Race and Responsibility

I live in the little city of Olympia, Washington. Its tucked away at the bottom of the Puget Sound, connected to the ocean but seeming a world apart from a lot of America. That is, until two days ago when two African American men were shot by a white officer.

Suspected of stealing beer from a grocery store, they were identified as suspects and confronted by a solitary officer. He has reported that one of them attacked him with a skate board, and to defend himself he shot the assailant. The second suspect was shot soon afterwards.

Overall, young Olympia regards itself to be a liberal group in a generally progressive town. The incident of a white officer shooting two black men for stealing beer doesn’t bode well, and consequently there was a march within 18 hours of the incident featuring many, many white people chanting “Black Lives Matter” and calling for justice in this case.

Much the same as the protesters yesterday, I am all concerned with the obvious pattern of police militarization, the criminalization of African American men, the school-to-prison pipeline and other clearly heinous acts of prejudice and discrimination against people of color by white people in America today.

However, I think we’re missing something.

One month before he was assassinated, Malcolm X said,

“All my life, I believed that the fundamental struggle was Black versus white. Now I realize that it is the haves against the have-nots.”

Most of us have yet to understand this.

I do believe in the power of Black solidarity. History teaches us through examples like Black Wall Street, Harlem, and my beloved North 24th Street in Omaha.

The fact is that it’s a white power structure that formed, molded and sustained the rotten economy of haves and have-nots in the US, and now more than ever, worldwide. Malcolm X wasn’t releasing anyone of their responsibility for the despicable condition we find ourselves in, and I refuse to as well. My fellow people of European descent appear largely incapable of imagining and implementing a world without inequity and disparity.

That said, the way forward is not based on race, per se. Its based on unity and umoja between races focused on the economic structure enforced by white privilege. Using our hands, hearts, minds and souls, we have to work together to dismantle prejudice, whether it is economic, social, cultural, racial, educational or otherwise.

Just beyond that, all of us everywhere on this planet have to realize that there really is no “them” and “us” – there’s only us. We actually are all in this together, and we are all completely interdependent upon one another.

But between here and there, I don’t think there’s a crime in recognizing culpability, complicity and connectivity. It all started somewhere, its going somewhere and almost all of us are going along with it, until we don’t anymore.

What we’re missing is that each of us, no matter what our race, has a role in doing something right now. If you’re a white mom at home, go meet people of color and introduce your kids to them. If you’re a person of color going to a predominantly white college, go meet some white people you never thought you would and just talk to them without educating them on race or economics, just listen to them. If you’re a Irish person in France go spend your money in businesses belonging to Middle Eastern immigrants. If you’re young, hold a sit-in in your school and teach people about overthrowing the white wealth structure that benefits white people – no matter what your skin color is. If you’re old, listen to some conscious hip hop and really let it teach you.

No matter who you are, DO something. Let’s stop acting so innocent through our ignorance and inaction, and start acknowledging our complicity and responsibility. Only then can we meet James Baldwin’s insistence that we can,

“insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others … we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

We HAVE TO change the history of the world. Starting… NOW.

Beyond Taylor Wilson

Taylor Wilson is a 17-year-old nuclear physicist from the U.S. A few years ago, it was reported that he was the youngest person to ever build a nuclear reactor.

In March 2012, TED posted an introductory talk by Taylor where he describes his attempt to build a star when he was 14 years old. I just watched another video where Taylor gets really deep. He’s particularly smart about physics and has accumulated a great deal of ability in his field. He’s also a good presenter.

Taylor is operating in a really rarified space. He’s a mixture that’s rare among human beings, and especially among young people. He is highly engaged, posses expert knowledge, is highly capable, and as witnessed by the media machine behind his work, he has broad exposure to the “right” audiences.

That is why I’m interested in moving beyond Taylor Wilson, and the other Taylor Wilson’s in the world.

A lot of organizations concerned with youth involvement, youth voice, youth empowerment, and youth engagement are concerned with youth who are Taylor Wilson, in any respect. They want young sports players, junior political leaders, natural teachers, and youth activists to have the tools, opportunities, and avenues they need to get any level of exposure similar to Taylor. Others want to reach young people who are at best in one of those spaces, or some mix between those spaces, not necessarily expert but definitely highly capable.

My work keeps coming back to a different part of the spectrum though. After growing up how I did and spending a career working with the people I have, I want to reach the “every youth”, the “typical teen”, and the “new normal”. Those are really subjective terms, but they’re meant to capture the un-Taylor Wilsons of the world.

I’m most concerned with how to reach those young people and increase their engagement, their knowledge, their ability, and their exposure.

Taylor’s story is definitely inspiring. But instead of replicating him once or twice straight across though, how do we move all people closer to that space?

By the way, I want to reach these young people, by the way. And this one. And the millions of others like them.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Getting Schools Closer to Malala


Yesterday, Malala Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations, detailing her experience and passion for education. As I watched and listened, I couldn’t help but wonder about this gulf that exists. Somewhere between North America, where so many students absolutely rue school, and Afghanistan where Malala is from, there is a gap of understanding, opportunity, trust, and engagement in learning. 
This young woman was willing to die in order to attend school; so many American and Canadian students are ready to simply slump their way out of school in order to never go back again. What is causing this gulf?
In my years working throughout the education system and in community-based learning environments, I’ve seen the gulf a lot. In the States, it’s often reflected of socio-economic class, where middle- and upper-class put a relatively high value on schooling, while lower- and working-class students devalue it. I’ve also seen it exist in learning environments that are have huge ability gaps between teachers, where some really, really engage with students, while others could give a rat’s patooty about the students in their classrooms.
I believe the gulf is about student voice.
The Power of Student Voice
When adults learn to value the expressions every learner shares about education, students will value schools more. That’s different from student leadership activities, which aren’t synonymous with student voice. That’s different from student engagement measurement tools, which almost have nothing to do with student voice.

Instead, it’s about student voice activities that balance different students’ voices. Those don’t necessarily have to be along the lines of race, socio-economic status, or similar lines either: balancing student voice can mean achieving and non-achieving students; dropouts and graduates; non-college bound and college bound; etc. This avoids the pedestaling effects of so many student voice activities.

In New York, I taught the schools concerned with democracy in education that the places they could most affect democracy were:

  • How their buildings framed student voice,
  • The ways educators frame it and,
  • Students’ understandings of student voice for themselves

Ultimately though, the only avenue towards engaging student voice in democracy isn’t through student voice at all. As a simply expression, student voice can never be democracy. Only through intentional engagement in a larger concept can student voice affect democracy, and that’s why I developed the frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. True engagement throughout the educational system is required for student voice to not be just another program in schools, and for students to experience democracy in education.

The North American Problem

The problem with schools in the United States and Canada, where I’ve done the vast majority of my work, is that they aren’t for students themselves – they’re for adults. They generally believe that students have the right to their opinions, and adults within the education system have a responsibility to engage those opinions. However, they don’t believe students have a right to share opinions adults don’t agree with. That isn’t democracy. This makes obvious the reality that adults generally don’t think all the way through what they’re doing with students. For lack of exposure, background research, or training, in their well-meaningness many adults actually do more harm to students through student voice activities than help them.

Malala’s schooling experience isn’t exclusively for students, either. They’re for her families, her community, her culture, and her nation too. Also, Malala understands that. North American students generally don’t, and haven’t for a very long time. In a society that values consumption over education, we don’t see the relevance of learning beyond its earning potential. If we come from cultures within our society that don’t value consumption or are seen as “failed consumers”, schools become worthless.

Student voice can be embraced within education systems towards the goal of building democracy, but not as democracy itself. As I frequently advocate for, it can be infused in educational leadership, integrated in classroom teaching and management, and acknowledged for its role in school culture. However, the simple act of student voice should never be confused for the complexity of democracy.

This particular problem allows adults to draw a lot of conclusions. Adults decide students are incapable of contributing meaningfully (e.g. how we want them to) towards school improvement. 

Instead, let’s think like Malala and actively engage diverse student voice. By doing this, adults in schools can demonstrate that diversity in every activity can stop the belief that one student or group of students can or should represent all students. That’s closer to democracy, and closer to Malala.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!