Reclaiming My Purpose and Voice: Confessions of a Former “Edtech Speaker”

Rafranz Davis
Dec 10, 2017 · 5 min read

In 2015, I was selected to repeat my ignite speech on the lack of diversity in edtech ahead of Soledad O’Brien’s keynote during ISTE. It was a monumental moment in that no one had really said those words on that stage before. They’d been said, but not like that.

What followed that speech was an influx of emails requesting my presence at conferences. Some wanted a list of speeches while the majority just wanted me to turn that 5 minute ignite into a 60 minute keynote because in their words, “they needed that message in their space”.

In hindsight, I should’ve questioned that line…but I didn’t.

While I was deeply honored to be asked to speak, there were parts of me that secretly hated having to give that keynote. Think about it. If I needed to stand on a stage and speak for you to know that the voices and experiences of my people mattered, you had a lot more problems than could be solved in a single speech.

There was also the reality that perhaps my message might have had some impact on my colleagues in their respective districts. Maybe my message meant that they were heard more, treated differently and perhaps allowed the freedom to be creative without repercussion of backlash.

I’ve heard that for some, it was and if nothing else, I was one of “them” speaking in a way that they had never seen.

…empowering them that they too could do the same.

The joy that I feel even writing that statement knowing that they too are now out sharing their work and worth makes any of my former negative thoughts null and void.

Except for the part where I allowed myself to be tokenized. That’s the thing about talking about diversity, people were all of a sudden awake and forming lists. I of course asked questions and pushed back against being the only speaker of color but those were odd conversations too.

On one hand, there started to be a few more of us being invited to be heard. On the other hand, no one cared about what our actual expertise was. It was about fulfilling this new quota to appear much more inclusive.

I get it. People were comfortable doing what they had always done and that included only engaging within their circles which happened to be super non-diverse…an issue that wasn’t always entirely on the conference.

Hello…schools! You too have some accountability in your inability to hire and diversity your local tech spaces and staff.

Hello…fellow colleagues of color! Please share your work. People can’t identify you or your expertise when you aren’t putting yourself out there to he heard!

It’s been a few years since those days of talking “edtech diversity” and while the conversation clearly still needs to occur, the change that needs to happen is bigger than a keynote. It’s internal conversations, shifting of people to be inclusive at the decision making level and the intention of doing so.

It’s not just about who is speaking but about who is making that choice.

Facts.

That Time I Woke Up Mid-Conference

Dear teachers doing amazing work for kids who are also attending conferences and listening to keynotes and speakers…please refrain from judging yourself on the basis of what you feel that someone else is doing.

A few moments after giving a keynote, a teacher came up to me to thank me for my message. She also alluded to the idea that perhaps she wasn’t doing enough because what she saw in my speech seemed like we had it much more together.

She went on to name a few colleagues who are also sharing their work, inspiring her in ways that she didn’t think she could accomplish. Knowing them and their work I also knew that their schools were just as imperfect as mine…as imperfect as all of ours.

She needed to hear that.

That conversation made me change my entire message. I started speaking about my struggles much more and the fact that what I was sharing wasn’t just a snapshop of a moment but sometimes one that occurred in a special program and not in normal class conditions.

It matters to teachers that they hear this. They need to know that the idea they saw blasted across a big screen as a model for others was actually an after school program. It doesn’t make it less amazing but it offers much needed context and truth.

…a truth often frowned upon in the space of edtech where idealism and tools stand in front of truth and reality, even when what we need is much more reality.

I felt much more empowered to say,

“This occurred in one of our gifted classrooms but why couldn’t it happen in others? We haven’t yet figured that part out…but join me and let’s do it.”

And so I did…

I turned down speaking gigs and instead focused on my actual job. I jumped into classrooms to work with teachers and students during the school day (not just clubs)

Here’s the thing that “Edtech Speakers” won’t tell you.

It’s hard.

It’s hard because there has to be much more to our work than which tech tools we are using. There’s the importance of culture, pedagogy and collaboration across departments. It’s never about the work of one person but the work of many…many whose voices are never heard and should be.

The world of “edtech speaking” is not like any other in education. Sometimes I feel that people are far too obsessed with being the “founder of a hashtag” or author of a book than of the work of kids and what that means in schools.

That’s not why I chose this field or what drew me to this space of educational technology.

I don’t want to be tokenized or pedestaled.

I want us to have realistic conversations…the good, bad and ugly.

I also want us to think deeper than whether or not a person can use a productivity tool, make a video or code.

How are we doing this work in the face of accountability and what can others learn from it in order to do in their own environments?

Maybe after reading this I’ll never be asked to speak again and that’s fine too because I have an amazing job as a public school educator and I love it. I’m good, trust me.

What I will say though is that when and if I do share, it won’t be through this false lens of Edtech perfection but through a reality that perhaps might help others rethink how we do things just as much as it’s helping me by sharing it aloud.

None of us are perfect so perhaps it’s time that we stop pretending that we are.

It’s confusing and stunting our potential growth.

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