From the Field: Asking the Right Questions for the Work Ahead

Asking the Right Questions for the Work Ahead

Recently I participated in an online lecture hosted by poet David Whyte where he spoke on the power of questions. He talked about “how we shape beautiful minds with beautiful questions,” and shared this passage from one of his poems:

Be impatient with easy explanations
and teach that part of the mind
that wants to know everything
not to begin questions it cannot answer.

– Tobar Phadraic, David Whyte

This passage has encouraged me to think about the role that leaders and organizations must play during times of great uncertainty — a situation that has defined 2020. Colleges and universities are trying to provide an accessible education to students during an unpredictable pandemic. We are weeks away from an election that will have significant effects on the nation, regardless of the outcome. And communities in every part of the country are confronting our history of racism and oppression in the United States, and asking themselves how to move forward on a path of justice and equity.

Potential and growth for equity in higher education

Equity is central to our mission at Achieving the Dream and is a value that is part of our founding history. Yet, over the past six months, catalyzed by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, we are asking ourselves deeper questions around our internal and external equity work. How can our organization be a stronger contributor to greater racial equity for students in our community colleges? How can we support our colleges in leading the way forward to create equitable communities? How can we better serve our most vulnerable students? What can we offer college leaders to support their transformation efforts around racial equity? How do we stay connected with ATD Network colleges and their student success leaders and teams in a time of social distancing and uncertainty?

The sheer amount of uncertainty we’re all dealing with can be anxiety-inducing. Where to start? How to begin? But sometimes we must accept that we don’t always know the answer, no matter how “beautiful” the question. This drives us to work even harder, with greater intention and vigor, toward solutions that contribute to our core values of deconstructing and structurally dismantling the policies, practices, and programs on our campuses that keep too many students from achieving their dreams.

ATD Network schools are providing examples of progress

While we know there’s a lot of work still to be done, there have been many recent examples of ATD Network colleges stepping up to ask their own “beautiful questions” and provide innovative, inspiring answers.

In Florida, Miami Dade College (MDC) received $14 million in federal Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions (DHSI) grants that will bolster STEM and health sciences programs, as well as professional development and dual-enrollment programs. Five of MDC’s eight campuses have been awarded the funds, which will support projects that are designed to grow the pipeline from high school to higher education and to promote completion and success for Latinx students.

In New York, Mohawk Valley Community Colleges joined a group of five other institutions to provide a lecture and webinar series on racial equity in the criminal justice system. The College/Community Partnership for Racial Justice Reform aims to use faculty expertise from all six schools, as well as input from local residents, to inform the community and generate a productive dialogue around issues of justice, policing, and race.

In Wisconsin, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) released Everyone Has Worth: A Guide to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at NWTC, and created a new chief officer for diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of its executive leadership team. Additionally, NWTC hired a new diversity, equity, and inclusion career coach, whose role is intentionally created to support minority students at the school, many of whom are first-generation college students, and to provide greater outreach to high school students in the area.

The California Community College Chancellor’s Office issued a call-to-action to all 116 community colleges in the state regarding racial equity in the system. Bakersfield College responded to this call and immediately began working on the six steps outlined in the Chancellor’s Office’s call. The BC Grace Van Dyke Bird Library developed a new event series called Learning Together, designed to increase understanding of structural racism, and has developed a guide that contains each week’s discussion topics as well as additional learning resources.

Northern Essex Community College president Dr. Lane A. Glenn recently wrote an op-ed for the Eagle Tribune in Massachusetts, arguing that while community colleges serve a higher proportion of disadvantaged students than any other sector of higher education, it is still “not nearly enough.” He announced the formation of the Northern Essex Community College Center for Equity and Social Justice, and outlined the ways the college will recommit itself to increasing equity on campus and in the community.

Moving forward together

How we manage uncertainty can define our contributions to our communities. When there is no clear path forward, leaders and organizations must ask these “beautiful questions” in order to think, decide, and act with purpose.

I hope that schools in the ATD Network, and anyone passionate about increasing equity — in their communities, in higher education, and across the country — will continue to reflect deeply on what they know, what they still have to learn, and how they can act in a way that aligns with their commitment to transformative institutional change.

As MIT’s Dr. Hal Gregersen writes, sometimes “questions are the answer.”

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