Reflections about Connections – September 2020

September 17, 2020

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.

A boring tale of ordinary reality! The things we do to eat and live. But I did take time to read something quite funny: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/sep/17/frozen-poo-and-narcissists-eyebrows-studies-win-ig-nobel-prizes. In my defense, though, it does deal with research! And I’ve also been busy working on my courses, which brings me to the title for this post – connections.

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.

5:42 P.M., September 15, 2020

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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.

Why focus on our work on water? Why not?

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” (John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra , 1911, page 110). 

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.

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Perspectives 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.

In an increasingly polarized world, it seems impossible to bring people together to figure out how we can work together to address the issues that affect us all. There’s nothing I can do alone to help put out the fires in the western states, or even stop a small city on the southern shore of the lake that provides drinking water for my community and thousands of others from dumping thousands of gallons of sewage in the lake every year

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.

7:03 P.M., September 20, 2020

***

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.

Memories from Academia

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

Sunday Reflections – March 22, 2020

Carol A. Hand

Greeting the morning
Gazing at the falling snow
as it thickens the blanket of white
already covering the earth
The only sounds
a whisper of distant traffic
the shrill cries of returning seagulls
and the sharp yelps
of a little dog
out for a morning trot
pulling its owner along
Grateful for the chance
to witness fleeting moments
of ordinary life and beauty




The past week has been a rollercoaster ride. But today, I can breathe deeply. Perhaps what ails me these days has simply been asthma triggered by allergies to toxic air and an extraordinary amount of snow mold exposed by unseasonably warmer weather, and my raking, for the past month. 

The toxic exhaust from the factories to the east has ceased for a time. Maybe it’s because the wind isn’t blowing from the east at the moment. Maybe it’s because it’s Sunday. Or maybe it’s because the factories are temporarily shuttered. The downside of factory closures, though, is the fact that cleaner air comes with a cost in a country that imposes increasingly fewer environmental and health safeguards on industries. Many people have suddenly lost jobs they need to support families, and the supply of stuff we take for granted, like toilet paper, is interrupted. The present context does offer us a powerful opportunity to figure out how to adjust what we produce and how we produce it, mindful of the effects on health and the environment.

There are other outcomes to the changes we’ve been facing that can have positive outcomes as well. Technology, with the help of a colleague, enabled me to meet with my class. We didn’t all have to drive separately to a central meeting site. We were able to connect from our homes in a meaningful way and still have a very productive dialogue despite our collective inability to use technology well yet.

My goals for the class were simple. I began as we usually begin class, although this time it was via zoom.

What did you notice today?

I wanted to provide a safe space for them to talk about how their lives and ability to complete their studies have been affected by COVID – 19. I also wanted to provide an opportunity for them to help me adjust the course workload and assignments so they could realistically learn what they need to know despite the new challenges they are facing – fear, uncertainty, isolation, grief, lost jobs, new responsibilities at work to cover for other staff who were laid off, arranging childcare for children who were no longer in school, etc. Despite tears in the eyes of many, we had thoughtful, productive discussions. Class ended by the students suggesting that they connect online to help each other, not only with classes, but also with other things as well.

I remember wise advice from Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

“… we are definitely the leaders we have been waiting for, and … we have been raised, since childhood, for this time precisely.”

In her powerful essay, “Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times,” Estés adds,

“One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is to not allow
yourself to be taken in a flurry of overwrought emotion or despair – thereby accidentally
contributing to the swale and the swirl. Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all
at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.

“Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of
this poor suffering world, will help immensely.

“…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy
world is to stand up and show your soul… Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”

This week, I also noticed other hopeful signs. I have always believed that education should be accessible to all. I just learned about two new resources:

1. Open Access to all C-SPAN Classroom Resources
“With many classes moving to online formats, we have removed the log-in and password requirements for all of our lesson plans and bell ringers on the C-SPAN Classroom website. You and your students are now able to access any resource on the site, including those that were previously behind the login wall. With this new option, you can share direct links to those resources via email, social media or within your content management systems.”
Link: https://www.c-span.org/classroom/

2. “Revisioning Our World: Seeing What Works, Broadening Our View, Seeking Innovative Alternatives” is now free
“ Given the current state of affairs related to COVID-19, to ensure the safety of all, we have decided to change the modality of delivery of our annual conference. We are fortunate that our Keynote and Plenary speakers as well as many of our session presenters have agreed to record their presentations and make them public.
“Rates for the conference have changed and the only fee will be for those who want CEUs, which will cost $50. You can register through link listed under our Registration tab.”
Link: https://blogs.millersville.edu/learninginstitute/

Sending my best wishes to all…

Work Cited:

Clarissa Pinkola Estés (2001, 2016). Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times. Available from depth psychology.net 

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Reflections about Puzzles

Carol A. Hand

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.)

Cryptogram Wisdom

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)

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“Healing the Spirit …”

Carol A. Hand

As I took a moment to reflect
about the online course content
I need to develop and load today

(always difficult for someone
who’s technologically-challenged)

a thought flowed through my mind
as I looked at the cloudy sky
asking the clouds to release needed rain

Places of life and light need to survive
in times like these for the sake of all

A memory followed about the closing ceremony
for a conference I attended decades ago
“Healing the Spirit Worldwide”

***

from Lighting a Candle for the Four Directions (12/13/2014)

… 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 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 …

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A Heartfelt Thankyou

Carol A. Hand

I don’t think I ever told you
how much your support and kindness
meant to me during my graduate studies
You taught me so much more than research
with your kindness and artful diplomacy

*

You showed me how to teach
and stayed the course as my advisor
through so many changing research topics

*

The one thing I regret is that
someone other than you
is handing me a symbolic diploma
in the photo of my final graduation ceremony

*

*

I would guess that your humility keeps you from knowing
that I only attended the ceremony to honor you
on behalf of all of the Native American students
you mentored who were not as fortunate as I
to survive the grueling process you mastered
walking between two different worlds
with a kind heart and joyful spirit intact

*

All I can say is chi miigwetch, dear friend
I will do my best to honor your gifts
by sharing what I learned from you
with others I encounter on this journey

*

for G.D.S. with deep gratitude and love

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Reflections about Awakening

Carol A. Hand

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April Icing – April 26, 2017

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Life in the tragic gap between present reality
and clear visions (memories?) of what could be
is sometimes unbearably painful
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A fascinating visitor (American Pelecinid Wasp) – August 22, 2018

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The magic, mystery and beauty of life
in all its amazing intricate diversity
captures my undivided attention
filling me with a sense of reverent awe
yet beneath the surface almost simultaneously
I can feel the suffering of the earth
and the creatures who, like me, call her home
I sense the death throes of irreplaceable wonder
that nothing technology produces can ever replace
while too many of the earth’s children sleep

*

Look west from Enger Tower – October 14, 2018

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

*

On the road to Hana, Maui – 1998

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Afterward:

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

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Revisiting “The Burden of the Sentinels”

Carol A. Hand

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.

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***

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.

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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.

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Without Warning

Carol A. Hand

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

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

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

***

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

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

Another view of the Superior fire from my neighborhood

***

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

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

The imminent danger has passed here – this time

“Name one interesting thing that you noticed today”

Carol A. Hand

The research class I teach class meets every other week for 2 hours on Saturdays. During the intervening weeks, students have online activities and assignments to complete. That may sound easy, but it’s actually quite challenging. Establishing and maintaining interpersonal connections, building meaningful online content, and creating and grading strategically-designed sequential assignments, are thought-provoking, time-intensive jobs.

***

Class Assignment Diagram

***

We begin our face to face classes with a check-in. The first question has already become a ritual. “Name one interesting thing that you noticed today.”

Students are now eager to share as soon as the Power Point slide appears. “I knew you were going to ask us that today, so I made it a point to pay attention and notice things this morning!

Hearing that is music to my heart!

It’s so important to listen to the different perspectives around the room as we reconnect with each other after the weeks we spent living our everyday lives in different places. Building meaningful connections with others and “doing re-search” both require attentive presence. Noticing what’s around us is a necessary first step. Listening intently to other views in order to expand our understanding of the world is the second.

Being witness to these “processes of practicing presence” is a precious gift. I’m so grateful for the students and colleagues who make it possible.

***

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