Why We Can't Give Up On Talking To Each Other

In July, I traveled to Washington DC on the Edward J. Meade Policy Fellowship through Harvard University and the Institute for Educational Leadership. As a classroom teacher (and even now as an educational researcher), I had always felt a bit distanced from and disenfranchised by educational policy. My goals for the fellowship were therefore to demystify policy for myself and to learn more about the intersection of research, practice, and policy, specifically in the domain of students' postsecondary success.

As with everything in education, however, context matters. The week before I left for DC, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers were shot and killed. My social media feed was awash with former students angrily railing about their own experiences with police, while other former students who are now police officers re-posted memes and articles denigrating or mocking Black Lives Matter and similar protesters. Pervading everything was a strong either/or mentality: Either you're with us, or you're against us, so state your allegiance now.

This juxtaposition of students who formerly sat side by side in my classroom was difficult to witness, especially because the grief and pain were so raw on both sides. I wondered what they would say to each other if they were to sit down together now. I wondered what I had done to prepare them for this aspect of their "postsecondary" lives, and what I could and should have done differently. Suddenly, my fellowship questions--the opportunity itself, even--seemed trivial.

Instead, I found myself thinking a lot about a study on political canvassing that has been published in Science magazine and featured on This American Life (twice in both cases, after a brief side trip through Research Ethics 101). In short, the randomized trial finds that people who interacted one-on-one with a political canvasser changed their beliefs about transgender issues, and that the effects endured three months later. I considered sharing these links with my students but held back; I worried that doing so might seem to downplay major systemic and historical injustices by implying that everything could be fixed if we would just talk to each other. In what has become such a toxic election season, clinging to these study findings seems almost hopelessly naïve.

Yet I personally do believe that the genuine one-on-one talking and, especially, the listening at the heart of that canvassing study is both harder than it sounds and truly a path for progress. Part of what had always appealed to me about teaching was the opportunity to have those one-on-one conversations with students. It is also part of what had always seemed alienating to me about policy: the unit of analysis shifted from the individual to organizations and systems, making everything feel (to me) depersonalized and intractable.

Surprisingly, though, my fellowship week both reaffirmed and expanded my belief in the importance of genuine dialogue. The organizational representatives with whom I met were not Orwellian automatons of some disembodied System; they were individuals who were generous with me, dedicated to their work, and aware that in education--and in life--we cannot take an either/or approach to systems vs. individuals, it must be both/and. Direct interpersonal interaction is vital, but so is building a surrounding context that supports and sustains those interactions.

For example, individual teachers may do outstanding work with individual students in their classes, but those teachers need a comprehensive, multi-layered support system--in schools, in teacher preparation programs, in the policy environment writ large--to sustain that work. But interpersonal relationships are at the core of each of those organizations; even in the sprawling system of educational policy, the scale of the work requires partnerships formed by organizational leaders around shared goals but also across differences: in philosophies, approaches, preferred levers for change. In a strange way, the system is individuals, talking and listening to each other, within and across organizations, and, ideally, with an awareness of the structures they are simultaneously operating in and trying to change from the inside out.

I should have spoken up among my students in July; I write this piece now as a humble, belated entry into that dialogue. I believe there were and are deep-seated systemic problems in our society and I believe that we have to talk and listen to each other, one-on-one, both within and across affinity groups, if we want to change that system and ourselves. This work is difficult, but perhaps the most important "postsecondary" skill for all of us is the willingness to have these conversations, with urgency, and in service of building bridges rather than barriers.