It didn’t make sense to me until 2008. There was a shooting at a church in Kentucky. In a sermon months later, my minister challenged us to consider empathy in such a cruel moment, when someone was such a monster in a community.
Empathize with a shooter?
How about empathize with that feeling of not belonging, of not understanding, of not feeling safe, of feeling ostracized? While I couldn’t condone shooting because of any of these feelings, I could feel sadness for the person, for the shooter who was a human just like me, who felt so awful and did such an awful thing. It must be a truly horrendous, unsupportable feeling.
I didn’t want anyone, especially my students, to ever feel that way. I wanted and want my students to feel safe and understood despite the trauma and brokenness surrounding them. In the last month in this community despite all of the positive changes, we’ve seen dramatic and dangerous increases in gang activity leading to students constantly being in harms way when they leave school grounds. We’ve seen a rise in issues around depression and suicide. We’ve seen inexplicable shootings on Sunday mornings. We’ve seen mothers facing abuse with nowhere to go, no home to stay in, housing and shelter opportunities in jeopardy.
How do we make sense of all this? How do we go home at night and process it all? And more importantly, how do the students?
In these potential moments of insecurity, tremendous loneliness, and helplessness for my young people (and their families, their teachers, and their communities), how are feelings moved to places of at least safety and understanding? Moreover, how do we and they move to a place of feeling valued, able to realize their dreams, lift their voices, and tell both their stories and those of others, becoming part of a beautiful history, never silenced? How do we make sure they feel they are enough? They have enough?
As a Community School Coordinator, I believe we have to find ways to make sure “enough” is present at our school, even when it seems like we don’t have enough. We don’t have enough partners, we don’t have enough partner longevity—we have to make sure “enough” gets past numbers and years. We have to make our partnerships about relationships.
I see partners come and go. Three years ago, we started with just two partners. We had no clue how we could be “enough” for what would soon be 2000 students arriving to a new campus. How could we make sure they felt safe and understood?
Over time though, I learned. I learned it could have been two partners or it could have been twelve partners. Because regardless of the number of partners, we have had to find ways to figure out which partners are about building relationships and personalizing everything to the constantly changing needs of our students and community and which partners aren’t able to see the work that way. These relationships are what make “enough” happen. So even if it is only two partners, if those two are so invested in quality and deep relationship building, they will impact as many as twelve partners would.
My work has been to build and integrate into systems that would offer relationships that would outlast any of the resources partners could provide and to find the partners who could commit to those relationships as well.
One way we’ve done that is through our student adoption program. Every five weeks, our teachers have “adopted” three to five students who they believe need attention, be it because of grades, emotional or mental health, or anything else. Using a tool called an Individualized Pupil Education Plan (which I’ll explain more in future posts), teachers monitor their adopted students’ grades, family engagement, positive youth development, learning styles, English language development and more. This year we’ve had community partners integrate into this system and adopt students as well, building relationships with the students who need it most. These adoptions have literally saved lives, giving students someone to talk to when they need advice on how to leave a gang, how to seek out safety or food, or how to get through difficult days and difficult relationships.
In posts to come, I’ll share more on the systems and the data we use with you—ways we have woven together community partnerships, family involvement, classroom instruction, and leadership of all kinds to create the relationships needed to empathize with and support all of our students.
Relationships are our greatest resource. As we step back, listen to our students and each other, pause, ask questions, and show reverence for the daily struggle through which our students persist towards their own self actualization, empathy will come, driving the work, building the systems, acting as our compass.