Feb 24 2013

Tell Your Story, or Perish at Your Own Hand

I’m going to take a quick detour from the budget issues to talk about something that I believe ties in directly to the way we perceive our schools, and by extension, the amount of investment we’re willing to place in those schools.

The Power of Narrative

You have a story to tell. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.
When someone else tells your story, it won’t be the story you want told.

Telling your story is critical to reaching agreement

In the nearly nine years that I’ve lived here, there’s been a narrative that the City schools are “bad”. This despite the reality that there are many “good” city schools. This narrative plays out in the media by focusing on what I call “Blue Light stories”, or stories that involve the police and stories that focus on district-wide measures with little or no background.

For the majority of the first several years I lived here, the only real stories coming out of the City schools were those that support the idea that there is an inherent “badness” about them. Fights, arrests, and failing schools, including a story that tried to paint a program that would keep pregnant teens in school as a problem rather than a solution. All this has furthered the notion that the City schools are “bad”.

Its easy to blame the media for this, but in reality it is the result of a reclusive organization that hopes to ride under the radar rather than spend the time and effort required to craft a narrative of successes despite the circumstance.

Truth is, there are plenty of examples of success in our City schools. Those successes happen despite the difficult realities that so many of our children face.

Our high rate of poverty means that the family of nearly every child in the district is one paycheck away, or less, from financial distress.

The transient nature of much of our population means that many children will transfer from one school to another, sometimes several times, during the school year. Research shows this can severely delay a child’s development.

High rates of teen pregnancy and crime in many neighborhoods means that children are thrust into adulthood well before they are ready, which often means they end their education prematurely.

These aren’t excuses, they are reality. A reality that the Schools can’t overcome on their own. A reality that most decision-makers in both the public and private sectors don’t want to face because it is an indictment of their continued inaction.

Instead, these same decision-makers tell stories of how the poor should pick themselves up by their bootstraps, ignoring the fact that none of those bootstrap stories we’ve all heard so much about came to fruition without the intervention of a benefactor.

Celebrate and Build on Success

President Obama at
Booker T. Washington event.
via White House

The story of Booker T. Washington High School’s victory of bringing President Obama to Memphis is perhaps one of the greatest victories for the City Schools. Here, in one of the most economically depressed zip codes in the County, a group of children, led by a nurturing faculty, did something that no one would have expected or believed they could do.

The story was simple, relevant and compelling…triumph over circumstance.

More recently, the naming of MCS Teacher Allison Chick as TN Teacher of the year provided the district with an opportunity to tell the stories of teachers who are going above and beyond to be a positive force in the lives of their children.

There are many teachers in Memphis who are a part of the I teach. I am. initiative. This program tells a compelling narrative. Unfortunately, it took me Googling Ms. Chick’s name to find it.

These examples, and hundreds more like them, are stories that need to be told. Stories of overcoming the odds. Stories that not only highlight individual achievement, but change the narrative that people somehow build success in a vacuum.

People need evidence of success to strengthen their hope, faith and resolve that things can get better. There is no single magic bullet. At this point, the district isn’t even firing a shot. The result is a continued belief that nothing is getting better and nothing can be done.

It is critical that the district challenge that narrative head on.

What Our Schools Say About Us

The disconnect is stunning. As a community, we conveniently ignore the fact that if our schools are failing, we as a community are failing.

Yet those who would seek to discredit the City schools continue to point to them as a failure, even though they themselves are complicit in that failure.

By failing to address the circumstances that are a drag on the development of our children and our overall prosperity we fail to recognize that we’re all in this together…whether we like it or not.

Some try to excuse these failures by characterizing whole classes of people as lazy or worse. Truth be told, if there were as many lazy folks in our community as people claim, the uphill battle would be far steeper than it is today. No man is an island. Without meaningful and widespread support, even the most gifted fail.

The end result is, as a community, we’ve proven to be either too selfish, or short-sighted to even begin to tackle these longstanding problems that ultimately impact educational attainment and community prosperity.

In the long run, we’re doing nothing but hurting ourselves.

The Power of Belief

Chalenge yourself to not only believe, but to act.

Over two years ago, when the Grizzlies began the “Believe Memphis” campaign, a lot of us thought it was a joke. I’ll admit to openly mocking it.

In the time since I’ve become a believer.

This isn’t just because of the words, though that helped, but also because of the results. The team went on to prove me wrong in my belief to a point that they changed my belief.

Building success in education takes more than a season, but there are many little agreements that can be sought to build that larger agreement of belief.

Telling your story is the first step to building belief. It shows people that you not only care, but that you care enough to say it in a meaningful, coherent and engaging way.

That’s important. You can’t build agreement with just words alone. You must do it in a way that is mindful of those who may seek a different narrative, and be ready to smack that down clearly and concisely.

Failing to do that, just gives more legs to your detractors.

Silence is Deadly

Silence is not golden

As we’ve seen with the current debate about the $145m deficit in the proposed school budget, not telling the story of why the USB needs to bridge the gap is severely hurting the body, and the future of our schools.

There are people, both on the USB and on the County Commission, who seek to discredit the USB because it furthers their short-term interests…municipal schools.

The USB has done itself no favors by neglecting to release a detailed draft of proposed expenditures and showing how those expenditures compare to previous years.

I’ve attempted to do this, by showing last year’s budget, but that can only go so far. Without real numbers from the USB, even they can’t defend themselves, not to mention, a blogger who has limited time, and few resources other than passion.

That passion is fading due to the lack of meaningful information from the body. I can write about this all day long, but the ultimate responsibility is for the USB to tell the story of why there’s a $145m deficit. They not only haven’t done that with any clarity, they’ve all but refused to do so.

The result is that individuals, like County Commissioners Chris Thomas, Wyatt Bunker, and Terry Roland, have rolled the USB making them look inept. Whats more, people who would likely take the side of the USB have been left with nothing to present a counter-argument.

Stop being stupid. Get out in front of your story. Your silence is not only killing you, but also hurting the future of children in the district.

Conclusion

It doesn’t matter that the numbers, as they stand right now, are merely projections. They’re the numbers you have. Support them.

It doesn’t matter if the motivation of of the $145m increase was to sow conflict. The USB voted on it, overwhelmingly approved it. Support it. (Note: I’m not saying that was the motivation, I’m just not counting it out as a possibility.)

It doesn’t matter that your main detractors on the County Commission also support municipal schools. Even your supporters can’t get behind this proposal because you haven’t supported it.

Stop making the counter-argument easy for your detractors.

Stop acting like a helpless, hapless body.

Get out in front of your story. Support it with documents and facts. Make it easy for natural allies to not only come out in favor of the proposal, but become evangelists for the cause.

That’s how you build agreement.

That’s how you stifle dissent.

That’s how you tell the story of what we could be…if only people were willing to invest in the future.

Is the USB willing to invest the effort to tell the story of our community?

Only time will tell.