Trying to find the community we can be

Opinion: Columns

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By Linda Francis

Director Success of All Youth

I am part of three different teams in different organizations that are currently developing policy and practice around how to be in community. All three are also re-envisioning how to do this in a way that is more restorative and inclusive of the diverse perspectives and needs we have in our community. 

We continue to struggle with how to bring forward the best of what makes us who we are, leave behind the worst, and incorporate new knowledge. Whether it is in our schools, religious institutions or community organizations, there are three prompts that help in this work:

1. What do we believe?

2. What do we expect?

3. What will we do toward this end?

Answering the questions of what we believe, collectively, lays the groundwork for a shared agenda. It is nearly impossible to find common ground on which to build together, based on what we don't want — higher taxes, racism, sexism, and stay-at-home orders. We need to establish a common set of beliefs that remind us of what we share despite our differences and individual needs and desires. Like our Constitution, it gives us a set of reminders to which we can be held accountable even when we fall short. 

But this set of beliefs shouldn't be vague or groundless. It's time to describe what is actually meant by OPRF High School's motto, "Those Things that are Best." It can't be left up to interpretation. When we don't take the time to help young people form a solid sense of shared beliefs but expect them to make healthy life choices, we don't set them up for success.

Taking the time, energy and creativity to craft and explain how success looks in light of our challenges creates the opportunity to actually develop real solutions. Absent this, we are often stuck in the cycle of arguing our respective positions to no avail. For example, OPRF has decided to move away from the unproductive approach of reissuing an updated Code of Conduct and replace it with documented behavioral expectations that can be linked to shared beliefs about how students and adults support each other in sharing space, learning and growing. 

Instead of requiring student signatures to a long laundry list of infractions and associated consequences, we have the opportunity to describe and model productive behaviors. Instead of perpetuating a set of non-inclusive business practices, the board of a community organization has the opportunity to practice a more inclusive approach to management. Instead of zero tolerance, we can talk about healthy expectations for all involved. It creates something that we can all be proud of and move toward versus shame and avoidance.

But all of this is for naught without purposeful action. The ultimate question to be answered is what we are willing to do in support of our beliefs and in pursuit of our expectations. This will tell us who we really are and not just how we wish to be seen. I sat in a committee meeting several years ago listening to a report on yet another year of Courageous Conversations among staff. I said, somewhat jokingly, that I would throw my shoe at the presenter if the next year's presentation was the same for the sixth year. 

This was an example of actions without purpose. What do we believe should be the experience of youth and adults in our schools? What behaviors do we expect of the adults and youth? And what will we do to ensure that it happens? The actions, most likely, won't be easy or come without sacrifice; but the fruit of what they will yield should be worth the work and the sacrifice.

We can't be afraid to introduce new information into our decisions. The knowledge and evidence exists to inform us about how people thrive and respond. Letting go of some of our less productive efforts may be precisely what is needed to get the desired results. 

I'm really excited about working with my various team members in crafting new roads toward our desired visions for what our schools, religious institutions and community organizations can be for our community members. It gives me great hope for the "community we can be" on the other side of this pandemic.

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