Operation Respect’s Education Director Mark Weiss Reflects on 14 Years of Working to Create Safe, Caring, and Quality Schools
I joined the staff of Operation Respect after spending 20 years as a New York City public school principal. I remember well the first Operation Respect event that I attended with Peter Yarrow. It was the winter of 2002, and we were meeting with about 50 New York State school superintendents just north of Albany. That seemed a daunting task, but they were listening, laughing, and learning about Operation Respect from Peter himself. Toward the end of our meeting, everyone was sitting in a circle facing each other. Peter asked them to stand and said, “Please cross your arms in front of you and hold the hand of the person to your left and right, and in that great civil rights tradition, let’s all together sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ with hope that every child will grow up feeling safe and in peace.”
So we did, and we did it with tears in our eyes. At that moment I knew how powerful our message could be, and I realized that reaching educator’s hearts could transform our schools, and that Operation Respect could do it.
Fast forward to the spring of 2015 when I was in the residence of Ambassador Clifford Hart, Jr., U.S. Consul General to Hong Kong & Macau, which is located atop the breathtaking city of Hong Kong. I was there, along with a group of 100 Hong Kong educators, to celebrate the kickoff of a three-year school project led by the Boys and Girls Clubs Association of Hong Kong called Project Respect. Again, I was attending with Peter. The song that captured their hearts this time was, “It’s Magic.” (When you work with Peter, singing is a prerequisite.)
Peter asked, “How do we know that our work will be successful?” In response he sang: “It’s magic, and you don’t want to know, just how it’s done, it would ruin the show. You just got to believe and believing will just make it happen. It’s magic.”
This heartfelt statement about the power of our work once again produced tears among the adults in the room. I realized that we continue to reach hearts through music and by working together to make a difference in children’s lives with our “magic.”
For almost 15 years, our solid curriculum and pedagogy, and the songs too, have inspired me as a life-long educator to bring a can-do spirit to our Operation Respect workshops, presentations, and to all our work wherever I go.
There are so many wonderful and effective organizations doing the work of building community in schools, but I think what sets Operation Respect apart is our agility and capability to not only offer our introductory program, but to also provide follow up; to bring the inspiration of a lifetime of Peter’s social and education activism; and to bring an awareness and access to program, pedagogy, and partners wherever it is needed. We offer, and we are able to implement, the right thing at the right time with quality and connection.
My dream for the future of Operation Respect is for us to take the elements and awareness that have brought us this far, to any ready, willing, and able school or district, worldwide, to help them structure and carry out a transformational process that results in safe, caring, quality schools for their children and young people.
Mark Weiss is Operation Respect’s Education Director.