My son came to visit a couple weeks ago. The same son who, 17 years ago this month, walked nervously into his first day of Kindergarten in a charter school, came with me to visit Citizens of the World Charter School Kansas City. This time, Nathan strolled in next to me – taller than me, with four years of college behind him – calm and collected, showing no nerves at all.
Since about the 5th grade, Nathan has lived with psoriasis. Some of the time, it’s just an annoyance. But periodically, it becomes a painful, itchy burden. At times during middle and high school, it was debilitating – from the combination of physical pain and social discomfort. It is virtually impossible to treat, as it develops it’s own resistance to anything that is, at first, effective. And it appears as disfiguring patches of skin all over the body. I remember a time at the beach during his adolescence when Nathan realized a child was pointing and staring while his mother nervously tried to hush him. I remember the day he came out to breakfast and said, “Please, can I just stay home from school? I can’t stand the idea of another person looking at me and trying not to look at me.”
Today, he handles it. The outbreaks and appearance don’t overwhelm him - - but he’s still aware of the looks. He still has to take regular injections to minimize the discomfort. He still faces a future in which it may turn into debilitating psoriatic arthritis.
On the day of his visit to CWCKC, he chose to spend an hour helping out in 1st grade. He played tag out on the playground; he helped to teach about food groups; he talked with first graders; and he shared his surprise with Ms. Glass at how truly ‘exhausting’ it is to be with a group of six-year-olds, even for just an hour!
As we drove away I asked him what he thought of the school. “I had forgotten,” he shared, “how easy it is for kids to just say what they think. They just look at you and say, “What’s wrong with your skin?”
Yep. There’s a lot of that in the primary grades.
“I also forgot,” he added, “how quickly kids decide they like you.”
Just a few days later I found myself reading a powerful article. Produced by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society out of UC Berkeley, the article was called, “The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging.1”
“Othering” is defined “as a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities. Dimensions of othering include, but are not limited to, religion, sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (class), disability, sexual orientation, and skin tone. (p.17)”
It is a powerful read – and I recommend it highly. It speaks to historical patterns of othering; political uses of inciting othering to gain power; and myriad occurrences of othering societally – either purposefully or without awareness. It goes on to share that many approaches to addressing othering, no matter how well intended, have fallen short – or in some cases amplified the problem; segregation, secessionism, assimilation.
And then it addresses belonging; the only approach viewed by the authors as a potential solution. “We believe that the only viable solution to the problem of othering is one involving inclusion and belongingness. The most important good we distribute to each other in society is membership. The right to belong is prior to all other distributive decisions since it is members who make those decisions. Belongingness entails an unwavering commitment to not simply tolerating and respecting difference but to ensuring that all people are welcome and feel that they belong in the society. We call this idea the “circle of human concern. (p. 32)”
Widening the circle of human concern. Reaching out. Sending messages that people are welcome. Giving voice to all people. The phrases are many – and every one of them is startlingly difficult. Difficult because we are so frequently blind to our own beliefs and behaviors. Difficult because we are frightened to admit our own mistakes and missteps. Difficult because we so rarely experience a truly inclusive environment and those among us who have, refuse to open our eyes to the reality that so many have not.
At Citizens of the World Kansas City we have set an audacious goal of delivering “an excellent public education focused on developing and demonstrating understanding while building connections within a diverse community.”
And a community of families – racially, culturally, economically diverse families – has come together in Kansas City with a belief in that goal. A community of educators comes together each day – a group diverse in age, gender, race, economics, sexual orientation, professional experiences – to support young children in widening the circle of their concern; in creating a place where each one experiences belonging; where everyone feels welcome.
Do we get it right every day? No, we do not. We’ve made mistakes. We will make more.
But we commit ourselves to asking the hard questions; having the tough conversations. We commit ourselves to continuing to try. We commit ourselves to reaching deep to find the honest answers. We commit ourselves to being authentic in the struggle. We make that commitment so that every child can have the experience of knowing how quickly kids decide they like you.
1) Othering and belonging: Expanding the circle of human concern, Issue 1, Summer 2016.
“The problem of othering: Towards inclusiveness and belonging.”
What a difference two years can make! I drove across country with my dog two years ago, in June 2015, leaving behind the school community I had known in Los Angeles for seven years; leaving the city of friends I had built for 27 years; leaving my son at college two time zones away. It was a huge change – a welcome change – I was ready to build a new future.
And when I arrived, I was greeted by a beautiful sign on my front door - hand drawn and decorated by the families – and clearly, the children – who were so excited to see Citizens of the World come to Kansas City. Its simplicity made it all the more powerful. It said, “We’re glad you’re here…and we’re here too…and together, we’re going to build a school.”
Since that time I have met and helped bring together a team of colleagues including a Board of Directors nine members strong; over 30 faculty and staff with backgrounds in education from early childhood through middle and high school; and families that live across more than 16 different neighborhoods of the Midtown KC area. We have formed professional partnerships in the areas of finance, law, construction, real estate, safety, philanthropy, and educational innovation. Not one of us has the knowledge or skills to do it all – but together, we have built a school.
As a school community we have formed even more partnerships with local organizations to support our students’ learning, our families’ needs, our faculty’s continuing growth, and to help insure we achieve our goals of bringing an excellent public education to a diverse community by building understanding and connections. We invite the community in to meet our students – librarians, police officers, veterans, weathermen, who share their experiences of helping the city function; and we take our students out to explore - - art museums, musical performances, the outdoor environment, walking through a labyrinth, picking vegetables at the farm, swimming and playing basketball at the community center. No single organization can provide all that is needed, but with partners and teamwork, working together, we are building a community that helps students grow.
And in a few short weeks, we open the doors again for Year 2 welcoming Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd graders. Diverse students from across Midtown, walking in with proud parents, some with big sisters and brothers who already know their way around; bringing their excitement, their worries, and their curiosity. They walk in wanting to learn; wanting to be ‘grown up’; wanting to understand; wanting to make friends. And they do, with their classmates, their community – because together, they will build a new future.