Diverse Families: A Dialogue about Reflective Practice

Vol. 12, No. 2
ISSN: 1546-2676

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM,
Vol. 11, No. 1. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2000. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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Kappa Omicron Nu


Transformative Leadership: Working with Latina Immigrants

Katia Paz Goldfarb

Dr. Goldfarb is Assistant Professor, Department of Family Studies, University of New Mexico.


In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I did not speak up because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist. then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up because I was a Protestant. then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Martin Niemoller†

I have come to realize that the decisions we make on our scholarship, as well as teaching and service, are, as stated by Thompson and Walker (1995), embedded in a specific context, reflect personal biographies and ideologies, and are influenced by the sociohistorical moment. Based on this philosophy, I have chosen to focus my scholarship and community service on immigrant families. I am a Jewish Latina immigrant, although a privilege immigrant, I can identify myself with the discontinuity that exists based on differences in language, culture, and experiences. This past three years I have been involved with a group of Latina immigrant mothers, Grupo de Padres, in a truly reflective human action experience. This paper describes the leadership transformation that has occurred in Grupo de Padres.

Grupo de Padres

The involvement of immigrant parents in the school system has been seen as an avenue to improve the children's academic achievement. Contrary to popular myths, Latino parents want their children to succeed, and they are highly interested in being involved in the school life (Delgado-Gaitan, 1990; Delgado-Gaitan & Trueba, 1991; Goldberg, 1996; Moles, 1993). Grupo de Padres was created in 1993 to involve the community and the families with their children's schooling. It was funded under the Human Services Collaborative (HSC). HSC's main goal is to improve the academic success of students by first addressing their primary health, mental health, and social service needs. The group is open to the community, not only to the families with school age children.

Grupo de Padres meets every week in an elementary school that is located in a metropolitan area of a southwestern state. The make up of the schoolís student population is 60% Latino/Hispanic, 19% Anglo, 12% Native-American, 4% African- American, and 4% Asian. The participation in English as a Second Language (ESL) and bilingual programs is 78.9%; 92% of the students receive free lunch. The majority of the students live in low-income apartments. The neighborhood is enclosed by busy streets, and children, as well as adults, perceive the area as dangerous and violent. The weekly meetings are conducted in Spanish, and there is a community-based coordinator that has been instrumental in increasing the participation from an average of seven members in 1993-1994 to an average of forty members in 1997.

During these meetings, we discuss a variety of issues, such as alternative methods of discipline and the benefits of reading to your children. Besides the discussions, guest speakers are invited to present a wide range of topics, from information about immigration, to healthy eating habits. This group focuses on topics that are important to the participants as mothers, women, Latinas/Hispanics, immigrants, and above all, as human beings.

Transformative Leadership

Following the idea that "all professionals have a responsibility to lead--to use their competencies in each community of practice, whether it be family, neighborhood, organization, institution, or government" (Mitstifer, 1994, July), I decided to take my knowledge outside the classroom. In 1994, I became an active participant of Grupo de Padres. I went to the weekly meetings, I translated material, and I presented on a variety of issues such as discipline, family relations, and human development. During that year, the coordinator and I were seen as the experts; members of Grupo de Padres mainly listened, and we mainly talked. By the end of 1995 the dynamics of the group have changes. The boundaries of who I was, who the coordinator was, and who the participants were, became less and less limited. there was a clear transformation in the leadership. The old model of experts vs. listeners was not working. We had to step out of our previous determined roles and take the risk of relinquishing power and creating a new space that will be shaped by all of us.

Reflective Human Action (Andrews, et al., 1995) has helped me to understand and analyze the transformation in leadership that we, in Grupo de Padres, have gone through during these past three years. As stated in the definition, the experience has been an "active, mind-engaging process of meaning -making in a community of practice" (Mitstifer, 1995, July). Each of us was challenged into a reality that was in constant change, producing relationships and knowledge that will transform the ways we have been operating. Next, I will use the four core organizing principles, accept chaos, share information, develop relationships, and embrace vision, to map this process of transformation.

Accept Chaos

"Scientists call a system chaotic when it becomes impossible to know where the system will be next . . . . however, it is possible to discover that there is an inherent orderliness to things that seem to have total disorder" (Andrews, et al., 1995, p. 3). When Grupo de Padres started, the roles were clearly defined. Therefore, the responsibilities and expectations were limited and predictable. As the dynamics of the group changed, a new reality emerged. The coordinator and I stepped down from the pedestal we put ourselves in, and the women began to take charge of their own learning.

During this process of transformation, the hierarchical order was substituted by a new order where all the participants were inserted and a dialogue began (Freire, 1969). The program was not anymore imposed on the participants, but the participants defined the group. We began an experience of ownership not only of the physical place, but also the emotional space. We started to respond to the demands of this specific group rather than perpetuate the notion of passivity towards one's own learning. We accepted chaos as the beginning of a process that will lead us to innovative ways of working and being together and the construction of a successful team.

Share Information

In a world of rapid changes, knowledge is power. At the beginning, Grupo de Padres focused on information about immigration and families-school relationships. The method was very hierarchical where either the coordinator or myself gave a presentation or we contacted people from the community to serve as experts. The information was handed down. As the ownership among the participants started to transform, so did the distribution of information.

Information became "freely generated and exchanged" (Andrews, et al., 1995, p. 4). The creation of an information web was in process. Within this web there was a path of direct interchange of knowledge and a path of indirect interchange of knowledge. The different threads of the direct path involved all the women, the coordinator, and myself. The indirect path was created when the information generated in Grupo de Padres permeated outside spaces. All of us took the information back to our families, and I use the information in my classes and in my professional world.

Develop Relationships

In relationships where power and therefore hierarchical systems are in place, it is almost impossible to reach a balance in the distribution of participation.†As Jordan (1990) argued, "people identify with the 'strong' or the 'weak,' and neither group is free to experience wholeness; individual relationships mirror these dynamics of fragmentation and pretense" (p. 2). In a situation like this, real leadership cannot flourish.

Surrey (1984) stated that we develop in the context of relationships. She emphasizes "the importance of a two-way interactional model, where it becomes as important to understand as to be understood, to empower as well as to be empowered" (p. 7). This has been the philosophy behind the creation and development of relationships within Grupo de Padres. We were able to talk to each other and learn from each other. We shared our expectations, our doubts, and our knowledge; we embraced and celebrated this experience. We built trust that allowed us to become a unit able to go out and search for needed information and resources with the knowledge that we all stand behind each other.

The construction of these relationships has created a new avenue to develop meaningful linkages between different social institutions and immigrant families. For example, the feeling of ownership of the space has allowed the families to become part of the system and consequently have their voices heard. It has also provided a support system where any of us can miss a meeting and whoever is present will lead.

Embrace Vision

Grupo de Padres was created as an alternative way of building meaningful linkages between a socially marginalized group and social institutions. Itís formation was established on the notion that the involvement of Latino immigrant families must be seen within the context of available activities and avenues provided for them or created by them (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991). Although Grupo de Padres was funded by an outside institution (HSC), and at the beginning presented all the aspect of a hierarchical system, the dynamics were able to change because chaos was accepted, information was shared, meaningful relationships were developed, and a new vision was created and embraced.

The direction and purpose of this vision has been the creation of a safe physical and emotional space where people care, worth is assumed, and individuals are valued. We embrace the vision that we are part of a community, that our children need advocates to be able to succeed in an otherwise hostile climate, and that we have the right to have access to knowledge and create relationships that are going to better us as human beings. Delgado-Gaitan (1991) argued that "power undergirds the knowledge required on the part of the parents to deal with schools" (p.22). The use of this power will determine access to valuable resources. Empowerment is an "ongoing intentional process centered in the local community involving mutual respect, critical reflection, caring and group participation through which people lacking an equal share of valued resources gain greater access to and control over those resources" (p. 23). Grupo de Padres is an empowering experience.


My involvement with Grupo de Padres has influenced all the aspects of my professional life, as well as some aspects of my personal life. In my teaching, I use my research and service to illustrate and expand the knowledge and information I provide to the class. I have also learned that I need to create safe spaces for the students. I believe that if I talk about "diversity, Multiculturalism, awareness, sensitivity, and professional conduct, [I] have to model and experience them through respect, trust, dialogue, understanding, challenging each other, critique, support, and caring" (Goldfarb, in press). I was also able to develop and establish a class for future teachers on issues regarding family involvement in the formal schooling of their children. The focus of this class has been on the successful creation of meaningful linkages between home and school, especially for marginalized families.

At the scholarship level, I have been able to disseminate, by writing and presenting, information about the critical need for the creation of safe physical and emotional spaces for immigrant Latino families. I have been able to hear the voices of immigrant Latino women, their family relations, their social changes, their relations with social institutions, and their migratory and immigratory processes. I have committed myself to change the impersonal and utilitarian way of doing research by becoming an active participant of the process.

Through this community service, I was able to empower myself. I have learned from these families' strength and resiliency, and I have applied this knowledge to all aspects of my professional life. For me, this is what gives meaning to my career. The effects of this experience have reached beyond my expectations. It has created a sense of unlimited possibilities for professional and personal development by challenging traditional ways of acquiring knowledge, sharing information, and developing relationships. Reflective human action has helped me to frame the importance of transformative leadership. It has reassured me that the risks involved in changing old paradigms are needed and crucial. I have realized that as a professional my responsibilities toward the community do not end in the classroom; I do have something to offer; and I do have a lot to learn. As I define myself as an empowered leader, I have decided to redefine and rebuild community, to reinvent collaboration, to recommit to outreach, and to be authentic.


Andrews, F. A., Mitstifer, D. I., Rehm, M., & Vaughn, G. G. (1995). Leadership: Reflective human action, A professional development module. East Lansing, MI: Kappa Omicron Nu.

Delgado-Gaitan, C. (1990). Literacy for empowerment. New York, NY: Falmer.

Delgado-Gaitan, C. (1991). Involving parents in the schools: A process of empowerment. American Journal of Education, 100(1), 20-46.

Freire, P. (1969). La educacion como practica de la libertad. Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores.

Goldberg, C. (1996). Latin American immigration and US schools. Social Policy Report, 10(1), 1-29.

Goldfarb, K. P. (in press). Borderlands: The making of a family studies professor. Family Science Review.

Jordan, J. V. (1990). Courage in connection: Conflict, compassion, creativity. Work in progress. Wellesley: Stone Center Working Papers Series.

Mitstifer, D. I.. (1995, July). Leadership. Dialogue, 5(3).

Moles, O. C. (1993). Collaboration between schools and disadvantaged parents: Obstacles and openings. In N. F. Chavkin (Ed.), Families and schools in a pluralistic society (pp. 21-49). New York, NY: SUNY.

Surrey, J. L. (1984). Self-in-relation: A theory of women's development. Work in progress. Wellesley: Stone Center Working Papers Series.

Thompson, L., & Walker, A. (1995). The place of feminism in family studies. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57(4), 847-866.