This is part of a series of podcasts that highlight the work of organizations forwarding equity in Southeastern Connecticut (full transcript below). Step Up New London received a Partnership Grant from the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern CT (HIC) as part of the Collaboratives’ work funded by the Cross Sector Innovation Initiative Grant (CSII). This grant initiative is lead by the Center for Sharing Public Health Services (CSPHS) and Public Health National Center for Innovations (PHNCI), with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)
This podcast tells the story of how and why Step Up was developed. It includes content about the group’s campaign to address problems in New London Public Schools.
Transcript of Step Up New London Podcast
Trina Charles: [00:00:00] My granddaughter is eight years old. If anyone asks her, What does Mimi do? My granddaughter says she loves on children and she helps the Black people.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:00:11] That was Trina Charles, the co-director of Step Up, New London in New London, Connecticut. Step Up is a Black and Brown parent led organization that fights for equitable solutions that address injustices that New London community members experience in accessing quality education and housing. I’m Isabelle Barbour of Truthteller Consulting, and this podcast, which was recorded in March of 2022, is going to focus on the work of Step Up. We’ll talk about how the organization developed and focus in on its work to improve the New London School District. You’ll hear the voices of five members of the step up team. This includes co- directors Trina Charles — who you heard — Maegan Parrott and community organizers Vicki Torres, Jaron Wilbur and Regina Mosley. Maegan and Regina are going to start off by explaining the work of the New London Parent Advocates
Maegan Parrot: [00:01:13] Step up New London is really here because we emerged out of the work that was taking place from New London Parent Advocates. And so Regina was there even at the start of New London Parent Advocates as a co-founder of that group. And so was there doing amazing work. And I think it really lays the landscape and a platform for what we came out of.
Regina Mosely: [00:01:38] New London Parent Advocates started in, I want to say, 2003–04. As a way for parents to be educated in how to advocate for their students. When it came to board meetings or special needs, we found we weren’t being heard by the school district and our students needs weren’t being met. You know, not much different than what’s happening now. We started with a couple parent meetings that then blossomed into movie screenings of what happens when there is a zero sum game when it comes to the school discipline. So like not three strikes are out, but like one strike and you’re done. They had this policy around school discipline that, you know, if you made one mistake, that was it. There was in-school suspension out of school, suspension, expulsion. And so as the years went by, the then Board of Education had made an ad hoc committee for the New London Parent Advocates, Connecticut College and some community members to review the school discipline policy. We did that. It was great. We gave them this like 200 page report. We published it on the Internet and it’s still sitting there collecting dust.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:02:57] After the first report, Maegan Parrot joined the group. New London Parent Advocates then created a follow up report focused on restorative justice. This led to the New London School District agreeing to a restorative justice pilot.
Maegan Parrot: [00:03:13] We did, we won. We got quote unquote, we won. We were able to get the restorative practice pilot program implemented. But what happened was shortly after that, and almost for a year it took us to we were so tired because we were everyday parents who worked some of us worked multiple, multiple jobs. We didn’t have access to child care or space or printing or meals while we ate. And so we really jump through hoops to get as far as we did. And we got far. But I think what it was was really like the need to sustain the work because we didn’t want to let it fall.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:03:54] At this time, Maegan was working for a City of New London program that was providing parent leadership trainings.
Maegan Parrot: [00:04:02] I was seeing how when you offer resources, space, childcare, transportation support, translation support, leadership development, when you offer these things the outcomes. The only problem was that there was no space for parents to gather after. To really apply what they’ve learned. So that’s that organizing piece. And in addition to that, so all the money is going here, but no money is going to sustain what’s coming out. And so almost felt like we were setting them up to fail. And I saw the amazing work coming out of New London Parent Advocates and wanted the energy to go into– what would it look like if we if we truly invested in leadership development and organizing and campaigns? Like what if we just didn’t let up the pressure?
Isabelle Barbour: [00:04:51] Maegan worked to support parents and connect them to spaces and people who had power in New London.
Maegan Parrot: [00:04:58] To some degree, I was reported for like maybe stepping out of line because I had started networking parents into these spaces. So City Council meetings, Board of Ed meetings, but it was City Council I think, that really got worried.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:05:12] As things became increasingly untenable. Maegan reached out to parent advocates.
Maegan Parrot: [00:05:18] In 2017, I remember March pulled all of most of New London Parent Advocates, founders and some of the members and was like, Hey, I have this idea.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:05:28] The idea was to create an advocacy organization that could sustainably support parent organizing in New London. Regina was at that meeting.
Regina Mosely: [00:05:38] So yeah, I thought it was great. And for me it was like, How can I be involved? But can I be involved? Like in the way, way back until I’m ready to be, until I’m ready to like step forward more because like rest is important.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:05:53] As Step Up was developing, Maegan was also working to support her kids who attended New London Public Schools. She found an ally in Trina Charles.
Trina Charles: [00:06:04] I met Maegan by working with her son Chris, and we kind of I would speak to her all the time, like she would hear one thing, then I would kind of tell her the truth, right? So I was one of the people in the building that I would always inform parents of things of what was actually really going on, not what the school wanted them to hear, because I felt that it was important for them not to just sugarcoat when it comes to their kids. They need to know what’s happening, what’s going on.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:06:30] I asked Trina to give me an example.
Trina Charles: [00:06:33] There was a child who acted out a lot to the point where he like body slammed an adult teacher at one time. They were telling mom one thing, right? This is the reason why it’s his fault. It’s this, it’s that, it’s this. When in reality it wasn’t right. It was because, number one, they didn’t have someone with him during the day like they were supposed to. Number two, he wasn’t getting the breaks that he was supposed to be getting and that was in his his IEP. Right. So all these things that they weren’t following through with and they’re telling Mom, we’re doing this, this, this and this. And I was like, no, they’re not.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:07:12] IEPs or individualized educational plans. And 504 plans are both types of specialized plans that are used to support kids that have learning differences or disabilities in public schools. They’re each governed by separate federal laws. It can get kind of complex, but basically public schools need to identify kids that need these plans, and they need to follow the plans once they’re established. Trina wasn’t the only one who realized that some of these plans weren’t being followed. Her colleagues, Vicki Torres and Jaron Wilbur, they noticed this also.
Vicky Torres: [00:07:56] I wasn’t happy on the school, not following IEPs and 504 plans with our students. I mean, as a para, we were always burnt out. There was no coverage. We were working through breaks, you know, and our passion was to help these kids. And for me, my daughter, who has ADHD, I, I asked for help. And at times I would feel I wasn’t getting the proper the proper help for her. It made– they made it seem like if I didn’t know what I was talking about. So, like, I would go to 504 plan meetings and ask for certain services and then. Oh, well, you don’t, I don’t think that’s that’s time for that or so I was, I was very unhappy and I was unhappy for, for my students as well because the consistency wasn’t there. So like I– me as a Spanish speaker, I was I was communicating, you know, with the parents that weren’t able to speak English and the things that were said to them I had to translate, which I knew wasn’t right.
Jaron Wilbur: [00:09:05] We have all been a witness to the same unfortunate series that keeps happening. And the reason why I say it’s a series is because it would not change in. Action. The same things would keep happening. The subject would change, but the same things will keep occurring. And we would all see that Vicky had her own student. I had my own student. Miss Trina had her own student. But when we spoke, the same common threads would keep happening.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:09:33] Trina and Maegan continued to be in touch as Step Up was developing.
Trina Charles: [00:09:39] So Maegan kept coming to me and coming to me like I want you for Step Up. I want you to Step Up. But me being comfortable being with New London Public Schools is scary to try something different when you’re in your comfort zone. So she kept coming and kept coming. And then I finally said, okay, let’s do this part time. Let’s see how it goes. So I started as a community organizer and working, doing some things, getting really involved, but learning a lot, right? Because I had I never heard of community organizing anything but then realizing I had been doing it all along with inside of the school. And then I just knew for myself that there were things wrong that was going on in the buildings. And so then I made the decision that I could use my voice a lot more being outside of the building versus working in the building.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:10:32] Once Trina was out, she contacted Vickie and Jaron and talked to them about joining her and making the leap.
Vicky Torres: [00:10:39] And Trina came. I told Trina, I said, I don’t know how to, you know, community organizing. She’s like, You already do it!
Jaron Wilbur: [00:10:47] So when Trina brought up this job, I was just like. I don’t really care for people that much, but she’s like J yah you do. So then I would talk to other people and let them know, Hey, this job opportunity I have and everyone would give me the same response. Oh, my God, that’s a perfect job for you. Oh, my God. You seem to do that. Oh, my God, you should do this job. I’m like (vocal sound), maybe I should try it. I am a father of three, have only been a father for seven going on eight years. But I can say I’ve stepped into the role of quote unquote uncle all my life. So to have now a job, to give me a focus, to be quote unquote, uncle for the community, I’m taking that.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:11:27] With a growing team and a number of issues at New London Public Schools. It was time to go back to the community and check in.
Maegan Parrot: [00:11:36] And so we were able to interview 89 folks, which even though New London Public Schools doesn’t think that’s a lot, it’s a lot. And so in doing so, we were able to ask a series of questions. Not only do we have a survey that we were able to produce a report card. So like we would ask, how satisfied are you with quality of education or how satisfied are you with academic intervention? You know, and we were able to ask real questions. Have you experienced racism? Have you experienced sexism? You know, and really dive into why people had responded the way they did in the survey and through that. And there was a level of trust there that people opened up and really told us some like real experiences, some of which there were moments that like we would have to kind of, I wouldn’t say tap out, but like it was really triggering some of the experiences were really triggering and heartbreaking. And so we were able to collect all this data, all these experiences, and come out with a really amazing report. And when we did this it was with and is in the attempt to help. Not knock anybody down, but to say we have a very real problem. This is how our community is experiencing public education in New London. And this is what we want to see.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:13:01] The report, which featured findings from 89 interviews with parents, was delayed by COVID, but Step Up created a report card with high level findings.
Maegan Parrot: [00:13:13] Immediately without dropping names– But central office (laughs) I was called–long story short, legal action was referred to because we used New London Public Schools colors in the report card. We used a font that was really close to theirs, which is not intentional for the fine, for the colors. It’s because we’re New London Public School parents like these are our colors. You don’t own these colors. This is our community colors. Who says that you get to own that? No, no, no.(in the background Regina: It wasn’t Crayola, that’s for sure– group laughs) So that was the first time. Then we had presented to the District Equity Leadership team because this particular team was put together for a purpose of of Implementing racial equity. And when we presented during that and given it was still a little bit of raw data because we’re this is a process. And so we showed them that and that was the second time in particular around our calling out of the fact that students’ 504 and IEPs were not being met.
Zoom Meeting Recording– New London Public Schools Staff Member: [00:14:33] You’re going to walk a fine line. Maegan We’ve already had a conversation about how you present the data is how people receive it. If you start with educational neglect–it’s time to lawyer up. (Funky music is playing)
Maegan Parrot: [00:14:52] So then we presented the Board of Ed. After we presented that, the only feedback that was like verbalized was one the Superintendent thanking all the staff for showing up. You know, because they didn’t have to do that. And then a board member saying, well, we would have like to see 300. 300 interviews. And what? Well, can you let us know what we are doing well? And it was like, well, we’re not here to stroke the ego of the school system. Y’all do a really great job at that yourself.(Funky music is playing)
Trina Charles: [00:15:28] It was brought up to did any of us go to school for statistics? Because, yeah. So what did any of us have a degree in that and would we be able to bring someone on to check everything that we did? Kind of like we don’t know what we’re doing because we didn’t have the degrees, so we weren’t smart enough to make that happen.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:15:50] What school year was this?
Maegan Parrot: [00:15:53] Last year.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:16:01] So a school year that was through a pandemic; was through highly publicized, horrific murders by police of people of color and the kids are taking all this in. And on top of it, kids with special needs have plans that are not being implemented. And then you’re getting pushed back and treated like you don’t know what’s going on.
Regina Mosely: [00:16:28] The hardest part in all of this, at least for me, because like I sat on the Board when this when this was presented, I asked if Step Up New London could do a presentation. And the pushback for me was. It can’t be during a regular board meeting. It has to be a special meeting. And if you call a special meeting, you have no idea how many people might show up. So do you really want to do it? And so I’m like, Well, yeah, but in this instance, I wasn’t involved with Step of New London as an employee yet, you know, so I didn’t see any conflict of interest. I’m like, This work is important. This is what’s happening in our community. This is what you need to hear because ultimately, like, you are servicing the community. So to hear. The pushback that this information is not valid or this information is not valuable when it’s coming from the community that you’re supposed to be serving. It’s traumatic.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:17:32] Part of the trauma for Regina was that she had dealt for a very long time with bullying that her daughter received when attending New London Public Schools. Part of her run for school board was fueled by wanting other kids to not have this negative experience.
Regina Mosely: [00:17:52] I was one of the parents I was interviewed. Right. I know all it was anonymous, but like, I don’t have any problem saying it. Like, if you want me to spill all the tea on all the things I’ve been through, I can do that. Like, I don’t have any secrets about the relationship that my children have had and that I’ve had as a parent before getting on the board with the school system. Right. And so the whole point for me to be on the board was to try and make things better. And instead I was tokenized. There is a real live problem. There is no thread of anti racist in the School District at all, regardless of what committees they have that say that they’re doing this work. It’s a lie. And I’ll go to my grave saying that it’s a lie. You can say you’re licensed in diversity, equity and inclusion, and you can talk about it to your blue in the face. If you are not putting on your shield every day and go into battle to fight down white supremacy, you are not part of the solution. You are part of the problem.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:18:53] So it sounds like New London Public Schools has had this issue of under surveying students of color for a very long time and a lot of information about the problem has been delivered to them. But they have not really done anything substantive to make a difference in students lives. What’s the answer to that?
Trina Charles: [00:19:25] Step up is calling attention and calling people out. Definitely is what Step Up is doing, bringing attention and calling people out and not letting the District continue to sweep things under the rug to make it look good for the community or for the numbers, for the state or for anything like that. Like everything has to be addressed. Our children are suffering like our children are really in crisis right now. So I think the role of step up right now is to bring everything to the forefront and to start to make those changes happen.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:20:06] When you call people out, how do you do that?
Trina Charles: [00:20:10] So we’re about to launch a letter writing and a petition campaign, and we’re asking specifically we are going to the Board of Ed. We are asking for the admin office to be completely like done over like everyone has to go.
Maegan Parrot: [00:20:31] A lot of the issues –so we had interviewed parents, students, staff and community partners. And you know how like there were things that were just constantly being said and lifted and you’re like, okay, this is a trend. The number one trend was central office, the administration that prevented and prevents the true work that needs to be done.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:20:56] The New London Public Schools Office was also focused on the sexual assaults of two middle school students by a staff member. These occurred during the 2016-2017 school year.
Jaron Wilbur: [00:21:10] I feel like central office is not focused on us at all. They’re focused on media. New London Public Schools name has been recently blown up not because of our children, but because of a scandal. So I do think central office is focused on trying to clean our name instead of focusing on our children.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:21:33] With all of these issues in play and a new school board coming on step up grounded themselves in the hopes, needs and experiences of parents and caregivers.
Trina Charles: [00:21:44] So we’ve held two community conversations. The first one we did with the new Board of Ed and parents were able to come in and let us know, like some issues and things that they wanted to have worked on and stuff like that. And we just did another one probably like a month ago. Once again, parents were able to come on and let us know what issues or problems or whatever was going on for them and their children. And a lot of parents are receptive to those. They like to have those community conversations. Number one, we make it a safe place for them. We monitor who’s able to come into those spaces so that the families are able to talk very openly. So and we’re trying to do more things like that with the community to know that we’re here. This is what we do. It’s safe to talk to us and like we’re in your corner, right? So that’s what we’re working on now as far as community engagement.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:22:37] How do parents respond to those opportunities and to being treated so carefully?
Trina Charles: [00:22:44] They’re very thankful. They’re very appreciative at the end of them. And they do say, thank you for giving us the space. Thank you for giving us this time to be able to talk openly and not worry about who’s here. And also knowing that we’re not going out there and telling their stories. Right. We keep them and we don’t we don’t share it with anyone. We keep it amongst ourselves. And then we always go back and talk to the people that attended the community conversations. So we check in with them just to see how things are going or if they need any other support from us. But very appreciative.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:23:18] How do you use the information that they give you? Do you– does it feed into your organizing?
Trina Charles: [00:23:25] Definitely. Yes, yes. So every single thing that we’re told, be it the community conversations or through one on ones with parents, every single thing that we hear and that we get, it’s all used for that good.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:23:39] Another valuable offering to the community is the Undoing Racism training that the group offers to step up contracts with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. People’s Institute is a national anti-racist collective which provides the trainings which are hosted by Step Up. And from 2017 to 2022, 120 people in the community have taken this training. Regina explains why the frame of anti-racism is important and sometimes misunderstood.
Regina Mosely: [00:24:15] It’s important to know that just because we do anti-racist work, some people think we’re anti-racist. That’s cool, right? But we don’t want for that to be considered anti-Blackness. Right. Because some people will say, okay, well, you’re doing anti-racist work and that’s only for white folks, but it’s not. Right. But if you don’t if you don’t know that or you don’t ask that question, you’ll never know. Right. And so sometimes it comes across well if you’re doing anti-racist work, like that’s anti-Black, right? And there’s no anti-Blackness here. I’m just saying this because this is a conversation I just had yesterday. Right. It’s important for the community to know. Right, that we’re we are not moving in any way towards anti-Blackness. Right. So we’re moving anti-racist so that more Black folks can be embraced and so that there can be an understanding of what racism actually is as a social construct, not just the color of your skin. Right. So it’s important for other people to know that and to take the training whenever it’s offered.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:25:24] A key partner for Step Up has been Hearing Youth Voices. Hearing Youth Voices is a youth led social justice organization that is working to create systemic change in the education system in New London, Connecticut.
Maegan Parrot: [00:25:39] And I do want to pay tribute to the fact that hearing these voices is actually how Step Up was able to get fiscal sponsorship, to get funded. So they supported our ability to at least plant the seeds to establish and really early on started to push us to look at what does allyship look like to young people. And how do we do justice to youth led work while centering parent led work? And how we can do that in alignment. And so that sometimes looks like we’re behind young people that sometimes looks like we’re in front, sometimes it looks like we’re together. And so with our our report and our campaign platform, the work of hearing voices really is centered in that because over it was like six or eight at the time. I think it was about six years of work that they said this is what’s important to young people. This is what it looks like for Black and Brown children in New London Public Schools. And these are the themes that are showing up. And so when we started to do our interviews and do outreach, we realize that it actually was still in some alignment, although it looked different. And so an example would be there’s a theme that comes up in the Hearing Youth Voices, Schools That Work for Us Framework called that’s titled like Freedom to Be and to Move. And that really speaks to students who are over policed and just don’t have the level of autonomy that they really should as, as, as kids who are growing and need to learn. And so that looks like harsh school discipline, that looks like severe monitoring, that looks like the suspensions, expulsions and what not. But for parents, what that looks like is parents aren’t able to actually enter the schools. Even pre-COVID, parents were not able to walk into the schools, parents needing to get DC, criminal checks, fingerprinted, and all of those things that looks like a parent who comes in is being told, “you need to sit right there where I can see you”. So freedom to be and to move was still something that together collectively as a community we were experiencing. We’ve been called for a few direct actions where we got a phone call and in hours we showed up strong. And so Step Up. We’ve also been called on as a as an ally to young people. And there was another situation, the National School Walkout that took place and young people literally saying if it hadn’t been for the adults, primarily Step Up community of parents and allies, if we hadn’t been there, they wouldn’t have had they wouldn’t have felt safe or had the courage to actually leave. But because they knew we were there, they were ready for that direct action. And so that’s where it feels like it works.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:28:37] Things have been working much better for Step Up in the past couple of years. The group is now old enough to reflect on the growing pains of becoming a nonprofit and feels the strength that comes from having an experienced team. Jaron describes.
Jaron Wilbur: [00:28:53] We’re in 2022. So whatever happened, 2017, 2018, 2019, bump it. We’re totally different Step Up in London. Call us to figure out our motive. You know, don’t look at us as whatever you thought we were. We are here for you. We are the community.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:29:12] When I asked the group to reflect on successes, they shared thoughts about the power of the report, their strong team and of course, the trust that they’ve developed with community members.
Vicky Torres: [00:29:25] The success I when this pandemic when I came on, we got a lot of parents coming out to us like non-stop calls, calls back and forth. And, and I feel like that’s a big success. Like stories were coming out and they were coming to us trying to find help. It’s so good when parents come out to us and are able to open up and tell us their stories and even us going out and trying to and trying to help aid them on on their issues.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:30:01] The group envisions a future kinder than the present, with increased opportunities for Black and Brown families.
Jaron Wilbur: [00:30:08] Me personally, I would love to see the narrative change. In New London for Black fathers, we are not absent. We are here. Baby daddy is not a stigma over us. We are fathers. When we change that narrative. Things are going to change. So that’s one thing I want to see for the future. A lot of us coming out as fathers.
Maegan Parrot: [00:30:33] I see. What I’d love to see. And that’s the energy that we’re putting forth is that Board of Ed meetings are packed, City Council meetings are packed. Things go down. We show up, we mobilize. We’re there quick without –with the drop of a dime. I am going back to a community of support. Right. It takes a community. That’s what I see. And the result looks like. Kids being happy to go to school. Kids feeling safe going to school. Kids growing into young adults. And adults who have. Families who are thriving. Who have homes. Who don’t have the mental health or the physical health issues that we see now.
Trina Charles: [00:31:25] Bringing the village back.(muffled agreement from other team members) Bringing the village back. I. I missed the village, like. And I say this all the time. I miss the village. Like when we were growing up when I was younger. Right. You had all these people that were there to help, to take care of you, that disciplined you, that made sure that you were good. We do not we don’t have it. We don’t have it. And I think Step Up could bring that back.
Regina Mosely: [00:31:50] Like, for me, the future is creating a Beloved Community. And what that community looks like is that village is that place where folks can go if they may need assistance or they just need an ear.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:32:03] If you want to learn more about Step Up New London and their current campaign to make New London public schools a better place for kids, please check out their website: www.stepupnewlondon.com. Also my thanks for the music goes out to Ketsa. Ketsa produces music under a Creative Commons license for attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives. The piece of music you heard is called “You Asked”
Step Up Team Members having fun: [00:32:36] My mic sound nice check one. My mic sound nice check two. My mic sounds nice check three. Ha, ha, ha (multiple, overlapping voices) . . . I love that.Ha, ha, ha. . .