Mike McMahon AUSD
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Source:Voices In Urban Education, Spring, 2006


Starting A Conversation

June, 2006

Why is it so difficult to have discussions of equity and excellence?


Partly it's because Americans, as a group, have very little practical experience talking about things like race and gender and class. They are not common things in our schooling; they are not necessarily common things in our families; they are not common conversations professionally. Who knows how to do it? Who knows how to do it well? There's such a fear of offense. People lose their jobs if they say the wrong things. This is very, very sensitive territory. That's one reason: we don't have the skills or experience or practice.


In terms of excellence, we know what it looks like. We can all point to examples. However, excellence in education is extended to only a privileged few. But if you want to have excellence at scale, you must include the notion of equity. You cannot have excellence at scale without equity at scale. This is where the conversation becomes difficult.

"Taking Money Away from My Children"

I think people have a difficult time talking about equity because the notion of equity flies in the face of our capitalistic society. Our society socializes people to get everything they can get for themselves. It's not about being your brother's keeper or creating wealth or success or happiness for society. It's about creating it for you, individually, and your family. We are not socialized to think about creating equity for all.

Another reason that discussing equity is difficult is because it's an issue of power: power and resources and money. For people to discuss or deeply examine the issue of equity, they have to suspend their own belief in individual gain over collective gain and the power that's associated with it. So those who are in power and make decisions that impact others believe they have to give something up in order for equity to be achieved. And that, again, flies in the face of our capitalistic society.

Let me give you an example about the issue of loss. When I first went to the Gates Foundation and Bill Gates created the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which was a $1–billion scholarship – $50 million a year for twenty years – targeted at African American, Native American,Asian American, and Hispanic American students, there were literally attorneys trying to sue Bill Gates to keep him from doing that because there was a perception of loss within the White community around this money. It was not theirs in the first place; it was Bill Gates's money, and he could do whatever he wanted to do with it. I had several White people come up to me and ask me, literally, "Why is he taking this money away from my children?" Part of my response was, "It wasn't your money or your children's money in the first place. It's his money. He can give it the way he wants. He's not taking it from anyone."

For those who have been privileged, those who have power, those who have influence, the whole notion of equity creates the feeling within them that something is being taken away – not that something is being added to help others. It's literally being taken away from them. That's one of the reasons it's so difficult to have this conversation.

For those who have been privileged, those who have power, those who have influence, the whole notion of equity creates the feeling within them that something is being taken away – not that something is being added to help others.


In my work over the last twenty years, I have seen it cross people's faces that it wasn't "accidental" that they went to a great high school. It has come to them that they were players in this game. My experience is that I went to a tremendous high school. My parents figured out where they wanted to buy a house so that I could go to a great high school. It wasn't accidental. There weren't that many great high schools to go around, and they navigated it so that I could go to that one. But that's something that people have to struggle with.

We've all got these experiences in us when we start talking about equity and when we start talking about excellence. We're implicated. Each of us who is fortunate enough to have a college degree, or even some advanced work, was formed by this system that is filled with inequity and misunderstood definitions of excellence. It would be easier to not talk about it. It would be easier just to talk about something else (and something that's a little more distant) like test scores or something like that.


You'll notice that most of the time the conversations about equity are held by those who have been treated inequitably, not those who have been privileged throughout their lives. Those are the people we need to engage in this conversation, so that they can begin to understand the issue of inequity. It's very foreign to them.

Getting Started on a Conversation about Equity

Once you've decided that that's what you want to talk about, how do you get started?


Have people talk about their own experience, either as a student or as an educator or as a parent, which will really get you incredible stories. Have people start by talking about some experience of their own where they were worried or there was a possibility that equity was an issue.

I've heard it all. I've heard people talk about their own experiences as students being told that they weren't college material. There are a lot of superintendents in this country who got motivated because somebody told them that they were not college material.

This is where you start. I'm convinced that this is the only place you can start, because people have to find it in their own life and work.


I would keep it depersonalized, initially. I think the personalization of it is what frightens people, because they begin to perceive things in terms of a loss.

One way to get started is to have people create a definition of equity and have them look at what equity means, outside of themselves – to make it fairly objective – then move into how you have experienced equity or inequity. I just think the concept needs to be developed objectively first and then personalize it. However, as Linda said, when people begin to talk about their own experiences, you get incredible stories, and this frees others to open up to themselves and to others.

We don't learn by reading things. We mix it up with each other. We question each other. We find out who we disagree with.


When people talk about their own experiences, very often what happens – and this is the "aha" – is that people who don't think they know anything about this, or people who don't think they had any experience with it, can have their eyes opened. I do an exercise sometimes if the group is more than twenty or so, where I have people stand on one side of the room and cross over if the statement applies to them. I did it at the Harvard Education School, and I had about a hundred people, and I said, "If there has ever been a racist incident in your district, cross over." Ninety–five crossed over. And it was a powerful moment, because the ninety–five said, "If this is happening everywhere, then I'm not such a bad person. I don't feel so alone. And, also, why aren't we talking about this?" And the five people on the other side said, "What am I missing? Is there something about my district that I'm not thinking about?"

Using Conversations about Equity as Learning Opportunities

Once you get started with the conversation, how do you organize the conversation around equity and excellence so that people learn things and build on what they know?


That's where I think the concept and the experience come in. As people begin to discuss their experiences around equity and inequity, they consider: What are the positive and negative experiences related to the concept of equity that you have identified? And then you move people into a conversation around the question: How do you maximize the positive experiences that we would consider equitable, and how do we minimize or eliminate the possibility of experiences that we have said are negative in terms of inequity?

So, if I have experienced x, and it was a wonderful experience that I would relate to the concept of equity and excellence, then what do we do to generalize those experiences and make them more accessible to people? And, once we have identified what we would term inequitable experiences, what are the things we can do to limit those inequitable experiences?


There is a thing called "meeting design." It's not accidental; it's not thrown together that we sit at tables, that we work in small groups, that the groups are a certain size, and that they have certain assignments.

Sometimes people say, "We don't want panels. We don't want to be talked at." And that's really an underlying request for a different way of doing the meeting, a different way of trying to build knowledge. People know that the old–fashioned way – I call it old fashioned, but it's a specific way – of having one smart person talk at us for a long period of time, and then we ask that smart person questions, is only one way to do a meeting.

Kenneth's and my work is based on a couple of bodies of research. One has to do with how adults learn and adult–development theory. Another has to do with small–group dynamics versus large–group dynamics. Another has to do with creativity and innovation. And when you stir all that together and you bring a group of people together, that's what you're trying to manage. You're trying to manage the dynamics of the group – who talks a lot, who thinks they're right. But most adults learn by trying things out.We don't learn by reading things.We mix it up with each other.We question each other.We find out who we disagree with. That's the purpose of smaller groups: so that more voices have an opportunity to be heard.

Then the whole creativity and innovation question has to do with keeping people in spaces where they go deeper, where they trust each other, where they take some risks.

There is "meeting planning" and there is also "experiential learning" and planning for that. People said to me, "Oh, that made it more interesting." Yes, hopefully it does make it more interesting than a lecture. But, more than that, we think it's how people discover new things. They stumble across things they hadn't thought about before. Someone says something that they hadn't quite heard that way before. It happened a couple of times at the forum, where somebody said, "Aha! I just thought of something!" That "aha moment" is what we're designing to get to.


In this process we try never to do anything for an individual that would harm the group and, likewise, never to do anything for the group that would harm an individual.

Balancing Focus with "Taking on the Whole World"

One of the things we saw at the forum was that once people started the conversation, it would grow and involve all the inequities there are in society. Because there are so many, the discussion got very expansive. People wanted to take on the whole world. How do you place some boundaries on the issue so that people can focus on what they can affect?


This is one of those interesting things about group dynamics. My experience is that people need some of that. When you don't have many opportunities to talk candidly about some of these issues, once you have a chance, among like–minded people, you do need some kind of blow–up, blue–sky, expansive conversation.

At some point – and this is the facilitator's job – it becomes necessary for the energy of the group to try and set some boundaries and focus people on what's doable. There are a lot of ways to do this, depending on the group. One way is to look at immediate shortterm and long–term possibilities for action.We discovered some things at the forum that people could do immediately in their networks.

One way to begin to focus is to identify where we, individually, can have some type of influence and where our coordination of efforts can have even more influence.

But I think we don't realize what pressure we are often under to not talk about these things. So when you get a chance, you've got to let people be expansive for a while, and then invite them to narrow it down, and then to focus.


Linda made a very important point. As a part of a participant's journey, sometimes they must have that "expansive conversation," which some may view as a waste of time or a "bird walk." However, this conversation contributes to the building of a common database of information that will inform everyone's wisdom around the issues being discussed. Our job as facilitators is to recognize this, allow and even encourage it, and then to know when and how to focus the group.

One way to begin to focus is to identify where we, individually, can have some type of influence and where our coordination of efforts can have even more influence. That's the way you enlarge it – working cooperatively with other organizations or other entities, looking at your spheres of influence and seeing where you have some leverage.

We can't individually go out and change George Bush's administration. I'm not going to run to Washington and try to get an audience with George Bush. But we can help people have a deeper conversation about where and how they can actually be effective. And we can help create models and processes to help them transform their thoughts and experiences into doable actions.


At the forum, we were lucky. The people who attended were activists in their orientation anyway. So, even while we are having these expansive discussions, they are looking for things they could do. They're seeing ways it can enrich their research; they're seeing things they can take back to their advocacy organization. That's terrific. They're narrowing and focusing, even if they're not sharing it with the group.

Having had this experience, when the group meets again, how do you think the conversation will be different?


There are a couple of things, in my experience. One, you never get the same group together twice. There will always be some old people, some new people. After you rebuild a sense of group cohesion, I think a couple of things happen. One, we only barely got started with this, but people have to learn to fight. They have to learn to disagree. They have to learn to stop each other when they think they've talked too long. But I think that the basic bonds of that were started. So we have what I would call a stronger group. The group can get to work more intently, more quickly.

I think the other thing is that people can start to plan collaboratively. They can consider moving off of their turf. They can more easily not see a question as something they own. "This is the way I do it; this is the way I propose it or think about it."

Using Collective Wisdom to Move to Action

How do you move from discussion to action?


I don't completely know the answer to that. We could probably generate a number of answers. But I know that, underlying those answers, people need to have a sense of support. We're not heroes and mythmakers anymore. It's not like looking for St. Benedict, as one philosopher said; we're not all looking for the one person with the one right idea.We're not really doing that.We're looking to build communities of people who can effect change.

In the leadership literature, so much of it is on finding the one right person who can lead. That's not where we are in addressing the questions that we're trying to do something about. We move from discussion to action, I think, not by finding the one right person, but by building the groups that can support one another and move forward. Leaders get picked off. You can look at any district and watch the superintendent and see that happen. So we're trying to build larger structures: networks that are more connected, that can come up with right ideas, not right people.


Getting people to move from talk to actually behaving differently is probably the most difficult piece. As you know, we've had many, many conversations around these issues, and when the conversations are over, people go back to business as usual.

Getting people to behave differently goes back to that whole concept of capitalism. I think people need to create some intrinsic or extrinsic rewards. I don't mean money, necessarily, but people tend to move when there's something in it for them.

How do you create value for my behavioral change? That value may simply be the intrinsic feeling that I did something wonderful. So help people identify for themselves what's the value that you can get out of doing this. What would you like to see? If you're going to do something differently, what is it going to take?

Our society does not create many totally altruistic people – "I'm just doing this for the good of society." There are some, but in our society people have to make a living, and people have to take care of families, and people have obligations. These tend to be the priorities, before any thought is given to the notion of equity.

Another issue is around the environment. Individually, I may believe this is valuable for me to do, and it creates some type of intrinsic reward, but when I go back to the environment where I do my work, that environment doesn't support the behavioral changes that I am trying to exhibit. Therefore, it will not allow me to be successful. Then, we need to look at how we can influence the environment and really engage people in that conversation also. Have people investigate: What things can you change in your environment to help support you and actually reward you for this behavioral change?


I got a call today from a billionaire who wants to do something about public education. So he set up a small foundation and he went to the three local districts – it's a pretty big town, and there are three big districts. He was appalled at how the districts keep out innovation and that the boundaries around each district are so thick and impermeable that no good idea could get in. And so what he decided to do was look around the country for programs that he could run.

When we decide to move into action, we find unexpected obstacles. And we don't necessarily understand that those obstacles are the work. That's what is worth doing.

I asked him, "Why don't you try, instead, to do something about the impermeability around the districts?" That's the issue. That's the problem. If he wants to make a difference, the bureaucracy is the first thing he needs to think about, not the creation of these sweet but marginal little programs.

And that's what becomes our problem between discussion and action. When we decide to move into action, we find unexpected obstacles. And we don't necessarily understand that those obstacles are the work. That's what is worth doing, not, "Oh, that's hard; let me do something else."


I believe the wisdom about these issues lies within the individuals. It's not that I myself or Linda can come in and tell people, here's what you need to do when you go back to your work site or your organization or your school or your district or wherever. Our skill is asking the right questions to uncover and combine the collective wisdom of those in the room and to have them, eventually, agree on an approach for action. We work to allow the wisdom to emerge from within them. They have it; they just have to be asked the right questions to bring it out.


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Last modified: June, 2006

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