Our Executive Director, Lee Shainis, recently wrote an article for the COABE journal titled “How We Can Shift the Power Imbalance in Adult Education to Deepen a Sense of Belonging, Improve Program Outcomes, and Create a More Equitable Society.” He was featured on COABE’s YouTube channel to talk more in-depth about the article and why he decided to contribute to the journal. Check out his interview in the video below, which is also transcribed.
Shaketta Thomas, host: Thank you for joining us today for another edition of COABE’s Meet the Author. Today we’re sitting down with Lee Shainis, author of “How We Can Shift the Power Imbalance in Adult Education to Deepen a Sense of Belonging, Improve Program Outcomes, and Create a More Equitable Society.” I’m Shaketta Thomas, Region 2 Representative for COABE. I’m excited to join you here today and learn more with you. Welcome, Lee!
Lee Shainis, Executive Director of Intercambio: Thank you for having me. My name is Lee Shainis, I’ve been the director of a nonprofit based in Boulder, Colorado called Intercambio Uniting Communities for 20 years now.
ST: Awesome. For 20 years you’ve been in adult education, that’s great. What motivated you to contribute your work to the COABE journal?
LS: I’ve been doing this work for 20 years and I still love it, now more than ever. I see adult English programs, specifically, as one of the few, maybe only places where people from different nationalities, races, religions, and socioeconomic classes come together and talk to each other every week, building trust, sharing a lot with each other. These are microcosms of what the world can be. A lot of this work moves equity in the right direction in racial justice.
At the same time, I see a lot of untapped potential in our field to move equity forward in ways that I currently see our field unintentionally moving it backward. A few years ago, a local leader of color pointed out to me that part of our mission statement at the time indicated a power imbalance. At first, I resisted it, but after reflecting, I realized she was right. Since then, I’ve really tuned into how adult education programs and coalitions talk about our work and our goals in one-directional ways. If we don’t shift that narrative around power imbalance in our field, we’re going to continue to perpetuate inequities unknowingly.
Our programs create amazing opportunities for mutual learning, but we often put all of the heavy lifting on our immigrant students when it comes to learning and adapting to the dominant culture. That’s what the funding is for, that’s what our stories focus on, it’s how we measure success. We don’t want to shift the focus away from our students. But some of that heavy lifting, cultural learning, and adapting needs to be on us – on people like me, who are white, who were born in this country. Our adult students come with a lifetime of experiences, and no matter their educational background, they can teach us too if we’re humble and open doors for them to share perspectives and stories. If we just focus on fixing what our students don’t have and what can’t do rather than unlocking the knowledge and perspectives that they do have, we’re missing out on the full potential of these very rare cross-cultural connections.
This isn’t about teachers being great English teachers or being a great learner. We believe that by becoming better learners we can become better teachers in the process too. I’ve learned from listening sessions that we’ve done with volunteer teachers at Intercambio – we’ve had 6,000 volunteers – that volunteers say “This program is for us, too. We’re learning, we’re connecting, we’re growing.” That impacts our whole community and the biases that exist. It has huge ripple effects throughout all the people they know. There are many more, but those are a few of the little inspirations.
ST: I like what you said, sometimes we have a little cognitive dissonance when we are confronted with something that goes against the grain of what we think to be true. But as educators, we are to be open as we always are learning which improves upon our practice, so I like how you said that. It’s true for all of us, even those of us who may know a culture, we may not exactly know that culture in that element or in that environment. So, I like how you put that. It gives a challenge for all of us to think about putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, actually listening, and suspending as we listen. So, thank you for that.
What would you like for a reader who is an educator or a learner to take away from your article?
LS: I see some micro things being taken away from this article, and some macro things. I think for teachers, learners, administrators, funders, the first thing is we believe that shifting this mentality and narrative actually accelerates language acquisition because that’s what a lot of people are interested in. So when teachers bring cultural humility and a desire to learn from their students, students share more about their lives, their perspectives. They stretch for new language, they speak more, and as they speak more, they acquire the language faster. We need to build the language skills for English learners to be able to have those conversations, but what I’ve found is that even lower-level students who we wouldn’t think are capable of having these levels of conversations can find the words to share their experiences and perspectives when they’re interested and when teachers create the space to make that happen. That builds confidence more than anything.
Second, by creating this atmosphere of mutual learning, we increase the sense of belonging. When we do that, we see better retention, deeper relationships, deeper cultural learning and we create this virtuous cycle that keep people coming back and deepening those relationships more and learning more. Students feel more valued when everyone in the class wants to learn from each other and they have opportunities to share their experiences and different cultural lenses in safe, non-judgmental ways.
Third, the macro thing is really impacting this bigger issue of equity. We as English programs aren’t going to balance the power between English teachers and students because English is the language of power. Oftentimes teachers come with more privileges than our students, but people who look like me need to be learning too if we want to continue moving equity and racial justice in the right direction. These are opportunities where we can learn directly from people who are very different from us.
ST: Well thank you. My other question comes from my correctional education background. You speak to different ways that both the learner and education can come together and find a mutual connection. In terms of corrections and safety and security, how does this translate to the correctional educator?
LS: It’s about different cultures coming together. I’ll share an experience. In college, I volunteered at a prison facilitating creative writing workshops. That was one of the things that led me to what I’m doing today because I realized, “Wow, there’s a lot of mutual learning happening here.” A lot of the guys in my workshop came from cultures and backgrounds that were so different from mine. We created that space to share our stories and learn from each other. I think that applies to any situation where you have people from different backgrounds if you enter with cultural humility and a desire to learn and not just teach.
ST: And adapting that, what do you think the benefit is to the learner and to the educator?
LS: I think it’s going to create that sense of belonging. It’s going to make everyone feel like you’re a learner and a teacher. I encourage people who haven’t tried this in their programs to just straight up say to their students, “We’re learning from you also. You’re teaching us and we want to learn from your stories and experiences,” and see what their faces say to you. I love saying that and seeing students nod and say “Wow, that’s cool. I haven’t heard that in other programs before.” I think it completely shifts the narrative and power imbalance. The students feel that, they don’t feel as shy. They don’t feel like they’re not meeting the specific goals and don’t belong. It’s more “hey, we’re learning from each other and we’re going to make this fun for everyone.”
ST: It takes away that fear, that intimidation when we show just a little humility where we don’t claim to know everything, but we are willing to learn new things. It does break down that wall that many of our adult learners do come in with from their previous experiences of feeling inferior in the classroom setting. So that’s awesome. What else would you like to share, or any other additional comments to share with us?
LS: I hope that this continues more of these conversations. I think this is a start for some people, some people have been talking about this for a while, but we really can’t avoid this conversation about power imbalance. I love that cultural humility is a theme throughout this journal. I’ve had the privilege of facilitating workshops on cultural humility and cultural competence for 10 years, and I’ve seen it shift things a lot for people. So I hope we continue talking about that, because it’s at the core of this.
I want to invite people to continue the conversation with me, if you have criticism of the article, if you have ideas, thoughts, I’m very open to all those things.
I want to thank COABE for doing this. It’s amazing, the assortment of articles and the perspectives. I want to thank people who inspired me by speaking truth to me and who helped me with this article: My wife Marcela, my friend Anthony, Manuela, Jenny, Arnie, and everyone at Intercambio all the teachers, students, staff and board who have been part of sharing – that’s been really important for me. I invite you to contact me to continue the conversation and I really appreciate everything COABE is doing.
ST: Thank you so much, Lee, and I really did enjoy your article. Again, the article is titled “How We Can Shift the Power Imbalance in Adult Education to Deepen a Sense of Belonging, Improve Program Outcomes, and Create a More Equitable Society.” You can find that article in our latest COABE Journal edition. Please go check it out, it’s full of wonderful ideas to challenge our way of thinking and connecting really with our students so that they don’t feel as if they are just coming to something, but that they belong with something. I think changing that narrative is so powerful for our learners, to help change not only them but the cultural dynamics in communities. Thank you so much again, Lee, for joining us here today.