My training and career as a professional youth worker has taught me not just to look at a situation, but to look around it. To not just see a person, but to see around them to the rings of impact and influence in their lives. This search for context is how we find empathy for the everyday lived experience of others, and how we find ways to connect with them. To me, this search is at the crux of culturally relevant pedagogy and a youth centered approach, both critical to ensuring all young people thrive.

As unrelated as it may seem, a recent Star Tribune story got me thinking about culturally relevant pedagogy and really struck a nerve with me:

“…a 14-year-old girl was riding [her bicycle] in rush-hour traffic on the shoulder of eastbound Interstate-94…following the route that Google Maps told her to take to get home.”

It wasn’t the actual words that struck the nerve, it was the re-telling of them. In the re-telling, it became a story of stupidity. As I read this story, my youth worker brain kicked in and I started asking questions, searching for answers that would give context for what, on face value, does seem pretty stupid.

Google Maps’ default assumes that direction seekers are driving in a car. Why? Because the programmers drive in cars. The assumption is that most people seeking this service are like the people who created it.

In May, I had the privilege of learning from Gloria Ladson-Billings who spoke at the University of Minnesota about her theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. My biggest takeaway was that the lessons I was taught can’t automatically become the lessons I teach. There is no autopilot in the classroom, or at the park or the youth center. Working with people requires constant attention and adaptation.

Dr. Ladson-Billings’ research touches on some of my own about engaging in a youth-centered approach. I’d argue, and I think she’d agree, that mastery of our craft is as much the mastery of improvisation as it is the content. We use different terminology, but the overarching message is the same: our approach makes or breaks our content.

I believe our education system is a lot like Google Maps, defaulting to a white, middle-class worldview that results in potentially catastrophic situations for many students. A few years in, Google acknowledged that cars weren’t the only means of transportation and began building in the infrastructure to serve pedestrians, bicyclists and those that take the bus and train. Over a century into our system of public education, we’re just beginning to recognize whose needs aren’t being met by our standard operating procedure.

Dr. Ladson-Billings’ discourse on a culturally relevant pedagogy requires educators to step out of the lens of their own understanding and step into the point-of-view of the students they are teaching. In my own research, I contend that shared values are the basis of a new set of operating procedures that will positively impact the wholeness of each young person we serve, regardless of how or why we serve them. Culturally relevant pedagogy and the beliefs Dr. Ladson-Billings outlines will go a long way to inform a new way of being, so we can create the infrastructure that is essential to ensuring everyone has a relevant route to the content they need.


Lindsay Walz strives to turn what happened to her into a catalyst for positive change in her community. Her personal trauma, combined with her career as a professional youth worker, culminated in the founding of courageous heARTS, a youth-serving nonprofit in Minneapolis, Minn. Lindsay’s mission expands beyond the walls of The heART Center, the safe space she created for youth. Now, she works to transform our understanding of the everyday impact of stress and trauma and to cultivate more communities of care.

Lindsay serves as a resource for individuals and communities, offering resilience coaching, as well as workshops, retreats and motivational keynotes. She is an alumna of the University of Minnesota, where she received her B.S. in Family Social Science and M.Ed. in Youth Development Leadership.

The MinnCAN blog allows Minnesota teachers, administrators, parents and advocates to share their thoughts on key education issues. Blogging fellows' and guest bloggers' views and opinions are solely their own.


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