By Liana Hardy | [email protected]
Local advocacy organization Open Horizon will launch a new program for Alexandria parents to discuss the topics of race, belonging and identity this September.
The Northern Virginia-based foundation is partnering with Conversations About Race & Belonging, a network of facilitators who lead community discussions, to create the “Conversations About Race & Belonging: Parents Program,” a biweekly initiative that will meet for eight in-person or online sessions between September and January. Program leaders hope that the meetings will teach parents how to talk about uncomfortable subjects and facilitate more conversations about local and national issues involving race.
Parents in the program will engage in self reflection and work to understand the perspectives of different participants, as well as learn more about the history of systemic racism and racial inequity in the United States, according to Michele Chang, Parents Program organizer and facilitator. Chang said the program will provide parents with a safe space to have difficult conversations, learn more about racial issues and explore their own personal histories with race.
“The focus is on offering a place for people to have conversations about what they are uncovering in terms of their own understanding of their own awareness, and then learning, quite frankly, about the history of race and racism in our country,” Chang said. “The facts and figures are really a lens through which we can practice listening to one another and having conversations that most people find pretty uncomfortable.”
The Parents Program will host six regular sessions, along with a retreat and a “community immersion” session that will bring members of the community into the discussion, and provide participants readings, podcasts and occasional videos to engage with in between sessions. The program hopes to include around 30 parents, who will be selected after completing an application.
According to Chang, many cultural sensitivity programs or diversity trainings focus on students or teachers rather than parents, leaving many parents without opportunities to learn about and discuss issues of racism and identity.
“What we’ve observed is that the students are getting materials in school, teachers are getting cultural competence and other training hopefully, but the one group that’s kind of left out in the cold are the parents, who don’t have a place that they can have these conversations and ask difficult or awkward or uncomfortable questions and learn racial literacy,” Chang said. “So this is a program that seeks to give parents a little bit of all of that.”
Creating more spaces for Alexandria parents and other community members to have open and honest discussions will help the community work together on local issues of race and inequity, as well as challenge biased narratives and stereotypes, according to School Board member Abdel Elnoubi.
“As someone who was an advocate myself before running for office, and still consider myself one, I believe more community conversations and parent engagement/advocacy is certainly a good thing,” Elnoubi said. “I also think having tough honest conversations about equity, identity, race, etc., especially with people who have different views and politics than ours – as long as the conversations are rooted in facts and evidence – help challenge preconceived notions and biases, and is something our community and country desperately needs.”
Both students and staff at Alexandria City Public Schools have reported that racial inequity continues to be a problem for the school system, which has one of the most diverse student populations in Virginia. In an equity audit report conducted by education consultant KickUp in 2019, 63% of ACPS staff surveyed said they saw a noticeable relationship between student demographics and rigorous classes.
Students also reported similar issues: nearly 40% of surveyed students from Alexandria City High School said that it seemed like students were placed in classes and groups based on race. ACPS also released an equity report in 2019 that noted achievement gaps, particularly in math and English, among Latino students, Black students, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.
Factors such as a lack of consistent instructional support, harsh disciplinary policies and an unequal distribution of funding and qualified, experienced teachers can lead to achievement gaps in schools, according to a study conducted by the University of Washington.
ACPS has continued to address issues of inequity through its 2025 Strategic Plan, a five-year plan that aims to eliminate opportunity and achievement gaps, according to Kennetra Wood, ACPS’ executive director of equity and alternative programs.
Open Horizon’s Parents Program will help parents work alongside ACPS to promote racial equity, according to Wood, who said the program is “an example of how our Alexandria City community and families can support the work we are doing within the school division through enhancing their knowledge of diverse racial groups and the additional intersectionality of one’s identity.”
“If the community and families are growing and evolving with the school division, it can only strengthen our relationship and foster a partnership that will support each of our students to thrive in an environment that is inclusive of one’s individual identity which fosters a sense of valuing and belonging,” Wood said.
The Parents Program is particularly relevant to the Alexandria community, according to Chang, because of issues of inequity in the City and in ACPS, as well as a long history of racial segregation and oppression.
“There’s a lot of rich Alexandria history, a lot of deep issues that we will hope to be able to introduce as a lens through which we can practice these skills,” Chang said. “We should be looking for ways that we can reach across and understand each other, understand where our stories are. And then we might be able to actually come to more collaborative ways of approaching problems that are very real in our schools.”
The Alexandria Parents Program will be the first of its kind for Open Horizon, which provided funding for the program, and Conversations About Race & Belonging, although another version of the program will be launched in Arlington in October. Chang says that she and the other program facilitators hope to have a joint session between the Alexandria and Arlington cohorts, and that if both programs do well, additional race and identity programs could be launched in Alexandria in the upcoming future.
However, since the program has opened its final round of applications, only a few parents have signed up. Chang attributes the low enrollment to parents’ uncertainty about fall schedules and hopes that by the end of August more parents will sign up.
“It’s kind of hitting at a very low point for families to consider,” Chang said. “People are holding back a little bit and that’s why we’re really hoping to get the word out … We only have a few people who have signed up right now in the dead of July and August.”
The Parents Program will close applications on Aug. 31 for both the Alexandria and Arlington programs. While the program will require participants to pay a $25 fee before the first session, the fee can be waived for families who are unable to pay, according to Chang.
Unlike other programs, Chang hopes that the Parents Program will go beyond just lessons on racism and inequality, and increase community understanding and awareness of others and their perspectives.
“What’s really unusual about this program is that it doesn’t just focus on racism, on systemic racism, on individual bigotry. It really looks at what lies at the heart of the growing divisiveness in our society and really addresses the need to listen to one another,” Chang said.
Parents can register for the program at https://open-horizon.org/conversations/.