Civic Duty, Decisions, and Unintended Consequences


The decisions we make as educators and policy makers clearly have impact on students’ lives. The further you are removed from the school site, the harder that is to see sometimes. And embedded within all decisions are unintended consequences, some anticipated and others left to be uncovered by time. My school board’s recent vote was to approve Ethnic Studies as a graduation requirement was no different. Last night, the school board meeting was packed beyond capacity, generating concern from the fire marshal. The main issue that drew so many of my colleagues out was a proposal put forth by the district at the negotiating table that would eliminate the salary table for teachers. While I clearly have really strong feelings about that, I will save that for another post (while optimistically hoping that I will not have to speak more on that utter nonsense.) The second issue that drew many of my colleagues to stay and speak until well past 9pm was the board’s proposal to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement. This is what I want to reflect on in this post.

In my current role I have been lucky enough to begin coordination of support for a core team of dedicated educators who led the charge to bring Ethnic Studies to our district, this being the first full year of its offering as a year long elective in two of our four high schools. Helping these teachers continue to think deeply about the critical pedagogy and curricular resources needed to effectively implement this program has been some of my most engaging and exciting work because of my direct experience with students in this type of teaching. And while I have never taught an “official” Ethnic Studies course, I have been part of the movement to bring the foundational theories and practices that underlie Ethnic Studies into all of the courses I have since taught. This work has led me to reconnect with old friends and colleagues as well as form new relationships in the effort to tap into and further build a community of educators committed to the field. It has been wonderful to have the support of my district in this endeavor.

Up until two weeks ago I wouldn’t have changed anything to this regard. Then came the proposal to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement for all students in our district. To be clear, this is a proposal that I unequivocally support. And yet I was compelled to speak directly to the body of decision makers last night about the way this proposal came to our board. As is common practice in many school districts, a committee is formed with the mission of asking questions, fact finding, and idea generating when systemic changes are being considered. In this case the impetus for a committee formation was the examination of whether or not our current graduation requirements were serving the majority of our students. Assuming that the committee was looking at everything from graduation rates, to college acceptance/retention, and juxtaposing that with the most current and relevant research; they arrived at the consideration to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement, probably recognizing that these programs have shown overwhelming success in positively impacting students in all of these areas, in particular are most marginalized students of color. I say assume and probably because I was not on this committee but neither was any teacher who was part of or is currently teaching the course. And while that still might not surprise or require concern, it is fundamental to understanding why our colleagues who teach health were also prompted to speak passionately about their course to the board last night and do so in a way that complicated the desire for a unified teacher front in a largely teacher driven district (I am not sure which school district in America is not “driven” by the engine that is classroom teachers but I know of many that do not place teachers in a position to help steer… and up until now I have not directly experienced this within my current district.)

What was more concerning especially to health teachers was that there were also no health teachers on the committee. And the point is quite simple: there should have been both. In making the historic recommendation to move Ethnic Studies into the category of required courses for graduation and not increasing the number of units to do so, both courses would have to be reduced from a year to a semester. And this is where the sticking point was. Again, it is not out of idealism or naivete that I chose to speak my board members about this. Once it was made clear the goals we were attempting to accomplish as a district, including the parameters, it was clear that other courses would be impacted. I return here to process. If the process had involved more direct stakeholders from an earlier stage, we possibly could have avoided the emotional and political entanglement that informed the board vote. And while I was impressed by the level of collegiality and solidarity within the face of clear disagreement and division (real or perceived) I do not believe that it had to be done this way. What if health and Ethnic Studies teachers had been able to be part of the discussion together? Would they have been able to speak in support of a resolution they both believed did more good than harm to students? Might they have had a more common understanding of the difficulty but necessity of such a decision? Would they have been more inclined to collectively imagine a change to the system as opposed to advocating in essence to keep the status quo? These are the questions that I wanted to pose to our board members to keep in mind as we move forward with what I still believe will be in the best interest of all our students and will move us closer to our shared goals of equity and success for all students.

Whether or not the sentiments expressed by stakeholders will inform the planning and implementation of this decision moving forward remains to be seen. I am hopeful that it will. And I know that I will bring my best self to any conversation or work that centers student needs in development of initiatives to get those needs met. I just hope that lessons learned from the process will better inform us moving forward.

“Sell your cleverness…”

Yesterday morning’s #superbluebloodmoon was awe-inspiring for those of you up early enough on the west coast to witness this celestial event.  I felt blessed to have this otherworldly scene greet me first thing as I opened my front door at a quarter to six.  As I pulled up to the gym parking lot, a little later than I would’ve liked, I was compelled to suspend my routine (albeit it very new… as in 2 weeks new) start time.  I sat in the back of my car, just staring at the eclipsed moon, in all its darkened red glory.  I felt a little silly as people passed by me, some already having been productive in their personal fitness and some rushing towards whatever physical health goals they had previously established, while I sat dressed to work out and instead gazed at the sky.  The shyness quickly turned into shock and then sadness.  One person saw me gazing and stopped just long enough to ask me. “What is this all about?”  I responded as a matter of fact, but this seemingly innocent inquiry really got me thinking about the crisis of our modern relationship with our surroundings.

No doubt living back in the Monterey Bay region has reawakened a sort of environmentalism that has been lying semi-dormant for a long while.  This is after all the area where I put my finger on the brand of educational and spiritual training I felt most drawn to.  I have also been prompted reexamine what exactly I mean when I say “environmentalism” by some pretty profound writings of Paul Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain fame.  His collection of essays entitled Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays has been helping me survive the massive onslaught of “bad” news in the past year.  But in reality its been several years if not decades since the roots of extreme global capitalism have taken shape, forming a type of global consciousness (or lack thereof) devoid of any true connection to land and environment.  This is what became clearer to me early Wednesday morning.  How could anyone witnessing this eerie celestial event not pause to question and reassess their position in the “grand scheme” of things?  Even if only for a moment, a break in one’s gait long enough to view the sky through eyes of wonder.  How would our ancient human ancestors have viewed this gigantic blood-red sphere, hovering above, so differently than every other day?  How would they have rearranged the sublunary events of their day to accept a larger, profound, and more universal one?

I wondered about this and other questions as I stared into the early morning sky.  I also took a few pictures, with the intent of sharing.  I soon laughed at the silliness of this, not the instinct to share this with others like friends and family whom I texted despite the hour to see if they were fortunate enough to be awake and experience this, but the absurdity of trying to ‘capture’ this amazing image with my phone camera.  I walked away in awe and also distress.

Admittedly I have not been the best optimist of late.  I have real concerns about the state of just about everything in the world.  From the state of our own nation, to geopolitical realities that are unfolding, humanitarian crises, and the ever-growing threat of nuclear war.  But at the center of my pessimism is the absolute realization that we are not, by and large, not making this world a better place.  And I don’t just mean for people.  There are many who would argue, even quite successfully that we have. I mean making the world better for all life.  And I think there are also just as many (hopefully more) that could counter the argument of unlimited growth and progress leading to better qualities of life by recognizing that those processes that we engage in the name of progress are actually the main drivers of death.

And it is not that death is necessarily supposed to lead to pessimism.  We all are supposed to die.  All life leads naturally to death.  It is the obsession with staving off the natural declines and deaths of everything in favor of a false philosophy of infinite growth and wealth that eats at my soul daily.  Knowing that this philosophy drives most everyone in the modern world, including myself to live in ways that are murderous to everything that is actually sustaining to our lives.  And the cognitive dissonance is so real, that it has taken those of us who feel a drive to “save” our planet from the unnatural destruction of our own making to a place where we are dependant on the human solutions of technology and innovation, the ironic drivers of this destruction.  Kingsnorth pulls at this idea throughout his entire book of essays but utilizes the soul-stirring words of mystic poet Rumi to really drive home a much-needed paradigm shift.

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. Cleverness is mere opinion; bewilderment is intuition.” – Rumi

In my attempts to heed this advice and combat this pessimism before it devolves into permanent paralysis and inaction, I have recommitted to some key principles in my life.  The first is to get out in nature and be a part of it.  This has developed into a sacred and spiritual Sunday outing where our family explores the wonders of the wild and untamed world, recognizing our very small but important place in it. This may even turn into a more disciplined practice of something I used to enjoy many hours of in my youth, nature journaling. My wife recently stumbled upon this dandy of an idea, suggesting that we even consider taking his class as a family!

The second thing I have dedicated energy and time to is involving myself with a local organization working on a very important social and environmental issue, specifically in our local region. Salinas being the salad bowl of the world, industrial agriculture has bestowed both the blessings and the curses of mass food production. Pesticide use as a “reasonable” byproduct has long been questioned and challenged in the region, as far back as Cesar Chavez’s work with the UFW. It still is today. A local community organization called Safe Ag Safe Schools, a part of Californians for Pesticide Reform, is leading the charge to help change regulatory policy of pesticide use near and around schools. After attending one meeting, I was energized to continue to deepen my involvement with this dedicated group of people. From banning chlorpyrifos to eliminating the use of Round Up on school campuses, there is still so much work to be done with regards to challenging the ill and often catastrophic impact of our modern-day food systems.

These are the things that have helped me to begin reintegrating my spirit into this land again. That and being able to spend more time with family and friends. And even though there are many moments where things feel hopeless and strange, there are still many more moments to embrace the grandeur of where we are and what is actually possible… when one invests in bewilderment.