Fear, and the compelling nature of being the domino

“There are too few people in the world willing to be the domino–we aren’t doing it without fear.” –Luvvie Ajayi Jones

By Ron Hustvedt, Jr.

I open with that quote because upon hearing that statement in her Ted Talk, I knew I needed to write as I listened. From the onset, I had the feeling that everything she was about to say was exactly what I needed to hear at this moment, and I’m glad that I did. I wrote as she spoke the things that resonated with me. I didn’t compare my notes to the transcript, but let’s just say it’s close. That’s how much this talk spoke to me and I think if you are in a place where you fear taking action, but feel there’s no alternative, then you will have a similar experience with her talk.

Having been a writer all my life, and a journalist most of it, I’ve learned that the best way I process things is through the action of writing it down. When I first started being a journalist I wrote in notebooks, then those skinny reporter notebooks. Page after page. Almost always I could read my own writing, but most others could not.

Then when I was being interviewed, on the phone, by a professional journalist, I marveled at how I could hear them typing away as I spoke. I was already a decent typist but at that moment I vowed to type what I heard because then I could always read it. I started by recording interviews and writing notes on my desktop (because tape recorders sometimes fail–learned that the hard way in just one lesson, well maybe two).

Then after I graduated college, and laptops became a thing, I began lugging one around when I’d cover meetings. I learned that if I could write as I listen, I saved time from not having to transcribe and I already had the guts of the story written down. When I did some ghostwriting gigs (writing on behalf of others who are experts, but not expert writers) I found that writing what they said was the best way to capture their voice. I also learned that people who don’t think they are good writers, but make a living speaking, have a block with writing. “You turned what I said into a great article,” is a wonderful compliment, but I always assured the person that the genius was them because I pretty much just wrote what they said.

During my first years of teaching I was both a full-time teacher and a part-time journalist. The habit of typing everything transferred into my teaching job, however, at meetings. I learned that when you write down what people said, as they say it, you have a pretty good record of what happened. Those skills as a journalist allowed me to capture the good ideas of others, share those words with people, and help them see their own genius. Planning meetings are a wildfire of ideas, and if that genius isn’t captured, it’s often lost. Writing it down helped me most of all, but I found that it helped others as well.

I transferred that to my practice as a teacher in helping students learn how to write. “Don’t worry about what to write, just say it and I’ll write what you say.” That strategy helped a lot of students break the early stages of writer’s block. As my journalism gig faded due to the demands of teaching and having a family (willingly, mind you) I kept the habit of processing through my fingers as I listened. When somebody is saying something important, you are likely to see me typing away on a laptop or, if I didn’t realize the moment was going to happen, typing away on my phone or recording it so I can type it later.

Capturing people’s words, for self reflection, for sharing, helps me better understand the geniuses of the world around me. I say all this in such a wordy introduction because I want to encourage everybody to commit to writing down more of what they hear and think. I think you’ll be impressed with what you discover.

So with that wordy introduction, here are some of my favorite words spoken and paraphrased from the Luvvie Ajayi Jones Ted Talk that are worth reading. But just like I usually only listen to books when read by the author, you must listen to her delivery. So either stop reading now and just go watch it, or read what I captured and then hear it yourself from the genius who said it.

Fear has a very concrete power in saying and doing the things that are our purpose. I’m not going to let fear ruin our life or dictate what I’m going to do.

If it scares me, I’m going to actively do it.

Wrote “I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual

Being quiet is comfortable. Keeping things they way they’ve been is comfortable. We need to speak hard truths when they are necessary.

I have to speak these truths. Justice should not be an option.

What are your core values? Know them. Embrace them.

Our job is to disrupt what is happening. If two more of us band together we are more powerful. Making sure that other person who can’t make a point is being heard. Our job is to make sure they are being heard. Everyone’s well-being is community business. If we made sure we were everybody’s help we wouldn’t have to look around so much when we need help.

People and systems count on our silence to keep us where we are. Being the domino comes down to being exactly who you are. Being yourself can be a revolutionary act. In a world that wants us to whisper I choose to yell.

When it’s time to say these hard things, these are the three things I ask:
1. Did you mean it.
2. Can you defend it.
3. Did you say it with love.

Speaking truth to power should not be sacrificial. Bridges not based on truth will collapse. It is our duty to be the domino, especially when it is difficult.

Parting reflection: I think some would say I’m doing my best to be a domino but I’d say that fear still has more of a grip on me than I’d like it to. I’m hoping to be able to better fulfill that duty, because while it is difficult, but it is necessary. Writing this down, and sharing it with you, compels me to continue down that path.

Slaying the four dragons of racism

By Ron Hustvedt, Jr.

Here’s my Wednesday reflection for the #NNSTOYEquity21 Challenge, sponsored by the Equity Taskforce of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. The first portion was to read the four levels of racism created by Race Forward. According to their website, raceforward.org is all about, “Race Forward Research conducts cutting edge, original and broadly accessible research on pressing racial justice issues focused on the significance of race to social and economic outcomes in our society. Race Forward Research seeks to provide evidence of the entrenched and systemic barriers to racial justice.” I thought the Four Levels of Racism document was very succinct and neatly defined the four levels (internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural) but I wondered if it was “too neat” in the lack of details and context. It is clear that this is intended as an introductory document meant to be used during a training and the reflection questions definitely would provoke some good conversations with a group new to this work. My favorite question, and one I plan on putting to use, was, “Rabbi Tarfon, said “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either. What does that mean for you and your organization as it relates to racism? Other forms of oppression?”

The next item for today was a video by Act.Tv on their youtube channel. It was an animated explainer titled, “Systemic Racism Explained.” On one hand I appreciated how it did a good job simplifying the complexities of systemic racism, but on the other hand I felt that it was a tad too simplistic. I worry about how it would be viewed in a classroom of students, especially one where there was only a handful of BIPOC students. A teacher would definitely want to process this video with students immediately after showing it and make time to process a day or two later. I wonder who the target age group is for this one. If you teach young children, and feel well informed on the causes/impacts of systemic racism, I’d say this could be a good one. If you are new to it, and can’t find anything else, brush up on your adult reading/learning first then share it with kids. It’s necessary to educate ourselves and our kids, but we have to make sure we are considerate in our approaches so we don’t derail our own efforts.

The final reading for the day was an article in learningforjustice.org (formerly known as Teaching Tolerance) called, “The Weaponization of Whiteness in Schools.” This was on my reading list anyways as a friend tweeted it out last week and I remember seeing it in the fall when it was first published. I’ll have to admit that reading it was not an easy task. In a majority white profession, I have seen this happen on a regular basis. Identifying it, calling it out, helping people acknowledge it, has been a task I have worked on for many years. It’s something I’ve tried to get others to learn about, but it’s also something I have uneasily noticed in my own practice. It’s not like I’ve done it on purpose. But somehow I just knew to do it. It’s hard to explain, and I’m really just trying to encourage you to read the article, but it gave me an uneasy feeling reading it and reminding myself of those times when I’ve caught myself about to “weaponize my whiteness.” It’s tough not to feel personally offended when a student disrupts or acts out, and it’s a very difficult realization to catch implicit biases bubbling up, but it’s something that you can reconcile with, add a filter to your brain in catching, and even if it gets past that be willing to call it out yourself and reconcile.

A powerful quote that spoke to me came from Alicia Oglesby, a Black high school counselor and co-author of Interrupting Racism: Equity and Social Justice in School Counseling, who said, “When students, who are children behaving as children do, are off task or causing me a disruption, my initial response is to adjust how I’m facilitating that student or the larger class. In real time, I’m assessing that student’s needs because they precede mine. My lesson is never more important than that of the students’ need for education. The classroom and school experience allows for education to happen.” While I’d like to think I’ve caught every misstep I’ve made over the years, I’d be naive to believe that. I acknowledge that I’m more tuned into it, more adept at identifying it, and also becoming good at calling it out. I’m ashamed of every word I’ve written about this article because it’s not what I’d like to admit, but I feel it’s important to own it and acknowledge the pervasiveness of it all.

Circling back to the first source of the day, we can believe that racism doesn’t exist within us, but we are products of our society. Even though I’m an inner-city kid who grew up playing with and going to the houses of a lot of friends from multiple cultures and races, I was also exposed to all the images thrown at me in various forms of media. I believe that if you want to be antiracist you need to go after all four levels of it: internalized, interpersonal, institutional and structural. Publicly, I find myself going after the institutional and structural varieties. Those are the giant dragons to slay and commit to doing so with an ever-growing fleet of allies. But then implicit biases catch you with a right hook and remind you that internalized and interpersonal are always lurking in the subconscious. Exorcising takes time and I’m not convinced full removal is every possible. It’s treatable, but not removable. The four levels of racism are all interconnected, so we must slay the inner dragons with as much intention and ferocity as the outer ones, and go after them all in a public way.

“From Roots to Reconstruction”

By Ron Hustvedt, Jr.

“As we go through this history we will see that this is not easy work, but we will also see how this work is not only possible, but necessary.” –Brandon White

For Day Two of the #NNSTOYEquity21 Equity Taskforce challenge teachers were invited to listen to Episode One of The Complexion Of Teaching And Learning titled “From Roots to Reconstruction.” The description of this podcast is, ““The Complexion of Teaching and Learning” is a podcast docu-series in which we explore the historical, political, and professional insights and experiences of educators of color. The series is hosted by Brandon White (Twitter: @ClassroomB), an ELA Specialist for UnboundEd and former middle school ELA teacher and Restorative Practices educator for the Rochester City School District. Episode 1 highlights the connections between Brandon’s experiences as an educator of color and the experience of Black Educators before, during, and right after slavery.”

As a history teacher, it was an interesting lesson of how the educational system has its roots in African values and teaching styles and adapted, stood up to destruction, and was realized during slavery, Civil War and then became an act of resistance during Reconstruction and throughout the 20th century. Mr. Brandon White draws parallels throughout the lessons to his practice as a teacher today.

One of the interviews in the podcast that resonated most to me was an interview with Dr. Heather Andrea Williams, who is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought, and Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book “Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom” (2005), and “Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery” (2012). She tells the story of how Frederick Douglass learned how to read as an enslaved man. The white woman who was the wife of the man who claimed to own Douglass taught him to read because it was common for white women in those positions to teach enslaved people to read so they could read the bible. When her husband learned of this she said to him, in front of Douglass, “If you teach him to read he will be unfit to be a slave.” It made Douglass want to read even more and see the power that reading and writing could give him and the danger to the existing power structure. Douglass self-liberated himself, went on to become a great writer, speaker and public servant who famously said, “To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes of human nature.”

Mr. Brandon White, host of the podcast, talked about how he would see this in his teaching practice as well when people would not challenge students of color to read complex texts. When teachers would hold low expectations of their students of color and not provide students with the enriching experiences that would help them thrive. His recounting of that resonated strongly with me because I have seen that as well and have long worked to make sure my classroom does not function that way. I’m certain I’ve made mistakes with this over the years, but getting to know my students is a top priority so I can get them digging into subjects/topics of interest to them. I do this because when a student has a high level of interest in the subject matter, they are willing to take on more complicated texts and build endurance with reading. It’s more than just putting a text related to something interesting in the hands of a student though. Supporting a student’s reading, answering the many questions, asking many questions, contextualizing with the student are all ways that a teacher can both hold high expectations, further build relationships, and support student success. After two more historical examples, Mr. Brandon White said, “When I learn about stories like this, I keep thinking about how education grounded in an ethical ‘why’ and an authentic ‘how’ is the most powerful education you can receive.” Reading that made me feel both validated in what I’ve been working to do but also challenged to do more, to do better, and keep at it. I know that if I do that, the teacher it makes me five years from now will make the teacher I am now look woefully inadequate. Just like how I feel about myself today compared to five years ago, and ten years ago, and 20 years ago.

It was also very interesting to hear the story, near the end of the podcast, about the push for Black educators with Freedman Bureau schools in the years after the Civil War. Having a group of Black teachers who could teach newly emancipated Black children was going to be essential and is what led to the formation of many Normal Schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Mr. Brandon’s White takeaway was that this system, “would have long lasting impacts on Blacks in education…this would prove to be an extremely valuable approach.” He then listed three truths he’s learned in his own practice to become a change agent in educational equity. You are going to need to listen to the podcast for those three truths but they will empower you and propel you forward, just like they did for me.

Thank you Mr. Brandon White and Dr. Heather Andrea Williams for the lessons, insights and challenges to my practice.

Thoughts on “A Talk to Teachers” by James Baldwin

By Ron Hustvedt, Jr.

(This is a stream-of-consciousness piece of writing I wrote on February 8, 2021 as a reflection on this text in conjunction with the #NNSTOYEquity21 Equity Challenge put on by the Equity Taskforce of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year.)

I just finished reading “A Talk to Teachers” by James Baldwin, and with a few minor contextual adjustments, one might have believed he wrote it this year about the events of the past year. Give it a read at this link and see what you think of that easy synopsis. For my thoughts, in the moment, read on.

No, this talk by Mr. Baldwin was not delivered in the past year, but 58 years ago on October 16, 1963. It is older than I am but many of the problems he condemns are just as real today as they were back then. The problem is when you realize something like that, separated by nearly six decades, you realize that the problems today must be even larger than they were back then. Even though people would like to believe that things are better today with regards to racism and segregation than in 1963, the fact that the same points ring true speaks to the lack of measurable progress and improvements. It speaks loudly to the hardwork that’s been done by white supremacists and status-quo fans to “not push too hard” and “just be patient.”

Baldwin said, “What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.” This resonated with me so strongly, and he says so concisely what I believe is at the core of my teaching philosophy.

It reminds me of the very things I hear so many adults tell children when they push to make the world better for themselves. Adults say wait. Give it some time. Knowing full well that childhood is fleeting at best. Those middle school policies that students want changed only need to be stood up against for a year or two because it’s usually the 7th and 8th graders who see it and those with the power know it only takes a few inconveniences to while away the hours until those children move on and the fresh group are assured things will be better. In High School when students are more aggressive, bitter to the lies, aware of the deceits, they must strike fast or time will pass them by as well. Students who realize at age 13 that the voting age should lower will need to fight for several years. The adults with the power just have to wait them out, and hope that once the vote finds them at age 18, they decide not to look back, and look out for, the ones they left behind. One you gain the power you seek, it takes an act of altruism to give that to those you left behind.

When you wait to make change, you create a space for people to fall into and find where they are comfortable. Those most on the edge fall first and become the cushion for that next wave who were ready. Instead of backing up the people most on the edge, they rest on the fallen bodies and enjoy not being on the bottom. The problem with trying to lead the change, and take on the problem headfirst, is that you fail to see where the true danger lies. Well, you notice it when you feel the sharp pain in your back. Only when a critical mass is willing to go to the edge, and hold up those who would fall, do we see change. But too often those who benefit least from the change, and fear the edge, let go of those with the most to lose, those most on the edge, and sacrifice their aspirations for comfort. I struggle so much with that as I want to get closer to that edge, as I want to support those leaning over, but feel the fear of losing the comfortable foothold. What’s a worse fate? To have those behind you stab you in the back? Or simply just let you fall? How often in history is that exactly what’s happened? Declaration. Constitution .Reconstruction. Legislation. Adjudication. Again and again.

James Baldwin wrote this piece in the tumultuous year of 1963. What a year that must have been. It was the year of the Birmingham Campaign. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in that most segregated of cities and penned his powerful “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” That document too, with some contextual adjustments, might have been written in our modern times as well. A passage that speaks to my earlier comments about time is written by Dr. King, “Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

The year 1963 was also when schoolchildren of Birmingham decided, in May, to take action and stand up, on behalf of the adults, and march and protest. Those children were arrested, attacked by dogs and water hoses, assaulted by the police and fire department and put into jail. They kept at it and gained a national spotlight. Four months later, four children were killed in the very church those protests originated from, by white supremacist terrorists. It was also in 1963, a month before that bombing, in August, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was more than Dr. King who spoke that day, but the collective amnesia of those who today feel the problems of 1963 were solved don’t remember it that way. Heck, those who feel the problems are almost all solved only cling to a handful of Dr. King’s lines. “Something about children being judged by their character, not the color of their skin, right?”

It’s easy enough to say and want to believe, but it’s a reality that can only be achieved with an acknowledgement of the problem. A person can wish away racism, but it is a problem created by centuries of policy, justified by more policy, defended by tradition. It is so entrenched in everything that it’s invisible to those who benefit most. When we say we need to acknowledge the problem, to achieve that dream, people believe you can simply dream and it comes true. Yet they yell to their own children that the only way to achieve a dream is to work for it. If we are to change reality we must acknowledge, work, and repair. Baldwin said, “If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all.” Now that statement is about as current as it can get, given the current debate in Minnesota, and across the nation, about Social Studies instruction and civic education. The 1619 Project and many other teacher resources aim to do that, but they become public enemy number one in the eyes those who with to live the myth. You can’t build dreams on lies.

Baldwin ends with a hint of hope and a heaping dread, that also resonates and echoes in our modern time. “America is not the world and if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way – and this child must help her to find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy which this child represents. If this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy.” We survived 1963 and the decade that followed, but just barely, and not all emerged from that decade fully acknowledged. The liars and blindfolded won the waiting game. Those who worked hard to make improvements and change were matched by those who worked hard to rebuild obstructions, impede change, derail improvements and allow hate to flourish. The energy of 1963 continued bubbling and boiling, hotter and more vicious, until those who said, “Don’t move so fast” and “Just give it time” won the day. The cauldron was capped but the heat continued to build.

It has been released once again and we hear echoes again of 1963 bubbling from the depths and popping at the surface as if they were just spoken. Those words from 58 years ago were rooted even deeper in the stew, and if we don’t recognize and don’t get it right this time, the damn pot is in danger of boiling over. It those who would wait, win the day once again, all they succeed in doing is passing a worse fate on to their children. You know, those who are supposed to walk hand in hand with each other as brothers and sisters?

James Baldwin addressed that as well in this statement, “I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person. And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society.”

Backward facing is a good place to start if we can honestly acknowledge what is behind us. Only then can we better understand the work that must be done. Right now. Enough stalling.