In Praise of Men Who Matter

For more than a few weeks I have had the intention to write a post about my positive relationships with men. And the difficulty starts right there. I can’t just say “relationships with men” without immediately clarifying that I am not referring to romantic or intimate relationships per se, but to friendships and familial relationships with men. I want to speak about men whom I know well, whom I like and respect and whose presence add value and meaning to my life. I want to write about them because they matter and need to hear from me directly that they matter. And the questions that came up for me in this process tell another story, though: Why does it feel risky to write good things about men? What is the significance of being a strong, independent woman and saying nice things about men?

What got me started on this idea was a series of empowering conversations I had earlier in the year with three very different male friends of mine on three consecutive days. Following each conversation I felt so remarkably grateful for the friendship we share and the way we can go deep on topics of personal importance. Each of these men challenged and encouraged me in these talks. Each of them was open to the feedback I had for them and in each instance I enjoyed being on equal footing. There was no competing for air time; no awkward power differential to overcome. And yet I could recognize some differences to conversations I might have about similar topics with female friends. My male friends offered some approaches I hadn’t considered, they shared their estimations of certain situations from unique perspectives as males and I felt enriched.

The weeks ticked by and still the post was not written. More positive conversations and connections had with other males in different contexts, still no post written. Rather, other posts were written, but not the “nice things I have to say about some men” post. And I began to wonder. Of course, public writing has made more sensitive to a host of social and political undercurrents in current discourse. In my self-selected filter bubble which is decidedly left-leaning, feminist, strongly social justice  and education oriented, men are welcome but need to watch their step, check their privilege and avoid saying the wrong thing in the wrong way or both of those. Women acting in the same forums, of course, face challenges in other dimensions (death and rape threats) which put those male ‘constraints’ (for lack of a better word) absolutely  into perspective. It is fairly uncomplicated and certainly a pleasure to write great things about the women in my life as I have done before. It also striking to acknowledge the ambivalence I feel in doing something similar for men.

And this intersection is where I think we need to go.

Appreciation and acknowledgement of men as allies, as valued members of the same society may seem redundant to some. I mean to let major media tell the story, men get all the gold, glory and the credit or at least most of it. Yes, and. This is not true for all men. As a rule it benefits me greatly to listen to women and men. In order to write this post and be witness both to the struggles women face daily and the good things that I observe among men I know, I have to maintain a mindset of “yes, and” rather than “yes, but”.  Holding the space for both realities, for differing perspectives and experiences is critical to taking this walk. “Yes, and” is the walk I commit myself to every time I press “publish.”

When I was a 13 year old boy-crazy girl growing up in Cleveland, my dream was to be surrounded by good looking guys. Well, as the saying, goes: watch what you wish for because you might receive. Here I am at mid-life and when I celebrate Christmas I am surrounded by good looking guys, only (my husband, my Ex, and 2 sons). The irony.  I love them all and I think each time anew about options for recruiting some female energy into our party next year. The ingredients I consistently seek in promoting my own growth and those around me are balance and diversity. So the value of male voices in the dialogues in which I engage is not lost on me, even if their messages can infuriate me. Sometimes I forget that I, too, have the potential to frustrate and infuriate my dialogue partners, male and female. No one holds a monopoly on this capacity, I’m afraid.

On social media I have had the pleasure of encountering numerous male contributors who regularly expand my horizons and stretch my thinking. I find much in common with them on several themes specifically around education and social justice and I appreciate the many ways in which they have supported and championed my voice in digital spaces. I am so glad they are present and engaging and also willing to wrestle with some of the tough stuff. These are also men who can examine and unpack their various layers of privilege which are unique to each of them. In their company I feel safe, valued and welcomed.

I have a brother who is five years older. Although we have lived on different continents for most our adult lives, what impresses me most about him is his role as the family connector. He is the one who has maintained and strengthened ties with uncles, aunts and cousins across the country on behalf of our family. Every cousin imaginable is only a phone call away for him. I love this about him and my gratitude to him is immeasurable. And I applaud the fact that he is a male taking up what has traditionally been ‘women’s work’ in our family.

In my world, the men I care about and value are several. Who they are, the gifts they bring, the time they take – all of these mean so much to me and certainly to many others. Being male is but one aspect of their identity and each one of them expresses their maleness distinctly, uniquely and vitally. Our mutual capacity to sustain each other in life-affirming ways, friend-to-friend, brother-to-sister, partner-to-partner, requires careful tending to from both sides.

In this spirit, I raise my glass in honor of the great men in my life. You matter. Live long, prosper and please stay in touch.

The Commencement Address I Never Gave

image via pixabay.com

image via pixabay.com

Dear Graduates,

You are here, I am told, because you made it. You fulfilled the requirements, satisfied the criteria of your studies and now will be rewarded with a diploma. Congratulations!

In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons? Where has your learning been its deepest and  most rewarding? What are you proud of? To whom are you grateful?

I ask these questions because in my experience, some of the best graduation speakers turn out to be the students themselves. Often they are selected by their peers. When you speak as a student, you can address the graduating class as peers. You know what many have been through because you were there. And now as you sit, organized perhaps alphabetically, or by discipline or a combination of those, you may be sitting next to some people you know well and near others whom you perhaps hardly know. Yet whoever stands up here where I am now may be hard pressed to  recognize you as anything other than a collective, a class of, yes, graduates.

I want to change that. Rather than have me talk to you or about you for 8 or 15 or 30 minutes. I want us to do something different with this time we have been allocated. I want you spend some time talking to each other. I want you to spend five minutes (2:30 for each person) responding to one of the questions I posed at the beginning. Each of you will have 2:30 to respond without interruption. I will signal when the time is up and then ask you to switch places.  I want everyone here to participate, not only the graduates. Speak to the person next to you or behind you and share your responses. Listen without interruption until you hear the signal. Then switch and tell your story.

Find a partner you will speak with and raise your hand to let me know you are ready. We are a lot of folks here, so please hold off with your conversation until the signal, just raise your hand silently to show me that you’ve found a partner.

Looks like just about everybody has a partner. Great!

Here are the questions to which you may respond. Pick one: (Displayed on giant screen)

  • In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons?
  • Where has your learning been its deepest and  most rewarding?
  • What are you proud of?
  • To whom are you grateful?

First partner, are you ready to tell your story? Okay, begin.  (Full buzz of thousands of conversations unleashed)

(at 2:00) You have about 30 more seconds, partner 1.

(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1.  Thank you!

Partner number 2, are you ready to share your story? Okay, begin. (Even louder, more animated buzz)

(at 2:00) Partner 2, you have about 30 more seconds.

(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1. Thank you!

Continued buzz. Pause.

How did that feel?

Graduates, this is the opportunity that I continue to long for – creating entrances into meaningful conversation. With our neighbors, with our colleagues, with our family members. Even as we dance on this planet, many of us hyper-connected and often more in need of unplugging than of anythings else, meaningful, face to face dialogues which unlock our intellect as easily as our emotions may become scarce yet no less necessary to our thriving. And if you or I intend to make a dent in the world, then we must understand that our significant dialogues need to extend beyond our most trusted circles.

You are leaving this ceremony with a degree in your hand. You know, too, that you have had classmates along the way who are not here with you. Classmates who have not yet made it to where you are. Right there is a space for dialogue which is often overlooked. The dialogue between graduate and drop out. What might you be able to learn from each other, to contribute to each other’s understanding of the world we inhabit, especially when you may each see the world very differently?

As a graduate, you enter adulthood in one form or another. There will be new demands upon your time, money and wits. You likely have friends and family who are in your corner rooting for you.  What kinds of new conversations will you be having with your parents, siblings, grandparents?  How will your freshly won independence express itself when you need to ask others for help?

Thinking about being able to live with yourself, what internal conversations do you need to have before you leave this place and head for the next? Even when you know what to do (get more sleep, exercise regularly, brush and floss daily), what gets in the way from acting on that knowledge sometimes? How do you bridge your own ‘knowing-doing gap’? How do you talk to yourself when you fail? What do you say to yourself to make it alright again?

I raise these questions not to throw you into a philosophical crisis, but as signposts for the conversations I wish more of us would entertain. While dialogue, even with yourself, may not be the solution to the world’s problems, it strikes me as a perfectly fine place to start. Each of us is capable of becoming an effective listener.  We can learn to respect and honor multiple perspectives. Without these capacities, I fear that your education is hollow and of limited use to the world.

Make your education useful: Become an expert on gaps.

Recognize the gaps that exist around you – through gender, race, class, education, health status, to name a few – and dare to stand in those gaps. No need to raise your hand anymore; raise your question. Question what is and perhaps try “what if?” Gather the responses. Investigate  their sources and interrogate their meaning. Research possible ways forward. If your education has equipped you to do as much, we can all be well pleased.

Do not fear the gap; make the gaps you encounter an unending source of creativity.

What questions will you pose to the world?

What is life asking of you?

These are the questions that come up for me as I look at you in your caps and gowns. To me you all look lovely and promising and slightly uncomfortable.

I have often wondered about the purpose of commencement speeches. When they are good, they are often highly marketable after the fact, particularly if they are delivered by uniquely wise and well spoken members of the celebrity class.  Yet what good do they do? What do you gain by listening to someone offer anecdotes, some encouragement and of course, a bit of advice? Speakers at graduations are of course talking to a much wider audience than just the graduates themselves. They are addressing parents and families of the graduates, the faculty and administration of the institution, and perhaps other invited members of prominence.  Of course, you, the graduates, are the focus of these ceremonial activities but rest assured that there is much more going on than folks simply gathering here to say “Congrats!” and to wish you well. We have the pomp and circumstance along with apprehension and nervousness. We have joy and cheering along with tears and departures. A commencement address seems to be there to tide us over until we can get to the main course; to forestall a widespread emotional implosion should all the other parts move too quickly. That said, I have one more quick exercise for all of us before we go.

This exercise has two parts, the calm and the storm. During the calm we are going to go silent for yes, a whole minute. Use this time to breathe and simply be where you are, who you are right at this moment; nothing more, nothing less. Then, when you hear the signal,please stand up and give us a whopping loud cheer of celebration.

Here’s the calm.

(at 58 sec.) Now the STORM. (Very loud cheering from all angles !!!)

Pause.

Congratulations, graduates and Thank you!

Keeping the PoCC Conversation Going

Celebrating with Dr. Hazel Symonette and Caroline Blackwell

Celebrating with Dr. Hazel Symonette and Caroline Blackwell

One of the things about attending excellent conferences is that one often leaves feeling empowered, energized, ready for action.  And then you return to your reality.  Not everyone else has been where you have been, has experienced the positives you have experienced.  You are feeling warmed up and limber. Many others may be feeling lethargic and sleepy.  This is the time when our best and reinvigorated selves need to remember to be kind; to be understanding; to become bridges and not the fence.

Before coming back to school this morning, I sent an e-mail to my colleagues in the elementary:

Dear colleagues,

I spent the better part of last week attending the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) People of Color Conference (PoCC) in Washington, DC.  In a nutshell I would describe my experience there as stimulating, resonant and uplifting.  In contrast to typical professional development conferences, PoCC provides opportunities for educators to engage in conversations which begin with social identity (race, gender, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, etc.)  as the context for addressing the what and how of our work in school communities. Equity and social justice are on the table throughout the conference.

 

This means that participants have space to consider and celebrate the intricacies of individual identity and the tremendous wealth of our collective diversity.  In this conference I was encouraged to speak about my experience as an African-American woman working in a European international school setting and to welcome others to share their unique identity and context perspectives.

 

The conference boasts high levels of participation: just over 2300 adults and 1400 students who attended their own Student Diversity Leadership Conference.  The caliber of keynote speakers is outstanding. Over the three days we welcomed activist Daniel Hernandez, award winning author Junot Diaz, Congresswoman Dr. Marisa Richmond and NPR’s Michel Martin.  Additionally, I enjoyed the privilege of co-presenting a breakout session with 3  Klingenstein alumni of color on the benefits of our online coaching experience last spring.

 

My learning from this conference has been particularly valuable and rich. I invite you to ask me about it.  We all have complex and interesting identities which we bring to work every day and the astounding diversity we create and navigate in our school community is worthy of our reflection and celebration.  In closing the conference, Michel Martin encouraged each and every participant to “keep the conversation going.”  This message to all of you is a step in that direction.

 

Thank you and it is great to be back! J

Warmly,

Sherri

 

It occured to me during my long journey back home that I wanted to share my wins and discoveries from PoCC with colleagues and friends without overwhelming them.  That’s how I began crafting this message. The response has been remarkably positive and appreciative.  “Keep the conversation going”  provides a useful perspective on how to bring our best experiences back to our very unique communities.

More questions than answers

Several months ago I jumped at the opportunity to write a guest blog post on emotional intelligence and educational leadership. Of course that’s a very broad area on which much has already been written. As I began to delve into the world of educator connectedness through twitter and a variety of blogs, I got very curious about how all this e-connectivity is playing itself out at the intersection of leadership and EQ (the borrowed shorthand for emotional intelligence).

Here are the questions I came up with:
How are our professional relationships changed through increased use (and reliance on) social media, e-mail, and other forms of digital communication?

How can leaders make use of media and technology to underscore their commitment to building and supporting emotionally intelligent learning environments?

What are you experiencing at the intersection of school leadership, technology use and emotional intelligence?

Finding and forming questions which get to the heart of what I want to find out has proved challenging thus far. Locating specific articles or posts which speak to this topic in the realm of schools and their leaders has also been surprisingly difficult. There’s plenty of talk about SEL (social emotional learning), best methods for all manner of tech integration in the classroom, a fair amount on meeting admin challenges in the trenches and yet an unbelievable dearth of voices on the intersection of EQ, leadership and tech use.

Just yesterday I was fortunate to find a post which offered a great window into one administrator’s practice and gave clues as to how this might be interpreted as insight into his particular understanding and application of EQ:
http://johnfalino.com/2013/10/06/the-principalship-how-have-smartphones-changed-the-landscape/

So what’s the big deal? It’s tough to say. However fascinating and enriching the possibilities are for instant and far flung connection through our wonderful gadgetry and ever expanding digital capabilities, I still maintain a fundamental concern about the implications for our communicative existences – for better, worse and for the entirely unknown and unanticipated.

So I find myself asking more and more questions and seeking the widest variety of responses. What does it mean for administrators to be potentially accessible to their school communities via their phones 24/7? Where do school leaders draw the line and insist that certain forms of communication take place face to face? What kinds of presence are possible and desirable for school leaders and in which contexts?

Considering the four categories of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management – all of these can show up in any of our day-to-day communications and interactions and they are critical to the success of any leader. And with our increased use of and reliance on electronic media, there is so much more room for ambiguity, misunderstanding and mixed signals. This is perhaps the root of my concern: how do we, can we, actively mitigate this gap in perception that comes along with our use of new media? When it is done well, how can we recognize it?

So many questions in search of many responses. I need help on this one. Please share these questions with others, respond to them yourself. Let’s get this conversation going. Thanks.

It’s you

When was the last time you entered a conversation with the deliberate intent to focus your attention on the interests, needs and desires of your partner?  Usually we are motivated to speech in order to meet our own immediate needs:  to gain someone’s attention or to get something done.  I tell my spouse about my work day because I need to vent.  My son reminds me that he’s due for a play date with his friend this week. My students ask me where we will be having class. 

What happens, however, when we take the opportunity to turn the norm on it’s head.  What if, we entered the conversation wanting to find out not just how our conversation partner is doing and we also took the time to listen fully to his response?  What would happen if, when my son reminds me about wanting to see his friend, that I took the time to acknowledge how important this is to him and perhaps asked him to tell me more about this friend? What if, instead of bowling over my husband with my incredible “news of the day” as soon as he has a chance to sit down, I instead, offer him something to drink and ask him about whatever is on his mind (or maybe just let him choose not to share…)?

I raise these questions because I recently ran across a text I wrote several years ago in which I describe this outlook: “It’s you” or “It’s about you.” The text surprised me with both its clarity and passion.  I offer it here as food for thought from which we can all benefit:

When we have a conversation and my attitude says, “it’s about you,” then my focus, my presence, my eyes even are centered on you and your feelings, thoughts, expressions.  “It’s you” involves putting our own judgments, sentiments and opinions on hold while we address our full attention to the other.  We not only listen, we take in, duplicate, and create space for our partner to express what is most important to him or her.  We not only make eye contact with our partner but show through our eyes, facial expression and body language that we are with him or her, present for whatever he or she needs to communicate. 

When we are sincere in our perspective of “it’s about you,” miracles can happen.  We open the floodgates of possibility by shifting the spotlight from ourselves to our partners.  We can create space for the other to feel valued, appreciated, understood.  We can open ourselves to the love, generosity, and warmth that reside in each of us and in turn offer it to those with whom we come in contact.  We can create a state of inner abundance by recognizing that our capacity to give increases as we assist, support and accompany others on their journeys.

A short fairy tale illustrates this beautifully:

A young prince sought to meet his beloved maiden and knocked on the door of her chamber.  “Who’s there?” asked a female voice from inside.  “It’s me,” the young prince replied.

“In this room there is not enough space for you and me,” came the response and the door remained quite closed.

The young prince went away and traveled for many months.  He contemplated the maiden’s answer and when he believed to have found the better response he returned to her door.  He knocked.

“Who’s there?” came the query from inside.  The prince responded: “It’s you,” and the door was opened and he entered.

Try working with this perspective.  Consider it an avenue on the way to full presence for others, a means to seek the best possible in people and situations.  Be prepared to find out how much more you can be when you focus your precious attention on others.  There is hardly a greater gift we have to offer the people we know and care about.