Parent Leadership Training Institute
Parents that graduate from Parent Leadership Training Institute are recognized with a graduation ceremony at the Wyoming State Capitol.

Empowering Parents Brings Community Change in Wind River

Christina Rose

If you are a parent who has ever thought, “What can I do?” or “I am just a parent,” Clarisse Harris, Northern Paiute, has a program that might interest you. On the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Parent Leadership Training Institute is arming parents with the tools to bring changes within the schools and communities.

The program is gaining momentum around the country, but Wind River is the first reservation to host the program. Harris, who was a participant in the reservation's first session, said: “PLTI gives us a voice; we learn to use our voice, we learn to speak up. We don’t express ourselves publicly a lot of times, and in this class we had to speak in front of the group on a subject near and dear to you. I have taken speaking classes in college, but this was different,” Harris said.

The program originated 25 years ago, when Connecticut’s Elaine Zimmerman was given the challenge to improve childhood education in that state. After a year of interviews and study groups, Zimmerman found that parents had great ideas for improving education but didn’t know how to put those ideas into action. Always working interracially and with underprivileged parents, Zimmerman said, “We removed barriers like childcare and held dinner meetings with parents. Parents were predictably shy, but when they began to see the event was safe, they came forward with really exciting ideas.”

Just as the energy and ideas were flowing, someone would say, “But I am just a parent.”

“It happened in every meeting, throughout the entire year,” Zimmerman reported.

Recognizing that empowerment was critical to parent success, she developed the Parent Leadership Training Institute to teach parents everything they need to know to challenge the system and successfully rally for their children.

In 2012, Harris picked up a brochure from the Wyoming Department of Health and took the PLTI training to become a facilitator, and then revamped the program to suit the reservation. “We restructured it, used the basic title and changed the wording so we can relate to it in the way we think,” Harris said.

PLTI taught the participants how to open the doors to change, and gave them a “toolkit” of knowledge to use on and off the reservation. “The reservation is our family but we have to learn how things are done (off-reservation) in Riverton. We need to know about the budgets, building your community, learning how the state and city works. People say you don’t need to know this, but you do, and you learn that as you get older,” Harris said.

But the class is not just about sitting and learning. Participants develop a program based on their own interests and strengths, and learn how to bring their program to fruition. Grandfather Donn Little, Oglala, took the class because he has a granddaughter in the school system. His program, called The Grandfathers, takes place in the Arapaho schools and involves other grandfathers from Wind River including Aloysious Bell and Wayne C-Hair. The Grandfathers will even be featured in an upcoming PBS special.

“The Grandfathers have a very simple purpose,” Little explained. “We have the premise that grandchildren are sacred and with that belief, we as grandfathers must impart a lot of stories, tradition, duties, and responsibilities; and it is all based in being positive. We are the wisdom keepers, who impart life ways,” Little said, and explained that PLTI gave him more insight “and the wherewithal to have an influence in the schools.

“Now they invite us into the school board meetings and they ask us our opinions,” Little said, adding the program is growing and becoming more popular in Wind River. “People are getting interested and more involved. We just had a meeting with one of the tribal leaders, so we are moving in that direction. People who take the training are positive, engaging, team players. There were a lot of young women in there, and these are going to be the future leaders, advocates in school and education programs.”

The programs developed by the participants run the gamut. From a tribal member who trains goats as pack animals for use while leading teens on hikes and camping trips, to a woman who was so shy she could barely speak at the beginning of the program and is now taking the lead in developing a program for disabled children.

Harris’s program brought “Bountiful Baskets” for fresh fruit and vegetables to Fremont County. “We were traveling every two weeks, 100 miles to Thermopolis in Hot Springs County, to get our baskets. I went online to open a site, I took the training, because on the reservation we have such a high diabetes rate. Now I take flyers around to different organizations, and it’s like a food co-op. Now Riverton has two sites, and there are five other sites. I love it, I always wonder what we are going to get,” she said.

The benefits to the community are as varied as the programs they develop. “PLTI brings to the surface problems we don’t talk about. We became like family, and what happens in the meetings stays in the meetings. We found out that we all had so many of the same problems, and things came to the surface. It brought to light the things we don’t talk about and pretend don’t go on.” Harris said.

But for Harris, the best part of the program is seeing parents make changes they want to see. “Because you are not just a parent. You are a very important person; and as so many said, ‘I didn’t think about that’.”

For more information about Parent Leadership Training, visit the website.