Core Values: The Limits of Good Intentions

by Alan Reinstein, Columnist
photo contributed by Alan Reinstein

For a long time, I’ve approached my responsibility toward social activism as a commitment to self-reflection and self-improvement, not as an out-of-the-home effort to make change where change is necessary. 

I’ve stuck with the mantra that the only way to change the world is to change yourself, and the only way to influence others is to live with integrity. In general, I hold things in: I infrequently speak out to hold others accountable; I march only occasionally, and when I do, not aggressively; I’m frugal in giving to causes I support philosophically or politically. 

This is a misguided approach, however, that I can trace back to 40 years ago, when, in high school, I won the senior superlative — “Best Attitude.” Sometimes I jokingly brag about this to friends, but really, I’ve always been proud of this award as a confirmation from others that I’m a good person; however, I know that these two identities — person with a good attitude and good person overall — are not the same at all. 

And for a long time, I have also mistakenly thought that this was enough: I thought to have a positive outlook on things, to be kind and friendly and gentle, with good intentions is all that counts. Not so.

In fact, I’ve stayed away from community activism — doing the gritty work to fight for significant change — because it’s hard and uncomfortable for me. I’ve been reluctant to demand change from others because I’m aware of my own imperfections and prejudices, and I’ve pacified myself with my glory-days’ “Best Attitude” prize, which has stunted the deeper personal growth that comes from making noise and challenging the status quo. Good intentions have limits; they are necessary, but not sufficient. 

The core values that are promoted throughout our school — show respect, choose kindness, listen first and take responsibility — are core values, values at the center of personal and civic integrity, values that foster a community where the work of social activism and community improvement begin, yes, but not where they end. 

As a teacher in a school that has announced its commitment to active anti-racist education, I have to keep myself accountable to do this work in the classroom, with lessons and assignments and strategies that promote racial equity and avoid the systemic pitfalls that keep students of color from succeeding fully. 

And as I write this, I know I’ve fallen short by clinging too closely to teaching patterns I’m familiar with to avoid not only discomfort and more planning work for myself, but also an outward commitment to a cause and speaking out. 

The daily challenges of teaching during the pandemic have made making excuses for not fully applying anti-racist teaching a comfortable attraction; however, the work of being on the right side of change does not only necessitate having a good attitude or good intentions, but putting in the hard work to back them.