You can tune in directly from this page by clicking on the above link, or you can subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music.
Meet our guests. In this episode of the EDpiphany Podcast, we spoke to Dido Balla and Katherine Leiva who shared a little bit about the problem with diversity and inclusion, specifically why we seem to have such a hard time with the inclusion component.
Why are you in education and why is diversity and inclusion important to you?
Dido: I’m in education because I fell into it by accident, then I loved it. So I stayed. Diversity and inclusion is important to me because there aren't enough people who look like me where I work and I want to change that.
Leiva: I'm in education because I feel like in this country, education is one of the biggest equalizers that we have. In order to get out of poverty and having grown up low income, I care about diversity and inclusion because we're a growing nation of completely changing colors and languages and we just need to embrace it.
We're here because diversity is all the rage and people are always talking about it. Diversity has become a buzz phrase the same way that differentiation is a buzz phrase. What does this quote mean to you, “Diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Leiva: That quote reminds me of being in middle school and going to that very first dance and everyone's invited, right? But there's so many people just cowering and standing in the corner. And the reason that happens is because they feel awkward. They feel like they don't belong and being asked to dance reminds people that you're one of us. This is your party too.
Dido: It makes me think about people who are trying to do the right thing when it comes to the perception of others. It reminds me of an episode on the Impact Theory Podcast about science of frenemies. With your enemies, it’s easy. You can say, “You don't like me. It's cool. We don't have to talk,no problem.” Then there are frenemies. When you share some good news about what's happening with you and you can't tell if they're really happy for you or if they may be jealous. Those people are even worse because of the mental work you have to do to guess if they are your true friends. I think it's the same with diversity and institutions that look the part and invite the right people, but definitely don't ask them to dance.
Dido and Leiva were known as the Dynamic Duo on their school’s campus. Together, they achieved amazing results for students in the English as a Second Language program, but they had no idea what was waiting for them in 2014. That’s when they would have to bring their work ethic and drive to help students they had never expected they would need to help. And that is where our story continues.
Leiva: In 2014, the country was going through the unaccompanied minor influx of students coming from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and they were coming because of political issues and gang violence. We were a bit on alert, but we didn't understand how big the impact was going to be until the very first day of school when my first period had 57 students. Balla would come to me and tell me his students were yawning and extending their arms. You could just tell that this was not a setting that they were used to.
Some of them were speaking indigenous languages that I myself didn't know about like Garifuna. Some of them were speaking in whistles because apparently there's a certain group of indigenous people who communicate with whistling and these are things that I never even knew about my own culture that I had to dig into in order to make those culturally responsive connections with the kids. But it was bad. For lack of a better word, it was mayhem.
I think for me that was a moment that it allowed me to open my eyes and allowed me to understand that this can't be theoretical work. It has to be actual work.
What followed were weeks of research on professional development that was available and other schools who were welcoming influxes of unaccompanied minors. Dido and Leiva were able to synthesize their research on best practices and write an 11-page proposal for their district leadership to consider creating a Newcomers Center on their campus. Rather quickly, their excitement shifted to frustration.
Leiva: After a conversation with my principal about how our data wasn’t looking as good as it used to, I took that opportunity to tell him about what our needs were and the proposal we had and he took that and ran with it. He said the right thing to the right people and the spotlight came to us. All of a sudden people just rushed to our doors and wanted to know exactly what was going on.
Dido: Yeah. So that's how we got the spotlight. We had done the legwork of planning what the program needed to look like.
But then, they took your proposal, they said they were going to make adjustments to it, but they ended up cutting you out of the equation when it came to implementing it.
Dido: Exactly. So we started to just show up to meetings with community partners. I would say, “Leiva you watch the kids. I'm just going to show up.” And I would! I would be wearing a suit too!
How long did it take you to realize that your leadership team had bypassed you and cut you out of the creation and implementation of this project?
Dido: It happened in layers.
Leiva: I think it was done beautifully actually.
Dido: I think they realized the power the two of us had together. So they started to mince it as much as they could. What they didn't know is that our relationship had built up so much and become some strong because of how we identify and our love for the kids. We would just sit down after meetings and always debrief. The power of feeling that safety really kept this thing alive. And for me, I began to realize they would still have us at meetings because they didn't understand the proposal. It wasn't their work. They didn't quite get why we needed that many teachers, why we needed this much money. They did not understand how everything worked together and they realized that one of us had to be there in order to make that thing come to life because if not, it was extremely obvious that they had no idea what they were talking about.
To make a long story short, it was approved by the district that we would get a new role and they would be hiring for a person who would oversee this program. We found this out through gossip later, not because we were a part of this conversation. We even hear about people who are being interviewed without us even being aware of what's going on. And then we find out that their plan was to keep us in the classroom exactly where we were and for them to run the program. Of course, that was the beginning of the end for them because the only people who understood this well enough were the two of us.
Leiva: One assistant principal famously told me, “You should stay within the four walls of your classroom.” I think it was the clearest message from them to us that we weren't going to be allowed to be a part of this.
What, what do you think they were so afraid of?
Dido: I took a class a long time ago about the tragedy of the commons and I learned the word “subtractable”. The idea is that there are many things that aren't subtractable. So the more of us have access to it, like success for example, there isn't less success now for other people. I think many people don't understand that. For many people, they don't understand that when they have a goal that involves them doing well, whatever that looks like for them, they perceive that if anybody else is perceived as being successful, that somehow it has subtracted from the amount of success there is to be had. I think that's what what was going on. I think that because of that perception, the work we were doing was way too intimidating because the perception was somehow there'd be less success for our administrators.
Leiva: I completely agree, but I also think that there was crippling fear. I think that our administration felt as if the reins were being handed over to us and they didn't like that. It was very clear there was a hierarchy that we were blurring and they were not happy with it. I know that's definitely not what was in our hearts when it came to this. It was all for the kids. That's why, for me, it was so devastating.
What advice would you give to admins who may be listening to this episode?
Dido: I would tell that leader, “You can’t know everything.” That's the first thing. The people that you end up hiring and who fit in your community are somehow aligned to your vision. You just have to create the conditions to merge everyone’s skills together and then let them work. Get out of the way. Accept that people are going to have visions and perspectives and talent that you don't have, the same way you have talents and perspective that others don't have.
Leiva: I think that the one piece of advice that I would give would be, at the end of the day as a leader, your job is to nurture. Nurturing comes with growth, and that growth shouldn't be uncomfortable. I think that a great leader should build leaders and I think that that fear that comes into the heart of a leader, when you see people rising, it's just based on hierarchy. When you see people rising as a leader, you should lend them a hand. No, you should push them. Not only should you move out of the way, you should push them.
Catch Dido Balla’s TED Talk: The Journey of an Underthinker.
Carla Rivera-Cruz (CRC) is an educator and entrepreneur committed to helping like-minded educators reach their fullest potentials.