July 16, 2019 The Difference Between Involvement and Engagement: Reflections from the IEL National Family and Community Engagement Conference

 

It is affirming and energizing to be surrounded by people who share common aspirations. This certainly was the case at the recent Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) National Family and Community Engagement Conference. More than 1,400 attendees came together for three days of learning, sharing, networking, and inspiration. State leaders, school and district leaders, administrators, educators, community-based organizations, researchers, funders, and families came together to focus on solutions that enhance and expand engagement and improve student success through family-school-community partnerships.

There are countless boxed curriculums, technologies, programs, and professional development opportunities all aimed at improving student outcomes, but this conference illuminated that real, sustainable success has to be rooted in relationships. Parents and teachers working as equal partners is a strong start, but it will take strong relationships across sectors to ensure our children and our communities are thriving.

Throughout the conference, we received real-world examples of the power of relationships to transform all kinds of barriers and obstacles. This kind of relational work takes time, training, and intention on the part of all participants. Success has not come from people working in silos developing programs that they then impose on others. Time and time again, we heard stories of people who have done the hard work of overcoming their own biases to communicate and connect with others in their communities. Each of the participating parties had to “not arrive with the answer” and instead grapple with the complexities of true dialogue that can lead to reinventing systems. It involves commitment.

Natasha Capers, parent organizer and coordinator for New York City’s Coalition for Education Justice, urged everyone to strive for much more than parent involvement. She advocates for family and parent engagement. Natasha had an entertaining and clear way of specifying the difference between involvement and engagement. She asked each of us to imagine a romantic relationship where two people identify as being involved with each other. In this relationship, she shared, there are many unknowns. Will he call her on Friday? Will they go out together this weekend? Are they seeing other people? Is it time to meet each other’s friends or family members? Each of those questions could be answered with a maybe yes or a maybe no. Natasha contrasted this with a romantic relationship where two people identify as being engaged. Suddenly, she said, the uncertainty is no longer acceptable. There is a clear expectation of and commitment to each other for both parties.

That kind of commitment and expectation is engagement. It requires us to be open, available, and willing to be proximate with each other. For some, it means ceding power and control, and for others, it requires them to own their personal power. It requires conversation and vulnerability. Easy? No. Worth it? A thousand times, yes.