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Apostrophe T

I often think that my job is to change the word “can’t” to “can.” Here is an example of what I mean.

A few years ago, a Davis resident named Janet Boulware saw a need. She was working as a volunteer at the elementary school attended by her children. Many of the students at the school spoke Spanish in their homes and were struggling with language acquisition and academic attainment. Starting slowly, Janet created a pipeline of Spanish speaking UC Davis students and community members to provide one-on-one tutoring matches for each student. This approach was widely embraced, became known as the Davis BRIDGE program, and was launched at multiple elementary schools in Davis.

As the years went by, Janet pursued her passion and became a graduate student at UC Davis. In that role, she learned of the dramatic challenges facing elementary students in the Yolo County community of Knights Landing. Janet and her advisor, Natalia Deeb-Sossa, initiated a BRIDGE program to pair UC Davis students as one-on-one tutors for elementary students in Knights Landing. Many of the UC Davis students were native Spanish speakers who were the first in their families to attend college. Their connections with their students quickly grew to involve more than just reading assistance; they also became models of possibility for the younger students.

Janet arranged for the UC Davis students to be compensated through work study for their time. At the beginning, the tutors were carpooling the 40-mile roundtrip between Davis and Knights Landing up to five days a week. Logistically, this became extremely challenging and costly for the students.

Janet and Natalia came to me to ask for assistance in finding a workable solution to transport the UC Davis students to Knights Landing. It was clear that this worthwhile effort fell outside the lines of any existing agency. I invited representatives from Unitrans, the Yolo County Office of Education, the Yolo County Transportation District (operator of YoloBus), the Woodland Joint Unified School District, and a couple of other participants to a collaborative brainstorming session. We generated many options, including van pools provided by UC Davis, reimbursing students for their gas and miles, Unitrans or YoloBus special routes, and buses operated by the WJUSD. At this brainstorming session, it became clear that everyone wanted to help. I asked if each of the participants would simply give their best idea of how we could meet the need. They each, in turn, recited what they could not do and why. All the obstacles were real, and many were based on legal restrictions or funding challenges. I heard, “We can’t do this” and “We can’t do that,” even though we all wanted to find a path forward.

After listening to all the “can’ts,” I responded with, “Our job is to remove the apostrophe T. The list of ‘can’ts’ is always long, but what CAN we do?” There was already a sense of shared purpose and good will in the room, but this shift in perspective transformed the focus from barriers to possibilities. Within minutes, the group arrived at a solution that was then implemented for the next two years. Thanks to the Woodland Joint Unified School District, we were able to provide bus service; thanks to everyone involved, we were able to work beyond mandates; thanks to the Principal at the Knights Landing School, this unique resource to support her students was able to be utilized; and thanks to the UC Davis students who were willing to give back to positively impact the lives of so many children. Since that moment, I have incorporated into my thinking about the role of local elected officials in addressing community problems the concept of collectively removing the Apostrophe T. Often, I think my job is simply to change the word “can’t” to “can.” This has become an easy skill, a foundational shift in perspective that works, so I will keep deleting those two characters – Apostrophe T – to reveal the hidden paths of innovation, progress, and action.

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