From fear of covid-19 to covid-19ism

27 Mar

It’s reasonable to feel anxious and even afraid of covid-19 as a health and overall wellness threat.

What we need to be mindful of is when our fear becomes a phobia that’s actually an ism. What’s that? As opposed to arachnophobia or claustrophobia, a phobia that has become an ism is one that is backed by institutional power and societal norms: like homophobia, Islamophobia and transphobia. While all phobias are real conditions, phobias that are really isms are anxiety disorders that are reinforced and fueled by explicit policy and implicit social permission.

Thus, it may be more accurate and helpful to talk about sexual orientation-ism, Islam-ism and gender-ism (across the gender spectrum), if we want to end these forms of systemic discrimination, brutality and oppression.

What does this have to do with covid-19? Well, I’ve been thinking about how individual fears about covid-19 have aggregated into a collective fear (although research indicates that you’re more likely, if you identify as a Democrat–and I’m going to go out on a limb here, to extend that to liberal or progressive–to see the coronavirus as “a real threat,” so this may pertain more to left-leaning communities), and how that collective fear has been manifesting in a way that strongly resemble isms in action.

Here, I want to focus on covid-19-ism enacted at a very local level, in human interactions among people who would probably tell you “there’s not a prejudiced bone in my body.” (And once again, I just need to affirm that they are correct. Because there is no “prejudice bone.”)

Let’s talk about physical distancing. First of all, way to go, people! We’re all learning a new skill and consciousness in real time. No swimming pool test before the open water exam, to put it in SCUBA terms.

Now, n my daily runs since the order to “stay at home” (which allows for daily exercise, maintaining 6′ between yourself and others), I’ve noticed that when a couple or group is walking together, they walk abreast of each other on opposite sides of the road or trail, often maintaining their positions regardless of who else may be coming up behind or heading toward them. This leaves the center of the road for those others, which may involve dodging a car coming around a blind curve, or, on a single or double track trail, physical contact for everyone because there isn’t enough space for three people to pass.

It occurred to me that some folks observing the 6′ distance are mindful for themselves and their own, but at the exclusion of anyone else. As if physical distancing is what we’re doing to avoid you. As if what happens to you isn’t our problem. (Who said you could be out here while we’re using this space, anyway?) As if we don’t even recognize you and your right to be safe, too. Sound like the attitude underlying an ism to you? For example, as enacted through the ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, all of the travel bans targeting Muslim-majority countries, and the ethnoracist redlining practices that persist in the US.

Right now you may be thinking that I’m reading a bit much into folks trying to physical distance. Possibly, yes, and I believe this is the hardest level of ism to address: the level that informs our everyday actions, that we justify and admonish others not to make such a big deal out of (just run in the middle of the road or into the bushes, Alison! no one means any harm), and that we therefore freely practice to the point where our ism skills are reflexive and well-honed for the next opportunity to cast ourselves against them.

Which brings me to the other, entangled perspective that seems to underlie how people are physical distancing. It’s not just self-care and concern: it’s self-care and concern assuming self-innocence. There’s a distinct feeling of maintaining distance for myself in case you’re infected. As if the problem is those infectious others. Now, obviously everyone has to catch it from someone else. Yet what that also means is that some of us have to be some of those elses.

Yet we’re practicing physical distancing as if we are good and healthy. As if it’s them who are germy, gross and potentially lethal. Again, sound like an ism, anyone? This presumption of self-purity is at heart of white nationalism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia (or maybe we should call it xenocism).

Which brings me to wondering whether we’re enhancing our own ism tolerance and capacity during this outbreak by practicing covid-19-ism:

  • Thinking of us, over/against/instead of them because we’ve
  • Decided (rationally or not) that they’re the danger we should protect our (untainted) selves from

It’s not that thinking of ourselves and our own is wrong. It’s human. It’s that we can do that and not dehumanize others. And it’s better not just for those others, but for us, too, to expand our community of we to encompass as many (human) beings as possible. If we want to get through this pandemic, we have to care about our collective health and well-being, including people we don’t know and may never meet.

We have to own our part in this outbreak. This is the advice coming from healthcare professionals everywhere: act as if you have the coronavirus. That’s right. Assume you’re the infected person. Then, discern how to interact with or among others. That means practicing physical distancing for us mutually (not just for me to keep my distance from you, you unfortunate obstacle to my safety, health and well-being).

Which brings me back to genderism, Islamism, sexual orientationism, ableism, ageism, anti-Semitism, classism, ethnoracism and white nationalism. If you’re opposed to any (or all) isms, try practicing anti-covid-19-ism with me. That is, engaging with others with your mutual well-being in mind, realizing that you’re a potential threat and resource, and that they are, too. All this in a diverse community, which is to say we’re not identical or equal. On my runs, I’m actively trying not to presume that everyone has the same physical abilities (including hearing and balance), trail-sharing experience or burdens (social and emotional) to carry during this time.

And, next level, see if your susceptibility to covid-19-ism provides any insight, compassion or even empathy for people who believe in and/or act to advance other isms.

What?! Empathize with white supremacists and homophobes? Or even the Millennials who started the “Boomer Remover” meme (who may not have been motivated by hate, but nonetheless are playing into ageism, which may yet actually impact access to treatment during this pandemic)?

Yes. Not to “forgive and forget.” But to acknowledge that any ism is a campaign that requires people to advance it. And that, therefore, we have to deal with people as people in order to halt and redirect the campaign. Because while it’s vital to go hard on issues of equity and inclusion, it’s generally not effective to be inhumane to people, whether you’re for an ism or against it. Recognizing my own capacity to ism (in this case, to advance covid-19-ism) can help me to shift my interaction with someone who is, knowingly or not, advancing ageism: from treating them as if they’re a problem for me to eradicate, to engaging them as someone who, like me, is motivated by concerns and fears; and, like me, sometimes acts unhelpfully and hurtfully to alleviate personal anxiety, especially when others seems to be moving in the same direction. Finding empathy doesn’t change my goal of stopping ageist behaviors and promoting a campaign of anti-ageism. It helps me to distinguish the issue from the person, which I too often sweep up altogether in the dragnet of my sense of justice. It reminds me that I’m not “better” than them, and this isn’t about me versus them. This is about us.

* Thank you to my colleague MM, for reframing “Islamophobia.”

Sharing forward, with gratitude

26 Mar

“The goal [in stressful, uncertain times like now] is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image.”

–David Kessler, author of  On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss and Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

So I’ll start with gratitude for some increased connections, as a direct result of the increased isolation right now. Thank you, colleagues, who are a community of tremendous heart, mind, conviction and action. I really appreciate being connected to you.

Thank you, CY, for sending “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” which features the interview with Kessler from which I quoted above. Kessler advises that during this pandemic:

You can also think about how to let go of what you can’t control. What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.

Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. A coworker got very snippy with me the other day and I thought, That’s not like this person; that’s how they’re dealing with this. I’m seeing their fear and anxiety. So be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.

This really resonated with me, as toilet paper and basic cleaning and first aid supplies are still out of stock in my town. I too readily go to a narrative about selfishness (and even cloak it in righteousness: anger that hospitals and shelters may not be able to purchase these supplies, since households are hoarding. Yes, this may be true, but if I’m being honest, it’s also fuel for my indignation. Which is not helpful to me or to my community).

As I try to “stock up on compassion,” I’m also going to try to stock up on “self-compassion” (for instance, by thinking, “That’s not like me; that’s how I’m dealing with this. I’m seeing my fear and anxiety.“) I’m going to try to be patient with myself, while still holding myself accountable for doing what I can right now. Because, once again, I’m reminded that social justice isn’t just big action IN ALL CAPS against “the system.” It’s about how I and you show up every day. Even when no one else is watching or listening.

* Thanks again to my colleague CY for sharing the article.

Dr. Fauci’s practice of cultural competency

25 Mar

Just reposting two excerpts from Science magazine’s recent interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as an example of cultural competency in practice. While focusing on science–and maybe because he’s focusing on science–Fauci advanced justice and discernment action for the complicated, collective good of a diverse population. That is, by the way, how cultural competency is supposed to work: rather than an end unto itself, cultural competency  should empower us to do our jobs more effectively.

First, during the interview Science magazine asked about how Fauci refers to the coronavirus (aka covid-19):

Q: You have not said China virus. (Trump frequently calls the cause of the spreading illness known as coronavirus disease 2019 a “China virus” or a “Chinese virus.”)

A: Ever.

Q: And you never will, will you?

A: No.

A discussion point with students might be: Why does it matter what we call this coronavirus, from a public health perspective? How could calling it “the Chinese virus” hurt or help scientific and medical research, recommendations and public outreach?

And later in this interview, Fauci demonstrates the “yes, and…” thinking that we need to practice, as a (partisan) debate emerges right now about whether we’re going to protect public health or the economy:

There is a discussion and a delicate balance about what’s the overall impact of shutting everything down completely for an indefinite period of time. So, there’s a compromise. If you knock down the economy completely and disrupt infrastructure, you may be causing health issues, unintended consequences, for people who need to be able to get to places and can’t. You do the best you can. I’ve emphasized very emphatically at every press conference, that everybody in the country, at a minimum, should be following the fundamental guidelines. Elderly, stay out of society in self isolation. Don’t go to work if you don’t have to. Yada, yada, yada. No bars, no restaurants, no nothing. Only essential services. When you get a place like New York or Washington or California, you have got to ratchet it up. But it is felt—and it isn’t me only speaking, it’s a bunch of people who make the decisions—that if you lock down everything now, you’re going to crash the whole society. So, you do what you can do, as best as you can. Do as much physical separation as you can and ratchet it up at the places you know are at highest risk.

We should start with active open-mindededness (also known as science curious thinking) about the admitted complexity of even trying to safeguard people’s health (considering primary, secondary and tertiary physical, mental and emotional threats and risks of the covid-19 pandemic), rather than treating “health” as a simple counterweight to “economics.” It also helps that Fauci knows the value of not groupthink, but leveraging the power of a diverse group to tap different areas of expertise, open up individual perspectives and invite in more possibilities before settling on “what we should do.” Sure, it can feel overwhelming to invite in the complexity (by using “yes, and…” and “however” not just once but over and over in the generative, divergent thinking stage of problem-solving), but that’s because the problem is complex. And starting with either-or can only dumb down and limit all subsequent possibilities.

A discussion practice with students could be, instead of asking them what they think, asking: what are 4-6 possible perspectives on this issue? (That you don’t personally have to believe). Notice your impulse. Intentionally “go wide” and zig-zag with the possibilities. Then: what do you think?

The “NY virus”? Of course not.

24 Mar

Actor Daniel Dae Kim (the Asian guy on Lost, Hawaii Five-O and now New Amsterdam) has the coronavirus.

In his post about that diagnosis last week, Kim expressed gratitude for his health, regret for endangering other people while he was sick but still asymptomatic (and therefore, exposing others to covid-19 as he went about his regular routine) and this request:

“Please stop the prejudice and senseless violence against Asian people. Yes, I’m Asian and, yes, I have coronavirus, but I did not get it from China. I got it in America in New York City. And despite what certain political leaders want to call it, I don’t consider the place where it is from as important as the people who are sick and dying. If I did I would call this thing the New York virus, but that would be silly, right?”

Wishing Kim and everyone else who has, knowingly or not, caught covid-19 safety for themselves and everyone around them, good care and a full recovery.



Not just distant: Learning and teaching are also different now

24 Mar

As brick and mortar schools transition to e-learning and teaching (and even those that offered recorded lectures or distance learning before may be piloting what that looks like as the only means of teaching and learning now), there are various methods at work:

  • Just conduct class as if the students are there. I hear that at least one university has professors and lecturers delivering talks in their regular classroom or halls (now empty).
  • Send lessons home for the parents/older siblings/guardians/students themselves to do. (See yesterday’s post for one mom’s viral reaction to how that’s going.)
  • Hold class online just like they did in person onsite.
  • Hold class online… differently.

Today, I’m just going to focus on those last two bullets with a couple of examples of how distance teaching and learning should be the same and different than however we do it in person.

  • An example of doing what you already do is the “back to school” list of supplies, which families ideally receive before their kids need to use these items, along with active outreach communicating that the school realizes these additional items could pose a hardship and/or simply be hard to procure (because right now, workplaces, schools and families are all purchasing more computer equipment than usual. On a related note, there are viable questions about whether all of us can all crowd unfettered onto the internet at the same time). Recognizing the financial strains that may be impacting families:
    • A local school identified families who don’t have internet access at home and purchased routers for them to use. A local university has offered “very lost cost” laptop rentals to its students who need a device.
    • Another school confronted its uncertainty about how to say “we want to help if we can” to families receiving financial assistance from the school, and decided to just say that. I advised that they could also name that they aren’t sure exactly what to say, how to say it or how to be helpful. And that they still wanted to try and, without adding more work for families, welcome feedback.
    • I would add that because it’s typical in independent schools (and, I imagine, universities) that some families are receiving financial assistance from a private network or resource (family trust, relatives and/or a bank loan), and because this pandemic is impacting work and incomes right now, schools may want to consider how to reach out to their full communities. Not because they can help everyone, but because if their motivation is to help families who could use the help, having a fuller picture of which families that includes empowers the school to act more discerningly and impactfully.
  • An example of doing things necessarily differently is reconsidering “class participation.” As a colleague shared with me, their child’s university has made video and audio participation in e-classrooms optional so that “kids who aren’t comfortable showing themselves or their surroundings can participate via chat function without penalty.”
    • As someone who heavily prefers to facilitate workshops and working meetings in person, what I’m wondering about is how to do pair-shares and small group breakouts effectively within a group, especially when people have just one device, and maybe limited access within a household to that device. (My colleague tells me that zoom has that capacity, so I’ll be doing some research, and welcome your suggestions.)
  • And an example of how complicated it is to advance equity as we pilot e-learning systems: the same university has decided that all classes can be converted to pass/fail. This decision recognizes that distance learning could be harder for some students (who haven’t chosen it) and/or that this could be a difficult time for students (because of covid-19 and other stresses), but apparently there are institutional rewards for taking classes for grades, so kids who can are at an advantage. In order to advance equity, the school would need to work out its overall pass/fail versus grades policy. While many PK-12 schools don’t offer options for individual students regarding whether to be graded or not, the takeaway is thinking through how they’re being assessed, and what makes sense, in terms of flexibility and innovation. And, while we’re at it, what standing assessment policies and practices could use an overhaul, even after classes resume in person.


* Thank you to my friend and colleague BF for sharing examples of equity in action in e-education.


“Please. Turn it down. Foot off the gas. Leave them be.”

23 Mar

First of all, how are you?

(deep breath)



I’m usually late to the “what’s gone viral” game, so maybe you’ve already seen this video of an Israeli mom, who posted from her car about the experience and impacts of distance-learning in her family when

My son had just received a flurry of assignments on WhatsApp. With four kids, I’m part of all these WhatsApp groups. I’m constantly looking at the group name, “Wait a second, which kid is this for? Which class?,” so I don’t make an embarrassing mistake. I said to my son, “What are you supposed to do here?” He looks at me, “Mom, how am I supposed to know?” Then I realized how absurd it all is.

If you haven’t seen her post, take 1m and 32s to watch it.

It’s important to know that Shiri Keningsberg Levi is a special education teacher. So this is a mom whom you might think is even better equipped than the average parent/guardian to implement the home-side of distance-learning.

And yet.

She’s overwhelmed by the pace, volume and expectations that the school-side expertise of education is somehow being seamlessly transferred to families. And she’s resonating with viewers globally.

In addition to exhaling with Levi and hitting “replay,” what can we do, if she’s venting for us, too?

1. Recognize that digital culture has a way of dehumanizing interactions. Yes, even your communications with the students you love, and to the teachers you admire. It’s the default setting of the medium: send into the ether as fast as you can type or record it, then on to the next. We see the results in people’s online “comments” to posts they don’t like. We see it in what people will say in emails and texts to (but not face to face with) each other. We see it in the way that online scheduling stacks meetings, as if we can be in three different places (including virtual spaces) at once. And now we’re seeing it, at least through Levi’s eyes, in the volume of messages each child and their caregivers are supposed to read, process and act on. It’s not just about the messages one teacher is sending: it’s the sum of messages each child and their caregivers is receiving (which require action, response and then on to the next). An analogy here is “pop-up” incidental costs over the course a school year: for a field trip, for a pizza day, for a gift for the teacher, for an additional text in the classroom, for this season’s team t-shirt… even if we try to make each cost “reasonable”–and who determines what’s reasonable?–when you add them all up, it’s definitely no longer reasonable.

2. Make it part of your “stay at home” practice to regularly pause and notice how you are, and ask each other how you’re doing. Especially if you’re busy taking care of others, professionally or personally. (Put your oxygen mask on first, right?) I try to avoid absolute statements, but I think–and feel-it’s fair to say that we’re all on edge. I, for one, can really relate to what Percy Abram, Head of The Bush School and my co-facilitator for the Leaders of Color Professional Learning Community in Seattle, says in this NY Times article,

“All I’ve really known is that the answer to work and to emotional strife has been to work harder and work more,” said Dr. Abram, whose wife, a medical doctor, has stresses of her own. Now he realizes that may not be enough.

“Soon, there is no ‘harder’ and no ‘more,’ and that leaves me with uncertainty I will have to face,” he said. “The city is going to slow down, my meetings will slow down and I will have to slow down and process my emotions.”

A half-marathoner, he has been taking long runs, releasing his tension through sweat and, occasionally, by screaming in the woods where he cannot be heard. He is keeping up with his regular therapy appointments. “That is something that I will not let go of,” he said.

3. Notice your reaction when Levi says, “Enough, guys, teachers, dial it down, lower expectations.” Are you thinking: YES! and NO, we can’t! Exactly. Are you feeling:

  • the need to be perfect? You can’t get distance learning wrong (even as you may be learning it on the job)! You can’t fail the kids!
  • a sense of urgency? We can’t lose a minute of learning!
  • defensive? Great, now the parents are blaming us for trying?
  • but teaching is teaching! what are we supposed to do instead?

Right now, I’m drawing on Tema Okun’s characteristics of white supremacy culture (2001), which also include:

  • quantity over quality (as in, keep sending new assignments)
  • only one right way (as in, how we did things in classrooms together is how we’ll do things when we’re online)

My point here is not that you are a white supremacist. It’s that the “rules” that advance white supremacy are ingrained in US educational culture and that we are experiencing viscerally right now in this crisis how unsustainable and inhumane that culture is. Our culture, the one that we’re practicing right now. I don’t hear Levi yelling at teachers. I hear Levi yelling at white supremacist expectations that aren’t helping anyone right now, including white educators and white families.

Rather than “lowering expectations” (which is part of an “only one right way” mentality), I think we have an opportunity and responsibility to adjust expectations. If students don’t have musically trained teachers, other musicians (to play the other parts of a score) or even the instruments from school to practice on, can’t they still learn music? By, for instance, being assigned to take musical interludes during their day to listen to various genres (not just their “go to” artists and songs)? Building a broader musical literacy now may enhance their skills and sensibilities when they come back together at school.

4. And on that note, we should all–educators, parents/guardians, educators who are parents/guardians and students–consider: what is valuable for students to learn now? What is, in Levi’s words, worth “bothering with,” especially given the teaching and learning circumstances we’re in? I’m thinking of the opportunity to teach math that matters to our values and how we live right now. Of mindfulness practice and social media literacy, which are too often relegated to the corners of the school day. Of sustained silent reading, which I miss from my elementary schools days (and which I credit to this day for my reading skills, my breadth of literary consumption and even my becoming an English teacher). Of the independent learning projects that are usually reserved for 12th graders at the end of the year–as if a 6 year old doesn’t have something they may want to learn about, that family could help them with?

As you find your takeaways from Levi’s video and from your own experiences of e-learning right now, I’ll end with this: “leaving [the students] be” doesn’t mean giving up on education right now. It means taking a breath (or several) and regrounding in core educational values as we model and engage children and youth in learning as living.

* Thank you, Percy. As ever, I learn, in head and heart, from your leadership.

Quote of the day

23 Mar

Do you want to make a point, or do you want to make a difference?

–Tom Friedman, author and political commentator

You may have heard me (frequently) quote Orpheus Crutchfield, founder of Strategenius, saying “Do you want to be right, or effective?” 

I also appreciate Friedman’s framing. Both are asking: Is this about you or the issue? (Or, is this about your relationship to whomever you’re speaking, or is it about the issue?)

If your response is: both!

Yeah, I get it.

And sometimes we have to prioritize one over the other for the issue, for the relationship and for our own growth.