Now that you know how I define “activist” and “leader” here are some examples of ways that I have worked to dismantle hierarchies with my community!
DISMANTLING BUILDING AND DISTRICT-WIDE HIERARCHIES
I have two specific examples I want to address here. I’m not going to name names, but people familiar with the circumstance will likely know who I’m talking about. This isn’t an attack on their moral character, but I can only speak to what I know, and using concrete examples is helpful for me in both giving explanations and seeking to understand. First, I want to address my school hierarchy.
The principal of my school is a white male. I’m pretty sure he hits every single point of privilege that exists: white, male, cisgender, straight, Christian, educated, citizen, English speaker, able-bodied, middle-aged, middle class… I’m probably missing some. On top of all of that, he’s the principal and has been at our school for nearly 20 years. He’s won a lot of awards and received a lot of recognition. Some view him as a leader on racial equity because our school has done a “good job” of “closing opportunity gaps.” (Makes a mental note to write a blog on her belief that “successfully closing opportunity gaps” is code for limiting access to education for Black and Brown kids since the gap is measured by standardized test scores.) Oh, I guess it’s not really a mental note if it’s published. Oopsy!
My principal really prides himself on his professionalism and objectivity. When I first started teaching at my school, I was impressed too. I didn’t really have to work with him much, so I respected that he left me alone to teach the way I wanted to. I took that as him respecting my role as a professional in the classroom. But then… I started acting more. I joined the Building Leadership Team and the Racial Equity Team – each of which he chairs. He also chairs several other leadership teams and frequently attends PLC (professional learning community) meetings. He sends a lower-level administrator as a surrogate to the PLCs he’s unable to attend. In these PLCs, he assumes a role of authority generally by communicating some mandate or policy. From what I hear from other educators, this is kind of the norm in other buildings. If I apply the definitions of leadership that I have outlined so far, I wouldn’t consider him a leader. I think it’s fair to say he does inspire some educators, but the question is, “Inspire them to do what?” He inspired me to write this critique of his leadership!
Let’s first unpack his “professionalism and objectivity.” He is often criticized by educators and students for being too cold and stiff. This makes me think of Freire who says, “To deny the importance of subjectivity in the process of transforming the world and history is naive and simplistic. It is to admit the impossible: a world without people.” One responsibility of the Building Leadership Team is to make budget decisions. Whenever we had to discuss cuts to positions, he would always remind us to talk in terms of positions, and not people. In one particular instance, we were deciding which of two elective offerings to cut. An argument was made for one over the other because the individual teaching the class was ineffective. My principal again reminded us to speak in terms of the position, not the individual. This focus on objectivity dismissed the human roles being played. One teacher was loved and effective, one was not. The decision really could have gone either way as both were art programs.
Limiting a critical discussion of the human element to our problem was indeed “naive and simplistic.” It was also when I started to see the facade fail and I began to question his leadership. At the time, I only pushed back as much as I felt comfortable. It was before I had my network of support, and there was only one other person in the meeting who felt it was wrong: our school librarian.
The fact that he shut down our attempts to see the humanity in the problem leads to my second unpacking. It involves his determination to “lead” nearly every single committee and team in the building. Unconditional love for humanity results in trust of our fellow human beings. Freire also says, “The convert [from oppressor to ally] who approaches the people but feels alarm at each step they take, each doubt they express, and each suggestion they offer, and attempts to impose his ‘status’ remains nostalgic of his origins [as an oppressor].” Not trusting a group of professionals to solve a problem through unrestricted dialogue is oppression.
As mentioned, our school has won awards for closing opportunity gaps, specifically in math. This has been achieved by funneling kids, mostly kids of color, into “extra math help” based on standardized test scores. This can happen during the regular school schedule, which means they miss out on an elective, or after school, which means they miss out on enrichment programming, sports, or family time. Kids are also frequently pulled in from lunch, which is their only opportunity to get outside and play with peers during the day. The worst part? Less than 70% of our students pass the math tests, and the rate for kids of color is about half that.
During a Racial Equity Team meeting, I brought this up. I expressed how, despite receiving awards for closing opportunity gaps, our practices were in fact perpetuating racial inequalities by limiting access to enriching programs to our students of color. By this time, I had built my network of support, which included the school librarian I mentioned earlier, Jeff Treistman. Jeff and I attempted to have a discussion about this with other RET members, most of whom agreed. My principal said, “We will not have a discussion about the math department,” and completely prohibited the conversation.
Are you ready? I’m going to quote Freire again. It won’t be the last time, either. “Within an object situation of oppression, antidialogue is necessary to the oppressor as a means of further oppression – not only economic, but cultural: the vanquished are dispossessed of their word, their expressiveness, their culture. Further, once a situation of oppression has been initiated, antidialogue becomes indispensable to its preservation.” It’s not just in this circumstance that he shuts down dialogue. He frequently shuts down dialogue between colleagues. He encourages one-on-one conversations and closely monitors large group conversations. This is the sign of an oppressor, not a leader. This is a hierarchy.
It’s unfortunate that he shutdown dialogue in the room that day. Well, unfortunate for him, because it encouraged Jeff to take it to our community – the Seattle Education Association. “…human beings in communion liberate each other.” Yes, Freire. With support from me and other members of our community, Jeff wrote, and our union passed, a resolution calling for a moratorium on standardized testing. He then took it to our national community by writing and winning a resolution in support of his moratorium at the National Education Association’s representative assembly! Hierarchies can be dismantled from inside or outside pressure. You just have to find your strength, the community, and the weak spot in the barrier.
The place where hierarchies have taken the strongest hold is school district offices. In Seattle Public Schools we have organizational charts several pages long indicating who reports to whom. We have codified hierarchies in our district. People in lower ranks generally don’t question or challenge the decisions being made by people higher up the org. chart, especially if that person has an EdD or PhD after their names.
My work in dealing with the district hierarchy has been on implementing an ethnic studies program. Decolonization is at the root of ethnic studies, and I’m arguing in this series that can’t happen until we begin to dismantle hierarchies. One way that I, personally, have worked to do this is by working to overcome my imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is that voice in your head that tells you you’re not capable or experienced enough. This can be caused by people actually saying these things to you, or by your own insecurities. Either way, if you know the answers, speak up! Push back that voice, whether it’s internal or external. Doctorate degrees are wonderful, and I don’t want to diminish the work that’s put into them, especially by people of color – which I’ll talk more about in part 3 – BUT there is more to knowledge than formal education. My expertise in ethnic studies comes from my formal education and my personal life experiences. One is not more valid than the other.
I’m frequently identified as a “leader” by my peers. I guess there is some truth to that, but when I’m asked to lead workshops or professional development sessions on how to be an education leader, my response is, “I don’t know how to teach people to speak up.” That’s literally all I’ve done to earn the title of “leader.” I have been in situations in which I’m in the room with a group of administrators that are fairly high up in the org. chart who have had no idea how to begin to think about a K-12 ethnic studies program, and many of them still aren’t even clear on what ethnic studies is. They would virtually wring their hands not knowing what to do, and I would say, “Well, what if we… “ fill in the blank. They would look at me and agree it’s a great idea. After a while, it got to the point where they stopped the hand wringing and looked straight to me and other educator leaders for answers. Where they left a hole, I was able to fill it with the knowledge I gained from my life experiences and education. If I had given in to my imposter syndrome, I don’t think we’d be where we are right now with our ethnic studies program.
Now, here’s the key. I need to take us back to that whole idea of holding the community in our heart. The only reason I was in the room with those administrators in the first places is because of the working relationship and friendship I have with other education leaders and my local chapter of the NAACP. The education chair, Rita Green, elevated my voice and position to be in that room. Without her advocacy, I would be seen as “just a teacher,” and her trust in me helped to break through that imposter syndrome. Being in community with Rita and the NAACP empowered me to speak up and gave me a sense of obligation to be an activist within that community, which meant not sitting on the sidelines.
Because of my community, because I faced my fear and insecurities, and because I used my life experiences and education I was able to dismantle a huge hierarchical structure to push through an ethnic studies initiative. In turn, I brought my community of educators with me. I built a team of educators, mostly educators of color, to work together to build the foundation, and now the curriculum for our program. I believe this team, which consists of classroom teachers, instructional assistants, and family support workers, stays committed to this work because we are a community. I wasn’t some administrator hiring them to do a job. I came to them as a peer who genuinely respects and values them and asked them to join a community. This is a skill that many administrators lack because they are still in that space of “I as an individual in an organization have authority.”
In no way do I believe that I have permanently dismantled a hierarchy. I did enough damage to it, though, to create an educator led fight for racial justice that is supported by our broader community of parents and community at large. I recognize that there is still a fight ahead of us, but our community continues to grow all the time. We are gaining recognition locally and nationally. The educators doing the work are becoming leaders in their own right because they have felt empowered by this community. I think that’s what I am most proud of, and what I take with me into the next phase. It’s also been the most valuable lesson for me on the absolute necessity of community building to dismantle hierarchies and decolonize education.