Ice Ice Baby – Collaborate and Listen, Indeed

VAnilla Ice

Maybe Vanilla Ice had it right all along.

It’s been a critical 7+ months. I left Deloitte Consulting to test out my personal hypothesis: I loved, and wanted to work in, education. But wait now – I’ve already skipped over a critical piece of that journey. Where did that hypothesis come from? A proverbial teacher’s apple did not fall from a tree and knock my passion for education into focus. No – even if I ignore the innate drivers, there was still a pretty clear path to my decision.

  1. My parents both received their Doctorates and have always reminded my brother and me about the irreplaceable benefits of a strong education.
  2. I had an excellent formal education in India, Katy, and College Station (even if I didn’t appreciate that when I was in the middle of it).
  3. I worked with local high school students in Houston through Deloitte’s noteworthy community outreach programs.
  4. I saw the tremendous kids coming out of these “urban” programs…and noted the work it took to support them through otherwise difficult conditions.
  5. I read my first few education-specific books (The Smartest Kids in the WorldHow Children SucceedOne World Schoolhouse, and Whatever it Takes).
  6. I took a 2-week sabbatical in San Francisco near the end of my Deloitte career to reevaluate my life and career and plan out how I could live a life more aligned to my passions and value system. And to drink a ton of coffee at hip Bay Area coffee shops innovation stations.

There. That’s how I developed my hypothesis. In the energetic interior of a San Francisco coffee shop (I think it was specifically at The Workshop Cafe). With my kiddos from Houston in mind. And reflections on my upbringing, education, and foundation making me feel things.


 

Anyways. That was the mental journey to get me to the starting point. Then, with the help of my mentors and friends, I was able to land an EP Fellowship. At this point, I was excited about moving to Boston…or San Francisco…or Chicago…or LA…really anywhere (not Memphis). I wanted experience in the sexy cities, though I justified that these were the big cities that would probably teach me the most and get me ready for the rest of my career. Then, through a series of timely stalls and rejections and new opportunities, I found myself in Memphis for a day, just to visit a few of the organizations I had been proposed for. I talked with all three organizations I would come to represent: Education Pioneers, Seeding Success, and Porter-Leath. I wasn’t immediately hooked. But I was intrigued. There was real passion there. Like…real, obvious, buzzing passion. So yes, like the hummus inside me is drawn to hummus outside me (scientifically proven), my unbridled passion was drawn to the people and work in the Bluff City. And, coming from Houston, I was drawn to the similar grit-and-grind/chip-on-your-shoulder attitude of the city. So I came to Memphis. 

Fast forward those 7+ months. That’s 7 months of Head Start and Early Head Start and site directors and teachers and beautiful tiny little kiddos in school, of ELAP assessments and Ages & Stages Questionnaires reading Dr. Seuss to crawling infants. That’s 7 months of continuous improvement frameworks and Collaborative Action Networks (CANs) and outcome-based decision making. That’s 7 months of weekly Education Hot Topics discussion at Otherlands Coffee on topics from the School-to-Prison Pipeline to the Educator’s Savior Complex to funding traditional school districts vs. Charter Management Organizations. That’s 7 months worth of EP Convenings on the Opportunity Gap, Change Management, and Innovation in Education.

Like I said – it’s been a critical 7+ months.

I came in with the career assumption that I wanted to get into Education Technology and revolutionize the way learning happens in our public schools because our teacher student ratio and model were archaic. I still want to do that…maybe. But my perspective and ultimate motivation has changed. It took less than a month (a week? a day?) of actually working in Education in Memphis for me to realize a greater vision- to narrow the opportunity gap and serve those who are marginalized by inequitable systems and policies.

shamwow
So, with no further adieu, here’s my easy  3-step-process to closing the opportunity gap!!!

Just kidding.


 

As I reflect on all I’ve learned so far, two themes stand out. And I nickname them Vanilla Ice.

  1. Collaborate
  2. Listen

Collaborate

I’m placed at Seeding Success (S2), an intermediary education services organization that provides facilitation and capacity-building services to local education organizations (non-profits, public and private institutions, school districts, health service providers, etc) in Shelby County. This means we bring together organizations through Collaborative Action Networks (CANs) that align on particular research-backed outcomes (like Kindergarten Readiness, 3rd Grade Reading, etc) and facilitate conversations on how to reach those goals as a total community, rather than working in organizational silos. Then, we provide data services and other tools to these networks to track progress and push for continuous improvement toward our goals. By virtue of my placement here, I’m exposed to the vast amount of collaboration happening in communities – and vast opportunity for more. I have learned to view my work strategically across a geographic area or common strategic goals. I understand the value of an individual organization’s work and how it fits in the greater vision for a community.

I could have learned all of that if I had been the only one placed at S2. But the collaboration doesn’t end there. I’m a part of a 9-person Education Pioneers cohort all placed here – some who spend most of their time there and some (like me) who work with S2 partners. As a cohort, we cover the following bases:

  • Research key educational policies (restorative discipline, health services in schools, etc) and work with school districts and governments to impact process and regulation.
  • Work with workforce initiatives to help opportunity youth reengage with society
  • Support a summer-reading program across the county to mitigate summer slide
  • Provide technical data support and solutions to the major school districts
  • Create systems and structures for effective programming in early-childhood education
  • Analyze and provide process improvement recommendations to localized after-school education programs
  • Bring local higher education institutions into a collaborative network to collectively address high dropout rates

That is…SO MUCH STUFF I WOULDN’T HAVE KNOWN ANYTHING ABOUT if I didn’t get placed in this role at this organization. I’m by no means an expert on any of those things (or really on my own role, yet), but I can at least have a decent conversation and ask the right questions about all of those spaces as I move forward in my career. And, if you (like me) believe in the it-takes-a-community approach to truly effective education work, then there is no alternative to addressing all of these areas collectively.

Listen

One of my friends and colleagues at Seeding Success has a tendency to start every important phrase by rubbing his hands together and saying, “Listen.” I have half-mockingly/half-sincerely adopted this practice, and I think it has a special symbolism for our work.

By nature of me not being from a low-income community with underserved children and schools, I am always going to be an “outsider” in my work. It’s something I struggle with constantly but have learned to acknowledge and accept. So then, as an outsider trying to support meaningful change in the education landscape of a community, what is my number 1 responsibility? Before anything starts – before the strategies and the staffing plans and the contracts and the meetings, I must listen. To teachers. To students. To administrators. To parents. To folks already doing great work in the community. To those people who are already dedicated to the work, from one angle or another, that I want to support. From a moral perspective, there is no higher responsibility that listening to the perspectives and opinions of people in a community, as I owe it to anyone I want to work with to understand their reality and not superimpose my biased thoughts on an already difficult situation. From an effectiveness perspective, there is no stronger strategy for ensuring “success” than making sure I know where current work is making progress and where we still have room for improvement. If I don’t have the correct starting point, the road to our vision gets that much rockier.

My favorite Education Hot Topics sessions this year have all revolved around this topic of listening (or lack thereof) before doing. A discussion around community engagement stands out. With the sensitive environment around school takeovers…I mean turnarounds…in the community, there are plenty of case-studies on community engagement in Shelby County, especially about Charter Management Organizations considering taking over low-performing schools. The most effective ones come in early, have several open community meetings, put in some serious effort in understanding the unique community pride in many of Memphis’s neighborhoods, and then undertake the tough work of turning around a school. Some of the less effective ones…don’t. Though the systems have improved to require this community engagement “pre-work,” (though calling it pre-work instead of an integral part of the work is a great example of my own subconscious bias against this phase…crap) there are several hilariously bad examples that I could lump together as “bad listeners.” We read of potential new school directors who have yet to meet the existing leadership at a school even though the decision to take over the school was already made. We hear of EdTech startups pitching technology products to schools that don’t have technical infrastructure to support any of the ideas. We see outside groups come in and set up a strategic plan for an entire community without ever having community members provide input.

This isn’t about intent. I see the best in people (though I have my healthy dose of cynicism there, too), and I really believe most people have positive, if not positively saintly, intentions. However, having good intentions and wanting to give “those children” a great education isn’t direct cause to start an organization and move on into a community. I’ll put it in my own potential future career perspective: say I work with local leaders at Community A and identify a skill set they can use in their existing Education work. I commit to the plan, and through the collective will and hard work of our team, we start seeing some results. I, bolstered by the success we saw in Community A, “take my talents” to Community B and start implementing that same plan. I had great intentions. But not only did I not listen to Community B about whether this strategy would work there, I didn’t even ascertain whether they want me there. I have to open those channels of communication WAY before I move in. Why? Because I don’t want to just give lip service to the idea that a community may not want me to get involved. Too often do we see organizations have “community meetings” after it has already been decided that they will move in and do XYZ. What kind of listening is that? That’s just like building an unwanted bridge in a community and THEN asking what color the locals would like painted. I think that’s morally questionable. And I think it’s (like a water Pokemon attacking a plant Pokemon) not very effective…


Sometimes, I question why it’s important to highlight these seemingly obvious qualities. Of COURSE I want to collaborate. Of COURSE I want to listen. But then I reflect on why those are obvious to me. I don’t short-change the value of starting my Education work in this exact environment, with this community, with these organizations, and with these specific people. They are giving me a foundation that, though I will strategically update and reinforce it, now becomes my starting point for any and all Education work I do moving forward. And I think that’s a pretty solid foundation. Word to yo motha.

 

 

 

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