Today host Lori Boll speaks with Sam Drazin, Founder and Executive Director of Changing Perspectives, one of SENIA’s sponsor organizations and partners. Lori and Sam discuss Sam’s background and inspiration behind starting Changing Perspectives, Sam’s definition of inclusion, the needs of schools in terms of how they can become more inclusive, and his vision for the future of schools. So dive right in and enjoy.
A nationally recognized educator and changemaker, Founder and Executive Director Sam Drazin applies his personal and professional background to lead Changing Perspectives’s mission to strengthen school communities through social-emotional learning, disability awareness, empathy development, and inclusion. Sam was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a rare congenital disorder resulting in both facial anomaly and hearing loss. His experiences, both as a student with a disability and as a teacher working in an inclusive classroom, helped him recognize the importance of supporting students in developing the essential life and relationship skills that underpin equity, inclusion, and social change. The students and educators we work with around the nation are a constant inspiration for Sam.
Transcribed by Kanako Suwa
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Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour.
Lori: Hello, all. I hope you’re doing well. I had a great time on my podcast today. I speak with Sam Drazen, and he’s the founder and executive director of Changing Perspectives. Changing Perspectives is one of SENIA’s sponsor organizations, and also one of our partners. And to be a partner of SENIA, one must be a nonprofit organization. So just to, you know, clarify that for everyone. Today, we discuss Sam’s background and inspiration behind Starting Perspectives, his definition of inclusion, and the needs of schools in terms of how they can become more inclusive. We talk about Sam’s vision for the future of schools and gosh, we just talk about all sorts of things. It’s a really fun podcast and I really hope you enjoy it. So now on to the show. Well, hello Sam and welcome to the podcast.
Sam: Hey Lori, happy to be here.
Lori: Well, you’re the founder and executive director of changing perspectives whose goal is to educate, empower, and inspire students from pre K through high school to become the change makers for tomorrow and to build a more inclusive, just, and equitable society. So your mission is similar to SENIA’s in that we champion inclusion by empowering our global community to connect, learn, and advocate for one another. and you’re also a nonprofit. And so it’s our shared goals that are the reason that we are partner organizations as well. So can you tell us a little bit about changing perspectives and how you fulfill your mission and your vision of promoting awareness and inspiring empathy?
Sam: Sure, yeah, happy to share. Always happy to share a little bit about what we’ve created over here changing perspectives. So the majority of our work is around partnering with mostly pre -K to 12 schools, although like SENIA, we partner with other organizations as well. And we really offer schools a, what I think of as a pretty unique and holistic sort of all a cart menu of programs and services. We don’t really want to come in top down and say to a school that we’re working with, here’s exactly what you must do, but rather come in side by side holding hands and go, okay, where are you in your inclusion journey? What are the barriers that you’re faced with? And what are the goals that you’re trying to achieve? And how can we help you with that? So we really fulfill our mission by building these partnerships with schools and offering them five different programs and services. So we at Changing Perspectives curate a pre -K through high school, disability awareness and social -emotional learning curriculum. We provide schools the ability to engage with us through coaching hours, professional development trainings, family engagement workshops, and on -site visits as well. So it’s really that menu of five things of curriculum, trainings for teachers, coachings for teachers, family workshops, and site visits that allow us to do our work in a really holistic and customizable way.
Lori: That’s great. I love how you also include the family. So important.
Sam: I think it’s really important when we’re trying to change school culture community that we take a moment to educate, engage, and inspire all of the stakeholders in that community. And so families are a really important stakeholder group, and we want to make sure that we provide an opportunity to engage them, educate them in the conversation.
Lori: Great. And you’re the founder, correct, of your organization?
Sam: Yes. Yeah, I started it about 10 years ago now.
Lori: Wow. Well, congratulations. So what inspired you to do the work that you do?
Sam: Yeah, what inspired me is I was an elementary school general education teacher and realized pretty quickly in my career that there was this expectation on me to educate academically and educate socially and emotionally students in my classroom that were both general education students as well as students that were receiving special education services.
And it seemed that those two sort of buckets were pretty siloed and that how could I as a teacher help empower all students in my classroom to gain better awareness and empathy towards each other, so that they’re really the inclusion leaders I felt like I was having to kind of force inclusion by saying, you know, you’re going to sit with this student and you’re going to play with this student and realize there was really no support in my school or my district to provide me with the resources and or training that I needed as a teacher to facilitate both academic and social inclusive opportunities with my students in a more authentic, holistic and intentional way.
Lori: And why is inclusion so important to you?
Sam: Well, I think, you know, the world is inclusive. You know, it’s kind of interesting. We, in schools, we kind of segregate, right? We track based on ability or disability. And then you go out into the world and we don’t do that anymore. So, you know, if we’re really trying to raise the next generation of inclusive change makers, it’s really important that we provide opportunities to help them to learn those skills in schools rather than waiting till after school.
I think it’s really, I go to a lot of schools and it seems like we bookend a child’s career with inclusion. So preschools are oftentimes inclusive of students with and without disabilities. And then they get to kindergarten or first grade and we start to segregate based on ability, right? And then the rest of the K -12 experience is segregated. And then if a child chooses to go into the workforce they could be working with people with disabilities.
If they go to college, we don’t segregate in college. Students with and without disabilities are living in dorms together and going to classes together. So I think it’s really kind of vital for us in our relatively kind of complex world and highly competitive world that we provide these opportunities to build essential skills around empathy and collaborating with others, even if they have a different lived experience than yourself, hoping students recognize the various ways in which we communicate with each other, and all of that in order to position them to be those change makers for tomorrow.
Lori: You know, I think I’ve mentioned this on my podcast before, but I was doing a presentation to a class of seniors in high school about autism, my experience as a mom who has a son with autism and his experiences in non inclusive environments and things like that. But at the end of the presentation, one of the students was outraged, like literally outraged. And I could just see her seething and I was like, hey, what’s going on? And she said, I am angry that I am a senior in high school and this is the first time I’m learning about this. This is the first time I’m going to be heading out into the world, into college, into the workforce. And I’ve never known about this. We’ve been like cut off from part of society. These students aren’t in our schools, why? They’re not in our classes, why? And so I like what you said, Sam, about it being bookended because, you know, it’s, they’re just. It’s so inclusive in that preschool time, right? And then they’re just phased, phased dried out, they disappear. It’s really disappointing.
Sam: I find it especially interesting, disability is really the largest minority group in the world. Only minority group that any one of us could join at any moment of any time. But yet it’s the minority group that we talk the least about, right? Schools, they talk a lot about racial diversity. They talk about ethnic diversity. They talk about religious diversity. They talk about gender diversity. They talk about family structure diversity, right? All of that is very often conversation and celebrated in a, or hopefully celebrated in most schools in a positive sort of loud and proud sort of way. but yet disability continues to be this marginalized group that we feel uncomfortable talking about, it’s taboo to talk about, and the saying ignorance is bliss, ignorance isn’t always bliss, ignorance is scary, right? And when we are afraid of something, what does that trigger in human beings? Well, that triggers that flight, fight, or freeze sort of response. And so we have been kind of frozen in time of not talking about disability. And the other piece that people forget is like considering intersectionality, right? A student with a disability or a person with a disability is not just a person with a disability, right? They could be a part of any other sort of identity group at the same time.
Lori: Yes. Thank you. One of our keynote speakers at our upcoming conferences, Emily Liddell, and she speaks a lot about that as well. Going back to your point of the ignorance part, which causes fear and stress among our students. As a mom, I went in and presented to my son’s first grade class because they were afraid of him. I just showed them pictures of him snow skiing or swimming and asked them, do any of you like to do these things? Just showed some things that they had in common with Braden. You know by the end they they understood that he was a human a kiddo just like them and I did explain his autism and and what his autism looks like for him and also mentioned one of the boys asked if it was catching if they could catch it and I think you know of course, I said no and and I think that I Visibly see a sigh of relief from the kids because then they were like, oh I’m not gonna get this This what Brayden has not that what Brayden has is is a bad thing, you know It’s just they were so concerned In and afraid of him and they were no longer afraid of him just from that simple and I think I spent 30 minutes with them So I love the idea of your curriculum where you’re sharing about different disabilities and the building that empathy piece and understanding.
Sam: Then awareness really is the foundation for empathy. And empathy is kind of the precipice for the actionable change. In schools, they often describe empathy and maybe this was the way you were taught empathy when you were a student, Laurie, is, you know, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Yeah, and I personally am not a big fan of that sort of way of explaining empathy because a lot of times it is kind of articulated without building any awareness, right? I can’t I can’t have empathy for your son. I can’t put myself in his shoes if I don’t know anything about him. If I don’t know about how he experiences the world.
And so it’s really important that if we’re really trying to truly teach empathy to our students, whether that’s about disability or something else, that we invest the time, we push ourselves as adults, maybe outside a little bit of our comfort zone to have the tough conversations and build the empathy, build the awareness. And to your point earlier, I think a lot of times when we start conversations with young people about how we’re different, we end the conversation by talking about all the ways that we’re the same.
Lori: Yeah, so important. So. We’ve talked about why inclusion is important. Let’s go back a little bit. Can you just tell me, what is your definition of inclusion? It can mean different things to different people.
Sam: That’s a really tough question, to be honest, Lori. I don’t know if I really have a definition of inclusion and with changing perspectives when we support schools, even if we’re supporting multiple schools in the same district, we work with each school individually to come up with their own individualized definition of inclusion. I think there’s lots of verbs that can go into these definitions. And some of the verbs that I hear are things like equity, belonging, participation, access, diversity, and I don’t know if there’s really one definition of inclusion because I think inclusion is relative to the community for which you are a part of. I think having access is something very different than participating. Participating is something very different than belonging. And so I think it’s really about identifying the needs of the community and what does inclusion really look like, sound like, and feel like in that community. One way that I do sort of compartmentalize it, however, with schools is thinking about inclusion in three different components – academic inclusion, physical inclusion, and social inclusion. So if I had to come up with a definition, I would say that inclusion is creating places and spaces where all people are authentically included in the academic experience, the physical experience, and the social experience to cultivate a sense of belonging.
Lori: Wow. For not having a definition.
Sam: Oh, that was totally on the plan. This was not scripted, folks.
Lori: I am very impressed. I’ve been asked that question a lot myself, and it really is hard to put into words. And I just appreciate your thoughts on how it is so dependent on the community that is defining it. So, thank you, appreciate that. Through your work, what are you seeing as the needs of schools when it comes to inclusive practices… You most, you mostly work in schools in the US. Am I correct in that?
Sam: Yes, that’s the majority of our work. Okay Yeah, so the need you know schools always want the tools and the strategies teachers always say Just give me the tools. Give me the tools. Give me the tools I don’t think the tools or the teaching strategies are the biggest need to be honest Because in order to change actions behavior, we need to change mindsets value systems perceptions and attitudes
So, I would say the biggest need in schools is shifting mindsets from a medical model of disability to a social model of disability, it is cultivating an inclusive mindset, it is understanding what inclusion actually means, it is working on common language in schools, unpacking ableism and ableistic thinking, so that to me is the biggest need, is how do we, it is easy, once someone has an inclusive mindset, it is easy to change behavior, the hard thing is changing that inclusive mindset, and I think what is really hard is that, at least our public schools in America, we are not designed for neurodiverse students, we are not designed for students with disabilities. So our system, at its core, is ableistic. Our system, at its core, is built for segregation. Our system, at its core, is built to assimilate students rather than celebrate the differences. So we’re kind of trying to shift the mindsets while educators and administrators are stuck in a system that isn’t changing. And so we’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. But I think it’s first changing mindsets, building common language, and then from that it’s the strategies, and then I think organically the system will have to change.
Lori: So do you think it’s the system that’s causing the mindset like what causes the non -inclusive mindset? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Sam: I it’s something I don’t know you wake at night … eah, it’s kind of like the what’s the saying… Carp before the horse sort of situation and I’m not sure I mean part of it is the system. But I also think it’s part of how we as a society Starting to change now, but anyone who was pregnant born before 1990 You know, it’s the way that society has kind of made us think about disability as disability is a deficit. That, you know, disability representation is not always there in the media. So I also think it’s a societal sort of influence that’s happened for decades and decades and decades.
Lori: Thanks. I know that one was a good one.
Sam: There are no simple answers when it comes to this work.
Lori: Certainly not. So how do you see the landscape of inclusive education changing? Like what are your predictions or vision for schools maybe 10 years from now?
Sam: I think one of the things that’s changing is people are not just talking the talk now, but they’re starting to walk the walk. We’re not running the marathon yet, but we’re walking the walk. And I think that is huge progress. You know, I would say 10 years ago when I started changing perspectives, schools were maybe talking the talk. 10 years later, they’re not just talking, but they’re looking to do some things. We haven’t done everything. We’re not fully embracing it, but we’re walking. We’re starting. And so I expect that that kind of is going to continue over time.
I think there is going to need to be some big system changes that will need to happen in order for us to move the walkathon to a marathon. But I think it is starting to grow. I think people are realizing the importance of inclusive education. I think people are starting to be willing to talk about what isn’t working in a judgment -free way. I think sometimes there is in this bureaucratic society, it’s like, oh gosh, we can’t talk about it. I can’t speak up because then it’s going to reflect poorly on my evaluation as a teacher or something like that. But I think people are willing to speak up. And I think, you know, the work that you’re doing is sending out podcasts like this the work I’m doing it changing perspectives, you know, my friend who’s going to be speaking at your conference Emily who we referenced earlier her book. You know there’s a lot happening in this space. And, you know, it is a grassroots movement, and that’s how grassroots movement make long term sustainable change.
Lori: Certainly. How do you work with teachers or administrators who say, you know, Sam, I’d love to do all this, but we already have so much on our plate. We’re already so busy. What is your thought behind that?
Sam: So that’s a mindset issue again, Lori, it’s helping schools recognize that inclusion and inclusive practices. Although we might be going in to support students with disabilities who or who receive special education services that this work is universal design for learning. This work is going to support all students, anything that you might tweak, modify, accommodate for, for students with disabilities is ultimately going to have a ripple effect and help all of your students. So it’s again, it’s a mindset thing and helping schools realize that this is not one more thing. This is what you’re doing all the time. And also helping schools realize for putting a business term in here, the ROI, the return on your investment, right? This is this is a huge exponential positive impact academically and socially for all students.
Lori: Well, Sam, I am truly inspired by you. I’m inspired by your work at changing perspectives. I’ve learned so much from you just in this really short amount of time today. So before we sign off, is there anything else that I may not have asked you that you would like to share with our community?
Sam: Oh, gosh. Well, there’s so much we could have asked for hours.
Lori: I know.
Sam: Day, week. You know, I think I really, you know, when I give training, sometimes I like to talk about what I call the 10 % rule. And I feel like, you know, our listeners might be listening and getting, you know, really motivated and engaged. Like, oh, I’m going to make change. I’m going to make change. I’m going to make change. And it can feel incredibly overwhelming. And so what I really encourage people to do is think about what can you do in your daily practice to make your community, whatever you define community as 10 % more inclusive. Because if each of us, every day, every week, every month, every year, strives to tweak things by 10%, those 10 % changes really are going to have monumental impact long -term.
Lori: Brilliant. And I think that’s a great way to end this podcast today. So Sam, thank you for your time and thank you for all you do.
Sam: Well, thank you for SENIA’s partnership with Changing Perspectives and inviting me to join you in on this really important conversation today.
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Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and shownotes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcasts. Until next time… cheers!