When I met Kai-ama in 2014, I knew ParentCorps’ work and I would be forever changed. At that time we were asking ourselves if we could grow and scale this work, and who we would need to partner with to do so. Watching Kai facilitate ParentCorps at her public school in the Bronx, P.S. 41, was like watching our vision come to life – except it was better. She was not only incredibly skilled at all aspects of the program, but she fully embodied the values we believed made ParentCorps unique and effective. So when Kai reached out to me to talk about leaving P.S. 41 to come and work for ParentCorps, I was ecstatic.
Now, eight years later, it is impossible to imagine our organization without Kai. Her leadership has transformed us in a multitude of ways. She leads with love, clarity, and humanity and she models what it means to tell the truth about where we can grow, do better, and be better. Our work in its simplest form is a web of relationships, and Kai is someone I am honored to be in relationship with.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on being named Director of ParentCorps. Let's go back to how it all started when we first connected at P.S. 41. What were your first impressions of ParentCorps and how did you see yourself integrating ParentCorps into your work at that point?
P.S. 41 at that time was a really special place. We had a pretty strong school-wide positive behavior intervention and supports initiative going. We were looking for ways to build a positive school culture, and ParentCorps fit that.
As my coach, you were the first person that I connected with at ParentCorps. There was a certain care and genuineness that was real. If you ask me about my most resonant memory, it's coming to professional development for the first time and you asking, “How are you?” and feeling like that wasn’t cursory. It was really, “How are you as a person? How are you as a teacher?”
That was my first interaction with understanding ParentCorps’ spirit – it's a real connection and wanting to make things better for educators.
I have such clear memories of that professional development. At what point did you begin to imagine leaving the NYC DOE to come to ParentCorps?
I remember cornering you to tell you I wanted to come here. It felt like I belonged here, like these were my people because they were really caring.
But more than that, ParentCorps was asking how to improve environments for children. We do that through educators and parents. I believe that because I was living that in the school where I was and I was deeply invested. But I had more to give and I wanted to give in a more dynamic and deeper way. I wanted to have more impact, more reach, a lot of passion, a lot of love, and a lot of care. I saw my ability to do that through ParentCorps training. I describe myself as sort of loud and dynamic and I witnessed that in the facilitator, being her full self while leading intelligently, sharply, with energy.
When I first started facilitating at my school, it amazed me that it felt so real. There was a way in which you could share research-based strategies and engage in genuine conversation with families – I won't forget it.
I remember coming to visit your group and thinking we could actually scale ParentCorps. When you think back to that group of caregivers, are there any moments you remember or examples of growth from the beginning of the sessions to the end?
The love, support, and community connection that came from this group will always stick with me. We took kindergarten kids out to play in the yard every day, even when it was cold, and there was a little boy who wore two hoodies. His mom came to the program and shared that her son did not have a coat. The next week when she came, there were coats. She took one and I'll never forget that the next day he came to school in that coat. She felt safe enough in the group to say “I need something” and then trust that people were going to hold her. That's when I knew that it was more than just a parenting group. It was even more than just the strategies.
How do you think your own experiences as a mom made their way into your facilitation?
I am always trying to show up as me. I want to model that it's OK for people to always show up as their authentic self. It was already in me but ParentCorps magnified it.
You're not the expert of these people's kids and you can't stand in the front and say, “Let me tell you exactly how to be a better parent.” That doesn't land or resonate. There are so many experiences of moms who have brown skin, don't have a lot of money, and English is not their first language. There is a negative assumption that you don't know how to raise your kids, so you may choose to hide stuff, you don't feel safe enough to speak your truth. If schools don’t create that safety then parents will miss out on real help.
So many times parents come to school and aren’t welcomed as their true selves, so they're showing what they believe the school wants to see. Every time I show up as my real self – sometimes that's me being outspoken, using my New York City slang, being truly comfortable – I am signaling to the parents that you can just be you, and you won’t be negatively judged. I want you to be you and get the support you need. That's my orientation in every place and it's only gotten stronger as I've aged.
Every time I show up as my real self – sometimes that's me being outspoken, using my New York City slang, being truly comfortable – I am signaling to the parents that you can just be you, and you won’t be negatively judged. I want you to be you and get the support you need.
Fast forward to you as Director of ParentCorps. Can you talk a little bit about what that journey within ParentCorps has been like for you?
I came at an interesting time, the very beginning of ParentCorps’ growth in NYC. But I honestly say I don't know exactly how I got to leadership because I didn't feel like I was going after it. I was just being me. It’s a privilege to be in this position. But I don't think it's mine, I’m not owed anything. I just want to continue to show up and do good work and support others to do good work.
I feel recognized. When I came to ParentCorps I was deeply appreciated for how I showed up. In that way, I'm always looking for what people are doing well and building on that. I am living the best of ParentCorps’ vision, the best of ParentCorps’ values. I'm living that in my leadership. ParentCorps has had a real impact on me, it has shaped me. I've been here almost eight years and its impact on me is profound.
I am living the best of ParentCorps’ vision, the best of ParentCorps’ values. I'm living that in my leadership. ParentCorps has had a real impact on me, it has shaped me.
I think there's a way that you lead with authenticity, grace, and love that I've just never experienced before.
And it doesn't mean I'm not scared or that I don’t second guess myself or have periods of self doubt. But I really do also feel that what I give, I get back. Any time I have self doubt, there's enough of a relationship with my team to turn and tell them.
I believe deeply in reciprocity and bidirectional support as a leader. I work with a team of strong, talented, intelligent people. I don't have to know everything and I feel secure in that. I believe that people give me true and honest feedback.
When you got here, we were starting to reckon with the history of this organization, which was led predominantly by white women working solely in communities of color. What, if anything, do you want to share about that? What has been your experience?
I'll be my most vulnerable talking about race in the workplace and how I show up. For me, I had mastered the art of being brilliant in white spaces.
As a Black woman, It was interesting to watch the organization go through a racial equity transformation. For me to be able to show up as my most vulnerable self, that's my personal work. I can only do that when I feel safe, and in all my life experiences, this has been where I’ve felt the safest.
In my relationships here, I can expose my vulnerabilities in a way that allows me to grow and that's why I’ve stayed this long. I wouldn’t advise anybody to stay in any place where you are not continuing to grow. This is a deep value for me. I’ve had a lot of opportunities for growing and that was a unique way to grow.
Where is ParentCorps going next?
We are scaling across the country! I want to reach more children. I believe in this program with all my heart. I believe it because I lived it, because I coached others to facilitate it. Now I’m leading it. I believe in what we can achieve as a team. We have sharp, hardworking, and committed people. Our ambitious goals are possible.
I would love to see the United States map dotted with ParentCorps partnerships. We did it in NYC and now we are ready to expand. I am excited.
What does success look like for a caregiver or in a classroom? How do you know we've scaled ParentCorps successfully?
We’re successful if children feel loved, happy, and safe at school. And we're going to continue to support parents to make home as safe, predictable, and nurturing as possible.
You know it’s a ParentCorps school when you walk in and someone greets you with a genuine smile. The parents want to be there and families actually show up. The parents are volunteering because the school feels like a great place to be. That's how I know we're successful.
What are you most looking forward to as our new Director?
I'm looking forward to reaching more children. We're looking for school districts and Head Start partners now and we know that what we have is good. It's been tried, it's been tested, it’s been proven. Now we want to bring it to as many places as possible.
Katherine Rosenblatt is a Manager of Programming at ParentCorps.
More about Kai-ama Hamer: Kai-ama Hamer is an experienced educator and leader who has dedicated her career to teaching and supporting Black and brown children and families who face inequities rooted in poverty and structural racism. Her career began in the late 1990s working for several agencies, including the American Red Cross, to support homeless families living in long-term shelters in NYC. In 2004, Kai became a special education teacher for the NYC Department of Education at PS 41. She held several teaching positions there before being named Dean of the elementary school in 2012, establishing school-wide interventions and acting as the first line of support in crisis situations. In this role, she began to facilitate ParentCorps for families. In 2015, Kai joined ParentCorps as a coach and trainer. She has since acted as Supervisor, Manager, Associate Director, and now leads the National Office as Director.