Empathic Design, Social Equity, & the Possibilities of Schools

Ruha Benjamin delivering keynote at the 2017 Rowland Conference

Last week I got to spend two days with The Rowland Foundation, my most treasured resource in Vermont when it comes to influencing my own thinking about schools. Through their foundation, Barry and Wendy Rowland’s generosity has not only directly supported the work of 61 Vermont high school teachers over the past ten years, myself included, but the annual conference at the University of Vermont consistently provides the backdrop to what is for me the best single day of professional development in Vermont year after year. 

This year, the conference hosted Dr. Ruha Benjamin, Associate Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University whose keynote speech, Schools as Laboratories for Social Change, challenges us to design our learning environments differently. As Dr. Benjamin spoke of the heart brain connection, noting the fact that the heart’s own neural network sends more signals to the brain than vice versa, she encouraged us to grow “not only the minds of our students, but also their hearts.” The perpetuation of injustice, at least in part, can be tied to a lack of cultivated empathy – cultivating empathy, like cultivating financial literacy, is a choice. In a world where unjust systems and inequities are allowed to persist, she states, “all of our humanity is diminished.” The question is then raised, “how do we cultivate empathy?”

Citing her own experience as a graduate student where Dr. Benjamin felt that she was constantly amputating parts of herself that where things she had previously held the most dear – cutting off friends, family, relationships – she asks us to imagine classrooms where students are provided the opportunity to “regenerate as opposed to amputate” parts of themselves. That they not be forced to sacrifice those parts of themselves that they hold most dear in an effort to best play the game.

How can we create environments that grow our capacity for empathy, strengthening our minds and our hearts? Dr. Benjamin offers up two strategies to keep in mind when designing for access and inclusion. The first lives in the acronym SHALT and asks us to be aware of and to cultivate the following as we move through and create social spaces: Social literacy, Historical literacy, Affective acuity (emotional intelligence), Linguistic reflexivity (sensitivity to language), and Technological humility (recognizing the limits of our tech rich environments). By actively teaching these lenses while allowing them to guide our pedagogy, we can bring awareness to historical and contemporary injustices across disciplines. Secondly, Dr. Benjamin asks that in designing differently we consider moving beyond the safe strategies of 1) celebrating diversity and 2) helping the underserved through an additive approach (we should also do this) toward the more challenging, and ultimately more rewarding, work of 1) tackling inequity (focusing on not just difference, but difference with regards to power) and 2) challenging the over served through an integrative approach. We can’t just do more, we have to do different.

Too often in school we find our rhetoric is at odds with our practice. One of the things that most excites me about the City & Lake semester is the opportunity to put our beliefs right at the center of our work. We are currently working on crafting an integrative and regenerative curriculum where students learn not only about their community but their role in it. And we fully intend, each semester, to leave Burlington a more equitable and just place. Thank you, Dr. Benjamin for your inspiration. And thank you to the Rowland Foundation for bringing her to Vermont.

You can watch Dr. Benjamin’s keynote speech, in it’s entirety, here. And I suggest you do.

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