Oakland has a long and fractious history of difficult relationships between the school district and the community. A few months ago, at an Oakland school board meeting, my friend and colleague Lisa Rothman spoke passionately about Convergent Facilitation as an alternative method that the district could use to make decisions that involve the board, central office, schools, and community members. Two board members became excited, which led to Roxy Manning, Jihan McDonald, Leonie Smith, Lisa, and me facilitating several meetings, culminating in a town hall meeting on June 8th.
The superintendent, a school board member, a city council person and about 80 community members attended. This series of meetings was a painful and exciting opportunity for further learning about how differences can or cannot be bridged using Convergent Facilitation. The anger and anguish in the room on June 8th made it almost impossible to facilitate anything. Still we were able to reflect to the community our understanding of some of the core concerns that matter to them. We promised to send these concerns to the superintendent, who had left the meeting early to attend to family commitments she had told us about during the planning stages. A few days later we sent the letter below. To this day we have received no response. We are publishing it here because it’s the most likely place we have for the story to be known. Sometimes, public knowledge brings about public empowerment, and a way for change to come about. To us, what is happening in Oakland is deeply tragic, and we want to do what little we can to bring to light the way structural power differences routinely lead to much suffering for people. It points to how much we long for ordinary people, all over the world, to be able to shape the conditions of their living instead of being at the mercy of larger institutions and with little or no say about what unfolds.
Many of the specific references in the letter will be unclear to those who aren’t familiar with the details of the situation. We think that the deeper dynamics that are revealed in this sharing don’t require readers to know the details in order to grasp the depth and complexity of the dynamics.
We are mourning the tragedy of life in our current conditions that makes it such that people who clearly care find themselves in positions that make it impossible to show that care in their actions. It’s sobering to recognize how much depends on the willingness to collaborate, and how little of that is present in our fractured current life.
I am writing to follow-up on the very intense meeting we had on Sat, Jun 8.
My sense is that this moment presents a unique opportunity for you to shine as a leader and support a whole community in moving forward together.
I saw you at the meeting. I know you were taking things in very deeply. I know you care. I very much hope you will consider all I am saying here and stretch to do things that are rarely done and which, I believe, can entirely turn things around. I am saying this as a person who has lived in Oakland for many years and who is troubled about what is happening in the world and, within that, in our city; and also as someone with a fair bit of experience working in many contexts where collaboration isn’t the norm and yet so much changes when it’s attempted.
The level of anger and anguish in the community is high. It was the hardest meeting I ever facilitated, and I do many. Towards the end, I summarized for people what I thought they wanted, verified that I got it to their satisfaction, and told them I would pass this along to you. This is what I am doing now.
I can imagine that the intensity of what happened, including the fact that most people didn’t participate in the survey we created to give them at least a small avenue to make their opinions known, could lead to not taking their expressions seriously. I urge you to see it differently. What I saw was a group of people with immense passion and creativity who are desperately longing for transparency from the Central Office and for being taken seriously. When they don’t have either of these, like all people who feel unheard, you will get their raw pain rather than their gifts. You can change this if you accept their plea and our support to move forward in an entirely new way.
Here are the three things that are important to them that they would like to see as next steps:
- Slowing down the process of making a final decision while speeding up the community engagement
- Giving families the opportunity to work together with each other across school communities, without Board and staff being present, and then some channel with the Central Office to share what comes out of those meetings.
- Meaningful community involvement with full access for information for all stakeholders including the community and the Board
These sound to me like strong and clear principles and wishes. Here’s what I would consider a powerful response from you, step by step:
- Issue a statement to the community saying that, based on feedback from the community, you will ask the board to slow down the process you are engaging with so that significant community involvement can be part of it going forward. Provided the board agrees (which I believe they will if you ask for it, and which we could help you make the case for), you then proceed to the rest of the steps here.
- Provide a clear and concise explanation of the financial picture as it relates to under-enrolled schools.
- Provide information about each of your preferred proposals and how they address the financial problems. If part of your strategy involves generating income from charter school leases or other revenue sources, then it would be important to disclose that, and explain why you are favoring this approach.
- Provide information about alternatives you considered and why you have chosen not to pursue them. (As you will see in the survey results I share below, for the super tiny sample, and also for those who were generally in the room, merging Peralta with Sankofa is far more attractive and less contentious than the Kaiser/Sankofa merger. If there is a compelling reason not to go with this proposal, people would benefit hugely from learning about it.)
- Invite community members at large, not just those who receive Jody’s newsletter, to comment on the criteria. We are assembling an impressive array of considerations that, if applied well, could dramatically improve outcomes of decision-making processes and increase trust. You can see it all here.
- In parallel, arrange for a series of meetings within the community that are only for community members, not for the Central Office to facilitate or even attend. The purpose of such meetings would be for parents, students, teachers, and other impacted members to build community between school communities, especially between parents, so as to generate the trust, connection, shared reality, and common goals needed for any arriving at proposals that have more than fractional agreement from any given party. We are prepared to facilitate such meetings.
- At some point along the process, when sufficient trust has been established within the community, create opportunities for the community to share their pain as well as their ideas with the Central Office, as well as empower people from the Central Office to say what could change as a result of what they hear and what won’t change and the reasons for that as well. (Note: these sessions could also be an opportunity to use what is learned to continue to update the criteria).
- At a certain point, when the criteria appear somewhat stable, evaluate your preferred proposals based on the criteria and share the results from your perspective with the community.
- Invite people to apply the emerging criteria to evaluate all available proposals — those that are generated by the Central Office as well as proposals generated by the community. (At the meeting, we presented 5 proposals that we knew about, and some people have already evaluated them based on the criteria that were available at the meeting. You can see the results of that, as of Monday evening, Jun 10, here.) Include in that an invitation to provide suggestions for changes and as well as other proposals.
- Bring together the community, the Central Office, and the Board to a facilitated process in which you collectively decide, using Convergent Facilitation, which of the proposals are the best fit with the criteria, and, from there, select the path of action based on shared willingness by all parties to accept one of them.
This last point is key: the willingness to be open to going with a proposal that isn’t what the Central Office prefers, so long as it fits the criteria, since the criteria include what’s important to the Central Office. There is a perception in the community, a strong one, that there is no point in investing in coming up with proposals, because they won’t be taken seriously by the Central Office. This is the crux of what I would want you to change.
Although it’s not clear yet exactly what kind of support we can offer, we have a general interest in supporting this process. The more transparent and collaborative you are willing to be, the easier it will be for us to find people within our team who would be able to support you.
Like I already indicated, I believe this moment can be a historic opportunity to turn around possibly decades of powerlessness and cynicism and bring a community and its educational leadership into true and deep collaboration driven by the shared care everyone has for all the children.
This letter is from me, and is sent with full endorsement and collaboration from Lisa and Jihan.
In committed service,