Education, Systemic Solutions

Picket Signs and Shovels: Lessons on Parent Power and Systems Change From Umm al-Fahm, Israel

By Alex Cortez, Managing Partner, New Profit

April 21, 2021

In the wake of COVID-19, communities and systems around the world will be renegotiating their relationships, including parents and their education systems. What will these new relationships look like?  

New Profit is on a continuing journey to explore how it can best drive transformational and equitable change in education systems and beyond. In order to share its learnings and catalyze conversation, New Profit Managing Partner Alex Cortez has published the story of the Arab-Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, where parents and educators have taken a challenging but profound journey to navigate a shift in mindsets, relationships, and then power.

The experience of Umm al-Fahm can teach us that – when necessary – parents can and will pick up picket signs and exert their power to protest and pressure those in authority in education systems. However, while that is a completely legitimate and sometimes necessary way for parents to employ their innate power, it is not the whole story.

As often, parents can and will also show up with shovels to build together with those in authority towards the common good – but only if those in authority are willing to respect and recognize parents as partners who play an essential role in determining what gets built.

School systems in America and elsewhere are making momentous and difficult plans for a full re-opening next school year. Many will have to contend with the same dynamics Umm al-Fahm faced. There can be collaboration or conflict – and likely a mix. 

The story of Umm al-Fahm underscores that systems change is not about a zero-sum gain in power. As an elementary school principal in Umm al-Fahm shares from her journey, “I actually feel like I now have more power, because I have these partners – parents – who can exercise power to help my school succeed.” However, systems change will require that many of us scrutinize our mindsets, biases, and behaviors towards parents and communities, and wrestle with shifting our role from delivering top-down answers to asking questions of the people we serve and then responding to their answers about their hopes and needs for their community.

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