Several weeks ago, I published a piece that I had written for a public radio station, titled “Black Children Faring Poorly in Wisconsin.” But in the production of this piece, I had an epiphany that I believe is a teachable moment worth sharing across our network.
After writing and then submitting the text to the producer, I was invited to come in and record it. But while there, I just could not seem to get it right. I really struggled with delivery… delivering it in a way that she desired.
As I read the piece, she kept stopping me. She wanted me to emphasize specific words, change my inflection, and add more force to my message. After a while, I finally realized what she wanted. She wanted me to have attitude. I offered this epiphany to her and after processing for only a slight second, she agreed. She did want me to have attitude. In order to give the piece the pizazz and charisma she wanted, I needed to emote the charge of the words.
And for me, that was difficult.
I told her that as an educator that has historically worked in highly charged spaces (via contests for power and contests for personhood), my communication style has been guided by a “firm, flat, and fair” disposition. The more contested the space, the flatter I am programmed to become.
She found this philosophical approach to be rather interesting which led to conversations about the right to emotions (to have them and to express them). She asked me would I ever write about my “firm, flat, and fair” philosophy because she thought it to be intriguing. As I explained to her, I have loosely written about it in Empowerment Starts Here: Seven Principles to Empowering Urban Youth. In the section on student accountability (Chapter 7), I talked about how managing student behaviors mandated a firm, flat and fair approach. In order to avoid escalating conflict, firm, flat and fair was the way to go. And in many cases, it was how I trained staff to deescalate drama.
I guess I showed up at the radio station as an educator. While my piece advocated for the rights of Black children and the communities in which they live, I did not show up in that studio as an agitator.
The text of my message was already charged (click here to form your own opinion). I felt it stood on its own merit in terms of provocation. It did not need me showing more emotion or attitude if you will. I didn’t show up at the radio station to make people angry. I showed up to make people think.
I get it though. Some people only respond to provocation. To anger. To emotional outbursts. And, in many cases, it not only works. It’s necessary.
According to the Reverend Al Sharpton, “You’ve gotta turn people on before you can turn them out” (Politics Nation, October 20, 2014).
Sharpton was talking about turning people on through protests and rallies. He looked at them as vehicles for sending out a message…of generating support… of getting people amped up. So that in the next step, the step where strategy is developed and tactics are executed, you can get them to step up and act.
Activists and activism are certainly needed in order to help improve the state of marginalized spaces. But activism isn’t all charge. It isn’t all heat. Sometimes it is strategy devoid of attitude. Because sometimes, people need to feel safe when they are being challenged and stretched.
This is the case to be made with students. They need to feel safe at all times… even we are challenging and stretching them.
In an unrelated but relevant point to mention, Reverend Anthony (the senior minister at UUCA) gave a sermon where he reasoned that acts of equity can feel like oppression to those with unacknowledged privilege. In order to promote change to people married to how things already are, they’ve gotta feel safe.
The paradox between safety and provocation is one for continued reflection and critique but in today’s essay, I want to insert this consideration into the backdrop of classrooms where there are endless contests for power and personhood. Students disenfranchised from the institution of schooling and those living in an abyss of powerlessness are already provoked. From the moment they leave the house and are sent into a disconnected environment of in-school literacies that invalidates their at-home literacies and treats their existence as though it were a maligned state that needs to be fixed, they are adequately exposed with experiences that make them want to act to out.
They don’t need further provocation. They need a safe space to learn and to grow.
Firm, flat, and fair is a way for students to feel safe so they can disrobe the cloak of protection that often is saturated in weariness, fear, confusion, anger and fatigue. It is a way for students to step from behind the curtain and present themselves vulnerable to the work of showing up… the work of change.
I agree with Reverend Al in that sometimes you gotta show out in order to get people to show up. But if want people to change, especially in the ways in which they feel the most protected, you are going to have to make them feel safe.
Firm, flat and fair is a strategy of de-escalation. It is one that takes away the heat located in highly contested areas. It is a way of creating a space that is focused, just, and emotionally neutral. It is a way of saying… you can trust me (and) yes… we can work together! Provocation may work sometimes, but firm, flat, and fair is what they need to hear the most!