Home On the Agenda Equity in Education Through Culturally Responsible Engagement: Lessons from Anchorage, Alaska

Equity in Education Through Culturally Responsible Engagement: Lessons from Anchorage, Alaska

May 24, 2016

As in many cities, students and families in Anchorage, Alaska face inequities in the K-12 school system. These inequities are especially acute among Alaska Native students, an issue that a number of community-based initiatives are seeking to address.

On indicators that are often determinants of success later in life, Alaska Native children are not performing on par with their peers of other ethnicities, according to an initiative from the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC). These indicators include third grade reading proficiency, eighth grade algebra 1 proficiency, high school graduation rates and attendance rates.

The CITC initiative, called Anchorage Realizing Indigenous Student Excellence (ARISE), is a data-driven, collective impact initiative committed to improving outcomes for Alaska Native students in the Anchorage school district. ARISE is currently working on a school-community engagement effort to address the stark disparities among Alaska Native students.

Six principles in particular stood out in my mind as very much in line with Public Agenda’s philosophy on public engagement, especially when working with historically marginalized communities. The six principles are: 1) actively engage historically marginalized communities and communities of color, 2) continue to engage the community even after the formal engagement process ends, 3) integrate ALL stakeholders into the engagement process, 4) accept that engagement is a long-term process, 5) recognize and respect cultural and historical context and 6) institute cultural competency training.

1. Actively engage historically marginalized communities and communities of color.
Oftentimes engagement processes neglect to actively include historically marginalized communities and communities of color, especially in the design phase. Many engagement processes are created by very well-intentioned professionals. However, when working with marginalized communities and communities of color it is essential to integrate members of those particular communities into the process. ARISE is intentional about ensuring that both professionals and everyday members from the Alaska Native community play a major role in creating and driving the engagement process. This is a key component of authentic engagement.

“One thing we are doing that other collective impact movements aren’t is we’re actively engaging with our native communities,” said Larson. With ARISE, “we do sit downs. We do one-on-ones with native parents and their families at their homes, at Starbucks, at Cook Inlet Tribal Council. And then we meet together as a group and talk about the things that are important to them, their hopes, their dreams for their kids. . . then what are your concerns, and what do we need to do to make those hopes and dreams come true.” If you truly value people’s input and experiences, you must meet them where they are—literally and figuratively—and not where you want them to be.

2. Continue to engage the community even after the formal engagement process ends.
Engagement processes are often seen as one-off events. A community will have, for example, a series of town hall meetings on a specific issue, but then it’s back to business as usual. Throughout ARISE’s school-community engagement process, a kindergarten preparedness parent group regularly convened in the community. The participants found the connections they made with each other through these regular meetings to be so useful that they requested that ARISE continue the meetings even after the engagement process transitions to the next phase.

3. Integrate ALL stakeholders into the engagement process.
Many engagement processes unfortunately do not engage the population that is most affected by the problem the engagement process seeks to address. This is especially true when it comes to education, where oftentimes processes only engage students tangentially, if at all. Larson recognizes the integrality of students. “Our students are at school six to eight hours a day. They know that school climate better than I do. I believe they hold the key to addressing this disconnect,” said Larson. Integrating youth in the stakeholder engagement process as equal partners enables them to take ownership over the process. Furthermore, this approach empowers the next generation, who are most suited to sustain engagement processes in the long run.

4. Accept that engagement is a long-term process.
Change will not happen overnight. In fact, it may take layers of change over time to improve outcomes like academic achievement, sustain the improvements and address long-term structural challenges like inequality. Furthermore, once a community integrates a sustained engagement approach, it will have long term benefits around equitable community decision-making, but this too will take time.

5. Recognize and respect cultural and historical context.
It is essential to acknowledge that Alaska Native communities have had painful experiences with assimilation policies, especially with regards to the education system. Many wounds have not yet healed. It would be naive to expect that their ancestor’s traumatic experiences with the education system do not affect students and families today. Continued recognition and respect for these delicate issues, as well as the healing and reconciliation process, should be a priority of any effective engagement process.

6. Institute cultural competency training.
Engagement practitioners that are not a member of a historically marginalized community or a community of color may need additional training on culturally appropriate approaches. Engagement should not only be culturally responsible, but also respectful.

ARISE’s strategy in the Alaska Native community is forward-thinking because it incorporates the principles of equity, inclusion, long-term sustainability and respect for historical and cultural contexts. There are several lessons that we can draw from this community and incorporate into other engagement processes. Each community’s engagement needs are unique, and need to be customized to fit the local context. This is the key to helping communities work together to make sure that leadership in schools and the community is engaging, culturally responsive and respectful.

I would like to thank Bill Hall of Alaska Common Ground for connecting me with CITI, and Lester Atkinson, Dorian Traylor, and Louann Benson of CITC for sharing with me their experiences.