kitchen table math, the sequel: what is ACTION?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

what is ACTION?

What do student leaders grow up to be? It strikes me how national political disconnects and the microcosmic political disconnects within an umbrella student organisation are really quite similar.

One disillusioned leader of a cultural organisation here at UVA told me that student leaders' effectiveness here is judged not on the amount of grassroots organising and day-to-day organisation building they do, but on how many glitzy events they throw for their organisation. Did you help your organisation throw three big parties last semester? Awesome, come join this secret society, dedicated to public service and troublemaking in a cool way (but whose day-to-day activities consist of partying, as I am told).

Meanwhile, the many grassroots leaders who work to strengthen routine, day-to-day connections (e.g. between high school students and undergraduates) or gradually build connections overseas (e.g. those behind ThINK / "There Is Hope In North Korea") get little press coverage.

When we talk about ineffective politicians, programme organisers, or education administrators, we should consider where they come from and what was encouraged/promoted in their youth. Perhaps we should also consider what repels capable individuals of suitable character from public service. Some of it is inherently human nature: it is easier to direct public and press attention to big, one-time events rather than day-to-day work. It is also the way, I suspect it works in politics, from school districts to national governments. Before the US did economic stimulus payouts, this was a routinely Singaporean thing to do to convince Singaporeans that the government was doing *something*.

Consider that the name of the Ministry of Education teacher who introduced bar modeling (among other key innovations) to the Singapore primary math is virtually unknown -- his name can be found on a comment thread in this blog, if you search hard enough. The opinions and the authoritarianism of Lee Kuan Yew are celebrated while the intellectual philosophy of the guy who really helped build Singapore, Goh Keng Swee, is rarely mentioned in current Singaporean political discourse. Among the key members of the Central Committee of the People's Action Party, I feel that Goh Keng Swee was the true George Washington -- he retired from public service in 1984 after having spent four decades in the civil service, quietly building the Singaporean economy and education system. Many Singaporean teachers believe he is the true reason why Singapore went from "third world to first".

Meanwhile, Lee Kuan Yew (who loves the limelight) frequently goes on radio and television to tell us how Western liberal democracy is inappropriate for an Asian nation with Asian values, or to make shocking comments about what he thinks about Indians and Malays compared to Chinese, or how Chinese dialect use should be actively suppressed in favour of Mandarin.

With that in mind, we should also beware dismissing those leaders who do real behind-the-scenes work but get little attention for what they do, while unwittingly promoting those leaders whose success has been built by the flashy.

Yet still.


During spring break, I (with two dozen other members of above-mentioned cultural organisation) went to UPenn to attend conference aimed at Asian-American activists, leaders, grassroots organisers, et al. which occurs every year. 1400 students there, all for noble aims (in addition to fun). The workshops reinspired me to recommence initiatives that I had gotten discouraged to pursue, and one workshop facilitator (spoken word artist Kelly Tsai) was very good at intimately connecting with participants, even with 30-40 people in the room. She is the type that would make a good teacher -- it goes beyond extrovertedness, as mentioned in the recent NYT article.

However, there were a lot of organising hiccups. The "grassroots" feeling was lacking; the organisers felt distant and unapproachable; my group was shut out of the Irvine Auditorium where the massive opening ceremony was being held, because they had run out of seats and the unionised Penn staff would not allow for standing or even use of the upper balcony. There was little visible effort to maximise what we took away from the workshops, e.g. foster post-workshop discussion after the workshops themselves ended.

Having 1400 students from dozens of schools ranging from MIT to Johns Hopkins to University of Florida in one place -- some of them graduate students already involved in teaching in low-income areas, immigration law, racial discrimination issues, etc. -- is a big opportunity! It's an exciting chance to build a really strong and effective grassroots network. But there were little efforts to mix up the cliques. 500 participants alone must have been staying at our hotel (we squeezed 8 people a room). Apparently when you pack 80 active, passionate youth leaders into a hotel lobby at a time, the thing that should dominate discussion as you wait for the elevator is what room the party is at, who's getting the alcohol, or which frat you are going to hit.

There are always hiccups in every event. But this is an annual event that has gone on for nearly 30 years (albeit at different schools). At the closing ceremony, the organisers spent 15 minutes making speeches congratulating themselves ("To the 20 members of the X&Y Committee, it wouldn't have been possible without you!") and how the Penn chapter had worked on this for two years. Which is fine, I guess. It would have been nice to have sounded more receptive to feedback -- I totally did not get the "tell us how we can improve!" vibe from the ceremony.

Why are some leaders or teachers effective, even "miraculous"? I believe it's their constant search for self-improvement... a trait a Teach for America consultant has noted as well. They are always looking for problems or hiccups to fix.

But I wonder how many conferences go on similarly to the one I attended, even when they aren't student-run. Take teacher workshops -- if you brought 1400 teachers from all over the country into one place, what could they achieve? But what do they achieve, usually?

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