Critical Thinking Part 1


A lot of people reduce critical thinking to simply telling people that what they’re doing is not enough or inadequate. That’s not what its about.

Instead, critical thinking engages people in identifying their assumptions, examining their beliefs, and supporting their personal development before, during, and after their actions.

Instead of right and wrong, critical thinking suggests we help shepherd individuals towards a grey space that is neither: Social change is about everyone benefiting. While that may murky the waters a lot of people wade through in order to volunteer, it doesn’t exclude anyone; rather, it builds their personal capacity to be successful.

Surely that can’t be wrong – can it?

Reflecting on Baltimore

geodesicdome1I have never been in a riot. I do love Baltimore though, and in all my travels I’ve become most attached to that city.

Growing up in a working class African American neighborhood in the Midwest, I constantly heard stories about the riots that destroyed my community in the 1960s and 1970s.

I didn’t believe it all, but saw what people talked about. A torched movie theater was the last one on our side of town, while more than a few churches moved to other parts of the city during and right after the riots.

A lot of the older guys around the block said they were involved. Clyde, who must’ve been 40 when I was 20 in 1995, said he threw Molotov cocktails at police cars. One of my mentors, Ernest, was a Black Panther when it was all going down. He taught me that politicized people are harder to control than economically-driven people, and that was in the late 1980s.

Long after I’d left the neighborhood, I studied my city to learn about the riots. A lesson came shining through: Riots happen a lot, and the majority are led by white people. But when white people riot, its quickly forgotten; when African Americans riot, its scraped in the psyche of the media, politicians, business owners and others.

Another lesson I discovered, at least in the city where I grew up, is that reinvestment in riot-scarred African American neighborhoods is hard to come by, even 20, 30 and 40 years later.

5 Reflections on Baltimore

The riots that happened in my city were strung along similar lines as what’s happening in Baltimore this week. Reflecting on what I know and have learned this week, here are my reflections on Baltimore:

  • Riots really are the language of the unheard. Repressed from decades of political, economic and social suffocation, entire communities are liable to make themselves heard no matter what. This is true for children at the age of 4, and entire communities that are more than a century old.
  • The mainstream media is grossly inadequate, irresponsible and out-of-step with the times. In whatever form they’re broadcasting, these organizations appear wholly incapable of responding to the genuine need for their existence. More than 10,000 people peacefully marched before and after the funeral, and yet the media didn’t report that; it reported the violence that erupted, led by 500 people. Inadequate at best.
  • Youth know what’s up. At the heart of both the peaceful protests and the violent rioting are youth of many ages and from different backgrounds. However, youth also reported on the situation like nobody else. Young people still know what’s up, and adults still need to learn to engage them in changing the world – the right way.
  • Racism is expressed through classism. There is so much evidence of government racism in these riots, which in turn is obviously protecting the socio-economic stratification in place from years of commercialism throughout these communities.
  • Put up or shut up. So many white people, myself included, have something they feel like they must say about these riots. We need to learn to shut up, unless we’re actually ready to put our skin in the game. When we’re ready to take action and do something to make a difference, we can voice up; until then, we need to shut up.

All this is to say that riots can teach all of us something, no matter what our distance or proximity to them is. Its our obligation to think critically, act consciously and move forward deliberately.

That is what riots demand.

Continuing to Learn from Meaningful Student Involvement

Transformative Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement
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Since 2002, working through SoundOut, I have worked with more than 10,000 K-12 students and educators in schools across the United States and Canada.

Over the last year, I have been a bit consumed by writing the Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook. Its my complete compendium of what I have learned about engaging students as partners throughout the education system.

In my reflections, I have found four themes constantly emerge from my projects. These are lessons for me that I will continue to teach people into the future.

  • Unacknowledged capability: Students of all ages, identities, achievement levels, and social backgrounds are fully capable of becoming partners throughout education, but are rarely engaged in equitable partnerships that allow them to take action.
  • Untapped wisdom: Students have a lot to say about the schools they are attending and the education they’re receiving, but rarely feel like adults want to hear what they say.
  • Undelivered invitations: Students are almost never invited to participate in school governance, educational research, learning evaluations or substantive decision-making about classroom instruction, school improvement or educational leadership.
  • Unmet human resources: Adults are craving more human resources throughout schools, but rarely consider students as potential partners who could lighten the load and secure success.

I have tried hard to document dozens of cases of Meaningful Student Involvement and describe how handfuls of students are engaged in planning, researching, teaching, evaluating, making decisions, and advocating for their own learning, as well as throughout the education system as a whole. In each case, these lessons shine through. They also shown through my own projects in dozens of states and a few countries. Its a consistent pattern, yet fraught with hope.

As I assess my big ole picture of student/adult partnerships, I am left wondering about how important Meaningful Student Involvement will become to the education system. We cannot be satisfied with tokenizing students, or simplistic attempts to listen to student voice. Instead, we want to transform all of learning, teaching and leadership.

Onward we go!

Get Uncomfortable

We should get uncomfortable by sticking our necks out.Are you preaching to the choir or sticking out your neck?

If we’re really going to ensure that more young people have more opportunities to change the world and their own lives, we have to reach further. We have to touch the hearts and minds of children, youth and the adults who are with them every single day in as many ways as we can. That means teaching, engaging, learning and engaging with them as much as we can in as many places as we can.

In all the time I’ve been working with schools and nonprofits to engage people more effectively, I have had entire years where I felt professionally endangered, including some times when I felt personally at-risk.

I’ve frequently worked with groups of adults who initially behaved in hostile ways towards me. Other times I’ve worked with young people who adults said I could never reach. However, given the opportunity to reach them I try again and again. Sometimes I fail, and other times I succeed.

I think we should ALL operate this way, as often as we can, especially if we’re not comfortable with it.

Are you not sure if you’re uncomfortable? Then you aren’t.

5 Ways to Get Uncomfortable

Are you not sure how to become uncomfortable? You can try these five ways to get uncomfortable:

  1. Raise uncomfortable questions in meetings with your colleagues.
  2. Challenge other people to stop saying things that discriminate against other people – including children, people of color, low income people, youth, people who identify as BGLTQQ, and others.
  3. Spend your money in places you know you should, but you don’t.
  4. Push your friends to become more accepting of differences. Make new friends with people who are different from you.
  5. Open your mind to the farthest possible extremes of your thinking, and walk in that direction.


In order to reach these unknown spaces, we have to commit ourselves to doing things that can’t be done. We have to learn things we don’t know. And we have to try, intentionally and with determination, to make a difference wherever they can. “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”

Do what you can.

Do what you can with what you’ve got.

Do what you can with what you’ve got where you are.

I know the people who are truly committed to changing the world because they are truly reaching beyond where they know they’ll succeed every single day. They’re doing things they’re uncomfortable with and passing by the mundane, predictable results they can anticipate.

We should get uncomfortable by sticking our necks out.

Individualism or Interdependence?

In a facebook conversation today, I began to write about the inherent ideological split among the ranks of folks who support my work, and across the spectrum of people who call for youth engagement, youth voice, meaningful student involvement, student voice, student rights and youth rights in general. I believe that split looks like this:
  • INDIVIDUALISM: An individualist viewpoint reflecting a traditional American line focused on pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. If youth had total freedom over themselves they would have full authority and rights to do what they want, and this would lead to a better world for everyone. There is little to be gained in surrendering rights, freedoms or authority.
  • INTERDEPENDENCE: An interdependent perspective other focused on a more democratic/communitarian perspective. The belief here is that everyone benefits when everyone works together for everyone’s benefits. There is much to be gained from recognizing how everyone benefits when everyone sacrifices.
In the field of education, I believe there’s no better illustration of these viewpoints than the book We Make The Road By Walking, which is a conversation between Myles Horton, who founded the Highlander Center, and Paulo Freire, who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Horton represents the first aspect, while Freire highlights the second.
I find myself frequently advocating and writing and working into the second realm, and I hold Freire’s work with the highest esteem. That said, I am from the North American West, where the first ideal is highest. I am also a great admirer of the Highlander Center, where the Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement were trained to lead their uprisings, and which teach a lot of community organizers in the US today.
The arguments I’ve run into over the last 15 years of being involved with the YR movement, which all started in sparing with Alex Koroknay-Palicz about these very things, have all shaken into one of these two categories. Among the National Youth Rights Association, I would say the vast majority of vocal supporters believe in absolute freedom, vis-à-vis the first argument.
Among the democratic education movement there seems to be a balance of perspectives between the two sides.
However, within the public school realm, I have found a lot of older folks hold the second viewpoint, keeping focused on how compulsory education is a foundation of American democratic involvement. A lot of younger educators have lost this perspective and don’t see the connection between requiring schools for 6 to 16 year olds and civic engagement, e.g. voting, protesting, running for office or lobbying lawmakers.
I believe this disconnection has been taught to students inadvertently and intentionally, and has fostered a new generation of active antipathy towards public schools. Ergo, any argument in favor of compulsory education is inherently an argument against personal freedom and ultimately, against youth rights.
What isn’t said is that public education was made compulsory in order to ensure movements like youth rights would exist. The tension in this discussion reflects the best outcome of that intention, where two sides can make highly literate, logical arguments. That can only be the product of a democratic society that ensures free access to public education for every member of society.
I find it hard to believe that I have to say this, but I will: Without compulsory education laws, many parents would keep their children home from school, but not for the romantic vision of many unschoolers. Instead, they’d be forced to work or do domestic work. Parents who couldn’t afford childcare or to stay at home with their children would be forced to let their children (including youth) be alone at home during the day. In neighborhoods without protective supports like caring neighbors and community facilities young people want to be at and are allowed to be at, many young people would become involved in anti-social behavior.
Until there is a plausible alternative, compulsory education is the only worthwhile option for ensuring educated democrats (lowercase “d”) and providing for structured, safe and supportive learning environments for all students is the minimum that can be done to make sure democracy continues. Unschooling for all young people everywhere is simply not a responsible option, and does nothing to secure a good future for this nation or the world. Homeschooling isn’t either. They should both be alternatives that are given room to exist, but shouldn’t be the only options on the table for people.
And that’s why I am from the second category I mentioned above, and not the first.

A Brazilian Interview

In the aftermath of my recent visit to Brazil I have been fielding a few online interviews. Following are my thoughts in reply to a reporter’s questions today. What do you think?


1 – What do you think about the idea of having a more open national curriculum for that age (15-17) so that each school could work with what’s interesting for their specific public?

In order to ensure a minimal ability to participate in democratic societies, it is important for there to be a consistent basic experience of learning, teaching and leadership through open public education for all students within a nation. However, it is also vital to allow for localization in every community and personalization for all students. Notice that I am saying all students and not just 15-17 year old students. Local communities should have the capacity to make effective, meaningful decisions about education for all students, and all students, regardless of their age, should have appropriate, meaningful opportunities to make decisions about their own learning. National curriculum standards should be made that facilitate that local decision-making and personal decision-making, along with policies that sustain long-term infrastructure, fiscal support, professional development for educators, and additional training as its needed.


2 – What needs to change in schools so that it is more interesting to young people and help reduce evasion?

All education should be made consensual between students and adults. Before undertaking learning, teaching and leadership, all people who are involved should understand what they are committing to. Students and adults should know what the alternatives are, because there are always alternatives. And everyone involved- young and older- should be able to say “yes” while retaining the power to say “no”. The time of forcing students to attend schools has been overshadowed by the era of choice that we live in today. With the unfettered ability to make consumeristic and social choices throughout their lives, young people need schools that support their abilities rather than repress them. Consensual education is the key to keeping schools relevant and meaningful into the future.

3 – In Brazil, teachers in the public educational system are very underpaid. It seems unreal to engage students when you cannot even engage teachers. How do you see this issue and the alternatives to tackle it?

Teacher pay is a real problem in North America, too. Undervalued for their contributions, teachers face many injustices in our imbalanced economies. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” In the United States and Canada, the death of the human spirit is made worse by consumerist pressures and the grinding inequities faced by low-income people and people of color. That said, money alone does not prevent teachers from engaging with their jobs, schools, communities, or the students they teach. Using economics as an enabling device can support further oppression and disengagement, as teachers can use it to rationalize their indifference, inability, or adultism. Adultism, which is bias towards adults and against young people, is apparent anytime adults work to fulfill our own agendas without considering or by dismissing the agenda of young people. Students in schools face adultism constantly, whether its teachers setting the school calendar, government officials creating curricula, or voters determining which political party rules the education system in the current election cycle. Engaging students throughout the education system can begin to challenge these disparities between students and adults, and teachers can be key partners in that effort regardless of how much money they get paid.

What questions do YOU have about my visit to Brazil or the things you’ve read here? Please comment on my blog!

Reflecting on Rebellion

When I was young, I saw the rebellion of youth on TV and students in my various college classes and national service programs as being a privilege of the wealthy. At that point, I literally thought I couldn’t afford to rebel. Everyone wore the right t-shirts, joined in on doing the right activities and generally had the same affect towards the world.

By the time I began to feel a sense of rebelliousness in me I was in my mid-twenties. As a teen and young adult, I didn’t rebel at my parents or the structures that I knew growing up. Instead, as a newly married young professional I felt I had to rebel against the middle class socio-economic structure that I was rapidly surrounded by and part of. Struggling and confused, I felt alone and separated from my partner and friends. I was going through an experience my parents and siblings couldn’t relate to, as we’d all chosen different life paths. So I went alone.

I knew if I did it mindlessly my trajectory would inevitably moving towards a life of complacency and ease. When I became aware of that momentum, I rebelled against it. I sought to find work that challenged me and the people who I worked with. I asked my partner to read and listen to the authors and philosophies I was exploring and navigating. I started walking a pathway without signage.

Living this life of rebellion in my own way, you might not recognize what I’m talking about. But for me it rings true. Sometimes I’ve gotten it right, and often I’ve fallen flat on my face. Writing books is an act of rebellion for me. Facilitating these workshops and giving these talks is an act of rebellion for me. Struggling and striving to address injustice for others and working to transform systems of oppression are acts of rebellion for me. But mostly, I’m rebelling against my self.

This lifestyle has cost me a lot at times, including job security, long term relationships and other luxuries. I don’t have the big family and nifty house I’ve always wanted, and my truck is looking more raggedy than ever before. My bills are demanding and sometimes I can’t get the book I wanted.

Throughout my career, I have never felt like I had a choice over how much money I made. I have not had this job offer or that one that forced me to choose a wealthy corporate job over impoverished social work, and I’ve never made a dichotomy out of making money or helping the world. I have always known that since I knew my life’s mission is my livelihood, and I would have to make money doing it. I have never felt qualified or wanted in the world of money making. Instead, I have constantly an awareness that my work is work for the society, the work of working with others in order to make a living. My rebellion from this work happens the days when I come to the place where I don’t want to help others anymore. My rebellion is to stop doing the work and making money on those days.

As time goes on, the rebellious spirit in me has calmed, too. I have grown more quiet and contemplative. My rebelliousness has led me to embrace more of my eccentricities and differences, too, as I inject my goofy humor into personal interactions and professional engagements, or tell more of my own stories in the context of the social change and educational transformation work I do to make a living.

Another major part of my rebelliousness is my unabashed love for my daughter. You may have heard my stories about Hannah before, but I’ll guarantee you she is closer to the heart of my work than ever before. I live in a society that actively supports fathers to disengage from the lives of their daughters, and while I bless everyone around me, many of my people release me from my bond with her too. I rebel every time I engage deeply in her life.

So, reflecting on rebelliousness, I see how I strive to live it rather than talk about it. How are you living today?

This post was inspired by this conversation at PopTech between Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin focused on rebellion.

Leadership from Within

Right now, I am returning to Olympia from a week in São Paulo, Brazil. I was invited there by Lilian Kelian of Programa Jovens Urbanos and her organization, CENPEC. While I was in the city, I facilitated learning activities with many people, workshops, and spoke at a national education conference. Over the next week I am going to go into depth on all of those things and some of the deep impacts I feel from my trip. To begin though, I want to share my reflection on leadership from within.

There are many places where leadership happens. Lots of people look at government officials, business managers and politicians as leaders. Some watch the people on TV and the Internet, while others see rock stars and poets as leaders. Children often see their parents and teachers as parents, while young people sometimes look to adults for leadership.

None of these is wrong. However, the strongest leadership that any of us can experience is leadership from within. Inside each person there is a power, ability and strength that is undefeatable. This is practical, meaningful and substantive ability that every person has in their innate being. It can be squelched, suffocated and horribly oppressed. However, it can never be fully extinguished.

Reflecting on the people and things I saw, did, experienced and felt in São Paulo, I have seen myself anew. I have struggled for more than two decades to teach people a lesson I haven’t named, and that is this one: Every single one of us, no matter our condition, position, idea or opportunity, can lead ourselves to a better, stronger, higher, more effective, more meaningful and more fulfilling place. We can lead ourselves to peace through nonviolence, or we can lead ourselves towards living in exhilaration in every moment.

I will continue my struggle, but now with consciousness and deliberation. This work has never meant more to me than now, and I can see clearly that I still have more to do. Forward I go with leadership from within!

Selling Ourselves

Tonight on Facebook, my friend Lilian Kelian shared her sadness about people who relate to each other through interpersonal hegemony. I thought about it a while… Is the growing phenomenon of interpersonal hegemony the deep impact of neoliberalism on our personal and collective psyche?

The word hegemony means dominance; interpersonal hegemony is when we try to dominate others with our selves, our sense of what makes us us. 

The word hegemony is mostly used to talk about cultures, economics, educational practices, and social relationships. But the idea of interpersonal hegemony sticks in my craw, mostly because I see it and practice it myself!


It’s as if we are all trying to sell ourselves to each other, including our ways of being, feeling and experiencing the world. We do this inadvertently, pitching our ideas and sharing our problems and rallying our celebrations all through social media and in person and with family, friends, colleagues, and sometimes anyone who will listen. This heightened egotism reflects our own insecurities, showing others how, in order to feel better about ourselves, we have to make others see our superiority and power.

I think we do this as a mere echo of the dominate cultural hegemony all around us, all the time. There’s a reason why companies use logos, why restaurants use the same designs in their construction, and why all magazines are laid out the same. They do it because we crave familiarity and likeness. We do the same thing by surrounding ourselves with people who are like us and do the same activities, listen to the same music, and follow the same trends we’ve always followed.

Our practices of interpersonal hegemony make others look at our ways of being and doing and feeling and thinking, and want to do the same. It is like we’re selling ourselves to each other, instead of having genuine human interactions.

Adults do this all the time with youth – and I say that from experience! Giving a youth I worked with a CD of my music was pure interpersonal hegemony, as I tried to get them to like the things I liked. When young people start showing up wearing the style of clothes we wear; when they use the phrases we use; and when they talk the ways we talk its not just flattery. Its interpersonal hegemony and the worse kind of dominance, intentionally or otherwise.

Hegemony does not have to be explicitly forceful, either. The most well-meaning, kind and intentional people can be accidentally hegemonical. The question rises of how to defeat it, and that I cannot answer well right now. The answer surely lies in a pedagogy of freedom, and the need to learn, teach and lead in freedom.

Thanks again, Lilian.


My Questions

  • Where does suggestion become dominance?
  • How can we promote personal freedom in our relationships with others?
  • With the dominance of hegemony throughout our lives, is there anyway to escape perpetuating it?


Binary Youth Engagement


Binary thinking is based in the belief that reality is based in either/or truths. We’re convinced in believing that it’s one way or the other, up or down, left or right. This thinking is damaging to young people today in many ways, including Youth Engagement at home, in schools and throughout communities.

Binary thinking leads students to be either forced to go to school or students getting expelled from school. The same goes with peoples’ understanding of youth rights: We’re made to believe that youth either have rights or they don’t.

This binary thinking is not accurate. There is no black and white perspectives in Youth Engagement. Instead, we’re all operating in shades of gray going through variations on the theme of democracy and civic action. That means that instead of believing a kid needs kicked out or needs to be able to leave, there are a lot of variations in between we should understand and be advocating for. I believe that all young people have an obligation, morally and socially, to the democratic society we live in to get educated by other people with varied experiences. Where that happens and how that happens should be the question – not if that happens or who that happens for.

The same thing with Youth Engagement: We shouldn’t be addressing these issues as “youth are engaged” or “youth are disengaged”. Instead, we should acknowledge the shades of engagement all of us feel all of the time throughout their lives, whether in school, at home, or throughout our communities. Instead of pretending that youth are disengaged, we should see what youth are actually engaged in right now, and work to extend their engagement instead of pretending they’re completely disengaged right now.

It seems to me that the whole piece where we keep getting hung up on either/or and this/that thinking is just idle wheel spinning that takes up time and energy that could otherwise be expended more effectively.