Tuesday night I spent the evening with educators, parents, and administrators from the Moreno Valley Unified School District. It was an event that has become an annual one for the district, a de-briefing session of individuals who have participated in our Underground Railroad Study Tours, organized by Superintendent Judy White. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with people who spent a week in an intense experiential learning exercise in empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. I had never really thought of the tour in that way until my brother Hardy addressed the group with his own story of what the annual trip that he now leads means to him.
During his remarks Hardy recounted the story of a young woman he met at a career fair almost a decade ago. “She was very sharp…extremely smart and personable,” he told the group. “I offered her an internship on the spot, but she told me that she had to disclose that she’s a DREAMER. That’s great, I’m a dreamer too,” he said in response. She realized she had to explain that she was brought to the United States as a baby and didn’t know she was not here legally until she graduated from high school and tried to enter college. He still offered her an internship and helped her maneuver through a system that was not designed to help her. He watched her graduate college, eventually earning an advanced degree, and even helped her land a great job. “Understanding her story helped me realize the importance of empathy,” he said. “It’s made me a better person, a better policymaker as a county school board member, and a better leader of these tours,” he told me after the event.
The sentiment was shared by educators in the room who have taken the lessons learned from the study tour back into the work they do in the district: helping teachers better connect with kids who have different stories than their own, and encouraging teachers to tell their own stories to students and their parents which has created a better connection with those families. The success is evident in the overall success of students in the district. The graduation rate has increased an amazing 20.5% in the past five years, which is the greatest increase for any school district in Riverside County. “The new graduation rate of 86.2% continues to exceed both the state and national averages, and we fully expect it to rise higher as we continue to identify students who are at risk of not graduating and help them overcome obstacles,” Superintendent White proudly stated in her Back To School message to the community.
When I finally made it home, I heard again, the call for empathy echoed in President Obama’s farewell address. “If our democracy is to work…start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens love this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family like we do… Valuing empathy, listening to others who aren’t like us, and understanding from someone else’s point of view can allow us to see the sacred ties that make us one… You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” he said quoting Harper Lee’s iconic literary figure Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Reflecting not only on his role as our nation’s “Public Servant in Chief” for the past eight years, but on our own responsibility as citizens of this nation, he reiterated, “division stalls our progress.”
The next evening the value of empathetic leadership was rewarded, when Dr. White was appointed by the Riverside County School Board of Education to serve out the remainder of Superintendent Kenn Young’s term, making her the first woman and person of color to serve in the position. Now, as superintendent overseeing all of the districts in the county, Dr. White has the ability to set an empathetic tone for an entire region during a time when it seems to be needed the most.