A quick update on the “Speak Back” effort:
A month went by fast, and I will be the first to admit that it has been both a painful and hopeful learning process. A painful process because I am feeling a little less trust in this community. A little less trust that people presume best intentions – something I am guilty of not doing and certainly something that I have felt on the receiving end of this last month. But hopeful because I have met some really wonderful individuals who have given of their time, talents and resources to try and ensure that this process remains as productive as possible for the sake of our larger community and the larger goals we share.
I didn’t come to this Speak Back effort as a community organizer or activist. I am not well suited to be effective in those roles. I signed onto the effort to collect people’s voices and perspectives because I believe that individuals can and do experience the same reality very differently; that there are always multiple narratives that need to be considered in figuring out what is really “true.” Some people may be inclined to dismiss this as “identity politics” or counter-productive complaining, but I think that reaction would cut off important conversations that are necessary to building a robust and diverse civic community. It is a real phenomenon that my husband, a white man, is viewed by society differently than I am as a brown woman. We have had the experience of saying the same thing, only to find that he is seen as a “leader” and I am labeled a “troublemaker.” These concerns are now being expressed publicly by those who have always known it to be true: women, people of color and others who are not in positions of power and privilege. Denver is a community where this dynamic plays out with some regularity – not out of malice or bad intent but simply because that is how human dynamics operate when we are not thoughtful about them.
There is both a perception and a reality that many of the most impactful conversations and decisions about education in Denver routinely involve a relatively small circle of leaders, funders, and those with political or social capital and connections. There are members of the Denver community that are invited to the meeting rooms and the conversations where power is shared and decisions are made; and others who are never invited, whether intentionally or simply because they are not known to those in power. This leaves many members of our community with the feeling that decisions are made for rather than with them and in ways that are less than transparent. It also feeds into the fear we identified early on in this effort that speaking up or asking questions might result in more harm than good. I don’t think this is the best way for a community to operate when addressing some of its most pressing concerns.
None of these issues are unique to Denver. Districts and communities around the country have been struggling with questions of power, privilege and authentic community engagement for years. What I hope will set Denver apart at this moment is the process through which we move to address these concerns. Rather than separating into predictable camps, embracing whatever narrative best suits specific interests and “blackballing” those who assert different opinions, we have a choice to come together and listen to the legitimate concerns and perspectives of different members of our community.
This process of allowing room for more voices was what drove the initial effort to craft and circulate two letters. Unfortunately, the idea of empowering voices got tangled up with content, grievances and conflicting aims and methods. There will be follow ups directly to members of the organizing effort who want to understand the details, but for now it is enough for me to say that there have been some forks in the road and conversations about how different sub-groups will be moving forward on the issues they are most passionate about addressing.
My focus will continue to be working with others to ensure that our district does a better job of identifying and supporting schools that adopt different ways of educating students. This is a practical imperative because we know that human beings learn differently. So, for example, there are students who are more likely to succeed in schools that adopt hands-on, experiential learning approaches than more traditional teacher-directed approaches. If we are serious about making sure all kids have the chance to reach their full potential then all families should have meaningful access to schools that reflect these different approaches within the public school sector starting in early childhood and spanning all the way through high school.
However, I also believe that there are deeper issues that can be addressed by promoting diversity of school approaches and models. Promoting, supporting and recognizing the successes of diverse schools create opportunities for a new generation of leaders. These leaders are eager to explore approaches to educating students that address some of the concerns that arose from the last wave of school choice such as how to create schools with more culturally-relevant curricula and culturally-responsive practices, or how to build schools where teachers from a wide range of backgrounds and philosophies can see themselves being successful. Supporting such leaders is how we ensure that the next wave of school choice results in a system that better reflects the diverse needs and backgrounds students, families and communities.
One by-product of many conversations over the last few weeks is a growing awareness of how many efforts are already underway to try to begin thinking about diverse school options. The Charter School Growth Fund has an internal effort specifically dedicated to this question, as does an organization called Moonshot edVentures. There is also a search underway for a CEO of Blue School Partners, a new non-profit in Denver that will be exploring ways to diversify the mix of schools available within the city’s choice landscape. There is a group called Talk to Action that is engaging in conversations about what it means to support diverse school leaders to lead diverse schools.
What is hopeful is that these conversations and efforts are underway. What is sad is that there were a lot of members of our community who had no idea these efforts were underway until word leaked that people were concerned about the lack of diverse schools. I have been giving some thought to how we can take this opportunity to more thoughtfully connect some of the key players in the work with community members who have an obvious interest in the issue, but that is for another post. For the time being, it is great to know that there are a lot of exciting conversations happening that are aimed at helping to strengthen the educational choices available to students and families. I am excited for those of us who rallied around the Diverse Schools letter to become part of these wider efforts.