Family engagement workshop

Even as family liaisons and other cultural brokers play an increasingly important role bridging between schools and the families they serve, well-intentioned efforts frequently reinforce deficit-based approaches to historically marginalized communities.

A new study from the University of Washington College of Education published in the American Educational Research Journal describes cultural brokering approaches that flip the usual script and offer avenues for creating more equitable avenues of family-school collaboration.

A UW research team led by Ann Ishimaru, assistant professor of education and lead author of “Reinforcing Deficit, Journeying Toward Equity: Cultural Brokering in Family Engagement Initiatives,” examined family engagement programs at three educational systems that had struggled to engage marginalized families.

“The aim of typical family engagement initiatives is to improve parents' understanding of schooling so they will better adhere to educator expectations in helping their own individual children,” Ishimaru said. “A more transformative goal develops the capacity, relationships and leadership of families to help create more equitable schools and learning environments for all children.”

Ishimaru and her team found a subset of three more collective, relational or reciprocal approaches to cultural brokering:

  1. Creating a welcoming climate
  2. Building relationships between parents
  3. Embedding engagement in community contexts

In one case, the research team cited a Somali father who facilitated a nine-week parent education program aimed at creating partnerships between parents, students and educators to support and strengthen the learning environment students need to achieve high standards. Other Somali families continued to visit the facilitator’s home after the workshops concluded to ask questions and engage in discussions about how to enable their children's success.

Family members shared concerns that children were losing their native language and thus an ability to communicate with their parents. In response, the facilitator created and taught a Somali parent-child native language class at the housing authority complex where he lived. Through his cultural brokering, the father cultivated new relationships and networks between parents in response to their concerns and fostered his own sense of agency as a community leader.

Ishimaru noted that school districts and community-based organizations must go beyond simply hiring people who share the background of families they want to reach to do outreach or translate language.

“While this is a good first step in recognizing their expertise, without supports to attend to equity in their daily work, these folks can inadvertently become gatekeepers who sustain the power asymmetries in schools and reinforce approaches to non-dominant families that assume they are deficient and in need of ‘fixing’,” Ishimaru said. “To avoid this, systems and community leaders can provide resources, space and supports to help cultural brokers reflect on their own practice through an equity lens and orient their roles towards developing the leadership of others to make systemic change.”

Ishimaru said two dynamics appear to provide openings for moving toward more equitable relationships between families and schools:

  1. Formal leadership actions that reshaped institutional structures, policies and practices or removed barriers to more reciprocal, relational or collective approaches.
  2. Boundary-spanning ambiguity, in which cultural brokers working directly with parents and families were positioned at the boundary between their schools and communities, which enabled them to be closer to families and their needs and concerns.

In one case studied by researchers, district administrators changed human resource policies to enable hiring of cultural brokers with cultural, linguistic and experiential (e.g., having lived in a refugee camp) expertise but not college credit or high school diplomas. Similarly, in the case of the cultural broker who started the parent-child Somali language course, a district leader brokered relationships with the local housing authority to provide space for the families to come together.

Meanwhile, Ishimaru said many cultural brokers saw themselves as ‘‘bridges’’ who were in constant close communication with families.

“This boundary spanning enabled them to exchange information with families, which gave them insights into the school and student and family experiences and concerns,” Ishimaru said. This context “seemed to provide organizational openings for cultural brokers to enact strategies responsive to family needs and priorities, sometimes in ways that departed from the initiatives’ conventional parent involvement goals.”

The new study comes from the UW’s Equitable Parent–School Collaboration project, in which researchers are partnering with schools, families and community organizations in the Road Map Project region of South Seattle and South King County to develop pathways and tools that will foster authentic parent and family engagement.

Ishimaru hopes the findings will help schools and districts recognize and tap family expertise and leadership to improve student learning.

“The practices we’ve identified don't add up to systemic transformation either on their own or in tandem,” she said, “but they begin to point the way to opening spaces and opportunities for families to become fellow educational leaders and decision-makers.”


Ann Ishimaru, Assistant Professor of Education

Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications