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Listening and Learning

I was going to press a wonderful post from Cheryl’s blog called Living in the Gap. Unfortunately, she does not have a press facility, so I did the next thing. I copied a paragraph from her post that I relate to:

“Am I ready to look at the part I play in the current reality, come out from the safety of the suburbs, and confront my own racism? To take a sober look at my own bias, privilege, and exclusionary practices. This is when I want to curl up like a pill bug and roll away, but this movement is not about me, it’s about listening, learning, and leaning into the race issues currently afflicting our country.”

We are in an unusual moment with the protests. They call us to stop and listen to one another in ways we may not be used to. They also call us to ask questions we have not asked in deep ways, such as “how do I confront my own prejudices? Am I even willing to confront them?” I use the word prejudice to open the space a bit more. It is not only about race. It is about gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.

Currently, I am co-writing an article for publication using Paulo Freire. Freire used critical theory and I paraphrase him here. He said prejudices are interwoven, arising from individual lived histories passed from one generation to another in unquestioned ways. It is listening to others without taking on a saviour role, without drowning their voices, and hearing them speak about their reality. They await opportunities to be raised into consciousness and critically questioned. How I understand this is through a Socratic lens where skepticism begins at home. How do I make the world better, more just, more democratic. Freire suggests it is a slow process. In his book, Pedagogy of Hope, he acknowledged using gender exclusive language in his seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published 30 years earlier. He learned to use more inclusive language as he became critically aware of the harm done without it. It was a small and necessary step.

Freire argues we need to listen to one another, not denying difference. Instead, he calls on us to accept “unity in difference.” At our core, (in French coeur is heart and core) we are each human. Too often, we talk over each other and listen to defend entrenched positions. A key theme in Freire’s writing is human “unfinishedness,” always becoming. I reflect when I took-for-granted privilege and wonder how I might overcome this. It is not easy. It will not be finished. I understand my role, as an elder, as one of serving and listening. Leadership is serving, transforming, and mindful, rather than transactional and hierarchical.

Robert Greenleaf stated “the best test [of servant-leadership], and difficult to administer, is: do those being served grow as persons; do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous while being served: Since so many people seem afraid to grow, the true servantleader who brings it about is an extraordinary person.” If I look at the next generation and they offer me hope that there is better to come, perhaps I can take some solace in that. Without hope, we wither and flee from the scene, abdicating our responsiblity to one another.

I leave you with a video of Langston Hughes’ poem Mother to Son. If I expand the defintion of pedagogue to its broadest etymology, it is how elders interact with youth, allowing them to dream. Hope is not about a lack of obstacles. After all, no life is a crystal staircase and that is most evident for those on the margins of our societies, including in Canada with its history of residential schools and mistreatment of people of colour. It is, as Freire suggests, being willing to struggle and fight to overcome overt and covert injustices and inequities we encounter and witness. It is listening and testifying in those moments to offer a hand to those in need, regardless of race, gender, orientation, creed, and class without being dogmatic. How do we testify in each of those moments? It is not succumbing to historical amnesia and existential weariness.


Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Servant Leadership — An Overview

Leadership came up several times in the first three World Cafe events including an explicit reference to servant-leadership which I feel it is a concept worth exploring. Serving and opening a path to leadership should have merit in education and I want to expand on the characteristics used to describe the servant-leader. I drew extensively from an article written by Larry Spears (2004) called Practicing Servant Leadership. Spears was the CEO at the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership. Its namesake, Robert Greenleaf, was the person responsible for developing and articulating servant-leadership.

A definition cited by Spears was servant-leadership “begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant–first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” Making sure people’s highest priority needs are served came up several times in our conversations. Words such as community, safe, listening, empathy, and compassion are a small sampler of descriptors provided in conversations. The following represent 10 characteristics attributed to a servant-leader, drawn from Greenleaf’s writings.

1. Listening: This can be broken into two parts. There is a deep listening to others, but also quiet reflection. Listening deeply to others represents compassion and quiet.regular reflection reveals wisdom.

2. Empathy: Through listening to others to understand, the servant-leader seeks empathy to accept and recognize special and unique spirits of those he/she listens to. Empathy calls for appropriate behaviour or acceptable performance from those being led.

3. Healing: The relationship between the servant and others carries an implicit message. There is a search for wholeness, integrity and completeness of the person. To be whole, one must feel listened to and served.

4. Awareness: Awareness is a disturber and awakener. The servant-leader is aware of both internal and external landscapes allowing for an integrated, holistic person to emerge. This awareness is a seeking to understand issues related to values and ethics.

5. Persuasion: This refers to the servant-leader using persuasive rather than positional power to make organizational decisions. Persuasion acts to build consensus rather than using coercion, manipulation, or power.

6. Conceptualization: This is the ability to balance the need to ‘dream great dreams’ and simultaneously remain focused on day-to-day functions of an organization.

7. Foresight: Allows the servant leader to learn lessons from the past, the immediate realities of the moment, and potential consequences that might arise in the future.

8. Stewardship: The rubric of servant-leadership is one in which all CEO’s, staff, and trustees act as stewards holding something in trust for the greater good of society. Stewardship is based on openness and persuasion rather than power and control.

9. Commitment to the growth of people: This is the responsibility to nurture the growth of each individual in a community. Members are allowed to reveal their gifts and, in turn, serve.

10. Building community: The servant-leader is aware of a shift from local community to large institutions to global networks as the primary shaper of human lives. This awareness calls the servant-leader to search for and identify various means to build and sustain community.

Greenleaf proposed the best test of the servant-leader is to ask, “Do those served grow as people? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? What is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

When I consider the best test, I am inclined to further wonder, “Is the role of a teacher ideal to serve? Is the role of teachers, in whatever capacity, best defined by asking: do children in their care become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely to become servants?” I include a vast grouping of people as teachers because many are called to serve and teach in various capacities. Parents and family members want their children to grow just as teachers in schools want their students to grow.

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