Claiming Their Power: Parents and Children as Change Agents

How the National Parent Leadership Institute is engaging parents and children to shape the policies and systems that impact their families, schools and communities.

By Matt Gonzales

11 mins


“But I’m just a parent.”

It’s a refrain that Elaine Zimmerman heard again and again early in her work in the late 1980s. 

As leader of Connecticut’s Commission on Children, she hosted focus groups that included stakeholders from across the state. Among all participants, parents consistently had the most substantive ideas for improving childhood outcomes. Yet, they didn’t see themselves as a constituency. Moreover, they lacked the skills for public impact. 

To address this problem—and Informed by a wealth of parent input—the Commission on Children launched the Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI) to help parents translate their ideas into practice.

PLTI started as a free, 20-week non-partisan “democracy school” that equipped diverse parents for civic action. It proved so successful that it was soon in demand throughout the country, leading to the formation of the National Parent Leadership Institute (NPLI) to support the replication of PLTI. 

Today, the family civics initiative is still free and available in 69 American communities. A parallel course for youth, the Children’s Leadership Training Institute,  teaches children civic and community leadership alongside the adult course.

Since 1992, more than 10,000 people have graduated from PLTI. According to NPLI Executive Director Donna Thompson-Bennett, these graduates are individually and collectively addressing a critical issue. “​​There’s long been a model of doing things ‘to,’ and ‘for,’ parents,” she says. “But in a democracy, it needs to be ‘with’ them.” 

Here are the stories of three graduates who are using skills they learned through NPLI’s programs to overcome barriers and become powerful agents of change in their families, schools and communities.

“​​There’s long been a model of doing things ‘to,’ and ‘for,’ parents. But in a democracy, it needs to be ‘with’ them.”

Donna Thompson-Bennett

Davida Ambrose, Memphis, Tenn.

Davida Ambrose has always wanted to make a difference. “I’m a big thinker,” she says. “A dreamer.” For her, it was never a question of motivation. It was a matter of figuring out how to go about it. “I just didn’t know where to start.”

When her youngest child was diagnosed with autism, Davida’s focus sharpened. “I knew I couldn't let my son fall through the cracks of the system.” 

After seeing a post on social media about a free course that gives parents the tools to become community advocates and leaders, Davida didn’t hesitate. “I was ready to do something.”

A few weeks into PLTI, a blueprint for effecting change began to crystallize in her mind. “With schools, you’ve got parents, principals, teachers. They’re all connected. In government, you’ve got commissioners, representatives, governors. You have to know and talk to these people to get things done.”

Davida’s most pressing concern was her son’s education. Struggling to find a school that would support his needs, she used skills acquired in PLTI to prepare to speak at a school board meeting. “I’ve never liked public speaking,” she says. “But PLTI gave me a roadmap—having my facts prepared, having an ending that sums things up, keeping within the timeframe.”

When it came time for her to speak, Davida felt buoyed by a confidence that only comes with preparation and knowledge. “I had three minutes. After I finished, before I even sat down, someone said, ‘We’re going to get your baby into school.’” 

It was a watershed moment for Davida. “I cried right on the spot,” she says. “I finally knew what it felt like to advocate not only for your child, but for something you truly believe in.”

Since that moment, Davida has boldly embraced the role of community advocate. As a member of AmeriCorps Generations and in partnership with the Early Success Coalition—both based at the early childhood nonprofit Porter-Leath—she helped spearhead an initiative to address gun violence, hosting a symposium called “A Hope for the Future: Fight Against Gun Violence.”

“If it had not been for the valuable lessons learned in PLTI, I don't know if I could have accomplished any of this,” Davida says. “I'm more confident now than I've ever been.”

Joshua Vaughn, Naugatuck, Conn.

It’s a moment Joshua Vaughn will never forget. 

“It was the height of the pandemic, and a friend reached out to share this course called PLTI.”

At first, Joshua wasn’t sure about it. The course would kick off the week after he wrapped up his Bachelor’s degree. He and his wife had three children, and a fourth on the way. Did he have time for a 20-week commitment?

After talking it over with his wife, Joshua decided to take the plunge. It turned out to be a life-changing one. “It was the point and pinnacle of my change,” he says. 

Prior to PLTI, Josh had never been particularly civically active. Yet, with each passing week of coursework, he felt a growing sense of agency. New opportunities came into view; doors opened that he never knew were there. “I say this all the time,” he says. “PLTI prepared me in a way that not even my academic career did.” 

In addition to equipping him for advocacy work, the course introduced him to a diverse range of viewpoints. “By week five, I had become close to everyone in my cohort. I’m hearing the crackling of different voices as they discuss their experiences. I’m sharing my lived experience. It was powerful.”

Shortly after completing PLTI, Joshua applied for a seat on the first-ever parent cabinet in Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood. Now he’s a regional representative. He also serves as a council advisory member for the American Public Human Services Association. 

Additionally, Joshua recently launched a passion project designed to support and empower fathers. It kicks off this June with an event called Together We Stand. He says the event is the culmination of a vision that has been percolating for years. “I come from a home where I didn’t have a father,” he says “When I became a father, I knew I had to be present.” 

Fathers, he says, are often missing from the civic landscape—especially when it comes to issues concerning children. “Often, it’s only me or one other male at the decision-making table. I believe it’s critical to incorporate the father’s voice.” 

Today, Joshua’s voice is resounding loudly in both government and civic spheres. It never could have happened, he says, without PLTI. 

“I’m telling you, it was the best decision I ever made.”

"I’m hearing the crackling of different voices as they discuss their experiences. I’m sharing my lived experience. It was powerful.”

Joshua Vaughn

Julian Pena, Mill Creek, Wash.

At 10 years old, most boys are honing their Pokemon and Minecraft skills. Julian Pena, on the other hand, was getting a crash course on the fundamentals of social advocacy.

The course in question was the Children’s Leadership Training Institute, which Julian attended along with his sister Sara Elisa while his mother, Liliana Uribe, was enrolled in PLTI. “When I was learning about local government, he was learning about it too,” Liliana explains, “but at a child-appropriate level.” 

Now a sophomore in high school, Julian is passionate about social and racial justice. As a first-generation American from Mexico, he witnessed the impact of racism firsthand. “All the microaggressions that my parents faced, seeing that as a kid, it really affected me.” It’s why he joined his school’s Black Student Union Club, where he advocates for anti-racism at his majority-white high school. “My activism at school started with CLTI,” he says. “It built a foundation for me.”

One of Julian’s favorite memories of CLTI was getting to know his classmates. The program brings together people of all races, ethnicities, and income levels. For Julian and his mother, it was an invaluable introduction to the mosaic of people who make up their community. ”You're hearing about a grandfather from Africa who moved here 15 years ago,” Liliana says. “Next, you're hearing from a mother from Russia.”

How much can a 10-year-old really learn about civic engagement? Julian says CLTI did a good job of focusing on basic concepts kids can understand, like diversity and tolerance, and bringing them to life with fun activities. For example, he did a group art project that allowed students to share their experiences in life; he also learned about philanthropy by organizing a clothing drive.

During adolescence, it’s a bit natural to narrowly focus on one’s own life. But CLTI helped give Julian a broader perspective. He credits the experience for teaching him how to not only identify injustices—for example, pipeline construction in Indigenous communities—but to speak out against them in an effective way.

It’s a long way from Minecraft and Pokemon, but Julian says he wouldn’t want it any other way. “I wouldn’t even be able to begin to think of how I could address these issues without CLTI,” he says. “It helped me see things differently.” 

Now, he’s helping his peers see things differently, too. “That’s what’s so great about it. It has a ripple effect.”

Bezos Family Foundation is proud to support NPLI, a parent-centered, anti-racist organization that partners with parents and communities to equip families with the civic skills, knowledge and opportunities to be leading advocates for children at home, school and in the community.