Pilot Lights by Dr. Alan Harris

When I care about something, when I commit to it, I am prepared to take the long, hard road, knowing it may not happen today or tomorrow, but ultimately, eventually, it will happen.  That’s what faith is all about.  That’s the definition of commitment, patience and persistence.  People who are like fireworks, popping off right and left with lots of sound and sizzle, can capture a crowd, capture a lot of attention for a time, but I always have to ask, where will they be at the end?  Some battles are long and hard, and you have to have staying power.  “Firecrackers go off in a flash, then leave nothing but ashes.  I prefer a pilot light–the flame is nothing flashy, but once it is lit, it doesn’t go out.  It burns steadily, and it burns forever.” –John Lewis “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement”

In 1998 I was transferred from an elementary vice principal position to be the activities director at a large suburban high school.  The spring before my transfer, 400 students at that high school had staged a walk out in which they walked to their neighborhood (urban, and with high-poverty rates).  The message for the principal was, “That’s not our high school.  Our older siblings all got sent to the alternative school.  There is nothing that connects us to the school.”  I was brought over as one of the measures to address this issue.  The charge was to create a greater sense of belonging for the students through activities, events and leadership.  This was equity work and I was excited to begin.  The first act was to increase student representation in the leadership classes and key positions.  This was immediately controversial.  As this conflict began I also supervised a team of students on a field trip to New York.

While in New York I came to a display of a book pending release.  It was John Lewis’ book.  When it arrived I started reading and I didn’t stop.  The first hand stories of the movement, his heroism and that quote was a gust of oxygen to my flame.  In it, Lewis noted that the fight for social justice today is more challenging than the 60’s because they had restaurant counters and bus seats.  He noted that the work today is less public and more draining.  My copy had notes, pencil underline, highlighter and dog eared pages.  It was my point of reference for teaching, leading, striving to advance equity and excellence for those traditionally marginalized.  I was determined from that moment forward to be a “pilot light” in my commitment to advancing excellence and equity in education.

Over the last 25 years I have met and served with hundreds of fellow pilot lights.  You’re out there.  Teachers, Principals, educators and advocates of all walks in rural, suburban and urban districts are working right now, today, to be the difference for each scholar.  They strive for excellence and equity, seeking the day student success is not predictable by the things they cannot control.  The work is tireless, often thankless and sometimes extremely lonely.  At IMAGO we want the work to be less lonely, to build the “Pilot Light” community and change the world.