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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

On the Ground in Tucson

We are pleased to share with you today a piece from our storytelling series of reflections and noticings coming out of our convening in Tucson!

Please stay tuned for more writings from our team of storytellers and revisit the blog here to see them all in the coming months.


A number of storytellers captured their thoughts in images and short pieces. We'll be sharing those as well as the longer writing.

"I ain't here for no reason."

By Jessica Bernal-Mejia


Difficult Conversations and Cultural Awareness Matters

By Dr. Dwight E. Rhodes

Have you attended a conference, reflected on it, and wondered why in the heck did you waste your time? Maybe like some of you, I've attended many conferences that didn't leave a lasting positive impact on my career/life. Thankfully, that was not my experience at the ALP conference.

As a former teacher, principal, district, and state educational leader, my inaugural attendance at the ALP conference and my experience as a neophyte crew facilitator allowed me to leave the conference with many thought-provoking and soul-filling experiences. I'd like to share two of them with you now.

Difficult Conversations

As a black, gay, agnostic, southern male who is married to an immigrant, I deeply understand what it feels like to be an outsider; not seen, not heard, and not valued. So I wondered what depth of diversity I would encounter at the conference. For example, would the conference be diverse enough to have varied perspectives from multiple races and experiences that could lead to meaningful learning conversations and learning opportunities?

Little did I know my ride from the airport to the conference center would be the gateway to exploring some of those questions.

Instead of waiting for the conference shuttle sprinter vans to take us to the center, three other conference attendees and I grabbed an Uber. During the 40-minute Uber ride, I quickly realized I didn't have to wonder if I would experience varied perspectives and conversations.

The Uber driver proudly proclaimed he supported using public school funds to support private schools (aka universal school vouchers). He did not support having a more comprehensive teaching of this nation's history of slavery and discrimination (aka Critical Race Theory). He did not understand why schools needed to be a space for students to discuss and better understand their feelings (aka Social Emotional Learning) instead of focusing entirely on reading, writing, and arithmetic. The Uber driver's perspective was the very antithesis of the issues I most valued.

As others along for the ride challenged the driver's perspective on those hot-button topics, it was apparent no one else in this car shared his viewpoints. When the driver exclaimed that America was not founded and built on the backs of enslaved people, it took the collective learning from years of therapy, professional learning experiences, and my father's voice in my head not to lose my temper and fall into the angry black man stereotype.

Yes, I was triggered, but as I sat in the front passenger seat, I surprised myself, kept my cool, and listened.

Interestingly, the driver became somewhat agitated when I, and my fellow allies, pushed back by asking him why he felt that way. His trite, nonfactual, and conspiratorial answers reminded me of the importance of students developing critical thinking skills in our public schools and having the structure to demonstrate that skill through equitable learning assessments.

Although the ride seemed interminable, we eventually reached the conference center, exited the Uber, parted ways with the driver, and collectively sighed a breath of relief.

I share that quick vignette to illustrate three reasons why engaging in difficult conversations can be powerful learning lessons for all of us as we develop new habits of working together:

  1. It allowed me to push my growth edge by listening with curiosity to drastically opposing points of view without my amygdala being hijacked.

  2. It reminded me that sitting in a place of inquiry to understand another person's perspective better, regardless of how challenging, is an opportunity to listen and learn.

  3. Those challenging exchanges are opportunities for all of us to seek understanding to build more empathetic communities.

Cultural Awareness

Before attending the conference, I eagerly anticipated gaining new insights and knowledge to help me grow as a school transformational leader and LGBTQIA+ Leadership Advocate. I looked forward to exploring innovative assessment practices and strategies that would support dismantling the historical racists and oppressive ways of "schooling" in this country.

However, Chucho Ruiz Vai Sevoi's (aka barrio intellectual) session allowed me to think differently about my approach to attending the conference and what I might experience.

For me, Chucho skillfully modeled building community as a powerful tool to liberate our public schools. How? He set the tone for the conference by passionately recognizing and honoring the original inhabitants of the land on which the conference center stands. He engaged the entire audience as a community by asking us to stand with our arms extended, palm hands facing up, as he chanted a sacred prayer as the audience rotated west, north, east, and south.

This sacred ritual, which I had never experienced, reminded me of the importance of cultural awareness that intentionally honors the diverse traditions of Indigenous Peoples. That cultural understanding recognizes and acknowledges the contributions and sacrifices of the land's original inhabitants, where many of us strive to improve student learning outcomes. Every school in this country stands on the land once occupied, revered, and protected by Indigenous Peoples.

Chucho's boldness to open our conference by engaging all of us as a community rooted in Native American culture still resonates with me. Being reminded of the importance of cultural awareness and diversity fuels my desire to continue unapologetically advocating for liberated learning outcomes and equitable assessment practices for the students now inhabiting the land where their school buildings sit and the innumerable places we all live, work, and play.

By honoring, acknowledging, and advocating for that type of cultural awareness in our public schools, aren't we, in a way, dismantling some of the long-established oppressive teaching, learning, and assessment practices in our schools?


About the Storytellers

Jessica Bernal-Mejia is a teacher in the Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction department at Tucson Unified School District.

Dr. Rhodes is an educational thought leader, author, and C.E.O./Founder of Rhodes2Equity Consulting (R2E), which represents the intersection of his learning as a 2017 Harvard doctoral graduate of educational leadership and a twenty-plus-year educator.

R2E is an educational consulting firm specializing in equity-focused school initiatives to dramatically improve the learning outcomes for all students, particularly those from historically marginalized communities.

His organization also helps BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ Leaders embrace their identity markers as an asset, not a liability, and boldly push back against the "Don't Say Gay" legislation spreading across our country. He welcomes thought-provoking conversations, so feel free to connect with him via Linkedin.

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