Broadening One’s View of True Community

For the past week (and for much of the next week), Eduflack is out at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business (yes, it truly is a hard-knock life). I’m incredibly fortunate to be a part of the GSB’s 2016 Executive Program for NonProfit Leaders. For someone who spends most of his days focused on the topic of adult learning, it is a fascinating experience, being part of a cohort of 55 Type A individuals who are all trying to solve the problems facing their organizations and their sectors.

Half of the cohort represents organizations here in the United States, half represent NGOs around the world. The class is about equally split between men and women. Age distributions range from superstars in their early 30s to seasoned experts likely closer to the ends of their careers instead of the starts.  It’s safe to say that no two people share the same story, or at least one that is wholly similar.

And that’s likely what makes this program so valuable. Don’t get me wrong, I love all (or at least most) of my friends and frenemies in the education policy sector. But we have to admit that our communities, and our engagement with said communities, are fairly homogeneous. I often feel like the same people have been having the same conversations for years now. It doesn’t matter if it is a harsh reformer versus status quoer debate, a fierce discussion between the P-12 and higher education sectors, or even a scrum among educators and advocates with no teaching experience. We are largely comfortable in our community, and remain comfortable even when we have significant disagreements.

In recent years, the only true time of uncomfortability was earlier this year, following the NSVF conference and the discussions on where Black Lives Matter and other social justice issues fit in the education reform movement. For the first time, new voices and perspectives were injected into the process. But even there, comfortability has largely returned. As the NAACP called for a freeze of public charter schools, the same battle lines and the same allied groups returned to their comfortable roles.

A few years ago, the Broad Center’s Becca Bracy Knight launched an effort called Just Have Coffee. Her idea was a simple yet important one. If we are truly committed to improving public education opportunities for all kids, we need to build bridges with those we may not always agree with. Just having coffee with a supposed enemy, and building a personal relationship with someone on the other side, can go a long way toward making meaningful progress and just getting things done. Knight was right then, and she is still right today.

In just a week, I have likely learned more about how to move ideas forward than I did in two years running an education advocacy organization. And that is largely because I am learning beyond the traditional education echo chamber in which we all operate.

During my stay here on The Farm, there are no other higher education voices here. In terms of K-12 education in the United States, I have one colleague (who runs a program in Los Angeles to get first-generation college students into the best institutions possible) and one who runs a small charter school network in Northern California. I have no one worried about what we meant for ESSA to say out when HEA is going to be reauthorized or whether the recent Connecticut school funding court decision is a blessing or curse for the school choice movement. 

Instead, I am learning from those who are running major social service organizations in countries like Austalia and New Zealand, heading youth development efforts in Colombia and Hong Kong, leading women’s health issues in India, Africa, and here in the States. I’m gleaning great insights from those developing justice reform media outlets and micro lending organizations. I’m even learning much from those selling toilets in Kenya and turning waste into fertilizer to strengthen farming efforts in central Africa.

We are able to have very uncomfortable conversations about race and gender and class with no boundaries. More importantly, we are able to discuss our own mistakes and failures in such a way that we can learn from one another. I’m able to push new friends on organizational change and disruption efforts. I’m able to learn, without worrying about sharing too much or of how what I share will be used later.

The challenge before me is taking the lessons learned here, and actually applying them to my own efforts moving forward. It is easy to listen and to talk, yet fart more difficult to use what was heard and said to change (and improve behaviors). It becomes a goal, a goal I hope to achieve.

But I would also challenge Becca Bracy Knight and those who embraced the #JustHaveCoffee concept to evolve the idea. How do begin to reach out to those beyond the education echo chamber? How do we engage and learn and build community with those in health, social services, and social justice communities? How do we build communities that allow for failure, even on high-stakes issues, as long as we learn from those failures? How do we have those uncomfortable conversations, where we discuss our own failures and our own misperceptions in a space of learning and not of judgment? How?    

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