Posts

How student leaders can respond to controversial topics in the news

It is beyond an understatement to say that we are living in very dangerous times. It seems as though every time we turn on the television, there is another story on some hot button issue from mass shootings to police/civilian interactions. From racism, anti-Semitism, and islamophobia, to immigration, education, and terrorism, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face today. In my work as a youth speaker and an UPstander, I encounter leaders like you every single day who may not be sure on how to respond to these challenges from a leadership perspective.

It is easy for any of your peers who are not leaders to say whatever is on their mind with no concern for the ramifications but as a leader, you took an oath to work towards bringing people together, be it in your school community or beyond, depending on the issue. But how can you honestly speak about an issue like #blacklivesmatter or a tragic mass shooting if it is far removed from your daily experience? Here are 3 steps you can take to become a more effective leader on hot button issues.

  1. Educate yourself on the issue

We live in the information age. There is simply no excuse to not be able to educate yourself on an issue. The challenge, however is whether you will diversify your sources of information. For example, if you are reading about the tragic shootings in San Bernardino or the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, you should not only consult one media source, as most people do. Remember, you are a leader! Don’t only watch CNN, MSNBC, or FOX for example. Watch all three plus additional sources like NPR and other reputable websites and journals that can educate you. Require that your team do the same thing and then make an informed decision on how to move forward.

  1. Survey your community

It is very easy to not address an issue because you do not believe it affects you directly but chances are that there is someone in your community that is affected. Is the Muslim student in your school being looked at differently after the San Bernardino killings? Is the police officer in your school or neighborhood being looked at more suspiciously after videos that surface showing police officers on the other side of the country shooting unarmed individuals? Is the Spanish speaking student more on edge over the immigration debate? You have to survey your community to find out who is feeling isolated and engage them. One of the mistakes I made as a high school student council leader was not listening as often as I should have to the people who did not speak up. Remember, silence can speak just as loudly as the loudest megaphone.

  1. Actively reach out to the affected community

The word “active” is extremely important here. Your entire school community needs to see that you are making efforts to be an inclusive community. Yes it’s cliché but you have to lead by example. Be the person to sit at a different table in the cafeteria, which is still one of the most segregated area in many schools today. Create speakout events where opinions can be expressed or have a unity rally. There is no shortage of things you can do once you are committed to be an UPstander and not a bystander. Once people know that they are still accepted in the community they share with you, they may be more likely to open up to you and also less likely to resort to some form of negative behavior due to the isolation or mistrust they may be experiencing.

Leadership is an easy job if you only preach to your choir but here is the problem, preaching to the choir is not leadership. It’s preaching. You ran for office and though you were not elected by everyone, you noe represent everyone. Take that responsibility seriously. Get educated on the issues of the day and use your knowledge to build your community, not keep it divided. That is the sign of a true leader!

What 100 Texas teachers taught me about diversity & inclusion

Recently I had the honor of conducting an all-day professional development training on diversity and cultural competency for about 100 educators in the Houston Independent Schools District (HISD), the largest school district in Texas and the 7th largest school district in the nation. There were teachers from Thomas Middle School, led by the dynamic and powerful Khalilah Campbell and teachers from Sugar Grove Academy where “Failure is not an option, option, OPTION” for any child. Sugar Grove is lead by the fiery Lynett Hookfin. I say “fiery” because one of the stories that Ms. Campbell shared that demonstrated Ms. Hookfin’s love and fearlessness in working with students would put “Crazy Joe” from “Lean On Me” to shame! The entire day was just a reminder of why I love doing work in Texas, but there were two things that stood out throughout the day.

The first thing that really impressed me was the way in which these teachers enthusiastically engaged in conversations and exercises on the issue of creating culturally competent schools, particularly for struggling black and Hispanic males. While it is obvious that everyone may not have agreed with every single word I said (which leads to great conversation), they were willing to engage in deep reflection on the challenges their students face in schools, as well as the challenges they face as teachers too. Some staff even became emotional as they were asked to recount issues of discrimination or racism that they may have experienced in order to better understand the challenges their students may face in feeling marginalized. This portion of the day helped me realize that these educators are truly passionate about taking all of their students to the next level. As much as I hate to say it, I have been in sessions where the commitment to every child was not evident so this was truly a refresher!

The second thing that I really loved was that the teachers at these two great schools were willing to share their own success stories. Sometimes during my travels, I find that some schools (or even some teachers within the same school) want to guard their secrets to success in order to keep them looking better than other schools or other teachers in their districts. Ms. Campbell and Ms. Hookfin made it very clear to their staff that every child everywhere matters and that we are all in this together. Because of that, I often felt like I was only working with one school and there were no competing interests that were sabotaging the process. This mindset is key for school districts working to improve success for all students and not a select few but this has to start from the leadership of the school.

Being willing to explore your own history of challenges you faced growing up with discrimination (or witnessing it) and being able to share success strategies with your colleagues are among the many steps needed towards building a culturally competent school. If your school or district does not engage in critical self-reflection, delving into issues of cultural competency will just be treated like any other subject that a teacher is not passionate about teaching but does anyway because she is told to. We need to go deeper as educators committed to a solid future for all students and not the chosen few. Sharing successful strategies with your colleagues helps kill the notion of us fighting for pieces of a small pie because by default, we’ll be making a bigger pie for all to comfortably eat off of.

This was my fourth year doing work with HISD. I am very confident that with great leaders like Ms. Campbell and Ms. Hookfin, Thomas Middle School and Sugar Grove Academy will be able to meet their bold goals. Their efforts and, more importantly, their passion are contagious and make the job of their staff who are committed to this work very easy. All our students ask for are caring teachers and a caring community where they believe their culture and history matter. I commend all schools and school leaders who are on a mission to create that community because failure really isn’t an option, option, OPTION!

How student leaders can respond to Ferguson or other tense issues

For the past few weeks, many people across the nation as well as across the globe have been caught in discussion, debate, or even serious violent protests over the death of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by police officer Darren Wilson. If you took a step back to analyze this tragedy like I have, you probably saw how many media outlets and activists were using their camera or blogging opportunities to shout at one another without much listening. I found myself wondering how you as student leaders could take the lead on generating discussions on this issue when you have received such poor examples from adults. Below are some steps that you should take as a student leader to address issues such as Mike Brown’s killing, or any other incident in your school that may bring about tension.

  1. Check the pulse of your community. Whenever an issue that has great potential for controversy occurs in your school, you should conduct surveys of your student colleagues to see how they feel about the situation. Just because you were voted into your leadership role, it does not mean that you should expect everyone to agree with your stance on the issue. Once you know where your community lies on the issue pro, con, or somewhere in between, you can move on to step #2.
  2. Engage those who think differently from you. There are two types of people who may take opposing views to your own: those who will be very vocal in their opposition and those who will not say a word. It is important to engage both because you will be more likely to find common ground on the issue, which is important for maintaining a positive community environment.
  3. Talk to your teachers and advisors about the issue. It is sad that many student leaders do not look to their teachers for counsel. Too often, I come across issues in schools of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. where the students think these issues are happening for the first time because it is the first time they are experiencing it. It is very likely that teachers in your school have had similar experiences, maybe even more severe given the tumultuous times different groups have had to endure on the path towards equality. Find teachers of varying opinions on the issue to help foster a conversation. If no one can be found at the school, find someone outside of your school.
  4. Organize a speakout session. Students want an opportunity to be heard so provide the space for them. Sometimes leadership is all about listening. If it is a school-based problem, students may have valid suggestions about how to move forward. If it’s an external issue like the Mike Brown killing or something internal such as bullying, let students vent about their concerns and serve as a facilitator as opposed to a decider. Let them help in the formation of next steps, if next steps are indeed necessary, so that your school can move on together.

At the end of the day, a leader needs to provide an opportunity for all voices to be heard. It is easy for the loudest voice to be heard but not necessary listened to. As a leader, you should be a conduit for others to channel their energy. If you do this, you will be able to maintain an active constituency that will support you because you support and respect them, which was the reason you ran for your leadership position in the first place. Don’t shy away from controversy, no matter how small or large. Embrace the challenge and your colleagues will embrace you!