The beginning of this post is going to sound trite and, maybe, painfully saccharine. I know that in advance, so I apologize, but I mean what I’m about to write:
I was walking home from work yesterday (I live about a mile and a half from my office on Loyola’s campus) and something about the walk reminded me how much I love this town. I am in the midst of a torrid love affair with New Orleans and have been since the first afternoon I spent here almost three years ago. Loving New Orleans, for me, means loving the people who live here, who work here, and who are from here (yes, that’s cheesy, but I warned you). As I go about my work for the Institute, I constantly remind myself that, at the end of the day, I am not from here. It isn’t appropriate for me to tell anyone else, This is how things should be done. Instead, as I meet and work with folks in town, I try to put myself in a position to listen more than I speak, to try to understand their full experiences and to use that understanding to inform how I choose to act. But even then, I’m not acting in a vacuum. The point for me is to fully understand the people that I meet with so that we can figure out how we can act in concert with each other.
Now, why am I spending any time at all describing my personal philosophy? Because, I believe, it perfectly parallels the broader process values of the Institute for which I work.
The Loyola Institute is distinct from other research bodies in New Orleans not just because of our explicit focus on quality and equity. We’re also distinct because of our emphasis on collaboration and co-creativity with the community. Put differently, it’s important to us that we’re not in the business of collecting data about the community, but that we’re producing research for and with the community. We are currently working to achieve this goal by determining community needs for research through ongoing conversations, and then engaging national research and policy experts in the gathering of information pertaining to those needs.
Case in point: We are currently working with the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota to to create a document examining civil rights and policy issues that arise from school choice as implemented in New Orleans. This came directly out of conversations between our director, Dr Luis Miron, and folks in the community since Katrina.
In many ways, we’re using the model established by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform in New York City. They began their work several years ago with a period of what they call “institutional availability” — simply being available to folks in the community, having staff attend as many community meetings as possible, and generally being available to listen to the needs of the community. This allowed them to both have a presence in the community as they developed their research capacity and to better understand the needs of the community, in order to work in concert with the people on the ground. (Sounds an awful lot like my personal philosophy, doesn’t it? See, there’s a method to my madness.) This is more or less the model we hope to use in New Orleans.
And this was the guiding principle of the mayoral forum we hosted with 10 co-sponsors in January. This event allowed us to begin to establish our institutional availability while allowing the actual substance of the forum to come from a diverse group of community and advocacy organizations. As we continue to increase our own capacity, continuing this sort of institutional availability will allow us to develop a research footprint that is truly collaborative.
But as we develop this research footprint, we also need to maintain objectivity and non-advocacy, our other core process values. So as we work closely with various groups, it’s crucial that we remain vigilant to not seem, for example, pro- or anti-charter, pro- or anti-union. Instead, in the end, we’re pro-information, and maintaining neutrality is essential to maintaining credibility with all of the parties engaged in the various education reform debates.
It’s that credibility that will allow us to achieve our goal of injecting objective, factual data into the various education reform and debates. As I wrote yesterday, an informed debate is a healthy debate.