Opinion: Power of parents as real partners


It is an election year, and we will hear a lot about "doing right by our families."

One of the best ways we can do right by families well beyond Election Day is to honor their lived experience by valuing their expertise. That message was at the heart of our Parent Power panel at the 2022 Aspen Ideas Festival. Leaders in communities from across the country recognize this powerful truth: We can all benefit by engaging parents as partners as we design programs meant to keep children and families on a path to prosperity.

Parental involvement in decision-making is the key to having policies and programs that support families' strengths and needs.

For the past 10 years, Ascend at the Aspen Institute has worked with leaders in all 50 states and D.C. and Puerto Rico - to move the idea of centering parent voices and lived expertise from the exception to the rule.

The next step is for policymakers intent on supporting children and families to embrace these three core ideas:

Honor parental expertise

Ascend creates a public platform for parent leaders like Tameka Henry, Rynn Sango and Amber Angel to share their stories and insights and showcase their power. People in the audience who listened to them had a light bulb moment about the power of parent voice. Organizations started inviting parents to speak - and now these parents are recognized as the leaders they are - providing an important voice and perspective and realizing their leadership potential that just needed the right platform to be seen and valued.

Amber Angel embodies this concept put into action. She first engaged at Ascend while she was a single mother of two and studying at Los Angeles Valley College's Family Resource Center, where she later worked. Her initial public speaking opportunity was at the first federal Two-Generation (2Gen) Approaches Conference in May 2016, which Ascend convened in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, the White House and seven cabinet agencies. She is now a nationally recognized student parent leader, innovator and adjunct professor. Recently, she became a program officer at the ECMC Foundation, leading a portfolio focused on postsecondary success for single mother learners.

Parent participation is essential - not an afterthought

Aisha Nyandoro, chief executive officer of Springboard to Opportunities and 2018 Aspen Institute Ascend Fellow, looked to parents for insights on their experiences and applied their expertise to transform policies and practices. She launched the groundbreaking Magnolia Mother's Trust guaranteed income program. "Our families told us - a myriad of stories. But every story that we heard could be addressed with cash. I pulled together a roundtable of moms. And I just said, OK. Just help me dream about what this could potentially be."

With parents as partners, we get better results and stronger leaders

At Magnolia Mother's Trust, designing the program with single mothers, not for them, generated immediate results that will pay off for generations. For Cajania Brown, mother and Magnolia Mother's Trust recipient, the money helped her pay off debt, raise her credit score and move into a larger apartment to fit her growing family. Her economic progress will make life more stable for her children, increasing their educational success.

Parents with lived experience become even stronger leaders. They take this depth of expertise with them, and it manifests in their work. Daria Willis, president of Howard Community College and 2021 Ascend Fellow, embodies this. She grew up in a single-parent household and was a single mom herself while she worked to complete her college education. She didn't forget the struggle of learning while parenting. As a community college leader, she has recognized and served previously sidelined students like those who are juggling caregiving with college classes.

By modernizing higher education through practices like adjusting class schedules to fit the life of a parent, Dr. Willis was able to ensure that student parents were seen and able to succeed on campus.

We know what parents want, need and deserve. Investing in and supporting their health and economic well-being provides concrete benefits for two generations as well as communities and our economy. Elected leaders don't need an election in November to do the right and smart thing. They can start by taking bold actions to improve our nation's early care and learning system. They can pass paid family and medical leave.

There is an essential ingredient that gives us a real shot of ending the cycle of poverty forever: parents. As Steelcase Foundation CEO and 2021 Ascend Fellow Daniel Williams said during our Parent Power panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, "People don't need us to empower them, they need us to get out of the way and let them lead."

Anne Mosle serves as a vice president of the Aspen Institute, executive director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute and as co-chair of the Aspen Institute Forum on Women and Girls.