Discover more from Ground Experience
Shaping a Workplace Culture: The Fundamentals
Transcript and link to my talk at the 2022 Counterweight Conference on Liberal Approaches to Diversity and Inclusion
Below is a link to the talk I gave in September, 2022 as well as a lightly edited transcript of both the talk and the Q & A session with Laura Walker-Beaven, the Director of Innovation at Counterweight, an organization that aims to contribute to the depolarization movement that has recently emerged in many countries. For more details on the depolarization movement, Counterweight, and the conference, please click on this detailed post I published in October.
In this talk, I share my experiences as a young teacher in a large public school district and as a college professor in which I learned how to build respectful, empowering environments after different trials and errors. The fundamental orientation of humility and the practice of acknowledging mistakes on my part and course-correcting is a major theme. Though I speak mainly about my own journey in classroom and school settings, the talk and Q & A session is situated in the larger theme of the importance of recognizing the power those in authority have to set the tone for our work together, which involves the commitment to listening, acknowledging and acting upon the feedback, concerns, and ideas from those at the bottom level of organizational (or situational) hierarchies.
The idea is that empathic listening and the consistent commitment to contemplate the experiences and perceptions of those who are impacted by the policies, programs, and frameworks we seek to impose on them will go a much longer way towards accomplishing our mission than dehumanization and autocratic control.
In many ways, this talk can be considered to be coming from a “post-woke” perspective—one that acknowledges the existence of power differentials between some demographic groups but that works through these differentials in a way that is non-dogmatic, oriented in genuine commitment to progress and that honors the possibility of evolving truth and understandings in a complex world where all human beings have value.
I am likely to return to this post to do some more light editing at a later time, as the automated transcription contains a few grammatical errors (though the conversation is captured accurately).
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE TALK
Laura: Hello and welcome to the Counterweight Conference on Liberal Approaches to Diversity and Inclusion. I'm Laura Walker-Beaven, the host of the conference, and I am here today with Steven J Lawrence. Steven is one of our academic affiliates at Counterweight, and over to you to introduce yourself and onto your presentation.
1. From K-12 to College: The Educational Workplace
Steven: Great. Thank you, Laura. Thank you very much for inviting me to this conference. And I'm also really excited about the approach of this sort of mission of counterweight, which is about depolarization, and that's something that I personally feel inspired by. So, my name is Steven J Lawrence. My full name is Steven James Lawrence, and I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology. We are officially designated by the Federal government of the United States as a Minority Serving Institution. And what that means is that the supermajority of our students are students of color. 74% of our students are students of color. Many of them are also military veterans, and some working class whites.
We have a really wonderful diverse mix of people. And I've been working there for I guess probably a little over eight years now. I might be off by a couple of months. And it is, in fact, the best job I have ever had. Now, there are some jobs that were almost as good, but the reason why this one is the very best is because I think it's because, well, first of all, I used to teach K-12, and trust me, a 13 or 14 year old is going to be a little more challenging than a 20 year old. So, perhaps it might be that the fact that I've never had to ask a student to leave my class, ever, in the eight years I've taught at the college level.
What's really beautiful about my job is that I am teaching the same population of students who I've taught from 1996 to 2012. [Many are] Boston public school students. In fact, this is a hilarious story, or at least for me, I think. I've had five students who came into my Reading and Writing for Academic Success class who I had when they were in middle school. And every single one of them, every one of them said, sorry about that, Mr. Lawrence. They were apologizing for their middle school selves, right? And I said to them, no, I signed up for that. That was my job and I expected it. It was developmentally appropriate for you to push boundaries.
Laura: How fantastic to teach students from that age all the way through to the university level.
Steven: It's hilarious. It was wonderful about it is because they're adults now. They do look different to me because they were kids, right. But I look somewhat the same to them. I'm a little older, of course, but I recognize their names, though. I would see this roster like, oh, I know that name. It's Juan Bonilla. I just made that up. We’re respecting confidentiality. Juan Bonilla. I knew you, Juan, when you were 13, and you were a piece of work. But that's okay. Again, I signed up for it.
I created a very brief and very simple Google slide. And I want to just say right now that I am so… give me a moment here. My headphones just dropped out of my ear. I'm really grateful to be in a conference with the likes of Erec Smith, Angel Eduardo, just to name two. Others will come to me. I don't know if George Yancey is going to be here yet… I was going to actually frame my entire presentation around George Yancey work. I will simply mention it and let him speak for himself because it's wonderful stuff. And as I mentioned earlier, what I do for work, where I work, where I teach, obviously the idea of liberal—or slash—unifying approaches to diversity inclusion is integral to my life and my world. So, all that said, I'm going to share my screen. Okay, great. So, the name of my talk is called Shaping a Workplace Culture. Now, I'm going to click on another tab just for a moment here. Can you see that tab?
Laura: No, I cannot. I think you're sharing specifically the…
Steven: I see. Yeah. Okay. It's okay. I'll just go ahead and tell you. It's very easy to remember.
2. The Healthy Workplace Movement
I have a website that I designed ten years ago. It's called Support Your Mission, which is very easy to remember. Supportyourmission.org, dot com, dot net, dot workplace and I believe, dot work, so, you can easily find it, and I'll be updating it throughout the remainder of the summer and Support Your Mission. Essentially, I redesigned and rewrote my master's thesis, and I put it into layman's terms or layperson's terms to be more inclusive, layperson's terms. And I created a basic rubric for healthy workplace cultures. I've also been involved in a movement called the Healthy Workplace Movement for the past decade.
The leader of that movement is David Yamada, who about five years ago was named one of the top organizational psychologists in the world. The irony, of course, is that he's not an organizational psychologist. He's a law professor. And David Yamada, he specializes in employment law. And I've done a few workshops with him. We both have blogged about each others’ [work]. Back in 2012, I believe I first published a piece on my own website, Groundexperience.org, and I called it Servant Leadership in a World of Extraordinary Need. And before I published it, I reached out to David Yamada and asked him, is it okay if I borrow your title? He had written a wonderful piece called “The Importance…. I'm probably paraphrasing it somewhat, I might not have the exact title here…. the Importance of Public Intellectuals at a Time or in a World of Extraordinary Need.
And he gave me permission and we struck up a friendship and a colleagueship. And ever since I have continued to have a really strong, abiding interest in healthy workplace cultures, which includes all kinds of things behaviors, ideas, philosophy, dialogue. And so, in my Support Your Mission site, I go through the rubric of what a healthy workplace culture looks like. And again, I said earlier, it's based on a master's thesis that I had written which was called Educational Transformation from the Inside Out. And I'm going to speak more about schools and colleges and classrooms more than anything else during this presentation because that's what I know. And I'm going to leave the intellectual framing to the other luminaries in this conference. I'll make some mention. It might just come up. I'm going to be somewhat organic in my approach because I'm going to chosen to tell stories. That's what I want to do.
3. The Pineapple and The Pomegranate
So, the name of this presentation or talk is Shaping a Workplace Culture: the Fundamentals. And from the beginning, what I want to talk about is the difference between a pineapple and a pomegranate. I think these are really wonderful metaphors for what an organization is like. Whether or not an organization is strong and powerful, has a strong core, is mission driven, but also a person driven, or whether or not it's sloppy to put it in a very normal way or characterized by conflict, division, fragmentation. So, in my estimation, an organization of any kind needs to be a pineapple, not a pomegranate.
So, what are the characteristics of a pineapple? Well, a pineapple has a strong core and it actually has nutrients. It's nutritive. The core has all kinds of nutrients in it, obviously fiber. But there are other chemicals… the chemical makeup of the core is also something to look at. I forget the names of the different nutrients because I'm not a scientist and I don't remember things so easily. They're in the scientific realm.
But I know that the pineapple has a strong core. It also has a strong exterior, powerful and strong. And because of its strong core, it has a strong exterior. Meaning I'm going to point to the exterior as the mission. I'm going to point to the core as the people who are supporting and actively working towards accomplishing the mission on a regular basis. And that's beautiful inside. The pineapple, as we all know, is something beautiful as well. Juicy, nutritive. Most people like pineapples. I don't think I've ever met anyone who hasn't. In fact, some people might even put a pineapple on a pizza fair. Yeah, go ahead.
Laura: I'm unfortunately allergic to pineapples.
Steven: Well, you just ruined my entire talk. That's great. That's okay. And I'm glad you let us know that. Now, I have to say, sometimes the pineapple, some people might be allergic to it. So, let me go and have fun with that. Maybe there are people who are allergic to the mission. Well, okay. So, this is only for people who are into pineapples, which is the mission. Okay?
I'm going to show a very brief video, and I just want to show you what happens to a pineapple when it falls. Not all pineapples and not every moment, but we can expect this in general. In this video, you see two small pineapples dropping to the ground in slow motion. And they're bouncing off the ground because they're strong, okay? Because they're intact. They have an organizational structure that is well, it's strong. A strong organizational structure, a strong core and a strong exterior. All right, and going back to the slide here.
Now that's a little different from a pomegranate.
A pomegranate is a very different type of fruit, and a lot of folks might be interested to learn that the word grenade was drawn from the word pomegranate. And what is a grenade? Well, a grenade is something that explodes. You toss it somewhere and it explodes. Unlike a pineapple, a pomegranate has many different small little cores, little seeds scattered, every little piece doing its own thing. The organizational structure of a pomegranate is weak at best. And when you toss a pomegranate against the wall, it turns into mush almost immediately. And in fact, if we click on here, I'm going to show you a video here. It's a very short, brief video. A young man tosses a pomegranate against the wall. I have a juicy pomegranate here. Pomegranate fresh off the tree. There's a wall right there. We're going to see what we can do. Oh, yeah, look at that. And as you can see, this pomegranate just turns into absolute mush against the wall. It has no integrity.
When I say integrity, I don't mean moral integrity. I mean the actual organizational structure doesn't have a sense of wholeness when you toss it against the wall. Right? Now, an organization that's a pomegranate is one that has a hard time maintaining its mission. And part of that is because, again, there's all these different scattered, fragmented seeds. There's no strong core. Now, the exterior is semi strong. It takes a while to peel a pomegranate. So, it has some mission integrity, I suppose it's just rather easy to explode it. And that's what this video has shown.
So, when you're talking about issues that impact the people in an organization, particularly, I'm going to talk more about educational organizations, whether it's K-12—kindergarten to 12th grade, that is—college, after school programs, non-profit GED programs, alternative high schools, alternative middle schools. The people in the organization, they are the chief deliverers of the mission. And as long as the people are scattered in their own little cores, separate from one another and not able to work and collaborate. We are not going to see positive outcomes. We're certainly not going to see outcomes that are directly related to the stated values of the mission.
4. The Impact of Standpoint Epistemology and Group Identity Essentialism
So before I continue, I want to speak about some things. In this slide, I'm mentioning something called privilege protecting epistemic pushback, which is an idea that came out from sociologist Alice Bailey some years ago. And yes, I'm calling it an idea whose time has come and gone (and I misspelled the word “and”). Oh, well, not very good for a teacher. I'm going to share stories about my work in the middle school settings, high school settings, and college settings as it relates to students of color. And I'm going to share stories in which I made mistakes—not grave errors, nothing to be worried about—but there are small errors in which I unwittingly might not have completely respected their entire being. Okay? So, I'm going to share those stories and I'm going to share insights that I have developed over the past few decades about teaching in minority serving institutions where the majority of your students are students of color, to use some of the current lingo. Americans often use the term “Black and brown”, and on occasion I might use that term as well.
But I want to mention privilege protecting epistemic pushback first because it's important. Now. I am aware that my demographic makeup is one in which in many activist spaces in the social justice world. One will perhaps assume that what I'm doing is anything I'm about to say if it offers any critique of current audiological frameworks or specific ideas that are part of those frameworks. That those critiques are not coming from my heart and from my mind or from wisdom those critiques are coming from. And I'm going to push they're coming from my majority ness or my genderedness.
Now, notice I didn't say maleness or whiteness or maleness. That's intentional because part of what I want to talk about is why we need to become a little more flexible with language and we need to be a little more open with how we see others. And I think it's important for us not to engage in what I call group identity essentialism, which is to assign an essence, to assign values, to assign ways of knowing, or specific defensive postures simply because you belong to a group that has been designated as part of the majority or belonging to a specific gender.
So, put in very simple terms, anything I'm going to speak about during this presentation is coming from the wisdom, the hard-won wisdom that I have developed over these years. Now, some of that wisdom is, in fact, informed by social justice theories, and I'll mention some of them as we go along. But I have to say the standpoint from which I'm coming—I'm going to say it one more time —is coming from my heart, and from my mind, and from my experience. And I'm going to say in a clear and unambiguous way, it is not coming from my majorityness or my genderedness. That's very important.
Now, what I'm speaking about, of course, is well, let's just call this an idea. An idea called standpoint epistemology.
That is a phrase that developed over the past several decades, and it began in feminist theory. And in this moment, I can't quite recall, although I did write about it on my Substack page, my Ground experience Substack page. I forget the authors’ names in this moment. But the idea is that the standpoint right where I'm coming from—the way that I know what I know, how I know what I know, and what it is that I know or believe in what values I have,—they're coming from, again, my demographic makeup, not from something deeper. Now, there's some truth to the idea of standpoint epistemology. Before I speak of that, let me define epistemology as I know. As I understand it, epistemology is basically the study of knowing. It describes how we know what we know.
And the idea of standpoint epistemology, to reiterate, is that we know what we know because where we stand or where we can be pointed to on a very rigid grid of demographic makeup, which is often defined as the degree to which we have privilege. So, I'm going to go back another slide to privilege protecting epistemic pushback. So, the idea is that a person who belongs to certain identity groups and in this case, I'll call it my own, and then once again, I'm going to use the words majorityness and genderedness. The idea is that any critiques that I have of some theories that are out there would be really not coming from a place of sincerity, but a place of defensiveness in which I'm protecting this thing that I have called privilege, this amorphous condition that I'm protecting.
5. What Critical Pedagogy Can Bring to the Table
So, having said all that, I want to now get to the stories I've been writing for several years now about what some people call critical social justice theory. Sometimes I call it critical theory-oriented ideas. And let me just put it in a very simple way. And critical theory essentially begins with the premise it begins a priori with the premise that the entire world, the entire social world perhaps, which includes, of course, economics and politics and human relationships, the entire social world is characterized by power. It is characterized by the desire, the quest, the drive to acquire and to keep and maintain power. And one of the ways in which we maintain, drive and keep that power is through discourses. We use language to maintain that power. So, for example, earlier, when I did not use the terms whiteness or maleness, I chose the terms majorityness and genderedness. This was an intentional act on my part to bring the conversation to a higher level of abstraction. And so language is very powerful language is very strong. It does actually have an impact.
So, critical theory is not entirely wrong.
Now, the educational arm to use military language, the educational arm of critical theory is called critical pedagogy, which was, of course, part of my training at UMass, Boston, which has a very highly pronounced dedication to what they call social justice. So, I'm kind of in that, and I'm from that, and I actually do practice it. Critical pedagogy essentially, is when you want to make sure that when you're teaching or the classroom, the curriculum, the readings, the selection of readings, how you treat students that you take into account, at least on some level, their demographic make up the culture of our students, the specific struggles that people in their demographic group are statistically known to face. So, there's a place for it.
There's a place for it.
And I want to talk a little bit about my journey from the, say, I guess, late 1990s to, I guess, now. I want to share a couple of stories in which I made some errors as a classroom instructor and then course corrected once I had a better sense of what the scenario was and how I could do it differently. And I'm going to relate that back to my original thesis about workplace building, workplace health, the fundamentals.
So, here's the first fundamental. It might even be the only one that I might even talk about today. It's the willingness to be wrong, the willingness to acknowledge when we have made a mistake, the willingness to be critiqued or criticized in front of others, the willingness to receive feedback, the willingness to set aside my authority, the willingness to set aside the advantage that I have from that authority, the willingness to be uncomfortable with not being right, and the willingness to not know everything. And finally, the willingness to be taught by others, including people 20 years younger than yourself or from a different gender or a culture or from an employee that's underneath you, right? Not ultimately underneath you, as we know, but yes, people who are lower in the organizational hierarchy than we find ourselves.
So, most of the stories I'm going to tell are going to be coming from the classroom experience. And here's the first one I want to tell, and it's important.
Back when I was a much younger teacher and I was teaching at a school for kids that were expelled mother schools, I had my 8th grade and 7th grade students. We created these three chart poster chart papers, really massive papers. And we created the word slang in very dark black letter slang and then the red circle around it and then the slash through it. So, in other words, this is a slang free zone. And I had the students work with me in creating these chart papers. And what they did was they taught me, and I brought some as well, all the different slang words and lingo that their own subcultures used now, in this particular school that I taught at, which is no longer in existence, but this is like 15 years ago or maybe longer. It was a school for students who had been expelled from other schools.
And it is notable that 100% of my students were students of color. That's notable. It's also notable that of those students of color, the supermajority of them were African American. Some of them call themselves Black, right? I might switch the language up here and there. It should be notable that—of course, I believe, I still continue to believe—indicates some kind of gap of advantage between white students and students of color.
I've seen it. I've lived it. It's real.
Now, these students and I, they wrote all the different slang all over these chart papers, and then for the entire year, I had them up on the top of the wall right above the chalkboard. I did it because I believe that the students would benefit, and I actually use this language. So, I wasn't entirely unwoke at the time. I actually said to them, if you're going to succeed in this world, you have to master the language of power. That's the phrase I use. So, I already knew this stuff. Even though I had not yet been trained in social justice theory, I somehow knew, I guess, intuitively, and I wanted them to know that if you want to have access to opportunities, if you want to be in the courtroom, if you want to be in the congress floor, if you want to be the CEO of a new company, you have to language. You have to master what's called standard American English, also known as academic English. So, of course, my intentions were great, right, of course. And I will say, too, that the students weren’t traumatized by this exercise. That's where I part ways with some of the social justice theories out there. They weren’t traumatized, and they learned quite a bit during those years.
6. Stories of My Growth as an Educator in Minority Serving Institutions
And one woman [girl], her name is well, I guess I'll call her Diana. I have never had a Diana student before. She called me up three years later when I was now teaching journalism at another school, and she said, Mr. Lawrence, I'm in an advanced work class now. I'm an advanced placement. Her name Diana. When she first met with me, she came into the class, and again, the person had been expelled from another school, right? So, that one bad kid in the back of the class. That's all I had was the “bad” kids in the school I was at for three years. Well, Diana comes up to me on the first day. She comes in and says, Mr. Lawrence, I just want to let you know, I'm SPED. Now, SPED means special ed, which is short for special education.
“Just to let you know, Mr. Lawrence, I'm SPED, and I can't read”.
And I just said to her, “Can we at least put that on the side for a moment and let's figure something out together? Can we set aside what you're saying about yourself? Can you give me the opportunity to find out why you think you can't read?”
And she said yes. And I spent a couple twice a week with her for about four or five weeks, and then like, once a week for the rest of the year. And what she didn't understand, it's not her fault. She needed phonetic instruction. She needed to know how to break words into syllables, syllabication. She also needed to know that, for example, shun at the end of a word, T-I-O-N as a person, place, thing, feeling, believe, or thoughts. “Tian” (T-I-A-N) is a person, like Martian, Christian. Okay, that's fascinating. Most people who were fortunate enough to grow up speaking standard American English never had to be systematically taught how to break words in the syllables, never had to be systematically taught. T-I-O-N is different from T-I-A-N or musician. C-I-A-N versus C-I-O-N. Like the word suspicion. It's an idea of feeling or thought, not a person.
So, the class itself, I'm happy to report, students really did emerge, and they learned a lot. And I wasn't terribly ineffective, but still, slang, slang, slang right there. For the entire year, every time they came in, there was a message saying that your discourse community doesn't matter. You people are the satellite people. When I say “you people”, I'm using that in quotes. You're satellites. I'm the default. I belong to the majority culture, and you're just satellites orbiting around my culture. And your words and phrases are not genuine. They're not real, they're not authentic, and they don't have any legitimacy. But the default culture that I was born into, as the majority, does, in fact have automatic legitimacy.
So, I say all this because that would be a critical pedagogy, which is really kind of looking at that kind of cultural power that comes with being in the majority. There's something to that, which is why I can't really be on the anti-woke train—really a hybrid, half woke and half critical of woke, right? I became woke to the respect for their own discourses. And I'm going to share another story in a moment, but let me finish this one by saying this. Many of my Black students at the time used a phrase, I been done that. I been done that. I've been done that. And at the time, I thought, that doesn't sound good. They should say, I have done that. But over time, I began to realize linguistically, the actual pattern is no less intelligent. I been done that. If you break it down intellectually, it has zero less intelligence than I have done that. It's simply the discourse that organically developed in their own communities.
So now when I teach, and I teach still, and someone, as I said earlier, wound up in my class again as adults, I always begin every class I teach—doesn't matter what the subject is—always remind them that we are here to master [language and literacy] to the best that we can. I actually don't use the word master a lot either, but still, we are here to develop confidence in and perhaps one day embody Standard American English, Academic English.
And thanks to Dr. Erec Smith—who I just love and am writing about, as I'm a great admirer of his work—I now know of the phrase Language of Wider Communication, which is even more inclusive. It actually, in a way, doesn't necessarily center English or Anglo oriented language, but opens up the space to include all kinds of aspects of language, including Spanish idioms and phrases that have crept in. For example, the word savvy. When someone is savvy—this is an American expression, I think; I don't think British people know it that well—the word savvy means somebody kind of gets it. They kind of know what's going on. And it comes from the third person singular of “sabe”, S-A-B-E, which is a Spanish for he or she or they know he knows. Right. So that's interesting. So that's the language of wider communication.
And when I began my classes, one of the first lessons is always on discourse communities and why we are all in this world together creating a Language of Wider Communication in which all these different discourses are coming together and emerging, always emerging and evolving. And whatever discourse community you come into this class with is not just valid, but beautiful. However, still at this time, in formal places, legal places, congress, corporations, the places that pay you and give you your freedoms or can take away your freedoms—an affidavit, a search warrant—they are going to be done in Standard American English. And it would be wise for you to master it to the best of your ability. So, that's a story I wanted to share, and it's a good one because it illustrates that there's something about critical pedagogy that can be useful if it's not taken too dogmatically.
What I'm not going to do is say that I'm a bad person. I'm not going to say that I was swimming in my privilege and oppressing and condemning and dominating. None of that is needed. Just be aware, that's all is needed. And I learned that organically over time, fortunately. And I did get some training and began to see it because of my training in grad school as well.
So, now I want to share a story about a young man. Well, he was a kid, really. He was 13 years old. His name, I'll call him Jose. He wasn't Latino. He's African American. But I'm going to say Jose. Jose. I'll always remember him, always. I was at a school I had taught at some years ago in a distant faraway land. He was an African American, very dark skinned. He had dreads. Skinny, wiry. He had a very odd sense of humor, very strange and undermining. He always seemed to want to subvert your sense of comfort. He had that kind of sense of humor that was both simultaneously absurdist and completely unpredictable. And to be from my eyes, though, he was brilliant. His mother had just been in a gang fight with him, with some gang thing involving knives.
So, he was surrounded in a world of violence in an inner city neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts, and his best friend had just been gunned down by somebody in the neighborhood. I don't want to say gang member because I don't remember exactly if it was gang related, but I do know that his best friend was gunned down. And of course, naturally, when he came to the school at the time, he was well, he was traumatized. He might not have called that. He may not have used that word, traumatized, but he was. And in my English language arts class, he came in and I encouraged him to write about it. I might not do that now, though. Again, I was a young teacher. But he wrote a poem for his best friend and everyone around. We sat around this big long table, and it round clapped and everything. And I was not the only teacher that he behaved well for. There were a couple of others.
So, I don't want to pretend I'm some kind of Hollywood teacher who save lives. However, I treated him with respect, and there are many others who didn't. In fact, when Jose came to school, I saw people would say, oh, God, Jose is here. They would roll their eyes. They were actually disappointed that he actually showed up. His attendance was a disappointment for them. And whenever he acted out, they would yell at him, get involved in these head to head conflicts. And to be honest, to be quite candid, there was a dehumanizing aspect of the way in which he was treated. He was not welcomed there. And in my classroom and again, this might be intuitive, it might be because of my Buddhist training, just to let you know, I took my [Buddhist] Refuge Vows in 1997. So, I practice mindfulness. I practice that kind of interpersonal respect. Not that I'm perfect at that, but I certainly practice. So, perhaps it might be that or maybe it's just a common sense.
If you're going to agitate a 13 year old, you should expect there to be some pushback from them. I believe it's common sense. Nothing esoteric about it. So, he would flip out, throw chairs around, the worst types of outbursts. And my approach was, hey, let's step outside the classroom. We step outside the classroom.
And what I do is—and I've shared a story before at a podcast last October with Greg Scorzo—what I do is I stand next to him, and we both look at the wall and I simply ask Jose what happened in there? What happened? Please let me know.” I don't remember what upset him, but he told me what upset him, and then I said, “how can I help now? What can I do? What can I do differently?” And then I forget what he said. It's been a long time. I have had so many students. I gave him an opportunity to express what was agitating him, and it's respect, respectfulness. And again, I don't remember the content. I just remember that when we went back in the classroom, he was completely settled. He didn't skip my class. He always came because he knew that he could count on my respecting him and not just respecting him in a nice way. I respected his intelligence and held him to high standards as well. But he had troubles in other classes, and not just because they weren't poetry classes or writing. Even gym, right, the classes that are fun and easy and art. Not necessarily art. I'm just saying other classes.
Well, anyway, he was so difficult, and he was eventually expelled from the school on a Friday, and nobody was consulted. I wasn't consulted. He shows up on a Monday. He showed up on a Monday. And then the leader of this educational program and then the security guide both came out and said, get off our property. You are trespassing, and if you come back in this property again, you're going to be arrested. Well, that was upsetting to me, and I'm going to say this, there is something to the idea that sometimes, educational programs can, in fact, be, as they say, school to prison pipelines. Because if you create an unwelcoming atmosphere, especially for students of color, who, as I mentioned earlier, can sometimes explain themselves as satellites and not as centered as the default culture; it's something that it is a problem that we should be addressing in a very open and thoughtful way.
So, there is something to that idea.
Over the next several years, Jose and I were running into each other because we lived I actually lived in Mission Hill, which is a neighborhood in the Boston area, which is primarily, or at least it was at the time, Black. I lived between two different housing projects of Bromley Heath and the Mission Park, and so, I had Black landlords. I was inside that universe, like, very much inside it. And so, of course, I ran into my students all the time, especially Jose, because he lived in the same neighborhood a couple of streets away. Well, he eventually dropped out of school. He eventually did not continue his education, and he eventually moved to the West Coast, had kids, had to leave them and come back to make some money in the East Coast.
I ran into him several times, and one time we're sitting on the subway in the Orange Line, and he said, “Mr. Lawrence, my life is whack. My life is whack”.
His life was whack.
And I watched every so often I would Google him just to check in how's he doing, because I also knew that he was experimenting with crime. And little by little, I saw Jose commit certain crimes and I'd see little blurbs in the newspapers and eventually—I'll be vague about this, so, I don't identify the person—eventually, he committed a crime with a gun at a certain establishment, didn't kill anyone, didn't shoot anyone, but threatened to, and it involved theft. And I remember seeing it in the paper and it made me very sad. And I'm not blaming myself. I'm not blaming the places I worked in that he was in. But I will say that we were not intentional in our approach to Jose and others. So again, I share this story because it impacted me for years, actually. I always knew: now I have an opportunity here and a responsibility to create an environment.
So, I want to go back to the very beginning, the first when I say shaping a workplace culture, the fundamentals, so, I can wrap this up. So, some clarity about why I'm sharing these stories. It's important.
The most important thing that we need to do is we have to be open to feedback. We have to be open to what others have to say. The place I had worked in that Jose was a student in, they should have listened to me when I explained to them that there's a better way to do this. You can step outside the classroom and not look at him directly, but look at the wall, asked clarifying questions, give him the space to express himself, be a human being and hold high standards. Nope. And it became a problem. And eventually I was one of those teachers who had to clear out his desk three years later, and I had to do that sort of perp walk as if I had done something wrong because I was protecting a student. So, the leadership in that context, they didn't have the capacity to hear other perspectives. They had a dogmatic approach, which at that time was an approach that was, I would say, not respectful of the students’ actual lives in the context from which their lives emerged.
So, let me now fast forward to my current work so, I can give some kind of shape to this talk.
I made a mistake recently, not too recently, maybe four or five years ago at the college I now teach at. It's a small one, right? But it's a big one. But if you fix it, though, it's an opportunity. There was this young man, I'm going to call him Chad, because I've never had a Chad in any of my classes. I've never even met a Chad, I don't think. He was a very dark-skinned, young Black man, wore a hat all the time, always had his—he would often sit in the back and had that sort of attitude (or seemingly the attitude) of you show me. Show me. Well, he turned out to be quite brilliant, and what a philosopher, but also a person who has moral courage. And one day I was sharing an article with the students, and it seemed to me that none of them had read this article. And I suddenly stopped when I was on the white board, and I forget what I was writing, and I just turned him, and I said, “you're bored, huh? I'm bored. You know why I'm bored? Because you're bored. Do you know what? You're bored. You didn't read it.”
So, I'm coming out of left field here. “None of this has any meaning for you because you didn't come here prepared.”
I wasn't yelling, of course. I was just sort of slightly frustrated. And Chad….because I told [students] at the beginning of the semester, anyone who has any issue or question or even feels concerned or felt disrespected by me in any way, you will always have the right to hold me accountable and to talk to me. I will always listen to you because I'm not always right. I'm only human. But Chad took me outside the class and laid into me; I mean, this kid laid it into me. I'm thinking he was 19, 20. “You have no right, professor. You have absolutely no right to criticize us all, to hold us out like that in front of each other, and to tell us we didn’t do our homework; you don't have that right. How dare you?” He was really angry. And then he showed me that he himself had in fact done his homework.
Now, physically, I knew…and this is now at least ten years after my student Jose I talked about earlier. I just turned away, and I just dropped [into my self-awareness]. I practiced breathing. I actually put mindfulness to my belly because it was kind of uncomfortable, obviously, to be yelled at by a student who was actually quite angry.
And I just said, “I apologize. You're absolutely right. And I'm probably not going to do that ever again.” And I haven't.
About 15 minutes later…
Because I had to wait. You have to let things subside. You want to sort of calm things down. Things weren't heated up, of course, but you want to de-escalate, even if it's just a mildly uncomfortable situation. So, about 15 minutes later, I forget what activity we're doing in this class, which is a reading and writing class. [I said], “I just want to let you all know that Chad did something that I always want to encourage the rest of you to do. He took advantage of my openness to receiving critique, and he helped me understand that my earlier frustration that I expressed, it was inappropriate. And I just want to let you all know that I apologize.”
You could just kind of sense the energy of the room reducing and then the sort of levity and lightness. “That's okay, professor,” [several said reassuringly]. Because usually I'm very mild mannered, and very easy going in general as a classroom instructor.
So, why am I sharing that story? Why am I sharing any of these stories? Because the degree to which we have authority, whether we're school principals, we're classroom instructors, professor, K-12 teacher, middle school teacher, CEO, non-profit director, activist [in a] community, person who has informal authority as a famous activist—the degree to which we can broadcast (but perhaps I'll use the word broadcast for now) at least in a subtle way, ongoing[ly] broadcast that I am willing to be wrong and I'm willing to be wrong in front of you. I'm willing to be wrong in front of you and in front of you. And that sort of takes what Nassim Taleb called antifragility. I'm willing to be uncomfortable in this moment and to experience you're looking at me in a way that's not flattering.
And so, that chief component, I call it a fundamental, is, I think, a really good approach, especially when it comes to when we talk about diversity and inclusion, the most important thing, the most important element is the humility to listen and to receive feedback.
7. Q&A begins
Laura: Lovely. Thank you so much.
I think one of the things that I really thought about whilst you were talking about those. Especially the first two stories that I felt very strongly about, I think. And I'm not sure if you might agree with me— but I think you might, based on those stories—is that I think when people kind of feel like they're either in one camp which is pro-Critical Social Justice. Or they're in anti-Critical Social Justice. And I think that's such a shame because I think it really loses the nuance of actually there are some really helpful elements that we can gain from Critical Social Justice theories or Critical Pedagogy. And just, I think to say, oh, I disagree with all of it. We should never approach D&I through that lens. It's kind of like throwing the baby out with bathwater, I think, a little bit. And it's such a shame. And I really think that that was highlighted in your stories. Like an awareness of both is really important.
Steven: Yes, I really appreciate that. I really appreciate what you just said. And as you know, on my Substack page Ground Experience, I'm very critical of Critical Social Justice, but I'm not fully critical of it. I'm critical of its dogmatic, the way it's dogmatic presented. If I could, Laura, and please, I have to tell you, this is very beautiful.
I am the chairperson of the Faculty Development Committee at the college, and again, it's a Minority Serving Institution in a large urban district, and many of our students come from the Boston Public Schools. As I mentioned earlier, 74% of them are students of color. It's also a technology institute. And we want to build that kind of future, 21st century future, where we're going to see more technologists, more automotive engineers, more—we even have robotics—we're going to have people of color right in the center. And this is what I call responsible equity, which is that we are investing in something that has not yet been adequately invested in. That's how I look at what I call responsible equity, which is not the same thing as push people in the back who are majority people, push men in the back, women. It's not that kind of either-or thing. So, I just had a meeting yesterday with Kurt Faustin. K-U-R-T space bar, F-A-U-S-T-I-N. He does diversity trainings and workshops throughout the New England area. And he's wonderful and he's brilliant. Young Black man. I think he's in the mid 30s. We have decided together, along with the Dean of Academics, we are bringing in diversity trainings. But we're not going to use the term race, we're not going to use the term racism, we're not going to use the term racist. We're not going to call them trainings either. We're going to call them conversations. This is a choice we all made together.
And I have the president of our college, her name is Aisha Francis. She's wonderful, a great visionary. I'm actually fortunate to be [one of the people who is] operationalizing the visions of Black leadership right now, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am to be in that position. And I know that what I bring to the table is thoughtfulness. And I did actually raise a lot of questions a year and a half ago, I really did. And I asked us to please consider an approach that's unifying. George Yancey, I know he's presenting as well. He talks about what's called collaborative conversations. He also calls it a philosophy of mutual accountability rather than this sort of inverting power hierarchies and punishment orientation. So, we're going to have these conversations over the next few months, and we're going to talk about all the things I talked about. Really. We're going to talk about the very real things.
Our students are struggling in some ways with transportation insecurity, food insecurity, housing insecurity. But we're not going to come at it from a place of punitiveness, cruelty, intersubjective abuse, or shaming people for belonging to majority groups or shaming them because they belong to a gender that's traditionally been in power over the past thousands of years. We're going to come at it from a more humane approach that's more dialogue oriented and empathy oriented. And in fact, what Kurt is going to bring to this whole conversation is he's going to talk about emotional literacy—being empathic, being empathic.
So, I want to just kind of fill it out because it's kind of exciting to be involved in this.
Laura: Yeah, that's so exciting. I can't wait to hear more about that in the future. I think that's what really hosting this conference has just brought to light for me all of these approaches that are unifying, that are based on liberal values to D&I that are emerging at the moment, and it's just so exciting to see.
Steven: Now, I have a question for you, Laura. When you say “liberal values”, I know that there's England, there's Britain, and then there’s America. So the word liberal sometimes can cause a cringing response. What do you mean when you say “liberal values”?
Laura: Yeah, we've thought about this. We've had this question several times, actually. So, in the UK, we use liberal to describe liberalism and, so, values based on, for example, critical thinking, valuing, freedom, things like that. Right. So, liberalism as a philosophy, and that's generally how the word “liberal” is used in the UK. In the States, I know that you have liberal can mean the Left or can be synonymous with, like, Democrat supporters, for example. Yeah. So, we're going for liberalism. Counterweight is a liberal organization. We're grounded in liberalism and promoting liberal values in that sense. So, that's what I mean by that.
Steven: That's beautiful. I'm really glad I asked the questions because Peter Boghossian calls it “cognitive liberty”. I call it “perceptual liberty”. I'm able to see what I see, and I don't have to impose a framework on that, that you've designed. There's a difference between organic and engineering. The organic approach is open inquiry, being curious, and having the freedom to pursue truth without an ideological framework being imposed upon that truth. Does that sound about the same, what you just said, liberalism.
Laura: Yeah, and I think I did actually consider this when I thought of the name of the conference, and I thought in the English sense, England sense, that liberal approaches to D&I is really what we are trying to do. And I thought actually it could be quite an interesting spin and point of conversation that Americans might interpret it as approaches based on the Left.
Steven: Yeah. And also, which is interesting, you might already know this, but I have a lot of friends who I think could reasonably be considered Far Left, and they themselves will create a new dichotomous thinking—liberal versus leftist. And there's an expression, actually, among some pretty doctrinaire types: “liberals get the bullet, too”. It's the people who are cognitive liberty oriented [who] are not far left enough. So, even the word liberal can have negative connotations, even within the political left in America. So, that's why I wanted to sort of ask these questions. Very interesting. Again, link, right?
Laura: I've never heard of that. That adds an extra interesting layer to it, I think.
Steven: Yeah. Different layers. Layers, layers and layers.
Laura: Yeah. Well, we're reaching the end of our time slot, unfortunately. I think we could go on for ages.
Steven: I know. For billions of years even.
Laura: But we're going to link below to Support Your Mission and your Substack as well, because I think especially Support Your Mission website is a fantastic resource for businesses, I think. If anyone is interested, please check that out.
Steven: Okay, Laura, thank you very much for not only inviting me to this but also inviting these other wonderful people, and more importantly, for holding the space for a movement that needs to grow and evolve that doesn't split between this and that, but offers a more integrated vision.
So, I'm very honored to have been a part of this. Thank you very much.
Laura: Thank you. And it's been lovely to speak to you today.
Steven: All right, bye. Take care.