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Equity in School Forums: An Interview with John Landesman

The 14-page article, Equity in School Forums: An Interview with John Landesman (2016)was written by Carolyne Abdullah, Christopher Karpowitz, and Chad Raphael, and published in the Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 12: Iss. 2. In the article, the authors interview Landesman of Everyday Democracy to share his experience working to address the barriers within the Montgomery County Study Circles Program, which he helped to coordinate. Landesman clarifies the importance between equality and equity; and how these play out when designing a process to effective address the power dynamics that arise within school spaces between admin, faculty, parents, and students.

Read an excerpt of the article below and find the PDF available for download on the Journal of Public Deliberation site here.

From the article…

For adults and youth, American public schools are a major entryway to public engagement. Not only are public schools charged with preparing students for civic life, but they are the custodians of parents’ educational and economic aspirations for their children, often the largest recipients of taxpayer funding in a community, neighborhood hubs that host public meetings and events, and institutions that are formally accountable to the community through school boards, parent teacher associations, and other public forums. Schools need active support from their communities to approve school bonds, attract donations, enlist mentors and volunteers, approve (or at least accept) curriculum reforms, engage parents in supporting their children’s learning, and address social problems such as academic achievement gaps among students of different racial and income backgrounds, bullying, and gangs. Yet, like other institutions of democracy, public school governance is often dominated by the voices of politicians and policy makers, professionals (administrators and teachers), and privileged citizens (parents of higher socio-economic status) (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015).

In Maryland, the Montgomery County Public School system offers a hopeful example of how public dialogue can improve school governance. John Landesman, a Senior Associate at Everyday Democracy, coordinates the Montgomery County Public Schools Study Circles Program. The program engages parents, students, staff, and administrators in dialogue to address racial and ethnic barriers to parent involvement and student achievement in this multilingual, multi-ethnic school district. These dialogues have helped to build trust and collaboration, and increased involvement by parents of color, as well diminishing differences in achievement among students from more and less advantaged backgrounds (Childress, Doyle, and Thomas, 2009; Orland, 2007; Fagotto & Fung, 2009).

In this interview, Landesman explains how Everyday Democracy thinks about equity and equality, and how the organization integrated equity considerations throughout the process of organizing study-circle dialogues in Montgomery County, including recruiting and retaining diverse participants, forming agendas, facilitation, small group discussions in affinity groups of less-powerful participants as well as mixed groups, evaluation, and implementation of plans. The techniques discussed here can be adopted or adapted to forums on schooling and many other issues.

Equity and Equality
Abdullah, Karpowitz, and Raphael (AKR): Some people working in dialogue and deliberation have argued that instead of practicing equality by treating people 1 Abdullah et al.: Equity in School Forums: An Interview with John Landesman similarly, we should strive for equity by treating participants differently in order to create conditions that achieve fair discussion and decisions. Do you see this distinction between equal and equitable treatment as useful to our field and in your own work?

Landesman: I do see a distinction. There’s a picture that we often use in our presentations of three boys trying to look over a fence at a baseball game (see Figure 1). In the first panel, which shows equal treatment, each boy is standing on a box that is the same height. The tall boy can see the game over the fence, the middle boy can barely see, and the shortest boy can’t see at all. In the next panel, which shows equity, the tall boy’s box has been given to the little boy, so now all three of them can see the game. The idea is that everyone needs something different to participate in whatever they’re doing. But to me, this feels like the wrong question. The question should be, “What is the goal of the dialogue, and who needs to be in the room to make the dialogue effective?” If the goal is to have a variety of perspectives deliberating together, then organizers need to think about how to recruit for those different perspectives. If there are people who need something different to be part of it, but having their voice will make the deliberation more effective, then organizers have to use different strategies to get them there.

Think of successful companies like Coca-Cola. Their goal is to sell more of their products. They don’t just develop their product and then say, “OK everyone, come get it.” They spend a lot of time and resources thinking about how to get different kinds of people to buy their products. If the goal of deliberation is to have a richer understanding of an issue based on all the different perspectives that are in the community, than we need to spend time thinking about how to ensure that we get all those perspectives in the room.

In my experience, organizing for diverse perspectives is often an afterthought. Organizers plan the way they always have, and then say, “How do we get Latino participants or low-income folks, or people who have different political perspectives?” That never works, because all we’re doing is adding an extra strategy to what’s already been put in place. Successful organizing starts by asking, “What is the goal of the dialogue, and who needs to be in the room to reach that goal?” Then every piece of the organizing—whether it’s the outreach, the facilitation, the setup once you get there, where it’s located—all of those things are driven by who you want in the room and what perspectives you need to hear to make your dialogue effective. That’s a very different way of looking at it than saying, “We’re going to do it the way we’ve always done it, and now we’re going to develop a strategy to get to these so-called marginalized people.”

This is an excerpt of the article, which can be downloaded in full from the Journal of Public Deliberation here.

About the Journal of Public Deliberation
Journal of Public DeliberationSpearheaded by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium in collaboration with the International Association of Public Participation, the principal objective of Journal of Public Deliberation (JPD) is to synthesize the research, opinion, projects, experiments and experiences of academics and practitioners in the emerging multi-disciplinary field and political movement called by some “deliberative democracy.” By doing this, we hope to help improve future research endeavors in this field and aid in the transformation of modern representative democracy into a more citizen friendly form.

Follow the Deliberative Democracy Consortium on Twitter: @delibdem

Follow the International Association of Public Participation [US] on Twitter: @IAP2USA

Resource Link: www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol12/iss2/art12/

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