cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Conversation With Grace: Why Strive For Diversity?

Ever since I read Grace's post, I've been struggling.

I have nothing but bad, inadequate answers to this question. And since its premise lies at the heart of my every day's work, I have felt stuck as I struggle to find a better answer.

I still have only terrible answers, but I need to get unstuck so I can get going again. So I'm writing this post as a chance to stick a pin in the best bad answers I have right now.

1. tikkun olam
Tikkun olam is the central assignment in the spiritual curriculum I grew up in. It is the requirement that we work actively to heal the world. When I was a child in the 60s, our rabbi was an active figure in the civil rights movement — a friend and colleague of Dr. King's, one of the Freedom Riders, and "the most arrested rabbi in America." As Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Zen lineage said, "When you walk in the mist, you get wet." Spending day after day, week after week in this community, I walked in the mist. I got wet. I came to believe in the power of tikkun olam to make America a more just place, even if it was still massively imperfect. Tikkun olam also taught me that if we as a society have the possibility of providing quality education and access to power for some, then we need to make sure that we make that possibility a reality. Our society and our world are a mess right now, so there's no time to lose. And the only way to heal the world is to actively work toward healing the world. I have to accept that I may be doing it wrong or badly, but in making positive effort for the good each day, I am doing the best that I can. And the more people I reach, the better. Because I never know who will trigger...

2. the hundredth monkey principle
In the 1960s and 70s, the hundredth monkey principle became an archetypal myth and story for me about how critical mass seems to come about in human society. The story has been used and recycled in many different contexts, but what strikes me as important is this: the story provides a useful metaphor for me about what happens as we share good ideas and carry them with us. For me, the big idea is that we can have no idea where or with whom the tipping point or critical mass will happen. So sharing widely — and diversely — is important to me because I have no idea who will be that "hundredth monkey." Identifying the hundredth monkey is above my pay grade. My job is to share best practices and wisdom so that it reaches the hundredth monkey and we can achieve some degree of tikkun olam sooner rather than later. The more people I reach, the better.

3. diversifying the power structure
I was grateful that Julie Wright shared this clip of Michelle Obama sharing her beliefs about the power of diversifying the power structure after watching the film Hidden Figures. Michelle and I were at Princeton at the same time, and we both benefited enormously from its diversity initiatives. I was in only the tenth class of women at Princeton, and Michelle was two years behind me. The education we received there was transformative, but it was also transformative to live in community with others from such dramatically differing backgrounds from around the world. It was my first experience of gifted education, and it changed me. It changed a lot of us. Several years later, I was privileged to be a part of a conversation at a conference in which Henry Louis Gates, Jr. framed the need to diversify the power structure and the power elite if we want true transformation, and I believe that for better or for worse, he is right. If we want to transform our society, we need to transform its power structure, and for that, we need to diversify our classrooms. As I've gotten older, I've gotten less apologetic for my elitist tactics here. I have less time to waste, and I want a better quality of leaders across the board in our pipelines.

4. Yes, it is better for me.
This is the argument I feel most ashamed of, but I have to be ruthlessly honest about my own motives. I hate it when I have to admit that I am ruled by enlightened self-interest, but it's a reality in economics and it's often a reality of my own life. It has nothing to do with pity for others and everything to do with what makes my own experience in the world I live in better. I love exploring the world around me, and that means I love experiencing viewpoints and perspectives that are different from my own. In my previous career in high tech, I experienced how blind spots take over when everybody at the table looks the same. In education, I see how the wealthy and powerful push idiotic agendas when they only listen to other wealthy and powerful people.

So yes, I work for greater anti-racist diversity in my educational context because it is better and healthier and saner for me.

I have a strong suspicion it is also better for others, but by the principles of tikkun olam, I am restricted to cleaning things up on my own side of the street.

I would love for us to have ever more diverse TMCs, but I am also bound to respect the differing boundaries, needs, and wants of the people who would make those things more "diverse" for people like me. I am bound to respect that for those who spend their school year isolated within an oppressively dominant culture, it may not feel optimal to them to spend their summer resources attending a PD conference that is still largely populated by teachers from the dominant cultures. That puts the onus on me and others like me to strive to make TMC a worthwhile and valuable choice for them to make. But it's critical to recognize and respect that those who would make a TMC "more diverse" place for me have their own needs, wants, and priorities. I need to make sure I am not trying to manipulate others into serving my own needs, wants and priorities.

I cannot bear to #pushsend, but I also can't bear to feel stuck any more.

I want to get back to giving my wild and imperfectly diverse classes the best educational opportunities I can give them, so I'm going to #pushsend anyway.  God help me.


  1. I've had Grace's & Marian's posts open for weeks, and now this, too, I suppose. Deeply perturbing ideas - a healthy perturbance, though.

    I don't think the benefit to yourself is shameful. It's recognizing, through experience, not theory, what diversity has added to your life. I like how your reasons include both the injustice of barriers and the boon of inclusion.

    And I always enjoy your unique perspective, blending zen and jewish wisdom, and otherworldly to me experience with the common heart of teaching.

  2. Thank you for pushing send. I'm really inspired by your honesty in this post.

    "Diversifying the power structure" speaks most clearly to me. I'm trying to think about how this relates to the argument for affirmative action, and I'm not entirely sure. It makes sense to me, though, that it's good to have diversity in power to protect us from making uninformed or biased decisions that impact children.

    It seems to me that tikkun olam and hundredth monkey work in tandem with "diversifying the power structure." Changing the power structure in edu is the outcome; tikkun olam and hundredth monkey are what get us working towards that outcome, even in the face of uncertainty.

    (By the way, acknowledging that the MTBoS and TMC *are* a power structure is something that this community has not yet grappled with in an open and public way, I don't think. But it's clear to me that it is. If not for MTBoS, I'd have colleagues and friends in edu. With MTBoS, I'm one degree away from researchers, NCTM presidents, board members, CEOs, curriculum writers, publishers, consultants, etc. Quite plainly, exposure in MTBoS or TMC increases one's social capital in edu power structures.)

    I'm trying to figure out if diversity is good for me, in the way that you're describing above.

    To be clear, I try to live my life with openness to everyone that I meet. But I currently don't have any friends from Ireland, from Utah or who immigrated from Mexico. I grew up in all-Jewish spaces. I live and socialize in a pretty homogeneously Jewish community.

    I'm not sure, though there are stories that I want to know and understand that I don't yet. (Reading helps a lot.)

    I think, at the end of the day, I wouldn't be willing to pursue diversity in public spaces for my own benefit. I really do consider what's good for me to be a private thing, and I try to satisfy my needs in as quiet a way as possible.

    (This is one of my takeaways from my strictly-observant Jewish upbringing: having weird, unusual needs and obligations is sort of weird and unusual in the broader world. It's awesome to be sort of weird and unusual, but don't expect anyone else to accommodate you.)

    This ramble has gone on long enough. Get a blog, Michael!

    Anyway: like John, I really appreciate your perspective and writing, now and always. Thanks for the post.