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It Starts with You

This week’s question “how do we act as catalysts of change within our present circumstances?” is one I think about everyday. I am constantly attempting to be an effective catalyst of change, and have had some successes and many failures.

  • As a customer I worked with Whole Foods to remove paper products from their shelves that were made using virgin pulp from clear-cut, old-growth boreal forests.
  • As an employee I created a sustainability initiative within the company.
  • As a social worker I implemented a restorative justice program for homeless and at-risk youth.
  • As a citizen, I vote, regularly contact my representatives, and push passionately for things I believe. I also speak out against things I believe are not in the best interest of people, animals, or the planet.
  • As a teacher I demonstrate loving kindness towards my students and colleagues. I examine topics with passion, depth, and perseverance, helping my students to do the same.

My point is that no matter where you are you are a part of a system. This is a favorite saying of ecologists and it is absolutely true.

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You are always able to leverage change. It should begin authentically following Gandhi’s creed, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Inform yourself about issues you care about and act responsibly based on what you learn. Keep learning and keep refining your actions.

Inevitably, you will reach the point where you know you can’t do this on your own, and that is true. The point is never expect others to do what you don’t do. Talk in the famous, “I” language that we tell kids to use. Tell people what you are doing, but be a pompous hot air blower.


“I learned that there are 49,000 gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico every day as a result of the oil rig explosion, I can’t believe that. I am going to learn about ways I can authentically reduce my consumption of oil so that we don’t need oil rigs anymore.”

“I can’t stand the thought of animals being tortured so that I can eat, so I learned more about nutrition and how to eat an animal product free diet.”

Once you have this down, here’s what I have learned works:

  • Talk. Talk to people about the things you are passionate about. Don’t sit silent. Don’t let conversations about “American Idol” rule the break room. Don’t get on a soapbox, just open your mouth and speak like a human being who is thinking about things deeply.
  • Let other people see what you are doing to make change. Talk about bike commuting or your awesome new classroom practice. Share the joy you feel, make sure you let other people know you are not special per se, and anyone can make changes.
  • Ask people questions about what they are passionate about, what they value, and what they want their life to mean.
  • Find connections between passions, values, and missions to work towards common goals.

Approach others as if they are going to help you solve a problem, don’t take an adversarial approach until the other person has proven to you that’s what they are–opposed to change. Otherwise, expect everyone you talk to, to be a potential ally in making change.

Don’t make assumptions of values, allow others to articulate their values themselves. In fact, do this early on, because working from this level of understanding helps to push through misunderstandings and more difficult times. You can also use it later as a tool to push for change, like I did with Whole Foods. They published their missions and values and kept putting it their face (politely) how they weren’t living up to them. If you can join with others through common values and mission, you will more effective and give your efforts the duration they will need. Get the largest common vision you can such as The Earth Charter.

More points that work:

  • Be informed. Being educated has great value (imagine that educators!). Talk intelligently about issues. Be firm but not hard-headed.
  • Keep talking, find little victories that you can quickly gain. Celebrate these moments.
  • Be persistent. Just enough of a pain in the neck that you don’t allow the issues to fade from view, just enough so that the pressure is always there to change. But not so much that people shut you out because they are tired of hearing you.
  • Be compassionate. Life is multi-dimensional. We all deal with many layers of stress and responsibilities each day. You never know who may be dealing with a terminal illness, or going through a divorce, or…
  • Learn how to be an effective citizen activist. Learn how bills are passed, what bills are in session, how to get bills introduced, how to contact your representatives, and how best to be heard by them. I have my representatives and senators numbers (Local and D.C.) stored in my phone. I call regularly. Use the system, don’t let it use you!

In the end, it comes down to enacting traits of being a growing human being–compassion, reflection, and timely action. Find allies who are committed to growth and development of a sane and beautiful culture. Share tough conversations as well as big laughs with one another. Engage in activities that truly feed your soul, breathe deep and dream big.

Oh and if you try something and it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean that you failed does it? (Wink, wink, Chad)

With hope,



About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


16 thoughts on “It Starts with You

  1. “Approach others as if they are going to help you solve a problem, don’t take an adversarial approach until the other person has proven to you that’s what they are–opposed to change. Otherwise, expect everyone you talk to, to be a potential ally in making change.”

    Adam, this quote struck me pretty hard. In a good way. In a challenging way.

    I’m leaving it at that.

    Posted by Joe Bower | April 27, 2010, 7:08 pm
  2. Joe, don’t leave it at that for long. I’d love to hear more.


    Posted by Adam Burk | April 27, 2010, 8:17 pm
  3. Adam,

    I’m going to challenge you with something (in a good way): at what point do recalcitrant teachers of change feel as though the individuals working to change the system are attempting to create a Utopian society rather than a practically-based system?

    In other words, you make the point that the values of the system should correlate to that of the actions (as in your Whole Foods example). So what are the values of education? Do we have a clearly defined purpose of education? If so, then why do we get a hundred different answers from a hundred different people? If not, then at what point do we need to decide what those values are?

    One of the beauties of your Whole Foods example is that you were able to take concrete proof and make it applicable to the function of the system thereby displaying their hypocritical actions. I’m not so sure that we can do that in education.

    Is saying that “bettering the lives of students and turning them into quality citizens” a purpose of education good enough?

    Isn’t that like saying “Whole Foods: We love the Earth”.

    Now, here’s my serious point. I love your strategy and the steps you take in becoming a catalyst of change. I just don’t know if the educational system has the purpose and vision firmly in place to follow through with it.

    Awesome post! Very inspirational!


    P.S. I drive a Toyota Prius and get 56 miles per gallon. Be proud of me.

    Posted by Aaron Eyler | April 27, 2010, 9:18 pm
    • Aaron, I am proud of you with or without the Prius.

      My thoughts:

      I think we need more organic, building- and team-based conversations like ours. I can’t take a school-division vision statement and wave it in the face of a teacher who had no part in drafting it. I have to talk with colleagues to establish trust. I have to share what I believe. I gave to learn and acknowledge what people around me believe. Then we need to reach consensus on teaching norms and beliefs about kids. If trust thrives thereafter through celebrations and dignified reminders of our beliefs in frustrating times, I believe can make our vision a reality.

      I think we have a good model here and need to help one another apply it to our local circumstances. I’m going to manage our faculty-meeting discussions about students and start a sparkling moments blog for my school faculty as next steps. Maybe we can find ways to open it up to kids and parents after building our own online community around great things our students are doing.

      What else can we commit to in asking others to commit to authentic learning and sane education?

      Now wanting a new car,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 27, 2010, 9:44 pm
    • Aaron,

      This is a great question. I agree educational systems are floppy. I approach them as I do any other system, as a collection of individuals. I do not worry in the beginning about the whole system having a clearly identified mission, but approach the individuals who make up the system as having one. Just like we started this blog, they way to get to that information is by all answering a common question designed to flush out such thinking. Thus, whether you are talking with a fellow teacher or superintendent the idea is the same. In the end there is no “system” to keep accountable but only individuals, and this is a significant point. If we build the conversation and relationships with individuals you can leverage values and missions to make meaningful change. This is just what I did with Whole Foods. I didn’t stand outside talking to the Whole Foods sign, demanding it to change. I spoke with people and built conversations around values, the companies’ which also happened to be the people’s (not surprisingly). Just like corporate personhood has aided in the disembodiment of responsibility, the same thing happens in any organization. “Well, that’s not MY responsibility.” My answer is yes it is, yes it is. It is all of our responsibilities, EACH of ours.

      A great case study for this is Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.

      Watch every episode because Jamie is doing us all a favor by documenting clearly how to be a change agent. All episodes can be found for free on Hulu.

      What do you think Aaron? Does that make sense?

      As for a hundred different answers from hundred different people, that’s why I suggest bringing in materials such as the Earth Charter, it helps to create a common language and fill out people’s vision. One person might be most concerned about justice, another about democracy, and another about sustainability. The Earth Charter puts all these issues on equal footing, and I haven’t met a person that I went through it with who said, “I don’t agree with that.” Or “I can’t get on board with this section.” Lastly, The Earth Charter connects what is happening on a local level, which can feel small and isolated to a massive worldwide movement. That’s powerful.

      Thanks again for the perfect question Aaron.


      Posted by Adam Burk | April 28, 2010, 6:19 am
    • PS I am very proud of you, for being a conscious consumer and teacher. You do lots of top notch work.

      Posted by Adam Burk | April 28, 2010, 6:20 am
  4. Adam, the video is brilliant. We are all in systems and don’t often enough think about what we contribute to them. Like Joe, I appreciate your encouragement to “approach others as if they art going to hep you solve a problem.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about confrontation-by-invitation. Certainly your writing here further intertwines for me several strands woven by coauthors throughout the coöp tapestry – Paula’s classroom practice, Aaron’s energy, Kirsten’s activism, Joe’s admonition to rethink our roles, and Casey’s “simple living, hard learning.”

    Give me more help with rounding out my activism profile. I focus on my classroom, my thinking/writing, and on my family. I speak at the occasional school board or board of supervisors meeting. What gateway activities, organizations, or templates would you suggest for someone like me to help me become incrementally more active in politics and my community? Where would I look to begin a non-profit, community organization, or community program? What are your top questions for a teacher to give students and/or parents for feedback on loving kindness in teaching and learning?

    Tangentially, I just finished installing the hardware and putting down the grip tape on my new skateboard; I’ll be sure to keep you updated on all my new FAILs.

    Teaching without a helmet,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 27, 2010, 9:33 pm
  5. I like all the points here. I think the idea of ever widening the conversation is a good one. Small stones in a big pond turn ripples into waves.

    Invite one person at your school to read this blog, ask them to ask one person. Not 5, not 10. Start with one. Then ask them what they got from it, small conversation can be powerful.

    But we have to remember not to talk to just ourselves here on this great blog.

    Maybe we should have a goal to have a action week in a few weeks. A week where we don’t just write about a issue, but actual act upon it. Maybe we all write to our senators or submit a letter to the editor, or find another blog to respond to outside of our circle. Or all volunteer some where with children outside of our school.

    I would like to share these random quotes and thoughts with you, I have been finding inspiration from random sources lately.

    Today’s inspriation came from Nicolaides “The Natural Way to Draw” who quotes Leonardo da Vinci
    “The supreme misfortune is when theory outstrips performance”

    I think this is what Aaron was getting at. What act can we do to show our mission to show our theory.I hear Adam say Let do progressive education, So let find our own way everyday to Do it.

    Other things that I found inspiring from his book,

    when talking about the goals of a teacher:

    show a child how to learn, not what to learn.

    He says his method in teaching “is enabling students to have an experience”

    “Plan for them things to do, things to think about, contacts to make. When they have had that experience well and deeply, it is possible to point out what it is and why it has brought these results.”

    He reminded me also that we (humans) can only make rules not laws, Laws are made by nature and are natural and organic. Humans make rules as a way to relate these laws to their life. Rules can be changed; natural laws can not. We need to remember to transfer our rules to life, or they are nothing but words and thoughts.

    “To understand theories is not enough. Much practice is necessary,”

    Thanks for having this conversation with me. I am going to invite a few more people to join in. Who are you going to invite!

    Posted by David Loitz | April 28, 2010, 1:37 am
    • David, I like your ideas here. I have used the method of sharing something with just one person, and asking them to do the same, I have also reached for rings of ten people. Both have worked, I think its the goal setting that is important not the number. It links the intention to action, which is what you go on to talk about. Perhaps this week we can all identify some issue we plan to address in the next few weeks, with an initial sketch of how we are going to go at it. Then as you suggest we spend some time reflecting and sharing about that particular effort in a month let’s say to give it ample time. Thanks for the great contribution, David.


      Posted by Adam Burk | April 28, 2010, 6:06 am
  6. Acting on our thinking here is a crucial part of our mission, David. Thanks for emphasizing that part of our work. In my personal blog, I try to capture the changes I’m making to classroom instruction a a result of our shared work and push here. However, I’m not all the politically active outside of writing, tweeting, and teaching in an increasingly democratic way.

    In light of your comment, David, and Adam’s “It Starts with You” post, I’m curious abut what our community thinks – authors, commentators, readers, critics: what is teacher activism? What is your ideal activism portfolio for a teacher? What constitutes “enough?” Are you satisfied with the notion of multiple activism spectra that perhaps balance or counterbalance one another? For example, is it okay for a teacher to write representatives assiduously on behalf of education legislation, but never stray far from teacher-delivered content in the classroom? In an educator’s life, where would you invest your activism “dollar?”

    Thanks, David!

    PS – are we at all interested in a “taking stock” topic? Do we want to take a week to reflect on how we’ve changed education locally as we’ve spoken here? Is this the best place for such a post? Could we do this on our individual blogs and link back and forth to show that our work here has positive leak into our lives?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 28, 2010, 6:23 am
  7. It’s hard to jump in here after all these brilliant posts, comments, and next questions. So I just want to say a couple of things, in the spirit of joining in.

    Aaron, I’m super proud of you about the Prius. Wish they made one that was a van.

    Second, to me it’s not just that our educational purpose is “floppy,” (Adam and Aaron), but that in some cases it is a system that was designed, and has deeply set in its DNA, an intention to sort, track and classify kids. To “wound” them. To teach them what they are good for. (Hey, that is fundamentally what tracking does.) So if the “intention” of the system is counterproductive to the well being of those who are most vulnerable in it, what is appropriate counter-action on the part of teachers and administrators? How to deal with that?

    Finally, I talk to lots of teachers about the importance of activism, individual activism in their classrooms and also in their schools. I talk about taking charge of the profession and not letting forces from the outside dictate the conditions of the work, its measures of effectiveness, its certifying norms. So I am very interested in Chad’s comment about teacher activism. What does it look like for you? What is enough? Can we help teachers become more activist in a hierarchical management culture that has tended to reward compliance and generates overwhelm?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 28, 2010, 9:01 am
    • Kirsten,

      I agree with you that the public education system has a particular machinery, or DNA to it. I don’t think that this is always well understood. While at some point it needs to become part of the conversation, I have found that focusing on the past or the problem is a way to not go anywhere. Thus, by articulating vision and values, almost regardless of what the problem is, is a great way to build a movement. Once these visions and values are articulated then work can be done to contrast the current system against those ideals and decisions made to align practice with value.

      I look forward to the conversation about teacher activism.


      Posted by Adam Burk | April 28, 2010, 11:17 am
    • For an example of what I meant about the “floppy” idea that we have as to what schools are for, here’s a short list compiled by Seth Godin,

      While the goals are clear and the rubber stamp machine can be seen, look at how divergent these goals are, there’s no clear aim or values. That is a weakness that can exploited by formulated personal visions for what education should be for and working together to build that vision. Bureaucracy will get in the way, but passion can plow through red tape and shred policy.

      With hope,

      Posted by Adam Burk | April 30, 2010, 6:10 am


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