The hardest advice for me to give…

I think that in a secret section, in the secret heart of every Black man in America is a small part that quietly admires people like Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Tupac Shakur and Marshawn Lynch. This is the part that you dare not reveal to your white friends, your white colleagues or supervisor at work. It is this understanding (and the courage to think it, even in silence), that this entire game is rigged for us to lose; this is whether or not we play our best game, and/or even if we play the game by the rules! It is the acknowledgement that every day of your life, you know that at some point in that day, your humanity and personhood will be brought into question. And the fact that money, a degree, an “important” title or position, is incapable of inoculating you against the daily insulting moment; just wait on it, it is coming…

I can only imagine the amount of discipline a President Obama must possess, to graciously and patiently be insulted every day, by people like the three stooges, in the persons of: John Boehner, Prime Minster Netanyahu and Rudy Giuliani; and not call the insults, and them, what, and who they truly are. We need people like Mr. Obama, and also, people who are not like him; in the same way that it is not a Malcolm or Martin choice; we need both a Malcolm and a Martin. We need fighter pilots, and we need kamikaze pilots; and we need pilots who possess a little of both.

I really came to understand the other day (in great anxiety) that I am missing a “careerist gene”. Now that is not good when a younger educator calls and seeks your advice on a topic of leadership or management. Trying to mentor (as opposed to professionally developing), for me is very challenging because I don’t want to give a young person the right-wrong advice; and I definitely don’t want anyone to get fired from their job. When a mentee is faced with a difficult ethical decision; I try to invite them into a personal search and reflection of their own heart and spirit; (Pray, I always say!) and see: “what you can ethically live with”.

As for me, it just never occurred to me that I could remain quiet, at peace, and allow any hurt or harm, come to children in my charge. I don’t do well with hypocrisy; and I am against any type of racial bullying (even when it comes from a “colored person”). I never seem to get the memo on: “enjoying an unprincipled peace”. But this is not leadership with recklessness; there must be some ethical sense making to your activist advocation. For me the rubric was pretty simple and straight forward:

(1) “Would I want this for my child?”

(2) “Are the people paying for this, the taxpayers, getting their money’s worth? Are we betraying the trust and expectations of the parents?” (The stakeholders who make the biggest investment in schooling—their children!)

(3) “Does this decision hinder, or help students’ capacity to realize a positive life through education?” Are we compromising (or abandoning the fight for) a child’s possibility for a positive future?

50% of life is knowing who you are, and the other 50% is knowing who you are not. And so I must be very aware and careful of what I say to young education professionals; knowing I have very little tolerance for unfairness, injustice, oppression and the denial of human dignity. Knowing from whence you offer advice to a younger person in your profession; is an important professional ethical consideration.

“In this situation, should I take disciplinary action against this employee?”

I actually believe that in whatever capacity one is called to serve another human being; that service should be our best effort; and also of the best quality. I also believe that we should be totally committed to the mission and overall success of the job assigned; or why do it at all? For me, not giving your best at whatever task you are assigned is the same as stealing; and I can’t imagine getting up each day to go to a job, and just spend the day stealing. Civil Servants in particular rarely address the second word in our general title–Service! People (many of whom earn less money than we earn) work hard, and have taxes taken out of their salaries, or pay taxes when making a purchase; and so, at a minimum, they deserve our best and most sincere work. The challenge part for me in this recent request for advice; was my awareness that I never really “learned” to live, and accept the world as it is, quietly. Sometimes it seems that when they taught the lesson on being afraid to lose your job, I was clearly absent from class that day. I truly believe (and I know it may sound corny); that people should put in: “An honest day’s work, for an honest day’s pay”. And the primary customers (in this case students and parents); are not unreasonable in expecting our best effort. We have unfortunately become accustomed in public education to the philosophy that any effort, any standard, any level of expertise will do; this is a level of service we would never accept from a hospital or a public utility service company. And oddly, some of the biggest “low job performers” in public education; are also some of the biggest critics of the quality of work of other civil servants; well, “heal thyself” professional educators! Imagine the result if a city’s sanitation department, or fire department preformed at our level of success. But, I am also worried that the person will get into “trouble”, and/or harm their career

I can understand how fear in a scientific sense, makes much survival sense; when one is responding to a legitimate threat. Like when I read a sign near the entrance to a national park I was visiting that said: “Please, don’t feed the bears!” I clearly understood this warning; I read it as: “Please, let me not feed myself to them!”
A healthy fear was appropriate in that situation. And yet in matters of professional work I always think; “What the heck, if they don’t kill me, what do I have to lose?” And; “even if they do kill you, they can only kill you once!” The worst death in my thinking, is when you are living an inauthentic life, waiting like the bears in the zoo, for your next official feeding, aka paycheck; now that’s death!

All of these thoughts reminded me of when I went out to take over the helm of CSD 29 Queens NY, and as a result received a death threat. (“We will send you back to Brooklyn in a box”, was the message) Other people (fortunately I guess) took the threat much more serious than I took it. It wasn’t that I was so brave, rather it was because as a Black man living in America, I felt that I had been under a death threat my entire life. It was strange however, to have officers pick me up every morning from my house, stay with me all day; and then take me to my house door at the end of the day. I actually did not think much about dying; only how it would hurt my family, former students and fiends. I also thought about how I missed driving to and from work for a year, as that was some of my best alone time, where I could reflect and problem solve; and for some reason, I just could not do that from the back seat of a Ford Crown Victoria.
Finally, I really felt sorry for the officers assigned to protect me; I often imagined and admired the mental and physical strain they had to endure. The idea of risking your life for a guy you just met, for a cause that had nothing to do with you, and your family. Those security folks were who I always wanted to be. To be someone who everyday lived honestly, and fearlessly in their own truth and purpose. And to be honest I have been blessed, despite the way that I think about life; to be able to help many people from my positions of leadership. But I would be less than honest if I said it was all part of a grand strategic career climbing plan; nope, not even close. I rely heavily on a faith, a faith I often can’t see or hear; and that is why I still worry if my kind of person should be the type of person, or even the best person to give career advice?

Steven Ingraham: “This one makes it most evident of all that we are kin by virtue of more than birth. Unfortunately, my inner Richard Pryor et al. are often not as quiet as they ought to be, contributing to my (fighter pilot/kamikaze pilot) hybrid nature. Therefore, I find my “standard disclaimer” language when advising to fall along the lines of: “…if it was me I would…but do what makes sense for you…”

MAJ: “Beautiful! Steven Ingraham, you got it… I do think that there is a “sweet-spot” between fighter pilot & kamikaze; the key is to find it while you juggle the everyday agenda items, like not being killed by the police during a traffic stop. For at the same time people are depending on us to stay alive, and we don’t want them to suffer; yes, we most all find our own way. But then again a part of me (dreams) likes the Spartan culture that says dying in battle is part of a man’s civic and family duty. The worst citizen, parent, husband, is he who lives a cowards life.”