Do not underestimate Keri Rodrigues.
Keri, who calls herself “a survivor of her own education experience,” grew up in difficult circumstances, bouncing around the foster system before being expelled from her public high school in Boston.
But it wasn’t until she sat across the table from teachers and administrators advocating for her own child that she fully realized the systemic nature of the difficulties parents face.
“The system wasn’t designed for kids like me or kids like mine with learning challenges. They had already given up on my son, and he was only in kindergarten,” she explains.
Keri believes that students have become secondary in too many schools. In her experience, schools are sometimes more concerned with getting through day-to-day operations than what is best for students.
For parents and students of color, the barriers to getting what children need are innumerable.
“It’s important to remember that many of us are dealing with our own trauma,” says Keri. “Some of us are single parents. Some of us don’t speak English. But just because we don’t show up on the school’s terms doesn’t mean we don’t care.”
Rather than accept the status quo, Keri — an award-winning journalist and former labor organizer — sprang into action. “I started talking to other parents in my community at coffee shops and libraries and decided we were going to organize.”
In just four years, Keri built Massachusetts Parents United into the largest parent advocacy organization in the commonwealth, reaching more than 250,000 families across Massachusetts since 2016.
“We are a force,” says Keri of the organization. “This year, we had five members on the state’s Reopening Schools Task Force. We write policy and we work with elected officials not just on education, but on every issue that affects parents and families. If our leaders want something done, they have to come to us first.”
Keri calls parents “one of the most misunderstood but powerful tools in education advocacy.”
Building on the paradigm-shifting work of parents in Massachusetts, Keri has set her sights on organizing and activating parents across the country to fight for their own children.
To realize this goal, Keri partnered with the Walton Family Foundation to launch the National Parents Union, a vibrant grassroots network of parent groups working in unison to ensure that the well-being of children is at the core of educational decision-making.
The foundation’s support for the National Parents Union embodies one of our core values, to be active in our work with grantees and in empowering individuals, so they can take an active role in determining their futures.
When it came to parent advocacy, Keri says that she wasn’t seeing “an appreciation for the science and art of organizing” among grant-makers.
“The foundation said to me, ‘Well then why don’t you fix it?’”
Keri says the foundation’s financial support is helpful, but the non-monetary support is priceless.
“The foundation has been an incredible thought partner, pushing me to challenge myself and encouraging me to be completely honest. Without that support, I would not have had the backbone to do any of it,” says Keri. “They helped me believe in myself and this pretty audacious vision for change — and gave me the freedom to step up and lead.”
The National Parents Union’s work is wide-ranging.
“So many of these smaller parent groups are operating out of their living rooms. They think they are the only ones out there,” says Keri. “We connect them with others and provide the resources they need to lead in their communities — whether that’s help getting a rally up and running or offering communications support. We are there to back them up.”
“Being a mom is the most important job I have. I’m in the same struggle as the parents I speak with every day.
In the 10 months the National Parents Union has existed, they have doubled membership, now reaching 15 million families a month across multiple platforms. As the pandemic continues to negatively impact children, they have distributed $1 million in direct funding to parents and parent agencies developing homeschool pods. And in national news outlets, NPU parents are featured in stories, elevating the voices of families in the conversation surrounding distance learning.
“We are empowering parents across the country to step in, and wherever parents are expected to be at the table, the National Parents Union is making sure they have the data to drive the conversation at all levels,” explains Keri.
Ultimately, Keri’s work is guided by her experience as a parent. “Being a mom is the most important job I have. I’m in the same struggle as the parents I speak with every day. When it comes to advocating for our kids, there are a lot of fancy folks who have great ideas around big conference tables. But if we don’t bring parents along, we will never achieve the outcomes we want for kids and communities like mine.”
Keri is fired up when she thinks about the future. When it comes to education advocacy, she says, “No one can co-opt your agenda when the agenda is your own children.”