Uniting Parents to Improve Schools (with Keri Rodrigues)

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Keri Rodrigues’s son was suspended 36 times while he was in kindergarten. She felt abandoned by school officials and like the teachers hated her child. So she went into mama bear mode, organized local parents, and changed the local school system. Now, as President of the National Parents Union, she’s organizing parents across the country to help improve their local schools and make schools more equitable for all.

Show Notes

Presented by Neighborhood Villages. Neighborhood Villages is a Massachusetts-based systems change non-profit. It envisions a transformed, equitable early childhood education system that lifts up educators and sets every child and family up to thrive. In pursuit of this vision, Neighborhood Villages designs, evaluates, and scales innovative solutions to the biggest challenges faced by early childhood education providers and the children and families who rely on them, and drives policy reform through advocacy, education, and research.

This season was made possible with generous support from Imaginable Futures, a global philanthropic investment firm working with partners to build more healthy and equitable systems, so that everyone has the opportunity to learn and realize the future they imagine. Learn more at www.imaginablefutures.com

This episode is made possible in partnership with the Walton Family Foundation, a family-led foundation that tackles tough social and environmental problems with urgency and a long-term approach to create access to opportunity for people and communities. Learn more at waltonfamilyfoundation.org.

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Keri Rodrigues, Gloria Riviera

Gloria Riviera  00:10

Hello, and welcome to NO ONE IS COMING TO SAVE US. I’m your host Gloria Riviera. I’m back this week with another special bonus episode to share with you an inspiring tale of advocacy. Today, you’re going to meet Keri Rodriguez. She’s a former reporter like myself, as well as a mother of three boys. She left journalism during the Obama administration. And when her son faced challenges in school, she went into Mama Bear mode and organized for community in Massachusetts to make a difference. Now she is leading the national parents union, a coalition of over 1000 affiliated parent organizations across all 50 states. She’s working to improve schools for all children with a focus on the bipoc kids who have been left behind by the pandemic. It’s a great interview, and I don’t want to keep you from it. So let’s get right into it. Keri Rodrigues, thank you for joining us.

Keri Rodrigues  01:08

Thank you so much for having me.

Gloria Riviera  01:10

You know, I always like to start with a personal story. I feel like it really helps listeners buy in right from the top. And I know that you have a very compelling one, will you share it with us?

Keri Rodrigues  01:20

Absolutely. So my most important job in the whole world is being Matthew Miles and David’s mama. It’s what got me into this work this crazy field of education, justice advocacy, and is what motivates me to stay in the work when it gets really, really difficult. They’re in fifth, sixth and 10th grade. So I am still in the thick of it. But my oldest son, Matthew, He from a very early age was identified as learning differently. From about 18 months old, he had sensory issues, we knew that he was going to need a little bit of extra help and support. And he was diagnosed with autism and ADHD. And I frankly thought everything was gonna be okay, I thought I was gonna be fine. I was working. You know, as a community organizer, social justice activists, I was working for SEIU, teaching other people how to use their voices and advocate. So I felt like God put this child in my hands, he was a he was going to be safe. And it was heartbreaking to find out that I didn’t have a voice and sitting at the end of an IEP table after my son had been suspended 36 times in kindergarten, it broke me in a way that was terrible and beautiful at the same time. Because it’s so changed me as a mama being so filled with fear that my kid was not going to be okay. That I was somehow able to summon what was my own gift and talent from a very early age, which was organizing people to fight for justice. Now, when I was young, I grew up in very difficult circumstances. I had moms struggling with addiction, I was in the state custody at one point, you know, I had really gone through I was expelled from public school for having a weapon. I went through a lot of very traumatic experiences. And I always say now I used to organize girls to go fight when I was young. And now I organized girls to go fight. But if we do believe that talent is equitably distributed, and it’s all about opportunity, now I had the opportunity to organize girls to go fight for something which is really important, which is access to opportunity for every single child, and hopefully the access to economic mobility that we all want so that our children can have a better life.

Gloria Riviera  03:59

Keri, there is so much there that I can relate to i No one is coming to save us. We talk endlessly about access quality affordability in early education. And I can see those same themes are prevalent, important critical in the work that you do. I just have to go back to that number. You said 36 suspensions in kindergarten. I mean, that’s several suspensions a month.

Keri Rodrigues  04:27

Yeah, it was very traumatic, because, you know, I thought I had done all the right things for this kid. Right? And when you’re a parent, especially a parent of a child that learns differently and has some special needs, they don’t necessarily hand you a pamphlet saying like Well, here’s all your options and this is what you have to do. So I had to ask people and I thought I was I was doing the research I wanted better for my son. Like we all want that as parents and how been gone through what I went through as a kid and not having somebody to advocate for me, I was gonna do better by this kid. So I was I thought I was ready. And, you know, unfortunately, I had done the right things, early intervention, evaluations, assessment, all of these things and created a preliminary IEP.

Gloria Riviera  05:20

And for our listeners, IEP is?

Keri Rodrigues  05:22

individualized education plan. Thank you. And, you know, it basically outlines your rights, your child’s rights and what they need to be able to access FAPE, which is free, and available public education for every child that guarantees like this is the roadmap for Matt, to be able to access education. And I had done all the right things, but landed in a circumstance where you had a school that had a rotating leadership, not a lot of stability there. So the school culture was a little off retaining teachers, my child was placed in a classroom with a kindergarten teacher who was a temporary teacher, first year teacher. First time in our room as a kindergarten teacher was like 24, kids hadn’t had time to read my child’s IEP, it was a recipe for disaster. So even me as mama doing all the right things, it still wasn’t enough because the context and the system was not prepared for my child. And so she couldn’t deal with it. And he ended up being ejected so many times going to the redirect room was one option where it was literally look like a cinderblock cell. And because my child has, has sensory issues, the idea was to do kind of sensory deprivation, like sometimes use those garages where you can kind of like it’s dark and closed, and some kids need that it’s almost like a, you know, in a sensory room, you’d have like a weighted blanket, it helps kids, but this school would just shove these kids in a cinderblock cell, my child was in there for five and a half hours one day.

Gloria Riviera  07:01

Oh, my god Keri five and a half hours.

Keri Rodrigues  07:04

But you know, as a mother, and especially me, I have a GED from Boston Public Schools. And I am surrounded by people who are supposed to be experts who have master’s degrees in education. Me as a mama, like, I’m sitting at that table, assuming that these these people are experts, and we’re making the right decisions. And we’re making decisions based on what was right for my child. So when they tell me, come get them, we can’t deal with them. We can’t deescalate them. I mean, there were points where he was actually running out of the building, they couldn’t even keep them in the building. Because he just run away from them. And they they didn’t know how to they didn’t know how to stop public. A lot of this stuff doesn’t make sense in a comes down to teachers just not being prepared to deal with children with special needs and and not being the right environment. But yeah, and me sitting there, you know, I remember sitting at the end of the IEP table, and I’m looking around, and these teachers were just fed up with my kid, like pissed off, couldn’t stand, because he wouldn’t sit down at the rugged rug time. He couldn’t be redirected from a preferred activity wanted to go and play with the band instruments, the musical instruments and wouldn’t do what he was told. And they were fed up. They were, he’s a little boy, he’s six years old. And I have to leave that child that I love so dearly with these people who I can feel around this table cannot stand it. It broke me in a way. Like it’s still tainted, it’s 10 years on and it still takes my breath away right now.

Gloria Riviera  08:39

Yeah. As you were sitting at the end of the table, hearing this story, feeling these feelings? What did it? How did it resonate within you?

Keri Rodrigues  08:51

I think it was a couple of things. I think, number one is the deep fear that he’s not going to be okay. Randy has to spend all day long, surrounded by people who don’t care about him don’t love him. And what is a he is such a beautiful, bright, wonderful little boy, he still is even though he’s 16. And he’s taller than me now. But he’s he is such a wonderful, kind, sensitive, empathetic kid. And in being around, I was filled with fear that he was not going to be okay. And then it came, I kind of got to a point where I’m like, wow, like at least I got thrown out of school when I was 14. At least I got to 14 I got to high school. These folks are done with him in kindergarten. And he’s six. He’s six, and they were fed up. absolutely fed up.

Gloria Riviera  09:45

So take me from that point to the work that you do now, when you sat at the end of that table. Had this very intense moment internally. How did that manifests into the work that you do now?

Keri Rodrigues  10:00

Well, when I get mad I organize right. And it goes back to like, it’s in my DNA. I organized girls to go fight. So I was ready. I was like, there must be already organized people that I should join. So I at the same time, because, you know, from my own circumstance, like I had, I had become a community organizer, I had been elected to the Democratic State Committee in Massachusetts, I was the chair of the Democratic City Committee in my city. I had run campaigns, I was a, you know, I had done a lot, I knew a lot of people. So I did what we do, I hopped on the phone, I was calling my school committee members call them the mayor, I was calling the PTA I was calling mass advocates for children. I’m like, there are people like, this must be crazy, what I’m going through, there’s gotta be somebody, I’m going to tell somebody, they’re gonna fix this, because this is wild, right? This can’t be the way it is. Only to find out that this is the way it is, like, this is the way it goes. And I’m not unique. This situation was not you. No one was surprised. But also when I went to these groups that I thought would help me I’m thinking like, again, I’m a kindergarten parent. And I’m like, Okay, I’m going to tell the PTA, and I’m going to tell the parents, and they’re gonna get mad, and they’re gonna go in with me, or I’m gonna go somebody said, mas advocates for children, because you have a child with sips with special needs. And they do this, like, I’m going to tell them, and they’re going to be like, This is wrong and fix it for me. No, only to find out that, you know, the cavalry was not coming. There was no cavalry. There was no one like saying this is wrong, the system is wrong. The policies are wrong, the procedures are wrong. Why is this Mala sitting there feeling so disrespected, and so overwhelmed, and like I was by myself? So, you know, we turn pain into power, you know, and so I from that moment, like, I’m thinking about myself, I’m thinking about my husband, his his situation, too. I mean, like, we’re not wealthy people we don’t come from means again, like, we come from the struggle, and like, I’m thinking about my own community and, and like my husband, who was brilliant and had a mind, like a human calculator, we live two miles away from MIT. That man never got out of the first semester of community college. Because coming from a family to undocumented parents that didn’t speak English, there was no shot. He was brilliant. He was a brilliant man. And so I started to think about, like, this whole thing is set up to fail us, how do we how do we get through it? So I started organizing with my people in the communities that I knew in places like Somerville, Boston, Lawrence, Lowell Brockton and having conversations in the Latino community because like, on top of parents not having power, Latino parents, definitely no power, no power whatsoever, started having conversations with folks saying, like, girl that this happened a year like that’s, that’s special language that moms a mom language that like, once you have a child and you start talking at the playground or the bodega, or at the baseball diamond, like we speak the same language, it’s different. And so we started having these community conversations, whether it was at the Dunkin Donuts, whether it was at the Lawrence Public Library, and saying, like, what is going on from our perspective, like, we’re seeing that our education system is not working for our kids, our neighborhoods aren’t safe, our playgrounds aren’t safe. It was it’s always been a very intersectional approach, not just around education, but everything that’s on the parent play. But because from my perspective, and where I came from the intersection of poverty and and economic insecurity and housing insecurity and food instability and being underserved in education, it’s the combination of of why we’re constantly in the cycle of poverty. So we started having those conversations. And we did things like work on housing reform, we pass breakfast after the bell in Massachusetts that that feeds 150,000 additional kids here in Massachusetts because because of transportation issues and you you don’t get to school on time for that free breakfast, hungry kids can’t learn still got to feed them we changed the law.

Gloria Riviera  14:44

So talk me through that. Tell me how that happened. Because I want to know the nuts and bolts from you thinking okay, the cavalry is not coming to the actual change in laws that have changed the experience of kids in schools. In Massachusetts, take take the breakfast, take the lunch. How did that happen? If you can at all summarize it succinctly. I know there were a lot of steps and it’s not easy to do. But how did you land on that as the one of the first issues you would work on?

Keri Rodrigues  15:15

Well, because we brought it to the people. This is a parent driven agenda. We call it the parent power agenda. We don’t parachute into anybody’s communities and say, Well, I’ve taken a look at your problems. And here’s, I’m here to solve it. Because I’m the great I AM. We don’t do that. I always say I think it’s because we’re mostly run by women. There’s not a lot of ego. And we don’t come from a place of saying like, Oh, well, I must know everything. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s very different. We actually come in and say, Hey, let’s talk about what are you worried about? What’s happened? My what’s crack a lackin? What’s what’s going on? Like? What are your what’s what’s going on, give give us the cheese man, like what’s going on? What’s happening, they drive the agenda. So in one community, it might be, oh, my gosh, like, we can’t walk from these two schools, to our homes, because of the violence issue. Whatever it is, the parents decided what was important and what was critical. So in those five cities, they develop their own agenda about what was happening on the grassroots level, the only thing that we asked for was solidarity. So if Lawrence and Lowell had a similar problem, they would roll up together, because we needed to create a group that was large enough to be able to create that kind of pressure so that we could be hurt. So all of these groups would work individually in their communities, develop the parent power agenda, and then from there, meet as a state group, and develop the statewide parent power agenda where things like housing security, food security, building safer neighborhoods in anti gun violence work, and equitable access to high quality education. Those were the four pillars, like these are the things that we need to change, because we want to get our kids to economic mobility. And because we were able to agree that those were the four hotspots. Every year, we’d pick three to five major issues or pieces of legislation that we said, whether you’re in Lawrence Lowell Springfield, now we’re in 22 different cities across Massachusetts, like we’re all going to pledge solidarity and show up for these issues. And then we do things like saying, Well, you know what, the funding formula around education in Massachusetts is screwed up. And they’re proposing a bill called the promise act, that would send a blank check. But you know what, they don’t spend money really well as it is. So we’re going to make them rewrite the bill and attach some strings to it to make sure that they spend that money equitably. Everybody rolled up, we shut the Statehouse down, literally shut down entrances, so many parents, and the parents that they say don’t usually care, the black and brown the poor folks got on buses across the state rolled up and said, You’re going to change it. And here’s the language, not just showing up big, not just showing up hot, but showing up like moms do with a solution for how we’re going to fix it. And they did it.

Gloria Riviera  18:07

Everything that you’re sounding sounds pretty incredible. How do you find the person that you need to work with to make this all happen, there has to be somebody in government somewhere that’s open to this and willing to work with you.

Keri Rodrigues  18:21

I think it’s actually backwards, because our legislators work for us. So they’re there to do a job for us. So yeah, I could probably identify a couple of legislators that are mission aligned with us. But what you have to do is make your legislator get mission aligned with you. So the beauty of what we do, you know, Massachusetts being now an example, being in 22 different cities and towns, major communities across the state. We’re not just talking to you at the statehouse, we’re coming to your coffee hour, we’re coming and sitting down with you in the neighborhood, because you’re not able to tell one story on Beacon Hill and another on Main Street in Northampton. We’re going to make sure that we hold you accountable in the district and organize in your neighborhood. Because bills don’t just get passed in Massachusetts of Boston, they get passed across the state. So the idea is not just going up to Boston and finding somebody somewhere that believes in what you believe. You put pressure on your legislator to make them do what you need them to do they work for you. Because otherwise, you’re only going to have one champion, they all need to be champions. And so when you’re able to build an organized in that way and snowflake out, so that it doesn’t matter where you are in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, you’re going to find a member of Massachusetts parents United or the National parents union. And they’re going to be like, Oh, I’d like to talk to you about the student Opportunity Act. And and why are you a co sponsor yet? And when will you be a co sponsor? And how do you feel about these provisions and what do you think about the language that we wrote cuz that’s the other thing, though the other piece of the question, we are not waiting for legislators to write the legislation, we write our own legislation. Oh, no, no, no, because we are fully capable of writing our own legislation. And what we did. We do have relationships with the Joint Committee on Education, both the House and the Senate leadership there. And they challenged us like first and foremost, when we wanted to kill that bills, a promise Act, which we thought was bad for kids, because it didn’t actually have any provisions that would tie the money that was coming back to districts to actual outcomes for kids who are addressing the achievement gap. So we said we want to kill that bill, they said to us, okay, well, you want accountability, you want to make sure this money is being used? Well, well, we need to see more of you in your black T shirts than them in their red T shirts. So we said, okay, challenge accepted, did that part. So they show we show them we were serious? Then once they knew we were serious? They said, Okay, so what do you mean, by accountability? What do you mean, by making sure we have outcomes get specific, we said, Okay, here’s the language, the actual language that we want you to put in this bill. And we’re gonna make you put it in the spell, because that’s what they said, You got to show up here again and again. And we did it because that’s what it takes is showing up being in the conversation, writing it. But again, not just showing up to wine, because we as moms, we know that like, Don’t whine at me, like, give me a salute work with me. And we approach everything like mommy’s here, like, okay, we’re angry, we think you’re doing wrong, this is what we’d like you to do here, here’s how I’m going to help you because I have a vested interest in your success. And so we did that, and force them to pass it. And now, the other tricky part of it is the implementation, like you can pass a law. But if they don’t implement it correctly, you really haven’t done anything. We’re also in on that piece of it. So from beginning to end, you got to be a part of the game.

Gloria Riviera  22:05

Well, speaking of looking forward, I know that the agenda of your organization for 2024 is going to be a huge focal point. Can you tell me what you’re hoping to build off from last year? And how you see that entire agenda moving forward in a critical election year?

Keri Rodrigues  22:23

Yeah, what’s beautiful about what we did in Massachusetts, it opened the doorway to finding all of these other beautiful pockets of parent power across the nation. And so back in January of 2020, because what we do in Massachusetts, parents across the country are doing this, are they they are powerful parents absolutely everywhere. And so we connected just organically, with our sisters in this work about 185 Different organizations in January 2020, we decided to meet up and voted to start the national parents union, so that we could do things on the federal level, and have conversations, serious conversations about politics and policy. Instead of just paying playing patty cakes with folks and having people really hijack our voice and speak for us. We can speak for ourselves where grown people we just because we’re parents does not mean that we’re not capable of participating in the conversation.

Gloria Riviera  23:19

And fair to say mostly women, I mean, not to say that, you know, but I’m just thinking about what you said about ego. What is the makeup of the organization.

Keri Rodrigues  23:27

I will say, there’s a lot of moms in this work. We do have powerful dads too. I want to shout out Sam Radford, who is the goat of parent organizing from upstate New York, he is on our board. He is a legend and a powerful force for good and a dad and he he’s very concentrated on getting more dads and more males in this work. A lot of women in this work though a lot of women the backbone of really getting to it because honestly, our Northstars our children, like I don’t I’m not here. I don’t care if my name gets in the paper or doesn’t I don’t care if we get credit or not. I’m trying to get something done with urgency because I have three little people that I’m accountable to every single day. Like with urgency, it’s almost selfish, the way I’m trying to get this work done. I need it to be done for them right now. Immediately, because the world is on fire. So for what we ended up doing is starting this organization with 185 organizations, different organizations coming together in solidarity, same way we did across the state we do across the nation. And now we’re at more than 1500 organ organizations in all 50 States, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. And we reached a big number 20 million families. And we have created again, another national parent power agenda that is representative of the intersectionality and the intersectional context of modern American families. What we find really frustrating, especially in the education space, it’s like we have this very ad acquainted idea of what families are and how we’re supposed to show up. It’s like, no, like, it’s not like away. It’s not we’re not in the 1940s anymore, we have moms staying home and dad going to work.

Gloria Riviera  25:15

No, we are not.

Keri Rodrigues  25:15

People get divorced, they got grandparents raising grandparent babies, you’re I mean, we are people who are multicultural and come from different contexts. I mean, we have really evolved. And so modern American families in that context are critically important to the policy conversation. Because if you want to actually have effective policy solutions, you got to know where we’re coming from and what our lives are like. So we have done a really powerful job, I think of making sure that the intersection of of poor black, brown, indigenous grandparents, parents impacted by incarceration of parents who have been impacted by substance abuse, foster parents, all of these folks are represented and have a voice in building the parent power agenda. So for us, you know, addressing COVID learning loss and the literacy crisis that we have right now is job number one, because 10 to 15 years from now, we’re going to have kids that are unemployed, unemployable, and we’re going to have communities that look a hell of a lot different, we’re going to have a substance abuse crisis, you think it’s bad now Oh, my goodness, when you have a whole generation of kids that don’t know how to read, don’t know how to do math and are prepared for the jobs of the future have no economic mobility, that is going to be a crisis for an our entire society.

Gloria Riviera  26:37

So listening to you now, all of this resonates very deeply. And it makes me think of mental health health for children, which I know is on your agenda. And close to it sounds like the heart of the organization as a whole. Talk to me about the roadmap that you see, you talk about the ability to read and write you talk about economic mobility, what do you see as the challenge as a result of COVID regarding mental health, and it’s sort of domino effect on the things that I just mentioned.

Keri Rodrigues  27:12

So I think there’s two things at play right now, when it comes to the mental health crisis and the fact that our kids are not okay. Number one, the unprecedented challenge of COVID, the isolation, the fear that we’re never going to catch up, you’re never going to learn, you’re never going to be good enough, not having developed all of the social skills that are necessary during these really important parts of child development and growth. It’s a crisis. And that’s why you’re also seeing the intersection of that with the attendance crisis, where kids, where are the kids where they’re at home and bet they’re refusing to go to school, they’re choosing other options, they’re checking out, because it’s not working for them, and it’s breaking them down. But the second complicated issue around this is that we’re also in a culture war, where kids are under attack. And it’s not safe to learn about Express or celebrate your own identity in a safe space at school. And kids are in the crossfire right now. And it’s unacceptable. And our kids, like we’re so focused on that, that piece and the politics of it, that we’re losing sight of the fact that there are kids who are caught in the crossfire. You know, the community of Tulsa is a beautiful example of this, the Tulsa public schools being majority Latino, and those kids have been chronically underserved just academically in that district. So it’s a district in academic crisis. But at the same time, you have a culture war, led by a Secretary of Education in Oklahoma, who was unhinged, and is literally is attacking not only black and brown students, but our LGBTQIA kids and creating an environment in education that is unsafe. So all of that, if you’re not okay. Just like a hungry kid can’t learn a child who is depressed, distracted, and unsafe, cannot learn. So you can have the best educator in the world, you can have the most innovative curriculum in the most high tech facility, if our kids are not okay. We’re not okay. They’re not going to learn anything. And there are huge, huge consequences for that.

Gloria Riviera  29:46

When we were in Tulsa recently, you know, we became aware that the National parents Union had really been paying close attention to that part of the country. And I just wonder whether or not you have any takeaways that look positive for the work being done there and how the national parents use union uses its voice to influence or suggest or create change across the country but particularly in Tulsa.

Keri Rodrigues  30:14

Well, I’ll tell you a story as to why Tulsa is so important to us. And Tulsa is a city that we do focus on. But it’s not unique because there are cities across the nation that are very similar. But what is beautiful about Tulsa is that from the pain of the Tulsa race massacre, and the survivors that have tried to organize and view education justice as an act of reparations, there is a powerful movement of people in Tulsa, who are committed to transforming that system and are not willing to give up until they get justice. And there are people like Nehemiah Frank, and the Black Wall Street times. And there are so many people on the UT Perez, Padres University of Tulsa that have have evolved from this pain, because there there are roses that that form in the concrete, right. And so what we we were able to do, Nehemiah Frank is actually a founding delegate of the national parents union. And it’s like a brother to me, I love him very dearly. He’s a descendant, and is absolutely devoted to education, justice for the children of Tulsa, it’s it’s a hallmark of what he does as the publisher of The Black Wall Street times. And we were able to form this beautiful connection with youth Perez, who was on the Tulsa public school board, helping to organize and support her so that the voices of Latino families were actually heard, could you imagine having a majority Latino district and not even having one voice of a Latino on the board, it’s, it was wild. No, she was up there. But what she had to endure as being the lone voice for Latinos, the lone voice for the LGBTQIA community, the fact that she literally during meetings was being texted by other members of the school board, asking her for her immigration status and threatening and intimidating her. Like, what has been happening there has not been heard. So what we have been trying to do is twofold. Like raising this up as a national example, I will tell you, I was on the foreign phone with the US Secretary of Education earlier today, talking about what he needs to be doing what President Biden needs to be doing whether there needs to be intervention from the Department of Justice in this situation, where the Office of Civil Rights is in terms of intervening here. So we’re using whatever bridge and voice that we have as advocates, but also, when we got the call from UT, that all of this was happening, and she was under attack. And she was in her living room saying I am here with a couple of parents and we don’t know what to do. We said, Oh, we know what to do. It’s time to organize, we’re going to organize cross to go fight. And that is where Padres University of Tulsa was formed, which is now an incredible powerful organization of families across Tulsa, that even up against some of the most difficult political conditions in this nation, continue to fight, continue to show up, organize, use their voice, not just parents, but teachers and communities that are not going to stand by and allow the children of Tulsa to be subjected to this kind of educational violence. What has happened found there. Like, what we try to do is is channel resources, support, training, money, we whatever we can, because we see them, and we view those children as important and their voices is critical. So it’s a multi pronged approach where we try to get to the top level. But we also want to make sure that the folks on the ground are deeply supported.

Gloria Riviera  34:01

I want to ask you about the division because I’m hearing you say that this incredible organization has come together representing many, many different states. The numbers are large. How do you go into each place where you identify division and address it? And I’m thinking about things like book bands. I’m here in Washington, DC, I’ve been following what’s happening in Virginia, West Virginia. How do you identify an area that needs your voice? And how do you show up there?

Keri Rodrigues  34:33

Well, again, we don’t parachute into anybody’s community and say, Oh, we’re here to save the day. We are to come in and be a blessing. I will tell you we have power mapped and analyzed every parent advocacy organization in the United States. People who agree with us people who disagree with us, people work on education, people work on environmental justice, all of them soup to nuts, we know where they are, and those that are line with our statement of values, we have a team of organizers that go out and literally just pick up the phone and say, Hey, we’re here. Hi, we want to be friends, we see you what you’re doing is important. Congratulations, if there’s anything we can do to be helpful call on us. And that’s where the 1500 organizations have come from literally just from us say, we see you’re not alone. Because this work is so lonely. I will never forget how it felt as as a lone mom trying to go up against the system. The women of the national parents union, every single one of us that have built this organization have all run a local organization. Like we all have direct lived experience having done this work on the ground. So again, that’s, that’s a sacred bond and a different language that we speak with one another, like, we know what it’s like. And I can’t tell you, I was seeking solidarity, I wanted help, I want somebody to be like, you’re not crazy. Here’s how to do it, you can borrow my sound system, or here’s how you get a permit. Or here’s how you write a press release. Or, I mean, when I started my organization, I didn’t even know what a 501 C three was, I had never written a grid in my life, you know, and I was blessed, because I had, you know, Latina circle here in Massachusetts to pour into me and kind of show me the ropes of here’s how you. So now we pay it forward in that way. So we look for opportunities to be a blessing to help to have solidarity. But to be honest, at this point, there are a lot of people who reach out to us and are seeking help. And so what we try to do is, is be a good friend, to show up, we share what we have, whether it’s training, resources, access, making an effort to access not just to fancy elected officials, which is great, but also to the media, so that people can speak their own truth to power and speak with their own voice. Because it’s great to have me speak on behalf of the National parents union. I’m not every parent. And I trust parents to be able to speak their truth because they’re experts on what they do. And so what we try to do is identify hotspots where people have called and asked us to help and then we come.

Gloria Riviera  37:17

Let me ask you to take an example that you hear as both President of the National parents union and as a mama. And that’s, let’s say the book bans. So if you are hearing about something that is not aligned with the values of the national parents union, what are your first steps? How do you tell people to go fight? What does that look like? With something that is not aligned with your values? Or whether it’s an area where breakfast is not being provided? What does it look like to say, Okay, this is what you need to go in there and wage this fight.

Keri Rodrigues  37:48

So for instance, right now, a lot of folks are very concerned about literacy. And the fact that our children are not reading proficiently, and what that means, because the beauty of COVID. And the silver lining of it is that, you know, we all witnessed education in our living rooms. And we saw firsthand what was going on and what wasn’t going on. And so you’ve activated this, this feeling and parents that they need to be more involved. We’re high information people that and that’s not toothpaste you can put back into to like we’re out here we’re asking questions. So for instance, in Minnesota, we were hearing from from families deeply concerned about the literacy curriculum in Minneapolis, it was failed. The superintendent was insisting it was a great, absolutely wonderful, balanced literacy curriculum, the teachers union was saying, Well, you’re not giving us enough training to implement it. So they were fighting back and forth. And year after year after year, the proficiency levels and literacy for children in Minna, Minneapolis was going down, down and down and nothing’s happening. So parents in Minneapolis reached out to us. And we started exploring, like, Let’s have a meeting. Let’s have a conversation. Tell us what you’re concerned about. Then you started building a coalition. Well, who else cares about this issue. And while demographically we’re usually poor, black and brown, because that’s our lived experience and who we are. We actually found beautiful friends, not just in the social justice space, but in the dyslexia mom space, which typically demographically is wider, more privileged, you know, different folks from us. So you have people who are in the Latino community, the black community coming together with, frankly, wealthy white women in this beautiful coalition of sharing assets and ideas and power and being co conspirators for one another. And what they were able to do is not just Well, first and foremost, they had to get rid of the superintendent, so they got rid of the superintendent. They implemented a new curriculum. They got members of the Shall parents union actually elected to that school board there? And then it’s not enough because you know, Minneapolis is one thing, but there’s a lot of kids in Minnesota. And last May, they were able to take what they did in Minneapolis and turn it into the redock, which guarantees 1.3 million children in Minnesota the right to read proficiently by third grade, or it triggers interventions, with a $90 million appropriation for professional development for educators to learn how to implement the science of reading. And where did that come from? Mamas, who were afraid that their kids weren’t learning to read, and they had had it with administrators and politicians bickering and fighting. Sometimes a Mama’s got to step in and say, Okay, since y’all are gonna fight, we’re gonna figure this out for you. And we’ll get it done. And they did. And it’s, it’s a beautiful thing.

Gloria Riviera  40:52

I know, how familiar is that? If you’re a mom, and you’re mad, you just want to get it fixed and get it right and make change, right? If something’s not working, there has to be changed.

Keri Rodrigues  41:01

And I would encourage everybody who’s listening right now, if you’re thinking you have to change who you are, and you have to become some kind of political animal and think, no, actually the most healthy perspective, if you want to get into this space and start advocating, and you’re saying, oh, you know what, I think I could do this too. Number one, call us, we’d love to help you. Help you figure it out and support you. But number two is you don’t have to change. You know, sometimes politicians are grown up kids, and they’re squabbling and it’s ego. And it’s about what adults want and can instead of what kids need, if you keep your mama mindset, and kind of stay back a little bit and say, Okay, I can see everyone’s having some big feelings today. You can even use your mama voice if you need to.

Gloria Riviera  41:47

Yeah, no, I hear you. It is very effective, like, and phrases like, Well, it sounds like you’re feeling this. Uh huh. You know, just acknowledging where the other side is. And then moving into action is a very effective way to go about things.

Keri Rodrigues  42:02

Feelings aren’t facts.

Gloria Riviera  42:05

Right, right. Well, I just want to ask you, you know, going back to the story that you first shared, where you thought, Okay, I’ve done everything that I need to do I’ve, I’ve put everything into place that I need to put into place for your son, Matthew, today, now that he’s taller than you no longer six years old. Today, what would happen if you were to pick up the phone? How has the landscape changed for someone who was in your position?

Keri Rodrigues  42:30

Well, I will tell you, I had a beautiful example of this. I, when I pick up the phone, I can be the nuclear option now. So I gotta I gotta be a little careful. But I went to back to school night, this past week for my son, miles. And when I went into that space, I don’t go in as Keri Rodrigues, I go in as Miles mom, nobody knows who I am. I don’t go away to walk in there. There. You know, I pass up. No, no, I’m the I’m Miles mom. And I’m there to listen. And I’m here to be told that he needs to charge his Chromebook. I’m here to take instruction and be part of the team, right. But I was sitting there. And I was listening to his ELA teacher, and he’s a sixth grader brand new in a middle school. And his ELA teacher starts talking about they use a literacy curriculum from Lucy pockets. And Fountas Pinel. And Omar like this is the balanced literacy curriculum that we are literally trying to ban because it is ineffective. It’s it’s just absolutely discredited a program and she is up there singing the praises of it. And I actually wasn’t surprised because to be honest with you, the conversation that seems so prevalent with us and the National even the state level in many areas hasn’t actually infiltrated the general conversation even with educators. So I’ve had actually had done a lot of education with with school board leaders and in school committee members and educate that just don’t know that this is, even if it’s been on the front page of The New York Times, they just it hasn’t reached them yet. So I was horrified. Oh, my God. And I had just moved to a new community here in Woburn, Massachusetts. So I don’t know my elected officials might don’t know elected officials don’t know me. So they do know the power of parents, though, because we’ve put them on notice across the state. So I called my school committee member and the chair of the School Committee, and I called the deputy superintendent and the superintendent, not as Carrie Rodriguez from the National parents Union, but just as Miles mom expressing concern. And it has changed so drastically in the 10 years, just from my perspective, because they were willing to listen, they heard my concerns when I said, Oh, you know, there’s a documentary out about the right to read and how you know, this is really dangerous and like, why it’s so critical now and how literacy rates corresponding illiteracy and In dyslexia rates and incarcerated people and like we really got to address this, they were so open to it and open to that conversation. It was so refreshing to be in a space where people were not so convinced they were right that they were willing to listen to a parent that had concerns in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. And it’s not perfect everywhere. And every day, like we’re the 911 for parents, and we hear from folks all the time that need a little be a little fun need us to show up for them. And, and we do it I go to several IEP meetings across the country, just with parents just to sit with them sometimes when they need a little support. But it’s starting to change. And for that, I’m hopeful.

Gloria Riviera  45:41

Yeah, I mean, from what I’m hearing, you’re saying that today, you could pick up the phone and speak to someone and feel not alone, and someone who had some expertise in the path forward. So that is fundamental change. I mean, my hat is off to you and the organization for creating pathways forward. Where before there were none. So we are in your debt. And we look forward to seeing your voice manifest change in the years to come. And I think my two favorite phrases from this conversation, of course, educational activism, is a great one, which I don’t think we’ve said enough. On the on this show. I don’t think we’ve put a name to it. We’ve certainly talked a lot about what it looks like. But just those words, educational activism, need to be front and center of every conversation we have. And then just your personal phrase, what’s a crack a lackin? I don’t know where that comes from. But that’s the first time I heard it. And I love it. So that’s the question we need to keep asking and and looking to you and those in your organization for help on how to address them, and how to manifest change. Thank you so much, Keri, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you.

Keri Rodrigues  46:50

Thank you so much for having me. And please join us if you need help reach out.

Gloria Riviera  46:55

Yeah, you know, it’s amazing, because I have three kids as well. And, you know, I’ve been aware of the organization but it’s relatively new. It’s hasn’t been around. It’s not celebrating its 50th year quite yet, but soon it will be 10 years, right?

Keri Rodrigues  47:09

It’ll be yeah, 10 years.

Gloria Riviera  47:13

Okay. Well, I think every parent needs to know that that’s the organization they need to be a part of. Thanks so much, Keri.

Keri Rodrigues  47:17

Thank you so much.

CREDITS  47:35

No One Is Coming To Save Us is a Lemonada Original produced with Neighborhood Villages. The show is produced by Kyle Shiely and Martin Macias. Our audio engineer is Noah Smith. Music is by Hannis Brown. Our VP of weekly content is Steve Nelson. Our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer along with me Gloria Riviera. If you like the show and you believe what we are doing is important. Please help others find us by leaving us a reading and writing us a review. And most importantly, by telling your friends. Follow No One Is Coming To Save Us wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back next week. Until then, hang in there. You can do this.

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