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Advocating for your kids in an IEP meeting can be scary for any family. Now imagine your family is undocumented. Imagine the fear of immigration enforcement as you try to get help for your kids who learn and think differently. 

In this episode, hosts Julian Saavedra and Marissa Wallace talk with Kareem Neal, a Black special education teacher in Arizona. Kareem shares his experiences with kids with IEPs from undocumented families. He explains how parents can find champions within the school system to help them advocate for their kids. He and Julian also talk about what it means to be a Black educator.

Episode transcript

Andrew: Discover all of Understood's podcasts, where we talk candidly about challenges with reading, writing, focus, and other learning differences. Our podcasts bring new voices and perspectives you won't hear anywhere else. Explore the highs and lows of raising kids with learning challenges. Learn about the surprising ways ADHD symptoms can surface in kids and adults. And hear stories from working professionals who learn and think differently. On the Understood Podcast Network, there's a podcast for everyone. Find your new favorite today at

Julian: Welcome to "The Opportunity Gap," a podcast for families of kids of color who learn and think differently. We explore issues of privilege, race, and identity. And our goal is to help you advocate for your child. I'm Julian Saavedra. 

Marissa: And I'm Marissa Wallace. Julian and I worked together for years as teachers in a public charter school in Philadelphia, where we saw opportunity gaps firsthand.

Julian: And we're both parents of kids of color. So this is personal to us. Welcome back to the show, Marissa. How are you?

Marissa: Yes. It's that long stretch before break. It's so close — seven days away? Five days away? The longest five days of our lives.

Julian: But despite all of that, it's time to wake up because we have a really fascinating, interesting, and exciting show today. What we're going to be talking about is really for our parents, our caregivers, our guardians out there, who are worried or sometimes fearful about advocating or speaking up in school or during special education meetings. Specifically really zeroing in on our families that are undocumented, our families that have situations happening with their immigration status that really makes an extra challenge. So Andrew, our illustrious Understood member, is going to come and talk to us today about our special guest.

Andrew: Hey, thanks Julian. I was able to book a guest for the show who works with many undocumented families. Kareem Neal is a special education teacher in Arizona. He has over two decades of experience working with kids. He works in Maryvale High School, which is in the Phoenix Union School District in Arizona. Over 81% of the students in that district identify as Hispanic. More than half of them speak a language other than English at home. There are, in fact, over a hundred languages spoken among student families in the school district. And there's a large refugee population.

Just a few other cool facts about Kareem. He was named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers. He's the vice-president of his school district's Black Alliance. And he's a Teacher Fellow for Understood, which we are really proud of. So let's welcome Kareem to the show.

Julian: Kareem. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. We're so excited that you're here. How's it going?

Kareem: Good. Good. Thanks for having me. It's always fun to hear about my supposed accolades, but I just think about the 25 years in the classroom, man, teaching special ed in high school. Love it. 

Julian: The blessing that you've been in the classroom for that amount of time, I mean, 25 years, that's deep.

Kareem: Yeah, I'm feeling good though. I'm not leaving. 

Marissa: Kids keep you young, though, right? They keep you young.

Kareem: I tell everybody I'm not going. Like I, you know, I won some awards and things like that. And everybody wants to like, take me out of the classroom. It's weird. I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying. 

Julian: Well, Kareem, we're really excited to have you here because one of the issues that you have ample experience is in relation to special education and the experience that our families are having when they're coming into the schools. Because a lot of our listeners are families that are wondering what can they do to support and advocate for their children when they're dealing with schools. So I'd love for you to kind of jump in and talk about why parents or guardians or caregivers might be a little bit fearful or afraid of coming into school and advocating for their kids.

Kareem: Yeah. I mean, in general, a lot of people don't think of it this way, particularly like other teachers, business folks, the upper middle class folks of the world, where it feels like the world is your oyster. And I think even like my parents, you don't necessarily feel like those places are for you. If you don't feel like they're for you, it's harder for you to have that normal voice you have, right? So when I think about all the Black, all the brown parents I've had, and I've only ever taught in areas where it was like low income, they don't feel like they could even talk like they normally talk when they're in meetings, right? And so if you don't feel like spaces are for you, it already is holding you back a tiny bit. And then I jump into the fact that, so I'm working in an area where there tends to be a decent amount of undocumented folks, and then they're not trusting it. 

Marissa: So when we talk about fear that families have, specifically families who are undocumented and have concerns with their immigration status, can you kind of be more specific about where does that fear come from? What's actually going on in schools right now that would create that fear in a family?

Kareem: I mean, it's happening a lot outside of schools. But that doesn't mean that a parent's going to then feel safe at school, right? So like this area has had a lot of ICE raids, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. So my community has had a lot of like ICE raids happen and they are tapped in. Then they turn on a TV and see people being taken away from their families. And that's tough. I mean, I've had students just disappear one day and a couple months later it was like, oh, yeah, they quickly moved to Texas because their neighbor got pulled by ICE and they were just scared and they just did it.

And then that's it. So it would be akin to being like a Black community, knowing about like police brutality, right? It's a big deal for a lot of the undocumented folks here. And so for them, it's a real fear. Even if it's not happening in their school, it's happening in the community. Their school is a part of their community. And it's a place where a lot of the folks who look like, sound like ICE agents work, right? So they're not feeling that comfortable being like, "Oh, Ima be bold and proud and maybe piss somebody off who work in that building, and maybe they'll stand next to us," right? So, it's a big deal. That's a big deal.

Julian: Do you talk about it as a staff? 

Kareem: We totally talk about it as a special education staff. A lot. We get really frustrated by parents not coming to meetings and things like that. But we are tapped in enough to know it's like, oh, they're not lazy. It's not like they don't care about their kids. We wish our parents weren't so afraid of it, right? So we wish we could communicate that to all parents, right? Send a note home: "Hey, ICE isn't coming. Come on in to the IEP meeting." And IEP is an  individual education plan, for those non special ed folks. 

ICE has a policy by the way, that says they don't come into schools. But when we talk about the importance of having a parent on an IEP, it's like we got to reschedule that thing 20 times because we can't even get them on a phone sometimes. It's a real fear. I know that if I thought my family was in danger of getting picked up by an agent and just taken away one day, maybe I will stay close to home.

Julian: For those that are not experiencing that day to day — I mean, most of our listeners are not in the situation where they're worried about their immigration status — this adds a completely different layer to the already tenuous and uncomfortable situation of coming to a school to talk about special needs for your child. Imagine and empathize with the fact that these are families that are nervous for their residency status. How do you all manage to find ways to go above and beyond that?

Kareem: One of the big things you can do as a teacher is start building a relationship with all your families so they can start at least trusting you, if nothing else. So I have parents who will lean on me and be like, "Hey, do I have to give my social security?" "No, you never have to give that." "Can I do this? Can I say that?" "Yes. You always can do that." So I think teachers, if you're listing, please like build strong relationships with the parents of the students in your classroom, because that will be one barrier in helping them say, oh, OK. I can feel comfortable like attending meetings. So, yeah, it's a lot. It's deep. 

Because — I think about even me, like I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey. It was not the kind of place where you expect the world to see you and love you. And so being where I am now, it feels a whole different thing. Like I do feel comfortable now in business spaces. I do feel comfortable in groups of professional folks, whereas I didn't back in a day. And even as I started my teaching career, even I didn't feel that comfortable advocating for myself, let alone how parents are feeling jumping into this space that is not theirs and advocating for somebody.

Marissa: Yeah. You made such a key point about the building relationships that I don't always feel that people understand what that means, right? Or like tangible things to do that, because you have to gain the parent, the student, the caregiver's trust. Cause the relationship won't go anywhere if that trust is not set. So I'm curious: What have you found in your 25 years of experience that has allowed you to build that trust first, to be able to then expand on a relationship with families?

Kareem: The funniest thing that I did lately — last few years — and it's worked like a charm, is I found this site that automatically translates. So it's called Class Dojo. And I actually initially grabbed it because it kind of works well for kids in self-contained classrooms from the gate. But then it automatically translates what I say and automatically translates what parents say. And so we got them all on there, and I was constantly posting pictures of what was happening in my classroom, posting pictures of work. And all of a sudden we all felt closer.

Marissa: That's awesome. 

Kareem: Before, I had a lot of parents who would go straight to the paraprofessional in my classroom who spoke Spanish, and they would talk to them. Now they felt comfortable coming up to me while still having maybe an interpreter nearby. But it was just like, they felt comfortable with me because they felt like they knew me, because we're talking all the time, right? So finding that kind of communication tool if nothing else. 

I had a kid who, him and his family, they signed. And I went and learned sign language, right? The Spanish — I'm trying to learn Spanish. And I'm terrible at learning Spanish apparently. But at least I found this tool that made us feel closer as a group. And then it was just like, our relationships took off. And that kind of thing then makes a person say, oh, I can trust this person if he's saying I don't have to do this, or don't worry about that. Or ICE can't come to our school, stuff like that. You need that.

Julian: I wish my kids were in your classroom. I can already feel the vibe. Kareem, I want to go back to what you talked about, where you mentioned how people feel like they have to go into spaces that are not theirs. What does that mean? Just for the people listening, clarify what that is.

Kareem: We all have a culture. Like I think about when I went to Arizona, it was just like, oh, Black folks, I'm very comfortable with Black folks. Well, Black folks in Arizona weren't like Black folks in New Jersey. So I still had to build a new community with them. But like the folks who are coming from areas where most of the people aren't earning that much money — people are typically not used to being in settings where people are using all of these acronyms and they're buttoned up. They're used to a different kind of thing.

It would be like telling all of my administrators, "All right, go out in Maryvale and hang out with some people out in Maryvale. Go to a cookout over there." Right? They might not feel that comfortable, because that's not your vibe, not your culture. And so it takes some time to acclimate yourself to a new one.

And so we're assuming like a freshmen will come in school and a parent will just feel comfortable in this new school. That's not how it goes down. Schools don't feel like it feels like in their house, when you're not speaking the same language automatically. Whereas, like you're coming in here in strictly the Queen's English. And you're like, I don't really speak like that, you know? And it's really difficult for you to then say, oh, this place is for me, until they let you feel like no, this place is for everybody. 

Today, I actually met, I had a new student, Black student. Met his mom. She didn't automatically feel comfortable with me because I'm Black. She had to dole me out as a person and see what I'm about and see if I am welcoming to her as well, right?

Julian: I love that you said it doesn't automatically create a relationship because you share a race or you share some common characteristics. And it sometimes comes across as a misconception that we can solve all these problems if we just get a bunch of Black teachers or we get a bunch of Spanish-speaking teachers, it's going to switch things up. And that's not the case at all. 

Kareem: No doubt. 

Julian: Kareem, think back to some of the experiences that you've had with some of your families. What would you say to them as a way for them to make themselves feel like they can advocate for their kids with you? What kind of things should they be doing? Or how should they approach walking into a situation where they have to speak up for their kids?

Kareem: When talking about the way parents advocate for students, every single one, I'm like, always feel comfortable speaking. Take the time to get to know as many people at your school as possible, because that'll make you feel more comfortable, right? So go ahead and make as many relationships as you can everywhere. And then I would say, be close to your IEP team, because you will find yourself feeling more and more comfortable talking to some of the individuals. 

So an IEP team is usually kind of big: a special ed teacher, regular ed teacher, all the therapists that work with your child. If it's a person who has a health aid, they'll have that person with them, a nurse, behavior specialist. It's a huge team. Say, get to know that team really well, because you will find someone on that team that you feel comfortable talking to. And then that person could also give you that kind of confidence if you need it, right? 

So fortunately for me and the parents of my classroom, they feel comfortable with me. So at IEP meetings, they're sitting next to me, right? And they're just like ready to talk because they know they feel comfortable. All right, he's going to give me this confidence. He's going to help guide me if I need guidance. And he's the person that is making me feel at home here so that I can start speaking my mind freely. On every campus, you're going to find your person that might be the person that gives you the confidence to be your true self. 

Julian: Love that. And then that keyword: confidence. Right? 

Marissa: And that's so important because as a fellow special education teacher and knowing how just intricate our relationship with our families are, and I think in this case, making sure that all families know no matter what their immigration status is, that they're all able to have the right to special education services. That is not something that we will deny them. That's the law. And we support that.

Kareem: Yeah, you can't be discriminated against, based on immigration status, in public education, right? You cannot force somebody to talk about their immigration status. Or like I said, provide social security numbers and those kinds of things.

Marissa: And that's important, cause I think when we asked parents to sign things, right, it's that nerve-racking moment, you know, like you're asking for that signature. And I think all of those thoughts are going through their head. So that's really helpful for families to know they are protected.

Kareem: And that's huge, because then they have the confidence that they need to say, all right, I'm speaking up for my kid because what's ever the harm in that? And I think a lot of undocumented parents have felt that power dynamic. And so they have already been beaten down from some level in the past.

Marissa: Oh, yeah. 

Julian: You mentioned a couple of times, how in your own life experience, how you felt like you didn't necessarily belong in those spaces. It makes me think about the imposter syndrome. How so many times people will walk into a situation and they're kind of like, do I actually belong here? How did I get in this situation?

And honestly, I feel like that every single day of my life. But what do you do for yourself to gain your own confidence in situations where you might not even feel that you belong? And I mean, you're pretty impressive in what you've done. What are some things that you do that may be some people that are listening can take to their own experience?

Kareem: I kind of do some of the same stuff that I'm urging parents to do. I've been in some wild places, man. The Oval Office, you know, just my senate and house all the time. And I'm just like, this is really wild. But I think about the people that I latched on to that gave me that kind of confidence, right? It was just like, oh, when I go now to my state legislature, which I go to a lot, it's like, oh, I know Lela Alston's going to be there holding me down. Because I met her several times, being there, feel comfortable with her. And so if I'm standing by her, I'm like, OK, I'm going to speak my truth because I know she got me. And so I think these spaces that seem to be big and intimidating, full of people who are nothing like me at all, didn't come from areas that I came from, don't look anything like me, don't sound anything like me. I find a person around to make sure I find my voice based on the fact that I know I have somebody.

Julian: So now I kind of want to switch gears a little bit and spend some time unpacking and uplifting your own personal story because you're a Black male educator, which we know that nationally only 2% of educators are Black male educators. But then on top of that, you are a special educator, which is even more specified and hard to come by. I'd love for you to tell the people in general, who are you and how did you come to this? And why do you continue to do this after 25 years?

Kareem: I got into special education or in education in general, in an odd way. I was at Seton Hall University in New Jersey — shout-out to them — and I was a chemical engineering major undergrad. I worked at the rec center, and on weekends there were sporting events and it was like one time the Special Olympics came through. And I was just like all in. I met the kids and they were so authentic. So I was just like, I just loved them immediately. So I think getting into it because I love the people, that made it easier for me to get through like the paperwork.

And like, I worked three jobs for like eight years. Three jobs. I did respite rehabilitation with a kid with autism after work. And I drove like Uber and Lyft — until recently. It's wild. But I think that was the thing that I was always able to fall back on, right? It was like, no, these are my people. And I think, because it also blended with my advocacy work, I was always kind of a big anti-racist dude, right? I got to college. I read "Autobiography of Malcolm X." I dove into like that, right? I dove into anti-racism. And so when I found special education, I said, oh, I'm going to dive into advocacy for that too, because being an advocate fills the soul type thing, you know what I'm saying? And so I just always loved it.

And I still do, 25 years. That's tough to find a job that you love, that you're happy at the end of every day. But on top of that, when I think about some of the extra stuff, some of the advocacy work that I was doing in schools also kind of fed the soul when I wasn't in front of my students, right?

Julian: I'm not 25 and you know, both of us have lost our hair. So here we are. But you know, some of the experiences that I've picked up over time is that in many cases, especially in schools with a high population of students of color, the Black men are relied upon for disciplinary management, those types of situations. And I found that a lot of people viewed Black male educators as the ones that needed to jump in and focus on discipline. Has that been your experience as well? And if so, how have you dealt with that?

Kareem: Yes, that's been my experience. So when I started here — and I love Maryvale, I've been at Maryvale High School and Phoenix Union School District for 15 years now. And the first week, two things to happen. One, when I interviewed here and got the job, the teacher of this classroom before me, so 16 years ago, she was just like, oh, the kids are going to be fine with you. You're like a big Black guy. So it was just like automatically kids are going to look at me and just be good. And the second thing was that 25 people asked me to be a coach the first week. And I was like, coach what? Coach — have you ever seen me play some sport that I don't know about? Y'all know what I can play? It's crazy. 

So 15 years ago, the world is a little different. We understand more about microaggressions and things like that. But I do still get from another teacher, "Oh, the student is messing up in my classroom. Dah, dah, dah. He's a young Black kid." And I was just like, man, get to know your class. How about that? How about you build a relationship with them? But yeah, it happens a lot.

Julian: I mean, it's kinda like a gift and a curse. The time that other teachers might get in having a chance to make mistakes and mess up in early parts of their career, it seems like a lot of brothers that joined, they're just thrown right in and they're expected to perform at high levels in situations that are difficult for veterans, let alone a brand-new teacher, just because of a potential connection that could be made based on what you're race is. That doesn't automatically make a relationship happen. That's not something that automatically is going to say, well, "Hey, you're Black, I'm Black. Maybe we could be friends." Right? Like then we good. Like, it's not like that, right?

Kareem: It was wild to me. Just to be like, oh, I'm like a big Black guy so my kids are just going to be well behaved? I was like, no. And the frustrating part is I have put in countless hours to do the absolute best I can. And I don't want you to just say, oh, you're like a Black dude so everything just fell into place for you. It's like what? 

Julian: What are you looking to do next? What are you looking to continue? 

Kareem: Well, I mean, I'm still trying to make school communities better, man, because I do think it's important for people to like love school like I did, you know. And there's people not feeling heard, seen, there's mental health stuff and all that. And I'm just like, we need them to be real communities. Like a lot of schools say community schools on them, and hardly anybody talks to each other. And I think about the special education kids I teach. It was tough helping to make them like a bigger part of my school community. But we did that by like working on it, right? Like doing those kinds of community-building things. We need for students to feel connected to the schools, parents to feel connected to the school. All the folks.

Julian: Yeah, just please help us find more Kareems. That's really what I'm going to charge you with is recruit. 

Kareem: That's the plan. I have mentored, now, six teachers, right now. So six people who are teachers right now because they came through. So I'm trying, I'm trying. 

Julian: I appreciate that, man. The last thing before we leave out is, you know, just kind of summarize for us one, what would you like to see our families take away from the ideas that we discussed in relation to walking into schools and feeling like they can come as they are and speak up for their children?

Kareem: Yes. I mean, parents, I want y'all to try and get out there and meet and grow stronger relationships with the folks that work at your school. That's going to help you find your voice. That's going to help you feel comfortable even walking on that campus and feeling like you're a part of it.

Julian: So you're saying that they need to bring in some food to the teachers, because listen, when I get some tamales and some pupusas, some mac and cheese, I'll take all the plates and that'll help a lot.

Kareem: That would totally do it. But even just like whenever you can like reach out and talk to the people, you know what I'm saying? Find a way to do that because you'll find out that you'll talk to them and realize that they do care about your kids and they want the best for them, and you'll build the relationships and then you'll start saying, oh, this is my school now. I'm feeling like I'm a part of it. And I'm going to get in there.

Julian: Ah, man, I just can't express enough how much I appreciate you taking some time to talk to us and share your story, share your tips. So thank you, brother. 

Marissa: Thank you. Yes, thank you very, very much.

Kareem: Thanks for having me, y'all. This is great.

Julian: This has been "The Opportunity Gap," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "The Opportunity Gap" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Marissa: If you found what you hear today valuable, please share the podcast. "The Opportunity Gap" is for you. We want to hear your voice.

Go to to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G slash opportunity gap.

Julian: Do you have something you'd like to say about the issues we discussed on this podcast? Email us at We'd love to share and react to your thoughts about "The Opportunity Gap."

Marissa: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference. And we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at "The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Andrew Lee and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors.

Julian: Thanks again for listening.


  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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