February 23, 2021
By Camila Beiner
Creating a Village
A blog series profiling the work of community leaders across the country working to address the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice in their local communities. The series amplifies diverse leadership and the impact on communities, partnerships and members.
Latoya Gayle, a long-time leader with Vital Village Networks (VVN), has been an advocate for marginalized communities in Boston for many years. Gayle was first drawn to VVN when she participated in the Social Justice Mediation Program (SJMP), an effort that aims to train community members in conflict resolution skills that can be used to help build capacity in various settings. When she first participated in the program, Gayle explained it really changed her perspective on conflict resolution because she learned an abundance of information during the 40-hour training. “It really has created a network of conscious conflict resolution advocates, and it really resonates with people who are doing such amazing community-based work already in the city… so this program is just something that they can add to their tool belt when working in their communities.” For Gayle, Vital Village is a unique organization because they focus their efforts on doing meaningful work that really connects and resonates with people. Many times, when organizations work in marginalized neighborhoods, Gayle said members of the communities feel they have been taken advantage of because they are left with no tools to really lift themselves up. Vital Village does the opposite of that, which motivated Gayle to become a co-director of Vital Village’s Social Justice Mediation Program. People in the program share their life experience and give perspective on specific conflicts their community is facing. The goal of the program is to provide the leaders with the necessary skills to solve the problems they are facing. Being a co-director of the program has given Gayle the opportunity to meet over 100 community leaders that focus on many different issues. “Vital Village really is my village. I am there for Vital Village but I know Vital Village is there for me, and that is so comforting and empowering. I know that if I need a resource or connection, there is someone in that village there for me, and I try to be that for others in the village as well.” From teachers to parents to social workers, Gayle has been able to support people through their journey and build a vast network of people.
Mothers Standing Together
In addition to her work with Vital Village Networks, Gayle has started her own organization. After attending various districtwide public school meetings in the Greater Boston Area, she realized they were not welcoming to parents of color, and the only voices heard were usually those of white parents. “They were not really talking about issues that were resonating or important to Black and Latino families that made up a majority of the school district… so a group of moms and I decided to create an alternative space where those voices led not just financially, but also led in recognizing issues that are in forefront for these communities.”
Gayle became the co-founder and co-director of Phenomenal Moms, a parent-led and parent-driven organization with a focus on increasing parents’ engagement and involvement in communities of color. For Gayle, community leadership is about distributed leadership where no one’s voice is more important or more powerful than another. This is what prompted her be part of Phenomenal Moms because it created an inclusive space where every parents voice mattered. The main goal of the organization is to reduce the educational, social and economic opportunity and achievement gaps by working in collaboration with schools, districts and community partners. Over the years, Phenomenal Moms has provided parents with workshops and trainings, group and individual support, and self-care opportunities to help parents recognize their strengths and overcome challenges. One of the biggest challenges came this summer when the racial tensions escalated during the coronavirus pandemic.
In light of racial tensions that occurred this summer, Latoya Gayle and Sarah Iddrissu, another local leader who is now working in Congress as chief of staff for Rep. Jamal Bowman, organized a movement, March Like a Mother for Black Lives, seeking to create a village of mothers who work collectively to celebrate and cherish Black lives, and to defend and protect Black bodies. Gayle, along with other Black mothers, were frustrated and saddened to witness the killing of George Floyd where he uttered his last word, “mama.” One of the major concerns for these mothers was raising their children in such a volatile political climate where people felt a great deal of collective stress and pain. “We thought it would be really powerful to harness the power of motherhood and to speak about not just how Black people die, but how Black people live… we wanted to create something that felt replenishing to people so they could go on to really begin to fight systemic racism.” Most of the speakers were Black women, including Boston mother, Carla Sheffield, who shared her story about losing her son to police violence and encouraged mothers to advocate for reform. Gayle explained the speakers’ goal was to inform attendees about Black maternal health, public safety, economic justice, and education. She and the other women who organized the march wanted the event to model what it really looked like to be an ally and to let those who are closest to the pain lead the movement. Following the event, people were truly inspired and wanted to help donate to the cause. Gayle was excited to see a mix of different people in the audience from different cultures, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and different cities united for to stand in solidarity against anti-Blackness and racism. Although Gayle and her partners only had a couple weeks to organize the event, the rally gathered 20 partners and sponsors and more than 500 socially-distance attendees. One of the reasons Gayle believes the movement was so successful is because the idea of mothers leading change really resonates with people given their strong influence over their children.
Importance of Language Justice
Through Phenomenal Moms, Gayle has been able to meet wonderful people who have helped her grow as a parent advocate. A couple years ago, a local philanthropist Jill Shah reached out to Gayle to become part of a new initiative to create a centralized, easily accessible, public database on all the available school options in Boston across all sectors — public, private and charter schools—called Boston School Finder. Gayle is now the executive director of Boston School Finder and aims to make the school enrollment process more equitable for all, especially underserved families.“I spoke to families and friends who told me schools and organizations use Google Translate, and it doesn’t make sense… what they would do, which I thought was really disempowering, was have children bring home forms in English, and then they would take it to a family member or friend who was bilingual and just have them translate it.” Language justice initiatives like Boston School Finder, create inclusive multilingual spaces where all voices are heard and included in the process of community change. Latoya wanted to create a program where parents had the power to make decisions for their children without having to use an intermediary. With the help of engineers, Gayle was able to create the first iteration of the site in eight different languages— English, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic and Somali— so there was not a language barrier for families. Gayle explained the organization uses professional translations to produce high quality translations for families that is actually beneficial to them, something many organizations lacked in providing to families. In addition, Gayle visits local communities to train and inform organizations who do direct service with families about school choice options in Boston, as well as the tools and resources they share with families.
Parent Engagement and Advocacy
Working to address racial injustice and underserved communities, Gayle recently decided to focus on creating a new organization called Liberation Lab. The organization aims to support Black and Latino communities in building and sustaining bases of power that can help create systematic changes that families believe is good for their children and communities.“I work in the non-profit space, and a lot of times, it is white people who are coming into communities of color with a sort of savior complex and think they know what is best for us… what I want to do with this new organization is give Black and Latino people the capacity to advocate for the issues that are closest to them without others telling them what they should be doing.” To make this happen, Gayle spent part of last year as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence. Gayle worked from September to November 2020 in this role to develop an organization focused on Boston education policy using parents voices to engage in parent advocacy, which led to the creation of Liberation Lab. The goal of the organization is to work with families and other community leaders to think of new innovative ways to solve old and persistent problems. This includes creating supportive conditions for policy change, such as creating an online social justice social network to connect families and community to each other, and the tools, information, and resources they need to create the changes they desire in their community. Gayle explained that many times advocacy work could be really expensive for communities, so this new organization aims to help direct local communities to people who can help fund, donate or provide technical support to parents along their journey.
Through her past experiences working with Vital Village, Gayle has learned education that is a social determinant of health because it can have an effect on people’s health over the course of their lifetime – an individual’s education could be determined from several important factors, including family and community challenges. “When we talk about education, we have to talk about all the systematic pieces that affect families in [Black and Latino] communities in order to think about how education is contributing to those problems.” Gayle agrees with many people who are focused on helping the whole child when it comes to education, but she takes it a step further – she also believes that whole children come from whole families who are part of whole communities. With a focus on fostering healthier, whole communities, she is excited to continue centering her efforts on Liberation Lab and Vital Village Networks and hopes these efforts can continue to build local capacity to address important educational, social and economic challenges through community led-solutions.