Organized by a committee of Ed.L.D. students, staff, and faculty, the theme of the convening was “Belong and Build.” For the first time, representatives from every Ed.L.D. class had the opportunity to meet and learn from each other about topics including Ed.L.D. national impact, achieving equity, and adaptive leadership. The Ed.L.D. Network is committed to a central mission of building a vibrant and impactful community of Ed.L.D. students and graduates who are committed to educational excellence and equity for students in the United States and around the world. Over the two days, participants joined in discussions and engaged in activities that moved their work as a community forward. Andrew Frishman, Ed.L.D.’14, was among the attendees of the convening. Here, he shares his impressions.
Is it possible to intentionally design and build a functioning network that can be leveraged for systemic transformation? Although I work assiduously every day on the leadership team to bolster the Big Picture Learning network, I have wondered about this approach since long before I applied to the Ed.L.D. Program. In my application I wrote: “I appreciate how cohorts create an atmosphere of deep trust and a structure in which to engage in the difficult conversations necessary to deconstruct complex issues.” I desperately hoped that at the conclusion of our Ed.L.D. experiences we would be able to align our collective efforts, but, in truth, I wasn’t sure what it might feel like to be a part of this emerging multi-cohort community.
On May 15–16, 2015, I had the distinct privilege to experience a first taste at the first ever Ed.L.D. student and alumni convening. Co-chairs Eva Mejia, Ed.L.D.’14, and Jeff Carlson, Ed.L.D.’16, announced the theme as “Belong & Build” and issued an explicit call to action for all current Ed.L.D. students and alumni to gather together. There was overwhelming response to this invitation to connect and co-construct; out of 125 total students and alumni of the program, nearly 100 participated.
In [Ed.L.D. Faculty Director] Liz City’s opening remarks, she revealed that in the original discussions that led to the creation of the Ed.L.D. Program, the need for a network was central to the theory of action. There was strong consensus that the Ed.L.D. Program should strive to do more than merely prepare a corps of skilled individuals. It needed to forge strong supportive connections so that Ed.L.D.s could avoid the fate of so many other qualified system-level leaders in the education space. Instead of adding to the numbers of itinerant soldiers, scattered like ronin, engaged in their own isolated skirmishes, the goal was to help develop a new set of leaders with common purpose that could be leveraged to increase collective impact.
This convening revealed the true nature of the bonds across the first five Ed.L.D. cohorts. Conversations with my capstone mentor, and colleague Elliot Washor have helped me to understand that we are not a synthetic “network," because the “nodes” were not pre-determined and the strength of connections could not have been presciently anticipated. Instead we have grown into an organic “meshwork.” The growth of the Ed.L.D. meshwork is analogous to the process of frontal lobe development in the human brain; each additional cohort is a cascading wave of neurons growing through established layers, establishing new synapses, and responding to dynamic activity in an ongoing process of pruning and strengthening to create an incredibly complex processing unit — dare I call it an “Ed.L.D. brain.” (See this video clip of neurons, and compare the similarity to this animation of social network formation.)
How are these connections formed and strengthened? At the center of our convening were paired conversations, small groups, and plenary sessions that bridged our personal and professional lives in inextricably intertwined ways. We took risks and were vulnerable with each other as we shared and explored struggling with challenges such as:
- How our own individual race, gender, and socioeconomic class have been impacting the ways in which we are perceived by stakeholders;
- How to acknowledge and address the violent trauma that so many of our students, families, and community members experience, while simultaneously deliberately injecting joy and optimism into our schools;
- How to move beyond “telling” and instead “showing” our core values to stakeholders that often hold education leaders to impossibly high standards;
- How to persevere through life-threatening illnesses while striving to balance an unforgivably demanding career.
In addition, to grappling with these weighty dilemmas, we celebrated the (figurative) birth of new professional roles and the more literal birth of new babies, as the two newest arrivals of the Ed.L.D. extended family had been born within the last week in New York City and Pittsburgh.
In order to engage across this wide range of emotions, we needed to be able to bring our whole selves to this work. Over the course of our time together, consultancies and sharing of technical content played a suprisingly peripheral role. Consider Professor Mark Moore’s Strategic Triangle — as much as we love it! As Mark observed during a session that he led on Friday, it is the placement of a person, in a position, working on a project in the center of that triangle which brings the theory to life. However, this is not a zero-sum game. Taking time to engage in these intensely personal conversations did not diminish the professional benefit. Instead, the forging of these close personal connections enabled us to develop trust, engage openly and honestly, and have “courageous conversations” that advanced our understanding of our roles in the hypercomplex interdependent social structures that we encounter as we strive for systemic transformation.
Here’s a specific concrete example: I was thrilled to hear from Tracey Benson (Ed.L.D.’16) who is in the process with Veronica Benavides (also Ed.L.D.’16) and Ed.D. candidate Raygine DiAquoi, of putting the finishing touches on a case about the Ferguson Public Schools. The goal of this case study is not to critique whether or not the response to the death of Michael Brown was appropriate, but rather to catalyze conversations about how system-level leaders can organize to combat structural racism in schools and communities in pro-active ways to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. Tracey explained to us the ways in which his own personal experiences and professional interests merged, how he connected with other Ed.L.D.s and members of the HGSE community around shared core values, and ultimately collaborated to bring this case study to fruition.
Although I graduated a year ago, I doubt that I will ever feel that the “construction” of my Ed.L.D. experience is complete. Much as Longfellow Hall has undergone any number of renovations, remodeling, and additions, the building of the Ed.L.D. collective, and our work to transform the sector will continue to evolve. However, as Martin Luther King so eloquently declared, "Although social change cannot come overnight, we must always work as though it were a possibility in the morning.”
How do I feel now at the conclusion of the convening? I am all the more certain that we can’t build this alone, and we aren’t alone. As individuals, we can best thrive if we have a deep sense of belonging in the Ed.L.D. meshwork. Similarly, on an institutional level, Ed.L.D. can’t be expected to build it alone; we must seek out ways to cross-pollinate our individual professional organizations in service of a greater common good. The opportunity confers a responsibility to leverage our privilege, our power, and our perspective to catalyze broader collective action in service of systemic transformation. After developing new connections and re-connecting with colleagues/friends/family, despite the daunting challenges before us, I feel all the more inspired, invigorated, and dedicated to that goal.
Andrew Frishman, Ed.L.D.'14, will be stepping into co-leadership of Big Picture Learning in July 2015. He lives near Central Square in Cambridge with his wife, Leigh Needleman (a neuroscientist at Harvard) and his children who attend Peabody Terrace Children’s Center and Escuela Amigos, a Cambridge Public School.