Tag Archives: critical thinking

“It All Depends on How You Look at Things”

Carol A. Hand

These were the words often repeated by the Churkendoose, a voice from the margins in the first book I remember reading as a young child (Berenberg, 1946). As a unique animal – a hybrid of a chicken, turkey, duck, and goose – the Churkendoose accepted his differences and those of others around him. Despite the initial discrimination he suffered, he stayed focused on using his special gifts to benefit others. Because it’s a children’s story, it had a happy ending. The Churkendoose’s efforts were rewarded by acceptance. In real life, that’s not always the case.

It may be that overcoming the differences that can be seen is easier than dealing with differences in perception that are not visible on the surface. In a story for older children, Aunt Beast, a character in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time represents creatures whose “sight” is not dependent on superficial appearances, but on the ability to discern the essence or substance of things beneath the surface.

“We do not know what things look like, as you say… we know what things are like. This must be a very limiting thing, this seeing.” (p. 181)

“We look not at the things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal. But the things which are not seen are eternal.” (p. 186)

I was reminded of the significance of the ability to discern more deeply by a comment about Teaching – And the Wonder of Life in a Blade of Grass from someone I worked with in the past. Initially, the comment didn’t make any sense. I reluctantly decided not to approve it. After reflection, however, it seemed to be another perspective – one that conveyed the inability to see the wonder of life beneath the surface appearance of things. I am grateful for a culture and experiences that have privileged me with a different view, and for artists like Louie Schwartzberg  and scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson  whose work reminds us all of the beauty and mystery of life.

The observations and question I shared in my essay…

“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?”

blade of grass

Photo Credit: 3quarksdaily – Tuesday Poem

The response from the critical commentator (as originally submitted) …

“I spent a long time thinking about the acute angle formed by the tip of a certain blade of grass. Perhaps the word “thinking” is not quite appropriate. That strange, trifling conception of mine was no continuing process, bet reappeared persistently, like some refrain. Why did the acute angle have to be so acute? If instead it were obtuse, would the classification “grass” be lost and would nature inevitably be destroyed from that one corner of its totality? When a single tiny cog is removed from nature, is not nature itself being entirely overthrown? Then my mind would aimlessly examine the problem from one point of view, or the other.”
Yukio Mishima ~ The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

This comment, based on the 1956 novel by Yukio Mishima, helps me understand why some people can destroy the earth or oppress others. Perhaps they can only see triangles where others see the wonder of life. Those who see the essence of things must be a powerful threat to those who can only ponder the surface of things. Yet, as deGrasse Tyson observes, we are not given clear guidelines for making sense of the universe.

“We awakened on this tiny world beneath a blanket of stars like an abandoned baby left on a doorstep without a note to explain where we came from, who we are, how our universe came to be. And with no idea how to end our cosmic isolation. We’ve had to figure it out for ourselves.” (deGrasse Tyson, 2014)

How we live and what we learn to love all depends on how we look at things.

Works cited:

Ben Ross Berenberg (1946). What am I? New York City, NY: Wonder Books.
Madeleine L’Engle (1962). A wrinkle in time. New York City, NY: Dell Publishing Company.
Neil deGrasse Tyson (2014). When knowledge conquered fear (Season 1, Episode 3). Cosmos: A Space Odyssey.

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.

“But … We’ve Always Done it this Way…”

Carol A. Hand

Did you ever feel like you were living in the wrong time? That somehow you had missed learning how to simply accept the fact that we should do things the way they’ve always been done? Wondered who had decided how things should be done initially, and who benefits from keeping things the same? Why so many people automatically react to any proposed change with immediate resistance by using the same old refrain – “But we’ve always done it this way”?

einstein graphicsheat dot com

Photo Credit: bbhc.com

The question I had to address throughout my career as a social work educator was whether I, like most of my colleagues at the time, should teach using paradigms and topics from the past, tweaking models that haven’t worked to improve people’s lives because they failed to take socio-economic causes into account. The message was to “Just teach students how to fit into the social welfare agencies where they will work in the future using new evidence-based methods.” Hmm. I must have missed something. Despite these individual pathology treatment methods, I don’t see much “evidence” that the structural causes of problems – exploitation and social marginalization – have improved as a result of decades of interventions. More importantly, I ask if we can afford such hubris and indulgence when we are faced with global unrest about growing socio-economic inequality and the escalating effects of global climate change. The populations most affected are, of course, the very populations with whom social workers plan to work in the future. Is it realistic to believe that the future we face will be any better served by using past methods that haven’t worked?

einstein licalvox dot com

Photo Credit: localvox.com

Why not try something new? Isn’t that what education is supposed to do, to evaluate the effectiveness of past efforts honestly in light of what is happening now and what we anticipate in the future? Some students may be persuaded to voice the need to fit in with the status quo, but they’re quick to understand why it’s important to learn for the future. Most faculty and administrators are harder to convince. It could just be the challenge that motivates me to innovate.

It does take courage to walk into a classroom as the “teacher” knowing you don’t have the answers, and knowing no one has your back if you make a fool of yourself. Sure, you may have years of diverse experiences, but as Lisbeth B. Schorr (1998) points out, reinventing the wheel is important. Each group and community that wants to make a difference needs to figure out for themselves how to work together toward shared goals, to own the goals and the process through negotiation, teamwork, sweat, and tears. My approach to teaching research to undergraduate students this summer was an experiential experiment to see if students could conduct their own research studies as teams.

einstein quoteko dot com

Photo Credit: quoteko.com

I am pleased to report that the experiment “worked.” Yesterday, as each team of students stood together before the class with their Power Point ready to share, the atmosphere in the room was decidedly different than that of the first day. (Only two hands out of eighteen went up that first day when I asked how many were excited to learn about research – more than I expected.) When they presented their impressive work during the last class, it was clear that they had become “teams,” they shared the work, disappointments, and successes. They learned that research is not easy to do regardless of your methodology. They learned through the most effective way there is — by actually doing something themselves and thinking critically about their experiences. They could clearly articulate what they would do differently the next time!

Through participant observation, one team learned about the effects of changing weather patterns on local food production by weekly visits to a farmer’s market and conversations with the local vendors. Through surveys, another team learned about local views of climate change and contrasted those with views nationwide. The single subject design team took an inventory of the food in their cabinets and refrigerators and noted where it was produced. They planned to calculate the “food miles” and CO2 production that resulted from their buying choices. Over the next month, they took two more inventories to see if their buying habits changed as a result of trying consciously to reduce their carbon footprint. The photo voice and interviewing teams both focused on exploring the effects of the 2012 deluge and flood that affected Duluth, MN and the surrounding areas. Their experiences countered the common assumption that qualitative research is easier than quantitative studies.

I am so grateful that I had an opportunity to work with this adventurous and creative group of students. It was a fitting way to end my career as an institutional educator. The only thing I regret is that other faculty and institutional decision makers missed the student presentations. Imagine – what could the world become if educational institutions were inspired to explore ways to change how things have always been done in order to honor the earth and all life?

Work Cited:

Lisbeth B. Schorr (1998). Common purpose: Strengthening families and neighborhoods to rebuild America. New York City, NY: Anchor Books.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2015. 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)

1479311_10201863795773713_728798047_n

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.

The Fourth of July: Nationalism and Colonialism

Carol A. Hand

As the date of the quintessential celebration of colonial oppression for Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. approaches, signaled by loud explosions in the night, an image from my childhood comes unbidden to mind – a child crouching, head bowed, eyes closed, hands tightly covering ears.

crouching child

Photo Credit: Carol A. Hand

I remember how much I disliked attending these events with my family, surrounded by crowds of people cheering and oohing and aahing in the local park as the symbolic missiles of war blossom like booming “fiery flowers” in the darkened evening sky. I didn’t know the deeper symbolism then for Indigenous Peoples, but the mindless and frenzied fascination of the crowd frightened me. I realize it still does. It brings to mind a story I wrote about my experiences in Missoula, Montana, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

************

Mount Jumbo montanalandtrusts dot org

Photo Credit: http://www.montanalandtrusts.org/successes/

I moved to this working class neighborhood in mid-August of 2004. From the woodlands of the northern mid-west, with a 3-year sojourn in the prairie lands of the central U.S., my westward-facing backyard view of the steep grassy slopes of a Mount Jumbo was both completely foreign and yet somehow made this feel like home. On my first 4th of July in East Missoula (2005), I admit that I was horrified by the way this normally quiet street was transformed into what felt like a war-zone. My dog cowered and my parakeets grew silent and ill as the unrelenting noise continued day and night for what seemed like an eternity. And the bags of trash I collected, spent fire cracker debris, confirmed the danger of exploding incendiary devices in crowded residential neighborhoods. Fortunately, my house had a metal roof, and although the firecracker debris made sharp clanking noises when they landed, I knew they wouldn’t start a fire.

This year, as I watched Mount Jumbo’s grass and trees burn, the neighborhood boomed and bloomed with what the local newspaper referred to as “fiery flowers.” Yet, this year was different. I have had a chance to reflect on the culture of my new community, a mixture of tiny houses and trailers on little plots of land. I saw families join together in celebration, and neighbors who normally work long hours come together to celebrate as well. Those of us who were new to the neighborhood were invited to participate in the “block party,” and were welcomed. Just as I left the house to join the group, I saw the fire spreading up the mountain’s side. In alarm, I called 911 and ran to let my neighbors know, convinced that they would not be setting off fireworks if they knew. I was shocked by the reactions of those neighbors I joined briefly. They knew the mountain was on fire and were unconcerned. They continued setting off fuses without pause, reminiscing about other fires in years past that burned the more rugged slopes of Mount Sentinel to our east. Chaos reigned in the street as children, teens, and adults haphazardly vied to light the missiles lined up in the middle of the tree-bordered street. As I watched, one neighbor had to dodge a misfired firecracker that must have singed the hair on his leg as it whizzed past.

mount jumbo fire makeitmissoula dot come

Photo Credit: Mount Jumbo Fire (makeitmissoula.com)

The celebration and coming together of those who have been in this neighborhood, some for a lifetime, had already set the gently rolling slopes of the mountain aflame. It would be easy to blame my hardworking neighbors for endangering others and the environment out of ignorance. Unrelenting, the barrage continued although the spreading fire on the mountain was visible to all. One family stood alone and lined up their firecrackers in the middle of the street in front of my side garden. They lit one firecracker after the other as I watched the mountainside burn. I had a sense that some of the missiles barely missed me as I stood in my backyard gazing toward the mountain (confirmed the next day as I picked up the debris.)  Although I consciously remember to respect other cultures and perspectives, I lost my willingness to tolerate this clear threat to my home and gardens. Finally, I had enough, and turned on every sprinkler, spraying water into the street and the dousing the next missiles ready to be fired. The barrage intensified for a moment, and then blessedly, stopped.

As I look at the blackened slope of the mountain the next morning, I wondered how to preserve a sense of community and celebration in this changing neighborhood while protecting people and property. I am not sure that suggesting that residents here travel to the city’s scheduled firecracker events is a reasonable solution. We live on the other side of the railroad tracks, the other side of Hellgate Canyon. The city proper is not a welcoming place for many residents from my part of town. The class divide is something many residents have lived with for a long lifetime. Longer-term residents fear that the newer members of this neighborhood like me are part of a gentrifying trend. They fear that we will bring our devaluing judgments of them closer to home and restrict the freedom of the community to celebrate as it always has.

************

As I reread this essay, it occurred to me how far I am willing to go to respect the right of others to walk their paths. It takes a lot for me to act to stop the missiles that rain down on my gardens and threaten my well-being, whether they are real or symbolic. But I can’t silence my thoughts and the growing concern in my heart. As my neighbors lit their firecrackers while Mount Jumbo burned, I thought of the bullets and bombs that were raining down on Iraqi people at that moment. I thought about the symbolism of a nationalistic holiday that celebrates the domination of Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and the domination of peoples around the globe. My neighbors’ behavior reminded me of the unconfirmed myth about Nero fiddling while Rome burned. I couldn’t stay to be part of the block party. I walked to the staging area for fire fighters to see if there was anything I could do to help battle the blaze on the mountain. There wasn’t. Trained fire crews were climbing the side of the mountain and fighting from the air. Unlike the air battles in Iraq, the helicopters that flew overhead were not shooting, they were scooping water into large buckets from the nearby river to douse flames, while bombers were dropping fire retardant, not bombs.

mount jumbo bomber missoulian dot com

Photo Credit: The Missoulian

For me, this 4th of July will symbolize another type of fiddling while Rome burns. Instead of focusing the brilliance of our scientists and skills of our workers on the  development of alternative energy and toxic waste clean-up technologies, fracking vents bloom like fiery flowers across the global landscape. Instead of putting on the brakes and changing course on our path toward global destruction, our footprint is pressing “the pedal to the metal” in our race toward Armageddon.

Because I am no longer a child crouching in fear with eyes and ears closed, I wonder how I can turn on the sprinklers to stop the mad volley. I prefer to celebrate peace and balance quietly rather than war and domination with explosions that symbolize battle. The notions of “nations” and patriotism to nations and nationalities only serve to divide the peoples of the world.

 

The Rewards that Come from Working with Knowledge Seekers!

Carol A. Hand

Do you ever have times when you wonder if what you are doing makes a difference? Teaching research to undergraduate social worker students has proven to be a challenge. Of course, I wasn’t content using the textbook and syllabus that other instructors use. But designing the details of a new course from week to week is never easy. Some things just haven’t worked the way I had hoped.

research1 behlerblog dot com

Photo Credit: Research

The word “research” often strikes fear into the hearts of students. Yet, as a friend and former colleague has eloquently written, we are “born” to be researchers.

Human beings enter this world with an endless curiosity about themselves, others, and their surrounding environment. In this sense, we are born researchers. At its essence, research is inquisitiveness in thought and action. It is the pursuit of new knowledge and discovery through a creative, conceptual process of researcher engagement with the world and its mysteries. (Maxine Jacobson, 2007)

The purposes of the course I am teaching include helping students rekindle their sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, and inspiring students to analyze and apply research as a liberatory tool to improve the lives of clients, communities, and nations.

Some of the initial assignments have proven to be too daunting a task for many students despite assistance and extensive commentary without grades on their work. Faced with this task, some have opted for an alternative – to take an online tutorial about research and the importance of having committees that screen research proposals that involve people to protect them from harm. The legacy of Nazi medical experimentation and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study underscore why human subject protections are necessary. Students actually found the tutorial valuable.

Yet each week, I struggle with how to best engage students and explain things in ways that make sense and are accessible. Some weeks, it works, and other weeks, I can see their puzzled looks, not even knowing how to ask for clarification. And then, there are weeks like this one that somehow make all the uncertainty and anxiety worth it.

I only have 18 undergraduate students, a luxury. In the other institutions where I taught, my classes rarely had fewer than 25 students and sometimes had over 100. So I am grateful for the freedom I have to experiment here, even though it does engender some displeasure from my colleagues. (But that is another story.)

My class and I are trying something old and something new. In the past, I sat in on a research class that a former colleague taught. She actually had undergraduate students engaged in real research methods to evaluate the social work department. Students learned both quantitative and qualitative methods and produced a report that helped the department meet the requirements of the national accrediting organization. The politics where I teach now really don’t lend themselves to studying the department, and the likelihood that any findings would result in constructive improvements is marginal at best. Instead, the five teams comprised of three or four students are each using a different research methodology to study the local effects of global climate change.

Dialogue and experiential learning assignments are the foundation, so this week I asked each of the groups to write the research questions on the whiteboard – what do you want to know from your study? Each team had good beginning questions refined through thoughtful, creative comments from the class as a whole. As I understand the teams’ ever-evolving plans at the moment:

1. The “single subject design team” will be studying changes in their food purchasing habits in the context of the carbon footprint left by the production and transportation of food products. They will be taking an inventory of everything in their refrigerator and cabinets to find out where it came from, calculating the carbon footprint, and measuring how their buying and consumption change as a result of what they learn. In the end, will they make fewer trips to the store? Will they buy fewer processed products, more organic foods, more locally-grown foods?
2. The “social survey team” will be studying the access of welfare clients to community gardens as a way to access affordable healthy local food and reweave community support networks.
3. The “photovoice team” will be studying the effects of the 2012 Duluth flood to discover damage (past), differential recovery progress for poor families in the community (present), and innovations that could be used to help the city prevent similar damage in the future.
4. The “participant observation team” will be studying the effects of changing climate on produce at a local framer’s market, historically through the comments of venders, and at present by observing the produce size, quality, and abundance.
5. The “interview team” will also be exploring the impact of the flood and possible ways to reduce the impacts for low income neighborhoods in the future.

Will this approach “be successful”? It depends on what “success” means. At the moment, there are some weeks when the curiosity and excitement about exploring the world is so evident. For now, that is enough for me. Receiving an email like the one that arrived the day after this week’s class is an added affirmation that we’re sometimes on the right track.

************

This reminded me so much of you and how you always say we are in this together!

A mouse looked through the crack in the wall to see the farmer and his wife open a package. “What food might this contain?” The mouse wondered – he was devastated to discover it was a mousetrap.

Retreating to the farmyard, the mouse proclaimed the warning.

“There is a mousetrap in the house! There is a mousetrap in the house!”
The chicken clucked and scratched, raised her head and said, “Mr. Mouse, I can tell this is a grave concern to you, but it is of no consequence to me. I cannot be bothered by it.”

The mouse turned to the pig and told him, “There is a mousetrap in the house! There is a mousetrap in the house!” The pig sympathized, but said, “I am so very sorry, Mr. Mouse, but there is nothing I can do about it but pray. Be assured you are in my prayers.”

The mouse turned to the cow and said “There is a mousetrap in the house! There is a mousetrap in the house!” The cow said, “Wow, Mr. Mouse. I’m sorry for you, but it’s no skin off my nose.”

So, the mouse returned to the house, head down and dejected, to face the farmer’s mousetrap alone. That very night a sound was heard throughout the house — like the sound of a mousetrap catching its prey. The farmer’s wife rushed to see what was caught. In the darkness, she did not see it was a venomous snake whose tail the trap had caught.
The snake bit the farmer’s wife. The farmer rushed her to the hospital, and she returned home with a fever.

Everyone knows you treat a fever with fresh chicken soup, so the farmer took his hatchet to the farmyard for the soup’s main ingredient.

But his wife’s sickness continued, so friends and neighbors came to sit with her around the clock. To feed them, the farmer butchered the pig.

The farmer’s wife did not get well; she died. So many people came for her funeral, the farmer had the cow slaughtered to provide enough meat for all of them.

The mouse looked upon it all from his crack in the wall with great sadness.
So, the next time you hear someone is facing a problem and think it doesn’t concern you, remember — when one of us is threatened, we are all at risk.

We are all involved in this journey called life. We must keep an eye out for one another and make an extra effort to encourage one another. How true is this!! (Author unknown)

************

einstein quoteko dot com

Photo Credit: quoteko.com

Perhaps the most important lessons we can learn are about life. Research can be a liberatory tool that helps us discover that our lives are inextricably interwoven with the world around us. It’s not something I can teach. It’s something each student needs to discover on his or her own. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of the journey of discovery at this moment in time.

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.

 

The Lesson of the Butterfly, and the Message of the Wind

Carol A. Hand

At the moment, I am dealing with the challenges that always accompany innovation. For the past two weeks, when I wasn’t working outside on gardens, I was developing a new research class that began yesterday. (This is the main reason why I haven’t had a chance to read and respond to many blogs lately.)

In the process of conceptualizing the class, I reflected on the knowledge and skills that would be helpful to students in the future. Most research is built on what worked in the past in narrow clinical settings with little thought about the current socio-political context or broader future implications. I decided to try my own research experiment by testing out an experiential approach for teaching research that engages students in exploring the impact of climate change for vulnerable populations and the effectiveness of responses to recent disasters. (Duluth is still dealing with the consequences of torrential rains and flooding during June of 2012, so the implications of climate change are also very close to home.)

It took me many days to work out the basic framework and identify resources, but in essence, I’m sharing this discussion for two main reasons. First, I welcome any ideas and resources you want to share about climate change that would be helpful for me and my students. Second, it’s my way of trying to find an effective third alternative for dealing with the conflict that always accompanies paradigm shifts. Some administrators are not pleased by new ways of doing things. It is tempting for me to choose simplistically from the two most common responses to conflict: fight or flight. The third, to stand with integrity and compassion, is the path I need to work out through the process of writing. What does this mean in terms of practical actions? What past experiences can I draw from for clues?

As I ask these questions, two memories come to mind, the lesson of the butterfly and the message of the wind. The lesson of the butterfly is described in an excerpt from story I wrote for my daughter last Christmas.

************

The Lesson of the Butterfly

As I thought of what I could give you as a gift this year, one of the memories of your early years was actually on a summer’s day when you were Ava’s age – 6. We were living in central Illinois in a tiny town named Cullom in a farmhouse we rented – “Paul Gray’s house.” Cullom’s downtown was only one block long. It had a restaurant, and this great old variety store that sold an assortment of things farmers needed. It’s where you went to first grade and as I remember, it was one of the few schools where you did not have to deal with overt racism from teachers or bullying from other students.

Despite your relatively benign treatment at school, Cullom was not very welcoming to strangers. I remember that during our year in Cullom, we sometimes went to the restaurant in the center of town. As we walked toward the door, we could hear the loud conversations and laughter. As we entered, the room became absolutely silent as all of the local customers fixed their eyes on us. It remained silent until we left.

When we needed to shop for other things, we had to travel to one of the larger cities – each about 40 or 50 miles one-way – either Pontiac to the northwest, or Kankakee to the northeast. On a warm sunny summer day, we drove the 50 miles or so to Pontiac. Of the two choices, it was clearly the least diverse in terms of population. Although I don’t have a photo of you during those years, there is one that reminds me of this particular day.

215603_200818563289593_100000843525245_502492_8215608_n

Photo Credit: Jnana Hand and Reese Baker, photographer Phil Dowling, 1974

For some reason I am not sure I can describe, this photo captures the same state of being I remember from that day. In Pontiac, it was not a child that you were gently guiding. It was a butterfly that was fluttering around you as you walked down the sidewalk. All of your attention was focused on it as it flitted about, with the same gentle smile on your face as you followed its path down the sidewalk. It was all you saw.

It was not all I saw, however. The prejudice of many central Illinois residents is deeply rooted. Bluntly-said, many long-term residents are pointedly racist. Like the border communities that surround reservations, white residents are acutely attuned to the smallest nuances of differences in appearance that may suggest a different ancestry than theirs. As a child tanned by the sun, with lovely dark curly hair, you were unique among the people who walked down the sidewalk in Pontiac that day.

I noticed an older white couple walking toward us on the sidewalk. I really don’t know what they were thinking, but the expression on their faces when they looked at you was not warm and friendly. They stared intently with their eyes narrowed and the edges of their mouths turned down in any ugly way. I was getting ready to say something to them because the cold disapproval of their demeanor made me angry. Yet, you were so intent on the butterfly, you never noticed. You kept smiling and reaching out gently, and the butterfly responded by fluttering just in front of you as you walked along. You laughed in delight. Then, something amazing happened. The scowls of the couple suddenly changed into broad smiles, as if your joy had melted the hardness of their hearts. Your focus on the wonder of life and gentle responsiveness to beauty not only buffered you from their disapproval and meanness, but also transformed others around you.

Somehow, despite the challenges you have had to overcome, or perhaps in part because of them, the purity of heart symbolized on that summer’s day has remained. The ability to focus so intently on the wonder of life rather than fears and distractions is still one of the most amazing of gifts you offer others. As I contemplated what to give you for Christmas at this challenging time, all I could think of was to let you know how special you are and have always been. I love you. Miigwetch, my lovely daughter, for your beautiful spirit.

************

The Message of the Wind

I learned another lesson from my daughter at the end of her school year in Cullom. It was a warm, sunny day, and as always, the winds were strong and gusty in the flat corn-country that surrounded us. I was working in the garden in front of our rented house when the school bus arrived. As my daughter was walking down the steps of the bus, I noticed her arms were hugging the huge pile of papers and pictures that represented her first grade accomplishments. Suddenly, as she walked across a field toward the house, a strong gust of wind pulled the stack of papers from her grasp. I watched with concern as she lost patience and began chasing her work, stomping some papers into the ground with her little feet and crumpling others in her hands. I ran out to help her. I hoped she could learn that it is always more effective and more fun to play with the wind than it is to get angry at things we really cannot change. We couldn’t stop the wind from blowing her papers, but we could make a game of recapturing her treasures.

************

What can I learn from the butterfly and the wind? I can view this present challenge as a fight with the wind over which I have no control and lose the creative, adventurous spirit of an exciting experiment. I can decide to give up trying to create anything new and live as a recluse, letting the winds scatter the fragments of unrealized possibilities. Or, I can choose the lesson of the butterfly. I can choose to keep my focus on those things that inspire a sense of wonder and hope with such intensity that there is no room for distraction. Perhaps I can learn from the lesson of the butterfly. If I can focus intently enough despite the winds that surround me, the winds themselves will become calm. I owe it to my students to try. Yesterday, they eagerly rose to the challenge of working with me on this experiment even though the lovely early spring weather had finally arrived.

***

 

 

Reflections about the Power to Shape “Knowledge”

Carol A. Hand

I wish to express my deep gratitude to Miriam Schacht for helping me be able to admit something that I have carried silently throughout my professional and academic career. Influenced more by my Ojibwe heritage, perhaps because of consciously-obvious contrasts to Anglo-American values, I have viewed my work as a sacred responsibility. As non-rational as it may sound, I seek to understand individuals and communities by listening and observing from a compassionate, nonjudgmental, eco-systems worldview. This is not an easy task, and it has often made me wonder if the lenses I look through to make sense of the world are trustworthy.

I wonder what knowledge or obligations still lead me to challenge the taken-for-granted views and methods of other practitioners and scholars. Yet when I ask whether research and practice interventions improve the lives of individuals, the compassionate cohesion of communities, or the sense of peace and shared humanity in the world, I must honestly admit that the consequences are often justification for ever-increasing levels of oppression through the language of “scientific,” “evidence-based practice.” I realize it is crucial to challenge this paradigm and share what I discover, even though I will never know if what I see is true.  The research I have done feels more trustworthy, respectful, holistic, and authentic than what is currently viewed as “scientific research.” When I share what appears to be “true” from a perspective of deep listening and compassion, I can feel my heart begin to “glow.” That’s when I feel compelled to speak or write, as I do now, even though I have papers to grade and a new course on research to develop.

Doing research is, in many ways, like taking a descriptive and explanatory snapshot of empirical reality. For each particular photograph, the investigator must decide what kind of camera to use, what scene on which to focus, through which filter, and with what intent.” (Crabtree & Miller, 1999, p. 3)

Miriam’s essay reminded me that it is important to take the time to reflect on the meaning of life and the work we do first. It has helped me reflect once again about the links between research and power (or hegemony), and how important a bi-cultural lens can be. The following excerpt from one of the exam papers I wrote during my graduate studies demonstrates the complexity of walking in two worlds. [1]

************

Many theories have been formulated to explain child abuse and neglect within what is now the United States. Recently, an eleven-year-old Ojibwe youth won an award for an essay he wrote to explain his perspective as a foster child. [2] In his attempt to make sense of his experiences, this young man’s essay expresses both his vision of the future and his theory of causality for child maltreatment.

WHAT [MY COMMUNITY] WOULD BE LIKE WITH NO ALCOHOL OR DRUGS

 [My community] would be a better place if there was not so much beer and bars. People will have better jobs, more better houses and people will have longer marriages, more food and cars. Kids will be happy and will’nt get into fights and do drugs. Kids will have friends that are nice, that don’t do drugs. Kids will have a nice dog to play with, and parents that be home early, and who take their kids to eat somewhere instead of going out and drinking up their money on drugs and beers. Moms and Dads will be up early instead of being hung over and waking up late in the afternoon. Kids will have a curfew at night and their parents will be there not out drinking and getting high somewhere and coming home about 3:00 in the morning. Kids will have a bike of their own, instead of stealing them of using their friends. The moms won’t need to find a babysitter because she will [be] home, not out using drugs or at a bar. Kids would have fun birthdays, and kids will get to have sleepovers because their mom will be home, not at the bar drinking and coming home late to get into fights with their dads. The parents will’nt be divorced because of BEER. AND IF THERE WAS NOT NO BEER, MOMS AND DADS WILL HAVE A HAPPY FAMILY.

This is a powerful essay on many levels. It is a plea from a youngster for parents who will be there to meet his needs. Like many youngsters, he wants a dog, a bike, and parents who don’t fight. Also like many youngsters, he sees the disruptive power of substance abuse and addiction. His theory echoes that held by many youngsters and adults, both in the general population and within minority cultures and communities. It also mirrors the assumptions in much of the child welfare legislation and those held by many health and human service professionals. This thoughtful Ojibwe youth defines the root problem of child maltreatment as an individual choice made by parents, particularly mothers (to drink or use drugs). His solution is to remove the temptation. The pervasive historical, political, and economic contributors to substance abuse, child maltreatment, and family violence remain hidden from sight. This paper explores theories that attempt to explicate the ways in which colonial domination, forced assimilation, and cultural hegemony have, over the course of five centuries, led to the perpetuation and acceptance of individual deficit explanations for child maltreatment by the very Native American communities who have inherited the social, economic, and politico-structural consequences of this oppressive legacy. [3]

************

Through boarding schools, educational policies, and child welfare institutions, generations of First Nations children were taught, and internalized to varying degrees, the ideologies, attitudes, and behaviors imposed by colonial powers (Bensen, 2001).

Although I had been “trained” in the dominant quantitative research paradigms of my university and social work discipline, the power of experts to frame every aspect of studies troubled me as I reflected on the perspective of the Ojibwe youth who shared the story above. It highlighted the dangers of adopting the methods used by the dominant culture to study less-powerful “others.” Instead, I chose a qualitative approach, ethnography, which would require living within the community I planned to study. Even so, the ethnographic accounts written about Ojibwe people are fraught with misinterpretation and biased representations that only serve to reinforce power differentials, hegemony, and stereotypes. I added another layer of protection from this danger by conducting a “critical ethnographic” study designed to question the role of dominant policies and institutions in creating the problems being investigated. Answering the questions about disproportional representation among Ojibwe children in the child welfare system no longer focused on identifying the problem as one caused by Ojibwe families or communities, but one that was located in the imposition of dominant cultural policies, institutions, and practices — past and present.

Even with extra safeguards, such as asking some of the key Ojibwe people to review what I write prior to publication to check for accuracy, the power of ethnographers to frame other cultures still makes me uncomfortable. As Crabtree and Miller (1999) point out, even with the best of intentions, our gaze is still limited by the lenses we look through. Through the processes of education, socialization, and mass communication, the citizens of nations are programmed to accept the prevailing order, to spontaneously consent “to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” (Gramsci, 1999, p. 12). Despite reflection, I know I still carry years of indoctrination that color what I look for, what I understand from what I see, and the meanings I attribute to what I hear and observe.

In the research project that followed the Ojibwe child welfare study, I worked with an urban Indian center to design a more egalitarian partnership based on the philosophy of community-based participatory research (Israel and colleagues, 1998).

cbpr2

The Indian center was located within an urban community that was palpably anti-Native, with significant disparities in terms of health and income for Native Americans. Diversity based on Tribal heritage and the length of residence in the urban area contributed to the development of distinct factions among members of the Native population, resulting in fierce competition for limited jobs and leadership positions. It was within this context that the Center staff and Board of Directors asked me to conduct a “needs assessment.” I told them I would be willing to help if we could also gather information about community strengths and descriptions of what community members hoped the community would look like in the future. They agreed. Using research as a tool to explore possibilities for identifying common ground, I collaborated with a multi-cultural team comprised of urban center staff, Native American community members, graduate students, and another faculty member. As a team, we worked collaboratively to design every aspect of the study. As one of the community members noted,

 “Part of rebuilding the community is utilizing people who want to help. It will take the sense of belonging to the community like the branches of a tree. By doing this reaching out, it makes the community healthy, and it makes the center strong and healthy, and people are drawn to it and want to hang around.” (Community Member, January 8, 2007).

The information we gathered from a diverse selection of community members gave the team a great deal of hope for successfully uniting the community. But in the real world, things don’t always work out the way we would like them to. Timing was a crucial factor. Before we had an opportunity to share our findings with the community as a whole, I accepted a position at another university to escape the offensive and oppressive politics in my university department. Doing so proved costly for the project and the Indian center. Without crucial support from the university, the agency staff and board members were unable to withstand divisive internal conflicts and external political oppression. Although I tried my best to provide encouragement and support long-distance, the next steps never took place. Ultimately, part of the challenge of community work is to realize that it needs to be a community decision to take the next steps to bring people together. Nonetheless, it is heart-breaking to be aware of the consequences of oppression for marginalized communities, and to realize that we might have made a difference, if only …, but I trust that we all did the best we could at the time.

I am grateful to Miriam, to the Ojibwe youth who wrote his award-winning essay, and to the Indian Center friends who helped me remember what it means to value the sacred gift of caring. For me, the roles of teacher and researcher are humbling reminders of how little I really know, and reminders of the need to honor the sacred obligations embodied in the responsibilities these roles represent. I am reminded of the need to be truthful and compassionate, and to give voice to the strengths, hopes, and visions of those who share their lives with me during our collective journey. Research, a neutral tool, can be used as a force to promote understanding and liberation. Even though the type of research I do is not seen as “scientific” by many in the academic community, it does have the potential to inspire people to envision new possibilities, realize their own strengths, and gain the skills and confidence to transform their lives and communities.

bird-feather-13486506267nW

Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

 

Endnotes:

1. Carol Hand (1999). Indian child welfare within the context of United States child welfare policies, practices, and paradigms: Rescuing children or homogenizing America? Unpublished Paper: Preliminary Exam Paper 2 – Relevant Theoretical Literature – Differential Power and Indian Child Welfare. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

2. The youth’s grandmother and foster parent asked me to include this essay in my work. Although the youth concurred, I have included it with some ambivalence. My analysis of the essay is not what they would have anticipated, yet I am hopeful that my treatment of this thoughtful perspective is both respectful and illuminating. While the name of the author and the name of the community have been omitted to protect confidentiality, the original text is otherwise unedited.

3. The terms Native American, American Indian, and First Nations peoples are used interchangeably throughout. American Indian/Alaska Native (or simply ‘Indian,” as in the Bureau of Indian Affairs) is still the dominant term used for administrative purposes by the United States Government, as well as by many tribal elders. The term Native American emphasizes the indigenous status of the population which occupied the Americas at the time of European “discovery,” and served as a focus for unifying the descendants of indigenous peoples across tribal boundaries during the 1960s. First Nations peoples, a term widely used in what is now Canada, underscores the importance of sovereignty as an ideology which distinguishes tribal communities from other numeric “minorities” within societies dominated by the numerically larger Euro-American immigrant populations who have imposed political, cultural, and economic hegemony.

Authors Cited:

Bensen, R. (2001). Children of the dragonfly: Native American voices on child custody and education. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Crabtree, B. E. & Miller, W. L. (Eds.)(1999). Doing qualitative research, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Gramsci, A. (1999). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, Eds & Trans). New York: International Press.

Israel, B. A., Schultz, A. J., Parker, E. A., & Becker, A. B. (1998). Review of community-based research: Assessing partnership approaches to improve public health. Annual Review of Public Health, 19, 173-202.

***

 

The Challenge of Our Times: “Won World” or “One World”?

Carol A. Hand

I wonder how many of my blogging comrades feel compelled to write when there are too many other pressing responsibilities that need attention? Today is one of those times for me, but I know if I don’t honor this pressure in my heart to share, I won’t be able to focus and my day will be unproductive anyway.

As I was reflecting about how to challenge environmental threats from a positive frame, two contrasting metaphors flashed though my thoughts this morning: “won world” vs. “one world.” From my perspective, these are the clear alternatives we face. As I think about the never-ending wars over resource control and the costs for people and environments, the images that come to mind are fracking fields,

tar sands independentreport dot blogspot dot com

Photo Credit: independentreport.blogspot.com

oil spills,

oil spill examiner dot com

Photo Credit: oil spill examiner.com

world hunger,

world hunger schmidtgs2 dot wikispaces dot com

Photo Credit: schmidtgs2.wikispaces.com

smog-filled cities where people cover their faces with masks.

smog businessinsider dot com

Photo Credit: businessinsider.com

The list could go on. This seems to be the future vision of the powerful elite, a “won world” where the rest of us are merely pawns to be controlled or disposed of. It’s not the world I want future generations to inherit.

The alternative, “one world,” I picture as the earth seen from outer space — a lovely blue and green orb that is not divided by imaginary borders that separate humanity into nations – it’s the home we all share.

earth wordlesstech com

Photo Credit: wordlesstech.com

This is a vision worth working toward. I know it is one that is shared by my friends in the blogging community who have enriched my life with an incredible diversity of gifts, wisdom, and (com)passionate commitment to social justice.

As someone who has worked with communities to build new initiatives to address a wide range of issues, I know the first step is to identify the shared vision of community members and in partnership, frame a mission that inspires people to take on the hard work of transformation. It is too easy for opponents to divide people otherwise. So my contribution for the day is to share this brief essay with gratitude for all you do and all you have taught me. I look forward to hearing your ideas!

Chi Miigwetch (many thanks) for sharing your insights and inspiration.

One World One Song

***

 

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.

enbridge

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.

enbridge 3

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.

enbridge 5

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.

enbridge 4

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

***

 

In Search of Community

Carol A. Hand

“Is it not right, then, that education should help you, as you grow up, to perceive the importance of bringing about a world in which there is no conflict either within or without, a world in which you are not in conflict with your neighbor or with a group of people because the drive of ambition, which is the desire for position and power, has utterly ceased? And is it possible to create a society in which there will be no inward or outward conflict?”
(Krishnamurti, 1964, Think on these things, p. 52)

************

Living through the polar vortex forced me to question the wisdom of continuing to try to survive on my own. Of course, I am not totally alone. I have supportive friends and family, but this past winter they all had their own challenges to attend to, their own leaking roofs and freezing pipes, icy roads to travel to get places not served by public transportation, and never-ending snow to shovel despite artic temperatures. It has led me to the realization that living the way we do in this neighborhood isn’t wise or sustainable. Each family has its own separate dwelling, heating system, and needs to attend to all of the chores associated with survival on their own.

As much as I would like to head off to an intentional community, I am skeptical. I already tried that, twice. I am still laughing about the second attempt. A group of successful, smart people coalesced to prepare for the end of the world in a small farming community in central Illinois. I wasn’t there because of the nonsense the charismatic leader espoused. I was there because it made sense to share the work of growing food, contributing one’s unique skills to a collective, and reducing one’s carbon footprint on the environment. But the need many people have to follow leaders has never ceased to baffle me. Taken to extremes it is hilariously ridiculous or frighteningly dangerous.

carnival swing miss dash thrifty dot co dot uk

Photo Credit: Carnival Swing – miss-thrifty.co.uk

When I think of collective living, I think of people in my second alternative community experience. The leader organized a community-wide event for members — a chance to raise their IQs, for a moderate-sized fee of course. One of the members offered his large home as the training venue, and many attended the evening event. Attendees were greeted at the door and were given small brown paper bags as they entered. At the appointed time, the lights were dimmed and attendees were told to strip down to their underwear and breathe in and out of the paper bag for 10 minutes. They were promised that this exercise would improve their IQs – it would make them smarter!

(Then, I didn’t have internet tools to research the scientific validity of these claims, but in writing this essay many years later, it seemed wise to give it a try. Breathing into a paper bag for 5 minutes does seem to be a credible treatment for anxiety-triggered panic attacks – it helps rebalance elevated oxygen levels from over-breathing during attacks by increasing CO2 levels in the blood stream. People often feel immediate relief. So in this ingenious money-maker, creating a stressor and then reducing its impact left people with the impression that they felt better and brighter as a result of the exercise! Yet I only discovered wily walnut’s claim that the “Brain Bubbles” created by blowing in and out of a paper bag is one of the techniques one can use to raise IQ.

My partner and I were invited, but we declined. I heard about the event later from a friend who did go and felt even less intelligent as a result. My partner and I decided to leave the periphery of the community soon after.

The reasons for leaving my first attempt at “community” were not as amusing. Like the second community, the first was organized around a charismatic leader. But the followers were much younger, as was I when I first arrived, a single mother with a one and a half year old daughter. We hitchhiked, my little one in her stroller packed with necessary supplies and $20 in my pocket, trusting the kindness of the universe to help us survive. We weren’t escaping abuse, merely a mind and spirit-numbing environment of never-ending criticism and cold indifference — a life lacking warmth and laughter and possibilities for something better than the pursuit of empty material comforts. In the next four and a half years, our lives were transformed.

By the time we arrived, the alternative community had been in existence for more than 3 years and had grown from less than 20 people sharing a treehouse to more than 200 people spread across four towns in northwestern Massachusetts. I willingly agreed to accept the principles espoused by the community, no drugs, alcohol, or promiscuity. Newer arrivals like my daughter and me were initially relegated to live with more than 100 members in a rural setting that included a large house and dormitory with a smaller two-story shed. Despite my battered self-esteem, I looked around the community and noticed more than 25 children under five roaming about who were without care or supervision. With two other mothers, I set out to create a daycare center. We were able to renovate the first floor of the two-story shed, adding a sink that I helped plumb, and a stove and refrigerator we were able to get for free. We scrubbed and painted, and found some furniture and made sure kids had meals and supervision.

During the first few months, there were a number of observations that raised my curiosity about cultural differences. I watched as people pushed each other out of the way so they could be the first on the bus to attend meetings organized by the community leader. They competed for the white sweaters that proved they were more spiritually evolved than others and bullied and demeaned those who were forced to wear brown sweaters showing their lack of spirituality. I pondered the disconnect between the spirituality they gave lip service to and their actions. I also pondered it as I witnessed how mothers who previously ignored their children suddenly were only concerned about their children, stashing private bags of food for their children in the daycare center refrigerator. Unlike other mothers, I felt the need to make sure all children had the best we could provide.

I was also aware of how disrespected and patronized I felt by those who were in the upper echelon within the rural setting hierarchy, explaining it away to myself as another indicator of my many deficiencies. Despite my lack of self-confidence, there was still a noticeable difference between me and most of the members I encountered. I still thought about each of my actions and made my own decisions. I was perplexed by my observations that otherwise smart caring people did whatever the leader told them to do without question, even if it contradicted their deeply held values. Almost everyone else did unkind, foolish or illegal things because the leader told them to do it. Yet I stayed because I genuinely cared about my new friends despite all of these differences.

Slowly over the years, I gained skills and had experiences I doubt would even have come my way in another setting. I worked outside jobs as a waitress, nurse’s aide, donut finisher, receptionist, and seamstress, and as an attendant for an institution for people with cognitive and developmental challenges. As my status in the community rose, I moved from setting to setting. I travelled to the south to promote the community radio show, served as the booking agent and lightshow operator for a mobile disco, and ended up as the general office manager for the community, a buffer between the leader and ruling elite and the 200 members of the community. As my status in the community shifted, so did my ability to see more of what was really occurring. At first, I had believed most people followed the publicly proclaimed principles. I even believed that when I was the office manager, collecting members’ weekly donations, allocating funds to members to cover their needs, purchasing household supplies and food for twelve different enclaves, and buffering members from the never-ending demands for more money by the elite.

Again I pondered cultural differences. There were members who worked multiple jobs to donate all they could for the well-being of the community as a whole. There were members who never donated anything, but who were exempt because the leader favored them. There were members who were so wounded by life that they were unable to contribute anything but still needed resources multiple times a day every day. My carefully calculated food purchases to make sure each person in each house could have two eggs a day on Saturday and Sunday were glibly blown away by members from privileged backgrounds who thanked me for buying the eggs, proclaiming “I had six eggs this morning and it was such a treat.” I wondered how many children would be denied protein as a result.

But these were minor annoyances. There were deeper secrets I finally discovered – the way people’s hard-earned dollars were used to subsidize the costs of the leader’s alcohol and cocaine addiction. I thought long and hard about whether to stay and try to help someone whom I thought at the time wanted to recover or leave for my daughter’s sake. I came up with an alternative that I felt was reasonable. My daughter’s father agreed to take care of her for the summer. I would stay for that time to see what I could do to help the community get back on track. Two days after my daughter left, the leader of the community accosted me, yelling. “What the FUCK did you DO! Sending your daughter away was SO FUCKED UP!” (Those of you who have read my previous blog posts probably can guess how I responded.) I looked him at him calmly and replied in a quiet voice, “If you want to understand why I act as I do, it would be better to ask me. I always consider important decisions very carefully knowing that it is my karma not someone else’s if I make mistakes. It is not your right to question or judge my decisions. And it’s certainly not your right to tell me what to do.” He turned red in the face and screamed “GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT NOW!!!!” This was the only command I obeyed, but based on my own decision that it was the wisest course of action. It was not until decades later that I learned about the sexual abuse women and children experienced at the hands of the leader and his closest cronies, something many former members still prefer to ignore as they continue to believe they are “more spiritually evolved.”

So as I ponder the wisdom of living in an intentional community, I remember these experiences and ask if it is possible to find people who can really build a community based on comradeship. Can people escape the need to follow a leader? The organizational structure that both communities and every organization I have worked for shared in common was based on hierarchical power distinctions. Those organizations that were the most dysfunctional took oppression a bit further, using the “hub” style of management. The person in charge developed personal connections with each member or employee separately and discouraged the development of inter-collegial relationships by pointing out the deficiencies of all the others, a divide and conquer tactic that isolated people from each other and made them easier to manipulate. A picture is worth a thousand words here.

hub management

Photo Credit: Hub-Management Powerpoint slide

The three-dimensional picture of the carnival swing (above) is a more effective illustration. Each person is isolated, reliant on a thin tether that connects them to the power source for their continued survival, a power structure they are incapable of penetrating because of its distance and protective isolation. Each worker or member is easily replaceable, a part of the ride. How can such a structure do anything other than encourage individualism and selfish preoccupation? Can intentional communities undo the unconscious programming of what “leadership” means to those socialized in the dominant culture?

Perhaps I am stuck in my romantic notions of “traditional” Ojibwe culture. In order to become an adult, each individual was encouraged to find his or her own gifts in order to more fully contribute from a grounded foundation to the well-being and survival of the community as a whole while protecting the environment for future generations. I wonder if this ideal is possible. I wonder if the moral of the Sufi story that John McKnight relates is true, “You will only learn what you already know.” Do we as a people already know that our survival really does depend on everyone else who shares the planet? Do we really already know what it takes to live with others in inclusive, respectful, constructive, peaceful ways?

For the sake of my grandchildren and generations to come, I hope we already do know or are still able to learn.

***