Alicia Dixon is executive director of the Marcus Foster Education Institute (MFEI). Since 1973, MFEI has been committed to improving educational opportunities and outcomes for all students in Oakland. In recent years, MFEI has partnered with school districts, nonprofits and corporations throughout the Bay Area with the aim of collectively developing and implementing strategies that create equitable educational systems.
I sat down with Alicia to talk mutual accountability, continuous improvement and looking at social justice in schools with new glasses.
I'm always curious about why people do the work that they do. It's such an obvious question, but I think the answers always pull out very interesting details. So can you tell me what inspires your work?
[This is] the kind of work that you really should be in touch with who you are, and why you're in it in order to do it well and with your heart.
My why is because I am someone who completely benefited from safety net systems. Most folks will call it luck in terms of all of the educational opportunities that were afforded to me, but I know exactly why they happened. It had everything to do with key individuals being in key places, making very intentional decisions about ensuring all students had access to educational opportunities.
I was not a superstar student, but education is something that I've always valued and it's something that has afforded me a lifestyle that I think I would not have had had it not been for individuals in my public schools encouraging and pushing me.
I do this work because in my years of work in the social sector, I've seen a persistent erosion of the safety net. School districts have to cope with all of the demands and needs of students and families. It's really unnerving and very scary.
How is the Marcus Foster Education Institute addressing the erosion of safety nets during a time like this where it can almost feel impossible or, at the very least, the work is overwhelming?
It is very daunting, but the Institute has never been an organization that works on its own. Relationships are so central to everything that we do — and we sort of see ourselves as glue.
We're in relationship and partnership with some of the most amazing direct services providers out there. [Currently,] we have 19 UC Berkeley fellows who are working within four different community sites locally and they're all grappling with these systemic issues — everything from adolescent behavioral health, to liberation education for Black children, to looking at summer melt issues.
These relationships and partnerships were pre-existing [and] percolating before COVID. [Now] everyone recognizes the moment and is attempting to dig deeper to understand [the issues]. We knew that there was a major problem before COVID but now we know, the house is really, really on fire — and we’re living in it.
There is no magic bullet, just like there wasn't a magic bullet before COVID. And we're sort of recognizing that so that we can move on together and not lose sight of our humanity.
Do you think that sometimes the house has to be on fire in order for people to realize that we need everybody on board?
Such a heartbreaking question because to me it points to how much poor performance in our public institutions we tolerate for our children. The house has been on fire so to say that it's even a house anymore, right?
I tell people all the time you have to believe less of Black and brown children if you look at the data coming out of public education systems. For those who have privilege and resources, they can make other choices. But there are these whole masses of students who are coming through [the public school system] and they don't have choices. And so we have to believe that there's something wrong with these children, right?
I mean, that's what the data would have you conclude — ”it's the children,” but that's not actually reality. That is not where the problem is.
The finger-pointing, the blame game, high stakes tests, that's not how we're gonna fix this. We're gonna have to really band together and hold one another, mutually accountable for better outcomes for our kids. And I think until we get there we're just going to keep turning and turning in a circle. And, always looking to the answer being more money — that's the easy scapegoat. Right.
Unless we develop some discipline around understanding what the real, base-level challenges are with the documentation behind it, we'll never dig ourselves out of this narrative grave. Because it is very much a societal mindset, in terms of the problems that exist in education — they just feel untenable, and there's nothing we could do to change this, because [we] keep throwing money at it, and nothing ever changes.
I'll just tell you something I struggle with is the blame game. There are times where I'm like, actually, there are people to blame. And they're very specific people, right? Because when you use the language of “system,” that gives that vagueness to it. What does mutual accountability look like without identifying who exactly is responsible?
I'll share a story about [our] work. We started out with a really simple idea: How can we get all high school seniors in the Oakland Unified School District to complete the FAFSA by the March 2 deadline? When we started in 2011, only 40% of all seniors completed the FAFSA. By 2015, we got the completion rate up to 70%.
When we started this work, there were nonprofits that were very resentful of us. They were like, Who are you? And what do you think you're doing? We [were] really clear that we're not the direct service provider, we're intermediaries [and] we want to support and facilitate this work. But it took a lot around culture and conversation, just to get people where they said, “Oh, yes, we can do this.”
[It takes] a lot of humility and patience, and you're not going to always like each other in the process. Because you're going to drill down, and you're going to start making people really uncomfortable. But once they understand, like, we're all in this together, and you're consistent in the way you show up, and you're not shaming them with the data ... everybody can get bought into this.
To me, the biggest thing that you mentioned is just like pulling out that one thing, right? That's very tangible, and something that you can celebrate, because at the end of the day, people also always need that motivator of, ‘Okay, this is possible.’ And we can continue to do the work.
I know some of your work ties into social justice. But you have a very different lens on what that social justice work looks like for the Institute.
In terms of our perspective around it, we have a deep appreciation for organizers and activists who are out on the frontlines protesting and doing that labor. It really is important to bring awareness and visibility to issues. We also believe in — and this is something that we really want to do a much better job of doing going forward — is partnering with those folks to talk to them about the ways in which they target their efforts so that when a policy is passed, and when there is, some victory gained, how do we then go about implementation? How are we sure that this is even the right policy? How do we know we have the right voices at the table?
One of the central things we teach is continuous improvement practices. So you're always learning, you're always growing, you never assume that you've arrived. There's something that we can always do better. And if we master one thing, we should move on to something else that needs to be improved.
I think schools have been burdened with so many demands, that we do more of all of their social and emotional stuff than we do in educating them. And so the social-emotional stuff is critical. I'm not trying to minimize it here. But schools were built to teach kids, right? And so how do we ensure that that they're actually learning? And how do we get society to understand that if you're burdening schools with all of these other things that have to be done that schools need more resources?
I'm thinking about how the social-emotional learning, the CRT, they become sexy, right? Like, that's what people want to talk about. But the work that you're talking about, is that behind-the-scenes work, which to me sounds very much like justice, right?
If you're having weekly check-ins, and being like, this is what the data is saying, let's look at these indicators. Are things matching up? Are we seeing continuous improvement? That's the thing that you often don't hear or see, but that, to me, is the real outcome.
Mutual accountability is definitely a stepping stone on the path to justice. There's no question in my mind about that.
So that's all the questions I have for you. I want to give you a chance if there's anything that you wanted to add to the conversation.
I really do believe that most of the folks who work in education get up every day and attempt to do their very best. And I think the same is true for the children and families. Everybody is doing the best that they can. They were doing the best that they could before.
I think the path starts with compassion. If we don't start from a place of compassion, and this is not about turning the other cheek and supporting racist teachers, that's not what this is about.
This loving condemnation of public education systems, just [does] not serve us. And so, if we don't lock arms around what's left of our public education system, it's gonna be an even wilder ride.
For more from Alicia, watch our first #SeekingChildJustice Town Hall. And plan to join us this Wednesday at noon ET as we discuss Building Mutual Accountability Between School Systems and Families.