On Listening, Love, and Building a Better World

Remake Learning co-chairs Gregg Behr and Mary Murrin reflect on Charlottesville and the role of education in building a world that looks after its most vulnerable.

Like most everybody else, we’ve spent the past several weeks grappling with this summer’s tragedies, most notably the horrors of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. By now, the images from those two days have achieved a sort of infamy: an army of bitter young men wielding tiki torches; bodies bouncing off a Dodge Challenger; the bloodied faces of those who dared to protest hate. These would be vile, unsettling sights in any American town, let alone one whose primary export is knowledge.

“Remake Learning hopes to contribute to a new normal — one in which learning barriers are dismantled and the walls that divide us are toppled.”

As co-chairs of Remake Learning, we’ve worked for more than a decade to put a dent in some of society’s most pressing problems — inequality, the achievement gap, poverty — by leveling the educational playing field. If we could only give every child a great education, we hoped we could gradually make a difference in building a more just, inclusive, and loving world. But watching the carnage unfold in Charlottesville, we had to wonder: Is knowledge really enough?

While nearly all of Charlottesville’s foot soldiers had nothing to do with the town’s flagship university, we’ve learned that many were, in fact, current college students or recent grads from around the country. These men seemed to be high-achievers: men who mingle with senators and student leaders on campus. They were undeniably educated in the traditional sense, having procured credits and degrees. They leveraged their academic experience for personal success, attaining a level of privilege and comfort long denied to the people they loathe.

But an education that leads one to don swastikas and shout Nazi slogans isn’t an education at all. These men may have knowledge, but they lack understanding. They lack empathy. What happened in Charlottesville wasn’t the result of low test scores or America’s sinking academic rank, though these problems persist. It wasn’t the result of charter schools, voucher programs, or other long-running battles over how and where our children learn. What happened in Charlottesville was a symptom of deep-seated racism, a legacy of systemic oppression, and a pervading lack of love — problems that won’t be solved by knowledge alone. Problems that all of us, especially those in positions of power and influence, must confront.

But how, in an era defined by shouting, violence, and angry Tweets?

Now more than ever, we look to Fred Rogers, creator of the revolutionary children’s program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, for guidance. We can start, Rogers tells us, by listening. “Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors,” he once wrote. It’s by listening that we can come to understand, empathize, and work alongside one another to expand love and change the systems that divide us.

As Remake Learning celebrates its tenth anniversary, we’ve been thinking about how our own network of regional educators, schools, families, and nonprofits can play a part. In many ways, that work is already underway: Our recently released impact report Learning Together illustrates where and how our members have invested millions of dollars in schools, programs, and providers; hosted professional development for thousands of educators; and unleashed new technologies and programs that are impacting thousands of learners and families.

Our members demonstrate the value of working side by side as peers, leveraging Remake Learning’s spirit of collaboration and inclusivity to connect across sectors, backgrounds, geographies, and experiences to serve our community’s most vulnerable. Rather than taking a top-down approach to strategy, our members are the network’s strategy, and the sole source of our ability build a better region. We strive, as TandemEd co-founders Dorian O. Burton and Brian C.B. Barnes write in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, to “Be on tap, not on top” — a network where “all parties listen with an empathetic ear, contribute ideas and perspectives, and then wrap whatever expertise and resources they have around community leaders in an effort to bring their dreams to fruition.”

We’re proud to bring those community leaders together with some replicable formulas.

The Expanding Innovations Project, for example, pairs school districts with local experts to design customized projects. Cohorts match some of the region’s most well-supported districts with some of the most under-served, allowing educators working in vastly different contexts to listen to, learn from, and partner with one another. Recognizing that no one person or institution can eliminate the region’s inequities on its own, Remake Learning facilitates these partnership-building opportunities in order to overcome social divides and circumnavigate unjust systems, ensuring that champions for children in every community can share ideas, resources, and expertise.

This sort of region-wide, cross-sector collaboration is increasingly the norm in greater Pittsburgh. Some of our most forward-thinking professional development opportunities are open to educators regardless of school or district, and with support from the network’s funders, are often free or nearly free. In Pittsburgh’s urban core, the Children’s Innovation Project — a collaborative effort launched by an artist and a kindergarten teacher to help children make learning visible — offers professional development to educators in Pittsburgh Public Schools and beyond. In our suburbs, the Elizabeth Forward School District’s Pittsburgh FAB Institute is open and free, too, drawing educators from around North America to learn computer-aided design, laser cutting, electronics production, and programming. And our members also work in more rural communities, remaking learning in West Virginia; teaching and training 11th and 12th graders for jobs in the energy industry in Greene County; and drawing crowds to STEAM events in New Castle. No other region in the country offers educators more opportunities to work together — opportunities that become especially important in under-resourced schools, where specialists and other crucial supports aren’t always accessible.

Of course, we’re mindful that this strategy can take us only so far. Sharing resources and professional development is a critical first step in bringing the region’s learners and educators closer together, but a lesson on 3D printers won’t help students in schools that can’t afford one — direct investments and targeted supports are essential, too. A core tenet of Remake Learning’s work calls us to focus on learners who’ve been marginalized or left behind: learners in poverty; learners of color; learners in rural areas; girls in STEM; and learners with exceptionalities. How do we partner with these learners and their champions to amplify their voices, strengths, and potential?

While we don’t have all the answers, we believe it starts, again, with listening to those whom we strive to serve. That means seeking out and understanding the aspirations, challenges, and concerns of our diverse communities, from inviting Perry Traditional Academy students to inform our revamped mission, vision, and values to taking our partners’ most promising programs on the road — dispatching mobile fabrication labs to Greene and Fayette Counties and under-resourced urban schools, for example; or funding MAKESHOP satellite sites in community centers and affordable housing developments.

It means spotlighting and clustering events in low-income and rural neighborhoods during Remake Learning Days, the world’s largest open house for innovative teaching and learning. Or calling on Pittsburgh’s communities to help shape policies that will affect learners for years to come. It means asking ourselves difficult questions and having uncomfortable conversations: As a network, do we look enough like the communities we serve? Do we deeply understand the contexts in which we work? Are we meeting every learner’s needs? Are we doing enough to change unjust systems?

Sometimes the answer is “no,” and we’re reminded that expanding love means acknowledging when we need to do a better job of living up to our values. The process is never easy and sometimes painful, but it’s always necessary. Because if we are to truly model for our kids what it looks like to love our neighbors, then we need to be willing to set aside our own agendas, our own egos, and our own pride for the sake of that more admirable aim.

By striving toward “yes,” Remake Learning hopes to contribute to a new normal — one in which learning barriers are dismantled and the walls that divide us are toppled.

Our friend Tonya Allen, CEO of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, sometimes asks, “And how are the children?” It’s a traditional Masai greeting intended to gauge a society’s well-being. The traditional response, “All the children are well,” means that despite challenges and difficulties, the adults haven’t forgotten their purpose: to look after their young and vulnerable.

As the events in Charlottesville so painfully demonstrated, we can’t yet say that all the children are well. But here’s what we can do: We can listen to and love our neighbors. We can work alongside one another toward justice and a better world. Affirming the well-being of all will be a monumental task — one that requires a sustained, collaborative effort that pays special attention to those whose voices have long gone unheard.

Here in Pittsburgh, we can look around and take heart, because so many leaders are already convening to take on the challenge.

Published September 19, 2017

Authored by: