It Matters How You Build It (reblog)

So, I realize that a post that I thought I uploaded on Monday isn’t actually here. Boo. It simply said I was taking some time off from this blog to focus on my research blog. 

But…here’s a blog post I wrote that was published by the ACPA Commission for Social Justice Educators about how campus architecture can be used to communicate an institution’s social justice legacy. I give San Francisco State University as a strong, positive example of this. 

#higheredWed: Speaking to Leaders

This past Saturday, September 8, I was privileged to be asked to deliver a keynote address for a student leadership symposium at San Francisco State University. Before nearly 600 student leaders, I spoke about the components of leadership and how they intersected with social justice. The energy in the auditorium was contagious. It reminded me of how much I love what I do and the opportunity to share with undergraduates.

Below are my remarks; I went off-script in a few places, but this is pretty much the substance of what I shared. Read them over and let me know what you think. What lessons about leadership have you learned?


5th Annual Student Leadership Symposium
San Francisco State University
September 8, 2012
Keynote Speaker: Dafina Lazarus Stewart, PhD

Good morning, everyone! How’s everybody doing today?

Thank you so much to your student affairs staff, particularly to your Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life, Dr. Mary Ann Begley, for bringing me here today and her co-collaborator for this event Sarah Bauer, Director of Student Involvement and Career Center. Let’s hear it for them both and the entire staff that worked hard to bring you this symposium! Come on, you can do better than that!

You are gathered here today for this symposium because you have been identified as leaders. Perhaps you are an executive officer for a student organization on campus, a social or academic fraternity; or perhaps you are here today because you are a resident assistant or an officer of a residence hall organization. Perhaps you have served as a peer facilitator in a class, led a team doing a community service project, or helped to organize student activism on your campus. Whatever brings you here today, I am here to tell you that none of those things make you a leader.

Yup, that’s right. You’re not a leader because you hold a certain position. You’re not even a leader because someone told you that you were a leader. You’re a leader for three reasons; I’ll talk about each of these in turn. You’re a leader because 1) there are people walking with you; 2) you are going someplace where others want to be; and 3) you do the small things that lead to big results. I arrived at these insights based not so much on my own experiences as a student leader because that was 20 years ago – I know, I know, I look like a college student.  It’s really been my own experiences as an advisor for two undergraduate student organizations and working with graduate students who are advising groups that has brought me to these ideas.

Let’s go back to that first idea: You are a leader because there are people walking with you. Notice that I didn’t say that you’re a leader because there are people following you. That would be simple enough, wouldn’t it? Besides, it also seems like a reasonable criterion. We mistakenly often talk about leading and leaders in the absence of following and followers. If you are a leader, there ought to be people following you – otherwise, you’re not leading, you’re just walking. Makes sense right? Sure it does, but that idea puts you in the wrong place in relation to everyone else; leadership is not about you.

Yes, leadership is inherently relational; it’s not an autonomous activity, no one leads in isolation. You can only lead in the context of community. If we take the philosophy that leaders have followers, then we have to ask why should people follow us? We could argue that people follow someone because they believe in them, they trust them, and on some level, because they feel connected to them. And that’s okay, that’s even pretty good. But when people follow us for those reasons, our leadership in our group will be short-lived and shallow. I can think of more than one example, and I bet you can too, of a student organization that had a very charismatic leader. While that person was president, the membership grew and people were excited about what was going on. Things seemed to be going great – for a while. But then, that student graduated and when that dynamic leader was gone, the organization went into decline. Members left and all the life seemed to drain out of the group. Sound familiar to anyone?

So, what happened? Why was the group unable to sustain the growth and enthusiasm it had experienced under that dynamic individual? Talk amongst yourselves for a minute.

I make this out to be a pretty bright group and I bet you came up with something like this: That, yes, although leading is inherently a relational activity, you are not the center of it. You aren’t leading if you’re walking by yourself, because leadership does necessitate followership. However, that puts you in front and everybody else behind you and that looks like old-school leadership, not like the progressive thinking that recognizes that everyone has a contribution to make that can be valued and used to advance the group. So let’s change that metaphor from leader in front and followers behind to leaders being in the company of those they led, leaders being the first among equals, sort of like the “first-follower.” See how that changes the dynamic, just even how you think about leadership, when you put yourself in the midst of your members? The people walking with you can’t just be in it for you, because you won’t always be there, but we hope that the organization will. That leads me to my next point.

You are a leader because you are going someplace where others want to be. The course you set should be determined by the vision, mission, and goals of the group. Your fellow students are going to stay engaged and commit their time and effort to the organization, because you’ve effectively crafted and communicated a vision that they are willing to buy into – you’re going someplace where they want to be. That someplace is toward the realization of the purpose of your organization. It takes a certain amount of progressive thinking to facilitate the development of vision and mission. Vision-crafting and mission development are not things that leaders do on their own, in isolation – not if they want other people to join the effort. You also shouldn’t approach it as a product to be sold with you as its salesperson.

Let me be honest with you: If you find yourself trying to convince others to get on board with you, then you probably are headed someplace that no one else wants to go. If you look around and the only people consistently showing up to your general body meetings are you and your exec board, you’ve got a problem with where you’re going. But maybe that’s not a problem and it’s great – if you are okay with your membership consisting of just the executive officers and the organization going defunct once you all graduate. I would assume though that you’re not okay with that, but I shouldn’t make assumptions. Are you okay with that?

I didn’t think so! So how do we prevent that from happening? Visions are best crafted with input from a broad array of other members. As a leader, though, it is your task to think creatively about where the organization can go. This requires having a big picture, a panoramic view of the organization that includes an understanding of its past, its present, and what threats and opportunities lay in its future. Conveying this information to your members is something you can uniquely offer as a leader (likely with the help of an advisor or alumni members) that others may not be able to provide. The vision and mission of your organization has to be big enough to allow for growth and innovation, while maintaining a thread of connection to the principles that guided it in the past. Consider this: Where do you want the organization to go as a member? What did you need from this group before you became an officer? What attracted you to this organization in the first place? Thinking of yourself as a passenger, instead of as the driver, will help to remind you of the view from the back of the bus.

Crafting a collective vision and mission is also important because getting the group to its destination is not just about you. You can’t be the only one driving the bus. Missions are accomplished and visions are realized through dedicated teamwork, not through the single-minded determination of an individual or a small group of people.

You are a leader because you do the small things that lead to big results. Your strengths and success as a leader are not determined in the big moments when the spotlights are on. It’s not because your biggest event of the year went off without a hitch and you had a higher attendance than ever before. It is not a result of getting an interview in the student newspaper with your picture on the front page. It’s not because you were able to make a significant change to university policy or took on some major issue on campus. Shining in the big moments doesn’t make you a leader. By the way, having big moments to shine in isn’t a requirement for being a leader either. Being a leader is not some surreal, larger-than-life role that you have to be almost superhuman to play.

In fact, real leadership is quite the opposite. Honing your competence as a leader happens in the small moments that happen every day that few people will ever see. It’s taking the time to make sure you know the university’s policies governing student organizations. It’s making sure that you really do follow-up with all those students who signed up to get more information at the student organization fair. Leadership is arriving early to set up an event and staying late to break down, even if others didn’t show up but said they would. Leaders pay attention to group dynamics and work to resolve conflict. Leaders are made when there’s dirty work to be done, work that doesn’t get mentioned in the student newspaper, work that doesn’t get a thank you, but you do it anyway.

It’s the everyday things, the small stuff, that accumulate and lead to big results. The time you take sending emails, learning university policy, following up on the mundane tasks necessary to prepare for an event will pay off on the long run in increased membership, building good relationships with your advisors and other university staff that can lead to changes in policy, and the event that makes the front page of the student newspaper. As Miley Cyrus sings in the only song of hers that I actually like, “life’s a climb” and it’s the climb that reveals who you are and strengthens you as a leader, not the mountaintop.

Do a self-assessment based on these 3 criteria: You’re a leader if there are people walking with you; you’re a leader if you are going someplace others want to go; and, you’re a leader when you do the small things that lead to big results.

So, are you a leader? Show of hands, how many of you feel confident that you can answer that question in the affirmative?

Okay, how many of you aren’t so sure that you are a leader based on those 3 criteria?

It is okay to acknowledge that, to say – wait, maybe I’m not really a leader, yet, or I don’t exercise leadership consistently. Leadership is something you grow into and have to work to maintain. It’s not a light switch – you don’t suddenly stop being a leader, nor do you become a leader and then that’s it. You can demonstrate strong, positive, effective leadership in one situation and then in another situation, you can fall short.

Leading takes work and consistent practice. It’s an active word that is built on the concepts I already shared above. Those characteristics make you an effective leader; they don’t necessarily make you a positive leader. Positive leaders are change agents who inspire others to act in ways that lead to greater equity and which broaden inclusion. So I want to talk a little bit about being that kind of leader, a socially just leader.

Socially just leaders aren’t know-it-alls, they aren’t “P-C police,” and they are not immune from making mistakes. Socially just leaders are change agents who commit to a vision of their group, their organization, and their campus that seeks to build bridges that unite their peers across lines of difference, not build walls that divide. Their vision of what could be sees whose voices are missing from their group and strives to find out why so that they can make room for those voices to come to the table. They advocate for those who are not present and stand as allies with those who are trying to make change. Leaders who are change agents use their group’s status and position to support other groups. Leaders who value social justice, continue to expand their own awareness, knowledge, and skills, recognizing that multicultural competence is a journey, not a destination.

Incorporating social justice in your definition of what it means to you to be a leader takes courage and determination. It’s risky to challenge your peers, especially when you may be unsure of exactly why something someone said or did reinforces inequity instead of dismantles it. Courage, boldness, and the willingness to risk speaking up for what’s right instead of staying quiet – these characteristics mark leaders who are trying to make a difference.

Determination is also an important trait for change agents. You can’t give up at the first sign of opposition, whether it’s from a fellow student who is resisting outreach to draw in new members who will diversify the group or an institutional policy that hasn’t caught up with the times. Determination and persistence come from believing that change is worth the trouble. More equitable practices and policies and greater inclusivity don’t happen overnight. A clear vision of where you’re going is necessary to stay on the path.

Finally, this type of leadership doesn’t rest easy just because everything is going great in their own group. Most of you will likely recognize this Disney Channel movie line, “We’re all in this together.” I know it’s cheesy but it’s true. You can’t have a “me-and-mine” mentality and call yourself a change agent, committed to social justice. Supporting the success of other groups brings good karma to your organization. Moreover, seeking opportunities to collaborate with others across lines of difference will enhance your multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills. Great programming ideas can come out of attending to the intersections of identity. As leaders, you have a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the learning and development of your peers by proposing new ideas for programming and meeting topics. You’ll generate interest, curiosity, and excitement and that will benefit your organization and the campus as a whole.

You got here today because of your positional leadership. You will participate in workshops the rest of the day focused on various leadership skills, because you care about being good leaders. It is my hope that you continue throughout this day, thinking of the ways that you exercise leadership that have nothing to do with your position or title. I hope you will leave here today committed to making leadership a part of your daily routine, because I’m going to tell you a secret. Ready for it?

Okay, here’s the secret: You can be a leader whether you have a title or not by promoting and facilitating teamwork, by helping your group keep its mission and vision at the center of its activities, by doing the little things that must be done but which few people notice, and by working toward more socially just outcomes in your club and across your university. If you do these things, you’ll always be a leader regardless of your “official role.” That’s leadership that matters in both the short- and the long-term.

I’m going to ask you a question now, but I’m going to give you the answer first. Here’s the answer: “Right here.” Got it? Okay, now for the question: “Where my leaders at?”

Good. I’m glad you’re here because that’s exactly where we need you to be. Thank you.

Reforming Education Reform

Today, the teachers in Chicago’s public schools went on strike after months of deadlocked contract negotiations. Chicago is the 3rd largest public school district in the nation with over 400,000 students. If this can happen there…? Chicago’s teachers union is finally pushing back after years of mandated educational reforms that belittled teachers’ knowledge and removed resources from public schools. The following text is from the Teacher’s Activist Groups website in solidarity with Chicago’s teacher union:

Chicago has been the focus of corporate school “reform,” but Chicago is now the epicenter of the push back against it. On June 11, 2012, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leaders announced that 89.73% of CTU members—98% of those who cast ballots—voted to give the union authority to call a strike if contract negotiations with Chicago Public Schools fail (Chicago Teachers Union). This astounding vote was about much more than a contract. It tapped into teachers’ deep anger at 17 years of neoliberal education “reforms” that have demoralized and blamed teachers and belittled their knowledge, taken the joy out of classrooms, and decimated public education. After 17 years of the tyranny of high stakes tests, business-like management of public schools, school closings and turnarounds by private operators, disinvestment of resources from neighborhood public schools, and moves to pay teachers based on competitive performance measures, teachers have had enough. A new revitalized teachers union, along with parents, students and community members of Chicago are standing up to the assault on public education.

Meanwhile, the GOP and Democratic parties unveiled their platforms during their conventions last week. According to education scholars at Iowa State, including higher education scholar and ASHE president Linda Serra Hagedorn, the platforms are heavy on platitudes and light on substance.

You can read highlights of both party’s platforms at these links:
Dems – (scroll down to Education and click where it says “13 full quotes…” – for some reason my silly tablet just opens up a pop-up window that I can’t get a direct link to)

Implementation rarely accompanies vision statements – that’s the next committee’s job. So, I agree with my colleagues at Iowa State that no one wants to discuss how to put their ideas into practice. The devil, in the form of a lot of criticism, is in the details. After all, you can’t fact-check vision.

However, what you can do is get a sense of differences in values and priorities. I encourage you to look at these platforms and consider what values and premises about what is true can be discerned from them. How does each party define success? What does choice mean to both parties? They don’t talk about choice in the same way. They also don’t seem to mean the same thing by “accountability” or have the same reference point for “competition.” These differences have real consequences for how visions finally do get implemented.

I saw someone recently compare the GOP platform for education reform to the Hunger Games (the young adult novel series by Suzanne Collins, also the movie based on the first book). That seems a bit sensationalist, but so do the criticisms of the POTUS and Democrats’ vision for education. Basically, their plan will celebrate mediocrity, crush innovation, and support teachers who are lazy and want to indoctrinate students to all become radical, homosexual, socialists who have indiscriminate sex and aspire to live off the public dole.


Here’s what I believe:
1. Before the advent of publicly funded primary and secondary education, the only young people who learned about the world beyond their front door came from families who could afford private tutors or the loss of income for a parent (mom usually) to stay home. In the absence of public schools, upward mobility was generally unheard of and the middle class was weak and miniscule. And that’s not spin, it’s historical fact.

2. Pitting teachers against each other and against test scores doesn’t produce teachers who invest in their students’ potential. Rather it rewards teaching that exploits student achievement for their own gain.

3. There is a big difference between schooling that leads to education and schooling for training in my view. Schooling for education seeks to draw out a student’s potential to maximize their possibilities. Schooling as training reminds me of the tracking systems that still operate in more schools than anybody wants to admit that sort students based on racial, intellectual, and class biases that hinder upward mobility, not support it.

4. I believe that schools are meant to expose young people to ideas and ways of being in the world that they don’t already know, otherwise we merely reinforce embedded ethnocentrism.

5. I believe that our community colleges are already overloaded as Hagedorn said, so this emphasis on both sides might bring more resources into this sector but it does so at the expense of other public colleges. I believe this shift in emphasis from 4-yr to 2-yr higher education reflects a view of community colleges as training grounds for the status quo, not a view of community colleges as gateways to higher potential. I agree with Kevin Dougherty’s critique in this regard.

6. Education is for mind, body, and spirit so programs in physical education, art, drama, and music are important and should be supported.

7. I believe that teaching requires a certain set of skills and competencies that should be acknowledged, valued, and compensated appropriately. Back in those days where there were no public schools and private tutors directed teaching on an individual basis, when those young men showed up at our nation’s early colonial colleges (Harvard, Yale, William & Mary, etc.), they usually needed remedial education to bring them up to the college level. I’m just putting that out there.

8. Last one, teaching to a test, whether that test is the SAT or the state high school graduation test, doesn’t improve college readiness. The more we emphasize tests, the less prepared our students will be for college and the greater the gap will be between those kids and the ones who were able to go to private, independent schools (not charters) and didn’t get taught to pass a test.

No matter what plan for education eventually emerges after November’s election (it won’t be in its pure form no matter who wins), it will likely be little informed by any substantive understanding of pedagogy, teacher education, or student development. I don’t believe we’ll really see real education reform until we stop making public schools copy and paste practices that seem to work elsewhere, but which aren’t done at the private, independent schools in our nation. Until we believe that the kids who go to public schools deserve the same education that the kids in private school do, we’ll just continue to reproduce inequality. Right now, I’m not sure either party really believes that.

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#higheredWed: Election Season

This post covers both yesterday’s #higheredWed and tomorrow’s regular Friday post, so it’s coming on Thursday.

Anyway, it’s election season (in case the countless political ads and convention coverage evaded you and you’ve turned off your Facebook friends’ notifications about politics) and we’re going to be in this space for another couple of months (the debates begin next month; here’s the schedule). Those of us who work in higher education are likely planning or thinking about ways to make this a learning moment for our students, particularly undergraduate students. At the same time though, election season can be frustrating and seemingly useful only for hardening people’s opinions, not for facilitating constructive dialogue. Yet, I am a firm believer that education can come out of this madness we call politics in this country and that college and university educators can create the space to make it happen.

1. Remember the cognitive development and maturity required to engage in debates in a reasonable, sensible way. Notice I didn’t say “logical” or “unemotional.” Cognitive development theorists such as Marcia Baxter Magolda, Pat King with Karen Kitchener, and the authors of Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule) all acknowledge that emotion and subjectivity play important and necessary roles in developing cognitive maturity. Often, once people abandon the “because my parents told me so” rationale for their beliefs, the next step is to connect on a personal level through their own experiences or those of someone close to them. Later comes the ability to take those personal experiences and place them in a broader context and use evidence to determine what is more or less likely or probable. Crafting programs that engage students on a personal-level is an important aspect of building bridges for more advanced (read “more complex”) cognitive thinking.

2. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. You may have scheduled a panel of speakers, a debate, or a lecture that deals with one or more of the salient issues on the table in this election. That’s great, but it’s full value will be lost if it’s not paired with time for attendees to talk about what they’ve heard with each other in conversations that are facilitated by adults invested in helping them think better, not come to whatever conclusion they prefer. I often hear people complain that debates and the convention speeches are useless because nobody ever changes their minds; they just look for justification for their own beliefs in what they’ve heard. The only way to change that is to allow students to directly engage the issues and talk with each other, not just be talked at. Probing questions that get students to explore how what they’ve heard affects them help bridge the gap to the next level of cognitive development, not just sitting listening to someone else talk for an hour.

3. Heart, soul, AND mind. There’s been a lot of talk about values in this year’s presidential election and that is a good thing. Values, what people believe about the life they want to live, what’s important to them, and how they define key concepts like success, freedom, and responsibility are fundamental to how people will make decisions and sort through the issues this fall. Getting students to answer these questions for themselves AND getting them to listen to how their peers answer these questions will help overcome the knee-jerk demonizing of opposing views that typically characterizes more simplistic cognitive maturity. For educators who are facilitating these discussions, being transparent about how your values play a role in your political action is really beneficial, especially for traditional-age students who are still crafting their own voice (what Baxter Magolda calls the development of self-authorship).

4. Panoramic views please. There’s so much talk about “the” Republican Party and “the” Democratic Party that not only makes it seem like each party is a monolith, but also portrays them as consistent over time. I bet many students would be surprised – no matter their political allegiances – to learn that it was Republicans who more ardently and consistently supported civil rights for African Americans and other racial minorities in the 1940s and 1950s, not Democrats. Helping students to see the complexity of political history and present-day discussions will also help students who may agree with one aspect of their party’s platform but disagree with others. I recently saw on Facebook someone decry the possibility of being fiscally conservative but socially liberal when in fact it is entirely possible to hold those two perspectives at the same time. Showing historical examples, or getting students to find them for themselves, shuts down myths like this.

5. Translate talk into action. Inspiring civic engagement begins with constructive dialogue, in my opinion, but it doesn’t end there. Getting our students to the polls – regardless of who they intend to vote for – is the ultimate objective in my mind for this election (and any election). Part of this is helping students see how local, state, and federal politics are interconnected and why it’s important for them to remain engaged in the issues beyond the presidential election.
Unfortunately, I see much of our political conversations happening on very simplistic, lower levels of cognitive development. I believe it is our duty as educators not to cooperate with that. We can elevate the tone of the conversations with our students. When we do, not only will our students benefit, but our whole nation.

Deadline to register to vote is October 9th. Election Day is November 6th:

Labor and Labor Day

Today is Labor Day in the United States. A national holiday meant to celebrate the effective activism of workers, blue-collar workers, and labor unions who advocated for reasonable working conditions (5 day work week and weekends, the concept of shifts and 8 hour work days, restrictions on child labor, worker safety and protection laws, etc.). It’s come to be the unofficial end of summer, the end of wearing white shoes, pants, skirts, shorts (if you care about such things), and in some parts of the country Labor Day signals the beginning of another school year.

As I reflect on this Labor Day – on which I’ve done quite a little bit of work so far – I’d like to return to the original meaning and honoring those who stood picket lines, voted, went on strike, and in countless other ways brought me the opportunities that I and many other workers in the U.S. now enjoy. No, I didn’t build this. I didn’t make possible the existence of the career I have, nor did I create the infrastructures that will provide for my economic security once I retire. I am grateful for those whose blood, sweat, and tears (and that’s no hyperbole) did build it. To those who made it possible for me to grieve the loss of a weekend to work, who put the idea in my head that there’s something amiss when I’ve worked through vacation periods and holidays, who have taught me to aspire to working more effectively within a reasonable timeframe during the day – to all of my ancestors and elders who did build this, I say thank you.

All of these accomplishments are good and worth sustaining and protecting. They are also worth extending to the millions of workers in this country who do not have the privilege of these rights and gains. There are countless “pink”-collar workers (mostly service and retail industry employees) who are working on this Labor Day and who work almost every holiday and weekend throughout the year, so that the rest of us can “rest” and have “leisure” time. And then there are those who comprise our emergency workers (police, fire, hospital staff) whose hours are long, unpredictable, and sometimes full of danger to themselves and others. Utility workers who race to climb above the trees to make sure we don’t miss “the big game” but have schedules that blow their Circadian rhythms out of the water and may be jeopardizing their long-term health. There are millions who work without health insurance, who are hired with hours that are just below the cut-off for employers to provide mandatory insurance coverage. Most of those same millions are also working without any retirement benefits, who are solely hoping that politicians will figure out how to protect Social Security.

Side Note: You should listen to my mom talk about Social Security. She’s adamant that it’s not an “entitlement” program, but an earned benefit wrought through her decades of employment. I’m inclined to think she’s right – and not just because she’s my mom and she has an amazing way of usually being right about most things.

We have continued to have an entire labor sector that is “off-the-books,” folks who are working in dangerous, dirty, exhausting, and/or thankless jobs in our nation’s agriculture, construction, and textile industries who are invisible to the worker safety protocols offered by OSHA. Yes, many of those laborers are undocumented immigrants, but a whole lot of them are not. In my opinion, capitalism’s engines run based on the “invisible” work of these millions who work without protections, without holidays, without a consistent shift (12 hours might be nice, let alone 8).

We have legions of unemployed workers who don’t show up in the official stats because they’ve stopped looking for work – one can only take so much rejection for so long – or because they’re back in school trying to retool their skills so that they can qualify for a job. These aren’t people who are looking just to get a paycheck off the government dole, not mostly. These are folks who want to work – Americans who have been socialized to be autonomous, independent, and fiercely proud of remaining so. They would work if they could. And the full picture of our nation’s unemployment isn’t revealed until we break it down by industry and race and gender and then see that unemployment hits certain communities harder than others, including those who are transgendered, racially minoritized, and had previously worked in low-tech/high-labor industries.

Yes, let’s remember and honor those workers who brought us the leisure time we call Labor Day. And let’s remember and honor those workers who supply the means of our leisure, whose work remains unprotected, who fall outside the bounds of visible labor. We honor and remember them best by making sure that the workers’ rights won in the 20th century don’t become obsolete or another means of differentiating the haves from the have-nots in the 21st.