A different kind of retreat



Hi everyone. I just joined Twitter. I have 9 followers. Is that a lot? I don’t know. If you want to follow, it’s @nonprofitwballs #confused #stilldontunderstandhashtags. On to this week’s post:

Over the weekend the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC) had our retreat. Whenever we have a major event, I tend to freak out, believing that all sorts of things will go wrong. I get night terrors, waking up in cold sweats screaming, “We gave people the wrong address! The zombies are coming!” (I should probably refrain from watching TV when I’m stressed out).

OK, first some background. Southeast Seattle is home to the most diverse zip code in the nation, 98118, which means ridiculously delicious ethnic foods. Unfortunately 98118 is also home to some of the most struggling schools. Seattle Public Schools District grades its schools from 1 to 5, based on absolute scores on tests as well as how fast they’re improving, with 5 being highest in terms of achievement. Of the 20 schools in SE Seattle, only one school is above a level 3, despite some of the most amazing and dedicated educators working here.

SESEC was formed for a couple of reasons. First, education reform in Seattle has been really contentious, with people blaming each other and throwing rocks. Reading comments on any article on education is like peering into the darkest recesses of the human souls. The tension is everywhere. I’ve seen friends literally get into fist fights at the Farmer’s Market, arguing about charter schools. OK, not literally, but there definitely was vigorous head shaking and vague threats of squishing the other person’s organic heirloom tomatoes. SESEC believes instead of fighting about stuff we don’t agree on and threatening to damage prized organic produce, why don’t we work on stuff we can agree to, like parental engagement and extended learning programs.

Another reason we were formed is that while in Washington State we have many efforts to improve schools, communities of color are not well represented. It is alarming and a symptom of a not-quite-effective system when the “achievement and opportunity gap” most impacts kids of color, and yet the communities of color are barely there at these tables that are making major policy recommendations. We communities of color in SE Seattle must be in the front leading and painting a vision where all kids are successful. “All Fives in Five,” we say, our campaign slogan to push for all schools down here to become a Level 5 school within 5 years. And we believe we can get there if we all work together.

A year later, we now have about 50 organizations and schools working in collaboration, one of the most diverse coalitions in the State. That’s why we had to have the retreat, to prioritize our goals and develop an action plan, and why I bolted up in bed screaming, “Pork sandwiches?! Nooooooooo!!” (With so much diversity, having culturally appropriate food is very important).

On the day of, I had gotten up early so that I had extra time to freak out. I was worried that people wouldn’t show up, or they couldn’t find the place, or the babysitters we recruited would flake out and the children in the childcare room would escape and run amok, or that people would find the retreat useless, or that one more of my favorite characters would die on Downton Abbey. I was worried about whether we had enough stickers for when people started voting on the advocacy priorities. Each person gets five and a half star stickers to vote with. What if we didn’t have enough stickers?! People who didn’t have stickers would then have to vote by writing their initials like animals and the retreat would be a failure!!!

38 people showed up representing over 25 different organizations. The attendance was great, but I was still stressed. Our facilitator had her baby on a sling. The baby started making loud baby sounds. At one point, we could hardly hear a guest speaker because some children were curious and left the childcare room and climbed on to their mothers’ lap and started asking questions such as “can we get some stickers?” Arrg, I needed to crack down on the babysitter in the childcare room, I thought. For various activities we broke into groups. “If my five-year-old son is looking for me,” said a mother, “can you let him know I’m in the basement with a group?” How could anyone concentrate with children running around?

Then, as I watched our facilitator, whose baby was now snuggled up asleep in her sling, I realized something. In my worries about having an efficient retreat, I lost sight for a moment of why we were having it in the first place. This is what the community looks like. This is our community. We cannot retreat from our community. It is diverse. It includes children and babies. Most of the people in the room were not professional lobbyists or policy analysts. These are direct service providers and parents and educators, people who gave up six hours of their Saturday after working hard all week to be here.

After I took a breath and calmed myself down, I looked around the room and saw how awesome it was that so many people came, and what a great community we had. At least 60% of the room were people of color from all over the world. One Somali mom, for whom English is not her first language, told us it was her birthday. It was her birthday, and she was here in a church foyer working to improve the education system.

The groups took turns reporting out. The five-year old had found his mother and was happily eating a cookie. His mother started reporting on what her group had discussed. “We believe that every school needs a counselor or case manager, or both,” she said. The little boy, not missing a beat, shouted, “My mom is right!” The room broke into laughter. “We first need to map out which school currently has which resources in this area, and what they need,” she continued.

“My mom is right again!” said the little boy, “that’s two times now that she is right.”

The day was a good learning experience for me. Most times the purpose of a retreat is to withdraw from civilization so that we have time to think. But I have seen this to become the default in social justice work, where in the drive for expediency, we leave behind the people most impacted. They become the “for whom” we do the work, the recipient of our fight for equity. It is an ineffective model. When we do this type of work, it cannot be “for” the community. It must be alongside the community, and the Southeast Seattle community looks like this room. The babies, the little kids, the parents fighting hard to understand the discussion, they are not a detriment to the work. They are our community; they are our strength.

Overall, it was a good retreat. I can relax for a couple of days before starting to freak out about our annual dinner.

  • I am thankful that my nonprofit appeals mostly to the elderly and infirm . . . since babies totally give me the heebie jeebies. Bless you for managing your organization in a baby-rich region of this great nation of ours, so that I don’t have to do so . . . I appreciate (on a macro basis) the fact that we need to reproduce (statistically speaking) even though I don’t want to experience us doing it . . .

    • Vu

      J. Eric, babies are great. Except baby girls who are forced to wear those ridiculous headbands with the one flower glued on. If any parent came with their kid wearing one of those stupid-looking headbands, I would have kicked them out.

  • Kat

    The retreat was awesome. Now let’s unretreat. I mean move forward. I mean keep working on all this really hard stuff, together. It was so great to have kids in the room to remind us why we’re all working so hard, parents who felt like they finally had some expertise to lend, and nonprofit and education leaders looking for concrete solutions.

    • Vu

      Thanks, Kat. And thanks, Subway, for donating culturally-appropriate sandwiches.

  • Joan Yoshtiomi

    People of color think and create together in communities. You have a community to build on. Thanks for sharing!

    • Vu

      Thanks, Joan. I hope you’ll drop by a SESEC meeting. We’re doing awesome stuff 🙂

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