blog post

Parents as Humane Educators During COVID-19: An Interview with Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, M.Ed.

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton received her M.Ed. degree through IHE’s graduate program and lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her thesis at IHE looked at the value and use of storytelling as a tool for social change. Gwen is a mother and activist and works as the Communications Director at Down Home North Carolina, a grassroots advocacy group building multiracial power with poor and working-class rural communities. You can follow Gwen’s powerful Medium blog here.

IHE: Parents are suddenly managing their school-aged children at home all the time, and while schools and teachers may still be overseeing aspects of home-based learning, much of what transpires during school closures will fall to parents. As a humane educator and the parent of a middle schooler, what suggestions do you have to help parents navigate this unprecedented time in meaningful ways that will help their kids, families, communities, and even the world around them?

Gwen: My family is very fortunate. I mostly work from home, so unlike so many parents, I am not facing my child being left alone for hours on end or scrambling to find someone to watch him. We also make enough money that I have internet service at our home, and recently family members gifted my son his own computer. I feel I need to put these basic elements of our privilege out there because I’m cognizant that there is a huge inequity in children’s access to these things in our country. The pandemic is going to exacerbate pre-existing disparities to unimaginable proportions. Even if your family, like mine, is on the “winning” end of this equation, this inequality matters for our collective future.

That said, I am a single mother, and I parent alone. I work a full-time job. As soon as the schools in North Carolina closed, I began to feel as if I was doing too many things at once and doing very few of them well. (I feel this way because it is true.) I think the easy steps like creating schedules that prioritize our families are going to be key during this time. Build in cooking time, mealtime, and time to go outside and walk. 

The harder work is figuring out how we – as individuals, parents, families, and most importantly, communities – are going to make it through this. We can and must ask ourselves how we turn this personal difficulty into action in our communities in order to create lasting positive change.

IHE: Do you have some stories or examples from your experiences as a mom and as a humane educator that you think might be helpful to parents during this time? 

Gwen: One of the most important things that IHE does is thread together ideas and concepts that might sometimes be looked at in a silo (eg. human rights, animal rights, and environmental protections). As a parent, I know that one of the most important tasks I have is to help my child find the overlaps and relationships within systems in the world around them. As an activist, I know that my work is stymied if I don’t look at the connections between injustices and the power of coalitions across causes. 

How we help our children tell the story of this time and experience matters. Will our families tell this story as a time of personal hardship because of the difficulties with social isolation and the troubles balancing our professional work and our children’s school work? Will we tell a story of “us and them,” where we are fortunate and feel sorry for, or give charity to, those who are not? Or will we dare to tell a more complicated and detailed story about how this virus is exposing the many social and economic flaws of our country, and then insert families as protagonists who can actualize change? 

IHE: When this pandemic is over, what do you think will have been the greatest opportunities for parents and kids, so that families can look back on this challenging time as having resulted in some long-lasting positive outcomes?

Gwen: While this is obviously a hard moment, I also think this is a moment of great opportunity. 

When the virus hit Greensboro, the schools were quickly able to waive the Federal “congregate feeding” mandate that usually requires free meals to be served in centralized locations (which is how the summer meals programs work). For a long time, our communities have known that the “congregate feeding” restriction is a hindrance, not a help, for children in need. Because of the crisis, the schools were able to bypass this rule, and district bus drivers are now delivering the meals to children directly in their homes. My son observed that this was taking care of two things at once: feeding kids in a more useful way and keeping the bus drivers employed. He said that now the trick is to keep that change in place after this public health crisis is over. And of course, he is exactly right.  


Gwen’s son, Auggie, going door to door in their neighborhood delivering flyers for a group helping pick up
groceries and prescriptions, check in on neighbors, and provide transportation.

COVID-19 is exposing decades-worth of structural inequality in the United States, and now the will to address issues such as healthcare as a human right, fair wages and protections for low-wage workers, and the right to safety of incarcerated people is bubbling up all over. As parents, activists, and community members invested in a better future, we need to be organizing now to help our neighbors during the immediate crisis, as well as keep new protections in place so this never happens to people again. 

Our children can and should be a part of this work. Maybe it’s not a time to dive into the inner workings of public policy with our kids, but it is absolutely time to show them how we organize and to keep them in those spaces with us, not shut them out. The story we can tell as families is that we care for ourselves; we care for others; we do it now; and we do it forever.