Parent leadership occurs when parents are given the opportunity to work within the community to build effective partnerships between parents, practitioners, and community members based on shared responsibility, expertise, and leadership to make decisions that impact their own families, friends and relatives, and communities (see When I watched Disney’s “Encanto,” it made me think about parent leadership. Let me explain.

From an early age, I was taught by my Mexican American parents that I have a responsibility to serve my family and the members of my community in a meaningful way. Of course, we must do our part to support one another. However, everyone must be treated equally in the process, which we know doesn’t naturally happen. I often reflect on how my Mexican American cultural experiences have shaped my family, education, career pathways, and how I engage with and support others. How parents (including myself) lead and support our children and strengthen our communities play a significant role in these situations.
Two characters in “Encanto” embodied the meaning of parent leadership to me: Abuelita (grandma) and Mirabel. I was raised by parents who adhered to the traditional norms of Mexican culture and I’m aware that my past experiences shape who I am. I’ve also learned that most parents want the best for their children, but sometimes they don’t know what kind of support their kids need.

In the film’s opening scene, Abuela talks to young Mirabel (her granddaughter) about the tragedies she encountered in life and how her husband’s sacrifices created a paradise that kept their family safe. Abuela explains to Mirabel that as she comes of age, she will receive a gift that will “strengthen her community, strengthen their home, and make her family proud.” Much like Abuela, my grandmother (maternal) was the epicenter of our family and believed that it was our responsibility to help and support one another. A family member’s value and worth typically depended on how they could support and relate to one another, and not on who they were as individuals (Center for Disease Control Prevention, 2012; Krys, Vignoles, de Almeida, & Uchida, 2022; Jason, Luna, Alvarez, & Stevens, 2018). For example, my dad was a construction worker, so there was an expectation that I would continue the family business. My grandma would often volunteer my time to help with chores for the neighbors and this caused tension because I couldn’t pursue my own interests. Much like Abuela in “Encanto,” my grandma wanted everything to remain the same as when she was growing up and viewed change as an affront to our cultural traditions. This can cause intergenerational in families as they struggle to navigate between their traditional values and the evolving values of the communities they reside in (Choi, He, & Harachi, 2008; Baumert, Becker, Jansen, & Köller, 2023).

In “Encanto,” Mirabel doesn’t receive the special gift or “magic” that her Abuela tells her she will, or at least that is what everyone initially thinks. One of the first scenes shows Mirabel in the community doing errands; she starts explaining the role everyone in her family plays, and it becomes apparent that she doesn’t feel valued for her contributions to the family and community. As the movie continues, we find out that Mirabel is the one who has the power to change things, to either ruin the magic or make it stronger. To understand what is happening to the magic, Mirabel embarks on a journey where she begins to view Abuela as the person ruining the family. Abuela puts a lot of pressure on Mirabel’s sisters, Luisa and Isabela, to be perfect and carry the community’s weight. She is so fixated on keeping everything the way it has always been that she overlooks how this negatively impacts the rest of her family. Luisa and Isabela are tired of always having to be perfect, and they both confide in Mirabel that they’re unhappy. Still, they must do their part to support the community in the way Abuela says. In my opinion, the most powerful scenes are the interactions and exchanges between Mirabel and Abuela. For example, after hearing that her sisters are unhappy, Mirabel argues with Abuela, stating that nothing will ever be enough to meet her expectations. In the end, Abuela heard Mirabel and realized her rationale for keeping everything the same was motivated by a fear of losing her family. Abuela could finally see that Mirabel would never do anything to hurt them, and Mirabel’s concerns reflected the family’s responses.

From my perspective, Mirabel embodies the ideal leader, including a parent leader. She has an innate ability to connect and communicate with everyone she encounters. Through Mirabel’s involvement with the community, she learns to work with everyone to improve their conditions and outcomes. She advocates for her sisters by courageously explaining to Abuela that it is okay to work with the community instead of just doing for the community. She embodies the definition of parent leadership — people who work to build effective partnerships among parents, community members, and decisionmakers and other stakeholders in established institutions and systems (including education) to influence decisions that impact their families, friends, and communities. In the final scene, Mirabel and Abuela gain a deep respect for each other, but are still uncertain how they will be able to rebuild their house after it comes crumbling down. Despite losing everything, Mirabel had the community’s influence and support and as such, community members showed up to help them. The part that stood out the most to me was when the neighbors sang, “We may not have special gifts, but we are many…”. As the community members rebuild Abuela’s home, Mirabel is seen delegating tasks, checking in, and encouraging and supporting them — characteristics of a leader.

In summary, the ability of leaders to foster positive change begins with building collective or community capacity. For parents to become leaders in changing the education and related systems in ways that advance equity, they have to strengthen their own skills and be self-efficacious while building collective capacity and efficacy. They understand how to engage their cultural assets and work from a strengths-based framework. Leadership development programs often work to build an individual’s skills to speak up and advocate for their own concerns, and don’t pay enough attention to how they can develop their influence, engage others, and transform disagreements and conflict into collective capacity, and advocate for change.

About The Author

Carlos Anguiano, Ph.D., is a Managing Associate at Community Science, where he applies his experience in educational research and evaluation design on behalf of foundations and nonprofits seeking to improve the lives of children and families through parent leadership.

Carlos served as a parent leader by volunteering to coach sports at the local Parks and Recreation Center, has served on the Head Start parent board, tutored kids in underserved communities through Upward Bound, and worked with a school district to develop a family, school, and community partnership that included free tutoring for elementary students, and a series of Family Nights about Math, Science, and Reading to demonstrate how parents can support their children at home.