Stop “Assuming Positive Intent”

Image ID: A red traffic light against a cloudless blue sky.

Since the start of the school year is here, the tweets from districts and leaders about their values for the year are here, too. A common thread in many of these tweets is some form of the phrase “assume positive intent,” which is generally designed to be a banal, inoffensive way to talk about belonging or inclusion.  At best, “assume positive intent” is kind of boilerplate corporate eduspeak, but, at worst, the phrase stands in the way of the generative conflict and accountability schools and districts need to foster equity, justice, and belonging.    

“Assume positive intent” is an example of what Paul Gorksi calls an “equity detour,” an action taken to divert attention, resources, and sustained commitment to justice.  It allows us to stay “clean,” by avoiding questions about our own beliefs and actions and the beliefs and actions of the systems in which we operate.  “Assume positive intent” is an example of Gorski’s first detour: “pacing for privilege.”  In this detour, the feelings and needs of those least committed to equity and justice over those who are directly harmed by inequity and injustice.  “Assume positive intent” allows us, individually and systemically, to gloss over harmful actions, practices, and policies without naming them as harmful; it privileges the intent of the actor, not how the action, practice, or policy impacts people.  Put differently, meaning well isn’t enough; we must commit to doing well, and “assume positive intent” discourages that because there’s never any real accountability.  “Assume positive intent” creates a context where equity and justice are individually and collectively optional rather than required.  The list of harmful policies and practices implemented and supported because of “good intentions”—“responsibility rooms,” culturally unresponsive curriculum, traditional grading—is bottomless.

Accountability is an important component of systems that prioritize equity and justice, and “assume positive intent” allows people and systems to avoid taking it.  When we “assume positive intent,” there’s always plausible deniability for harm.  “I didn’t know” or “I meant something else” impede our ability to own the harm caused, make a genuine apology, and take actions to make that harm less possible in the future.  I’m grateful for Maha Bali and Mia Zamora’s words here, too, about making schools and classrooms intentionally equitably hospitable: “I didn’t know” is an insufficient response to systemic injustice or partial care.  Doing better is required.  In other words, accountability isn’t about—or shouldn’t be about—punishment, but it is about transforming ourselves and the systems that we’re in. 

Mariame Kaba, invoking Shannon Perez-Darby, says that accountability is “a process that we do with ourselves for ourselves.  When we’re being accountable to ourselves, we’re acting in a way that honors our values.  We’re acting with integrity by taking responsibility for who we are in the world and living in alignment with our values.”  If someone is harmed and then we ask the harmed person to “assume positive intent,” who is being seen, heard, and valued?  Who is accountable, and to what?  In a school setting, when teachers act in ways that harm students, students should not be asked to be the burden of “assuming positive intent” to make the problem go away for the powers that be.  Instead, we need to ask the person committing the harm to be accountable; someone was harmed, whether that was the intent or not.

This raises the issue of generative conflict, which is required for us to grow toward equity and justice personally and systemically.  “Assume positive intent” is a silencing mechanism that avoids conflict—and its possible fallout—at all costs. Again, the goal of the leaders using this term is to stay “clean.”  One of the major ways that “assume positive intent” avoids conflict is by seeing each instance of harm as a separate individual issue rather than as part of larger systems and structures that make harm possible.  Put differently, “assume positive intent” allows the “one bad apple” theory to thrive; it seems harm as an individual problem rather than seeing the systems that prop up, support, enable, and even elevate the harmer and others like them.  While individuals taking accountability for harm is important, it is as—if not more—important for systems, structures, and organizations to take accountability for their harm and work to permanently eradicate that harm.  Systemic solutions are generally preferable to individual solutions.   This is not a statement that people can’t grow and change, they absolutely can, but “assuming positive intent” isn’t a path forward to that growth.  If we’re truly committed to equity and justice, we can’t blame the victim and change the subject when harm occurs.  It’s time to get messy.

I want to make a quick distinction here between “assuming positive intent” and the concept of “unconditional positive regard,” which Alex Shevrin Venet writes about.  These are not the same: unconditional positive regard asks us to care for all those in our orbit relationally and building relationships with them not out of a transactional need, but a desire to genuinely connect with them.  The desire to stay in relationship and care for those in our organizations is powerful; accountability is not about exile, but about being in—and remaining in—community.  This is challenging work, especially since this isn’t our default mode of operation.  “Assuming positive intent” is different because it ignores the power plays at work and asks victims of harm to sweep their feelings away to avoid conflict and difficult conversations about equity and justice.

If you’re a leader, there’s still time to rethink your messaging and your values before this year starts.  Instead of “assuming positive intent,” let’s lean back into generative conflict and the equity and justice work that’s in line with equity and justice values.  Help your people and systems be accountable to grow, change, and evolve to be safer for everyone. 

No detours, no distractions, no diversions.

Meeting the Moment: Equity and Care at the Crossroads

Last week, Maha Bali and Mia Zamora gave an incredible keynote on the intersections—or lack of intersections—of equity and care in our learning and community spaces.  The crowdsourced talk was a meditation on what happens when we one exists without the other—when we have equity without care or care without equity—and the answers aren’t great.  One of the most powerful slides in the keynote was an equity-care framework that works to uncover what happens when the relationships between equity and care aren’t symbiotic:

I’ve been grappling with the equity-care dynamic in the spaces that I’m in for a long time without much success.  Since virtual learning started back in March, my questions have become more insistent and persistent about the work we’re doing and how we’re doing it in classrooms, schools, and districts.  Prior to Maha and Mia’s keynote, I haven’t really found anything that allowed me to say much about what I thought was happening in the spaces I’m in on a day-to-day basis, so I’m really grateful to them for giving us some vocabulary to talk meaningfully about what we’re seeing.

From my perspective, there’s a strong focus on equity, its presence is undeniable and there are people doing the hard work to ensure the rhetoric matches the reality even if that promise remains distant, but the work around building a culture of care is more sporadic, episodic, and misunderstood.  In other words, my space is one of emergent equity and nascent care.  In some ways, this isn’t surprising. The backlash to care is somewhat predictable at this point:

  1. We need to prepare students for the so-called “real world,” and being “soft” isn’t going to steel them for what’s next.  If we’re talking about adult care, we assume that professional life really doesn’t contain care, which is both a systemic problem and an institutional one.  Sometimes the lack of care shown to teachers finds its way into how teachers treat students.
  2. The common refrain of “I’m not a babysitter,” a phrase which got a lot of use when schools were trying to decide how to handle the fall.  The problematic racialized, gendered denigration of the labor reveals why care fails to take root: many seem to think it’s just not that important.  The idea that “babysitter” is pejorative and takes away from the other parts of work is an interesting assumption that speaks to why care is so difficult to enact and why it generates so much resistance when enacted.
  3. Care can’t be quantified or measured by any traditional metric, which makes it difficult to square with an institutional desire for quantitative data.  Doing the long, slow work of care can seem “unproductive” by traditional measures, and it can seem, much like “babysitting” above, that it’s taking away from the “real” (academic) work of school.

Maybe it’s worth pausing here to define care, at least as I see it.  My definitions of care come from Press Press’ Sanctuary Manifesto and Be Oakley’s take on it in Radical Softness as a Boundless Form of Resistance.  In both cases, there is an emphasis on making space for marginalized folx to design and enact sanctuary for their own comfort rather for the comfort of those in dominant positions, as Oakley makes the point that spaces marked “safe” by privileged people might not be.  They write:

The premise of inviting people to define sanctuary for themselves allows for folks to dictate the terms of what spaces can be safe for them.  In building up these places of sanctuary, they may or may not be a physical site, communities dictate their own parameters for these spaces.  These spaces become places of resistance where radical softness is practiced, nurtured and multiplied on their own terms.

In the equity-care matrix, equity without care is defined by “tokenism” or by the idea of “diversity theatre,” initiatives that look good for cameras and on pamphlets, but that aren’t rooted in the very careful, deliberative work of building the trust-filled relationships on which care depends.  One of the things that drew me into Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius so deeply was her insistence throughout the book on prioritizing care before anything else:

Before we get to the curriculum and standards, our students need to know that they are loved.  bell hooks said that love is always knowing that we belong.  But we don’t just need love, but a critical love that works to disrupt and dismantle oppression.

Without care or critical love, equity can easily get distilled to a box-checking exercise rather than a commitment to rethinking how we teach and how we live our lives, especially if we inhabit privileged identities. I have a colleague who uses the phrase “love to understanding” to talk about relationships with students, and it’s brilliant and difficult.  I see this happen somewhat frequently in our line of work: having an inclusive classroom library is important, building a representative curriculum that everyone can access is critical, but if our relationships with students are still rooted in command-and-control power dynamics or we don’t have the knowledge to meaningfully facilitate conversations around students’ identities and sociopolitical realities in our class, we really haven’t instituted care as much as we’ve performed a role.  Putting a picture of a Black mathematician on the wall is good and important, but not if your pedagogies remain such that students don’t aren’t safe or cared for within that space.  The discussions and chats, particularly on Twitter, get caught in the equity-care asymmetry sometimes.  In a tweet from Maha and Mia’s keynote, Cate Denial puts it better than I can:

Equity without care reduces structural changes to a set of technocratic procedures or a blunt-force outcome that doesn’t consider the actual human beings impacted.  Equity without care can make the very people we’re trying to build with seem wholly abstract.  This happens a lot in schools: programmatic needs win out over people needs.  Kids before content is something we’ve been hearing about lately, and it may seem like a saccharine slogan, but there’s something to it. I’ve seen it on Twitter, I’ve heard my principal say it, I’ve heard some colleagues say it, and so we’ll have to take some time in our own reflections, with our departments and schools, and in our districts to determine what and how that means in our contexts.  This work is both urgent and ongoing; it is both immediate and always.

One issue at the forefront for me is the ways in which we put marginalized students into various equity-minded programs that don’t account for their safety or well-being, which sometimes happens because of a savior mentality and other times because we care more about the data students produce than the students themselves.  This also becomes true when we tie ourselves to standard grading and assessment mechanisms that are largely defective; we become so tied to a system or a program that the numbers mean more than the person behind those numbers because there are real lives at stake right now: students are isolated, depressed, angry, tired, and simply doing everything they can to do another day on Zoom.  Punitive grading isn’t going help.  This means that a large part of the intersection between care and equity means letting students make the important decisions about the spaces they are in and why; it’s about them telling us what they need, not us telling them what they need.  If we’re honest, students are going to do work in classes where they feel affirmed and cared for, but they’ll check out of spaces where content and control seem to matter more than they do.  As Maha and Mia say in their keynote, “maybe someone needs care more than apples today.” 

Maybe a student needs care more than math or science or English or social studies today, too.  Care doesn’t alleviate the need for students to learn important skills, but it does make more learning possible for more students. We learn when we are safe, comfortable, and cared for.

Working with students and our larger communities to determine what care means in our different contexts is really important because care can come under fire.  Care is an act of resistance, and resistance means its counterforces.  Our advocacy needs to be ready when that happens, and our core values need to meet the moment.  When we sit down to determine how and why our environments are or aren’t caring, we rarely have a discussion about our core values–sometimes we don’t know them, and sometimes they’re difficult to dig up and confront–so we try to build systems, programs, schemes, and initiatives instead. From where I sit, there isn’t a way to “programmatize” care: we’re can’t set up elaborate systems of extrinsic reward and think that the homework pass or the t-shirt make students feel like we care about them.  No amount of what Jerry Muller calls “metric fixation” is digging us out or bringing us together. Incentives can’t replace the difficult and diligent work of care.

I’ve often wondered what might happen if teachers saw themselves more as community organizers first and content experts second.  Community organizers, more than any group of people, know the value of personal relationships built over a long series of trust-building interactions, they know what happens when people feel safe and trusted, and, maybe most importantly, they know the value of small victories. This is what some of Marshall Ganz’s and adrienne maree brown’s best work is about.  Great community organizers don’t worry too much about metrics, but they definitely understand scale: we have to start small to dream big.

Care happens at granular, individual levels; it’s enacted in small, personal ways that add up.  The responsibility of care is heavy—it’s on our shoulders to enact or to refuse—and that’s scary because it’s immeasurably different, requires sacrifice of control and content, and a rearranging of core priorities, but care is the work of sanctuary, and sanctuary is what students are telling us they need now more than ever.

We can only meet this moment of danger, uncertainty, hate, and chaos with care; we won’t meet it with cruelty.