Interview with Community Organizer Patricia Jelly
Growing Parent Power for Change is a project funded in part by the PC(USA)’s Self-Development of People (SDOP). It has grown out of the work of community organizer Pat Jelly and the Elizabeth chapter of the Statewide Education Organizing Committee. The group consists of concerned parents and residents of Elizabeth, NJ (both immigrants and native born), who themselves have experienced inadequate education at the Elizabeth schools and are advocating for better education for their children to improve the economic levels of their families and the safety of their community.
Unbound: Tell me a little bit about yourself and about Growing Parent Power for Change. Who is involved, and what are you seeking to do?
Patricia: Growing Parent Power for Change is a grassroots group made up of concerned parents and citizens who want better education for their children. I’ve worked with two chapters of this group who have received grants from the PC(USA) through SDOP. The first group, in Elizabeth, NJ, has been working and receiving grants for 3 years. A second group in Asbury Park, another city in New Jersey, has recently organized and applied for their first grant from SDOP as well.
How can a dominant culture be hospitable and gracious to a non-dominant culture?
I work at the local level with both groups, but the real bulk of the work and leadership comes from the members with the organizers. I have had training in community organizing and 24 years experience. For the past year I have served as a consultant with these groups – I assist the local leaders of our chapters in the planning meetings, facilitating their work, and providing training.
Our goal is in connection with our mission: to improve the public education of all of the children in our communities by organizing parents and other interested residents. The groups decide for themselves which issues to work on and what strategies they will use to work toward those goals.
We work with the school decision-makers when we can, though sometimes we must confront them.
Unbound: Can you tell us a little bit about the communities in Elizabeth and Asbury Park, NJ?
Patricia: To start with, both have large immigrant communities. Elizabeth is an old city in New Jersey; it dates back to the 1600s, and it has always been a community of immigrants. The African American population has been here for many generations – back from when their distant ancestors came as slaves to the colonies.
In the 1960s, many Cubans came to New Jersey fleeing the revolution, and we still have a large Cuban American population. Unfortunately, what has happened is that power hierarchies have developed among different immigrant communities. It’s the sad story of how the oppressed can become the oppressor.
In Elizabeth alone, there are 22 different nationalities represented!
In Elizabeth alone, there are 22 different nationalities represented! More recently, we have seen a large number of Haitian immigrants because of the difficulties there. And, as I had mentioned above, there is an African American population here for generations. We are also encountering Africans moving here, but not in large numbers.
In terms of how this affects our work at Growing Parent Power for change, we have become intentional that our chapters are as diverse as possible. It’s also why we certainly depend on bilingual organizers, especially those who speak Spanish or Creole and English.
Unbound: How did these projects get started?
Patricia: I worked in Elizabeth in the 1990s doing neighborhood organizing, but I left in 1999 to work as an organizer with a community organization on housing in Newark. The group I worked with there knew it wasn’t sufficient to build new housing; the community itself had to be involved in the improvement. It was there that we started connecting with the schools, realizing people would not move into a neighborhood if the schools didn’t improve. We started to do our work jointly – working with neighborhood groups and getting a parents’ group going to improve the schools. In 2007, we started a not-for-profit organization whose specific mission is to assist local people to improve the public schools.
In 2009, I moved back to Elizabeth and connected again with the residents with whom I’d previously done community organizing. We started working together again on projects aimed specifically at improving public schools.
We’ve been there for the past six years tackling the issues that we believe we have the power to address successfully. We’ve stated our primary goal, but another important goal is to help renew people’s faith that there are some unjust situations in their community that they can change. No matter how powerless some might perceive themselves to be, there is almost always something they can change. We want to help people move beyond the understanding that they are victims.
We’ve worked with schools to make sure that they provide a translator for any parent or guardian who needs one when they go to the school to talk about their child’s progress.
Unbound: Tell us about some of the work you’ve done in the past – some of your successes.
Patricia: One of the group’s major past successes had to do with school board meetings. It used to be that if you wanted to speak or raise a concern at one of the school board’s monthly meetings, you had to be there to sign up at 6 PM. The meeting was supposed to begin at 7 PM, but sometimes it was later. First there were awards given, then student entertainment. Thirdly the school board would have their business meeting. The person who signed up at 6 PM didn’t have an opportunity to speak until 10, 10:30, or even 11 PM!
Our advocacy got that changed. Now the time for public response is between the entertainment and the business meeting – about 8 PM. Honestly, we’re still trying to get it moved earlier, especially for parents whose children need to go to bed early. Award-giving and student entertainment are wonderful, but they should take on a night other then School Board business meeting.
Some of what we’ve done with individual schools is to make sure that any parent or guardian, when they go to the school to talk about their child’s progress, that the school provide a translator if the parent needs one. It’s part of the state policy, but it’s not always implemented. We’ve seen improvement here, though there’s still room to go. Bilingual organizers want to help out with this, and that is okay if that’s the only immediate option, but organizers, parents, and school employees know that it’s the school’s responsibility. We want to change the school’s practice so that any parent or guardian will have a translator.
Unbound: What are some of the current issues you’re working on?
Patricia: Bullying is a big issue right now, and we’re still working on implementation at a local level. Whether it’s child-to-child bullying or adult-to-child (a teacher or staff person), there are policies that are unevenly implemented.
We’ve made some progress at individual schools throughout the city, but when we met with the anti-bullying coordinator at the district level, she was completely ineffective. So we went to superintendent, who refused to meet with us, and now we’re going to the school board in March – we sent them a letter with our intentions. If we need to, we’ll go up to the state level.
Some immigrant students end up floundering either because they don’t have proficient language skills or because the education they received in their country of origin hasn’t adequately prepared them for the grade level they enter in the U.S.
Another issue has to do with some of the high schools. The state only requires 120 credits to graduate high school, but the Elizabeth School District requires 160. Now, for some children that’s wonderful; they can take the additional courses and have a head start for college. And we certainly don’t want to take that away. But for some students, it’s a real problem. Some of them don’t even know about it. The guidance counselors aren’t always good at making it known.
So what happens is that some students come to senior year and don’t have enough credits to graduate. That’s a tragedy! How do we keep them in school and get them to graduate? We’re working with both students themselves and their parents to help them realize how important a high school diploma really is. The GED is an alternative, and that’s good, but it’s really better for them if they’re able to get that high school diploma.
Unbound: You mentioned working on the need for translators for parents and guardians. In a community with so many immigrants, are there other issues you encounter specific to English Language Learners and language barriers?
Patricia: Definitely! We have plenty of first-generation immigrant students who have come here from other countries. In terms of ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, we’ve witnessed two extremes that are problematic. Some students are kept in an ESL class longer than they need to for their language abilities. It ends up hurting them – for the sake of acculturating, students need to be integrated into the regular classroom as soon as is reasonably possible.
The U.S. tends to push immigrants into ghettos. It’s not until the second generation that we really make assimilation possible. And even then, we know that racism is alive and well in our society.
The other extreme happens when a school system feels that a student has sufficient English skills and pushes them straight into the regular classroom without any ESL time to work on English. These students often end up floundering either because they don’t have proficient language skills or because the education they received in their country of origin hasn’t adequately prepared them for the grade level they enter in the U.S.
We have attempted to work in individual schools to ensure appropriate testing of students’ language abilities and educational background.
Unbound: So what can native-English speakers living in the U.S. do to better accommodate immigrants and non-native-English speakers, both in education and in other areas of life?
Patricia: I think the answer to your question lies in a question that goes a little deeper: How can a dominant culture be hospitable and gracious to a non-dominant culture?
I think the U.S. has had a problem in this area all along. We tend to lure immigrants in only to then push them into ghettos. It’s not until the second generation that we really make assimilation possible. And even then, we know that racism is alive and well in our society.
With Growing Parent Power for Change, what we attempt to do, first of all, is to demonstrate the diversity of our community in our own structure and membership. When there’s need for translation, we provide it, at least in Spanish and Creole, and for other language needs, we look for people who would be able to translate. So even for those immigrants living in ghettos or more mono-cultural environments, we try to help them to experience a bit of that diversity in a healthy, life-giving way.
Going deeper, I think that maybe the word ‘dominant’ needs to be eliminated from our vocabulary.
It helps members of the dominant culture, too, to be in that environment. White people like myself tend to be the minority in meetings, which is good! That’s a very good experience for the so-called dominant culture to have.
Going deeper, I think that maybe the word ‘dominant’ needs to be eliminated from our vocabulary. It implies that by being dominant, I am over you, and it’s got a long history to reinforce that. But that’s not how it has to be. The majority does not have to be ‘dominant’ in that sense!
And certainly a minority can also be dominant as well, over other minorities or others in their own cultural community! So, how do we learn? I think we have to reflect on our experience – in our congregations, our schools, wherever – to be unified in our diversity. To demonstrate a different way of being.
Just because one is in a certain position doesn’t mean that he or she has to be dominant. It runs deep in the human story, but we can gradually move away from that. I think that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do here.
AUTHOR BIO: Patricia Jelly, O.P., is a Dominican Sister of Hope. She has an MS in Counseling Psychology and a certification in community organizing. She has been working in community organizing ministry for 25 years.