Killer Mike and Learner-Centered Leadership

Devin Vodicka

This was originally posted to on May 31, 2020.

“I don’t want to be here,” says Killer Mike.  And yet he’s here.  We’re here.  Riots, rage, sadness, and desperation.  If you haven’t already seen it, I encourage you to watch the speech here from Killer Mike, a rapper and activist whose father was a police officer.  How is it possible, I wonder, that we can make such incredible progress with technical problems such as improvements in computing speed and the development of artificial intelligence (AI) while we struggle with human problems such as racism? We literally launched astronauts into space yesterday – the same day where we had widespread protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd.  
“I am mad as hell and I woke up wanting to see the world burned down yesterday,” says Killer Mike.  As a freshman in college, I read Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin where he described the 1943 Harlem Riot which was triggered by the killing of a black man by a white police officer.  I read Baldwin in the fall of 1992, just months after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.  The parallels between the two events, separated in time by almost half-of-a-century, were alarming.  And we’re here now, in 2020, at another deja vu moment.  
As a teenager and as a first-generation American I could view the lack of progress between 1943 and 1992 without feeling the burden of responsibility for events before my time and in a country that was new to my family.  Now, after living my entire life here and spending two decades in school leadership, I must be reflective about my role in our current situation.  
My original inspiration to go into education was my mom, who was a high school computer teacher throughout my childhood.  In college, that commitment to be an educator was fueled by reading Baldwin and The Autobiography of Malcom X.  In each of their stories they articulated how their personal development was accelerated by reading and by the acquisition of knowledge.  I continue to believe that we can empower ourselves and one another through academic pursuits.  Knowledge is powerful.  And yet we know that knowledge alone is not sufficient to promote the changes that we need in this world.  

“I love you and respect you,” says Killer Mike.  He says it several times during his speech. Powerful learning, according to Carlos Moreno during the first “A New Way Forward” summit, looks and feels like love.  When I reflect on our current educational system, we still have a lot of work to do if we want love to be the foundation of the student experience.  Right now we are transitioning from a factory-model approach that prioritizes compliance and standardization.  We still have a very narrow definition of success in schools.  We must broaden our understanding of success to incorporate the whole child.  We must consider knowledge, habits, and skills.  We must embrace uniqueness and diversity as an asset.  We must see and know every child so that we can forge meaningful connections.  
“We have to be better than this moment,” says Killer Mike.  I am asking myself how I can be better.  Whatever I have been doing has not been enough.  Martin Luther King, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, articulates four steps in a nonviolent campaign: 1) Collection of the facts; 2) Negotiation; 3) Self-purification; and 4) Direct Action.  For me, I feel as if I have enough facts and I’ve been negotiating with the system for two decades.  This is a time for self-purification in preparation for direct action.  
In parallel with self-purification, I like the “Design Principle Provocations” using the EquityXDesign framework.  I’ll be asking myself these questions and I encourage others to do the same. 

These design principles align with the tenets of learner-centered education.  In my book, Learner-Centered Leadership, I wrote the following:

At its essence, learner-centered education and human-centered societal mindsets embrace the notion that equity requires us to see and know one another as real people and then to design improvements as a community … If we begin with education, we can affect broader change throughout society over an extended period of time.  Being learner-centered is a radical and potentially revolutionary approach that holds the potential to eradicate inequality in all forms, including classism, racism, ageism, and sexism.  And it begins with simply seeing one another.

I believe in education and I believe in our collective capacity to improve.  Inclusion, listening, and co-construction are essential.  I also believe that we are taking too long to resolve fundamental inequalities in our society.  Racism is wrong and it should not exist.  It should not take multiple generations for us to eradicate racism.  Whatever I have been doing is not enough.  I hope that you will join me in the urgent and necessary quest to improve.  

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