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An Interview with Sonia Nieto

The following interview is shared with you by both Sonia Nieto and Isaac Graves. To learn about this interview series and reproduction, citation, and copyright information, please click hereTo find out more about Sonia Nieto and her work, click here.

Sonia Nieto

Sonia NietoIsaac Graves:  What does community mean to you? 

Sonia Nieto: It depends on the context.  I live in a particular community so my community are my neighbors and my friends and other people who live in this town, for example.  I am a member of the education community and that is a professional group of associates.  I am Puerto Rican so I’m also a member of the Puerto Rican community in the United States which is pretty far flung at this point. I am a knitter so I am a member of a knitting community.  It depends on the context so it can be really small or really big.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about community?

SN: I guess what I find most meaningful about my communities, the communities in which I interact, is the engagement with them, is learning from the communities. I think of every community as a learning community.  I belong to a neighborhood reading group; that’s another community. You know, I learn in every community so maybe I always see things as an educator. I see that their biggest impact on me is what I can learn from them and what I can understand that I haven’t understood before.

IG:  What's missing in community?

SN: You know, a long time ago I learned that community doesn’t mean consensus but on the contrary what it means is struggling through things to learn together, to argue about things, maybe not be in complete agreement but to have some basic respect for one another in spite of those differences.  So, what I am missing from my general U.S. community is now a sense of respect.  You know I don’t expect consensus because there are so many divergent views, but a civil discourse would be nice.  From my education community, I miss a sense of commitment, I guess, or of action on behalf of those who need help the most. Rather than Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind and all these so-called accountability, so called higher standards, what I would like is a real commitment to students who need us the most and equitable ways of getting there,  ways of getting there that nurture students and that honor the commitment of teachers while recognizing that some teachers will not step up. I don’t idealize teachers; I’m just saying that teachers are so disrespected nowadays that it’s very challenging to be a teacher.  I’m a teacher, my husband’s a teacher, our daughter’s a teacher, so I have a great respect for the community of teachers.  So that’s what I’m missing from my educational community.

IG: What is an ideal community to you?

SN: An ideal community would be a group of people or organizations (but especially people – let’s keep it at the people level) that engage in dialog and are respectful of one another.  That’s in general for every community. I guess in terms of my ideal community for education, I’ve already given some answers to that 

IG: What does a democratic education mean to you?

SN: Democratic education means practicing what we preach.  It means putting into effect all of those noble ideals of equality and fair play.  Democratic education in terms of what educators can do is to really look seriously at the policies and practices we have in place and ask how those further – or not – a democratic vision.  So do high stakes tests, for example, further the ideals of democracy?  The way that they are being implemented now, I don’t think so.  What about the curriculum?  Does the curriculum promote the ideals of a democracy?  I don’t think so because curriculum many times is so one sided and has left so much out.  What about pedagogy? I don’t think pedagogy is very democratic because it generally focuses on the way only some people learn and not on how other people learn. I think it’s important as educators to look at those policies and practices.  Now in terms of students, what I think it means is having more of a voice in what happens in classrooms and schools and being able to practice it and not just read about it. To be able to practice democracy.  And not only through student councils which a lot of times are just meaningless because they’re rubber stamps for the school administration, but taking action and being able to learn the tools of democracy  like writing a letter or doing a petition, or starting a boycott.  These are the tools of democracy that are sometimes seen as dangerous and that we shouldn’t teach these to kids, and yet how are they going to learn about democracy if not through these tools that we teach them in school?

IG:  How does education play out in your life? 

SN: Well you know, I’m retired (supposedly).  I am retired from the University of Massachusetts but not from life as I tell everybody. So when I called you I was just writing a forward for a book and I’ve been writing and traveling and so on. So education in my life personally plays out in the kinds of activities I’m engaged in, whether writing or giving talks or serving on committees, and commissions and on advisory boards, and so on, where I hope I can bring my experience to bear.  And it can be a part of the conversation in all of those venues. Also I think of everything as education so as I said before, I’m learning every day so education is always a big part of my life and I’d like to keep it like that..I expect to be fully engaged professionally for a long time, but even if I’m not at some point, I still expect to be a learner.  So that’s how it plays out in my life.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about education?

SN: I guess what I find most meaningful is that it’s always exciting, you know? Education is always exciting or can be always exciting. Now if you are talking about the institution of education, what I find most meaningful are the values that we purport to have about education  Doesn’t mean that we live them out, but I think those values of equality and fair play and of education being the way out of poverty and helplessness and hopelessness are important ones to have. I find that really meaningful and something to strive for, although we certainly haven’t achieved it.

IG:  What is missing in education?

SN: I think what’s missing is some clear-headedness. If we’re talking about public education, I think somehow we have lost sight of the students who we’re trying to serve.  So who’s profiting – I don’t mean to just harp on high stakes testing but I think that’s an example.  I mean, who’s profiting from the high stakes tests? Is it the kids?  The dropout rates of the most vulnerable kids are actually higher and these are the kids these tests were supposed to be helping, but who’s benefiting?  Big companies, testing companies are benefiting. And there’s a whole cottage industry – I won’t even say just cottage industry – there’s a whole huge industry that has developed because of these tests and they’re making billions but what are students getting out of them what are teachers getting out of them?  So I would like some more clear-headedness about going back to what the purpose of education is, and some respect for teachers and some real understanding of students and what they need: for example, having really high expectations of all students, but that doesn’t mean having standards that lead to standardization.  It doesn’t mean narrowing the curriculum. I was just reading something about the fact that science in the PISA test, U.S. students came out very low in science and they say that part of that is because so much focus has been on math and literacy, because of these high-stakes tests in some schools they don’t have science anymore.  I know that the science standards are being put into place and the tests are being given or starting to be given.  But will that take care of the problem?  I don’t think so. In other societies they don’t have these kinds of tests and the students have done quite well.  What can we learn from other societies? I think these are important questions to ask.

IG: What is an ideal education to you?

SN: An ideal education would be an education where we actually tried to reach the vision and the ideal that we have that we have talked about for a long time about education being the great equalizer (it isn’t, but it should be), about education being fair for everybody; about everybody having an equal chance; about each child getting what he or she needs rather than a one-size fits-all kind of approach.  It would mean exceptionally high standards, especially for those students who’ve been marginalized and for whom we haven’t had very high standards or high expectations. That’s what I would like to see in public education.

IG: What do you think people should know about the relationship between community and education?

SN:  I think it’s important for educators to understand that communities have a great deal to bring to the education table, and often that’s not what happens.  What happens is that educators has come in and imposed what they think everybody should learn and some of that is very valuable.  Of course we all need to have some common culture and I understand that, but every community also has a lot of richness and a lot of assets that they can bring to their education, so building on those I think is really important.  Whether that’s kids who come to school speaking a language other than English and rather than seeing them as having a deficit in English, to see them as having assets in another language and to think how we can use it to promote their education.  I would say the same about social class. Rather than seeing poverty as always a deficit (although of course it has tremendously negative consequences for people and I have to start out as saying that), but also people who live poverty also have strengths we can build on and not just seeing them as having bad habits and bad morals and so on and so forth.  But what do families living in poverty bring to education?  Everybody has something.  I think we need to start with that view rather than always “fixing” kids or “fixing” people who don’t happen to come from the mainstream.


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An Interview with Riane Eisler

The following interview is shared with you by both Riane Eisler and Isaac Graves. To learn about this interview series and reproduction, citation, and copyright information, please click hereTo find out more about Riane Eisler and her work, visit;;; and

Riane Eisler

Eisler, RianeIsaac Graves:  What does community mean to you? 

Riane Eisler: I always think of it from the perspective of the difference between what would be a community that orients to the domination system or to the partnership system. Because you can have community that basically is very reliant on fear and force or the threat of force, very male dominated, oriented towards in-group versus out-group, so that there is a win-lose mentality, which is part of the domination system because there is so much repressed anger and fear that you have to displace it to the “other,” so to speak. 

We certainly see those communities and actually they function quite effectively in the sense that they are close knit. People are socialized to accept them, and they do get a sense of belonging out of them. So I can't just define community as a sense of belonging, which is a very common definition. Because this would be very different in a partnership context where basically the glue that holds the community together isn't so much fear, be it of a punitive deity, Allah, Yahweh, or a Hindu god who’s going to bring you back as a cockroach if you're not good or if you don't obey, or of the rulers.  In a partnership context community is defined in terms of mutual respect, mutual accountability, mutual benefit – and not only for the in-group but for others as well. 

It's a very different kind of community, and that to me is the challenge: how can we build partnership communities, especially in a world where the norms are still so dominator-oriented in the mainstream, less in some places, more in others? 

Like the young woman who took umbrage that in my speech at the conference I spoke of Swedes and Norwegians as more partnership-oriented because of this one crazy guy who shot all these young people. Actually, these nations, which are more partnership oriented, have been so hospitable to immigrants, more than other nations. So they view community in a more inclusive way, with empathy not only for your peers or your class.

These are very basic issues for me. I don't think that community can be really understood without making that distinction. My community, to be personal, really is not a local community. It's a community of people like you, like me, who are committed to moving to a partnership system, be it through education, be it through economic change, be it through changes in religious stories, changes in the media, changes in family or other relationships. 

I feel very blessed to have our community because what it reminds me of always is that even in times of massive regression, like we can see through the last decades, there are people working to create a different kind of community, a community that's dedicated to building a better world. 

IG: How does community play out in your life?

RE: It's on many levels. First is a community of my dear ones, my husband, my children, my grandchildren. That's a very important community to me. It's a love that we share, the challenges we share. We're bonded.

Then there is the community in which I live, and I'm very lucky to live in a beautiful place, Carmel, small. When I first moved to Carmel I was on the board of the YWCA. I worked for the women's shelter. I worked with the ACLU, but then I got disillusioned with the ACLU because much of their financing has been from Hustler, from Playboy — so they have never taken a sensible approach towards violent pornography for example, of a balancing of rights, which law is always about, of balancing protecting women and children and free speech. So I quit.

I still become involved in community affairs. When a close friend who was an artist died, we helped to organize an auction of art to support the family. I have also spoken at benefits, such as one recently for homeless women, and donated money.

These are all community activities. I'm certainly active in the larger community in trying to change the direction of our national policies. I’m also involved in changing international policies. I spoke at the United Nations General Assembly recently in a session on harmony with nature. I was the only one to talk about women and children and about poverty and hunger. It was on the rights of Mother Earth, but the rights of Mother Earth depend on what people do. It isn't some abstraction. So, for me, communities are on various levels. I think of myself as a member of the larger human and ecological community.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about community?

RE: The love that we share, the respect, the mutual caring, the attempt to, in my community – I'm now talking about another community which is the Center for Partnership Studies, the people on our Board, our staff, our donors and the people that we serve — to create the conditions that will support partnership rather than domination. I love the webinars CPS offers, the Caring Economy Leadership & Learning programs, and so on. It's very meaningful to me that I'm able to teach in them. That is very rewarding.

When people tonight came up to me, so many of them, saying, “Your work has transformed my life.”Or one guy who brought me my dinner said, "Oh my gosh, your work just completely transformed my life." Sure there's some ego here, but there's also that great pleasure of knowing that you have given something to people. So, it's very nurturing to me and my work is nurturing to others.

IG:  What's missing in community?

RE: Well, what's missing is that I wish that we had been more successful in building a partnership community at all levels. I know, as I was saying in my talk, that as you look at modern history through the lens of the partnership/domination continuum, we can see an upward movement toward partnership, but it’s a spiral movement with dips. And the dips are getting more and more dangerous because of high technology. Their effect on nature, through nuclear weapons, biological weapons, the rise of terrorism, all these are signs that the mix of high technology and an ethos of domination and conquest is suicidal. 

So, that's why I also feel that there is something about community that we have to be careful about: that's about not feeling that we have to conform to gain acceptance and love. Even in the progressive community, that's a problem – it's tough to be an outsider rather than just go along with the crowd; for example, to still think of matters affecting the majority – women and children – as “just women’s and children’s rights.” I have leaned to accept the value of being an outsider, which I already was as a child, as a refuge, an immigrant. It's okay. There is something about being an outsider that is not to be discounted because one of the problems with communities can be the pressures to not follow your own perceptions, not even to know what your own ideas are – that is an obstacle to fundamental change.

IG: What is an ideal community to you?

RE: Well, an ideal community would be at all these levels, but it would be a way that people that can live together in a caring way. My work is so much about caring, about mutual respect and mutual accountability. In domination systems, accountability only flows from the bottom up, not from the top down. I don't think that a community can be a completely flat organization because we need parents, we need teachers, we need managers, we need leaders. That is why I emphasize that partnership communities do have hierarchies, but they are hierarchies of actualization rather than domination.

In what I call hierarchies of actualization rather than domination, accountability, respect, benefit don't just flow from the bottom up, but also from the top down. Here power is conceptualized as the power to empower. So, that would be the ideal community. How do we create that worldwide? Well, we have to deconstruct our dominator heritage. That's not easy. And it’s not enough. We also have to reconstruct.  That is why the template of the partnership system, of the core elements of its configuration shown by my research and described in my books is so vital.

IG: What does a democratic education mean to you?

RE: I think that democracy if we're talking about having a vote, is terribly overrated. Hitler was voted in.  Hamas was voted in.  People can vote in dominator regimes and maintain them.   People who were brought up in dominator families will do that; not everybody, but a substantial majority.  That's what keeps the system going.

Even this notion, it's so popular now in the development literature, that if you go into a village, you ask the people what they want, and that will be the best way to go.  But the power structure in that village will be the main determinant, and women, for example, are not going to speak up in a dominator system, which is unfortunately still in place in much of the developing world, which is still very dominator oriented especially in the rural communities where the domination traditions are still very, very entrenched.  They're not going to say we want a school.  We want a family planning center.  We want maternal health.  They're going to go along with the powerful voices who say we want a big road, a big machine of some kind, or some other project the ruling men think will add to their status. Democracy you see isn't necessarily going to get people what they really need.  You have to empower people first and you have to change the norms.

Democracy as just having a voice or a vote doesn't really guarantee things despite what you read in the newspaper.

IG:  How does education play out in your life? 

RE: In my life, I'm an educator.  I teach in the graduate program of Transformative Leadership and Transformative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies.  I teach through our Center for Partnership Studies webinars.  I teach through my books.  I teach through my lectures. Because I provide this powerful lens of the partnership and domination configurations, I make it possible for people to go deeper and understanding things that seem random and disconnected in a coherent way that makes it possible to bring about transformative change.

But in my life education also works another way, which is that I'm always learning.  For instance, I've become very interested in neuroscience which you probably gleaned from my talk, in how the brain develops differently in partnership or domination settings. Because the brain adapts, especially in our formative early years, and it develops differently as it adapts to a partnership or dominator cultural environment — as mediated through families, education, religion, etc.  I'm constantly learning and teaching.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about education?

RE: My own exploration is very exciting. And so is being able to enrich people's lives through what I've learned, and to stimulate them and inspire them.  That's very exciting, very meaningful. There's so much to always learn.  I'm a voracious reader still.  I read a lot of history.  There is just so much about learning and about teaching that I love.

IG:  What is missing in education?

RE: Well, it depends on what education. If you're talking about what's missing here? What's missing in India? What's missing in China? What's still missing, to a very large extent everywhere is what I was talking about today: to show people that there are more than two alternatives. You don't just have to dominate or be dominated; served or be served. There is a partnership alternative.

I just wrote a chapter for a Cambridge University press book on crimes against future generations. Again, mine was the only article on protecting the majority of humanity: women and children. The extent of crimes against children and against women is horrendous. Yet, the world doesn't pay attention. These crimes largely take place in homes. They also take place in schools. Physical violence in schools in India, for example, largely account for their huge dropout rate according to Indian reports.

I know it's not politically correct in progressive circles to ever point to problems outside of the United States. Whereas for the regressives in this country, our country can do no wrong, for progressives, it can do no right. It's idiotic, frankly. To blame everything on the U.S. is ridiculous. The world is much more complex, and some of the most severe violations of human rights still take place in emerging and developing nations. We need to help people in these places shift from domination to partnership, which is part of my work. 

IG: What is an ideal education to you?

RE: At its core is helping children understand what being human means, what I was talking about, that we humans have capacities for caring and for empathy and for creativity and for consciousness, and to help them understand how they can create the conditions that support the development and expression of these capacities. Because these human capacities are maladaptive for domination systems, where you've got to compartmentalize them, even suppress them. 

They also need to understand that we have the capacities for insensitivity, cruelty, and destructiveness, and they need an education that does not support the expression of these negative human capacities.

So actually you have to throw away much of the traditional education because, as I said, from the classics, the Iliad, the epics that present the hero as a killer, we are educating for systems of domination … Where are the role models for partnership for both boys and girls? And yes, education must be gender balanced. It's what I write about in Tomorrow's Children, where I also have many examples for multicultural education.  Again and again, education should show the two possibilities for all relations – domination or partnership — how to promote one rather than the other. Education should also support that human quest for meaning, and help each child find her or his passion.

IG: What do you think people should know about the relationship between community and education?

RE: Of course, it is a very direct relationship because education, be it formal or informal, will largely mould whether it's a partnership or domination community. So, we're right back to that. First of all, we have to start with what kind of structures we create – domination or partnership — as well as what kind of stories we tell. As I said, it’s essential that education be gender balanced. Without the gender balance, we still have that model for equating difference with superiority or inferiority, for one part of humanity being important (and therefore emphasized in what we are taught as knowledge and truth), while the other, the female half, is marginal at best. If we do not change that, we don't have anything, and it is still so engrained.  Yet it is basic. That's why regressive regimes, whether the Nazi's or the Taliban, always promote the superiority of males over females – they have to have that. In addition, parenting education should be a huge part of partnership education, caring and connected parenting education. There is an excellent guide for that at as well as on, that I would like to see educators use in middle school and high school – and of course parenting education classes as well as gender equity classes should be mandatory. That is where we first learn whether to respect human rights or accept human rights violations as normal, even moral. So we must pay much more attention to the cultural construction of these primary human relations.


Watch Riane Eisler's talk, "From Domination to Partnership: Transforming Education and Society" at the 8th annual AERO Conference here:


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What is Community in Education?

by Jerry Mintz

Communities are associations of human beings who share some common interest.

According to this definition, communities can manifest in endless configurations, and they do.

These are some of my communities:

  • The AERO network
  • Democratic schools community
  • International Democratic Education Conference community
  • Brooklyn Free School community
  • Manhattan Free School Community
  • Summerhill School Community
  • Boys and Girls Club Community
  • United States Association of Table Tennis Community
  • Boys and Girls Club Table Tennis Club Community
  • High School Alumni Community
  • Shaker Mountain School Alumni community
  • Goddard College Alumni Community
  • Antioch New England Graduate School Community.
  • People living in my house community
  • Sri Aurobindo Ashram/orphanage Community
  • Stork Family School community
  • Coach Yuxiang Li table tennis club community
  • Korean table tennis club community.
  • Roslyn Country Club Community

In many cases there is a lot of crossover between the communities. You could probably outline these with a Venn diagram (overlapping circles). In many cases there is none and the people in them only know me in the context of their community.  In other cases there is a very unexpected crossover. 

As you can see, most of these communities are related to the work I do in alternative and democratic education. These tend to overlap, historically and currently. The biggest network is the AERO network. In the broadest sense this community has hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions in it. It not only includes people I have met personally, but also people I have met electronically and well as countless other who have come to the AERO network though our website but have never directly communicated to me. Nevertheless most of them have a sense of what AERO is, who I am, and would be comfortable contacting me when they need to. Conversely, there many who I have not heard from who have found enough information through the resources and articles on our website that they have been able to find what they were looking for: An alternative school for their child, a school to teach in which to teach, or even enough guidance to homeschool or start their own school or program.

Perhaps my biggest area of expertise is democratic education.  Our definition of democratic education is simple: It is "education in which young people have the freedom to organize their daily activities, and in which there is equality and democratic decision-making among young people and adults," as quoted from AERO's Directory of Democratic Education. Put more simply, students need to have decision-making power about their own education and their own school while it is in process. The reason why I put it this way is because some people and organizations use the term "democratic education" when they mean they are training students to participate in democracy at some point in the future.  This is in contrast to our definition. In fact, students at democratic schools have a vote that is equal to other students and staff members in decision-making.

This was the case at Shaker Mountain School, and is the case at Brooklyn Free School, Manhattan Free School, and remarkably, at the democratic table tennis club within the Boys and Girls Club where I volunteer. Our table tennis club of over 50, mostly minority students age six to sixteen, elects student supervisors as young as age eight, and runs the club six days a week. I am a volunteer there two days a week for two hours. Recently the club brought a team of twelve of them to play a match at Coach Yuxiang Li’s Club as two of my communities overlapped.

This is a good example of unexpected intersection of communities: One of the parents of one of my table tennis students was a homeschooler and needed help when there was a family crisis. She knew that I also worked with homeschoolers. She contacted me and for most of one school year her children spent much of the day at the AERO office and we had a homeschool resource center there!

I teach table tennis as I love the game and have developed the ability to teach beginners to moderate players. A good teacher will appreciate the moment when their students' eyes light up in accomplishment and understanding. I get to see that all the time when I teach table tennis, thus helping students become more confident in their ability to learn in a non-academic, non-threatening way. This is a skill I have applied in many of my communities. For example, I have taught table tennis in 21 countries, mostly places where I was doing an educational consultation or at an IDEC. I am official the "Very, very part-time table tennis coach" at Summerhill School in England. I teach there every year or two when I am on my way somewhere, most recently on the way back from a TEDx talk in Norway. I was honored that the US Olympic Committee presented me an award as Volunteer Coach of the Year.


I have never been to one community that I am part of: the Sri Aurobindo Ashram/orphanage. I met its founder, Ramchandra, in New York when he was fundraising for it. After running away from Nepal at twelve and educating himself in India, partly at the Sri Auromindo Ashram in Oroville, India, he returned to Nepal after 20 years. Discovering great poverty and many children on the street, he started the orphanage near Katmandu. I got him involved with the IDEC community and he spoke at the 2002 IDEC in New Zealand. We raised funds for Ramchandra, another teacher from the Ashram and one student to attend the IDEC we hosted in 2003. That teacher was his younger sister, now married and living with her husband and two year old daughter at my house, helping with AERO. I met several other students and staff members at subsequent IDECs in India and Australia. I taught table tennis to many of the students and donated funds to them so they could develop a table tennis program at the Ashram. I often Skype with them and we have continue to raise funds to support them. Many people from the AERO network have visited them. They keep on asking me to visit and I hope to do so when I have the opportunity.

I met the community of the Stark Family School of Vinnitsa, Ukraine at the first New Schools Festival of the Soviet Union in August, 1991. They were the first parent coop school in the Soviet Union. This was the first contact between Eastern and Western alternatives. We hit it off immediately, especially when they discovered that my grandmother was born in Ukraine. They said I was American only by accident of birth and was now one of their family. They even gave me a part in their play, the Goose that Lain the Golden Egg. I had to learn my lines in Russian!

I stayed in communication with them, helping them weather attacks from their government, which was taking 80% of their tuition in takes. At one point, shades of the cold war, we transmitted a grant of $10,000 we had arranged for them by physically strapping in on the body of the granddaughter of their math teacher when she was visiting New York, so she could sneak it into the country! I didn't get to actually visit the Stark School until I arranged for them to host the IDEC in 1998. In 2011 they insisted they pay my way to their 20th anniversary celebration in Vinnitsa.

Finally one of my most remarkable experiences with community:

When I was a student at Goddard College I took a course with Alan Walker called Community Laboratory. This course brought me into the local community. I started an amateur radio club, a 4H club that did cancer research, and a recreation center. Recently I received a letter in the mail from a woman from the community who had noticed an item about me and AERO in the Goddard College newsletter. She said, "I remember being very struck by your interest in the young people in Plainfield and how you considered starting a recreation center. I was really touched that someone would care about us village kids in that way. I felt the love in it. And for that reason I am writing to say THANK YOU, as it is people like you who helped make my childhood/girlhood a golden one…"

This letter from community involvement 50 years ago was completely unexpected and has deeply affected me. Community is forever.

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NAREN Conference (Event)

NAREN, the National At-Risk Education Network, will hold its 2014 National Conference in Baltimore, on April 23-25, 2014.
The conference offers "hot topics" with nationally recognized presenters, limited enrollment for personal interactions, a live 3-D Brain Path experience, a "poverty experience" simulation, and a chance to participate in a service project with at-risk youth.
For more information, please visit NAREN » 2014 NAREN National Conference or contact Cheryl Giantsios at