The Power of Proximity: How we should plan to ReOpen DC

'Criticism Warranted' on Education, Childcare Working Group

Ward 6 SBOE Representative Jessica Sutter Photo: Courtesy Jessica Sutter for SBOE

There is a saying, used by social and economic justice campaigners, “Nothing about us without us is for us.” It seems highly appropriate in this moment, as District leadership decides which voices will be included in planning the pandemic recovery process.  The pandemic is a devastating opportunity to recreate the world as we know it. We can – and must – rebuild DC with the kinds of systems we have longed to see. As one of my favorite local education and equity champions, Michelle Molitor, recently said, Light is being shone in all the dark spaces, exposing the inequities. We can’t look away now.”

Mayor Bowser announced her ReOpenDC Advisory Groups on Monday. The response was, in some ways, predictable. People were unhappy with many of the Mayor’s selections. Complaints alleged that the list was more of a “Who’s Who” than a group rooted in District communities and ready for the hands-on work it will take to get DC moving in a new normal. Everyone is an armchair quarterback on public leadership and maybe more so while we are feeling powerless in the face of this pandemic.

On the Education & Childcare Working Group, I think the criticism was warranted. When you think about who must be involved in any plans to reopen schools, childcare centers, and out-of-school time programming, who comes to mind? Teachers. Principals. Families. Students. Childcare operators. None of those stakeholders were initially invited to the Mayor’s Advisory Group. As of Friday, the Mayor added five new appointees: a teacher, a principal, a representative of the Washington Teachers’ Union, and two new community members.

These additions are welcomed, but their absence at the outset is noteworthy. The school district leaders and philanthropists the Mayor did select from the start make sense to include as well, but to include only such leaders and not other essential education stakeholders meant that the Mayor designed a committee with enormous – and deeply problematic – gaps.

It is an all too common approach for people in positions of power and privilege to believe that we know how things ought to be done, and we execute plans and policies to do things to communities without ever interacting with the communities upon whom we act. Bryan Stevenson often talks about the “power of proximity” for making meaningful change. The people closest to problems – like the historic and structural inequities in access to healthcare, housing and education – can see what those at a distance might miss.  Failing to begin with teachers, principals, students, families and childcare providers as the source of information on re-opening DC means we will miss nuances and details that may undermine the difficult and essential work we desperately need to get just right.

There is a great deal of coverage and discussion now about how schools and districts nationwide are implementing distance learning overall. Some are garnering praise for their swift response and excellent roll-out of access to technology and online instructional platforms. Others are critiqued for their delays or for the large number of students who remain disconnected.

But beneath these general stories, we must remember that effectiveness differs by child. We are in serious danger of losing a student-centered perspective on learning given the crisis and its imperative to “do something” and to “take decisive action.” Just because a school has a beautiful implementation plan, it does not mean the plan works well for every student in the same way. Some students may chafe under the expectation of multiple hours of daily synchronous learning sessions, sitting immobile in front of their device or may face anxiety about appearing on camera with their whole class. Others may struggle to complete “learning packets” without outside guidance and assistance from a teacher.

Students with disabilities may not be receiving many – or any- of the learning accommodations or critical related services they require to learn. And other students already marginalized in our education system by structural racism and persistent resource inequities, are more marginalized than ever.

In order to figure out a path forward, DC leadership needs empathy for and insights from everyone involved in the extraordinary work of education under these unusual circumstances. Families, teachers, caregivers, students – they all deserve to be heard at this time. The failure to center them as key voices in the Mayor’s Advisory Group is a problem precisely because of their experience of the day to day realities of education in a pandemic. Their presence and the wealth of their experience is an essential tool for planning for the educational future of DC.

It is a very human desire to be the one with THE answer. People crave one big idea to solve everything. But, realistically, the “solution” will actually be an amalgamation of many smaller solutions. And these solutions must be sourced not from the top-down, but from a chorus of voices within communities deeply affected by the lingering effects of the pandemic.

Ward 6 State Board of Education (SBOE) Representative Jessica Sutter can be reached via email at