Frustration squirmed in the room as we discussed power at the AoH Beyond the Basics conference last weekend in Columbus. I can still see hunched shoulders and hands raised in frustrated supplication: “I don’t have any.” “How do I get THEM to value this work?” “I don’t have a leadership position in my organization.” Sighs of frustration punctuated the conversation as we discussed the results of power inequities in education, health care, urban planning and the hierarchical leadership consistent in those systems. I had been with these people for over a day, but this is when my heart pounded my ribcage. I know I have something to offer when I feel like my heart is going to explode, whether it’s looking at my children while they’re sleeping or watching patterns in conversation surface. Power is the topic that has been kicking around inside me since the conference. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with fragments of strange dreams and half thoughts. Finally, my thoughts coalesced during a conversation with a dear friend and our moms this morning.
My mom gave my daughter a book that my mom thought Sara would enjoy. It’s a sweet read about a boy and a girl who shrink and embark on time travel adventures in the Thorne Rooms, an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was a perfect gift because my mom, my daughter and I share a love of reading and of art. Essentially, it was a gift of love from a grandmother to a granddaughter. Long story short, my daughter absolutely loved the story and tenaciously reminded me that I promised to take her to the museum over winter break. I procrastinated and procrastinated until the last day and, during a veritable blizzard, I risked our very lives driving to Chicago. All so she couldn’t bust me: “You SAID you would take me over break but YOU were too busy….!” But that’s beside the point. I took her, and she loved it. She loved the field trip so much that she bought a book and gave it to her best friend with a promise to take her friend to see the exhibit. Long story, short….in a space of four months, four kids have read a difficult book and visited the Art Institute. Not only that, but a local school is running a parent field trip in May featuring the Thorne Rooms and the book. Additionally, there is talk that we might have a write up in the Chicago Tribune after our school trip, and the local parent-staff organization (PSO) is considering donating copies of the book coupled with a book club discussion guide for parents who might want to host a discussion this summer. All in all, a grandmother’s gift has spurred the integration of Language Arts and Fine Arts education in a meaningful way.
As I told this story around breakfast, I remembered the plight of my fellow AoH mates: How do I do this work in the absence of positional power? Like many of you, I care deeply about education. I ache for the teachers who bust it trying to grade and differentiate and learn and measure and love their students until they are beaten or until they disconnect from the passion that brought them into the classroom. I ache for the kids who, for twelve years at the most impressionable times in their lives, repeatedly hear they are failures and bad and stupid. I ache for the administrators who sacrifice their health and their families and their sanity trying to bridge the gap between federal and state policy and classrooms. My heart stretched again to the point of bursting when I realized that education reform does not solely require positional power. By giving her a gift, my mom invited her granddaughter into literacy. Kids who read recreationally have an increased capacity for empathy (and thus are less likely to bully), have better vocabularies, have better test scores etc. etc. etc. My mom wasn’t thinking about any of this when she gave Sara her book. She just likes stories and loves her granddaughter. And, here is the irony. My mom has positional power as an elected official. She has won billions of dollars in grant aid, has stayed in office for over twenty years, has received international awards and recognition for her efforts…. and she used absolutely not one iota of it to shift the integration of Language Arts and Fine Arts Education in my community. She gave her granddaughter a gift simply because she loves her, and that gift is magnified in a school system when a community of parents and their children walk through the door of an art museum excited to see the intersect of literature, art, and history. Gifts are magnetic that way. Her small act, if replicated, could change the face of literacy in our country by unleashing a tangible way that adults outside the school system can support the integration of Language Arts and Fine Arts Education. What could happen if teacher institute days became invitations to the community to think of their neighborhoods as classrooms? What could happen if education became an endeavor that did not rely so heavily on teachers’ expertise and finite energy? What would happen if the fundamental character of our community began with the expectation that we are in this together….that the quality of our educational systems absolutely depends on our individual willingness to engage, regardless of positional power.
Everyone in AoH, it seems, has adamantly refused to accept the status quo of broken systems. We open medical practices in our homes; we insist on naming the public on contracts; we celebrate with swear words ☺; we create digital story-telling tools; we run World Cafes in our backyards….. And, at the heart of it, we clutch with white knuckles, the belief that We know More Together than Any One of Us Knows Alone. That belief demands the humility of powerful leaders, yes. It stretches those leaders to listen intentionally and carefully. Collective wisdom also demands that we stop calling each other names, and that we recognize our pounding hearts as signals not to name-calling and blaming, but to productive, collective action. It also demands that those of us who deem ourselves powerless fully embrace the reality that we have gifts to offer. Those gifts are absolutely vital, without which we will simply fail. It requires that we examine the flawed assumption that the brokenness of our systems only robs us, that we are its only victims. Aspects of these systems aren’t working for any of us in ways that we, without positional power, can’t possibly understand and in ways that we do understand. Therefore what we ask is also what we can offer. It is by offering a gift that we influence change. Those gifts can be burning questions, a talking piece, listening well for the patterns of assumptions and beliefs, finding the courage to name them, telling stories, identifying stressful thoughts, sharing our learning as we learn it (not when it’s perfect)…..….and not one of those gifts requires power to give. We can give those gifts to ourselves, to our spouses, friends and colleagues. We can volunteer them in our schools and in our local businesses. We can host neighbors in our backyards, in our living rooms, and on our front porches. We can pass a talking piece at the dinner table and at the conference table. We can tell a story and invite a retired person to tell his, regardless of positional power.
Giving gifts, however, requires humility. It requires some of us to stop thinking we have all the answers, but there is a flipside too. It also requires some of us to harness courage and offer our gifts to our communities without thinking we are entitled to payment or status. It is humbling to offer something I value to someone else and risk rejection. It can be humbling to receive a gift, because I am confronted with my imperfections. This work is vitally important to me; it is an extension of some of my most vulnerable places and of my deepest wounds. But it is not only that. It is also a vehicle by which I can offer my most powerful gifts. Giving gifts requires humility but it also insists on affection. If I offer my gifts from a place of fear or anger, my energy is finite and unsustainable. However, when I give gifts from a place of genuine affection, I am insulated from the constraints of hierarchy and traditional power structures. So….I’m left with these burning questions: What gifts am I ready to offer now, in the absence of positional power? How can I cultivate affection and curiosity for all people in systems that remain stuck? What flawed assumptions do I hold about money, power, meaningful work and about time? How do those assumptions keep me from offering my gifts more generously?