I’m Jeanie Phillips, and welcome to Vermont Ed Reads: books by, for and with Vermont educators. Today on the show, we welcome Mike McRaith, who’s here to talk about Nora Samaran’s Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture.
How *do* you hold harm, and harmony together in the same space in a way that protects and honors the needs of all students to feel safe, and loved?
How do you talk about the needs of those students who feel marginalized, even if we’d identify them as coming from wide intersections of privilege?
And how do you talk about the needs of straight, white, male, cis-gendered students without centering their needs, in a culture that marginalizes the needs of, well, absolutely everybody else?
Nora Samaran has some answers. As does Mike McRaith! We here on the show love talking with smart, compassionate people, and if you do too (and we hope you do), this is the episode for you.
Now, let’s chat.
Jeanie: Thank you for joining me, Mike. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Mike: It’s my pleasure to be here. My name is Mike McRaith. I’m the assistant executive director at the Vermont Principals Association. And my job includes all different kinds of things, mostly supporting principals in many different ways: the professional learning side of things, the mentorship and a host of other things at the VPA. And I’m a former high school principal at Montpelier High School. I did the previous four years there. And then I spent six years in Franklin Northeast, in that supervisory union, as a school counselor and a middle school principal.
Jeanie: You bring a ton of expertise and really relevant expertise to this book, Turn This World Inside Out. Which you suggested to me and I was really excited to read. But before we jump into that, I wonder if you might share what you’re reading right now. What’s on your bedside table? I suspect there might be some books for little ones, on that stack.
Mike: Yeah, thanks. This book was recommended to me by my dear friend, confidant and soul leader, Sylvia Fagin, who is a teacher in the Montpelier School District, among many other things. And when she recommends something to me, I pay close attention. So, I want to thank Sylvia for this recommendation and her continued support through some really hard things, working together and just being a great person for me to turn to and to bounce things off of. And to learn with. So, thank you, Sylvia.
The books that I’ve been reading aside from this are connected to four-year-olds and six-year-olds. I have a four-year-old and a six-year-old, and being at home so much we started reading chapter books.
And so the books that I’ve read most recently are Gary Paulsen books.
My boys were super, super interested in reading Hatchet and then Brian’s Winter. And we also read Dogsong which is a very interesting and sort of, poetic book. And they hung in there. Gary Paulsen does a great job of engaging kids — even four-year-olds (soon to be five) — and they have tons of questions, and it comes up all the time in their language. Just last night they were talking about the size of a moose and whether or not the moose would charge them and all different kinds of things. Those books have been great for shaping their connection to nature.
Jeanie: This brings me so much joy! You have no idea what I would give to have a four-year-old sit on my lap and let me read to them, like I’d give a lot. Yeah.
Mike: It’s real good. And we try not to take it for granted. We do a lot of it: every single day and every single night. We read and we soak that up. And you know, my wife has been great about bringing books, and our South Burlington Public Library does a fantastic job.
Jeanie: Okay, you know, I’m not going to be able to resist and I’m going to send you some titles to be read to four- and six-year-olds later.
Mike: Please do. *laughs*
Jeanie: So, let’s get to this book.
This book opens in a really interesting way with a description of a school. A Canadian school. And I wonder if we could set the stage for our listeners by reading pages one, two, and into the top of three just to give them a sense of the idea this book is shooting towards.
Mike: Sure, glad to. (And I’ll try not to make any extra noise turning the pages.)
So, the title of this first chapter is “Introduction: Nurturance Culture Means Holding the Circle”.
“At Windsor House, a free school in Coastal Salish territories (also known as Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), every child has an internal map of how harm is handled in their school community. In this school, the only public democratic school in North America and one of the longest running brick-and-mortar free schools in the world, any student who experiences harm can “write up” the other person who they feel harmed them. When someone is written up, they’re required to go to what the school calls justice council, which is a circle of their peers who then help repair the harm.
Going to that circle is not an option. It is a requirement for anyone who wants to be a member of the school community. This is especially notable because it is one of the only concrete requirements at a public, accessible, democratic school that has almost no coercion or compelling of anything other kind. In the free school system, deeply invested in beliefs about autonomy and keeping kids whole, if a student wants to skateboard or paint all day that is what they do.
In a community so steeped in an ethic of consent and self-determination, with so few kids of ordinary, everyday compelling in place compared to regular schools, I was curious about how this requirement worked. What is the relationship, I wondered, between the commitment to the individual autonomy that is such a dearly held value of the school, and this justice council that can compel students to repair harm?
At the beach one day, while watching kids pull up seaweed and pile it into stacks, I asked my close friend’s twelve-year-old son, who goes to this school, “What happens if a kid who gets written up doesn’t come to council?” He barely skipped a beat before he answered, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, “If someone doesn’t go to council, council goes to them.”
A day later, I asked my friend’s nine-year-old daughter, who had not heard my earlier conversation the same question. She too is a student in the school.
I got the same answer. She barely paused in her playing, glanced up, and said, “council goes to them,” as though this was the obvious answer to a silly adult question, and then immediately resumed her game.
What their answers say to me is that these kids experience justice council as self-evident and ordinary: when you hurt someone, you get called to counsel and you have to go. You are expected to make it right. This concrete, practical structure, and the kids’ regular use of it for handling harms large and small has, it seems to me, hard-wired an ethical framing for a functioning, everyday model of interdependence into their assumptions about how the world “just is,” how reality works, and how human beings “obviously” get along.”
Jeanie: Thanks for that. That was beautiful. Something that struck me in your reading was this notion, this quote, “a map of how harm is handled.” And I wonder: do you think the schools that you’ve worked in have had a clear map of how harm is handled?
Mike: Yeah, it’s really deep question. It’s hard to know where to begin.
I think the short answer is no.
It fell to me as a school counselor more than you might expect. And certainly as middle school principal — and definitely as high school principal as well — to sort of be the judge and jury of harm.
And anyone who’s ever worked with middle schoolers or high schoolers or people knows that harm happens all the time. It’s part of growth. It’s part of relational challenges. And it’s part of friendship. It’s part of everything that we do.
And I think that there is a real legal framework around it for schools. Which is well-intentioned, and certainly better than when I was in high school or middle school. Where, you know, the only kind of solution to harm that happened was
- “Suck it up!” or
- “Deal with it yourself” or
- “Ignore that kid,” or
duck and cover, right? Kind of like: school of hard knocks.
I mean, nobody would have ever even dreamed of saying to anyone, “Hey, that kid slammed me up against the locker!” We had a kid that kept throwing kids down the stairs. And no one would have ever dreamed of bringing that up to an adult.
So I think it’s better than that? And we have the HHB, as the school folks know it: Hazing and Harassment and Bullying Law, which is really dense. It’s really cumbersome for administrators to navigate. And quite restrictive in its nature. It comes with very specific procedures, which can be helpful to:
- not rush to judgment;
- get a full picture as best you can;
- interview everybody involved.
Then it goes along with very kind of stodgy form letters that end up going out to parents of the potential victims and the potential perpetrators.
And the whole thing, you know, oftentimes takes like a whole week for somebody who called somebody a name at lunch.
So, that feels pretty unnatural a lot of times.
And it can be very high stakes. Because depending on the students and families involved, they could really sort of want justice: the hammer to fall.
Or they might really think that this is a total waste of time and like kids need to just get over it, schools treat kids with kid gloves now…
Or most often my experience was: “You know, my sweet angel didn’t do it. The school is wrong. You’ve got this wrong. You don’t understand.”
Jeanie: Yeah. What I’m hearing from you and what I’m wondering about, is that not only is the map maybe unclear, but in this account of this school in Canada, the author sort of infers that it’s a part of a larger community that also has these beliefs. And so I’m thinking about how, since Trump has become president (and maybe even slightly before) the numbers of racial harassments happening in schools have increased, right? Southern Poverty Law Center has done some studies on that, and found that racial slurs are up, and racial bullying is up at schools.
And so it makes me think about how even if you have a really clear map of how harm is handled in your school, if the broader culture has a very different map or a conflicting map, that’s problematic, right? Like, that undermines the goals of the school.
Mike: Yeah, for sure. I’ve been part of systems that worked really hard to be very explicit about what was acceptable and what was unacceptable. And then not only do kids know where those boundaries were, they knew what we were going to do when those boundaries were crossed. So I think that that clarity *can* be established in a school and I think that most of our schools work really hard to establish those things.
The question is whether or not the school’s boundaries and way of handling it, matches on the victim’s side and on the perpetrator side of the harms, family ethic and the broader culture.
And if it doesn’t, which oftentimes I think it doesn’t, then that internal map that the author is talking about here in this book is different for people or really unexplored. Sometimes it feels like polar opposites. And so I think, your question is, you know, do we have that internal map of how harm is handled? People might have them, but they don’t have the same one.
Most often I think that we really don’t even have an articulated one in most of our home systems or schools that are inclusive.
Jeanie: Yeah. This text seems to be driving us toward an idea of what a map of how harm is handled, how to — in your language — face the challenge of holding victim and perpetrator in the same community. This is what this whole book is about.
The other piece that I really noticed in listening to you read the opening, was this idea of interconnectedness.
And I’m going to read from page seven, because this really struck me.
“The reason that this structure works is because it recognizes that each person is already inherently part of a larger unbreakable web of connectedness, and gives every member of the community the knowledge of how to mend that web on which human independence so fundamentally depends, and the obligation to engage in that mending when call to do so.”
Mike: Right. And you know, for me, hearing that, it’s like a worldview, right?
It’s a worldview that *your* health and wellbeing is connected to *mine*, and vice versa. That is a physiological reality as well as a lens in which to see the world and make decisions. It runs against what I think much of what our dominant culture — the patriarchy, white supremacy culture — says to us, in so, so many ways, right?
This is a worldview that is sending a message that we don’t often get in all those subtle ways as we move through what it would be a typical experience for a young American.
Jeanie: I think we’re right now at this moment where we’re really facing this with COVID-19. We have been anyway, when I think about some work I’m doing with schools around the sustainable development goals and climate change and there are so many ways in which we’re facing this moment of realizing like, being out for number one? Isn’t going to make the world better for any of us, let alone number one. The way we need to face big issues is as a collective.
And so this really spoke to me. I wondered, I don’t know. I guess one of the things I think about all the time is how do we, is either about transitioning towards a culture that’s more about interconnectedness and interdependence or: how do we hold the tension of connection and community *and* focus on personalization and the individual?
Mike: Yeah, I think you can see that in those first couple of pages. Their example is somebody that skateboards or paints all day. So, there’s a celebration of the individual’s passions, contributions, uniqueness — while also knowing that that is part of a bigger system. Not just human, I would propose, but Earth. That all of those things need to be in a symbiotic relationship.
To me, and this is just my opinion, America might be sort of like the apex of like some people win, some people lose. Like everybody’s just out for themselves and that’s how it is.
I think our culture sends that, I don’t have to show that our people always act that way. I think that America also sort of has a reputation of having really generous people and really caring communities.
So, there’s some interesting complexity there.
But my question would be, and I think we’re sort of at this moment in history where it’s like: where does the collective stop?
- Does it stop in your town?
- Does it stop in your school?
- Or does it stop at your state?
- Does it stop in your country?
And then like ultimately maybe we can sort of zoom all the way out and be like, “Oh, it’s one thing. We’re just all one thing.”
Jeanie: It’s the mycelium. We’re all like linked by fungus [chuckling]. Sorry.
Mike: Yeah, that’s right.
Mike: Yeah, exactly! I think you can really do a lot with the collective. We’ve seen a lot like with nationalism: you can really sort of get people together and united. It feels good to have an identity, and this is who we are — we’re the tigers! we’re the lions! Or whatever. And that’s great for community, but a shortcut way of doing that is by having a common enemy. How healthy is that?
Jeanie: Yeah. Creating belonging at the expense of somebody else’s belonging.
Jeanie: So, one of the things I really want to dive into with you, is this idea of relationships. And relationality. And how do we work in schools to help kids build better relationships? To learn the skills they need to build better relationships?
And I think that a lot of folks would call this “soft skills” and doesn’t belong in schools. And yet I think this book and many things in our world right now are telling us that more than ever, kids need to know how to build strong relationships. So that they are more resilient, so that they can collaborate with each other, so that they can have better self-esteem which leads to better academic scores.
And so I’m wondering about this tension between academics and soft skills or social emotional learning.
Mike: Yeah, I mean folks that have been around me in the last decade, I guess, know that one of the things that I feel like is true about education right now, in this time and space in the world, is that we’re not — meaning schools — are not the holders of information. We’re just not.
The internet has given everyone as much information as possible. We never even could have dreamed at how much information would be at our fingertips, literally.
And so if we’re not the holders of content, then what are we?
And I would say that we need to help people make meaning of content.
We need to help them be critical consumers of content.
We need to help them be producers, right? Not just consumers. And we need to help them develop interpersonal skills and soft skills. Because if we don’t they won’t develop otherwise.
And it’s more important than ever because you’re able to get so much content in so many other ways, and because we are more isolated than ever.
The echo chamber of the internet, and the school refusal rates going way, way up. Anxiety rates, way, way up for our youth. And I think part of that is because they don’t have as much practice navigating social dynamics, and it is easier than ever to just ignore them when something doesn’t go well. It’s like,
“Oh well, I’m just going to go into my phone and listen to people who agree with me or I’m going to just stay in my room and live a pretty isolated life.”
And we know tha,t while that might ping all kinds of dopamine in the brain, it actually leads to depression and anxiety and unhappiness. It isn’t fair to let young people grow up that way, and not experience serotonin, a much healthier release of endorphins into the brain, with:
- long-term relationships;
- the satisfaction of a job well done;
- with pushing through hard things and hard moments and difficult conversations to come out the other side stronger and healthier.
Jeanie: That was really powerful. I really appreciate that.
I’m thinking many people who know your name will know you worked at Montpelier High School to push through hard things. That seems really related to a lot of the content on this book, which is that you were the first high school in the country, I believe, to fly the Black Lives Matter flag.
I wonder if you could talk about that and in relation to: what did your kids push through? And how did you and your faculty help support them? Maybe how did the kids help support the faculty, I’m not sure, and the community in order to push through, do really hard things in that way.
Mike: I mean, first and foremost, like that was students. It continues to be students.
Their strength and bravery is something that has changed my life forever, and is one of the most important things that I have ever gone through and likely ever will.
I am so grateful to those young people — as individuals and collectively– for being a teachers to me, and to having a real connection that I think will probably last a lifetime. And for the adults in that community, being willing to take that risk — and I mean an emotional risk, a vulnerability risk. They did so, almost without hesitation.
And 100% of the faculty — I’m sure some people had some misgivings, we all probably did — but in faculty meetings, nobody stood up and said, “Don’t do this. We’re not doing this.”
Every single person, which to me is just incredible.
It felt like maybe a moment in time, you know? Like, sometimes you can sort of feel like [you’re] living through a moment in history.
The whole time I was thinking like,
“Don’t mess this up. Don’t mess it up.”
You know, like for whatever reason, I was part of that. And had voice in that moment. And it felt like it just needed to happen for this country, and for our local community.
The students were absolutely just thinking about our high school and our town. I had the sense that, “Okay, this might be a big deal.”
It turned into a pretty big deal.
So for me, it brings up all kinds of layers and complexity and feelings.
…I’ve already lost the thread on your question. *laughs* Can you give it to me again? I’d love to try again.
Jeanie: No, it’s great. I love your answer. But I was thinking about how that work that students did, resulted in serotonin, not a dopamine rush.
But that’s the authentic work that leads you to feel good and efficacious in the long run. As opposed to sort of… I’m not even going to do this well: winning a round of Fortnite, right?
So that big rush of serotonin that your whole *community* got to feel, and that sense of collective efficacy feels really powerful, and feels like what you were saying about the importance of the social emotional learning and the soft skills. The relational piece that you were highlighting — that kids need in addition to being able to navigate content.
Mike: Right. Yeah, thank you for the redirect. Yeah, it was super difficult. And messy. And uncomfortable.
A lot of times when those feelings come up, people feel like,
“This must be the wrong way because I don’t feel good, I don’t feel happy, I don’t feel safe even.”
And when those feelings come up, a lot of times it can be like: wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! Just like:
“Maintain the status quo, because this feels this is yucky or disruptive!
I think that there were moments where, particularly for those students that had taken such a massive risk, and had worked so hard, and gone so deep into their psyches and their cultures to help guide us, they were walking on air in some moments, right?
That day when the flag was up and the state police were there supporting us, and our city police were there, and the legislators were there, and the news was there, and our community was there and every, almost every single kid came out around that flagpole that February morning?
The kids who had made that happen were absolutely experiencing the serotonin that comes with doing something that is meaningful.
That is connected to their values and their ethics. That they worked really hard for. That they pushed through difficult moments and frustrations and fear for, and sort of came out the other side.
It’s not to say it was like: flag up, no problems!
It was really just the beginning.
And we said that as it was happening. It wasn’t as if that was our first step. It also certainly was not our last step.
I would say like if you had to say there were 10 steps somehow to building an equitable school system that’s anti-racist? That was probably like step three.
And it was a symbol of a commitment to continue to work on that.
Jeanie: I love everything you just said about that. I think about both the ongoing nature of anti-racist work of community-building work. of equity work. Right?
Like we’re not going to see the end of it. It’s an ongoing journey. I love that you said that.
And then you also just made me think about like, some of my most joyful experiences were not necessarily joyful in the moment, right?
Like camping trips where the tent gets soaking wet, and the story is great later.
Really long backpacking trips where you’re having to ford a river because the bridge washed out.
Or I think about people who run marathons, right?
Around this house we use the phrase, “We can do hard things”.
But sometimes what I forget is not only can we do hard things? But like, hard things are the things that end up being our joys. Our biggest joys, and our biggest, most satisfying life moments.
So, this is a really good reminder because this book is asking us to do really hard things by confronting our own bias and privilege, and sort of owning when we’ve caused harm, right?
And so… thanks for that.
Another part of this book that I think is really relevant to schools — although it doesn’t talk about schools at all — is this whole section on attachment theory. It’s pages 22- 27.
And really, our author Nora Samaran is talking about attachment theory to talk a little bit about sexual violence.
But I found myself really reading and re-reading this section on attachment, because she said it’s basically that only 50% of the population has a secure attachment style. Then she goes into some other attachment styles.
And she talks about the brain science of it. How did those years, birth to three create our limbic system, that that’s where our limbic system is developed and she talks on and on about this. I just really want to look more into attachment theory.
You probably know a lot more than I do about attachment theory, but she says whatever your attachment style, she says, limbic responses happen very, very fast. Below the conscious level and often outside of language.
So, these instantaneous responses we have when we feel threatened or when we feel like closeness is offered or going to be withheld that we can’t even put words to.
And I’m thinking about how often those limbic responses happen in schools. And how we as adults respond to them.
I don’t know, it really struck me that: some of my worst moments as an educator were misinterpreting limbic responses from students.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the experience that maybe all educators have on a regular basis is a student that’s displaying a lot of anger. Calling Mr. McRaith the f-word — definitely at least something that I’ve experienced.
And how that can be seen as disrespectful. It can be seen as somebody that doesn’t belong in the community and needs to go away. Somebody who is the problem.
Or, you can see that as someone that is really scared.
Somebody that is just doing what they know to do to protect themselves. Or to find agency. Or to find some semblance of power, in an experience that might be stripping them of all power.
So yeah, I mean: I think that we are learning that as systems?
And it’s a lot of work.
It’s sort of faster and cheaper probably, to just be like, “Yeah, you don’t have executive functioning built” or “You’re not sort of fitting in with the cultural norms here, so goodbye.”
And to just push them out of the community in whatever way, shape or form that that happens.That happens in lots of different ways depending on what developmental level you’re at. And where you are.
It’s more work to earn a student’s respect. To build a relationship. To push through years of poor attachment.
I always think about it as like a scale, right? Like an old-timey scale. You’ve got weights on one side and weights on the other. And somebody that has a really poor attachment? Their scale of negative attachment is so far down on one side. It’s so much weight on that side, that how many instances of positive attachment, positive relationships is it going to take before that scale comes to even, or tips the other way?
And so it can feel hopeless or like a waste of time for educators sometimes to be dropping things on the positive side of that relationship because they don’t see a change. Or they don’t see the difference sort of happen instantly. I had to use that a lot for myself, and encouraged my colleagues to think about it that way too: you just don’t know when that scale is going to tip. And we want to put as much on that side of the positive attachment and positive relationship as possible, in really difficult situations.
Jeanie: I love that scale analogy.
Often, when I teach collaborative practices, we spend a lot of time thinking about belonging. And how we need to build belonging. Build a culture of belonging amongst teachers as a community of learners, in order to create the kind of spaces we need in order to be brave. Right? And in order to confront our own biases, our own assumptions about learners, about each other, about who can learn and who can’t.
And I think about how the same is true in classrooms, right?
We have to build strong cultures of belonging.
And the kids who least feel like they belong? Need belonging the most. And they’re often the hardest ones to reach. We as adults, we want shortcuts; we want it to be easy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the classrooms I know that are working really well remotely. It’s hard, right? But the classrooms where I see teachers and students holding on, and doing pretty well, are classes that have really strong relationships. Have really well developed sense of classroom belonging, and community.
And so I’ve been thinking a lot about how this book is really about belonging. And how do we create belonging, so we can do those hard things. So we can have those hard conversations. And so we can disrupt systems of power and prejudice and privilege.
Mike: Yeah. And I think there is a tension there that is named towards the end of the book: how difficult it is to hold harm and harmony in tension with one another in community.
One of the things I think is different with public school than would be in cases of private school or a community where you get to pick and choose who stays and who goes, is that the public school is for everyone, not just students that are easy to get along with, or might agree with your worldview.
I experienced several times as an administrator and as a school counselor, where deep harm had been done. And maybe the person who had done the harm was a repeat offender. And was not all that remorseful.
The victim or the person who had experienced the harm, wants to be protected and they have the right to be protected. They have the right to come to school and not feel scared or not feel like they’re going to be attacked, verbally or otherwise.
So what do you do with that perpetrator, with the person who’s carrying around toxic energy and it splashes up on all kinds of people?
Do you ostracize them?
Do you come down really hard on them?Scare them into following the rules?
Or do you try to work with that person to help them understand the damage that they’re doing to their community, to their peers, and ultimately to themselves, right?
I mean that’s what the book’s title is about it. It’s Turn This World Inside Out. And I think what the author, Nora Samaran, is saying is it’s turning yourself inside out, right?
We swim around in a culture of toxic masculinity that expects people to be individualistic, to not have a full range of emotions. To have young men be unemotional. To be loud, to be tough, to take what’s theirs, to compete.
And when we ask them not to, it makes them feel like either the school is out of touch with reality like, “That’s not my reality. I am going to have to fight. I am going to have to compete.”
Or causes this sort of deep questioning about everything they know.
And brings up all of that those feelings of shame and embarrassment — which are such big feelings that there’s no surprise that they would move away from them.
So, to try to put a point on it is: I am not interested in centering sort of cis-gendered, white, male narratives at school. I mean that’s one of our biggest challenges and problems, right? We have done that forever and we need to have more voices centered.
At the same time, those students need some of the most attention.
They have the most unpacking to do.
They have the most layers to work through.
And they need the most connections, they need the most relationships.
I had many students who come from marginalized communities say to me, “How can you be friends with them?” Like, “Why are you friendly to them in the hallway?”
And I felt like I had to be, I spent twice as much as time with them.
But also, there’s this tension of like, “Okay, then am I centering their story?”
So, that’s something that came up for a lot, a lot for me in this book.
Jeanie: I saw that paradox everywhere in this book. And I think you’re right.
For me, it really showed up in the masculinity chapter, about how this woman, Nora Samaran, is like, “I can’t do this work with men because of the power and the relationships I’ve had with them in the past.”
It reminded me that often in the past few years — and it’s starting to shift — when we would in collaborative practices classes, when we would talk about race, people would say, “Oh, but our school is mostly white so we don’t really need to deal with race.” And then I would have them read Ali Michael’s What White Children Need to Know About Race.
But this book really gives me new language of it’s actually white people; a) being white is a race, and b) like, it’s actually white people that need to do the work with white people to better understand our role as oppressors, and to be able to digest that.
I think that’s a hard sense for people. They’re like, “I’m not an oppressor.” But we are. I am, as a white person.
So to be able to digest that and see what that means?
And the same for around toxic masculinity and rape culture in this book is that it’s men that need to work with each other to talk about a new, or a re-birthed notion, of masculinity that can sort of be tender and that can be attuned to the needs of others, so that they’re not doing harm.
And I feel like we could say the same thing with cis-gendered folks, right? Like that *we* need to be doing the work.
There is this tension about is that then centering those who already have power?
So I think that’s definitely something I found myself noodling a lot in this book. How do you do that… and not center privilege? Dominance?
The question I’m going to follow up with is: so often what I’ll hear from folks is, but what about class? Class is the real determinant.
I can see this playing out in my own background, in my own childhood and also in schools, that class that there is this intersection of power being white or male and class that is nuanced. So, I’m wondering about your thoughts on that.
Mike: You know, one of the things that I have seen since the pandemic in Vermont, is I’ve seen people that champion equity, continue to champion it and point to it. But I’ve also seen the concern about our students of lower economic status of limited means championed at the center of people with the most power.
It’s interesting to me because I think it’s more accessible for our dominant culture in Vermont — which is predominantly white, and if you look at our governors history predominantly cis-gendered white males.
So, if you just look at it from that lens, why are we able to talk about financial inequities, so comfortably right now? It’s on everyone’s mind and everybody is taking action on it as best they can. And certainly raising it as something that has been in focus and sharpened. That focus has sharpened through this pandemic experience.
Why? Why can we do that?
And I think it’s because it’s accessible.
I think that it’s closer to people’s life. Either they have themselves experienced poverty at some point in their lives, or know a lot of people around that.
And I think that it asks people to do less internal work when you start to realize how racist our society is, you *really* start to see it. The rose-colored glasses come off and you realize everything, everything we’re doing is filled with bias and oppression. That’s really overwhelming. And then you start to realize like, “I’m a part of that, right?” Like, “I’m part of that oppression. I am that oppression.” That’s asking people to do some really challenging work.
I think the same thing happens when we talk about misogyny. And when we talk about sexuality, right? There’s a lot of internal work.
And there’s something that it seems to me is more accessible about classism. I’m sure that I’m oversimplifying it and I apologize if I am, but I see that.
So how does that play out? I think it can’t be overlooked. Take a cis-gendered white male who’s grown up in poverty and tell them,
“Look, you don’t realize the privilege you’re living with.”
There’s a natural reaction that they’re going to say,
“Are you kidding, privilege? You know how hard my life is? I don’t have any privilege here. You know, the people around me will cut me down instantly. I’m fighting out, I’m scrapping and nobody’s given me a thing. How can you say that I have privilege?”
And that is true.
I mean their lived experience is true and they are oppressed financially. They don’t have the healthcare that should be a human right. All kinds of other things.
Those things don’t have to be opposed to one another. They both can be true.
And I think there’s something about our climate and culture that wants things to be one way or another and we’re not able to hold polarities in tension with one another, without some practice and with some intentionality of like, oh, maybe it’s “both and”.
Jeanie: Thank you for that. You’re making me think about Rebecca Holcombe a few years back, at a Rowland Conference was talking about curb cuts. Do you remember that? And she’s talking about how before there were curb cuts that allowed wheelchairs to have access to sidewalks, and make it easy for folks to get around, that a group of disabled activists went out and poured the first curb cut. And what they found over time is that curb cuts aren’t just good for disabled people, but they’re also good for people with strollers and people who maybe have vision problems and can’t see where it goes. For all of us. All of us benefit from curb cuts.
There’s a section on page 53 that really made sense to me and make sense for that young man you were just talking about.
It says, at the top of page 53 says, “Cis people perform their gender as much as trans folks do. Putting transness at the center of our understanding of gender makes apparent that cisness has also always been complicated.”
And I’ve known for a long time and thought a lot for a long time about how fighting homophobia and transphobia actually makes all of us safer. Because we can all more safely be ourselves in our bodies and in our skin, right? Like we don’t feel the need to conform to gender binaries as much. We can be more of who we essentially are.
And yet why do we find that so threatening? And that’s sort of one of the paradoxes: something that would be good for all of us sometimes we can’t act on, because of fear of the other.
Mike: Yeah, I had that same line underlined. And just to circle back to my personal experience with sort of extreme hate with the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag where the white nationalists had my name circled there for a minute. I was getting a lot of very serious hate email and mail. And phone calls and trolls online, that kind of thing.
It’s so naive of me because people without as much privilege as me, people who are putting themselves out there in their daily lives just in their natural existence and folks that are fighting for justice, experience this every single day. Their whole lives.
But for me, I was struck by how often the hate overlapped really quickly? That I wasn’t just somebody that was supporting my young students of color and was anti-racist (hopefully).
But immediately I was weak, right? I was lots of other slurs that implied that I was gay, right? And then there’s even like leaps to like, “Oh, he’s Jewish, right?” It just started to sort of morph into all of these things that were not cis-gendered white male. That were used as a way to scare me, I guess? Or to insult me.
And the gender piece of it and the sexuality piece of it was very strong. Very strong.
In almost all of the comments, they were explicitly sexual in nature and would be sort of expressing that that was weakness.
And you’re right: as a cis-gender white male experiencing the apex of privilege in America, with citizenship and everything, it’s also true that performing my expressed gender is *absolutely* part of the deal.
And I couldn’t tell you how many times as a somewhat more emotional young man than some of my peers, that I would have to like, pull back from that because it seemed too soft. Did my voice just break a little bit or did that sound gay?
Immediately, immediately being policed by my peers in a very toxic way.
And I think most young white men that I know have grown up that way. Why is it that that is just so unacceptable?
I think that there’s been some evolution in that amongst our young people? I think it’s better than when I was a kid? And I’m sure it depends on the community and I’m sure we still have a long, long ways to go. But if we could center, as she writes on page 52, center transness, that’s going to be a freeing for everybody.
Jeanie: It was really a paradigm shift for me is to put that at the center and not just to sort of give it a nod. Right?
And so there’s so much more to talk about in this book, Mike! But I sort of want to go to this hopeful place, if that’s okay.
There are a couple of things in our time left that I really want to get to. So many things.
On page 76, our author, Nora, is in conversation with Ruby Smith Díaz who was born to Chilean and Jamaican parents in Edmonton, and she’s an art-based anti-oppression facilitator, etc.
And Díaz talks about this project she does with kids that just rang my bell. It’s called the Afrofuturism Trading Cards. She has kids create them, and they’re based in joy.
She says, “We do character sketches, and the youth imagine that they are living in a time that is free of racism, homophobia, classism, and all of the other oppressions that exist today. We ask what it would look like if we were truly free, and unafraid to be who we are.”
She goes on a little bit more about that. Like, how wonderful to do that? And I want to connect it. I want to talk about that.
But I also want to talk about what I think is sort of a futurism, idealistic card for schools.
At the top of page 37, I circled this paragraph, exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point. And it says,
That to me is this: what could schools look like if we were all free?
That to me is like the future card *I* would create for what I want schooling to look like in this country.
Mike: Yeah, I agree. And I would underscore that that is not where we are.
And so my optimism is paired with concern. That some of the most toxic stuff, is what we need to go towards.
This book does a great job of exploring how that’s possible. To hold the victims, and the people who are experiencing harm, safe. And to center their experience and their story. And to not turn our back on those who are doing the harm. That is difficult. I think it is quite difficult.
I learned from a student this phrase, and I’m not sure where she got it, but she said, “I’m not just interested in calling out, I’m interested in calling in.”
And in public schools, I think that that is an obligation, legally, but also in community.
We don’t get to just say, “You know what? That person is so different than me that I’m just going to go over here. I don’t like the things that they like, so I don’t get them and I’m just going to ignore them. And if they break the rules of our community, then they need to be ostracized, they need to be publicly humiliated and they need to be gone.”
That doesn’t work for me. That would be easier. I sort of I think maybe sometimes we wish that was the case? But to me it’s the opposite.
And the hope for me lies there. That we run towards that pain. We run towards that complexity,, and those feelings of shame and embarrassment and disregard and the tossing away of the attempts of the community to bring to circle. To bring together.
And that is not something it’s easy to get people excited about.
But I think that that’s the truth for me. That that is the work that’s to be done. To do that hard thing. And to know that it’s not always going to go well.
I think that this book sort of concludes that way, right? That we, you sort of put, you put that energy on that side of the scale as she wrote.
“Maybe we laid the foundation for bigger work later on. I started thinking about these as messy successes -in a context where so many of us are still learning to build and be in community, this stuff can be transformative too.”
Meaning things that don’t go well are part of the transformation. Things that are not without harm, that don’t come to resolution are all part of the work. And that is not going to be sort of tied up neatly. We will sort of somehow arrive in a school in beautiful British Columbia where the kids all know that that might be really far off, but it’s still worth striving for.
Jeanie: I just want to go to that school. *laughs*
Mike: It’d be nice.
Jeanie: I’m thinking about two things as you said that.
One of my favorite quotes from this book that I think is kind of a call to action is on page 94.
She says, “To reach a life-sustaining culture and world, we need to live it into being.”
To me that’s really empowering because I can live that into being.
She also uses, on page 88, this phrase that I first heard from Alex Shevrin Venet, which is unconditional positive regard. It seems to me like the least we can do for our students, all of our students, every single student, is to hold them with unconditional positive regard.
And that that could go a long way towards the creating of belonging and relationships that students need and deserve. Regardless of what they’re bringing with them.
Mike: Exactly. And I think that takes conscious community-building because when you do that, and there are students that will feel like those other students don’t deserve that, if you don’t build that in, to the whole climate and culture, that this is how we do this and we’re not going to push anyone out, then you have to do it that way and you have to make sure everyone understands why. And I think that that takes a lot of work.
To sort of peel back these onions and help your teachers, your staff, your students, understand why you would not push that person out of the community.
That we are interdependent and we are, and there is the opportunity to celebrate one another. And support one another. So, yeah. Thanks for letting me talk about this.
Jeanie: Oh, it was such a pleasure. Thank you so much for coming on and digging deep and sharing examples from your life and from your school and for introducing me to this book. I have loved it. I’m going to have to re-read it actually.
Mike, thank you for being an example of somebody who’s living this into being. I really appreciate that.
Mike: Well, not all the time. But I’m doing my best with a lot of help from really great friends and students, and folks like you. So, thank you.