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…

In the End the True Nature of Teaching Will Prevail

Teaching and learning is art. The role of the artist is to reveal the essence of reality so that we are moved into compassion for ourselves and the world. So we can respond with kindness and humanity, to grow and flourish, to love each other and experience the effortlessness of unbound beauty, the type of effortless beauty found in a Spring bloom.

This has been a socially, emotionally and spiritually tumultuous year for all of us. Not too long ago I remember thinking and hearing that if this president or that, became president—“I am leaving the country!” Alas, this president, or that became president and most of us are still here. For some, this “morning after” is marked by an effervescent glow while for others, we find ourselves stripped naked and bare, each of our flaws and imperfections magnified by a blinding fluorescent light.

How will these social and political changes impact our teaching and learning craftsmanship? How long will it take for our eyes to adjust before we begin to see things more objectively, more clearly— not seeped in a morning after glow or stark naked shame?

I have felt sadness for the many losses and disappointments experienced over the course of this year. Yet, on some days, I am filled with gratitude. Especially during this month of June that marks the end of a year for teachers. Put the past to rest and the anticipation of starting again. I suspect that you are experiencing similar emotions because even though we are all unique individuals, we are together in this shared-reality, these months of social upheaval. Together we have witnessed a grand clearing out, the removal of clutter and garbage that has allowed us to scratch past the fine lens of complacency and superficiality. We are feeling the aftereffects of what happens when toxins are released into our blood stream, similar to what you might feel after a deep tissue massage: the pain and the soreness and all you want is Ibuprofen and green tea.

Donald Pfaff tells us that we are naturally good, that we are biologically wired for altruism. I want to believe him. Especially now when I encounter more news about war than peace and I find people filled with rage rather than gentle kindness. He writes:

“For too long it has become common wisdom that human nature is essentially selfish. We are taught that our instincts are somehow designed by nature to promote ourselves, and that these ‘animal’ selves must be tamed to fit into civilization…. The human brain is actually programmed to make us care for others. Many of our basic drives, reactions and skills are more products of nature than nurture. The innate biology of the human brain [in fact] compels us to be kind. That is, we are wired for good will.” [1]

If you decide to read Pfaff’s book, you will discover his very intriguing “Altruistic Brain Theory” which can be summed up this way:

For a person to act altruistically, they must picture the person who will be the target of this altruistic act in such a way that the image of the person blurs with that of one’s self, which provides the basis for treating the other like oneself.

A brilliant and critical theory for teachers to consider right now, as we engage in the last stage of cleaning out cubbies, saying goodbye, letting go of the past and anticipating a new beginning. Why? Because now is the time, when we are no longer gripped by the fear of unfamiliar shadows and are ready to find peace and acceptance for who we really are. Now, we can narrow in on what we need to do to move into alignment with our magnificent, altruistic nature.

I for one, make a commitment to engage in a mindful inquiry this summer about altruism. I will reflect on this question every time I interact with another human being:

Does the image of the person in front of me blur with the image of myself?  

Then I will ask, why or why not?

What are the barriers, filters and/or mindsets that prevent us from being able to picture or visualize a person, as being like oneself?

Recently, I was invited to contribute to a column on race and implicit bias and I thought deeply about how personally responsible we should feel for the injustices we witness in schools and in society when there are so many complex factors at play such as widening income inequality, segregated schools and communities, a national narrative that breeds intolerance for immigrants, Muslims, poor people and so on. Implicit bias exists, however we need to understand that our minds are so fragile and conditioned by the prevailing narratives of our time. Our nature may be altruistic, but how often do we act in alignment with our true nature? What gets in the way of truth?

Teaching is an act of love. It is revelation. It is the total nurture of the mind, body and spirit of humanity. It is a craft to be taken on with compassion. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, the majority of teachers go into the teaching profession for altruistic reasons. It is a calling for most.

This June, I hope that as you make sense of this socially, emotionally and spiritually challenging year, that you do not stray too far from your purpose. Rest up. Then visualize yet another iteration of yourself; a self that is One and in the same image as all other human beings, because tomorrow we will come together again.

We are still here and there is much work to be done.

____________________

[1] Pfaff, Donald W. (2015) The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good. Oxford University Press, 2015

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.