Will You Build a Bridge or a Wall?
By Sally A. Baas
“Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up..”
—James Belasco & Ralph Stayer (1994),
Flight of the Buffalo
As I have traveled from Minnesota to Washington, DC, Mississippi, Arizona, New York, and home again, and as I look across our classrooms and the communities we live and work in, I am intimately aware of the power in the diversity I see. It seems our mantra must be “good better best, never let it rest, until the good is better and the better is best.” We must do our best to consider our own identity and that of others, and at the same time consider differences that have nothing to do with ethnicity. These can be differences in culture, opinion, ideals, or ideas for making our association and our work more effective, efficient, and meaningful. Socioeconomic status, educational level, occupation, personal experience, personality, and the larger contexts of the times also combine to create sociocultural factors that exert influence over the way people and families function. We must build bridges, not walls.
We are individually directed in what we do by the culture in which we find ourselves. In one of the early definitions of culture, Taylor (1877) defined it as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, and any capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Hundreds of definitions of culture now exist, and we acknowledge cultural influence as an integral part of our lives, often invisible, elusive, dynamic, and ever changing. Culture is the knowledge we have acquired and use to interpret experience and generate our behaviors, and it is what has become our frame of reference. The question is, Will we use our cultural frame of reference as a bridge, or will it become a wall as we seek to serve others?
I have had quite a bit of time on planes and in airports to read about organizational culture this year. Two books, Difference by Scott Page and Turning to One Another by Margaret J. Wheatley, are currently framing my thinking about differences and how we could use those differences to entertain simple conversations with others in order to sustain NASP for the future. Those two books were punctuated by my reading of Newtown, about the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 young children and some of the school's outstanding leaders, including our colleague, school psychologist Mary Sherlach. If there was ever a time to recognize our differences, celebrate our similarities, and address the mental health and safety needs of our students to help them thrive in life, it is now!
Page's book outlines how professionals, families, and youth need to work together while we coalesce around issues and ensure relevant participation of critical individuals on behalf of our clientele. Wheatley's book encourages us to believe we can change the world if we “start listening to one another through simple honest, human conversations, not through mediation and negotiation, problem solving, debate, or public meetings, but through simple truthful conversations where we each have a chance to speak, we can each feel heard as we each listen well.” She asks, “What do you wish were different?,” and she encourages each of us to take time to sit together, to listen, to worry, and to dream together. She challenges us (and I take up that challenge myself) in this age of turmoil, trauma, war, inadequate healthcare, poor student mental health, restricted academic progress, and economic stresses to reclaim time together and, as school psychologists, to be willing to lead from the place where we are to a more peaceful future for our students and families. We must put our hands to the work that will bring that peace to our schools and communities. “Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.”
What will we do to build bridges across our cultures? What might be made possible by convening group of your like-minded friends to initiate changes for the future? One example is Dr. Don Stovall, professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and a team of professionals who are working across cultures in Wisconsin and Minnesota with a new project on reducing disproportionate representation of American Indian and African American students in special education. Dr. Stovall is leading this team, which acknowledges, “There are no easy solutions. Change of disproportionate representation involves a systemic perspective involving a review of school climate, determining the presence or absence of proactive intervention programs, understanding attitudes about racial and ethnic differences, supporting educator preparation to work cross-culturally, review of assessment decision-making, and relationships between educators, administrators, caregivers, and community advocates.”
What will your project look like?
Sally A. Baas, EdD, is on the faculty of Concordia University–St. Paul (MN) and is president of the National Association of School Psychologists.