How a Mother’s Fierce Love is Transforming Community and Family Engagement Practices for Somali Parents in South King County School Districts

by Melia LaCour

Many of us have felt the transformational power of maternal love.  Whether we are mothers or the children of this love, this unconditional, healing and nurturing force is undeniable.  What if this kind of unconditional love fueled our education system and supported our community engagement efforts?

Community leader and proud mother, Regina Elmi, not only instinctively knows this as truth but has moved heart-forward to create this reality.  Armed with a deep commitment to her children and Somali community, Elmi co-founded the Somali Parent Education Board (SPEB) “to close the education gap by promoting parent leaders in the education system.”

Somali refugees, Elmi and her family sought refuge in Kenya and eventually entered the U.S. in 1996 to live in Northern Virginia. When she arrived in Washington state in 2011, she had a clear mission, driven by her maternal convictions.

 “I had this dream, this vision, that I was going to be the most amazing, active PTA mom. You know, like the picture-perfect, cookie cutter mom you see on TV,” Elmi shared, referring to her commitment to daughters, Raya and Sadia. Yet when Raya entered kindergarten, Elmi quickly discovered hindrances to this dream.

“For her to go to school and for me to get little notes, ‘Raya was talking,’ ‘Raya was looking at so and so,’ ‘Raya was doing this.’ It really messes you up as a parent because you are thinking, ‘I really dropped the ball,’ especially being that mom that wanted to redefine what parenting looked like for my family,” Elmi confessed. “My mom couldn’t do the parent engagement. She loved us and had high hopes and aspirations. But everything I knew deep down that my mom wanted to do, but time and financial despair didn’t allow her, I said: ‘I am going to do it. I am going to do it 10 times better and I am going to be very visible.”

With this declaration, Elmi knew she required support from other parents.

“I accidentally met a group of friends, one by one, in 2013. We had this once per month social gathering and we started talking about our frustrations with schools,” she explained. “What is it like for moms who are like our moms today? Moms who are raising their children, working two jobs and can’t come to those dominant culture meeting times for parent-teacher conferences? We thought, we have to do something!”

In 2014, Elmi and friend, Fartun Mohamed created SPEB. Although the pair had no funding, their unwavering commitment as mothers sparked their community engagement work.

Determined not to “reinvent the wheel,” Elmi built relationships with local organizations in South King County already actively engaging community members in school reform efforts.  She also reviewed district data disaggregated by race and attended many racial equity trainings to deepen her understanding of the challenges faced by Somali students.

In 2015, SPEB held their first community forum and announced their priorities: early learning, youth empowerment and positive parenting, and special education. However, in 2016, the founders decided to take a pause.

“We decided to stay silent and do deep community relationship building.  We were breaking our fast in other parents’ homes.  We did potlucks at my house. I went to kids’ graduation who were not my kids. I think 2016, to me personally, was my most successful year because it was not about having big meetings where we invite those outside of the community, it was really about getting approval from our own community. This work is for the community.”

These relationships allowed SPEB’s long-term goals to crystalize. On Mother’s Day of 2017, SPEB held a community-driven forum to reach consensus on their new priorities: partner to understand and improve data collection and analysis, redefine family engagement and strengthen professional development for educators.

“We defined the work as ‘mobilizing community voice to disrupt systems.’ If parents are not equipped to work from a place of interruption, then all this work is for nothing. We must imagine that in 10 years, a district can be changed where family engagement is not a conversation but a practice.”

To reach these goals, Elmi and Mohamed expanded SPEB’s leadership. Currently, Nasteha Muse oversees Early Learning priorities, Ikran Ismail is charged with research and data and Suad Farole, serves as the community liaison to the Abu Bakr Mosque in Tukwila.

With a solid team of dedicated leaders, SPEB’s work has blossomed across the region. Programs include monthly parent meetings focused on navigating the education system and knowing your rights, especially within special education. 

“We come from a culture where teachers are the pillars of our community. Parents feel they don’t want to challenge them. But I tell them “they will never do better unless we challenge them.”

SPEB also invests in Somali youth by offering a weekly teen girls’ group at the Mosque and a program, run by Seattle Housing Authority’s Abu Omar, focused on high school transition. This program is designed to provide scholarships and other resources for students to attend college.

SPEB’s 2018 agenda includes two new projects. The first is the unveiling of a new family engagement framework, “The Guiding Compass for Institutional Change.” This framework, written by Elmi, is the culmination of three years of community work and outlines a four-stage process through which districts can advance to incorporate community engagement as a practice and culture. Secondly, SPEB will launch their first year-long institute to create dedicated space for educators, parents, and students to learn together.

With 384 active parents, SPEB’s work continues to positively reshape the lives of Somali families across the region.  “The parents we work with, they are so proud of it. They say, ‘this is where we need to be!’”

Elmi’s motherly love will continue to transform systems yet she is clear that she is but one of many mothers ushering this work to life. “This is life’s work. This is like raising a baby,” said Elmi. “When we say this is work that belongs to the community, its 100% a community’s baby. The community has raised SPEB.”

For more information about SPEB please contact Regina Elmi at

Melia LaCour is an education columnist for the Emerald and the Executive Director of Equity in Education at Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD). The opinions expressed reflected in this article do not reflect the opinions of the PSESD. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in this article.

2 thoughts on “How a Mother’s Fierce Love is Transforming Community and Family Engagement Practices for Somali Parents in South King County School Districts”

  1. So glad to see this kind of activism (as a public education advocate and blogger myself). Kudos to these parents.

    One comment to note:
    Moms who are raising their children, working two jobs and can’t come to those dominant culture meeting times for parent-teacher conferences?

    I would put forth that it’s not so much “dominant culture” for meeting times as it is union-negotiated work schedules for teachers. Might be worth bringing this up soon with the School Board as the teachers contract is to be renegotiated.

    1. Nice. I’m especially glad to see that this group has identified special education as a focus area. Did you know that the district does not even track the performance of students in special education at all? On the one hand the current superintendent says that addressing the achievement gap is the priority of this generation. Yet the district practice is to disproportionately place minority students in special education where it doesn’t even bother to track their performance in any way. Quite a dodge. And further, a quick glance at the SPS job postings, you will see special education dominate the unfilled positions. There are more than 20 special ed positions, mostly in the south end, mostly serving students of color that are simply vacant. And the positions are vacant for months on end or even the rest of the entire year. So, students of color are thrown into special ed where their progress is not tracked, and where they are not provided a teacher at all – and we are to believe that the achievement gap is the top priority? I’m glad these advocates have listed special education as a priority for addressing the achievement gap.