In their conversation with Jim Knight on August 27th, 2020, Dr. Floyd Cobb and John Krownapple discussed some powerful ideas around dignity and belonging that will help inspire and encourage educators towards meaningful reflection upon their practice and their lives. The discussion also features references to resources that help punctuate the ideas shared by Cobb and Krownapple, and help to create a shared language and understanding on this important topic which they write about in their book Belonging Through a Culture of Dignity: The Keys to Successful Equity.
In this post we summarize some of the core ideas from the discussion.
Dignity versus Respect
The first theme in this powerful discussion was regarding the difference between dignity and respect. Cobb and Krownapple explained that while respect is earned, dignity is something all humans are born with, and it should not be able to be taken from us. Cobb told us he first dug deeper into the idea of dignity as opposed to respect when he was working on his book Leading While Black: Reflections on the Racial Realities of Black School Leaders Through the Obama Era and Beyond. For his work on that book he focused on what he calls the annihilation of humiliation, and wanted to know what was the antithesis of humiliation, which led him towards the work of Harvard professor Donna HIcks. Cobb explains that there is a powerful impact from humiliation as it strips one’s dignity. “When people feel they are being humiliated,” Cobb says, “What they are feeling is an absence of inherent value and worth from being honored at the time.”
Remixing the Approach to Equity
The work to pull people from indignity towards dignity is what Krownapple focuses on when working with teams. His work helps to get groups and individuals to move towards actions that honor people’s inherent value and worth. One source that influences Krownapple’s work is Cultural Proficient Instruction: A Guide for People whot Teach from Lindsey, Lindsey, Nuri-Robins, and Terrell. This work really helps get to the essence of diversity, equity, and inclusion work where dignity actually becomes the action. “In our work, we’ve talked a lot about this remixing of the approach to equity work, where teaching with dignity, leading with dignity, would prompt the question of what does that look like in action?” Steps towards honoring the dignity of fellow humans helps teachers and leaders move in a productive way towards promoting and honoring each other’s humanity.
Dysfunctional Cycle of Equity Work
Typically however, work involved with equity in schools and organizations often falls into the trappings of what Cobb and Krownapple have defined as a dysfunctional cycle of equity work. They explain that the cycle begins often with an event, such as the killings of Black men and women that the world witnessed and reacted to this past year, and the subsequent elevation of ideas for positive change. Next steps in the cycle often move to book studies or committees, but then comes an awareness of the magnitude of the problem, which is where people start to lose their momentum. This leads to the issues of equity leaving the public eye as other concerns take over until another event occurs that brings the issue of equity back to the forefront. One of the essentials to work towards dignity is that of accountability, and holding people accountable for not believing in the importance of extending dignity to others. Another aspect of this work discussed in this conversation however, was knowing when not to engage as well. Engaging with someone who is unwilling to engage without using shame will not lead to anything good. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was referenced as a reminder as well that we cannot productively fight shame with shame, as from that work we are taught that one cannot use the tools of the oppressor to overcome oppression. Cobb and Krownapple also punctuated that lesson of not using the oppressor’s tools by citing Audre Lorde’s work, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.
Dignity Literacy: A Shared Language through a Dignity Framework
So how is this cycle broken? The most effective method Cobb and Krownapple have found is through a method they call the Dignity Framework. At its core this framework gives leaders and teachers the shared language to identify steps to make positive change in their work. For example, Cobb and Krownapple look at the four dispositions a person or an organization can take to move towards more dignity which include, listening, empathy, openness, and patience. They then find overlap in these dispositions to name indicators of belonging. An example is when the dispositions of listening and empathy crossover, this creates validation, which is one of four indicators of belonging. Then, when the indicators overlap, standards of dignity emerge. Krownapple also referenced the work of Dr. John Powell who is the director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkley. Dr. Powell writes about belonging as more than just a sense of belonging, but as something bigger where people and groups are able to co-create a way of being instead of conforming themselves into pre-existing standards. Krownapple explains that, “Belonging became to us the goal… it captured the meaning and the core of what we are trying to work toward, the way that we get there is by learning to better honor dignity.” Through dignity we find belonging.
“Not everybody is going to understand what racial discrimination feels like, or the emotion related to homophobic attacks, or class-based attacks, but certainly we know what it feels like to be made to feel like we don’t belong.”
Finally, to overcome the challenges people and organizations face in an often dysfunctional framework, Cobb believes a focus on feelings that are universal, such as a lack of belonging is important. This gets people through the shame that often stalls otherwise productive equity work.
Cobb says, “Not everybody is going to understand what racial discrimination feels like, or the emotion related to homophobic attacks, or class-based attacks, but certainly we know what it feels like to be made to feel like we don’t belong.”
Watch the full interview here:
Dr. Floyd Cobb is an adjunct faculty member with Morgridge College of Education at University of Denver, his coursework focuses on teaching methods along with the intersection of race, class, power and privilege. He is the author of Leading While Black: Reflections on the Racial Realities of Black School Leaders Through the Obama Era and Beyond, and co-author of Interrogating Whiteness and Relinquishing Power; White Faculty’s Commitment to Racial Consciousness in STEM Classrooms.
John Krownapple is an Adjunct Professor at Dignity Consulting LLC; Johns Hopkins University. His career has focused on education diversity and inclusion equity and social justice, and he is the author of Guiding Teams to Excellence with Equity: Culturally Proficient Facilitation.