The Power of Identity: How Changing Two Words Changed Everything

By Devin Vodicka

When I was hired as Superintendent in Vista Unified School District in 2012 I began a series of transition meetings to help me develop a sense of current context and immediate needs.  Since I had a relatively short timeline between when I was hired and my start date, my priorities were to meet individually with each Board member and with the Executive Cabinet.  I also met with the president of the teachers’ union and the president of the classified employee union.  In total, there were about ten conversations that occurred over the span of roughly two weeks. 

In these conversations, there were a number of clear strengths that were repeated consistently: hard-working students, dedicated teachers, committed classified staff, families who wanted their children to succeed.  There were also a number of pressing challenges, many of them driven by the fact that the district had been going through monumental budget cuts as a result of the great recession combined with declining enrollment.  It was also clear that there was a lack of clarity around a common vision, shared values, roles, and that there was a need for strategy, coherence, and communication to be improved.  

I also noticed that just about any time someone described one of these challenges, they would conclude by saying “This Is Vista.” When that phrase was used it was always to describe dysfunction and it gave me the impression that many of the key leaders were articulating some sense of powerlessness.  After all, many had been working extremely hard to resolve these dynamics for many years.  In these transition meetings when I reflected back how I was noticing that the phrase, “This Is Vista,” was used pervasively I even learned that locals sometimes used the shorthand TIV. 

It was heartbreaking for me to hear that the “This Is Vista” narrative was fundamental to the identity of the community.  About a week after my start date we held a districtwide leadership meeting with roughly 100 school administrators from the district and I was determined to share my feelings.  When I addressed the group, many of whom I was meeting for the first time, I presented what I had learned and how I had quickly observed this pattern of associating “This Is Vista” with problems.  I told the group that it bothered me in many ways.  The phrase not only reinforced an identity of dysfunction, it was also static and passive.  It gave the impression that nothing could be changed and if it were true, there would be no reason for us to even try.  I told the group that I did not want to hear TIV or This Is Vista and that we would work together to elevate the strengths of one another and the community. I’m not sure what came over me but I boldly said something like “as of this moment, TIV is finished.”

One of the participants in the group, Cherie Borger, shouted out: “What if instead of saying ‘This Is Vista’ we said ‘We Are Vista’ …?” The group broke into spontaneous applause.  I loved it for so many reasons, mostly because it was empowering and also because it implied a collective, relational approach.  I told the group that “We Are Vista” would be our new way forward.  

The next day several administrators approached me with the idea that we needed to add one word to “We Are Vista” so that we could have an acronym that would also be used instead of TIV.  The group recommended “We Are Vista Everyday” so that we could use WAVE as shorthand for our new saying.  It was a perfect fit for many reasons, not only because Vista is in Coastal San Diego, but also because of the implication that waves change over time. 

The next thing I knew we were seeing #WAVE being used throughout the district. It was encouraging and exciting to see how it was used for celebrations and to recognize excellence.  It was used in social media and I saw signs popping up in schools.  Our child nutrition services program rebranded as the WAVECrest Cafe and when we signed a guaranteed admissions agreement with our local California State University we called it the WAVEPact. One of our amazing music teachers even wrote a song called “We Are Vista Everyday.” 

As I write this now, a full decade after I started as Superintendent and five years since I left the role, I see the enduring power of identity and narrative as a parent of children in Vista Unified.  Story matters.  We have the ability to change the story, to shift the narrative, and to recreate an identity that better serves all learners.  

It began with changing two words.  From “This Is Vista” to “We Are Vista” … and it changed everything. 

What are the words you can change?

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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