An Educator’s Recipe for Depolarizing Schools and Selves

Spring 2023

By Kalyan Balaven

This article appeared as "Food for Thought" in the Spring 2023 issue of Independent School.

Even before states began passing laws to ban antiracist instruction in public classrooms, fury was focused on independent schools. Conflict entrepreneurs sensed opportunity and seized on it, combining rumors and media headlines to cultivate outrage among parents. At the same time, independent school educators didn’t exactly help. We became defensive, sometimes even dogmatic.

But there’s no reason for defensiveness. As educators, we can get out of our own way and choose to heal the divides—including the divides that live within us and not just in “them.” I know because I once felt that division guide me. But I overcame my own tendency to reinforce the polarity that mass media handed to me on a silver platter.

The Ingredients

My story starts in 2010 in San Francisco with a literal platter—of a mouthwatering South Asian rice dish called biryani, which I was planning to devour at my favorite Bay Area hole-in-the-wall instead of attending the final session of the NAIS Annual Conference. The keynote speaker was Irshad Manji, the Muslim author of The Trouble With Islam Today, and I had no interest in hearing her speak. Having caved to the post-9/11-induced polarization around Islam, I had decided Manji must be a self-hating Muslim.

Why bother listening? Why not organize a boycott? So I gathered other conference attendees to join me for the best biryani ever at Shalimar, a restaurant in the Tenderloin neighborhood. But we left much later than I’d hoped, and when we arrived, the restaurant was closing to prepare for the dinner rush. No biryani for us. But, I thought, at least I wasn’t in a room listening to Manji.

Yet for all of my resentment toward her, I felt oddly mixed as I trudged across the bridge to get to my home in the East Bay. I didn’t know Irshad Manji. I had never read her writing or really took time to hear her views beyond the viral soundbites some of my fellow Muslims sent to me. Video clips made Manji sound like she hated the faith through which I’d found my personal peace.

I became a Muslim at the age of 18. I’d gravitated to Islam through The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Thanks to my then-roommate—the same man who introduced me to my favorite dish, biryani—I’d converted to Islam. Over successive chapters of my adulthood, I’ve grown to live as a Muslim who follows the progressive traditions of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Along the way, I’ve faced stereotypes and hate associated with my faith. 

For a time, my attempt at sincere practice also led to moments of disconnect with the people around me. So, too, with Manji. There I was, an educator, canceling her in my mind because I’d reduced her to media-manufactured caricatures. Why did I avoid questioning these distortions? To maintain my bifurcated paradigm of the world, where I could fall into a pseudo-faith practice absent of tension.

The Preparation

Biryani is complex. It’s a dish with a plethora of spices that play together in an aromatic infusion that elevates rice and intensifies meat. For me—a biryani addict—each bite triggers an additional craving. The diversity that informs this dish has always empowered me. Ironically, though, for a moment in my journey as a Muslim, I abandoned my own complexity and adopted a stark, simplistic worldview.

In following the legacy of Fatima, I began to discover the challenge and power in exploring life’s shades of gray. As my knowledge increased, my dualistic understanding—or, rather, my misunderstanding—of reality abated. The pluralism I was seeing, like the biryani I loved, helped mirror the depth of identities I was navigating in support of my students and colleagues in the independent school world—our separate flavors enriched our shared educational experience.

Years later, at another NAIS conference, the 2016 People of Color Conference, Zak Ebrahim, who had a remarkable journey as the child of a terrorist, was a keynote speaker. In our Islamophobic times, his sound bites similarly triggered in others what Manji had once triggered in me. As I looked on, one independent school educator confronted Ebrahim with some tough questions during the Q&A.

Parts of me were deeply invested in the questions. Yet other parts of me felt moved by Ebrahim’s measured response. By the end of the exchange, the growing din of the crowd’s disappointment resonated with me. It was a nonlinear and out-of-body experience in which different dimensions of my integrity connected with everyone in the hall. I now realize it as my first experience with moral courage—the kind of courage that involves speaking truth to the power of our emotional defenses, our egos, at the same time we’re speaking truth to the power of our “other.” I thought back to my failed biryani boycott of Irshad Manji. I hadn’t even given her a chance.

The Cooking

A decade after walking out on Manji, she and I met through email. 

I’d been the longtime director of diversity at The Athenian School (CA), and during that time, a parent concerned about exclusionary approaches to inclusion urged me to learn about Manji’s unifying method. It wasn’t until the summer I transitioned to become the head of school at Dunn School (CA) that I gave Manji a chance. Her book Don’t Label Me: How to Do Diversity Without Inflaming the Culture Wars made its way to the top of my nightstand book tower.

In reading her book, I discovered that Manji had taken a journey, too. I learned how, as she describes in the book, the combat zone had once been her comfort zone. But that comfort came at a cost: Having absorbed the poison of polarization and an onslaught of toxic energy, Manji suffered a series of panic attacks, followed by a bout of clinical depression, topped off with a seizure that landed her in the emergency room. 

Manji realized something had to change. But it didn’t have to be her convictions, ideals, or values—only the way she communicated them. As Manji explained in one of our later conversations, “I don’t need to turn every discussion into a debate. I can choose to understand rather than to win. Better, I can redefine ‘winning’ to mean ‘understanding.’” This gentle form of gutsiness has since become a professional commitment as much as a healing balm: Manji went on to launch Moral Courage College, which teaches people worldwide to transform contentious issues into constructive conversations.

Soon after I started as the head of Dunn, and guided by the inherent challenge of navigating the trappings of polarity while doing the work for inclusion, I launched the Inclusion Lab of Santa Barbara County. This private-public partnership, the first of its kind in the U.S., is designed to create shared outcomes for greater inclusion in our schools through professional development and shared goal-setting. And for the Lab’s inaugural workshop—which ultimately gathered 84 educators from more than 30 schools—I asked Manji to participate. In planning the first workshop, Manji and I graduated from email to phone. Voice-to-voice, I came to appreciate just how much we have in common—and how our differences only added flavor to our budding collegiality. As we shifted from calls to texts, the process of discovery unfolded with perhaps the most poetic nod to our commonalities. I found out that Irshad Manji, too, is a biryani addict.

The Dish

The way biryani is made varies depending on region and culture. My favorite technique produces “dum” biryani. “Dum” translates as “breathe in,” with the rice breathing in its own scents to emerge as a festival of flavor. The secret of dum lies in the raw spices that slowly simmer over a flame.

We live in inflammatory times. Navigating through the fog of fear requires a compass whose north star is integrity, that of the self and of society. Manji and I have adopted moral courage as our compass because key to speaking truth to the ego’s power—that is, slowing down its impulse to react—is the intentional practice of breathing in. We then exhale to make space for the breath of others. Throughout, we exercise our agency to be the spices that transform comfort food, plain in its predictability, into an offering that can surprise our assumptions and stretch our grasp of life’s scrumptious complexity.

To be sure, there’s one final step for me and Manji to take on the road to reconciliation. And we’ll need to take that step in person. We have not yet had the pleasure of sharing a meal. It won’t be over beer, but in our diversifying country, friends can bond over biryani.
Kalyan Balaven

Kalyan Balaven is head of school at Dunn School in Los Olivos, California. He’s also the founder of the Inclusion Lab of Santa Barbara County.