Don’t speak about it, be about it. For most of us in education who center equity, racial justice and the like, this is our aim. We not only want to hinge ourselves to a set of beliefs and mindsets, but we want to live them out, in real time, in real ways that have a significant impact in the communities we serve. Certainly in a field where accountability is a huge buzzword, being held to certain standards and the expectation that we will meet them, is not news to most folks in education. But all too often, leaders or organizations claim to live by certain values, but don’t actually live out those values in concrete ways. In these cases, folks are speaking about it, on podcasts, mission statements, blog posts, Twitter, at conferences and a host of other mediums and platforms. But how do we know whether we’re actually, “being about it”? In our ever-busy world, do we even have, or take, the time to see whether we are or are not? How do we remain aligned with our inner sense of purpose, values and beliefs in a world that seemingly cares more about bottom lines and performative greatness? No matter how we answer them, these questions almost demand us to ensure we align our intent and impact. This is not only an important step zero, but a necessary one in this age of a “new normal” and beyond. Beginning with the end in mind, we need to understand that in light of our history and present circumstances, any desired impact necessitates a focus on wellness. And it is from this vantage point that we must set our intentions.
After centuries of oppression, Black and Brown folks have had to persevere through immeasurable odds that have only been exacerbated by the onset of a global pandemic. Centuries of genocide, land theft, enslavement, and economic disenfranchisement have imposed generational ills. So while safe space has been necessary for us for quite some time, it is of even greater import now that we are met with a global crisis that has been disproportionately taking our lives and livelihoods without regard. This rings especially true for educators at large.
Teaching is a rewarding yet arduous profession. Words like burnout, anxiety, undervalued, overworked and underpaid are not too uncommon in conversations about what educators face. In fact, many suffer from burnout before they can even master their craft. The pandemic has only brought on more stress for so many as they navigate uncertainty at every turn while adjusting to teaching in a format for which most have never been trained. For many Black and Brown teachers, these stresses are multiplied. It seems we could very well be standing in the shadows of an educator exodus, an unintended consequence of poor governance that would be a detrimental blow to education’s pre-existing condition of significant teacher shortage. If we are wise, we would set our intentions to get ahead of what could very well be another blow to a system that is already built on inequitable ground. In thinking about our educators, how can we best support them and retain them amidst so many layers of structural and systemic harm?
Harm, any kind of harm, physical, psychological or otherwise, requires healing. It requires space to center wellness and connectivity as an antidote to having to center the wear and tear of traversing oppressive systems. It requires safe space where bravery is a thing and creative solutions are the focus. It is the collectivity we have come from. For people of color, it is salve. This is what sets the stage for the impact we need.
With intentionality set on wellness and using our mindset framework as a guide, MindCatcher created Collective Support, an experience that centered connectivity and lived experience as data to support healing and growth around a pressing problem of practice for leaders of color. Beginning with our foundational beliefs, we centered on the values that matter most to us. Our core. Our why. What drives us and makes us who we are. Authenticity like this invites space for masks and armor to be placed down in exchange for connectedness through affinity, shared experiences and genuine care. From this space, we not only get to feel affirmed in our experiences that are often isolating and demoralizing, but we also position ourselves to creatively and collectively heal our own wounds. With our core beliefs as a compass, we shift our mindsets to support that healing process so we can get to the act of creating and implementing solutions in a sustainable way. Sustainability that can only be achieved by centering wellness as an embedded component of our leadership practices.
This is how we “be about it.” Without wellness at the fore, we are stunted in our ability to achieve our desired impact in the communities so near and dear to our hearts. Wellness requires things like space, time, connectivity, reflection and solution-centered conversation with those who bear similar histories, similar lived experiences and similar visions of an ever-liberated tomorrow. In this way, our intentions bear the truest fruit of all, positive impact that sustains through generations to come.
Dr. Patrice E. Fenton is MindCatcher’s Researcher in Residence.
As the MindCatcher team designed our inaugural Collective Support: Fellowship for Education Leaders of Color, we knew that leaders of color were operating learning environments under extreme conditions, namely due to a relentless global pandemic and increased awareness of racial inequity. We knew that despite these conditions they still had to attend to the business of educating young people. So they would not be pouring into their staffs and young people from empty cups, they would need more tools. We also knew that they would need to begin with themselves, their leadership, their wellness in order to create the conditions for learning that allow young people to thrive even in the midst of so much pain.
What Does It Mean to Be Well?
In education, we can fall into the trap of trying to apply simple solutions to intersectional, complex problems, such as racial inequity in academic outcomes. Likewise we would treat the need for emotional wellness as we would curing the common cold. Once we’ve consumed the requisite amount of chicken soup for our soul, we will have cured our emotional ails and may resume our normal activities, free of disease. However this approach to attaining the requisite fuel to fulfill our commitments to educating young people overlooks the fact that the challenges that young people face are not static. Neither is racial inequity. Therefore our approaches to educating young people, particularly those of color, need to evolve accordingly. Our approach to our wellness, which arguably provides us the fuel to create the fruitful conditions for learning, must similarly be responsive to the daily challenges we face. We don’t arrive at wellness; we work towards it, every day.
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. ~Audre Lorde
So I’m Not Crazy aka The Value of Affinity Spaces
Leaders of color frequently face invalidation of their ideas for learning. The myriad forms of this invalidation tends to be central to the underlying stress and anxiety that many leaders of color experience. One member of our inaugural Collective Support cohort shared: “Most of the time I am fighting people thinking that I should be a warden. What I get out of our conversations is listening to how other people who look like me share how they think deeply... about how learning happens and what kind of environment learning happens in. I was really about to quit education.” The affinity space created room for unguarded dialogue amongst people who had some degree of shared experience, though the fellows were from New York and San Franciscio and included both public and after school leaders. The lived experience of participants was not interrogated, but was another piece of evidence collected to understand a challenging problem of practice the fellow faced. This validation served as another source of healing, another means of filling their cup so they may continue the hard work of preparing our youth for their future. As leaders of color begin to grapple with preparing their teams and families to return to in-person learning, they will need spaces of healing more than ever.
Learn more about MindCatcher’s Collective Support Fellowship
Nakeyshia Kendall Williams is the Founder and CEO of MindCatcher.