You've got to be kind

From our 2013-14 Annual Report

It's been a year of anniversaries. In November we commemorated the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination and the 150th of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. In August we remembered the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

I missed the March on Washington in 1963, dismissing it at the time as a waste of resources that would be better spent in substantive work in local communities. (I have to admit I don't always make the right decisions!)

What I did do in August 50 years ago was to organize a gathering of the Akron Tutorial Project at my parents' house in suburban Akron, Ohio. A senior at Yale University and a volunteer activist with the Northern Student Movement, I had partnered with Akron's Urban League to set up a tutoring program for African- American kids. That summer, Urban League staff, college student volunteer tutors, kids, and parents all celebrated our work together with a backyard barbecue and poetry written and performed by the students. It was an unusual gathering for that time and place: black, white, middle-class, working class, young and not so young.

Remove the Bars

This is what life is all about, I thought: bringing people together to work, learn and celebrate. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it "the beloved community." It's the dream he described in his famous speech. I may have missed the march, but I got the message. A line from a 1963 song by Billy Taylor, the jazz pianist and educator, said it all: "I wish I could share all the love in my heart, remove all the bars that still keep us apart." 

That became my personal mission, and it's what led me to Morningside Center back in 1983, 30 years ago. (Another anniversary, at least for me!)

The organization initially focused on developing what we called education for the nuclear age. But we quickly broadened to "peace education." We decided to follow Gandhi's advice: "If you want to wage a real war against war," he said, "you will have to begin with the children."
Before I knew it, I was back to supporting educators in building communities of joy, love, and learning in their classrooms and schools.

'Tools for Conviviality'

The educator Ivan Illich wrote a book a few years back called Tools for Conviviality. I like the ring of that. I like to think that we're giving children, young people, educators, and parents tools for conviviality. We give people a chance to experience a vision of community in their classrooms and schools and help them acquire skills for creating community that they can use wherever they go—at home, in their workplaces, their neighborhoods, and beyond.

Much of our work focuses on building community in the schools. The explicit purpose of our 4Rs Program is to give teachers and students, grades pre-k to 8, the tools for creating a caring classroom community. Our Smart School Leaders Program helps school leaders (principals and members of collaborative planning teams) lead with emotional intelligence and create the trusting relationships essential for a great school. And "Circles" hold great promise in middle and high schools for fostering belonging, empathy, voice, and responsibility while strengthening relationship skills.

Our way of "beginning with the children" is to work in and through the schools. It's challenging, especially now. It's not easy for educators to invest in community building when they're being tyrannized by accountability systems based on their students' ability to complete bubble sheets.

But more and more educators and citizens are realizing that the "race to the top" is a race to nowhere. They're ready to commit to a vision of education that makes classrooms and schools microcosms of a world in which love is more possible.

It's not as dreamy as it sounds: It will take tough-minded leaders in education, philanthropy, and the government to restore purpose to American education. We already know a number of these leaders and are working with them. Many more are out there. We're banking on partnering with them as we strive to expand our work during the next five years.

In his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut has Rosewater say these words as part of a speech he is planning for the baptism of his neighbor's twins:

Hello, Babies
Welcome to earth!
It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
It's round and wet and crowded.
At the outside, Babies, you have about a hundred years here.
There's only one rule that I know of, Babies —
‘God damn it, you've got to be kind!'

Is there anything more important for our children to learn than this? To put soul into American education, to inspire educators and students with a higher sense of purpose, we might consider what would be involved in educating a generation of young people in the whys and ways of kindness. It would be a good place to start.