New View EDU Episode 37: The Dignity Lens in Education

Available April 25, 2023

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Schools are first and foremost communities of people. When planning for the future of those communities, how can we do so in a way that takes into account the dignity of every human being? Beth-Sarah Wright’s “dignity lens” challenges schools to look at themselves with clear eyes and identify the gap between who they say we are and who they truly want to become.
Beth-Sarah WrightBeth-Sarah shares her dignity lens framework with host Tim Fish in an episode packed with gentle, incisive, thought-provoking guidance for school leaders. Starting with her journey from teaching in higher education to working in enrollment management at an independent school, Beth-Sarah shares her realization that the reason many stated priorities and initiatives falter within school communities is that they reflect a gap between the school’s stated mission and its true identity.
Solving that challenge requires courage and introspection, and Beth-Sarah’s dignity lens is a framework for strategy that helps lead communities through the difficult task of clarifying who they really are. Sharing that her inspiration was to keep human dignity at the core of all strategy work, Beth-Sarah talks Tim through the model’s seven pillars: diversity, identity, growth, nurture, integrity, transparency, and yield. She explains that the different tenets aren’t intended to be linear or prescriptive, but rather an inspiration to ask deep questions that will help schools get to the heart of who and what they want to become.
Embedded within the model is Beth-Sarah’s enduring wisdom about the depth and complexity required for real change. She points out that at the root of every change—including positive, exciting changes—is the potential for loss. Recognizing what may be lost, and what toll that loss may take on certain members of a community, is a key part of envisioning strategy in a way that respects human dignity. Similarly, Beth-Sarah says, we must understand that every person has a story to tell and that each story is a valid perspective. 
She shares a story from her own work in which a student’s participation in a schoolwide event sparked controversy. Reflecting on the deep learnings from that experience, Beth-Sarah urges schools to not only ensure that they know who they are and what they stand for, but that they are consistently and transparently communicating that identity and those values to all of their stakeholders. She asks: Are we doing what we say we want to do? Are we making assumptions about our community? Are we being clear in our intentions? Do we know what we want out of this event and other efforts we undertake? All of these questions, and more, are central to the model of deep inquiry Beth-Sarah has created.
To further illustrate the dignity lens, Beth-Sarah and Tim step back and apply the framework to a mundane but important problem schools might face: whether to make a change to the schedule or not. Moving through the seven pillars and asking a series of thoughtful questions, Beth-Sarah quickly models how the right decision can differ greatly from school to school—but the decision-making process can always be centered on identity, mission, and respecting each member of the community.

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim and Beth-Sarah explore in this episode include:
  • What is the dignity lens, and how was it created?
  • What are the seven pillars, or tenets, of the dignity lens? How can they be used to shape strategy in schools?
  • What is the role of data and measurable outcomes in this framework? How do we know what’s working?
  • How can school leaders apply the dignity lens to each adaptive challenge they face?

Episode Highlights

  • “People make up these communities, people do. And people have emotions. People have these gut feelings, especially around some sort of challenge they might be having as a community. You know, we have these things. That's the explosive part. It's a very sensitive part. So the adaptive challenges are, they reside in that very messy, emotional, that part of us where we are going to experience some loss.” (6:35)
  • “What is in our founding DNA? Who are we? And that is just information. … We can look back on our history and we can surface all sorts of things about who we are, when we were founded, why we were founded, or what we've come to be or all of that. But all of that is important. It's nothing to throw away. It's nothing to discard. It's something. All of it is important and we need to be able to parse through that.” (11:27)
  • “Caught up in all of that is some sort of fear. And really at the root of that is dignity. One might feel violated. A dignity violation. But hold on. But my voice is not being heard here. Or I just don't understand. I don't get it. I think at the root of that is loss. And we can look at that even at a national scale. We can look at that all over. We can see it in our communities. That's part of progress, making progress.” (19:33)
  • “We have lots of stories that can be told, and that's very important, too. We have this level of experiences, people sharing their experiences…and then there is the sort of raw data that we can actually gather from our community. And sometimes just depending on what community we're talking with, some people might be very intimidated by getting data. Data can be overwhelming and scary, and sometimes what I try to say to people is, well, you know that stories are the currency for dignity.” (27:36)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

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About Our Guest

Atlanta-based author and speaker Beth-Sarah Wright writes to make a difference. She writes to develop the courage for transformation and change, in our communities, our institutions, and our lives. Her work strategically addresses the types of insidious challenges we face, either in our individual lives or in our communities—be they corporate, educational, religious or otherwise—that require identity shifts and increases in capacities and competencies to bring about sustainable and meaningful change. Wright is an advocate for authenticity in our communities, no matter what our context, by aligning our aspirational identities with our lived realities.

Beth-Sarah is the author of seven books. Her most recent book, The DIGNITY Lens Workbook: Implementing the Seven Strategies for Creating Authentic Community, is a companion to her book DIGNITY: Seven Strategies for Creating Authentic Community. DIGNITY is a comprehensive lens through which to view and solve for insidious barriers to authenticity and narrow the gap between who we say we are and who we are in reality. For Wright, stories are the currency for dignity. 
A former college professor at New York University and Spelman College, she currently serves as the director of enrollment management at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta and an adjunct assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Emory School of Medicine. She holds a doctorate in performance studies from New York University, a master’s degree in anthropology from Cambridge University and a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in sociology and Afro-American studies.
Beth-Sarah is originally from Jamaica and has lived and studied worldwide, from Edinburgh, Scotland, to San Juan, Puerto Rico.