An Ecosystem to Nurture Citizenship

Danny Stock

Civic Engagement: Jeff Johnson in Conversation with Russell Shaw

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Anti-Racism Action Plan
A GDS student will…


Speaker Jeff Johnson returned to GDS this month (virtually) to join Head of School Russell Shaw in conversation around civic engagement in a continuation of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’s Dinner and Conversations series. Russell and Johnson explored how to forge common ground between families and students, learn from each other, and practice essential elements of active civic engagement to guide the community through the remaining days until Election Day and beyond. 

In January, Johnson spoke to High School students (in person) about the level of toxicity in our current political climate. He spoke about how students need to develop their capacity to listen for understanding rather than remaining complacent in siloed echo chambers. His presence, which some students had wrongly assumed would carry a liberal bias, ultimately allowed many of the more conservative students to be heard and elicited more fruitful communal engagement in the conversation. “The students challenged me,” Johnson said. “And I want that to happen; it means I said something meaningful.”

Johnson noted that a willingness to listen and hear another perspective before trying to change their mind is essential in a civil, diverse community and a foundation of good citizenship. In fact, Philleo Nash, one of our founders, said, “GDS was founded to give students a good democratic education; democracy must be lived through and made good [by its citizens].” 

School is a great place—the best place perhaps—to practice what it takes to be a citizen, Jeff Johnson remarked. Rather than sheltering students from other viewpoints, GDS, at its founding, explicitly named the importance of engaging across difference as citizens to challenge all manner of different perspectives.

During their conversation, Johnson and Russell laid out the framework for that democracy-building citizenship work. Echoes of “A GDS student will…” surfaced as they discussed the need for critical analysis and intellectual debate across diverse perspectives. Johnson described school as a sparring ground of critical thinking, where students develop the “confidence to present original thought [aimed] towards problem solving; [where they are] unafraid of the sound of their voice and become citizens that welcome the sounds of others’ voices.” 

Johnson contrasted debate and simple dialogue. He explained that rather than reiterating others’ talking points and avoiding “hurting anyone’s feelings,” true debate—versus dialogue—means inviting challenge and being excited to identify points of ignorance around which understanding can be strengthened and about which more sophisticated arguments can be formed. Those are meaningful, and courageous, conversations. To establish authentic debate, community members must first understand and “accept history and truth for what it is rather than what we want it to be,” Johnson said. Upon that foundation, students can have opinions on topics of race rather than being afraid of even having a conversation about race. 

As the evening’s conversation progressed, Johnson and Russell explored the notion that these intellectual debates must also be fused with a personal lens and a problem-solving lens. Schools must prepare students “to be able to go out in the world and solve problems—not just academic mastery and pedagogy.” Just as they develop systematic approaches to the various stages of child development, schools must craft what the “stages of development for becoming a political being” will look like. An independent school, like GDS, that is interested in the whole child, can be attuned to how this will look different for a 1st grader, a 6th grader, and a senior.

The GDS statement of philosophy articulates that GDS graduates “leave the School with a love of learning, an abhorrence of bigotry and intolerance, a broadly rounded fund of knowledge, the ability to enter the great conversations of life, and the willingness and capacity to bring needed change to a troubled world.” The “ecosystem” we must create for them to “enter the great conversations of life” most model for them “a commitment to courage by the adults” and a willingness to “challenge our own discomfort in ways that are productive,” Johnson said.

As the children explore, test, and challenge—”like velociraptors in Jurassic Park, looking for the hole in the fence,” Johnson posited—we also need to be present to give “feedback that feeds their light and capacity,” Russell added. How do we prepare kids so they are ready to go out beyond the sparring ground of the school—this GDS Jurassic Park—and make change? Johnson described David’s meeting of Goliath, the big trouble of the world, as having taken place only after David had met and triumphed over both a lion and a bear. “We need to provide kids with those opportunities within our school ecosystem,” he said. Furthermore, “the educational environment needs to delineate between the humans and the conversations” as well as between bigotry we can learn from and “bigotry that has no place in the community.” The school environment must welcome provocative discussion, Johnson acknowledged, because it both strengthens our values—as we defend them—and elevates the work of the organization.

The evening concluded with both Russell and Johnson describing the difficulty in leaning into challenge and the importance of a diverse community. “Our amygdala says fight or flight as opposed to pause and talk,” Russell said. And yet, we can train ourselves to meet these moments of anxiety as opportunities for growth. Russell said, “We can learn to respond, ‘This community is better because someone else different from me is here.’ Don’t accept anything as ‘normal’ but instead as an opportunity [to inquire].” Johnson added, “GDS must develop in students the ability to “challenge the things they like so they can use the same critical lens on the things they don’t.”  

How are we doing on challenging and interrogating our institutional practices? Where are we moving forward as a school? Review the progress in our Anti-Racism Action Plan.