Tag Archives: activism

Six months on a Racial Equity Team

This year I was a parent participant on a Seattle Public Schools Racial Equity Team. What’s a Racial Equity Team? Short answer: it’s a group of people working together to confront racism at a specific school.

Longer answer: the Seattle school district has provided funds and training for a small number of schools to form Racial Equity Teams. (As a side note, during contract negotiations, the Seattle Education Association pushed for every school to have a racial equity team, but the district pushed back and ultimately only 18 schools got them.) You can read more about it on the Seattle Public Schools website, but sadly, they haven’t updated it since last year, so whatever work our schools have done is not reflected there.

At our school, the group of teachers and parents that ultimately became a Racial Equity Team got started partly in response to reports of race-based bullying and the recognition that the adults at the school were not prepared to handle it. There was some talk about starting something called a Restorative Justice Team, in which a group of students, led by parents or teachers, would meet regularly to help settle issues that arose.

Then we found out about the opportunity to get a grant, and we went for it. Our first two meetings ended up being all about filling out the grant application. We got the grant, which meant several of the teachers could attend district trainings and bring back what they learned to our team and to the other teachers at the school. Step one: they learned about bias. That’s a big and important step.

Having the grant happen right at the formation of the group changed its mission, though, in ways I still don’t exactly understand. There’s the big job of changing institutional racism, and the Seattle Public Schools chunk of it seems to be more about advancing academic equity — a smaller, more limited goal.

We spent a lot of time this year absorbing what we learned and trying to decide exactly what to tackle. We’ve had hugely valuable discussion, learning more about the specific needs of students at the school, and the challenges teachers face when trying to meet those needs. We also had conversations about race, gender, and ability.  But the focus is still coming together.

Will the work we do ultimately challenge institutional racism? Will it help students of all kinds feel safer in our halls, on our playgrounds, and on the school bus?

I sure hope so!

This work is necessary. It needs to be done at every single school in the district. And it needs to start now.

To be continued . . . 

 

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Privilege, Power, and Getting Things Done

Sometimes I’ll be sitting in a group discussing our plans and somebody will say, “Hey, I have an idea! What if we do this?” The person looks around to the group for an answer. Some people shrug, some people look interested. Somebody might respond to the idea and somebody might bring up another idea, or the original person might expand on the idea.

Now everybody’s thinking, “Well, let’s see what the group thinks about this idea.”

But does a group think? And if so, how do you know what it thought?

People’s eyes settle on one or two people. There’s a smile and a nod from those people, or a frown. Somebody speaks.

“Well I think this. What does everyone else think?”

One or two people might speak up and discussion might go on from there. If nobody interrupts this train of thought, a decision might get made.

But who made that decision?

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Here’s something I’ve seen. Meeting after meeting, somebody brings up an idea. “Here’s something our group do. What do people think?” Nobody’s all that interested, but nobody’s opposed. They’d be perfectly happy to pitch in if somebody else takes the lead.

The person asks the group and nobody answers.

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Or there’s this. “Here’s a proposal. What do people think?” Everybody shrugs and then one person speaks up. “What a great idea! Let’s all do it!” Some people frown and look down. They’d rather not do anything, or they think the group shouldn’t do it. A third person says, “Why not?” The first person says, “Do we have consensus on this? Okay, then!”

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All in all, people have a muddled understanding of what a group is. We think we can ask a question of a group and get an answer. But it’s people who answer, and the kinds of responses depend on all kinds of factors: communication styles, speed of response, degree of shyness, amount of power within a group.

When you start to think about power, it’s well worth taking a look at the short article “Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman. Written in 1971, it suggests that the apparent structurelessness of groups — specifically, radical feminist groups in the 1960s — masks an actual informal power structure, with unelected elites dominating the process. It proposes seven concrete steps that can be taken to safeguard democratic process.

An enormous argument ensued, and in 1979, Cathy Levine wrote a response called “Tyranny of Tyranny.” Her article suggests that structure doesn’t solve the problem of elites, and that the feminist movement needs small, unstructured groups.

The argument is still going on, and it’s especially relevant in groups that are trying to undo systems of oppression such as sexism, racism, class tyranny — anytime there’s a power imbalance. Groups choose leaders, whether explicitly or informally, and by default those leaders will be the ones at the top of the hierarchy in the system of oppression we’re trying to dismantle. Preventing that means taking specific steps, but what are they?

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So maybe you’re in a group, and there’s a leader that got chosen by default, and that leader understands they have a position of privilege and wants to let somebody else have a chance. So they don’t take up the mantle of power that the group is trying to give them and then what happens? Who’s making the decisions? Should we just have a go-round?

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Well, here’s the trouble with go-rounds.

The size of the group has an impact on how quickly decisions can be made, and so does the decision-making mechanism. There’s an enormous difference between a group of 5 and a group of 10. Here’s the math, from the essay “Small Group Size Limits and Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loops.” 

Imagine a simple scenario where all N people in a group are given the opportunity to speak for 2 minutes, and everyone can respond to others people’s initial point for 1 minute.  The meeting lasts 2N+N(N-1) minutes which is 30 minutes for 5 people, almost 2 hours for 10 people, and 7 hours for 20 people.  The problem is clear here, even with severe limitations on communication.  Allowing fuller interaction would make the meeting of 5 take maybe another hour, but 20 people might take literally years of nonstop 24/7 meetings.

 

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Sometimes I feel like I’ve been in years of nonstop 24/7 meetings. I’m tired of the group conversations that drag on and on, ending with nothing decided. Enough is enough. Here’s my question: “Our group has a mission. How can we just get the dang thing done???”

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So here’s the question, and I don’t have the answer: how do you fairly, inclusively, and quickly find out what the group wants to do, individually and collectively, and then do it?

There’s not just one answer. But here are some things to think about:

  1. It’s good to have an agenda, a chair/facilitator, a timekeeper, and somebody to take notes.
  2. Everybody should get a chance to speak. Nobody should take more than their fair share of time.
  3. Somebody’s going to end up being the informal leader. That person has the dual responsibility of making sure things get done and sharing power fairly.
  4. It’s good to train group members up so that everyone can take on that leadership role from time to time.
  5. It’s good to have somebody who’s able to “take the pulse” of the group and help it focus.
  6. Surveys can be our friend! And big butcher paper. Everyone gets to talk at once.
  7. Big groups can break out into small ones.

Well, that’s a start, but . . . what else?

(You tell me.)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/lorettastephenson/7902147342

Cat Question Mark by Retta Stephensen

The series “Persuasive Writing for Activists”

Okay folks, I promised new weekly updates on my series “Persuasive Writing for Activists” and I haven’t delivered. Life got in the way and then I got distracted and then I wasn’t sure anybody was wanting it. So if you want to see more, please leave a comment. That’ll guilt me into adding more. 🙂

Persuasive Writing for Activists: Knowing Your Audience

This blog post is part of a series on persuasive writing for activists. Check back weekly for new content.

Last week we talked about the purpose:  what you’re trying to accomplish with your piece of persuasive writing. This week we’ll talk about who you’re writing it for. 

Getting to Know Your Audience

Many activists are so dedicated to the issue they care about that they forget that their audience might not be. Here are five important facts about your audience. 

  1. They are probably too busy to read your piece from start to finish. 
  2. They might not know little or nothing about the issue. 
  3. They might not know the jargon. 
  4. They might be skeptical of activists. 
  5. Despite all that, they might care deeply about the issue and want to act! 

Consider the Demographics 

I’m a white woman who is relatively well off and has a bit of free time, which is why I can write and do activism. If I’m not careful, I imagine my audience is too. They’re not. Think about people’s racial heritage, sexual orientation, religion, age, ability/disability, age, occupation, and financial situations.They’re all different! Different people will have different perspectives and care about different aspects of the issue. 

You Have Multiple Audiences 

Bear in mind that you have multiple audiences. Some know a lot about the issue and some know next to nothing. Some like activists and some don’t. Some share your racial heritage and some don’t. 

Go Meet Them 

Get to know your audience. Get out and talk to people about your issue. But don’t lecture. Listen more than you talk. I am surprised every single time I talk to people, and I learn a lot. I learn what people care about and what people don’t. I learn the language they use. I learn how not to act like an activist geek. I learn what they know and don’t know. 

Stay tuned: Next week we’ll talk about targeting your piece to your audience.

Persuasive Writing for Activists: The Purpose

This blog post is part of a series on persuasive writing for activists. Check back weekly for new content.

Last week I talked about how to do a prewrite. This planning will give you a better sense of what you are trying to accomplish, who you are trying to reach, and what you want them to do.

This week we’ll focus on purpose. What is the issue you’re concerned about? Why are you writing about it? What do you hope to accomplish? What are your short term and long term goals?

Here is an example of a bad purpose for persuasive writing: “I want people to know about how big a problem my issue is!” What’s missing here? There’s nothing for them to do.

Here’s an even worse one: “I can’t believe how awful this is! I just have to get it off my chest!” Then it’s not even persuasive writing at all. It’s a vent session. There’s nothing wrong with a vent session — just don’t try to make it into something it’s not.

So let’s turn this around. Let’s say that instead of wanting to express how horrifically bad everything is, we want to convince people that it can be made better. If so, how? Do you have a big picture vision? If so, what is a small step that someone can do that will get them involved?

Once you figure all this out, you’ll be ready to persuade your audience of three things: first, that your issue is a big problem; second, that you have at least part of the solution; and third, that they can take an action to contribute to the solution.

Here’s an example from the United Opt Out website. This article has several purposes:

1. To inform people that there is a problem with the release of confidential student records.

2. To persuade people that it’s important to act on this problem.

3. To ask people to take a specific action.

It begins,

Did you know that Jefferson County Public Schools will share confidential and personal student records with a corporation and store them on a data “cloud” without parental consent?

This is already persuasive, because it will immediately concern parents. The entry also goes on to add more details about what kind of information will be released.

One thing that is missing is that this particular article doesn’t work to convince people that they have a solution. There is a broad solution elsewhere on the web site – the group is “dedicated to the elimination of high stakes testing in public education.” So that’s good. But there isn’t a solution presented for this particular issue. Can this release of data be stopped? How? Maybe nobody knows. Activism would be a lot easier if we had all the solutions.

Finally, this article has an ask. The purpose isn’t just to alarm people, it’s to work toward a solution. Here’s the ask:

Please join concerned parents and education activists on May 16th starting at 8:00 a.m., for a rally right outside the front doors of the Colorado Department of Education, and then attend the 9:00-11:00 A.M. public study session, hosted by the CO State Dept. of Ed., to learn more about inBloom.

Check back next week for an entry on knowing your audience.

Persuasive Writing for Activists: The Prewrite

This blog post is part of a series on persuasive writing for activists. Check back weekly for new content.

Too often, when an activist decides to write persuasive material, they sit right down and write it. That’s a mistake. They write something that seems convincing and logical to them. In fact, they write something that would convince them or people in their immediate social circles.

But is that all you want to do? Persuade somebody like you?

Another common mistake is to convince somebody that there is a problem, and stop there. That’s just a downer. It might persuade someone that there’s a problem but give them no tools to solve it and no hope.

So it’s important to do some prewrite planning. Get out a sheet of paper and divide it into thirds. Give it three headings:

  1. Purpose
  2. Audience
  3. Action Item

Then brainstorm as much as possible for each item.

Purpose:

What is the issue you’re concerned about? Why are you writing about it? What do you hope to accomplish? What are your short term and long term goals?

Audience:

Are you writing for one audience or multiple audiences? What gender are you targeting? Age? Religion? Culture? Ethnicity? Gender identity? Are they likely to be easily convinced or is there a sticking point?

How much do you think your audience knows about your topic? You often can’t count on them knowing anything and you might have to start at ground zero.

You’ll be much more successful at reaching your audience if you have already talked to similar people about the same topic and heard what they have to say, both positive and negative, about your issue.

Action Item:

Go back to your purpose and think about your long-term and short-term goals. Then find some simple, quick action that people can take and suggest it. Otherwise, they are going to leave discouraged and, most importantly, do nothing. Then give them a timeframe to do it in.

Go on, get out that paper. Now.

Persuasive Writing for Activists: Intro

If you know me, you know that to say I have progressive politics is an understatement. If I see a progressive make an argument I agree with, half of me says, “Right ON!” And the other half is saying, “Seriously? You expect that to persuade anybody? You’re preaching to the converted.”

Here’s what I mean: somebody has a vision for societal change. And it’s a good vision. And they think, “I should share this vision!” So they make the best arguments they can, from their point of view. It is well received — but only by people who already mostly agree with them.

That’s a problem I know how to fix. Want to know where I learned it? Listen to my background and see if you can guess. I got a degree in creative writing, then went on to become a technical writer, then taught technical and business writing, and then left the job market to pursue the job of Full-Time Mom, Part-Time Writer, Part-Time Activist.

Which of these jobs do you suppose taught me the most about persuasive writing?

If you guessed “being a mom,” that’s a fair guess. It’s hard work persuading my kids to eat their dinner. But no. I learned it when I taught business writing.

Corporations know how to persuade. They know how to market to people, and that is persuasion.

So over the next few weeks, I’m going to be sharing what I know. Check back every week and see what’s new. The topics I’ll cover are:

The Prewrite

Purpose

Audience

  • Targeting your piece to your audience

Content

  • Using ethos, logos, and pathos to persuade
  • Being credible and using specifics
  • Overcoming your audience’s objections
  • Asking for action

Tone and Style

  • Having positive emphasis
  • Using the appropriate level of formality
  • Having a goodwill close

Layout and Illustration

  • Drawing the reader in
  • Looking good on the page

Examples

  • A bad example
  • Who will it reach?
  • A good example