When active-duty military officer and mom, Simone Jenkins, launched the Brookland Middle School’s Parent-Teacher-Scholar Organization (PTSO), she had a mission to ensure all parents voices and concerns were heard to collectively enforce change for the school community. The issues ranged from online bullying to equity in the classroom. 

“We wanted to move away from your traditional PTA meetings,” said Jenkins, who is also the mother of a Brookland Middle Schooler. 

The PTSO’s role as a conduit between students, parents and the school became even more pertinent when D.C. students were unexpectedly sent home for virtual learning. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and underscored the effects of decades of failures to invest in neighborhood schools: many families did not have access to computers or the internet, which became essential for accessing their education. 

Thanks to support from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs’ Parent Empowerment Program (PEP), parents were able to combat the digital divide and bring effective change to their community. For over 50 years, the D.C.-based legal organization has fought for racial equity through litigation and advocacy. Education is a tenet of the Committee, along with criminal legal system reform, housing, employment, disability and immigration justice.

Parents have long been the center of the struggle for race equity in D.C. A group of Black parents convened in 1941 near Ketchem Elementary School, which is now a current member of PEP, to begin advocating to integrate D.C.’s public schools. That organization led to the landmark case of Bolling v. Sharpe which was decided with Brown v. Board of Education and declared segregated schools inherently unequal.

“The work of those parents remains unfinished today as students of color still do not have an equal opportunity for a high-quality education,” said Kaitlin Banner, deputy legal director at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “In the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Anacostia and Brookland, parent voices are being ignored in favor of newer residents, resulting in unequal parent power in public education. Ultimately, this widens the racial wealth and opportunity gap.”

PEP is currently established in six D.C. PTSOs to empower these marginalized families.  Through PEP, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs is working to advance equity in education by ensuring that parents and community members know they have power to create a brighter future for youth and the broader society. 

“One thing we’ve learned over many years of doing civil rights and racial justice work is that the courts are important but are not the only answer to making change,” said Banner. “There needs to be sustained advocacy and organizing efforts.” 

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs’ advocacy efforts include testifying before the D.C. Council, working with community groups to combat discrimination and overseeing PEP.

During the D.C. Council’s budget deliberations in May, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs supported digital equity in D.C. and other coalition partners to successfully advocate for the inclusion of $6.9 million in the District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) budget to address digital inequity. DCPS has since committed to providing computers and internet access to every student without access and is promising $27 million in educator and student technology in the fiscal year 2022 budget.

Recognizing equal access to education plays a central role in creating a more equitable society for all, Capital One partnered with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs to invest strategic grant funds as part of its Capital One Impact Initiative

Launched in October 2020, the Capital One Impact Initiative seeks to create a world where everyone has an equal opportunity to prosper through advocating for an inclusive society, building thriving communities and creating financial tools that enrich lives. 

“Capital One is passionate about the success of our community and that is why we are so proud to partner with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, an organization that is fostering a more equitable future for D.C. through their intentional efforts addressing systemic racism and inequities in our school system,” said Mark Mathewson, SVP, Technology, Capital One. 

Capital One supports PEP as well as the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs’ additional education initiatives:

  • Public policy advocacy with District officials
  • Support to the School Partnership Program, which recruits law firms and businesses to partner with D.C. Public Schools to provide enrichment programs for low-income students
  • Advocating for equitable school funding, school-based mental health support, digital equity and other efforts

“Capital One, amidst everything that’s been happening in our society, made a real decision to invest in D.C. and racial equity,” Banner said. “We are incredibly appreciative of their investment.”