Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An Open Letter to St. Paul School Board

In St. Paul we are faced once again and too soon with the task of identifying a leader who can artfully guide us out of a budget and educational crisis. I would like to challenge us to consider that if we seek high powered command leadership we are once again missing the point. The challenges we face today in education are challenges of relationship. They will be met through a paradigm shift driven by open, humble and collaborative leadership.

No Child Left Behind clearly is not working and I seriously wonder if any of the perennial reform efforts ultimately will succeed. Our intense focus on strategic planning, test preparation and measuring outcomes seems to miss the key point: that our true dilemma in American education is a long history of a crisis of relationship.

I am a fifth-generation white Minnesotan raising my biological daughter who is also a Dakota child; an inspiring and daunting privilege. I see our challenges in education both through the eyes of a native child and through the eyes of white America.

When we look at the data, it’s clear children of color carry the weight of our disappointment. 78 percent of white students in St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) are proficient in reading skills compared with 51 percent of American Indian students, 46 percent of Hispanic students, 42 percent of Asian students, and 38 percent of African American students, according to current data on the SPPS web site. Clearly children come to school with varying levels of preparation, but what appears to be failing is not our ability to educate but rather our ability to engage segments of our community in a faith and excitement about their potential worth to us.

It's not Mr. Barrett's fault. He was my daughter's fifth-grade teacher at the American Indian Magnet in St. Paul. He's a Native American man with a gift that calls him to educate our children. He holds a masters degree in gifted and talented education. There is a calm, solid core to him; one that speaks of great things within him, of things that should matter to groups of people trying to live together as one nation. When do we start asking the Mr. Barretts what should happen in our classrooms, instead of giving him a host of lackluster, confining standards?

We need to hold crucial conversions on education across our communities; conversations brimming with voices of color. Education reform cannot be accomplished when large segments of our community don't trust our vision for their future and when we fail to provide an educational context in which they thrive. We seem to be throwing a flurry of tasks at a crisis of relationship. In my experience this seldom produces the outcomes we seek.

The cultural wisdom of Native America, African America, Hispanic America, Asian America, and European American, along with other cultures, can help us find the real genius that is this country. Let's commit ourselves to channel the collective cultural wisdom of this great nation into good, candid, non-defensive conversations about what is missing in our current approach to education. It is through listening that we’ll find wisdom. It is through listening that we’ll mend damaged relationships.

Let's begin in groups, small and large, to talk about classroom content that is relevant and inspiring. And let's fearlessly correct the patterns of disengagement and disrespect that grow within so many of our children. Let’s be certain all children know they bring a history and a creative genius to the table. The children will then be engaged, stay in school and graduate.

These conversations are absolutely imperative for change. We might not know at this moment how the new paradigm ultimately will look. To some, it might appear more like a cultural revolution than simply a new educational pathway. But revolution is not new to this nation, and has proven to be a great gift.

If we don't figure this out, the children will be unmoved by our well-intentioned hard work that values downloading skills into their heads over the sweet, essential brilliance of cultural history and relevance.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

September 11

As the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded for many of us the core of our safety and understanding of America was challenged. For me it was also a moment in my life that I saw vividly the work at home in America that is long over due. As I watched and heard the story unfold that day I was dropping off my daughter at kindergarten and driving to my office. Like many of us I had more questions than answers.

Once in the office I gathered with others around computer terminals as the buildings one by one collapsed and we all struggled to understand the enormity of what was happening. We did not know how many people were trapped and dying. We did not know if there would be further attacks in other cities. In my ignorance I worried that the stock exchange was in the World Trade Center and imagined a world the next morning where everything I knew was no longer functioning. I pictured a stock market inoperable, banks and businesses closed, and government systems struggling to respond.

I had been fairly self sufficient for 20 years at this point in my life. I had been employed, earned a paycheck, had a mortgage and paid my bills. As a matter of fact these were defining institutions that named me and shaped my days. I was good at the treadmill. I was good at living within the system.

Suddenly I had a glimpse of America without our economic systems functioning and I began to picture surviving in the new terrain. What I instantly knew was that what mattered now was not the task and accomplishment that I thought I was supposed to be so good at but rather simply and practically the quality of the relationships that surrounded me. For some reason I pictured myself walking, I don’t know exactly why I did not picture getting in my car for at least part of the journey to wherever I was going, but visions and epiphanies are what they are, certainly not always rational.

I pictured myself walking with my 5 year daughter’s hand in my hand. I believe we were headed to collect with family if possible. Like many American families we are spread around the United States and even the world. Or perhaps we were headed to Pine Ridge Reservation where terrorists would have little interest or gather little resource. Pine Ridge is most likely where my daughter’s father would be going as well. It is where the man our family prays with lives. It is one of the poorest areas of our country and yet it is where I now imagined refuge for my daughter and I.

As we walked I imagined us walking initially through our predominantly white neighborhood. Here I have been deliberate to make connections with my neighbors since the birth of my daughter. We wanted her to be surrounded by people who knew her and would befriend her and look out for her. I pictured walking to my neighbors’ houses and finding people overwhelmed by task and planning. While I did not imagine being turned away, I remember a sense of not fitting. I imagined people so busy trying to make contact with relatives around the country and plans for next steps that there was not room for my daughter and me in the frantic moment. We kept moving.

In passing through an African American neighborhood just north of us, I pictured us walking to the door of the house of strangers and felt the chilly reception I believed we deserved:“what have you done for us?”. Here was a community struggling with high crime, high rates of incarceration, early death and poverty. What had my efforts and success with all the American social and economic systems ever done to bring relief to those already living in this version of chaos in our city that we have allowed for so long?

As I moved towards Hmong homes, families socialized not in America but in an entirely different world view, I found another response. I pictured the door opening at many Hmong homes and I would be welcomed with the words, “We are glad you have come, we are better with you than with out you.” I imagined the same reception in Lower Sioux or Pine Ridge where we had relationships. In the Dakota way, we pray Mitakyue Oyasin "we are all related".

Of course each one of these visions over simplifies what I might really encounter in those circumstances. And yet still it was defining to me. For a moment I was able to rise above everything I defined myself by, individual accomplishment, self-sufficiency, and personal goals and see the critical essence of relationship and interdependence.

And suddenly I recognized the crisis of America has never been a crisis of not “doing” enough. It has been a crisis of relationship. Who is safe, who is not safe and how are we doing living together as humans is the real work of our generation. If we are good at building tall buildings and enormous planes, but we as a human race are going to fly our planes into our buildings, we are not long for this earth. What we need to learn is understanding and co-existence.

Fortunately the world I know did not dismantle on September 12. However the person I am changed. I still concern myself with the necessary tasks of all the systems that surround me however those systems no longer define me. I work every day to define myself by the quality of the human relationships that I encounter, open and tend. I now see more clearly that all my individual accomplishments mean little if I am not able to articulate to those around me their value to me and my desire to be something of value to them. Often I disappoint myself more than I celebrate this journey. I stumble sometimes as I find getting something done or protecting the carpet in my living room still hold a power in the forefront of my consciousness over the people in my life.

I have also become committed to work that helps us understand that all these systems that work so well for many of us have failed many others long before 9-11. There are huge barriers to the health and well-being of many of our friends, neighbors and others who live in America with us. This is particularly glaring along lines of race and the historic lines that slavery and the genocide of the Indian nations created.

This needs to be addressed not only because the ideals of American justice promise that it will be but because these are huge segments of our community and we will collectively benefit from their genius and partnership when we bring them more fully into the American social contract.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New Patterns and New Possibilitites

Sometimes new patterns are thrust on us. Sometimes we carve them out. The best I understand our job seems to be to weave the curious and chaotic ramblings of the universe into something uniquely ours. 2 years ago early on a Friday morning I found myself on the receiving end of a push from the universe, complete with a short, unimaginative letter from the agency I had been with for 14 years, and a box of what was thought to be the prized possessions from my office.

I took the opportunity to launch my own consulting business. It actually had been forming in my heart and head for several years and had even been legally set up six months earlier. My business is about teaching focused conversation as a decision making tool or a problem solving tool. I am faced daily with the task of not only explaining what I have to offer, but also it's place in our businesses, in our families and in our world of change. Then there is the job of selling that FullThought is the place to go once you have determined conversation is something you might pay for. It often feels like an uphill climb.

Recently I sold my house and bought a lovely condominium. I closed my mortgage, cut my taxes in half, and reduced my energy bill to give my new business better room to breath and grow.

Now I am launching this blog as a place for me to find my voice in this work, to struggle out loud when all else fails, and hopefully to celebrate a few successes.

As a social worker I was often charged with translating hopes, visions and strategies into funding proposals. I have grown accustomed to the practice of clearly identifying measures of success so that when we get one year out from the launch of an effort we have benchmarks to read our progress. In that spirit...

Dear Universe, we are working hard, here's where we hope we are going:
  • we'd like FullThought to become a useful tool in our times;
  • we'd like to see FullThought elevate understanding and unheard voices in many settings;
  • I'd like to make an honest living at this, enough to cover our basic expenses including health care (passing Obama's health care reform Act would count);
  • FullThought would like to bring opportunity to others as well;
  • a book on FullThought on the New York Times best seller list would make it easier to explain what FullThought is;
  • my daughter would love a trip to the UK.
That would be a successful year! Thank you for listening.