You organise with your ears, not your mouth.
In this blog I will focus on listening and the lessons we might draw from community organising traditions.
Saul David Alinsky was an American community organizer and writer. He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing. Alinsky, according to Time Magazine in 1970, was a “prophet of power to the people,” someone who “has possibly antagonised more people… than any other living American.”
As suggested in the first two blogs in this series, I, for one, would welcome challenge, agitation and, indeed, a more antagonistic approach to home-school-community partnership debate, and – I think, necessarily – system change.
As we move forward, let us bear in mind Dewey’s words:
I believe that the school is primarily a social institution. Education being a social process, the school is simply that form of community life in which all those agencies are concentrated that will be most effective in bringing the child to share in the inherited resources of the race, and to use his own powers for social ends.
I believe that the school must represent present life-life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighbourhood, or on the playground.
John Dewey (1897)
Alinsky was wholly appreciative of local traditions and values. He immersed himself in them when he organised. He thought the only way to communicate with people was within their experience and you could not do that if you did not learn how they thought or talked, or the stories they told.
Alinsky’s tools were four: empathic listening; challenging (or agitating); thinking through; and training.
As a school leader I conducted a number of focus group interviews in the school of which I was head teacher; groups of teachers, and groups of parents/carers.
This initiative was driven by these key research questions:
- What are parents’ views about:
a. involvement with their child’s school;
b. engagement with their child’s learning, and
c. home-school partnership working?
- What are teachers’ views about:
a. parental involvement with school;
b. parents engagement with their child’s learning, and
c. home-school partnership working?
Listening to the focus group audio recordings, listening again, re-focussing and drawing common themes, highlighted for me the power and purpose of focus group use in social research and in the workplace. Data emerged directly from participant interaction. Not for discussion here but, out of interest, the key themes emerging in groups of both teachers and parents/carers were approachability, relationship, communication, responsibility, community and expertise.
Participants were empowered by the process, with participants bold, clear and articulate in the way they expressed their views, while being stimulated by the comments and thoughts of others in the group. More so, where the parent groups is concerned. There was disparity in scope of discussion between teachers and parents, in their respective groups. Yes, I did remain silent throughout, thus encouraging participants to follow their own agenda, but the fact is I was present. How did my very presence influence respective groups? I am inclined to suggest that teachers felt more hidebound by perceived regime expectations, if encouraged to open up. On the contrary, the opportunity this represented for parents unleashed something that was revealingly informative for me both in my professional capacity as head teacher of the school and as researcher. My presence left this particular group decidedly unabashed.
Teacher group discussion proved to be narrower in scope than that of parents, restricting themselves very much to school related issues, if wrapped around the pupil-parent-teacher dynamic. Parent group discussion was significantly broader in scope and, I would say, markedly more self-reflective in nature. Teachers expressed views that supported need for change in working practice but those views were fed by existing working practice and how that might be extended, while still permeated by the belief that change is likely to be school driven. Parent group discussion was underpinned by a very strong and tangible (I was present) sense of both responsibility and community. If change in approach was to be affected then they want a voice and that input would match school input, with the child at the centre. As one parent put it, reflecting on how he would want his child to feel:
I am part of a cog here, I’ve got them interested in me and I’ve got me interested in me. You’ve got a functional machine rather than a dysfunctional machine because we are all in it together.
The difficulty for schools is that we carry power whether we like it or not, or believe it or not.
Alinsky thought that the best ally of the powerless was the hypocrisy and arrogance of the powerful. Equally, that “apathy” was often a misnomer. That “apathy” is the label put on people who won’t come to your meeting. Rather, people didn’t want to bang their heads against a brick wall. So we return to the “hard to reach” misnomer. Or is it no misnomer when applied to schools? What are we doing to make our schools places that all parents/carers and extended community members feel comfortable engaging with. Or at the very least, less vulnerable.
As previously said (earlier blog posts) I cannot recommend strongly enough Warren and Mapp’s A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform. Warren and Mapp claim that ‘organising connects school reform to social justice’. They say that social justice is not primarily an outcome but a process where people who have been marginalised build the capacity to exert a measure of control over the institutions that shape their lives. Interestingly, they highlight the pitfalls of “scaling up” universal programmes. Programmes that are either adopted or imposed, commonly ignoring the important role parents and young people themselves can play in school change initiatives. Again, we return to the idea of listening at the ground level, encouraging a ‘bottom-up thrust’.
Critically, Smyth et al. talk of seeing school through an anthropological lens of how people make sense of their school lives. Colleagues and I used Dr Russ Quaglia’s work in helping us gather community member voice in an attempt to gain insight into member perceptions. Termly Quaglia Voice surveys allowed us to ‘triangulate’ pupil, parent/carer and staff views. The Quaglia Aspirations Framework is grounded in 3 Guiding Principles: Self-Worth, Engagement, and Purpose. They divide further into 8 Conditions: Belonging, Heroes, Sense of Accomplishment; Fun and Excitement, Curiosity and Creativity, Spirit of Adventure; Leadership and Responsibility, Confidence to Take Action. We held a Vision & Values Event in school. An open invite was extended to all school community members. We all gathered in the school hall – pupils, parents, grand-parents, carers and staff – to discuss our vision for the future of school and what it is we value as a school community. Two hours later, having worked in several mixed groups, we gathered together the large sheets of paper that respective groups had recorded their thoughts on. Everybody had been encouraged to graphically represent (with annotations) their thoughts. The sheets were shared with Tracey Ezard in Australia and a conversation had (via Skype) on their content and the messages they convey. Tracey produced the graphical representation shown here.
What is particularly interesting about the key themes that emerged from the Vision and Values exercise held in school is that so many of the key strands of the Quaglia Aspirations Profile are brought to the fore.
One thing I am not doing is putting this forward as a ‘success story’. Rather, that it should be looked at as an ongoing process. This is why I believe we can learn so much from the community organising tradition. Indeed, Warren and Mapp warn us that community organising is not a programme to be implemented. ‘It is a process to be undertaken whose direction cannot be entirely foreseen or predicted.’
Interesting then, if we apply this to school direction and strategy. No easily defined ‘success criteria’ here. Should there be? How do you listen to your school community? What do you count as success in home-school-community partnership work?
Alinsky, S. (1972) Rules for radicals, New York: Vintage Press.
Dewey, J (1897) ‘My pedagogic creed’, The School Journal, Volume LIV, Number 3 (January 16, 1897), pages 77-80.
Schutz, A. and Milller, M. (2015) People Power: The Community Organising Tradition of Saul Alinsky, Nashville: Vanderbilt.
Smyth, J., Down, B., McInerney, P. (2014) The Socially Just School: Making Space for Youth to Speak Back, New York: Springer
TIME Magazine (U.S. Edition) March 2, 1970 Vol. 95 No. 9
Warren, M. R. and Mapp, K. L. (2011) A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform, Oxford: OUP.