Recently, Washington STEM and 80 plus educators, administrators, non-profit leaders, community advocates, and business leaders took part in the first ever in-stateWashington STEM Learning Tours. The Learning Tours consisted of two separate bus trips that took participants all around the Puget Sound and across Washington. Participants logged over 1000 miles between the two excursions in an effort to get a firsthand look at educational practices around Washington state. Washington STEM framed the experiences through the lens of equity and shared learning standards, including Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.


With an undertaking as large as the Learning Tours, the question “How did this come to be?” is bound to come up.  And it was that question that led me to Washington STEM’s Chief Financial Officer, Cindy Gustafson.


Long before anyone stepped onto a bus, Cindy Gustafson attended a series of lectures at the University of Washington called “Marching to Selma: How MLK, LBJ & the Civil Rights Movement Changed the World.” The lectures were given by David Domke, chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. His talks focused on the transformation that arose out of “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, the subsequent march to Selma by MLK, and the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Gustafson stated “After finding myself moved by these discussions, I started thinking about what we’re trying to do around education and equity.”

Cindy Gustafson checking out Zillah High School's self made fish hatchery

Cindy Gustafson checking out Zillah High School’s self made fish hatchery

As it would turn out, David Domke had also created a “Civil Rights Pilgrimage” bus tour, dubbed Project Pilgrimage, that followed in the tracks of the Civil Rights leaders of the 1950’s and 60’s. One particular intended outcome of these tours was to create conversations amongst those with differing ideas, opinions, and backgrounds in an open, honest, and vulnerable way. These themes connected with Cindy so much so that she approached Domke after a lecture. “I was thinking about education in our state as a matter of equity and civil rights and I wanted to see if he would be interested in talking with my colleagues at Washington STEM,” Gustafson said. It was in that moment that the idea for the Learning Tours began to form.


The idea of a listening tour to assess different communities’ educational needs around Washington had been discussed at Washington STEM. But when Cindy brought back her experiences from the lecture series, “It took the conversation to the next level. We asked ourselves how we could have an experience in the field that would motivate people to become champions of STEM education and equity.” It was this conversation that lead to a discussion between Washington STEM, David Domke, and Project Pilgrimage. Of that conversation Domke had this to say, “I had questions about whether they really saw STEM education as a social justice issue. But over time I have learned how devoted the staff and their partner networks of folks are to making sure all young people have access, opportunity, and equity in STEM education.” Cindy cites that discussion as the secret ingredient that gave life to the Washington STEM Learning Tours.


For such a conceptual undertaking, a CFO may seem like an unlikely source in the nonprofit world, or the for-profit world for that matter. But as Cindy puts it, “What I really love about Washington STEM is that they are open to ideas. I’m a finance person, but I feel welcome to bring up ideas, and they are embraced. Input from all people is an embodiment of our values at Washington STEM.” Gustafson elaborated, “To me, that’s what the goal of equity is about. Everybody can bring their best self, their thinking, and their life experience to the table and have it incorporated into the work.”

The Washington STEM team that joined the statewide Learning Tour

The Washington STEM team during the statewide Learning Tour

Cindy labels herself as an idealist and she embraces the term. Without idealism and hope, how can we see the better world that we wish to create? To want for a place where all are welcome and everyone is on equal footing is a laudable goal. Are we there yet? No. But we have to at least be capable of seeing a world in which it’s possible to move towards that. Seeing that world can give rise to ideas and conversations that might not have otherwise taken hold.


When speaking about her own experiences on the Washington STEM statewide Learning Tour and reflecting on the process that took her there, Cindy had this to say, “When I was thinking about the Learning Tours, I thought about them as a chance to have a rapid progression towards meaningful conversation. With the groups that I was part of on the Learning Tour, that happened. And that was a pure joy.”