Almost a decade ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Sir Desmond Tutu after attending a service at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. At the time, I was struck by his kindness and approachability, but it’s his words that my mind has wandered to often this week. I can’t remember if he was referencing John 8:32—“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” – or maybe a proverb, such as 16:14—“Righteous lips [are] the delight of kings; and they love him that speaketh right.” Perhaps it was none of these, given memory’s fleeting nature, but the message was clear: Honesty is powerful, and it has the potential to be restorative and reconciliatory.
In JEDI work, we often discuss the concept of “calling out” or “calling in.” Calling out is useful when you need to let someone know that their behavior was not acceptable and that such behavior will not be tolerated. It’s utilized when the behavior has to be acknowledged, named, and interrupted to avoid continued harm. Calling out can be powerful because it also signals to the larger community what is acceptable and valued. Calling out is difficult and uncomfortable, but the courage involved in addressing the behavior–specifically and directly–breaks patterns and norms that may be ingrained, consciously or unconsciously, in relationships or communities. For example, you might say, “I wonder if you have considered the impact of your words, “ or “it sounds like you are making assumptions that we should unpack some more,” or “you may not realize this, but you are talking about my own story/identity,” or “I’m having a strong reaction to what you just said and I need to explain why,” or “I noticed you used incorrect pronouns when referring to….” Each example is anchored in honesty, specificity, and interrupts behavior in order to stop cycles of oppression.
Similarly, calling in is useful when an individual wants to engage someone or a group in a deeper discussion that is anchored in seeking understanding through reflection. Calling in involves listening as well as two-way exchanges. The point is to make meaning together and arrive, hopefully, at mutual understanding. It can also be about visualizing different perspectives or alternative paradigms. It’s anchored in reflection. While calling out involves specific naming and addressing with the purpose being interruption and realignment, calling in is an invitation to explore with each other. For example, you might ask, “can you share how you came to that decision?”, or “how might your own assumptions or prior experience be influencing your process/beliefs?”, or “what criteria are you using to measure/assess?”, or “what was your intention when you said that?” Like calling out, calling in is also routed in honesty and specificity, but it’s focused on an invitation to probe deeper.
For me, it also makes me think about the difference between criticism, complaining (which are often thought to be one and the same), and co-creation of change (my terminology). A complaint aims to address or focuses on a specific action or behavior. It’s a request in disguise. For example, my husband complained yesterday saying, “why do you spend so much time on your Ipad?” His loving intention and request was: “Roberto please let the Ipad go so we can watch this fun show and do it together.” Criticism, on the other hand, is more global, and generally aims to attack someone’s or a group’s character, personality, or identifying aspect. Criticism generally doesn’t look specific, and its aim is usually to hurt or demoralize. Criticism is a jab and most often doesn’t provide much optimism about the ability to change the behavior. It might look like someone saying, “you always think of yourself,” or “why do you always think of others instead of us?” or “you never include us in decisions; there is never transparency.” Complaints are a disguised request, whether delivered politely or not, but criticism is usually not productive.
Turning a complaint or criticism into co-created change involves turning the statements into requests. You might criticize someone by saying “you never provide transparency,” or you might complain saying, “you didn’t include me in that decision.” Instead, when co-creating change, you re-formulate those same complaints or criticisms into a request. For example, you could say “would you consider including me in decisions about X?” In another example, a parent might complain about the lack of art choices or criticize the school by saying something like, “the school doesn’t care about the arts.” A parent might achieve more by saying “would you consider having a conversation about the school’s art choices?” Co-creating change, like calling in, invites joint processing, understanding, and reflection. It promotes being honest with each other. Criticism, on the other hand, can destroy individuals, halt productive change, and disguise real needs in ambiguous statements.
Calling out, calling in, or re-thinking the way we share our frustrations, judgments, complaints, or criticisms is powerful when it’s grounded in radical honesty. Meaning, it works best when it’s specific about the behaviors that need to be addressed, the elements of culture, processes, or policies that need to change, or the request that it’s actually intended to promote.
I provide this reflection as a challenge and an “ask” for our team, particularly as we advance our anti-racism work. Let’s honor our core value of authenticity by grounding our conversations in specific experiences and actions. We will not advance our anti-racism and JEDI work otherwise. If you ever have an issue, call-out, call-in, concern, want to know more, or have an idea, come and share it with me — I’m open to it all!
Here’s Millennium Weekly: January 25-29.
Advancing Racial Equity in Schools Vermont & NEA