Saturday, July 18, 2015

Common Core Dissonance 101 & the Age of Cyborgs

Tightly squeezed into a round table during a week-long Common Core institute, I float in and out of semi-conscious paralysis reminiscent of the last time I was called to jury duty. After what feels like hours (which could very well have been mere minutes), my body shifts out from under the blanket of limbo-ness and lands into a wild wave like spasm of irritability, which quickly escalates into anxiety then disgust. The descent is fast and my internal organs shake as if I’m going down on an old rickety roller coaster. I look around to find cool eyes and eager faces and wonder if I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  

It’s a drone of a lesson that transports me into a first-world-third-world classroom where students (probably high school) are desperately trying to cope with the onslaught of eight-hours a day in front of a supercilious, factory style TA (teacher professional in training) in an oppressive school designed to fix (sorry, I mean save) poor students.

Common Core Dissonance 101. According to the online Oxford dictionary, dissonance arises in the event of a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.

Education ≠ education.

After all, CCSS is supposed to be about critical thinking, embracing multiple pathways for problem solving, collaboration and other neatly defined career ready/21st century skills. Yet somehow these elements are strangely missing from the institute.

I escape the room with my smart phone in hand desperately texting with my now clumsy fingers due to the aftermath of toxic brain shocks. I see a big round clock in the corner that tells me how much time I have. I’m on the job, I think. While my mind races over a number of plausible excuses that could get me out of the next module I think about all the young people who cut class and hide themselves in bathroom stalls. I consider slipping out the back door but aware of my current identity, I choose the bathroom. I wash my already clean hands hard and take stock of my feelings. As I do, feelings slip outside of me all over the floor like rogue Slinkys and I get down on my hands and knees desperately trying to shove them back into the neat color coded box I kept them in labeled F.N.P (Future Novel Project) I think I do a good job but I get the feeling later I must have left hope and joy there. I leave the bathroom thinking hard. I lean inconspicuously against a wall and breathe deeply.  In my breath, I watch my life’s work float out of my head like a balloon. It hits up against the glass ceiling and bounces as if there is a wind somewhere keeping it high. That’s when I ask myself, What am I becoming?

No one will argue reading multiple sources will help a child draw out deeper meaning on a topic or that rigorous, collaborative tasks are better than closed answers and multiple choice. It’s not the common core, I fear, it’s the how we are doing education in this country. It’s the internal mechanism, the co-option of terms like social justice and equity, the taking over of buildings and rechanneling funding. It’s the business of selling a product that will sell well because it is a monopoly, it’s complexity separating teachers from the real world of students, it’s demonizing unions, the normalization of segregated thinking always thinking black and white, reducing children to data bytes and ruminating over and over again, what we should do with kids in poverty as if kids in poverty are drowning and we have some magical special sauce that can save them. It’s the business of orchestrating and commoditizing human beings.

But none of that matters.

I slip back into the class, my footsteps pillow soft. The drone flies under my radar like a radioactive field and attacks every cell in my frontal cortex. Our robopresenter creates complexity and mystery around topics that should be simple, practical and open for shared inquiry. She is a robomagician. I’m struggling now to live in the narrowing parenthesis of my mind, that safe space between yes and no that I told myself could protect me from being at-risk, or worse yet, implicated. A tiny echo reminds me that poor people are exempt because we are concerned with survival and that’s different. Maslow is so far away and I can hardly remember the research behind it, or maybe there was no research and it was all a figment of my imagination, that thing called self-realization.

I fight for my imagination by focusing on the robopresenter who literally transforms into a doll made of metal. Her blank stare, the repetition of her words, the inability to respond emotionally to her audience all makes sense now. There is some fun in this for a while. Then I whisper to a colleague and we share a second of freedom, but it doesn’t last long. Robopresenter is driven entirely by inputs and streams of data and she zooms in on us. I pity her and admire her at the same time, her ability to memorize. How boring it must be to be her. I disconnect by dehumanizing her further and this separation allows me to extrapolate meaning from what otherwise might have been a void. I want to live and she is death so I hate her.

Robopresenter says, we need to dig a little deeper. Her hand curls up in a half ball as if she is digging into soil that is magically floating in the middle of the conference room.  We’ve been digging deeper all day but I find nothing. The emptiness of digging when you know there is nothing to find is so much worse than hopeful digging or not digging at all. Every word, activity, tool, is an illusion. New education talk snuffs out truth, like Styrofoam snuffs out sound so that you can’t even recognize it anymore.

Why are we building more and more layers that separate teacher from the child? I see this monstrous wall that prevents any true meeting of human beings. Why do we create so many barriers and obstacles for teachers to love students? What might happen if teachers saw their students as children, like their own, with nothing between them but deep love and commitment to their well being?

It’s been a few hours, days now. I look down at my hand and instead of veins, I find tiny wires curling up through my forearm that reach my shoulders that begin to push back like a soldier. The new wired nerves in my neck stretch my mouth into a smile and I watch my arm raise. Oh, dear. Am I? Am I a cyborg? Robopresenter calls on me. She is pleased with my active participation and we make eye contact for the first time and there is a twinkle, a knowing. I thought she was dead but in this dimension she responds differently. I’ve entered her world. When did I step out of that safe space called, yes and no?

I admit, the rumble in my guts has subsided. I feel better now. My teacher compliments me. Other students in the room nod and I am feeling the warmth of belonging. My sore ass and fragmented brain begin to re-wire themselves so quickly that now my buttocks is equipped for several more hours of sitting.  My brain is elastic and stiff, greater toxic retention and stored with passivity complex.

I am an educator of the new age, getting paid to unlearn everything I’ve ever learned about learning. I am learning to think differently everyday. My life’s mission is to save children, teach them that struggle and hard work is productive.  We have to work doubly hard if we want a ticket into the American dream. I am a teacherhero who with the Common Core under my belt, can undo hunger and shoot PTSD in the face until it’s annihilated.

I am a warrior.

I feel better now.

Monday, June 29, 2015

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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Everyday Practice

“The world may be flat as Friedman (2006) wrote, for the corporate elite, but for the rest of us— the -workers, the teachers, the wage-earners, those of us without stock options, lobbyists—the world is as round and inhibiting as ever.” Paul Gorski

In 2009, I hosted a Round Table dialogue in Harlem which brought together a group of educators to discuss the question: How can we bring together people across race and class to work together for change in education policy and practice?  The dialogue included a reading and text-based discussion about an article written by Van Jones, Civil Rights Advocate and winner of the 2008 Puffin/Nation prize for Creative Citizenship.  I was very interested in how this diverse group of people from various social networks would interact with each other in this unique space with an open-ended, exploratory task in front of them. Several insights surfaced as a result of this dialogue that I’d like to revisit today. Perhaps you might find these points salient in your own work as you try to build authentic professional relationships when conflicts rooted in race, class, religion & equity are hot topics found daily on the front page.

One of the first insights is grounding conversations about diversity and equity in a text is a powerful tool. Responding to a piece of research or literature keeps participants focused on the key issues and it provides an outside voice. This outside voice becomes a resource from the field that can offer a different perspective that the group might otherwise miss but is critical to the topic at hand. Even with the best intentions, dialogues about diversity and equity can easily go astray without the right grounding.

Second, taking the time out to have a face-to-face dialogue has purpose and value especially now when it’s so easy to meet on-line. The digital age can make the world feel small and accessible but it can also create socio-emotional distance and a false sense of neutrality. There is no such thing as neutrality in authentic dialogues about diversity and equity because this topic involves our sense of self, our understanding of the world and others and equity is about the unequal distributions of resources. That means, authentic conversations of this nature will inevitable result in a visceral response. Trust is required in order to get at the real issues that drive diversity and equity policy and practice and participants need to feel that they can disrupt the silence and declare the elephant in the room.  This messiness is necessary which is why we call them courageous conversations. It was Nietzsche who said, one must have chaos in order to give birth to a dancing star. Face-to-face dialogue communicates a deep commitment to the work because it requires more time and investment from the participants and the sponsor of the dialogue itself. It also creates the the conditions for non-verbal energies to be shared. Although not impossible, this important element of authentic relationship building can be tricky to manufacture over the computer.

Thirdly, the coming together of a really diverse group of people spanning different networks, fields, titles, races, classes, ages, genders and so on, is a rare and valuable experience. More often than not we interact with those who have a similar world view, work status, field of study or social group. How often do we have the opportunity to talk intimately around a table with a group of folks who only have that one purpose (the dialogue!) in common? If you can create this mixed group, you will see a powerful dynamic emerge. But beware. People bring their identities into the room and often we err on trying to ignore or downplay these unspoken political alliances, privileges or affinities. In order for mixed groups to engage authentically for a common purpose, each individual needs to explicitly acknowledge his or her role in society and how that might impact how they see the world and their relationship to others in the room. Doing this alone can help the group transcend real world roles and engage authentically.  

It has been seven years since that round table dialogue and unfortunately, I’ve not seen much change with regards to equity in the field of education.  Some might even argue that things have gotten worse. Segregated schools & communities are the norm in most states which translates into egregious conditions for some and extreme wealth and access for others. Thankfully I have noticed a growing body of scholarship that speaks out on the need to focus on the process rather than on content. In other words, it’s not what you know, it’s how you communicate with others and develop innovative ways to solve problems. If we are ever going stop this cycle of disparities in education, we need to engage with each other differently in the work place. It’s the everyday practices that define us and give us insight into what it means to be conscientious in today’s society. 

Educators are hungry for authenticity. Paul Gorski describes our current state of being as something of a continuum between compliance and complicity.[1] If he is correct, then there is an urgent call to be daringly different.

[1] Gorski, P (2008) Good intentions are not enough: a decolonizing intercultural education. Intercultural Education, 19:6, 515-525

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Paradox of Diversity

In 1985 when I was fifteen, I arrived to the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. On the first day, I was told to attend a welcoming event. My mother had gotten back on the train to New York City and I was left alone to start meeting people. I was nervous. This was the beginning of a very important opportunity. I had been given a chance to learn in one of the ‘elite’ schools in the country, which would put me on the path to an Ivy League university, and eventually a successful career in society.  When I arrived at the location, I found a group of approximately twenty-five male and female African American students and two Latino boys.  It was the minority group who had been recruited for having demonstrated academic achievement, many of them in spite of their socio-economic status. Some had gotten in through programs such as A Better Chance and some were well off, but frankly at that time I couldn’t really tell. Then, I could only look around the room confused. There were no Chinese or Korean. No Indians or Jews. No one from the Middle East. No Irish or Italians. No whites. The group looked nothing like the multicultural New York City that was until then my real America. Back then multiculturalism and diversity did not mean just brown people. I felt very alone in that room. I wondered where the other students were and what kind of welcoming they got on their first day. I wondered if I'd have anything in common with these students since these were the only ones I was being told to socialize with.

That was the first time I felt the sting of difference. It was socially constructed and it was real and new to me. In retrospect I realize I was sheltered from the real pain of our segregated history but that sheltering gave me something that so many of us have lost. It gave me a sense of entitlement and belonging, not as a minority but as a citizen of the American community.  Much later as an adult, I learned that these types of minority welcoming events come from good intentions. It’s a way for elite schools to create a safe space for children of color. It is part of a philosophy that socialization is just as important as academic achievement. How could the school imagine that this same welcoming event that made so many feel at home would make someone like me feel terribly alone? Was it strange to feel I could relate to any of the kids at the school, without putting heritage or social class before their dispositions? Was it strange that I considered myself first and foremost an honest girl with a precocious personality and that the thoughts in my head or the types of books that I liked defined me more than anything?

How do good intentions around diversity and equity go astray? How might our efforts translate into the perpetuation of the very biases and assumptions we are trying to eradicate? In my case, a school’s good intentions ended up setting the stage for events that pushed me to leave the academy early. In spite of my parents’ supplications, I left Exeter in search of an education experience that would speak to my social and emotional intelligence as well further my academic achievement. I never did go to an Ivy League but Exeter left a fire in my belly that became the driving force behind my life’s work. Building knowledge and authentic praxis for diversity, community and equity.  How can we build community and equity in a diverse world through education? What does it mean to engage in authentic relationships in education so that we can transcend the social constructs of difference towards a shared humanity?

According to Kenan Malik, the meaning of words related to diversity and equity are constantly being transformed. Depending on the moment, historical context and socio-political shifts, equality for example becomes not simply about equal rights or possessing the same rights but the right to possess different rights appropriate to difference communities. In other words, what are we talking about-- the right to be the same or the right to be different? Malik argues that political struggles across ethnic or cultural divisions will inevitably fragment our thinking and create more divisiveness because allegiance to certain groups in the socio-political context is often translated to funding, resources and access to opportunity. Cultural identity therefore can enforce the notion of difference because groups will assert their particular identity more fiercely if they are competing for limited resources. What would it look like if we considered a collective language of citizenship?[1]

Helen Trumbull, CEO of Human Facets argues that we are all human but we are all different. We are alike some more than others and have a natural affinity towards those we believe are part of our inner circle. She argues that in fact, the neuropathways we use when we think about ourselves are the same neuropathways we use when we think about those in our ‘group’ causing us to be more empathetic and sympathetic to some vs. feelings of indifference to the success or failure of others. Dr. David Rock describes these same phenomena in his theory of relatedness.[2] The decision that someone is a friend or a foe happens quickly and impacts brain functioning. (Carter & Pelphrey, 2008). When someone is perceived as a foe, different circuits of the brain are used as the body generates a threat response. If that is the case, human beings are dealing with deep neurological shifts when dealing with those they perceive to be different. How does our understanding of neuroscience challenge our thinking as we attempt to build a new language around collective citizenship? How can we build authentic relationships across different groups understanding these challenges? Can we practice a different type of engagement with others in order to mitigate these challenges and in doing so; build a different language and praxis that will impact thinking & perceptions for the next generations?

It seems to me that we are caught in the perennial what comes first, the chicken or the egg dilemma. We’re not sure if the language we use controls our thinking, perceptions and by extension our relationships in a diverse world (which we are now able to see in the functioning of the brain) or if the anatomy of the brain dictates how we develop language and social constructs that determine who and how we build relationships in a diverse world. I think it’s a little of both and we are dealing with a pernicious feedback loop. Fortunately, like all feedback loops, it can be altered.

First, we must heighten our awareness of how language and social constructs impact our thinking and our relationships. When we teach children the language of race (having them check the appropriate box, for example on a birth certificate or school form) then we are wiring them to think this construct called race is a predetermining factor in their identity and how they will be seen, judged, responded to, analyzed by society. After we are aware of these constructs and how pernicious they can be on the psychology of human beings, then we need to make a conscientious decision to engage with ourselves and others differently, outside the confines of socially constructed identity frameworks and language choices that constrict our thinking and by extension behavior. This is where we find the ultimate ‘paradox of diversity.’ We want to intervene in the face of injustice which to some extent requires an analysis of racial disparities and yet, the very fragmentation of this process is what perpetuates for each generation similar conditions.  

How do we begin to develop and advocate for language and practices that value a shared humanity, a global citizenship, a universal belonging? One of the strategies I suggest in my work is to provide the members of your school or organization with multiple ongoing opportunities to engage safely with individuals outside their traditional social networks so that they can consider how deeply we are interconnected and united. By deconstructing homogeneous groups and providing forums for meaningful, authentic exchange we can begin the arduous journey of finding something greater than our socially constructed identities. Only with access to multiple perspectives at all levels of an organization can we can begin to transform our language and practice for authentic community building.

Each of us can look back at our early educational experiences and find a story about belonging. Belonging is one of the fundamental human needs for survival. Each shared experience leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our higher purpose as a human race. We have arrived at a new and exciting stage in our human development where we have access through technology to people from all walks of life, each of us eager to share and debate issues that are so important to all of us globally. The paradox of diversity is not new but our understanding of it is evolving at rapid speeds. Approach diversity work from an interdisciplinary, holistic, loving perspective. Don’t be afraid to discuss the power inherent in language and diverse leadership, the social structures that perpetuate difference and the need to mix it up to reinvent and innovate how we relate to one another. Dare to make a difference by prioritizing multifaceted groups and giving a voice to the voiceless. These are the types of initiatives that have the most merit, the ones that emphasize our common humanity and a shared vision around a sustainable, equitable global community.

[1] Malik, K (2006) The Failures of Multiculturalism. Paper presented to the Engelsberg seminar on The Secular State and Society’ Avesta, Sweden
[2] Rock, D (2008) SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal

Friday, December 12, 2014

Entitlement: Knowing Your Place

In The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol wrote about the apartheid conditions of America’s public schools and begged educators and policy makers to do something about it. That was in 2006 and not much has changed. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared education ‘the civil rights issue of our generation’ however sub-standard education conditions continue to be the norm for low-income children of color, particularly for blacks and Latinos. Half of all black and Latino children grow up in or near poverty. Half of all black and Latino boys fail to graduate from high school. Fully two thirds of black men without a high school degree will serve time in prison as some point in their lives.[1] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 50.3 percent of students identify as black, Hispanic, Asian or another nonwhite ethnicity. White students no longer make up the majority of students in California and Texas.  In New York City, nonwhites make up somewhere between 58 and 65 percent (depending on whether Latinos identify themselves as white) and if we step back and consider the population of the globe, you will find that whites make up only 16 percent of the total population with Asians being the majority. With numbers like these, it becomes clear we need to consider our use of language in this country especially when it comes to the term minority. Putting a false label like minority on the majority acts as a pernicious mental barrier that blocks us from really unpacking the systemic and structural elements of white privilege and apartheid-like conditions of our schools.

The truth is if you are a Latino in New York City, for example (or a member of any of the ‘non-white’ ethnic groups) you can and should stop identifying yourself as a minority and should refuse to be labeled as such.  Furthermore, you should consider it an act of protest just a powerful if not more than laying down in Grand Central station with a placard on your chest. Changing the language we use in conversations around race, equity and human rights can and will get us closer to seeing the true nature of who we are as a society. Misleading labels perpetuate false notions of entitlement for some and second-class citizenry for others and tearing them down can heighten our perception of how we identify ourself and others as we struggle for sustainable change.

In response to the Eric Garner case in New York City, many whites across the nation communicated that it was the first time they felt an overwhelming sense of injustice. According to them, unlike other incidents of police brutality this was different because there was clearly no evidence to dispute the criminal nature of the killing. In the midst of outrage and protests that took hold of our city (in great part due to the connection with Ferguson events), I was confronted with mixed feelings about how to engage in constructive conversations around social justice and race particularly with educators. I thought a lot about Rebecca Klein and her article in the Huffington Post entitled A Majority of Students Entering School are Minorities While Most Teachers are Still White.  I realized that although I was in New York City and represented the majority in numbers, I was still perceived as a minority. How does this perception inhibit or strengthen my voice when I talk about injustice and equity?

The incongruence of being labeled a minority is magnified when my work with educators often takes place in all brown communities. I’ve noticed an overwhelming reticence to allow people of color to take ownership of an event and how it is shaped publicly even when the event has direct implications for communities of color and especially if the conversation can leverage a movement for equity. Freire calls this phenomena false generosity. False generosity is when a group of people who are historically seen as pedagogical authorities and hold leadership positions in the field who for all intents and purposes want to transform the unjust order but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation.[2]  Unless we see the relationship between power and language in society and examine who are positioned constantly in positions of leadership aka the ‘executors of transformation’— we are never going to make a change.  It is time we ask ourselves: What does equity “look” like rather than sound like?

There is a plethora of research behind the notion of power in language.  Using a term like minority to identify a person is a tool of power. There is also power in the notion of pedagogical authority— that is who we by default turn to for decision making. Who do we associate with critical thinking and strategic planning in our society? Who is the expert?

Refusing to use the label minority is about understanding  your  place. It is about entitlement and staking a claim in a situation with full confidence, determination and leadership. Entitlement is the precursor to agency. Without a feeling of entitlement, one cannot take action. Language and labels such as our antiquated use of the term minority can make those who are central to a situation feel marginalized and less equipped to act.

At a time when we are struggling to make sense of recent current events that remove blinders from our eyes and for educators in particular who work in schools that are microcosms of society— we need to consider different, long lasting forms of protest that will change how we see the world.  Reject false labels and challenge the language of status in society. Refuse to label yourself or others a minority or try seeing yourself as a minority if you are white and live in a city like New York.  Dare to change the conversation by engaging in the real practice of equity.

[1] Warren, M (2014) Transforming Public Education: The Need for an Educational Justice Movement. New England Journal of Public Policy: Vol.26: Iss1, Article 11.
[2] Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.94-95)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Critical Friendships for Diverse Leadership in Education

"If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" Hillel

            There is hope and indications of a new era of education politics in New York City, starting with Carmen Fariña the new chancellor who courageously speaks about trust as being one of the pillars for change. Cited as one of her six tenets—rigorous instruction, a supportive environment, collaborative teachers, effective leadership, strong family & community ties— building a culture of continuous learning and trust[1] seems to be the most pressing and the most complicated to achieve.
            Several years ago as a consultant working with a school in the South Bronx, I found the lack of trust alarming.  Teachers were nervous and afraid to openly discuss their professional development needs and deep concerns about the school. As an instructional mentor working from a socio-cultural and critical pedagogical lens, I was acutely aware of the need to build trust in order to get the information that would allow me to appropriately assess the situation and develop realistic goals, particularly critical for harried teachers charged with teaching poor, Latino and Black students. Furthermore, I needed to build trust with the administration in order to help them build capacity around this important work. No one can argue— trust is critical. The perception of trust and the practice of trust starts at the very top of an administration and will inevitably trickle down to the school, the teacher, the students and the greater community. How can we build and sustain trust in a diverse, economically polarized context riddled with complex political undercurrents, high stakes testing and standards transformation linked to teacher evaluations? What does trust look like and feel like for a critical Latina educator when Latino students are victim to the systemic across-the-board decline in educational achievement within our public education system and also suffer from English language hurdles, assimilation concerns, reduced expectations, and denied access to educational opportunities that exist for children of greater economic means?[2]
            Paulo Freire suggests that educators must constantly reflect on their pedagogy. There is growing interest in research on the obstacles to critical pedagogy in education, in particular. Critical pedagogy is the practice of looking at education as a tool to liberate oneself and others from social injustice & oppressive conditions. Freire calls one obstacle false generosity.[3] False generosity is when a group of people who are historically seen as pedagogical authorities and hold leadership positions in the field who for all intents and purposes want to transform the unjust order but “because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change.[4]
            Dr. Frank Bonilla, an educator and scholar who founded the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, wrote in 1964 “It is also vital and legitimate to fight poverty not only by spending public funds on the poor but by dedicating part of such funds to work among the non-poor employers, landlords, educators, government officials, politicians, labor leaders, and others whom the poor accept as leaders. Because the poor have the capacity to help themselves through the exercise of organizational, political, and social skills, they are to be mobilized and actively incorporated into the planning and execution of programs for self-help.”[5] 
            Prioritizing diverse leadership in the field of education is central to building trust when we consider the dearth of educators and teacher educators of color. In the department of education’s latest school staffing survey, 82% identified themselves as white compared to 50.3% of students who identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian or other non-white ethnicity.[6]  These numbers are alarming, but why stress diverse leadership and not just push for a more diverse teacher force? And, what is the role of critical friendships in building trust?
            Dr. Xaé Alicia Reyes, Professor of Education and Puerto Rican and Latino Studies writes “In the current climate in the U.S. accountability and high stakes testing are the driving forces for funding at the k-12 level and in higher education. There is universal acceptance for the belief that equal access to education is a human right, but the enforcement of these rights is often disregarded in political debates. Funding for curriculum development, for academic support for students and for professional development for staff is contingent on competitive grants whose continuity is based on performance outcomes. In order to carry out their missions, schools of education at universities and colleges must secure funding. These dynamics translate into an ethos of incentives and rewards for [those] who are most skillful in obtaining funding and producing scholarship creating a challenge for underprivileged communities in k-12 context and university faculty from underrepresented groups, namely Blacks and Latinos.”[7] 
            Structural and pedagogical change is required if we are to build trust around the vision of equity in education. If our aim is to address the growing achievement gap and to ameliorate our service to all students, a shift in praxis at every level of the organization must take precedence. Talking about diversity, equity, social justice, access, and language acquisition cannot be just talking points or content items in a curriculum created by those who are considered pedagogical authorities but don’t represent the community.  Whole systems, from top to bottom must reflect the real world we live in so that students of color can begin to identify themselves with scholarship, professionalism and the teaching profession in particular.  Diverse leadership will not only begin to change the conversation, it will provide higher level salaries for people of color who are more often than not straddled with economic hardships. Furthermore, diversity in leadership will over time change our perception of who we believe to be achievers in society and who is not.
            An expanded meaning of a Critical Friendship across race, class, ethnicity, religion and gender is crucial as we consider diverse leadership in education. A critical friend is a powerful idea. A critical friend comes closest to a true friend friendship because it’s a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.[8] The role of the critical friend in the broader sense is to be a trusted person who will ask provocative questions and offer helpful critiques.[9] Critical Friendship with diversity and equity in mind includes behaviors that Francis Kendall defines as an ally. An ally is making a commitment to the critical friendship across race, class, religion or gender with the intent of advocating for and operationalizing a commitment to equity and social justice. Allies, according to Kendall publicly and privately align themselves with underrepresented and/or targeted groups and respond to their needs. They are also equally committed to exploring through ongoing dialogue what it means to have privilege or not in our society. Allies advocate for this person and for organizational change in collaboration and individually amongst their own peers of equal status. Allies make a commitment to open doors that have historically been closed to people of color, poor people or those who have been marginalized in the field.[10]
            In order to access leadership opportunities, those who are in positions of power need to expand their understanding of how to recruit and retain diverse leadership talent. Diverse leadership talent will come in unexpected ways because diverse leaders will often come with unconventional resumes and demeanors that might have been developed over time to withstand socio-political obstacles or might be attached to their particular culture, religion or background. These leaders may come off as hardened, independent or too ‘critical’ of systems thinking. They might be bold and passionate about equity from the start because, who knows more about poverty or oppressive conditions than those who have experienced it themselves? Diverse leaders will often speak from the heart and struggle to control emotionalism because they are not talking about the future of other people’s children but the future of their own children.  Since these are the very things we want to leverage from these leaders in order to navigate the complex terrain of transformational shifts in education—passion, innovation, independence, and out of the box thinking—critical friendships with a diversity and equity lens is necessary. 
            Critical Friends are the folks on the ‘inside’ who advocate and support new diverse leaders while they begin to develop trusting relationships on their own. Critical Friends offer trust first and at the very start of the relationship because the risk involved coming into a status quo system as a change agent is much greater than for the ally.  Critical Friends make sure new diverse leaders are given appropriate titles and compensation and not be expected to ‘demonstrate’ their worth if they have already demonstrated scholarship, experience and/or credentials in other related domains. It is important we honor the level of professionalism in the field and not expect people to continuously start over each time there is a transition. Imagine a doctor with ten years’ experience returning to a resident status at a new hospital?  This point is particularly poignant for people of color because people of color and those who belong to marginalized groups are historically given non-leadership positions until they ‘prove’ themselves and build trust while their white/privileged counterparts get positions of leadership at the start because of association with professional and/or personal networks. Even so, new diverse leaders will need time to grow and acclimate themselves within the position and learn the ropes without the fear of losing the job.  Consequently, critical friends with equity and diversity in mind are part of the process of empowering and advocating for the person and the role they play within the organization for an extended period of time, if not indefinitely.
            Many organizations focus on attracting a diverse group of employees, but then struggle with retaining the right talent. Organizations with a highly diverse workforce that do not pay attention to an inclusive environment are likely to be more dysfunctional than organizations without a diverse staff. Research suggests that the answer lies not so much in policies and procedures as in the mindset of leaders in creating a culture that is inclusive.[11] If we are honest with ourselves the model of leadership has been largely based on white protestant males. Therefore, as people from different backgrounds break through barriers, we must consider if they are being asked to play within the traditional frame or being given the full chance to effect change as leaders.[12] Critical friends play an integral role in developing and retaining diverse leaders in order for substantial change in practice and mindsets to take place.
          The National Urban Fellows (NUF) convened a series of national and regional leadership diversity summits during its 40th anniversary year, with the goal of shifting the national leadership paradigm to include leadership models found in diverse communities, to embrace collective approaches and to define a new institutional diversity standard. The Research Center for Leadership in Action at NYU Wagner is working closely with NUF to develop knowledge and research on diverse leadership. The following are seven relevant findings[13] that summarize their work and underscore the need to develop critical friendships in the field of education that advocate for and support diverse leadership:
  • We need more empirical work to unpack how diversity impacts the organization and its members
  • There is no one size that fits all approach so diversity requires more leadership rather than management solutions
  • Scholars agree that there needs to be more commitment from leadership and with more holistic approaches
  • There is a need to equip people and organizations. Nurturing people without looking at the organization is not enough.
  • Diversity is not about race but is a testament to adaptability and other competencies required in a more complex, changing environment
  • Most gains or progress in diversity are in the workforce, not in leadership
  • There is much less research and evidence about leaders of color in the not-for-profit sector than in the public and private sector
            This is an exciting time for educators across the country as we feel a growing sense of urgency around equity in education and especially in New York City. As we move ahead we need to take the time to think deeply about how we can build trust in the education community and advocate for structures and behaviors that will support the development of diverse leadership. If we look at recent trends, we will see an emphasis on preventative measures to address the persistent inequalities in education such as the need to invest in early education. Similarly, we should take a critical look at the other end of the spectrum where we find talented educational leaders from diverse and marginalize backgrounds that are equally at risk. We need to recruit, retain and support these professionals if we are going to address equity in education at the structural and pedagogical level.

[3] Duncan-Andrade & Morrell (2008) The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools.
[4] Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.94-95)
[5] Bonilla, R. (1964) Rational for a Culturally Based Program of Action for Against Poverty Among New York Puerto Ricans
[6] Klein, R. (2014) A Majority of Students Entering School This Year are Minorities While Most Teachers are Still White. Huffington Post.
[7] Reyes, X.A. (2010) Educational Equity and Access as Universal Human Rights: Effects on Teacher Education in the U.S., International Online Journal of Educational Sciences 2 (1), 1-20
[8] MacBeth, J. (2002)The Role and Value of a Critical Friend. No Quick Fixes: Perspectives on School in Difficulty, Chapter 9
[9] Costa, A. & Kallick, B. (1993) Through the Lens of a Critical Friend. Educational Leadership 51 (2)
[10] Kendall, F. (2003) How to Be an Alley if You Are a Person of Privilege.
[11] Janakiraman, M (2011) Inclusive Leadership: Critical for a Competitive Advantage. Berlitz Cultural Insights Series
[12] Banks, K.H. (2010) Race Matters: Deconstructing Race and Identity. Diversity Leadership in Psychology Today
[13] (2011) Leadership, Diversity and Inclusions: Insights from Scholarship. Research Center for Leadership in Action