Can people change? Swish swish

I’m in the business of change. Whether that is changing hearts and minds or complex institutional systems, change is at the core of everything I do and believe. However, just like every other human brain, my brain is not immune to bias and often cues beliefs opposite to the hope for change.

In this post, I share a story from a client engagement that I recall as often as necessary to remind myself that people can change, no matter how challenging they might be. The post is summed up by five takeaways and strategies, with a fun, bonus pop culture reference that involves a shark. Swish swish! Read on to understand what that means. 

Sometimes, when someone says something that is racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc., (you get the idea), or posts something egregious on social media, I find myself immediately thinking and depressingly doubting something like the following:

  • They’ll never change their mind. 
  • They’ll never see how they are privileged. 
  • They’ll never see how they are complicit in the oppression of others. 
  • They’ll never understand the experiences of marginalized and minoritized people. 

Since our country is facing race in a way that it hasn’t before in my lifetime, I’ve found myself challenging these thoughts regularly, and I must remind myself that these statements are not true. 

Does this ever happen to you? 

While the polarization of beliefs widens the chasm against equity and equality efforts, I still firmly believe that people can change. 

A reminder that people can change

I keep a handwritten card on my desk to remind me that people can change despite my biases and occasional pessimism. 

Since 2008, I’ve led professional development workshops focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Over the years, working with hundreds of schools across the globe and thousands of people, there have been tough audiences, and sometimes participants who are even petulant. As a skilled facilitator, you learn techniques and strategies for challenging situations, sometimes the hard way! Generally, when faced with challenges while teaching, I focus on remaining steady, unemotional, taking care of the environment’s tone and culture, and guiding the learning forward. While I keep my cool, I am human and not always immune to harsh commentary. 

A couple of years ago, I had a long-term project with a client in the Pacific Northwest. A group of Career and Technical Education teachers from a rural area, mostly homogenous demographically, met with me four times over six months for full-day workshops. 

After the first workshop, I left practically in tears for the first time in my career as a service provider. I felt devasted, discouraged, and disrespected. 

These feelings weren’t because of one thing that occurred during the day, but an accumulation of words and actions. First of all, participation was required, leaving some people in a grumpy mood from the get-go. For example, a table of men talked the whole time and not about the content. When the client asked them to pay attention or at least not disrupt others, they crossed their arms over their chest and dropped their head as if they were going to take a nap. 

Others pushed back obstinately against things we were instructing, claiming that educational equity wasn’t their job, and they didn’t want to have to be “politically correct” all of the time. 

Then my co-instructor dismissed something I said, which was part of our curriculum, telling the group, “that’s no big deal.” This seemed to egg on the naysayers as they ganged up against my defense. Being dismissed by someone who should know better while teaching about the reasons for the marginalization of women and people of color CTE, quite frankly, infuriated me. 

When leaving that day, I thought, “This group of people does not want to change. They don’t want to be here. How will I teach them?”

Of course, I didn’t quit but instead, disheartened and determined, I reconfigured my approach to instruction, and each workshop was progressively better than the last. 

At the end of the fourth workshop, cleaning up the tables, I found a handwritten card with a participant’s final day 3-2-1 reflection.

3-2-1 reflection by a workshop participant at the end of a six month program
3-2-1 reflection by a workshop participant at the end of a six month program

What is a 3-2-1 Reflection?

This is a great exercise to do at the end of a session that moves people from awareness to action. Hover cursor here to learn more.
I generally ask participants to identify three things they learned, two things they will do differently, and one immediate action item due to what they learned. (Meaning folding laundry doesn't count!) I call it the 3-2-1 reflection, and while I didn't invent it, I love using it.

On the card, the person wrote: 

3 things I learned today:

  • increased awareness of being a white male
  • cultural stereotypes are important to know and understand
  • discussion is very important in CTE courses

2 things I’ll do differently:

  • implement discussion more frequently in my CTE courses 
  • Dismiss any and all stereotypes I may have 

1 thing I’ll do immediately: 

  • implement discussion in my lessons for the rest of the school year.

What I love about this reflection is it includes both awareness and action. This person transformed their way of thinking and doing and surprised me in the end. The program was started with a terrifically challenging day and ended with personal growth by most participants.

Change. It is why I do this work. 

People can change. Institutions can change. Systems can change. I’m sure of it. I’ve seen it! It just takes time, and it takes effort to do the work to increase awareness and to become change agents within one’s circle of influence. 

Even in dark and divisive times, we must remind ourselves that everyone is capable of change.

Takeaways and Strategies

I’ll leave you with a pop culture gem. 

Over the weekend, I watched LA’s Finest on Netflix with Jessica Alba and Gabrielle Union. There was a scene that really stuck with me: 

Swish, swish. I know it sounds corny, but an old friend used to say to me, "a shark will die if it stops swimming." You have to be a shark. Keep moving forward.

Nancy McKenna (Jessica Alba) on LA's Finest on Fox Tweet

I love sharks, and even though the shark detail is a myth, I love the sentiment. 

So, be a shark, and keep moving forward. 🦈

Swish Swish Shark by Engineer Inclusion, photo by Meagan Pollock
Swish Swish! Be a shark. Keep moving forward.
Photo by Meagan Pollock, Caribbean Reef Shark in Belize
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Meagan Pollock, PhD

Dr. Meagan Pollock envisions a world where personal and social circumstances are not obstacles to achieving potential, and where kindness, inclusivity, and conservation prevail.

An international speaker, teacher, engineer, and equity leader, her mission is to provide services, tools, and resources that inspire awareness and initiate action.

As an engineer turned educator, Meagan Pollock is focused on engineering equity into education and the workforce.

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