Aisha Harris of Slate wrote President Obama was in the zone when he delivered the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney on Friday in Charleston, South Carolina. She also said the speech gave her hope in seeing real, actual progress. Obama’s eulogy had an equally profound impact on me. His preacher style cadence transported me to the sixties and the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. When he spoke about how God works in mysterious ways, I flashed back to that first time I heard Obama speak in 2004. It was the year I read Jonathan Kozol’s book, The Shame of the Nation flying home from Seattle to New York after a long week coaching. Whatever zone Obama was in, it must have had a quantum effect because while I listened to him speak, I was time traveling. I have no doubt Obama’s speech resonated in the same way with thousands across the globe, possibly hitting a level of intensity that can only be a quantum leap in our collective consciousness. Is it possible for anyone to tap into that kind of zone that will translate into the change we want to see when it comes to equity?
Poor people, people of color and human beings who have been targets of hate and oppression live off this kind of hope. One of the reasons Obama was voted into presidency was because he threaded hope into his campaigning. Everyday hope is deciding to engage with the world in spite of the odds or the daunting statistics. It means keep moving forward in the face of failure or the humiliation of ignorance or discrimination inflicted upon us daily. Hope has the power to get us through it. It is predicated on faith and faith is about the power of the spirit to manifest dreams into reality. It is no coincidence that Obama’s speech resonated hope. And it was not just because he spoke about grace, forgiveness and healing. It was because he also dared to speak about our dark truth without shaming.
There is indeed a zone that Obama tapped into and we need more of it. He found himself there because of the unique ‘safe’ space he was in. And I’m not referring to the church, either because we know churches are not necessarily safe spaces. I’m referring to the space that is created when several factors converge. It is like a pathway for authenticity and engagement and we watched it happen not only to his audience but it happened to himself, in front of us. As an educator who facilitates and observes tons of presentations, I’ve always been fascinated by how some people have a profound impact on others while others seem to miss the mark entirely. Over the twenty years presenting to children and adults, I’ve come to learn that there are three essential factors that are guaranteed to move an experience into the zone, that is—to have a conscientious, authentically engaged learning experience that has real potential to ignite change.
Factor #1. Reference our common knowledge or a collective truth. The fact is, even in a diverse world, we are all connected and together we have access to knowledge and universal understandings that we hold as truth. Sometimes this can be unmistakable moments in history but other times it’s about acknowledging the enduring universal truths that underlie all human experience such as raising a family, forgiveness, grace or love.
Factor #2. Acknowledge how we are entangled with some people more than others and therefore understand what it means to identify with or share a common purpose. While we are all connected, we are also bound together to some by a set of circumstances, whether it is family, work, a neighborhood, a school, religious affiliation or identity. These are the groups we engage with more intimately and we are charged with the group to move ahead a shared purpose. How we manage relationships in these groups determine the outcomes.
Factor #3. Overtly acknowledge power and power relationships and how power shapes our society. Power relationships played out through status, racial hierarchies, class or other shape how we behave in the world and how others see us. By overtly recognizing power, people are more likely to heal from oppressive conditions and take a step towards meliorism.
Dr. Jeff Duncun-Andrade, critical educator and professor of education goes around the country saying he is a hope dealer. He knows of that great moment in teaching when we transmit hope to people. But hope alone is not enough to have the long lasting impact on our collective consciousness. If we look back over Obama’s presidency with impact on social change in mind we see how selling hope alone did not do it. It was his ability to harness our universal truths, demonstrate compassion and understanding for entangled groups and finally, for acknowledging the role power and oppression plays in society. How can we teach people to engage with each other in this way? Is there a way to develop more safe spaces that open each and every one of us to the potential of the zone?
Schools ought to be safe spaces. Education is our pathway to knowledge and innovation. As a teacher educator, I want to know how can I get teachers to live in that critical zone? They need to know the entire purpose of their job is to inspire students to speak, write and create art that vibrates at a quantum energetic level with the power to impact the world. Teachers need safe spaces with which to dismantle false notions of teaching and learning, false notions of the purpose of education. They need to ask themselves: how can we cultivate the freedom of the mind and spirit so that we can create equitable and sustainable societies?
In my experience, there are few safe spaces in education today. Conscientious educators are persecuted daily. There is always a Dylan Roof amongst us. Knowing this, we have to ask ourselves how are we creating schools that are in the service of truth? Is it not the true function of education to cultivate in you intelligence? And what is intelligence but the capacity to think freely, without fear, without formula, so that you begin to discover for yourself what is real, what is true?
Our witnessing of Obama’s light shine out from this safe space was a historical moment. It was a demonstration of what we can do when we are in the zone. Now, each of us has to consider how to build safe spaces all around us, so that we can take hope one step further than just hope.