Healing our Divide through “Reach-Listen-Learn-Lead”

Much talk has been made since the last election and the inauguration of the new President, of how divided our country is in terms of political and cultural views. Trust in people with different views, practices or looks has reached an all time low.   While we are in the midst of  Covid 19 and the renewed Social Justice  awareness, our country is in the impeachment process of the former president.  The fractures can seem overwhelming.   Part of this divide can clearly be seen on political maps showing how people voted county by county through-out the U.S.  However, very little has been proposed regarding how to bridge this divide and create a culture of understanding and tolerance for others.  Unfortunately broadcast  and social media has played a primary role in furthering this divide. 


I am addressing  this issue from the ground up with an urban and out-state/rural school exchange program. We must look to our young people and give them the opportunity to help solve this serious problem confronting the very foundation of our democracy. This can not be accomplished simply by relying on our political leaders or most of the "grown ups" in this country. They seem to be too busy to listen and therefore lack an understanding of others.  This is a dangerous path.


Reach-Listen-Learn-Lead is a cross cultural exchange program aimed at bringing classrooms of urban and rural students together through web based and physical exchanges. It is based on the philosophy of existing international cross cultural exchange programs.  It is designed for both Middle and High School age students.  The program is founded on the premise of reaching out to others that are different and listening to their viewpoint. This in turn opens up a dialogue that can be the foundation for understanding. This dialogue can help inform and develop our future leaders.  Visit my website at beyondthewallseducation.com and you will find more information as well as a Power Point that will give you more details on how the program works.  I can also be contacted at chris@beyondthewallseducation.com for more information.  It may feel good to preach to the choir, or march and protest (all of which have their place), but we must also be willing to Reach, listen, learn and lead to help bridge the divide.

"Those People"

“Those People”

Now that the 2020 election is history, we are left with many questions, but one of the biggest seems to be ‘how do we unite a divided nation?  This is always difficult in a democracy that calls for compromise and understanding, but is now even more urgent.   We should not expect our politician’s to suddenly step up and do this; it is the responsibility of all Americans.  However the question remains, ‘How do we do this and what is it that divides us so?   To get to the core of this question we must be willing to step out of our own comfort zones (be they physical or relational) and try to understand one another as Americans. 

Soon after the election I tried a little experiment.  As a conversation would come up regarding the impact of the election on minority communities (ethnic, racial, religious, sexual, etc.), I would drop an occasional “those people” when referring to minority communities.  I would slip in a comment such as “Those people need to understand….”  This was much to the horror of my friends and other like minded people.   At the same time it has been quite common to hear the same people (myself included) use “those people” when referring to folks who voted for the opposing candidate.   Suddenly the use of “those people” was acceptable.  So I began to wonder;  ‘What do we mean or express when we use that phrase?   What I concluded is that it stands for people or communities we do not know or don’t understand, or even worse, don’t want to understand.  All this leads to is fear of the other and gets in the way of a meaningful dialogue.


After the election results were in, maps were posted to show how people voted.  With the map of the US color coded blue for the Democratic votes and red for Republican, it was quite obvious how the divide played itself out politically.   Most of the metropolitan areas and large cities were blue, Suburbs were a shade in between and the rural areas (much larger in land and smaller in population) were red.  This was also easily seen if you were to drive from a city like Minneapolis to Milwaukee.  Biden signs dominated the city, a smattering of both in suburbs, and primarily Donald Trump signs in rural and small town areas.  If one was to listen to the rhetoric coming from these differing areas it was not and is not uncommon to hear those who live in cities refer to out-state people as being less educated, xenophobic, bigoted bumpkins, right wing religious zealots.  I have heard this frequently, and again.  However this is a rather simplistic and shallow view of my fellow Americans, and will certainly do nothing to help heal a divide.  On the reverse side it is not uncommon to hear those in less populated areas where there is less racial or ethnic diversity, refer to city folks as elitist, selfish, socialist, lazy government sucking tools of a mainstream media and big government that wants to take our freedom and rights away.  Again this is a rather simplistic and divisive view that is directed by a lack of understanding.


So where can we begin to build a bridge across what divides us.  As with many of the problems that lie ahead, the solutions will belong to our young people.  Therefore, they must be given opportunities to explore what is happening beyond their own world and the rhetoric they hear in the communities they live and associate with.  Just as in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, it may be our school system that becomes the societal tool used to bridge the divide.  Hopefully it will not have to be a Supreme Court ruling that will make this happen, but common sense approaches used by schools, teachers and students. While the media and social media have been used as tools to divide, new ways to communicate outside of our chosen boundaries must be created.  Different ways to engage using both electronic communication, as well as face to face encounters should be offered.   Civil dialogue opportunities, where our students are encouraged to listen and ask questions of each other need to be developed.  Young people’s voices need to be heard in the greater conversation, “What does it mean to be an American?”


I would propose that schools and our communities begin to explore several avenues to make this happen.   These could include:

1.      Using electronic connections to create class room exchanges between urban, suburban and rural schools.  There are many examples of this happening between schools in different countries, set up to learn about each other’s cultures, but few exist to support exchanges within one’s own state or our country. With most schools being connected to the wider world through the internet, this would not be too difficult.

2.      Creating actual exchange programs for urban/suburban youth to visit rural areas or the reverse.   This could be modeled on Rotary Club or other international exchange programs but for a shorter period of time.  These programs ask young people to step outside of their comfort zones and explore new cultures and ways of life.  This ultimately helps develop tolerance for other points of view.

3.      Inquiry based writing projects within social studies, language arts or other appropriate classes.  Gathering information about communities that are different than one’s own opens up opportunities for students to look deeper into what it is that helps define the values and identity of others.  

4.    Short term community exchanges.  Opportunities could be provided for groups of students to visit each other’s communities for short periods of time, say a long week end.  Typically when out state kids come into a city it is for sports related reasons or for a larger shopping selection.   Instead, they could dine at ethnic restaurants; visit stores run by different ethnic minorities and attend arts related performances that are run by different minority groups.  At the same time, city / suburban kids could visit rural and out state areas for a weekend and eat in the cafes, shop in the downtown areas and visit places such as farms or small businesses and companies that are not typically visited by “city kids”.


I am sure there are many more ideas that would promote a positive dialogue between young people versus one that is destructive and built on mistrust and misinformation.  We should not waste too much time “preaching to the choir” but redirect that energy to listening to the different.  If we all do this we may actually learn something.  And if this proves too difficult for adults, it will have to be our youth (who are often more willing to try new things and take on challenges) to step up and do this.  This is imperative if we are to build a cohesive country that is not divided by hardened ideological positions.



If you are interested in setting up an exchange program with your school contact Chris Brown at beyondthewallseducation@gmail.com  and you can find out more information about the services Chris offers at Beyond The Walls Education


Implicit Bias – We All Must Be Aware

The start of the new school year is a time of new beginnings and it is also a good time to look in the mirror and examine our own biases, stereotypes and prejudices.  Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that they exist in all of us, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, or religion.  This is important not only for teachers, police and others who deal with the public, but for all who hope for a country and world that truly reflects the words of equality and fairness that are the foundation of the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

We are told not to judge a book by its cover – Yet this is precisely how we frequently behave.  Take the job interview for instance – Interview coaches will spend a great deal of time stressing the impact of first impressions we make in an interview  i.e., get your hair styled, hands and fingernails clean, nice attire, firm handshake and look a person in the eyes.  All of this comes before the interview which is supposed to be the portion that reveals ones qualifications.  Why is this so?   This is most likely due to implicit bias.  Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner American Bar Association – legal definition)

In 1992 I had just returned from the Peace Corps and traveling around South East Asia.  I moved to Powderhorn Park area of Minneapolis and my first purchase was a brand new mountain bike, which was my only mode of transportation.   Several months later my bike was stolen and I was devastated.  I was on the constant look out in my neighborhood for my bike.  However, I began to take note that when I saw African American kids with a blue bike I took a far longer and focused look than I did when I saw white kids with blue bikes.  When I realized this it concerned me.  I wasn’t racist (I didn’t think) – I was in the Peace Corps after all, how could I be.  Why was this so?   As I looked deeper into why I might react this way I became more aware of my own implicit biases.  Where did this come from?  Then I began to realize that I had (in a sense) been programmed for this.  

While my upbringing stressed tolerance and acceptance for all people, many of the media messages I was getting were exactly the opposite.  Take cartoons from the 50’s and 60’s; here we can find a never ending supply of racist images that were ingrained.  The blackface crows of Dumbo, The Native American portrayals in Peter Pan or the portrayal of Asians with giant glasses and bucked teeth.   Old Looney Toon cartoons portrayed Arabs as greedy saber wielding fools.    

Then there were the Television crime shows and sitcoms – Adam 12, Dragnet, Starskey and Hutch – All of these shows had white male cops or detectives and many times African American criminals.  I Spy stood out because it broke the mold with an African American (Bill Cosby) in a leading role as a productive character.   Then there were the wholesome shows (some of which I still love today) like Leave it to Beaver, Andy Griffith, The Brady Bunch, all shows that showed healthy white families with morals. Put these against Good Times which portrayed an African American family living in the projects with a frequently unemployed father and Jimmy Walker as the loveable fool.    These portrayals and images were unconsciously burned into my head.

If we are aware of some of the causes of implicit biases can we avoid it?  The answer is probably not.  Scientific research suggests that implicit bias is a built in defenses mechanism.  If a stranger approaches but they look and behave like us they are quite possibly a friend.  If a stranger approaches and they look and behave differently, they may be an enemy.  This goes back to the earliest human times.

Then what is the impact in today’s world.  Quite simply it leads to discrimination based on difference.   Think of what this means in policing, teaching, criminal justice, bank loans, housing, hiring practices, etc. etc.

Take teaching for example. What impact could implicit bias have on a typical classroom in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Roseville or St. Louis Park?  Many of the classrooms in these school districts are very diverse in makeup.  What is going through a teachers head as the students enter the room the first day?  Some are Native American, some are Asian, some are African American, some are white, some where a hijab, some may have a physical handicap, some are dressed very nice and others are not.  How does a teacher teach each student equally and fairly with the same high expectation for everyone based on their character and not their outward physical appearance?

This is the paradox.  If we can’t avoid it, yet realize that it can be quite harmful in today’s world, what can we do?  The answer is we must be aware and reflective within our-selves.  We must examine our own biases we may have and then reflect frequently on the impact they have on our relationship with others.  Don’t be afraid to acknowledge they exist.  One does not have to think they are racist to admit that implicit bias does indeed exist in their own view of people that are different.

To get the conversation going within yourself I would suggest taking an on-line test through Harvard University called Harvard Project Implicit - https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html    After taking the short test, pass this it on to family and friends, and have a frank discussion about your results.  At the same time be prepared for a difficult conversation.  Nobody admits to bias or racism; however the test results may contradict that and help start that conversation.



Why we need STEAM more than STEM

Ever since the shock of the Soviet Unions’ launch of Sputnik in 1957 there has been a push for more and better science education in the United States.  This played itself out quite visibly both in the classroom (an influx of science related materials and science carts) as well as in the general public with the quest (and ultimate success) to land on the Moon.  By the end of the 1970,s the United States graduated more engineers (80,000 per year) than any other nation.  Then in the 1980’s “A Nation at Risk” was published which claimed the US was falling behind other developing nations in the area of education outcomes.  How could this be in a country that only 15 years earlier had put humans on the Moon?  Suddenly there was a renewed fear that we would lose our place as the leader in innovation.  A decade later the National Science Foundation developed a new set of science education standards and created the acronym STEM, which many know stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.   Although it took a while for this acronym to catch on (many thought it stood for stem cell research) today it is a common acronym in education.  The goal of STEM is to get more students, especially girls, interested and involved in the sciences.  This in turn will keep the US on top in the area of scientific research and advancement.  This is a noble and hopefully fruitful goal, however there is something missing – the arts.


I believe we need to have STEAM not just STEM.  When the arts are missing from our STEM programs we are sorely missing something big – creativity.   Students who relate better to the arts are frequently sent to alternative programs or are put on alternative tracks.  The students who are better in science do better on tests and are sent into advanced classes.  This system invariably separates the arts curriculum from the science and math curriculum and brings us back to the old discussion of function vs. form.    Unfortunately when it comes to funding and program initiatives in education, function continues to win and form gets left behind.  This can readily be seen in today’s new apartment buildings or large scale condos which tend to be quite boxy, albeit efficient boxes.  As one drives along the Mississippi river in Minneapolis you can see new housing going up at record pace and it is quite apparent that function has an edge over form.  Many of the new housing units are reminiscent of Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes” but these are big boxes.   At the same time many public school budgets are increasing funding for STEM programs and cutting Arts (both visual and performing) budgets.   This is a travesty and need not be.

So why is it so difficult to bring arts into STEM education?  I believe it’s because STEM outcomes are much easier to quantify, and in today’s data-driven decision making environment, this is what policy makers want – quantifiable data.  Science is all about testing a hypothesis and finding out if it’s correct or not.  Modern Technology itself is based on a binary number system of 0’s and 1’s or yes and no.  Engineering is based upon quantifiable measurement (weight, length, stress, etc.)  and most Math that is taught in schools seeks to find the correct answer.   All of these areas of STEM can be measured through testing that has right and wrong answers.  This is not so in the case of art.   As the old saying goes “Art is in the eye of the beholder”.  Art involves emotion, passion, cultural background, and interpretation that is not easily measured.   Most people agree that the Mona Lisa is a great work of art, however there are many arguments as to why this is the case.  Some say it is the overall beauty of the subject while others say it is the mysterious smile and her aloofness.  Scholars still argue why this is considered the most famous painting in the world.   Hardly quantifiable.  

Yet it is the arts that give us our humanity.  Qualities like beauty, splendor, uncertainty and awe are the very things that set us apart from other living creatures.   Most people enjoy a magnificent sunrise or sunset but would be hard pressed to tell you why in quantifiable terms.  Instead you hear people describe a sunset in terms of beauty, awe (did you see that awesome sunset last night?) and how it makes them appreciate the wonders of nature.   You will hear people say the Northern Lights are amazing and make them sit back and dream or feel a connection to something greater.  Again, not quantifiable.    

So how do we integrate things that are quantifiable into areas that are not?  Perhaps we should look to the Leonardo Davincis, or Frank Lloyd Wrights, or the Steve Jobs of the world.  These are all individuals who understood the connection of both.  While many people think of Davinci as an artist, we need to remember that he was also a curious scientist who spent much of his adult life exploring how machines (both living and non living) work.  Wright is remembered as an architect and engineer but aesthetics were of primary importance to him. Of course we all know that Apple has always considered the look and feel of its product to be almost as important as what it does.  This is evident when new Apple products are presented to consumers and the design and look of the product become a big part of the promotion.   

After looking at those who understand this connection, teachers and educators must examine their own biases and leanings.  Do you tend to see the world as an artist or a scientist?  Are you more comfortable with concrete answers or ambiguity?  Once you reflect on these traits within then ask yourself “how can I challenge myself to see things from a different point of view.”  As   an artist how can I better appreciate the quantifiable? Or as a Scientist “how can I better deal with questions that may not have any quantifiable answer?”   Once this is accomplished it is easier to invite others over to your side.  Art (both visual and performance) teachers should be talking to teachers in the math and science department to see how they might collaborate on projects. Perhaps a unit in visual arts focusing on the paintings of Monet can invite a botanist to talk about the lily pads that are featured in a painting.  Or a band teacher can invite a math teacher in to talk about timing and tempo and the science of musical cadence.   Or a physics teacher can bring in a photographer to talk about the beauty of the photos from the Hubble telescope.  


Hopefully we can make the current STEM education drive into a STEAM movement.  When we do this we will continue to make productive moves in our overall education system and continue to lead the world in creative inventions and products that not only work well, but also, appreciate and embrace the aesthetics that make us who we are.


For further information, research, or ideas, you might want to check out the following organizations:


STEAM Connect

The STEAM Journal