This episode was a live conversation recorded as the closing at the Gates Community of Practice NSI event on November 3, 2022.
You can find lots more podcast episodes, articles, and videos about continuous improvement here!
Whatever your flavor of improvement you’re using, whether it is DBIR or Improvement Science or Lesson Study, all of them have the potential to be transformative, and all of them have the potential to exacerbate the status quo. Now, I’m not saying the tools are trash. That’s not what I’m saying. But they’re not magic. They’re not magic. People hold magic, and so it’s all about how we are wielding the tools.
This is High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton, and that was the voice of Brandi Hinnant-Crawford. This episode is a recording of a Den Talk at the Gates Foundation Network for School Improvement Fall 2022 Community of Practice Event in San Diego. If the term “Den Talk” is new to you, it’s basically a cross between a traditional panel discussion and eavesdropping on a really interesting conversation happening at the next table in a cafe. This particular conversation takes place between Brandi, who you just heard, and Luke Wood. They’re introduced by Michelle Sadrena Pledger, and their conversation is moderated by Stacey Caillier. And if you know their work at all, you won’t be surprised that this conversation is fascinating, challenging and provocative right from the start. We are so excited to be able to share it with you. And just a heads-up, the recording starts midway through Michelle introducing Brandi. It’s all going to make a lot more sense if you know that right at the start Brandi is who Michelle is talking about. Here it is.
Michelle Sadrena Pledger:
I said, “I would just love some time with you just in a Zoom. I don’t know what it’s going to be about.” And we got in that Zoom, y’all, and it was like a therapy session, a coaching session, a sermon, book recommendations. We laughed, we cried, and it was just a powerful, powerful experience. So I’m so excited that we get to hear and learn from her today.
Now, Dr. Luke Wood, we’ve never met in our entire lives in-person, in real life. In my imagination, we’ve met several times. We’ve had really thought-provoking conversations. You ever feel like you’ve watched so many webinars or you’ve gone to webinars or you’ve read people’s work so you feel like you know them because you’ve been into their work and they’re like, duh, we know each other because I’ve like attended your… I even have your Black Minds Matter T-shirt. I rock it all the time. Even when it got a hole in it, I just cut off the bottom. It’s now a crop top. It says Black Minds Matter. And it’s like, ah. And so in my mind, I was like, I know Dr. Luke Wood. So when I was reaching out to invite him and Dr. Hinnant-Crawford to be speakers at our Deeper Learning Conference in March, yes, I invited them first for that conference. And then I got copied, and they got invited to this. It’s going to look like I copied this conference, but I invited them both for that one first. I just wanted to clear that up. But anyway, back.
So I reach out. I’m like, all right, this is my moment. I’m going to email Dr. Luke Wood. He’s going to email me back. We’re going to start an intellectual professional relationship. It’s great. And then I get this email from Karen, who is your assistant. Yeah, lovely, lovely woman. We interacted a lot, and I realize, oh, I’m not. He forwarded that email to her so fast. It was like, do not pass go. Do not collect $200. You will not interact with me. So Karen was like, “Yeah, he’s honored to speak at your thing,” blah, blah, blah. And so we’ve never actually met. Hi. I’m Michelle. I’m Dr. Michelle Sadrena Pledger. I think we should know each other, and I’ve benefited a lot from your work.
And so today, we just have the privilege of having a lovely conversation, but each of the speakers will have an opportunity to share their why stories. So you remember, we’re going to go full circle. We kicked off the conference with our why stories, and so we’re going to get to hear Dr. Brandi Hinnant-Crawford and Dr. Luke Woods’ why story. So we’ll start with Dr. Brandi Hinnant-Crawford.
Good afternoon. Good afternoon. Can you hear me? All right. I’m going to read my why story so I can stay on script. Okay. When I grew up, Goldsboro, North Carolina was a quintessential southern town. In fact, in 1993, the year my little sister was born, we were named one of the top 10 places to live in the United States. My mama told me that was because Goldsboro still had segregation covenants and neighborhoods where Black folks could not live. That’s why we made the top 10 list. Trevor Noah was born a crime, and I was born a problem. In 1984, there was a morality clause in Goldsboro city school’s teacher’s contract that said a teacher couldn’t be pregnant if she was not married. Well, guess what? My mother wasn’t married, and she was pregnant. So she got married, not to my father, but to a friend of hers so she could keep her job and give birth to me. So Hinnant is her friend’s last name. I am not a blood relative to anyone with the last name Hinnant. My last name is a consequence of the time and town in which I was born.
As a child, I had a keen understanding of right and wrong and that things were not always fair for Black folks. I did not possess an intersectional analysis at that time, but I could see that some things weren’t right. As a first grader, I asked my mom why there weren’t any Black mannequins in the department store where we were shopping. And in her own way of cultivating a little activist, she took me to the manager and let me ask the manager the question, and then she instructed me to write a letter to corporate. My family was a complicated safe haven. They were and are flawed, but they loved me fiercely. They embody the Ta-Nehisi Coates quote that says, “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have. And yet you come to us endangered.” My grandpa, who was color struck and said I was too dark to be a cheerleader and that my sister was the right complexion to be a cheerleader, also bought my books for college and paid for me to pledge in undergrad. My grandma, who wholeheartedly bought into respectability politics, also was the one who stood up to my mama when my mama was getting on me for getting Ns in conduct and organizational skills. She told my mother, “Rose, Brandi is smart. She can’t be everything.”
And my mom Rose, she is still putting me first, making incredible sacrifices. I cannot be here with you today if she was not there with my children. My schools were a place of contradiction. I was loved and affirmed in places that everyone else called bad feeling and dangerous. When I read Ogbu and his description of oppositional culture and acting white, I thought in my all-Black schools, my academic success was celebrated, and my peers were proud of me. In fact, when I was partying around the city, which I partied a lot, sometimes even adult boys would come up and tell me, “You need to go home. You don’t need to be in this place.” A couple of times, they saved me to get me to leave before something went down.
As my pastor, William J. Barber preached and protested about inequality and what kids in the city schools had to deal with. I had to live it each day. My schools were under resources. I had exhausted all the AP courses by the time I was in 11th grade. And I heard about what was happening in schools in the county, the whiter schools, where they got all kinds of things, like new computer labs that we didn’t have. But we had each other, and in that space, there was community cultural wealth. I also recognized the privilege that came from being the daughter of an educator who knew the system well and ensured she put me in the best classes and she knew how to navigate. I recognized the same system that catapulted me was detrimental to many of my peers.
My passion for equity and education started when I was in the sixth grade, and I watched white flight happen after the school system consolidated. Fifth grade, my class was 50/50 Black/white. Sixth grade, it was all Black. During this time, other Black kids at my church who went to the better schools used to make fun of me for going to the wrong schools. And I saw my mom commit to continuing to teach in the wrong schools. And when folks told her to move me, she said, “I shouldn’t teach somewhere where I won’t send my own kid.” I was supposed to be on the school board.
When I began teaching, it became clear to me that my sphere of influence was not what I needed it to be. So I left to pursue a master’s in urban ed policy so I could be an informed school board member in my hometown because you don’t learn much about policy in a teacher ed program. My goal was to try to right the wrongs I watched my whole life, and as you can see, I’m off track. I haven’t lived home since 2007. I never planned to be a professor. I always wanted to be like you all on the ground. I appreciated my professors at NC State, Brown and Emory, but they seem too far removed from the day-to-day business of teaching and learning. I never wanted to be that far away. Also, while I worshiped and still worship my mom, I also never planned to be a single mom. But divorce happens, and we have to stop believing that only one family structure is healthy and whole and all others are deficient.
I do this work because I believe in the genius and ingenuity of people. In my faith tradition, it says that humans are created in the image of God, which means we have creative capacity. Also, if we can build oppressive systems that reify hierarchies in society based on myths we’ve told ourselves for generations, myth and white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and heteronormativity, then we can dismantle those very same systems and construct just institutions based on truth. I believe this is the work I am called to do and that I have support and I am held accountable to the creator and my ancestors.
How could I possibly follow that? Wow, that was beautiful. So as is mentioned, my name is Luke, and I am on faculty at San Diego State University. I tell people that I’m a professor who happens to be in an administrative role because I serve as a vice president, but I really see myself as a professor and a researcher who just happens to be doing that for the time being. So I was born in Oakland. I have an identical twin brother. You can see him there on the screen. That’s me and Josh. And we were born by our biological mom while she was in prison. And so she gave birth to us. She went back to prison. We became wards of the court. We went into foster care, and that’s when I was given the name Jonathan Luke Wood. My birth certificate says Baby B because he was the first, Baby A, which neither one of those or my actual real name. My real name is actually Ariel William Moore, but I wouldn’t learn that until I was about 22, 23 years old.
So my parents, basically, the individuals who took us home did foster care, and we were a short-term placement. And when our mother got out of prison, she would have the opportunity to come and get us. She set up a number of appointments and would always… Well, she would never, rather, show. And so eventually, she had the choice to basically say that she didn’t want us anymore, and that’s what she said. And so we went up for adoption. We ended up being adopted by the same family that also did foster care. So they went from Oakland to Hayward to far northern California, where I grew up. My family is all current and former foster youth. My brothers and sisters are Latino, Latina, Pacific Islander, white, Black. I have a sister who’s in a wheelchair because she has spina bifida. I have a sister who has a cognitive impairment. There’s about 14 of us who were part of the main stable of kids in the home, but my parents had over 300 children in their home through their time in foster care.
The home across the street was a group home. And so between the two of us homes, there was about 20 kids in this town in the middle of nowhere, all with the same kind of similar background. So I went to school in this town. Anyone ever heard of McCloud, California? All right, I have one person. Okay. All right. Never heard of McCloud. Have you heard of Mount Shasta?
All right, a few more. Have you heard of Redding?
45 minutes north of Redding, have you heard of Chico?
Yes. Farther north of Chico, you go to Oregon. So essentially, I’m from the sticks. I grew up in a town of 1,600 people in the middle of nowhere, high school of 100 kids. And me and my brother were the only African Americans in our school. And so we had varying experiences. When I was in kindergarten, I had a teacher who was amazing, who I’m still connected to this day. And when I was in first grade through fourth grade, I had a mixture of both good and bad experiences. And then I hit fifth grade, where in alignment with what the research would say, where Black boys stop being viewed as innocent and interesting and start being viewed as problems. And I went from loving school and being one of the highest performing students to hating school. I had a teacher who saw me as some a Black throwaway foster kid. That’s how she saw us. And so in that same school year, my twin brother was suspended 24 times, and I was suspended 42 times by the same teacher. And there used to be a desk outside the principal’s office that they called Luke’s desk because it was mine. And that’s where I sat most of the time during school. Or if it was a out-of-school suspension, I was just at home. And so I used to hate school because I was never in it and never had a positive experience there.
The very next year, I had a totally contrasting experience with a teacher whose name was, or name is, Mr. G, Mr. Guggenheimer. And I’d actually written about him before in some of my books. I call it When Your Teacher’s a G. And he was absolutely amazing. Saw me as someone who was worth his time and investment. Saw me as somebody who liked to write, who was a halfway decent writer and really just invested. And I went from hating school to loving school. And so that for me, I guess, is the first component of my why, which is that we have to have people within our institutions who truly demonstrate care towards our students if we really want them to be able to succeed. And there may be some challenging backgrounds in terms of what the students have experienced, not the students themselves, and that it’s amazing how one person can help someone and empower them to overcome that. So then I went off to college, Sacramento State University, Sac State. There we go. Stingers up. I see you.
Me and my twin brother both went off to Sac State because I did that program there on the right where basically it’s called Boy State and you basically get to learn about politics. And it’s like, oh man, I’m going to go to Sac State. This is awesome. So was in student government, very involved and got early on very interested in retention and student success in college. And one of the things I remember is I came into the first class session. And this is for our retention program that we were part of. They said, everyone here has probably heard this before, “Look to your left. Look to your right. Only one of you’ll graduate.” And they thought that that was encouraging. And so we became very interested in issues of retention and in my sophomore year started a retention program that we ran for Black students and started advocating for more representation of Black faculty and staff and administrators.
Got towards my first senior year. And yeah, there’s a few. And basically was running this effort with a few other guys. We’re basically trying to encourage the administration to hire more administrators of color. So basically, we had people who are local politicians from the local area calling in, raising concern. We had students who were doing marches, protest, sit-ins and other forms of direct action. We closed down the president’s office a couple times. So there were some things that we were doing that were trying to elevate this issue. So we met with the president, and the president was like, “Well, I understand that you all want to see this, but tell me what it is you think that we should do.” And I was like, “Well, we think that you should hire more Black administrators.” And they’re like, “Well, there’s a search going on right now for a Dean of Health and Human Services. The applications are in the provost office. Why don’t you all take a look at them and give us a recommendation?” So we went down to the provost office. It was closed. No problem. Came back that following Monday, and there was a packet of resumes waiting for us. We took it to back to Student Government. We made a list. We brought back the packet, and then we submitted our list.
Two weeks later, three of us who were involved with that were walking on campus, and all of us were stopped by different administrators who handed us white envelopes saying that we had been recommended for expulsion from the campus for stealing documents from the provost office, the documents that they handed to us. So long story short, right before my hearing, the day before my hearing, the person who was the judicial officer for the university quit her job after hearing from the provost that it had been basically an agreed upon thing with the president that they were going to do this. Quit her job, asked to be put down as a witness for my case. And then the recommendation for my expulsion was pulled back.
But the part from that that’s even more important than that story is that there was a faculty member who stuck with me throughout the whole thing. His name is Dr. Canton. I never had a single class from this dude ever. But he was a taller, dark-skinned, Black male. I’d see him on campus. I remember the first time he walked up to me. He walks up, and I’m just walking on campus. I’m a freshman. He’s like, “What’s up, Black man?” I was like, “Who? Me? What’s up?” And then he just introduced himself. And basically, it was from then on that we were connected. And again, I never had a single class from him, but I learned something very important from him, which is you don’t have to teach a student for them to be your student. And both of those stories really go to my why, which is I think that we have to provide an environment that supports people. I think that we have to advocate for those who are trying to promote good decisions, right decisions, just decisions within our organizations and that we have to do so fearlessly even when it’s not to our own best benefit. So that’s me.
I’m so excited to have you both up here. So why we wanted to have this conversation with Luke and Brandi is because, obviously, equity and creating more equitable systems is at the core of both of your work and your hearts. And you’re also scholars of improvement, and you’re deeply steeped in quality improvement and improvement science. You speak that language. You do that work. We’ve been really grappling with what does liberatory improvement look like because we’re not interested in doing it if it doesn’t serve justice. So how do we make sure that it serves justice? So I want to start the first question with you, Brandi. In your book, you wrote beautifully about how if we want to improve in service of equity, we have to keep two questions front and center. Who’s impacted, and who’s involved? And I’d love to hear you just riff a little bit on if we took those questions really seriously, what would that look like? What would we be doing? Maybe what would we not be doing?
Hello. Okay. So I think when we think about who’s involved and who’s impacted as a community, we are clear on articulating who is impacted by what we’re doing. Our aims are often geared towards minoritized or marginalized communities, even though sometimes we don’t think through the impact in terms of who has to bear the burden of doing the work. And so that’s another piece we have to think about. We’ve made less progress on who is involved, and we have to think about involvement not being on our terms. A lot of improvement work is paternalistic in nature. We think we know the things, we know the tools, we know how to collect the data and make the charts. And we’re going to tell you what’s best for you. And we think as we get folks in the room, to shout-out Amanda who’s in here somewhere, we really go about improvement in a very white supremacist culture.
And so if we think about what it would be to really change the way we think about involving people, we got to let go of control. And so has anybody ever been to a Black church? Okay. So sometimes when you go to a Black church they say, “Okay, we got this program, and we going to try to follow this order of service. But we going to let the Holy Spirit have its way.” But we like agendas and time periods, and we want things to happen in very structured ways when sometimes the people we need to invite in to lead the improvement are not going to work in the structures we have confined. We also have to let go of this idea of who is qualified to be at the table because I am an expert on my experience. Regardless of where I went to school, regardless of whether or not my subject and verb agree, I am an expert on what I have been through.
And so when we think about involvement and involving students and families and communities, we’ve got to be willing to let go of control and throw our agenda out the window. We might have to bring some food to the table and just relax. And it may not look the way we like meetings to look when we invite folks who have not traditionally been at the table to be involved. And I don’t know all the time with our timetables and with our reporting schedules if we are really willing to let go of that control.
Well said. So for me, it’s less about what it looks like and more about what it feels like. In my mind, it feels like an environment that’s typified by trust, mutual respect, and authentic care. So trust where the individuals that we’re working with know that they can confide in us and that we’re there for them. Mutual respect where it’s an environment where we can be down to earth and open and have conversations that are meaningful and intentional. And then authentic care, some people talk about that in education as love. In fact, I think about the quote from Asa Hilliard says that, “I’ve never encountered any children from any group who are not geniuses. There’s no mystery on how to teach them. The first thing you do is treat them like human beings, and the second thing you do is love them.” And I think for a lot of individuals, it’s hard to understand what does that look like.
I think Donna Ford, who’s a educator, I follow a lot of her work, she would tell you, well, it probably looks like you treating them as if they’re your own family member. If you struggle with them, just pretend like you’re your own family member, and you’ll figure it out. We think about it and we usually describe it as an authentic or vested interest in the student and their success where they know that if they do well, they hit the mark, they get the grade, if it’s a college, they get the job, the internship, whatever it is that they’re looking for that you are going to personally feel like you did well because that’s the whole reason we’re here. We’re in it with you. But on the flip side, if you stumble, if you fall, if you miss the mark that we’re going to personally feel like we miss the mark because we have such a shared or linked vested interest in their success.
And so we have frameworks that help us to think about how we get there. But if we’ve missed the human element of why we’re doing it, then it’s probably not liberatory because if it’s going to be liberatory, it has to enable people to create something better for themselves and for their families and for their communities. It has to enable them to address white supremacist systems, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity. It has to create an environment where they feel empowered to do something different than people who look like at them and make stereotypical assumptions about their abilities. It has to empower them to overcome the difficult experiences that many of our students have.
Okay. Yes, I’m agreeing with everything that you said. I guess part of the prereq for this work is what we believe about the people we are trying to serve and talking about beliefs is this warm and fuzzy thing. And we believe all children can learn. It’s great to say those things, but do you really? Is that what you really believe? Because when you truly believe in the gifts and brilliance and ingenuity of the folks you serve, I think it’s easier to involve different folks and easier to give up that power. But when you don’t believe that you, you’re less likely to do so. And then how many folks are familiar with Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz’ work. Anybody in here? Okay. She said, and it was so clear but also so profound at the same time, “What you believe about who you’re serving dictates your investment.” And so you might say that, yeah, we’re trying to reach said aim, but if you don’t really believe this group of students or teachers can get to this point, you are going to… I’m going follow Dr. Hinton because she said she likes to say colorful language. You’re going half-ass what you’re doing if you don’t really believe that they can get there. And so I think belief proceeds some of what we’re trying to do to be liberatory, and so we got to check ourselves.
I would just say that we can challenge students all we want, but if we don’t believe that they have the ability to rise to that challenge, then the challenge will go unmet. Or said differently, no one has ever risen to low expectations.
We’re going totally off script, friends. Okay. Not totally, don’t worry. So I’d love to hear, because you both have a really deep understanding of Deming’s work, the more recent work in improvement science and education, if creating more just systems is our goal, which we’re all in agreement it is, I’m assuming, how are the tools and ways of thinking of improvement helpful? And how can they be problematic if we’re not careful?
Okay, cool. The tools and ways of thinking. Well, I think one of them comes down to just general equity-mindedness. So I guess the difference between more of a deficit perspective where we blame students, we blame their families, we blame their communities versus an equity-minded perspective where we look first at ourselves and say, what are we doing or not doing that’s resulting in the challenges and disparities that we see? It’s like in reading education where they talk about the difference between a window book versus a mirror book. Window book is looking out the window into someone else’s life and experience versus a mirror book where we’re looking into the mirror and seeing a reflection of ourselves. In some ways, we do the same thing as educators. We like to externalize and look at all those things out there without looking into the mirror to see our own frailties. So I think that that’s one of the ways of thinking that’s important.
I also think that in general, those pieces around high expectations, around validation, those are, I think, critical for how we think about and engage with our students. So another way of thinking about what are the kind of lenses and sense-making that we have to have is one that really just embeds equity at the center of what we’re doing. And so there was a college that I was working with, and they had some of the right pieces. But they were missing the right questions, and so they weren’t actually getting what they were hoping to get. So they had invited me in to come and speak to them because they had been on this equity journey for several years, five years. They’d poured millions of dollars into it. And at the end of this journey, they had found that if they looked overall, that they actually had an increase in student success. So partly, I was coming there to help celebrate, yay, you had some success, things went up for students, your success rates were better. So the night before I got there, I then was like, oh, let me look on their data dashboard to see what this looks like when you start to disaggregate further. And I found some really interesting things.
So I remember what I did is I started out with the metaphor of a rising tide lifts all boats. And I showed this picture of basically boats at the bottom of the ocean. And I said, when people have this notion of a rising tide lifts all boats, it’s this idea that there’s boats are in the water. The boats represent our students. And as the water goes up with just general good practice across the board, regardless of who the student is, that the boat is naturally going to go up. But the challenge is that all of our boats aren’t in the same condition. Some of the boats have holes in them due to systemic oppression, racism and dehumanization. Some of the boats aren’t touched by all the wonderful things that we’re doing because they’re not even in the water. So we might have all these wonderful resources and services, but if they don’t reach the people who need it, then there’s no validity to that effort. Some boats are simply on fire due to food insecurities, housing insecurities, transportation concerns, employment barriers that affect students and their families. And then lastly, some people don’t even have boats. So just recognizing that if we’re going to think about implementing an intervention, it’s not always going to work if we’re not putting equity at the center of it.
So I showed them their data. Success, it went up. And then I showed them the next slide where I disaggregated their data by race and gender and showed them that for most of their majority groups, success had went up. For most of their minoritized students, it had either remained the same. And for most of their men of color, boys of color, it actually had went down. So this equity intervention that was meant for these last five years to improve outcomes for these groups, improved success overall but actually exasperated the issues that their students were facing. And so I share that because a lot of times the thinking that comes into this, we have good steps and strategies, but if we’re not disaggregating, we’re missing a point. If we’re not viewing it and asking ourselves from equity-minded perspective what are we doing or not doing this resulting in this, we’re missing the point. And too often, we’re oblivious because we think that we are on point, and we’re missing more things than we realize.
I, again, would agree with what you said. I think sometimes we focus too much on the tools, and a tool is just a tool. Let’s say I had a scalpel. This is going to be a bad example, but it’s what came to mind. Let’s say I had a scalpel. I could cut a trach to help you breathe, or I could slit your throat using the same tool. And so it’s about who’s wielding the tool and how they’re using it. And so I tell people all the time, whatever your flavor of improvement you’re using, whether it is DBIR or Improvement Science or Lesson Study, all of them have the potential to be transformative, and all of them have the potential to exacerbate the status quo. Now, I’m not saying the tools are trash. That’s not what I’m saying. But they’re not magic. They’re not magic. People hold magic, and so it’s all about how we are wielding the tools.
Okay. I have one last question for y’all. Then I’m going to give you all a chance to just turn to buddy at your table and just process a little bit. But one of the things that we talked about when we met up before this was, yeah, tools are important, but what’s really important are mindset shifts and the dispositions that we’re after too. Brandi, in your podcast, you quote Audrey Lauren talking about the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house and ask this beautiful question of, are they still the master’s tools if they’re in my hands? But to your point just now, it depends on the dispositions that you’re bringing to the work. And so I’d love to hear you guys just talk about what are the dispositions that you think are absolutely critical for folks to hold if they’re engaging in and leading improvement for justice.
I don’t have a list of dispositions, but I think you start with humility and a recognition that you as an individual nor does your team hold the answers. I think humility does a lot to bring other people to the table in terms of leading improvement. I think you also, and this goes back to humility on some level, have to really be willing to learn. As we think about equity in particular, there is the racial literacy framework. There’s anti-racism. There’s critical race theory. And these are dealing specifically with race, but there are also other theories for folks dealing with other types of minoritized individual that we have to get into challenge ourselves. It is necessary for us to recognize that the oppressive soup that is the United States, we’ve all been cooking in it. And my Blackness doesn’t make me immune to white supremacist behaviors, and my womanness doesn’t make me immune to having patriarchal views. And so we’ve all been soaking in the stew, and we’ve got to unlearn what we’ve been socialized to believe and how we’ve been socialized to operate. And I think part of, I guess, this mindset or disposition that we have to have is recognizing that we came up in a system that is super problematic, and we got to train ourselves to see some of the problematic stuff that we have literally been socialized not to see.
And so it is not easy work. It’s not like I’m going to read this book and now I’ve got it. It’s constant work. And the thing, oppression is sneaky, and it reinvents itself. So after you’ve got it one way, guess what, it’s going to crop up again over here. What they call it? The Hydras. Racism is a Hydra. You going to cut it off here; two more heads going to grow over here. And so you’ve got to be constantly growing in your ability to look. And that’s necessary for liberatory improvement. It’s not necessary for continuous improvement, but if it’s going to be liberatory, you’ve got to train yourself and constantly retrain yourself to see how the systems and structures are morphing to continue to marginalize certain groups. That’s not a disposition list. I’m sorry. I tried.
So three dispositions would be authenticity, care and justice and really the desire to enact those three things. I see those as being, what is that the core that we need. But then beyond that, I think it comes down to two primary things: knowledge and action. So knowledge and action don’t always go hand-in-hand. For example, all of us know how to eat healthy, but we don’t always do so. All of us know how to work out, but we may look back and say, hey, we didn’t do as well as we should have. When you start put those two things together, it creates some different groups that I think are important.
One group that my colleague Frank and I talk about is what we call the choir. These are the people who have the knowledge, and they have the action. They know the strategies and practices that it takes to support students and their success, and most importantly, they have the action and willingness to actually do those things they’re putting in the practice. So then it doesn’t bother me when I get invited to go to a school, a college or university, to do a brown bag on microaggressions and the people who show up are the people who already know what’s going on and could probably be giving the lecture themselves because they’re the ones who are the most likely to put it into practice anyhow because they have the knowledge and they have the action and they’re sharpening their tools.
Then you can have people who have the action or the willingness to do so but don’t have the knowledge. And I would think of those as our allies. There’s a willingness to do it, but we have to bridge that with training and development and additional learning opportunities to bring them from one side to the other to empower them to help become part of that choir.
Then you have people who don’t have the knowledge and don’t have the action. We call them the resistors. Some people say they just don’t know and they don’t care. But in reality, some of them do care and they care in very negative ways. The first group of our resistors we call are active resistors, and active resistors actively resist. They hear that there’s going to be a conversation on equity or social justice or critical race theory or microaggressions, pick your topic, and they get upset. They push back. I’ve had campuses that I’ve went to go speak to, who the night before, somebody pulled down the email of every single faculty member, staff member, administrator and said, “Don’t go. This is an example of reverse racism and reverse discrimination. Why are we having this conversation?” And then they did the what-abouts. What about this group? What about that group? What about that group? But most people who are resistors aren’t active resistors because people are more worried about being called a racist than they are about actually being a racist. And so we have the other group within that that we call our passive resistors. They just want to stay out of the fray. There’s going to be a conversation. They’re not going to say anything. They’ll push back behind the scenes, but they’re going to vote with their lack of presence. They’re simply not going to come.
And then the final group that we have in our framework is those who, they know what to do. They just choose not to do it. So they have the knowledge, but they don’t have the action. And we think of them as the defiant because they could be part of the solution, yet they are persistently part of the problem.
Now, I was presenting this framework choir, the allies, resistors, the defiant, and there was one of our guys who funds our center and provides us with some resources here and there. He was in the room, and he says, “That’s a cool framework, but you’re missing something.” Now, we’re researchers, so when someone tells you you’re missing something, you’re like, what? Those are fighting words. What do you mean I’m missing something? But then when he said it, I was just like, oh my gosh, you’re so right. He said, “But what about the people who fall in the middle, the people who think they know what to do and really don’t, the people who think they’re willing but really aren’t?” And it goes back to what you mentioned about humility, and we call that group the oblivious.
And there’s three different types of oblivious. The first are those who have a savior complex. They think their job is to save, not to empower. They think that they have the answers. They’re not willing to listen. They bring a deficit mindset into equity work. And one of the things that anybody here who’s ever worked with minoritized students know is that they can spot phony a million miles away because it’s what they’re used to and what they’ve been exposed to throughout their whole lives. The second are those that are non-reflective. We all know these folks. They know how to use the right words. They say the right things. They use the right language. But if you look at what they say and what they actually do, those two things are totally removed from one another. And then the last group that we would call on that would be the grandstanders, the people who do this for the public image, because it’s about them. It’s about their career. It’s about their reputation. It’s about how they can leverage these conversations to benefit themselves. And so it comes down to knowledge. It comes down to action.
Humility is at the center of it along with authenticity and care and justice. And I think that when we can put all those ingredients together, we can have educators who can transform institutions. And when all those things fall apart, we have educators who have created the various systems that we’re all looking at and facing this day.
High Tech High Unboxed is hosted and edited by me, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Herschel. Huge thanks to Brandi Hinnant-Crawford, Luke Wood, Michelle, Michelle Sadrena Pledger and Stacey Caillier. This is part of the series of three episodes from the Gates Foundation Network for School Improvement Fall 2022 Community of Practice Event. You can also find recordings of all the talks from the event on the High Tech High Unboxed YouTube channel. There’s a link to that in our show notes. Thanks for listening.