We Need More Bridges
A call for action to help people, policies, and practices cross the chasm of inequity
I distinctly remember asking my calculus teacher in a sudden outburst following 40 minutes of sheer confusion and frustration what on earth I would ever need to know this stuff for. He stumbled a bit on the answer at first, probably briefly considering the fact that I was a dreamer, a creator, a problem solver, but not an engineer by any stretch. Brushing all that aside for the sake of an answer, he said “Well, if you were building a bridge…”. He paused, looked at me, I smiled. He went on, “…if someone were building a bridge, they would need to understand how to calculate the blah blah blah…”. I stopped listening until he said, “Yes, you are right Leigh Anne, you will probably never build a bridge, or use this stuff, but you need to pass the class.” I could have been insulted, but I wasn’t because he was right.
Until now. I find myself building bridges regularly. Not the Verazzano type, but the kind that brings people together in shared understanding to solve problems they may otherwise have found to be intractable. I have found over the course of my life and career that the very first step to meaningful change is a deep understanding of the emotional connection—positive, negative or neutral—to the problem from all stakeholders. And we are not talking about hand holding, chanting and the shedding of tears. We are simply talking about sharing stories to create context and perspective. It’s that perspective that creates the foundation for the bridge of understanding.
Consider this: My brother and I have polar opposite perspectives relative to our political standings. One day, he said something that set me off. I felt personally insulted and extremely frustrated and after reflection, realized that it was because I was personally invested in trying to change the very perspective he shared. Through my recent work in postsecondary education I have been striving to help highly passionate and committed advocates accelerate the pace of change relative to inequities in postsecondary education. I told him my story—what I had experienced throughout the project, and more importantly, shared the personal stories of those who are most closely aligned to the challenges stemming from inequity, hardship, and broken systems.
Then he told me his story. A marine, who despite his moderately privileged upbringing had struggled academically and failed to find his pathway in postsecondary education. He worried that he would never find his calling and make the living he dreamed of. But he picked himself up by his bootstraps and chose to serve his country, a country with an opportunity that, in his words ‘is there for the taking.’ He followed that story up with some pretty interesting hard facts about what WAS working in our country right now and his personal frustration with the fog that surrounds the good, fueling ignorance and creating disrespect for a nation he would lay his life down for.
Lightbulbs. I saw his emotional connection, and he saw mine. It made sense. I didn’t agree with all of his assessments, nor he mine, but suddenly we made sense to each other. What followed? A shared understanding that led to a new narrative between us, helping us have more productive, civil conversations.
The second step is to find common ground. We may not always agree with the ideas and opinions of other stakeholders, but chances are, there is an end goal that we can all rally around. For my brother and I, the shared understanding was a recognition of bi-partisan ignorance on some level, and the common ground was that regardless of our personal beliefs about why we are where we are today, that the world would be better and stronger if we found a way to reduce the paralyzing inequities facing our underserved populations to build a stronger pipeline of talent for our workforce needs. We agreed that if we were to look at the issue of inequity in our country relative to postsecondary education and the idea of creating equal opportunity and stomping out inequities because it’s the RIGHT thing to do, it wouldn’t be debated by many stakeholders in this space (at least out loud), but it falls apart relative to how, when, and at what cost—either fiscally or personally as a result of conscious or unconscious biases.
Bigger still is the level of priority across the key stakeholders. For students and families struggling with inequity, it’s a top priority. For entrenched educational systems, politicians, and policymakers, it may fall further down the priority ladder because of the complexity, lack of understanding, or perceived threats to the status quo. Until all stakeholders find common ground they can rally around, the pace of change will not improve.
How do we find common ground? Honest candid conversation about what we value most. Not many can argue that we value the freedom and opportunity or nation was built on. We value a prosperous economy. We value a healthy, happy and sound future for our children. If the narrative shifted to focus on this common ground, and the need to get ALL AMERICAN’S engaged in this goal, activating the diverse perspectives and talents afforded to us through our melting pot of a nation would it motivate and engage more people vs. a straight-up conversation about ‘equity because it’s the right thing to do?’ Maybe?
I’d argue yes. For human beings who are naturally wired toward self-preservation first, it is harder to get the general public to embrace a ‘cause’ that (as perceived) serves someone else versus a rallying around an end goal that serves all. Sad, but unfortunately true. We need a narrative that supports a value exchange. It’s just how we are built.
Our friends at Lumina Foundation, who fight every day for equity in postsecondary education for the good of our country speak about the fact that we are in a talent pipeline crisis in America. There simply are not enough qualified workers to fill the needs of our changing labor market, and that it will take wide-sweeping systemic changes in our postsecondary ecosystem, not the least of which is attacking the inequities and tapping the untapped potential of our underserved and underrepresented, to fix the problem if we are going to compete in the global economy. Yikes. Yes. Sign me up.
The third step is to co-create a solution with all stakeholders engaged. It is a fact that problems are best solved by those most directly impacted. Look at the baby boomers. They have historically systematically shifted our economic engine in some way or another to better serve their needs at every stage of their lives. Next up? How they age. We must invite students, educators, policymakers, employers, politicians, researchers, and advocates to sit across the table from each other and design new futures that work for all. Let’s not waste time trying to imagine what will resonate with students, align with political agendas, reconcile with labor needs, and fit into evolving educational models, let’s give them all a pencil and sketch it out together.
If we follow these three steps, creating shared understanding, finding common ground, and co-creating solutions, we will build a bridge that all are comfortable crossing leaving no room for resistors and naysayers.
Like mathematics, this 3-step process can be complex, scary for some, and it can take time. It’s complex because it requires multiple stakeholders from varying functions, facing real (not imagined) limits to their ability to make change. And hard to understand because it requires breaking down complicated systems into bite-sized bits, making sense of the relationship to each other, then rearranging them into co-created solutions rooted in insight and understanding.
It can be scary because it requires opening up our minds to new possibilities, approaches or perspectives, when as humans we naturally reject change because we are creatures of habit.
And it can take time to get it right. We all want that silver bullet, but throwing stones across the river at the folks on the other side isn’t going to resolve anything. We need to start a process of creating shared understanding, agreeing to a common ground, co-creating solutions and then fueling those solutions to build momentum. We need more bridges to connect to the people on the other side of the river.
Interested in building some bridges? Give us a call, we are good at it. No calculus required.