A System of Inequity: We Must Do Better

Houston Kraft · John Norlin · June 3, 2020

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” -W. Edwards Deming

What results does our current system produce?

This is what happens when broken systems work perfectly.

A lot of people have tried over the years to bandage the system and have made incremental progress. But it has been too little over too long a period of time and we are seeing the collective frustration of unmet expectations play out in our world. These data points are unjust and there is rightful anger because we are capable of doing better.

We must do better.

We are being called into action and to ignore that call is to be complicit with a broken system.

As the co-founders of CharacterStrong - two white, privileged, middle-class, males that were afforded just about every advantage we could imagine growing up - our work in education has left us perpetually humbled. In the combined 1000 schools we’ve had a chance to speak in across North America, our hearts have broken far more than once. We’ve walked through halls with roaches, bathrooms with no doors, and classrooms wildly ill-equipped to provide students what they need to learn.

At CharacterStrong, we are committed to the work of understanding these systemic disparities, uncovering our own personal, privileged blind spots, and doing what we can to empower educators everywhere to teach the Whole Child equitably and effectively. We are committed to never “checking the box” around the work of equity because we know it is a lifelong personal and organizational pursuit.

Here are 3 major learnings for us and some places to start if you want to learn more:

  • This podcast from This American Life showed us that segregation is still a tragically real part of our school system. Listen to it.
  • This article and our conversations with friends at Character.org have taught us about how SEL and Character are often weaponized to push White norms on Black and Brown students. Read it.
  • Erin Jones, a champion of equity work in schools, taught us to distinguish between Equity, Culturally-Responsive Practices, and Diversity in this webinar. She taught us about dismantling and rebuilding systems that hurt kids in our conversation here. Watch them.

We are committed to doing the Tier 1, foundational work that leads to long-term systems change. This means making sure that we are teaching the real skills that help us engage in tough conversations more meaningfully, reflect on our own place in the world more deeply, and tackle complex problems with competence and compassion. Character education and SEL, done thoughtfully, are not another thing on the plate -- THEY ARE THE PLATE upon which everything else is stacked. So, what MUST we teach in order to create a better system?

We MUST teach Respect — our capacity to see people for their stories and understand how their narratives shape their realities. To treat people like they are important. To move beyond the Golden Rule (treat others as you’d like to be treated) and elevate ourselves to the Platinum Rule (treat others as they’d like to be treated).

We MUST teach Kindness — the willingness to sacrifice comfort and convenience to give people our attention. To engage with others beyond surface-level platitudes and seek to understand their needs so you can extend yourself to meet them. Not simply high fives and niceties, but instead the deep Kindness necessary to provide hope, authentic connection, and an orientation towards justice.

We MUST teach Forgiveness — our ability to separate people from their behaviors. To have the emotional awareness and dexterity to step back from moments that feel personal to recognize that most outward actions that cause you pain come from someone’s desperate, human need for love, compassion, and understanding.

We MUST teach Patience — the control we can exercise over our emotions to bring harmony between our heart and our head. To allow our passion to be tempered appropriately by reason while making sure that overthinking is not a permanent barrier to our most purposeful pursuits. All good things take time.

We MUST teach Honesty — our personal inventory to confront the alignment between our beliefs and actions. Do we know what we care about? Do our behaviors build or break our integrity? Do we know how to have challenging conversations with ourselves and others?

We MUST teach Humility — the recognition that we cannot do this thing alone. To know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather of vulnerable strength. To understand that admitting you are wrong is not embarrassing, but a show of great confidence. We have something to learn from everyone if we are willing to truly listen.

We MUST teach Selflessness — our most profound and evolved choice to go back and help others with little benefit to ourselves. To act against our primal instincts of self-preservation in service of the greater good. As Robert Greenleaf tells us, the true test of a leader is: “Did you leave people better than you found them — especially those with the least amount of power.”

We MUST teach Commitment — the tenacity to stick to our choices and do hard things over sustained time. To not give up in the face of adversity, but persist by rooting yourself in purpose. To take big challenges by breaking them down into one small step at a time.

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” -Audre Lord

This is a multi-dimensional issue. These skills must be taught explicitly and work in concert to fix a system deeply broken. At CharacterStrong, we are committed to equity and making sure that our curricula and trainings are representative of all the students, staff, and families that our work impacts. We commit to using our platform to champion people to succeed beyond the systems they were dealt.

We can and must do better.

To our black and brown friends who have been subjected to this reality — who have and are still carrying the weight of this systemic injustice — we see you, we are learning, and we are committed to doing better.

With Love,

Houston Kraft & John Norlin, co-founders of CharacterStrong



Houston Kraft

Houston Kraft is the co-founder of CharacterStrong. He is a professional speaker and kindness advocate who has spoken at over 600 events internationally. Student Body President in High School, Class President at Bowdoin College, Leadership Camp Staff for 14 years in Washington - he is a lifelong learner of character, culture, kindness, and leadership. He was featured in 2019 on BBQ Lays Potato Chips and his mom's lasting life lesson is "Hug like you mean it."

John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.