Ara Parker is a child advocate who says "parents are my thing."
Look to the parents, she says, because "children don't bring themselves to you, their parents do. It's the parents who set the mood, who determine attitudes."
The organizer and coordinator of 11 YWCA-sponsored before- and after-school programs on Los Angeles School District sites, she also talks about the importance of readying children to join mainstream society. The "mainstream has to be for everyone," she says.". . . We have to have a mainstream that involves different cultures."
Culture Within a Culture
And she refers to her own upbringing to support her philosophy, telling how she was a minister's daughter growing in "a culture within a culture" in New Orleans. Her peer group of blacks, she observes, was brought up with "a sense of direction that is far different from today. You may not have had money, but you had a sense of pride."
Ara Parker, at an age she calls "seasoned," is in her prime--after all those years of carting children to dancing and music lessons, leading Scout troops, being active in the PTA, the YWCA, and her church. When her two children were grown, she went back to school to obtain a bachelor's degree and a master's in human development.
She was appointed coordinator of Child Development Services for the YWCA of Los Angeles in 1984, but in addition she's chairperson-elect of Mayor Tom Bradley's Child Care Advisory Committee, president of the Los Angeles/South Bay affiliate of the National Black Child Development Institute, on the development policy board of the Children's Lobby and a member of the Children's Roundtable.
She regularly conducts workshops for professionals and para-professionals in child development and for the Southern California Assn. for the Education of Young Children and other groups on parenting skills.
A proponent of Beacon Enterprise Self Pronouncing Alphabets, a phonics program that uses animal images, Parker conducts workshops and served as a consultant for its Reading Readiness Program since 1972. Last year she organized the first YWCA International Children's Festival, which involved about 2,000 children from Watts to the San Fernando Valley, plus their parents, dancing and singing on the Windsor Hills School campus.
Of her family: son Greg, 36, was graduated from Yale University and is a music-writing urban consultant; daughter Marilyn, 31, who received her doctorate from Claremont Graduate School, is a training consultant. Her husband, James, retired from the Los Angeles Fire Department last year as a captain and its highest-ranking black. The couple live in a house they built 20 years ago in Baldwin Hills.
Talk to Ara Parker and the message is clear: There are no easy answers. Not for marriages, she said with a teasing glance at her husband of 37 years, nor for raising children. "Some parents don't take the time to even try to nurture their kids and find a way to survive. Other parents do, and their kids turn out wrong," she said, noting the irony that life sometimes brings. "The important thing is that parents always be supportive, no matter what. And they have to accept that no one is perfect. There are no perfect parents, no perfect children. But despite it all, you have to love, have faith and a belief in each other."
That said, she zeroed in on her mission, "to continue to expose parents to the opportunities they have within the community.
"As I tell teachers in our training workshops, if you can get parents to understand their role, what their responsibility is, it's going to show with the child. . . . The parents' role? It's to nurture, direct, be a role model. It's an understanding of basic parenting skills."
What happens too often, she said, is that educators and youth organizers think parents don't know what to do about their kids--so they put the parents aside and concentrate on the children. Big mistake.
"At the YWCA, when we started the very first day-care program (Angeles Mesa Children's Learning Center) everyone thought my ideas were crazy. That was in 1970 and we had an enrollment of 16. A year later, we had 30, then a full enrollment of 126 and now a waiting list. But the key to this is the very first week, we organized a parent committee. Parents were not nominated to be officers, they had to volunteer to serve. It created a special sense of pride. We had fathers in the groups too, even single fathers. And they sent each other to conferences. One mother went to six."
"And every morning, I'd greet the kids with a curtsy or the boys with a bow. That wasn't just politeness, it was healthy. It was a way of checking them out to see if they were clean. But it created a ritual that was nice. We'd have them kiss their parents goodby, then come and curtsy to us. It was something the parents could see, a way of teaching them. The nice thing about Angeles Mesa is that the parents were not all poor, nor all rich. It gave an opportunity to parents to see a mixture of backgrounds."
It's not always blissfully easy, of course. Some parents, Parker acknowledged, will say they're too busy to attend parent meetings or go on the Y-sponsored field trips with their children. But Parker won't let them get away with it.
"They (parents) don't just come. You've got to court them. You have to be consistent, like have your meeting on the first Tuesday of every month, and one hour only. You can't prey on people's time. I'd stay in the hall and say as they pick up their kids, 'there's a meeting today.' Even though there's a notice on the board, people don't read it. I don't put a lot of chairs out. And we start on time if there's only one parent there.
"I get them like the one mother who told me she didn't have time to come. I told her she didn't know what I'm doing for 10 hours with her child. She should come and see. It clicked. Most programs don't have that kind of openness."
The role of the staff and the principal, Parker said, is to take these meetings seriously, to respond to suggestions, to share in the communication. "I try to prepare the staff that the anger (of parents) is not always directed toward them. . . . But if they don't express any concern for the parent, they may not find out why a child is behaving a certain way. . . . "
All these beliefs, Parker said, came from her own experience. Her childhood in a middle-class black family was rooted in love and support of friends and family and in the church. "It was an atmosphere of always knowing where you were going, of having role models. Within our community, there was a constant relationship of helping each other. Sure, blacks were segregated. But we had our own culture. It was not a matter of feeling deprived. We went to ballets, plays at Dillard University.
Sense of Extended Family
"We had voice lessons, piano lessons, the same things the white children had. It was a culture within a culture. But our families saw to it that we had these things . . . . There was a sense of extended family. If a child needed to go to a special school, I could send him to you and you became an aunt. They taught you a special belief in yourself. And through it all, the key to life was your religious belief. I never left the church. I still attend regularly."
Parker's upbringing was not just lucky circumstance on her part, she said. "My husband (who lived) in San Antonio, Tex., grew up with the same kind of caring teachers and family."
What's interesting, she added, is that "most of the people I grew up with all maintain some status in the mainstream of life. They've become involved in the betterment of their community."
That there are so many people who aren't entering the economic mainstream particularly concerns Ara Parker. "It's something we have to focus on." She's convinced it's often a matter of exposure and, at various times, she's been involved in both school and church career-day programs and seminars to show youths how fill out college and job applications.
But more than that, she said, "I think the system has to regroup. We have to go back to the days when people took an interest in other people's children, not just their own. We've got to go back to teaching young people to respect each other and their parents."
How to do this? Parents' groups. Anywhere there's a youth program, Parker wants to see a parents' group. Whether it's Little League or the church choir. "And the church is going to have to play a role. . . . It used to be people looked to the church for leadership. We've got to rejuvenate that attitude.
"How? By using the church as a meeting place, by having leaders of groups meet there. By having more things happening there. This is crucial. Usually we focus on the younger children in a family. But we have to be mindful and conscious of the total family. The more organizations we can get people into, the more exposure we can give them to life's experiences, the better."