How to Leverage Community Assets for Powerful Learning

Practice | Insights   16 September 2020
By Kelly Young, Education Reimagined, and Timothy Jones, #HipHopEd, and Joe Hobot, American Indian OIC, and Josh Schachter, CommunityShare


It is really about listening to our community, listening to our youth, listening to our educators and adapting and designing approaches to address what we’re facing based on what we’re hearing versus what folks think is best for the system.

Josh Schachter
Director and Founder, CommunityShare

On September 10th, 2020, Education Reimagined’s Kelly Young hosted a panel on leveraging community assets for powerful learning during and after COVID-19. The panel explored what possibilities emerge when we see our communities as the playground for learning, rather than confining learning to a single school building. Ultimately, what if what public education provided was your home base: the place that you got to be loved and nurtured to make sense of your learning, to set goals, to create learning pathways, and where you, in partnership with the community, navigated your learning pathways?

Below, you can watch the recording of the webinar or read the lightly edited transcript.

[00:05:55] Kelly Young: I want to start laying the groundwork for our conversation, because each of you have had amazing experiences, where you have seen how community assets—the people, the places, the history, and the culture—has actually transformed kids’ relationship to themselves, to their learning, and to their community.

Could each of you share any experiences where you have seen how igniting community assets has the ability to transform kids’ experience of learning?

[00:06:41] Timothy Jones: I’ll give a quick example. It was in Washington, D.C., in 1998, and we were coming up on the 30th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination and the resulting riots in different cities. I had a group of teenagers who were near the 14th street corridor (near downtown D.C.), which, at this time, there were still areas of their neighborhood that had been damaged since 1968, that had never been built up.

We spent the summer making a video project called 14th Street Freestyle: 68 2 98. In order to do it, we identified individuals in their mid-to-late forties who were teenagers in 1968, who actually served as teachers: giving firsthand accounts of the experience of being a teenager in 1968.

We also went to Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Library and began to do research. We began to take pictures of what it looked like, and so we started pulling in all of these different resources, tying in the music history of what was going on at that time, including the advent of Go-Go.

The kids spent the summer studying, writing, and researching more than the ten months previously in school. And, we did it in partnership with the Wooly Mammoth Theater. At the end of the summer, we had this video that a number of them took back to school and their teachers actually incorporated it into their history classes.

That’s one example, where the young people brought the community together, and were then able to take a tool back to their class, to enhance what was taking place inside of the classroom.

[00:08:53] Kelly Young: How did it impact the young people to get to work on a project like that?

 [00:09:02] Timothy Jones: It impacted them in a number of ways. It really helped them understand the history of Washington, D.C. through a different lens. They each had an opportunity to sit down and interview someone who was an elder and could share about being a teenager in the city in 1968. It also impacted them because they spent a lot of time talking to their parents in new ways because a lot of them were second and third generation Washingtonians. 

So, in addition to the research for the project, it was also: “I’m gonna go to Northeast and sit down and talk to my grandmother,” because now they just started connecting the dots. It’s very interesting, because three to four of them ended up going into some field around education. And, so it strengthened the bond between us and it helped them see themselves as a stakeholder in the community in a different way than they did before the project.

[00:10:12] Kelly Young: Joe [Hobot], I want to turn to you next. When we first spoke, you shared a story about how schools you visited actually got their start by doing after school programming and engaging the community. And, I’m wondering if you could share one of the stories of why engaging the community led to an alternative design for education.

[00:10:47] Joe Hobot: In my journey as an educator and in these sites that I was lucky enough to visit in 2017 with the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, it really acknowledged a crisis point in our youth and their educational processes.

What we were taught by our elders and what we’ve come to learn about the history of public education really was informative to the practice and the work, and a reality check of what we’re contending with. Where these schools emerged from was an understanding that public education really isn’t about the development of critical thinkers. At least not in its original design. 

This is particularly true for Indigenous peoples where education and public education was weaponized against us to rob us of our culture. And, as we began to really dig into the history of public education and that space architecture: it’s really predicated on assimilation and acculturation into a prefabricated identity known as being an American, which was ostensibly done to support the burgeoning Republic of the United States.

For us, that meant we were subjugated to the adage of “kill the savage and save the man.” And, we were forced into an assimilative pattern that didn’t match our belief systems, our religious beliefs, or our traditional customs as Indigenous people. As we move forward into the 21st century, we’ve come to understand the purpose of education as its original architecture suggests, which is a tool of supporting and furthering white supremacy.

This was absolutely incongruent with who we were as American Indian people. So, into this crisis came our elders, and we looked at these departure points of our youth who were not necessarily failing in a public education system but through this recast vision [that was incongruent with their cultural upbringing]. They were making a spirit-saving choice to exit a system that was noxious and toxic to who they were as Indian people.

But, there was nothing there to receive them. And, in the various locations that I’ve had the opportunity to visit and travel to that fueled the work that I did in 2017, the elders came forward and said, first and foremost, we need to reassert and reinstitute our cultural practices and ideas of being Indigenous people into our youth.

They’re lost. They’ve been divorced from these very important teachings and lessons about how to live in community with one another. And, so it began as a supportive structure for wayward youth that were really twisting in the breeze without any real direction and certainly not having a responsive public education system to their needs. The education system was really trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

We saw a lot of after school work and weekend work of learning about various Indigenous practices in all these different communities that have been separated by thousands of miles: the importance of the drum, the song, song creation, song meanings, creation stories—ceremonial practices that were tied to the land and the water of the local areas.

This last point was hugely important for the urban Indigenous population, which is far larger and diverse than most people recognize as a result of federal policies in the 1950’s. What we found, and what the elders shared when they started to implement these works by bringing in the youth to teach them their culture, is that things began to stabilize. The youth had a different approach and an opinion about their place in the world, their place as American Indian people within this country, and their roles and responsibilities to support their community along the way.

One of the stories was in Portland. A gentleman by the name of Randy was a canoe maker. And, they would do canoe journeys and teach the youth how to build canoes in the off-hours. Randy was also an accountant who had good math skills. As he got to know the youth and develop the relational piece, he understood that a lot of them were struggling with math.

He incorporated the teachings of the canoe and his knowledge of math and began tutoring these students. And, we saw the commensurate rise in academic achievement through this pathway and that was really the genesis point.

What germinated out of that became after school supports and cultural practices, and customs to tutoring were then formally adopted by community-based organizations (CBO) that were operated and led by the community. And, these eventually morphed into formalized educational school settings.

[00:16:05] Kelly Young: Josh [Schachter], I would love for you to share about ecosystems and what is necessary to create a learning ecosystem.

[00:16:38] Josh Schachter: When you don’t have an ecosystem, essentially what it means is you’re in isolation from each other as many of us are experiencing right now with COVID and other things. When I was teaching photography to refugee and immigrant youth, the first semester I asked the students to photograph what it means to have a home, or to feel at home, or to come from a different home.

Over a semester, they wrote and they photographed, and almost every image they came back with was of isolation and disconnection from their community (48 out of 50 students photographed that). And, thinking that the prompt was, “what does it mean to have a home.” and that was the response—isolation and disconnection—was deeply disturbing to my colleague and I. 

What we decided was to really shift our focus, to look at the passions and the projects our students wanted to focus on and match them with the community members who also share that passion. For me, really thinking [about learning] as an ecosystem is looking at how we build relationships. Ecosystems are about living relationships and looking at how you see the potential in relationships that exist or the ones that aren’t equally accessible in an ecosystem. 

To speak to the role of the community, we invited our city council member to see the photos because she needed to understand her own constituents. And, she was so moved. She said, “Let’s have an exhibit of their work in my office.” And, we partnered to create an exhibit and then she said, “You know what, let’s make a book.”

So, we made a book of their photos, and then our Congressman got invited to the exhibit in Tucson and he said, “These are pretty powerful images that speak to what’s happening in our society, but Tucson isn’t the place. This needs to be seen. It needs to go to D.C.” Then, we partnered with Senator McCain’s Office and worked with other organizations that brought it to the United States Senate. Then, our students went out and testified in the U.S. House of Representatives about re-imagining refugee and immigration policy. 

That [all] started with a relatively simple question about what it means to have a home and what is the ecosystem that exists in that home that is either invisible or inaccessible. And then, how do you reveal and connect those in ways that are equitable to all teachers and students in that community? That’s what it enabled for our students and for me, as a learner, to learn. We also partnered with different policy professionals in D.C. because we didn’t know how to present a policy recommendation to Congress.

That was on a whole new level—the role the community [can play]. We needed to have the humility to know we didn’t have to know everything and that the community can be there to support us.

[00:21:20] Kelly Young: I remember my first day at DC Public Schools as a Chief for Family and Public Engagement. And, I wrote up on my board that the biggest crisis facing public education was fear, isolation, and disconnection.

What all three of you are talking about is that deep connection to culture, history, belonging, community, and family, which is often not what people imagine when we say learner-centered. But, it’s exactly at the heart of all of this. 

Given these rich experiences and that they were deeply embedded in the community, how can folks who aren’t in schools right now act on these lessons right now?

[00:23:01] Timothy Jones: For educators right now, it’s imperative that they take the time to understand the community that they’re students are in, which can be challenging because, depending on where their school is situated, you may have students who are representing various communities. 

As you think about schools starting now, the students have been out of school for five to six months. How has that community been surviving? Who are the gatekeepers? Where are the resources? And, as a teacher, you have to tap in to them. It cannot be this notion of students coming to you, whether in person or virtually, as them leaving the community that has really become their lifeline during this pandemic. You have to come in, as an educator, with that level of humility and that level of sincerity to really find a way to connect to the community.

[00:24:46] Joe Hobot: First and foremost, there needs to be a wholehearted culture shift within public education circles. It’s typical role has been to assert that dominion of the dominant culture over communities of color. And, we see that translating into reform efforts. 

They’re the ones, the providers, the administrators of public education, and always first into the breach to say, “We will lead these reform efforts.” Our number one response is, “No. You’re the ones who drove the bus into the ditch to begin with, and we don’t have any faith that you’re going to get us out of it.”

And second, “you haven’t examined your motives for why public education is functioning the way it is.” In that sense, public education needs to really understand that it needs to take a step back and play a support role, and allow the communities themselves to lead. In this framework, we talk about community governed approaches to education. 

Communities and communities of color—the BIPOC communities—have the answers. They have the solutions. They know exactly how they want their youth to be educated and lifted up to be critical thinking citizens. 

When I talked to the folks in my research and my work, the most disenfranchised people in this country are parents within communities of color that are being serviced by public education. Oftentimes, they don’t feel listened to. They don’t believe that their belief systems, practices, cultures, and traditions are reflected within public education. And oftentimes, they’re related to in a very patronizing way. 

This practice must stop. In public education, the first step is acknowledging the problem and then stepping back and seeing that they’re not the ones who are going to solve it.

On top of that, I think we need to be very deliberate and intentional about reform efforts going forward. Specifically, we need to embrace community governance decisions and listen to these communities and the constituencies and their solutions, and then optimize and operationalize them. And, we need to decouple administrators from the practitioners. 

Real innovation is driven by teachers within the classroom. They have no choice. They have to be continually reflecting the needs of the wide array of learners within their classroom.

Oftentimes, we see change and legitimate positive reform inhibited by the proprietors and the administrative side of public education. And, it’s not necessarily malevolent, it is structural racism. In other cases, it’s just a failure of imagination. They are products of the very same system that they’re now propagating, and they can’t quite understand or wrap their minds around why it doesn’t work for large swaths of the American populace.

I think those are the three main areas. Public education is not the area for driving reform. It needs to come from the communities and the community-based solutions and untethering teachers from the inhibitive practices of administrators.

[00:27:50] Josh Schachter: As someone who teaches storytelling, I think we have to learn to listen to ourselves.

This year we are talking to the educators we work with in Tucson and asking them, “How can we help you?” What do you need for support? The number one thing, not surprisingly, was well-being. It wasn’t about unity; it was about social-emotional support for the educator.

It is really about listening to our community, listening to our youth, listening to our educators and adapting and designing approaches to address what we’re facing based on what we’re hearing versus what folks think is best for the system. Or, building a magic bullet solution—[like thinking tech will solve it when it is] part of a solution, but it is not the solution. 

Listening is key. With the educators I’m working with now, we really encourage them to listen to their students and find out their passions and what they want to focus on, and then build out from there.

We’re basically designing a whole component around the well-being of our community. We are partnering with 10 different healers and healing practitioners who are not only excited, but they want to connect. They are also feeling isolated. We have yoga teachers, meditation teachers, massage teachers, and Pilates teachers that want to engage and support educators and youth.

It starts with listening and then building around that and creating how to design projects that will enable young people to have choice and voice in that process. It isn’t the educators saying, “This year, we’re going to focus on this,” but instead, “How do I honor the unique lived-experience of each young person and story, and then build around that?” Online, especially, it’s even harder to engage some young people, but if your engagement is relevant to their own lived-experience, the likelihood that they’re going to keep showing up virtually or in-person is much higher. 

The last piece is remembering that parents can be incredible assets in our community. While working with schools I asked, “Do you know what your parents do? What can they bring to the schools?” There is often no inventory of what the skills and lived-experiences of parents can bring into schools. They’re often just seen as the person that you have to deal with when your child is misbehaving. 

To me, they’re an incredible asset to support learning, education, and a learning ecosystem. They need to be included as part of the learning experience. The question is, how do we create structures that make it easier to do it? I have invited places and pathways for parents to engage. It’s really key.

[00:31:44] Kelly Young: That question was narrowly focused on what could people step into right now. And, what we know is that this is a much bigger conversation that we have no track record of delivering on as a country. If we were really to imagine the future as one of a community-based learning ecosystem—where the supports were enabling the connectivity of all the community assets and helping young people develop community, create, and contribute to community—what do we have to do? What are some of the things that would have to shift in order to make that future a reality? 

[00:32:44] Joe Hobot: From my experience in research, some of the most powerful examples of what can be done in terms of initiating a positive, community governed approach to education that lifts up youth within their cultural identities, as well as in the academic rigor of immediacy, is understanding that local control is a myth within public education. And, we shouldn’t fear that. 

What we found with these community-governed approaches, without worry of getting approval and without fear of sanction, these communities just dreamed up and enacted these learning modalities and created them in schools. And, in some of the more progressive areas, school districts then began to partner with these organizations either as contractors throughout their programs, or they became the authorizers as these schools became charter schools.

I think what they did is they understood and recognized that the community was expressing itself in a way that was positive. And, instead of trying to ramrod these community-based predilections and desires into a model that echoes public education, they gave freedom to the community. They got out of the way and took a more supportive role—providing technical assistance and the necessary resources to lift up and empower these community-governed approaches of education to work. That’s what is going to need to be occurring [to realize this community-based learning ecosystem].

As a former classroom instructor, I learned the power of differentiating lesson plans is absolutely critical to reach the wide array of learners within the classroom. It is only logical to extrapolate that model into the delivery models of our schools.

We need to really expand what public education can look like and empower these communities to create these community-governed approaches that can work in concert—in a symbiotic relationship—with the mainstream school system. But, that’s going to take a huge ego check for public education to allow these spaces to develop, allow these communities to create, and to execute in a way that they choose to do so.

We’ve seen it occurring in Minneapolis and Portland—the two top examples in my research—that took the mantle of advancing the work in this way as the public education systems supported these community enterprises. But, more work needs to be done.

[00:35:22] Timothy Jones: I think in some communities we really have to reimagine a new definition for education. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, as well as in a lot of urban settings, we’ve always seen education as the ticket out.

I spent 22 years working in D.C. for an organization called Martha’s Table and we primarily got started by being a resource for food. I’ll never forget when my president told me: “A child will not learn if they’re hungry.” 

It’s a balance of those immediate needs. When we’re talking about reimagining education and communities, what are the hierarchy of needs in a particular community, and what role should school play in addressing that?

If it’s in a community where hunger is not an issue and violence is not an issue, then that imaginative process will look different than if it’s in a community where that is present, where unemployment is high, where COVID has been ramping things up, and where health disparities are on the rise. 

When you don’t have all of these basic needs, what school has been defined as, traditionally, becomes unimportant. Because, it’s about survival. [As a result], you see the deterioration of the American Dream for so many. They’re in the hood and don’t see school as the way out because there’s unemployed college graduates who are trying to work at Subway and Foot Locker. The American Dream becomes a myth. And, when I’m dealing with a scarcity of resources, just the presence of school may bring up more trauma than the hope of triumph.

That reimagining really has to be about coming together and thinking about what I have to do to be a part of it and where I can find similarity. Sadly, If we look at our own relationships, the relationships that have probably lasted the longest in our lives have been the ones that have endured and connected through pain.

Now, with schools, where’s the stories? Where can we really see the intent is really about our liberation? I think that there’s so much work to do before we get to the ABC ‘s and the 123’s, and I don’t know if school was ever designed to do that type of work. 

The last thing I’ll say is that there has to be a reimagination and an intentionality to partner with these community-based organizations that have been in the community and on the frontlines during this pandemic. You have to stop looking at them as places that only take care of our kids after school—all of those lines are gone now. You really have to step off your pedestal, humble yourself, and hope that you get the opportunity to get right what you historically have never gotten right for them—it’s only been right for you.

[00:39:05] Kelly Young: I think that it’s so easy for us to think of how we bring these great practices into school, rather than how do we diminish the footprint of school and really begin to see the community as the playground for learning, where education is being provided by people in the community, as well as by public education.

Public education is part of a network—a living, breathing network. And, we’re not trying to replicate what you all have described that happens outside the school, inside the school. That’s not the goal. The goal is actually to enable that to be the work of education—to have that be what matters.

Josh, before I open it up to questions for the group, you have studied natural ecosystems. What’s unique about trying to create an ecosystem rather than improve schools?

[00:40:29] Josh Schachter: Clearly, as we’ve seen with COVID, it’s been quite challenging to adapt so quickly to what’s going on around us. And, [we must begin asking] what would it look like if we created a learning ecosystem that was able to adapt to changing conditions, regardless of whether it’s in this thing called school or out of school? Then, how do we support resilient communities? Because, I think resilience is a key component of a healthy ecosystem. And, I think we’re seeing, all over, challenges abound when those networks of support and resources are no longer accessible. People fall through the cracks.

So, how are we going to create systems that democratize connectedness to all kinds of different resources in your community. And, how do we reimagine how we invest resources—financial resources and philanthropic dollars—into the future; whether it’s called school or learning or something different [entirely]. It’s really about investing in an ecosystemic approach versus investing in the dots, which I’ve seen in my experience. How do we invest in the interstitial tissue of the lines between the dots that foster a collective commitment to something greater than each of the dots.

Each nonprofit has to sustain itself. Each school has to sustain itself. We’re all in this race to keep our doors open and that doesn’t really foster an ecosystemic mindset. I think all the structures and incentive systems need to support a commitment to the public good if we’re going to move beyond the current siloed, fragmented nature of the education system. And, that isn’t going to happen on its own. It has to be consciously reflected on and then involve a study of how nature works. 

That’s really what taught me to be a photographer. It was following Lemurs around for three weeks in Madagascar and learning to see patterns and disruption, and what happens when a system is disrupted. I think we can learn a lot from nature as we reimagine our learning and education system. 

[00:43:30] Kelly Young: What all of you are pointing to is that we don’t have healthy communities or healthy ecosystems that go well beyond education. This work is about putting human relationship at the center of it, revitalizing communities that have been oppressed and suppressed for generations, and about how we restore their ability to govern, contribute, and create meaning of learning. And, not have it imposed on them. 

[00:44:29] Joe Hobot: I’d like to build off what Timothy said about the importance of recognizing community-based organizations as an integral partner in this journey. As we talk about the holistic approach to whole child development and building communities that are able to thrive, it’s important to note that community-based organizations have been at the forefront of these activities, including in our own efforts. 

We are led and staffed by the community that we’re embedded in. And, there’s a relationship piece that’s already been demonstrated in and supported by the community-based organizations’ work. This is where we get into a new modicum of partnership, where public schools in some of the more progressive areas like Minneapolis or Portland have understood that this is not their place—that they need to partner and lift up the CBO’s to allow them to do the work. Because, they’re more effective at it and it’s humbling for the public education system to have to do that. 

It comes back to that question: Where does public education lead? Well, they lead by stepping back and following, and providing technical assistance for the CBO’s, which are really out there. That’s the good news: they’re deployed within the field and they’re out there doing good work and have been for decades. What an asset. Let’s start leveraging and utilizing these assets.

The other good news is they’re already doing this work without fear of sanction or waiting for approval. It’s really putting a spotlight and connecting these partnerships and public education, and realizing that these solutions are already embedded within the community as reflected in CBO’s.

Audience Q&A

Q. What is the role of public libraries in an ecosystem?

Timothy Jones: It depends on the actual assets and resources that are in the library. A library really has to be that cross-generational hub, whether virtually or in-person, where you have people in the community who are present. You have elders, young people, and teenagers that are there. It goes far beyond the books. The library is where you should be able to have community exhibitions and other community gatherings.

The library, in many ways, could be the nondenominational function that the church once was in the past, where people came together and where you got all of your information. 

Looking at hip-hop as the exemplar for building community and fostering knowledge could be powerful. As an example, there’s a high school in Saint Paul, Minnesota, High School for Recording Arts, which actually got started from a recording studio. 

There are other models in different cities that have started off as one idea before becoming a school. Oftentimes, it’s the community bringing the young people together and thinking, “let’s categorize or quantify our learning, and take it to that next level.”

Q. How would you suggest changing the perceptions of the YMCA’s role in the community?

Timothy Jones: I would suggest, as you partner with schools, request if YMCA staff can participate and present at staff professional development (PD) meetings, and explore if there are opportunities for information sharing around what students are interested in and how they best learn.

It’s about positioning yourself to be seen by schools as more than just the place to keep students safe and give them a meal before school starts. When you have the opportunity to present at a PD, you allow the teachers to begin to see how learning is fostered in the workshops and other things that you do, and then be able to bring it together.

In this time of distance learning, actually try to create opportunities where your staff can co-teach, and allow the school to begin to see your level of professionalism and the teaching skills that exist in YMCAs.

Joe Hobot: One of the things that I would advocate for, and that we’ve learned through our experience in Indigenous communities, is that you really are positioned well as a CBO embedded within your base communities to really harness that relationship piece and serve as an advocate for your community. 

Oftentimes in our work, we have public schools come to us and say, “here’s what we believe will work for Indian people in Minneapolis. And, we’re going to institute these reforms.” And, our response was, “How do you know?”

Most of our folks feel disenfranchised and ignored. Yet, our families receive the multitude of services through our organization. We see them every day, and decided to own being a conduit to the authentic voice of our community. We said, “Here’s what they’re telling us. Here’s what they’re saying.” Then, we amplify their voices in the circles that you travel as a CBO, particularly if you’re working with public education. In my experience, public education is pretty well divorced from BIPOC communities and any effort to try and understand what their desires are, and what they’d like to see happening.

The CBO’s have a role to be an advocate and amplify those voices. It’s a true asset that I think is underutilized. Speaking specifically to the YMCAs, do those activities that you excel at and then harness that information. If you’re doing community events through your CBO, develop a way to do a town hall or take a sample survey to understand how your services are performing. 

Ask: What do you need? What are your families in need of? Then, it becomes a conduit relaying that information to those systems that need the reform.

Q. How do you show parents that they’re assets in their community?

Josh Schachter: When we ask people to create a profile of what they want to offer to their community, they immediately think of what’s on their business card. 

It points to one of the biggest challenges to really moving forward, which is the story we tell ourselves about what our role is in the current system and what our role could be in a new system. And, until we create the space to really critically self-reflect and then reflect as a larger community, it’s going to be very challenging to move forward. 

When I ask someone to engage with the school and the community, as a parent, they say they want to engage with their kids’ school. Then, when I ask them to engage through the roles that they play in their professional life, they are willing to engage in another school.

How we choose or select our own identity influences what we’re willing to engage with and how we engage. We really need to be cognizant of how we’re asking people to engage and through which lenses they are seeing the world, both in the current system and what the system could look like in the future.

I think that’s particularly relevant with parents because they grew up in the same system. There’s no reason why they should suddenly be able to reimagine the system today. We have to do it as a collective effort and a collective narrative. I recognize that’s not a concrete idea, but I think we make assumptions that people are going to imagine something different from what they experienced.

It’s why I work with artists so much. They get us out of our boxes and open us up to permeate the disciplines and other ways of creative thinking that our experience in the education system can sometimes limit us from accessing.

Q. What would you tell people who are doing the work of leveraging community assets from a learner-centered perspective?

Timothy Jones: Don’t worry about the pace of the change at the onset. You never get to fully understand the impact when you first start out. As much as you can, document and allow recipients of services to tell their story. There’s so much going on that it can almost paralyze you and make you feel powerless. But, you’ll see more possibilities if you change that perspective to, “There’s so much going on, that, if I just try my best, I’m going to find a way to make an impact.”

Josh Schachter: In our culture and society, we talk about innovation a lot. Everyone wants to be an innovator and, as someone that was an educator, that’s now running a tech-focused nonprofit, I’ve come to realize that most innovation involves failure, humility, and iteration.

We have to embrace it. If we’re not willing to be learners in this process, listen to what we’ve learned, and adapt, then we’re not going to be able to get out of the current situation. We’re not going to get it right the first or second time, but maybe that’s the point. Isn’t that the point of learning? 

It’s the journey of learning that creates the desire to learn. I think we need to have the humility to remember that is going to be central to whatever we’re going to create, and resist the pressure of funders and others who want us to present the outcomes and the outputs before we even start the process. That type of thinking probably isn’t going to get us where we need to go because we may not know exactly where we’re headed. 

I think there are bright spots that we can learn from, and we need to highlight those bright spots and share the lessons learned across our networks.

Joe Hobot: I’m drawing from my experience as an Indigenous man within an Indigenous community, who’s had its youth be forced under subjugated protocols of a dominant culture until we reached an existential crisis with our language, our customs, and the corrosive effect education is having.

My advice, and what I’ve learned, is to be bold. The best examples of educational practices that have been working; they just dreamed it up and did it. After about two decades of protracted investigation and research into public education reform, and the academic achievements of the various communities of color within this country, we’ve come to understand that we’re in this “emperor has no clothes” moment.

It’s time to shed that fear that you’re going to need to have official approval of the systems in place and just do it. Dream it up and do it. Take care of your youth, educate them, and particularly in a culturally contextualized way that lifts them up and hardens them as valued individuals. Once we’ve embraced that agency for our communities, you’ll be able to see the achievement that we want for our youth, you’ll be able to see the development of our youth. CBO’s are leading the way, but basic community gatherings are also doing this work. Eventually, in more progressive areas, if it’s working (which it will) public education will eventually come around. 

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