Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Struggle Inclusivity

A dear friend recently recommended the book "How to Be Black" by Baratunde Thurston. Intrigued by the title and her hilarious description of this comedian-turned-author's book, I picked it up and quickly devoured it. The text itself is something of a tongue-in-check self-help book about, yeah, you guessed it, how to be black. With chapters such as "How to Be the Black Friend", "How to Speak For All Black People" and "How Black Are You?" it offers advice for how to be black. In reality it offers an important perspective about racism in the USA as it stands today in somewhat of a memoir form. Did I mention it's also hilarious? He even includes a specific hashtag to use while referring to the book online: #howtobeblack.

I was struck by how creatively Thurston invites the reader to consider some really difficult and heavy inequalities in our world while also making the reader laugh out loud at his quips and anecdotes. You find yourself laughing because of how hilarious he and "The Black Panel" he consults throughout the book truly are, all in the midst of discussing the systemic and deep-seated racism Americans so thoroughly want to believe does not exist anymore (See the chapter titled "How's That Post-Racial Thing Working Out for Ya?").

I highly encourage you to read the book for its hilarity but also its deep, and uncomfortable truths about racism in the USA. Thurston points out that it's important to talk about racism and how it still exists today and what we can do about. Toward the end of the book, Thurston and the panel begin talking about the future and how to battle racism. I was also particularly struck by one of the ideas a member of the Black Panel brings up when asked for ideas about the Future of Blackness.

W. Kamau Bell is another comedian and creator of a one-man show who brings up this interesting idea: "I've recently come to the conclusion: I think that all people who are fighting for oppressed people should only be allowed to work for the group that's one over from them. Black people should only be allowed to work for the Mexican immigrants' struggle in America. Mexican immigrants should only be allowed to work for gay people. I feel like if we all just stepped one group over, I think we would get things done a lot quicker. You can't end racism and make sexism worse. You can't end racism and make homophobia worse. You have to put it all forward... So a big part of my how-to-be-black is actually trying to be inclusive of all the struggles. Slow Clap." (217).

Yeah, he actually says "Slow Clap" at the end. See? I told you it was hilarious. In any case, this idea is important because it implicitly points out the the fact that people who are marginalized are systemically marginalized. What I mean is, the system in which one group is comfortable, is the very same system that marginalizes the other groups. Racism, sexism, age-ism, all the negative ism's are enforced through the very same system. Those in power have a strong incentive to keep all others out of power using the very same system.

Thereby it doesn't make sense to work toward ending your personally offensive -ism and in the process make any of the others worse. It doesn't make sense to work toward equality for women but to worsen the inequality against the LGBTQ community, or the African American community, or those who are experiencing homelessness, etc.

Fundamentally this comes to the point that we really do all have to work together, on behalf of one another. I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say that we should all work on the struggle "one group over" because I think one should work where one's passion lies. But I think it's really important to remember to not work against that struggle "one group over" either. Wherever possible, it makes sense to work in collaboration.


I certainly recommend reading Thurston's book- both for its hilarity and for the gentle reminder that racism is very much alive and that we need to remember to work toward equality for everyone. Really, where better to start the equality and inclusion process than in the struggle for equality and inclusion itself? Slow Clap.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Sentimental Memorial Day

It's Memorial Day and between the stories of service to our country playing constantly on NPR and the steady drizzle that has kept up all day, I'm feeling nostalgic. A holiday designed to honor the men and women who died serving in our military, protecting our freedoms and safeguarding our way of life; it is an easy time to become sentimental.

I am of the strong opinion that one of the best ways to appreciate one's home country, is to travel somewhere else. In my various travels, I have learned a lot about the problems with the United States, but I have also come to appreciate the things we do really well. Working with refugees who are on the track to American citizenship is another powerful lens for understanding what a gift it is to be born into American citizenship. I will never take for granted my right to vote in American elections. What power I have. I am grateful for the sacrifice that others have made for this country.

It is a good time of year to be sentimental in general.

Several of the classes at my work have finished up in the past week. The ensuing graduation parties have been particularly heartfelt. In our college preparation class, I have taught a journal curriculum for the past four months where students respond to prompts in whatever fashion they want. Prompts ranged from "tell me about yourself" to "what does it mean to be an American" to "where is the strangest place you have ever slept?". At graduation, the students mentioned how grateful they were for having learned how to write about their experiences. One student wrote, "Thank you for teaching me how to tell my story. (Life)." Somehow this was the most poetic possible expression of gratitude I could ask for. I really was hoping to teach them a glimpse of the written word as a means of extending the borders of their very selves. I am so pleased that they felt that is what they received.

Yesterday, I had the honor of singing in the retirement concert of a beloved high school choir director. In the 24 years that this teacher taught at my alma mater, he has inspired thousands of students with powerful works of music. In our very own version of Mr. Holland's Opus, we got to spend the weekend practicing some of the most beautiful music he ever assigned and performing it for his greatest fans: students, alumni, teachers, faculty, staff, and community members. During the reception, a colleague read some of his accomplishments in the high school music program. He truly was fantastic. He dreamed big and encouraged his students to perform pieces the likes of which are normally reserved for college choirs. While I was in high school he pushed us to perform (and perform well) such fantastic and challenging pieces as Chichester Psalms, Handel's Messiah- including recitatives and solos, and pieces by Eric Whitacre, to name only a few. The entire event was a remarkable reflection on a passionate career spent moving the hearts, minds, and souls of countless individuals. We should each be lucky to find ourselves in work about which we are half so passionate.

I can't help but also think about Memorial Day weekend two years ago when I graduated from college and my Mom had an emergency appendectomy- that was unique. My friends helped us pack up all of my belongings in the van as quickly as possible so that Dad could rush her home and to the hospital in the middle of the night. Not quite the poetic end to my college career that I had hoped for, but I'm so grateful that Mom did get to see me graduate and made it to the hospital in time to avoid a ruptured appendix.

Sometimes it's hard to put one's finger on what it is that makes life awesome. It's the big important things, like freedom of speech, the right to vote, and access to healthcare. But it's also the small, intangible things like feeling connected to a whole community of singers who were trained by the same fantastic high school choral director and the opportunity to read about a student's life in their own words. It is these relationships that provide meaning to the chaos. Perhaps that is why Memorial Day is so powerful. It reminds us of our personal connection to all those who have served in our military, whether we know them or not, and the sacrifices they have made in the name of our country. It is a reminder that we are bound to one another by our shared citizenship.

Today, may we honor each other, our service members, and our country with sincere thoughtfulness and a re-commitment to liberty and justice for all.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"A good society cannot be built on miracles" -Jonathan Kozol

I recently read Jonathan Kozol's book Amazing Grace. Kozol writes about the people, specifically children, that he meets in the Bronx in the 1990's. He recounts difficult stories of the pervasive, racist policies that keep families and individuals in the Bronx in a perpetual cycle of poverty and violence. Unfortunately these children's stories could belong to children in many places throughout the world. There are striking similarities between the children of the Bronx and the children I met in the West Bank.

Throughout the time that I lived in Israel/Palestine and since I have returned to the US, I have had misgivings about how to write about the more difficult aspects of life. It is, of course, easy to write the funny stories, the endearing stories and the adventure stories, but it is harder to know how to write about tragedies and injustices. It is tempting to put on a positive spin or to talk about how strong the people are. Indeed, since returning to the USA I have often found myself talking about how difficult life is in Palestine and then feeling the need to talk about how resilient the Palestinian people are. It bothers me. Of course, the people are resilient, but it seems to me that they should not have to be.

Kozol writes eloquently about this dilemma, "[Stories of resilience] have a reassuring quality that is not present in most stories that one hears about the lives of children in the South Bronx. Some preachers speak of situation of this kind as 'little miracles,'... The trouble with miracles, however, is that they don't happen for most children; and a good society cannot be built on miracles or on the likelihood that they will keep occurring. There is also a degree of danger that, in emphasizing these unusual relationships and holding up for praise the very special children who can take advantage of them, without making clear how rare these situations are, we may seem to be condemning those who don't have opportunities like these or, if they do, cannot respond to them" (160). Stories of resilience are important because of the hope they contain, but they are exceptional and thereby simply not the case for the majority of people. I would hate for the children not perceived as "resilient" to be blamed for it.

In writing my blog, I want to keep optimistic and tell stories of resilience, but I also fear that in always putting on a positive spin or showing the strength of the people, I allow my readers to get complacent. Indeed, I worry about letting myself get complacent. Suffering in the world can, and should, make us uncomfortable. Like Kozol, I worry that emphasizing stories of resilience allows us to ignore the ways in which our comfortable lifestyles in the US contribute to and even cause the suffering of others throughout the world.

On the other hand, I know that without a glimmer of hope, it is far too easy to drown in despair. One need only talk with someone suffering "burnout" in the social justice sector to know that you cannot dwell completely on suffering without some hope. In choosing the title of my blog, you may remember that I wanted to focus on hoping "for a great sea-change" and believing that "a further shore is reachable from here" in the midst of the pain and darkness in our world.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to work hard to make something better. To align our gifts with the world's need. My YAGM family often quotes Frederick Buechner in his book Wishful Thinking, "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Do something you are passionate about in a way that meets some of the world's need. I think that might be about the best we can do.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Volunteering Rewards

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found out how to serve.” - Albert Schweitzer



One aspect of my work is recruiting, coordinating and managing a group of volunteer math tutors who work with our clients. The course is designed to help our students improve their scores on the community college entrance exam and, more importantly, to succeed once they are in college courses. Our students are refugees and other New Americans who are interested in pursuing a career in medical professions. One important part of helping these students score better and succeed in college is improving their math skills. Therefore we need reliable, talented and patient volunteers.

In the past we have had a core group of talented and dependable tutors who enthusiastically tutored each week. Most are back helping us this year, but due to some scheduling conflicts, not all are available this semester, so one of my first tasks this year has been lining up new volunteers. It has turned out to be surprisingly complicated since volunteers need more than just tutoring and math skills, they need patience and a willingness to help individuals whose first language is not English. I interviewed several individuals who did not have the time or interest in this type of tutoring. To be honest, I can relate. Tutoring math is, after all, hard work. Our tutoring is four hours a week, every week and although we provide books and materials, we expect our tutors to plan their own lessons.  I sometimes found myself wondering why anyone was willing to take this task on for free when they could probably get paid, albeit modestly, for this work elsewhere.

 Eventually I found one new volunteer who was quite hesitant at first, but eventually, she really hit her stride. Reliable and gentle, she made her three students feel at ease. I was impressed with her commitment as she even put in extra time working with students after class and preparing worksheets at home. Unfortunately, after two months of volunteering, a work schedule change made it necessary for our new volunteer to resign. On her last day, I was a bit surprised to note that she was genuinely sad to leave. Although she had been nervous at first, she told me, she had come to thoroughly enjoy tutoring. She particularly enjoyed getting to know the three women she worked with and she said she would really miss the challenge. To be honest I was a bit floored. Four hours a week of strictly scheduled, unpaid tutoring is a big commitment of time and mental energy in a busy world. Nonetheless, this professional was sincerely sad to leave. Clearly she was getting something out of this experience even if it was not money.

A few days later, one of the other tutors who has served our population faithfully for years, mentioned in passing how great this work is. He said that tutoring our clients really grows on a person because it is so fulfilling. His comment drove home for me what I had forgotten in the busyness of searching for new tutors: volunteering feels good for the volunteer. Doing something you are a good at, without monetary reward, is meaningful exactly because your reward is emotional rather than material. Now that I coordinate volunteers, I can see clearly how incredibly important good volunteers really are. We simply could not run our program without them, which means that for the volunteers this act of selflessness carries the considerable reward of knowing you have helped your community. I got so wrapped up in the quest for volunteers that I forgot the greatest selling point in my arsenal: volunteering is rewarding. It satisfies a longing for significant work and in such a dismal economy, there is something to be said for having some meaningful pursuits on the agenda.

Ironically, I myself have committed to a year of volunteer service, which is how I ended up in this position coordinating volunteers in the first place. Clearly I value volunteerism, though perhaps I had not intentionally reflected on why I volunteer.  I am grateful for my tutors’ reminder that volunteering has intrinsic value, not only for the organization or people served, but for the volunteer. Schweitzer’s quotation encourages us all to seek out ways to volunteer because he believes that it is service to our fellow human beings that makes us truly happy.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Snapshot of Tonight

One perfect Autumn leaf on my wall in Palestine.
Quite by surprise, I find that it is suddenly mid-October. In Minnesota the leaves are changing colors and I am reminded of how last year my friend Maddie, who is now my friend and my housemate, sent me a perfect, autumnal leaf, straight from Minnesota. She knew that Palestine does not really have Fall and that I must be missing the triumphant colors of the Midwest.  I taped the leaf to my bedroom wall along with precious cards and photos of loved ones back home in the United States.

Get off my chair nasty cat. And yeah, I broke that lamp.
Now another YAGM volunteer lives in our little flat in Ramallah. He works at the school where I worked and has already had adventures (read: terrifying experiences) with the local stray cats which are exceedingly clever and find their way into the aforementioned flat. (I will never forget the day I came home and found big dirty cat prints on everything.) Perhaps it goes without saying that I follow this year's volunteer on Facebook, despite having never met him. Of course, I feel jealous at the experiences he is having and his awesome stories, but I am also so, so, so happy for him and for the other current YAGM volunteers.

Today I finally sent a bunch of my pictures from Palestine to the printer so that I will have hard copies to put up (everywhere!). Although I took a couple thousand pictures, I still find myself wishing I had taken more. Why did I not capture a shot of the rabbit shop (live rabbits) outside my yoga studio? Why did I not take a picture of the garden outside my supervisor's flat? It was so easy to remember to take pictures of the adventures (traveling to Petra in Jordan, standing next to the Dome of the Rock) but so much harder to remember to document the quiet, beautiful moments that truly made up my existence abroad.

Today at work we were discussing creating a short promotional video about our programs. Several of the teachers talked about how often they wish they had a video camera in hand when the students tell stories of their lives; fleeing violence, and literally seeking refuge. Our refugee clients have stories filled with heartbreaking loss and breathtaking resilience. I am particularly fond of the stories of life in the midst of the insanity; babies born in refugee camps to mothers who love them every bit as much as mothers whose babies are born in fancy Midwest hospitals. I am reminded that everyone has beautiful stories of life. Heroic stories. Sad stories. Fantastic and hilarious adventure stories. Stories of the quiet moments filled with joy. Stories of a single red leaf taped to a bedroom wall in a desert that seemed both far from home and home itself.

Tonight, one of my friends updated her blog and I found myself thinking that I should update mine. It is easy to remember to document one's experiences while traveling because you want to update the loved ones far away and because you are doing so many "Facebook-profile-picture-worthy" things. But life is lived now, in the quotidian moments. Those moments deserve some documentation as well.

So here's to the moments that made up my evening: there were no unexpected clients at my after-work volunteer gig so I nearly finished Jonathan Kozol's book Amazing Grace. My heart ached for the children of the Bronx and the children of Palestine, who are really not so different.  Volunteering got done early so I watched the end of tonight's episode of "The Voice" with Maddie. She vacuumed the stairs during commercial breaks. Hit by inspiration (and an entire day's worth of Muse on repeat), Maddie played music while Lexi returned from the gym to make a grilled cheese sandwich and coffee in preparation for her night-shift. I wrote a blog post and I stayed up later than I meant to, but felt good about it because I was struck by the urge to document a slice of my life right now.

Let us not forget to honor the beauty in our daily lives.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Adventures in Reverse Culture Shock

I always thought people were kind of joking when they talked about reverse culture shock. Or that it was just a way of being really pretentious about how you had traveled and now your normal life feels almost as exotic to you as living abroad first felt. However, I have to admit that I now understand to some extent what the phrase is talking about. For me, reverse culture shock has so far come in two forms.

The first form is where I unintentionally bring certain parts of my life from Palestine back here to the USA. For example, I still say "bye bye" whenever I'm saying goodbye to someone. In Palestine my teachers would always say "bye bye" in English instead of goodbye, I have no idea why, but it really stuck and I ended up likewise saying "bye bye". Now, even back in the USA where I know that it sounds somewhat childish, I still find myself saying "bye bye", particularly to my coworkers and to relative strangers.

I also revert back Arabic a great deal, particularly when talking to children or inanimate objects. My gut reaction when something does not go quite right is, "eh! ya Allah, shu hada??" or if someone does something unwise my instant impulse is, "habibi! shway shway!". I also cluck at things when I disapprove of them.

I feel constantly compelled to offer anyone in my house something to drink. I have even been known to offer my own housemates something to drink, and they are not guests. It is safe to assume that if you are in my house I will offer you something to drink. Probably multiple times. It just feels bad to have someone sitting there without a drink of some sort. I am also surprised at how often people say no, they are fine without anything. It is really engrained in me that one always at least accepts a glass of water, but I guess that is not what Americans do and I probably would not be surprised by that if I had not lived in Palestine for a year. I know that my Palestinian mentors must be proud that I have absorbed this aspect of their culture of hospitality.

Another form of my reverse culture shock is being surprised at American things which I must have never noticed before. For example, as it has begun to get cool outside, I am MARVELLING at how warm it still is inside. Seriously! How do we insulate our houses so well?? If I am feeling a bit cold in my room, I just close my window and then it is instantly warm. If it was 50 degrees outside in Palestine, it was likewise 50 degrees inside my house because the architecture was designed around keeping the house cool in summer rather than warm in winter (we had a particularly cold and wet winter in Palestine last year). Insulation designed around keeping a house warm is miraculous. It also means I have severely under-dressed for the weather outside a few times because I forget that it might be colder outside than inside.

I am also consistently surprised at how well American kindergartners speak English. It really is astonishing. It just comes to them naturally, like a first language. The most time I have ever spent with kindergartners was at my school last year so I expect kindergartners to only speak a few phrases of memorized English and mostly Arabic.

I am also surprised at how much energy, in terms of time, money and brainpower we, as Americans, put into buying things. I went into an IKEA for the first time ever when my housemates and I were getting some last minute items for our kitchen and I was so overwhelmed. So. Much. Stuff. Is buying more stuff really what makes America so great? Every weekend we get so many coupons and advertisements encouraging us to buy more stuff. Then all the commercials in English remind me how much I hate advertising because it is just so obsessed with trying to convince me to buy more stuff. Oh, so you think that you are going to convince me to buy your shampoo so that my hair will smell awesome and men will fall in love with me? Please. That is ridiculous and demeaning. Plus I already have shampoo and it works just fine. Of course, Palestine is inundated with advertisements as well, but Palestine lacks the pervasive culture of consumerism that feels so abundant here. There are even advertisements now where individuals are finding ways to destroy their cell phones so that they can buy new cell phones. Destroy your Iphone 4 so you can go out and buy an Iphone 5. It is promoting buying just for the sake of buying and it is bizarre.

My experiences with reverse culture shock so far remind me of Anthropology and how, as a discipline, it seeks to understand a people or a group from the margin. It seems true that when you find some distance from something, you come to see it in a different light. I think one of the greatest benefits of long-term travel is that you learn to put a critical lens back upon your own culture and country. Why do we do things that way? Why do we think that is the best way to live?

All in all my reverse culture shock has led to some hilarious and thought-provoking moments. Thankfully, I have also found some much needed Palestinian respite in Minnesota. More on that in an upcoming post. :-)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Transitions and Gratitude

I apologize for my long absence from the blog-o-sphere. In my defense, it has been a very, very busy month of transitions. About a month ago, on July 21st I packed up my belongings in Jerusalem, went for a run around the Mount of Olives with views of both the West Bank and the Dome of the Rock and got ready to fly back to the United States.

I arrived back home and had only one short week (actually really just five days) to spend some much needed time with my family and friends, unpack and wash all of my clothes and belongings, repack all of my belongings and move into my new house with some dear friends from college and start orientation for an Americorps position at a refugee agency. I have now worked for three weeks at the agency and I am really enjoying the work, and my colleagues.

I have been reflecting a lot about my experiences of the past year in Palestine and I keep coming back to all I have learned about gratitude. In Ramallah, I had the honor of becoming part of Farashe, a nonprofit yoga studio in the heart of the city. Farashe’s vision is to bring the health benefits, the peace and the inner joy of yoga to the Palestinian people under Occupation. It is an amazing place.

Yoga taught me that it is hard to be feel upset and grateful at the same time, so when you are feeling really angry, frustrated or annoyed about something that you cannot change right now, it is effective to instead redirect that energy toward taking stock of the things for which you are grateful. In the yoga studio our instructor started and ended each yoga practice with gratitude to ourselves and to each other. Living in the midst of military occupation can be really frustrating, so I really appreciated spending that mental energy seeking inner peace and strength instead of boiling in anger. Of course, it is good to have some anger in order spur change, but you simply cannot seep in it all the time. I marveled at how powerful it was to dwell on gratitude instead of anger.

Perhaps dwelling on gratitude came more easily to my Palestinian yogi comrades, since Arabic is a language of gratitude. It has been described as something of a formal dance, similar to a waltz. The first person curtsies and the second bows in return. The entire dance becomes a series of formal give and take. So it is with Arabic, one formal phrase of gratitude begets another such phrase in response. There are many, many more ways to say “thank you” in Arabic than there are in English.

In her book Mornings in Jenin, Susan Abulhawa writes, “In the Arab world, gratitude is a language unto itself. ‘May Allah bless the hands that give me this gift’; ‘Beauty is in your eyes that find me pretty’; ‘May God extend your life’; ‘May Allah never deny your prayer’; ‘May the next meal you cook for us be in celebration of your sons’ wedding… of your daughter’s graduation… your mother’s recovery’; and so on, an infinite string of prayerful appreciation. Coming from such a culture, I have always found a mere ‘thank you’ an insufficient expression that makes my voice sound miserly and ungrateful” (169-170). While learning and practicing Arabic, I found the formal exchanges of gratitude to be indescribably beautiful. When someone gives you a cup of tea, in Palestine you would respond with what in English would be, “Bless your hands”. Such eloquent language for the articulation of even minor gratitude makes one think about the importance and power of expressing gratitude.


With these beautiful models of gratitude in mind, I must express my gratitude for the incredible experiences I was fortunate to have this past year in Palestine. I am humbled with gratitude for the teachers and students at the School of Hope from whom I learned so much about education, resilience and hope. I am grateful for my yoga studio, and yoga teachers with whom I found some peace, laughter and friendship in the midst of a military occupation. I am grateful for my choir, Zaridash, for sharing the solace of community and music in the midst of occupation. I am grateful for my awesome Arabic tutor, Mohammad, who patiently taught me how to read, write and speak in Arabic but also taught me about Palestinian culture and the importance of a mid-lesson cup of mint tea. 

I am so grateful for friends in Palestine who made Ramallah my home. I am grateful for the church communities and organizations in Palestine and their work toward building peace. I am grateful for the other YAGM volunteers and for our fantastic leaders who walked with us through the fun and, most importantly, the struggles of living in Palestine. I am grateful for the YAGM program and the ELCA for their incredible support to volunteers living abroad. I am grateful for all that I learned about myself in the midst of the challenges I faced this year. I am also immensely grateful for the fun, the laughter, the play and the joy. I am grateful for the opportunity to travel around Israel and Palestine, to learn a new language, to eat amazing new foods and to have the honor of calling a new city home. 
Please accept my deepest gratitude for you, dear supporters. It is an honor to know that I have had such great individuals cheering me on throughout this adventure. Shukran/Thank you! 

I have decided to keep blogging since it has become a fun exercise in writing and reflection. Therefore make sure to continue to check back and hear about my adventures and reflections in the United States! :-)