For LEE members Milagros Barsallo and Veronica Palmer, it all comes down to family.
“The more families know, the more they’ll rise up,” Palmer says. “And once our families rise up, education will never be the same.”
It’s a simple yet powerful idea that lies at the heart of their co-creation, RISE Colorado – an Aurora, Colorado-based nonprofit the two former-teachers founded with the help of their fellow co-CEO, Tangia Al-awaji Estrada.
Over a makeshift breakfast in a small but vibrant office that serves as RISE Colorado’s headquarters, Palmer and Barsallo speak with an infectious, almost-buoyant energy about the critical role families can play in student and school success.
“If we can unlock the power these families have to advocate for their children, they would be unstoppable,” says Barsallo, a former 3rd and 4th grade bilingual literacy teacher for students transitioning from Spanish to English.
Palmer, herself a former 3rd grade teacher in the Lynwood Unified School District in Los Angeles, adds “Families are the sleeping giant. I’ve seen it. Millie’s seen it. Tangia’s seen it.”
The problem, these two will tell you, is that families aren’t rising up to demand a better education for their kids because parents’ simply aren’t aware there actually is a problem.
“The average family doesn’t understand the crisis going on in public education right now,” says Palmer.
And if a recent RISE-hosted gathering of over 50 Nepalese refugee parents is any indication, Palmer could very well be right.
When asked to stand if they believed their child would graduate from college, every parent in the room shot up. Pleased by this result, the workshop lead, Hari Uprety, himself a native of Nepal, then asked every parent in the room to sit down but one.
Pointing to the one parent left standing, Uprety lamented forcefully, “Despite what you want, this is the reality: only 1 of 30 students in our community – your children – will graduate from college if things don’t change.”
It’s a harsh but necessary reality parents in low-income communities must confront if anything is going to change. “Families aren’t rising up because they don’t know” what’s actually happening in our schools, says Barsallo.
But it doesn’t end at education. Once families know there is a problem – demonstrated convincingly over a 32-slide PowerPoint presentation – RISE then provides them with the skills and tools they need to organize and work collectively toward change.
Educate, engage, and empower: the three ingredients necessary for RISE’s recipe for family-driven change.
But as is often the case with any new venture, progress hasn’t always come easy. It’s slow, ever-evolving and, at times, imperfect.
“We knew this was going to be lot of work and a lot of sacrifice; but you can't accurately convey how difficult and what a struggle it is,” says Barsallo. “But that’s the nature of a movement.”
Despite the occasional setback, the women of RISE Colorado are determined to keep pressing forward -- not simply out of concern for future generations, but as a way to continue the work of generations past.
“So many people opened the doors for us,” Palmer says. “We’re going to keep on opening them for others.”
Of course, the irony being that if RISE continues on the path its going, families in Colorado won’t need anyone to hold the door open for them.
They’ll have knowledge and know-how necessary to open it for themselves.