One of the many popular American fallacies is that the English language is the gateway to opportunity. In neighborhoods like Ballard or Fremont, residents might settle into the idea. And yet, thousands of refugees and immigrants just 10 miles away in areas like New Holly or Beacon Hill offer a wealth of untapped potential to King County.
“It’s pretty well known in our country that when you speak a language at home other than English, people often view that as a deficit,” says Kelly Aramaki of Seattle Public Schools in the above video.
“And it’s unfortunate because, the truth is, we live in an increasingly global society. Speaking another language at home is going to be a huge asset. Not just to the child, not just to the family, but to our country and to our culture.”
Research shows, that students speaking multiple languages outperform monolingual children on tasks that require attention, working memory and mental flexibility. It’s also proven that a dual language education is the best way to increase student achievement for English Language Learners while also improving education outcomes for native English speaking students.
Even so, mainstream education does not necessarily adopt this research in the general curriculum. So it’s common for children of immigrant and refugee parents to slowly forget their first language, or sometimes, retain the speaking skills but never learn to read or write in the language. Many times this is because the parents don’t want their child to fall behind in school, don’t want them endure the same challenges they face, and see more immediate benefits to prioritizing their child’s English learning.
Gaps like these for students of color and families who speak a language other than English are why SVP has supported a growing partnership between Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC) and OneAmerica over the last two years. The Education Collective Action Team (EduCAT) began funding the two organizations in 2015 in an effort to jumpstart OneAmerica’s Home Language Campaign, as well as to amplify a segment of voices that have long been missing from Seattle education policy. In more than one way, since 2015, the two have gone from complementary to a single force.
Established in 2001, in response to the post-9/11 backlash on immigrant communities of color, OneAmerica is the largest immigrant advocacy organization in Washington State. Today they work closely with immigrant and refugee communities to elevate their voice and help them advocate for themselves on policies that directly impact their success in the U.S.
SESEC has worked in parallel and with OneAmerica for several years. Serving an area of King County where 40 percent of residents speak a language other than English, SESEC connects parents, community-based organizations, schools, educators and community leaders to collectively advocate for improvements at Seattle schools that will ensure all children — especially children of color — receive a quality education.
“We’ve worked together on many projects on a colleague-to-colleague basis,” says Erin Okuno, executive director of SESEC. “But what this grant allowed us to do was intentionally align more and in some ways incentivize us to integrate projects with each other.”
By coming together, they were able to build on a survey developed and piloted by UW and the Road Map Project. The survey gathered vital voices from Southeast Seattle parents, and connected them with resources, tools and platforms for advocacy on public education. Through SESEC’s network, over 600 caregivers responded to the Family Engagement Survey. The results were shared at the community level and with Seattle Public School leadership. Plus, the SESEC network identified shared priorities for improved family engagement that could be shared with community nonprofits that provide parent engagement training to their constituents.
OneAmerica has since partnered with several of the organizations and schools within SESEC’s network to provide trainings and tools for advocacy. For the Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC), that included folding advocacy into their programming for immigrant families and connecting parents to opportunities with OneAmerica to advocate for themselves at public hearings or rallies.
Last year, it also included support in organizing a two-part home language workshop.
Following a presentation on the role of a home language in a child’s cognitive development, Peggy Kwok of CISC greeted parents and their children for a second event. More than 40 parents with small children filled the room to the back wall. And at the front, college and high school students sat ready to share their story. The workshop gave parents a chance to hear directly from teens about the struggles and advantages of growing up bicultural.
“Immigrant families, most of them don’t know the importance of the home language in the development of their children,” explains Peggy. “With the conversation with the teens — it was much more powerful to hear from them directly. Not just through me.”
The workshop, Peggy says, helped participants adjust their parenting style and provided activities to nurture and motivate their children to learn their home language. “Many said this workshop was much more culturally relevant to them,” Peggy notes. “And others said it transformed their life.”
CISC was one of four organizations awarded a small grant from SESEC to pilot the Home Language Campaign developed by OneAmerica. Each organization put the grant toward a project or event that would foster a deeper understanding of the home language in their communities.
At Maple Elementary, the Family Engagement Action Team and PTA partnered to host a parent education night and establish a multi-lingual lending library. The school plans to become a resource for families by providing books and information, so that parents can continue to be their child’s biggest champion in learning two or more languages.
G.O.O.D Girls, a group of 7 to 13 year old girls from refugee and immigrant households in the Rainier Vista community, coordinated a day of cooking and the age-old tradition of storytelling with parents and caregivers.
At Seattle World School, students and parents worked together to create a multilingual cultural cookbook. Students were tasked with speaking in their home language with their families about significant cultural recipes and the memories and stories that bring those recipes to life. The stories and recipes were then translated for a school cookbook.
“They may seem like one-time events,” Erin explains, “but these organizations have longstanding relationships with the community.”
With CISC, Erin said, “That funding allowed them to do something different, go deeper, and bring important information to their community.”
Peggy’s workshop on home language was just one outcropping of a partnership with OneAmerica that has taken on a life of its own and empowered caregivers around the results of the Family Engagement Survey. CISC parents now regularly volunteer to provide public testimony at Seattle Public School hearings, advocating for interpretation services, dual language programming, and other support. The organizations are also collaborating on a digital storytelling project aimed to help policymakers understand an immigrant parent’s experience navigating the education system with their child.
Where SESEC connected its network to OneAmerica allowing them to go deeper in a single region, OneAmerica has offered a second arm for moving public education in Southeast Seattle forward.
“I think it’s very good exposure for our Chinese parents to that kind of bureaucratic structure,” Peggy says. “It’s very encouraging to our parents to move to that next step of becoming more courageous and speaking up for their children’s education.”
Learn More & Get Involved
Interested in learning more about the many facets of collective action that SVP is involved in? Thinking about joining the Education or Environment Collective Action Teams so that you can be part of funding great partnerships like OneAmerica and SESEC? Check out our approach or contact Mike Quinn for upcoming opportunities.
Cecilia Garza is SVP’s staff writer. In her free time, she enjoys sailing the Puget Sound by way of her small yet comfortable Coronado 25’ and romping the beach with her 10-pound Italian Greyhound.
Learn more about Cecilia and read more of her work here.