Breaking Barriers at Ed Smith

How a collaborative dinner by the Ed Smith PTO and My Lucky Tummy created a more inclusive school community and fueled capacity building in one of Syracuse’s most diverse school districts.

            In October of 2018, the Ed Smith Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) tried something new. Through a collaboration with My Lucky Tummy and funding by a What If… mini grant from the Gifford Foundation, they organized a record breaking community dinner featuring a range of authentic foreign foods and hosting attendees from all over the community. Though the event only lasted one night, it was a key moment in a larger story of a school with changing demographics and the community members who wanted to help build inclusivity.

Staff at the dinner helped serve Ethiopian cuisine to attendees – just one of the many styles of cooking featured at the Ed Smith/My Lucky Tummy dinner.

            The City of Syracuse has a history of being welcoming to immigrants and New Americans, many of whom have come to settle within the city. Although Ed Smith is located in the East side of Syracuse, it draws students from a range of other neighborhoods, including the North and South sides. More than 20 languages are spoken and teachers and staff have already begun finding new ways to make Ed Smith a safe and accessible place to learn for students and families who are from all backgrounds and cultures. One example is the app “Talking Points” which automatically translates mass messages into each recipient’s desired language, making it easier for teachers to communicate with families who may still be learning English. Approximately 12% of the students at Ed Smith are new to learning English.

            Even though the Ed Smith School now has more families from different areas in the city and many New American families, the PTO noticed that their membership hadn’t changed to include these new families. For years, their annual dinner had been a potluck event that drew only a couple dozen attendees. In 2017, they had brought in a Pakistani chef to prepare food and increased their outreach efforts. This brought attendance up to 200 people, and helped create the inspiration for what was to come.

            The following year, members of the Ed Smith PTO applied to the Gifford Foundation for a “What If…” grant – a program that provides funding for grassroots groups and initiatives specific to the City of Syracuse. Their idea was to host a large scale dinner that would draw together the whole community, especially those who had been previously disconnected, for a night of authentic international cuisine that matched their own students’ culture and experience.

“The Gifford Foundation made it possible,” said Anna Dahlstein, a PTO member who helped organize the event, “and the What If… grant process was extremely approachable.” While applying, the PTO members attended meetings along with other applicants in an atmosphere that was cooperative rather than competitive. The goal was to allow different individuals and organizations to connect and possibly collaborate down the road.

            As it happened, the Ed Smith PTO decided to submit their grant application as a collaborative effort with My Lucky Tummy – a local nonprofit that had also received funding from the Gifford Foundation in the past. My Lucky Tummy was founded in 2012 when they started offering pop-up dinner events aimed at celebrating diversity within Syracuse with a goal of “carving out spaces where everyone can cross paths,” as Founder Adam Sudmann put it. Adam was also a member of the Ed Smith PTO so the partnership felt very natural. Together, they submitted a proposal that included hosting local cooks from Burma, Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Iraq, and South Sudan, along with performances by musicians from Syria and Cuba. Cooking demonstrations and lessons were also to be featured.

             Another way to help strengthen and build the community was to host the event on the Northside, where many Ed Smith families live. For those who were not within walking distance, a ride sharing system was set up among parents who volunteered to give rides to any parents or children who wanted to attend. Opportunities to volunteer at the event were also created to encourage team building and to help deal with the tremendous amount of coordination and effort needed to provide the dinner. These were all ways that helped parents to break out of their circles and connect with members of their school community who they may had never had a chance to work with before.

The dinner and the planning behind it created a perfect opportunity to bring parents of different backgrounds together over a common cause.

             On October 13th, the day of the event had finally arrived. Nearly 500 parents, teachers, students, and visitors gathered in a large hall at the Assumption Church on North Salina St. Children ran back and forth sampling the wide array of food options including saffron flavored cotton candy. In some cases, kids were the ones helping to break down social barriers. “Kids [unlike adults] don’t know not to talk to other kids who might look different,” said PTO organizer Karen Cordano. She went on to describe how youth were often the ones who helped break down clicks and got parents from very different backgrounds to start talking – one of the primary goals of the event.

             Nearly half of attendees came from outside of the Ed Smith community, and were offered a rare but much needed chance to see a different side of the city schools. This was achieved in large part due to the network of My Lucky Tummy supporters who come to all of their events. “City schools all too often receive negative coverage in the media,” wrote the Ed Smith PTO, “so this was a good opportunity to provide a counter-narrative.”

            The impact of the Ed Smith PTO/My Lucky Tummy Dinner is not just the success of the dinner itself. Through careful planning, the project provided new and unique opportunities for leadership and involvement within the PTO and more importantly a transformed identity among the larger Ed Smith community. The dinner also allowed parents of Ed Smith students to familiarize themselves with the PTO and its mission. One of the most exciting results was the increase in participation in the PTO by New American families who had previously been underrepresented. They have already begun planning for this year’s dinner which will also celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the Ed Smith K-8 School.

            Things are already different. An Iraqi woman who volunteered as a cook at the last dinner has now started attending the PTO meetings. New strategies have been put in place to increase parent participation, particularly among families that are not English-dominant. Another change is that My Lucky Tummy is no longer active, as Adam Sudmann has begun working full time on the Salt City Market project in downtown Syracuse. PTO member Karen Cordano explained that while an event on the same scale as last year would be impossible without My Lucky Tummy – that does not diminish the impact of last year’s dinner. “We were doing a crazy, once in a lifetime event,” she said, “and now we can take all of that information back to Ed Smith and apply what we learned to make [it] completely Ed Smith centric.”