from Jennifer Le Varge, Lower School director

Editor’s Note: Periodically, you will find a guest Head’s Message here from members of the administrative team. We hope you will enjoy reading their thoughts and reflections about life at MPA.

Many years ago, near the start of my career when I was teaching in Lebanon, I worked with a wonderful human who became my mentor. Sadly, they recently passed away. In June of this year after yet another move to another new place—this time from Luanda, Angola to Beirut, Lebanon to St. Paul, Minnesota—I opened the cover of the book “Making Thinking Visible” found in a battered cardboard moving box, where this mentor had scrawled in blue cursive letters:

keep fighting the good fight.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, I was fortunate to join colleagues and student diversity leaders from Mounds Park Academy, alongside 8,500 other participants at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (PoCC) in St. Louis. The theme of the conference was “Gateways to Freedom: A Confluence of Truth, Knowledge, Joy and Power.” As a first timer at PoCC, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I know that my experience was like no other professional learning opportunity I have encountered.

Firstly, this was not just any conference. Long-time attendees lovingly call PoCC the “family reunion,” and it truly felt like it even as a first timer. Since 1986, this annual gathering of like-minded yet diverse educators holds space for participants to fully see others and to feel seen in a real way. In a non-judgmental way. In a more genuine way than some of us might encounter in our daily lives and in our schools. I had the chance to attend various leadership sessions with a focus on people of color, hear from world-famous yet down-to-earth keynote presenters, laugh and learn with the Latinx affinity group, and lend my voice to the volunteer choir. As I reflect on my PoCC journey, certain themes come to the fore, which I share here in the spirit of collaboration.

Maintaining A Beginner’s Mind

The technique of maintaining a “beginner’s mind” invites us to forget everything we think we know about a particular subject or idea and adopt a fresh perspective—without drawing upon prior expertise or pre-formed opinions. It is harder than it sounds. In the book “Made to Stick,” authors Chip and Dan Heath introduce the concept of the “curse of knowledge”: 

“Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

Tuning yourself into the PoCC vibes requires one to stay “brand new”—curious, humble, and vulnerable. There were 8,500 others who are made up of different genes, ancestors, lived experiences, languages, hopes, dreams, and realities. To dig deeper, you can’t go up to someone and ask, “where are you from?” or the dreaded “where are you really from?” The path toward human connection is less about asking and more about listening. Listening with your whole body and with your whole heart. Instead of focusing on the words someone may voice, I found myself tuning into the idea they may be trying to convey. Less emphasis on sound bites and sentences, more on nuance and gestures. I paused more. I nodded and affirmed. I pondered and grappled. As much as I could, I practiced suspending disbelief. I believed what others shared. I practiced (and failed and tried again!) being an eternal beginner as I learned from the wisdom of others.

Showing Up

For those of us who work in primarily dominant culture spaces yet come from “other” spaces, you may “show up” in a way that can feel more curated than authentic. You might need to be extra aware of how you speak, what you say, and the space you take up. You may need to be mindful of your non-verbal communication and how you might sound when you speak in meetings. The same can be said for those who have brains that are wired differently or have had to deal with “real life” from a young age. Imagine feeling like you must carry your identity and your life history around all day long. Your arms will feel tired. Now, imagine you are a child, a tween, a teenager. You may need help to carry this load. PoCC offers participants of color a respite from code-switching and performing, and the opportunity to shift into a more natural and relaxed stance that is unique for each person. People who represent non-dominant cultures in spaces made for the dominant culture are adept code switchers. This load must be acknowledged, a sentiment echoed in the quote, “Just because I carry it well, doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy.” How might we open space for different ways to “show up” differently, uniquely, gloriously?

Doing The Work

PoCC was not time off, a vacation, or a light-hearted learning experience. It was substantial. It was ever-present. It was worthwhile. It was work! Each workshop session, chat, keynote presentation, choir practice, and affinity group session I attended were laser-focused on how I could improve and enhance my teaching, leading, and life-long learning. I was engaged in deep reflection, asking questions that challenged my beliefs and my practice.

Fewer Answers, More Questions

The great words of Dr. Liza Talusan are represented below, as they represent the questions that are now ignited in my heart as I continue to reflect on how to bridge the spirit of PoCC into my lived reality:

  • If we are committed to belonging, who do we believe is worthy of belonging here at our school/organization? If that is true, then what is the evidence of this?
  • What actions are we taking or not taking that are impacting belonging? Which groups/individuals might be most impacted by our action or lack of action? 
  • In our current community, who is worthy of being heard? Who is not worthy of being heard? Why? What is the evidence of this?
  • What actions do we believe we need to start doing, stop doing, change or continue to express our values related to belonging? 
  • What conflicts or risks will we face if we express our values as actions? 
  • How do we hold space for pain, frustration, anxiety, joy, and celebration? How do we listen with curiosity and engage in accountability?

No single person can hold the answers to these questions. I am so grateful to have been part of a space and a community of educators of color at PoCC, along with MPA colleagues and student attendees, who asked the important questions. Moving forward, as a school community, we can find the answers, keep what’s working, and shift towards new possibilities. Together, we can fight the good fight and continue to build a sense of increased belonging for all students, families, and … for ourselves.

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