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Lead with love, disrupt the system, and fight like hell

June was quite a month for learning, connecting, reflecting, and inspiration around issues of transforming the education system.

I started the month off by attending the 2022 National Community Schools and Family Engagement Conference here in my hometown of Los Angeles. Over 3,000 attendees from across the country gathered to learn from each other and share their expertise around developing authentic community-driven Community Schools.

(If you want to dive deeper into what community schools are, check out my recent blog post on the topic, Now is the Time for Community Schools for All, or this excellent article from LAist: What Are ‘Community Schools’? And Why Is California Betting Big That They’ll Remake Public Education?, regarding California’s $3 billion investment in community schools. The article starts us off with this invitation to dream: “It’s easy to walk around UCLA Community School and lose yourself in the question: why don’t all schools look like this?” But as usual, I digress; back to the conference.)

There were many excellent sessions, but the one that has really stuck with me, causing me to reflect again and again over the past month, was the one featuring trailblazers in the equity and engagement work in education. The panel featured Dr. Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California; Dr. Karen Mapp, parent engagement expert and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and LaShawn Chatmon, executive director of the National Equity Project. I was a bit starstruck, and they did not disappoint.

Mapp asked us to consider, "Is your [family engagement] practice liberatory? Is it solidarity-driven? Is equity at the forefront of what you DO, not what you say?” The themes of liberatory practice in education and of equity being what we DO, not what we say came up repeatedly throughout the conversation with all three panelists. Mapp ended her opening speech with this mission charge to us all: “Focus on what you can do to make a difference...lead with light.”

Chatmon continued with the fire and inspiration reminding us that "We have never needed full agreement to bring about social change" and that “The story of all of us will always be more compelling than the story of some of us….and there is no pedagogical solution to political problems.”

Noguera reminded us of the importance of relationships as we go about transforming education. “The only time there is real change is when there is change within the relationships within schools,” he said. He ended with a call to action: "We are at a moment of great challenge in our country, especially in our schools. We must interrupt the cycle." I couldn’t agree more.

This work is hard and can wear us down; it can feel like an insurmountable challenge, so it was clear the room needed to hear these words of inspiration and a collective call to disrupt the current system. Someone behind me yelled loudly, “Preach! Take us to church, y’all!” People were standing up and raising their hands and there was a lot of collective whooping and cheering throughout the hour-long conversation. It felt like part scholarly session and part fiery call to action. It was glorious and exactly what we needed.

June’s learning was bookended with the PACEsConnection Trauma-Informed Schools Leadership Institute, which I facilitated along with PACEsConnection Director of Communities Mathew Portell. Our keynote speaker was Jim Sporleder, former principal of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington, featured in the documentary Paper Tigers. Other speakers included Portell, the former principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary in Nashville, Tennessee, whose trauma-informed journey has been highlighted in Edutopia videos. We also learned from Emily Read Daniels, creator of The Regulated Classroom; PACEsConnection CEO Ingrid Cockhren; principals James Moffett and Dustin Springer, and sessions from the School Crisis Recovery and Renewal project and ARTIC, which focused on how to measure the progress of a school’s trauma-informed journey.

As the co-facilitator of this four-day learning journey, it was inspiring and reinvigorating to listen to and learn from both the guest speakers and the participants. Being together for that length of time gives us the unique opportunity to build community and a network of practitioners across the United States and Canada, allowing participants to create an ongoing community of practice moving forward. This work is tough enough; no one should have to feel isolated or reinvent the wheel.

My big takeaway as we roll into July is that both conference experiences had many overlapping themes of equity-centered work, the importance of love and joy, the necessity of disruption, the need for solidarity, the importance of our community, a desire for more humanity in the work, the direct call to action, and the intense feeling of urgency. Also clear in both experiences were the joy and revitalization people felt when they realized they are not alone in the work.

There are a lot of champions out there, and sometimes we need to be reminded that we are a powerful movement, and collectively we are making a difference. Lead with love, disrupt the system, and fight like hell.

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