Schools that Work for Black and Brown Families

From Left to Right — Trina Charles, Regina Mosley, Maegan Parrott, Vicki Torres, Jaren Wilbur


Step Up New London is a Black and Brown parent led organization that fights for equitable solutions that address injustices that New London, Connecticut community members experience in accessing quality education and housing. 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.

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)

Isabelle Barbour, Mic Check, WKPN, 11/4/22


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 director of Step Up New London. My name is Isabelle Barbour, and I’d like to welcome you to WPKN Mic Check, which comes to you on WPKN every Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Our diverse roster of hosts presents a wide range of topics for discussion, focusing on global, national and regional issues and their effect on our local community. Just as the phrase mic check mobilises people to create a human microphone during public demonstrations and protest actions, this weekly program amplifies our community’s many voices and brings them to the airwaves. This show will be posted on WPKN podcast site. Mic check is followed on WPKN at 6 p.m. by the Ralph Nader Radio Hour. Today I’m sharing with you a conversation that was recorded in March of 2022 with Step Up New London and New London, Connecticut. Step up. New London is a black and brown, parent led organization that fights for equitable solutions that address injustices that community members face around education and housing. You’ll hear about how step Up developed and about their efforts to improve the New London School District. So why this story now? The day after tomorrow is November 8th, the general election.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:01:43] And it’s important to think about how our votes and our activism make a difference in our local environments, like our school districts. There are a lot of school boards right now that are passing policies that make schools a whole lot less safe and friendly for all sorts of students, including students of color, disabled students, LGBTQ students and others. This is one community story about how they’re trying to make their school district work for their kids. You’ll hear from four of the staff members of Step Up New London, as well as the founder of Step Up New London. The staff members are Trina Charles, who’s the director. You heard her voice earlier in our session, Regina Mosley, Jaron Wilber and Vicki Torres, who are all community organizers. You’ll also hear from Megan Parrott, who was the founder of Step Up New London and was a co director with Trina Charles when this conversation was recorded in March. Megan Parrott is going to start us off. She’s going to get us started in describing the work of the New London parent advocates. The next voice you’ll hear is Regina Mosley.

Maegan Parrott: [00:02:59] 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 in the platform for what we came out of. New London parent advocate started in, I want to say, 20 0304. As a way for parents to be educated and 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. They had this policy around school discipline that 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: [00:04:19] After the first report, Meghan Parrott 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 Parrott: [00:04:35] 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: [00:05:16] At this time, Megan was working for a City of New London program that was providing parent leadership trainings.

Maegan Parrott: [00:05:24] 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. And so I 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? In 2017. I remember March pulled all of most of New London peer advocates founders and some of the members and was like, Hey, I have this idea.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:06:13] The idea was to create an advocacy organization that could sustainably support parent organizing in New London. Regina was at that meeting.

Regina Mosley: [00:06:23] 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: [00:06:37] 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: [00:06:49] I met Megan by working with her son, Chris, and we kind of I would speak to her all the time, like she would hear one thing and 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: [00:07:15] I asked Trina to give me an example.

Trina Charles: [00:07:18] 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. 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: [00:07:57] 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, Vicky Torres and Jaron Wilber, they noticed this also.

Vicki Torres: [00:08:40] I wasn’t happy on the school not following IEPs and 504 plans with our students. I mean, as a parent, we were always burnt out. There was no coverage. We were working through breaks, you know, and our passion was to help these kids. The consistency wasn’t there. So like me as a Spanish speaker, I was communicating 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.

Jaren Wilbur: [00:09:15] The same things would keep happening and we would all see that Vicki had her own student. I had my own student. Ms. Trina had her own student. But when we spoke, the same common threads would keep happening.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:09:27] Trina and Maegan continued to be in touch as step up was developing.

Trina Charles: [00:09:33] 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. You want in 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: [00:10:26] Once Trina was out, she contacted Vikki and Jaron and talked to them about joining her and making the leap.

Vicki Torres: [00:10:34] Trina came. You know, I told Trina, I said, I don’t know how to, you know, community organizing. She’s like, You already do it.

Jaren Wilbur: [00:10:42] So when Trina brought us this job, I was just like. I don’t really care for people that much, but it’s just like J 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. And I’m like, Maybe I should try it. I am a father of three. I 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 of 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: [00:11:21] 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 Parrott: [00:11:30] 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? 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 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.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:12:21] If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to 89.5 N and this is Mic Check.Staff from Step up New London in New London, Connecticut are talking about work they’ve done to improve the New London School district.

Maegan Parrott: [00:12:38] 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 an is in the attempt to help not knock anybody down, but to say, look, 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: [00:13:03] 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 Parrott: [00:13:15] Immediately without dropping names. But Central office. 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. These are our colors. You don’t own these colors. This is our community’s colors. Who says that you get to own that? No, no, no. 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, that was the second time in particular around our calling out of the fact that students 500 and fours and IEPs were not being met.

New London Public Schools Staff Member via Zoom Meeting: [00:14:27] 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.

Maegan Parrott: [00:14:46] So then we presented the board of Ed after we presented that the only feedback that was 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. You all do a really great job at that yourself. 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 degree, so we weren’t smart enough to make that happen.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:15:45] What school year was this?

Maegan Parrott: [00:15:47] Last year.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:15:50] Last year 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.

Regina Mosley: [00:16:15] 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 New London could do a presentation. And the pushback from 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 Up New London as an employee yet, 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. Is traumatic. 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 life problem. There is no thread of anti racists 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 going to battle to fight down white supremacy, you are not part of the solution. You are part of the problem.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:18:01] So it sounds like New London Public Schools has had this issue of under serving 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: [00:18:33] So 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, right? 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: [00:19:14] When you call people out, how do you do that?

Trina Charles: [00:19:18] So we’re about to launch a letter writing in 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. 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 like lifted and you’re like, okay, this is a trend, the number one trend with central office, the administration that prevented and prevents the true work that needs to be done.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:20:06] 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: [00:20:17] 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 in their 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, is 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: [00:21:10] How do parents respond to kind of those opportunities and to being treated so carefully?

Trina Charles: [00:21:17] 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: [00:21:51] How do you use the information that they give you? Do you? Does it feed into your organizing?

Trina Charles: [00:21:58] 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: [00:22:12] Another valuable offering to the community is the Undoing Racism training that the group offers. 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, when 120 people in the community have taken this training. Regina explains why the frame of anti racism is important and sometimes misunderstood.

Regina Mosley: [00:22:48] It’s important to know that just because we do anti-racist work, some people think, well, 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 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.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:23:43] 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 Parrott: [00:23:58] And I do want to pay tribute to the fact that hearing 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 was about six years of work that they said, this is what’s important in young people. This is what it looks like for black and brown children. And when in 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 is 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 whatnot. 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 DCF 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 also been called on as a as an ally to young people. And then there was another situation, the national school walkout that took place and young people literally saying if it hadn’t been for the adults, which were 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: [00:26:44] When I asked the group to reflect on successes, they shared thoughts about the power of the report. They’re a strong team and of course the trust that they’ve developed with community members.

Vicki Torres: [00:26:56] 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: [00:27:13] The group envisions a future kinder than the present, with increased opportunities for Black and Brown families.

Jaren Wilbur: [00:27:20] Me, personally, I would love to see the narrative change. And 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 Parrott: [00:27:45] I see. What I’d love to see. Is that Board of Ed meetings are packed. City Council meetings are packed. Things go down. We show up, we mobilize. We’re there. 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: [00:28:19] Bringing the village back. Bringing the village back. I, I miss the village. Right. 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 Mosley: [00:28:44] 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: [00:28:57] 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. 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 UST.

Step Up Staff singing and laughing: [00:29:30] My mic sound nice check one. My mic sound nice check two my mic. . .

Jaren Wilbur: [00:29:43] I love that.. .