very strict distance from the schools.” In the end, though, this did not work for her daughter, who struggled in school and experienced harassment from one teacher in particular who seemed to think very little of her.
It was in her search for counseling for her daughter that Alma met UNP staff member Anita Watson, who was working out of the Northwest Rec Center where Alma worked in the preschool. Anita referred Alma to a new parent leadership class that UNP was helping to start. There, Alma began leaning about how to navigate the school system and her rights as a parent. “The first day I went to class,” she explains, “I learned that as a parent I had the right to walk into any school and ask what was happening with my daughter, and that my daughter had the right to feel safe and comfortable, and that the way her teacher had been treating her was not right…It had been in my hands all along to support my daughter and guide her.”
Alma committed to educating herself so that she could play this guiding role with all five of her children. Meanwhile, she began working as a community advocate with UNP, supporting parents one-on-one. Alma was passing on what she had learned. “Parents sometimes need empowerment. They need to know that it is okay to speak up, that as parents we are the only ones that can advocate for our children, no one knows them like we do…The education system has been designed for one type of student, not all types of students. So we have to advocate for them.” One of the biggest barriers parents face in playing this role, Alma says, is confidence, but Alma believes that “education brings confidence.”
As the group of community advocates Alma worked with grew, she no longer had the bandwidth to meet regularly, one-on-one, with every parent. She began dreaming of a formal course for parents, similar to the one she had taken years ago. She worked with Geri Mendoza, a faculty member in Family and Consumer Studies at the U, Liz Player from the Salt Lake City School District, and a group of community advocates to develop a three-credit university course called Community Leadership in Education. “The number one thing that got me thinking of putting a course together was giving parents a space where they can learn together and from each other, but also giving them the tools they need to advocate for their students, for their community.” Education students from FCS also take the class, which has been taught in the summers for three years now, learning how to reach out and make real connections with families.
Alma has never stopped educating herself. Before long she will be finished with her bachelors degree. With her support, her children have navigated their own education while playing leadership roles in the neighborhoods just like their mother. This year her daughter, Ida, entered her first year at Salt Lake Community College. And still, Alma is ready to pick up the phone every time a parent needs support.
Paul Kuttner works at UNP as Education Pathways Partnership Manager & Engaged Faculty Director