Big Questions and the Beauty of Idealism

At the end of July, Umoja held Umoja University, a professional development conference for over 100 educators from Chicago Public Schools and like-minded organizations. Each morning, attendees went to workshops that highlighted important and specific aspects of their work and were given concrete tools for the year. We had spaces to process lingering questions about our purpose and intent in schools. In the afternoons, partner schools outlined their goals and strategies for the upcoming year.

One of the most prevalent themes that has emerged to me as I’ve worked among the Umoja staff as the Umoja University intern this summer is idealism.

I was not struck by the storied dreaming or ignorance that has often been associated with idealism…we’ve heard it said that it’s too unrealistic and imaginative to be idealistic. I was struck by a different kind of idealism, a beautiful, unique, and moving idealism. 

During Umoja University, I watched both the immense growth and the inherent discomfort that came from asking our educators tough questions: “Why do you do this work?” “What does your school need?” “How can you best help your students succeed?” “What values do you need to establish in your school?” 

For most educators, it’s overwhelming, no doubt. There’s a self-talk occurring among so many of those in this work that we can only do so much in schools…we can’t do everything. So big questions about culture and change and personal values can be a lot to handle.

However, I don’t think we have to do everything. There are so many ways, so many facets of the identity of a student that come from their own reflection and from how they find their place in this world. We can certainly facilitate, we can ask those immense, heavy questions just to plant the seed. It won’t do everything, but it will do something.

Webster defines an idealist as “a person who believes that it is possible to live according to very high standards of behavior and honesty.” Operating under this frame of idealism, I’m certainly an idealist, as are so many others working in the realm of youth development. We see students for their potential. We see their passions as fluid. We see them for their ability to grow. We discuss ways to embody a growth mindset in our work and idealism is directly related to a growth mindset – we believe students can own lives of integrity and intellect. They’re not static or stuck.

But we aren’t pushing our students forward without empathy or intention. We are guiding, listening, and walking alongside them as they grow.

Attendees also completed quite a bit of concrete planning and visioning for the year ahead at Umoja University. It embodied a healthy idealism. After asking questions like “What do we need in our school to help foster a cultural shift?”and “Where can we be in 1 year or 2 years?,”our educators had the time to lay out concrete goals and to better understand their role in the school and within the community. It was idealism in action.

I think this has become a key call to action at Umoja: Help create a culture of possibility, introspection, and visioning. Don’t be overwhelmed by opportunities for idealism. Celebrate them.

The first time I was asked “What do you care about?” and “Who do you want to be?” it was unbelievably transformative for me…much more transformative than someone I trusted telling me how I should see myself.

My long-term vision for Chicago youth is that they are asked big questions (like I was in college) over and over before they graduate from high school and make their next steps into the world.

I sincerely hope that our participants at Umoja University feel empowered to be the first questioners in a student’s life. They can unpack a child’s experience by engaging with the big picture in an accessible way. Asking is listening, listening is engaging, and engaging is impactful. Our educators will continue to make an impact in the lives of students if they ask tough questions to themselves and to others and if they enable their students to think bigger than their peers, our society, or the world, is telling them to think.

We can foster change through idealism. This powerful and formative summer has certainly taught me that.

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