Ask a PTA Leader: Charlene Shanahan

By Corinne Canning
CharleneShanahan - Ask a PTA Leader

We spoke with Charlene Shanahan about her family, PTA leadership experience and how to create a more welcoming and inclusive school environment.

Charlene Shanahan is the proud mom of nine-year-old twins at Sacajawea Elementary School in Seattle, Wash. She’s also the co-chair of the Sacajawea PTA Equity Team, where she organizes and executes inclusive schoolwide PTA events and works with school staff, students and parents at Sacajawea to address racism and bias within the school and wider community.

Sacajawea PTA’s recent equity efforts garnered a 2018 Jan Harp Domene Diversity & Inclusion Award.

Why and how did you get involved with PTA?

My twins, who are very active at school and sports. We volunteer as a family at our local food bank giving out groceries; I found that working directly with families in need instills empathy and helps us make connections with new friends in our community.

Three years ago, our school was forming an Equity Team and after learning about the huge disparities in educational achievement, largely based on race, I had to join and work to make a difference in our school.

The first event our Equity Team hosted was a Family Heritage Potluck, where cultural food and dress was encouraged. The team wondered if there would be a big turnout and worried it wouldn’t be well received or attended, but the potluck was a success and is now an annual tradition.

Most memorable to me is that we see families at this event that don’t always participate in other school events and of course the amazing homemade food from different heritages!

As our group continues to grow and expand, we’re excited to find new ways to enrich the learning of our students by providing more access to cultural resources and activities.

Any advice for someone who wants to become a better PTA leader?

Respect a volunteer’s time. Learn how to run an efficient meeting and how to delegate action items. Keep tasks manageable for parents and the lines of communication open. Plus, talk to everyone—we all have talents to share and some parents just need to be asked before they jump in to help.

Take full advantage of any equity or diversity tools and resources your school district may offer. Seek out community groups that are doing diversity work and create opportunities for them to present to your parents.

Host PTA events that encourage parents to share their cultural heritage in a low-pressure way. Create a diversity or equity team within your PTA so you have members that can work on actively promoting inclusivity.

What advice would you give to parents who are not involved in PTA yet?

Everyone is welcome, no matter the time commitment. All children should have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the books they read, to understand their place in the history they learn, and to feel included and valued in the school community that they come into every day. Collectively, it’s the volunteers that have an outsized impact on what your school’s PTA can accomplish. Remember, you can’t have a voice if you don’t speak up!

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