Moving from Mindfulness to Advocacy

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“In its position on The Gates of Hell, The Thinker occupies the center of the lintel and presides over the figures of the damned that populate the doors below. Behind him a chaotic dance of death takes place. He sits apart, stripped of clothing, and no symbol remains to assist us in his identification. He is perhaps the poet, the creator, the judge, the sculptor – all of these or none.” The Thinker, Rodin, The MET, NYC

Yesterday I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I meandered into a long, rectangular room until I was face to face with Rodin’s most famous work, The Thinker. It was a smallish sculpture that hovered over three others, each triple in size. To the left, there was Adam who seemed to be emerging. To the right Eve who hid her face in shame. Between them, a group of male bodies called The Three Shades. When I approached the tiny inscription on the wall, I learned that The Thinker belongs to a greater, albeit unfinished masterpiece called The Gates of Hell.

I was stunned. All these years, I never knew. The Thinker is the central figure of a bigger vision! A chaotic dance of death and multiple figures of the damned. What is the purpose of this Thinker? I ask myself.  I had arrived at the museum fixated on another question which I realized was sort of the same: How do we move from mindfulness to transforming our world through education?

According to Dr. Chris Goto-Jones in a course he designed called, Politics of Mindfulness, the mindfulness revolution which is led primarily by white, middle class Americans, does not require any particular change in values or economic systems, but simply involves our becoming able to relate to them differently—with more patience, gentleness and compassion. Further he adds, for a ‘revolution,’ this movement seems to show remarkable conservatism.

In the field of education, I have often observed how the mindfulness movement for teachers and schools is about coping with stress. It can be interpreted as an individual therapeutic device or a way to accept (albeit with compassion and awareness) the way things are.

In my view, there is something missing in this perception of mindfulness. For me mindfulness is a spiritual act, one that leads to reciprocal transformation. It is an act of Conscientious Engagement that engenders courage, advocacy, seeking out and defending truth. As intended by ancient wisdom and tradition of Buddhism—mindfulness is about freedom from suffering for the self and for all living beings. That is because mindfulness leads to enlightenment which is the full destruction of any illusion of duality—in other words, there is no “other.” Freedom, in my mind, can never be an individual state , but rather only exists in community.

What is the value of The Thinker in society? A poet, a writer, a teacher, for example—a person who makes a life out of reflecting on knowledge, on interrogating our purpose as human beings, engaging with extremely complex topics in such a way that we can evolve and grow. This is at the heart of education, isn’t it, the passing on knowledge, skills, values, and beliefs from one generation to the next? What is the value we place on education?

I am asking these questions not just because of the recent proposed 9.2 billion dollar cut to the education budget, but because we are living in a world that is increasingly driven by dramatic, public displays of Actions that beg us to reflect on what we value—

Politicians grandstanding, television cameras taping, Twitter feeds feeding, soldiers fighting, angry people protesting, police arresting, bombs bursting, madmen hating, guns killing, teenagers drinking, escape pills popping, campaigns circulating, business deals signing, stocks investing, prison guards guarding, retirees redecorating, shoppers consuming, birthdays at Disney…

After a long time of feeling lost in chaotic thoughts, I step back from The Thinker and I accidentally crash into a mother wearing a hijab. She is holding the hand of her young daughter who looks about six. My sandal almost pops off so I bend down to fix it. When I stand up to regain my balance, the mother apologizes several times and she scurries away, her beautiful daughter looking back at me with luminous eyes. In that instant, I remember who and where I am. My mind flashes back to that time when I was waiting to meet a principal in a small Bronx elementary school. At the center of her office there was a small round table surrounded by books. One book was propped up in the center so I grabbed it and read it. It was called, What Do You Do With An Idea?

I was transformed. By the time the principal arrived, I was soft-hearted, open and clear minded. Any school leader with this book at the center of her office, on a child sized table matters deeply to our society. Without knowing anything more about her, I loved her and her role in the world instantly.

This year I published a book. And even though my writing miraculously found its way out into the world thanks to my editor at Routledge, I still sometimes get a little lost. It’s so easy to forget one’s whole journey, one’s purpose. Who am I and do my words and actions matter?

My goal for writing the book was to provide a guide for others like me to move from thinking and mindfulness to action, to develop every day practices that matter in the real world of schools and institutions, always keeping equity in mind. I believe that we can build an egalitarian society if we can envision it but I am not sure if everybody believes this is possible and if they do, they may not know how to be proactive. Sometimes, I feel we are fragmented…those who sit in meditation and do yoga and believe in small acts of kindness and those who are riled up, rightly angry and speak out passionately against injustice. What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!

How do we pull these worlds together? Do we share the same language, the same dream?

I also believe we are each equipped with a divine intelligence to move us in the direction of unity. Sometimes, it’s easy to get lost, to forget our power, to know what we do and say matters very much in the world, be we are very equipped for greatness. We will move beyond this.

In my book I discuss six principles that I envision will help us move from mindfulness to transforming our institutions in society, starting with education organizations and schools. I outline in detail the rationale for these principles and provide real world examples of the practice. It is just a beginning. Moving forward, I will rely on each and every one of you, those of you in the field, to share back, to respond, to help keep building this new language and an understanding for this important work.

Take a look first.

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The Language of Agency for Equity

“Industrious and conscientiousness are often at odds with one another because industriousness wants to pluck the fruit from the tree while it is sour, whereas conscientiousness lets it hang too long until it falls and smashes itself to pieces.”

~Frederick Neitzsche, Human, All Too Human, A Book for Free Spirits

This week we celebrated Martin Luther King Day, the inauguration and the Women’s March. On all occasions, the power of language and words came front and center and I am reminded again and again of how much our use of language can either obfuscate an audience or inspire people to speak truth even in the face of power.

President Trump, for example, tweeted John Lewis is a man of no action and only talk, talk, talk. But just a few days later, these were the words that characterized his first talk to the Nation:

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In a recent article in the National by Joseph Dana, he describes the power of language and words to manipulate:

Mr Trump, a thin-skinned political novice who has lied so consistently in his political career that he has rendered his words meaningless, is such a person. Through his rejection of facts and aggression towards the mainstream press, Mr Trump is inculcating the American people with the idea that belief systems outweigh rational thoughts and discourse.

How are we supposed to trust our leaders and hold fast to moral clarity if we are constantly being manipulated by words and language? Further how can we combat irrational thought when we are told in some cases that words are meaningless and that there is this thing called “alternative facts,” while in other cases, words hold us accountable such as in our legal documents, however old and outdated they might be?

I did find solace for a moment watching Amy Goodman who played one of Dr. King’s old speeches. It was from 1964. I was amazed to find that Dr. King spoke about how we can twist words to mask our intentions or act for our convenience:

“I would like to mention one or two ideas that circulate in our society—and they probably circulate in your society and all over the world—that keep us from developing the kind of action programs necessary to get rid of discrimination and segregation. One is what I refer to as the myth of time. There are those individuals who argue that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice in the United States, in South Africa or anywhere else; you’ve got to wait on time. And I know they’ve said to us so often in the States and to our allies in the white community, “Just be nice and be patient and continue to pray, and in 100 or 200 years the problem will work itself out.” We have heard and we have lived with the myth of time. The only answer that I can give to that myth is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I must honestly say to you that I’m convinced that the forces of ill will have often used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And we may have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around saying, “Wait on time.”

And somewhere along the way it is necessary to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always ripe to do right. This is so vital, and this is so necessary.”

What does this word mean, Time?  What do you or I attach to this notion of Time and even, the word Patience? An examination of our words is so critical to our collective consciousness and understanding of what we stand for, especially if we want to take this notion of Time and translate it to real Action. At the Women’s March with my daughter, we were surrounded by words on placards and we were simultaneously immersed in the flow of an enormous movement. Both words and actions matter.

Teachers use and teach words every day. We use words to learn, to inspire, to share, to communicate.  We also want our Actions to be aligned to the words that we say. In my forthcoming book, Teacher Agency for Equity: A Framework for Conscientious Engagement (Routledge, 2017), I talk about this notion of language and words as being a reflection of our inner thoughts or streams of consciousness as educators. I argue that we have to be aware of how we communicate with each other and how through our language we can often confuse or misdirect our agency for equity. In my book, I ask teachers to consider the type of language that is required of a teacher who is committed to fighting for equity, who sees herself as a change agent and to consider her audience when she speaks. What type of words should teachers use when talking to their colleagues about ruly students and what types of words should she use when speaking to students directly?  Do our words and language change when addressing a parent, or when we are in offices with school leaders during an evaluation? Or even—what language characterizes who we are in our personal and private space on the weekends with our friends and families, our churches, temple or the mosque–and how does this impact who we are in the school building on Monday?

In my career, I have come in contact with many teachers, school leaders and education consultants who acknowledge the strange intersection of separate worlds in schools and in our communities but may not be aware of how our every day language and words may communicate mixed messages about what it means to advocate for equity in education and are we expressing the same value for all perspectives, and all human beings?

There is a great challenge that we face in education and it has to do with Martin Luther King’s notion of Time. I want us to be clear that there is a time when its good to sit still in Mindful Inquiry and Reflection but there is also a time when we must take Decisive Action and radically change a Practice or Policy. I want us to be clear about how easy it is for us to channel our energy in ways that stifle agency and progress for equity. I want us to be clear about when is the right time to say, “Now!” And dig in our heals until we see an immediate shift in priorities. I want us to practice saying “No,” and saying, “This is not okay.”

In my writing and instructional design, I am preoccupied with how we can be the architect of bridges across worlds with our words, language and interactive activities that when done well and with care, have the power and potential to pull us together for a common good in education. I often worry that we still project to others a subtle expectation that for some people in society, they should be patient and wait, even though we are in the midst of this fast wave towards a very ominous future, a future that is quickly defining our social, cultural and political landscape.

I do believe it is important to examine how we got here and I believe in our collective Spirit to move us in the right direction. But, still—I worry. I worry that we sometimes get confused about the power of words and language on our thinking and we forget how much power we have as teachers to make a difference in the streams of consciousness of the children we teach. I don’t want teachers and school leaders to stay transfixed and silent, but I also want them to choose their words and language very carefully.

Words and language matter. Pay attention to what you say, how you say it and to whom you are speaking. Words and language are a real reflection of your inner world, your beliefs and your emotional landscape. Check in with yourself and see to it that you manifest through words and language what you truly envision for our future.