As we stand on the frontier of the new school year, after a tumultuous summer of racial division, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about where our country has been and where it is going. I worry for my children and my students and the future they face. I desperately want things to be better for them.
As I grew up, I believed that the civil rights issues of the 60s were healing because of the work of people like Martin Luther King. He had perished, but maybe we had learned? Then in the early nineties, we faced the O.J. Simpson trials and Rodney King incident to bring to the forefront that things had not improved. Tension seemed to die down over time, but now, we are once again faced with riots across the country and senseless lives lost. People quickly categorized to make sense of things they didn’t understand without looking deeper. People on all sides of the issues feel invisible, devalued, and less than human. As a result, there is anger. Lots of it.
Four years ago, I worked in a place that I did not matter. Once, I was in a public restroom with a higher official who looked through me as if I was invisible even though she was two feet in front of me. She had even been someone who had previously mentored me and praised my work to move into a principal role a just a few weeks earlier. I would go to football games in this town where the leader of the district would walk up the stadium steps and greet everyone, shaking hands and kissing babies, if you will. Ironically, his big catch phrase was “You matter.” Every time I heard those words come from his mouth, I thought “unless he decides you don’t.” Others noticed this behavior and began to alienate me as well. Who could blame them? I mean no one wants to be in the “you don’t matter group.” Being invisible made me both angry and depressed. I swung on a pendulum of despair and rage. I wanted to go up to these people and say “Look at me! I’m here! I matter!”
When I left this place and was able to come to a new role as principal of a campus in another district, the staff at this school shared similar stories. Their perceptions were that they were invisible. People who lived blocks away didn’t even seem to know the school was there. They said that when they were with others in the district and shared what school they were from, colleagues sighed and looked at them with pity. One teacher shared “we aren’t even on the map.” No this wasn’t literally, but what it meant was they felt invisible as if they didn’t matter. Because I knew this feeling all too well, that became my mission. To ensure that this amazing group of educators knew they mattered…to me, to others in the district… to everyone. In one of our first meetings, I remember saying the words “We are Degan.” It became our hashtag and has been in place going on our fourth year. We put it on everything. It doesn’t mean we were better than other schools (although I am particularly fond of this amazing school community). It means Degan Matters! We are here. See us.
I am fortunate now to work for a district that values the concept of cultural proficiency. A district that recognizes we are all the sum of all of our experiences, not just one or even two. I am grateful that they provide us with intentional experiences to begin crossing this great divide to see people for all that they are and value them, not just tolerate, ignore, or even worse, dismiss them. They expect us to see things from the alternate perspectives so that we build the relationships we all need to grow and improve.
I don’t claim to be an expert in cultural proficiency or to completely understand perspectives from lives that I haven’t lived.