The Reciprocity Project Interviews C!E's Doannie Tran
In our Invitation to a New Path Forward: Seeking Equity Together Through Assessment and Accountability, we suggested the need to fundamentally restructure how our education systems operate. We proposed a different approach that involves building state-to-local coalitions and discerning when to share or cede power and decision-making authority, within what structures of oversight, and with what reciprocal investments in capacity-building.
But what does look like when education systems are more reciprocal? What bad leadership habits stand in the way and how can we convince leaders of the importance of rebalancing power? In this interview with The Reciprocity Project, C!E's Doannie Tran draws on his personal experiences to offer provocations toward a better way to serve all our students and communities.
The Reciprocity Project is a coalition of nonprofits, community organizers, and education innovators that are working together to build a new kind of school from the ground up. This work is rooted in reciprocal relationships, where the voice and ownership of stakeholders will create schools that are truly in service to their communities. If you enjoy this post, check out other articles in The Reciprocity Project's blog series, “The Questions No One Is Asking.”
WHY WAS PARTICIPATING IN THE RECIPROCITY PROJECT VALUABLE TO YOU?
I was really blown away by both the power of the people who were involved and the work that they’re doing, but also really the sense that every context is deeply different. Everybody reinforced the importance of honoring local context so much.
That kind of connection to other people and that we are all part of this unique moment. The feeling like there’s an opportunity to really share power and build more power where it hasn’t been cultivated before. That’s just so rare in this world right now.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO PARTICIPATE IN “BLUE SKY CONVERSATIONS”?
There are so many pressing things in front of us and that urgency to solve those near-term problems never gives us a chance to dream. Being a part of The Reciprocity Project is an opportunity to step back from that and actually leave some of that urgency of the now behind in order to dream a little bit and commune with people who have a lot of shared experiences and commitments but in different contexts. We just never get those opportunities in our daily life because we’re so embedded in our specific contexts that the opportunity to do that is really priceless.
I’VE HEARD A LOT OF PEOPLE SAY DURING THIS CRISIS THAT IT’S AN OPPORTUNITY TO ASK ABOUT THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT SUPPOSITION?
We do have a special moment now, because parents know more about the educational experience than they ever have before. I talk to families all the time that are seeing their kid do some pretty inane things during remote learning. They need support and dialogue with other families. They need different experiences to make meaning of that and to coalesce it into energy for change. I think leaders should be wanting to lean into that dissonance and cultivate it. But, I think a lot of leaders paper over it because everybody wants to return to normal. Even people who are badly served by “normal” who don’t want to return to that are just tired. They’re tired of the moment we’re in now.
WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT FOR SYSTEMS LEADERS TO EMBRACE RECIPROCITY IN THEIR LEADERSHIP APPROACH?
We live in a world where two things are simultaneously true. First, we distrust experts and you only need to look at public health right now to see evidence of that. Simultaneously, experts often seek to control the narratives and the terms of the debate. Experts create the narrative that reinforces their expertise. So it’s a bad dynamic because experts live in a world where no one gives them the latitude and the trust to do what they’ve been trained to do. Then, people who are not seen as experts are constantly reminded of that and they are kept at the gate.
In that kind of world, power is scarce. So people hoard what they can. Experts hoard power by controlling narratives, controlling tools, and those who are kept at bay because of their non-expertise are trying to constantly tear down the foundations of the thing.
That’s keeping experts and regular people separate and apart. Everybody uses power to try to get a little more. But, I think that that power is usually poisoned. It’s tainted because it’s not born out of justice and sharing, it’s born out of exclusion. In this context, leaders who want to share power put their expertise at risk and that’s connected to their influence, their relevance, their stature, their self-respect. I really wish that every leader was sort of ego-less and able to do that gracefully, but that’s just not realistic.
WHAT DO WE NEED TO MAKE THE EDUCATION SYSTEM MORE RECIPROCAL?
When I was an assistant superintendent in Boston and in Fulton County, Georgia, I was not accountable to making those communities healthier and more prosperous. My accountability was connected to the number of APs (Advanced Placement courses) that were going to be offered at each school. The percentage of kids who were scoring above X, the number of dual enrollment students—it was connected to a set of outcomes that had unclear collective benefit.
I think it would have been better if I had felt a sense of reciprocal responsibility to the community members that were in our neighborhoods. We should have been talking to them about what it would take for our community to be healthy and more prosperous, more joyful and more successful. And, we would say, “that’s the thing we’re going to do and you should hold us accountable to that.” But the machine of accountability was not organized around that.
HOW DO THE BAD HABITS OF SYSTEMS LEADERS MAKE IT HARD TO FORM RECIPROCAL RELATIONSHIPS WITH COMMUNITIES?
When leaders are only concerned about garnering support, instead of working on co-construction, you get focus groups. You get surveys or hand-picked advisory boards that supposedly have legitimacy in the community. Those mechanisms are the bad habits of leadership. When the survey says 95% of people say this is a good idea, that’s not co-creation, that’s trying to claim legitimacy. So many mechanisms like that are part of the habits not rooted in reciprocity. They’re rooted in power imbalance.
HOW DO WE BEGIN REDISTRIBUTING POWER?
When we ask, “How are we going to get these people to give up some of their power?” it feels weird. It’s strange to care so much about the needs of the privileged, when there’s so many people who’ve been marginalized by the system. But if we’re doing justice, we’re supposed to be with those who have been marginalized. We do the movement a huge disservice if we don’t consider our messaging and our promises to those who have a lot to lose and will fight desperately to maintain the power that they have. To solve this problem, we must uncover the abundance in the world. Because the narratives are dominated by scarcity.
When power is shared, the broader benefit is abundance, right? We’re saying give up something now that was ill begotten anyway. And, if you give it up in the right way, we are promising more, we’re promising something better. How do we do that? That’s where we begin.
Doannie Tran is an Equity and Strategy Fellow at the Center for Innovation in Education and former assistant Superintendent in Boston and Georgia.