Choosing not to run from complexity
St. Louis is the latest community to experience peaceful protests and destructive violence in direct response to the judge’s acquittal of murder charges for the killing of an African American man by a white police officer. National news coverage was largely one note—less about peaceful protests and more footage of property being destroyed in downtown St. Louis. If you are not in St. Louis, what are you left to think about the underlying issues that would lead to this civic unrest?
As a national school design and support organization, we are privileged to work with 200 schools in 28 states and Australia. Our largest annual event is the New Tech summer conference, which draws about 2,000 participants. We selected St. Louis to host the 2017 and 2018 conferences.
A series of events in St. Louis and Missouri (NAACP travel advisory, MO Senate Bill 43, signed by Governor Eric Greitens that redefined standards for suing for discriminatory practices, and the civic protests mentioned above) caused us to pause and ask ourselves if we should keep the 2018 summer conference in St. Louis. Our vision is to become a nation proud of its public schools. We cannot make meaningful progress towards that vision without intentionally and explicitly grappling with the history of educational inequity in American public schools, primarily driven by race and class. With this framing, what should we do about the St. Louis dilemma? We don’t want to run from the very challenges that perpetuate inequities in our communities and in our schools.
Safety was, of course, our biggest concern. Our first thought was to move the event. However, something nagged at us. As an organization, we had to ask ourselves “If we determine safety can be assured—are we helping or hurting the community of St. Louis, those citizens who depend on the convention revenues, by taking a principled stance and going somewhere else? Further, what does it say about our organizational values if we stay in St. Louis and don’t acknowledge what is happening in that community when we bring the hearts and minds of educators from around the country to learn together?”
Throughout our 15-year history we have invoked the language of equity and social justice as a major driver to re-imagine schools in every community context in this country. We have relied on our school model as the path to providing equitable learning opportunities for all students. We have not, however, made equity and the opportunity gap an explicit lens through which to frame our work. My colleague, Chief Schools Officer Jim May says “While trends, fads and silver bullets dominate the education innovation world, our most deeply held values transcend methodologies and form the essence of our organizational soul. Equity had manifested itself as part of our consciousness but had not been made concrete in thoughts and action.”
This changed last summer. At the 2017 summer conference, we made connecting school, equity and opportunity our central theme. We invited our network of 4,500 educators to join us in reimagining the New Tech school model as an instrument of equity. We challenged our teachers and school leaders to start by defining the specific contours of inequity in their school communities. Following this initial effort, we provided resources to help our schools deploy the New Tech school model to mitigate the obstacles to opportunity faced by their students.
Back to resolving our St. Louis dilemma; you might be surprised what we decided. LaShawn Routé Chatmon, Executive Director of the National Equity Project has said, “Leading for equity is about the choices you make to be aware, acknowledge the inequity you see, the dissonance you feel and make the decision to provide support anyway.”
We let the executive leadership of our two business partners in St. Louis know our concerns and asked for a meeting. We arrived with an idea. What if we turned to our school model to navigate this dilemma? We proposed that we invite teachers to design a student learning experience centered on the issues and causes of racial and class-based challenges in St. Louis. We asked our hosts, the Marriott Grand Hotel and the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission to underwrite some of the expenses for teachers and students to participate in the project and to produce study guides, resources and videos that would be presented at the summer 2018 conference that could serve as model for other communities to engage schools.
We are proud to join hands with our St. Louis partners to work together by trusting teachers and students to treat the topics with professionalism, authentic scholarly pursuit and to share their learning on a very public stage in St. Louis in July 2018.
Acknowledging the dilemma and embracing the challenge feels completely aligned with our organizational soul. We are a learning organization—we are going to give our best efforts to trust our process of learning to provide meaning and meaningful paths for St. Louis and for other communities facing similar challenges. I can’t wait to get back to St. Louis, and to share what I know will be thoughtful and empowering student-led work.