Published: July 7, 2021
Meet Tonya. She’s a Navy spouse, mom to three school-aged boys, and recently started serving as the DEPLOY Fellow for Blue Star Families’ National Capital Region Chapter, a position made possible by Lockheed Martin. While Tonya found her lifelong partner in high school, middle school was not quite as fun. She struggled to fit in and find her place. Now, as a military spouse and mom, she worries for all military children, including her own, who often find themselves starting over as the “new kid” in town.
Elementary school, middle school, high school — these are all pivotal times in social and emotional development where friendships and experiences can be incredibly impactful. However, military families face unique circumstances that can make these critical times even more difficult. Families who serve move frequently; most moving every two to three years. That means uprooting and restarting; leaving friends, teachers, special education plans, support services, and all the things you work so hard for to make life and school manageable.
As military families attempt to tackle those obstacles, the finish line is often pushed further back when you take into consideration inconsistencies in quality education services from location to location. Many locations where families are required to report have a limited number of public and private school options, and/or report below average scores and standards. With the modern military being a young, diverse group of people, most of whom are married with kids, it’s no wonder why the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey found that “education options for children” is a top factor for the majority of active-duty service member respondents with children under 18 (64%) when considering preferences for their next duty station.
Not having quality education options at potential duty stations is a major source of concern for military families. As a result, that stress, as we know, can hinder mission readiness. What’s more, concerns around school choice are amplified for military families of color. “Everyone has to decide where to live and where to send their kids, but for families of color, that equation is more complicated,” Tonya shared. “Take, for example, the common question we see posted on military spouse forums: ‘What is a good school in my location?’ What is meant by ‘good’? Are we looking at test scores only? Are we looking at diversity? If we are looking at diversity, do we mean simply racial diversity, or are we looking at socioeconomic diversity as well? And is this diversity among the students or the staff? My definition of a ‘good’ school is not the same as other military families, so turning to general spouse groups is not helpful for more [information].”
The stress of addressing those questions and more regarding military kids’ education can be so overwhelming that families end up making an impossible choice. Nearly a quarter (23%) of active-duty family respondents to the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey reported they had geo-bached (when a military family chooses to live in a different location from the service member) in the last five years. The most common reasons are for spouse employment or their children’s education. On top of that, over a third (36%) of active-duty service member respondents reported that “concerns about the impact of military life on my family” was a reason they would choose to leave military service, making it the most common reason.
If we can’t retain talented service members because family members aren’t supported, then our global security is at risk. Blue Star Families is working hard to address these concerns. For starters, we’re using our survey data to find solutions by fostering collaborations and informing legislative changes. But it became clear that our efforts weren’t reaching the entire military community. The Pain Points Poll found that military families of color are less likely to hear about support and resources available to them. One reason being the leadership and organizations in place to support military families are disproportionately white. Why is that a problem? Because we know representation matters.
“In order to go to an organization for support, you have to first trust that you are welcome there,” Tonya explained. “An easy way to determine how welcome you might be is to simply look at who is at the table providing the support and see if there’s someone there who looks like you. Representation among the staff and leadership of an organization shows that they welcome and include everyone beyond a photo opportunity, and they have a variety of voices and experiences included in creating their programming.” To foster greater representation, the DEPLOY Fellowship program was born.
“DEPLOY Fellows is a Blue Star Program within our Racial Equity and Inclusion Initiative (REI) designed to diversify and expand the pipeline of leaders in the military community,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO and Founder of Blue Star Families. “The effort will embed and train individuals from historically underrepresented populations into Blue Star Families’ organization as paid staff in national and Chapter roles. Through our training, we’ll seed a new generation of leaders throughout the veteran and military family support space.”
Tonya joins the first group of DEPLOY Fellows hired in support of the REI. Thanks to the support of Lockheed Martin, as part of the National Capital Region Chapter, she’ll focus on reaching those families, especially those middle school-aged military children, who are struggling to stay afloat. “One of the things that has been most important to me over the last nearly 18 years as my family and I have navigated military life is mentorship,” Tonya shared. “Not in any formal sort of way, in a simpler iteration where friends who have been through a variety of situations are willing to share their knowledge and experience with me. They are the women and men I call on when I don’t know what to do or how to handle a situation, or even when I need to be reminded who I am. One of the greatest gifts I can give to others is that same support and sharing of knowledge. I hope to ease the path and bolster the support for other military spouses and families of color. The small changes that we as fellows initiate today will continue to ripple out and lift so many other families and for me, that’s what a support organization should be all about.”
As Tonya embarks on her role with a big smile and a pension for fun, Blue Star Families will be with her every step of the way. Because our military families and military kids deserve to feel confident they’re being given the best opportunities and are set up for success. Ultimately, in each new community, military families should not only feel welcome but also empowered to thrive.
The Racial Equity and Inclusion Initiative and DEPLOY Fellows Program were created after hearing from and listening to military families like yours. And we don’t want to stop there. Connect with us to share your diverse experience as a military family of color. Tell us what challenges your family continues to face and opportunities you are looking for to enrich life as a military family. Together we can impact change.