Public agencies are on the receiving end of a lot of complaints. Some may be due to things that are within their control, but several complaints encompass larger challenges, beyond what an agency can impact with its programs and policies. As agencies grapple with how to address this negative input, often overlooked are the parts of a community that remain silent. Many public agency leaders at counties, cities and school districts have confided that they interpret this silence and the lack of participation to indicate that either people are satisfied with the status quo or that they’re just not that interested in getting involved.

Former Common Knowledge program associate Monica Cañas (now a CK community engagement advisor) has a recent and helpful case study that challenges those interpretations of the “silent” community members.  Monica is at the center of this story based on her intersecting roles as a Larkspur-Corte Madera School District board member and bi-lingual parent committed to enlivening school relationships with families of English learners. Although the school district had an English Learner Advisory Committee (DELAC), family participation was very limited. Monica observed how some staff in the district regarded this as a sign that the families were not very interested in engaging with school life. Yet Monica was in relationship with many of the parents of English learners and heard them share: “Why get involved? They don’t care about us.”

Monica was able to demonstrate that there was plenty of interest and energy from the families of English learners that opened up news ways of thinking at the school district office. In the space of two short years, including during the pandemic, the district has made extraordinary progress in school and community relationships. Monica and her colleagues used these four strategies:

  • Collaborative goal-setting for the District-wide English Learner Advisory Committee (DELAC), incorporating and partnering with the English Learner parent and family perspective 
  • Inclusive community-building activities – such as introducing a Dia de Los Muertos event
  • Culturally sensitive, accessible, and multi-directional communications; online and in person
  • Extending the DELAC by initiating school-level advisory committees, named English Learner Community Connections (ELCC), with 10-15 families per site; each ELCC uses simple, friendly agendas to convey important points, and is driven by concerns in the community

As a result of the district’s efforts, parents have expressed gratitude, that they feel listened to and appreciation for a space to continue working together. The district has also undergone larger changes in culture, such as:

  • Including activities with English learner families in district priorities, newsletters and reports
  • Providing automatic Spanish translation at board meetings
  • Increases in positive parent feedback
  • Examples of parents cooking and dropping off meals for the district office
  • Adding a districtwide goal of “equity in action”

Improved communication has also helped families to receive important information that they may not have otherwise, which has been particularly beneficial during COVID-19. As Monica and the district’s work shows, investing in trusting relationships can have multiple positive outcomes. To help others learn from her journey to facilitate more staff and community collaboration, Monica has outlined the full process of how the DELAC reset itself with more community-centered goals. You can read the details here.