community change: working with many hands

Tomorrow evening, it’s wheels-up on a huge project that I have had the honor to work on for several months. My graduate school is bringing together every student in supervised fieldwork this year, along with their advisors, for a community workshop about race and privilege in teaching.

Many educators in our graduate school community are committed to equity and social justice, and they live it out in their practice every day. Still, an institution-level response was long overdue, and I’m so proud that we’ll be starting a conversation about how our identities impact our teaching, and what we can do in our own classrooms to fight the unjust and inequitable systems that we, along with our students, learn in and live in every day.

My role, along with other student leaders and faculty partners, will be on the sidelines tomorrow, and it reminds me of nothing so much as my previous work as a stage manager: sitting in the wings, in the dark, out of sight but aware of all the moving pieces. Thinking one step ahead and whispering at just the right moment – “go.” When everything works, it feels both like the entire process is in your hand, and like it’s a beautiful piece of machinery that you don’t even need to touch.

I want to remember that, however smoothly things may run tomorrow, an effort like this is borne of another kind of institutional mess: the messiness of working with many people.

Many people have many schedules. They have professional and personal commitments. They have partners and family members (some of whom are teenagers). They have offices in different buildings. They have different ways of sharing documents. They speak and think differently. They have all sorts of feelings – protectiveness, skepticism, enthusiasm, resistance, confusion, inspiration. It can feel like a lot to handle. It can feel like a liability.

Yet at some point in the process, things start to click. I’m amazed to check up on some of my to-do list items and find them done. Things I hadn’t thought to do yet, folks whose help I was going to ask for are already on board. Before you know it colleagues are staying past the sane limits of any work day because we all know it’s the only day we can all sit down for a final run-through of our plan. People are showing up, big time.

That’s when our mess of different capacities, networks, and perspectives becomes a strength, and take us well past the point any of us — student, faculty, administrator — could have reached on our own.

I want to remember that shift the next time I feel like I’m herding cats to complete a project. Because there will be a next time, with adults and with kids. Remember that people show up when they know what to do and how their particular capacities can help. Remember to be patient – three months for a project like this went fast. Remember that many hands make serious work possible. As do Google Docs.

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