Toxic Mass Humility – How CharterFolk Modesty Puts Us at Risk

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Thank you again to so many of you who are renewing your subscriptions here at CharterFolk for a second year. It’s so great to have your ongoing support!

This morning I would like to return to the post that I was halfway through when word came in that I was needed in Colombia.  It was to be a post that immediately followed our announcement of the CharterFolk of the Year Winners, reminding everyone of the rationale for creating the award and encouraging us all to do even more to celebrate the extraordinary contributions that CharterFolk are making to improve the lives of young people across our country. 

Efforts to “get out our positive stories” are obviously very important, but in my view the optimal communications strategy is actually more specific than that.  I thought today I would take a few minutes to identify what the more specific strategy is and to describe why it is we struggle so much to pursue it well. Finally, I surface a four-step modest proposal for how we might begin to get over this challenge.

The rationale for celebrating extraordinary contributions of people working in charter schools is often easiest to grok when we recognize the communications strategy that is being directed against us. In an early CharterFolk post last year (Brode Not Broad – What Happens When We Lose Our Voice), I highlighted this image, which was one of the first released as part of the California Teacher Association’s “Kids Not Profits” campaign.

It puts in perfect repose what our adversaries are attempting to do against us from a communications standpoint:  cutting off our heads;  presenting us out of focus;  placing us in penthouse suites; and portraying us as so heartless as to only care about spreadsheets and money.

It’s a conscious effort to present us as barely human.

You hear that, CharterFolk? 

One of the other side’s primary communications strategies for destroying the charter school movement is to dehumanize those who work within it.

And what’s the best way to defeat that?

Well, it’s to humanize ourselves, of course.

It’s to show that the charter school movement is not as the other side attempts to present us – driven by profit-motivated automatons controlled by billionaires hellbent on destroying public education – but is instead driven by people from all walks of life who care deeply about public education and the students and communities we serve.

This means that, rather than emphasizing the extraordinary accomplishments that are being generated by charter schools – higher levels of learning, college success, innovative practices, outstanding results with particularly high need students, etc. – as important as these things are, our highest return activity is simply introducing the public to the people who contribute to our movement.

And no, I don’t mean highlighting the students and parents we serve because, again as important as that is, from a communications standpoint, there is actually a higher priority, one born of a recognition that the other side is not attacking our kids and our families. Our adversaries are not attempting to dehumanize charter school kids and parents.

They are attempting to dehumanize …

… us.


And any attempt to draw attention to our kids and families, as noble as those efforts may be, doesn’t refute the central accusation that people working in charter schools are barely human.

In fact, it leaves the charge unchallenged. So the other side keeps hammering away with impunity, convinced that they’re going to get away with it because they know that CharterFolk are so modest and are so wanting to cast focus on the contributions of others, that we often simply refuse to tell our own stories, or to even allow our stories to be told.

Why else do you think we surprised all 30 of the people who we portrayed as CharterFolk X last year?

Because we knew that if we had told any of them in advance what we were doing, many of them would have refused!

And what was the feedback we got from CharterFolk X after CharterFolk X last year?

You guessed it.

Aside from many gracious thank-you’s, of course, the over-arching message we heard was the same:

“You really shouldn’t have focused on me. There are so many other extraordinary people here whose contributions should be celebrated before my own.”

Those other extraordinary people, by the way, would say the exact same thing – that someone else should be celebrated, creating a never ending carousel of people modestly deflecting attention to others, who in turn also deflect attention, such that if our natural communications impulses were allowed to find full expression, there would be literally no CharterFolk ever being profiled anywhere …

… which, by the way, isn’t that much different from the reality we find ourselves in!

And so, this widespread modesty ethic we have, which otherwise reflects very favorably on our movement, results in toxicity …

I call it Toxic Mass Humility.

Not that what we do directly creates toxicity, but we leave a vacuum in the public sphere that lets the other side fill it with their toxic portrayal of us.

So, deep breath, let me suggest a modest proposal, CharterFolk.

Think of it as our movement’s collective-action ask related to communications. Its general theory falls along the lines of “I’ll do it as long as you do it too.”

It’s basic steps are as follows:

  • First, get together with a group of CharterFolk you know well and respect a great deal. Ideally, there should be a “job-alike” or “peer effect” that will make all the people in the group feel similarly situated to take action on a shared priority.
  • Secondly, discuss the communications needs of the movement, specifically the need to humanize the people working in our movement in response to the other side’s efforts to portray us as sub-human.
  • Thirdly, remind the others around the table how each of their personal stories is incredibly compelling and, if surfaced as part of a broader effort to humanize our movement, would be a stunning example of what we’re all about.
  • Fourth and finally, once the group understands how great it would be if everyone would do it, ask them all whether they would be willing to elevate their own story if everyone else around the table will do the same.

And then, once you get back home, you can begin agonizing over how your story can be told in a tone right way underscoring the messages that we know reflect best on our movement. If you get lost, go peruse a couple examples here. Or get a refresher on how best to introduce ourselves to people who may be skeptical about charter schools.

But then just do it. Get your story out. And then turn as quickly as you can to others in your orbit and encourage them to do the same.

In this way, together, story by story, we “personalize” our movement, and help turn the greatest asset of the charter school movement– the incredible people who are connected to it– into our greatest communications asset as well.