Creating conversational communities that drive change

SEED as Change Agent - Personal, Institutional and Community

Bob Gordon
High school Spanish Language, Literature and Culture teacher
Columbus Academy, Columbus, Ohio
33 years experience in education
SEED New Leaders' Week 1992
Essay written 2013

In 1988 I accepted a position teaching Spanish in a pre K-12 independent school in a large Midwestern city. A boys' school since its founding in 1911, the school went co-ed in 1990. In 1992, at the request of both the Headmaster and the Head of the Upper School, I trained to become a SEED leader. That fall, our first seminar began with 26 members, including faculty and administrators from all three divisions. Over the next six years, I facilitated seven yearlong seminars. This past fall, the third trained leader started the school's 21st SEED group!

I'm not sure what I expected when I agreed to lead a SEED seminar. I guess I thought that it would be good and useful for my colleagues to consider such important topics as race, class, gender, and sexual identity. I know that I thought I was only signing on for one year, not a lifetime! In addition, I did not anticipate how SEED would change my school, my community, and me.

I went to the SEED training in California as an openly gay man, bringing print materials and music related to gender and sexual identity with me. The SEED training week was overwhelming for me. In addition to all the other mind-opening experiences, it was the first time I had been openly gay in a professional setting.

In 1992 I was not yet out as a gay man in my workplace. I decided that I didn't want to be part of any diversity program that wouldn't accept my sexual identity, so I identified as gay in my application to become a SEED leader. Through the application process, I came out to the Head of the Upper School, the Headmaster, and several other colleagues who were personal friends. Twenty years ago, this in itself was momentous. I went to the SEED training in California as an openly gay man, bringing print materials and music related to gender and sexual identity with me. The SEED training week was overwhelming for me. In addition to all the other mind-opening experiences, it was the first time I had been openly gay in a professional setting.

Serial Testimony is bedrock of SEED process. Peggy McIntosh calls it the "autocratic administration of time in the service of democratic distribution of time." In any group, whether it is two people or twenty, each speaker is allotted a certain amount of time, two minutes for example, to share his/her thoughts and/or feelings on a given topic. Successive speakers do not respond to what others have said. Emphasis is not on responding, but on listening respectfully to each person's contribution. A person may pass (continue listening). In this way, everyone has an equal opportunity to participate, and those who are the most verbally aggressive do not dominate conversation. Ever since experiencing this practice repeatedly during my own training, I have been a different person and a different teacher.

I came to use Serial Testimony regularly in my Spanish classroom. How different it is when everyone knows s/he will have a time to speak. In committees I have chaired both at work and at my church, I have instituted the same practice. It is remarkable how different these groups feel.

My life partner (also a trained SEED leader) and I co-facilitate a "covenant circle" at our church. It is a group of about eight people who meet twice a month to consider important topics such as aging, work, friendship, or loss. We use serial testimony as part of the group's process, with excellent results.

SEED experience can be pervasive. I am disappointed when a group of friends or relatives interact in ways I took for granted before – everyone talking at once, interrupting each other, talking over someone else by being louder, and so forth. Several times I have hurt a friend's feelings by pointing out the ways they are interrupting or dominating a conversation. I have to remind myself that every group is not a SEED seminar with respectful ground rules.

Change at my school was incremental, generally subtle, and often unintended and surprising. Following are some examples of what happened during the six years that I led SEED seminars there.

The Admissions Director, with a long tenure at our institution, was in my first seminar. About halfway through the year, having considered the voices of children, of girls and women, of boys and men, and of families, he asked to speak with me. "What do you think of our admissions applications?" he began. "Do you think we should change the lines for 'father' and 'mother' to something more inclusive?" That began the process of designing new admissions forms, an institutional change.

A number of members of the English Department participated in SEED in years one and two. At that point, the Upper School English reading list consisted of virtually all male authors. By the third year, it had evolved to include Zora Neale Hurston, Anzia Yesierska, May Sarton, Toni Morrison, and other women writers. Although I was not privy to the discussions that preceded those changes, we had read all of those authors in our SEED seminars.

When I began teaching at the school, there was a Father's Association and a Mother's Association. The Mother's Association meetings were during the day time, assuming, I suppose, that our students' mothers did not work outside the home, and were therefore free at that time. The topic of separate parents' associations, as well as the meeting times, came up at several SEED meetings. Various administrators and faculty members spoke with parents, and within a year there was one Parents' Association with evening meetings – not a perfect solution, but movement in the right direction.

One spring, prom tickets went on sale as usual: $15 per person, or $25 for couples, which were understood to be a boy and a girl. Several SEED seminar participants spoke with students on the prom committee, and I talked with the faculty advisor and the Dean of Students. It was fairly easy to convince them that the discount for couples was not equitable, and that they should simply charge $15 per person. When a lesbian student came to me to ask if I thought she could invite her girlfriend to the prom, things got more complicated. I spoke with the Dean of Students, the Head of Upper School, and the Headmaster, before finally getting the okay to tell her "yes," provided that I agreed to be one of the chaperones to "make sure everything went smoothly." This same-sex couple came to the prom surrounded and supported by their "posse" of friends. The culture of the school's prom experience had forever changed, for everyone.

The Dean of Students, also a participant in SEED, sponsored a weekly lunch speaker for Upper School students and faculty. With my help, he invited a lesbian couple, parents of one of our students, to speak on their decision to have a child, and about the challenges involved in parenting as a same-sex couple.

All freshmen took a required health class. The instructor, another SEED seminar member, decided that sexual identity should be included in the curriculum. With administrative approval, and again with help from me, he invited the gay male Director of GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) Services at the local state university, and a lesbian psychologist to speak to his students. SEED had expanded the curriculum.

Many other seemingly small but significant changes occurred that could be traced directly or indirectly to SEED. For me, the most amazing story happened on Monday of the last week of classes at the end of our first year of SEED. I came in early as usual, the first person in the building that day. On the wooden door of my classroom, in letters over a foot high, someone had scratched the word "FAG." Horrified, I quickly covered it with a poster from my room. When I heard the Head of the Upper School open his office door, just down the hall. I asked him to come and look at the door to my room. After seeing it, he told me to wait a minute, went to his office, and returned with a screwdriver and a hammer. He asked me to help him remove my door. I said, "But Phil, I need a door on my room." As I helped him carry the door down the hall to his office, he told me that all the doors in the building were identical. We removed his office door, installed it in my room, and put my door on his office. The ugly word now faced his desk. "But Phil," I asked, "Why would you want to see that on your door all day?" He answered, "Because it will remind me of how much work we have to do." I realized Phil was a true ally.

Phil was a member of our SEED seminar that year. He had initiated several private conversations with me during the year about how being gay affected my life, both personally and professionally. I was "the first gay person he had ever known," he told me, early on. When I looked askance at him, he self-corrected, "That I knew about, anyway." He proved to be remarkably insightful and empathetic, and was supportive of a number of changes within the school related to gender and sexual identity.

At some point my SEED leadership moved beyond our school campus and into the community beyond. I was on radio talk shows, was the subject of newspaper articles, and participated in faculty development classes at local school districts, all related to GLBT issues. I presented workshops at my church on race and racism, privilege, and sexual and gender identity. I gave "Gay 101" presentations to students at area high schools and colleges. After my retirement from full-time teaching, I worked part-time as a consultant on gender, race, and/or sexual identity in schools, colleges, and businesses.

What began as a one-year commitment to lead a faculty seminar on equity and diversity has completely transformed the past twenty years of my life. In addition, the school where I taught has changed in many ways and is still growing as a result of SEED's ongoing presence there. Finally, the community beyond my school campus has felt the influence of SEED in ways I couldn't have imagined.

Tags: Leader Essays Serial Testimony and Conversations Sexual Identity

— Cheryl Robinson, Supervisor, Office of Minority Achievement, Arlington Public Schools, Virginia

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