Rethinking School and Community: Centering Hope in School and Community

Jess DeCarolis

[Address given for the 11th Annual Rowland Conference at the University of Vermont on Oct. 26, 2022]

Thank you Mike. Thank you to the Rowland Foundation and Chuck, the trustees, and of course to Barry and Wendy Rowland who are remembered by all of us for their belief and faith in all of you—the education community—gathered here. 

Today we come together to grapple with this proposition of rethinking school and community—a most assuredly collective endeavor —and to learn from and alongside the incomparable Dr. Gholdy Muhammad. Later this morning, I hope you will join us in the Rosa Parks room to hear from your colleagues as they describe how they are designing Community Schools in Vermont in service to this very proposition.

In this space right now, however, I am going to approach the subject of community more broadly, perhaps less technically, and hopefully with intentionality.

Recently, I had a friend ask me why I stayed at the Agency despite…you know, fill in the blank! The bureaucracy, frustrations and challenges, the general pointlessness and ineptitude of being a bureaucrat…Maybe some of you have had some iteration of the same question from family and friends; why stay in education when it’s so hard, so exhausting, pays so little…is so thankless? 

My answer is simple. It’s you. I love public education. I get dressed in my love for public education every day. It’s my vocation. And when you love something or someone, truly and deeply, then you know that even when it exhausts you, disappoints you, even infuriates you, it’s not really an option to walk away. Even more so now.

In this state, our first section of our first statute of the laws governing education in Vermont says that, “The right to public education is integral to Vermont’s constitutional form of government and its guarantees of political and civil rights…” (Title 16: Education  (16 V.S.A. § 1))

And, we know that exercising that right may scare some people, confuse people, challenge people’s assumptions and beliefs.

In response to this, I’ve heard educators, colleagues, and friends suggest that education is a political act. I understand that belief but I can’t agree. I believe that public education is an act of democracy. In fact, it’s imperative that public education not be deemed a political enterprise, but a democratic prerequisite in order to guarantee political and civil rights. When we treat problems of humanity like political problems we commit ourselves to the enterprise of winners and losers, and this serves no one. In fact, that first section of the first statute of Vermont education law goes on to say that “…the right to education is fundamental for the success of Vermont’s children […] as well as for the State’s own economic and social prosperity.” Public education is an act of community well-being.

​Public education by its very nature, if not always in practice, is not designed to exclude or privilege the few—it’s for the body politic; it’s for and by the community. And as we engage in more and more politicized and divisive speech, as rhetoric outstrips our ability to recognize, let alone understand, what is real and what has meaning, we further obscure what gives us purpose. And down that road leads cynicism and despair.

Hope is not a lottery ticket that we cling to; it’s a hammer that we use to break the glass, sound the alarm, and spring into action.

Ady Barkan

Ady Barkan, cofounder of the Be a Hero Fund and an organizer for the Center for Popular Democracy, was asked in an interview a couple of years ago if he was optimistic about the future. He said no. 

…and then he said, “But I am hopeful about the future. And here’s the difference between optimism and hope: optimism is an opinion, hope is a spur to action. Hope is not a lottery ticket that we cling to; it’s a hammer that we use to break the glass, sound the alarm, and spring into action. Hope is not a state of mind; it’s a state of action.” 

Now, for all of you optimists out there, this is not a critique. You do you. We need you. But, what I thought was powerful about how Ady talked about hope is the following:

  1. Hope is not passive. We are the agents of change. As John Parsi, Executive Director of  The Center for the Advanced Study and Practice of Hope at Arizona State University has said, “Hope requires a person to take responsibility for their wants and desires and take action in working towards them […] hopeful people ask how they can fill the glass full.” They don’t linger on whether it is half full or empty.
  2. Hope requires purpose, a calling. We are in service. Hillel, a Jewish philosopher from 110 BC, asked “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Hope is for community. 
  3. Hope allows us to disentangle our feelings and dispositions–which can and will change frequently and understandably, and let’s be frank, aren’t always sunny–from our commitment to inquiry, action and change.

Now is not the time for quiet quitting. If we go back to Hillel’s question “And if not now, when?” I would add, in an unforgivable act of hubris, “If not us, who?”  

“…we need to commit to hope in this shared democratic act of public education. This is our community and our purpose.” 

As we sit here in this room on this day following yet another school shooting, as organized efforts from outside and inside the state seek to divide us, to exclude and shame our children, to opt out of history, to horde resources and privatize opportunity, we are going to have a myriad of feelings and we may waiver in our optimistic disposition. But, we need to commit to hope in this shared democratic act of public education. This is our community and our purpose. Everyone is welcome.

I recognize that hope might seem nebulous, a vague notion to call upon when working within complex systems. But, there is science in hope, with new and evolving research demonstrating that it is measurable, can be learned, and can contribute to improved overall well-being. 

Just this past weekend I had the opportunity to be at a conference where Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist, researcher and professor at Columbia University, reminded me of the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth (PTG). Coined by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s, PTG describes the demonstrated phenomenon that following instances or periods of adversity and trauma, even prolonged periods, many people experience and demonstrate positive personal growth and new understanding. 

This is not a matter of some people having grit, nor does it diminish the pain that we feel when we are shaken to our core. But, on the trailing end of a pandemic, when the world seems to be shouting at us 24/7, it’s important that we remember this, that we guard against premature cynicism that all is lost and make space for what science tells us: hope is a preventative to making pain permanent.

“Building a culture of good disagreement and ethical literacy can help us to avoid, in our rush to do right and to be right, getting it all wrong.”

  1. As a community, we need to convince our children that their future is a meaningful destination that they design. This must be our purpose and vocation.
  2. As a community, we need to ensure that education is not transactional. We don’t want our children to have more. We want them to be more. Public education is a social compact, not a checkout counter at a Black Friday sale. Our individual choices have collective consequences, and more choice for some can, and often does, mean no choices for many. Ignoring that truth creates a cage built on intellectual dishonesty. 
  3. As a community, we need to center empathy as a form of, and in service to, inquiry. Sherry Turkle, a professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, has said that “empathy is born of solitude and is the practice of putting yourself in other people’s problems.” That practice, that meditation of putting yourself in other people’s problems, assumes a “not knowing.” When we admit that there is distance between our experience and the experience of others it requires us to ask questions and invite their voice into our decision-making. Empathy requires an empty chair – an invitation and, as Derrida describes in his ethic of hospitality, an unconditional gift.
  4. As a community, we need to build a culture of good disagreement. Bo Seo, a journalist, Harvard University debate coach and world debate champion, has described a pathway for hard conversations and empathy. It’s important that we understand that the opposite action to disagreement isn’t always agreement, can’t be to default only to like-minds or affinities, and certainly can’t be censoring speech. We must learn the art and ethos of good disagreement.
  5. As a community, we need to build ethical literacy. Ethical literacy is a process of learning, and being able to articulate your own moral life. Developing ethical literacy allows us to “…comprehend moral controversies, to be able to respond to those controversies, and to express [themselves] in reasoned discourse,”  according to The Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics Archives at Ohio University. This means that in our schools and in our communities, we can’t be afraid of ideas, of different perspectives, of learning new theoretical frameworks; we must walk toward and engage controversial ideas so we can understand ourselves. Building a culture of good disagreement and ethical literacy, can help us to avoid, in our rush to do right and to be right,  getting it all wrong.

Our schools and our communities – our school communities – must be centered on hope. They must be centers of hope. 

Be the hammer.

Thank you.

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