“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” --Margaret Mead
Three Little Words and their Potential for Changes in Leadership
“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” --Margaret Mead
I have the Mead quote on my lesson plan book and whenever I start to doubt my effectiveness as a teacher or as a teacher leader, I read it and it gives me renewed hope. Today, as a National Coordinator with Project Outreach, I often think about the focus on access, relevance and diversity that we are trying to infuse in writing project sites across the nation. The words are more than calls for social justice. They are words that call for action; words that can change the nature of the work and the people involved at a site. I would like to offer my story within the Writing Project as a case study for the transformative power of the goals of Project Outreach. When site leaders use the lenses of access, relevance, and diversity to guide the work and to offer leadership opportunities, they can be the “few caring people” that Margaret Mead spoke of.
In 1995, Richard Sterling, the Director of the National Writing Project, invited me to be a member of the Task Force of the National Writing Project. “What is that?” I wondered. “A group meant to help me determine the future course of the Writing Project and its member sites across the country” he responded. At my first meeting of the Task Force, I was a classroom teacher in a room full of site directors and university professors. What could I bring to the table?
When Richard Sterling invited me to be part of the Task Force, I had already been involved with professional development and, at meetings of the California Writing Project, I had been asking site directors at the other 16 California sites what was happening at their sites around the issue of English language learners. I was passionate about the issue. I had been an English language learner when I started school and I didn’t want other students to be treated the way I had been treated. I wanted education to be a positive experience for this generation of English learners, and so I tried to be a voice for change wherever I went. I wanted my access to result in more relevance and diversity throughout the National Writing Project.
Access, relevance, diversity – what’s the big deal? As a Latina, I have lived with issues of access throughout my life. As a child, my parents always taught me to be proud of my language and my culture but, at the same time, they made me aware that in order to be successful, to achieve my dreams, I would need two things—fluency in English and a good education. Later, as a fluent English and Spanish speaker, I was able to access different worlds, different ways of thinking. In an English speaking world, I always wondered if I was chosen for things due to my abilities or due to my race. Was I truly being recognized for what I had been able to accomplish or for the color of my skin and my gender? Access, I often found, was a double edged sword. Once I was in the room, I often found I was the only person of color; the one who was meant to speak for all people of color. And so, when Richard Sterling invited me to be on the Task Force, I began to question again. What I ultimately decided, and the reason I said “yes”, was that I could be a voice for others like me. I had been given access and I intentionally decided to make the most of it.
Once I was in the room, without thinking about it, I began to address the relevance of the writing project. What were we doing for teachers of English language learners, for teachers of color, for all those who were often unseen or unheard? At the Annual Meetings of the National Writing Project, I was invited to do sessions about English language learners and writing; about strategies for working with English language learners; about involving teachers of color in writing project work. The sessions were small but some people were interested. I was trying to infuse relevance into the work of the National Writing Project.
I had gone through the 1991 summer institute at UCLA. Then, I was a middle school teacher teaching Language Arts and Social Studies. I had taught in the elementary grades (K-6) for ten years as a Bilingual teacher, and had recently made the change to middle school. I had seen flyers for the Writing Project over the years but had never thought to apply. That year, however, the flyer said, “The Writing Project for Teachers of English Language Learners.” They were talking about me and my students! I applied, participated, and was re-energized as a teacher. I began to do workshops at different school sites and then was asked to lead workshop series at school sites. All the while, I kept learning and enriching my own classroom practice and growing as a leader.
Several years after my first institute, Faye Peitzman, the director of the UCLA Writing Project invited me to be an Associate Director of the project. “What did that mean?” I would help direct the project; I would be involved in staff development. What I remember most about that meeting was Faye’s question, “If you could dream and do any program with teachers, what would you want to do?” I didn’t hesitate for a moment. “I’d like to offer professional development in Spanish,” I responded. And so began our one week open program, “Teaching Language Arts in Spanish.” I taught the institute in Spanish and after doing that for a few years, teachers were asking for more. “How can we continue learning and using our Spanish in academic settings”, they asked. It was time for the next step and so I offered, “How about doing the Invitational in Spanish?” After discussing the pros and cons, we decided to offer the Writing Project in Spanish on Saturdays. I am proud to say that we were able to offer the Spanish Invitational for eight years until the passage of Proposition 227 in California dismantled bilingual education programs.
In 1996, a new opportunity arose when the National Writing Project was awarded a DeWitt Wallace Readers Digest Foundation grant and Project Outreach was born. The first Project Outreach cohort of eighteen writing project sites developed a Mission Statement for the National Writing Project and a list of suggestions that would address the goals of “access, relevance, and diversity” across the network of writing project sites. One of the suggestions was to develop a leadership team of teachers who could share their expertise around ELL issues.
Richard Sterling once again called me and asked if I would be willing to help establish an “English Language Learners Leadership Team” for the National Writing Project. Why then? Why me? Richard, like Faye, was willing to “walk the talk.” He was committed to expanding the work of the writing project by making it more accessible to teachers. In order to do that, he recognized that the writing project had to be relevant. We had to help teachers with the issues they were facing in their classrooms. The effective teaching of English language learners was an issue teachers from coast to coast were trying to address. Richard Sterling also recognized the need and the potential for diverse leaders that could come from addressing these needs. The federal funding that the National Writing Project had recently been granted allowed for the formation of a group to address the issue.
It had been eight years since I’d participated in the summer invitational at UCLA. My selection as an Associate Director at UCLA and as the first Chair of the English Language Learners Leadership team, I have come to realize, were no accidents. I had worked hard, I had been consistent in my message that the needs of English language learners needed to be addressed, and I had some ideas about what teachers needed and wanted. In a sense, when Richard Sterling called, I had been waiting for someone to give me the opportunity to be the leader I wanted to be. My response to Richard Sterling was as intentional as his had been in asking me.
What Diversity can Bring
When Faye Peitzman had asked Marlene Carter and me to serve as Associate Directors of the UCLA Writing Project, people had looked twice: an African American woman and a Latina? I was honored, as was Marlene, but we both wondered what we could bring to the Project. Over the years, Marlene has facilitated Teacher Research groups, studies on African American young men, a study group on Race and we have both co-directed the Summer Institute and open programs. I have directed the Spanish Invitational, Academic Writing for English Language Learners, and co-facilitated a study group on Homophobia. When we sat back and looked at our work over the years, Marlene and I were struck by the diversity of the topics we had been able to address. How had this happened?
It wasn’t an accident that Faye had chosen us to be Associate Directors. Just as it wasn’t an accident that Richard Sterling had asked me to be the founder of the ELL Network.
Having Marlene and myself in leadership positions at the UCLA Writing Project has allowed us to discuss “hard” topics but also invited other teachers of color to come to the table. Our faces are reflective of the students and teachers in the Los Angeles area and having an African American and a Latina be part of the public face of the UCLA Writing Project has given us credibility and a foot in the door on many occasions. It would have been easy for Faye to choose Associate Directors who looked as she did, with similar experiences. Instead, she chose Marlene and myself, and in so doing, she opened up the possibilities for real discussions about diversity. You cannot have conversations about diversity if everyone at the table shares the same experiences.
Both Faye Peitzman and Richard Sterling were intentional about selecting me as a leader. They trusted my knowledge, my skills, and my ability to lead. They had nurtured my growth, and when the time was right, they had given me a public forum to continue my growth as a leader. In opening up the doors of the UCLA Writing Project and the National Writing Project, both Faye and Richard had provided access, developed relevance, and diversified the leadership. In accepting their invitations to lead, I had also been intentional about the possibilities to develop more relevant programs and to help other teachers of color to be leaders too.
This brings us back to the lenses of access, relevance, and diversity. In order to be agents of change, leaders in the writing project need to be intentional. Social justice doesn’t happen because good people are present; instead, it happens because people look at their practice, at their institution, at their site and they consciously choose the shared goals and beliefs that will shape their work together. Leaders help develop the core beliefs about the work the site is doing and they share those beliefs with everyone at the site. When they make decisions about leadership, they base those decisions on what is best for the site and who will move the work toward their common goal, regardless of hurt feelings and others’ expectations. If it is a new leader, the director supports that person because they have faith in him/her and what that leadership will bring to their site. Leaders struggle to stay true to their core beliefs about students, teachers, and education in the face of challenges. They need voices with different experiences and perspectives at the table because those voices will enrich the conversations and the work of the site, and their perspectives will ultimately make the work and the site stronger.
Access, relevance, and diversity—three little words with an enormous potential for change. Words that can make it possible for me, and others, to be part of “small group(s) that bring about change" within our sites, the National Writing Project, and the world.