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On-Site Staff / Staff Leadership and Management

Community Educators: What’s in a name? A lot, actually.

Community Educators: What’s in a name? A lot, actually.

We are introducing the field to a new idea – the consideration that our afterschool staff are Community Educators at the heart of their work. To clarify, it is not a new idea but is a new way to think about the way we can refer to our staff. And we recently captured video stories of some inspiring Community Educators in California. Check out the first of the videos and see how Diego Arancibia, ASAPconnect Director, answered interview questions posed by Julie Sesser, ASAPconnect Specialist and Coach. 

Julie Sesser: Diego, tell me a little bit about your journey to afterschool or expanded learning. 

Diego Arancibia: In a galaxy far, far away… (laughs) it’s been three decades, starting in San Diego as a program leader with the YMCA in Chicano Park. Then moving to Los Angeles with the All Stars as a site coordinator, and becoming a director there. Then in 2010 moving to the San Francisco Bay Area with ASAPconnect. So that’s been the journey – this privilege to be able to see the different layers of not just expanded learning but the public and private enterprise, if you will, with education, where you have the school (public), then you also have the community and other community sources around to help make school more of a learning center. And I really saw that afterschool, probably more than any other field, has this ability to influence both the community and the school. It becomes a sort of nexus and point of intersection.

That came just from years of running program, and over time I started seeing that these stories weren’t just isolated stories. These stories were very similar stories. Because when I would share my experience, people would say ‘I get that. That happened to me.’ And then you start talking to other folks who have been in the field for a while, and you start understanding some of the nuances that weren’t really documented, but they were lived experiences. Like you always say, Julie, it’s the rainy day schedule. Change in afterschool is perpetual. You never know what’s going to happen when that bell rings.

And now currently, I think that 30-year journey is landing in a really beautiful spot where we’re finishing up our first cohort with youth – our BOLD youth leadership cohort. So it’s a privilege and an honor to be able to start off working with young people, then moving through all the administrative levels, and then being able to use the influence and resources to include that youth voice and leadership in the current scope of work we’re doing. So for me internally, I get a kick out of it, but also strategically it’s one of the things that we’re supposed to be doing. We’re supposed to have youth at the center of the conversation, not in some sort of decorative way or tokenized way, but in a real authentic way where they can help guide us and give us insight where we don’t see.

That was a very long answer, and I told you it was a galaxy far, far away, so it takes some time to get here.

JS: Welcome back to Planet Earth. I’m glad you took us on that journey. So when did you begin to think about ‘frontline staff’ or those who work directly with students to be more of what you term as Community Educators? 

DA: Expanded learning, as we now know it, formerly known as afterschool, has historically suffered from an identity crisis. We used to joke that you could have a debate at a conference about what we name afterschool. Is it one word? Two words? Are they hyphenated? Not hyphenated? It’s entertaining, but sometimes it makes it harder to put things on it, or attach things to it.

I remember even when the term ‘expanded learning’ came about, we were looking at what’s the difference between expanded and extended? And here’s where that nuance can boost your afterschool IQ a point or two by articulating this distinction. In expanded learning, we do more context. Extended learning is just extending the content of the core day. For example, you need help with fractions. In extended learning, you do more fractions after school. But with expanded learning, you could learn about fractions in a cooking class. You expand the context and give fractions more meaning.

That historically has kind of plagued us about ‘who are we?’ in this afterschool after thought mental model. But now I’m seeing that we’re at the forefront. We’re leading a lot of these charges, initiatives, and convenings.

So that said, what do we call our staff? Even for a site coordinator, you have site coordinator, site facilitator, site manager, site director, and all these different names for a position that is in charge of leading and managing a team at a school. And then we have one called program leader, but generically it is frontline staff.

Who can better tell you about the dynamics of the school than the custodians, than the cafeteria workers, than the people who have been there through all the different transitions of leadership?

But there’s this aspect of the term ‘frontline staff’ that kind of militarized it, and I just didn’t like it. I do believe that we have an army of love, and I do think that there’s a battlefield for the hearts and minds of our young people and our families. But that’s for a different conversation. I wanted to have something a little bit more accessible in the language. Fundamentally, when we looked at some of our ‘frontline staff’ it was much more than just a frontline staff. I saw that afterschool was really attracting the people that maybe normally we didn’t view as an educator because he or she was someone from the community or the person who worked in the cafeteria. How could they be an educator? How could they be the teacher? And this is where the bigger mental model first arises – though we may not be teachers, we are still educators. Who can better tell you about the dynamics of the school than the custodians, than the cafeteria workers, than the people who have been there through all the different transitions of leadership?

And so this idea came out, okay we’re educators, but not just educators. One of the beautiful distinctions that we have in expanded learning is that we embrace the whole community as the school. The school is the hub, but for afterschool staff, one of the big thriving points for program is your connection to the community. You know what’s going on in the community, you know when someone just got shot or killed, and if a family needs help and support. I’m not saying that you’re going to solve those problems. But you’re just sensitive to those needs, you can understand why people are on edge.

JS: Can you share an example of a time when that connection to the community was exhibited?

DA: I’m reminded of a story from my days as a middle school site coordinator. This is back when we first got cell phones. I remember getting ready for program, and our landline rings. I pick it up and hear one of our staff say, ‘Diego, Timothy’s uncle just got shot across the street. Call 911.’

And it’s just a trip because, number one, the brother remembers the training. You don’t call 911 from a cell phone because they couldn’t trace it. If something happens, you should call a landline. What happened was this program leader was coming to work, parking his car, and one of our student’s uncles was shot across from the school. He gets out and starts administering first aid. Where is that in the job description?

You could see there’s affinity in that frontline staff, but that wasn’t what I think drove us to do the work. It was that we saw that we were doing so much more than teaching sports, we were doing so much more than teaching enrichment, we were teaching life stories, and we started with ourselves. And I started seeing, yeah, we’re educators and we’re in the community.

JS: Where did the term ‘Community Educator’ come from?

DA: I have a dear mentor who I refer to as the Oracle in my life, a thought leader in education. She always pops up, sends an email, or I run into her at the perfectly appropriate times. One day I get a book she had dropped off for me, and I see the title: Community Educators. The author, Dr. Patricia Moore Harbour, shares that a cornerstone of a Community Educator is having an understanding of youth development. And that is one of the key distinctions of afterschool programs. So again, how do we not just become a program leader but embrace this kind of bigger title, that we’re all Community Educators?

Dr. Patricia Moore Harbour’s book Community Educators: A Resource for Educating and Developing Our Youth “asserts that the relationships between education, community, and democracy are inseparable and illustrates that education is broader than just schooling. Harbour challenges current thinking about education and reveals how the public participates in the education and development of youth. Community Educators is a call for action and responsibility—both individual and collective—to transform education beyond simply reforming schools.”

Part of it is this kind of deeper intellectual thinking from Italian theorist, Antonio Gramsci, who distinguished between different kinds of intellectuals. We understand society has its traditional intellectuals – the people with all the certifications, the titles, the diplomas. But he indicated that there are also organic intellectuals. These are people in the community who can teach you about life, and teach you about a craft or trade, not necessarily having all the ‘qualifications’. And I think we can embrace that and make it a little bit open, too.

The idea is we’re the ones to name it, as opposed to the situation or bureaucracy naming us.

JS: What inspired you to create a video series featuring Community Educators during the pandemic?

DA: It’s basically visual storytelling. I want stories that move people. I love stories that inspire people. Stories that not only make you feel good, but let you know that you’re not alone. You and I have been in the field for years, and we’ve seen the power of stories. I wanted to amplify that, and that it’s not just us telling the story. We have over 4,500 programs in California, so arguably, we have 4,500 site coordinators. That’s 4,500 stories, at least. So how do we go about sharing them? But sharing in a cool way that doesn’t feel like work. And there is that sense of community – ‘Oh man, I’m going through that too.’

JS: To be fair, this is the first time that Community Educators, or this level of staff, have been focused on.

DA: Yeah, in many ways it’s really democratized professional development, democratized opportunities for voice. Because now anyone can convene and record with video conferencing. You saw from the beginning of the pandemic that people are creating different live podcasts.

I also want to model that. For my ethos as ‘TA provider’ we make it look easy because it’s fun. We want to inspire people to do it, too. If we can inspire five more creatives to start visually capturing the stories, then we start creating more of a movement.

I hope that what they are experiencing and what they see is that afterschool Community Educators are key to resetting what the new standard of normal is in education. 

JS: What do you hope viewers will experience when they check out the videos?

DA: Number one, I hope folks in the field will see themselves, and that’s the intent. They will know little jokes that you just can’t make up, that you have to be in the field to understand – some of those nuances, some of those tensions, some of those creative tensions.

Number two, I hope that what they are experiencing and what they see is that afterschool Community Educators are key to resetting what the new standard of normal is in education.

JS: How do you think this shift in language will impact thinking about those who directly work with students?

DA: It’s funny because a title is a title. On one hand, no matter how much we want to create a new system, we’re still in this kind of hierarchical system, and that system is really based on titles and names. But that’s not to say we can’t create our own titles and names.

The shift in the language in one way would give the practitioner more sense of honor and dignity, and really recognize the work that is being done. I believe we need to have more agency in our field and be more precise in our language. Even in Spanish when you say ‘mal educado’ you mean impolite or having bad manners, but the literal translation is ‘badly educated’. And truly, learning manners is part of your education – from both your school and community.

We inherited this very narrow, I think historically pre-COVID, definition of who is an educator and who can be educated. Who is allowed into the schools and who isn’t, who is allowed to teach and who isn’t, who is considered to be a teacher and who isn’t. If we broaden it out, where can we gain wisdom and where can we build? 

Also, in this component of Community Educators we have what we call paraprofessionals and other names that don’t really inspire a vocation. So I think that’s what we name ourselves, in line with a vocation, a profession, and start really trailblazing awareness of not just a workforce, but a calling. We have a lot of people who have been in expanded learning for a while who joke that ‘I didn’t choose afterschool, afterschool chose me.’

I had no idea that I was going to be in afterschool. It wasn’t in my career plan. It was somewhere in between I don’t know what I’m doing, but this is kind of cool. In that, I was able to find a part time job in a YMCA in the community where I wanted to make an impact. And then it kind of structured a path into this job.

When I’ve mentioned the term Community Educators in some of our work groups, it resonates with people, especially the people who are closest to the point of service. We inherited this very narrow, I think historically pre-COVID, definition of who is an educator and who can be educated. Who is allowed into the schools and who isn’t, who is allowed to teach and who isn’t, who is considered to be a teacher and who isn’t. If we broaden it out, where can we gain wisdom and where can we build? We can make it more expansive than constrictive.

The task we’re being asked to do, even if we’re leading it, it is too big for us to hold by ourselves. So we need people who can embrace not just the school and not just the community. We need people who can hold the whole. For the most part, you can call it an afterschool program or community program, and you can have a different name of the agency on the front. But it is usually a person in there that’s making sure that communication between the community and the school site is fluid, active, and proactive.

The change in terminology also embraces what Joe Hudson, newly retired team member from Alameda County, pushed for as an intent of site visits. Joe talked about alignment. It’s typically afterschool aligning to the school standards, but we always try to broaden out that conversation that it’s a two way street. Joe really pushed and said if we’re going to have alignment to the school day, we need to have alignment to the community.

JS: What other possibilities are created with this shift in mindset?

DA: Currently we have a lot of different titles for people who do ‘frontline’ work, and a lot of these roles require passing an instructional aid exam. I struggle with this because the exam has virtually nothing to do with our work. There’s the basic mathematics and maybe some tutoring, but our work is so much more than that.

Our work is about building safe and supportive environments. It’s about active engaged learning, all the quality standards that we’ve talked about, youth voice and leadership. Where is that in the exam? And why is it all or nothing? If you don’t pass this exam, there’s no job for you. Where’s the progression? Is that what we’re really trying to build capacity for?

I think ‘Community Educator’ will broaden out the conversation where maybe we pause and ask why we’re using a 19th century model in the 21st century. What else can we design and create? So along with the precision of language and shift in mindset, I’m also thinking how can we aid in broadening out this workforce pathway for our educators.

ASAPconnect BOOST Blogger team:
Diego Arancibia, Director
Julie Sesser, Specialist and Coach
Julie Groll, Specialist

Gabby’s full interview 

Paul’s full interview 

Author: @diegoarancibia, @juliesesser, and Julie Groll

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