Last week, the always-fiery Dr. Howard Fuller opened the second day of Yale’s Education Leadership Conference (ELC), urging people to consider whether our actions advance or betray the earnest commitments so many reformers are expressing about diversity.
Next up: an all white male panel (six, including the moderator). Panelists themselves all expressed discomfort and expressed a desire to “get it right.” My phone lit up with frustrated texts from others in the room. Alexander Russo tweeted a photo that was reposted on Facebook feeds almost instantly. I added a snarky tweet (which I now regret).*
Why all the sudden urgency about a panel? Because we’re all talking about diversity everywhere we go. TFA is running a major diversity initiative; diversity was the theme of last year’s NewSchools Summit; PIE Network has hosted multiple discussions on this, too. Anyone active on social media has to know this is a huge focus—and not just in education. (This guy’s making bold moves in another sector. So’s this one.) The frustration that erupted on Friday, then, was less about Yale’s event and really just an expression that all this earnest discussion isn’t sinking in.
In the end, the Yale ELC conference organizers absorbed all the feedback with grace and gratitude. That’s right in line with the ELC’s mission. Now, let’s direct our energy to making sure that the rest of the sector learns from this feedback, too. That’s right where I live as the head of PIE.
PIE Network has earned a reputation as one of the “go-to” meeting conveners that connects leading thinkers with advocates in the reform movement. I therefore absolutely appreciate the challenges of finding strong people on short timelines, and I know I could easily be reading a blog like this about one of our meetings. I also remember when we’ve blown moments like these in the past and am grateful for the direct feedback we received. (Plus, PIE Network’s team needs more diversity, too.)
For me, the most productive response to Friday’s events is to take Dr Fuller’s challenges seriously, asking myself and my team: are we really doing everything we can ensure our actions live up to our rhetoric? While the urgency is fresh, I am making a few “notes to self,” in no particular order, that might help PIE Network (and maybe other conveners, too?) do more to get the balance right.
- Make sure that “passing the mic” isn’t reduced to merely a polite idea that a broader variety of people need a turn to speak. Make sure we’re always emphasizing the importance of diverse perspectives in finding the right solutions for kids.
- Also, don’t only connect “diversity” to conversations about engaging community or pigeonhole people of color as our “diversity” experts. We need gender AND ethnic balance (as well as ideological balance) in conversations about policy issues and how they are implemented.
- If you hear yourself thinking, “but the ideas for this session are so important and we know that so-and-so always delivers,” then it’s time to take some risks. (Here’s a risk that’s high stakes for a major network: if they can do it, we can!)
- Remember your experience as a policy maker: you never had the luxury of considering policy ideas as stand-alone initiatives, so don’t arrange panels that way either. Policy ideas are intertwined, with big tradeoffs inherent in implementation. (Another reason diverse perspectives matter!) So, always think more expansively about the interplay of ideas, which also provides broader points of entry to engage in the conversation.
- If “trying everything” still doesn’t identify fresh voices that fit a session’s proposed framework, then the frame likely needs rethinking. For sure, if we really can’t find people from varied backgrounds, then the discussion really needs fresh perspectives to tell us why.
- When all else fails, check the registration list! That’s the group to whom you’ll be saying “we couldn’t find anyone,” and there will ALWAYS be someone there whose voice brings a fresh perspective to the conversation.
- And when you find yourself in a situation with cancelations (or you realized you messed up), ask someone in the room to join the conversation as a panelist. (And if you’re in someone else’s meeting, suggest fixing the balance before the discussion kicks off, not on social media!)
- Just as I hope that more of my male friends of all ethnicities start noticing more when women’s voices aren’t in the mix, I need to do more to lend my voice to ensuring ethnic, ideological, and gender balance, too.
- Diversifying conference panels is only one of the many things we need to do to bring more diversity to the sector. We also need to examine hiring practices, our approaches to important community stakeholders, and other practices at the heart of advocates’ work. (More on this from PIE Network later this month!)
- And don’t forget these ideas you kicked around with Alexander Russo right after the panel.
Here’s the bottom line: diversity matters urgently because the communities that schools serve are currently far more diverse than the people who talk about “fixes” for them. When we say, “we tried, but…”, we use our power badly.
* I hope it goes without saying that calling for more diverse voices isn’t the same as saying never feature white men as speakers, or that there’s no place for white voices in a “diverse world”. (Some of my favorite people are white men. I even married one!) It’s just saying that when policy debates prominently feature perspectives of white men in ways that crowds out other voices, we aren’t getting the range of perspectives we need to find solutions to the challenges we’re facing in a sector many agree needs more diverse perspectives. And, we aren’t building broad enough support for those ideas to be sustainable in diverse communities.