Self: Why I (Have to) Believe in The Open System

In my first post, I began to articulate the vision of The Open System - the idea that we need to build education systems that are open to co-creation, access and shared power with parents, families and communities.  This post is the first in a three part post continue to explore the personal and societal connections to this idea.  

My graduate school advisor, Marshall Ganz, taught me about public narrative: the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now. During my second year in graduate school, I had the incredible opportunity to learn from him and help coach others in the building of their public narrative.  Marshall had spent his career organizing with the United Farmworkers and other organizations, building the capacity of people and organizations to push for change.  

So my next three posts are presented in that order—the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now.  

First, I’ll explain why the open system matters to me.

Second, I’ll explore the current “us” out there—folks working around the country to build open systems in education.

Lastly, I’ll take on the “now”—that is, why is it important for us to work toward open systems at this moment in time in our country and our world.

My Family

This story begins in 1920s Mexico. My grandmother’s parents were living in Zacatecas right after the Mexican Revolution. My great-grandfather found himself embroiled in a tumultuous situation when he was accused of stealing. A noose was put around his neck and he was ready to die.  At the very last minute, a local man ran up and told everyone that my great-grandfather wasn’t the thief; the crime was committed by a recently-apprehended criminal.  

After that, my great-grandfather decided to flee Mexico and move his family to Colorado.

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Goitia, Landscape of Zacatecas with the Hanged 1914

My grandmother, who was one year old when she entered the US, attended school in Greeley and Boulder. When I was young, she told me stories of her first grade classmates teasing her for bringing tortillas to class instead of bread. And at the end of one year, her teacher decided to hold her back. The reason? She didn’t speak English.  

The shame, the pain, and the bewilderment of this experience has tortured her for the rest of her life. When she was married and had her own children, she couldn’t bear to have them to experience anything like that. So, she decided that her children would never learn Spanish.  

And just like that, the closed system ripped our language from my family.  

Starting to see the Closed Systems

My two years teaching first grade on the Navajo Nation were filled with tremendous learning and many humbling experiences. I often return to two moments that showcase the closed system I was slowly becoming aware of.  

Our first year the woman who would eventually become my fiancé wanted to host a math night for families. We thought this was a great idea—our students’ families lived right across a dirt road. We could see their houses and hear them at family events. Even the local Navajo government chapter house was just around the bend. Why not invite the community in?

Some teachers and leaders ridiculed the idea. No one will ever show up, they said. It’s better not to waste the time, they argued.

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Church Rock, New Mexico

Almost 200 parents showed up to our first math night to learn how to help their students gain math skills.  

The next year, the principal asked me to host an event for Veteran’s Day. She suggested a breakfast to bring community members in and thank them for their service. As many know, our Native communities have some of the highest military service rates in the country.  

We sent out the invites and the day came.  

The room was full of people—aunts, uncles, and to my surprise, staff members.  

I’ll never forget when the staff member stood in front of the room, took the microphone, and choked back tears as he spoke in Navajo about his service in Vietnam. Afterwards, I came up to him to thank him. He told me that not only was this the first time that service members were invited to the school, but it was also the first time he had ever spoken publicly about his service.  

In that moment, I felt the real, up front effects of the closed system. I got a taste of the loss and  tremendous disconnect between this school building and the people who literally cleaned its floors. But I also saw a little light shine through the crack we had all created that morning. Something had opened—in the staff, in me, and in our community.  

Opening a Closed System

During my time working with Teach For America, it became clear to many of us that we were not doing enough to adapt our model for our Native communities. We were delivering an unchanged model that made sense for New York City to communities with a unique history and context.

I’ll never forget when I presented to a group of Native American leaders in New Mexico and was rightly dressed down for failing to adjust our program to meet the unique needs of their communities.  

“No,” I told them, “I taught in your communities.” 

They laughed at me.

And in that moment, I finally began to understood. I didn’t have the words or ideas then, but it became clear: I was running a closed system. I was asking them to adapt to me, to Teach For America. I was asking them to accept our “expertise”, our “values”, our “insights”, and our “model”.  

How unjust. How oblivious I was.  

In that moment I saw myself as they saw me—another in a long line of folks who showed up and demanded that our First People adapt to us, instead of the other way around.  

Over time, we were able to create the Native Alliance Initiative, a multi-regional effort to adapt Teach For America to work in solidarity with the communities the program served. I had a chance to write about the experience with the other co-founders here, upon the five year anniversary of the work. The resistance to moving beyond a closed system was tough and hard. We also found tremendous allies willing to push alongside us, to be intrapreneaurs in a system known for being “tight,” one that prized itself in “sticking to it’s stitching.” 

But over time, we started to. We started to crack open different pieces of the system. Our accomplishments included:

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Native Alliance Initiative

  • An amazing national leader, Robert Cook, who helped us navigate partnerships, push internally and became a mentor to me and many others

  • A national campaign to recruit Native teachers

  • An inter-regional commitment to culturally responsive instruction

  • Trainings for corps members on the topic of Native history

  • An advisory board of Native alumni and corps members

It took dozens of battles to open up each individual part of the system. And each crack in the previously closed system brought another set of questions, as well as new opportunities for openness where previously closed systems had reigned.  

But it was insufficient. It felt like for every step that we took at Teach For America and Teach For America - New Mexico, something deeply closed still lurked in the background.

It was the giant school system right next to us.  

We could become more open and more responsive but the school systems we worked with -- the ones where our teachers taught, the ones that pushed our families away and told our kids Navajo history wasn’t as important as white history-- was as closed as a system could be.  

I knew I had to go inside and crack open that kind of system. I had to learn how it was done.

Creating Openings for our Families and Communities

In 2014, I came to Denver Public Schools to complete my graduate school residency. That residency turned into a full time role in family and community engagement. My three-year tenure at DPS offered the opportunity to learn from many amazing people and work on meaningful projects.

One of my first projects was the one I wanted to use to test the openness of DPS and understand what it took to build capacity for an open system.  

The problem: DPS had processes to understand school community needs, to close schools when necessary, and establish new schools. The district elicited feedback from community members along the way, but the process was hopelessly complex and managed by many individuals in many departments.  

The solution: We needed a way to explain these complicated processes to communities and gather their feedback. We hosted a series of community meetings to explain our various processes in family-friendly language to help everyone understand the process. Our team called it the “Great Schools Community Conversations.”  

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Over the course of a year, we held meetings in all five regions of the city. To prepare for these meetings we had to collect information from multiple departments, navigate teams who were threatened by our work, and continuously fight against all the trend for a district to be a closed system. I’ll never forget how many nights we stayed late at the office, searching for the clearest, simplest way to communicate such a complex process to families.  

As we created open windows within the system, many of us at DPS began to get to know many community leaders and families. We learned about different communities’ unique struggles and interests. In the best moments, we worked to address specific community issues. In our worst moments, we didn’t know how to mobilize the system to address them.  

I collected this story—these meetings, our work, and how we brought teams together to build boundary-spanning capacity—in my graduate school capstone.  

Through this project, I began to see that not only was building openness in the system possible, but that it was needed. The more we created feedback loops between the community and the district, the more urgency we created in the system to address community needs. The more we gained insight into each community’s unique challenges, the more we adjusted our internal systems to ensure we met those needs.

Why I (Have) to Believe

I have to believe that an open system is possible because I’ve seen them work. While I have seen many closed systems that punish questions and reward silence, I have also seen closed systems begin to crack as we engage communities and open dialogue. The energy and trust generated have no equivalent in my experience.  

I have to believe in open systems because I never want another person to experience what my grandmother did. I have to believe in open systems because our communities deserve a chance to share their voices and determine their fate and destiny.

The next piece will be focused on the US - the group of folks around the country leading on opening up systems everywhere.