The Conflicted American

I love that I was born in the United States and that I have had the privilege of being able to choose my friends, my career, whether or not I want to practice any sort of religion, and how I want to live my life. I recognize that had I been born in Syria, in Nicaragua, in North Korea, or even Serbia, I would not have had the freedoms I have both cherished and taken for granted as an American citizen. But I have struggled with what it means to be American for a very long time. For me, the amazing part about being American has been being able to be adventurous and expansive. It has been a journey of coming into my own knowing that as a biracial female I can do anything, reach for anything, and become who I have always wanted to be. I have had the privilege to do so, just by being born into a country where the pursuit of happiness is embedded in our Declaration of Independence.

This is one side of freedom. One aspect of my experience.

I just watched Django Unchained the other night. This is the other side of freedom. It is the illusion of freedom.  It is the illusion of the American Dream. There is no dream when we wake up and realize that we are living off the backs of others. There is no dream when we recognize our complicity in a system that is predicated on a rich/poor binary. We cannot have rich, successful people if we don’t have poor people to compare our successes to. Living the American Dream, we must realize, has never been that EVERYONE gets to live the American Dream. Only certain people can live this dream and deep down in the darkest regions of our soul… WE KNOW THIS. We say that being American means freedom for all. But look around. Is this really the truth?

Or is being American and “making America great again” really this: Only certain people are true Americans. Everyone else, who fall outside this dominant norm are “infidels,” “criminals,” “lazy,” “good-for-nothing” individuals who do not appreciate American values and must be dealt with because they are DIFFERENT, non-conforming, or outside-of-the box thinkers or believers.

I am weeping inside as I write this. My heart is so heavy. I am American. But even writing, “I am American” brings such conflict to my soul. I am an American who believes in PEOPLE. I am an American who believes in every person’s freedom and liberation from oppression. I am an American who is fiercely protective of my individual rights, particularly my right to free speech. And I am an American who is deeply struggling with being American as I see my government strip Black, Brown,  and people of Difference of every right and liberty afforded to them – at least in the way “rights” and “liberty” have been conceptualized in our Constitution.

To me, being American means giving more and being generous of heart and spirit. It is not taking away and narrowing the parameters for who can receive freedom.

I was sickened when I watched Django Unchained because it reminded me of WHO WE ARE as Americans. We are both the beautiful and the underbelly of evil. We carry both in our ancestral DNA. This time of reckoning with our past and seeing how it is playing out in the HERE and NOW is important. It is more palpable and real than it has ever been, at least in my lifetime.

It is time to fully recognize that we cannot be a United States, until we accept our conflicted relationship with freedom and “American” values. We cannot love our country and hate certain countrymen and women. It is not possible. We must tell our stories, come together to listen, cry out our pain, be heard and accepted, and, finally, begin to heal. There is no other way. We cannot heal our traumatic past without acknowledging its existence.

This is what it means to be human. And, for me, this is what it could mean to be American: An American who deeply acknowledges our contradictions and who has the courage to stand up and embrace the sovereignty within EVERY human being… This is true power; the strength within to not fear; the power to LOVE every human being beyond the differences we have created that position others as wrong, less than, inferior, bad, or God-less.

On this Independence Day, I speak my truth as an American. I am American and I am so much more. But, as an American I pray my heart will be heard and that we can begin to recognize the hypocrisy:  American freedom is a constructed ideal that has only been granted to a chosen few.

Please remember this declaration below and begin to imagine that these statements include all human beings regardless of gender, nationality, race, class, ability, or religious affiliation:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 

Always with love,

signature-use

Continuing the Conversation with Linda & José about Community Engagement

As we continue toward the horizon trying to discover our Self with every step forward, we begin to realize how interconnected we are to one another. My continuing conversations with Linda Maxwell and José Quintanar represent this path forward. We are learning from one another how to make sense of a world in which there exists much hatred, violence, chaos, and confusion.

In this discussion, Linda and José talk about community-engaged work through a humanizing lens. I am learning much from them including what it means to live a life of service and to be in the moment as we interact with other people. I am learning that each person with whom I interact is someone to learn from, even if the experience seems and feels negative. There is ALWAYS something to learn. Sometimes the knowledge that we gain is from contrast – experiencing that which we DO NOT want. We understand better who we are when we come across others who embody traits that do not resonate with who we are or want to be.

Linda and José teach us from the ground up. This means that they are interested in PEOPLE not the politics, ideals, or belief systems that may surround a person within a specific context. The ground up is actively listening to a person to understand how to reach that individual’s heart. That is where authentic communication begins. That is where love for one self and for the other reigns.

We live on the edge of spiraling into LOVE for one another or falling into our deepest darkest fears of separation. This fear is a frightening place of victimhood, oppression, and distain for our brothers and sisters. Linda and José constantly remind us to center ourselves and to seek LOVE, even if love seems the most improbable solution or outcome.

Peace, strength, and courage, everyone.

signature-use

Doing vs. Being of Service

whenwewillallseeourrole

 

What does it mean to serve, to be of service to others? What does it mean to choose the role of the servant? How does the concept of ‘service’ translate to who we are and how we decide to ‘be’ in this world?

I remember in my junior year in high school I was considering running for an Associated Student Body (ASB) position. I knew I didn’t want to be President and I wasn’t interested in Treasurer either. Vice President and Secretary appealed to me and both were positions I thought I would do well in. My high school, an all-girls Catholic school, also had another position available. This position was ASB Service. Of all the positions, I wanted this one the least, not because I thought I couldn’t handle the responsibilities and not because I wasn’t well qualified (I had consciously been involved in service in different ways throughout my high school career). It was because I didn’t want to be known and seen as “the Service person.” What made matters worse for me was that almost every teacher and dozens of my peers told me I should run for Service, that I would be “so good at it.” Deep down, I knew they were right. I knew that I could help organize and lead retreats, plan specific service-related events on campus and within the community, and, overall, provide strong leadership and mentoring for other students, particularly freshmen and sophomores.

Even though I knew I would be excellent in this position based on feedback I had received over freshmen, sophomore, and junior years from teachers and peers about my service work, I resisted submitting my name for nomination. I actually filled out the nomination sheet for Secretary and was going to announce my decision when I heard that one of my good friends had already submitted her name for Secretary. In fact, many of my friends submitted their names for all the positions except for ASB Service. I found out that they were saving the spot for me (!). Their action was both infuriating and thoughtful. Knowing that my friends and fellow peers deliberately did not submit their names for Service because they thought I was a shoe-in, made me feel a responsibility to not let them down. I submitted my name for nomination and was voted in easily.

In retrospect, at age 17, I believe I was coming to terms with the humility of service. What made me so uncomfortable choosing to run for ASB Service was a deep sense that I wasn’t doing enough. True service to me, even as an adolescent and young adult, meant that I needed to do much more. My experiences felt too easy. For example, going to a pre-school and working with young children one-on-one or in small groups as part of my service hours didn’t feel like service. Even though I enjoyed being and playing with small children, this experience was just another assignment I needed to complete. Whether I was in the classroom or not, I felt like my presence didn’t make a huge difference on the children’s overall growth and learning. I was just another high school student or volunteer dropping in, getting her ‘service’ criteria satisfied, and driving away with all the necessary signatures to demonstrate my ‘involvement.’

Service as a mindset and philosophy meant something to me. Maybe it was being exposed to catechism that included in-depth case studies of specific saints and martyrs. If I wasn’t feeling fully connected to the acts of ‘goodness’ or ‘kindness’ I was enacting or if I wasn’t feeling some degree of sacrifice, then, in my young adult mind, I wasn’t doing my part. Not doing my part was exasperated by being known as “the Service person” on campus. Though my peers and teachers valued my service-related work, especially my shared written personal narratives about spirituality I wrote as part of my service leadership during retreats, I felt like an imposter. I realized that doing service was a far cry from being of service.

Being of service, I understood to a limited degree, at age 17, was a way of life, a choice to live every moment acknowledging Self but making decisions to be of service to others. Doing service, in contrast, could be measured quantifiably through external acts that others deemed ‘good’ or ‘kind.’ Even at 17, I cringed at the notion that people held a stick up to me and measured me as the ‘good kind of service.’ They didn’t know what I was feeling inside. They didn’t have a clue if I was ‘being’ rather than just doing obligatory service. All they could see – as they checked the boxes or signed the papers – were all the external, seemingly meaningful ‘acts’ in which I was involved. The more hours the better. The more ‘impact’ – as measured by how many people I served lunch to – fantastic!

Fast-forward decades later, and I find myself thinking of ‘service’ as an Assistant Professor who is creating courses that are community-engaged. I am actually structuring one course as a critical service-learning course. Critical, in this case, means centering social justice at the core of pedagogy and its enactment or praxis (Mitchell, 2007; 2008; 2014). Service-learning refers to the structure through which a higher education course intentionally centers ‘service’ as “mutually identified and organized service activities that benefit the community and [assist students in] gain[ing] further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility” (Bringle & Clayton, 2012, p. 105).

What strikes me in this reflection, is how similar I feel to how I did as a 17-year-old, when I ask myself and my critically-minded colleagues if we are actually BEING OF service to the communities we collaborate and work with through our community-engaged work or if we (my colleagues, our students, and I) are only DOING service. In higher education courses, where does merely doing service end and being of service begin? And in semester-long courses that are based on extrinsic motivators (grades, recognition), is it even possible to go beyond only doing service?

For me, the answer lies in the internal shifts that occur within each individual. As a whole,  most likely, the majority of my students – when engaging with community members – may only be doing service, regardless of what they write in their journal reflections or say in their final project presentations. Doing service means getting the good grade and being able to say that they ‘know about real issues.’ Being of service, for the few who truly get it, means that their experience and interaction with community members deeply shifts their understandings of who they are in relation to others with whom they are speaking, communicating, and interacting. Being of service means that the external ‘doing’ of service has translated to a knowing. This knowing is the realization that service is not an action divorced from the heart. Service, in its purest form, is being in, coming from, and sharing the heart for the purpose of caring for, listening to, and being there for another without conditions.

Service is akin to Rachel Naomi Remen’s (2000) discussion on ‘charity’ or “ways of giving to others” (p. 86). She tells the story of an Orthodox rabbi who provided her with clarity around these ‘ways’ through different levels of understanding unconditional giving:

  • At the eighth and most basic level of giving to others, a man begrudgingly buys a coat for a shivering man who has asked him for help, gives it to him in the presence of witnesses, and waits to be thanked.
  • At the seventh level, a man does this same thing without waiting to be asked for help.
  • At the sixth level, a man does this same thing openheartedly without waiting to be asked for help.
  • At the fifth level, a man openheartedly gives a coat that he has bought to another but does so in private.
  • At the fourth level, a man openheartedly and privately gives his own coat to another, rather than a coat that he has bought.
  • At the third level, a man openheartedly gives his own coat to another who does not know who has given him this gift. But the man himself knows the person who is indebted to him.
  • At the second level, he openheartedly gives his own coat to another and has no idea who has received it. But the man who receives it knows to whom he is indebted.
  • And finally, on the first and purest level of giving to others, a man openheartedly gives his own coat away without knowing who will receive it, and he who receives it does not know who has given it to him. Then giving becomes a natural expression of the goodness in us, and we give as simply as flowers breathe out their perfume (pp. 86 – 87).

In the final iteration of ‘ways of giving to another’ we become servants of humanity. We recognize the divinity each of us carries within, in spite of outward appearance or perceived difference.

As educators, I am interested in how we can use these understandings of service to inform our being-ness as we interact with our students, community members, and other stakeholders. To what degree are we willing to be of service and in what areas do we find ourselves only doing service either ‘begrudgingly’ or for the sake of being acknowledged or recognized? Where do we begin, in our own work, to help our students shift from merely doing service to becoming servants to society, to humanity?

These are questions I hope we all ponder seriously as we (re)imagine and (re)conceptualize a world in which we are committed to serving humanity – our children, our communities, and our planet.

With much love,

signature-use

 

References

Bringle, R. G., & Clayton, P. H. (2012). Civic education through service-learning: What, how, and why? In L. McIlrath, A. Lyons, & R. Munck (Eds.), Higher education and civic engagement: Comparative perspectives (pp. 101 – 124). New York: Palgrave.

Mitchell, T. D. (2007). Critical Service-Learning as social justice education: A case study of the citizen scholars program. Equity & Excellence in Education, 40(2), 101 – 112.

Mitchell, T. D. (2008). Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning: Engaging the literature to differentiate two models. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 50 – 65.

Mitchell, T. D. (2014). How service-learning enacts social justice sensemaking. Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, 2(2), Article 6, 1 – 26.

Remen, R. N. (2000). My Grandfather’s Blessings. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Part 2 of 4 – Community Activism with Youth

Linda Maxwell and José Quintanar

In part 2, Linda and José elaborate upon the four pillars of appreciative inquiry and operationalize them. My paraphrased interpretation includes:

*Our lives are precious – love for self is essential.
*We must recognize the impermanence of life – value every moment.
*Every thought, word, and deed has a consequence – plant positively.
*(Re)discovering our humanity by connecting with others’ suffering – take compassionate action.

They also discuss the following components as being essential to engaging youth:
*The power of relationships
*No judgment
*Reciprocity
*Letting go of ego

Thank you for your continued enthusiasm in learning about their important work. Parts 3 and 4 will be combined in one blog and added to the interview page.

Thank you! Much love,

signature-use

 

Peace, love, and understanding: The real deal in action (Part 1 of 4)

December 3, 2017

Yesterday I had the enormous honor to engage in a second conversation with long-time community activists, Linda Maxwell and José Quintanar. We spoke for over an hour about ways in which to embody and enact lovingness, peaceful action, and compassionate understanding with youth in educational settings.

What I love about these discussions are Linda’s and José’s commitment and passion for living authentically; that is, being conscious of being in alignment with who they are, what they say, and what they do. I am also appreciative of their long-term dedication to social justice and discovering meaning in every interaction they have with historically minoritized and marginalized youth.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to Linda and José’s lived experiences. 

signature-use

 

Ring the Bells that Still Can Ring

“Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering,

There is a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.”

 

Anthem by Leonard Cohen

When I was recovering from my mastectomy in 2012 there was a night when the pain was so intense I didn’t think I’d make it through to dawn. I sat upright, propped up on my pillows trying to breathe, but my lungs would not fill with air. I thought to myself, this is the end. Then suddenly, I became aware of an orange, glowing light. I realized it was my salt crystal lamp illuminating the room. The light had not changed in intensity or brightness, but somehow my clarity had sharpened. In that moment of clear vision, I knew I would live even though my body felt as if it was breaking down and separating from my spirit.

I had read in Elizabeth Edwards’ memoir, Resilience, that when she was reckoning with her husband, John’s affair; her oldest son’s death; and her terminal cancer; she would remember Leonard Cohen’s lyrics from Anthem. The verse above was one that would come back to her repeatedly. These words became my anthem, too. I heard them from a distance getting closer to me as I weaved in and out of consciousness and clarity, the Percocet strumming on my neurotransmitters and brainwaves.

Cohen’s words carried me through, just as they had done for Elizabeth during her most trying times. I was, like Elizabeth, raw. Blood and bone. An imperfect offering for any god that would have me. But I was alive. My heart was still beating. With all my scars, tubes, and fluids, I knew that God’s light was close and that I, in all my bandages and imperfections, was loved.

These lyrics reminded me of my humanity and grace. Like Elizabeth, they ignited a thirst within to live, to love, and to overcome all the shit, fear, and darkness that threatened to extinguish my light.

***

Yesterday, 2017, five years later, Cohen’s lyrics came back to me but in a completely different context.

Yesterday, I bore witness to many young men and women – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) students – speak of their love for our country. I listened intently to their personal narratives as they spoke, one at a time, in front of the large crowd standing on the State Capitol steps. I was moved by their immense gratitude for the United States in spite of the shit, fear, and darkness that threatened their safety and security.

Their stories highlighted the good within our country even though many of them and their family members had faced and continued confronting discrimination, hatred, and unfair treatment. They spoke of hope and of light. They described their dreams of being citizens and of working hard to build strong relationships between people, across borders, and among countries. They were young and held hands as they spoke. Their tightly grasped hands like chain links as they stood their ground and claimed the only place they knew as home. They protected each other, and we, in solidarity, formed a large circle around them to reinforce and strengthen their resolve.

The bells rung for us and we, responding to the light coming in, understood that our common humanity was what mattered the most.

***

Yesterday was a sad day for me as I listened to the testimonies of so many young men and women who face real fear and danger in their fight to stay in the United States and become citizens. I couldn’t understand, but could only imagine the betrayal many of them must have felt by those they thought loved and cared for them – neighbors, teachers, and even old friends. People who they thought they could trust were no longer their allies. This “reality” experienced first-hand reinforced ad nauseam by the mass media.

Yet, in the midst of this sadness church bells began to ring in the distance… God was reminding us to hold tight and take heart.  The Light was coming in.

This is not the end for our DACA students. It is not the end of hope, either.

It is a moment to choose who we are and what we stand for.

 

How will we respond?

signature-use

Interview with Linda Maxwell & José Quintanar, Founders of “We Care for Youth”

December 2, 2017

This is a continuation of a discussion with community activists, Linda Maxwell and Jose Quintanar. This was a lengthy, rich conversation in which Linda and Jose talk about their life’s work through 4 foundational pillars of thought generated through their understandings of “appreciative inquiry.” These 4 pillars are:

*Understanding life as precious
*Appreciating impermanence
*Recognizing every thought, deed, and action has a consequence – either positive or negative
*Having the ability to look outside of ourselves to see and experience the suffering of others. This last pillar requires great empathy in which we decide to DO something about others’ suffering. We bow to the humbling process of recognizing ourselves in others and enact lovingness – a Freirean attribute of humanizing pedagogy.

September 6, 2017 – An introduction to “We Care for Youth”

It is my honor to engage in dialogue with Linda and José about issues and challenges related to youth. I am particularly excited to present their work through a series of video-blog conversations because, in these discussions, they unpack for us what it is to actively listen to youth and act upon the creativity and ideas youth have to offer. Their message is particularly impactful during these divisive times in which historically minoritized youth and their families are positioned as “criminal,” “illegal,” and “un-American.”

Linda and José are founders of the non-profit, youth-oriented, organization “We Care for Youth.” In many ways their activism is a product of a long-term commitment of ensuring the integrity and respect for youth of all backgrounds, particular youth struggling with trauma and violence. Linda and José share tools of authentic engagement that emerged as they listened to the needs of youth who were experiencing difficult and painful periods in their lives.

This conversation is an introduction to who they are and their work. It is also a lived narrative exploring their individual connection to spirituality as they delve deep into youth’s experiences of grief, hope, understanding, and love.

Please take a moment to visit their website: We Care for Youth

You can reach them directly at: WeCare4Uth@aol.com

We thank you for taking the time to engage deeply in their shared story. This is Part I of our continuing conversation.

With love,

signature-use

Please check out the interview from May 29, 2018, too!

https://eduspirit.org/2018/07/03/continuing-the-conversation-with-linda-jose-about-community-engagement/