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Category Archives: Social Justice

Life’s Calling

Originally, I called this life’s mission, but that seemed to neo-liberal and neo-conservative for my liking. I subscribe to life as a calling and vocation based on the writings of Thomas Merton and Parker Palmer. Vocation comes from the Latin meaning voice, so a calling and vocation gives each of us voice in living and has an essential spiritual aspect to it. What calls each of us animates and we respond in ethical and moral ways. I think we have lost much of this in our current world. Although John Dewey did not write from a spiritual context per se, he wrote about self-interest as words meaning the same thing. What interests me? Interest comes from the Latin esse, which also is the root of essence, which is related to spirit. What inspirits me?

I wrote the following poem after a professional development day. I found inconsistencies revealed in those days fascinating. They were uninspiring, exhausting, and counterproductive. They lack personal, responsible choice. Too often, adults are dependent on others to make their decisions, hence the concept of accountability overriding responsibility. It is hard to believe we think these adults can engage in educating children, youth, and adults in any meaninful ways. Our voices are repressed, suppressed, and oppressed.

At the end of that day, I wondered and reflected on the following questions: “Am I seeing this in a proper light? What can I do to further the process of learning as a role model for students and other adults?” Learning and teachng are relational processes between people and subject. Parker Palmer argues we put the subject of our learning in the middle of pedagogic conversations. In this way, we acknowledge each human present has a different perspective of the same subject.

For me, going to an event based on Parker Palmer’s work, a poetry workshop with David Whyte, an assessment workship, etc. were and are exciting. It animates. When I obtained my Master’s of Education and PhD, it was not to earn more money or move up some fictional career ladder. Education was and is essential. In the midst of a pandemic. I am exploring how we can return to the roots of educating for life, as opposed to schooling to produce a compliant and conforming workforce. I think the latter emerges from the former, rather than the other way around

Living fully,

Sharing fully,

(Ex)pressing one’s voice–

Singing one’s song.

Whetting wonder,

Planting seeds of awe,

Lighting fires–

(In)spiring to dance one’s dance.

Watering, feeding, nourishing,

Enriching, emboldening, becoming–

Embracing what brings life and joy–

(In)spiriting.

Focusing on the Essential

I took this picture in the summer of 2012. I sometimes keep blurry phots to remind me to try bring and keep things in focus. They remind me life is not always in sharp focus and there are times to step back, pause, and reflect. I think this is essential amidst multiple crises we are experiening: health, economic, and social justice. The health crisis accentuated and made more visible the social and economic fault lines in the world, including in so-called advanced countries. These inequities include the wars, hunger, Amazonian deforestation, accelerating climate change, etc.

It is essential to keep our eye not on the outcome to correct the injustices, inequities, and lack of democracy in the world, but on the processes that will overcome those phenomena. John Lewis in Across that Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America stated

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone—any person or any force—dampen, dim or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant. Lean toward the whispers of your own heart, discover the universal truth, and follow its dictates. […] Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won. Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice. And if you follow your truth down the road to peace and the affirmation of love, if you shine like a beacon for all to see, then the poetry of all the great dreamers and philosophers is yours to manifest in a nation, a world community, and a Beloved Community that is finally at peace with itself.”

The title could read any country in the world and the world itself. In focusing each of our light, we can gradually transform the world, making it better, more just, more equitable, and more democratic; a beloved community.

One’s spirit wearies;

One’s travails weighing heavy–

From within,

A voice calling.

Seeking peace;

Turning inward–

Posing prayerfully,

Listening for wisdom.

Paying homage;

Celebrating–

Carving paths through wilderness,

Cherishing one another.

Appreciating difference in unity;

Opening hearts to one another–

Reaching outstretched hands,

Grateful for common humanity.

I leave you with the video of the reading of the poem Invictus by Tybre Faw. What gives me hope is there are young people like this who are the light.

 

The Establishment

I wrote this poem when I was in high school, so some 50 years ago about the time I wrote Angry Young Poet. I updated both poems several years ago, but the underlying theme was evident in the orginals and I tried to keep that in mind in editing.

I found both poems as part of handwritten notes I dug through one weeked while Kathy was away. What struck me was how little things change. In fact, I might argue things are more entrenched than ever; the rich got richer and the poor poorer. One only has to consider the enormous wealth being accumlated by billionaires during the multiple crises we are experiencing.

Multiple crises, health, economic, and social justice, might give us room to re-imagine the world we want for our children and grandchildren. Instead, I am afraid we are more entrenched in our binary positions. Despite this, I hold out hope, not optimism and positivity, that we can begin the process of transforming the world to make it more democratic, socially just, and equitable. Part of my writing is revisiting an article I published in 2012 called Rocky River: Building a Learning Organization to re-imagine how we might educate children, youth, and adults. I begin re-imagining with a simple shift in language and call those engaged in teaching and learning educands a word Paulo Freire used in Pedagogy of Hope: Revisiting Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

More broadly, we can apply the learning organization’s principles to other institutions. Peter Senge cautioned it is hard work and takes time. Unlike other revolutionaries, Freire stated incremental change, based on dialogue between humans, was essential to transforming the world. Although Senge does not draw on Freire’s dialogic model, he suggests dialogue, with deep and caring listening, is at the heart of transforming institutions.

They know best for the rest–

Indoctrinating,

Not transforming,

Recalling non-existent good old days.

In disagreeing–

Simply wrong-headedness,

Daring to rebel:

Who are we to question?

Having it made–

Hunting and gathering,

Material wealth signaling success,

Repress, suppress, oppress.

Depending them to know best.

Maintaining existing order,

Demanding blind loyalty,

Failing to practice what preach.

I re-worded the poem again. I see how little changed in 50 years. Without a picture, I thought of which blues musician might best convey my message. I immediately thought of Nina Simone, who sings with edge. When I play her songs for undergrads, those with backgrounds of privilege demonstrate a visible level of discomfort.

 

Bridge

The Canadian educator Ted Aoki wrote about a “bridge that is not a bridge.” We use bridge as a verb, moving us ahead to make the world a better, more just and democratic place. In this sense, bridge becomes a metaphor. There is no actual structure and experience to guide us through challenges we face.

John Lewis wrote a book called Across that Bridge: A Vision of Change and the Future of America. Again, I propose his bridge is not a physical structure either. But, physical bridge provides insight into myriad emotions at play as transformational change happens. In these moments, we put faith and trust in others and things we cannot see, only hope for. We reach out to hold each others hands, understanding the shared meaning of (com)passion. In these moments we share (com-) the joy and suffering (passion) of one another.

Today, as I prepared to post, I came across this poem and accompanying picture. For many, this bridge is not daunting. For me, fear is front and centre as I cross. When we crossed this bridge, I reminded myself to take it one step at a time. Transformational change counts on us taking it one step at a time, as we share journeys with one another. We will each experience loss and gain in different ways. At the end of it, what we share is being human and becoming more human with each ensuing step.

Standing on the edge,

Abyss yawning,

Taking a first step.

Forming compassion,

Crafting wisdom,

Forgiving one another.

Transforming world,

Each carrying one’s weight.

Reaching out to others.

Taking the next first step,

Trusting one’s self,

And, others in the human journey.

Flowers

I wrote this poetry and took these pictures on a trip to British Columbia with Kathy via Jasper National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park. It was for my mother’s 88th birthday and, at that point in her life, each birthday was an important event. She was the last of her generation in our family, on both sides.

I took pictures of two flowers common to temperate areas in North America: Fireweed and Paintbrush. Fireweed is hardy and is often found in areas which were disturbed by fire or oil spills generally spreading out in open areas left behind. It is part of the first step in ecological succession.

 

Appearing amidst destruction,

Flourishing,

Restoring,

Inviting to embrace.

Filling alpine meadows,

Colouring once damaged landscapes,

Lighting paths,

Giving hope.

The Indian Paintbrush or Prairie-Fire is widespread and was used by Indigenous peoples for food, hair conditioner, and to treat rheumatism. This is an example of the coastal variety.

Painting the world alive,

Gently,

Sensously.

Off Nature’s palette,

Dancing vibrantly,

Living colours.

During these times with the COVID-19 health crisis, which revealed the deep social, economic, and political fissures in our world and the social activism emerging after the murder of George Floyd, Canada has to take time to look at its own history and treatment of marginalized peoples. This begins, but does not end, with how we treated and continue to treat First Nations’ people. This is a song by a local singer-songwriter, Connie Kaldor, who sings poignantly about the murdered and missing indigenous women across Canada. The report, completed in June 2019, had over 90 recommendations, which have not been acted on. In Canada, protests against systemic racism highlight this lack of action.

 

Beauty

This tree stood all by itself on the crest surrounded by the pretty ones. What attracted me was it stood out from the crowd and thrived. I alluded to this in On the Edge. They were in the same area as we drove up to the Columbia Ice Fields in Jasper National Park. These trees do not just survive. They thrive in demanding conditions, sometimes for 100’s of years. There is little soil, water, and nourishment on the embankments, so they appear stunted. It thrives on the margins of its ecosystem. Perhaps, we find beauty in places we do not anticipate. We have to be ready for this or it will slip by.

In today’s environment, with calls for greater equity and social justice, it is not enough to ask people to survive with less than living wages, inadequate housing, little or no healthcare, etc. as if that is a major accomplishment. We must allow them to thrive as humans.

I took one class in special education in my B Ed. and another in my M Ed. I learned we have more in common than makes us different. Paulo Freire wrote of unity in diversity; John Dewey about communicating what we have in common to form community, and Parker Palmer about the paradox of living in community and with solitude. If we are more alike than different, we have a lot to communicate. It takes listening deeply, reflecting critically on one’s views (biases) of the world, and ethically transforming (moving beyond) the world, particularly that which is immediate to each of us. It is not enough to reform, but it may be a start to the process. It is becoming more and better, individually and collectively, in ways we cannot anticipate and can not be fully finished. There will always be good work to do, not matter how far we come.

On the margins;

Thriving–

Separate from the crowd.

Elements taking a toll;

World weighing heavy;

Thin, mottled.

Standing proud;

Reaching high–

Believing in something better.

Valuing who you are;

Individual, non-conformist–

Separate from the crowd.

Lonely, not alone;

Spacious, gracious solitude–

Revealing your own beauty.

Today, as I cruised Facebook, I found Parker Palmer posted Mary Oliver‘s poem The Summer Day. I love the closing lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It is a wild and precious life.


					

On the Edge

When I wrote this poem, it was at a time I was unhappy going back into the classroom and teaching. I loved the students and looked forward to being with them. So much had changed in the little school I taught in with change imposed upon us, rather than negotiated with us. In my writing, I am beginning to look at what is essential to the spirit for each of us to flourish. What gives each of us hope? it will be different. What is certain is we each want to have a voice in what we are doing.

When I wrote the poem, I wrote from a negative place. Now, as I look at the image, the tree on the dge of the cliff fourished in its environment, which is rock with little soil. The tree is actually quite old. Our tour guide said about 300 years old. Despite its lack of size, it flourishes and that is what I failed to see in the last two years I taught. It begs the question: “what might I have done differently.” I was not very patient at times. Cornel West tells young people looking for change to be patient. Real, transformative, democratic, and sustainable change takes time and patience.

In being with each student and present to them, I found something other than gave me the impetus to teach for two more years and find ways to cope with the imposed change. One of the challenges I faced was what we did was so different than what other classrooms looked and felt like it was difficult to convince other educators what we did had merit. Teachers teach one grade at a time in isolation with children separated from families, like a workplace. We had a parent in the classroom each day to assist, many of the families knew each other, and I had a multi-grade classroom with 3 or 4 grades together. Children and youth attend school each day and homework is something we assign, because often there is not time to complete everything at school. Students attended our school 40-50% of the time on a set schedule, depending on grade level. I negotiated with parents the extra things to be done at home. Often, they were large culminating projects at the end of a unit. I taught and students learned what was necessary in class and had little homework. I did not teach all subjects in school. Parents taught Math, Health, and some Phys Ed at home. I went on home visits to support their teaching and make sure we were on track. I had no desks in my classroom. We sat at tables usually based on grade level, but, during complementary courses e.g. Art, Food Sciences, Programming, etc., students sat in mixed grade groups.

In short, we were on the margins, the edge of what was perceived as “normal’ school. Today, in the midst of a pandemic that sent children home to learn online, the relationships and support we had in our small community would have helped many families and teachers cope with the sudden and unpredictable change.

With each step,

Closer–

Be bold.

Balance precariously,

Hover over abyss

Be brave.

Instability and stability dancing–

To soundless music;

Be graceful.

Quieting one’s self;

Listening to soul’s–

Be poetic.

Between lines and stanzas–

 Wisdom emerges–

Be patient.

On the edge,

Sisters and brothers–

What calls you with passion?

I try to walk in the neighbourhood each day. When I do, I listen to music. Yesterday, I heard a song by Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, which fit with this poem and how I felt when I wrote it. In talking to one’s younger self, they use words like bold, love, bold, and fear. I use passion, which suggests suffering as a necessary piece to flourishing.

The Weighing

Jane Hirshfield wrote the following poem, speaking to hope and resilience. At the end of our rope, we find we have more to give than we realized. It is a sense “this to shall pass” and we can only live in the present moment, which is fleeting.

Hard times reveal fissures in our world and society. Look at who has been hardest hit by Covid-19: people of colour, elderly, poor, etc. We can then see the fissures and who is left out. This became clearer with George Floyd’s killing. It is not enough to question who is left out, but how these humans are left out, dehumanized in the process. Injustice calls us to take account of the life we live, the world we live in, and ask how do we make this better, for each human being we encounter. Injustice calls us to weigh how we speak and act towards one another and to transform who we are for the better.

There are no easy answers to large questions, despite what politicians, carnival barkers, and reality TV hosts would have us believe with their divisive language and actions. We can embrace that we have more in common than separates us. As Paulo Freire proposed, there is unity in difference beyond superficial multiculuralism.

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.
As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.
So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.
The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

When I hike in wildnerness settings, I wonder what is around the next curve, over the horizon, on the other side of the mountain, below the surface, etc. I am unaware of so much. What is essential is I lift into critical consciousness what I can to better understand how I can make the world a better place and act on that as best as I can. I will likely never get to the other side of Kootenai Lake or the mountains on the far side, so I can only imagine what is there, a utopia of sorts. The same applies for the world we live in. The difference is we can incrementally get there, together.

As I am called to be a steward of the world, I am called to be a steward and servant in leading others. Without fully understanding where I am going, I am going there.

After I posted, I was listening to the radio and they played this song. It seemed appropriate.

Listening and Learning

I was going to press a wonderful post from Cheryl’s blog called Living in the Gap. Unfortunately, she does not have a press facility, so I did the next thing. I copied a paragraph from her post that I relate to:

“Am I ready to look at the part I play in the current reality, come out from the safety of the suburbs, and confront my own racism? To take a sober look at my own bias, privilege, and exclusionary practices. This is when I want to curl up like a pill bug and roll away, but this movement is not about me, it’s about listening, learning, and leaning into the race issues currently afflicting our country.”

We are in an unusual moment with the protests. They call us to stop and listen to one another in ways we may not be used to. They also call us to ask questions we have not asked in deep ways, such as “how do I confront my own prejudices? Am I even willing to confront them?” I use the word prejudice to open the space a bit more. It is not only about race. It is about gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.

Currently, I am co-writing an article for publication using Paulo Freire. Freire used critical theory and I paraphrase him here. He said prejudices are interwoven, arising from individual lived histories passed from one generation to another in unquestioned ways. It is listening to others without taking on a saviour role, without drowning their voices, and hearing them speak about their reality. They await opportunities to be raised into consciousness and critically questioned. How I understand this is through a Socratic lens where skepticism begins at home. How do I make the world better, more just, more democratic. Freire suggests it is a slow process. In his book, Pedagogy of Hope, he acknowledged using gender exclusive language in his seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published 30 years earlier. He learned to use more inclusive language as he became critically aware of the harm done without it. It was a small and necessary step.

Freire argues we need to listen to one another, not denying difference. Instead, he calls on us to accept “unity in difference.” At our core, (in French coeur is heart and core) we are each human. Too often, we talk over each other and listen to defend entrenched positions. A key theme in Freire’s writing is human “unfinishedness,” always becoming. I reflect when I took-for-granted privilege and wonder how I might overcome this. It is not easy. It will not be finished. I understand my role, as an elder, as one of serving and listening. Leadership is serving, transforming, and mindful, rather than transactional and hierarchical.

Robert Greenleaf stated “the best test [of servant-leadership], and difficult to administer, is: do those being served grow as persons; do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous while being served: Since so many people seem afraid to grow, the true servantleader who brings it about is an extraordinary person.” If I look at the next generation and they offer me hope that there is better to come, perhaps I can take some solace in that. Without hope, we wither and flee from the scene, abdicating our responsiblity to one another.

I leave you with a video of Langston Hughes’ poem Mother to Son. If I expand the defintion of pedagogue to its broadest etymology, it is how elders interact with youth, allowing them to dream. Hope is not about a lack of obstacles. After all, no life is a crystal staircase and that is most evident for those on the margins of our societies, including in Canada with its history of residential schools and mistreatment of people of colour. It is, as Freire suggests, being willing to struggle and fight to overcome overt and covert injustices and inequities we encounter and witness. It is listening and testifying in those moments to offer a hand to those in need, regardless of race, gender, orientation, creed, and class without being dogmatic. How do we testify in each of those moments? It is not succumbing to historical amnesia and existential weariness.

 

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Angry Young Poet

In keeping with Why Do I Write Poetry, the following poem is one I wrote many at about the same time. This is the third time I visited the poem in terms of writing and editing. Several years ago and while explaining the importance of teaching poetry, a student asked if I wrote poetry in junior high school and I responded, “Yes!”. He asked me to share with them. I found them in a small lock box I keep at home and shared several with the class. We talked about the context I wrote the poem in. Even in Canada, I lived in the shadow of the Vietnam conflict and struggled with what that meant.

Sam Intrator suggested teachers expose adolescent students complex, existential questions of life as they move through those formative years. I wrote my poems in 1969. It was a time when identity was increasingly rooted in a global nature of the world, not just immediate community and family. War entered homes via television. Increasingly, I discovered my voice through poetry, expressing an abhorrence to institutional and government sanctioned killing. What set me apart from my peers, was I took no sides. Each was equally wrong in my mind, advancing their ideological stance. My teacher, Mr. McKenzie, an innovative English teacher, encouraged us to discover our voices.

I shared the following poem with my students. We talked about how metaphors of war are used commonly in various institutions and how I found this as troubling as the violence and trauma of war. That feeling re-emerged over the past months with describing dealing with Covid-19 in war-like terms and the troubling events of the past weeks where purported leaders feel it is OK to speak about human beings, not citizens, as an enemy and objects to be manipulated for financial gain based on the basest forms of self-interests. It is worse than the war as it takes on invisible and pervasive forms. It is a form of Social Darwinism where the strong survive, trampling on those further down what is understood as a food chain premised on unfettered oppression of other humans, including various forms of systemic violence. Consider billionaires, in the Covid-19 crisis, gained while those in most need lose what little support they had.

I contrast this with Jacinda Ardern‘s message as the Prime Minister of New Zealand. In The Atlantic, Uri Friedman describes her as an empathetic leader. What emerged in reading the article was we de-serve better leadership, mindful, transforming, serving, etc. focusing on people as humans, not objects.

Students asked me to share poems and I did, with the context within which I wrote them. Parents, who were in the classroom each day, asked about my candour. I responded “I am not about changing minds. I try to change how each student thinks about the world, to see under the surface, reveal a sordid underbelly, and revel in the wonderfulness of human life.” This is a hopeful message, and the leadership we need is evident e.g. Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, Mary Wollenstonecroft, Anne Frank, Maya Angelou, Soujouner Truth, Rosa Parks, etc.

Win or Lose: What Difference Does it Make?

A game–

Darwin misunderstood,

No great thing to win.

War and it language!

Bells ringing hollow,

Men, women, children gone!

Woe! vanquished losers and winners;

Humans, vanquished in every sense–

Thriving on dividing.

Resenting conquerors,

Rebuilding ruins–

On countless graves.

Morally rudderless,

Blaming the fallen,

Beggaring humans.

Homes on streets,

Hollowing souls–

What war brings?

Innocence dying–

Prryhric victories,

What war brings?

Comrades fallen,

Enemies vanquished–

Proving nothing.

Will we learn?

I pray

For human survival.

I leave you with the following video and song. We listened to Harry Belafonte, and I still do, with his uplifting and hopeful message. We are in this together, not against one another, with each other.

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