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?

We Need Evolutionary Teachers: A Growing Consciousness

The impact of the presidential campaign and transition of power have resulted in large-scale social movements mobilizing women, teachers and school leaders to consider our work for equity. Over the last two decades, we have narrowed our focus on closing ‘achievement gaps’ and collecting data at the expense of examining the very foundation of how we do teaching and schooling in America. Now is the time for us to be responsive to the cry out for change. Now is a good time to look at the character of our schools and our role as teachers and change agents. How can we ensure our schools are sanctuaries for peace, equity and democracy?

One of the important tasks ahead of us is building systems, structures and practices that truly reflect the values of equity and democracy. As an in-service teacher educator and instructional designer, I wonder how we can best support teachers and school leaders to stand firm in their commitment to truth, shared responsibility and care for the well-being of all human beings? No one can argue that we are facing the greatest challenges of our time such a global warming, rising income inequality, war and terrorism and the privatization of our public spaces.

I am also deeply concerned with how we can help our teachers shift their attention away from spectacle and rhetoric that debilitates us through divisiveness and pay greater attention to our collective wisdom about what it means to work for equity. In my forthcoming book, Teacher Agency for Equity: A Framework for Conscientious Engagement (Routledge Press, 2017), I argue that we need to stop action for actions sake and take the time to examine and develop a new agency for equity in light of our failure to realize these goals. In addition to critically analyzing our context, we need to consider our inner thoughts, our use of language, the complexity of our professional relationships and how we often channel energy in ways that leave us exhausted without any real change.

Our school system and communities often divided by race, class and ideologies perpetuate bias and politically driven decision-making. These divisions are a manifestation of something deeper, a consciousness that is based on rivalry, fear and compartmentalization. Schools and whole communities that are divided by race and class in areas where there is sufficient diversity should not be acceptable in the 21st century. The way we distribute resources should not be acceptable either. More importantly, the election of a President that based his campaign on divisive rhetoric targeting very specific groups must be seen as a red flag in the education community that we are fundamentally lacking in holistic, critical thinking.

There are very important matters we must address if we are to consider schools the foundation of a healthy democracy and a place where all children flourish. Without prioritizing the time and space to dialogue about these matters in groups that cut across race, class and ideology—we can not ensure that we are in fact working together to build a culture of tolerance, inclusivity and critical mindfulness.

In my experience as an educator over the last fifteen years, I have learned that grappling with tough questions that pertain to education are not easy for teachers and school leaders. I am referring to questions that reveal our personal values, feelings about race and racism, the notion of equity and poverty. These types of questions surface fears, our shame and attachment to identity. Many teachers and school leaders wonder if they are positioned in society to do anything about these big issues when their roles are clearly defined by compliance and market driven expectations. However, teachers and school leaders know that they are at the epicenter of all social and cultural movements. They know these big questions are at the heart of the work we do every day. So, how are we to manage this angry sea of conflicting ideologies and stay focused on what matters for equity?

First, we must turn our attention to the hard work in front of us. In doing so, we will realize that we are hungry to step up to the challenge. As demonstrated at the Women’s March, we are ready to give voice to our concerns, our fears, our shameful thoughts, our suffering and confusion about these perennial issues that continue to plague our society such as race and poverty and—what do we really mean when we say student achievement in a society with widening inequality and a break down in access to opportunities? We also know that part of this work is confronting our own economic insecurities and confusion about our role as teachers. What do we owe the communities in which we teach, that are often not our own? In this process of mindful inquiry, we all will need a guarantee that engaging in these important conversations can lead not only to healing, but to a shared vision and concrete action steps to move us forward.

In working on my book, my goal was to offer educators a framework that can help teachers and school leaders examine and develop authenticity and agency for equity. In all my years of service to the field, I know teachers and school leaders want to make a difference that matters and often that means looking beyond the four walls of our classrooms. The Conscientious Engagement framework that is based on six principles (Spirit Consciousness, Authentic Presence, Entanglement, Freedom, Meliorism and Emergence) helps teachers and school leaders heighten their awareness of the nature of our thoughts and how we use language, the complexity of our professional relationships and the need for belonging and, lastly— how we channel our energy in ways that either impede or strengthen our work for equity. Engaging in critical mindful inquiry with ourselves and with others will build awareness that we are all connected—that each and every one of us belongs to a larger human spirit consciousness that gives us rise and access to our inner wisdom and strength to work for the common good. Knowing that we belong to something greater than ourselves can unify us in ways we’ve not known before.

What does it mean to be an evolutionary teacher at this critical time in our history? For me, an evolutionary teacher makes a commitment to stay conscientiously engaged in the school and in the community. This requires critical mindfulness and deliberation over the real foundational issues in education. An evolutionary teacher understands that we are interconnected and we all have creative intelligence. An evolutionary teacher practices authentic presence. An evolutionary teacher rises above all that is divisive and values all life equally. Seeking out and living truth, being authentic, and honoring all life equally as demonstrated in every day practice is the next step in our human evolution and teachers are central to this process.

Our time is now. We are in the position to make a difference that matters, a difference that extends beyond the four walls of a classroom. Ultimately, we know that this is our work, this is our true nature as teachers— to model, to grow, to teach, to have courage, to advocate, to ensure that schools remain sanctuaries for peace and equity.

 

 

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.

 

 

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 on the floor. 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.

 

 

 

 

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

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 allowpeople 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)

Discovery of Self in Poor Theory

“Poor theory is less a theory than a way of proceeding.” (Excerpts taken from Poor Theory: Notes Toward a Manifesto, Critical Theory Institute)

An intellectual sits on the train searching. Pulled down by the pure exhaustion of the daily commute any hope for creativity unravels. Look around. See loaded devices and ear plugs with hanging wires that shoot music into young people’s bouncing skulls. It’s the young urbanite’s attempt to wipe out the harsh reality of scraping metal, a crying baby, the monotone voice of a conductor announcing stops that cut across the city like a connect the dots puzzle. Each stop moves us further away from wealth and elements of whiteness decrease. The space is transformed each time a person exits the train and another boards.

A dark skinned man in a grey hat wearing an inconspicuous trench coat leans over a book that talks about poor theory. Everything freezes like a movie screen shot.  Zoom in slowly and a critical moment emerges from the chaos and anonymity. Zoom in further and hover over the book. Peer into the text and see the writing take on a life before you. It is right there – the answer. The writing is about the poor. It says the poor have another way of seeing the world and this perspective has intellectual value.

What power is there in seeing that the cup is half empty? What does one find in nothingness? Is there a transcendental purpose within the experience of poverty? What do we learn from the poor that completes us, makes us understand the holistic nature of our human experience, the necessity for relational thinking?

Discovery of power in oneself, validating one’s life’s experience, finding abundance in one’s poor identity transforms. Discovery of power in the other, validating the other’s life experience, finding abundance in the other’s poor identity transforms.

“Poor theory invites us to jettison the economic rationalities that reduce our theories to use values and wise investments and other naturalized vestiges of a system of surplus accumulation that profits from waste and catastrophe.”

An intellectual sits on the train searching. Each stop takes us further, from one place to the next we travel, together we learn different ways of seeing and telling. Capture this discovery. Feel free to identify yourself in new ways, to recognize the merit in one’s personal heritage, to let go of borrowed perspectives on what or who we should value in life, to transcend, to embrace.

Discoveries of Self within Poor Theory:

·       Poor me finds ways of making the most of limited resources

·       Poor me works around intransigent problems even when the means at my disposal are limited

·       Poor me recognizes that situations are riddled with error

·       Poor me elevates fascination and urgency over mastery

·       Poor me is armed with an awareness of limits but tinkers and works against and around them

·       Poor me sees abundance in what is commonly labeled as poor

·       Poor me recognizes merit in what is generally considered meretricious

·       Poor me is concerned with the everyday and the social

·       Poor me is concerned with the “not quite” and with disappointment

·       Poor me is interdisciplinary

·       Poor me thinks historically

·       Poor me is alert to novel ways in which different forms of life come to matter