Is it really that hard to talk?

“Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.”  — Paulo Freire

I am no rookie to this roller coaster that is Denver Public Schools. 

For the last 19 years as a parent and 15 years being professionally engaged, I have heard the rhetoric of engagement and longed for the reality of it. My hope was sparked when board members began to say, “community led, and district supported.” 

Truly, this was going to be the turning point, and we were going to experience thoughtful and inclusive dialogue, transparent sharing of data and facts, timely communication of concerns to stir the co-creation of solutions, more “in this together” actions. Liberation. End the oppression. A new day. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even with wellness and academic data telling us that we must urgently do differently if we honestly want a different destiny for our children. 

The problem….

  1. Engagement in this district still seems to mean that direction has been decided and any dialogue with divergent perspectives and ideas is appeasement rather than authentic efforts to co-create solutions with those closest to the work and their communities. Still power over. Still district led, even if not community supported.
  2. Engagement in this district is placed at the feet of the FACE team almost exclusively, despite their limited resources. Why? Because it is not the culture of the district, or the expectation of the district that folks act only after robust engagement. Quite the opposite. There is limited dialogue, regular disconnected and rushed decision-making, and then scapegoating and excuse-making when what is done does nothing to positively change realities for our children.
  3. Engagement in this district has no set standard and therefore, is not measured against anything and therefore, minimal feedback (like only 30% of teachers responding to an innovation survey) is positioned as a “mandate” to move forward with do-to policies and practices.
  4. Engagement in this district is not about hearing from students, parents, and even teachers. Case in point, nearly 2,000 people signed a petition against the recent executive limitation on innovation schools, nearly six hours of public comment and most decision makers and influencers at DPS didn’t even blink or pause to think twice about the path they were going down.
  5. Engagement in this district still fails to reach those directly impacted. Only four people at a discussion on the current shifting enrollment in DPS?! What outsourced outreach strategy achieved such results? Unacceptable. Efforts continue to fail to equitably engage those whose lives will continue to be disrupted, by design, in an apparatus shaped by racism and supremacy ideology. A literacy crisis, consolidations, closures, new healthy start times, reduced bus routes, pushback against autonomy, all under the false narrative that we have talked about these issues as one community. What?!

We haven’t talked, because that’s not what the structures and systems are designed for. The apparatus is designed for telling, not talking, and that is why there is no trust and therefore no transformation that leads to liberation and total wellness. Nothing changes until we deal with the racism and supremacy ideology that has sustained the telling, and prevented the talking, for nearly 163 years.

I could go on, but the point is made. Things remain as they do, and some would say in a state of spiraling, because mindsets remain conditioned to manipulate, to impose, to oppress, and to avoid acting dialogically. Even when folks have said they would do differently.

Some perspective from where I sit…….

  1. Leadership must lead differently by leaning into a real relationship with the community, as a whole. You hear it loudly over and over again, “nothing about us without us.” People are tired of being done to by disconnected people who continue to operate in secretive decision-making silos. If it’s about us, then it must be with us. Set engagement targets for the various issues and hold people accountable for hitting those targets before decisions can be made. Yes, it will require more time, but that’s a relationship! Lean into relationships and surrender your ego about your position, which isn’t a position of power, but one of trust, because the power belongs to the people. Don’t violate trust. If you do, you forfeit the privilege of leading and you sacrifice the relationship. 
  2. Listening and learning are critical. You can’t do either if you won’t do both. If folks knew the answers, we wouldn’t be looking at the outcomes that we are. Literacy proficiencies alone should give us pause and push us to end business as usual. If folks were really as “woke” as they declare, we wouldn’t still be struggling to make equity a lived practice. If folks had all of the answers, children would be totally well, reading, and graduating ready for the futures that they dream. I appreciate people’s levels of education, experiences, and professional expertise, but if it only took you, we’d be where we need to be by now. Authentically lean in, break up the silos, and build an inclusive WE to co-create and deliver innovative ways forward, with fierce urgency, because continued delays and adult-driven disruptions derail the destinies of our children.
  3. Liberation must be the ends statement that we are all focused on. Those marginalized and neglected by design don’t want “solutions” that are just cosmetic appeasement, and not real abolishment of the structures and systems not designed for all to thrive. The only ones who want to continue on this insane hamster wheel are those who benefit no matter what; those whose children will be fine if nothing changes. Those who don’t feel the direct pains of the designed neglect. They grip what is, ever so tightly, because they actually fear the total liberation of oppressed people. They fear equal humanity and equitable support and services being the norm. What would they do without conditions reinforcing the fallacy of their supremacy? All that must be done must hit the target of liberation and total wellness for all children and their families in every community. That’s an ends statement.

We get nowhere but the same stagnant place  if we do not meaningfully engage in cultivating healing, healthy, and hopeful relationships. We will get nowhere but to the next election cycle with fingers being pointed and promises to children unfulfilled, if we do not break free from the insanity cycles. 

We need a new way forward. A life-giving strategy must prevail. I appreciate those who are pushing. Our children demand it. We must demand it too and ensure that it is delivered.

Pastor Vernon Jones Jr.
Pastor Vernon Jones Jr.
Vernon is a former leader in Denver Public Schools at Manual High School, Omar D. Blair Charter, and the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. He is a father of five children, one in graduate school, two in college, and two still in DPS. He continues to push for a reality that confronts and conquers the racism embedded in the apparatus so that our children can live a reality aligned with their hopes and highest aspirations.

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