The Weight or Weightlessness of Courageous Conversations

The heaviness of a small segment of dark brown bodies at the end of a long color line that curves around the room going from dark skin to medium to light. Two outliers insert themselves and evocatively defy the trend. They are motivated by something else; the unexpected psyche of an individual who defies the very notion of a ‘fixed’ color line. For them, notions of color remained equivocal and complex. Even after interrogation, there was an explanation, defensiveness, squeamishness. How do you identify yourself? Is your experience the same as the others on your side? The answer remained surprisingly yes…and no. I wondered, Is there a space in our consciousness that defies color?

It reminded me of the label ‘trans-gender’ or ‘trans-racial.’ I think about the many youth who are creating new labels that for them communicate a desire to transcend the narrow-minded materialism of the body form. Are they giving rise to a new, boundless human consciousness?

Alternatively, the outliers on our side of the color line who were seemingly ‘white,’ could have been in denial or exercising privilege. Dr. Lori Watson explained, the color-line is not the entirety of our experience, but it is critical that we isolate race so we can understand it and intervene in the inequities that exist in society.

Across the color-line, I see three white women standing side by side. One is squirming, the other crying and the third—the younger of the three— is standing confident, firm, wide-eyed. The latter, we learn is angry at her colleagues’ surprise at what we are witnessing. We were all grateful she chose to express voice, like many others. Three white bodies, the same and yet different. Three brown bodies, the same and yet different. And yet, we were grouped accordingly based on a survey of our experience in the world.

Some of the comments that ensued were, We don’t want pity, we want understanding. We want voice. We want to bring our whole selves to work. I’m tired of carrying the weight of this experience. One added, I have never experienced functioning in a predominantly white organization.

I was thinking, now what? What do I want to see? What is my expectation moving forward?

I want each individual regardless of racial, cultural or ethnic background to get paid equitably for their service and have an equitable scope of work. I want each individual to have equal access to leadership positions and to be developed in that direction, especially those who come from underrepresented groups. The real lever for transformation is the redistribution of power across the color-line. Access to leadership, job-security, adequate pay and a well-balanced scope of work allows individuals not only to thrive in society but to engage in making decisions that matter. Such as policy, company norms and processes, strategic planning and importantly, managing and allocating money. It also involves hiring and retention which is crucial to the integration of new perspectives, capacity building and sustainability.

I am not saying that awareness of race and racism and inequities don’t matter. Or that equity of voice in a meeting does not matter, or bringing one’s ‘whole self’ to work is not a fundamental human need called Belonging. However, in order for us to walk the path we must value all human beings both in awareness and acts. Adequate and fair compensation. Allies across the organization who communicate safety and job-security. Ongoing investment in an individual’s professional advancement. Access to real decision-making on issues that matter. These are demonstrations of equity that have the power to shape a new practice in education so that our children will inherit a place that values all life and is committed to the sustainability of our collective humanity.

It has been a heavy two days. Yet, I am beginning to feel light and hopeful as I sit and write in my hotel room in San Francisco just before getting ready to return back to New York City. I wanted to take a moment to share —Courageous Conversations are important. Moving beyond diversity is important. Learning our history is important like— who knew Rosa Parks was a trained activist surrounded and supported by the NAACP community who had a long-term Civil Rights strategy? How much of our history has been modified or deleted denying our right to truth?

On a more personal note, I will say I felt enormous pride and gratitude for standing amongst my people. Latinos, Asians, Arabs and Others often get lost in the conversation. We get lost with each other, in confusion or by being passed over or coopted. We are a diverse and rich community. Let’s look at each other more.

I didn’t want to attend the conference, I confess. I get emotionally, physically and spiritually fatigued by the topic. But, a colleague wisely pointed out that when we receive an invitation to such an event, it is not just an invitation for your Self. It is an invitation for you, your forefathers, your ancestors— who without your presence remains voiceless and unrepresented.

So, yes. In the end I moved from action and thinking to the emotional quadrant. I got teary eyed and sensitive standing alongside my brothers and sisters. Real action, compensation and retribution for a people’s suffering are all important. But so is standing up publicly and holding hands with your friends, colleagues, family and ancestry. It is because of your willingness to embrace these rare, very present moments that we have the power to touch many lives that span and blend and even by death transcend the color-line.

 

 

Women Teachers

“Many feminist scholars believe it is essential to put women as well as indigenous people back into the human story.” 

Karen Vogel, 1995

Women teachers all around me and I am a woman too. Have I always noticed a woman’s narrative—Or are my inklings new? Alas, I find myself caught in another web of wondering. Will I find my observations true to all teachers or will I find them unique expressions of womanhood?

~Women teachers are caretakers all day long. Running from school to home, from students to children, to life partner, to parents

~Women teachers speak loyalty and trust. They want to please. They care about relationships. They are team players.

~Women teachers sacrifice themselves in order to keep things running smoothly.

~Women teachers juggle two, three sometimes four jobs (inside and outside the home). Sometimes they feel energized by this dynamic schedule. Often they are fatigued and wonder how they will possibly manage it all.

~Women teachers don’t feel comfortable saying no and setting boundaries. They are likely to appease and accommodate to keep harmony.

~Women teachers apologize even when they are not responsible for the pain or suffering of others.

~Women teachers care about aesthetics.

~Women teachers teach like it’s a labor of love. They celebrate life through teaching.

***

To be continued…

Rules of Authentic Engagement

All change, innovation, and progress depends on the engagement of ordinary people. Ordinary people like you and me make things real by our commitment and every day practice. This is what academics refer to when they use the word Praxis. Praxis is the act of engaging people in every day practice in order to realize a big idea. Without praxis, big ideas die.

The engagement of ordinary people in education policy and decision-making is important because education is about human survival and all decisions in education, public or private, impact the future of our children. We are all born with the instinct to protect the future of our children and preserve humanity. That is why the topic of authentic engagement and praxis in education is so important—and especially now when it is so hard to stay conscientiously engaged.

Challenge

In my experience, engagement in discussions that may lead to important decisions in education has become increasingly strained and artificial. Especially when it pertains to issues of equity. I think we are all feeling the pull of that downward spiral towards apathy and lack of motivation. I think this trend has to do with two things. One is our leadership and the second is lack of responsiveness.

Leadership

Many of our leaders starting with the President are problematic and their ascension to positions of power have surfaced great angst, confusion, and mistrust about how people rise up to leadership in our society; not to mention the qualities and characteristics required of a leader. In view of the current debate around our nation’s leaders, it is right to question the process and whether the hearings, for example, are simply formalities rather than opportunities for us to exercise our due diligence and make corrective action. Do the individuals being appointed to the cabinet by the President, such as DeVos, for example, truly reflect the heart and minds of the people they would be charged with serving? Is she in touch with the type of impact her decisions would have on districts, schools, teachers and whole communities? The DeVos situation makes us wonder what knowledge and experience matters when it comes to leadership. There is so much to consider when a leader takes ownership of a position, especially the impact this leader will have on authentic engagement.

We see this in organizations as well that experience similar dilemmas in leadership. Hiring practices, promotions or appointments are often rooted in political agendas, bias, funding, and nepotism. A person may be put in charge of an education program or diversity initiative that has a background in finance, for example. How might this flagrant lack of value for knowledge and experience deter people from engaging authentically in the organization? Even more importantly, what happens if flawed decisions in leadership result in the total breakdown of authentic engagement?

I wonder if it is possible to have authentic engagement when we question the knowledge, experience and overall commitment to our collective well-being of our leaders.

Lack of Responsiveness

Everyone knows the promise and pitfalls of the “feedback” or “suggestion” box. The idea is brilliant. It communicates a respect and openness to input from everybody. And yet, what happens when the feedback or suggestions don’t ever get implemented? What message does that send about the authenticity of the process?

In a recent conversation with my husband, he shared how at first the suggestion box in his office contained seemingly trivial requests, such as asking for better lighting in the bathroom or a new microwave for the kitchen. However, once the management took those small demands seriously, over time the suggestion box filled up regularly with feedback on deeper issues such as flexible time to promote work life balance or how the company should provide a private space in the office for mothers who breast-feed. The power of responsiveness and the attention to detail, especially at the beginning was priceless in ensuring authentic engagement.

Unfortunately, I have often found that we ask people to engage in a conversation about decisions only to find out later that the decision would be made behind closed doors. I have also recognized patterns of which voices systematically get silenced such as people of color, women or members of the community who are deemed as less educated.

There are two main reasons for a lack of responsiveness. One is political structure, like in my first example. Important decisions that matter are really made at the top, often by one, two or three individuals who have power and the collaborative protocols in between are really just artificial exercises to give the appearance of being flat and inclusive. The second reason is conscious or unconscious bias, dominant ideologies and/or notions about whose voice we should value. Some might argue the latter is particularly pernicious because it reeks of subtle bigotry but I believe they are equally problematic because they both end up breaking down authentic engagement and the much needed participation of people. I have often wondered just how aware an organization is of their lack of responsiveness, survey after survey, meeting after meeting.

Agency and Mindful Inquiry

I want to believe that authentic engagement can happen regardless of flaws in leadership or a history of lack of responsiveness. I have spent a life putting my faith in the power of ordinary people like myself to make a difference by expressing voice in the face of adversity and somehow convincing others to act conscientiously for the common good. Sadly, I am not sure anymore. I question if large-scale innovation or change can happen without authentic engagement and if authentic engagement is possible without authentic leaders. That leads me to my mindful inquiry for this week:

  • How can we develop authentic leadership for equity?
  • How can we get the attention of our leaders to become our allies in our work for equity?
  • How can we develop alliances within flawed structures and leadership in ways that can challenge the status quo, without ousting our allies in the process?

Obama’s Safe Space

Aisha Harris of Slate wrote President Obama was in the zone when he delivered the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney on Friday in Charleston, South Carolina. She also said the speech gave her hope in seeing real, actual progress. Obama’s eulogy had an equally profound impact on me. His preacher style cadence transported me to the sixties and the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. When he spoke about how God works in mysterious ways, I flashed back to that first time I heard Obama speak in 2004. It was the year I read Jonathan Kozol’s book, The Shame of the Nation flying home from Seattle to New York after a long week coaching. Whatever zone Obama was in, it must have had a quantum effect because while I listened to him speak, I was time traveling. I have no doubt Obama’s speech resonated in the same way with thousands across the globe, possibly hitting a level of intensity that can only be a quantum leap in our collective consciousness.  Is it possible for anyone to tap into that kind of zone that will translate into the change we want to see when it comes to equity?

Poor people, people of color and human beings who have been targets of hate and oppression live off this kind of hope. One of the reasons Obama was voted into presidency was because he threaded hope into his campaigning. Everyday hope is deciding to engage with the world in spite of the odds or the daunting statistics. It means keep moving forward in the face of failure or the humiliation of ignorance or discrimination inflicted upon us daily. Hope has the power to get us through it. It is predicated on faith and faith is about the power of the spirit to manifest dreams into reality. It is no coincidence that Obama’s speech resonated hope. And it was not just because he spoke about grace, forgiveness and healing. It was because he also dared to speak about our dark truth without shaming.
There is indeed a zone that Obama tapped into and we need more of it. He found himself there because of the unique ‘safe’ space he was in. And I’m not referring to the church, either because we know churches are not necessarily safe spaces. I’m referring to the space that is created when several factors converge. It is like a pathway for authenticity and engagement and we watched it happen not only to his audience but it happened to himself, in front of us. As an educator who facilitates and observes tons of presentations, I’ve always been fascinated by how some people have a profound impact on others while others seem to miss the mark entirely. Over the twenty years presenting to children and adults, I’ve come to learn that there are three essential factors that are guaranteed to move an experience into the zone, that is—to have a conscientious, authentically engaged learning experience that has real potential to ignite change.
Factor  #1. Reference our common knowledge or a collective truth. The fact is, even in a diverse world, we are all connected and together we have access to knowledge and universal understandings that we hold as truth. Sometimes this can be unmistakable moments in history but other times it’s about acknowledging the enduring universal truths that underlie all human experience such as raising a family, forgiveness, grace or love.
Factor  #2. Acknowledge how we are entangled with some people more than others and therefore understand what it means to identify with or share a common purpose. While we are all connected, we are also bound together to some by a set of circumstances, whether it is family, work, a neighborhood, a school, religious affiliation or identity. These are the groups we engage with more intimately and we are charged with the group to move ahead a shared purpose. How we manage relationships in these groups determine the outcomes.  
Factor  #3. Overtly acknowledge power and power relationships and how power shapes our society. Power relationships played out through status, racial hierarchies, class or other shape how we behave in the world and how others see us. By overtly recognizing power, people are more likely to heal from oppressive conditions and take a step towards meliorism.
Dr. Jeff Duncun-Andrade, critical educator and professor of education goes around the country saying he is a hope dealer. He knows of that great moment in teaching when we transmit hope to people. But hope alone is not enough to have the long lasting impact on our collective consciousness. If we look back over Obama’s presidency with impact on social change in mind we see how selling hope alone did not do it. It was his ability to harness our universal truths, demonstrate compassion and understanding for entangled groups and finally, for acknowledging the role power and oppression plays in society. How can we teach people to engage with each other in this way? Is there a way to develop more safe spaces that open each and every one of us to the potential of the zone?

Schools ought to be safe spaces. Education is our pathway to knowledge and innovation. As a teacher educator, I want to know how can I get teachers to live in that critical zone?  They need to know the entire purpose of their job is to inspire students to speak, write and create art that vibrates at a quantum energetic level with the power to impact the world. Teachers need safe spaces with which to dismantle false notions of teaching and learning, false notions of the purpose of education. They need to ask themselves: how can we cultivate the freedom of the mind and spirit so that we can create equitable and sustainable societies?
In my experience, there are few safe spaces in education today. Conscientious educators are persecuted daily. There is always a Dylan Roof amongst us. Knowing this, we have to ask ourselves how are we creating schools that are in the service of truth?  Is it not the true function of education to cultivate in you intelligence? And what is intelligence but the capacity to think freely, without fear, without formula, so that you begin to discover for yourself what is real, what is true?[1]

Our witnessing of Obama’s light shine out from this safe space was a historical moment. It was a demonstration of what we can do when we are in the zone. Now, each of us has to consider how to build safe spaces all around us, so that we can take hope one step further than just hope.



[1]Krishnamurti (1964) Think on These Things. Harper Perennial

The New Proletariat

What can the new proletariat offer the world? 

     This question has been on my mind for a long time, the role of the proletariat in society, this modern day matrix in which we find ourselves today.  As I sit back and observe my life reflected in world events, localized and marginalized as a result of the current economic crisis— I feel in spirit with those who fought the French revolution, the Cinderellas and the Oliver Twists, Sir Piri Thomas of Down These Mean Streets, the Irish famine, the fight for India, the plight of the Native American, the War No More lyrics: “I’m gonna lay down my burden, down by the river side, down by the riverside, down by the riverside.”  Although I have had the privilege of travel and completed many degrees, I am born of poor folk, working class people with history and stories, sweat and dreams deferred, the burden of a hard life whispering.
            Today’s proletariat is a different breed, I believe.  The notion that poor folk lack intelligence, unity and the ability to move beyond the simple, mindless, “petty” things we tend to busy ourselves with may be true for some (for even amongst ourselves we speak in code about the “element”) I’m convinced that the contemporary working class is far more intelligent and represents a far greater richness of diversity ever imagined.  It could be a direct result of social media and technology, this rapid development of a new intelligence that is nuanced and organic, born out of the need for survival.  It could also have something to do with the numbers. We must be in the billions, by now— the number of people on this earth that are forced to compromise themselves for a basic wage.  The odds are in our favor.
            The other night, while scanning my Kindle for a good book, I came across Charles Murray’s Real Education: Four Simple Truths.  Here is an excerpt from the description of the book:
            “America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. An elite already runs the country, whether we like it or not.  Since everything we watch, hear, and read is produced by that elite, and since every business and government department is run by that elite, it is time to start thinking about the kind of education needed by the young people who will run the country.”
            When I read this, I felt a familiar sickness in my stomach.  It felt like the kind of vomit that sits in your gut and makes you slightly dizzy because you know you’re facing a reality that just a short time ago, you thought impossible, insane, inhumane, unbearable.  Murray articulates a world view that is raw and undoubtedly askew.  I’m not sure if it is entirely new, this classist perspective but it’s astoundingly overt and in some circles considered normal and mainstream.  We are living in a new society, aren’t we?  One in which people believe a good education and all that comes with it should only be provided to the rich or those deemed “gifted.”  As an educator, how can I swallow this?  If the world is divided up like this, as in Maggie Simpson Longest Daycare short film where the tiny tot is sorted out by “intelligence” and sent to a miserable, art-less, color-less, resource-less, dangerous “classroom”  in the neighborhood Ayn Rand’s School—then what is my role here?  What can I do in a world in which the value of some children’s lives is rapidly diminishing?  The message is very clear.
             “An elite already runs the country, whether we like it or not.  Since everything we watch, hear, and read is produced by that elite, and since every business and government department is run by that elite, it is time to start thinking about the kind of education needed by the young people who will run the country.”
            When I participated in a course on Leadership & Management of Humanitarian Affairs, I realized that education is not the only field that reflects the new world order.  Rhetoric and the dissemination of humanitarian aid strategies based on pervasive class warfare fueled by systemic racism and the abuse of power over natural resources, coupled with the explicit reference to “norms” and the standardization of a global, professional elite who are convinced of their own superiority and incentivized to maintain control over “localized” communities permeates humanitarian discourse.  I am sure you will find the same in healthcare, the entire social service sector, the penal system and so on.
            What can the proletariat offer the new world?  What is our purpose?  Do we have something more to offer the world other than manual labor & mitigation?  If it is not already too late, can the proletariat put a halt to the dangerous course that we are headed? Can the working class do something to return the world back to its original experiment in trying to build a democratic egalitarian society?
            It’s hard to address these questions without knowing where we are in our journey, if its too late.  Like the war to save public education, “public” anything.  How can we know, really, the actual state we are in?  How many battles have been fought and lost and how many still remain, if any.
            Notwithstanding, just this weekend, I caught a glimpse into a new thought pattern.  That is why I am writing— in order to think it through before the flash escapes me.  Regardless of whether the elites have already overtaken the world, there does still remain a familiar framework in which we are all functioning, a framework that allows for critical thinking and essential examination of the functions of our society.  So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that we are in a transition in which there is still something to fight for—then there is still time to consider this: The new proletariat has one, very important, very unique advantage over the elite.  We “the people,” and I refer to those of us who are engaged in some way or another with social media and/or intelligent forms of communication—those of us who are acutely aware of the state of affairs and have articulated a passion to preserve the value of humanity
            We the people are in the unique position to mediate a new standard of global existence.
            What does that mean: mediate a new standard of global existence?
            It means that the contemporary proletariat knows how to work with the poor world from a position of empathy and compassion rather than charity.  The new proletariat holds the power to build consensus without judgment and propose new forms of collaboration that do not perpetuate dependence but rather inter-dependence and mutual respect.
            In A Bed for the Night, David Rieff writes:
 “As I write, there are twenty seven major armed conflicts taking place in the world; 1.2 billion people are living on less than one dollar a day; 2.4 billion people have no access to basic sanitation; and 854 million adults, 543 million of them women, are illiterate.  One of the most important things that has happened over the course of the past fifty years is that the world has increasingly become divided into three parts: the small, under-populated commonwealth of peace and plenty that is North America, most of Europe and Japan; the part made up of Latin America, the former Soviet Union, China and India, in which wealth and poverty coexist and where the future is unclear; and finally, above all in the sub-Suharan Africa and an area stretching from Algeria to Pakistan, there is a vast, teeming dystopia of war and want whose future no decent and properly informed person should be able to contemplate without sadness, outrage and fear.”
            Then shortly after he adds,
“Of course, we in the West who live in such privilege should care more.  It is right to do so, and we all know that.  It is not as if, for all our comforts, we have forgotten to care… but, is it even possible for people who live in comfort to care deeply enough…?”
            There it is.  The glimmer of a new purpose, of hope.  Who is in such a unique position to care “deeply enough,” if it is not we the people who do not come from “such privilege,” but who have because of an education, hard work or luck, had access to some or all of the benefits of such “privileged” societies of peace and plenty?  Can this be it, the “new proletariat—?” A second or third generation middle class (or those who have recently fallen) who have lived both in the “poor world” and the privileged world simultaneously?  Is it possible that this sudden polarization, this shift into poverty consciousness for some, has created a new intelligentcia that has power, power to transcend differences, who can communicate a new vision, who can defend a worthy cause, build a third party?   Perhaps we are in a great transition and we “the people” are being prepared to become the great mediators of our time, mediators for a new world peace.