Examining the politics of public education: Values
Editorial Contribution
By | Art Williams

As non-profit, faith based leader whose primary focus has been working closely with developing adolescents, largely in under-resourced communities for the past 20 years, I recognize the voices in this article. It raises many questions for me, as I think about my own work outside of public education. Do my own values matter? Are the values of my community, people and ancestors played out in my everyday life? These are often questions asked by many marginalized people groups who struggle to see their values lived out in our social institutions. Whether in education, politics, churches, corporations, or in my case the nonprofit world, our society’s inability to build and sustain a healthy representation of indigenous and local leaders who possess like values continues to be a root issue of the concerns shared by several members of Denver’s and Aurora’s diverse communities, evident in the article. These are important concerns for nonprofit organizations, as well.

I have been a part of many prayer groups, strategy meetings and community gatherings where many parents, students and community members continue to feel unseen or underrepresented. “Do they even care about us?” is a consistent question that has echoed in my work for the past 20 years. They. Who the heck are they? As I have come to understand it, they refers to “visitors” or “professionals” who commute in and out of the neighborhood everyday for work.

I have unfortunately experienced the disconnect with leaders who have the ability to punch in and out of the harsh realities that many of their students, clients and communities face. In the book, The Power of Proximity, author Michelle Warren states, “I find it extremely important to live in communities where you are “proximate to the pain of the poor.” This makes all the difference in facing and overcoming injustice. When we build relationships where we live, we discover the complexities of standing with those who are vulnerable and the commitment needed for long-term change. Proximity changes our perspective, compels our response, and keeps us committed to the journey of pursuing justice for all.” When we fail to produce a culture of indigenous leadership or working professionals who understand the power of proximity, we fail to break cycles of poverty, opportunity and belonging. It’s my opinion that when leadership and strategy come solely from the outside and is led by the dominant US culture, it is nearly impossible to prioritize the values of those most marginalized.

This has also been my personal experience working in a non-profit organization whose culture and strategies have been largely guided by middle to upper-class communities.

After 78 years of operation, the global non-profit for which I work continues to struggle with its ability to sustain and develop local and indigenous leaders of color, and create effective strategies which produce healthy fundraising models and practical methodology that best serve low-income communities. Due to these realities, staff turnover is continuous and its effects on marginalized communities are noticeable. Similarly, many of our local and indigenous leaders have left teaching jobs, administrative roles and nonprofit organizations feeling exhausted and frustrated with their failed attempts to produce and sustain working models which place community values over organizational agendas. Our communities are left to deal with inconsistent leadership. This contributes to a lack of trust and hope in seeing community values implemented.

Where is the path to local ownership? And where are the pipelines that flood our school systems, nonprofits, etc. with local leaders and/or working professionals who understand the power of proximity and prioritization of community values? When identified, these leaders understand the urgency of placing community values over organizational opportunity. If left undetected, we risk repeating the same cycles of failed experiments. Round and round we go, Insanity!

So what are potential solutions?

Equity: the leadership table gets larger creating space for diverse thought, experience, and opportunity. Ownership: Indigenous leaders with a clear path to ownership. Positions of real power with the ability to drive mission, vision and purpose. Resources: which reach far beyond the needs of the community. This eliminates the emotions of scarcity and provides the space to dream and experiment with the “what could be.” Leadership Development: Indigenous leadership pipelines that address unique experiences, learning styles, trauma and values.

The four strategies above create the necessary movement towards understanding and thriving. This gives us the best chance to value these amazing communities filled with amazing people who possess unlimited and untapped potential.

Art Williams is an executive leader in the non-profit sector, and his work entails empowering under-served communities. He has a deep passion for the development, sustainability and holistic health of underrepresented kids, leaders, and communities. Art’s newest endeavor takes his 20 years of youth development, leadership development, public speaking, and fundraising experience to launch a Leadership Foundation which serves the Denver metro area.