Everything Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley Needed to Know, I Learned at a Montessori School

The Director of Athena Montessori Academy is a close friend, and when needed I have been thrilled to serve as a substitute teacher for her adorable students. Throughout the day toddlers learn that yelling, screaming, and making threats are not socially acceptable ways of dealing with conflict. Problem solving, conflict resolution, and critical thinking are at the core of Montessori teachings. On the surface it may seem simplistic, but it actually takes courage to initiate conflict resolution and see it through. Cambridge Police Officer Jim Crowley, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, activists, bloggers, and commentators could all learn from the problem solving lessons designed for three year-olds. It cannot be denied that the world would be a better place if adults learned to communicate more intentionally, instead of reacting out of emotion.

A person's ability to solve problems in the midst of a heated situation is directly related to the number of possible solutions he can think of in that moment. Both Sergeant Crowley, a leader and trainer on diversity issues for the Cambridge Police Department, and Professor Gates, an esteemed educator at Harvard had more than enough intellectual resources to identify alternatives in a heated confrontation -- both men chose not to use them. MLK, Mahatma Gandhi, Congressman John Lewis and many others have changed the world by understanding the words of Dorothy Thompson, "peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict." Through their activism, these leaders found alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, and ultimately alternatives to violence. We have come a long way with race relations in America, but explosive and emotional reactions are beginning to set us back.

In current and future racial flare-ups, it is incumbent upon the next generation of civil rights activists to challenge each other. Can we think critically and change the conversation from focusing solely on winners and losers to one of greater understanding and progress? Or will we simply use blogs, Facebook, and Twitter to compete in a name-calling diss-fest? Blindly calling someone a racist is as destructive as screaming fire in a movie theatre. Cheerleading the damaged reputation of the Cambridge Police Department does nothing to help heal the wounds of racism. Highlighting Sergeant JIM CROWley's name in a way that elicits comparisons to the contemptible de jure segregation of our nation's past is absolutely ineffectual. All one has to do is spend five minutes perusing commentary about Gates' arrest to find countless examples of useless commentary fueled by anger. The arrest has spurred an extremely charged exchange of views about race relations and police officers throughout the U.S. with only a small number of productive conversations about how to create a greater sense of community and co-responsibility, trust and mutual respect, and appreciation and acceptance of others. Without this dialogue -- after the wrath dissipates -- what are we left with? How can we learn, grow, and evolve coming out of this situation?

Name-calling, mandating immediate and punitive solutions, going on the attack, and ruining reputations are not effective tactics for progress. Rushing to judge comes with huge opportunity costs. Beyond being a teachable moment, Professor Gates' arrest was a perfect opportunity to build bridges with unlikely allies. The unique opportunity for Gates' supporters to engage with Libertarians and Conservatives -- usually staunch protectors of the concept that "a man's home is his castle" -- was lost the moment the racism rallying cry was prioritized over the constitutional issues that arose from the arrest.

In the heat of a tense moment it can be challenging to think clearly, but if we are truly committed to improving race relations we must actively create opportunities to resolve conflicts when they arise. Before Gates-gate, the dismissal of a group of African American and Latino children from the Creative Steps Camp by the Valley Swim Club, a private pool in the suburbs of Philadelphia had people up in arms and activated. The allegations, if true, are more than alarming and hurtful -- they are illegal. Unfortunately, in the midst of the outrage the daycare center and parents missed an opportunity to teach an important lesson about conflict resolution to the people most impacted by the situation -- the children. When the swim club's leadership offered to reinstate the contract and welcomed the children back, the daycare center and parents responded by announcing their intention to pursue legal action. Of course they have a right to sue, but thanks to the NAACP, Pennsylvania's Human Relations Commission launched an investigation that was already underway. The olive branch extended by the swim club -- if accepted -- could have empowered the children and helped them develop critical communication and social skills through a conflict resolution process. Instead of a life-changing lesson, the adults made a decision to be litigious -- a reaction that creates a new set of problems, puts both parties more on the defensive, and most likely strengthens the pre-existing negative convictions of the alleged perpetrators. After the conclusion of the lawsuit, how will race relations have gotten any better?

Racism stems from deep-seeded misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and assumptions, and there is no quick fix that will have us all holding hands and singing kumbaya. After a small, self-recognized stumble on the Gates incident, President Obama invited both Gates and Crowley to a happy hour at the White House. Clearly a resolution will not happen because of a few shared beers, but as David Axelrod said, "the president sees this as an opportunity to get dialogue going..." Tonight's meeting is a necessary step to help resolve the conflict between Gates and Crowley, but more importantly the White House Happy Hour could serve as an important lesson for the nation about cooperation, communication, accountability, empathy, and affirmation -- all must-haves for a conflict resolution process to be successful. When a conflict arises at a Montessori school, the children learn that they need a neutral place to go and talk it out. The children explain how they are feeling, listen to one another, and plan what will fix it. The last step is acknowledgment of conclusion in some way -- kids usually shake hands and hug. Tonight that will be replaced by throwing back a few cold ones. Though we may never hear apologies, hopefully both men can say what the toddlers know to say when a conflict has been resolved, "We declare peace."

A few days ago Glenn Beck called President Obama a racist. Can African Americans truly justify the uproar that resulted from his statement -- with the full backing of moral authority -- when there is a cacophony of voices shouting racism almost every time a black person feels wronged? A white person offending a black person, in and of it self is not the definition of racism. Sometimes bad behavior and bad judgment are just simply bad behavior and bad judgment.

It is a mistake to confuse a call for better problem solving with lack of understanding or denial that African Americans and other minority groups still face horrible injustices, inequality, and systemic racism. In order to reach our full potential as change-agents and combat racism more effectively -- with the specific goal of eradicating it from institutions and hearts -- we need a new way of responding. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement boycotted and marched and it changed the world. Our generation has an opportunity to contribute new tactics to help move us even further along. It starts with critical thinking and when possible, ends with conflict resolution. This new direction may not appease some people's emotional need to immediately call out and punish potential offenders, but it will help us all become more productive and effective problem solvers. Ultimately, providing the opportunity for our nation to one day finally achieve that often talked about post racial-judged only by the content your character-can't we just all get along-colorblind-society. That is still the goal, right?