Today I talk with Leslie Bray, founder of Kid Cultivators, a Black home educators community in Atlanta. In this episode we talk about the dynamics of founding a community when you are a joiner-inner, not a starter. We discuss the vital role of “inner work” in community and what that actually means in practice from remaining curious to honesty to the inevitability of conflict. And we consider how mainstream education has the potential to get us all of on shaky ground when it comes to living well in community.
“That’s a value that’s key in the community in which I am right now: we’re going to hope and expect the best from everyone. When something does arise, we’re going to remain curious and put down our defences and still show up with each other so that we can process through whatever those things are.”
I loved this episode with Leslie and I hope you find it helpful too!
LUCY: A huge welcome to The Art of Togetherness, Leslie. It’s so good to have you as the third guest on my podcast here. I guess, I do just want to recognise the circumstances of this conversation happening this week and just really on the space that you are perhaps occupying now in terms of the grief in your communities around the murder of George Floyd and others at the hands of police. But also, the other layer of that which is having to now uprise underneath modern-day fascists sitting in the White House and the extra layer that that adds to this context.
Sometimes, New Zealand feels really far away when these global things happen. But actually, right now, yes, it all feels very close to home. New Zealand is often held up as being a model way that indigenous and colonisers work together, but it’s an absolute myth. We have white supremacy here in every corner. We have everyday racism. And so, it all feels really close actually. So, I guess, I wanted to begin by just recognising that context and just extending my huge thanks that, in the middle of this, you’re coming to talk with me about community.
LESLIE: I thank you for your invitation. One of the things that is, I guess, holding every one of us together is community. A lot of us, whether we’re directly plugged in or not, community matters. This is something that I’ve been passionate about for many years now, and those of us who have people to lean on, to pray with, to rage with, to cry with, to organise with, that’s what’s getting people through this time regardless of where they’re showing up. And so, it’s a very appropriate conversation to be having still.
LUCY: It is, right? Well, I’d love to hear a little bit about you if you could tell us who you are and what you’re passionate about.
LESLIE: Well, I’m Leslie. This is a question that I was just talking about with some of my community moms, and we are saying how we just don’t like this question because people think, “Oh, it’s a resume question.” And so, we were talking about all the ways in which we’re going to re-answer these questions. So, I’ll start by saying I am a life-learner. I pride myself on being open to learning new things. And so, everything about every stage of my life has been about learning, whether it’s about gaining people skills or particular skills in teaching, or educating, or photography, or massage therapy.
I do a lot of things, but I also couch it in the space of being willing to learn and grow personally, and so then that informs the types of things I do. So, I did go to school to become an educator. I taught several years in the public and private school sectors for a while, but that wasn’t working. The change that I knew, or I was hoping I could make, I wasn’t able to do a whole lot of that for very long. That’s a system that burns people out quickly.
And so, then I married; I started a family, and then started rethinking, “How do we want to show up? What type of people do we want to be and what type of people do we want to put out into the world?” And so, that got me looking in learning in lots of new ways. And so, here I am now today as a person still learning, still growing, but doing that in community, doing that through a sense of self – who am I, what people do I come from, what are our gifts to the world – pairing those things up with other people who are looking to do similar and maybe not so similar things, but we’re finding ourselves journeying together and finding ways of encouragement and support.
LUCY: That’s a beautiful answer, thank you. I’m glad that you had that conversation with your other mommas because it turned upside down. Well, awesome, thought provoking. It’s an impossible question, isn’t it?
LESLIE: Yes. Where do you start?
LUCY: Yes! Like “What part of myself do you want me to talk about right now?”
Okay, now, I’ve not asked this question of anyone before and I actually think it’s potentially really important. I’d love to hear, if you’re willing, a little bit about maybe the intentional community that you were a part of when you were a child while you were being raised. What did community look like and feel like for you?
LESLIE: I was blessed to have an amazing community growing up. My mother knew that she couldn’t be everything for us. It was in a church community, but it was so much beyond the weekend. I’m trying to think of the words to describe it. We knew everyone. We knew the people in the space no matter the age – the younger folk, the older folk, those in between. There were definitely elders in the community that sought me out specifically, they pull me aside, they teach me different things, whether it was, “Come walk in the woods. Let me teach you what these trees are and what these herbs are, and let me show you how to find a path in the woods, how should you be in nature so that you’re not disrupted but you’re paying attention,” to I had an aunt who would just make me sit with her.
Sometimes, my mother needed a break – she was a single parent – and so, she would go to their home, and my brothers would be outside with my uncle and my aunt would say, “Come to the kitchen. Let me show you something.” And she talked me through all kinds of things, and it wasn’t until my adulthood that I started doing these things myself and just wondering, “Why do I already know how to do this?” like someone was saying “Yes, you can.” And I was like, “Yeah, I think I know how to do that already.” And as I went through the motions, I remembered, “Yeah, my aunt taught me how to do this.”
So, there was always somebody willing to pour in their knowledge. Of course, children don’t always appreciate what they have when they’re getting it whether it was music, whether it was good books to read, whether it was good food being made. I was a part of a thriving community that looked out for everyone. And so, while it was definitely not perfect, it built just the foundation of, “This is what it means to be a part of something meaningful where I was valued for who I was – all the stages of what I went through.” And I always look back at that time as such a precious time because that has formed everything I’m seeking to do now.
LUCY: Thank you. I was raised in the church, too, and had a similar experience of those caring adults all around us. We used to call them our church aunties. I don’t know if you had a similar phrase, and one of them, even to this day, sends me birthday cards. She manages to find my random new address in the middle of nowhere and sends me a birthday card every single year. It’s so amazing.
I can remember so clearly when I was seven and one church aunty tried to teach me cross-stitch so that I could stitch my mom a “Happy Mother’s Day” cross-stitched pillow and I can remember that I actually only managed to do H and A, and she whipped it away from me during church and finished the whole rest of the “Happy Mother’s Day” message on the pillow and then handed it back to me, and I was so grateful that year I could give my mom a really awesome not quite handcrafted-by-me present. And actually, I love cross-stitch to this day. So, who knows if that was her legacy?
And now, just to this present-day moment, if you could tell me about the community that you are cultivating right now where you are.
LESLIE: Well, it’s a special place. It’s a special group of families that have – we’ve committed to show up for each other. Where do I begin? It’s been a lot of work getting here – being intentional, being thoughtful, figuring out how to communicate what it is that we are – I guess, that has been the most challenging. And then learning and growing over the years. What does that look like? So, we are initially gathering because we’re choosing to be in-charge of our children’s education in some way, shape or form. So, we have a lot of different families that bring their different philosophies. So, not everyone is a school at home. We have unschoolers. We have some radical unschoolers. We have some people who identify as eclectic; they use whatever. So, that has been our initial gathering point.
But as we’ve gotten to know each other, of course, we’re showing up in other ways with each other. It’s become more organic. So, it’s the checking-in now that I know that you all are doing x, y, and z. I can share resources with you, or we can go in together and “Let’s go shopping together”, or, “Let’s create this meal together”, or “Let’s learn these things as a community of families as opposed to just individually.” It’s built on strong relationships. We seek to not only just talk the talk, but walk the walk, so to speak. We’re taking the time it takes to build relationships that matter. We’ve been doing this for a – I guess, we’re going into maybe our 11th or 12th season now. And those of us who have been journeying long together, our children are – we have the lifelong friendship connection. And so, it’s just become a beautiful place.
LUCY: Sounds like the kind of community you have that people can get quite envious of actually. As somebody that has an online presence around home education I get a lot of people asking me about how they access the things they need to do home education well. And one of them is, “I see these amazing groups out there who have these really healthy communities and really strong long-term relationships. I need something like that.” And I guess, they don’t realise that somewhere down the line, somebody had to establish that group, somebody had to set that thing up. I know that you were a bit of a reluctant leader really in starting your group. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
LESLIE: Definitely. Yes, I usually tell people I prefer to join and help somebody already doing it. Why start from scratch when you don’t have to? And so, I joined a stay-at-home moms’ group. At that time, I wasn’t really thinking about home-schooling. And so, I was just looking for other mothers who were at home with their children. And when I found the group and then those of us in the group started talking about, “So, what are we going to do about schooling?” During the conversation someone said, “Well, I’m thinking about home schooling.” “Well, what’s that going to be like?” As we’ve looked into that and talked about that with each other, that’s when it came up, “Should you do something?” Within the group I was in, it was a black stay-at-home moms’ group, someone asked me if I would lead the home-schooling part of the group and, “Oh, yeah, I can do that.” Because that’s still in another space.
And it was when those leaders – their lives changed. They were going back to work. They were going to put their children in school. And I was trying to decide with the other moms, “So, are we going to keep gathering? Are we going to keep doing this thing?” Someone pushed, “Why don’t you do something?” “I don’t know.” And it was a conversation I had with another mom where she comments, “Why would you? That’s too much work.” And then I thought more about it and said, “Yeah, it is work, but this is something we want. So, I’ll go on and do the work.”
There is something about me that loves a challenge, especially a challenge that pushes us in a good way. And so, with the support of the other women at that time, I went on and started the group. That’s where the things got started as far as figuring out what is it going to look like, what are we going to do – all the what, when and how came up. But once the decision to do it was made, I guess, that was the easy part – deciding that, “Yes, I can do this and I will ask for all the help that I need.”
LUCY: Yes, that’s awesome to hear because I do think people can have in mind that, “Well, you know, the world is divided into leaders and then joiner-inners.” And so, it can feel too hard if you’re usually just a joiner-inner. I shouldn’t say “just” because actually the world needs joiner-inners.
LESLIE: Yes, we do.
LUCY: But if you see yourself as a joiner-inner and there’s nothing around, it can feel like a bit of a desert like, “Maybe nothing is going to actually happen that is going to allow me to connect in with a community around this super important part of my life.” So, it’s actually really encouraging to hear from you that you managed to establish such a well-functioning group with your joiner-inner energy. If you could, I guess, talk to yourself that those 11 or 12 seasons ago and give yourself a few tips now, what would you have said to yourself about establishing a group and what things you need to bear in mind as you’re getting something like this started.
LESLIE: Oh, definitely. The longer I do this, the more it comes up, so I’ll try to think of the top ones. The first one would just be willing to take the time it takes. Things do not happen instantly. If you’re looking at things on social media or anything online, it can appear that someone says, “I want to do this.”, and then three days later, “Oh, my goodness, it’s a whole group.” And that’s not how it happens – not in the way that you’re going to want it.
If you just want a group of people together, yes, you can probably drum up a group of people to meet you at the library and have a wonderful story time together and hang out afterwards. But if you’re looking for the community where you know people and you’re building with them, and you’re journeying with a group of folks, that takes time. If I have understood that, I may not have started this. There’s a part of it that you not knowing all of the particulars to just go on and jump in. I encourage people live close enough to join my space. I encourage them just to start. There’s never going to be a good time. If it’s on your heart to start, if it’s your spirit saying it to you, if you noticed that your kids need it, start it and just know it’s going to take time. So, what you start today, you’re not going to see for several seasons; that’s the truth, but be willing to take the time.
Another thing that comes up for me is making sure that you are willing to do the personal work it takes to hold space for other people. It’s a lot to lead. It’s a lot to facilitate. It’s a lot to just guide people through. A lot of the things that you’re going to want to ask of other people to do – commit to coming – “Who’s going to come? Who’s going to do this?” You’re going to want to let yourself ask yourself the same questions you’re going to ask somebody else and process those things for yourself. A lot of times, we want people to be authentic with us. But we have to answer, “Are we willing to be authentic with others?” Sometimes, a smile can still hide who you really are, or having your go-to stories that you share, while that may sound vulnerable to someone who doesn’t know you, that may not be who you are authentically. And so, being willing to unmask yourself first so that what you are asking of others, you are also offering them as well.
LUCY: That’s really fascinating. So, the personal work that you refer to that’s about being willing to be vulnerable and really show up as yourself.
LESLIE: Yes, and that takes knowing yourself. That’s definitely something I tell people all the time, “I’m becoming. So, thank you for letting me continue to grow with you because, every year I hope to be better.” And so, those who may have met me two years ago may be saying, “Wow, you don’t sound like the same person.” Well, I hope not. I hope I’ve become a better person, and that is definitely true in community. As you learn – and you want people to give you the space and the grace. That’s what you offer, then in return allowing space for everyone to learn and grow. That’s a value that I have that’s key in the community in which I am right now – the graciousness of while we are all going to – we’re going to hope and expect the best from everyone. But when something does arise, we’re going to remain curious and put down our defences and still show up with each other so that we can process through whatever those things are. While that sounds beautiful in words, that’s a hard thing to embody. It just takes time. And so, we all have to be willing to offer that, to say that, to rehearse that with each other.
LUCY: It’s such an important one and it’s a really excellent example of the huge crossover like what is needed when you, for example, move into a living situation of intentional community which is what we have here on our farm. You need the same stuff if you’re doing just an intentional community. Again, I used the word “just”; it’s not just at all, but the same thing is required if you’re doing an intentional community that isn’t a living situation but is based around gathering together around values. I can remember, before we moved into this community, we went and visited another community, and I was just sitting on the grass. It would have been about seven years ago. I can remember this conversation so clearly, and the woman I was chatting to just said something like, “The most important thing I have learned about living in a community is that basically the whole thing rests on me and how willing I am to do the personal work. And if I can do it, if I can keep showing up, if I can keep being vulnerable and keep figuring out where my own boundaries are and how they relate to somebody else, if I’m willing to do that work my community, my experience of this community will be a success long-term.” And it really struck me because, I guess, up until that point, I’d seen that there were a million different factors that could impact your experience of community. It’s definitely my reality here; the power of what I can do with my mind and my heart is everything. It’s so intimately linked to whether this feels like a good thing for our family or not.
LESLIE: I would even echo what you’re saying about because you said another one that I was thinking about – setting clear boundaries. It sometimes brings up negative responses or just ideas about setting a boundary, saying what’s required, “This is required to be a part of this phase,” or, “We don’t do this,” or, “We do this.” – whatever those things are, knowing what your boundaries are because that protects everyone. There’s a protection. There’s a guarding that I have definitely done over the years of this space where we talked about it being drama-free. We deal with things head-on, but that’s because we were actively doing that. I couldn’t remain a reluctant leader if I sit back and just let things happen just like watching children, who don’t know each other really well play together; there’s inevitably some bump that they’ll hit and, “Okay, how do we solve this problem?” So, definitely having clear boundaries and the willingness to figure out do these boundaries work for us and adjusting them as necessary.
LUCY: So far, we’ve got time. So, giving enough time and patience. I’ve always said that you need a good year where you have to put all of your energy into bringing something to life and then only probably after a year will you begin to see the thing takes its own momentum. Do you feel the same, or do you think it’s actually longer?
LESLIE: I think it’s longer. I guess, at hindsight, it’s 20/20, but I think when I started, I didn’t know everything that I know now. And so, yes, we’ve been a group for years, but I want to say, maybe in the last three years, things have started to take root and they’re growing. It’s a combination of a lot of things. I can’t say that it was this one thing. We had the right people at the right time who were ready to commit, who were trusted and believed. Those are all the things that are important that we’re looking to be in a place where they could offer and receive. That’s key. This isn’t a space where you need takers. You definitely need people who are willing to receive, but you need people who are willing to give, to pour in, to do the work. And so, I think it was a combination of a lot of different things that now it feels like, “Whew, all this work we put in. Wow! It’s finally here.” It’s definitely not a sit back and relax. We’ve done even more work since that time.
LUCY: And I guess, it’s a lot of things. There are seasons where you’re really harvesting all of that work and it feels like such a celebration that you’re seeing all of these aliveness come out of the hard work that you’ve put in. And then, now be seasons have rest and then seasons where you actually have to do all of the work and it can feel exhausting.
We had time, personal work, and then it was boundaries.
LESLIE: I was also going to say that it’s also wise to start small. So, a lot of times when I speak to people about beginning, they’re just looking at the numbers of, “Also, how many do I need to have – 20, 30?” No, start with three or four families. That’s enough to start with. Definitely, if you want that organic, “We’re getting to know each other, we know each other. Let’s add another three people.” It’s a way to grow so that it becomes manageable and the values that you have actually can be practiced. It’s not just something that becomes a rhetoric and, “Okay, I’m going to sign these documents and I’m going to be part of this group.” People can buy and people know that their voice is being heard because that’s the difference between a community and just a network of folks, or just a group of people who like each other. There a little more intentionality that you give to conscious community.
LUCY: Yes, that’s so true. It’s such a powerful thought. And you mentioned this one briefly and I’d love for you to expand on it a little bit more. And it’s that inevitability of things being challenging at times or conflict coming up, and I feel like we can be so afraid of those challenging times and that conflict. I think possibly contributing factors are we’ve been raised to be afraid of conflicts like conflicts means the severing of relationship in a lot of punitive homes. That actually conflict I really believe can be a gateway to connection and some of those really tricky times for your group – well, first of all, they’re definitely going to happen – but yes, they can also be the thing that moves you into another deeper way of being. And I’d love for you to talk to me about that and how you’ve perhaps experienced that.
LESLIE: Just to echo what you’ve just said, challenges are going to happen, and pretending like they’re not actually can make them larger when they actually happen, then just expecting them. So, at the beginning of the year, I usually talk to new families and just tell them what we’re about and then we get together with everyone. In this particular year, we did definitely some intentional conversations to begin with, and one of them was around, “What are we going to do when something happens?” So, having a plan in place that everyone knows. Relationship building is messy. We read about it. We see it in the movies. We write about it. We daydream about this. I gave the example of this “best friend forever” that once you meet them, they’re going to be everything you need and you’re going to get along perfectly and you’ll live happily ever after. Our children think about that.
I remember, as a child, I’m just, “I can’t wait to meet my best friend forever.” But even as adults, we still hold on to this idea with each other. And so, we go through these stages of having friend crushes and we then pile all our expectations on this person that we don’t know. We may like them because they speak well or they’re pretty, or they know what to say, or however, they parent so well – whatever the thing that we admire about them right off the bat. But we don’t know them yet, but we heap on them all our expectations. And soon as they don’t meet something, “Oh my goodness, we’re shattered. What did we do wrong? How do we end this?” And we jump right to this ending of relationships that haven’t even begun.
And so, one of the things I asked all of us in our community to do this year was let’s remain curious with one another. Somebody is going to say something that is wont to rub you entirely the wrong way. But instead of taking on your defence and jumping up and doing all the things that we do to protect ourselves, let’s pause for a moment and say, “Hey, what did you mean by that?” And if we offer each other the grace of, “I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to believe you don’t mean me any harm.” And so, in that moment, if I don’t believe that you mean me harm and I remain curious, then if you say, “Oh, no, I didn’t mean that. I meant such and such,” we can solve it right then. It’ the misunderstanding been understood. And in the moment that it is something, “No, I did mean exactly what I said,” then we can still use that opportunity to find out, “Well, did you have to say that way?” We can start dealing with what the issue of the rub as opposed to taking on an attack or a defence posture with each other.
I have found that this year with us agreeing to just that one practice, that practice of we’re going to remain curious – we’ve had a couple of bumps, but they’ve been just that. It’s been a bump then it has actually opened us up to go deeper, like you said.
I would even go as far as to say, if you don’t have challenges, you don’t have a relationship with people because they’re never going to be with someone where you agree with them in every way, shape or form, and that’s not a relationship; that’s just, “Hey, I agree with you. Everything you’ve said, I agree.” That’s not a relationship. A relationship is when you have – there’s a tug. There’s a back and forth. There’s a, “Wow! I’m having to adjust. I’m having to pivot. I’m having to move. I’m having to grow.”
My mindset has changed towards challenges. I was definitely one that was raised to shy away from any kind of difficulty, confrontation – that kind of stuff. But now, I embrace it because I get to learn myself and you in this moment. How are we going to show up? How are we going to lean in to the goodness that we hope for each other, the goodwill that we want to have between us? How are we going to practice that in the midst of, “Yeah, I didn’t understand what you said,” or, “What you said hurt me,” or whatever the difficulty that arises?
LUCY: Oh, my goodness, this is so helpful. I love how you framed for your group the idea that bumps are going to come along, but how are we going to deal with it? It’s with curiosity. I love that. That feels like such a game-changing thing to give everyone a heads up like, “This is what relationship looks like, and that’s what we’re here for. We want that.” I know that you’re involved in the work of raising free people, of parenting in ways of connection and empathy and power sharing. And as you are talking there about trusting that people don’t mean you harm, like trusting their best intention, that’s something that we do for our kids, right?
LUCY: We infer the best of them. We’re trying not to jump to conclusions when they do something a little bit strange, or a little bit disruptive. We try really hard to assume that they didn’t mean to cause harm. And we see that our job as parents is bringing our open-hearted curiosity to what was at the bottom of that particularly challenging behaviour. And as you’re talking, I was like, “That’s what we do for our children. We should totally have that as a culture in our adult-to-adult relationships.”
LESLIE: Definitely, and that is something that is prominent in our space. We are a community of families, definitely, but we are building relationships as adults first. We’re the priority for learning and growing because the only way that we can raise free people is to be free ourselves – freedom personally, freedom in our relationships, and definitely freedom in our parenting. I am finding that disrupting our ideas about what relationships look like, what community looks like and what it is, and being fully present in that as opposed to rushing on to, “So, what are you doing with your kids with math?” Instead of skipping over, it’s “How can we teach our children to be the people we want if we’re not those people, if we don’t know how to be with ourselves and then be with each other? How are we going to teach our children to do that?” And so, the heavy lifting has definitely been for us; it’s the adults. It’s our responsibility to socialise our children. The adults in any community socialise children. We show them the way and there’s lots of different ways, but we still have to flesh out what those ways are going to be and what does that look like when I disagree with someone. That’s what happens with children all the time; it’s a disagreement – the “my turn”, “your turn” – all the little spats whether siblings, wherever you see it. It’s a difficulty. How are you going to deal with that difficulty? Does someone have to minimise themselves. We’re teaching our children, “You don’t have to minimise yourself to solve a conflict”? But how do you do it? And so, we have to own it as the parents. We got to do the work first.
LUCY: It’s everything, and that’s really the commitment that you make, I feel, if you’re doing home education this way. For me, I don’t really think there’s too much that you can really teach your kids that’s worthwhile, as in traditionally teach like, “Okay, kids. I’m going to give you a lesson today on…” And I think that’s one of the mainstream things, isn’t it? It’s that, “Oh, yes. Well, you have to teach your children this stuff.” And the school is going, “Okay, there’s all the usual curriculum stuff. Yeah, we can teach them Math, English.”
And now, in 2020, they’re waking up to this idea that there’s other stuff really that kids need to know that’s actually really important. There’s resiliency, creativity, courage, but they’re still trying to teach that. They’re still trying to give a lesson on resiliency and a lesson on courage, and a lesson on creativity, and that’s like, “It doesn’t work that way.” The only way that you can transmit information about resiliency, creativity, courage, and all of those important things that we’ve identified as being critical for the kind of future we want to build. Those things can only be modelled, you can only transmit those things if you are committed to them yourself and you don’t have to be perfect in them.
LESLIE: Absolutely not, no.
LUCY: You don’t model them by saying, “Look, I’m the perfect model of creativity.” You model them by going through the whole experience of saying, “I’m trying to be brave. Look, this is me trying to be brave.”
LESLIE: Our children know us and they can see through all of those things. When we’re willing to just accept that just as when we choose to be observed on our children those of us who have chosen that way and to pay attention to them. When my daughter looks a certain way, I know what it means. So, the reverse is the same; she knows me, too. The lessons that stick are the ones that we live. You can look at the world right now and see the less the people. That no matter where people are, how they’re protesting not raging or not – however people are showing up, it is how they were shown, so whether it was directly in their home or if they went to school. They’ve seen these images. They’re acting out what waited for them.
And we, as parents, have a beautiful gift of being the ones to imprint so much on our children. So then, we have such a huge responsibility of making sure we’re imprinting actually the things that we want, that we say the we want in the world. You can’t tell your child, “No, don’t eat those cookies.”, and then sneak them at night and then your children realise, “Oh, mommy eats cookies at night when we go to bed.” It doesn’t matter that you tell them, “Sweets are bad for you, baby. They’re not going to…” – all the lessons that you might want to try to teach and you’re telling them not to do something. If they then know that you’re doing it, they’re not listening to your words. They’re watching your actions. The beauty of being in community with other people who are looking to do those same things is it’s not just on you. You have other people that they can now go and watch. I don’t have to be the perfect person in this one area. I have friends that I can say, “We’re going to go sit with them. We’re going to go do this with them.” That’s why community is so critical; it’s because we cannot do all of this by ourselves. We can do a lot of it. We can do the ground, the beginnings of it, but it takes more than a parent or parents to do that.
LUCY: It does. So, this next question, it’s quite a big one, but I feel like you’re so well-placed to answer it with what you’re doing with Kid Cultivators, but also your experience as a teacher and it really links to so much of what we’ve been talking about in these last few moments. I’m curious about what ways do you think that traditional education system primes us for a way of life other than community. Does that make sense?
LESLIE: Yes. I think the one write off is just this whole separation from family. Here in the States, children can go to school as early as 4. I think, it might even be 3. There’s a pre-K 3. So, 3 years old, they’re still babies. This idea that you’re taking babies out of their homes, pushing them through developmental stages that some may just are not ready to go through. There’s trauma that happens in that separation from home – security. It creates this whole competition, this individualised competition. So, every student is competing not with themselves, but with each other.
Community is about the whole – how are we all contributing. We all have different gifts and abilities, and we all get to show up and use them together. School, it becomes hierarchal. It’s the first place, second place, third place – so, the valedictorian, salutatorian. We start separating you by a number. “They scored well on a test.” “They do well on this.” You want to be recognised. School doesn’t have a way of recognising everybody and it’s set up that way. And so, you either get in line and try to race to the top in that way or you get side-lined. I saw it when I was teaching early.
Here, our children, some of them are 6 turning 7. The older ones with later birthdays are 7 turning 8. So, by about 9, most children hate school – all the “fun”, so the art projects, the centres, the sand and water tables, the music. All the things that children have possibly enjoyed to that point, it’s now all about, “Can you compete? How do you rank?”
And yes, there are definitely personalities that can do okay in that system, but there’s so many more that get overlooked and I think the conventional way of learning just separates us. It pits us against each other so we don’t feel like we’re part of a group. You’re either at the top of the group or out of the group, or the end of the group. So, you rank in a group. You don’t feel that, “This is my tribe. This is who I belong to.”
LUCY: And that’s where the work of those alternative education groups is a really big vision because it’s not just about cultivating community in here and now, but it’s actually creating an environment where the child understands in their bones, I guess, this way of being with each other, not having to constantly compare themselves to others, be jealous of others, or see themselves as competing or other than, but rather – and we see that all the time in our little group. We think some things are going to go one way because – say for example, these two friends are best friends, but now we’re going to get together with the other best friend and it’s going to be really tricky because now one of them is going to be left out and, “Oh…”
That’s been a bit of a recent thing for me because a new family is moved into the area and it’s been that kind of dynamic and I’ve gone to the thing like, “I’m going to have to just be there ready to support,” and then it hasn’t gone down that way at all. What’s happened is either they’ve all been able to just play brilliantly together or one of them has stepped away and played with somebody else and then, at the end of the day, I’ve said, “Oh, how did that feel?” And my daughter is just been like, “Oh, that was great. They get along so well!’ and it was like she was so happy for them that the other two best friends got to connect and she just had time with another friend. And I had the feeling it’s because she understands that she is a part of a whole and that somebody else’s happiness makes her happy. She’s glad for her friend rather than this, “Oh, well, there’s no place for me now in that relationship,” and all the other dynamics that I was raised with and that I have sifting around the edge of my vision, “Oh, is this going to happen?”
LESLIE: A lot of times, like you’re saying, we bring our own baggage, of course, so it’s having other adult people to unpack your baggage with. You don’t have to have your daughter unpack it with you. She doesn’t even have to know that’s an option because in her mind, it’s not even an option, “Of course, I’m going to be happy for them.”
LUCY: Totally, yes. It’s so cool. It’s such a huge, big lesson to learn and watch them really just embodying this idea that we are all a piece of the whole, and that’s what we’re raising them with and that’s what they’re going to bring when they become the leaders of society, and the doers, and the joiner-inners. It’s super exciting.
I have just a couple more questions. One of them is you mentioned with your group that you’re not actually an unschooling group. You have all sorts of different home educators joined together. Our own group here has a very unschooling bent that right after this conversation, I’m going off to. We’ve got three new families coming and they’re not unschoolers. They came from different paradigms altogether. So, I’m really super curious – it feels really relevant for me right now – if there’s any particular trick or culture that you have purposely nurtured in order to bring people together with varying approaches.
LESLIE: Well, it’s really just being willing to learn from other people. So, one of the things I say and I’ve said for years is: I can always learn from somebody else. And so, that is one of the things I value is being with people who do not believe the same way or do not hold the same things the same way as I do because it allows me to stretch and it allows me to see other options, and that’s how we have definitely framed it over the years where we have sharing sessions where we talk about, “Okay, what is everyone doing around reading?” Unschoolers will talk about, “Oh, no, we’re just living life and we let them read the menu at the store.” You can see as someone who maybe schooled at home, “Oh, there are lots of opportunities to read where I don’t have to take out this particular reader and have these vocabulary words and make them write.” But then, listening to have someone may be doing school at home may trigger an unschooler to say, “Oh, that’s a great activity.” “My children are having trouble with this, but maybe if I do this with them…” And so, instead of pitting the philosophies against each other like, “This one’s better and this one’s…” Again, doing the schoolish thing where there’s a hierarchy and “My way is better than your way,” we do it as a spectrum. So, we’re all on this journey of educating our children. How are we doing it? Let’s all find a way to listen for something that may help you.
Now, we have definitely had sessions where everyone leaves exactly the way they came. So, “I’m teaching it this way. This is what I believe. This is what’s working for my children.” And that’s all well and good, where we’ve had more were people leave saying, “I’m so glad you shared that with me,” or, “I would have never thought of that,” or, “Thank you for showing me that, wow, I can relax a little bit.” I talk about it as we have a wealth of knowledge that, if we are willing to tap into it, we’ll all benefit from. I’m never trying to convince someone to join my “side”. It’s really just, “Let me tell you how it’s worked for me,” and, “Oh, our children are similar.” I can say, “My daughter hated doing this. Maybe I should listen…” “She’s a lot like your daughter. So, what are you doing?” So, it becomes less about our philosophies and more about parenting. We’re still on the same side.
LUCY: It feels like it is the work of dismantling the myths that we’ve inherited from being raised in a capitalist, colonial, traditional education system, and really doing that work and bringing that attitude where everybody is of value and everybody can learn from one another into that space that you’re creating. Awesome, it’s super inspiring. I’m going to go to my group this afternoon super inspired.
LUCY: And finally, your home educator’s group is particularly for black home educators, and I would love for you to unpack with me about why that is such an important thing for your group and why you were drawn to create that space.
LESLIE: Well, initially, it wasn’t that. It became that because I found out that white people typically don’t join black spaces. And so, when white families would show up, it was, “Oh, wait a second.” They look around. We did have one family for many years that hung tight with us. She was a neighbour and friend, and she didn’t seem to carry a lot of the baggage that a lot of other people coming to our space did. And so, we never really said we were a black group. That came about just because, it’s only us that keeps showing up. And then after we did some talking ang figuring out, we decided we definitely wanted this to be a space for black families because we don’t have a safe space for our children to be themselves so that they’re not being policed by other people’s fear of them or thoughts about them. We wanted them to have a space where, “You all are centred here.” We don’t have to use the black children. We don’t have to use black in front of everything we do because we’re all black, so we already know. Everything we do is about us.
We don’t have to explain ourselves in the same way that people who have come from other spaces where they feel like, “Well, our family is the only one,” “They’re always looking at my boys like they’re about to steal everyone’s purses,” or, “They tell my girl she speaks up, she’s being too loud.” So, the stereotypical responses that our children sometimes get in the other spaces. This has become the safe space where we’re not going to focus on those things. We’re going to focus on our goodness and pour those things into our space and ourselves, and our children without the white guys. And so, that has definitely within the last five years we have become an exclusively black people of colour space. I think that was something else that allowed people to take off their armour and defences, and masks that they use just to survive everyday in the world. We don’t have to do that with each other in this space.
LUCY: Thank you. I think that could be really illuminating because I know that, in the New Zealand unschooling community, there’s been groups that have wanted to split apart an to have specific Māori unschooling groups base don tikanga Māori and te Reo. People haven’t really understood why they would need that. It hasn’t really gone down that well. And so, I think it’s really good to hear you explain that and it actually really resonates because, just on the whole as unschoolers, we get together five times a year as a New Zealand unschooling community and we’re really particular about that. We say, “This is for unschoolers.” It’s not if you feel like an unschooler but your kids go to school. In the outside world, we’re often on the defence at people like our kids with suspicion. So, the camps are just a place of safety and shelter where we can just be fully unschoolers without needing to explain ourselves.
LESLIE: Every group needs that and especially those of us who have been marginalised for so long. Just like, again, unschoolers have been the ostracised in the home-schooling community. So, just like unschoolers need a safe space. Black people need a safe space.
LUCY: Thank you. Oh, I just want to talk to you all day, but I know that we can’t really do that and it’s probably getting late where you are and I have to go and turn up as my inspired self to our group after this conversation. So, I’m so grateful, Leslie. It’s been such a delight talking to you and I can just really feel that honesty and authenticity that you must show up with in all the spaces the you are, and you’ve really brought that to this conversation. So, I’m so grateful. I first heard you on Akilah S. Richards’ podcast, Fare of the Free Child. You’ve done a couple with her, have you?
LESLIE: Yes. I haven’t done one recently, but we have some things in the works, so yes.
LUCY: Oh, cool. So, I really want to direct people who are listening to this to Fare of the Free Child podcast where they might be able to hear from you a little bit more. Also, hear more about Black home education and the experience of that, why it’s different, and why it’s good for us to understand the differences there. Thank you, Leslie.
LESLIE: Thank you so much, Lucy. I enjoyed the conversation as well. Be well. Peace.
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