The following reflections are some emergent lessons on dominant culture in schooling stemming from a recent experience with a Street Data Fundamentals workshop.
A few months ago, we facilitated a sold-out Street Data Fundamentals workshop. Street Data, as Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy puts it, is an “approach to school improvement that focuses on looking at data from the ground up, where educators act as ethnographers, gathering stories, artifacts, and observations from the margins.” Street Data is not only the title of my new book but a transformational approach to equitable and anti-racist schools. This was our first time running a professional development where a majority of educators work in international schools, about 2/3rds, alongside folks from the U.S. and Canada.
It was so cool to test drive Street Data tools with folks from a diverse range of contexts! We witnessed high engagement, a hunger for the content, and an undercurrent of pain from educators of color in international schools who often feel marginalized and alienated despite diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) being the initiative du jour.
The unique mix of learners called on us to make deeper connections to how colonialism manifests in international school settings. This experience brought me back to 2010-11, the year I taught at an international school outside of Amman, Jordan (when my now 12- and 16-year-olds were 1 and 4!). There was no DEIJ language on campus, and the cross-cultural dynamics of a predominantly local, Jordanian staff alongside a handful of expats like us were really complex. As an English teacher and colleague to veteran local staff, I experienced a steep learning curve when it came to navigating local cultural norms. Looking back, I still reflect on how the Street Data tools (empathy interviews, storytelling, cultivating self-awareness) would have helped me become a better colleague.
As an Asian-American woman and longtime educator, I have spent the last three years teaching and leading in international settings. This experience has shown me how deep colonialism runs in international schools, a concept I understood intellectually, and now have experienced personally. In her article, Elite International Schools Have a Racism Problem, Natalie Obiko Pearson, a biracial, Japanese American woman who attended an international high school in Japan, describes her daily journey to campus as “a 45-minute exercise in learning to shut out the country [we] lived in and immerse ourselves in a land quite literally constructed to suit foreign sensibilities.” In many international schools, students of color are predominantly taught and led by white/Anglo faculty and school leaders. In Asian international school settings, dominant culture often looks like a minority group of white educators controlling the norms for language, values, behavior, and communication.
Hiring practices are one important example of how dominant cultural norms harm students and teachers of color in international schools. By adhering to an ideology of white supremacy and colorism, many schools continue to hire predominantly white teachers. Over time, they begin to operationalize underlying biases into systemic practices, which might sound like, “this is the way we have always done it” or “these are the personality types and skills that we are looking for.” The resulting lack of diversity has a cultural impact that ripples out in countless ways, from Eurocentric curriculum to microaggressions in hallways and classrooms to Westernized norms for meetings and schedules.
Reflection: What’s the dominant culture of schooling in your context? What are the implicit or explicit norms and ways of being? Who benefits and who is marginalized?
Dominant Culture Pitfalls
We want to illuminate four dominant cultural pitfalls that Street Data can help us shift away from.
The Shift From Avoiding Emotions To Honoring Emotions (Jessica’s reflections):
Dominant culture, or Western ways of knowing, teaches us from a very young age that emotions have no space in our professional lives. From getting in trouble for crying at school to transactional business meetings in the workplace, we learn from experience that showing emotion is “weak” and “unprofessional.” Street Data, by contrast, invites us to honor and understand emotions as central to adult and student learning. Shifting to a culture that honors emotion can feel uncomfortable and jarring. For people of color, being able to bring our full selves to a professional setting means that our colleagues need to care about, accept, and welcome our emotions, our love, rage, sadness, and hurt. Last year, I led a Kiva Panel listening session with students about their experience of gender inequality in the school. Afterward, one student reflected, “That experience was like a great counseling session. I already feel better.” The human need to connect, to feel understood and cared for, is at the heart of the Street Data process.
The Shift From Paced for Action To Paced for Relationships (Jessica’s reflections):
Working toward equity in a school community requires deep relationships. Without an understanding of the human experiences in our school communities, particularly the experiences of those at the margins, we may fall into the dangerous traps of paternalism and hoarding power. Leaders who are used to making unilateral decisions and “taking action” default to dominant cultural ways of being at the expense of listening to the lived experiences of their students and faculty. Conflict ensues as leaders announce action plans and projects, seeking volunteers to help out, but a lack of relational trust and clear vision causes even the best plans to fall flat. Pacing for relationships means that before any technical work gets done, we choose to focus on building relationships and community. We work towards answering the questions, “Who am I? Who are we?” before moving together towards a collective goal.
The Shift From Making Decisions For To Walking With (Shane’s reflections):
To expand our ways of being and disrupt the oppressive tendencies of dominant culture, we must learn to walk with students, families, and colleagues rather than make decisions for them. Sharing power and walking with is harder and slower than hoarding power and doing for. It requires us to be vulnerable, slow down, and resist the urge to control. It requires us to take the time it takes to develop a collaborative vision of change. One point of impact for this shift is the composition of your local equity or DEIJ committee. If your school has such a body, ask yourself, “what is the demographic make-up of the group” and, just as important, “of its leadership?”. If we create an equity/DEIJ committee with predominantly white people and others who represent dominant culture, the absence of a lived experience of racism will undermine our racial equity lens from the start. To walk with others, we have to expand the decision-making table and invite students, families, and staff from marginalized backgrounds to not just give input, but to shape direction. When we “choose the margins” and truly share power, we begin to create a humanizing culture that counters the chilling effects of white supremacy.
The Shift From Linear, Simple, Either/Or To Cyclical, Dynamic, Complex (Shane’s reflections):
Dominant culture tends to rely on linearity as a governing principle. We assume a simple relationship between cause and effect, “if I take this action, this thing will change.” When confronting systemic inequities in schooling, we face complex issues that shift and emerge in new forms every year (or even month-to-month). We need to address these issues through a complex adaptive change model for which Street Data is an ideal match. By keeping our finger on the pulse of day-to-day emergent patterns through deep listening and observation, we begin to understand the nature of the pain being experienced at the margins, as well as the possibility of real change. To gain such insight, we have to stop seeking a quick "solution" for complex problems of inequity, a single action to take, a magic curriculum, or a detailed strategic plan. We have to learn to tolerate and even embrace uncertainty, navigating it with the tools that the Street Data framework offers us (listen, uncover, reimagine, move… in never-ending cycles of inquiry). Through this process, we find our power and our freedom from the constraints of dominant culture.
Street Data is a hopeful model that honors the lived experiences of those we do this work for. At its best, it inspires radical dreaming. Schools are a stronghold of the past, constructed for the benefit of a world economy moving from industrialization to globalization. International schools in particular have deep roots in colonization. As the author, Haruki Murakami, writes, “What we call the present is given shape by the accumulation of the past.” Only by seeing a clear picture of the influence of history on our present reality can we radically dream of a future where schools are a driving force for community, compassion, identity development, and student agency.
Reflection Questions To Shape Your Entry Into Street Data Work:
- Who is at the margins of your school or system?
- How will you center their voices and experiences?
- How will you share power?
A Learner’s Reflection:
Joel Jr Llaban is an international school leader who attended the Street Data workshop. Here are his words on the experience:
The beliefs, mindsets, and framework of Street Data are for anyone who believes in educational justice, in a truly humanizing and restorative education for children, and for those who envision a radical transformation in how we design a kind of education that centers children (their power, potential, possibilities), drawing from their abundance and joy, and harnessing their individual and collective agency. The workshop led by Shane, Jamila, Jessica, and Alykhan inspired, challenged, and compelled us to dismantle and "see the barriers," barriers and systems we have internalized and inherited in education that have long harmed and dehumanized children. It will further enable us to deeply reflect on the "stories of harm and hope as tools for learning and transformation."
Upcoming Street Data workshops:
Brave Spaces 2-Day Institute: Building Will, Skill, and Leadership for Equity
Warm Demander Workshop (registration link coming soon)
For more than 20 years, Shane Safir has worked at every level of the education system, from the classroom to the boardroom, bringing passion, skill, and unique solutions to the challenge of school transformation and the promise of educational opportunity for every child. In 2003, Shane became the founding co-principal of San Francisco’s June Jordan School for Equity (JJSE), a cutting-edge national model quoted by leading scholar Linda Darling-Hammond as having “beaten the odds in supporting the success of low-income students of color.”1 For over ten years, she has provided coaching, facilitation, and professional development for hundreds of leaders in schools, school districts, and educational organizations across the country and in Canada.
An innovator at heart, with a rare combination of leadership and instructional expertise, Shane’s voice resonates with educators who want to reinvent their schools and organizations into places of equitable learning. She is a frequent contributor to Edutopia and ASCD’s Educational Leadership and her articles have been used in several curricula. She is the author of The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2017), which through powerful stories and practical tools shows how educational leaders can leverage the vital (yet often overlooked) skill of listening to transform their schools. Shane and Dr. Jamila Dugan are the authors of Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation, published in March 2021 with Corwin Press. Shane holds a bachelor’s degree in History from Brown University, a master’s degree in Education from Stanford University, and an administrative services credential from California State University East Bay. She is the proud mother of Mona Luz and Maximo Oisin, who attend Oakland schools, and is married to an Oakland math teacher. Shane is bilingual in Spanish.
Jessica Huang is an educator and school leader with 20+ years of experience as a classroom teacher, school administrator, and leadership coach/facilitator. She has a wide range of knowledge on how to build equitable school communities through her on-the-ground work in schools and her support and coaching of educator leaders and teams in international schools and US public schools. Jessica believes in building healing-centered, student-focused spaces where students of all backgrounds can thrive. Jessica has a Bachelor of Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a Master of Education from Stanford University. Her experience in both the public school system in the US and in international schools equips her to lead in a wide variety of cultural contexts. Jessica is currently located in San Francisco, California, USA where she coaches and consults for schools and organizations.