Where do we start?


For the last two weeks I have had the pleasure of speaking with faculty and students in parts of the rural Midwest. Most recently I was in Cedar Falls, Iowa to talk with education students, teachers, professors and other staff members. On a cold, rainy Saturday morning at eight fifteen, students struggled out of bed, arrived somewhat bleary eyed and gathered around the food and coffee before beginning the half day of welcome, speech and break out sessions.  The good turnout was encouraging, considering many of these students take a full load of courses and work part time; it might have been one of the few times in the week they could work out, sleep in and hang around their dorms before setting off to study or bus dishes, enter data, hold meetings. Yet they were back in school.

I was reminded, as I watched them walk into the auditorium, of why we do what we do: why coming together in a real world, with chairs that squeak and people who cough, and technology  that can be complicated is so powerful.  It is because we are in public, intersecting with our voices, body language, laughter, interruption, even a touch on the shoulder or a gesture of assent or confusion. So much of our lives,–even our courses and our meetings– can happen alone, behind a screen, telephone next to us. So much of our interactions are in text, tweets, on Facebook pages where the safety of separation allows for withdrawal: a flip of our lap-top or a swipe of our smart phone can end an uncomfortable conversation. Not that morning, however, and I was grateful for the presence of so many together.

As an introduction to my keynote, Richard Webb, who works in the education department as an advisor, recruiter, diversity coach, read the following piece. He has been a guest in our home for dinner and we had met over a meal the evening before to plan the day’s program.

I stand here as a testimony

I stand here with my story

I stand here born from a mother and a father

I stand here as a son of a grandmother

I stand here as a survivor of a broken home filled with broken dreams

I stand here from a home filled with love

I stand here as a child traveler of many miles

I stand here asked to be grown before my time

I stand here as a frequent flier of many schools

I stand here as an everyday “Special Ed kids”

I stand here Big, Black, Bold, Dark, Intelligent, Intellectual, and Driven

I stand here because a couple of teachers dared to love me against the norm, one, Black and Gay, one Fat and Mexican, One Lebanese and strict and one 3rd grade White teacher who got my old class to write cards to me when I got shipped off to the “other school” for bad kids

I stand here with Malcolm’s hope, I stand here with Martin’s Dream

I stand here because of ocean deaths, continent genocide, and cotton field capitalism

I stand here still fighting to be free

I stand here because I believe dinner can change the world

Thank you Julie for having dinner with me….

After this introduction there was a moment of silence before the applause. I have felt such a silence in moments of grace– moments when words or songs or even applause are not quite what the situation calls for. In that moment I found myself believing again, as I so often find myself being called to do, that what we reveal, what we dare to tell each other, is what changes the world. Richard’s story set the tone for an open exchange, a willingness to be uncomfortable, courageous, wrong, embarrassed, and compassionate. It set the tone for us to listen carefully because the young man sitting in the back of the room, whom you may believe is resistant to your words, may be the most open, perceptive person in the class.  Richard’s introduction made way for what followed: an attentive group of teachers and students and staff who became curious, puzzled, humorous and heartfelt in their questions and responses. It was one of the best mornings I have spent doing the work I do.

Is it naïve to think that if we all just tell our stories and listen to them, if we approach each other without assumptions or pre conceived notions about those whom we see before us, we will solve the stubborn problems and inequities in our schools and our country? Of course it is. Whole systems are devoted to keeping certain groups “in their place”. Large numbers of people and corporations are devoted to stopping progress for our kids of color, our poor kids and their parents as well. The work is in ferreting out the path to influence and stopping incursions into our democratic rights, our civil laws, the very qualities that give us any hope in this country.

Yet we must start somewhere. Often that somewhere is in knowing the details, the trajectory of a life, the way the world changed because of a mentor, a teacher, a minister. We start by creating places and hours that build from the moment of silence that came after Richard Webb stopped reading, when we held in our hearts the image of him standing there before us, giving us his words. Finding somewhere to start has to begin with the motivation of the group, together in a physical space, screens tucked away, facing each other, facing the speaker, allowing for hesitation, respect, difference and troubling thoughts. We start here. And then we organize. Of course we organize. We gather teachers together to refuse to give another standardized test as they did at Garfield High School in Seattle; we help students organize an effort to create a safe park in their neighborhood, using letters and meetings, science and math and literacy to accomplish this. We organize. We ban together with parents to object to the closure of neighborhood schools as is happening in Chicago. We close the door to our classroom and we throw out the textbook and we teach the full, multi perspective history of our country. We organize.

After we have started, after we have struggled up at seven thirty on a Saturday to get to Cedar Falls Campus, after we have questioned and listened and gone back again and again to figure out how we feel, how we can incorporate what we hear, we make plans. We do this work in concert with others, in real spaces, whenever we can bring it all together. We use virtual means to bring ourselves into contact, where we listen to real voices and take in what they say and go on from there: to teach, to rebel if need be. It is what we do with those who believe as we do, that there are still those who are” still fighting to be free” as Richard says. It becomes who we are, to hear, to put ourselves in alliance with all who want the messy, deep, difficult changes we desire.