People of Color Conference 2016: Some Thoughts on Power

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Identity as the organizing premise.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference is over. I’m sad because I was having such a wonderful time in the company of so many thoughtful, engaged colleagues. I’m happy, however, that I had space and time to make connections that matter.

While I was in Atlanta at PoCC I observed the following:

  • The People of Color Conference places identity at the forefront of our conversations. This is uncommon among education conferences in my experience.
  • Because identity is the organizing premise, each individual attendee is called on to  engage on a personal level within this professionally oriented context.
  • As we talk about who we are, how we identify and where we find ourselves, we also come across intersections and overlap – no one is just one thing. Each of us is deliciously complex which can make for exchanges that can be confusing and clarifying for different parties, for different reasons, at different stages.
  • This is a conference where we learn to hold tension, work with and through discomfort, acknowledge judgment when we are unable to suspend it.
  • I witnessed thousands more smiles than frowns.
  • There are many more indy ed Twitter fans out there than I realized. The multiple real-time tweets are the gifts that keep on giving.
  • Hugging was prevalent.
  • The empathy lamp was switched on.
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Many more smiles than frowns. Honored to be with Caroline Blackwell of NAIS and Hazel Symonette of University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To be on the other side of this experience is to have gained a shade more insight on who I am and strive to be. One thing I struggle with, however, is reporting. I’m not a very good reporter. To be able to succinctly describe how moved I was by keynote speakers Bryan Stevenson, Brittney Packnett, Zak Ebrahim, or Richard Blanco might take me a lifetime. To share how bowled over I was by the spoken word poetry of 15 yr old Royce Mann or simply star struck in the presence of Hank Aaron, Congressman John Lewis and Christine King Ferris on the same stage – seems beyond me.

What I know and feel is how these voices and their messages are working inside me daily. In this way, my PoCC experience will not let me rest. Yet. Rather, it is leading me in the direction of “good trouble, necessary trouble” in the words of Congressman Lewis. I’m spending time meditating on power and identity and where these intersect with education. The NAIS People of Color Conference felt like my own personal “Identity, Education and Power” Conference.

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Brittany Packnett was the closing speaker. A godsend.

Brittany Packnett, who is a product of independent schools, told our assembly: “In this room sits POWER. You are either developing leaders, or you are one.” I have been thinking about this ever since. Yes, we – who are the ones we’ve been waiting for- have power. Gathered together in intentional and supportive community, we have power. Sharing our expertise, claiming our seats at the table, unleashing our brilliance – we have power. I thought about titling this post “Power of Color Conference” – because of the power we find in coming together over and through our individual and collective identities.

And we are people working largely in elite spaces. Several independent schools cater to the 1% and even to the top 10%  and 20%- if we educators of color are there, we inevitably need to be aware of and thinking about power – our own and that of others. Knowing that the majority of community members who finance and govern our institutions rarely look like us, and that of those same institutions very few were built to (also) support the intellect and advancement of people of color – this is a necessary and real understanding we ought to have. It does not mean, however, that these schools and academies are not excellent places for us to work, to teach, to coach in or for us to lead. On the contrary, our schools can be extremely open and hopeful places, encouraging and strategically forward-thinking places. And they are, for the most part, predominately white institutions (PWIs).

Ultimately, the People of Color Conference seeks to bridge this divide between the reality of PWIs and the still somewhat tentative and/or limited supply of educators of color on their campuses. Many teachers and staff of color come to the conference as a sort of oasis of fellowship. It can be tiring to stay in the role of the “lonely only”* or to be just one of a handful of folks of color at a PWI. PoCC provides that unusual opportunity to ‘flip the script’ and find (in every sense of the word) ourselves in the majority; to experience power in numbers.

After the fact I feel both restored and stirred up. I spent valuable time in a “seat” of power and the act of “knowing my place” is irretrievably expanded.

As I rise, stride and direct my movement forward, I’m on the lookout for justice – the kind that extends beyond ‘just us.’ Attending PoCC provided that necessary affirmation – I’m not alone. I have supporters and co-collaborators. We have power.

Let’s do the good that needs doing and remember to “fight issues, not people.”

 

*I am grateful to my dear friends in the digital humanities,  Maha Bali and Anne-Marie Perez, author of the article “Lowriding Through the Digital Humanities” for the reference to this term  “lonely only.”

 “Most people, understand that it’s hard being the only woman in a room of 50 to 100 men. For people of color most of us know, it’s just as hard to be the lonely only. That’s how I felt. Alone and painfully self-conscious. When I’m one of the onlys, however kind and welcoming the environment, I experience stress. There’s a fear of asking questions lest I be seen as speaking for my race / culture and somehow reinforcing biases.”

All images by @edifiedlistener.

Dear Members of the Student Diversity Leadership Conference 2016, …

Dear Members of the Student Diversity Leadership Conference 2016,

Hi. We probably haven’t met and have not yet really seen each other here at this combined conference of over 5000 people. I’m an educator attending the NAIS People of Color Conference.
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I’m writing to you because I’m wondering about your experience here in Atlanta. What has your conference meant to you? I wonder what you could tell me about the people you’ve met, the conversations you want to really remember, your best and even most challenging moments. I’m also thinking about how we are connected even without having met or exchanged a few words yet.

Student. Diversity. Leadership. Conference.

I’m particularly curious about those two words in the middle and how you bring them together with the first one in your day-to-day. Diversity leadership – what is your vision for what that can look like? What will you have to do, who will you need to be in order to engage your peers and others in your school and home communities in topics of diversity?

Here’s another thought: as an adult who is a teacher and parent, I’m asking because, honestly, I need some help. I believe that you know things, perceive things, understand things that I do not. Your take on events, on situations is not among the most likely ones that I will hear about, read about and therefore consider. That is a deficit.

And while we at both PoCC and SDLC gather here to take up questions regarding diversity practice, one of our ongoing challenges in every conversation is asking ourselves which perspectives are missing. Your presence here reminds me of my own lack of consideration of voices much younger than mine. What messages do I regularly fail to hear because I am simply not listening? Because it has hardly occurred to me to turn my ear in your direction?

I can fix this though. And I will.

I will also forget, mess up, fail. On multiple occasions. Because we all will in different ways, on varied levels – that belongs to the process of striving to do better, to become better.

I am writing this in the morning before we come together in our affinity groups and regional meetings. This will be my opportunity to practice what I am preaching here. I want to be prepared for your brilliance, accepting of your vulnerability, and rooting for your success. It is vitally important that you are here being you and applying all that that entails to the work we have before us.

Because, oh my, we do have much work ahead of us. I am preparing for your leadership.

Ready. Set. Go.

Thank you for being here and being you. You matter.

Sherri

Blogging Beyond the Classroom – A Talk

Below is the text of the talk I gave at the panel discussion session I participated in at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference 2016. I shared the panel with Marcy Webb (@teachermrw) in person and Christopher Rogers (@justmaybechris), who was not able to join us on site. The full title of our session was “Blogging Beyond the Classroom: Online Engagement for Professional and Personal Growth.”

While planning this short talk, I started out with all kinds of “what” – What I do and where and for whom on which platforms.

It took me some time and a dry run to realize that that is not what I really want to talk about. Rather I want and need to consider the “whys” of my writing, of my online engagement, of being here.
So while I have prepared these remarks for you, they are also words I need to hear myself speak in order to test their truth.

Some truths – here goes.

There are days when I cannot wait to be able to sit down at my laptop and write, write, write.

The more I write, the greater my appreciation for those who write better than I, the larger my confidence that I can become a better, stronger writer.

I write to understand.

When I tweet I join in conversations. When I blog I join in conversation.

I find community in conversation.

What I write about is deeply connected to what I read.

The fact that I am here to talk about something that I choose and love to do blows my mind.

Having a blog means having a space for me to place thoughts and ideas. My blog is a sense-making tool.

Publishing blog posts lets me invite others into my thinking and writing space.

Just because I offer an invitation does not mean that people will come.

By publishing publicly I do not get to choose whom I invite and who shows up.

When I read the work of others and comment thoughtfully, I join a conversation and add value.

My greatest insight so far, “If we want to have audience, then we must first and foremost be audience.”

This is my motivation in my cycles of reading and writing. Reading deeply, widely, consistently leads me to write as a response, as a means of processing. And as my own writing elicits response from others, I listen and think alongside others and we start a new cycle of reading to write, and writing to read.

In other words, my writing – tweeting, blogging, curating, publishing – are forms of call and response, call and response.
I do believe that you can write your way out of ignorance.

When I started my blog, when I began tweeting, I was not aware of these things. I simply began and slowly found my way.

And I’ve had help and support. I have a “digital Godmother” who is Rafranz Davis, an outspoken tech integrationist out of Texas who welcomed me into edu-twitter like no other and made me feel at home. I found men and women in various education circles, both K-12 and higher education who gladly supported my work, and welcomed my commentary. This has made me want to stay and build and most recently, to learn how to resist the ravages of the current political climate.

I didn’t realize the strength or depth of my political views until I began writing publicly.

I did not understand that being in contact and in dialogue with authors whom I admired would matter in the way that it does, both for me and them.

It took some time to appreciate that my voice, my style, my sense of urgency mattered to more than a few people.

Now I can begin to understand that when I write, I am being politically active. I am being culturally active. I am being educationally active. And over time, I walk that arc from being active to becoming an activist.

As I stand before you today I believe that I am in the midst of that process without having landed: Active on the way to becoming an activist.

No piece of my writing is fully done when it is published and finds an audience. It is always imperfect – my best shot at that moment- and I own that.

Once upon a time in grad school, I developed some theories of action for my practice as an education leader. At the top of the list was this: Care must be at the core of everything we do. At the time, although I was thinking about schools and the education communities we build and inhabit, I see now that this particular theory of action underscores all of my public work as a writer, contributor and digital interloper. I show up and speak up because I care. I enter into dialogue and cultivate relationships of support and encouragement to both demonstrate and receive care.

I am proud to be here in this space with all of you and can honestly say that my presence at this conference, on this panel, in this community is about care – our collective and individual care.

I hope that it is helpful.

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Welcome to #NAISPoCC 2016

 I’m in Atlanta, Georgia attending the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference this week. And today I am participating in a panel discussion on blogging and social media. That means I have a presenter sticker on my name tag and am traveling with all the electronic devices that I have at my disposal: my smartphone, an iPad, a laptop – all the markers of tech immersion. And yet because of how I happened to arrive and secure WiFi code for one device in one location and a different code for my devices in another location coupled with a charger handicap for my laptop, I am sitting here trying to write a blog post on the device least comfortable for long form: the smartphone.

This I can and will fix later but the irony is not lost on me.

My alarm is about to go off. I need to get going. But here is how I am going into the day:

  • I am meditating on white supremacy.
  • I’m thinking about the work that I did yesterday with Dr. Eddie Moore and Debbie Irving who led an all day workshop on the topic.
  • I am thinking about what it means to name white supremacy not as the elephant in the room but as the room itself. 
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  • And that’s a critical distinction.
  • For many, even for me, that sounds so harsh, so comprehensive, so uncompromising, unyielding and therefore we don’t like to use it.
  • And yet it reflects my experience, not always as a malicious force but simply as the reality we live in.
  • Seeing it, naming it comes as a surprising relief, because I know what I’m facing, negotiating, working with and around.

This is how I’m going into the day: aware, awake, alive.

Because knowing white supremacy does not stop me, does not keep me from pursuing my aims, my dreams. On the contrary, I am ‘in it to win it’ and the more I know about the terms of engagement the better equipped I am to succeed.

So here I go. Watch me walk.