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.
This morning, I realized how grateful I am to still be able to teach. This time, though, I work for a college that is far more supportive of diverse faculty and students than most of those I taught at in the past. One of the memories from my last experience in a university department of social work surfaced. I jotted down the symbolic, metaphoric memory that encapsulates much of my late-life career in academia.
Sitting around the large rectangular table facing the video screen at the front of a cavernous room at the beginning of a new semester for a midwestern university while those in power in the department of social work stand at the podium to show the new diversity requirements they developed on their own without asking faculty or students from diverse backgrounds for input
As they drone on, I whisper a question to my friend and gay colleague beside me “Does it bother you to be referred to as an “ism?” “I find it offensive and demeaning,” she whispered back. The presenters explained the “isms” “You know – those who are older or differentially-abled who experience agism or ableism, or those targeted because of sexism, classism, racism, or homophobia” Imagine – all of the “isms” conveniently lumped together simply to meet the diversity requirements of the national accrediting body
Although I prefer to avoid conflict, I couldn’t let this pass It was just the beginning of the battles I felt compelled to fight during my short stay to protect students and colleagues who were targeted by insecure faculty and administrators because they were different by virtue of gender, age, class, culture, native language, ancestral background, or sexual orientation despite public claims by the department and university that they welcomed diversity and strongly supported inclusion of the “isms” like me
A columbine blooming in an unlikely place amid aggressive, invasive weeds
Although classes officially began this past weekend, we had to cancel our first face-to-face meetings because of weather. Thursday, the day before my first class was scheduled to meet, dawned with a bright sun highlighting the deep piles of snow from the last storms, with nary a cloud in the sky. Weather radar showed the storms far to the south, giving us all false hope we would be spared from the two-day storm that was predicted. Friday morning radar showed the storm beginning its rapid approach. We decided to err on the side of safety for the sake of students and faculty who travel for classes, some from long distances.
The storm that was predicted came just as the first class, research, was scheduled to begin. By Saturday afternoon, it brought fierce winds and a foot of fast falling snow, sometimes creating whiteout conditions. We were grateful we made the decision to cancel classes although it meant more work. It’s already challenging to plan classes that cover so much information when we only meet eight times face-to-face every other week. Alternate weeks are online.
Although so many colleges and universities are pushing online courses, it has been our experience that just doesn’t work for some courses. Interaction and dialogical exchanges enable students to discuss differing views about complex issues in a safe and thoughtful manner. It’s a powerful way to expose students to differing possibilities. Although this approach has proven to be effective, WordPress spell checker doesn’t even recognize the word “dialogic” and few studies have been done to test its effectiveness.
I also always learn something new when I teach. The following poem and discussion was inspired by past students from diverse backgrounds who were enrolled in the Saturday class I co-teach with a friend. That first class in mezzo and macro social work practice was also cancelled.
An important foundation for everything I teach focuses on initial assignments designed to help students learn more about the world and themselves. They are asked to critically examine taken-for granted socialization and how it has influenced what they see and believe about the world.
As my last post makes clear, I have thought a great deal about the historical trauma Native American, First Nations, and Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Over the years, though, I have also learned something about the effects of displacement for those who have immigrated elsewhere for a variety of reasons. Many were forced to brave that momentous transformative prospect by larger social forces over which they had no control.
We use the metaphor of trees to help students explore roots, changing social and natural environmental factors throughout history, and possibilities to draw on roots and history for reweaving community connections. (Links to old posts that describe aspects of the class are posted at the end for anyone who is interested in learning more.)
It has always been challenging to help students understand why knowing their roots is important when their ancestors may have come from so many different countries and cultures. A couple years ago, I remembered my fascination with the banyan trees I saw in Hawaii. They were not like anything I had ever seen before and they inspired me to think about immigration, adaptation, and assimilation in new ways.
Greeting the morning contemplating Lahaina’s Banyan Tree
removed from its homeland, an involuntary out-of-place refugee
planted on an island far away commemorating colonial supremacy
Once I stood beneath its massive protective canopy
unaware of its suffering and symbolic history
grateful for its beauty and the cooling shade it accorded me
Now I ponder colonial displacement from different frames
considering both the grievous irredeemable losses and potential gains
What does it mean to stand alone in a land that’s not one’s own?
removed from the environment one’s species has always called home?
unable to return to be among protective kindred, thus resigned?
to serve, without a choice, the frivolous hubris of mankind?
In changing times Lahaina’s Banyan Tree symbolizes resilience and adaptability
surviving storms and droughts in a foreign land for more than a century
touching hearts throughout the years, inspiring kindness and creativity
giving others who are also displaced a sense of home, community
beneath an ever-expanding crown of a now deep-rooted beloved tree
This poem was inspired by a class I am revising for the upcoming semester. I have been thinking about ecosystems, communities of living organisms nested within specific environments forming an interactive network with the elements (earth, air, and waters) available in their surroundings. The myriad of living interactive systems around the globe have had to adapt to ever-changing conditions throughout history. Some plant and animal species have become extinct in this ongoing process.
Often, these changes are viewed and portrayed primarily by what has been lost, perhaps forever. Much as I sometimes romantically imagine that we can return to earlier ways, I know we can’t go back. The world has changed. But there are things that we can learn from our ancestors and from the trees that help sustain the health of the world.
I remember the Banyan tree that so amazed me when I visited Maui and Oahu with my daughter in 1998. The plaque pictured above tells a little bit about the tree’s history and symbolism. It was planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. What I found most heartening in the brief historical accounts I read is the growing awareness among people about the need to take better care of the Banyan.
Note the changes visible in the photos from 1998 and 2009. The tile pavers have been removed, allowing the earth to breathe, although more work may be needed to assure adequate moisture and nourishment.
”The tree has been subject to severe stress due to drought conditions, soil compaction from foot and vehicle traffic in the park, and also due to developmental activities in the vicinity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed … Its sustenance has been ensured by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation by installing an irrigation system in the park” (Wikipedia).
I don’t believe we can turn back time, but we can learn how to welcome and care for those who are displaced like the Banyan by forces outside of their control. This is one of the key lessons I hope to pass on to my students next semester.
Links to Older Posts that Describe Aspects of the Mezzo/Macro Practice Class:
… I was working as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. It was not an easy job for many reasons, primarily because of the enduring legacy of colonialism that continued to impose dominant cultural paradigms on tribal communities and use divide and conquer tactics to foment conflicts between “traditional” and “progressive” tribal factions. Resolving conflict was a central part of my job, and it often put me in the middle of powerful competing interests. At a particularly challenging time, I needed to travel with one of my staff to a conference on worldwide healing for Indigenous people held in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference helped me realize I was not alone. Rediscovering the candle on my bookcase reminded me of the conference’s closing ceremony.
More than one thousand of us, representing many cultures and nations, stood in a circle within a large auditorium holding hands. Then, one elder walked to the center. She explained that the closing ceremony was intended to remind us that we were not alone. Because we were in a government building, we couldn’t use candles (fire ordinances prevented it), so flashlights would have to do. And then, the lights in the room went out as her flashlight went on in the center of the circle. She signaled to the four directions, highlighting one person from each of the four directions to walk to the center – first the east, then the south, the west, and the north. The representatives were all given a flashlight. As they touched their darkened lights to the elders “candle,” their flashlights were turned on. They were instructed to carry their light to the four directions and light other candles in their part of the circle. The elder explained that it would not be easy to keep the candle fires burning, but if the light went out, people could always return to the center to light them once again…
The rain I asked for hasn’t come yet but perhaps it will if I keep my focus on weaving life and light into the course despite the technological challenges I will most likely encounter …
Reflecting about some of the places I have been where people were harmed reminded me of another one of my first posts. It seems fitting to share it again when I feel the need to remember how important it is for us all to listen to the voices of sentinels among us.
Throughout my career in academia, I was unable to move from the space between cultures. Like some of my students, I, too, carried the burden of the sentinels. Most of my fellow faculty defined their role as that of gatekeepers for the profession of social work. Many faculty felt the purpose of education was to inculcate and enforce student compliance with professional competencies and standards.
Of course, few questioned the origins of these standards and who really benefited from the resulting assimilation. Fewer still contemplated what was lost through the process of homogenization. In my work, I tried to create a space for students to find their own voice and develop the skills to overcome or buffer the forces of conformity. Yet I sometimes had to witness the painful and tragic costs of my colleagues’ oppressive approach to education. Sometimes, all I could do was write about my observations and insights, as in the following essay drawn from those years.
It is tragic and deeply troubling that three students have committed suicide in the past two years. The faculty who worked with the students were grieving and confused. In an effort to heal, the head of student counseling services came to discuss suicide during the faculty meeting yesterday. I did not know the students who died, so as a person on the margins, my reaction to the discussion was very different than that of my colleagues. In fact, the discussion left me deeply troubled. The focus was on a new university policy. In order to reduce liability for the university, faculty would be required to force suffering students to meet with the dean for possible expulsion. The head of counseling services explained that suicide was a form of violence perpetrated by imbalanced individuals on those around them. They needed to be stopped.
When the discussion of suicide ended, no one asked what we might do differently in the future. When we seamlessly moved on to mundane issues, I was angry and distressed. I have seen the way our actions as faculty create problems for the most gifted and sensitive of our students. So I asked what we might do differently. There was no response. The conversation shifted to how to use the corporate credit cards. My response was to get up and leave the meeting at that point, slamming the door as I exited the room.
I know my colleagues interpreted my behavior as strange and annoying rather than as the only way I could express the depth of my distress. So be it. This reflection is my attempt to make sense of the strength of my reactions. And typically, my reflections are based on stories and metaphors that may seem unrelated.
A while ago, my partner at the time shared a story he heard on public radio about the experiences of researchers who were conducting a study of a community of chimpanzees (Thom Hartmann, November 22, 2006, Transcript: Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees). Early in the study, the researchers noted that about 5 percent of the community appeared to exhibit all of the characteristics of depression. They stayed on the periphery of the community, they rarely engaged in social activities, and they appeared lethargic. With the best of intentions, the researchers decided to treat this isolated group for depression, so they removed the “depressed” chimpanzees from the community and worked with them. The treatment seemed to work. But each time the researchers returned to the troop, they noted that new chimps had taken up posts on the periphery, and they too were removed. At the end of the year, when the researchers returned to the troop’s home again to reintroduce the “healthy” chimps, they discovered that the rest of the troop had perished from an undetermined cause.
The researchers hypothesized that the sentinel chimps played a crucial role on the boundaries, scanning the environment and warning the troop of danger. Without sentinels, the troop fell prey to external predators. This raises questions about the importance of the “boundary spanners,” those who remain on the periphery to scan for external threats while still relating to the community, albeit in a distant manner. I have pondered this story’s links with my own observations of the burdens carried by people who are on the margins of society because of their difference.
It has been said that those Native people who are the most sensitive and gifted are the ones who do not survive. It is only those who are the strongest physically and psychologically who survive. For me, it is no wonder that Native people who carry the gifts of vision appear most susceptible to addiction. They are the boundary spanners who can see what can be, perhaps what should be, and how far we have strayed from that possibility. To be surrounded by a global society that is focused on exploitation of resources rather than preservation for future generations, on gratifying the self-interested pleasures of the moment rather than the preservation of meaningful relationships, why would not the burden sometimes be too great to bear?
To listen to a discussion of suicide, then, to hear it described as a form of violence perpetrated by deficient individuals on others, is profoundly disturbing. Is it sane or reasonable for sensitive boundary spanners to settle for the insanity of war, the destructive exploitation of nature, the disparities that mean some individuals can buy gold-laced shower curtains while many people throughout the world die of starvation? Where does the violence originate that leads to despair for those who are most sensitive? Does it help give heart to boundary spanners when we label them as deviant? When we medicate them to see the world through a drug-induced haze of mediocrity? When we fail to understand the profound suffering of those on the boundaries who try to warn those in the center about the dangers that surround the community?
When people choose to end their suffering, is it their violence or ours as a society that is the cause? To take one’s own life is the most profound sacrifice. It may be the only way left to alert others of the dangers we face because we have created a world where the brightest and most sensitive among us find no hope, no comfort, no sense of a deeper meaning in life. And when they die, who will be left as sentinels to alert us to the dangers that surround us? Who will protect us from our self-destructive consumerism and exploitation of the environment and others’ labor? Who will alert us to the slow death this imbalance promises for those generations to follow?
The well-meaning among us who would remove the sentinels for their own good may only be hastening the death of that which makes us most human. We can try to convince those who see what we cannot that their visions are hallucinations. We can anaesthetize them and preserve them in a state of half-life because it makes us feel “moral” and it makes our life more comfortable. Yet, by doing so, we do not even serve our own self-interests. The lesson of the chimpanzees is that we need to understand what the sentinels are telling us.
We need to create a space to truly listen to what they are trying to tell us about a world that has become toxic to the most sensitive among us. It may be the world of our classrooms. It may be the world outside. How can we, as social work faculty, learn from the sentinels about our own practice as teachers and advisors? Are there things we need to change about how and what we teach to create a place where sentinels can preserve a sense of hope and possibility? I do not have the answers to these questions. I grieve the deaths of these students even though I did not know them as individuals. And I grieve the lost opportunity to explore this issue in a thoughtful way with my colleagues.
By sharing this essay penned years ago, it is my intention to honor the sentinels who remind us what it means to be truly human. It is my hope that we can learn to value them while they live so they no longer feel the need to sacrifice themselves.
I woke up this morning. Late, of course, when defined by daylight savings time. Sunlight was streaming through the eastern window. But when I awoke, a gentle but stunning realization dawned as a simple question ran through my mind.
“What happens if you put good people in an evil place?”
Although I made many mistakes in my journey, strength came from the ancestors who sometimes appeared to me and the wise beings who visited me in dreams. They taught me that compassion comes from forgiving one’s self as a necessary foundation for forgoing the need to demonize others for the choices they make.
“Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.”
I look at the state of the world today and know that I am just one unimportant person among billions. There is little I can do to affect change in the systems that harm others. That’s a choice only each individual must make for themselves. It’s a choice that one makes each moment.
I am inspired by the choices Diane Lefer recently shared on her blog, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, about those who are working to address the egregious harm being done along the border with Mexico in the name of “Making America Great Again.” Diane’s work reminds me of something written more than a century ago by Jane Addams when she and the women of Hull-House in Chicago lived among newly arrived immigrants in the poorest of city neighborhoods.
“. . . the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life” (Jane Addams, 1961, p. 76).
May we all continue to make wise, compassionate choices to use whatever gifts we have to build a kinder world.
Jane Addams (1961). Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York, NY: Signet Classics.
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.
“Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment and nature, economics, health, property, information, theology, etc.” ( Wikipedia)
Teaching requires discipline
“Acting when the time is right”
I arise early on class day
to give myself time to reflect and prepare
greeting the morning just before sunrise
gazing up at the cloudy grey skies
transforming miraculously before my eyes
ever pinker flowing clouds glowing above
trees of shimmering gold, orange, and red
an important foundation for
contemplating the things I love
Preparing enough to put stage fright aside
(still a constant despite decades of teaching and public speaking)