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"Self-Interest Rightly Understood": Interest Convergence and Collective Agency Across Families, Communities, and Educators

Thu, April 16, 2:15 to 3:45pm, Swissotel, Floor: Event Centre Second Level, Vevey 4


Objectives and Perspective

Policy debates about educational equity often overlook or disregard the voices of the students, parents, families, and communities who are impacted the most by educational disparities. The legislation and enactment of such policies without these voices in the process underutilize the resources, expertise, and capacity of communities to effect systemic change. Such a dynamic also overlooks new potential forms of shared interest and power constructed across traditionally-drawn boundaries of race, class, education, and language.

In Bell’s (1980) conception of interest convergence, which has been used to explain racial justice progress in society and the courts, the notion of “interest” relies primarily on the overlap of individual and racial group-specific interests. In contrast, community organizers, such as Saul Alinsky, have recalled Alexander de Toqueville’s notion of “self-interest rightly understood” to argue for collective concerns as fundamentally distinct from individualistic conceptions of self-interest. A growing literature highlights community organizing as an approach to educational equity that builds relationships between individuals and communities around shared concerns and catalyzes collective action (Warren et al, 2011).

This paper brings together a framework of equitable collaboration from education organizing (first author, 2014) with agency-based institutional perspectives (Burch, 2007) to illuminate how non-dominant parents and families might develop a sense of collective agency along with educators to forge new shared interests towards systemic transformation and educational equity. We apply these concepts to one district’s efforts to build equitable collaboration through a parent-educator design process to create a parent education curriculum (Bang et al, 2010; Cobb et al., 2003).

Methods and Data Sources

To illustrate these concepts, we draw on data from a two-year case study and design-based implementation research project in a suburban district of 26,000 students in a new immigrant destination of suburban poverty in the West (Kneebone & Berube, 2013). Our discussion draws on 36 interviews with district and school leaders, parents, teachers, and other staff, 100 hours of direct observation, and an additional 75 hours of participant observation rooted in design-based research processes.

Conclusions and Scholarly Significance

This case illustrates how “enlightened self-interest” represents a move from “my child” to “our children” and “our community,” thus reframing the role of parents and community members in education. Whereas more conventional approaches to parent involvement implicate parents and families as a source of problematic disparities, community organizing works to build family capacity and leadership to "transform the system." Parents typically develop capacity and leadership for educational transformation from an independent base of power outside the system. The district-initiated parent-educator design process in this paper demonstrates the possibilities for working inside the system to cultivate collective agency across non-dominant families, teachers, and principals around shared interests in addressing educational inequities. The paper thus contributes to re-envisioning interest convergence in ways that open new possibilities for family, community, and educator agency and power to transform policy and systems.


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