"All Hands on Deck:" Pub & Pri Ed Leaders in Solidarity for Systemic Equity at #EquityExchangeSTL

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Reflections & Resources from #EquityExchangeSTL
St. Louis, Missouri | July 26-31, 2015


Chris Thinnes


Thanks @RosettaLee

At the end of “The Equity Exchange” in Saint Louis, participants in this week-long forum for experienced diversity practitioners and school leaders from public and private schools across the country gathered in a circle, to affirm the solidarity they’d created across their differences before heading their separate ways. Andy Abbott, Head of School at John Burroughs School, affirmed Daniel Harris’s vision for this brave space, some two years beforehand, with the wry irony and emotional transparency he’d bravely brought to his participation all week. He explained that Daniel had come to him to run this idea by him long ago — that Daniel was going to get a design team together from public and private schools across the country; that he was going to invite seasoned diversity practitioners from independent schools, and veteran public school and district leaders into dialogue about systemic educational equity; that we would recruit officials from the U.S. Department of Education and national education leaders to support our collective inquiry; that we would create, sustain, and protect a brave space to advance the work of cultural proficiency, restorative justice, and inclusive school practice together, across the differences in our schools and sectors, to promote systemic change…

At this juncture, moved by the radical hope of Daniel’s original vision and the sweeping ambitions of such a project, Andy paused, collected himself, and then smiled ironically: “The ideas was ludicrous, really, when you think about it…”

Yet this was what all of us in that circle had just experienced for six transformative days in Saint Louis. Interrogating assumptions and misconceptions we brought to the table about each other. Identifying our shared goals for education equity across the American education landscape. Developing our facilitation, interruption, and inclusion skillsets. Practicing strategies for self-care in this challenging work. Contributing to each others’ action plans for cultural proficiency and inclusive practices at our school sites. Exploring the implications of culturally responsive pedagogy and restorative justice. Harvesting our reflections from silent learning walks – in an urban public school, and in a suburban independent school – to examine the “third teacher” dynamics of school environment and inclusivity. Learning how to use the tools and instruments that help us to interrogate and to disrupt inequitable practices in our schools.  And so much more…

I have wrestled these last several days – partially because of overwhelming obligations to a new position; partially because of the sheer scope and depth of my own experiences as a member of the facilitation team – with how best to represent and share my experience of #EquityExchangeSTL. I haven’t the slightest idea how to effectively convey the variety or complexity of the professional and personal commitments that this extraordinarily brave space — not just a ‘safe’ space, as Caroline Blackwell so artfully and urgently implored our team to remember, but a brave space — helped us all to explore, to interrogate, and to deepen.

So: here, for now, are the three things that strike me as fragments I need to share for now:

1. Driving Questions

As much to capture our own developing relationship and discoveries in recent months — as colleagues across the differences in our school contexts, and now as friends across the differences in our cultural identities and personal histories — as to frame participants’ developing dialogue across the sectors, Vincent Flewellen and I provided a series of driving questions during a session on the first full day:

1 | What are the vital similarities that unite us in this work, across the seeming differences in our schools and sectors?

2 | What are the deeply personal, moral, ethical, and political commitments we bring to our work, and how do we bring the fullness of our selves to our professions?

3 | How does the public school sector become more intentional and bold in our inclusion and celebration of diversity within our schools?

4 | How does the public school sector balance its many expectations of the Department of Education with meeting every child at her level? Can we loosen the “rules”?

5 | How does the public school sector better “partner” with our students? Can we more often take the lead from students to ensure authentic, real-time, and life learning?

6 | What is the purpose, and what are the goals, of education in a democracy – and how do we help our schools to serve those goals?

7 | How can we be more thoughtful and purposeful about the intent and impacts of our partnership efforts, in order to advance our work?

8 | How do we centralize commitments to cultural competency, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice as systemic priorities to deepen teaching and learning?

9 | How can partnerships like the Equity Exchange – committed to learning across the boundaries of our ‘sectors’ – enhance our pursuit of systemic educational equity?

2. “All Hands on Deck”

One evening, late in the week, Equity Exchange participants joined the opening of an exhibit of Damon Davis’s “#AllHandsOnDeck,” an extraordinary fine-art display of photographic street art originally papering the exterior walls of businesses in Ferguson  to celebrate the activism and activists that were catalyzed in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder:

The hands you see are images I have captured of people who have shaped and upheld this movement. The peoples movement. It is our right — to be seen, to be heard…to be validated. It is our collective responsibility. The “All Hands On Deck” project is an ode to that diverse collective dedicated to protecting our human rights, no matter race, age or gender. “All Hands On Deck” is our charge – a call of action to stand with those who stand for us all. [More]

Mr. Davis made a number of bold and crucial comments in his remarks to the gathered Equity Exchange participants, arts patrons, benefactors, and members of the St. Louis community. There was one message in particular that, for a variety of reasons, struck me at my very core. He didn’t commit to the fine art exhibition of street art, and its display in exclusive schools, galleries, and museums because it would have an impact on the solidarity of the activist community. He didn’t support the visibility of this project in privileged spaces because it would impact the hopes and dreams of people of color. “I am talking mainly to White people,” he said, as he explained his participation in this dimension of the project, this opening, these comments, “because we did not create the problem. And so it is not ‘our’ problem to fix. You have to fix it.”

Those comments punctured the veneer of self-containment that, beforehand, I’d kept wrapped loosely around my mental and emotional fog to protect myself. The nature of our collective work that week; my exhaustion by that point in the week; the White identity I continue to interrogate in and with my work… Suffice it to say, Mr. Davis named the personal, moral, ethical, and political obligations that I was navigating, no less personally than anyone else, with words as penetrating as his images. His message put me all, entirely, in my feelings. So after the walk I had to take outside, to take a little personal huddle, I thanked Mr. Davis personally, as I thank him now.

3. Resources

Over the course of these six days together, #EquityExchangeSTL facilitators and participants generated an astonishing range of resources, shared questions, discoveries, and bold new initiatives to support systemic equity in our schools. As a last gesture in this first effort to share my reflections on #EquityExchangeSTL, I offer links to a variety of resources — a selection of materials to which participants currently have access — that you may find helpful in the weeks and months to come — from Rosetta Lee’s brilliant sessions on the skills, strategies, and tactics we need to invite, foster, and extend courageous conversations, to an archive of some tweets from #EquityExchangeSTL…

  • Slides and Resources | Rosetta Lee, “Facilitating Brave Spaces: Framing Ideas and Facilitation Skills for Couageous Conversations” http://ow.ly/QEH6I
  • Documentation | Participants, “Brave Space Chalk Talk” http://ow.ly/QEHbB
  • Slides & Provocations | Vincent Flewellen & Chris Thinnes, “Nine Short Stories and Provocations about Public-Private Partnership for Diversity, Equity, & Social Justice in Our Schools” http://bit.ly/EE-PP
  • Documentation | Pub-Pri Collaboration for Systemic Change, Compass Points Harvest (Excited, Worried, Needs, Stance) http://ow.ly/QEHuP
  • Slides | Dion Crushhon, “Cultural, Intercultural, and Global Competency” http://ow.ly/QEHJe
  • Slides | Dion Crushhon & Sean Hickey, “Global Education in the Classroom: A Student-Centered Pedagogy” http://ow.ly/QEHPF
  • Slides | Kristen Taylor, “What if We Didn’t PUNISH Students?” http://ow.ly/QEHYb
  • Lewis Bryant, “Moving Towards Cultural Proficiency” http://ow.ly/QEI4a
  • Documentation | Participants, Learning Walk at Vashon HS on Environment & Inclusivity: http://ow.ly/QEIlB
  • Slides | Jim Ferg-Cadima, Office for Civil Rights, USDOE, “School Climate & Discipline” http://ow.ly/QEIFO
  • Slides | Rosetta Lee, “Meaning: Personal Mission Statements” http://ow.ly/QEIMP
  • Slides | Vincent Flewellen & Chris Thinnes, “Reflection to Action: Catalytic Questioning” http://bit.ly/EE-Questioning
  • Documentation | Participant, Pro Action Cafe Projects (Initial Proposals) http://ow.ly/QEJmS
  • Slides | Vincent Flewellen, Chris Thinnes, and Participants, “EqEx: Unconference” http://bit.ly/EE-EqEx
  • Documentation | Participants, EqEx Documentation from Groups http://ow.ly/QEJBF
  • Tweets | Storify archive of #EquityExchangeSTL tweets: http://ow.ly/QEGvL

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 * Thank you to @RosettaLee for sharing “Stubborn Ounces”

You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes