The Revolution of Tenderness: Inclusion Summit 2

I woke up this morning, ready for the rush of getting kids off to school, coordination of after-school activities and the regular business of a school day when I was stopped by a TED Talk by the Pope.

Using social media as his personal megaphone, Pope Francis got his message out into the wide world.

His message had several parts.

You can see the full TED Talk here:

In it, he makes the point that we must have solidarity with others and that the only future worth creating is a future that includes everyone.


He asks each of us to “be a bright candle that serves as a reminder that light will overcome darkness…and he tells each of us that the future does have a name. Its name is Hope.”

“Hope is the virtue of a heart that does not lock itself into darkness, that doesn’t dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present but is able to see tomorrow.”

“Hope is the humble, hidden seed of life, that with time will develop into a large tree.”

“A tiny flicker of light that feeds on hope is enough to shatter the shield of darkness.”

Then he goes on to really spell it out:
“Hope begins with YOU and then another you and another you until is becomes an US.
When there is an US, there is a REVOLUTION OF TENDERNESS.”

He reminds us that “Tenderness is the language of children…of those who need each other. This is tenderness: being on the same level as each other.” And then he states so clearly that God got down on our level with Jesus and that it is our job to get on the same level as each other.

He ends with these powerful words:
“Tenderness is not weakness. Tenderness is the path for the strongest, most courageous men and women. It is the path of humility. The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on the people. the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you and you will ruin the other. CONNECT YOUR POWER WITH HUMILITY AND TENDERNESS. We all need each other.”

Watching this TED Talk, I had tears in my eyes.
I was coming off of the Inclusion Summit 2 and had been smiling ever since…so many good people from across the country trying to do exactly what Pope Francis urged…trying to create a future that includes everyone. It felt like that night in St. Louis was the Ground Zero of the Revolution of Tenderness.

Partnering with FIRE Foundation from the Diocese of Kansas City/St. Jospeh, Missouri,

Left to Right: Mary Brogan and Francesca Pellegrino of CCSE, Lynn Hire of FIRE and Christie Bonfiglio of PIE

One Classroom from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri

LeeAnn and Tony Armitage – founders of One Classroom.

CCSE – Catholic Coalition for Special Education – an inclusion advocacy organization for both the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland and the Archdiocese of Washington, D. C.,
The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion hosted our second Inclusion Summit at the NCEA (National Catholic Educational Association) Conference that began on Monday, April 17th, 2017.

We sent formal invitations to schools and dioceses and people who we thought might be interested, but when you are putting on an event like this that includes people traveling from all over the country, you just never know who might show up…or how many will attend.

Well, friends, the people showed up!

We had a full house and it was beautiful to see.

We had people from all over the country…people who are just beginning to consider how to meet the needs of learners with differing needs and people who have been on this path for quite some time. We had parents and principals. We had novices and nuns. We had a podcaster and a 3rd grade teacher from Omaha, Nebraska who has taken Twitter by storm. We had superintendents and professors from universities. We had people who said yes to inclusion not because they were an expert or felt confident but just because their faith asks them to do just that. We had people with advanced degrees and people with none.

It didn’t matter.

Every single one of us was part of the Revolution of Tenderness.

We didn’t know to call it that…but we could feel it.

We began the evening with sharing stories.

We heard the stories from parents and many were stories of denial…a mom from the Diocese of Gary, Indiana came with the Religious Director for the Diocese of Gary…sharing the journey together, struggling together, this mom said what so many other parents have said before her: “I just can’t get it out of my heart.” [meaning the idea of having her child with a disability attend her local parish Catholic school]

We can’t get it out of our heart either.

Those are the whispers of the Holy Spirit.
We all need to listen very carefully.

We heard from principals who are doing this and finding a way with limited budgets and limited expertise to say yes to students with disabilities. Over and over again, those principals and teachers kept using the word transformed.

Debra Haney, Assistant Superintendent for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, spoke about her own two children with disabilities and then spoke as a professional and shared her journey to make inclusion happen in her diocese, “My heart just burned…I knew the Lord was going to provide whatever we needed and he did.”

A principal from the Diocese of Kansas City/St. Joseph in Kansas City, Missouri shared her journey to inclusion. She echoed what so so many others have experienced: “Inclusion has had a profound effect on the whole school.”

Over and over again we heard about how inclusion changed, inspired, encouraged, and motivated the typical students.

One principal shared about how the typical high school students worked and did student-centered fundraisers for the students with disabilities at her high school. Why did they work so hard?
These students wanted to give the students with disabilities a chance to learn to drive. They wanted it to be safe and realistic. They intuitively understood what kinds of accommodations might be needed for such a complex, multi-faceted skill set.
The students raised enough money to purchase a golf cart! Today, those students learn to drive using a golf cart…those students with significant learning needs are supported, encouraged and truly included in an authentic way.

We heard from Sister Mary Cecilia and Sister Marie Jacqueline from St. Joseph Elementary School in Lincoln, Nebraska. They started their inclusive program at the beginning of this school year.

Sister Marie Jacqueline shared this insight:
“We need to change the name from inclusion to belonging. They’re ours.”

It doesn’t get any more beautiful than that.

They’re ours.

Yes, they are.

It might be Amy Schroff, principal of Mary Queen of Peace School in Webster Groves, Missouri who was the most compelling. She had told a family yes for preschool, then told them no for kindergarten…and then with a whole lot of prayer and some eye opening field trips to see inclusive Catholic schools in action thanks to FIRE, she said yes for first grade. Today there are three students with Down Syndrome attending Mary Queen of Peace and several more starting in other local Catholic schools next year thanks to the hard work of One Classroom.

Watching Amy share her vulnerability, her fear and her pride in what has transpired at Mary Queen of Peace in just a few years was truly beautiful.

Her words: “You can’t hurt these kids by including them.” should be said out loud to every teacher and principal who fear they may not have what it takes to include a student with significant learning challenges.

Inclusion doesn’t harm students.
Segregation and separation is what does damage.

We have far too many families standing in isolation, waiting on the sidelines, hoping to be welcomed.
Trying to find a way is what matters.

We were blessed by the presence of several university level inclusion advocates including Michael Boyle and his team from the Greeley Center at Loyola of Chicago. Mike shared with the group the White Paper recently released by the NCEA that he had helped to write.

Find it here:
Exceptional Learner’s White Paper: One Spirit, One Body

The White Paper is full of reasons to be inclusive but it also has an action plan with specific steps a school can take to be more inclusive.

We had Vicki Graf from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, Gail Donahue from Notre Dame of Maryland and we had Christie Bonfiglio and Lindsay Will from Notre Dame University’s PIE (Program for Inclusive Education) that is set to launch June 1st.

As it always goes, the time was too short…before we knew it, the night was over and we had to fly like dandelion seeds back to our corners of the world…
…we were all a little bit changed by the touch of tenderness that was in that room.

We could feel the gift of faith, the gift of community, the gift of advocacy and we can see that it is making a difference.

Students with disabilities can know a sense of belonging now…not everywhere, but in some places…and that message is transforming lives.

Bit by bit, our US is turning the world into a more inclusive place.
We continue to shine a light of hope for families and schools.

Together we are better.
We all long to belong.

For a bird’s eye view of our Inclusion Summit 2, enjoy Montana Catholic Schools Dr. Tim Uhl’s blog post about it.
Catholic School Matters Blog

Tim gifted us with just listening.
Bearing witness.
By learning and listening, he stood with the families there.
He supported the teachers and schools working so tirelessly on this.

Together, we can change the world.
Let’s go.

Let the Revolution of Tenderness begin with me.