… I was working as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. It was not an easy job for many reasons, primarily because of the enduring legacy of colonialism that continued to impose dominant cultural paradigms on tribal communities and use divide and conquer tactics to foment conflicts between “traditional” and “progressive” tribal factions. Resolving conflict was a central part of my job, and it often put me in the middle of powerful competing interests. At a particularly challenging time, I needed to travel with one of my staff to a conference on worldwide healing for Indigenous people held in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference helped me realize I was not alone. Rediscovering the candle on my bookcase reminded me of the conference’s closing ceremony.
More than one thousand of us, representing many cultures and nations, stood in a circle within a large auditorium holding hands. Then, one elder walked to the center. She explained that the closing ceremony was intended to remind us that we were not alone. Because we were in a government building, we couldn’t use candles (fire ordinances prevented it), so flashlights would have to do. And then, the lights in the room went out as her flashlight went on in the center of the circle. She signaled to the four directions, highlighting one person from each of the four directions to walk to the center – first the east, then the south, the west, and the north. The representatives were all given a flashlight. As they touched their darkened lights to the elders “candle,” their flashlights were turned on. They were instructed to carry their light to the four directions and light other candles in their part of the circle. The elder explained that it would not be easy to keep the candle fires burning, but if the light went out, people could always return to the center to light them once again…
The rain I asked for hasn’t come yet but perhaps it will if I keep my focus on weaving life and light into the course despite the technological challenges I will most likely encounter …
I woke up this morning. Late, of course, when defined by daylight savings time. Sunlight was streaming through the eastern window. But when I awoke, a gentle but stunning realization dawned as a simple question ran through my mind.
“What happens if you put good people in an evil place?”
Although I made many mistakes in my journey, strength came from the ancestors who sometimes appeared to me and the wise beings who visited me in dreams. They taught me that compassion comes from forgiving one’s self as a necessary foundation for forgoing the need to demonize others for the choices they make.
“Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.”
I look at the state of the world today and know that I am just one unimportant person among billions. There is little I can do to affect change in the systems that harm others. That’s a choice only each individual must make for themselves. It’s a choice that one makes each moment.
I am inspired by the choices Diane Lefer recently shared on her blog, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, about those who are working to address the egregious harm being done along the border with Mexico in the name of “Making America Great Again.” Diane’s work reminds me of something written more than a century ago by Jane Addams when she and the women of Hull-House in Chicago lived among newly arrived immigrants in the poorest of city neighborhoods.
“. . . the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life” (Jane Addams, 1961, p. 76).
May we all continue to make wise, compassionate choices to use whatever gifts we have to build a kinder world.
Jane Addams (1961). Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York, NY: Signet Classics.
I know I’m not what you were looking for
to ease the loneliness and sadness of loss
I’m too little and the wrong gender
but I really am meant to be your friend
I promise to make you laugh
and touch your heart with my cuteness
I’ll raise my head in song
and trot down the sidewalk
with my waving tail held high
I’ll lick your feet
even though you don’t like it
just to remind you I care
Please be kind and take me with you
to a new forever home
I promise you that you won’t regret it
I know you love me but, oh, the indignity
of this cobbled-together winter suit you make me wear.
Reasons To Be Thankful – II
Endings are often exciting new beginnings. So it was last evening as my colleague and I listened to the students we have been working with during the past semester share their final research and community practice presentations.
This past semester, we focused on the connections between access to clean water and community health. The assignments involved exploring prior research, proposing and conducting a small study, and planning a community event to raise awareness about issues surrounding their community’s drinking water and waterways.
Although final classes often mean saying goodbye to people one has learned to care about, there is also a sense of gratitude for the chance to encourage others to celebrate the wonders of life. Learning how to “do research” can help us remember the wonder and curiosity we felt about life and the world around us as children.
There is no way of predicting what the future effects of these lessons will be, but my colleague and I have done what we can to open hearts and minds to possibilities.
“I didn’t realize how much I learned until I looked back at where I started.”
“I never thought about the importance of water before.”
“Doing this study helped me learn so much more about the issues in my community.”
We ended our final class by sharing part of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address:
“We give thanks to all of the waters of the world for quenching our thirst, for providing strength and nurturing life for all beings. We know its power in many forms – waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans, snow and ice. We are grateful that the waters are still here meeting their responsibility to the rest of Creation. Can we agree that water is important in our lives and bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to the Water? Now our minds are one.” (as cited in Kimmerer, 2013, p. 108).
I am truly grateful for the opportunity to teach in partnership with a dear colleague who has worked hard to create a liberatory space and to our students who give me hope for the future.
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught” (Baba Dioum)
Some links to explore for more information about the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address:
Autumn is always a busy time with gardens to harvest and a college course on research that needs to be updated. My colleague and I always try to consider what students will need to know for their work with people in the future. This year, we decided to focus on weaving our courses on research and community practice together even more tightly to help reduce confusion and workloads for our students. The shared focus we chose was exploring the connections between access to clean water and healthy communities.
Of course that means I have an opportunity to learn more about research on another topic that is relatively new to me. Fortunately, working collaboratively, my colleague and I discovered a number of important resources that we plan to share with students. Because this topic is so crucial for all of us, I’m sharing some of those resources here, too.
Following is an overview of what we have drafted thus far for our classes.
The focus of our work this semester will be on the connections between access to safe water and community health. Water is essential for life on our planet, yet many of us have grown up in communities where we learned to take it for granted. This is not the case for many people around the world. As climate changes accelerate and water supplies become endangered by pollution from many sources, issues affecting water quality are beginning to affect all of us. The question we need to consider as social workers (and members of communities) is what can we do to assure access to clean water before it is too late.
It is estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population lives within sixty miles of the coastline of an ocean, lake or river. (Wallace, 2014, p. 9)
Coastline communities are profoundly affected by the cleanliness and quality of the nearby water. Proximity to water doesn’t mean that access to clean water is a simple matter, even in countries that are classified as “economically and/or technologically developed,” like the United States. Outdated plumbing and pollution from natural or anthropogenic (human-caused) disasters have threatened water supplies. Communities that are economically or technologically disadvantaged face a host of other challenges.
Picture a day without clean water: You wake up to dirty clothes and bedding, as laundry is limited. You don’t take a shower, you can’t wash your face, and there is no coffee. As a woman in some places, you must take your daughter on a six-kilometer trek to fetch water for the day’s cooking, drinking, and caring of ill family members. To go to the bathroom, you wander deep into the fields, which is not only an inconvenience—it’s a safety risk. Besides snakes, spiders and aggressive animals, there are also ill-intentioned men. Sexual harassment and rape are not uncommon. (WWF, n.d., para. 1)
Wallace’s (2014) research points out that there are deeper connections between human communities and water beyond the physical necessity of water to sustain life.
There’s something about water that draws and fascinates us. No wonder: it’s the most omnipresent substance on Earth and, along with air, the primary ingredient for supporting life as we know it… Water covers more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface [96 percent of it saline]; 95 percent of those waters have yet to be explored. From one million miles away our planet resembles a small blue marble; from one hundred million miles it’s a tiny, pale, blue dot. ‘How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean,’ author Arthur C. Clark once astutely commented. (pp. 8-9)
Our innate relationship to water goes far deeper than economics, food, or proximity, however… [W]e spend our first nine months of life immersed in the ‘watery’ environment of our mother’s womb. When we’re born, our bodies are approximately 78 percent water. As we age, that number drops to below 60 percent – but the brain continues to be made of 80 percent water. (p. 10)
Without access to clean, safe water, life itself is at risk. Research and community practice provide us with a valuable opportunity to learn from the experiences of people in our local region, in our nation, and around the world. Communities both near and far have had to deal with disasters that left them without access to safe, life-sustaining water: hurricanes, droughts, forest fires, wars, toxic chemical spills, or faulty water and sanitation systems. From a social work perspective, access is important for the people we will serve at both the micro and macro levels of practice. This semester, in both research and practice with community systems, we will identify ways to explore issues affecting access to clean water and related consequences, as well as the effectiveness of organized community-awareness initiatives and innovative solutions among communities and community systems.
One of the most powerful videos I have watched about the connection between clean water and community health is the story of what happened to the Pima and Tohono O’odham peoples in southern Arizona when the river that once flowed through their homeland was diverted to provide water for white settlements and cities. After decades of fighting to restore the tribe’s water rights, Attorney Rod Lewis negotiated a settlement with the state of Arizona that guaranteed the return of water and funding to build the necessary infrastructure. The following video clip, from Unnatural Causes – Bad Sugar, tells the story of one of the tribe’s recovery initiatives:
Nichols, Wallace J. (2014). Blue mind: The surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
A few days ago, I checked the news on Huffington Post and read a story about garbage, something I have been thinking about lately. On Mondays and Tuesdays, overflowing garbage containers line the alley behind my house. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know where it goes.
I still haven’t made it a priority to investigate exactly how the city where I now live handles trash, but I do remember “garbage mountain” in the last city where I lived. The mountain rose high above the flat landscape, placed close to the state prison. I often wondered how the prisoners were able to breathe because I could smell the heavy stench miles away.
The Huffington Post article I read was disturbing on a number of levels. Here’s a brief excerpt:
China No Longer Wants Your Trash. Here’s Why That’s Potentially Disastrous.
The country has been the “world’s wastebasket” for decades. But starting Jan. 1, China has said “no more.” (by Dominique Mosbergen)
On Jan. 1, China made good on its promise to close its borders to several types of imported waste. By the next day, panic had already taken hold in countries across Europe and North America as trash began piling up by the ton, with no one having a clue where to now dispose of it all.
For more than 20 years, China has been the world’s recycling bin, accepting an enormous quantity of recyclable waste from nations worldwide. In 2016, China processed at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals — some 7.3 million tons of trash in all. The U.S. exported 16 million tons of waste to China that year, worth about $5.2 billion. Britain sent China enough garbage to fill up 10,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The ramifications of China’s recent ban has been described with language suggestive of a natural disaster. It has sent “shockwaves” worldwide, said Greenpeace East Asia plastics campaigner Liu Hua. Arnaud Brunet, head of the Bureau of International Recycling, compared the ban to an “earthquake.”
As recyclers and governments now rush to figure out what to do with their mounting garbage, environmental activists warn that the initial effects of China’s ban could prove detrimental to the environment and human health.
China’s decision seems reasonable to me. It’s not the job of Chinese citizens to continue to be buried in the world’s toxic garbage. I also wondered why the author of the article failed to use this as a golden opportunity to mention inventions that could potentially address a crucial part of the issue, plastic. I remembered reading about a Japanese inventor who had developed a process for converting plastic back into oil and did a quick internet search.
The inventor was Akinori Ito. He “created a household appliance which converts plastic bags into fuel. The fuel can be used for various applications such as the generation of heat” (interestingengineering.com).
I also found a fascinating video that features Ito describing the motivation behind his invention and demonstrating how it works. (This Japanese Invention Can Recycle Plastic into Oil).
My discoveries didn’t end with Ito. John Bordynuik describes his invention for converting plastic to highly refined oil on TEDxBuffalo.
In doing a little more research, I discovered that Borynuik was later found guilty of misrepresenting his company’s performance to stockholders. Initially, I decided not to post this piece and trashed my draft post. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about this issue. After further reflection, the corporate agenda to discredit an innovator by any means made me seriously question why any one has to make money on a process that helps us resolve a pressing human and environmental issue. Isn’t it enough of a benefit to deal with mountains and oceans of plastic pollution in more responsible ways?
It’s true. I was looking for an easy way out. I wanted someone else to rescue me from the responsibility of doing more myself to reduce what I contribute to the problem. It is also true that I believe science can help provide answers, although more than five decades have passed since my early college days when I was majoring in biology and chemistry. Setting our scientists to work on solutions to pollution would be a far wiser investment than building yet more bombers, nuclear weapons, and continuing our unsustainable environmental exploitation.
What concerns me most about Huffington Post’s article is the fact that Ito’s video was posted in 2010, and Bordynuik’s was posted in 2011. The science is known and both Ito and Bordynuik have demonstrated that it works, albeit on a small scale that requires time and money to carry out at this point. Their work suggests, however, a wiser way to invest in the future without fracking and drilling new oil wells on the shores of Alaska and Florida.
Just think what we could do if we stopped manufacturing new reasons for international conflict and agreed to work together to solve this challenge in ways that make sense! Figuring out how to deal with our own garbage responsibly is a daunting enough challenge to keep us all busy for the foreseeable future.
I wish that Huffington Post had taken a little more time to do research and frame their story in a more constructive manner. It makes me wonder whose interests are being served by presenting information in a tone that may well foment yet another excuse for international conflict. Our garbage.
Greeting the morning contemplating Lahaina’s Banyan Tree
removed from its homeland, an involuntary out-of-place refugee
planted on an island far away commemorating colonial supremacy
Once I stood beneath its massive protective canopy
unaware of its suffering and symbolic history
grateful for its beauty and the cooling shade it accorded me
Now I ponder colonial displacement from different frames
considering both the grievous irredeemable losses and potential gains
What does it mean to stand alone in a land that’s not one’s own?
removed from the environment one’s species has always called home?
unable to return to be among protective kindred, thus resigned?
to serve, without a choice, the frivolous hubris of mankind?
In changing times Lahaina’s Banyan Tree symbolizes resilience and adaptability
surviving storms and droughts in a foreign land for more than a century
touching hearts throughout the years, inspiring kindness and creativity
giving others who are also displaced a sense of home, community
beneath an ever-expanding crown of a now deep-rooted beloved tree
This poem was inspired by a class I am revising for the upcoming semester. I have been thinking about ecosystems, communities of living organisms nested within specific environments forming an interactive network with the elements (earth, air, and waters) available in their surroundings. The myriad of living interactive systems around the globe have had to adapt to ever-changing conditions throughout history. Some plant and animal species have become extinct in this ongoing process.
Often, these changes are viewed and portrayed primarily by what has been lost, perhaps forever. Much as I sometimes romantically imagine that we can return to earlier ways, I know we can’t go back. The world has changed. But there are things that we can learn from our ancestors and from the trees that help sustain the health of the world.
I remember the Banyan tree that so amazed me when I visited Maui and Oahu with my daughter in 1998. The plaque pictured above tells a little bit about the tree’s history and symbolism. It was planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. What I found most heartening in the brief historical accounts I read is the growing awareness among people about the need to take better care of the Banyan.
Note the changes visible in the photos from 1998 and 2009. The tile pavers have been removed, allowing the earth to breathe, although more work may be needed to assure adequate moisture and nourishment.
”The tree has been subject to severe stress due to drought conditions, soil compaction from foot and vehicle traffic in the park, and also due to developmental activities in the vicinity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed … Its sustenance has been ensured by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation by installing an irrigation system in the park” (Wikipedia).
I don’t believe we can turn back time, but we can learn how to welcome and care for those who are displaced like the Banyan by forces outside of their control. This is one of the key lessons I hope to pass on to my students next semester.
This morning when I awoke I was reflecting on my lack of hope and passion these days. It feels as though everything I love, everything that brings me joy and peace and hope is at risk. When did my hope and passion disappear? Was it because of the institutions where I worked that publicly espoused social justice missions but contradicted those values through the actions of the majority? Was it because of the neighbors or ex-spouses who only appeared to be concerned with their own comfort and their own pursuit of happiness? Was it because of the zeitgeist of the times summarized by the observation of my newest neighbor when speaking of a child with serious mental health issues? “I’m in this alone.” This feeling of being alone, when internalized, is a destroyer of hope and collective action and it seems to be a major obstacle for joining together to address the serious threats of these times.
As I look back, I realize this feeling has been an undercurrent in the past. Every intervention I have worked on hit this stumbling block sooner or later despite my best efforts. Like my neighbor, ultimately I felt alone in my past efforts because I was never able to inspire or cultivate enough hope for a critical mass of others who were willing to put aside immediate personal comfort to carry the responsibility for working toward a greater good. It was not for lack of trying.
Yesterday, as I was contemplating clearing away some of the gifts, papers, and books I’ve accumulated over the years that fill files, shelves, walls and cupboards, I noticed the white candle that sits atop my most important bookshelf – the one that holds irreplaceable books I used to write my dissertation. Of course, like all my mementos, the candle has a story.
I was working as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. It was not an easy job for many reasons, primarily because of the enduring legacy of colonialism that continued to impose dominant cultural paradigms on tribal communities and use divide and conquer tactics to foment conflicts between “traditional” and “progressive” tribal factions. Resolving conflict was a central part of my job, and it often put me in the middle of powerful competing interests. At a particularly challenging time, I needed to travel with one of my staff to a conference on worldwide healing for Indigenous people held in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference helped me realize I was not alone. Rediscovering the candle on my bookcase reminded me of the conference’s closing ceremony.
More than one thousand of us, representing many cultures and nations, stood in a circle within a large auditorium holding hands. Then, one elder walked to the center. She explained that the closing ceremony was intended to remind us that we were not alone. Because we were in a government building, we couldn’t use candles (fire ordinances prevented it), so flashlights would have to do. And then, the lights in the room went out as her flashlight went on in the center of the circle. She signaled to the four directions, highlighting one person from each of the four directions to walk to the center – first the east, then the south, the west, and the north. The representatives were all given a flashlight. As they touched their darkened lights to the elders “candle,” their flashlights were turned on. They were instructed to carry their light to the four directions and light other candles in their part of the circle. The elder explained that it would not be easy to keep the candle fires burning, but if the light went out, people could always return to the center to light them once again.
This morning, I realize I need to take the time to finally light the candle on my book case. It’s not the same white candle I used for a similar ceremony years later for the 40 staff who worked for the Honoring Our Children Project that included nine tribal communities. Building and maintaining multicultural, interdisciplinary teams within and across different tribal cultures was not an easy task. Providing a center they could return to in challenging times was important. But it is the same candle I used in a farewell ceremony with the graduate students I mentored during our final class together. They would all be graduating and scattering to the four directions.
As I lit the candle this morning, I thought of the inter-tribal staff who did astounding work, and the creative and inquisitive students I worked with over the years. I thought about my blogging friends around the world who help me realize that each of is sharing our light. And I thought about the many other people who carry light yet feel alone. May we learn to share our light and stand together for the sake of all we love.
During the past week, I have been reviewing some of my December posts from past years. Many carry important messages that I have decided to share again. Following is a reflection posted on December 12, 2013. Not much has changed for the better in my neighborhood or the world since then.
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 RelatednessCollectivity of Strangers
What these distinctions mean for children can be described simplistically as well.
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.
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.