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Top of Mind: Tavon Lawrence, NTC’s Senior Director of Internal Learning

Each month one member of our incredible community will share inspiration in the form of books, documentaries, podcast episodes, poetry, art, keynotes, and more. They’ll reflect on why it matters to them and NTC’s bold vision, sparking awareness and continuing to push curiosity as we go forward.

What’s top of mind for you?

With NTC’s All Staff Retreat just a few weeks behind us, our theme of Who We Are: Defining a Disruptor is really top of mind for me. On our opening night, we had the pleasure of hearing from Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade who really set the tone for our entire experience. So much that he shared during his keynote address was about disruption in education, the why behind the need to disrupt, and the necessity for building connective tissue in order to be able to come up with solutions for pain.

What quote is resonating with you today?

“The problem that we have in this society right now is that the people who come up with the solutions for pain aren’t proximate to the pain that they’re trying to relieve and when you’re not proximate to the pain, you come up with solutions that are most convenient for you not in pain. But when you get proximate to the pain, the solutions you come up with are very, very different.”

Please share why this matters to you and how it can help us work toward a brighter tomorrow?

When we talk about knowing your students, knowing communities, knowing our partners, it’s really important for us to get proximate to the pain, which helps us build the empathy required to then start looking at solutions for the pain. It’s a liberatory design type of approach. We can’t design systems in isolation of the people who are impacted by those systems. So, when we’re talking about disrupting, who is a part of the conversation? Are we allowing them to be a part of finding solutions? Or are we just doing things to students, to schools, to communities, etc.?

What’s holding us back from being proximate to pain?

There’s a couple of blockers. One is that we see work as simply work. When we’re talking about helping find solutions for people who have been wronged by systems, people who are experiencing some type of pain, it can’t just be a nine-to-five job that we show up to and check the check boxes. It has to be something that we are truly passionate about. It has to be a part of our why. So, part of it is having the right people in the right places in order to do the right work.

When you haven’t experienced pain, you don’t want to experience it, you don’t want to get close to it.

Another blocker is just fear, fear of the unknown. Think of it this way. As a child, you’re playing with your siblings, and you are the one who decides to play with fire. You get burnt. Do you think your siblings are going to follow behind and experience that pain? No, people don’t want to experience pain, especially when they know the pain is real. There’s the fear that as I get closer to this, I might start to feel a little bit of it myself. The closer and closer and closer you get to pain, the more it wears on you. It wears on you mentally. It wears on you physically. Then the question becomes, what’s next? Internally, I think that’s where a lot of our folks are. They’re getting proximate to the pain, but then they’re like, “Okay, I feel it now. What now?”

So what is next? How do we move towards something better?

I don’t have a very clear answer for that, but, I think, at the end of the day, you just have to show up. When we think about folks who do this work all the time as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion or dismantling systems of oppression, they just continuously show up. And in that work, a lot of times you have people of color out in front. The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that every time a person of color shows up to do that work, they might be experiencing some type of trauma over and over and over again. So, when we talk about getting proximate to pain, they’re getting proximate to pain each and every time. But they’re also connecting back to that why, that something bigger that we’re chasing in the dismantling of the system.

So, I know I’ve got to just show up. And I’m going to make mistakes. I’m not going to get it right every time, but I’m going to continue to show up. And through showing up, I continue to learn. As you get proximate to the pain, you start to understand the pain, you start to hear from those experiencing the pain, and nine times out of ten, the people who are experiencing the pain, they’re going to tell you what they need.

So let’s go back to the analogy of that person who got burnt. As you get closer and closer, they’re going to tell you, “I need you to take me to the hospital. I need a band-aid. I need … whatever old school remedy you place on a burn.” People start to tell you what they need. So show up, jump in, start to do some listening. Then, be willing to continue to show up and show up and show up and show up and show up.

What are the ways in which you are hoping NTC will lean into proximity to pain as a cornerstone of how we do the work?

When we talk about our priority populations, the question is do we really understand our priority populations? Have we gotten proximate enough to understand why our priority populations are our priority populations? Do we understand the historical aspects of oppression that have gotten them to where they are?

We’ve started that work internally, but we’ve got to continue to do that work. We know that every single client in every city that we work with and every school is different. So how much time are we spending trying to truly understand — their needs, how they got there — in order for us to be an effective partner with them?

It’s not about doing something to a community, it’s about doing it with a community.

It’s going deeper with this idea of a partnership. How much listening are we doing as a consulting organization versus how much are we talking about it or telling? We as an organization have to continue to keep our ears to the ground, listening to what folks say they need as we get closer and closer to communities and to the work.

This goes beyond one call to get some context or a Google survey to get some details on the district. Getting proximate means building trusting relationships, listening, and getting so much into the work that you have no choice but to be proximate to what is causing the pain.

Can you talk a little bit about the ways in which we’re starting to practice that or build that muscle internally within our organizational culture?

I would name a couple of different things. It’s vitally important to understand what life is like for our priority populations. One solid example is the 30/30 experience that took us through 30 days in the life of a family living at or below the poverty line. For some folks, it allowed them to see, to feel, to experience what that was like. We also got feedback that the experience was too real for some people in our organization. They’re like, “This is literally my life, and I don’t need to relive that trauma.” The reality, though, is that these experiences are pivotal to building our internal muscle.

That empathy building is [the muscle, the connective tissue, that’s going to] help us better serve our partners and also help us see each other in different ways, which leads me to the next thing I think we need to do as an organization. And that is, continue to work on understanding each other, whether that’s through storytelling, the internal work we are doing establishing authentic connections, some of what’s happening in our work with Equity Lab. All of these are different opportunities for people to learn about each other, get to know each other at a much deeper level. That will allow us to then start to come up with solutions that are very, very different for people experiencing pain.

Seeing differences that make a difference.

Another thing is the Intercultural Development Inventory, which is about building cultural competence, being able to see differences that make a difference. A lot of times, you won’t be able to see those differences that make a difference if you are not spending the time, not just being around people who are not like you, but getting to know people, to start to dismantle some narratives we have been holding onto for God knows how long because we don’t go outside our own circles.

How do you embrace the “messiness” of this work yet still have focus within the context of a national organization?

Think about someone who’s been injured, and they need stitches, but instead of getting stitches, what they do is they put a band-aid on it. After a day or two, that band-aid comes off, and you still need stitches but here comes another band-aid. Band-aid comes off, you still need stitches. The wound isn’t healing, and it isn’t getting better because you just put a band-aid on it. The band-aid looks good, it feels good, but at the same time, the wound underneath it …

It needed stitches. It didn’t need a band-aid.

… didn’t need a band-aid. That’s where we are and where we have been for such a long time. Our society tells us all we need to do is find another band-aid, maybe a prettier one, maybe one with cartoon characters on it, to lighten things up. But when I look at this work, and I think about my own kids — I have a fifth grader and a second grader — when I think about them, the work that I do isn’t about putting a band-aid on it so that when they get to be my age, they’re still having these same conversations. My goal is to rip the band-aid off and get messy and get dirty so that they don’t have to experience the same pain and trauma that I experienced.

This work is hard. No one really wants to do it, but if no one really wants to do it, if no one wants to get messy, if we just want to quote unquote “do the work,” then we’re going to end up with the same solutions and the same outcomes. We’re going to continue to do the same things that haven’t worked. It makes me think about the whole policy debate. Here’s another quote from Jeff.

“When the policy rain comes, really good teachers have an umbrella that’s just called good teaching.”

And so, internally, even though it’s raining, even though it’s messy, what do you continue to do? You continue to fight to change systems. You continue fighting to do what’s right. You continue to push, to push the system to get people what they need. In this work, if you’re going to do it right, if you’re going to do it for the right reasons, it is going to get messy.

I used to, in my younger days, think, “Yeah, I’m fighting so my kids won’t need to deal with any pain.” I have recently come to realize that my kids are still going to experience some pain, they’re still going to experience racism. Because even as you’re trying to figure out how to navigate through the mess, even if you are getting extremely dirty, believe it or not, you’re only inching the ball — to use a metaphor from the film we dug into at retreat, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America — little way forward.

I hope that people don’t think, “this is the answer, and then the world will be a better place.”

So you’re pushing, and you’re exhausted, and your mind is tired. You’ve done a lot of work, but at the end of the day, you’ve only pushed the ball very slightly forward. So, it’s never ending, but we each have to do our part so that we’re inching that ball forward. Then our kids can pick up where we left off and not have to start at ground zero.

How do we stay sustained to keep moving forward? What’s the counterbalance that gives us the energy we need to keep showing up?

What’s on the other side of the pain? I think there’s a couple of things. The main thing is joy, right? We have to be proximate to joy. We have to live in moments of joy, and we have to understand people are people. So there is the work, and you will get messy from the work, but there’s also life. Sometimes, you have to take yourself out of the nitty gritty of the work just to be a human. Then you dig your heels back in. But every now and then you have to take yourself out of the work.

Mercedes McKay, program consultant on the Internal Learning team, talks a lot about healing from our trauma. We have to start to do some healing from our own trauma. That is a personal journey. We’re hearing our folks say things like, that was traumatic for me, or that brought up past trauma. And the reality is we haven’t confronted that trauma, nor have we tried to work through it. A lot of times what we do personally, like we do as a society, is just try to bury that trauma, which gives the trauma an opportunity to continuously resurface because we haven’t addressed it head on or we haven’t worked through it. So, proximity to joy — we need to deal with our own trauma before we can show up and help anybody else with theirs.

Where do you hope NTC will be at the end of this year in terms of this conversation?

I think the most important thing is to understand that the problem we are fighting is hefty. We also have to understand the urgency of the work in the context of how long it’s been going on, the years of historic oppression. We, as employees, also need to be committed to an organization that is committed to this work. You have to know what you signed up for. I think a lot of times people read our mission and vision and think “oh, that’s exactly what I want to do.” But we don’t really dig into what the words mean and what the tax is for signing up for that work. If we tackle those things — the scope, the urgency, and the commitment required — I think that sets us up to do some really messy, dirty, but important work as we move forward.

There’s a legacy of the importance of relationships with people. There’s always this conversation about Ellen Moir’s [NTC’s founder] ability to humanize and care for, hold space for and build community with folks. That’s something that as an organization we can’t lose. But this same philosophy has to be used and seen in a different way. The organization was not as diverse as it is today. We hadn’t named our priority populations. So what does it look like to build relationships now, create this opportunity for people who don’t look and sound like each other within the organization? I think that brings the conversation full circle — how do we get proximate to each other, get proximate to pain, understand, build empathy, that connective tissue, community, and then do the work. That’s the work we all need to do.

About Tavon Lawrence

For the last decade, Tavon has been an advocate for ensuring that students across the country have access to educational opportunities that allow them to be globally competitive. Tavon believes that true educational liberation will occur through disrupting and dismantling systems of oppression that have and continue to be a barrier to a world class education for all students. Tavon began his career in education through the Baltimore City Teaching Residency in Baltimore, Maryland. He has served as an Early Childhood Education teacher, Elementary Education teacher, Teacher Development Coach, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion curriculum writer and facilitator, Alternative Certification Program Site Director, and (most recently) Senior Director of Internal Learning. His work has afforded him the opportunity to partner with state leadership to remove barriers of entry for all teachers but specifically teachers of color as well as the diversification of a major teacher pipeline in Baltimore.