Loving our community to failure

If we start with the notion that our community/ world/ universe is connected, then maybe the ways we divide ourselves up politically, economically and socially will no longer make sense to us and we’ll get about the business of repairing it.

A few years ago, Roy Scranton, an opinion blogger for The New York Times, wrote that climate change “won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning.”

He said the biggest problem we face is that there is nothing we can do to save our current civilization, and we need to get down to the hard work of adapting to a new reality.

“We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain,” he wrote.

Pessimistic? Yes. But in a way, I recently heard a similar message about wishful progressive thinking from Pam Costain, retiring executive director of Achieve MPLS, about the achievement gap in our Minneapolis public schools and how we are failing our students of color — and by natural extension, our communities of color and ourselves as a city.

Pam Costain

I have known Costain for more than a decade, since her previous work around civic dialogue and education with Wellstone Action. She is the first person I contacted to talk to young student reporters about Paul and Sheila Wellstone for a book project titled “Be the Change,” with roots to the family that go back to her Carleton college days.

She talks with heart, passion and determination, and describes her past decade in public education as the most significant — and emotionally battering, frustrating and grief-stricken — of her long life in public service. There are few people I respect more for integrity and drive than Pam Costain.

In a private gathering that included the former and current mayor, School Board member Don Samuels, former School Board colleague T. Williams, current Board member Carla Bates, former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, and many democratic-minded activists, education reformers and Minneapolis Public Schools representatives, Costain delivered a candid retirement speech outlining six daunting reasons we are “loving our children to failure.”

  1. State leaders have a lack of urgency around our embarrassingly bad achievement gap issues, and fellow Democrats are part of the status quo. It’s not simply about securing more funding, she said, but supporting innovative teaching.
  2. School administration continues to have a trust issue with its teachers and parents, and a continued inability to listen to those on the ground.
  3. Governance around the School Board process means all but the masochistic are driven away. We have become a one-party state with little competition for ideas.
  4. Education reformers like herself have sometimes communicated with arrogance and erroneously given the impression that they do not respect teachers. We need good teachers alongside and in the center of the changes we need to make.
  5. White people in our city have lower expectations for children of color. This is “one of the most subtle forms of racism,” she said. She believes that more affluent people have, through their choices, contributed to de facto segregation in our housing and schools. All children are our children, she said. When we assume that certain kids can’t learn, then they don’t.
  6. Perhaps the one I admired hearing the most: Silent progressives. Costain said she does not understand why social justice activists who express so much concern about banks, corporations, police and fossil fuels, do not have the same level of outrage about our failure to educate all children. Is it because this would mean diving into teacher quality issues?

Costain also lifted up the bright lights: Roosevelt’s revival, Kingfield’s work toward inclusiveness at Lyndale, Patrick Henry’s rising graduation rates, the nurturing energy at Lucy Laney, achievements at Green Central, Edison and Sanford’s diverse communities.

She has hope that if adults can leave squabbling behind, and our city can combat its unexamined racism, we can develop a more unified and focused vision on our kids that goes beyond the next election and donation.

So much of what I’m seeing and hearing these days brings to mind for me the message physicist David Bohm told us in his 1980 book “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”: “The attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that are confronting us today … destruction of the balance of nature … world-wide economic and political disorder and the creation of an overall environment that is neither physically nor mentally healthy for most of the people who live in it.”

Bohm’s message was that humans tend to look at surface reality and confuse it for truth. He believed there was a fundamental level we don’t see. That “wholeness is what is real,” and that our human need to break things down into fragments creates an illusionary sense that our world is not, at its essence, interconnected.

In a more “Attainable We” vision, Bohm — and Costain — might argue that if we start with the notion that our community/ world/ universe is connected, then maybe the ways we divide ourselves up politically, economically and socially will no longer make sense to us and we’ll get about the business of repairing it.