Roadblocks to Participation

10 Jan

Several weeks ago, I was at a meeting of a broad range of community activists and  educators that had gathered to discuss issues of racial equity in Seattle Public Schools.  As with other meetings, enthusiastic participants vyed for a chance to ‘get a word in’ and make their contribution.

Part way into the meeting, a women of color made a point that really stopped me in my tracks.  I did not write down the exact statement so what is below is NOT an actual quote, but the basic sense of it was this: 

“Is this how these meetings are going to be?  I feel like there is not SPACE for me to be heard. I can ‘style shift’ and compete to try and talk. There is no room for competition when doing collective work.”

It was one of the most succinct and important comments I had heard in a long time.

It really made me think about the patriarchal, dominant culture ways of interacting that pervade almost everything in our culture. Every meeting that I attend at work is a competition (generally between males) for who gets to ‘make the next point’.   

While different ways of interacting do not always fall along gender lines, there is certainly a tendency for men (especially white men like myself) to do most of the talking and sit on the edge of their seat to get in the next word.

Folks may critique the processes used in Occupy, but that is one dynamic I think they handled well.  By using a technique called ‘progressive stack’, ALL participants were able to relax and simply raise their hand to get on the ‘stack’ of speakers who will get to speak next. The ‘progressive’ part allowed members of traditionally marginalized groups to be put on the TOP of the stack by the facilitators.  This often significantly broadened participation beyond the ‘enthusiastic’ white males that may have otherwise dominated the conversation.

Progressive stack created SPACE for participation.

I think striving to create this space is important for a number of important reasons.  Most obviously, it would allow quieter voices to be heard and correct the under-representation of under-represented groups.  

More importantly, it would build power in the communities and individuals whose voices need to be heard.  My daugher related a disturbing story of sitting in on a college class discussion on feminism and hearing one female student state that she would not want to be in a class without males because she said that the “females would not say anything”!  That student had been acculturated to think that women had LESS TO SAY, when the problem is more likely that they often have a hard time just getting space for their ideas.

As a middle-aged white guy who is guilty of this constantly in my personal and professional life, I deeply appreciate the fact that Emijah Smith raised this issue at that meeting.  She also later sent me this link to a closely-related editorial that she wrote that was placed in the Seattle Times below.

In order for our communities to function, we all (myself included) need to make the space to listen and learn.

Here is the related editorial that Emijah wrote for the Seattle Times:

Why it’s hard to get involved as an African American parent

By Emijah Smith

As a parent of a black school-age boy, it is vital that I am well engaged with my son’s school community. I greatly appreciate having input in the best practices for educating my child. Being from a culture where relationships are highly valued, I greatly appreciate school opportunities where community building is part of the school event. As much I appreciate such opportunities, they are hard to find at the typical school event.

Although I am a very involved parent at the school and district level, I find it very challenging to be part of a school where there is little to no conversation about successfully educating black boys.

Please communicate with me about best practices for educating black boys. Please talk with me about what the school is doing to ensure my son’s academic success. Engage with me about how the school and I can partner to protect the brilliance of my child.

Please do not shut me down or close the door when I try to communicate with the school and partner in the academic success of my child. I am invested in educating my child. I want a genuine partnership with the school community that allows for meaningful engagement, respect, and value for my family. Until then, the school-family partnership is a facade.

In my experience, the school power system seems very domineering. Most families will be invited to the typical school open house, school celebration and PTA fundraising event. Although the planning and decision-making was done by the school, if the event happens to be unsuccessful, the blame falls on the families. I believe successful school communities share power between schools and families, as well as accountability.

The school community can improve family involvement by providing meaningful opportunities for families to partner with the school. I recommend the school leadership actively listen to the needs and concerns of parents and families, as well as inquire about what is working or not working for families. School leadership should invite vulnerable populations to an event to discuss academic outcomes and tap into the expertise of family and community to generate viable and innovative solutions.

Providing an opportunity to share in the decision-making for academic outcomes and other school planning activities strengthen the school-family partnership, and improves family involvement.

Emijah Smith is a member of Seattle Public Schools’ School Family Partnership Advisory Committee to the Superintendent.


One Response to “Roadblocks to Participation”

  1. mamos206 January 10, 2014 at 8:49 pm #

    I agree that many meetings are white male dominated. However, I disagree with the typical response that I hear many Leftists make to this problem, which is to assume that women and people of color are helpless victims, unable to speak up for themselves, hence the (usually white) facilitator needs to invite them to “share their experiences” and needs to invite white people to step back and “check our privilege.”

    There has been a growing set of critiques of this approach from people of color who have pointed out that it is patronizing and it does not promote a real dialogue among people. It tries to put people of color in a position where they are only taken seriously if they share personal stories of oppression; they are not respected as equals, as theorists, strategists, and analysts who are capable of shaping the big picture and changing the world:

    I think this point is key: ” I can ‘style shift’ and compete to try and talk. There is no room for competition when doing collective work.”

    Emijah was not only asking to be heard, she was also critiquing the way she heard most people in the room talking with each other because she thought it was holding back the collective work. She is advocating a cooperative instead of competitive way of organizing. This is an an analytical, strategic point, and it is one that people in most Leftist meanings need to take seriously.

    I’d also encourage my fellow teachers to think about what culture of discussion we are reproducing in our classrooms. Is it a competitive one where people need to fight for space to speak? Or is it one where people build off of each other’s ideas AND experiences, weaving a web of meaning together? And I agree with Emijah, we should ask our students’ parents what they think “best practices” look like in this regard, and should learn from them.

    At one of the Black Education Summits at Horace Mann, several folks pointed out that a cooperative approach is more consistent with an “African centered epistemology”, where I only know myself through you and you only know yourself through me. I think this is not simply “different” than the dominant culture’s way of discussion, I think it is better.

    I also think it gets us closer to a society of “everything for everyone”, based on the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need”, things that we tried to build during the Decolonize/ Occupy movement.

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