Standing With Our Friends (Part 1 of 2): Communities of Learning

In learning, there is often the obvious lesson—which is rewarding—and then there is that difficult-to-anticipate moment that transcends anything we expected to experience—which makes it all the more potentially valuable and transformative. And that moment of transcendence is exactly what occurred again last Friday when I joined Maurice Coleman and other colleagues for an episode of his wonderful T is for Training podcast online.

Atlantic_LogoGoing into the latest hour-long biweekly opportunity to share ideas with those training-teaching-learning colleagues, I had no other expectation than that I would learn something useful from members of one of the best communities of learning to which I belong. And the conversation captured in the recording which now exists as an archived podcast (Episode #138) certainly delivers an interesting graze through a field with plenty of different topics.

What the audio recording doesn’t reveal, however, is the much more disturbingly moving exchange that began when a colleague used the program backchannel to post a link to “I Was Racially Profiled in My Own Driveway,” written for The Atlantic by Doug Glanville, “a retired Major League Baseball player [who] explains how he’s trying to turn an upsetting encounter with the police into an opportunity for dialogue.”

It wasn’t the sort of topic we generally explore on T is for Training—or in many other venues I frequent—so we kept our exchanges to a set of backchannel comments through the typed chat window available as the podcast was being recorded. When the recording ended, a few of us briefly continued to explore the ugly, painful, gaping wound highlighted by Glanville’s beautifully written article; to ignore the opportunity to do so within a community of learning that has strong roots in confronting rather than ignoring our most difficult challenges would have been to further contribute to the turn-your-head-and-pretend-it-isn’t-there proclivity that plagues us through the mistaken and debilitating belief that we inhabit a “post-racial” society. And when it was time for us to virtually part and return to our other obligations, I wasn’t quite ready to set this aside, for I sensed I was far from finished with the learning opportunity my colleagues had extended through the posted link and the follow-up conversation.

There has never been a time in my life when I have not been conscious of the presence and effects of discrimination and inequality. I grew up in a Central California Valley town with geographic boundaries that mirrored the racial and economic divisions existing between the various groups which formed that still troubled community. I felt the relatively minor stings Italian-Americans felt through taunts that were nothing compared to what African-American, Latino, and the all-too-rare Jewish friends and colleagues experienced daily. I was occasionally the butt of not-so-funny jokes and racial epithets—but not in any significant way at the level those friends and colleagues were. My sense of what this meant grew during a three-year stay in Japan, where regardless of how much respect I was accorded as a teacher, I knew I would always be an outsider. Fair enough; I always had the option to return “home” when I grew tired of living in a place where I wouldn’t be accepted.

But here in our imaginary post-racial society, colleagues and close friends don’t have the luxury of going home in the way I envisioned going home. They are home, and it’s a home that never really offers the benefits of ownership that others can routinely enjoy.

T is for Training Logo

T is for Training Logo

A lovely friend was kind enough to draw me viscerally into that world again a couple of months ago through a series of moving online reflections during Black History Month. As The Month came to a chronological end, I decided to ask a simple question of this friend who has indisputably been on the receiving end of terrible–yet often subtle–acts of discrimination–but refuses to succumb to bitterness: “If I had been there, what is one concrete thing I could have done to reverse what you experienced?” The response: “If/when you see subtle racism against others, call people on it. Let folks know that you see it and you do not condone, agree, or approve…It would not have changed the world, but you would have made a stand.” That’s why, I wrote at the time, this person is my friend: I ask a straightforward question, and I’m offered a positive, actionable reminder that we don’t need special days, weeks, or months to confirm that each of us can make positive action a way of life that contributes to the creation of the sort of world we want to inhabit. Now. And for the rest of our lives.

It was a thought that remained with me as the T is for Training group dispersed after the conversation last Friday, so I quickly sent an email asking what I can be doing at a simple, personal, level to prevent others from experiencing what Doug Glanville describes in that article.

The answer produced that moment of transcendence I mentioned at the beginning of this article: “My answer is to continue being you. That means being welcoming and supportive. And be willing to stand with someone who is not being treated well.”

What struck me most was not the encouragement that I was somehow, in spite of myself, managing to be somewhat on the right path to being where I want to be. What struck me was that particular, thoughtful, and emotionally jolting choice of words: “…to stand with someone…”

I find it all too easy to stand up for someone when I see something I dislike; standing up for someone (or something) requires action, produces an expectation of results, and is empowering to the person doing the standing—it’s as much about the stander as the one for whom we are attempting to stand. Standing with someone is a much more intimate, risky endeavor: it places us quite vulnerably next to someone with the understanding that the person is in control and gains more from our presence than from the mistaken belief that some sort of representation from another person is wanted or required.

Standing with someone is a life lesson well (but not yet completely) learned. It makes me a better facilitator of learning to know that I stand with rather than for other learners. It makes me a better friend to those who think I’m better than I am intellectually, emotionally, and socially. And it reinforces the oft-forgotten lesson that learning, collaboration, and community-building are based on our ability to be empathetic, set our egos aside, and value the critically important difference between standing for someone and standing with someone.

Next: Standing With Our Friends (Part 2 of 2): I Watched You Disappear

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