What Learning Pods Can Teach Us About Equity

Image Credit: Holly White, from Adam Brock’s book: Change Here Now: Permaculture Solutions for Personal and Community Transformation

This blog has been a long time coming. I’ve been writing and re-writing it in my head and in various forms on paper, testing it for truth. One of my dreams when creating learning pods, as described in my blog, “Why Learning Pods?” was that learning pods would give us the opportunity to re-engineer education with an equity lens. I imagined the invitation to break some of the mold of the education system.  I still see that potential. This entry chronicles some of the realities we faced when a team of folks pulled together to assemble an emergency education response on a vastly accelerated timeline. 

The Process: 

Over the course of three weeks in August, we sent out surveys to the Front Range community to identify needs, coded the resulting data, ran an experimental pod, convened a think tank of folks working in the emergency response and education fields, reached out to families, formed three separate pods, conducted zoom calls with parents, drafted family safety agreements, drafted COVID-waivers, recruited business partners, secured insurance, formed a multi-member co-operative, wrote articles of incorporation, established a bank account, got background checks, wrote learning plans, prepared learning spaces, procured materials, and talked to A LOT of people to gather wisdom, ideas and resources. It was a whirlwind, and it resulted in the founding of a small group called the Denver Learning Pod Collaborative. At each turn, we reiterated the intention of equity. It was woven into the fabric of what we set out to do. So why didn’t the equity focus work?

Pod Cooking

The Outcome:

Let me be clear. In a time of emergency and great stress, we helped families and children. We raised the quality of their lives and improved their social emotional health. We allowed parents to go back to work, and benefited the relationships between siblings and parents in the home. We maximized students’ online learning and worked in partnership with their school. We also created a few jobs and paid teachers and organizers for their time (that’s a big deal, y’all). Our co-op is an example of resilient communities in action and the mutual aid model at work. If you want to read more about the sunshine and successes, I’ll soon be publishing a post with an in-depth discussion of the successful Social Permaculture design principles we demonstrated in our process. 

Pod in a Tree

Those aren’t small accomplishments. I’m proud of them. But I need to remind myself of these accomplishments because I’m one of those people who looks at a beautiful solution and is immediately drawn to what’s missing instead of what’s working. That can be a tricky mindset, but it’s also how we iterate, evolve, and improve. As predicted, what’s still missing in the pod model is equity for all children and families.  While we applied for grants from the city and picked the best brains we knew to pick, we ended up with families who could pay their facilitator, which was exclusive in its very nature. Though we designed a sliding scale for  families to “pay what you can plus a little bit more” to cover other students, when we turned to recruit families in need, we struggled to reach the families we needed to reach. This is the nature of systemic segregation. The separation is extremely challenging to bridge. It keeps us apart by design. The tools we’re using select for further exclusion. It was extremely disheartening to experience. Covid complicated things more because our safety agreement between families made it challenging to open our doors to any family without going through a disclosure process. Again, those families engaging in higher risk jobs, often those critical workers we need the most, had exposure rates that made it challenging to broker an agreement between families not wanting to increase their exposure.  Let’s look at each of the challenges that got in the way of equity one at a time so we can understand them better.

Time: 

We needed more time to design a response that would produce radically different patterns than those that already exist in our neighborhoods. An emergency response created on an accelerated timeline did not fully allow us to do the work of reaching across divides, applying for funding, and finding the people and resources to help us live up to the intention of equity. Although we wrote grants to fund spots for families who could not afford to pay and reached out to families to offer them seats in a forming pod, those efforts did not have the time to grow wings and fly. Due to privacy laws, we couldn’t just get a list of families who may need support from schools or other institutions. We had to seek out and foster those connections one family at a time.  Additionally, the long grant timelines meant that facilitators, adults needing to pay their bills, would need to work for free for three months before maybe getting paid if we received the experimental and limited grant funding. We learned that when moving quickly, we have to use the tools already in our hands: the money in our bank accounts, the connections we’ve created, and the lessons we’ve already learned. Our learning pods were limited by the realities of how quickly we could pull together a group of people who had the money to make our pod a reality before the school year started, which naturally limited the folks who could take part. Like the famous Albert Einstein quote suggests,  “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.” Essentially, when given very little time, the way we solve  problems mirror the systems that created them: accessible to those we already know who have the resources to move quickly and decisively.

We Need Better Tools

We learned that when moving quickly, we have to use the tools already in our hands: the money in our bank accounts, the connections we’ve created, and the lessons we’ve already learned. We needed more time to design a response that would produce radically different patterns than those that already exist in our neighborhoods.

Money: 

To be honest with you, talking about money makes me feel uncomfortable. As a school teacher, I’ve appreciated a fixed salary schedule, where I don’t have to negotiate. For better or worse, I’ve also adopted the standard narrative that it’s my job to accept a salary that, by design, undervalues my worth. So when the Facebook groups I subscribed to in order to take part in the pod movement started blowing up with threads about how much to pay pod facilitators and teachers, I cringed inside. As you can imagine, these conversations got heated very quickly. There were overtures about “teachers needing to ask for what they’re worth” right next to irritated comments about teachers who were “asking for private school wages.” (For reference, private schools tend to pay less than public schools, but that’s not what the comments were suggesting). When our team crunched the numbers again and again, we became very uncomfortable.  Our facilitators and teachers needed to make a living wage. While some families said the daily rate we were asking was outside of their means, we still weren’t providing  health Insurance, worker’s comp, taking out taxes, offering sick pay, hazard pay, paid vacation days, or any extra cash for materials or supplies. The margins were extremely tight. The scale of a four- student pod, the number allowed without going through the process to procure an in-home daycare license (which doesn’t consider emergencies like Covid), means that funding those spots is expensive. The limitations of Covid make it so that we can’t take advantage of any of the economies of scale that make schools work. Increasing the number of students is not only more exposure, but also requires larger space, more materials, and potentially taking greater safety risks . Covid requires a low ratio of students to teachers, and small is costly. It boils down to the time, quality, cost triangle. Like they say in the business world: You can’t have all three. You have to pick two. We wanted fast and high quality. So, we had to have the money in our hands to make it happen.  

Image Credit: Vivek Madurai

Systemic Segregation: 

When I sent out a survey collecting the responses of parents who needed help to alleviate their needs for child care or support, I received responses from more than a hundred people in a matter of hours. I posted on all the Facebook groups in the Front Range that included the word “Pod” as well as the “Help Needed COVID-19” group, and a few others. I quickly realized when looking at the responses that they mostly reflected white, middle-income families, as well as a few teachers looking for work.  It turned out that I was using the tools at my disposal to bring in  more people like me. After watching the documentary Social Dilemma, I learned so much more about the algorithms working to entrench segregation in our digital organizing spaces. As a white, female educator using the tools already in my hands, I didn’t naturally have access to the information I needed: who are the families in the school down the block that need help? How can I contact them? How do my neighbors who aren’t white want to be communicated with? How do I avoid being a “white savior” and engage in a true, mutual aid relationship built on respect? My best networking didn’t bring me the response that I had hoped, but I needed a place to start. 

Whittney Rojo & EdMovement

Image Credit: Whitney Rojo, founder of EdMovement working with local families

Don’t worry, we didn’t stop there. Having acknowledged that challenge, we worked smarter to find  ways to invite in a more diverse group of students and families to the table. We reached out to administrators and teachers and invited them to brainstorming calls, joined problem solving teams at local non-profits like Project Worthmore, partnered with Denver Metro Community Impact to co-create resources, shared our learning with Denver Public Schools representatives to inform their scaled response, reached out to organizations working with refugees and immigrants, looked for wisdom from Black Homeschooling Networks, consulted with Whittney ROJO, an Anti-Bias and Anti-Racism (ABAR) trainer at EdMovement, and picked all the brains we could. At every turn, segregation reigned. I was reminded of a book I read in grad school, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? The book was written 20 years ago by Beverly Daneil Tatum, but the issues it illuminates are truer than ever. In a recent interview with Minnesota Public Radio, the author explains, “Our population is much more diverse today than it was even 20 years ago,” she said. At the same time, there is “even more school segregation than we had 20 years ago.” While self-segregating behavior can create safety and affirmation for a group, when it emulates school structures, it can be symptomatic of a disconnected culture. Tatum found that schools with less segregating behaviors worked to create “intentional practices around what I call the ABCs: affirming identity, building community and cultivating leadership.” The segregation of our neighborhoods and our schools makes the creation of integrated pods an extremely challenging, though very worthy endeavor. 

A Social Permaculture Design Process

Re-Group, Re-Iterate, & Re-Design

Do you need a break yet? I do. Furthermore, due to the increase in Covid cases, new health mandates have been put in place. As of his most recent press conference on November 13th, Governor Jared Polis urges us that, “now is a time for responsibility and for science backed up by data,” a time to change the “collective result of all of our decision making” by reducing or stopping interactions with other households.”  Additionally,  DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova recently released a statement pleading residents to follow health orders to limit exposure outside the home for the sake of our most vulnerable residents and children. In response to these calls, we’ve decided to pause our pods for at least the month of November. It will give us some time to re-group, re-iterate, and re-design. We’recalling upon the Design Tool known as Creative Process. Adam Brock describes it this way in his book, Change Here Now: “The art of healing communities is a creative act. As such, it follows the familiar rhythms of every creative discipline: setting goals, observing context, developing designs, putting designs into action, and learning from the results.” I’m taking a deep breath as I write this last line. It’s time for us to ask again, what can we do better next time? I need some time to assess the outcomes of this social experiment, celebrate the successes, mourn the shortcomings, gather some more resources, and before you know it, get right back to work.

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