It’s Time to Lean INTO the Discomfort of Transformative Change

By Ana Martinez, National Institute for Latino School Leaders, NCLR

(cross-posted with the permission of the Surge Institute and Ana Martinez)

I have spent my entire life in the fight for educational equity and 14 years fighting that fight in classrooms and schools across cities like Los Angeles, Miami-Dade and Chicago. For a long time, I believed schools and classrooms were the best spaces to create change for the Black and Brown students we serve. Don’t get me wrong – change without transformational leaders in classrooms and schools is impossible. But, the change that is needed today is deeply rooted in historical systems of oppression and racism that – consciously or unconsciously – have resulted in institutions that are well equipped to maintain the status quo. Unless there is transformational change at multiple levels the changes created in classrooms are, at best, short term.

I am the child of an immigrant single mother. I believe the appropriate label afforded to me was “alien” – a very befitting term as I was neither from here nor there. My family left a war-torn country in pursuit of the all-American dream, but little did we know that language, poverty, culture clashes, alcoholism, domestic violence, and sexual abuse would be some of the challenges we would have to overcome in pursuit of such dream. I struggled understanding the world I left behind and the world that stood in front of me, so I embraced the “alien” label and allowed myself to walk in that lane for too long.

Education has transformed my life – but, it didn’t happen the day I got into UCLA, or the day I graduated with a Masters from Loyola, and it didn’t happen the first day I walked into my 3rd grade bilingual classroom full of immigrant children in South Central LA. Transformational change required building extraordinary relationships, cultivated and nurtured across time and distance.

When we are intentional about creating human connection, we become more open and embracing of diverse people and diverse perspective. More importantly, when we are open to engaging in diverse thinking, we are able to speak and listen in new ways because we then allow ourselves to be stretched in ways that, at first, make us uncomfortable. This discomfort is the birth place of true transformational change – when you begin to see and seek differently because your paradigm has shifted, and you position yourself in the place of most potential.

Enter Surge! I am a 2015 Surge Fellow – one of the 12 “Inaugural InSurgents” as we fondly came to call ourselves. My Surge Fellowship experience was intense, powerful and I often found myself inspired and uncomfortable at the same time. The Fellowship redefined the phrase “Lean in” by teaching me how to lean INTO my own discomfort. It taught me how to listen anew and speak anew so that I could do anew. I see the impact of transformation in my professional work and in my work as a single mother of two toddlers.


We spend too much time surrounding ourselves with what we know, too much time looking for people who look like us, who sound like us, who think like us. We fail to see the value of diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences and so fail to invite those perspectives to the table. We make those who are different feel like “aliens” and we allow fear to be the driver and we become comfortable and complacent sitting on the passenger side and watch while good intentions and new initiatives further polarize the people our educational and social systems should be designed to serve.

From positions of comfort, we engage in unproductive conversations about charters vs district schools, teachers vs administrators, districts vs CMOs, states v. national, etc., while millions of Black and Brown kids across the country watch helplessly as we build walls as opposed to bridges. Having been on both sides of many of these debates myself, I think it’s time we stop and we, each and every one of us, lean into our own discomfort, and in doing so, build the strength and the hope required to help ourselves and others emerge…transformed.

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