Category Archives: Reflections

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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