There are so many things I would like to write about but the truth is, I don’t have time. I am too busy doing something I have always loved to do. Solving puzzles.
It’s a trait that helped me survive jobs in overly politicized competitive bureaucracies. When I worked for state government, it involved mediating conflict in creative, unexpected ways. Like designing a solution for an outdated funding formula for county programs that was overly dependent on ever-shifting demographic data. When working for an inter-tribal agency, it meant figuring out how to exert tribal sovereignty over exploitive university researchers or state administrators who used divide and conquer tactics to create competition among tribes in order to limit funding for necessary services. In academia, it meant learning how to teach the most unpopular courses in ways that engaged students and provided information that would be helpful in a future I might not see.
Figuring out how to keep experimenting with more effective ways to teach research this semester is keeping me busy. Some days, it takes a lot of discipline to sit at my computer all day and into wee morning hours redesigning assignments or grading student papers with comments intended to both encourage and educate.
Interestingly though, doing other types of puzzles helps me transition between different topics, research methodologies, and styles of communicating. I am grateful for free online card games, or the digital jigsaw puzzles I can create with my own photos. (I doubt that the one posted below would be interesting, though.)
Solving cryptograms before I fall asleep helps me let go of any other puzzles that might otherwise keep me awake.
There are puzzles I don’t like to solve, though, that have to do with technology. Sadly, I have to rely on technicians or time. This week, I was locked out of WordPress. Fortunately that challenge was addressed by someone last evening. I don’t need to know who or how or why. I am just grateful that others find it interesting to solve technological puzzles.
All of this is meant as an explanation for my very infrequent visits to blogs these days, including mine. I want to let you know that I value what you all share and will return again as soon as I can. In the meantime, I send my best wishes to all.
In case anyone is interested, I have typed the cryptogram quotes below:
“One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try.” (Aristotle)
“The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us.” (Bill Paterson)
“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” (Albert Einstein)
“Love is a medicine for the sickness of the world; a prescription often given, rarely taken.” (Karl Menninger)
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?
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.
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.
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.
I know I’m not what you were looking for
to ease the loneliness and sadness of loss
I’m too little and the wrong gender
but I really am meant to be your friend
I promise to make you laugh
and touch your heart with my cuteness
I’ll raise my head in song
and trot down the sidewalk
with my waving tail held high
I’ll lick your feet
even though you don’t like it
just to remind you I care
Please be kind and take me with you
to a new forever home
I promise you that you won’t regret it
I know you love me but, oh, the indignity
of this cobbled-together winter suit you make me wear.
Reasons To Be Thankful – II
Endings are often exciting new beginnings. So it was last evening as my colleague and I listened to the students we have been working with during the past semester share their final research and community practice presentations.
This past semester, we focused on the connections between access to clean water and community health. The assignments involved exploring prior research, proposing and conducting a small study, and planning a community event to raise awareness about issues surrounding their community’s drinking water and waterways.
Although final classes often mean saying goodbye to people one has learned to care about, there is also a sense of gratitude for the chance to encourage others to celebrate the wonders of life. Learning how to “do research” can help us remember the wonder and curiosity we felt about life and the world around us as children.
There is no way of predicting what the future effects of these lessons will be, but my colleague and I have done what we can to open hearts and minds to possibilities.
“I didn’t realize how much I learned until I looked back at where I started.”
“I never thought about the importance of water before.”
“Doing this study helped me learn so much more about the issues in my community.”
We ended our final class by sharing part of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address:
“We give thanks to all of the waters of the world for quenching our thirst, for providing strength and nurturing life for all beings. We know its power in many forms – waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans, snow and ice. We are grateful that the waters are still here meeting their responsibility to the rest of Creation. Can we agree that water is important in our lives and bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to the Water? Now our minds are one.” (as cited in Kimmerer, 2013, p. 108).
I am truly grateful for the opportunity to teach in partnership with a dear colleague who has worked hard to create a liberatory space and to our students who give me hope for the future.
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught” (Baba Dioum)
Some links to explore for more information about the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address:
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.”
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.
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.
Feeling chilly and achy todayas little viruses have their waymaking my body their temporary homeMy muse visits easing distress with a silly poemand with memories of times long agoabout how differing perspectivesprofoundly influence what we think we know
Perhaps many of you are tired of my stories about teaching research, but increasingly my muse insists I do so anyway. She tells me to write about my own life and experiences, to speak from my own heart regardless of what others find amusing or meaningful.
It often happens that teaching brings new insights that I didn’t really think about before I needed to explain something to students. It happened again during this semester when I was pondering how to explain the importance of perspective. There is a quote that I think about every time I take a photo.
“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)
I remembered a study I did when I was completing my last degree. We had to analyze the effectiveness of a social welfare policy using empirical data. Big words, perhaps, but that’s academia, making obvious and simple concepts somewhat obscure. The meaning of empirical asserts that what we can see and measure with our own eyes is somehow more real than things we imagine or feel.
Empirical means – 1: originating in or based on observation or experience, 2: relying on experience or observation alone often without due regard for system and theory, or 3: capable of being verified (proven accurate) or disproved by observation or experiment. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)
Take elder abuse. At the time I was enrolled in this class (late 1980s), elder abuse was a topic that was gaining national attention in the United States. States across the nation had enacted reporting laws similar to child abuse reporting laws passed during 1960s. Both statutes required key professionals to report suspicious injuries to state authorities for further investigation. And similar to child abuse, the most commonly substantiated category for elders was “neglect.”
For children, this meant neglectful parents from the perspective of investigators. For elders it meant “self-neglect,” defined as doing things that were considered foolish, unhealthy, or life-threatening.
When the professor asked members in the class to describe their topic, I was told that my topic was foolish.
“It’s obvious why elders are abused,” he definitively asserted. “They’re a drain on families and society’s resources.”
“Research on elders suggests otherwise,” I replied, before listing a number of studies that identified strengths on many levels. As the professor with a national reputation, he was not inclined to yield to a mere student’s views. He proceeded to tell me how stupid I was in front of the class. Several times, I replied calmly with yet more research that supported my perspective. Finally I had to interrupt this repeating cycle by smiling and gently stating, “I think we need to agree to disagree about this topic, Professor.”
In a prior job, I often had to confront ageism among social service practitioners. I remember standing before large audiences of service providers a number of times, asking them to introduce themselves to everyone by name, title, and chronological age, At least one third of each group, primarily middle-aged Euro-American women, refused to state their age in visibly angry ways. It underscored the point I wanted to make about the power of social stereotypes about aging and elders. I wondered if my graying-haired professor held the same fears and denials of aging.
Of course, I couldn’t resist following up the next class by giving him a gift, a little badge with a message printed on it – “Aging, all the best people are doing it!” Needless to say, he wasn’t amused and he did make me work incredibly hard to pass his course.
But the topic wasn’t through teaching me about perspectives. I gained access to the state’s elder abuse reporting system data set through another professor with a national reputation. “I want you to do a simple analysis,” he said, “to show that the system does a good job serving populations of color because they are more likely to be reported.” This time, I took the path of diplomacy and remained silent. I thought about the disproportional representation of people of color in the prison system and knew it was not something I would mindlessly support to please someone in power who probably shouldn’t be publishing research findings.
I met with a former research professor and asked for help to design a different study. Unlike the other professors, he asked me what I wanted to know. “I want to know if the legislation improves the lives of elders,” was my honesty response. “Well, let’s figure out how you can do that with this data set, then,” he replied.
It wasn’t an easy task. The study he helped me design explored how well the elder abuse legislation in a particular State met two competing goals, protecting elders from harm or allowing them to exercise their right to self- determination. The paper that resulted was titled “Elder abuse legislation: Protecting vulnerable citizens at the expense of personal freedom and self respect?”
The findings of the study were complex and inconclusive, but ultimately they raised ethical concerns. Statutes that require professionals to report abuse should be accompanied by sufficient funding to support appropriate interventions that help survivors and perpetrators heal and preserve or regain a sense of worth and dignity.
I am grateful for the lessons and memories of years past, and perhaps to the little viruses, too. Sometimes it takes feeling a bit under the weather to force the choice between writing rather than grading papers with a somewhat foggy mind.
Illness certainly gives one a different perspective. Yet the central point remains. Perspective matters. One can use neutral tools like research to perpetuate stereotypes and power-over approaches or as a way to explore more liberatory possibilities. Sadly, it has often been used by those in power to support the legitimacy and supremacy of their particular agendas and lenses.
Benjamin F. Crabtree and William L Miller, eds., Doing Qualitative Research, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1999), 3.
Teaching always makes me wonder about taken-for-granted assumptions passed down through the generations and how they affect our ability to really see and understand the world. For some reason, this morning I couldn’t help thinking about the way we refer to everything in the cosmos as theuniverse. The prefix uni- means “having or consisting of only one.”
Initially, I viewed the suffix, verse, literally, suggesting that universe meant one shared story. But that didn’t make sense after viewing the definitions of verse:
“writing that is arranged in a rhythmic pattern; poems: one of the parts into which a poem or song is divided: or one of the short parts into which the Bible is divided.” (Cambridge Dictionary)
Next, I explored the meaning of the word universe as a whole.
Universe – “All existing matter and space considered as a whole; the cosmos. The universe is believed to be at least 10 billion light years in diameter and contains a vast number of galaxies; it has been expanding since its creation in the Big Bang about 13 billion years ago.” (Oxford Dictionary)
That didn’t satisfy my curiosity about the origins of meaning, and why we need to characterize of the cosmos as one. I explored the etymology or origins of the term universe and learned the following.
“Borrowed from Latin universum (“all things, as a whole, the universe”), neuter of universus (“all together, whole, entire, collective, general, literally turned or combined into one”), from uni-, combining form of unus (“one”) + versus (“turned”), perfect passive participle of verto (“I turn”).” (Wiktionary)
Still, I wondered why “all that is everywhere through all of time” has been viewed as one. We certainly don’t act as if we view other beings who share this reality as really one with us. But we do expect others to see the world as we do. We expect others and nature to comply with our immediate and personal wants and preferences.
What would the world be like if we thought about the cosmos differently? If we saw the cosmos, or even our world, as collections of multi- (many) verses?
Would our imaginations be open to an infinite number of new possibilities? There have been times in my life when I read science fiction and fantasy novels, especially when facing problems I couldn’t solve without first breaking through limiting assumptions. The global appeal of other worlds presented by creative literature, art, music, and films has been enduring and well-documented. So many of us long for a better world, although we may define what better means in many different ways.
I found the concept of multiverses appealing today.
“The multiverse is a theoretical framework in modern cosmology (and high energy physics) which presents the idea that there exist a vast array of potential universes which are actually manifest in some way.” (Thoughtco)
It satisfies my need to continue to explore the question I ask myself each time I teach research.
Autumn is always a busy time with gardens to harvest and a college course on research that needs to be updated. My colleague and I always try to consider what students will need to know for their work with people in the future. This year, we decided to focus on weaving our courses on research and community practice together even more tightly to help reduce confusion and workloads for our students. The shared focus we chose was exploring the connections between access to clean water and healthy communities.
Of course that means I have an opportunity to learn more about research on another topic that is relatively new to me. Fortunately, working collaboratively, my colleague and I discovered a number of important resources that we plan to share with students. Because this topic is so crucial for all of us, I’m sharing some of those resources here, too.
Following is an overview of what we have drafted thus far for our classes.
The focus of our work this semester will be on the connections between access to safe water and community health. Water is essential for life on our planet, yet many of us have grown up in communities where we learned to take it for granted. This is not the case for many people around the world. As climate changes accelerate and water supplies become endangered by pollution from many sources, issues affecting water quality are beginning to affect all of us. The question we need to consider as social workers (and members of communities) is what can we do to assure access to clean water before it is too late.
It is estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population lives within sixty miles of the coastline of an ocean, lake or river. (Wallace, 2014, p. 9)
Coastline communities are profoundly affected by the cleanliness and quality of the nearby water. Proximity to water doesn’t mean that access to clean water is a simple matter, even in countries that are classified as “economically and/or technologically developed,” like the United States. Outdated plumbing and pollution from natural or anthropogenic (human-caused) disasters have threatened water supplies. Communities that are economically or technologically disadvantaged face a host of other challenges.
Picture a day without clean water: You wake up to dirty clothes and bedding, as laundry is limited. You don’t take a shower, you can’t wash your face, and there is no coffee. As a woman in some places, you must take your daughter on a six-kilometer trek to fetch water for the day’s cooking, drinking, and caring of ill family members. To go to the bathroom, you wander deep into the fields, which is not only an inconvenience—it’s a safety risk. Besides snakes, spiders and aggressive animals, there are also ill-intentioned men. Sexual harassment and rape are not uncommon. (WWF, n.d., para. 1)
Wallace’s (2014) research points out that there are deeper connections between human communities and water beyond the physical necessity of water to sustain life.
There’s something about water that draws and fascinates us. No wonder: it’s the most omnipresent substance on Earth and, along with air, the primary ingredient for supporting life as we know it… Water covers more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface [96 percent of it saline]; 95 percent of those waters have yet to be explored. From one million miles away our planet resembles a small blue marble; from one hundred million miles it’s a tiny, pale, blue dot. ‘How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean,’ author Arthur C. Clark once astutely commented. (pp. 8-9)
Our innate relationship to water goes far deeper than economics, food, or proximity, however… [W]e spend our first nine months of life immersed in the ‘watery’ environment of our mother’s womb. When we’re born, our bodies are approximately 78 percent water. As we age, that number drops to below 60 percent – but the brain continues to be made of 80 percent water. (p. 10)
Without access to clean, safe water, life itself is at risk. Research and community practice provide us with a valuable opportunity to learn from the experiences of people in our local region, in our nation, and around the world. Communities both near and far have had to deal with disasters that left them without access to safe, life-sustaining water: hurricanes, droughts, forest fires, wars, toxic chemical spills, or faulty water and sanitation systems. From a social work perspective, access is important for the people we will serve at both the micro and macro levels of practice. This semester, in both research and practice with community systems, we will identify ways to explore issues affecting access to clean water and related consequences, as well as the effectiveness of organized community-awareness initiatives and innovative solutions among communities and community systems.
One of the most powerful videos I have watched about the connection between clean water and community health is the story of what happened to the Pima and Tohono O’odham peoples in southern Arizona when the river that once flowed through their homeland was diverted to provide water for white settlements and cities. After decades of fighting to restore the tribe’s water rights, Attorney Rod Lewis negotiated a settlement with the state of Arizona that guaranteed the return of water and funding to build the necessary infrastructure. The following video clip, from Unnatural Causes – Bad Sugar, tells the story of one of the tribe’s recovery initiatives:
Nichols, Wallace J. (2014). Blue mind: The surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Fall is really here. It was time to take my little “White Pony” in for a check-up and oil-change today. Yes, my 11-year old car has a name thanks to my granddaughter and an Ojibwe friend I haven’t seen in years. Here’s an excerpt from a poem that describes my car’s naming ceremony.
“What can we do that’s fun in the rain?
Do you think we should wash the car?”
“Oh yes, oh yes!,” you said.
So I grabbed a bucket and two new sponges,
yours orange and mine purple.
“Does your car have a name?”
I thought quickly of one of your favorite toys – Pink Pony!
And I remembered an Ojibwe friend from long ago
who teased me about riding my White Pony
when I drove another white car
through the forests, past lakes and farmlands
to tribal communities and the State Capitol
in our work on tribal social justice issues.
So my car was given its predecessor’s name – White Pony.
But this White Pony mostly stays in the driveway now
even though it once climbed mountain passes
as it brought me, in a round-about way, to my new home.
I had time to read as I waited for my car to be serviced. The book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Kimmerer, 2013), is one of the most beautiful ones I have ever read. Perhaps it’s because Kimmerer blends science, poetry, and spirit from an indigenous perspective.
“A people’s story moves along like a canoe caught in the current, being carried closer and closer to where we had begun. As I grew up, my family found again the tribal connections that had been frayed, but never broken, by history. We found the people who knew our true names.” (Kimmerer, p. 36).
Decades ago, when I first entered college, my major was a blend of chemistry and biology. Nature has always fascinated me. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to be an ecologist, but that was not a subject the college I attended offered or even recognized. Nonetheless, my advisor and botany professor, Sister Lorita, offered me much more even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I described her lesson in a previous post
Through example, she taught me what it means to teach. Students made fun of her because of her weight and because of her enthusiasm for her subject, a subject they found boring. One day when we were meeting, Sister Lorita looked at me and said, “I know students laugh at me, but I don’t care if people make fun of me. It’s worth it to me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.”
It would be many years before I would realize what a precious gift she gave me that day. Instead of becoming an ecologist or botanist who saw the wonder of life in plants, I ended up in social work, focusing on gerontology and organizational theory. I finally earned a Ph.D. in social welfare, although it took me an extra ten years. First, life led me “home” to my roots through a series of divergent events. It’s how my first white car ultimately got its name.
I was working as a teaching assistant and official note-taker for a diversity class at the university I attended. As I rushed up the hill to class one day in fall, I was contemplating a successful career in academia. I had just received notice that I was awarded a grant-funded position as a research assistant on a prestigious study. It was a fast track to likely success in the world of academia. Here’s an excerpt from an old post that describes the pivotal event.
As I crested the top of the hill, I neared the site of the last battle of the Black Hawk Wars. Just shy of the plaque commemorating the war, a tribal elder appeared dressed in an unlikely outfit – blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. He looked at me with severity and simply said, “You need to remember what is really important.” I didn’t have time to reflect on the message then, but in the decades since it is something I contemplate often, although this isn’t a story I share with others for obvious reasons. The challenge of walking in two worlds, one based on rationality and empirical evidence and the other based on a deeper spiritual awareness are not easily reconciled. It turns out that I didn’t finish my degree based on elder caregiver issues. It would take more than a decade and many experiences later to finally complete a study on Indian child welfare, but that’s another story.
Reading about Kimmerer’s experience with academia connected me with my own. I made a connection that I hadn’t even contemplated before. Perhaps I would have dismissed the elder’s appearance as too bizarre to consider. It would have been easier to simply ignore the message even though it made me feel a tinge of guilt.
In all likelihood, the study I would have been working on wouldn’t really have made a difference for people who were marginalized. It might, at best, have added to scientific knowledge about caregivers of adult children with mental retardation. But I doubt that I would have based a life-changing decision solely on a “vision” I couldn’t scientifically verify as “real.” At least at that point in my life. Fortunately, life had already set in motion a context that would lead me home in my yet-to-be named White Pony, both to seek refuge and to work on issues close to my heart. Tribal social justice issues. Following are excerpts from older posts that describe the context.
When my daughter was a senior in high school, she received a commendation notice from her French teacher. This was not the first or last, but it was the one I noticed on a different level. I remember “seeing red” when I noticed the logo on the top, yet I immediately reflected on the message – my daughter had demonstrated excellent work. So I complemented her. Then, I contacted the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) to explore what protections they had in place to prevent racial stereotyping of indigenous peoples. The response from WDPI changed my life.
At the time, I was working on a federal grant to address elder abuse in eight pilot counties in Wisconsin. In an effort to promote awareness about the project, I met with a reporter from a local paper. In the process of talking about the project, “Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care,” the reporter and I became friends. We were both outsiders in the largely white, Christian community. She was Jewish, and I was Ojibwe. I mentioned the appalling name and logo used by the local high school, and mentioned that I had been advised by WDPI to wait until my daughter graduated to pursue any action. But, I was told, there was a state statute, the Pupil Nondiscrimination Act that I could use as the basis of a complaint. The WPDI staff added that although the statute had never been tested for its relevance to discriminatory logos and team names, filing a complaint under this statute could set an important precedent. My friend asked me to let her know if I ever decided to pursue the issue.
The months passed and my daughter graduated and went off to a university. I stayed in touch with my friend at the newspaper as the project I was working on gained momentum. Then, I added another job. I was completing my doctorate in social welfare at the time, and began as a teaching assistant in a sociology class on diversity and discrimination. As I faced the 465 students, I realized that ethically I needed to walk the talk and address the discriminatory use of logos by public schools in the state.
My education thus far had taught me two things that appeared relevant to this issue. First, when approaching community change, it is always best to start on the assumption that others may easily agree if approached from a position of collaboration. So I drafted a letter to the superintendent of schools in the district. I asked my diplomatic and thoughtful university advisor to review the letter, and when he commented that it was well-reasoned and balanced, I sent it off. I also sent a copy to my friend at the newspaper.
Second, I expected a thoughtful diplomatic response from the superintendent of schools. If one believes the physics theory that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction, a well-reasoned letter calling attention to unintentional discrimination toward Native Americans should result in the willingness to dialogue, right? That was not the case. The response of the superintendent was to send a copy of my letter to the weekly newspaper in the local community. My friend also broke the story in a larger newspaper on a slow news day. Within a week, I was the topic of hundreds of letters to the editor in local and state newspapers, and featured on the nightly TV news. The community reaction included nasty, degrading personal attacks and threats.”
When my partner lost his job as an assistant manager of a lumber retail company, in all likelihood a response to my very public and unpopular advocacy, I was forced to withdraw from the university in the final stages of completing my doctorate in order to get a full-time job. I wanted to escape from the world of Euro-Americans for awhile and accepted a position as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. I moved to the Ojibwe community where my mother was born and bought an off-the-grid cabin in the woods…
Life circumstances led me to a place where I felt at home. The animals, trees and earth sometimes spoke to me. Although my job was not an easy, I had a clear sense that what I was learning and doing mattered. Perhaps the elder who visited me by Blackhawk’s memorial marker would agree.
“There was a time when I teetered precariously with an awkward foot in each of two worlds – the scientific and the indigenous. But then I learned to fly. Or at least try. It was the bees that showed me how to move between different flowers – to drink nectar and gather pollen from both. It is this dance of cross-pollination that can produce a new species of knowledge, a new way of being in the world. After all, there aren’t two worlds, there is just this one good green earth.” (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 47)
My old White Pony drove so many miles she finally had to be replaced. These days, the White Pony I drive doesn’t travel far. I make sure she’s taken care of because I rely on her to get me to and from the tribal and community college where I teach research and co-teach social work macro practice. I often think of Sister Lorita’s example as I try to weave science and wonder together, encouraging students not only to count and measure, but also to see, feel, hear, and sense the wonder of life all around.
I am grateful to Sister Lorita and thankful for the memories sparked by Kimmerer’s eloquent book today. I appreciate the opportunity to continue learning from yet another generation and the chance to share some of what I have learned in exchange. Ah. But that reminds me of the papers I have to grade today…
Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
One moment, I’m reliving memories of the past, driving through a snowstorm on an October night.
After eating, I go to the small gas station next door to ask directions to the address Ward Wright gave me for tonight’s interview.
By the time I leave my motel, it’s dark, windy, and snowy. As I try to find the roadway beneath the blowing snow, I realize how anxious I’m feeling about going to a stranger’s house alone. I drive along the blustery west-shore road that hugs the lake, trying to find the address Ward gave me through the foggy car windows. Finally, I notice a house on a hill with a wall of lighted windows on the west side of the road. I turn into the steep driveway hoping I’ve arrived at the right place.
As I approach the house through swirling snow, buffeted myself by the strong winds, I see a tall, lean man through the walls of glass. He motions to me, pointing to a door on the back porch. I enter and walk through the porch into the brightly lit kitchen. I introduce myself to the self-assured handsome man in his mid-50’s who greets me. He has the aristocratic demeanor of someone accustomed to being in charge. I’m surprised when he asks me where I would like to sit. I wonder if this is a test to find out something about the strange woman who has shown up on his doorstep.
“We should sit wherever you feel most comfortable,” I reply….
The next moment, I look up from my computer and gaze out the living room window at the sunny April landscape. I take a few sips of cold coffee and peek out the kitchen window as I gently part the curtain. I’m grateful to see that the little mother bird is back in her nest to feed her babies.
I disturbed her yesterday when I opened the curtain and tried to take her picture, so I won’t try again. You’ll have to trust my words. A bird family really does live in this creative repurposed nest abandoned by the wasps that called it home last summer.
Satisfied, I return to the past.
The wind grows stronger as we speak, propelling snow against the windows. The lights begin to flicker and I realize that I’m very cold – more from fatigue than from the room temperature. It seems wise to end our meeting. It’s late, after 9 p.m., and the weather is deteriorating. I thank Ward and we say our goodbyes.
As I drive through the blowing snow, gripping the steering wheel tightly, I think about the interview. It was intense and I often felt uncomfortable….