Sometimes we’re drawn to an iconic story of someone else’s life, without knowing why. That is, until we start living into our own legacies and drawing on those stories for strength.
For Monica Espinoza, that icon is Rosa Parks, who she learned about as a student in Mexico.
“I kept Rosa Parks in my memory, about her sitting on the bus and changing history. When I got to the U.S., I read more about her and found out how powerful she was – she was an organizer.”
Little did Espinoza know, someday she’d fill that same role. Today she lives in Chicago, raising four children and working with other moms day in and day out. “All these women are bad asses; they wake up every morning to change the world. I call them mis compañeras. I cannot find a word in English that means the same thing. We put our heads, hearts and wallets together to change the world.”
Getting families connected to online classrooms. One-on-one tutoring. Facilitating breakout sessions so kids can maintain friendships. Knocking on doors to find out how parents are putting food on the table. Delivering food, clothing and essentials. Grieving together for lost loved ones. And, marching for social justice, including the movement for Black lives and for Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Chicago boy killed by police.
This has been the work for moms across Chicago since March 2020.
There’s no going back
These bad ass moms, las compañeras, were drawn together by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), supported by WKKF. A few miles from downtown Chicago, Logan Square has been a hub of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Central American culture for generations. Espinoza says in Logan Square “every day is a different struggle” and “we suffer the violence of poverty,” as well as a consistent threat of displacement through gentrification.
Since 1995, LSNA has engaged Latina and Black mothers to challenge persistent equity gaps through the Parent Mentor Program. In 2011, LSNA partnered with the Southwest Organizing Project in Chicago to form the Parent Engagement Institute. The institute helps organizations around the state and country start Parent Mentor Programs.
What started as a neighborhood program is now rooted in a network of more than 200 schools across Illinois, increasing individual attention for more than 40,000 students daily in their classrooms. Organizations in Boston, Arkansas, North Carolina, Colorado and other states are also growing the Parent Mentor model with coaching from the institute.
“Parent mentors are superheroes without capes,” says Leticia Barrera, director of the Parent Mentor Program. “They are the ones who know everyone in the neighborhood, who know the struggles.”
Espinoza became a parent mentor in 2007, shortly after her second son was born. She found herself depressed as a young mother and carried her sadness with her each day when she dropped her older son off at McAuliffe Elementary School in Logan Square. Staff noticed. Parent mentor coordinator Sylvia Gonzales began trying to recruit Espinoza, then finally, “the school security guard took me aside and said, ‘mira mami, they’re opening a parent program. You have to join it.’”
A year later Espinoza began assisting Gonzales as a parent coordinator at McAuliffe and a few years after that she was organizing 27 parents in three schools across town.
Today she’s also the chairperson of McAuliffe’s local school council, elected by parents to approve academic plans and budgets and evaluate principal performance. Moms at McAuliffe ensure local school council meetings include translation, so all parents can participate in decision-making.
“Seeing our moms grow and become comfortable in their own skin, seeing my compañeras being hired by schools and taking on governance roles through the local school councils, becoming part of change, makes me hopeful and proud,” said Espinoza.
What legends are made of
Ryan Belville is the principal of McAuliffe, where LSNA’s collaboration with the school is now legendary. In fact, Belville read about it in textbooks during his doctoral coursework.
He says parent mentors make the school a truly communal space.
“Many adults have not had positive experiences with schools. They’ve said the doors were closed to them,” he said. “Our doors are open – parents can come in, build relationships, be in their children’s classrooms. Our parent mentors are the ambassadors.”
Belville credits LSNA’s Parent Engagement Institute with fostering confidence in McAuliffe’s moms.
“I sit in on the interviews with parents who want to become mentors. To my surprise, at first, most of our parents can’t identify their own strengths,” he said. “The Parent Engagement Institute not only helps them identify their existing strengths, but then builds their confidence to use their talents in a way that betters the whole city. And our parents have led changes in a big way this year.”
To the success of their advocacy, lawmakers in 2021 allocated $8 million for LSNA to expand to new schools and pay larger stipends to parent mentors.
“It wasn’t a miracle,” points out Barrera. “The parent mentors cultivated connections with legislators. They’re not on the front page of the newspaper, but they’re on the frontlines of our community; legislators know and value that.”
Additionally, as children return to in-person learning in the fall, Chicago Public Schools is adopting a high-impact tutoring model similar to the one LSNA moms have engaged in for years.
Bridget Murphy, director of the Parent Engagement Institute, has advice for the school district. “Our model is, we don’t have to go far and wide to have a citywide pool of tutors or bring people in the from the outside. Talent, commitment and love are around every corner – on every block. You just have to invite parents in.”
Looking ahead, guided by a legacy
Espinoza takes deep breaths and lets tears flow when talking about kids returning to school this fall. “Now that we’ve seen the budget, we try to trust the process, but we don’t trust the system.
“The school system is not ready for our children. We don’t have social workers; our bilingual coordinators and parent mentors will have to act as school nurses.
“I can hold my composure talking about anything, but this is the part where I break. Because, when I look at our Brown and Black children, why does their color define the type of education and resources they get? How can I protect them from being hurt by that, from feeling less than?”
Amidst the tears, Espinoza recalls meeting another one of her heroes, organizer Dolores Huerta. “I said, ‘you’re a mom, what made you take to the streets at a time when women didn’t have a voice?’ She was like ‘if I didn’t do those things, who would?’”
“I feel that way. I will take to the streets and offer you my hand to join me. But, I’ll be the first one out there.
“Even if only one person remembers my name, what I said and did, I will die happy.”