Janelle Wood
Janelle Wood is the founder of the Black Mothers Forum, a parents’ group in the Phoenix area that was empowered by the Every Student Succeeds Act. (Black Mothers Forum)

Janelle Wood is on a mission.

The Arizona State University and Phoenix Seminary graduate has been on that mission since she gave birth to a son years ago.

Her prayer, she said, is that she’ll be a “radiant light in dark spaces” who leaves a legacy of hope, peace and love.

Wood and other parents in the Phoenix-area Black Mothers Forum are seen as game-changers in the fight for education equality for Black children.

Led by Wood, who has served as a pastor in a women’s prison and as Chief of Staff for the Phoenix City Council, the group has taken the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the education law passed during the Obama Administration, very seriously. The Black parents’ group is using ESSA to leverage their awareness and involvement in their children’s education and to ensure that African American students excel in the public school system.

“We, as Black mothers, have come together to collectively address the concerns that we have with our Black sons and daughters being pushed out of their schools at an alarmingly higher rate than their White peers all over the nation,” Wood said.

The mission of the Black Mothers Forum, Wood explained, is to educate parents on their rights with respect to student discipline and a culturally-inclusive curriculum, while also getting organized through focus groups that allow members of the forum to execute a course of action to effectively make structural changes.

“We do this by meeting multiple times a month and having various experts come in from various organizations to educate and train our mothers on knowing their rights, sharing a culturally-integrated curriculum and learning [the signs and symptoms] of any mental health challenges our children may be experiencing,” Wood said.

For instance, the group has entered partnerships with the ACLU’s Demand 2 Learn program, Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, and other initiatives.

Members of the Black Mothers Forum, also completed a 13-week course on Black history to help develop a deeper understanding of their ancestors so that they could properly inform their children.

“We attend high school and grade school district board meetings regularly and address the disproportionate suspensions and dismissals of our students of color for minor infractions,” said Gwendolyn Payton, a Black Mothers Forum member, who also serves in the Equality division of the organization. “As a result of speaking out, schools are contacting us to come on campus and be visible and interact with our students of color. We challenge the schools to include more culturally diverse curriculum and activities and to hire more teachers and principals of color.”

In February, when a Black Phoenix charter school student was pulled out of school after officials claimed the boy’s hair braids violated school policy, the Black Mothers Forum sprang into action to defend the youth causing the district to issue a mea culpa and welcome the child back to school.

“The dress code at the school was specifically created as another means of targeting and harassing our Black children,” Wood said.

But, it’s just one reason why the group must encourage Black mothers to attend school board meetings and request study sessions be conducted publicly to address the disproportionate disciplinary practices with respect to Black children, Wood said.

“When we show up in large numbers to address an issue we have seen positive results,” Wood said. “We have found that in order to dismantle the school to prison pipeline it starts with us focusing in on ensuring our children are in safe and supportive learning environments and that means we need to address the punitive disciplinary actions administered by implicitly biased school administers and teachers.”

Wood continued: “We strongly believe that, as parents, we have the power to change the current school system when we collectively communicate the same message.”

According to Wood, that message is simple:

“We, as Black mothers, will no longer remain silent while our children are blatantly disrespected, threatened, harassed, intimidated, provoked, neglected and set up to fail through policies, disciplinary practices, curriculum, regulations and/or laws deeply rooted in racial stereotypes.”

Learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act and your rights as a parent at nnpa.org/essa.

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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