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Aurora Institute

You’re Here Because You Belong Here

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Carissa Duran

Issue(s): Aurora Institute Symposium, Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

At the Aurora Institute Symposium 2023, we piloted Networking Groups for various topics and affinity groups to support making connections, belonging, and building community. An inaugural crew of Networking and Storytelling Stewards, including the author, Carissa Duran, guided the groups. We invited each steward to write a blog post with their reflections to continue the reach of #Aurora23. 

Alcine Mumby, the brilliant opening keynote speaker for #Aurora23, began her powerful address by asking us to think about someone who believed in us and was our biggest champion. She asked us to reflect on the ways they made room for us in places and spaces where belonging was questionable and then offer gratitude for their presence in our lives.

Alcine Mumby smiling on stage

I want to begin by doing just that: reflecting on a champion from my personal life and then offering a reflection on another powerful moment I experienced at the Aurora Institute Symposium 2023 that reminded me of Alcine’s encouragement to think about those, like her mom, who make room for others.


Years ago, after feeling very out of my element at a large conference, a fellow educator and friend, Noah Geisel, gifted me with an encouragement in the form of an affirmation I could speak to myself during moments of self-doubt:

I’m here because I belong here.

At his prompting, I wrote those words on a sticky note and placed it on my computer where it remains to this day. I repeated that affirmation when I took a position outside public education. I repeated it when my work as a doctoral student would shake the foundation of my learner identity. I repeated it when I returned to my local school district office and I repeated it yet again when I was invited to serve as a storytelling steward for the Aurora Institute this year.

I’m grateful for Noah’s words which have now become my own. And I want to offer them to you as well – to the youth participants attending your first conference. To the elementary educator in a sea of secondary. To the competency-based education (CBE) leader still figuring things out. To the BIPOC educator who remains underrepresented in spaces like this. 

You’re here because you belong here. You are an integral part of the Aurora community and the CBE field. There is space for you here. 

On Holding and Taking Space

On day 1 of #Aurora23, I joined a Meet the Expert circle on Increasing BIPOC Voices at the Policy Table where I was joined by doctoral students, policy advocates, and education leaders to glean wisdom from Nevada State Superintendent Jhone Ebert, former Illinois State Superintendent Dr. Carmen Ayala, and former Hawaii State Superintendent Dr. Christine Kishimoto.  

The conversation began with each of these powerhouses sharing their own incredible journeys, but the conversation quickly became reciprocal – this is the power of well-facilitated circles. The experts yielded the floor to the learners and allowed each voice, each lived experience, to contribute wisdom to the group. I’m not sure who in the circle spoke these words, but I wrote it in large, bold letters in my notes: Participants at the Aurora Institute Symposium sitting in a discussion circle about belonging.


Whoever it was who made that declaration did so alongside a personal anecdote about the need for people of color to take up space in majority white spaces (like policy spaces) and declare, effectively, “I’m Here!” Others quickly affirmed the lesson and it grew into a collective acknowledgment of the importance of any marginalized group taking up space to increase the diversity of voices driving change. Upon reflection, I think it’s important that those words were not attributed to any one person. The head nods around the circle affirmed to me that those words belonged to each of us. 

This moment of connection would not have emerged without the leadership of the Experts in the circle. Like Alcine Mumby, they recognized that holding space for each of us to share our voices was an essential component of fostering belonging and advancing the collective learning of those in the circle. At the same time, this moment of connection would not have emerged without the courage of the participants sharing their personal stories.

I took those two lessons from that circle: 

  • As leaders, we must have the wisdom and willingness to steward the spaces we’re leading so that we hold space for others – our students and peers – to shine. 
  • As learners, we must have the courage to take up space, to use our voice, and to declare that we’re here to stay.

On Belonging

Belonging is an essential human need but a difficult thing to conceptualize and can feel tricky to cultivate. Feeling a sense of belonging requires us to feel welcome, accepted, and included as our authentic selves. For many of us, that’s a tough ask at a big conference, even one so intentionally designed for connection as the Aurora Institute. This year, Aurora continued to cultivate a space for everyone to belong by offering Networking Groups that held a literal seat at the table so that folks could gather and share the experience and their learning. 

While belonging is largely the responsibility of the host to foster, it’s also the responsibility of community members to curate. We are not passive agents in community. We each play a part in deepening belonging – for ourselves, and for those who come after us – to ensure that all voices are represented in these spaces of innovation that shape the future of education. 

Aurora Institute Interim CEO Loretta Goodwin opened this year’s Symposium with the reminder that “Each of you is [here] because you share something in common: you know that another way is possible in K-12 education.” If that is true of you – if you believe that another way is possible in K-12 education – then you’re here because you belong here. And I hope you’ll stay.

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Headshot of Carissa DuranCarissa Duran is a lifelong educator in pursuit of justice, currently serving as A-G Coordinator for the Escondido Union High School District. Previously an educational consultant and coach, Carissa also served eight years at an innovative, competency-based high school, teaching humanities and coaching teachers in literacy, English language development, assessment, and educational technology. Fully committed to disrupting inequities in education, she spent those years leveraging project-based learning, standards-based grading, restorative practices, and student-centered learning to best meet her students’ needs. In 2019, Carissa was recognized as the Personalized Learning Teacher of the Year by the Aurora Institute. Carissa is also currently pursuing a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy and her research interests lie at the intersection of classroom assessment and policy.

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