Image credit: Seattle Times
Paulo Freire warned us about counter revolutionaires. He defined them as “revolutionaires who became reactionary.” But in times of crises, like now with the COVID-19 pandemic, how do we prevent revolutionaries from becoming reactionary? Freire gave us an antidote for counter revolutionaries: dialogue. Right now, April 5th, 2020, is an interesting time to watch leaders and previous revolutionaries react to this crisis. People who used to be at odds with one another are suddenly allies, supporting each other for the sake of “getting through this.” I suppose, to a certain degree, I understand this. However, hidden beneath the “let’s all get along” narrative is the “don’t talk about bad leadership” mandate; essentially, restricting dialogue and critical analysis about leaders who were once considered lacking. We see this on the national level with many leaders calling to rally behind Trump because he is the president. And here, in Seattle, many are calling to rally behind our district superintendent. It’s an interesting phenomenon. How does a global pandemic make a poor leader better overnight? Why is criticism taboo during a crisis?
Critical Dialogue Is More Critical Than Ever
Upon reflection, I can see why, during this time of crisis, people who don’t regularly work with me would dismiss my continued call outs of the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools; from the outside I probably look like a perpetually angry malcontent. It’s true I am angry a lot, but most of my time is spent on creating, collaborating, and laughing with people in my community. I love the work I do because of the people I get to work with. Calling someone out only comes after communication has broken down or has been intentionally shut down.
The superintendent actively and routinely shuts down dialogue and acts without collaboration. This is a person who has repeatedly earned criticism and disapproval from a wide range of community members. Whether or not I agree with each of these actions, the fact remains there is a plethora of examples of her poor judgment. She cancelled a Native American after school program and an after school program focused on academic support for Black students, has led the cover up of several teacher abuse stories for which she was slow to apologize and left many families feeling like her apology was severely lacking, continues to ignore claims of racism from students and staff, and continues to refuse to support a meaningful ethnic studies program despite the fact the school board has unanimously supported it and various student groups, including her own student advisory group, demand it. She has offended and alienated educators of Color who have become leaders on a national level in ethnic studies.
The above examples are only examples of how her leadership continues to harm largely communities of Color. There are also several examples of how she has alienated large swaths of affluent, white families. Though I agree with some of the decisions that angered white families, like the adoption of Amplify Science and the dismantling of the highly capable/gifted cohort, the ways in which they were implemented demonstrate her lack of concern for collaboration and her dismissal of classroom educators. For example, she pushed the Technology Access Foundation (TAF) program on Washington Middle School (WMS) despite a no vote from the educators at WMS. While many educators expressed support for TAF, they explained the no vote was a result of a lack of communication from Juneau about how TAF would be implemented and how it would impact their jobs. And just this week, Juneau showed her contempt for educators again by sending out a Hunger Games style mandate that educators show up for childcare duty on top of their teaching jobs (currently complicated by transitioning to an all virtual environment) without so much as mentioning her intent to the teachers’ union.
There have been several attempts by all of the people and organizations impacted by this poor leadership to collaborate and reasonably address these issues through dialogue, but it only falls on apathetic ears. After the superintendent interrupted a regularly scheduled ethnic studies work meeting, chastising the group for not completing a task that her own cabinet members blocked the group from working on, some members of the group asked for an apology. The superintendent’s response was, “I’m not prepared to have that conversation today.” When I look back at these examples of poor leadership, I’m left to wonder how much resentment and anger could have been prevented with dialogue. And now, when we should be hypercritical of leadership, particularly how leaders communicate, some are asking to give her grace by not vocalizing criticism – restricting dialogue.
Counter Revolutionaries are Contradictions to the People
“Almost never, however, does a revolutionary leadership group perceive that it constitutes a contradiction to the people. Indeed, this perception is painful, and the resistance may serve as a defense mechanism. After all, it is not easy for leaders who have emerged through adherence to the oppressed to recognize themselves as being in contradiction with those to whom they adhered. It is important to recognize this reluctance when analyzing certain forms of behavior on the part of revolutionary leaders who involuntarily become a contradiction (although not antagonists) of the people.” – Freire
This is something I keep with me always as I reflect on my responsibility as a “leader”. I put that in quotations because I continue to be a reluctant leader. But this is something I’m seeing happen in our current reality. I understand the desire to rally behind a leader and work together through these challenging events, but it feels more reactionary than revolutionary. Some might say a crisis is the best time to react. I disagree whole-heartedly. A crisis is the best opportunity for a revolution. Why rally behind a leader that has repeatedly demonstrated their inability to successfully lead when right now is the time exceptional leadership is required? I think that’s why Dr. Fauci and Governor Cuomo are gaining popularity. They are voices of reason that counteract the poor leadership of the president, made painfully more visible during this crisis. Similarly, we are seeing in public education how this crisis is opening the wounds of racial, class, and disability disparities and how many of the superintendent’s actions have exacerbated them since her arrival. Now is the time for revolutionary action, not reactionary solidarity.
I urge those in leadership to reject reactionary solidarity and embrace revolutionary action and leadership. When we think of centering students and communities of Color, is the current leader the best person for the job? If the answer is no, how does a global pandemic improve their leadership qualities and abilities? I urge all people to continue to engage in critical dialogue and not allow their fear of the present erase the harm of the past and the future neglect of the communities we serve and fight for.