Reflecting on the Taos Education As Relating Conference

By Rolla Lewis

Reflecting on the Taos Education As Relating Conference

My thanks to colleague, friend, and SPF Advisory Board member, Rolla Lewis, for submitting the Guest Blog below. Rolla was a long-time California counselor educator. We worked together on a number of projects in support of school counseling and school counselors in the state back in the 80s, 90s, and into the start of the new century. As you will see in his Blog post, he continues to give deep thought to crucial issues in school counseling practice and preparation, and education in general. He is Professor Emeritus of California State University, East Bay, and an Associate of the Taos Institute. I hope readers enjoy his post. Regards, Lonnie

Reflecting on the Taos Education As Relating Conference

The Taos Institute held their first Education As Relating Virtual Conference November 4-6, 2021. This account is a reflective attempt to capture my process and learning from planning and participating in the conference. My account is like any singular narrator attempting to capture a process-relational moment because it is limited to the world I see emerging from my experience, perspective, and even the writing process giving this account of the event.

A little background about my engagement in the conference might help. Through a series of events, I got invited to be part of the conference planning committee; two original members quit; one due to illness and one to being overwhelmed with other demands. When asked, I had advocated for others to be on the planning committee, but in truth, I know being on such committees is a thankless task. Conference committees gobble up time, energy, and require focusing on bringing about a successful conference. Being on the planning committee positions you to leverage your role into grabbing some limelight. For me, there was a ripe opportunity to put the spotlight on lifescaping action research, an approach designed to bring about a more desirable learning community with others (e.g., Lewis, Dailey, Jennings, & Winkelman, 2017; Lewis & Winkelman, 2017; Lifescaping Project, n. d.). But lifescaping action research draws upon process-relational and anarchist traditions and is intentionally collaborative, pointing to the possibilities inherent in engaging in creative local projects with others (e.g., Cobb & Schwartz, 2018; Graeber, 2001, 2015, McDaniel, 2021). Core themes in my process-relational way point to cultivating learning power and wellbeing as ways to foster knowledge democracy—shared practices that I frame as local or decentralized (or mind you anarchist) experiments designed to create communities where people join together to bring about the world they want in the place where they live, work, play, or go to school. Places where the experiments and results are shared with local stakeholders and a wider community of knowledge democracy practice networks, like Social Publishers Foundation (Lewis, 2020). Places where we embody bold new attempts to bring about new possibilities for seeing ourselves and for creating the world we want to live in (Graeber & Wengrow, 2021).

After agreeing to be part of the conference planning committee, I began to reflect a bit on the arc of my career and actively advocating for social and ecological justice for decades. This invitation illuminated how being an older white-male-retired-professor-emeritus is a privilege, which is about power. But by being mindful and intentional, I could practice dismantling some of my white-male-full-professor-emeritus-privilege, even though, gosh, I never personally felt privileged. Such feelings have to be interrogated, but in a way that does not encourage self-flagellation but one guided by the Zapatista slogan, “Preguntando caminamos, or ‘Walking, we ask questions’” (Flaherty, 2016, p. 33).

What is power? Look at and think about power. The process-relational philosopher, Robert Mesle (2008) helps here by describing two types of power: unilateral power and relational power. Unilateral power can be tied to individualistic-white-male-savior-figures, white supremacy, rigid, all-knowing positions etc. Relational power emerges out of seeing the world as a relational process; our existence is bound in a vast web of relational processes. As deep as our social constructs are, they “are created out of our lived embodiment as biological organisms engaging in causal webs deeper than our social practices, languages, and concepts” (Mesle, p. 63).

Unilateral power flows down the pyramid, controlling and dominating, whereas relational power is a vast interconnected web involving people as embodied organisms in a living world. In relational power, people create themselves in their relationships to other people and the world where they dwell. Mesle (2008) offers three components of relational power: one, to be actively open to and affected by the world where we dwell; “2) the ability to create ourselves out of what we have taken in; 3) the ability to influence those around us by having first been affected by them” (p. 73). Relational power is like love. “Faced with inevitable inequalities, people with relational power choose to bear a larger burden so that the weaker have a chance to develop their relational power” (Mesle, p. 75).

Given my own history and experience as an advocate for relational power, I bound myself to three goals as a conference planning member: 1) not to make a presentation on my own and to encourage voices from colleagues and mentees I stay in touch with; 2) target graduates of California State University, East Bay (CSUEB) School Counseling and School Psychology program to present about their work in the field; 3) encourage young and diverse voices to speak their truth to power and to the world-at-large.

What does all this have to do with the Taos Education as Relating Conference? Everything. Relational power is not something delivered from on high, or heady knowledge. It is a practice. How do I approach and invite without sounding like a pompous ass? In a book I am still struggling to comprehend, the process-relational philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it this way: “There remains the final reflection, how shallow, puny, are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly” (1929, p. x). Stay humble because relational power is a practice and one that encourages us to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity as a way of being.

Once my role with the Taos Institute Education as Relating Conference was set, I sent out individual emails to past graduates, colleagues, and friends who might be interested. I encouraged all to make presentations. I confessed to my California State University, East Bay colleagues and graduates that I really wanted to put the work being done there on an international stage. Our Lifescaping Project collaboration with professors and students– illustrated our own process and student lifescaping action research results; it shimmered with possibilities for both sharing and exploring next steps (Lewis et al., 2017).

Just before Covid-19 shutdown the schools in 2020, I had visited Westlake Middle School where two graduates of the CSUEB School Counseling program work; one is now the principal and the other the counselor. One is African-American and the other Vietnamese-American. They have known each other for nearly 20 years, are like sisters, and know relational practices. When I visited, I tried to get them to do some lifescaping action research, but they said they were too busy, and clearly I had no incentive to take something off their plate to encourage such an endeavor. Still, after some begging and agreeing to conduct an appreciative inquiry interview as part of their presentation Mimi Nguyen and Maya Taylor presented, Cultivating the Beloved Community in Oakland, CA: An Appreciative Inquiry.  They rocked. They confronted and dismantled stereotypes about Oakland, shared how they are creating a learning community for their “scholars” in collaboration with staff, teachers, students, and parents. They shared the bumps in the road, their dreams, and also the humble recognition that bringing about the beloved community is a continuous and ongoing process that requires relationships throughout the school community.

Emily Santiago, another graduate from the CSUEB School Psychology program also presented. After a number of years turning around schools in Contra Costa County in the San Francisco East Bay, Emily opened the Center for Cognitive Diversity (https://www.centerforcognitivediversity.org/). She has developed a Trauma Informed Specialist Certification program in collaboration with CSUEB, offers clinical supervision, and other professional development opportunities. Watching a poised, well-grounded professional present about what she is doing with trauma informed practices was a delight, especially for a professor who could see some of the roots in her work, which she modestly frames for her CSUEB professors as simply building upon and developing the education she started with us.

Additionally, my CSUEB colleagues Ardella Dailey and Greg Jennings presented Critical Compassion Leadership and Relational Education, which was a resounding success for those attending. Finally, as a member of the planning committee, I advocated loudly for having a Listening to Youth Voices Plenary—a plenary towards the end of the conference where the adults and professionals listen to youth about their experiences in school and their dreams about what school could be.  The Listening to Youth Voices was a highlight, especially since the same day in Glasgow, Scotland youth were protesting at COP26 to have their voices heard about their concerns about the climate crisis.

At the end of the conference, I recognized my process-relational perspective frames my experience. Everything is in process; reality flows, and nothing stays the same, including my perspective and actions. We are all interconnected in relational webs with each other and every other living thing; do my relationships nurture and open new possibilities for others? People and the natural environment where we live have value, intrinsic value; social and ecological justice are about valuing all in the living world where we dwell. Each moment we have an opportunity to join with others in relationships that make a difference. It is all a continuous practice. In my assessment of those practices, I think I came close to meeting my goals, but I am certain to change my process next time.

References

Bradbury, H., Lewis, R. E., & Embury, D. C. (2019). Education action research: With and for the next generation. In C. A. Mertler (Ed.), The Wiley handbook of action research in education (pp. 7-28). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Cobb, J. B., & Schwartz, W. A. (2018). Putting philosophy to work: Toward an ecological civilization. Anoka, MN: Process Century Press.

Graeber, D. (2001). Toward an anthropological theory of value: The false coin of our own dreams. New York, NY: Palgrave.

Graeber, D. (2015). The utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy. New York, NY: Melville House.

Graeber, D., & Wengrow, D. (2021). The dawn of everything: A new history of humanity. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Lewis, R. E. (2020). Lifescaping: Cultivating flourishing school cultures. In S. McNamee, M. M. Gergen, C. Camargo-Borges, & E. F. Rasera. The SAGE handbook of social constructionist practice (pp. 321-331). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Lewis, R. E., Dailey, A., Jennings, G., & Winkelman, P. (Eds.). (2017). Lifescaping Project:  Action Research and Appreciative Inquiry in San Francisco Bay Area Schools. Chagrin Falls, OH: WorldShare Taos Institute Publication (PDF Version 2017). http://www.taosinstitute.net/lifescaping-project

Lewis, R. E., & Winkelman, P. (2017). Lifescaping practices in school communities: Implementing action research and appreciative inquiry. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lewis, R. E., Herb, C., Mundy-McCook, E., & Capps-Jenner, N. (2018). Lifescaping Action Research Pedagogy. Educational Action Research. DOI: 10.1080/09650792.2018.1535446

Lifescaping Project. (n. d.). Taos Institute. Retrieved from https://www.taosinstitute.net/lifescaping-practices-in-schools

McDaniel, J. (2020). What is process thought?: Seven answers to seven questions. Anoka, MN: Process Century Press.

Mesle, C. R. (2008). Process-relational philosophy: An introduction to Alfred North Whitehead. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.

Whitehead, A. N. (1929). Process and reality: An essay in cosmology. New York, NY: Harper and Brothers.

Leave a Reply