“… an old world is collapsing and a new world arising; we have better eyes for the collapse than for the rise, for the old one is the world we know.” — John Updike
Yet another report that decries Minnesota’s disparate educational outcomes has been issued, this one from the Federal Reserve Bank (“A Statewide Crisis: Minnesota’s Education Achievement Gaps,” Oct. 11, 2019). In summary, the findings of Rob Grunewald and Anusha Nath spotlight the stark reality that, despite our national leadership in “adopting policies that promote equal opportunity for education,” the educational outcomes for children in Minnesota remain stubbornly and strikingly disparate, in regard to both race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. More recently, we learn that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), our historical status of being above the national average in student achievement is slipping.
So we must be missing something here. We try so hard, and we just can’t move the needle. I think what we are missing is the crucial matter of social climate, which goes deeper than policy, deeper than good intentions and deeper, even, than good actions. It is about us, the way we view ourselves, and the way we view and relate to those we perceive as “other.”
Stuck in a paradigm
Minnesotans, we need to get to know each other. We aren’t who we used to be, and that’s a good thing. But we are stuck in a paradigm of white, middle-class cultural expectations that does not serve us and our future. To get free of its limits and release the potentials of our complex community, we need to teach each other who we are, penetrating the ethnic/racial and economic boundaries that separate us.
One needs only read “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” in which Minnesotans of color share their experiences, to realize that we suffer from genteel “othering.” Many people are engaged in laudable efforts to promote “inclusion,” efforts that do in many instances make a difference for individual people, and even organizations. But we have something larger at stake. We have to get beyond “inclusion.” We have a pervasive culture that has created and sustains the intractable problem that haunts us: we aren’t educating our children of color and lower economic status in a way that prepares them to enjoy and contribute to a healthy Minnesota future. The Federal Reserve Bank calls it a statewide crisis.
I argue that it isn’t fundamentally about education. In an attempt to shine a hopeful light, the Federal Reserve report cites several educational initiatives – in New Orleans, in New York, in Boston – that have resulted in narrowing educational outcome gaps. Yes, schools are of course part of the solution. But as a former classroom teacher, I find it disheartening that we continue to place responsibility on schools and teachers for dispelling disparities that begin not in the classroom, but in our larger social and economic interactions.
Fixing the foundation
References to social climate are common, and often come from prominent spokespeople. Minnesota’s first chief inclusion officer, James Burroughs, said, “Yes, it’s important to have the strategies and policies to do business. But we also need to change the culture and the climate of our workplaces.” Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said in an address to University of Minnesota Morris graduates that, when a “house” is unsound, “The only way to solve the problem is to take the much harder course (as opposed to patching) of stripping all those bricks completely off the house and finally fixing the foundation.”
We have a foundation to fix in Minnesota, but amidst many “diversity” efforts, I have not heard of a strategy or a structure aimed specifically and intentionally at comprehensively changing our social climate. If we do not strategically set out to shift our culture and the way we interact with each other, the status quo will persist, and we are likely to continue the pattern of disparities.
A sample structure
What might a structure for social climate change look like? In the 1980s, author/psychiatrist M. Scott Peck was concerned about the loss of community and founded the Foundation for Encouragement of Community, developing what he termed a “technology” for building community. It took the form of Community Building Workshops that were conducted nationwide. I participated in one of his workshops, and the technology was pretty simple. People gathered in circles and were encouraged to talk with each other. After a slow start in my workshop, honesty emerged in the second day, and it became a powerful experience. Bonding occurred. Circles, which symbolically and physically eschew hierarchy, have long been an effective construct for social processing. Other technologies – cultural self-profiling, storytelling, skills development and visioning – could be employed to build on the circle technology. Many resources are at our disposal: Banaji and Greenwald’s work with Implicit Association Tests; Elizabeth S. Anderson’s work at the University of Michigan on social “fairness” versus “equality.”
We have the tools, and a pilot circle of diverse individuals could design an experiential learning process that could be replicated with willing people in various community venues throughout the state. I believe that if the intent were properly presented, Minnesotans of many backgrounds would choose to participate and that, gradually, through knowing ourselves and each other in new ways, we might shift the social climate of Minnesota. What we need is an entity with the visibility, resources and vision to launch an initiative.
Minnesotans, we need to get to know each other, and that won’t happen unless we do it on purpose.
Mae Seely Sylvester is a writer and community volunteer living in St. Paul, after a career in classroom teaching, local government appointive positions, and as education coordinator in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota Medical School.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)