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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

20 Years in Trenches, What Keeps Me Going

7000 High School students drop out each day, one dropout every 26 second.  Averaged nation wide that is 30% of all students, and in some large urban centers this rate is over 50%.[1]

In 1991, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a degree in Political Science.  As most graduates with a degree in Political Science realize a B.S. in PoliSci is really just a BS degree.  Having discovered the outdoors and using some money I had saved, I headed off to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Washington State to take an Outdoor Educator’s Course.  NOLS was a turning point for me; I found my passion.  I had worked my way through college working in summer camps as a Waterfront Director, but never considered it a career until then.

The other key event that happened in 1991 was the reading of Peggy McIntosh’s article: White Priviledge: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.  I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin in the 70’s and 80’s; my family, my neighbors, my community was white.  The only people of color I knew played for the Green Bay Packers. As a child, I don’t remember racist talk, because minorities didn’t exist in my sheltered world.  At my last semester at Madison, my Uncle gave me the McIntosh article to read when we had a discussion on the Bakke Decision and affirmative action.

Merging, these two events helped shape who I became as an educator, much like the casting of small pebbles in a calm body of water.  I would like to say that I was purposeful in landing where I am today, but that is not the case, but more of an example of Chaos Theory.[2]

Butterfly Effect aside, I left Wisconsin and headed to the University of Minnesota to pursue a Graduate Degree in Outdoor Education.  There my mentor, Dr. Leo McAvoy, gave me a home and guidance to try new ideas.  During my course of study, it became glaringly apparent, that as a practitioner I lacked real world experience working with youth of diverse backgrounds.  Leo pushed me over to the St. Paul Campus and introduced me to the Youth Studies Department.

There I took a number of courses including a year-long internship at Face to Face Academy located on the East Side of St. Paul.  While at Face to Face I saw first hand what the “have nots” don’t have. Then the McIntosh article is re-introduced in our practicum discussion by Mary Burnison, the Youth Studies Coordinator.  Mary is the kind of person that made you question your basic assumptions and was a master at leading group dialogs that really got the participants to dig deep.

There were many benefits to that internship are still rippling through my life, but the most significant was Miss Angie Tenebrini.  Ms. Tenebrini was the Outward Bound Liaison for the school.  Back in the 90’s, Voyageur Outward Bound was heavily involved with St. Paul and Minneapolis Schools.  They started placing staff in unfunded Expeditionary Learning Sites. Ms. Tenebrini was Face-to-Face’s detached worker.  There she helped teaching staff develop experiential learning courses for some of the most at-risk youth in St. Paul.  I fell in love with her immediately.  I fell in love because here was a woman who believed in the same values as me, that experiential, often outdoors, learning can move kids stuck in very bad places to see a different future.  Nine month later we were engaged, and together as a couple we have been fighting for those kids and families that have been left behind since then. Along the way we worked or created juvenile justice programs, homeless youth outreach, youth service programs, community gardens, expedition high schools, inner city integration programs, and countless other youth service collaborations. Picking up my teaching license at Goddard College, I moved into the formal k-12 school world.

I could have “done time” in an inner city school for a couple of years, felt good about myself and moved on. In that time of growing I came to realize that great youth-work, is about building relationships.  Relationships are built on trust, and trust is developed over a long time of unconditional love. The problem with reform, is the lack of love.  When you love someone you make sacrifices for them.  A society that is full of love does not allow 30% of our children to dropout, or for 25% of children to live in poverty.

So what is the solution?  For 20 years I have struggled with this question.  In 1991, I graduated Madison, today I sit writing this from Goddard College.  In those twenty years I have met some of the most dedicated and extraordinary adults who serve with such honor and distinction in some of the most harsh condition imaginable.  What is the commonality with all these great people?  They truly care about kids and their families,  they truly care about making a difference, and they care enough to be committed for a lifetime and not just a billing cycle.  When faced with a huge problem, they do what they can, with the resources they have in the places they are.  I do know this, there is no magic bullet for “fixing” kids, but the answer lies in the human assets we have yet to fully marshal in our society and the lack of commitment of the whole society to sacrifice for the greater good.

When we view kids as something that needs fixing, then we make them an object, which ultimately kills the relationship. Changing power dynamics, raising people up, requires a long-term commitment of time and financial resources as well as huge amounts of love.

So as a kid of privilege from an all white neighborhood in Green Bay, I wake up each morning committed to leave the complaining to others and move forward for the communities I serve. As I say to the students and staff at Northwest Passage High School, it is not always the end product of your work that is most important, but the process for getting there that needs examination.

7000 High School students drop out each day, one dropout every 26 second.  Averaged nation wide that is 30% of all students, and in some large urban centers this rate is over 50%.[3]

This year 40 less kids dropped out of school and graduated from NWPHS, and I love everyone of them.

[2] Nedret, “Chaos theory attempts to explain the fact that complex and unpredictable results can and will occur in systems that are sensitive to their initial conditions. A common example of this is known as the Butterfly Effect. It states that, in theory, the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in China could, in fact, actually effect weather patterns in New York City, thousands of miles away. In other words, it is possible that a very small occurance can produce unpredictable and sometimes drastic results by triggering a series of increasingly significant events:”

About Jamie Steckart

Currently the Head of Academic Affairs for the Qatar Leadership Academy. Passionate about experiential and project based learning.


3 thoughts on “20 Years in Trenches, What Keeps Me Going

  1. Spot on and moving like a crescendo, Jamie. I love your story-telling and appreciate how willingly you share your passion.

    How would you approach leading/unleading a traditional school?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 9, 2011, 9:43 pm
  2. Feels a bit like our conversation over a pulled pork sandwich – meandering, story-telling about why we do what we do and why that matters.

    Posted by johntspencer | July 10, 2011, 9:08 am
  3. Beautiful post about real things that matter. I love learning some of the central moments in your intellectual and spiritual biography, and think, as usual, you get the the heart of some critical, essential elements about the nature of education.

    Here’s a piece I wonder about Jamie. (Or one of them.) Is it more powerful to go out and start beautiful small schools like NWPHS–creation of existence proofs about what is possible–or to try to work on big, huge, seemingly intractable public school systems–to try to create some kind of capacity for consciousness and change, however small? Because the numbers of kids who have options like NWPHS are still very, very small, and in fact the numbers of kids who have any kind of options at all is still tiny. And for two centuries we’ve had examples of amazing schools that create extraordinary relationships with students, and help grow lives…and yet here we are with almost 50 million kids enrolled in schools that are not like this.

    I know the answer is “yes, and we’ve got to do both–all.” But what say you?


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 10, 2011, 10:18 am

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