Category Archives: Reflections

And Still They Come to My Door … Uninvited

Carol A. Hand

My yard is fenced and gated, a strange thing for someone of Ojibwe ancestry, I know. But I’ve learned from past experiences – mine and that of my ancestors. It creates a safe space for my dog to run and provides some protection for the gardens that the urban deer view as theirs. And once it was so. I would share with the deer but prefer that the choice be mine, to share equally, not all.

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Photo Credit: My front gate – July 28, 2014

The fence, now higher than it was a few months ago, does not deter those who wish to save my soul. Dressed in their Sunday best, arms laden with bibles and brochures, they still make their way to my door. As I watch them approach, I am reminded of a passage from Thoreau.

“There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a certainty that a man [or a woman] was coming to my house with the conscious design of going me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts called the simoon, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his [her] good done to me, – some of its virus mingled with my blood” (Henry David Thoreau, 1999, Walden or life in the woods and “on the duty of civil disobedience”, p. 59).

My annual uninvited visitors have taught me that it is sometimes wiser to hide. I have no wish to tell others what they should believe. I’ve grown weary of the futility of expecting them to respect my right live by my own beliefs. I continue to question my response last year, the first story I posted on my old blog…

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Hard of Hearing (June 18, 2013)

Yesterday was the first sunny day in what seemed like months (April 21, 2013). It was relatively warm here in Minnesota, in the mid-30s, and without wind it almost felt like spring. Patches of brown ground had emerged from the piles of snow in my yard. My dog Cookie, an 80-pound Black Norwegian Elkhound, was eager to go out and putter in the fenced-in front yard. As we reached the back gate, I noticed two women had entered my yard and were walking up my front sidewalk toward the house. I hesitated at the gate, wondering if it was wise to let Cookie into the yard. As I watched them walk toward me, I realized that the older woman leading the way was a visitor from last year, a proselytizer from some fundamental Christian church.

Both of my new visitors were dressed in long black coats and high-heeled shoes. I wondered how they had even made it through the unshoveled snow outside my front gate. After shoveling the sidewalk, deck and driveway, I was too tired of hefting the heavy white snow to finish the last patch, instead hoping it would melt on its own.

The older woman had carefully coiffed, curly silver hair, the second, younger woman following behind, both carrying notebooks and bibles in their folded arms. I remembered the older woman, although her companion was new. Last year, her companion was a grim-faced stocky woman with dark hair liberally peppered with gray. I remembered the encounter because of the notebooks and bibles. But this spring was far different than last year. Last year it was rarely below freezing, and I had been able to do exterior repairs on my house and yard. And because I had a chance to begin to work on creating gardens, I think I was willing to try to reach across the cultural divide and relate to them.

Last year, when the older woman introduced herself and the church she was from, I replied that I worked very hard to overcome my biases toward people from her religious background. Yet it was not an easy task for me. As an Ojibwe, I carried deep anger and pain because of the history of “Christian” treatment of Ojibwe people. Her response had been that she was sympathetic to Native Americans and what they had to teach about the environment. I let that one pass. Then she asked if it was okay for her to read a passage from the bible. I lifted my left hand spontaneously in a gesture to ward off “bad medicine,” an unconscious cultural behavior, and replied, “I am not interested. No. I don’t want to hear it.” The younger woman was standing slightly behind her, scowling and avoiding eye contact as if I were the devil incarnate. Fortunately for me, the older woman did not begin reading and left graciously. I assumed at the time that she got the message and realized I was not a soul she could save on that day.

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Photo Credit: Cookie – April 21, 2013

Now, as I stood at my gate with Cookie, I realized my repeat visitor hadn’t really accepted defeat last year as I had hoped. Here she was again with another “proselytizer-in-training.” It took me less than a minute to decide to let Cookie into the front yard. Both women froze in shock as Cookie ran toward them barking. The younger woman turned to flee, but Cookie is a gentle dog unless faced with someone she senses is potentially violent, so I was not surprised when she sniffed the older woman and walked away, bored with the whole drama. I remained close to the back gate, and the older woman began walking toward me even though I was unsmiling and nothing about my face or gestures suggested welcome. “I was afraid of the dog,” she said. My reply was to again raise my left hand. I responded gently, “Please go.” She answered “I can’t hear you, I’m hard of hearing.” I walked a little closer, left hand still raised, and repeated a little louder, “Please go.” She and her compatriot did leave, although they sat in their car in front of my house for several minutes, perhaps debriefing from their scare.

This morning I found myself still pondering why I behaved in such an unwelcoming manner. And then it occurred to me. My Ojibwe ancestors experienced brutal treatment at the hands of so-called Christians, and the scars remain with me to this day. Proselytizers are not in the business of really listening to others or, more importantly, honoring their heritage and beliefs. Last year’s decision to leave without reading her bible verse didn’t really mean that my message was heard. One needs to really listen in an open way to understand others. Her presence again this year suggests that she could not respect my position or beliefs, that she was “hard of hearing” not only in a physical sense, but more importantly, on a soul-deep level. I guess I was relatively safe to disrespect because I was soft-spoken, honest, but respectful. Perhaps my unwillingness to be disingenuous on the first warm day of spring this year and my ferocious-looking gentle dog will save me from the intrusion of “great white saviors” who come calling uninvited. Who knows what next spring will bring?

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This year, they waited until summer to come. This time it was a man and a woman who appeared at my door, ringing the bell, driving my new little dog, Pinto, into a fit of violent barking. Unlike Cookie, Pinto’s a fierce little soul who will not hesitate to bite intruders. I peeked from behind an interior door to see who was at the door. After one look at their Sunday attire and bibles, I decided to hide from sight in the kitchen. It was a long wait. They rang and rang, pried open the screen door that needs repair and knocked and knocked, and finally circled the house to the side door, forcing me to flee upstairs to remain hidden. I could watch from above as they stood waiting for at least half an hour, peacefully looking out at my gardens. It reminded me of a Gary Larson cartoon. If I looked like a bean bag chair, I wouldn’t have to hide!

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Photo Credit: Gary Larson – The Blob family at home

There are times when I feel it is wiser to avoid provocation. Today, I just wanted to enjoy a peaceful, productive morning. As I peeked at the visitors from behind the door, I felt a sense of dread. “Please not today! There are too many real troubles in the world that need attention.”

Although I wish my uninvited visitors well, my life is not theirs to judge nor is my soul theirs to save. Not today, and not next year. If they sincerely wish to do good in the world, there are many more productive paths they could take than the one to my door.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Morning Mourning Thoughts

“When people do no follow Tao,
Their horses are harnessed for war,
Their energies are used for destruction,
And many go hungry.
Great troubles come
From not knowing what is enough.
Great conflict arises from wanting too much.
When we know when enough is enough,
There will always be enough.”
(From Diane Dreher, 1990, The Tao of inner peace: A guide to inner and outer peace, p. 126)

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Photo Credit, Ava Hand Johnson – 2013, Photographer – Jnana Hand

“Oftentimes have I heard you speak of the one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world.
But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each of you,
So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower that the lowest which in you also.
And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree,
So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.
Like a procession you walk together towards your god-self,
You are the way and the wayfarers.
And when one of you falls down he falls for those behind, a caution against the stumbling stone.
Ay, and he falls for those ahead of him, who though faster and surer of foot, yet removed not the stumbling stone.”
(Kahlil Gibran, 1923/1951, The prophet, pp. 40-41)

May we learn to live in peace with each other and in harmony with the world we share.

Alternative Futures — Who Chooses?

Carol A. Hand

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”
– Albert Einstein

“You will only learn what you already know.”
-John McKnight, Sufi Story

This week’s social policy class was difficult — not because of the enthusiastic hard-working students. It is always a difficult subject for me to teach because I need to stay on top of troubling current events and somehow find a place of hope for the future before I can encourage students to work for change. The evening before class, I was reading the news and realized for the first time the magnitude of danger and stupidity involved in the Enbridge Energy Pipeline.  A day later, I’m still uncertain about what I can do to help avert disaster, let alone contribute to positive alternatives.

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Photo Credits: Google Enbridge Pipeline images

The pipeline that carries dirty tar sands oil laden with toxic chemicals around the Great Lakes already exists, threatening one-third of the fresh water on earth. At a public hearing last evening in Duluth, I listened to the proposal Enbridge has pending with the state to expand their pumping capacity – to pump more dirty oil to refineries into the state and across the headwaters of the Mississippi River, under and around the Great Lakes, through wetlands and wildrice beds, and through tribal lands in violation of treaty rights. I went to listen, observe, and learn, not to testify.

This morning (another snowy one), I am still reflecting as the winds from the southeast bring the toxic heavy fumes from the nearby factories. I am struggling to find hope for the future. I wish I could press the rewind button to change the past. What did I think was so important at the time the pipeline was being built that I didn’t pay attention to what Enbridge was doing? What small local issues felt so important that I missed attending to the larger threats? Yet those questions are only unproductive distractions. The question should be what can I do now? Listening to the people who spoke last night has left me with another question, is it already too late? I decided to write about my initial observations and reflections as a foundation for dialogue with others who may have insights.

Ever the storyteller, I need to begin with “one true sentence.” I don’t like to attend group meetings. Yesterday, I found myself looking for any excuse not to go to the evening hearing — driving at night is hard because I can’t see well enough, taking the bus at night would add hours to the commute across town because busses run so infrequently, going alone into a crowd of unknown but probably opinionated cliquish strangers is so uncomfortable, I have nothing to add to the conversations because I don’t know the history or science. I had to ask myself if I really cared enough to go anyway, and even though it was counter to the underlying concern to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel, I called a cab and showed up with more than 100 other people in the basement conference room of a downtown hotel.

Because it was a public hearing to consider Enbridge’s request to expand an already existing pipeline, Enbridge staff and lawyers, key state agencies charged with making the final decision, and an administrative judge to conduct the hearing, sat at tables in the front of the room. The final decision rests in the hands of state decision makers based on state laws that consider only if the proposed energy-related expansion is necessary to promote the public interest of state citizens, to protect life and safety. It was difficult to listen to the Enbridge staff and lawyers try to justify the need for expansion and glorify their commitment to the environment and well-being of communities. Of course, their assurances of corporate commitment to safety rang hollow to me in light of the profit motive and their attempts to justify a xenophobic national agenda to reduce dependence on imported oil from unfriendly Arab states by partnering with our friendly neighbor to the north.

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Photo Credit: Google Enbridge Pipeline images

Enbridge had planned well. Knowing that the order of speakers would be based on the when they arrived and signed in, the first five people to testify spoke in favor of the proposed expansion. All had carefully-crafted written speeches that emphasized the economic benefits through employment opportunities and increased tax revenues, and like the other eight supportive speakers, all had direct economic links to Enbridge. (I did stifle an incredulous chuckle as the Red Cross representative who spoke in support of Enbridge praised their corporate commitment and past efforts in disaster relief.)

The opposition testimony (two-thirds of the speakers) varied from emotional appeals to protect the water and earth to citing scientific studies about the urgency of addressing climate change by reducing reliance on fossil fuels and non-renewable energy sources. Others documented Enbridge’s history of oil spills and noted specific observations about the carelessness of their building and maintenance practices, or their failure to follow treaty provisions when crossing tribal lands.

I listened, observed, and took notes. Today, I am trying to sort out my overall insights. First, I need to reflect on the opening remarks of the administrative judge. He explained that the meeting room was set up with a table for speakers so everyone could speaker to each other as neighbors and community members. I’m not sure that happened. Half of the audience would applaud after those in support of Enbridge spoke (the woman seated next to me was among them), and the other half would applaud for those who presented their opposition (I was among that half). Although many spoke with passion, their words did not touch my heart because I didn’t sense their hearts in their words. Perhaps it was fear of speaking in public, but even fear is ego-motivated. Only one woman had the presence of mind to stand and face the audience as she testified, with her back to those at the front tables. Her words came the closest to touching others who expressed differing views.

As I reflect on the perspectives of those who spoke in support of expansion, I realize that no one offered viable alternatives to meet their legitimate economic concerns. They need Enbridge to support their families. Do we have viable alternative energy businesses to absorb businesses and workers reliant on old oil technologies? Do we have universities and technical colleges that can help them retool? Their support for the continuation and expansion of our reliance on old technology is understandable, but no one in the room who opposed expansion acknowledged this, so the room remained divided. It seemed as though the supporters of expansion were forced into a position of denying climate change to defend a perspective that was characterized as ignorant and self-interested. Opponents could leave and feel self-righteous and blame their failure to reach others’ hearts because the others were ignorant and self-interested, not really a part of our community.

This is the challenge of being between cultures – the need to understand different perspectives from an empathetic middle. It doesn’t answer the larger questions of what I can do, but I can begin to explore ways to address legitimate concerns and bridge cultural divides. And I can ask the blogging community, many of whom who are far more knowledgeable than I for help. I welcome dialogue, links and creative, inclusive ideas.

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Photo Credit: Goggle Enbridge Pipeline images (with edits)

In the meantime, I will live with the knowledge that a “disaster-waiting-to-happen” is not far from my front yard. I will continue to explore whether it is possible for the community to come together to imagine an alternative future that is inclusive or whether opposing sides will remain divided in the certainty that only their side knows the right answer.

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Photo Credit: Kalamazoo Pipeline (2010)

Links for Further Information:

http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/petinfra.pdf
http://www.occupymn.org/mn-enbridge-resistance/
http://www.wdio.com/article/stories/S3369902.shtml
http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/03/14/northern-gateway-pipeline-tanker-spill-risk_n_4967272.html?utm_hp_ref=enbridge
http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/desmog-canada/kitimat-plebiscite-enbridge-northern-gateway_b_4987798.html?utm_hp_ref=enbridge
http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/ben-west/vancouver-orcas-oil-kinder-morgan_b_4995668.html?utm_hp_ref=enbridge
http://www.globalresearch.ca/voices-of-resistance-to-canadas-enbridge-northern-gateway-pipeline/5362704
http://www.canadians.org/pipelines
http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/how-activists-shut-down-the-enbridge-line-9-pipeline-hearings
http://www.pipeupagainstenbridge.ca/
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/resources-minister-rickford-faces-aboriginal-backlash-over-enbridge-project/article17598247/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalamazoo_River_oil_spill
http://www.epa.gov/enbridgespill/
http://michiganradio.org/term/kalamazoo-river-oil-spill
http://chicagoist.com/2012/07/26/two_years_after_massive_oil_spill_t.php
http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/aswift/pipeline_regulators_cite_two_d.html

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Reflections on another Snowy Morning – Blogging and Connections to Community

Carol A. Hand

This morning I was still thinking about the observations voiced by a gifted photographer from Greece who shared his parting observations about blogging, his farewell to his many followers and to the blogosphere. A year ago, I would never have imagined myself understanding what a blog was, let alone participating in one. As I understand his words, blogging from his perspective keeps people from living life in the real world, giving them the illusion they are tackling the injustices they write about rather than taking the on-the-ground actions necessary.

I know I have watched my own obsession with blogging intensify during this winter. Yet I need to be honest about the importance of context. I have never lived through a winter like this one. The two feet of snow that came early in December, covered by a layer of freezing rain, ushered in a polar vortex that is only now beginning to lift in mid-February. My car was literally frozen shut for three weeks by temperatures that never rose above zero degrees Fahrenheit. Windchills of 30 to 40 below zero made being outside a “nose and finger-numbing” reality in just a few minutes. I don’t have a tv, so the internet and blogging became my connections to the larger world.

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Photo: Duluth – February 17, 2014

My occasional trips to the store for necessities have never made me feel as though I was part of my new community. Although I try to live in the moment and connect with others in these public spaces, few respond to smiles or comments intended to create some kind of human-to-human connection. Being introverted, more because of life experiences than by nature, the only spheres for interpersonal connections for me have been work, school, and sometimes neighborhoods. Now that I am semi-retired, these options are limited.

The retiring blogger’s reflections have reminded me of how I have lived in other isolating times. When living in insular environments, I found whatever media I could to remind me of larger world contexts, photographs of people from around the world during colonial and post-colonial times, books and poetry from many different historical eras, nations and cultures, and foreign films and television shows. Blogging has been a more accessible way to connect. I am fortunate to have a computer and internet connection that are unattainable luxuries for others in the U.S. and the world. Yet I also realize that blogging has been more than merely learning about events around the world from many diverse perspectives. It has also been about building connections with others who share similar values.

This winter, blogging has exposed me to a community of creative critical thinkers who have challenged me to learn and grow. I am humbled by the contributions of other bloggers – the beauty of artistic gifts and eloquent descriptions of crucial actions to counter hegemony in nations, communities, prisons, and classrooms. It inspires me to use the opportunities I do have as a part-time adjunct to connect students with global information from bloggers who share creative ways of thinking about resistance to hegemony and actions that are being taken to build a kinder more inclusive world. I am grateful for those bloggers who have reached out to make me feel included in this community. From the still snowy north-country, I wish to say miigwetch (Ojibwe thank you) to the inspiring people in the blogging community who have opened up new vistas and a sense of comradeship for me during a winter that might otherwise have been unbearable.

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Photo: Pinto, my recently rescued companion – February 17, 2014

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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.

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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 Burden of the Sentinels

Carol A. Hand

Throughout my career in academia, I was unable to move from the space between cultures. Like some of my students, I, too, carried the burden of the sentinels. Most of my fellow faculty defined their role as that of gatekeepers for the profession of social work. Many faculty felt the purpose of education was to inculcate and enforce student compliance with professional competencies and standards. Of course, few questioned the origins of these standards and who really benefitted from the resulting assimilation. Fewer still contemplated what was lost through the process of homogenization. In my work, I tried to create a space for students to find their own voice and develop the skills to overcome or buffer the forces of conformity. Yet I sometimes had to witness the painful and tragic costs of my colleagues’ oppressive approach to education. Sometimes, all I could do was write about my observations and insights, as in the following essay drawn from those years.

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It is tragic and deeply troubling that three students have committed suicide in the past two years. The faculty who worked with the students were grieving and confused. In an effort to heal, the head of student counseling services came to discuss suicide during the faculty meeting yesterday. I did not know the students who died, so as a person on the margins, my reaction to the discussion was very different than that of my colleagues. In fact, the discussion left me deeply troubled. The focus was on a new university policy. In order to reduce liability for the university, faculty would be required to force suffering students to meet with the dean for possible expulsion. The head of counseling services explained that suicide was a form of violence perpetrated by imbalanced individuals on those around them. They needed to be stopped.

When the discussion of suicide ended, no one asked what we might do differently in the future. When we seamlessly moved on to mundane issues, I was angry and distressed. I have seen the way our actions as faculty create problems for the most gifted and sensitive of our students. So I asked what we might do differently. There was no response. The conversation shifted to how to use the corporate credit cards. My response was to get up and leave the meeting at that point, slamming the door as I exited the room.

I know my colleagues interpreted my behavior as strange and annoying rather than as the only way I could express the depth of my distress. So be it. This reflection is my attempt to make sense of the strength of my reactions. And typically, my reflections are based on stories and metaphors that may seem unrelated.

A while ago, my partner at the time shared a story he heard on public radio about the experiences of researchers who were conducting a study of a community of chimpanzees (Thom Hartmann, November 22, 2006, Transcript: Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees). Early in the study, the researchers noted that about 5 percent of the community appeared to exhibit all of the characteristics of depression. They stayed on the periphery of the community, they rarely engaged in social activities, and they appeared lethargic. With the best of intentions, the researchers decided to treat this isolated group for depression, so they removed the “depressed” chimpanzees from the community and worked with them. The treatment seemed to work. But each time the researchers returned to the troop, they noted that new chimps had taken up posts on the periphery, and they too were removed. At the end of the year, when the researchers returned to the troop’s home to reintroduce the “healthy” chimps, they discovered that the rest of the troop had perished from an undetermined cause. The researchers hypothesized that the sentinel chimps played a crucial role on the boundaries, scanning the environment and warning the troop of danger. Without sentinels, the troop fell prey to external predators. This raises questions about the importance of the “boundary spanners,” those who remain on the periphery to scan for external threats while still relating to the community, albeit in a distant manner. I have pondered this story’s links with my own observations of the burdens carried by people who are on the margins of society because of their difference.

It has been said that those Native people who are the most sensitive and gifted are the ones who do not survive. It is only those who are the strongest physically and psychologically who survive. For me, it is no wonder that Native people who carry the gifts of vision appear most susceptible to addiction. They are the boundary spanners who can see what can be, perhaps what should be, and how far we have strayed from that possibility. To be surrounded by a global society that is focused on exploitation of resources rather than preservation for future generations, on gratifying the self-interested pleasures of the moment rather than the preservation of meaningful relationships, why would not the burden sometimes be too great to bear?

To listen to a discussion of suicide, then, to hear it described as a form of violence perpetrated by deficient individuals on others, is profoundly disturbing. Is it sane or reasonable for sensitive boundary spanners to settle for the insanity of war, the destructive exploitation of nature, the disparities that mean some individuals can buy gold-laced shower curtains while many people throughout the world die of starvation? Where does the violence originate that leads to despair for those who are most sensitive? Does it help give heart to boundary spanners when we label them as deviant? When we medicate them to see the world through a drug-induced haze of mediocrity? When we fail to understand the profound suffering of those on the boundaries who try to warn those in the center about the dangers that surround the community?

When people choose to end their suffering, is it their violence or ours as a society that is the cause? To take one’s own life is the most profound sacrifice. It may be the only way left to alert others of the dangers we face because we have created a world where the brightest and most sensitive among us find no hope, no comfort, no sense of a deeper meaning in life. And when they die, who will be left as sentinels to alert us to the dangers that surround us? Who will protect us from our self-destructive consumerism and exploitation of the environment and others’ labor? Who will alert us to the slow death this imbalance promises for those generations to follow?

The well-meaning among us who would remove the sentinels for their own good may only be hastening the death of that which makes us most human. We can try to convince those who see what we cannot that their visions are hallucinations. We can anaesthetize them and preserve them in a state of half-life because it makes us feel “moral” and it makes our life more comfortable. Yet, by doing so, we do not even serve our own self-interests. The lesson of the chimpanzees is that we need to understand what the sentinels are telling us. We need to create a space to truly listen to what they are trying to tell us about a world that has become toxic to the most sensitive among us. It may be the world of our classrooms. It may be the world outside. How can we, as social work faculty, learn from the sentinels about our own practice as teachers and advisors? Are there things we need to change about how and what we teach to create a place where sentinels can preserve a sense of hope and possibility? I do not have the answers to these questions. I grieve the deaths of these students even though I did not know them as individuals. And I grieve the lost opportunity to explore this issue in a thoughtful way with my colleagues.

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By sharing this essay penned years ago, it is my intention to honor the sentinels who remind us what it means to be truly human. It is my hope that we can learn to value them while they live so they no longer feel the need to sacrifice themselves.

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Photo credit: flickriver (Dec. 7, 2003)

Another Partial Success — Silent Sentinels of the Avebury

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