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