Architect. Chef. Surgeon. Shoe Designer.
Those are big dreams for any kid. But especially for the “Dreamers,” the 60 or so eighth graders I’ve been working with in the I Have A Dream program.
You can’t be what you don’t see. If no one in your family ever went to college, or graduated high school, if you seldom or never see someone like you in a professional career or in a leadership position, then you can’t see yourself doing it either.
That’s what we’re hoping to do with our Career Club for our Dreamers – showing them what’s possible. This past semester we’ve been providing them with career shadow opportunities, going on site and doing actual work with a mentor. It wouldn’t be possible without friends, colleagues and community leaders who have given their time to mentor and connect us with opportunities for our kids.
I was lucky as a kid that I had automatic career shadowing. My Dad was the publisher of our small town’s weekly newspaper, and as early as I could remember, I would go with him to his office, and play with the ink stamps and Underwood typewriters, and go into the dark room with its cool red light and strange chemically smell. I also got to tag along sometimes when he had to speak to the mayor, or the police chief. While I didn’t think much about it at the time, I now know that the exposure I had created a sense that such things were not just possible, but normal.
Exposure is one of the necessary ingredients that children (= people!) need to succeed against obstacles. Former Governor of Oregon Barbara Roberts, speaking at a conference on women leadership, said
Growing up in a rural Oregon town, she said, she saw no examples of women leaders around her; no women held elective office in her community, none were on the news, none held influential jobs. It was as a Girl Scout working on a merit badge in women’s history that she went to her local library and read about women like Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Along with exposure, the other critical ingredient is encouragement. The lack of representation of women and minorities at the highest levels of leadership results from a lack of exposure and encouragement. A recent report just published called Girls Just Wanna Not Run, by Jennifer Lawless at the Women & Politics Institute outlined the reasons young girls and young women don’t run for public office, including
- Young men are more likely than young women to be socialized by their parents to think about politics as a career path.
- From their school experiences to their peer associations to their media habits, young women tend to be exposed to less political information and discussion than do young men.
- Young women are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office – from anyone.
- Young women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run for office, even once they are established in their careers.
But exposure and encouragement is not enough. The third ingredient is expectation. Expectations are critical – in both directions. We live in a world in which others’ expectations and perceptions shape our performance and determine our success. Students rise and fall according to the expectations of their teachers. When a teacher believes in a student’s abilities, the student rises to the level of expectation. And of course, more to the point of this post, the opposite is also true: when a teacher, for whatever reason (and often its due to stereotypes and racial and gender bias), does not have high expectations, the student sinks to the level as well.
In their famous study Rosenthal and Jacobson demonstrated the Pygmalion effect, how expectations determine students’ performance. They administered a disguised IQ students to students and kept the results a secret. But they gave a list of names of some students to the teachers, telling them that based on their results, they were expected to do better than their peers. In reality, these students were chosen at random. Yet when the test was administered again, several months later, these students, chosen at random, scored significantly higher on the test: a clear consequence of teacher’s expectations.
This is how privilege accrues privilege, and advantage produces more advantage: expectations actually cause the outcome that confirms the expectation.
The obstacle that our Dreamers and other minority students encounter is an invisible one. It’s not active dissuasion or criticism, though that may be present as well. It’s the absence of expectation. What hurts is not just people thinking you won’t succeed; what hurts it that they don’t think of you at all.
That’s why we’re not just exposing kids to these careers. We’re not just encouraging them to go to college. We’re expecting it.
Watch what you expect from others and from yourself. It just might come true.