The Opposite of Sheet-caking

The post below is by guest blogger Celine Coggins.

This week I’m taking over Andy’s blog to share a few of the messages from my new book How to Be Heard: Ten Lessons Teachers Need to Advocate for Their Students and Profession. It’s a book sharing all I’ve learned about advocacy in my ten years since founding Teach Plus. Its primary audience is teachers, and each chapter profiles groups of inspirational teachers who’ve succeeded at changing the education system for their kids. However, the messages apply to anyone who’s got a cause worth fighting for (and don’t we all these days!).  As we collectively move from the shock of Charlottesville to action, I don’t have answers, but I wanted to offer some food for thought.

Today, I wanted suggest considering the difference between problems and issues as you think about your role in creating a world without future Charlottesvilles.

To illustrate: Tina Fey got a lot of attention last week when she shared her response to White Supremacist violence at her alma mater, UVA. Her satire, which drew as much criticism as praise, centered on how overwhelmed so many of us felt about what was happening in our nation. I’ll admit to feeling powerless enough that weekend to want to close the curtains and dip a grilled cheese in a sheet cake.  The problems UVA (re)surfaced are massive and have been with us since the birth of our nation. Problems (i.e. racism in America) are vast and broad; they tend feel overwhelming, which ultimately discourages action. Problems have many, related causes and lack a single lever or “silver bullet” that could lead to a tangible “win”.

By contrast, nearly 40,000 people showed up in Boston (shout out to may hometown!) Saturday to protest a planned “free speech” rally by the alt-right. In contrast to the larger “problem” of racism, opposing a planned rally created a clear, immediate “issue” for people to organize around. Issues are specific. They have a focus, a goal, and the possibility of a concrete win (or loss). In this case, the goal was to show that there are WAY more of us on the side of love, than the side of hate. And with a ratio of 50 neo-Nazis to 40,000 protesters, the win isn’t debatable. It creates momentum that will likely motivate more positive action.

So, I disagree with Tina Fey. I don’t think sheet-caking will ever become a grassroots movement. It’s too depressing. But more importantly, there are too many issues for those of us on the right side of history to fight for—electing a new generation of leaders to public office, educating our kids to be social justice warriors, making sure disadvantaged students get better teachers, just to name a few.  So the next time you find a friend with their face buried in a sheet cake, remember: friends don’t let friends get stuck in the problem-zone. Help them make the move from problem to issue and issue to action.

Celine Coggins is the founder of Teach Plus, a teacher leadership organization that operates in ten states across the US. This month she is transitioning from Teach Plus to become a Lecturer and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

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