“It was transformational for me.”
An opportunity to learn more about COFI’s parent leaders and their efforts to organize around schools became a paradigm shift for Kathy Ryg. As she listened to their stories, she found herself mesmerized and impressed by what they’d been able to do to improve their schools and communities. She helped connect them to people and projects across the state of Illinois.
I knew about COFI when I was a state representative. But there is such a disconnect in Springfield. I didn’t represent any part of the city and often representatives of districts like mine were not included on issues related to Chicago even though we were dealing with them, too. COFI leaders did not make a point to see me. I served north Cook and Lake County. No one ever connected the opportunity for city neighborhoods to be engaged with suburban or even downstate districts with similar demographics or similar challenges.
It was a missed opportunity. If it matters to me in Lake County and it matters to the neighborhoods in Chicago, then it probably matters in East St. Louis. That’s a much broader opportunity to get legislators working together, and that very rarely happens.
My real introduction to COFI came a bit later, when I was working for Voices for Illinois Children. I attended one of COFI’s meetings and it was so impressive to hear the stories of the moms and what they had accomplished. One mom told the story of getting a speed bump installed in front of her children’s schools. How everyone had said speeding was creating a dangerous situation—“We really need that speed bump”—but they couldn’t get the attention of the alderman. This mom told us step by step-by-step how she engaged the alderman and now that alderman is a really strong participant in anything that goes on at the school.
She was a Latina mom who also told a great story about what often isn’t understood regarding cultural differences. When her kids went to school, she wanted to be a part of the team that supported the schools where her kids were enrolled. But when she started going to meetings, her husband objected. She said it was important though, and they worked it out. She became a real leader in the school community.
Some other moms talked about their children who had been killed in violence and how they turned their experience into being very involved in restorative justice and Peace Circles.
It only takes one or two people who become leaders and get support to find success. Then they bring others along. I spent a couple of hours visiting COFI that day and it was really transformational for me.
Community advocates need to know when something is pending with a bill, and then they can connect what that bill does to what it means to families and community, especially for legislators from those communities. Marry those two, so people are always empowered with their own stories and experiences. People undervalue how that’s heard. Legislators often legislate by anecdote. So I remembered this mom’s story. I can’t tell you the neighborhood, the school, the mom’s name or alderman’s name, but her story was enough to convey the significance of her experience.
The meeting with COFI leaders was really informative and helpful. In that one session, I could see what they were doing at the school level in the city, and I learned how restorative justice was being used at a local level.
And at the time, the moms were very focused on getting mandatory recess time. I could give them feedback on the recess efforts in Springfield and some names of people who might be responsive.
Since our meeting, COFI always resonated with me. On the Governor’s Early Learning Council that I was appointed to, I sat with Gloria Harris from COFI. At Voices’ Kids Count Symposiums, we always made sure that COFI parents were invited and welcomed their participation. They asked excellent questions of our panelists, including the Secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services and high-level state officials or other national experts. COFI always made the discussion real.
I always felt a really strong connection with COFI moms because I didn’t grow up professionally in the policy world. I have complete respect for people who can think policy and develop policy, but they also have to be able to articulate it and bring people onboard.
That’s an opportunity for groups like COFI to bring about change. When moms would come to a Kids Count Symposium, whatever information they took away from those sessions, they became the ambassador to put that information in front of people who couldn’t be there. They can talk about it in plain language and they can point people to the fact that it’s not okay just to complain, and it’s important to ask questions that explore and inform. They could make sure that people know what the problems are and then stay in touch with them to keep problem solving.
Speaking honestly, the best way for parents to get a legislator’s attention is to call on people one by one, or to sit in a committee room and listen to the discussion and be a resource. Go to people who may not understand an issue and say, ‘Here’s what you need to know about how it affects my life, my family, my community.’ Those opportunities are not always in Springfield, and they’re not always about your own legislator. There’s a lot more effort that needs to be put into knowing who the policymaker leaders are on issues because in the General Assembly, you can’t be all things on all issues. You find your niche and you know everybody else’s niche and look to each other to be better informed.
Legislators and advocates need parents to explain what it’s like when they need services and can’t get them or can’t find them. The best way to understand if you’re having an impact is to have a feedback loop. As a legislator, I chaired the Disability Services Committee and parents would come and say, ‘ I should be able to get home-based or community-based services for my child, but I had to go to this agency and fill out all the paperwork and they sent me to a place that’s not the closest or most convenient place.’
Legislators may think things are working that aren’t, and parents are sometimes too intimidated to speak up. It’s a natural reaction, but I was always shocked when people would say, ‘That legislator was really nice. I didn’t expect that they would really sit and listen.’ You know what? Legislators are real people. Very few of them are really arrogant—there are some—but most of them welcome feedback. It’s the stories that they remember and they use those stories when they ask questions of the experts. Parents have the stories. They need to know, you have everything you need to do advocacy work because you’re not making it up. You’re not trying to convince people of something other than your own experience, so just use it. And then use it collectively.
COFI is a great example of going to where people already are and using resources that already exist.
I always thought that I was supposed to know about issues and I was hesitant to convey that I didn’t. Before I was a state rep, I served on the village board. I went to every meeting completely prepared. I read my entire packet. I asked questions of the staff. I listened to the discussion. Then I made an informed decision. In Springfield, I was just completely unnerved by the fact that there was no way to be completely prepared on every issue.
So when I realized I couldn’t know everything that I needed to know, I met families who didn’t demand things of me and I could rely on them and have dialogues with them. Not a town hall meeting where I’m stating my positions and saying please vote for me, but more like, ‘Tell me what’s going on for you and I’ll tell you what’s going on in Springfield. Let’s see how we put the two together.’
Advocacy organizations are also huge resources when something’s going on in Springfield. If you’re in the House, it’s hard to keep up with what the Senate’s doing. But a parent from COFI who is working both Chambers might help connect House and Senate legislators’ efforts.
I also learned when I needed to seek out the experts. Everyone thinks you have staff that can tell you everything you need to know. Not so.
I give the moms so much credit. At times I felt intimidated working on the Early Learning Council because I was not an early childhood educator. Being at General Assembly hearings is intimidating too. The whole situation is set up that way. I just think it’s so great that COFI moms are at these tables. I give them such credit. When they experience success I’m reminded this is where we can make change. And you know their kids are more likely to learn how to advocate with their moms as their role model. That’s huge.
It’s very empowering for kids to learn how to speak up. You can tell some of them are getting good opportunities at home to talk back and forth on issues. Then when they are invited to speak up in another meeting, they will. Other kids may not. But by being exposed to it, it’s such a good learning process.