Ruthless for Good: Myron Long
We’re thrilled to be recruiting for our 2019 Education Fellowship. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring Fellows from our most recent cohort as they share about their founder journey, Camelback application advice, and their Fellowship experience.
The Founder’s Journey
Amanda Tien from Camelback Ventures (CV): Tell me about the moment you knew it was time to start this school.
Myron Long (ML): My wife and I have been educators for years. And the “secret code” question that everyone asks is, “Would you send your child to this school?” A few months into the Camelback program, that question became a reality for me, and we welcomed our daughter Honor. The moment she was born, I was fueled to create my school in a whole new way. We spoke about the kind of person we wanted her to become, what her future could be like, and we realized there wasn’t a school that existed yet that could prepare her for the life we envisioned for her.
CV: What do you think makes the Social Justice School unique?
ML: I think there’s three parts. One: our intentional focus on creating an integrated community of Scholar-Activists -- what we call our students -- who are designers as an example of what a true democracy could look like in the United States. That means building with students, with parents and guardians, with community leaders, with teachers.
Two: our model is built on the radical belief that all students, across age, difference and ability have the capacity to design and implement solutions to our nation’s most challenging problems.
Three: our unique combination of rigorous academic instruction built from 1) adopting standards-aligned curricula, 2) being relentless in ensuring that all students can produce high-quality work, and 3) engaging students in our social justice learning expeditions with liberatory design thinking. Students use Washington, D.C. as a landscape to research and tackle community issues in self-designed projects. Our adoption of the liberatory design thinking framework allows our designers -- our Scholar-Activists -- to build the self-awareness that is needed for them to become designers of a more just world.
CV: Tell me more about “liberatory design thinking” and your choice to build that into your school model.
ML: We’ve always believed in the power of design thinking. In our definition of “social justice,” we define social justice as “a designed response to systems of inequity by creating an inclusive and equitable world.” You may have heard how systems of oppression were designed and implemented for centuries; if they were designed, that also means that counter-solutions can be designed. Well, in order for students to become designers of a more just world, they need a framework. For us, liberatory design thinking is that framework.
In the early days of thinking about this school, I often thought about how I felt that traditional design thinking practices -- the ones that frequently show up in startups and corporations -- didn’t have a way to process race and identity, and how that affects how you show up in the space. When we go into a project and we’re designing it for others, we naturally bring in our own bias -- the key is to acknowledge it, reflect on it, and adapt. Liberatory design thinking adds additional stages into the methodology that include noticing, unpacking, and reflecting throughout about how biases play into the work.
CV: Think back to the beginning. What was something you did early in the process that you're really glad you did? And on the flip side, a mistake?
ML: I’m so glad that we had a chance to do multiple pilots and test our riskiest assumptions in different formats. For example, our first pilot tested this hypothesis: “Students will be more engaged if they can see themselves in the books they’re reading.” Resounding yes. Second pilot: “Can and will middle school students talk about social issues, across gender and age and race, if we give them the skills and vocabulary to do so?” Yes again -- this affirmed the need for discourse in our school. The third iteration was combining these assumptions together in a long format, including an overnight Civil Rights field trip through the south, in our pilot this past summer.
One of our mistakes happened during that summer program. I think it was that we came to the work too idealistic. We were ready to do all of this innovative work, all expeditionary, all constructivist learning. We were so hyped to push these students and ourselves. And on the first day, we were hit with the learning that one of our high school students couldn’t spell the word “people.”
I realized that we can’t be so dogmatic about innovation that we throw away the pragmatic, practical sides and strengths of teaching and learning. If we were so focused on being experimental that it still left students behind, then what was the true purpose of that work? So over the summer, we quickly had to revise our model so we were still innovating but making sure that we were incorporating best practices and the strong skills we ourselves all knew from being educators in the traditional education space for a long time.
The Camelback Application Process
CV: What made you decide to apply to the Camelback Fellowship?
ML: I was looking for an opportunity to develop myself first as an entrepreneur, and then particularly as an entrepreneur of color. I knew that being in Camelback would allow me to do both of those things, and that’s why I knew I had to apply.
CV: What was the hardest part of the application process?
ML: Being human means we’re comprised of different stories. There are stories that have shaped us, stories that we have drafted ourselves, and stories that the world has attempted to cast upon us. So, when you’re trying to write your application and think about the stories you want to tell…trying to select the story that most connects to why you are doing the work that you’re doing is actually really hard. It’s essentially going Netflix for that one special show you want to watch. But because it’s your own story and your life’s work, it’s so much harder. The advice I’ve been giving to folks applying now is, “Think about your why. If you can identify that really clearly, then that is what you need to keep in your back pocket. Keep that as your cornerstone -- it will never be wrong. It will then grow to be a part of your pitch, and it will continue to be a part of your story in a thoughtful way.”
CV: What do you think you did really well during the application process?
ML: I stayed in a learner stance throughout the process, despite the fact that I was trying to sell. I knew it was an important opportunity, and I could’ve taken the position of trying to brag or show my credentials. Instead, I tried to be really open and honest about what I’ve learned as well as what I’m continuing to hope to learn. Even during my Round 3 interview with Aaron and Bob*, I learned things about myself through our conversation as well as about our model -- their questions made me analyze and reflect in a productive way. I could’ve brought doubt or ego into it, and I’m glad I was just ready to learn.
*Founder Aaron T. Walker and school founder Bob Lesser. Round 3 interviews are held over Zoom with a Camelback team member and 1-2 industry experts; Bob was a Startup Coach as well.
Your Camelback Fellowship Experience
CV: How did you grow as a leader from the Fellowship?
ML: I feel I grew in multiple ways:
I grew in my capacity to tell my story, and as a person of color, it’s important that we learn to tell our own stories. To explain the what, the why, and the how in a very precise manner. I have the 4 minute pitch, the 2 minute, and the 30 second pitch. That’s all as a result of Camelback’s training.
I grew in my understanding of how I wanted to show up as a leader in the sense of being aware of my own triggers, and how that can impact my leadership decisions. I was able to articulate the need for myself to be vulnerable and honest within that process and with my team so I can ensure we create this culture of learning and not a culture of performing.
I grew in my understanding of expanding my definition of the school as an organization and as a business, and how as an executive director, I need to be thoughtful of both sides of that experience.
Lastly…I don’t know quite how to say this, but I think there’s something that happens to you internally when you’re surrounded by other people that are ruthless for good. I love Camelback’s manifesto, Ruthless for Good. And I see that in my cohort and in the Camelback team. It grows your courage and your willingness to continue the fight. You have this new comfort and power. You’re reminded from these experiences that you’re not alone, and that you’re doing work that matters.
CV: People often talk about community when they talk about Camelback. For you, was there anything about the cohort experience that really shaped you?
ML: There was a transformational moment for me during Summit 3. The workshop was on Conscious Leadership which is all about really knowing yourself - the goods and bads, being aware of your triggers and attachments - and recognizing how that can impact your leadership. During that experience, I surfaced that as a man of color who is also a leader in education in a city, I had experienced a variety of micro-aggressions when being my authentic self. On multiple occasions, I’ve been told I was too aggressive. As a result, for years I have been very strategic with my word choice and tone, worried if people would see me just as The Angry Black Man. In other words, I realized I was trying to manage others’ perception of what it means to be a Black Man. I came to the conclusion, with the help of my cohort fam, that I make myself smaller by trying to manage my own and others’ expectations of what it means to be a Black man. From that moment, I decided that I needed to show up as my authentic self, not worry about other folks’ perception, and speak my truth.
CV: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
ML: Camelback creates a community where it’s not acceptable for there to be incremental change. And the Camelback community inspires a world of social entrepreneurs who are adopting radical ways to create radical change.
Myron Long at the 2018 Camelback Showcase in Oakland, watched by his cohort in the front row.