All posts by Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.

Aadi and the Epeaturstrich

Carol A. Hand

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
― Albert Einstein

As I child, I remember that the winter holiday season was filled with moments of beauty and wonder and magic in the air. Certainly there was suffering and hardship, but what I remember were the miracles. In the hope I could leave a sense of this for my grandchildren, I transcribed the following real event for my grandson, Aadi. It sounds fictive, I know, but you never can tell when a miracle will occur. I hope that those who read it here remember times that were magical.

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When Aadi was four years old, Ahma (his grandmother) came to visit him when he lived with his mother on the shore of beautiful Lake Superior. Aadi’s mother and Ahma decided it was a good time to visit Madeline Island, an island in Lake Superior that was once the home and central gathering place for the Anishinaabe people, also known as the Ojibwe or the Chippewa. The Anishinaabe arrived on the island from their old home on the Atlantic Ocean long before French explorers came to what is now North America. The island has a special place in the history of the Anishinaabe, and a special place in their hearts today.

madeline island 2

Photo Credit: Wisconsin Department of Tourism

On a sunny morning in June, Aadi and Ahma loaded into a van with Aadi’s Mom and a friend of Aadi’s mother, Samuel (not his real name). Samuel was a nice young man who was willing to drive and wanted to see the island for the first time in his life. He was a young man who was searching for his path and trying to figure out how to become a grown up man. Because he was raised by people who taught him that men always need to have the right answers, he was trying to live up to what he thought it meant to be all grownup.

Samuel drove for miles and miles, and was beginning to get tired of the ride, when he finally arrived at the dock where he could catch a ferry boat. Samuel drove his van onto the ferry, and Aadi, Ahma, Mom, and Samuel enjoyed the bumpy, windy ride across the waters of beautiful Lake Superior.

When the ferry reached the island, Samuel drove off the ferry boat and they all stopped to eat lunch. And when they were done eating, the adventure began. Aadi, Ahma, Aadi’s Mom, and Samuel got into the van and drove to the very middle of the island, not really trying to go to any special place.

But they found a special place, anyway, in the middle of the island. It was a farm with the most amazing bird in a fenced-in yard. Samuel stopped the van. Samuel and Aadi’s Mom were sitting in the front seat and could easily look out of the front window at the amazing bird. They were trying to figure out what type of bird it was.

Because Samuel was trying to be grownup, he felt he needed to be right, so he was arguing with Aadi’s Mom. Aadi’s Mom was a beautiful, diminutive woman who was very smart, spoke three languages, and was a gifted dancer and artist. Even though she didn’t often realize all of these amazing gifts she had, she was still unwilling to let anyone else tell what to do or how to think.

So, when Samuel said authoritatively, “It’s an ostrich,” Aadi’s Mom didn’t agree.

ostrich

Photo Credit: WORD Clip Art Image – Ostrich

 

 

She said, “No, I think it’s an emu.”

emu

Photo Credit: WORD Clip Art image – emu

 

Then Samuel said, “But look at that tail. It must be a peacock.”

peacock

Photo Credit: WORD Clip Art image – peacock

 

Aadi’s Mom said, “No. Now I think it looks like a turkey.”

turkey

Photo Credit: WORD Clip Art image – turkey

They kept changing what they thought the bird could be, but never agreeing, and Samuel started speaking louder and louder, trying to make it clear that he was right.

Ahma, who was sitting in the backseat with Aadi, leaned over to Aadi and quietly said, “I think it’s a magical bird. I think it’s an epeaturstrich. It’s part emu, part peacock, part turkey, and part ostrich. Because it is magical, it appears in different shapes to people. But you need to be at peace with yourself to really see it as magical, to see that it can be whatever you want it to be. What do you think it is Aadi?” Aadi laughed. He said “What a funny name! I think it’s what you said, but can you tell me how to say it again?” “Ahma answered, “Eee as in emu, pea as in peacock, tur as in turkey, and strich as in ostrich. E-pea-tur-strich.” Aadi and Ahma laughed again as he tried to say it. Ahma nodded and said, “It is a hard work to say, perhaps because it’s magical.”

Samuel and Aadi’s Mom grew quiet and stopped arguing. Samuel decided it was time to leave. He drove back to the ferry boat landing, onto the ferry, and back to Aadi’s home by the beautiful shore of Lake Superior. They never went back to the island all together to see if the epeaturstrich was still in the middle of the island that is special to the Anishinaabe.

madeline island 1

Photo Credit: d.umn.edu

Maybe the magical bird only appeared to teach them all a lesson, the importance of looking at the world with wonder. To teach them that it is not the names of things that are important, or how we classify the things we see. It is the beauty, joy, and laughter life experiences can bring into our lives if we take the time to really see.

magic bird

Photo Credit: WORD Clip Art image – bird

Now that Aadi is becoming a young man himself, his Ahma worries that he may not be able to see the magic of the epeaturstich. She wants him to remember that there is magic in the world if you are quiet and at peace with yourself, if you look at the world not only with your eyes, but also with your heart.

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My heart is so heavy when I see the cruelty and injustice in the world. Yet I still believe in miracles because of the many people I have met through blogging who share their hopes and vision with such clarity, beauty, and passion. Miigwetch! (Ojibwe thank you.)

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The Gatekeepers and Mrs. A

Carol A. Hand

I truly wish the account I am about to share were a fictional creation. I also wish the ending provided an example of enlightenment, how faculty could use their power to open doors for students who have overcome overwhelming odds to reach academia. Alas, the events point to a misuse of power and the tendency of those in positions of power to protect themselves at all costs, including at the cost of their own humanity.

gatekeeper 1

Photo Credit: Google “Gatekeeper Images”

Mrs. A, obviously a fictive name to protect identity, had always dreamed of obtaining a social work degree. It was not until she had lost everything because of her husband’s serious and progressive mental illness that she was finally able to enter a university through the help of the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, when she herself was suffering from chronically challenging physical health conditions. As a mature student in her 40s, she was a conscientious and engaged student. I had an opportunity to observe her hard work and dedication in a class I taught. Despite health challenges and family responsibilities, she was in class, on time, with work completed. She was respectful toward her instructors, and kind and supportive of her younger peers. And, through her first three years as a social work major, she earned a grade point average of “A.” She was also a McNair scholar whose work won awards and statewide acclaim.

It important to understand the significance of socioeconomic class in academia, particularly in the field of social work. First generation college students like Mrs. A have often learned crucial skills. They often come from families that needed to forge relationships with other families in similar situations in order to survive with limited incomes. These mutual support networks exchanged resources and services in times of need. Children learned to quickly discern who was in a similar situation and how to form supportive networks. They also learned to endure the shame of paying for food with food stamps, or wearing outdated, unfashionable secondhand clothing that drew the ridicule of more affluent peers. These lessons often make it easy for students from families with fewer economic resources to form trusting relationships with agency clients. Yet like all strengths, context matters. The purpose of education is to help students be able to decide when to use these relation-forming abilities and when to maintain professional distance.

Mrs. A described some of the experiences that were humiliating for her when she was a child, and the deep shame she still feels when she remembers these experiences. Because she is kind-hearted and empathetic, her natural inclination is to reach out to others who share this history to ease their humiliation and pain. It is this predilection to ease the suffering of others that placed her at odds with middle class notions in social work. For most faculty I have encountered, the need to maintain “professional boundaries” with clients is simplistically operationalized as a distant power-over relationship. There is little room to understand the nuances culture, class, context, and purpose of interventions, etc., have on the most effective approaches for working with people.

There are also profound differences in how faculty teach social work. Unfortunately for Mrs. A, the majority of faculty in the institution Mrs. A attended saw their role as gatekeepers, enforcers of the “right way” to practice social work in old problem-focused ways that rob clients (and students) of choice and dignity. The place in the social work curriculum where socioeconomic-class clashes become most apparent are in social work’s “signature pedagogy,” the practicum experience. Students are placed in an agency under the joint supervision of a faculty member and an agency social worker to “be trained” as a social worker in a field setting.

The university is supposed to put safeguards in place to make sure that both clients and students are protected. First, the university has contracts that specify the expectations of each partner: the agency, the agency intern supervisor, the university faculty, and the student. Second, students are assessed and placed in an agency that best meets both their educational needs and builds on their particular strengths. Third, the agency intern supervisors are required to go through an orientation to make sure that they have the necessary skills to create a professional learning environment (as opposed to a clerical position) and appropriate supervisory skills. Fourth, students are required to submit weekly journals where they discuss what they are doing and learning in field. They are also required to write about any challenges or ethical dilemmas they encounter. It is the responsibility of supervising faculty to read the student journals and address any issues. Fifth, students meet in a weekly seminar to discuss their placements, ideally receiving feedback from their peers and faculty supervisor on how to negotiate any difficulties or resolve ethical conflicts. Finally, faculty are required to visit the agency at the beginning of the placement to make sure the placement is appropriate and at the semester midterm to assess student progress.

Unfortunately for Mrs. A, few of these safeguards were in place. Given the inexperience of the university’s new field coordinator, the agency where Mrs. A was placed was a poor fit with her interests, skills, and realistic learning goals. The agency intern supervisor had not been to orientation, adding to the challenges. Nonetheless, Mrs. A tried valiantly to make this placement work. Because she was helping me with a project, I had an opportunity to hear about her experiences with her agency intern supervisor. As I listened to the ethical dilemmas and inconsistent directions Mrs. A was given, I was concerned and advised her to include these in her written logs, raise any questions during seminar, and speak to her faculty supervisor privately about her concerns. Mrs. A did all of these things, only to be told by an inexperienced faculty supervisor who was teaching seminar for the first time, “just wait. Things might work out.” Unfortunately, the way things worked out changed Mrs. A’s life profoundly.

The midterm evaluation never happened. In the eleventh week of a fourteen week semester, the agency intern supervisor called the new field coordinator to report a serious breach of professional boundaries. From an objective standpoint, it was really a relatively minor misunderstanding that resulted from poor agency supervision and poor university oversight, compounded by socioeconomic class differences between Mrs. A, the agency intern supervisor, and university faculty. Rather than approach the situation as a learning opportunity for all involved, faculty quickly reacted from their gatekeeper mentality. They met with the agency intern supervisor to hear her concerns without ever speaking to Mrs. A. Again, without ever speaking to Mrs. A, faculty decided to give Mrs. A a failing grade in practicum and remove her from the agency immediately. Administrators in the social work department supported this decision, again without ever giving Mrs. A a chance to share her perspective and experiences.

Mrs. A was repeatedly shamed by the field coordinator, other faculty, and the chair of the social work program. Ultimately, Mrs. A was told she would not be allowed to finish her degree because of the failing grade in practicum and the characterological deficiencies that would always make her unfit to function as a social worker in a professional setting. She heard these damning pronouncements without ever being allowed to voice her perspectives and without ever being allowed to have her two informal faculty advocates present during meetings. After one of these encounters with the field coordinator and key faculty, another student found Mrs. A wondering on the campus grounds in a daze and brought her to my office.

What happened to Mrs. A and the new colleague who wanted to serve as Mrs. A’s lead advocate forever changed my view of the institution where I worked and people in positions of power there. My colleague and I helped Mrs. A successfully appeal the department’s ruling, although it cost her another year and thousands of dollars to finish her degree. I was able to offset some of these costs by hiring her as an assistant with small grants I had. Yet, despite my best efforts, I could not help my new colleague survive the backlash of people in power who needed to cover their own long legacy of mean-spirited incompetence. Yes, I was even told by the chair as a parting comment when I announced my early retirement, “You have a terrible reputation! [as he was screaming and waving his arms] You’re seen as a STUDENT ADVOCATE!”

Ah well, there are worse things to be. I count my blessings every day, and despite geographic distances, my colleague and I still have opportunities to help other students make it through the repressive gatekeepers with some of their dignity, integrity, and creativity intact.

gatekeeper

http://www.wallsave.com/wallpaper/1024×768/gothic-gate-keeper-jpg-free-dark-art-and-202574.html

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A Grandmother’s Reflection

Carol A. Hand

As the holidays approached, I felt the annual dilemma of what I could give my daughter and my two grandchildren, Aadi, my grandson who is now 14, and my granddaughter, Ava, now 6. I know that my grandchildren cannot help being caught up in a society that values things. The rampant consumerism that rises to a frenzied pitch during this time of year always reminds me of the need to keep things in perspective. I ask myself, “What really matters?” The answer, for me, is to be mindful of others’ suffering, to do what I can to ameliorate it, to do what I can to prevent it in the future, and to refuse to allow the pressures of conformity to dictate my giving, even for my grandchildren. What I give them is my commitment to do what I can, small though it is, to remember what matters. I can give them stories that remind them they are loved and special. And I can share stories that remind us that we all have much to do to create a world that values all of our children.

In the spirit of remembering what matters, I am sharing this excerpt from Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace: The lives of children and the conscience of a nation. He describes the neighborhood in South Bronx where poor families are forced to live in appalling conditions that have no doubt deteriorated since Kozol’s 1995 visits.

During these days I walk for hours in the neighborhood, starting at Willis Avenue, crossing Brook, and then St. Ann’s, going as far as Locust Avenue to look at the medical waste incinerator one more time, then back to Beekman Avenue. In cold of winter, as in summer’s heat, a feeling of asphyxia seems to contain the neighborhood. The faces of some of the relatively young women with advanced cases of AIDS, their eyes so hollow, their jawbones so protruding, look like the faces of women in the House of the Dying run by the nuns within the poorest slum of Port-au-Prince. It’s something you don’t forget. Seeing these women in the street, you feel almost ashamed of your good health and worry that, no matter how you speak of them, it may sound patronizing. ‘The rich,’ said St Vincent de Paul, ‘should beg the poor to forgive us for the bread we bring them.’ Healthy people sometimes feel they need to beg forgiveness too, although there is no reason why. Maybe we simply ask forgiveness for not being born where these poor women have been born, knowing if we had lived here too, our fate might well have been the same. (p. 71)

Like Kozol, I am grateful that neither I nor my daughter and grandchildren were born in this neighborhood. I wonder this holiday season how I can give my grandchildren the gift I wish all children should receive – a world that sees each and every being as unique and irreplaceable, worthy of respect and compassion, deserving of a safe and healthy life. A world, in the words of Sweet Honey in the Rock, that acknowledges “We Are — One.”

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“Communities of Relatedness”

Carol A. Hand

Sitting on my back doorstep as I greeted yet another snowy morning, I was reflecting on my most recent neighborhood. West Duluth, the working class part of town. The side of town where the industries – manufacturing and paper mills – send plumes of putrid exhaust into the air. Some days the winds blow it eastward toward the lake, away from the children in my neighborhood who are walking to school or out on the school playgrounds. On the days the winds blow westward, I know it’s unwise to take more than very shallow breaths. Mine is the side of town where only those with few resources are able to find housing, the side of town where parents without choices send their children to schools with fewer resources and amenities. Even if I had more financial resources, I suspect I would still choose to live here, even though people in my neighborhood are not especially sociable – they’re too busy just trying to survive.

Perhaps it’s foolish of me, but I prefer to live in an old house that needs lots of work, with an overgrown yard that needs tending, on the side of town with the most diversity. So many people in the world live with far less. And it is the things that need transformation that attract my attention and inspire my creativity. I suspect it’s because of a different cultural frame. I don’t feel a sense of allegiance to the symbols of “nationhood” – fictive notions of fraternity – of us against the world. Instead, I realized this morning that I feel a sense of responsibility to people and my environment, not just Ojibwe people, but all my relations.

I have had the privilege of working for a state developing policies and programs for elders, and then working at the community level implementing and evaluating programs and policies for families and children. What I observed was a fundamental disconnect between policies developed by experts from a dominant cultural paradigm, what I refer to as “collectivities of strangers” like the residents of Duluth, and communities that were based on the foundation of enduring relationships. Raising the awareness of policy developers and academics to the importance of this distinction is not an easy task. So I have shifted my efforts to try to raise the awareness of students who will hopefully become the policy and program developers of the future.

From an indigenous perspective, the centrality of relationships is apparent. Tribal communities are characterized by centuries of enduring close family and community relationships among members and their natural environment, and members anticipate the continuation of these bonds for generations yet to come. The legalistic, impersonal approach used by the dominant Euro-American social welfare and judicial systems can best be characterized as “a collectivity of strangers,” designed to keep strangers from killing each other. As Jared Diamond (1997, Guns, Germs, and Steel) argues,

… the organization of human government tends to change … in societies with more than a few hundred members … [as] the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasingly acute in larger groups…. Those ties of relationship binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share many kin, who will apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent. (p. 171)

What this means for the sense of responsibility members feel toward each other from these contrasting cultural paradigms can be simplistically illustrated.

Community of Relatedness                                 Collectivity of Strangers

lp world                       tug of war

What these distinctions mean for children can be described simplistically as well.

cor graphic

cor cos graphic

As I contemplate these contrasts this morning, I need to ground the philosophical questions in my present lived experience. Fortunately for my neighborhood, the gentle wind is blowing in from the west this morning, leaving the air clean and sweet. It was safe to take deep breaths and contemplate the possibility of building a sense of community that recognizes the importance of protecting the health of all our relations. In doing so, however, I am mindful that my privilege of breathing clean air this morning doesn’t mean the world is fair. The factories that provide jobs for people in my neighborhood are still sending forth poison plumes. It is others who are downwind who must breathe shallowly today. They are both strangers to me in one sense, and relatives in another. The challenge I contemplate is how to reach out to them so we can begin to work collectively to create a community that is healthy every day for all of our relations.

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“More or Better?”

Carol A. Hand & Cynthia Donner

The following essay is written in the spirit of collaboration and reflects two voices, Carol A. Hand and Cynthia Donner, to describe our efforts to develop social justice curricula for undergraduate social work students.

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Recently, I agreed to come out of retirement to teach for a private Catholic College with a satellite program offered on the campus of a tribal and community college. The decision came after a surprising lunch meeting. I reluctantly agreed to meet with Cynthia Donner, the coordinator of the satellite program, in order to explain face-to-face why I no longer wished to teach social work. Perhaps the easiest way to explain my reluctance is a graphic I use in my classes to illustrate the possible purposes of social work interventions and social welfare policy.

SW graphic

Graphic Source: Carol A. Hand

As a profession, social work has competing goals. It is rare for textbooks or professors to acknowledge which of the underlying goals influences their practice, research, and teaching. Sadly, the focus has often been on enhancing the status of the profession, and hence, the status of its practitioners as equals to those in the medical and legal realms. Increasingly, the focus of research and education has been on a narrow clinical focus that attempts to help individuals adapt to their circumstances more effectively. Just as family-based physicians have been replaced by a spectrum of medical specialists for every aspect of the human bio, case managers and specialized clinicians have replaced social workers who used to focus on creating change in systems and society.

Although the professional code of ethics espouses the importance of working toward social justice, I would argue that clinical practice is not the way to do this. Clinical work may reduce suffering, but it can better be described an effective means of social control. My critical stance toward contemporary clinical social work practice and education is grounded on my revulsion toward any practices that are reminiscent of the centuries of assimilation forced on Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. and world.

The western medical model is rooted in disease discourse and controlled by two industries of the neoliberal corporate elite, insurance and pharmaceutical. It drives most clinical social work practice today with diagnostic pathological criteria for treating and medicating a plethora of “disorders” and “disease” type conditions. Yet, how much anxiety and depression among people today can be attributed to histories of oppression associated with the colonization of nations, cultures, economies, and minds? Add the current daily struggles experienced by a growing majority associated with discrimination (from verbal attacks to outright violence in our schools, workplaces and communities), and with basic survival (as forces of neoliberal corporate control drive people and whole communities into desolate poverty and widen the gaps between the rich and poor, the politically powerful and powerless). Today more than ever, we need people trained for the goals and strategies that will lead to structural changes our world and humanity are depending on.

When I met with Cynthia, I shared my perspective honestly. I expected the typical response. “Thank you for your interest in our program. Unfortunately, we have chosen someone who is a better fit with our focus at this time.” Much to my surprise, she smiled broadly and animatedly began to share similar perspectives.

I sensed a common orientation as we shared our perspectives on social justice and our approach to education. Like Carol, I ask my students to consider historical truths about U.S. social welfare policy and pose the question, “are you satisfied with helping individual people manage their suffering within the context of oppressive forces, or do you want to work with people to help them find ways to liberate themselves from oppression and the suffering it imposes on their lives individually and collectively?”

Through a dialogue that spanned hours, we discovered that we shared experiences on the margins, Cynthia because of growing up in poverty, and me because of growing up culturally mixed. Rather than accept that we were inferior, both of us sought the education and positions that would allow us work with disadvantaged groups to challenge the structures of oppression. Cynthia, like me, had worked in “macro practice” settings focused on enhancing lives in addition to reducing suffering, confronting the forces causing oppression rather than helping people merely adapt and conform to those forces.

Toward the end of our conversation, I agreed to teach the course on social welfare policy. This was the beginning of a still-evolving experiment to find more effective, experientially-grounded ways to help students think critically about oppression and encourage them to consider careers that focus on policy and community practice. In the process of designing our latest lab focused on social justice, Cynthia discovered an amazing resource that we felt might help our undergraduate students envision how to create a “better” future. For me, it transforms “the change paradigm” by providing a clear goal to work toward rather than a problem to fight. We wrote this brief introduction as a way to share a resource that may be helpful to others. The video that focuses on solutions, created by author Annie Leonard, presents a feasible alternative to “fighting the system” and left me with a sense of hope that transformation is possible, even during these challenging times (and perhaps, even in social work education).

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Grasping Tightly to the Symbols of Power

Carol A. Hand

This morning I awoke thinking about the images that come to mind for three of the ways power is manifested: military/police force, symbolic forms of oppression through the enforcement of conformity, and resistance. Military and police action is the easiest to envision for me, and the list of images that come to mind is long indeed. Images for resistance are also easy to envision, although not as likely to appear in corporate media. Symbolic power is more difficult to envision, but the image that comes to mind for me is from Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics of the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children.

Image

Photo Source: Drawing by Carol A. Hand

(based on an adaptation of N. Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children, cited in Foucault (1)

At a university with strong anti-Native biases, I lived under the manifestations of symbolic power – the oppressiveness of invalidating judgments from most of my non-Native colleagues. Interestingly, those who made this judgment claimed to operate from a stance of strength-based social work practice. Some even thought of themselves as experts on Native American issues, and some of them had authored works that claimed to teach others how to operate from a social justice framework. But that is another story for another time.

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The story I need to record today is about the illusion of power. It is a memory of the past, but has implications for the present and the future. It was graduation day at the university. A prominent faculty member, a self-proclaimed feminist who was scheduled to deliver the graduation address later in the day for master’s students, arrived dressed in high-heeled clogs.

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I watched her walk as I took my position behind her in line as we headed toward the auditorium. I worried that her clipped and unsteady gait might spell disaster. Although my inclination was to reach out to help steady her balance, my culture has taught me it is rude to intervene in another’s path without an invitation. In any case, my role in this procession was to merely follow. Thankfully, we arrived at the hall without incident.

Following our unsteady clog-clad colleague, the social work faculty entered the large sports arena for the university commencement ceremony. We proceeded to our assigned seats toward the front, on the left side of the arena. Faculty from the anthropology department were seated several rows behind us. The commencement began with a blessing by a respected Tribal elder, followed by speeches from university officials. The highlight of this particular commencement was the keynote address by the governor. He began his address by dedicating it to “the first, best, ‘state citizens’.” As I looked at the prominent presence of Tribal elders and leaders on the stage behind him, I thought this was a hopeful sign. The governor then noted, “the first best state citizens were not the explorers or timbermen or miners who came, or those who built the railroad that spans the state. The first, best citizens were the farmers and ranchers who made it their home and who, through hard work and sacrifice, made the state what it is today.” As the governor said this, I heard a collective gasp from the anthropology faculty, and many others scattered throughout the arena. Yet, my social work colleagues appeared too enraptured with the governor to notice.

After the ceremony ended, my colleagues gathered to discuss the speech. My clog-clad colleague gushed, “That was such a powerful speech. The governor is such an eloquent speaker!” The rest of my colleagues nodded enthusiastically in agreement. I just couldn’t let this pass, so I quietly added, “I thought it was very disrespectful of Native Americans.” Only one of my colleagues responded, “Oh my god, I never would have thought of that!” The rest became silent, exchanged glances, and walked away.

We went on to the next ceremony for social work graduates, located in a in a smaller room. Faculty sat in a row on the stage behind the podium where those chosen to deliver encouraging words spoke, facing the waiting graduates. Those of us who remained seated had an interesting, behind-the-scenes view.

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When the time arrived for my colleague to deliver her address, she shuffled to the podium with her carefully crafted speech in hand. I watched as she placed her papers on the podium, gripped the sides of the podium tightly with both hands, and stood on tip-toe. As her speech stretched on, her grip increasingly tightened as her ungrounded stance caused her to wobble. Although I do not remember any of her words, I remember the image of the ever-tightening grip that turned her knuckles white (as mine do when I grip the steering wheel of my car when I drive on icy roads, a similar feeling of ungroundedness and fear).

I have pondered this scene. The podium, a symbol of power gripped evermore tightly, became a prop to steady someone who needed, for some reason, to appear to be what she was not. I also reflected on the fawning deference shown to the governor. All too often, we revere people in positions of power, not necessarily because they have anything meaningful to say, but merely because of their socially constructed status. The lesson for me is to be sure that I take the time to be sure-footed, to be well grounded, so I can walk and stand with mindfulness, grace, and certainty. And to take the time to remember what is really important: simplicity, humility, concern for others and the earth.

I wish my colleague well. Yet, I witnessed how this need to grip the symbols of power often resulted in unconscious ways of invalidating others, be they students or colleagues, when she was not on stage in the public eye. Her lack of grounding also affected Native people in other ways. She developed the diversity class for master’s students, and only included Native American literature that confirmed misinformation about the disfunctionality of contemporary Native Americans in a state, community, and institution that already had significant anti-Indian biases. I share this story to encourage others to be aware of the invidious seductiveness of the symbols of power. We are most tempted to grasp them when we are most fearful, least grounded, and least balanced. And without balance, we can do great and lasting harm to others.

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I am truly grateful for the lessons I learned about power from my colleagues at the university. Those of us on the margins are sometimes fortunate to encounter harsh lessons. If we are able to hold onto our foundations from other cultural or spiritual perspectives, we are better able to remember what really matters in life. It helps us resist the temptation to grasp the symbols of power for our given position in the socially constructed hierarchical order. Having options helps us question the limitations of internally programmed and externally imposed norms. It helps us see more clearly the worth of who we really are. It helps us have compassion toward others. And it gives us the tools we need to loosen the ropes that bind us all in the prison of socially constructed categories, roles, and hierarchical relationships.

Work Cited:

(1)   Michel Foucault (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, photo inset between pp. 169-170. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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Musings While Cleaning Rocks

Carol A. Hand

In every place I’ve lived, it has been important for me to make improvements. I learned how to repair broken windows, patch and paint walls and ceilings, do basic carpentry, and most of all, create gardens. Often I lived in yards that had been neglected for years, with trees and bushes that needed extra care to survive.

Working with the earth and plants helps heal my soul from the everyday challenges of walking between cultures. And it gives me time to think about life. During one of my more challenging jobs, I decided to create a pond, and as I did so, recorded my musings.

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I have discovered a new avocation: washing little rocks that I excavated as I dug up sod and weeds to create gardens and a small pond in my yard. Although time consuming, I decided to line the little pond with rocks that came from that very spot. It gave me time to reflect on many things. I am sure my neighbors, if they saw me, thought I was odd as I sat for hours scrubbing decades or centuries of dirt from something that appeared, at least in this cultural context, to be so worthless and ordinary. Yet, as I watched dusty brown lumps transform into multi-colored, uniquely textured, and variously shaped stones, I began comparing it to the work I did as a professor.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AStones_Porto_DSCF0572.jpg

 

I realized one of the principles that guides my work with students involves taking time to look for the inner beauty and strength of students whom many others might overlook, or even dismiss. Like the rocks, many have been covered with years of dust, yet underneath each is lovely and unique. And like the stones that dry after their washing, they retain only a little of their lovely colors in an arid environment. Yet, put them in water, and their rainbow colors are visible once again. So too, the right environments allow beauty and uniqueness to shine through people as well. The question I ponder is how to create those environments, not only for students and the professionals they will become, but also for the clients they will serve. There is a Taoist saying that suggests an answer:

The best people are like water.
They benefit all things,
And do not compete with them.
They settle in low places,
One with nature, one with Tao.
(Diane Dreher, 1990, The Tao of Inner Peace, p. 90)

I have also wondered about the paradox of too much knowledge and naming. I have never had a course in geology–strange, given that I have taken courses in almost everything else. I could not name any of the rocks: I didn’t know when, where, or how they were formed. I wondered, if I did know, would I be able to appreciate their loveliness without cataloging, ranking, or judging in some way? Would I be able to see each individual stone in its uniqueness from a more educated, scientific perspective? I honestly don’t know. I do know that I chose not to run off to buy geology books or enroll in a course.

I can usually (but not always) apply this principle of non-judgment when I work with students. I can rarely apply it when I work with arrogant or judgmental colleagues. Again, I pondered this difference. And I do run off to buy more textbooks to understand how I might do a better job of respecting those who have power and use it to oppress others, always with the goal of becoming more effective at ending oppression, but the answers still continue to elude me.

I also pondered the journey these stones made. What was the world like as they formed? Where did they begin their journey? Where have they traveled? And what have they experienced that has polished the surfaces of some and splintered others that are jagged and sharp-edged? (The ones with jagged edges don’t go into the pond: they serve as a ring around the edge.) Is this the difference, at least from the perspective of an Ojibwe academic, between students and rough-edged colleagues? Is it that I can see the smooth surface of those with less power, and only the jagged edges of those with power? Is my response to power differentials related to an automatic resistance to the legacy of colonial oppression? Or is it related to the Tao saying, a recognition that status is really only a social convention maintained by those in power for their own short-term benefit that is ultimately unfulfilling? Have the hard times experienced by those without power polished their surfaces, while those with privilege remained jagged for lack of transformative challenges?

 

http://www.123rf.com/photo_1716055_jagged-grunge-stone-slabs.html

 

Yes, I thought, I wash rocks and take the time to get to know students, but my colleagues tell me I should be more “productive.” Yet, to find the beauty in everyday life, to plant gardens that have begun to transform my working class neighborhood, is not wasted time. It has expanded possibilities. Helping students believe in themselves and modeling how to work with clients in authentically empowering ways will, perhaps, be of greater benefit than yet another journal article or conference presentation. It is the living art of washing rocks, or touching lives, that lets the best in others shine through. Taking the time to find beauty in others is surely needed in present and future times.

I have continued to try to understand why I am able to be sensitive to the experiences of those with the least power in any given setting, but maintain a judgmental stance toward those who have power. Not all people in positions of power need to be resisted. There are many colleagues who use their power mindfully to help students or clients see their own beauty and uniqueness. However, there are also colleagues who use power to tumble away all uniqueness, to judge difference as deficiency or deviance. Often this seems to be due to the deep insecurities they try to hide. Perhaps their emphasis on conformity is unconscious or well-intended, to help those who are different to adjust or acquiesce to the demands of the “real world.”

From my perspective, it is probably wiser to help students develop their own capacities to challenge accepted social constructions that limit opportunities for all of us to express our inner beauty and celebrate the inner beauty of others. The difficulty is to be in that liminal space between those without power and those who use power in oppressive ways, to buffer those without power from harm without harming those who use power in hurtful ways, to be like water and benefit all. Can it be that this buffering, like the power of water, will wear down and smooth the jagged edges?

 

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Photo Credit: Google images – Madeline Island – Lake Superior Scenic

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The Dance of Illusions

Carol A. Hand

At this time of year, when many families in the U.S. are celebrating Thanksgiving, I am reminded that it is a fictive holiday. It was initially celebrated in the 1600s by the descendants of European colonizers and immigrants to assert their sense of belonging in a nation founded on the genocide of indigenous peoples, massive land thefts and, in later years, the enslavement of darker skinned peoples from around the globe. For many descendants who describe themselves as a mix of ancestries, a “Heinz 57” of national and ethnic ancestries, Thanksgiving is an important holiday that symbolizes what is unique about their identity as real “Americans.” There is nothing real about nationalism – it is a social construction used to justify oppression and dispossession by “white-washing” history. But how are these descendants of colonizers able to learn the truth about history?

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Photo Source: Daily News, 2013
Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade 2013

I know from my own experience teaching university classes on diversity, few students have ever read works by Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States), Ronald Takaki (Through a Different Mirror), or James Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me). Fewer still have read Black Elk Speaks, Night-Flying Woman, or Custer Died for Your Sins. This indoctrination could be addressed by colleges and universities, but too often, faculty are more interested in convincing students of their expertise on subjects than in promoting critical thought.

Interesting if you think about the word “professor.” The meaning of the root “profess” is – “to affirm, to make a pretense of, to have or claim skill in or knowledge, [or] to affirm belief in” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1983, p. 547). Students are rarely in a position to question those in positions of power who profess to know the real truth. And rarely do those in power admit that theirs is but one possible perspective among many.

When it comes to Native American studies, the professors in colleges and universities are more likely to be descendants of Europeans than indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Some are gifted scholars and teachers who are continually learning and are careful not to perpetuate superficial and harmful stereotypes. Yet others have unfortunately built their careers on superficial work that reinforces ignorance and stereotypes. Some teach “feel-good” history – far more palatable to many students of European ancestry. Fictive feel-good history doesn’t make most students uncomfortable or challenge their preexisting assumptions – these are dangerous things for professors to do if one’s tenure is reliant on favorable evaluations by students. Nor is it wise to question the trustworthiness of the work of other scholars or researchers. It only makes it less likely that scholars who challenge the legitimacy and accuracy of colonial assumptions will ever have their work published by the most prestigious of journals in their field. But what gets published is sometimes not only astoundingly foolish, but also potentially harmful. Following is a story drawn from my years in academia about one such contribution that makes truth less accessible.

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I went to see a documentary called “A Long Way from Home.” On a weekday evening after classes, I entered a dimly lit basement of a student dormitory. I noticed folding chairs facing the podium at the front of the room and a cluster of people gathered in an alcove at the bottom of the stairs. Because the event was advertised as a screening of a Native American documentary, I expected food and laughter, and a warm welcome that are omnipresent for Native gatherings. There were no tables laden with food, no warm greetings. There was only an uncomfortable “hello” from several fifty-ish White women in flowing scarves. There were maybe ten people scattered around the room in folding chairs awaiting the evening’s event—a lecture and video presentation. Most of the audience members were Euro-American, with the exception of four young women from Africa. (I only learned this later when they asked questions at the end of the presentation.)

I found it odd that no one thought to ask the very small audience to introduce themselves. This made it clear that the audience was going to be lectured to by an expert rather than invited to participate in dialogue as equals. One of the women present walked to the podium and introduced the speaker, a former faculty member who had developed the video we would be viewing that evening. The speaker was a small gray-haired Euro-American woman in a black pants suit and flowing bright scarf that kept falling from her shoulders. As she spoke, she continually pulled at the scarf, readjusting it, only to have it begin slipping off again. She briefly described her video–a chronicle of the efforts of an Indigenous group to rebuild their tribal identity and culture and to obtain federal recognition.

The video was a fairly amateurish production. Interviews, still photographs, and drawings were interspersed as the story slowly unfolded. It described the group of people with indigenous ancestry who coalesced and elected a tribal leader. They talked about their efforts to rediscover their culture and language. The tribal leader of the group had amassed a considerable amount of money during his years of work as an engineer on the Alaska oil pipeline. (There was no discussion in the video of the consequences of this work for Native Alaskans or the environment.) These resources were used to help fund the group’s efforts to obtain recognition from the U.S. government as a legitimate tribe.

The video was disappointing, and even troubling. Here I was in a group of people who had little interaction with Native Americans. The documentary left a strong impression that there were no real Native American cultures anymore–only those that were being reinvented. (This is not to say that cultural revival is not important. It is!) There was no mention of the more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, or the more than 200 Native languages still spoken. And the questions were even more disturbing. It was one of those times when I did not even know what could be said in this setting, so I remained silent. I did notice that the four African women kept looking at me. It is true that I am rarely identified as Native American when I am away from northern Wisconsin, although I did resemble a number of the people in the video. Perhaps my African colleagues were expecting me to speak, but I honestly had nothing positive to contribute so I remained silent.

Then, an amazing thing happened. Each of the four African women asked questions. One asked a question about cultural bias. “How is it possible for someone outside of a culture to represent that culture in an unbiased way?” The speaker responded that she had taught journalism, and each semester, she began her class by writing all of her biases on the board. She explained that because she knew all of her biases, she was able to report from an unbiased perspective. (Interesting that knowing one’s own biases is a magic step for some that leads to an understanding of vastly different cultures with little effort! Although I know some of my biases, a commensurate epiphany about other cultures has never miraculously manifested for me. And even with hard work and years of study, I cannot even claim to be an expert on Ojibwe culture.) The next question was a complex query about the effect of colonialism on indigenous peoples around the world.

The speaker’s response made me feel as though I had entered not just a strange culture, but had also somehow been transported back in time to the 1950s. She threw her ever-slipping scarf over her shoulder with an exaggerated movement, raised her right arm to the ceiling as if in a dance recital, and stood tall. “I have just come back from a sabbatical in Africa where I had the honor of being selected to study traditional dance. And it is so fascinating. You know, African dancers as they move bend low and reach toward the earth.

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Distribution of the various language families of Africa.

When Native American people dance, they reach upward toward the sky.”

 

indigenous north america map

Linguistic Map of North America

As she uttered these remarks, she glided across the space in front of the audience, first bending low and reaching toward the floor, throwing her slipping scarf over her shoulder repeatedly, and then, reaching toward the ceiling.

The questioners were silenced. The only people who spoke afterward were Euro-American academics in the audience, each sharing what they knew were the crucial issues for Native American people. I wondered as I listened how many had ever spent time on a reservation or visited an urban Indian center.

Out of politeness, I stayed until the event ended. On another occasion, I would have sought out the women from Africa. Their questions reflected such astute insights. I wondered if their reactions were similar to mine. The arrogance of someone categorizing continents in what I could only see as “the dance of illusions!” Yet, my emotions were raw. I needed to reflect on this evening, so I walked silently up the stairs and out of the building. As I headed toward my car in the dark, I suddenly understood that time warps are real. I had not realized before that difference here had that added dimension. I doubted that I would be able to reach across this double divide to speak to people who already knew all of the answers about Native people. I felt as though I was a long way from home–a home not only in place but in time. And I wondered if I would ever find my way back.

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Many years have passed, and at least for brief moments I feel that I have found my way back home. But, like the title of the video I saw so long ago, it has been a long way. I have learned many new things in the intervening years, yet I am quite certain I will never be able to profess the absolute truths all of my students must believe.

The one truth I can speak is my regret that I could not do more on the way to present alternatives to the never-ending books, articles, research studies, speeches, and videos that perpetuate distorted, misleading, or fabricated histories and cultures and hide the real suffering of indigenous people today.

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Photo Source: Google Thanksgiving Clip Art 

A nation of colonizers and immigrants, built on the blood and the bones of my ancestors, continues to celebrate Thanksgiving year after year in ignorance of the costs to indigenous peoples past and present. I will not be joining them. I will continue to celebrate in my own way. I will remember the suffering of the past and present with rage and sorrow and gratitude because indigenous peoples have survived against all odds.

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Teaching – and the Wonder of Life in a Blade of Grass

Carol A. Hand

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Sister Lorita, my undergraduate advisor from St. Xavier College for Women in Chicago, taught me more than botany. Through example, she taught me what it means to teach. Students made fun of her because of her weight and because of her enthusiasm for her subject, a subject they found boring. One day when we were meeting, Sister Lorita looked at me and said, “I know students laugh at me, but I don’t care if people make fun of me. It’s worth it to me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.”

“The wonder of life.” Isn’t that the most important thing we can learn? Although I was a chemistry and biology major at the time, my life took a different path. Instead of science, I teach students how to work with people, although there are many times when I would rather be an ecologist.

When I first started teaching, I did not remember Sister Lorita’s lesson. I taught the same meaningless theories and content in the same boring ways as most of my previous teachers, yet I noticed there were differences. Unlike colleagues who told me they never admitted they didn’t have an answer to a student question, I was honest. While other faculty told me they made up an answer, I admitted it was a good question that I needed to research before giving an answer. I was encouraged by a friend, a linguist and Jewish scholar, who supported this approach. She told me that the Hebrew word for the verb “to teach” is an intensive form of the verb “to learn.” It is this chance to keep learning that makes my work so rewarding. The other difference I noted was my tendency to highlight student strengths and accomplishments, rather than merely point out errors in their work.

It took me years to recognize that these differences were truly significant. Like Sister Lorita, I became far less concerned about what others thought of me and more concerned with how what students learned in my class would affect their views of the people they were responsible for helping during their careers. Could they learn to see the wonder of possibilities in all people, regardless of their past and present circumstances? So I began experimenting with ways to consciously “walk the talk.”

I am consistently exploring ways to operationalize a liberatory praxis framework in my research and teaching. Liberatory praxis is based on a dialogic approach for raising awareness about the ways in which dominance is established and maintained. Praxis, the synthesis of theory and action, results in recognizing that both those who dominate and those who are dominated share in the perpetuation of oppressive institutions and paradigms (Freire, 2000).

As an Ojibwe scholar, a linear descendant of hereditary chiefs, I have been socialized to accept responsibility for providing leadership and for challenging and working to transform oppressive ideologies, institutions, and practice paradigms. (Ojibwe leadership was not a position of status. Instead, leadership carried obligations for community service and responsibility for community survival and well-being. No one was obligated to follow leaders – this was an earned status based on a leader’s ability to preserve the community through wisdom and generosity.) I have learned through example that this means that I must reflect critically about the roles of power, political ideologies, and practice paradigms in the reproduction of hegemony over oppressed groups and individuals. Both the content and methods that I use for practice, teaching, and research are consciously selected to reflect a recognition of individual and group strengths and the importance of structural and environmental forces.

As an educator, researcher, and practitioner, I believe I have a responsibility to model respectful partnerships that explore and create “the best we can imagine” for our clients, colleagues, communities and world. This means I am always learning, not infrequently from approaches that prove short-sighted or ineffective. If there is anything I learned from my doctoral work and subsequent research, it is how much more there is yet to learn. This realization is a powerful foundation for working in partnership with others, especially those who have internalized the belief that they have little power or knowledge. It also gives me the freedom to experiment with new approaches and connections, to synthesize and create, and to take risks.

Years ago, I was watching an educational show on methods for teaching diversity. Although I have long forgotten the name of the show, the slogan the presenters used has remained with me and has particular salience for social work education: “to learn, to care, to act.” As a social work educator, it is my belief that I have a responsibility to teach students the knowledge and skills they will need to work respectfully and effectively with clients, organizations, and communities. Liberatory Praxis, the blending of theory and action, is a crucial teaching foundation that requires going beyond merely requiring students to memorize facts and theories (Freire, 2000; Wallerstein & Duran, 2003). It moves beyond the “banking model” of education that views students as empty vessels to be filled by the teacher’s knowledge. Liberatory praxis recognizes that teachers are also learners and are responsible for creating environments based on principles of awareness and respect for differing perspectives, mutual responsibility for learning, and consciousness-raising of both learners and educators through dialogue.

It is also crucial to encourage students to develop and apply critical thinking skills, and to help them develop an understanding of, and empathy toward, people who come from very different backgrounds. Given that social work professional ethics require challenging social injustices and inequality, students need to be able to critically evaluate the practices and policies we teach. Often, as social workers, we are all required to work toward client and community empowerment and liberation within the context of limiting, deficit-focused paradigms and policies.

In order to operationalize a liberatory praxis philosophy, I interweave a number of different approaches into the courses I teach: (1) a breadth of professional perspectives in required readings; (2) readings that expose students to the emic (or insider) views of oppression rather than merely relying on etic (outsider) observations and assumptions; (3) in-class exercises and modeling that encourage teamwork, the development of empathy, and the application of critical thinking skills; and (4) assignments that require experiential involvement with the focal topic, critical thinking, and self-reflection.

During the past several years, I have had an opportunity to read more broadly and reflect on the cultural fit of this egalitarian, dialogic, and consciously modeled approach for working with others who have less power in a given socially constructed community or institution. It is my belief that social work educators have an ethical responsibility to teach students the knowledge and skills they will need to work respectfully and effectively with diverse clients. Unlike other disciplines, social work educators have an additional responsibility to model strength-based, empowering practice in their pedagogical approaches with students. We know that students do as we do, rather than what we tell them to do.

Experimenting with different approaches for modeling empowerment with students has been the primary focus of my work as an educator during the past twelve years. As a result, I believe that I am better able to articulate to students the specific approaches I am using with what hoped-for outcomes. I am also better able to create classroom and online environments that enable students to learn through exposure to rich and diverse perspectives, self-reflection, critical dialectical assignments, and evaluation of their own applied work and that of their peers. In that sense my work has remained both liberatory and applied.

Most importantly, I ask students to become mindful of the lenses they look through to understand the world and other people. We are all socialized to see the world in certain ways by our culture, socioeconomic class, and religion, etc. In order to unpack what we have learned to accept as “normal” and “good,” there are a number of questions each person needs to explore and answer for themselves. There are no right or wrong answers, although they may differ from the answers others have.

Cosmological questions:
Are people basically “good” or “bad?” Some cultures believe that children are born in a state of original sanctity, as gifts from the creator to be protected and allowed the freedom to express who they already are. Other cultures believe that children are born in a state of original sin. They need to be taught right from wrong, using coercion and punishment if need be to help them learn to behave in morally acceptable ways. How cultures answer this question can be discerned by looking at the institutions and policies they develop to socialize, educate, and protect children and families.
Is the world a place of scarcity or abundance? Competition for scarce resources results in inequality and war. Yet abundance is the result when people believe that there can be enough for everyone to share if people work together, using only what they need, and acting as stewards for the resources in their environments.

Ontological questions:
Is there one truth or are there many (Creswell, 1994)? Are both possibilities? The answer to these questions differs across people and cultures and indicates our willingness to respect the trustworthiness and value of beliefs other than our own.

Epistemological questions:
What is the relationship of the observer to that which is being observed (Creswell, 1994)? That is, does my very presence as an observer affect the behaviors of others and therefore, change what I observe? Or am I in a protective bubble, as it were, capable of being present with no effects on others I am observing? Am I capable of remaining invisible to those whom I am observing, and separate and detached from what I am observing, allowing me to be completely objective?

Axiological questions:
Is our understanding of others value-free, or do values color how we make sense of the world and other people’s behavior?

Understanding one’s self and the ways in which one has been socialized to see the world are indispensable for understanding others in respectful, inclusive ways. Learning to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass is perhaps one of the most important things we can learn. If we can’t see the beauty and wonder of life in nature, how can we see it in each other?

I am truly grateful for the opportunity I had to learn from Sister Lorita’s example and her words of wisdom so many years ago. May her spirit rest in peace knowing that at least one student did listen, even if it took decades for that student to remember. Perhaps many others listened as well.

blade of grass
Photo Credit:
3quarksdaily: Tuesday Poem

Authors Cited:

Creswell, J. W. (1994). Research design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum.

Wallerstein, N. & Duran, B. (2003). The conceptual, historical, and practice roots of community based participatory research and related participatory traditions. In M. Minkler & N. Wallerstein (Eds.), Community-based participatory research for health (pp. 27-52). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Aadi and the Magic Chair

Carol A. Hand

When my grandson, Aadi, was just learning to talk, there were some sounds that were hard for him to say. He couldn’t say “g” or “r” or “d,” so instead of calling me “Grandma,” he called me “Ahma.” Because it was a special title, I never corrected him. Although he is a teenager now, it is still my name.

When he was 5, I took a job at a university far away from his home. Although we didn’t see each other for two years, we often spoke on the phone. Whenever we talked, Aadi would ask me to tell him stories about our adventures when he was little and stories about where I worked. One of the stories I told him was about the magic chair in my office at the university. When he was 7, he came to stay with me during his Christmas vacation. He was sad because he missed his mother and father, but he was excited to see the magic chair. For a Christmas present six years later, I wrote down some of the stories for him, including the story of his encounter with the magic chair.

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When Ahma was a teacher in a university a long time ago, she was given a very expensive, fancy chair for her office by one of her bosses. It was a chair that was soft and had all kinds of levers to make it move: up and down, from side to side, and to move the back of the chair so it leaned backwards or forwards. Ahma could never figure out how to use the levers. Nothing ever moved when she pushed and pulled the levers, no matter how hard she tried to make them work. She couldn’t get the seat part of the chair to fit under her desk. So, she decided to use the plain old wooden chair in her office. It was simple, with no fancy levers. It was just fine. When she was busy, she really didn’t notice if the chair was hard and without levers. She kept the special chair for the students to use when they came to visit her, still with all of the tags on it showing that it was new.

chair 1

One of her students, Penelope (not her real name), was having a very hard time. Penelope had two children. Because she was taking care of her children by herself and going to school full time, it was hard for her to work enough hours to pay all of her bills. One time, she was being threatened by her landlord. The landlord told her that she and her children would be evicted from their apartment if Penelope didn’t pay the rent. If that happened, they would not have anywhere to live.

When Penelope went into Ahma’s office, she was crying. As she sat on the magic chair, the seat suddenly dropped lower. Penelope was startled, but not hurt. She stopped crying and started to chuckle. It helped Penelope forget her troubles for just a little bit. She was able to look at her problems in a new way. As she and Ahma spoke together, they were able to come up with an idea to help her and her family stay in their apartment. Working together, Penelope and Ahma were able to convince the landlord to let Penelope and her family stay in their home. And they were able to figure out how to help Penelope pay all of the money she owed.

chair 2

Several months later, Penelope came to Ahma when the university wouldn’t let her have a copy of her diploma because she didn’t have the money to pay them. She had to spend all of her money to pay the hospital because her son was rushed to the emergency room when he became very ill. Her diploma was important — it was proof that she had completed her education and that she was qualified to do lots of different kinds of jobs. Because she couldn’t get a copy of her diploma, it was hard for her to find a job that would help her pay her bills. When she entered Ahma’s office, she was crying because she was so scared and sad.

chair 3This time when she sat on the special chair, the back tipped way back when she sat down. Again, she was startled but unhurt, and she started laughing. Again, the chair helped Penelope look at her situation in a different way. Ahma helped Penelope look at all of her strengths and gifts. Penelope was very smart. She was kind to people, and because she had overcome so many challenges in her own life, she was gifted at helping other people solve their problems. When Penelope left Ahma’s office, she felt more hopeful and confident. She was finally able to get a job, pay her bills, and get a copy of her diploma.

The next time Penelope came to visit Ahma, she peeked in the door looking sad. But then, she glanced at the chair and started laughing. She said, “I wonder what it will do to me today!” Because Penelope was laughing, the chair just acted like a normal chair when she sat down. The seat didn’t drop down, and the back of the chair stayed straight. And every time after that when Penelope came to Ahma’s office, she smiled and laughed as she looked at the chair. And the magic chair continued to behave just like any other chair when Penelope sat down smiling. It was just a normal chair when she was happy and not sad.

There were many other sad students after Penelope who experienced the surprises of the magic chair. When they, too, learned to smile when they saw the chair sitting in the center of Ahma’s office, the chair behaved just like every other chair, it just stayed still.

When Aadi came to visit Ahma, he told her that he was excited to see the magic chair. So, one day, Ahma brought him to her office. Aadi eagerly sat on the chair. He worked all the levers and leaned this way and that, but nothing happened. He tried again, and again, but still nothing happened. Finally, he gave up, disappointed. Ahma laughed. She told Aadi it was a magic chair. It only did funny things when people were really sad. It helped make them smile and laugh again. She added that even though Aadi was missing his Mom and Dad, the chair could sense that he was okay. His Ahma and Papa loved him and would take care of him until his mother came soon to take him home. His Mom did come, and he went back home to the shore of beautiful Lake Superior.

When Ahma left her job at the university, she left the magic chair behind, still with its tags. Maybe it is still helping other students who are sad, but we may never know.

chair 1

 

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