Tag Archives: environmental threats

A Tale of Twin Trees

Carol A. Hand

One upon a time a family of dwarf pine trees were born
They were watered and fed in a warm sheltered nursery
Among them a brother and sister
It took years for them to grow until they were finally tall enough
to be clipped into fancy shapes that were not their nature
They were sent to a store to be sold – but the summer went by
while they waited and waited to find a home
sadly, no one wanted them
At the end of the season, a bit stunted by the experience,
they were finally put on sale – $14 for a living being
I wonder if they wondered what their fate would be?
As sometimes happens, they would not be far apart
They went home with two neighbors
but that is when their paths diverged
One went to a big home with a chemically-fed lawn
to serve as a symbol of conspicuous material success
He was placed in a fancy planter prominently displayed
But when winter came, he was left outside without warmth or water
When spring arrived, he was discarded with the used Christmas tree
The other little pine went to a modest cottage just next door
to a yard overgrown with trees and flowers and gardens everywhere
She was placed in a newly created garden where she could grow
according to her own nature amid towering pines
but the winters proved harsh – much colder than those of her past
Each spring she struggled to bring forth life on damaged branches

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Little Pine – August 2019
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Each summer, the man who bought her brother would flood her home
Washing way the soil and protective mulch with a torrent of water
from the birthday waterslide that was a new symbol of conspicuous superiority
And each year, the woman who brought her to her new home
would lovingly repair her soil and gently touch her branches
uttering a silent prayer for the little pine tree’s health and survival

*

*

Ah, life.
There are so many differing views
about what is really important

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Reflections in May – 2019

Carol A. Hand

Greeting the chilly May morning
noticing that dandelions have yet to open
to reveal golden blooms to greet the day
while the sparking dew-covered grass
reflects the weak light of a cloudy grey sky

*

A prophetic song is playing in my thoughts

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”

*

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Reading the mainstream news confirms Cohen’s message
“There is a crack, a crack in everything”
yet all I have to offer are imperfect ramblings
Perhaps that’s enough to let some light get in?

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Lake Superior – May 2019

***

The research my students read this past semester continues to haunt me. They explored how unequal access to potable water disproportionately affects the health of groups that have been relegated to marginalized socio-economic status and forced to relocate to the least desirable lands. Most people believe that “developed” countries are not affected by the scarcity of safe water to drink. Some of the students this past semester were shocked when they discovered otherwise.

One student shared a quote from a study she reviewed, “… the value of water is [only] truly appreciated when one becomes thirsty” (Noga & Wolbring, 2013, p. 1872). I am reminded of the courage and commitment of the Standing Rock Water Protectors and the violent resistance they had to endure because too many people take clean water for granted until it’s too late.

Another student reviewed a study about a community in Texas that was profoundly affected by a disaster. Although the study took place almost a decade after the residents learned that their water had been contaminated with benzene, the community remained shattered as a result of a “technological disaster” caused by a nearby oil refinery owned by the Exxon Corporation (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 118).

Although community members noticed problems with the smell, taste, and color of their water when they first moved into the newly developed subdivision in the 1980s, they were assured by the local municipal utility district that the water was safe. The district staff undoubtedly believed that to be true. Public water suppliers were not required to test for benzene, “a known human carcinogen,” until 1990 (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 120). After benzene was included among the chemical contaminants public water suppliers had to measure, the test results for the community’s water supply were alarming – the amount of benzene was eleven times greater than what was deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Without informing residents, the district switched the community to a “safe” alternate water source after additional tests showed the same results for benzene. Community residents were not informed about the contamination or the switch until rumors and a local investigative reporter forced the issue. Residents were finally notified five months after the discovery and shift to a new water source. Couch and Mercury (2007, p. 117) describe the response. “In the words of one resident, the community reacted ‘like someone stepping on an anthill – everyone running in different directions.’”
Imagine what that does to the sense of trust community members have in their public service providers and government officials. It’s something residents in Love Canal, NY and Flint, MI experienced.

Residents in each of the communities affected by “technological disasters” had to undertake their own advocacy and identify researchers and lawyers who could help them prove their case. But ending at least part of the most obvious and egregious environmental injustices and winning court cases can’t heal the ongoing health damages, psychological trauma, or splintered community relationships that result.

This brief overview does not do justice to an important research study that details the complex intricacies of the multidimensional harm suffered by residents of this particular Texas community. Hopefully, though, it highlights a simple, compelling point. Vulnerability to the most destructive consequences of both technological and natural disasters is far greater for groups that have already been subjected to centuries of ongoing systematic and structural discrimination because of socio-economic status and ancestry. It is not something governments alone can address even if they are willing to do so. The causes are deeper and more complex.

There is a pattern we see repeating for each community that goes through the increasingly common natural and technological disasters. Community leaders declare their intention to rebuild and recover what was lost. Based on the experiences of communities that have survived repeated natural disasters, recovery has sometimes been possible. Couch and Mercuri (2007, p. 131) point out “that in areas prone to certain types of natural disasters, a disaster subculture develops which helps residents prepare for and respond to disasters. For example, in natural disasters, a therapeutic community often forms by which neighbor helps neighbor to respond to the catastrophe” (emphasis mine).

What Couch and Mecuri (2007, p. 131) witnessed in the community they studied, however, “was just the opposite, with everybody looking out only for themselves. Instead of the community being solidified, it was ‘like someone stepping on an anthill.’” They argue that what developed was a subculture of distress among residents that reinforced “uncertainty, distrust, alienation, and conflicting individualized responses to the problems” (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 132, emphasis mine).

Couch and Mercuri (2007, p. 134) argue that “With chronic technological disasters, recovery/transformation must often take place in the midst of ongoing danger, or at the very least, amidst the perception of it.” The trauma created by benzene contamination didn’t end when the problem was addressed by the municipal utility district. Residents had already ingested contaminated water and had been deceived by people and officials whom they had trusted.

They had to live with the fact that they were already ill or with constant fear that they might become seriously ill at some point in the future. They also learned that they couldn’t depend on government officials for help. They couldn’t recover the illusion that personal health and safety were guaranteed. The only option available to them was to transform themselves and their lives in response to changing circumstances.

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Lake Superior – May 2019

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As I thought about the difference between recovery and transformation for communities affected by disasters, I was reminded of the times we are all living in now. With each passing day, those in power around the world are creating ever more destruction and instability. Even if the destruction ends today, we will still need to contend with the destabilizing consequences for generations yet to come. The message I take away from this article is the need to learn how to create an adaptive community where people can learn how to work together rather than only look out for their own self interests.

Overcoming the programming that has affected too many of us in the world to hunger and thirst for things that destroy rather than sustain life is not an easy task. Perhaps as Cohen suggests, things need to break first so the light can get in. Perhaps the most that those who see the dangers ahead can accomplish is to transform themselves and what they think and say and do.

Works Cited:

Leonard Cohen, “Anthem” from the 1992 album The Future.

Stephen R. Couch & Anne E. Mercuri (2007). Toxic water and the anthill effect: The development of a subculture of distress in a once contaminated community. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, 14, 117-137.

Jacqueline Noga & Gregor Wolbring (2013). Perceptions of water ownership, water management, and the responsibility of providing clean water. Water, 5(4), 1865-1889.

NOVA/PBS – “Poisoned Water” video about the Flint, Michigan disaster available at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/video/poisoned-water/

The New York Times – “The Love Canal Disaster: Toxic Waste in the Neighborhood (Retro Report)” video available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kjobz14i8kM

Afterword:

Anthem, by Leonard Cohen

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

We asked for signs
The signs were sent:
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me

Ring the bells that still ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart
To love will come
But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

*

Remembering Rita

Carol A. Hand

It has been weeks since I have had time to post and April has flown by. I have had brief respites to simply observe beauty.

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April 18, 2019 – Early morning moon

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April 13, 2019 – Crossing the Bong Bridge from Superior, WI

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I have also made it a priority to spend time with my daughter and grandchildren when possible.

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April 21, 2019 – Watching a creative and masterful performance of Cirque du Soleil with family

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April 28, 2019 – Sharing Sunday brunch

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Mostly, though, I have been working on the two classes I am teaching this semester.

Saturday, as I prepared for the macro practice class I co-teach with a colleague, I was lost in a stream of consciousness moment when one thought lead me down a path of memories that didn’t seem to have any logical connections other than my long life. As I put skin cream on my legs after my shower, I noticed my right knee once again. It’s still a bit puffy despite the decades that have passed since it was injured when I was taking care of Rita. Thinking of Rita always reminds me how precious and unpredictable life is.

Rita was a tiny woman when she contracted the brain cancer that was killing her slowly despite operations, radiation treatments, and medications. Medications caused her body to become bloated and stimulated her appetite. By the time I was hired as a home health aide to help care for her during the last year of her life, she had gained a lot of weight. She needed assistance with self-care and walking. She was often lost in another world of thoughts but she did love to eat. She would often joke about the meals I prepared. Cooking has never been something I liked doing, but I tried my best.

I was warned to remain emotionally distant by my employer. “She’s going to die no matter what you do, so don’t get attached.” Despite the warning, I discovered something that has stayed with me when I teach. I learned to care about her deeply and let her know I cared in many ways even though I knew our time together was limited. I knew I couldn’t do anything to cure her disease, but I could bring “soft hands and laughter” into her life no matter how long or short it was meant to be. I would sit and listen to her talk, cook things she liked, and take her on excursions when she expressed a desire to get out of the house even for a moment.

Gradually, Rita lost her ability to walk and spent much of her time in bed. Toward the end of her life, when I was helping her move from her bed to the wheelchair she had to use at that point, she had a seizure. It was heavy lifting for me at the best of times. I weighed at least 30 pounds less than Rita. As I was lifting her that day, her body went rigid as she shook with powerful spasms. It wasn’t possible for me to lift her back on the bed or help her flex into a sitting position. With my arms wrapped around her body, all I could do was lower her gently to the floor, injuring my knee in the process. With gentle hands and a calming voice, I helped Rita relax and was finally able to get her to help me lift her into the wheelchair.

She lived far longer than predicted. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to be with her until the end because I planned to move soon to another state. When I let my employer know I would be moving a month in advance, they fired me immediately and brought in another aide. The family was angry and asked me to stay and hired me themselves to fill in the hours when the agency aide was not with Rita. I agreed to help as long as I could.

When I arrived for my first shift, I heard the new aide yelling. I peeked into Rita’s bedroom and saw the aide roughly slapping a washcloth over Rita’s face. At that point, Rita was in the final stages of her disease. She required total care and was unable to speak. I walked in to help the aide and let the family know what I witnessed. Within a week, Rita was gone.

Although I grieved her death, I knew that I had done the best I could to make her last year as kind and comfortable as possible. I realized that spending time with Rita was a gift. Being present in the moment and caring about others are especially important in times of transition. It lessened my sadness about loss.

My knee remained painful but surviving childhood abuse taught me how to function despite physical pain. Later, I learned that the injury resulted in “knee effusion, or water on the knee.” Although it was bruised, swollen, and stiff, I was still able to walk. A supportive, flexible knee bandage helped reduce the pain although it took more than a year to fully heal. Decades later, it’s still a little puffy but usually works just fine.

Perhaps my Saturday morning reminiscence about Rita was triggered by a frightening experience on Friday evening. I fell asleep curled up in my rocking chair, exhausted, after teaching the second to the last research class before the end of the semester. I awoke with painful cramps in my legs and was initially unable to walk. It was a frightening reminder of how unpredictable life can be. Thankfully the pain subsided quickly. (Next time I’ll take naps elsewhere!)

Reviewing student papers has meant hours of sitting in an uncomfortable chair, first reading original sources to make sense of student papers, and then, hours on the computer grading and commenting to help students learn how to read carefully and write clearly.

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April 16, 2019 – Grading…

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Like my experience with Rita, grading has been a mixed blessing. In the process, I learned a lot about access to safe, drinkable water around the globe. Someday, I hope I have time to synthesize what I learned from the kaleidoscopic assortment of research studies my students explored. The process of reviewing many different vantage points about the crises we are facing, however, reminded me to keep things in perspective.

One third of the world’s population is without access to potable water or sanitation at the household level (Cumming, Elliott, Overbo, & Bartram, 2014). One third! And we continue fracking, spewing out plastic garbage, pouring more toxic chemicals on farmlands, and building yet more weapons. I am so grateful for the opportunity to play a role in raising student awareness about these issues. Grading has also left little time for me to write or visit blogs. That is unlikely to change in the next few weeks before the semester ends.

Next semester I will have the privilege of working with the same group of students. Throughout my years of teaching, I have remembered to be mindful of the lessons Rita taught me.

Be present in the moment and care about each student.

I only have a short time to spend with each cohort of students before they move on with their lives. All I can do is my best and hope they will learn what they need to know while we are together so they are prepared to face a challenging and uncertain future with the ability to think critically and respond with caring creativity.

Work Cited:

Oliver Cumming, Mark Elliott, Alicia Overbo, & Jamie Bartram (2014). Does global progress on sanitation really lag behind water? An analysis of global progress on community- and household-level access to safe water and sanitation. Plos One.

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Reflections about Awakening

Carol A. Hand

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April Icing – April 26, 2017

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Life in the tragic gap between present reality
and clear visions (memories?) of what could be
is sometimes unbearably painful
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A fascinating visitor (American Pelecinid Wasp) – August 22, 2018
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The magic, mystery and beauty of life
in all its amazing intricate diversity
captures my undivided attention
filling me with a sense of reverent awe
yet beneath the surface almost simultaneously
I can feel the suffering of the earth
and the creatures who, like me, call her home
I sense the death throes of irreplaceable wonder
that nothing technology produces can ever replace
while too many of the earth’s children sleep

*

Look west from Enger Tower – October 14, 2018
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I am grateful for the privileges I have had
to witness the power of awakening
as the students I work with discover things
which those in power never meant for them to know
Perhaps it is way too little and way too late
yet a prayer rises in my heart that the earth
draws hope from their awakening
and that of light-affirming others around the world
garnering strength to heal for the sake of all life
across uncountable generations to come

*

On the road to Hana, Maui – 1998

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Afterward:

I do worry about the challenges that those who are awakening to the wonder of the world will face in the future. I wrote and titled this poem before reading an article by Tess Owen in Vice News. Owen describes a different kind of awakening among white nationalists from around the world who gathered in Finland this past weekend. They referred to their celebration as “Awakening II.” I sincerely hope they will awaken to wonder, too.

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January Ramblings – 2019

Carol A. Hand

Sometimes my creative muse moves to the background

in order to free-up space for the critical analytical realist

making it hard to focus on beauty and hope

as awareness of the suffering of the world takes center stage

This time, the transition has been almost more than I could bear

bringing to mind other times in my younger years

when pursuing new possibilities and starting over felt possible

***

I remember the lessons my mother taught me through example:

Reflections about Time (January 9, 2019)

These days, past, present and future

seem to flow seamlessly together

in dreams and waking hours

highlighting how past actions

have contributed to precious gifts

I never could have predicted

*

My mother meeting her great grandson for the first time – March, 1999

 

Unbeknowst to me, my mother’s example

taught me a powerful coping strategy

for surviving times of adversity

that continues to serve me well

It helps to focus intensely on creating

something kind, healing, and hopeful . . .

*

My grandson’s 20th birthday – January 10, 2019

***

I remember setting off on a journey for the sake of my daughter:

I Remember … 11/10/2014

I remember other storms approaching – the wind silent but the air filled with the electricity of threat and possibility. I survived. But have I worn the grooves of hope and love deeply enough into my spirit to weather the storms that I know are coming? As I sat on my doorstep watching the first of the snowflakes begin to fall in the darkened landscape, I wondered what the winter of these times will bring. I can feel the beat of my heart quicken with a mixture of fear and exhilaration.

*

Duluth Morning – November 10, 2014

*

My thoughts are transported back to an earlier time, the first warning of storms to come. I was standing in the Connecticut cottage where I lived with my infant daughter looking out of the picture window toward the trees and down at the river that flowed past the front of the cabin. Then, as today, the air was filled with the electricity of an approaching storm. Yet in the past, I awoke from a dream remembering some of the images and insights of a guide who sometimes speaks to me through dreams. “A storm is coming,” the guide said.

“Times ahead will be hard. The earth has shifted on its axis and the polarities of the earth’s gravitational fields are changing. People will not know they are being affected by these shifts, but polarities will be amplified. Those on a path of light will glow brighter while those on a path of darkness will grow stronger in their quest for control and destruction. You have a choice. You may leave now. You don’t have to stay to face the storm.”

How could I leave an infant to face the coming storms without a mother who loved her? I certainly wasn’t a perfect mother, but I loved my daughter enough to choose to seek the light again and again. I would fail again and again, but decades later, I know I did the best I could. I’m not a perfect grandmother either, and I’m unsure what I can do to help my daughter and grandchildren prepare for the coming storms, but I trust that whatever comes, love for others and for this wondrous and beautiful world and universe are what will matter most in the years ahead.

***

Now, I feel compelled to face the reality that there are difficult times ahead. During the weeks it took me to reconfigure the research course I have been teaching from a one- semester course to a two-semester course, I remembered my mother’s example and the message in the dream I had when my daughter was a baby. I kept working despite deepening alarm about the state of the world.

As I reviewed videos to rebuild the online content for the 50/50 face-to-face and online hybrid course, I found myself wishing I could set off as I did decades ago to find a safe space for my family. To find a community of thoughtful people working together to build an inclusive community like the ones I romantically imagine my Ojibwe ancestors created.

Reviewing videos that I used to think of as anomalous examples of the cruelty some humans express, The Deadly Deception and The Stanford Prison Experiment, only brought to mind the brutality of our current treatment of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.

Ripping children away from their families and placing them in prison-like institutions while adults were placed in tent cities or abandoned warehouses that are reminiscent of concentration camps. I felt and feel powerless to change such obvious evil. This brutality and the inaction of those who see themselves as enlightened “leaders” cause me to wonder if the dream I had might, in fact, be true.

Several of the other videos I reviewed added to my realization that disregard for life has been and is still inextricably built into the predominant values and institutions in many nations. If you have the courage and stomach, here are links to a couple reminders that presage even harder times to come for people and the earth.

Poisoned Water:

https://www.pbs.org/video/poisoned-water-jhhegn/

Cancer Alley, Louisiana – Victims of Environmental Racism:

***

But the cruelty and disregard for life are nothing new and they’re not confined to one nation, religion, or culture. Still, looking at the super moon a couple days ago helped me find the strength to continue this sometimes heavy and lonely journey.

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Super Moon – January 20, 2019

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In the Depths of Winter (January 21, 2019)

In the depths of winter on a cold dark night

the super blood wolf moon is a welcome sight

a reminder of blessings beneath her comforting light

 

She reflects the sun for all whether they see her or not

inspiring me to repeat a Reiki prayer

“Just for today –

“I will refrain from anger
“I will not worry
“I will be grateful
“I will do my work diligently
“I will be kind to myself and others”

realizing the best I can do is to try to be conscious

and disciplined enough to make these choices

moment to moment…

***

Speaking of choices, I do find reasons for lighthearted laughter as I join Richard Simmons and the Silver Foxes every day.  I hope some of you will join me and remember to find reasons and time to laugh and to play even in the darkest of moments.

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Blowing bubbles – 2002

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50 / 50 ≠ Unity

Carol A. Hand

As I watched the electoral maps change when the election results were tallied this week, the micro-divisiveness within and among states was so obvious. So much for “the united states!” I was momentarily saddened because the “blue wave” that was supposed to end poverty, war, hunger, homelessness, imprisonment of migrant families, police brutality, and oppression didn’t happen. And then I realized that many of the races, especially at the national level, were almost equally divided between the “blue wave” and the “red tide.”

2018 U.S. Electoral Map

(Interactive maps, Huffington Post)

From the perspective of someone who has witnessed the divisive effects of 50/50 “democracy” for Indigenous forms of consensual governance, that’s not surprising.

While watching the maps change, I thought about the students I have taught in the past and continue to work with now who come from many of the slightly tinged “red” or “blue” communities. It’s a nation divided. It’s not what I want the next generations to inherit.

To be honest, I don’t have time to write a thoughtful well-researched analysis. But I do want to make a point about the value of education. Hopefully, education can help pass on the knowledge and skills that enable us to reach across divides to understand each other and build common ground. We do, after all, need to work together if we really want a peaceful world and healthy environments and communities.

These reflections bring to mind Jane Addams and the women of Hull-House. Their legacy is often unknown, even among newer generations of social work students. Together, they demonstrated how to work with knowledge, empathy, and passionate compassion to build solidarity and create respectful, inclusive alternatives to discriminatory, divisive, and punitive policies. They lived among the poorest new immigrant arrivals in Chicago. Instead of fostering divisions, they brought people together to learn and share. Among the issues they successfully addressed were child labor, unfair treatment of workers, infant and maternal mortality, tenant rights, city sanitation, and the creation of juveniles courts.

My hope is that the students I work with will learn from the examples of the Hulll-House women. Students are already familiar with life in divided communities in the forgotten little towns of this nation.

These are the kinds of students I prefer to teach. Early in my late-life career when I entered academia to become a scholar and educator, I made an important decision. Instead of choosing to work in prestigious research universities that served students from privileged backgrounds like the schools I had attended, I chose settings with students from backgrounds similar to mine. My father had a 9th-grade education, and although my mother did have a degree as a Registered Nurse from a prestigious university, she grew up poor on an Ojibwe reservation. Her education was made possible by the kindness of a wealthy Euro-American woman who owned a resort where my mother had worked as a teenager.

My mother repaid this gift by sending me off to school in the city where she studied decades before. Chicago. It was there that I met the educator who showed me how to teach, Sister Lorita. I wrote about her gift in an older post, “The wonder of life in a blade of grass.” Her example and caring affected me more profoundly than I realized at the time. I was my grandson’s age then, 19.

I am much older now. And I am very fortunate to still be able to teach a subject that is perhaps the most important foundation for life, research. As a former colleague, Maxine Jacobson,  observed, we are born researchers, inquisitive about the world around us. We lose our sense of wonder and curiosity as we age, though, through the processes of socialization. My job as an educator is to try to unlock those gifts once again, to help students remember how to be curious. To notice, explore, observe, reflect, and test the limits of what they’ve been taught and what they know.

I wonder what would happen in all of the “red” and “blue” communities if the people who lived there had a chance to be curious. The phenomenon I would like them to consider and explore is the miracle of life in a drop of pure water. Water is something that connects all life on our plant. We can’t live without it. I wonder if there is a way to refocus peoples’ attention on things that really matter.

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Amity Creek – September, 2018

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This semester, my colleague and I are trying an experiment. Students are working as teams to explore the quality of water in their communities by designing little research studies, talking to community members and staff in local agencies in charge of water treatment about the quality and threats for this resource, and planning community awareness activities. As “emic” (insider) researchers in their communities, what they learn is more likely to be useful to other residents including their own families.

I also wonder what would happen if education focused on awakening curiosity sooner than college. Youth would grow up more aware about the health of their communities. That is exactly what happened in a Photovoice study of water that involved Indigenous youth. I wonder if similar initiatives during elementary and high school years could bring the children from red and blue families together to understand, care about, and protect a precious resource they all need in order to live.

I do envision the possibility of a “blue wave” in the future, but it isn’t one that divides people along political ideological lines. It’s one that unites us to care for each other and the “pale blue dot” we all share in common.

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Reflections about Learning Compassion

Carol A. Hand

A fervent wish –
May the bullies and narcissists
of the world
both the petty and the powerful
one day awaken
and realize
with piercing empathic pain
the harm they have done
to others and the earth
and with great sorrow
understand
they are teaching
their children
to do
the same

***

Narcissus (1590s) by Caravaggio (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome), Public Domain, Wikipedia

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Exploring Connections – Clean Water and Healthy Communities

Carol A. Hand

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.

Lake Superior (Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory) – Autumn 2017

Following is an overview of what we have drafted thus far for our classes.

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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)

Lake Superior (Palisade Head) – Summer 2017

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:

https://www.unnaturalcauses.org/video_clips_detail.php?res_id=47

In case anyone is interested in finding out how safe drinking water is in the U.S., the following article includes an interactive map with county-level data that lists reported violations: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/millions-americans-drink-potentially-unsafe-tap-water-how-does-your-county-stack .

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water” (W. H. Auden, 1957, First Things First)

Works Cited:

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.

WWF (n.d.). Stories – Clean water for healthy communities. Available from https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/clean-water-for-healthy-communities.

What Would You Choose?

Carol A. Hand

We teach the next generations
through our lived example
how to care for the earth
and all our relations
We’re ever creating the world
our children and grandchildren will inherit
across all of earth’s imaginary boundaries
and within diverse fictive nations

The question to consider
is what we want that world to be

Do we teach children to care,
cooperate, and conserve?
Or do we teach them to compete,
conquer, and consume?

The answers matter profoundly
but we need to remember
awareness can’t be imposed
through legislation
It can only be encouraged
through living examples
that offer another kind of education
opening up new possibilities
that demonstrate the value
of compassionate contemplation

A lesson from an “Inchworm”

Note

Sometimes it feels futile and foolish to work on creating healthy gardens on a city lot that has long been neglected. Factories just to the east churn out foul-smelling toxic fumes. My neighbor on one side has spent more than a decade burying garbage along the fence-line. Lately, the garbage has merely been left exposed, joined by plastic toys his children abandon when their interest wanes.

I have tried to engage in reasoned conversations and offered to help create a healthy landscaped transition. My words have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps suggestions from an Ojibwe grandmother (you know, a triple whammy – age, gender, and ancestry) even exacerbated his unwillingness to consider alternatives. The experience has taught me how profoundly cultures and life experiences affect our ability to discern how our everyday choices affect what our children learn and the health of the environments they will inherit.

I’ve been told it’s a matter of perspective. Some prefer landfills that will someday look like manicured lawns despite the toxic or dangerous things that are hidden from sight, while others prefer healthy gardens.

May 31, 2014

May 23, 2018

***

I still wonder, though, how someone who claims to love children doesn’t seem to realize his actions are destroying a child’s garden.

July 3, 2015 – My granddaughter standing next to the garden she helped create.

May 23, 2018 – Damage control in process as the wooden divide grows ever higher to protect my granddaughter’s garden from the growing pile of refuse (including piles of dog feces).

***

Without Warning

Carol A. Hand

The long-awaited spring is finally here
Kneeling on earth, hands in the dirt
tending resting gardens with love
not knowing what has survived winter
or what will grow once planted

Blissfully unaware in the north wind
that disaster struck just across the river
I’ve grown accustomed to dark smokestack clouds
billowing toxic fumes from factories to the east
I’ve learned not to breathe deeply
when the wind blows from the east

View of the refinery fire from my yard across the St. Louis River, April 26, 2018

***

Those to the south were not so lucky yesterday
Black toxic towers rose and blew south
when the oil refinery exploded and caught fire
Though the disaster was just a few miles away
no warning sirens sounded in my neighborhood
I guess the city saves those for periodic tests

People on this side of the river went on with their lives
not knowing the city of Superior shut down schools
or that a “shelter in place” order for my neighborhood
was issued for this morning when the wind
was due to shift and blow from the east

Another view of the Superior fire from my neighborhood

***

I think of people in Syria, Palestine, and Puerto Rico,
Houston, Florida, and San Bernadino
Lives lost and homes destroyed with little warning
yet we live unaware of disasters waiting to happen
hoping that we won’t be downwind when they do

Addressing the threat is not a simple undertaking
Assigning blame and expecting others to fix this
are not constructive responses to complex predicaments
Perhaps this is a topic for students and all of us to explore
How can we bring communities together to dialogue?
To listen respectfully to diverse perspectives,
negotiate a shared future vision, and find common ground
that inspires wise collective action?

The imminent danger has passed here – this time