Dr. Beth Harry, a professor and chair of special education at the University of Miami, discusses the importance of earning the trust of parents from diverse backgrounds through demonstrating respect for their perspectives. Dr. Harry has described the transforming impact of her daughter with special needs on her personal and professional life. She is a nationally recognized leader in research related to cultural diversity within the field of special education, especially on the topic of family-professional partnerships (running time: 2 min., 56 sec.).
Dr. Beth Harry:
It’s a kind of paradoxical issue or it has some paradoxes inherent in it, in the sense that, a lot of times there is great mistrust. And I think in particular for what we might call native minorities in a society (in that case here in the U.S. it would be minorities such as African Americans or Native Americans or in some cases some Latino or Hispanic groups) those who have had a history of being marginalized or of being oppressed within the society are very, very likely to feel a great deal of mistrust towards professionals. And that history can be, the history may look to professionals like it’s far away. Sometimes professionals will say “well but what are you talking about? This was 2 generations ago!” That perhaps people think “well slavery or the conquest of native peoples were ever so long ago,” but those histories have their repercussions and those repercussions have lived with us to this day.
A parent may very well have grown up with family stories of how their own parents were excluded from schools. People, who have that history, either for themselves or in their family narratives and family stories, may find it very difficult to trust school personnel. And I think school personnel really have to earn the trust of those families.
The key [to earning trust] is respect, but how to express that is not as simple as just saying it. I think that the key to showing respect is to invite the views and the opinions of the families we work with and to really listen to them. I think just all too often it doesn’t happen. All too often it is very hard for professionals to engage in a conversation with a parent and listen to something they don’t agree with. You know if the parent for instance starts to talk about, perhaps they believe that a child’s condition was caused by something other than our scientific model, something spiritual, something intangible, something un-provable. Very often professionals are very skeptical and that skepticism shows in their faces immediately. And the parent then is alienated because the parent realizes very quickly that there’s no respect here for my point of view. So they hold back and it’s actually hard, very hard, to get through that if people have picked up that they don’t care about what you’re saying or they don’t want to hear it or they don’t have any respect for it, then really you’re not going to say it.