Watching the courage of the House Managers of the impeachment trial for the former US president as they presented compelling evidence about evil actions, I realized something profound about myself. I know with absolute certainty that people are born in a state of original sanctity. I knew it even as an infant before my first birthday.
“What happens when good people are put into an evil place? Do they triumph or does the situation dominate their past history and morality?” (Philip Zimbardo)
At least for me, I know I had choices. And I didn’t always make the right one. I was not yet five years old when I stopped eating because life was too panful. At thirteen, I tried to end my life again, unable to find a way to reconcile the senseless violence all around me that was so at odds with what I knew to be true. The father who beat me and the mother who helplessly watched were not evil. They were in pain. Life had wounded them in ways that left them unable to do otherwise. It took my daughter’s birth to force me to finally decide to stay despite the pain of witnessing so many people who carry soul-deep wounds, myself included.
The responsibility of caring for a tiny infant in a crazy world felt so daunting. Ultimately, I realized that I couldn’t do it alone, so we set off on a journey. Though I didn’t consciously realize what I was seeking at the time, now, I know. The question that inspired me was different than the one Zimbardo asked. I wanted to know if good people could work together to create and sustain sacred places.
I searched in many places, among them communes and intentional communities, health service agencies, state governments, tribal communities, and educational settings. I discovered it is possible to create sacred spaces for brief moments of time with great effort, but they are so easy to destroy. In the past 50 years since my daughter was born, I have tried to create both real and metaphoric gardens wherever I worked to encourage plants and people to blossom.
Recently, though, I discovered something important and shared it in an email to a dear friend.
“I truly wish people didn’t feel the need to rely on leaders or ‘experts.’ I spent much of my career trying to help people learn to see their own beauty and find their own power within. Yet I often failed to see my own strengths and beauty. It’s taken me a lifetime to realize I am not responsible for others’ choices. I am only responsible for my own.”
I sincerely hope that the courage and dedication of the House Impeachment Managers will encourage US Senators to decide wisely. There is much that has always been imperfect about this colonial nation, but in its defense, it nonetheless has embodied the potential to inspire the best in people. We have all witnessed yet again how easy it is to incite people to behave in angry, violent, destructive ways. It need not be so.
Regardless of the Senate’s decision or the distorted beliefs and despotic behavior of a former president, his enablers, and his followers, I will do my best to continue planting gardens, both real and metaphorical, wherever I go. I have no power to change others, but I do carry a responsibility to breathe the essence of who I am into what I do. I also carry the responsibility to be grateful for all of the gifts and friends I have encountered in my journey, and all of the people who have continued to share their light because it’s the essence of who they are.
Who would believe that the mixed ancestry which made my life and that of my descendants so challenging is a phenomenal gift?
It represents an inheritance of courage from ancestors who challenged strongly held social conventions in acts of resistance and diplomacy to forge and cement peaceful alliances between cultures and nations in contested spaces during times of conflict and war.
This inheritance is not an easy one to carry. It conveys a sacred responsibility to walk the bridging, healing path of inclusion and peace in a world so easily divided by powerful fears of those who are different.
It means living in a world that reifies distinctions between cultures, nations, religions, and political views, to name but a few of the differences, often demonizing those who dare to challenge social conventions and the ruling elite.
Yet the legacy passed down from the builders of bridges created new possibilities for peaceful coexistence – hybrids, if you will, who carry the legacy of courage and a sense of responsibility for living in harmony with others and the earth within their blended DNA. *
Sharing with deep gratitude for the participants in yearning circle dreaming who inspired these reflections.
to weather the winds that led to the passing of the two old willows
that once embraced her and nurtured her through her tender years
Still, they anchor her firmly and deeply between their stumps and roots feeding the abundance of berries that hang from her delicate branches as sustenance for her winged and four-legged relations when the deep snows fall and the cold winter winds blow strong
Although I have so little time to write and blog these days, stories and poems sometimes flow through me any way. They are meant to be shared with others because they are connected to others who inspire them. I am sharing this with gratitude to my colleague who insisted we use trees as a metaphor for the class we are teaching about community practice. Initially, I thought she was a little bit crazy. But the course has continued to inspire students year after year. I am also sharing it with gratitude to a dear blogging friend, Robyn, a gifted writer and poet who has inspired me to look ever more deeply at my connections to the land where I stand. And of course, last but not least, this post was inspired by the mountain ash tree bearing her gifts for all who come into her presence.
January 21, 2021. The blustery, gusty winds that were twisting and rattling the bare branches of trees this morning mirrored the volatility I sense in the world at the moment. It was hard for me to center on hope and possibility. And then I remembered gifts from other times. It felt important to share one of them this morning even though I will not have time to reciprocate visits or reply to comments for a while. The classes I will be teaching begin tomorrow and I still have a lot of work to do developing and uploading content online.
December 13, 2014. This morning when I awoke I was reflecting on my lack of hope and passion these days. It feels as though everything I love, everything that brings me joy and peace and hope is at risk. When did my hope and passion disappear? Was it because of the institutions where I worked that publicly espoused social justice missions but contradicted those values through the actions of the majority? Was it because of the neighbors or ex-spouses who only appeared to be concerned with their own comfort and their own pursuit of happiness? Was it because of the zeitgeist of the times summarized by the observation of my newest neighbor when speaking of a child with serious mental health issues, “I’m in this alone”? This feeling of being alone, when internalized, is a destroyer of hope and collective action and it seems to be a major obstacle for joining together to address the serious threats of these times.
As I look back, I realize this feeling has been an undercurrent in the past. Every intervention I have worked on hit this stumbling block sooner or later despite my best efforts. Like my neighbor, ultimately I felt alone in my past efforts because I was never able to inspire or cultivate enough hope for a critical mass of others who were willing to put aside immediate personal comfort to carry the responsibility for working toward a greater good. It was not for lack of trying. Yesterday, as I was contemplating clearing away some of the gifts, papers, and books I’ve accumulated over the years that fill files, shelves, walls and cupboards, I noticed the white candle that sits atop my most important bookshelf – the one that holds irreplaceable books I used to write my dissertation. Of course, like all my mementos, the candle has a story.
Photo Credit: Duluth December 13, 2014
I was working as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. It was not an easy job for many reasons, primarily because of the enduring legacy of colonialism that continued to impose dominant cultural paradigms on tribal communities and use divide and conquer tactics to foment conflicts between “traditional” and “progressive” tribal factions. Resolving conflict was a central part of my job, and it often put me in the middle of powerful competing interests. At a particularly challenging time, I needed to travel with one of my staff to a conference on worldwide healing for Indigenous people held in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference helped me realize I was not alone. Rediscovering the candle on my bookcase reminded me of the conference’s closing ceremony.
More than one thousand of us, representing many cultures and nations, stood in a circle within a large auditorium holding hands. Then, one elder walked to the center. She explained that the closing ceremony was intended to remind us that we were not alone. Because we were in a government building, we couldn’t use candles (fire ordinances prevented it), so flashlights would have to do. And then, the lights in the room went out as her flashlight went on in the center of the circle. She signaled to the four directions, highlighting one person from each of the four directions to walk to the center – first the east, then the south, the west, and the north. The representatives were all given a flashlight. As they touched their darkened lights to the elder’s “candle,” their flashlights were turned on. They were instructed to carry their light to the four directions and light other candles in their part of the circle. The elder explained that it would not be easy to keep the candle fires burning, but if the light went out, people could always return to the center to light them once again.
This morning, I realize I need to take the time to finally light the candle on my book case. It’s not the same white candle I used for a similar ceremony years later for the 40 staff who worked for the Honoring Our Children Project that included nine tribal communities. Building and maintaining multicultural, interdisciplinary teams within and across different tribal cultures was not an easy task. Providing a center they could return to in challenging times was important. But it is the same candle I used in a farewell ceremony with the graduate students I mentored during our final class together. They would all be graduating and scattering to the four directions.
Photo Credit: Sending Light to the Four Directions from Duluth, MN – December 13, 2014
As I lit the candle this morning, I thought of the inter-tribal staff who did astounding work, and the creative and inquisitive students I worked with over the years. I thought about my blogging friends around the world who help me realize that each of is sharing our light. And I thought about the many other people who carry light yet feel alone. May we learn to share our light and stand together for the sake of all we love.
Where does one begin to unpack the factors that contributed to yesterday’s attempted overthrow of the nation’s governing structure? What comes to mind is the profound effect the circumstances of our birth have on how we learn to see and understand the world. Our “positionality.” The time and place of birth matter greatly. Our status in the nations or societies or cultures which we inherit from our parents and ancestors affect the rest of our lives, often in ways we may never see or understand.
Sometimes, those of us born into the liminal space between differing ancestries and cultures learn at an early age how to see the world from differing vantage points. We directly witness the consequences that racism and classism had on our parents and grandparents. At an early age, we begin to question the values and governing structures created by a ruling class that not only allowed an attempted coup to materialize on January 6, 2021, but were also the actual architects that purposefully imposed oppressive structures and policies designed to preserve the power of the Anglo- and European-American capitalist elite.
It’s easy to assign blame for yesterday’s events on “thugs,” “neo-Nazis,” “White-nationalists,” or “domestic terrorists.” It’s easy to blame demented Donald Trump who, himself, is merely a product of a materially privileged, morally bereft, and emotionally abusive childhood. And it’s easy to blame the racism that runs rampant through the nation’s criminal (in)justice systems. Yet through the lenses of those on the margins, none of these simplistic explanations and reactions come anywhere close to explaining or addressing the root causes of yesterday’s events.
What do we expect from the soul of a nation built on genocide, enslavement, and unearned entitlement based on gender, the claim of property “ownership,” and ancestry? Why should it be surprising when the legitimacy of the governing structure of such a nation is challenged by those who inherited their positions on the margins and view themselves as victims of its unfair system?
In a very real sense, all of us have been socialized to accept and internalize our congenital place in a given society. Every aspect of the social values and institutions we encounter is affected by our positionality – our birth, where we live, how our parents parent us, the quality of nutrition, care, and education we receive. We are constantly reminded about our place in the social order. Myths of meritocracy encourage a largely unattainable false hope that we can achieve increased social status if we work hard enough. We are rarely, if ever, encouraged to question the legitimacy of the values or institutions that constrain our life possibilities, though.
The work and resources of people on the margins are essential for the continuing existence and comfort of the parasitic elite. The issue of how to control the vastly more sizeable percentage of the population that is marginalized has been accomplished through a capillary network of discriminatory practices in every aspect of people’s lives by their ability to pay. Education is a crucial dimension in the socialization process. Those who are lowest in the social structure are the least likely to receive an education that prepares them to think critically and aspire to professional careers (other than sports) or leadership positions.
When confronted by events like the one we all just witnessed, I am grateful for a framework that can be used to think critically about the differing ways cultures have conceptualized conflict and operationalized their values in the social structures and institutions that evolved over millennia. A simple question illustrates how profound differing views can be. Does a society seek to help heal individuals and damaged social relations or does it seek revenge by punishing individual offenders? Rupert Ross’s work offers a fascinating contrast to consider.
Contrast between Ojibway/Cree and Euro-Canadian Cultures
Adapted from the work of Rupert Ross (1992). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian reality. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Octopus Publishing Group.
The most important of Ross’ (1992, pp. 165-184) observations from my perspective is that way he characterized cultural differences in fundamental beliefs about human beings. In his role as an Assistant Crown Attorney in Ontario, Canada, he had an opportunity to work with Ojibway and Cree tribal communities and described their belief that children were born in a state of “original sanctity.” In contrast, as a Euro-Canadian, he argues that the cultural view held by most non-Native Canadians is a belief that people are born “in a state of original sin.” He goes on to point out how these differing views resulted in distinctive ways of dealing with conflict that were linked to very specific goals. Simply stated, one culture focused on isolating and punishing deviant individuals and the other cultures were interested in healing individuals and their relationships with others.
The United States is once again at risk of repeating mistakes its made in terms of how the nation responds to conflict. The quick avenging call to action is being sounded to punish the “bad” people. I feel a sense of responsibility today to type these words even though they are unlikely to be read by the people who are in greatest need of wise counsel.
We CANNOT resolve conflict by assigning one-sided blame. How many of us have reached out to try to understand those who have differing values and political views? I am not suggesting it’s easy, believe me. I have participated in activities to find common ground on polarizing issues with people whose views were diametrically opposed to mine. Sometimes the best we could do was to civilly agree to disagree. The positive outcome, though was that no one was harmed and nothing was destroyed in the process.
I have no desire to assign blame to anyone. Perhaps it’s the researcher in me. I just want to understand what we need to do differently as a society to help all people feel they are valued members with a vested interest in our collective, peaceful survival on a world we all need to take care of. I want to do what I can now to help us make that transition.
May we take time to reflect and choose the wiser path to peace and healing.
There was really nothing remarkable about her appearance small and thin – if truth be told, a bit ordinary and mousey perhaps a blessing in disguise – it made her invisible Her voice was soft and melodic – with a hypnotic quality that created space where those who were too loud, quieted, and leaned forward to listen intently when she spoke She didn’t think this had anything to do with her in particular
Her laughter, though infrequent, created sparkling crystal light thawing and healing wounded hearts or invoking fear among those who were filled with darkness Her gaze was focused and intense – a reader of souls People who were relegated to marginal status were often drawn to her light like moths to a flame sensing a compassionate presence others could not see
She sometimes felt the power within and hid from it knowing that power brought overwhelming temptations aware that an ill-spoken word hurled with anger or rage could leave legacies of lasting harm and would certainly cut her most deeply
Life taught her to hone her voice, gaze, and presence though she somehow intrinsically knew only to use them responsibly on behalf of others in times of great need or danger and spirits watched over her helping her learn to only use her gifts in ways that would not draw attention from the watchers who wanted to stifle compassion, wisdom, joy and the loving spirit of ordinary people in order to keep them afraid, confused, angry, and divided and unable to express the transformative beauty they carried within
Imagine life in COVID for such a one with months spent largely in isolation unable to use abilities that were gifts intended to help others on the margins to be seen and heard, to have their voices matter in decisions that affect their lives and all our relations The regenerating effects of energy shared between humans through the magic of presence, smiles, and touch now taboo forcing reliance on distancing technologies and online platforms as the primary means for communicating through virtual words
Yet nature provides a way for her to stay connected to the world with the gentle winter kisses of snowflakes – each unique and each a miracle of seemingly impossible beauty reminding her to be grateful because she can still share from her heart even with distancing technologies even in the midst of suffering, loss, and darkness
She hears a message for herself and feels compelled to pass it on to others
“Be kind and gentle with yourself and others each unique and each a miracle of seemingly impossible beauty rekindle the light within and envision the best you can imagine for the new year just beginning – let it be a time of healing and a time of freedom from bondage to fear, suffering, and separation”
The last four years have exposed with undeniable clarity how easy it is to exploit the fault lines and fissures in our communities to divide us by ancestry, class, age, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, and political ideologies. In the coming years, we will need to find common ground to survive. It will take all of us to face the threats that affect us – diseases including COVID, technological disasters, and climate change.
All I can do in these times is to try to help family, friends, and students keep hope alive.
November 7, 2020 – Class Day
What I noticed this morning –
Instead of looking out of my upstairs window at the gardens below and then greeting the morning on my side porch as I do almost every day, I ran downstairs to turn on my computer so I could check the news about the election.
The past week has been a rollercoaster ride between two contrasting choices – dread, despair, and disappointment or cautiously hopeful optimism. I didn’t find a resolution to a polarized nation on news sites. What I did find, though, was helpful advice from horoscopes for the two astrological signs associated with the time of my birth – Pisces, an emotional water sign symbolized by two fish swimming in opposite directions, and Aquarius, an analytical air sign represented by the water-bearer. The horoscopes both offered what seems to be sage advice for all of us during challenging times.
“Your ability to arm yourself with knowledge and a calm demeanor will help you to shut down any chaos or negativity.” (Aquarius horoscope, 11/7/2020, Huffington Post)
“Your presence of mind and patience will help you out tremendously today.” (Pisces horoscope, 11/7/2020, Huffington Post)
In class, I chose to follow that advice. Rather than drone on and on about the differences between qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, I asked my colleague to join me to check-in with students to give them a chance to talk about how they were doing and find out from their perspective what we could do to help them.
What have you noticed about yourself in the learning process this semester?
What have you noticed about our learning community cohort this semester?
What did you learn about your ancestors’ struggles last year that offers ideas about how to survive during difficult times?
What story will your grandchildren tell about the way you came through these challenging times?
One of the final questions we asked was
“Why are you here?”
We added an observation.
“Showing up for four or five hours of classes via Zoom on a Saturday, especially on one of the last warm, sunny days we are likely to see for many months, is noteworthy. We’re grateful that you are all here.”
Students told us “connections matter.” That’s what helps them survive during these times.
Being there for family, students, colleagues, pets, and the gardens I planted takes almost all of my time and attention these days. Too soon, the snow will make that more challenging…
November 11, 2020
Still, I want to take this moment to say chi miigwetch (thank you) to all of the WordPress friends who have continued to bring so much beauty into my life.
Teaching online takes so much more time than it does in person. I have to rely on words alone to explain complex concepts and details rather than help students develop their ideas face-to-face through dialogic exchanges, marker in hand to draw diagrams on the white board to illustrate how things fit together.
It leaves me little time to write anything other than comments on papers, emails, and class presentations. When I do post something on my blog, I try valiantly to respond to comments and visits in the few moments I have but inevitably I fall behind and feel guilty. So, I don’t post often, and rarely write except on the mornings before our bi-weekly Zoom classes. I guess I should just call my bi-weekly posts – Class Day Reflections.
Class Day – October 24, 2020
“If the rivers and lakes could speak, or more aptly, if one took the time to listen and understand them, what would they say about the way humans have been treating them?” *
This is the question my colleague asked at the end of our classes today when we were consulting with the one student who remained after classes ended, eagerly asking advice on the best ways to approach a community project exploring water issues that excited her.
I believe they would tell us humans all need to do better. Humans need to pay attention to the danger signs all around them and learn how to listen.
Not surprisingly, it was so tempting to stay wrapped in the piles of cozy blankets rather than venture out into the drafty cold of another frigid early morning. Yet my waking moment musings impelled me to run downstairs to my computer to type “what I noticed.”
What I noticed this morning
In a hypnagogic haze, halfway between asleep and awake, I heard the sound of a train, echoing from the ridge to the west. It reminded me of an environmental disaster that occurred before I moved to Duluth – the train that derailed in 1992.
• “Superior [Wisconsin] is not a stranger to industrial accidents prompting mass evacuations. In 1992, a train containing benzene gas derailed just south of the city, covering the region in a bluish, toxic haze. The event, which has come to be known as “Toxic Tuesday” among many locals, forced the evacuation of nearly 30,000 people from the city.” (CBS News, 2018)
• I also remembered the Huske Refinery Fire that I did witness as I walked my dog on April 26, 2018. I saw the huge black toxic cloud filling the sky just across the St. Louis Bay to the east, carried south by strong winds.
• Two years later, the danger the plant still poses, along with dangers of the Enbridge tar-sands pipeline, rarely make the news. We take our access to safe water for granted and fail to be part of the efforts to prevent further threats for future generations.
I guess it’s not surprising that someone born on the cusp of Pisces (the sign of two fish swimming in opposite directions) and Aquarius (the sign of the water-bearer) would have an affinity for water. It is a gift to have a chance to find others who care about the rivers and lakes as well. I am deeply grateful for colleagues and students who are learning, as am I, to listen to the messages of the rivers and lakes in our beautiful homes in the USA and Canada.
I hope more of us can learn to listen and care before it’s too late…
October 3 – An afternoon adventure well worth several days of COVID self-quarantine
Saturday – October 10, 2020
Gradually, I am learning to be grateful for the chance to experience the many thoughts, sensations, and circumstances that present themselves at any given moment. I have the opportunity to choose which ones capture my full attention. This morning, instead of descending into sadness over losses of the past (my mother died on this day ten years ago), mourning over fragile fleeting life and beauty, or obsessing over forces and behaviors I dislike but cannot change, I chose to focus on the task at hand. Preparing for online classes that only happen on alternate Saturdays. Today was one of them.
On class days, I need to take time to answer the question I ask students at the beginning of our online meeting about research.
“What did you notice today?”
Often, as I greet the morning on class days, the universe offers me something that may be of help to my students in these challenging times, while also teaching them something about research.
Greeting the morning I noticed sensations competing for attention –
The melodious songs of birds and the loud revving engine of a motorcycle, The cool air touching my cheeks that made me want to take a deep breath, instantly stifled by the whiff of heavy toxic pollution in the air from factories that are no-longer idled as CODID restrictions have eased
I was reminded of Parker Palmer’s insight about the challenges of “standing in the tragic gap”
Curious, open-minded folks with common sense observe both the pleasant and unpleasant, accepting both as reality and honestly recording what they see. The added dimension for social work faculty, practitioners, and students, though, is the responsibility they carry for assessing how vulnerable populations are affected and figuring out ways to use research, knowledge, and skills to inform interventions that ameliorate harm and serve to enhance or create preventive and protective supports.
It’s not easy for me to figure out how to teach effectively using only distance technology. It’s not easy for students, either. Yet they show up on time and participate anyway, often sharing important insights and resources.
They will need a lot of creativity, skill, and tenacity to figure out how to weave meaningful local community connections in neighborhoods like the one I live in at present. Each family seems to be solidly ensconced in their own culture, house, and yard, and all seem to be increasingly avoidant of any exchanges with the those outside their fences.
Fortunately, I have family, friends, and colleagues who live relatively close, some of whom I can still sometimes hug. I have to admit, though, that I sometimes miss the old days when things seemed different, friendlier, kinder. I wonder now if old times really were kinder or whether I was simply less observant…
Mid-October – October 13, 2020
Weeks pass so quickly with too few moments to wonder or wander in flights of fancy beyond the borders of constraints created by responsibilities to others Still on this brisk, windy sunny mid-morning I am transported on my neighborhood walk by the striking contrasts of color and light accentuating sharp boundaries between sun and shadow trees glowing in their glorious multi-hued garb with a few dark skeletal branches revealed against the cerulean cloud-studded sky There’s no time or space for photos I merely serve as the responsible leash-holder for my little dog as he trots merrily along enjoying a pleasant fall day
I wish to begin with the humorous side of life in these times…
I spent much of yesterday harvesting, and this morning, after beginning to draft this reflection, I put some of my little tomatoes on a cookie sheet in the freezer. Then, I went out to water the little arbor vitae in my backyard, planning to water the gardens in my front yard next. (We’ve had very little rain here this year, making watering an essential part of gardening.) Instead, I decided to squirt my 14-year-old car in the back driveway while the hose was on to see if some of the dirt would come off. It’s been covered by nine-years of burning embers and soot from my neighbor’s bonfires.
Despite trying to scrub the dirt off by hand-washing my car every year in the past, the soot and burn scars remained. I finally gave up earlier this year and just started taking my car to an automated car wash. The process never really cleaned the car, but at least it was coated with multiple layers of a protective wax cover. Today, though, I decided to test out whether some of the soot would come off if I just rubbed it with a paper towel when it was wet. Lo and behold, much of it came off. It took me several hours to finish. Then, it was time to walk Pinto.
Where does the time go? Soon it will be Pinto’s supper time (my little papillon-chihuahua dog) which requires my presence in order for him to eat, and lately, to be prepared to hand-feed him if necessary. Then, it’s Queenie’s movie time (my parakeet), a computer-based endeavor. While Queenie’s busy, I will have time to wash the chard I harvested yesterday. I think I’ve figured out a way to do it safely.
When I looked at the afternoon sun in the sky today, here in northeast Minnesota more than a thousand miles from Oregon, California, and Washington state, it was clear how connected we all are despite geological distances.
September 20, 2020
The courses I’m teaching this semester began on Saturday, September 12 – research and community practice. Preparing has meant significant adjustments to respond to a world that has changed drastically since the cohort of students began their studies several years ago. Many are the first generation in their families to attend college. Yet most were able to successfully shift to completely online classes mid-semester in the spring. This year, the courses for our hybrid satellite program are all online. Our bi-weekly classes that were once face-to-face will meet via Zoom.
This semester, I’m also co-teaching community practice with a dear friend and colleague. My colleague and I decided to focus on one issue – the connection between access to safe water and community health, the focus of my research class as well.
The community where we live is located on the southwest shore of Lake Superior, one the five interconnected freshwater Great Lakes of North America that comprise part of the border between the United States and Canada.
“The Great Lakes—Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—form the largest-surface freshwater system in the world, together holding nearly one-fifth of the Earth’s surface freshwater” (The National Wildlife Foundation).
My colleague and I met during the summer to discuss how and what to teach students so they will be able to work with communities in a future world we can’t even imagine. What will they need to know to weather the challenges they will face? What knowledge and tools will provide a foundation for them so they can help their families and communities come together to adjust to ever changing difficulties and possibilities?
During these days of “social distancing,” it is becoming ever more obvious that many people are no longer willing to reach out to bridge differences with others. Polarities divide us in these times. Yet addressing the serious issues we are facing now will require all of us to understand and respect others despite differences, to care enough about the future of our world to be able to put differences aside so we can work together. Those who engage in community practice need the skills to bring people together for productive dialogue to explore possibilities for finding common ground.
I shared an experience with my colleague that I had as a participant/observer of a polarized community exchange, described in an older post, “Alternative Futures – Who Chooses?. Six years ago, I attended a public hearing designed to give community members a chance to voice their views of a proposed expansion of the amount of tar sands oil that could be pumped in a pipeline along the southern shore of the Great Lakes. Looking at the issue from a purely logical perspective, it’s a very bad idea. Tar sands oil is laden with toxic chemicals and the corporation that owns the pipeline has a troubled safety record. The location already threatens the safety and quality of the Great Lakes.
“… important perspectives were voiced to support and oppose the proposal.
“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 speak 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.”
My colleague and I discussed how we might help students develop the skills they would need to create environments where community members could explore common ground around polarizing issues and developed the following assignment.
Given that we cannot meet in person to undertake the work that lies ahead, we are organizing three dialogue groups of students that will provide opportunities to learn and practice dialogue and group skills that are foundational to effective and respectful community practice.
Each of the three groups will focus on different community values and beliefs associated with water and healthy community that are present in Northern MN, and will embark on the community assessment process from that general lens. Each member will be asked to understand the mindset and values of those who fit into one of the following three perspectives:
i. Profit from the water or land adjoining waterways ii. People in tribal communities who depend on water iii. Preservation of the Natural Environment as a primary consideration
Groups will then use that lens to assess a specific community. We are hoping that the group assignments will be made by consensus in our next class meeting.
The expectations for each student are that best efforts are made to negotiate and dedicate time in the weeks ahead to connect and engage with the respective dialogue group in the community assessment process. As a group you will be given assignments and introduced to tools for planning and carrying out how each will gather and contribute information needed for the assessment. Together you will be sharing and analyzing the individual discoveries and reflecting on the implications for communities from the particular ideological vantage point of the group’s assigned perspective. The group dialogues and collaborative work should support the collective and individual learning and development, and contribute to information each person can draw from in the final Community Assessment Report.
The final challenge will be for each of the groups to present what they learned about a local water issue and themselves when they looked through the lens of “Profit, People, or Preservation.” Understanding how others see the world and why is essential for building inclusive communities. My colleague and I hope the discussion that results will reflect suggestions for how we can better bridge “cultures” in more effective, respectful ways to establish inclusive partnerships on firm common ground.
Water issues connect us all and are in the news almost every day – too much water due to hurricanes and deluges, too little resulting in catastrophic fires, and too unsafe to drink or swim in due to undeveloped or aging infrastructures and widespread pollution. Without water, all life as we know it will cease.
But I can work with others to raise awareness by writing and teaching, not only about the issue, but also about the need to find ways to promote bridge-building among groups with strongly held values that get in the way of understanding and inclusive collaboration on solutions.
Ever sensitive to the metaphors nature provides, I was able to catch the wonder of an evening sunset.
September 22, 2020
The sun will rise again tomorrow, of this I’m sure. I’m also certain that the world it greets in the morning will have changed yet again in ways I could not have imagined when I witnessed this wonder. Hopefully the things I have learned will provide the foundation I will need to work in partnership with my family, colleagues, students, and friends to continue working toward a day when the sun will rise on a verdant, peaceful planet where all life is respected and nurtured for the irreplaceable and invaluable wonders all represent.