Where Do I Even Begin? Understanding Myself and My SEED Work Using Phase Theory

Jondou Chen, Ph.D., SEED Co-director
Project Director, Family Leadership Design Collaborative
Research Associate, Education, Equity and Society
College of Education, University of Washington
14 years of experience as a professional educator and social service practitioner
SEED New Leaders’ Week 2003
Essay written 2013

I started with Phase Theory. Or rather, I started appreciating the SEED Project when I read Peggy McIntosh’s Interactive Phase Theory. Before that, an older colleague told me "SEED would be good for you." Then when my principal told me she was sending me to SEED, I thought that I’d be losing a week of my summer to go to yet another fluffy puffy diversity training. I was not excited. When a package of pre-SEED-training readings arrived I casually flipped through the materials to see how much of it I had already covered in one of my teacher ed course packs. Sexism is real? Check. White people have privilege? Check. Phase theory? What’s that?

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What is Interactive Phase Theory? According to Peggy, Phase Theory includes five "phases" of curriculum that students across all educational systems are taught. Phase One focuses on studying excellence and those whom traditional and mainstream curricula have designated as the "winners." There is a singular, hierarchical fixation on the "pinnacles of praise, power, and prestige," resulting in curricula that are heavily Eurocentric, male-dominated and heteronormative.

Phase Two acknowledges that there are certain moments in the year and certain individuals from traditionally lower-performing groups who are worth mentioning. People who are "unlike their kind," such as Amelia Earhart and George Washington Carver are used to teach that historical oppression is in the past and that individual determination is what really matters.

Phase Three states that curricula and society are filled with systems of power and seeks to shift these systems by demanding a (curricular) revolution. Malcolm X and Dolores Huerta are canonized here, and if you’re not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.

Phase Four calls for an appreciation of the everyday rhythms and processes that don’t result in political advances or triumphs but allow for living and the enjoyment of life. Cooking. Reading. Conversations. Love. As Peggy says, if your point in being in love is to win, you’re guaranteed to lose.

Finally, Phase Five is the recognition that each of these curricular perspectives offers something useful and necessary, but is dangerous in isolation.

Introducing Phase Theory to educators and change agents can also be dangerous, especially in isolation. What I mean is, it's a big idea to take in. Many will connect with one part or another, but trying to grasp it in its entirety raises one question after another. I’ve had conversations with other SEED staff members where we joke about how many years of listening to Peggy's Phase Theory does it take to get to Phase Five. We laugh because none of us feel like we’ll ever fully get there. And that’s okay.

When I use Phase Theory in my SEED work, I always couch it in the context of my own stories. I have to. We all do. Learning never happens in a vacuum. My research as a developmental psychologist seeks to show in as many ways as possible: context matters. Thus when I explain Phase Theory I use my own stories and then I ask for my participants to think of their own stories to test whether Phase Theory might be useful to them. And so here’s my story of coming to SEED told through Phase Theory, and maybe it will be useful for you.

Pre-Phase Theory:

I am 33 years old, Taiwanese-American, heterosexual, male, Christian, from Southern California, "well-educated," etc., etc., etc. The list can go on and on and on. We all know this. This is how diversity goes. We've all got our "cards." Listening to conservative talk radio as a child, I was trained to be skeptical of people who might “play the [fill in the blank] card” to take advantage of you or get something they didn’t deserve. Entering the social justice movement as a young adult, I witnessed speaker after speaker listing their identities and credentials when introducing themselves. The voices from my childhood were different but somehow still rang true. Identity matters. Identities inform interactions. Identities can instill systems of power. Though leery of these identity lists, I was taken back to a time in my youth when an older cousin asked me, "Want me to teach you how to play 52 card pickup?"

Some of my identities I am proud of. Some of my identities I am not. Many, if not most of them, I am still working through, telling and retelling the stories that continue to shape me. And let me be clear, I am just as guilty of having my stack of cards and knowing how to play them, when to play them, and how they measure up against other people’s hands. And I’ve done it. I can tell story after story of using Bible verses to urge church members to donate money after Katrina, going to bench-press with the football team to get high school students to buy into my classroom, and dropping a phrase in Mandarin and Taiwanese to "get ethnic," in the words of Victor Lewis. Identities can be useful. Identities can be messy. When I first read through Phase Theory, what I loved about it was that it provided me a way to make sense of my identity stories and the powers they gave me and the powers that were taken or that I took away.

Tags: Leader Essays Stories and Systems Phase Theory

— Cheryl Robinson, Supervisor, Office of Minority Achievement, Arlington Public Schools, Virginia

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