When Jennifer mentioned her goal of becoming a community connector in her review of The Abundant Community, we asked her to write a guest blog so others could share and learn from her experiences. Here is her first post.
In The Abundant Community, John and Peter describe a community connector as a person who has the capacity to create associations and connections in our neighborhoods, someone who has the skills and the intention of enhancing the spirit and culture of connecting around a given purpose. My desire to become a community connector came from thinking deeply about how I could use my assets and experiences in such a way that would create a space for conversations to start in my own community about kids with disabilities being included in our neighborhood schools and community.
My background is in inclusive education for people with disabilities. I have had many roles within schools and communities around this important issue. I have been a teacher, an inclusion facilitator, staff developer, consultant, advocate and graduate student within the area of educational administration. My experiences and learning have been around creating collaborative schools and classrooms that meet the needs of any student potentially at risk, whether due to disability, issues of poverty, or language differences. My professional mission and beliefs are that inclusive school settings and classrooms come from teachers, parents, administrators and community members collaborating and finding engaging, meaningful and respectful ways to meet the needs of all students in our neighborhood schools. All students can be successful in general education classrooms and settings with the appropriate supports and services, and all should be viewed as valuable, contributing members of classrooms and schools.
The Vision and the Invitation
After reading The Abundant Community, it became clear to me how I could do my part and help build the community as I just described in schools. By hosting a community meeting and becoming a community connector, I would hopefully create associations and relationships between people where all of the gifts and talents that we have to offer one another and our kids can be unearthed; where the hospitality of our neighborhoods and schools can be enhanced and create even more welcoming spaces for the children with and without disabilities to learn together.
With that in mind, I set out to do just that. I looked at many different places to hold such a meeting, and finally decided on a local park building. I chose one that was in close proximity to many different elementary schools, as well as the middle and high schools in the area. I settled on a park building that had things for children to do in the common area, outside of the meeting room, in case people needed to bring them with, in order to attend. I announced the meeting on various schools’ websites, sent out emails, posted on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on my blog, trying to get the word out. I received many emails and comments back – from people around the district and neighborhood, who were very interested in coming.
As I prepared for the evening, I was a little nervous about how many people would show up, as well as who would be present, and what potential agenda(s) they would bring with them. My nerves were settled a bit, by remaining focused on the student centered nature of my message and intent. It has been my experience that people will be positive and do the right thing when we create ways for relationships to be enhanced around our kids.
The First Conversation
The evening resulted in a small, yet very important group attending for the conversation. In attendance were parents, both of kids with and without disabilities; attorneys whose work focuses on special education law and parent’s rights; the director of special education for the Minnesota Department of Education; teachers; and community members. We first watched the Including Samuel documentary, by Dan Habib. This was a natural way to start a conversation about inclusive practices, providing an intuitive on-ramp for engaging around the topic in a meaningful way. Attendees connected with it in very tacit ways, and then were able to have a conversation about how to take next steps towards this very meaningful goal for kids in our schools.
After the movie, we sat together in a circle, and talked over many things: what the meaning of inclusion is; what the law says regarding it; where we are as a state in the development and execution of these types of school structures for kids with and without disabilities; what our neighborhood schools are currently doing; as well as how to take the next steps in creating more inclusive schools and classrooms that benefit all students. Additionally, we talked at great length about who needs to be a part of continuing conversations to take action within this important work.
The Start of Good Things to Come
This meeting was just the start of good things to come. I am planning on hosting another meeting in April. I have already heard back from many that attended the first meeting, about how it has changed their thinking or how they have now acted due to the conversation that we had. I have been in groups of people since, where I have shared what we did, and they are very interested in being a part of the future meetings. The people I have talked to since the meeting are school principals, teachers, parents, district level administrators, other community members, and even the Mayor of Minneapolis!
Challenging questions were asked the night of the first meeting, divergent views were expressed, and thoughts were shared as to why our schools operate the way that they do. Since the meeting, I have been able to capture the essence of what we started that night, and tell more people about the purpose behind the meetings to come. I believe that through conversations such as these, we can start picking away at the structures of the system that don’t serve our kids well. I also believe that we can acknowledge those parts of the system that are working well, so that we can stretch and amplify the good that is happening for all kids. The challenges in schools and communities are complex, but can be overcome when we take it down to a level where human interaction takes place.
I believe that the initial community meeting was a great success. I also believe that since that meeting, I have a clearer focus about how to take next steps and plan for the next one. There are many people interested in coming to the one in April, in large part due to my ability to share what we learned from one another during the last one. I think my role in these meetings is to ignite action and allow for various people from the community to imagine, create and build together, based upon their gifts and capacities for the betterment of all kids in schools. I am loving discovering what our community can do together, and also loving how my role as a community connector is shaping the spaces for people to figure this out with one another.
I very much look forward to learning and leading in this way in my community, and sharing what I discover here.