TSD Memphis


School debate hinges on larger questions

In the debate over Memphis and Shelby County school consolidation, similar passions and fears have been simmering below the surface. 
 Linda S. Wallace

As I was registering voters in front of a Houston supermarket last year, an angry woman ran up and began shooting out ugly accusations.

She alleged our group was trying to register illegal immigrants, then ranted and raved about the mess America finds itself in. I decided to listen, rather than argue. Ten minutes later, I learned that the woman, who was European American, had a twenty-something daughter who was unemployed and unskilled. This fearful mother was convinced the school district was responsible for her plight, for it had spent money on bilingual education that could have been used to help her daughter.

In the debate over Memphis and Shelby County school consolidation, similar passions and fears have been simmering below the surface. Leaders may offer into evidence a range of facts, data and scientific evidence, but that matters little in situations when we are trapped by our fears, and feel unable to escape.

Scientific research shows that these tense situations are likely to trigger our cultural, social and political shades. This directs our worldview through a prism so narrow that we may be unable to consider new information or other legitimate positions. When the shades are on, we develop blind spots and they may keep us from seeing or considering the larger picture.

If the angry woman’s daughter had studied harder, would she have a job today? If the mother had been more involved in the daughter’s education, might the daughter have gone to college? If the school had had lower teacher-pupil ratios, would her daughter have found a teacher willing to mentor her? To find the truth, we have to manage our shades and be able to consider the widest range of factors – even those that point the finger of blame at us.

During one of his early research projects on cultural lenses, Michael Morris, a professor in the School of Business at Columbia University, showed executives in Asia and the U.S. a photo of a person standing in front of a group. The American execs concluded the person was a leader. The Asian executives concluded the person was an outcast.


In American culture, we generally feel that individuals primarily are responsible for their success, while cultures in Asia tend to be community-centered, subscribing to the belief that people are interdependent. In America, our goal is to stand apart from the group; while in many Asian cultures, the goal is to be part of the group. This is where it becomes interesting. Isn’t it possible both cultural views are somewhat right? A leader may also be an outsider – consider President Obama – but how many of us automatically consider that as a possibility?

In times like these, we need diverse peoples and communities around us. It doesn’t necessarily help to have strangers who only know how to yell, or try to correct our thinking. We need people who know how to listen and seize the tiniest piece of common ground. We need hundreds of ordinary people in our orbit who don’t think like us or act like us. These are the folks who help us account for our blind spots.

Public education has long been my passion. So on that day in Houston, I told the angry mother about a few of my heartbreaking experiences with African-American and Hispanic children and suggested that we shared a common fear: the workforce is going global and America’s children are in danger of getting left behind.

“Let’s change this,” I said excitedly. “But we will need to work together. We can’t waste energy by standing here arguing with each other.”

“I’m tired,” the woman replied. “I just don’t have the energy.”

“Then I will carry the ball first,” I proposed. “When I grow tired, I am going to hand the ball over and you’ll take it from there. Ok?”

Conversations in which “experts” simply repeat familiar positions are going to take us back to the same place we started from. They make us weary, and steal our energy. The current debate over school consolidation is useful for voters, but it does not go deep enough. We’re not really discussing the underlying issues: fear, prejudice, self-interest, bias, poverty, the wealth gap, suspicion, immoral behavior by people and corporations, and an economic pie that’s become smaller.  

To probe these matters, a community needs to increase its capacity to have uncomfortable dialogs that make us want to say “ouch” and “oops.” Faith institutions, social groups and civic groups must go beyond platitudes and delve into the fears that take control when members are afraid.

Solution-oriented individuals must be willing to tackle these questions: How must I change: What do I stand for? How can I contribute more to the local economy? Am I able and willing to identify my biases? My blind spots? Do I develop allies and partners in diverse communities? Am I able to tolerate and listen to people who challenge me to rethink my position? What am I willing to sacrifice for the greater good?

City and county leaders must have discussions that pivot off of these questions: How do we close the opportunity gap without requiring a huge sacrifice from our neighbors’ child? How do we measure potential in children and adults in our community? How do we engage in evidence-based decision making when we’re wearing our cultural shades? How do we translate diversity into low-stress decision-making? How do we develop an innovation economy?

Ora Lee Watson, a perceptive educator, once said to me, “A community that does not take the education of its children as its top priority is a community that practices its own genocide.”

Either we pull together, or fear will tear us apart.

(Linda S. Wallace is The Cultural Coach. Read her blog.)

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