The Learning Accelerator Blog/Ryan Mick: A Conversation on Equity-Driven Leadership

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Ryan Mick: A Conversation on Equity-Driven Leadership

by Lacey Gonzales on July 13 2022

Ryan Mick joins The Learning Accelerator in the newly created role of Chief Program Officer, tasked with managing the execution, improvement, and development of TLA’s core programs while orchestrating a compelling vision for our next phase of programmatic impact. Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan.

Welcome to TLA, Ryan. To start, could you tell me a little about yourself? What’s your background?

Of course – and I’m so glad to be joining such an awesome team at TLA. I grew up in a rural community walking down the halls of a school my great grandparents put up, a building rooted in family history that every subsequent generation also attended. I was the first to attend college, encouraged to pursue higher education by an adult at school who saw my potential. In college, I realized that my education didn’t afford me the same access and opportunity as many of my peers, and I started to question why educational opportunity wasn’t distributed equitably for all young people. This led me to a career in child policy and civic education.

I was attending law school in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck, and although I left to finish law school, I kept finding myself pulled back to that city to support its recovery however I could. After witnessing the changes to education there, I realized that if I truly wanted to impact education, I needed to be in a classroom working with young people. I began teaching in a special education context with Jefferson Parish Public Schools and Teach for America (TFA). It was there that the issues of educational inequity became all too clear – racism, ableism, and classism intersected to create incredibly challenging experiences for students – and I better understood that inequity in the system wasn’t just about luck, it was about the system actively working against young people in so many contexts.

Seeing the much bigger equity picture led me to develop teacher training, support, and development for special education teachers at TFA, launch a charter school in partnership with City Year and Johns Hopkins University in Denver focused on supporting diverse learners, and most recently, lead City Year’s School and Program Model Design efforts.

You just mentioned a law degree, but I would guess most professionals in your type of role don’t have one. How does that shape your thinking about education and how systems change can happen in schools?

Sometimes I think I pursued a legal education because my family equated success with a law degree. That’s not to say that law school hasn’t been tremendously helpful in how I communicate, problem solve, and lead in the field, though. A legal education helps you understand how to navigate complex systems and structures, strategize in times of high uncertainty, and convincingly share your perspective and ideas using data and persuasion. I wouldn’t trade that for anything, and I’ve found it to be incredibly useful in my ability as a leader to ask good questions, listen and advocate for my teams and work, and create opportunities and programs that can both acknowledge tensions in a system but also produce critical outcomes for young people and educators.

What brought you here? Why is TLA’s mission personally interesting to you?

In every role or organization I’ve joined, I’ve sought to expand my impact on educational equity. At the same time, I’ve found that equity means different things in different spaces and with different organizations. Challenges arise when there’s a misalignment on something so deeply personal that it can feel like you’re compromising your values to do the work. In finding TLA, I feel I’ve found a home where my beliefs about educational equity are shared and valued by the team, and this makes the potential for impact limitless.

I’ve joined a group that is passionately committed to the idea that equity issues must be broadly examined and addressed, including the systems and structures that may not live directly within education, to deepen our understanding of digital equity and how to close the digital divide for students. We share a guiding principle that equity puts people first and equips those proximate to challenges with tools and resources to lead with their values and ideas, like our Innovation Directors Network and Strategy Lab cohorts.

Part of our mission, as you just mentioned, is a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some might look at you and see a white man in a leadership role – how do you advance our work in this area?

I feel I sit at an interesting intersection of identity markers in that, as a white male, I carry with me a tremendous amount of privilege and power as I move through the world. At the same time, as a gay man and a person with a disability, I have also felt othered, excluded, tokenized, and harmed by those in power, especially by people who look like me. This paradoxical experience of carrying power, while that same power eludes and harms me, has forced a reckoning with my identity in profound ways. It’s helped ingrain in me the idea that no identity is monolithic – we’re all complex human beings with rich and voluminous stories worth exploring. Beyond the personal, it’s helped me understand the critical importance of organizations pursuing authentic anti-racist efforts while also prioritizing intersectionality and interdependence as a means to building belonging and ensuring everyone feels valued. I fear that organizations at times see these two approaches as distinct choices. That’s a false choice; organizations must pursue both strategies with equal vigor if we’re going to create a workplace where everyone feels valued, has a sense of belonging, and can be their authentic selves.

What do you think the most pressing issue in the education field is? How is TLA working to address it?

The pandemic, combined with rapidly advancing technology, has certainly pushed the field to a tipping point, and the more I speak with students, teachers, and families, the more I wonder if we’re witnessing a true identity crisis around the purpose and value of public education, which has been incredibly stable and unwavering for over a hundred years now. If it’s true that we’re at an inflection point in shaping the purpose of education for young people, the field must work with students, teachers, and families to address this before it’s addressed for us.

Like many challenges in education, TLA is sitting proximate to the issue, gathering data and intelligence, and identifying solutions and opportunities that support schools and systems where they are and where they need to go. I know the work that will come out of addressing this challenge will be comprehensive, thoughtful, and inclusive of the voices that need to be at the table in shaping the future of education because of how TLA operates.

Speaking of the future, you’ve arrived at a time when we’re envisioning TLA’s work over the next three to five years. What values should guide that process of strategy and vision?

For me, any impactful strategy or vision starts with an organization’s values. TLA has a rich set of these that puts kids first, prioritizes diversity, equity, and inclusion, and ensures that we are humble, creative, and joyful in our work – and this provides us a north star for thinking about the next phase of our work. I’ve worked in educational equity organizations most of my career and feel confident saying that TLA is one of the best and poised to make a monumental impact in the years to come.

Would you like to join the conversation and ask Ryan a question about leadership, education, or equity? Connect with him on LinkedIn.

About the Author

Lacey Gonzales is the Communications Coordinator at The Learning Accelerator. She brings her background in journalism and media relations to support TLA’s communications program.