Opinion: I’m a teacher. Here’s what Barry Greenberg gets wrong about listening.

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If you’ve read anything about higher-ed teaching in the last ten years, it’s likely to have revolved around the importance of inclusive classrooms. Instructors can’t just teach a lesson and passively hope for student engagement. If they want everyone involved, they have to create conditions that actively include each student. This approach is especially important at predominately white institutions, where historically marginalized groups don’t enter the classroom on level ground with students who have been institutionally privileged for generations.

In a recent city newsletter, Mayor Greenberg rightly emphasizes the importance of listening when it comes to the ability of city officials to represent their constituents. During the contentious election, he learned that citizens “want their voices to be heard” and that “inclusion of every stakeholder’s viewpoint and opinion is essential.” I agree. But as Barry goes on to lay out the plan for implementing his approach through public hearings and more opportunities to comment, he seems to miss a core lesson many of us have learned in recent years.

In my classrooms, I could hold as many open comment periods and Q&As as I like, but if the space of the classroom isn’t working actively toward inclusion, I would actually learn very little using this passive approach. As any teacher knows, in addition to boring my students, I would likely get a lot of silence—and waste a lot of time that could be filled with active learning and engagement. It’s true that a few enterprising or perplexed students would chime in, but overall the approach would have the opposite of its intended effect by ensuring that every student is actually not heard (only the few who feel comfortable speaking up), that valuable marginalized perspectives remain silenced, and in the end, that the status quo of the classroom is maintained.

I am sure that Barry is sincere when he says that “all stakeholders’ voices will be heard” but this sentiment is actually quite misleading. I think what he means is that everyone will have an opportunity to speak and that those who speak will be heard. This is not the same as all voices being heard—and when it comes to inclusion, the difference couldn’t be more crucial. Leaders who value listening may be happy to sit back and listen whenever they can. Leaders who value inclusion won’t be so easily satisfied. They will actively seek out voices that have been under-represented, marginalized, or silenced. They will apply a power analysis to what is being said to ensure that privileged voices are not further privileged. And they will value basic needs for all over the preferences and desires of some.

Many Maplewood voters may argue that equity-focused leaders have actually spent too much time advocating for small portions of the population and not enough time listening to the majority. If this is how you feel, then you may want to reflect on your own level of privilege and the self-interest that is driving your desire to be heard. In Maplewood, the loud majority of white homeowners has been served first for decades. I don’t think the needs of this group are in danger of being unmet. And we know from urban planning research that in local governments, public hearings have a long history of privileging the voices of white homeowners over other community members, especially low-income renters and residents of color—the populations most likely to be food and housing insecure and also, unfortunately, the most likely to be overlooked by their local government.

Barry ends his newsletter by acknowledging the difficulty of balancing what will “benefit the maximum number of people without neglecting the needs of any individual.” And again, he seems to say the right thing while seriously missing the mark. It’s not the needs of individual residents that are at risk of being neglected. It’s the needs of marginalized groups, especially Maplewood’s Black residents and low-income renters. And we are not weighing the needs of many against the needs of a few. Rather, we are actually weighing the basic human dignity and well-being of our most vulnerable residents against the relative comfort and happiness of those who already have their basic needs met—and whose voices we have been hearing too much of all along.

What’s a better approach than merely promising to listen? Here are two, just for starters:

First, the city should hold a monthly tenants forum where anti-poverty solutions can be explored and Maplewood renters can have their needs actively met by the city that serves them.

Second, when the city collects information and survey responses from the community, the input gathered must include as many diverse voices as possible and must be disaggregated by race, age, gender, income level, and housing status so we can better understand our most vulnerable residential groups, advocate for their specific needs, and leverage the city’s resources to meet them.

13 COMMENTS

  1. What is this piece actually trying to say? The proposed measures for the mayor to take are things that are just the same things that Greenberg has proposed to implement with extra steps.

    I’m happy with a mayor who proposes many ways for the government to listen to its citizens, unlike the former Mayor Knapper who removed opportunities for citizens to provide input and who removed entirely a process for feedback and inclusion in hiring a high-level government position. Was there the same level of criticism placed there?

    • No because the YT Saviors in Maplewood infantilized Knapper and shielded her from ANY criticism. She literally went against standard process to hire her BFF–a WHITE WOMAN–rather than broadening a search that could have opened things up to a broader diversity of candidates.

      Most likely because she knew the new city manager would go along with any of her cockeyed schemes–oh well, too bad for her but good for those of us who don’t like authoritarians in our local government.

  2. Another “enlightened” white man (Collin) who knows best what us minorities need and deserve. What else does my minority family need to be educated on Collin? We seem to lack the privilege and educated world view that you have attained. Please help!

  3. This op ed criticizes the mayor for seeking open communication and engaging everyone to have a voice. And yet the author was a huge proponent of ousted mayor Knapper who did next to NOTHING to listen to anyone outside her echo chamber and appointed cronies. Plus, when provided with numerous citizen opinions at council meetings, Knapper flat out disregarded them.

    Where was his criticism and “advice” back then, when citizen opinions were even further marginalized?

    Also, nevermind the sheer ego of an “academic” rolling in with this essay on inclusion when the average US citizen reads at a 7th-8th grade reading level. That’s some textbook privilege on display. The irony.

    • ^^nailed it^^. The WASH U elites are some of the most rigid and arrogant individuals out there–helping all of us poor morons “get educated” by them on literally every issue. PhD=Pile it high and deep.

      And let’s not even start on the cronyism in city government under Knapper. Yikes.

  4. Marginalized populations in Maplewood are not spending their money in the Boutique shops and Upscale Restaurants, Art Galleries that Maplewood wants to attract. Maplewood does not encourage builders of low income housing to develop in Maplewood. The Maplewood Commons is the example of what City Council represents, bulldozer blocks and blocks of affordable housing stock and relocate the marginalized out of the community.

    • Hmmm-interesting because my understanding is that the people who were “bulldozed” in the area behind or close to what is now Wal-Mart made a LOT of $$$ to relocate and were thankful for it-sorry if that upends your narrative but did you actually speak with any of them OR the people in city council at that time?

    • Also, include high taxes from your school district. Speak to anyone in Maplewood and they will complain about the high taxes to support the school, the same group will vote yes on any taxes from the school district. Remember, It’s for the kids, the heck with the older folks and marginalized populations.

  5. Colin
    Thank you for your points and perspective as a teacher. I was an MRH resident for 15 years, actively participated in the school district for over 12 years (preK -12 parent) and have been an educator for more than 30 years – currently an active teacher at the college and graduate levels.
    Two points. I believe educators provide essential and valuable perspectives on creating inclusive learning environments for active learning, listening, and positive growth. A perspective that has come with training and experience which is ofter undervalued and diminished.
    Second, I feel the comments by Michael, Sammy, and BV are equally as valuable while at the same time validate the points in your initial article while demonstrating what diminishing and non-inclusion of different voices sounds like.

  6. Colin, have you thought about maybe making your comments in a forum where as few of your fellow citizens as possible will be able to think about and react to them, where they can be fobbed off by electeds who are adept at doing that sort of thing and then disappear into the ether? Responsible, well-meaning people know better than to just go writing and publishing things that literally anybody might then read whenever they wanted. That way leads to a city “wrought with drama constantly,” i.e. a city where politics keep getting into the politics, and we can’t have that. When people take the time to articulate their thoughts in a considered way and open them to considered reactions, well frankly that doesn’t seem very useful to me, in fact I immediately suspect that they’re playing some kind of gotcha game. In short, written expression frightens me. Please, a little fairness, if you really want to help Maplewood next time simply emit your mild criticisms as a series of grunts.

    • “Please, a little fairness, if you really want to help Maplewood next time simply emit your mild criticisms as a series of grunts.”

      That seems to be a REALLY tall order for some here in Maplewood and that is largely why both the mayoral election and the BOE election went the way they did–it had nothing to do with equity or a failure of the “masses” to see what was good for them. Grown a$$ adults don’t like being talked down to and treated like dolts who need guidance from the self-proclaimed intellectual and moral “elites” of this town. But hey-if they wanna continue with this strategy, I will cheer on their next inevitable failure at the polls.

  7. Colin, your intentions here may be well intended for marginalized populations and for Maplewood in general, but it begs the question – have you brought these concerns to Barry directly? I understand that writing think pieces may seem like a good idea but for your average citizen who just wants their local government to not be wrought with drama constantly, this comes across like you are going for a weird gotcha moment that honestly I expect will fall flat with most. Barry’s been in office just little over a month and he’s already added back the second public forum that the last administration took away with conversation or comment. Insert comment here about the glacial pace of government – but it’s something and he did it right away.

    If you really want to help Maplewood, maybe attend a council meeting and speak at that extra public forum or one of the other events Barry describes and voice your concerns directly to our electeds. Barry and the entire council need to be held accountable for their actions in the coming months and years but I’m unconvinced this is a useful way to do that.

  8. Oh wonderful–more “splaining” from the dude who called all of us racists who didn’t vote for the shady/unethical former mayor.

    Get a grip, Colin. I truly think that nothing pleases you and your cronies more than the sound of your own voices.

    Your sense of self-importance is only outdone by your self-righteous tone and actions.

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