My wish is that we would put systems in place that recognize and honor individual and collective humanity, that support a more holistic understanding of individuals, families, and communities, and that allow for expressions of not knowing the answer to drive efforts to develop shared answers. Firstly, I would like to see a major overhaul of how we link job to value to personhood, starting with how we define essential work, and to whom, and how that work is compensated. I would also love to see some meaningful progress on trying to develop a basic universal income so that individuals do not have to choose between the health and safety of their family and having the means to buy food or pay rent. Secondly, I would like to see a meaningful reimagining of the role of schools that involves explicit discourse around the socially constructed need for childcare , and a reevaluation of what we really want adult citizens to be able to do,expanding beyond conventional academics to incorporate more of our three Cs (Creativity, Compassion, Collaboration) in group problem solving.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Krystal Dillard & Chris Steinmeier of Natural Creativity Center.
Imagine a world where young people have the power to decide what and how they learn. This world exists at the Natural Creativity Center, an education center for families who choose an alternative to school. Humans are naturally creative. NCC focuses on developing this creativity — as well as compassion and collaboration — among young people and community members so they can build a life of self-direction, purpose, and fulfillment. You can learn more about NCC’s approach in the new documentary Unschooled.
Facilitator Chris Steinmeier earned his MSEd (2008) and EdD (2014) in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. While enrolled at Penn, he worked with several research teams, facilitating citizen forums on issues confronting Philadelphia residents, measuring the impact of augmented reality devices on informal learning environments, and exploring issues of power and authority in local public schools. His dissertation addressed the experiences of non-religious homeschoolers. This aided in his building relationships with current homeschoolers and unschoolers across the city and into the suburbs.
Chris’s teaching career has included Montessori schools, a juvenile justice program focused on group therapy and restorative justice, multiple Masters-level classes around issues facing urban schools, and a number of individual classes and summer camps focused on the arts, science, poetry, chess, and music production. He spent six years as Program Director in an educational non-profit, where he oversaw program implementation and strategic planning for six schools, serving 2500 students and leading the professional development of 200 teachers. At Natural Creativity, Chris is the Executive Director and Lead Facilitator.
Since earning her Masters degree in Education from Marymount University and Bachelor’s in English from Howard University, Krystal Dillard has taught in a variety of different school settings — public and private, regional and international — all of which placed special emphasis on literacy, inquiry based education, and democratic approach. She was deeply influenced by her time at Children’s Community School in Van Nuys, CA where she developed her understanding of progressive education, equity, inclusion, and what we call descriptive practices. She is a sitting member of the board of The Institute on Descriptive Inquiry.
At Natural Creativity Center, Krystal divides her time between facilitation with young people and immersion in a wide range of administrative duties. Krystal is a lover of children’s literature and poetry, hiking, and exploring. She meditates, practices yoga regularly, and has kept a writing journal since she was eight years old, which she says helped her survive her traumatic and chaotic childhood.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?
I grew up in Harrisburg, PA, in the 80s and 90s, in what I would later realize was generally a low and lower-middle income neighborhood with a fairly significant amount of racial and ethnic diversity. My parents moved to this area to be able to afford to send my brother and me to private schools. We attended different schools because we were such different learners — I was quiet and approval-seeking, perfect for conventional school, and he was active and strong-willed. Thankfully, our parents made the decision to facilitate each of us making our own places and identities. I attended a private, college prep school that gave my family a tremendous scholarship, before going on to college to become a lawyer. That quickly changed to wanting to be a writer, and eventually a teacher. In each new environment, I felt less and less connected to the people I grew up with, and so my professional work has focused heavily on helping to create spaces that would be accessible and supportive to the people from my childhood.
I grew up in Los Angeles, CA in what has since become known as South LA. It was a time when the area was ravaged by drugs and gang violence, and my family valued education above everything, seeing it as the way up and out. They lied about our address, allowing me illegal access to schools in West LA. I loved school, seeking positive attention from my teachers and getting it often. I particularly enjoyed writing and theater, and found community with other creative spirits. Getting into college was a huge moment for me and my family. I attended Howard University with hopes of changing the world, and thought the field of education was the perfect way to do it since it had been so impactful in my own life. It has taken me on a journey through public, private, progress and international schools as a teacher and teacher coach. Arriving at Natural Creativity came from seeking alternatives to the limitations I saw especially in public schools in North Philadelphia.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I have had so many books resonate with me on so many levels. Ellison’s “Invisible Man” was so beautifully and painfully written — the scene of the boys fighting each other comes to mind so often when thinking about the current debates around college athletics. Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” reverberated through discussions I still have on race and representation, even as I sit with my daughter as she invents imaginary worlds and characters. “Brave New World”, “1984”, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” all contributed to my evolving understanding of how the systems around us shape the ways in which we create meaning.
I read the Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison at 13 years old, and it was the first time I experienced a character who helped me connect with and name the emotions and thoughts I had inside regarding race. Going to mostly integrated schools but feeling “poor” and different meant there were some pretty deep wounds forming, and this book gave me a way to understand where some of that was coming from. It taught me something about the world that allowed me to contextualize my own experience.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
In our current work, two lines always come to mind:
“All of us working together can do more than any of us working alone”
“Every put-down has consequences”
The first may be self-evident, as we are constantly looking for ways every one of us involved in an activity or shared space can contribute and benefit. The second may seem straight-forward, but adds nuance when you consider what actually counts as or contributes to a put-down. Some of our most common communication techniques, such as how we ask questions or respond to new ideas, are laden with unintentional put-downs which have a cumulative effect on how people learn to view themselves or each other.
“Don’t fear mistakes. There are none.” Miles Davis
When I was in my mid twenties, I decided, against the will of my concerned father, to teach abroad in Cairo, Egypt. Though I was an adult and out of my parents house, this moment represented a definitive time of letting go of my family’s expectations for me. While living in Egypt, a revolution began about 6 months into my stay. This quote was something that stayed with me during this whole experience and after because it reminds me that all experiences have value. It allows me to move around with less fear about making the “wrong” decision.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
Our organization, Natural Creativity, is working to create a community of young people and families who have the skills and opportunities to practice an intentionally self-directed, purposeful life. We focus on personal and intrapersonal development along our three Cs — Creativity, Compassion, and Collaboration — toward the goal of using our innate drive to solve problems and figure things out to address seemingly entrenched challenges locally, regionally, and globally. We look to bring together people from very different backgrounds to do the messy work of managing the creative tensions between individual pursuits and community responsibility, and between the world we see and the world we want to see.
In this particular time of Covid 19, our organization has stepped up to continue supporting families with the goal of self-direction. We have taken our partnership model seriously by making sure each has a facilitator for support as they creatively continue life while social distancing. With the variety of community members we have, there are a variety of needs. For some, the emotional support and social connection we offer through individual and group meeting times is enough while others have needed more concrete support such as groceries or financial support. We have been very fortunate to secure emergency funding and we have been intentional about where and how we use this.
In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?
The image that immediately comes to mind is of firefighters running toward and ultimately into a blazing inferno, when the rest of us turn and run away. This to me is not the same as a random citizen running into the fire: though there may be something heroic about that act, it is much more often a reaction and a wish to be immediately helpful. It is almost as if the expectation and consistency of the firefighter, the one who has built a practice around the work, embodies heroism in a way that sheer will and good intentions can’t quite achieve.
A hero in my perspective is someone willing to sacrifice their own comfort physically, emotionally or socially in the aid of someone else.
In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.
Integrity — Actions match intentions, and intentions are toward open, transparent communication of goals and processes
Advocacy — Actively looking for power imbalances and working earnestly on behalf of equity
Partnership — In a culture that constantly reaffirms domination, hierarchy, and patronage, being willing and able to work together
Willingness to be publicly vulnerable — Whether validating one’s own feelings or the feelings of others, or being able to sit in and with the uncertainty of a given situation, this speaks to a willingness to model figuring it out
Having compassionate purpose — Having a clear sense of one’s goals and a willingness to reach for them without infringing upon the goals and process of others
Compassion-The many people who mourn with the family of George Floyd and can feel the pain and anger of people so moved to act that they would risk illness to protest.
Kindness- People who smile at people they pass by just to invoke a moment of positive acknowledgement and connection.
Authenticity/vulnerability- The parent that honestly shares their sadness with their young person, allowing them to see and know that all feelings are welcome in this home.
Humility-The many women who supported the Civil Rights Movement who never appeared in front of a camera but were happy to do their part-even just cooking a meal in service of advancing social justice and equality for black people.
Strength of character-Malcolm X boldly sharing his beliefs in the face of those that sought to discredit and destroy him.
If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?
The drive to achieve something meaningful is likely inherent to each of us, and we develop ways to talk ourselves out of this, often by internalizing the systems and messages that surround us. Heroes are willing to challenge those mechanisms, and it may be driven by a sense that the goal is too important to wait for someone else to tend to it.
I believe people are moved to act in heroic ways when compassion allows them to sense a need in someone else that they can help meet, though it takes sacrifice.
What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?
I believe we are a heroic organization because we are willing to be intentionally different in order to provide space outside of schooling, which we see as limiting and sometimes quite harmful. We are providing an alternative in an area of the city where there are often few options for young people outside of conventional schooling. Unschooled, a recent documentary centered around the Natural Creativity Center, follows three such young people whose natural passion and curiosity were being suppressed by conventional school. Through self-directed education, you watch them truly come into their own as individuals.
Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?
My heroes right now are people who tend to the people who are hurting, and who offer meaningful support in the face of chaos. A woman who runs into the teargas to care for an injured protestor; a nurse who leaves her hometown because there is a shortage several states away; a child who stands up to bullies and says, “This is who I am and you won’t change that.”
The women in my family are my first heroes. These bold women worked tirelessly to make sure each new generation has something to build on. I have many specific heroes of the past such as Shirley Chisolm, Audre Lorde, and Maya Angelou whose examples of self-love, intentional action and vocalness in a society which sought to silence them will always inspire me to try my best to do the same. Someone I admire today is Kendre Brooks, a local council member at large in Philadelphia. She started as an advocate for her own children, soon becoming a community organizer. She understands the issues of the community she serves because she has lived and raised her own children there. She is tenacious and hardworking in her effort to her community.
Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?
My first fear is a fear of how little we actually know, and how this ignorance can result in rapidly changing information and recommendations, which many people use as rationalization for not trusting the best information currently available. My second fear originates from how people behave when they don’t know something, which too often is to project certainty. This projection has led to a number of dangerous actions, such as taking untested drugs or remedies, or disregarding the recommendations, such as not wearing masks or not practicing social distancing. The combination of not knowing and being part of a culture that promotes acting as if you do know is currently terrifying.
Watching how the pandemic only revealed and widened the gap between our most privileged and underserved populations is frightening. Not knowing how this will be resolved is a constant concern.
Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?
As we say at Natural Creativity, within every challenge lies opportunity. What we have seen is an array of people and organizations developing creative solutions to new challenges, demonstrating extended and encompassing compassion toward each other, and generally being willing to reflect on what systems were around before and which ones were not working. I have also been inspired by the ways we have collectively explored the artificiality of the silos we have occupied (work life, home life, etc), with so many work video calls being “disrupted” by young people — we all seem to have stopped pretending these worlds don’t overlap or interact.
Without a doubt, young people give me hope.
What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?
I’m inspired by people finding a way to love and support one another even if it means a zoom meeting, writing letters or dropping off food. I have seen a lot of creativity, collaboration and compassion.
I’m disappointed by jobs and companies trying to function as if nothing has changed. I believe this has caused a lot of unnecessary stress on families already trying to support their young people.
Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.
The pandemic has pulled away the veil that is so easy to hide behind to reveal what is really at play. The issues most prevalent — disparate health outcomes based on race and class, disparate economic distress, general distrust of expertise/knowledge/science — were already there, and the pandemic brought them forward with gusto. My hope is that more people will consider creative or innovative possible solutions to these challenges, and even more of us will be willing to explore them and build on them in productive ways.
I think this pandemic only convinced me that change is needed in our country when it comes to the way children are schooled. The constant focus on testing, drilling facts and standardized thinking isn’t going to help us build the kind of world that will respond to problems better in the future.
What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?
My wish is that we would put systems in place that recognize and honor individual and collective humanity, that support a more holistic understanding of individuals, families, and communities, and that allow for expressions of not knowing the answer to drive efforts to develop shared answers.
Firstly, I would like to see a major overhaul of how we link job to value to personhood, starting with how we define essential work, and to whom, and how that work is compensated. I would also love to see some meaningful progress on trying to develop a basic universal income so that individuals do not have to choose between the health and safety of their family and having the means to buy food or pay rent.
Secondly, I would like to see a meaningful reimagining of the role of schools that involves explicit discourse around the socially constructed need for childcare , and a reevaluation of what we really want adult citizens to be able to do,expanding beyond conventional academics to incorporate more of our three Cs (Creativity, Compassion, Collaboration) in group problem solving.
Thirdly, I would hope for a new social contract that calls for a greater understanding of the scientific method, how to read research, and how to incorporate this process into our policymaking and personal decision-making.
I’d like to see changes in the way people work that allow for more connection with young people. Our system has caused a great divide in terms of time and energy of parents from their young people. I don’t think this is allowing for the best level of nurturing and support.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Most young people I have met are already geared toward positive action. It is the response of adults and systems toward the ideas and energy that young people put out there that reinforce less productive forms of contribution, many that resemble resistance, checking out, unreasonable risk-taking, and the appearance of a lack of empathy. Rather than encourage young people to try to make a positive impact, I would push for the adults around young people to take more seriously their ideas and energy, with the expectation that this shift in relational dynamics would result in more collaborative and effective contributions.
Self-directedness means being responsible enough to take action towards issues that matter most to you. I would encourage young people to take the time to learn about history and the world as it is now. In that process, determine what matters most to you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think the goal would be to have components of Natural Creativity sanctioned in such a way that every community would have the resources and capacity to make their own version. Young people have a right to determine the content that is of value and interest, and we support the development of processes to get there — we would love to see the world adopt this as a new paradigm for human development. As part of that, I would want to see young people truly treated as humans and given the space to create their own “Bill of Rights” in regards to deciding their own individual paths within broader communities.
I’d start a movement around mental and emotional health. I don’t believe many young people are given tools early on to understand themselves, including knowledge of their emotions and how to express and care for themselves. As a result, many adults walk around in unexpressed pain and anger. I’d like to see more adults and young people talking about and expressing feelings.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
So many people! Barack Obama, bell hooks, Kendrick Lamar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dave Chappelle, Malala Yousafzai, Colin Kaepernick…I could go on and on!
Kendra Brooks. I want to tell her why I am so inspired by her journey into politics and strategize how we together can continue the good work she has started.
How can our readers follow you online?
Instagram: @naturalcreativitycenter and @_unschooled, Facebook: Natural Creativity Center and @Unschooled.Movement, YouTube: naturalcreativitycenter, website: www.naturalcreativitycenter.org and unschooled.com, Twitter: @_unschooled
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!