Cultural Relativism: From “Fear” to “Leaning In”

Favorite pillow for the plane, check! Passport, check!  Vaccinations, check!  Mindset and Behavior Matrix, check…..wait, what?!

As an educator, one of my favorite experiences each year has come to be the Fall Orientation for Castilleja’s Junior class as they prepare for their school-sponsored Investigator trips.  To witness a Castilleja Junior preparing to embark on an Investigator trip is to witness a young adult becoming acutely conscious that “leaning in,” as local FB COO and feminist pundit Sheryl Sandberg reminds women across the United States, may look, feel, and sound different according to one’s socio-political, economic, and cultural context.  To be a Castilleja Junior at Fall “Investigator” Orientation is to be reminded that developing global relationships requires having both courage and fear, pride and humility, and a passion to “share one’s truth,” as well as a deep commitment to “do no harm.”

This year’s Fall Orientation included an introduction to cultural relativism by Stanford Business School professor Bill Barnett, and it affirmed my commitment towards these opening days as an important experience in shaping global citizens.  Bill Barnett is a raconteur extraordinaire, and, as his tales and anecdotes are as varied as the myriad of cultures and organizations he’s experienced, studied, and analyzed, our morning in his company was nothing short of a whirlwind tour through several dozen extraordinary moments.  These snapshots of his travels abroad were used to exemplify the concept of cultural relativism and the importance of understanding it as a Global Investigator intent on behaving as both a guest and a partner in another region of the world.

For those who want a little more context to the term, cultural relativism is an opinion that was established as axiomatic in anthropological research by Franz Boas in the first few decades of the 20th century and later popularized by his students. Boas first articulated the idea in 1887: “…civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” (Wikipedia)

The mere thought of thinking about and applying an understanding of cultural relativism to project work with a group that clearly has a different cultural context could potentially cause panic and concern in anyone’s heart – let alone a high school Junior’s.  Students suddenly start to wonder about everyday behaviors, as well as big decisions.  They begin ask themselves and their future travel companions questions ranging from what can be said and what topics need to be avoided, what is a faux pax and what is standard behavior, to how do I ask if something is okay and how do I know if I have suddenly caused a problem?

“Leaning in” can feel very risky in such situations.  So, how does a young adult “lean in” and learn to lead while remaining dedicated to “doing no harm” and “respecting another culture”? It’s not easy, and like most rewarding life experiences, there is no right way to do it.  However, there is a framework that can lower the risk and enhance the potential for incredible rewards that range from new friendships to future business relationships to life-altering social change in numerous communities including one’s own.

At Castilleja we teach students about the travel mindsets of “tourist, traveler, guest, and partner.”  And, we suggest to them that they fluctuate between these mindsets whenever they enter a community other than their own. (Yes, that can as easily be across the freeway as it is across the world.)  And, whatever their mindsets, in each moment in a new community they make behavioral choices.  They can be a “prisoner, a vacationer, or a leader.”

On their investigator trips we ask students to focus on being guests and partners.  Through projects co-created with our partners on the ground, they are negotiating and developing relationships. They are simultaneously guests and partners, and they need to watch and listen closely for and then respond to social cues from those we visit.  They also need to promote partnership by using their knowledge of the local social and cultural context and norms to collaborate effectively – sharing their honest and thoughtful opinions while respecting the boundaries of our nascent collaborative work.  Time is an ally in partnership development, and building a strong foundation will allow for sustained social transformation for individuals and communities.  Social transformation occurs through shared moments that develop trust between people and generate enough courage to effectively negotiate when opinions diverge.  We ask our students to support one another as they navigate their behavioral choices; everyone feels trapped at times (like a prisoner), and the choice to lead (oneself, a small group, everyone working partnership) is usually available to several in any moment.  Moving from prisoner to leader can be as simple as daring to take a bite of an unknown food offered generously by a host to something as meaningful as framing an activity so thoughtfully that previously silent and potentially disengaged participants come forward to share their perspectives.

When Fall Orientation ends and a predictable schedule resumes for Castilleja Juniors, I like to believe that their daily rhythms of life are already slightly altered.  After all, their Mindset and Behavior Matrix should be as effective in the classroom as it will be across the globe.





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Can Bubble Busting Promote Leadership and Foster Innovation?

I am nine days into a fifteen day “Frugal Innovation and Leadership Development” trip with 21 high school students representing 9 schools, and we are busting bubbles.  Ironically, it is not because they have begun to question the India they are experiencing and that they are using terms like juxtaposition and corporate social responsibility; it is because today many had the courage to ask themselves, “How does India help me understand home?”

One of the greatest gifts of thoughtfully developed travel programming is a new lens through which to understand the complex social and economic relationships at home.

We educators often remind students that they live in a bubble.  Usually this term is used to convey the privilege of those who seem to have easy accesses to both daily necessities and many luxuries.  They are “safe in a bubble” and can ignore those who don’t have equal access; they are urged to pop their bubble and see the realities of life for others who may be within their sight but not their understanding.  I would argue, however, that we need to reframe the bubble as a concept of insularity that prevents us from learning about and from one another.  Instead of privileging highly resourced students further by offering them a “bubble” to keep or reject, we need to ensure that all students understand that a bubble simply prevents us from understanding others.  All communities have bubbles, and all students need to learn tools to build relationships and work collaboratively instead of remaining in an insular space. The greatest bubble busted today: only rich people have access to bubbles.

India as a case study posited questions for our students that were universal in nature, and it was not hard to gently nudge them to map those questions onto their own daily lives. I suspect many will never forget India, but it may be because their memories of this trip include a new-found way of understanding and seeing “home,” not simply because they had access to a more nuanced understanding of a mysterious, colorful, spice-laden far-away land.

Innovation, it can be argued, occurs in the messy puddle of popped bubble boundaries. Social reform, I believe, begins in the angsty, confusing, guilt-ridden, angry at injustice, desperate for a way to break the cycle space we find beyond our respective bubbles. Whatever we call that moment, when we begin to see “the others” as essential participants in imagining a new idea, product, or way of life, we inevitably are moved to act. That action, in its most authentic form, is leadership.

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Why I Think Big Solutions Start with Small Stories

It’s been years since I posted – literally years.  When I began this thread I was full of ideas and launching a non-profit dedicated to co-creating curriculum with global partnerships to create opportunities for reciprocal learning and to foster global citizens.  Now, I can state my beliefs more simply.  I believe that big solutions start with small stories.

Seven years ago, hell bent on developing empathy in students through experiential learning, I founded the non-profit eduWeavers, and spend countless hours looking for every opportunity to create experiences and pilot methodology.  I had intricate ideas about complex projects that could be done across oceans by students with vastly different access to resources.  And, I believed that by working together on a shared project, students would ultimately learn about one another and breakdown socio-political and cultural assumptions.  I still believe this, but the past several years have given me the opportunity to move from idea to experience and to refine my thinking; I have learned that it is the messiness of relationship building during a reciprocal learning opportunity that is much more critical to creating empathetic leaders than the successful completion of a tangible shared goal.

Fast forward; it’s summer 2014, and I have spent years developing trust, building partnerships, and solidifying programs all in the name of educating future generations to create peaceful and sustainable communities.   I have met with countless educators from around the globe, along with “experts” and “gurus” in the fields of leadership, social and emotional learning, innovation, and design thinking.  Educational jargon enters my dreams and buzz words like “tinkering” and “ideate” creep into my conversation as though they’ve always been “what one does at school.”  Better yet, my own personal experience has validated my belief that experiential learning is the ultimate way to truly inculcate behavioral shifts and shape mindset.  I have myself as a case study, and I go about my daily life with a newfound understanding of the beliefs I have held for many years.  As a result, I have sharpened my ability to explain the importance of reciprocal learning and partnership, and I have also been able to develop innumerable examples of how to frame, teach, and evaluate experiential programming.  I can speak for hours about the why and how, but when time is tight and I am asked, “How do we build our global program?”  My answer is short, and I don’t hesitate.  I don’t feel that I am compromising when I smile and say, “Teach them how to hear someone else’s story.”

As children we are told the stories of people or animals and their daily lives to teach us morals and imbue in us an understanding of culture.  My observations in the classroom suggest that as we move learning into the world of facts, and the stories happen less frequently, students listen less and retreat into a space that is all about their personal relationship with the knowledge they are gaining. eduWeavers is the word I created to represent my belief in sharing stories.  eduWeaving is the act of weaving threads together to educate a generation of learners who will work together because they value one another and understand that the strength of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  The final weaving being an image that could not have existed had it been missing a thread.  Each time I say the word, I am reminded of the simple beauty of listening to and knowing someone else’s story and the importance of having that story as a thread in the final woven image.  Because it is when we see our thread in an image that we believe it must be worth our own personal investment.


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On white allies

Recently I asked Diversity Consultant, Alison Park, how she felt about the term “white ally.” As usual, her thoughtful, informed response helped me further my foundational thinking about partnership. Just as the term white ally has the potential to smack of paternalism, it can also represent a commitment on the part of a white person to engage with the dialog of race relations as someone who understands that s/he has a role and a race and is not free of any of the baggage that comes along with having a racialized society. So, tantamount to making terminology/lexicon choices in communities is discussion informed by voices that speak to varied life experiences. School-to-school partnerships offer communities another trusted set of voices at the table, and eduWeavers continues to be excited to create them for those schools ready to get “dirty” and do the hard work of building inclusive, socially informed, action-oriented students.

On white allies.

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On white allies

On white allies.

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Staying Optimistic

Just reread a letter written in ’92 by my grandfather (he died shortly after writing it) where he shared pessimism about South Africa’s future and was sure of imminent civil war. He said “at long last my optimism is tainted by pragmatism.” A WWII war hero, in this instance he gave up too soon. Hope can prevail, and the optimism can pay off with passionate commitment. A life lesson.

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The Global Education Passport

At the annual conference for the National Association for Independent Schools in DC (Feb. 23 – 25) Global Ed. was front and center and everyone was weighing in.  The theme for the year, Advancing Our Public Purpose, supported discussion around school-to-school partnerships, collaboration between independent schools and organizations (non-profits, public schools, international schools), and educating 21st C citizens.

There were, for me, a couple of standout moments and resources worth sharing.  Just as the photos, videos and stories of someone else’s trip inspires you to collect that stamp in your passport, these resources are worth checking out as you create your own personal Passport to Global Education. (Reminder: Global Ed is about building collaborative relationships across cultures…sometimes you simply need to look across the road to do that.)

1. Robert Witt (Hawaii Association of Independent Schools) shared a list of capacities that he and his team of educators identified as essential for 21st C teaching and learning.  These were inspired, in part, by Tony Wagner’s list of competencies essential for future business success in the Global Achievement Gap.

Witt’s List:

  • Analytical and Creative Thinking
  • Complex Communication Skills
  • Leadership and Teamwork
  • Digital and Quantitative Literacy
  • Global Perspective
  • Adaptability, Initiative, Risk-Taking
  • Integrity and Ethical Decision-Making

Wagner’s list:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2. Team-Based Leadership and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective and High Quality Communication (both oral and written)
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination

Other interesting links to click through and contemplate included:

Carrotmob: student organizing and leading with a public purpose

Green Schools: How to bring sustainability to your school

NuVu Studio: an innovation center for middle and high school students

The Tech Director for Providence Day, Matt Scully, has an interesting blog called The Engaged Learner. It’s worth subscribing to if you are interested in reflecting on engaged learning with a technological bent.

So whether you grab a suitcase or a computer mouse, the world is your oyster.  Eat up!

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