“The time for the healing of the wounds has come.” – Nelson Mandela
I join the world in grieving the loss of a man who reached hero status for those who value justice and freedom. I first got news from a New York Times tweet. I remember feeling both sadness of the loss and celebration of his life and the unifying impact he had on our world. Living in Oakland, I have heard from many who remember fondly the opportunity to hear him speak in our city some 23 years ago. I was not there. Yet, I too have been fortunate enough to feel the influence of his life work.
In 2005, SF-CESS had just formed and I was growing the organization slowly while I remained at Leadership HS as its co-principal. I received a call from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, which was in the midst of planning its new school for girls in South Africa and upon researching schools, wished to learn more about Leadership. After a few planning meetings, it was decided that I and a group of my teachers would fly to Boston and join the school’s design team to conduct two days of training about some of our core programs (leadership, Advisory, professional development, etc.)
As is the case with our work, it took only a little time of collaboration between the richly diverse South Africans before invisible influences and squelched squalls surfaced. On day two, I decided to pause the work and to facilitate a conversation instead. While any attempt to codify what happened would oversimplify it, what I can say is that the discussion that followed was amazing. In hindsight, I believe I may have been experiencing one of the most mature race-based conversations I had ever witnessed – not because the group dynamics had evolved beyond the pain of apartheid, but rather because the group had embraced and accepted its reality.
It is no surprise that discussion of important school design decisions that would either interrupt or perpetuate historic oppression evoked emotions. Yet, these emotions were neither feared nor dismissed. Furthermore, the managing of these emotions did not seem to break down strictly along race. Rather, there was a collaboration amongst the members of the team (obviously not to the person) in which black South Africans spoke – AND WERE HEARD – with authority and respect, and also some white South Africans served as allies across differences to bridge the work between divergent perspectives.
When debriefed and questioned later, the South Africans spoke passionately of all the arduous work that followed the end of Apartheid. Specifically the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided opportunities for mass and symbolic truth telling and healing. Many said that the resulting catharsis allowed for the collaboration that we were witnessing.
I sat in awe. We were asked to join this team to provide “training” around some technical components of schooling that could and should be liberating, and in turn they modeled what true liberation could look, sound, and feel like! (I could not help but wonder what America might be had we committed to similar nation-wide work immediately after our civil rights movement.)
To this day, my work values – even more than it did before this experience – the importance of healing, collective meaning making and alliance building for liberation. As educators, if we truly believe education equals freedom, then our schools must include this work! I frequently hear critique from those less comfortable with the affective work of healing and relationship building: “We don’t need touchy-feely work,” or “Show me how this work will improve test scores.” No one in that Boston hotel room would have suggested that the work of the commission alone led to all the results they were experiencing as a nation (nor would they say they were close to finished); but what I heard from them that day was that their progress was at least in part due to the Commission’s necessary work.
As educators, administrators and decision makers – in what ways do we explicitly and intentionally create opportunities for students to heal and learn from the pain and damage systemically caused by schools and society?Schools and districts must be places where our most disenfranchised and least reached can be heard – not in general, but by those who cause harm. Consider how any of the following do or should occur:
In classrooms and schools, where discipline practices are designed to be disproportionately punitive to and to retain and regain control over our black and brown students – are we willing to introduce and use restorative practices to allow for healing to these same individuals and their communities?
Are adults, who frequently represent dominant culture, off limits to accountability or are there systems to allow for mediation and healing when an adult hurts another (adult or child)?
When districts make decisions that will have long-standing impact on our underrepresented communities and their children, how are these communities informed and involved? Do they provide input? Are they included in the decision? Are they responsible for the decision?
Finally, if we are accepting of the fact that damage already has been done – and continues to be compounded for many in our community based on their demographics, what are we willing to do – or not do; what power are we willing to relinquish, and what diverse leadership are we willing to follow in order to make amends and ultimately prosper as a whole?
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela
Thank you President Mandela. May your spirit and influence live on.