Responding to the Covid-19 Crisis

As we suffer through the lockdowns, shut-ins and stays at home, we have time to look around and see how others are handling things. Some of us are working from home, some are working from home and caring for children at home, and some are essential workers whose children are not in school and who cannot afford daycare on their often low end wages. For those who must go out for work, for food or just for relief from being shut in, every day runs a risk of bringing home a potentially serious illness. And in this case, we’re playing a game of high stakes poker. Our children, parents or other household members are the stakes in this ‘game.’ ‘Winning’ the bet, we can keep them, but the odds are really good – 10,000 to 1 says we win, a sure thing – for every encounter with someone who may or may not be infected. Of course, those encounters who are ‘sure’ they’re not infected, and so don’t behave so cautiously, can shift those odds. Touching any stressors yet?

As we watch around our communities, it is clear that most people understand the risks and are inconvenienced but realistic about them. It’s unlikely that more than a handful of people would actually want to be responsible for using their absent or light symptom infection to harm others, and fortunately only a small percentage of people are dismissive of the callously potential danger they pose. The question concerning them is: How many rabid dogs will we tolerate in our community? After all, it’s all about communities, large and small.

The world today is seeing a pandemic of proportions not seen before, and we are ramping up to control it, as we must. Our resources are being stretched. Our fears are being stoked. And our thinking is being clouded by political agendas and news marketing strategies. Is protecting our lives and livelihoods the ultimate goal of what’s being done to get control of the pandemic, or are our votes and dollars metaphorically coal being shoveled into the boiler to keep the train running down the tracks even as the passengers are dying in and being pushed off the cars as we go? And who decides how it will go? We are smart enough to know that 1.) we don’t know it all and 2.) we deserve answers to questions like these.

Before we make demands on those in power, we need to do some research. If we make demands and get those demands met only to find we made matters worse, accept it or not, we are responsible for the harm that results. If we do the research, ask the questions, consider some options before setting the demands, we improve the chances of success and can accept responsibility for having done the best that can be done, no matter the outcome. Research is a recipe: get ideas and inputs from as many people and places as possible, and consider all the ideas in terms of doing the most good for the most people on into the future if possible. The alternative recipe is a recipe for disaster: ignore other people’s ideas and input and do what you like best, especially when it does the most good for yourself. That recipe is a bit like Russian roulette, maybe a good choice, maybe not. Bang.

“But,” you say, “we have to deal with the crisis now!” And I agree, but we must also deal with the outcomes from those decisions and with moving on post-crisis in a world that will be changed. Doing it all is important, or we will be right back where we are now, asking why we dismantled something, or why we didn’t have a more comprehensive plan. The next crisis won’t be a walk in the park, but a crisis will come and it can be another hurdle or it can be a crushing disaster that kills tens, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. So as we deal with the crisis now, we must gather as much information about what’s working and what’s not as we can, and we must start shaping it into a more secure future. If we learn that having done something differently, giving a better outcome than expected, document it and add it to the plan for the next time. And since things we try this time, whether they succeed or fail, give us more options for all times, we should examine them all. When those options have better results than what we had been doing, more effective and/or more cost effective, keep them. This last piece is extremely important.

‘Overcoming’ and ‘moving on’ can be replaced with ‘overcoming’ and ‘moving forward.’ We can come out of this better positioned not just for tomorrow’s crisis, but for every tomorrow. If my house has ground water seeping into the basement, and I lose that house to a tornado, I have some options. I could find and buy a new house. I could rebuild my house on higher, drier ground, if I have some. Or I could rebuild my house on the same foundation. Choosing to rebuild on the same foundation may be the only affordable option of course, and that’s sad but very real. If, on the other hand, at a time of such a disaster there were some public help when I lose my leaky house, would it seem to make sense to build on that leaky foundation?

We don’t have the resources now, but what if we set up something before the next house loss disaster. I spend a few thousand dollars a year for insurance on things I own. Is it unrealistic for all property owners to contribute fifty dollars a year to fund disaster relief, to help those unable to meet the uninsured costs of a disaster? When run at scale, change could be implemented rather painlessly. This is not the best or only solution, but as I sat here thinking this up and typing, I realize how much a little thought from many of people could create considerable resources for big change.

Change is difficult. It requires will and effort. Yet, change is actually easier during and immediately after a crisis when earlier shortcomings and their painful results are laid bare; it provides the will to change. Complacency defeats change because it provides little will to put out any effort. If we were ever to get back to normality, we would be building back on the same leaky foundation. We need to think beyond now and embrace change.

We take on the crisis when it comes. We learn from that what we must do differently the next time, and plan for it. And we look at how our efforts have given us better, while affordable, ways to carry on our everyday better designed lives by designing those strategies into our  ongoing institutions.

In the 1980’s I was teaching in a, then, junior high school. One day, my principal announced with certainty, as he often did, that “We’re getting there.” I pointed out to him that when we are going somewhere and we get there, we stop. I didn’t think he should encourage us to decide to stop going any day soon. From my point of view, when I got to the end of the year with my seventh graders, I was looking forward to getting going with a new bunch when we’d start over in the fall. Life is like that.

We’ll get through the Covid-19 pandemic, but let’s hope we never get over it.

Dear Commissioners: I need a little help

   From top down, I see leadership in this country being interpreted as holding and wielding power rather than working in the service of those being led. This seems a kind of mindless dictatorship, where the most persuasive is put into power, and it defeats true democracy where people choose the leaders who will advance their interests. This dichotomy and its current lopsidedness pervades our institutions and therefore all facets of our lives.

    Since this difference hinges between people’s informed ability to make good decisions for themselves on one side, and their susceptibility to persuasive showmen on the other, the distinction rests on deeply held, early years’ development of individuals’ perception of themselves in their world. I am convinced that the key to restoring any reasonable balance lies in providing good early childhood and family education. Children must learn from early on to be self-directed decision makers not obedient followers. If children are typically told what to do, and seldom told why or how they should do that (e.g., choosing right from wrong, good from bad), they will grow into adults who depend on external direction for their actions, rather than those internally motivated to strive and excel.

   Each generation must understand that it can only build on the previous generation, and each is responsible for passing that understanding along. Only through such building over time will substantial change occur. Consequently we must explore individual’s cultural and familial histories to understand how to support corrective measures in early childhood development, most of which takes place in the family home. I understand that different populations bring different resources and different cultural histories to the situation. Still, I believe the County may have the greatest access to influencing change. The State is too mired in money politics and the schools, beholden as they are to state funding, simply mirror their much more powerful benefactors. I want to help right the ship of reason.

   So to my request: Is there anyone in the county that I could meet with to discuss these ideas, with the possibility of starting a broader discussion? I would hope such a discussion might lead to policies and actions that would begin to understand where people in Hennepin County are “coming from,” and how we might strengthen their efforts to bring their children and their children’s children to a higher level of democratic – not just academic – success. We must get beyond “rearranging the deck chairs” and get about spotting and avoiding icebergs. Yes, it is a Titanic task. It must start, to ever have a hope of finishing.

(Adapted from a recent letter to a county worker of my acquaintance, jcr)

Listen, Talk, Vote

It is an election year for Minnesota. Much is at stake.
Midterm elections don’t usually draw much voter turnout. When the state economy seems to be doing well, voters may think that not voting returns the status quo. These conditions favor the opposition, whose turnouts produce stunning defeats and are followed by dramatic reversals.
Minnesota stands out as a great place to live, for now. The governor’s efforts to hold off the forces of capital side pressure have preserved many gains for Minnesotans. That could come undone in November. There is a fragile and unreliable balance in power.
If the effects of an international trade war sharply depress the equity markets and the economy, pensions and other retirement savings could be similarly depressed and under renewed threat from the investment industry. Losses in farm exports could put further demands on our state’s resources. Meanwhile, prices for consumer goods as well as medical costs and inflation could rise. Social Security and Medicare are already under threat from blossoming Federal debt and the prevailing “everyone for her/himself” attitude in Washington.
We can anticipate debates around gun sentiment and actual education needs upping that piece of the next budget, while the 2017 budget standoff gets revisited attention. The #MeToo movement will rightly demand some actions. Meanwhile, other gender rights agendas lie right beneath the surface. And there will be water quality problems and climate change effects that are unpredictable but seemingly inevitable. Actions taken will have long-lasting outcomes.
Voting in November could not be any more important. Your everyday lives are far more impacted by state controlled factors than any other. Every candidate must be asked about all of the above points, and their answers must be clear and their positions firm. That’s how you must decide your votes.
If you’ve read this far, you were already committed to voting. Now commit to getting family and friends to do likewise. Find out where candidates are on the issues and get yourself and others to the polls in November. Every day you should think about what’s important in your life that the State of Minnesota affects in some way. Listen to what others are saying about these things and talk with them about why you feel as you do. Then every day, tell someone to vote in November.

Response for Stanford course on Poverty and Inequality module 2

It is said that nothing can be done about poverty. However, we probably know that many who say that, and who know it to be false, are masking a frustration at best or unwillingness at some worse level with efforts to invest in trying to do something. However as a nation, we widely suffer from two other ‘myths’ about effecting change in anything, which seriously hamper achieving lasting effects in anything. First, we expect relatively immediate results that allow us to terminate the effort. Second, we assume that anything involving large numbers of people must be handled by large institutions.
Poverty has certainly been around a long time, and it is clearly much worse in other places in the world than in the U.S., and that makes it look pretty intractable. It may appear rather like a cancer on humanity. So as with cancer, it seems reasonable that we would not say, "Oh, well, Humanity, you have cancer. So sorry. There’s nothing we can do." Poverty is certainly persistent and pernicious, and as with cancer, we must attack the cancer and its causes. We must continue that attack without looking for a quick return on investment, and with the understanding that we might not always have successes and we may never reach our goal in our life time. Furthermore those affected by poverty are people who feel the pain of that poverty. Grasping the idea of the suffering of millions of individuals, not just data sets, may suggest a way to strengthen solutions.
We too often expect institutions to handle all our big problems. We pay taxes that go out in Medicaid payouts. We contribute to food shelves. Often we write a check to an organization and consider our contribution to the cause has been made. These are all good things to do, but they are seriously diluted by overhead, and their work is often spread so thinly in has little effect. To support those efforts, volunteers working with individuals and families are already a valued asset, but there are few, and in many areas, no organized institutional efforts to locate, train and match up volunteers to individuals and families in need. In my city, if one person in 100 volunteered 1 hour a week to a child or family providing some of the factors we know lead to better school results, we might see an improvement in academic performance of roughly 3,000 students, about 10% of the public school population. A good thing about volunteering is that it is almost without cost; the best thing is seeing the direct results of the effort.
Just as with institutional efforts, the work must be ongoing – conception to graduation is about 19 years – and successes are never guaranteed. Combined with institutional programs, organized volunteering could make a significant impact.
This would be a culture change for American people, of course, and that’s a whole other Stanford course, I’m sure.

Divided We Fall

The political expedient of offering a free lunch leads government authorities to make commitments they cannot support in the long term without assessments and tax increases–both political suicide. The get hit in their campaign funds and hit at the polls. The American wealthiest and their corporate empires assume a 19th century uber-privilege, owing nothing to the societies that fed their greed and freely buying the politicians to insure that. American voters meanwhile have been convinced that they deserve to have the amenities but not pay for them.

Then, when the bills come in, the authorities, beholden to their wealthy benefactors, look for excuses and scapegoats rather than biting the bullet, correcting tax law, and convincing tax-payers to pay up or give up the things they’ve come to expect. So the result is that they go after two of their own big expenses–the public workers, who make our society civilized, and the neediest, who don’t pay much tax and often don’t vote. Breaking the life-long promise of a pension to public employees, cutting funding to schools, and reducing the public work force, government chews off its own leg to free itself from the trap of its own design. Cutting off the needy is simply barbaric.

America has been effectively marketed a dream that everyone deserves a life that is fun and feels good. Watch almost any TV ad. Americans are discouraged from thinking about how that could be true when we know that life includes effort and pain. Only when enough of us look around and think will we begin to reverse the seemingly inexorable trend toward a country of 350,000,000 individuals, each at the center of her or his own universe, and start to reestablish America as a united society, who share common needs despite individual differences. If “divided we fall” has not been apparent before, certainly watching the human pieces of our civil society fall away over the years should alert us to the future we will leave our children and grandchildren.

Every thoughtful person must stand up, speak out, help out and vote. 

Participating in Community

Millions of dollars are regularly delivered to solving social, educational and economic disparities. That’s good, and much good is achieved by it. Research, training, investment get injected into communities and impact many lives. The scale of these projects is essential for what their donors hope will be achieve, but that scale is also a throttle, limiting the depth to which their work can effect change, and a regulator, narrowing the range of impact to a categorical norm.

There is another way that lives are impacted in communities lacking resources to move their members into the full light of American society. When one person enters the world of another and shares her or his “excess of resource,” that entry helps to balance the advantage of those less lucky. Such an act is not a gift, nor is it an investment; it is a sharing that assures mutual improvement. And because the resource being shared is seldom money or goods or materials, it is in far greater abundance among a large segment of society. These resources are such things as time, experience and compassion, resources freely given and yet undiminished. Such resources are in the hands of many people, even among those in communities in need.

In recent years, I have volunteered my time tutoring Latino students in my south Minneapolis neighborhood. This effort has helped several individuals rise substantially in their school experience. Furthermore, my tutoring is personally rewarding. I tutor in the spirit of meeting my responsibility of citizenship, serving the community from which I also benefit. At the same time, I am rewarded with the personal relationship which develops in tutoring. The power of an individual sharing time and knowledge with one or two others in an ongoing and personal relationship is simply astounding. The outcomes benefit all. The student benefits in his or her academic career, the tutor benefits in the rewards of appreciation and purposefulness, and the community is raised that little bit higher.

One-on-one volunteering is highly efficacious. However, by its very nature, it has a relatively small impact on a community as a whole. That means numbers of volunteers are necessary to make real and lasting change. This should not be confused with scale. Think “crowd sourcing” not “corporate sourcing.”

Scale, as we have used it in the tech-age, brings with it a number of wasteful characteristics. Scale brings bureaucratizing and administering. What are not needed and are not productive are more cadre organizers, schedulers, communicators and chiefs. These often financially attractive boss roles exist in plenty already. These administrators are not volunteers and seldom do the work they administer. They collect a percentage of the dollars that you and I are asked to pledge to their organizations–organizations that offer to help those in need. They sell us a clear conscience while shielding us from actually doing anything, coming face to face with unpleasant things, or getting our hands dirty. They allow us to buy off our responsibilities to our community. They are social indulgences. As a result, large scale operations diminish the sense of community and our role in it. Less good is accomplished in the community, more time is spent collecting donations, and donors remain detached from any personal or spiritual reward.

Additionally, scale leads to standardizing and mandating. The power in the volunteering relationships is developed by uniquely individual interactions between the participants. The individualized goals of the sharing mean that success is achieved by a continuous give and take on both sides. No one outside the relationship is deciding what goal should be sought or how it should be reached. There is no single one-size-fits-all goal or standardized procedure for reaching it. Humans come in unique sizes, after all, and have unique goals. And just as their goals are unique, so are their stories. Every person has had her or his own path in life. Pursuing that individual path is every person’s right, assuming that it does not impinge upon the rights of others, and should be supported in whatever unique ways are needed.

The importance of organizational scale cannot be denied, but numbers of individual community members can bring important change as well. If one person in four-hundred in Minneapolis, about 1,000 people, each made time to help one or two people—disadvantaged students, long-term job seekers, struggling shop owners, overwhelmed single parents, and many more who simply do not have access to the resources necessary to pull themselves up into the light—1 person in 400, helping one or two people each—one or two thousand lives could be changed in Minneapolis every year. And if this were the norm across America, millions of lives would be improved through sharing what many of us have more than enough to share, mostly at no material cost to ourselves.

I have time to tutor, and it takes time, but the tutoring is its own reward. And if you think you don’t have enough of anything, think about how much we have that we take for granted. Time? How much non-productive time do you spend in front of a computer? Or in front of a television? Knowledge? How much do you know about starting and running a small business? My wife has met with a few of my former students, many new Americans, to help them get started in their job searches. If you’re a computer user, could you track down places for someone in distress to get help? Research and provide resource lists? Automobile? Could you give rides? Make sure young or old get home safely? Deliver meals? We have so much, there is no reason so many human beings who live within reach have to live in such need.

We can all do more, but even one in four-hundred would mean so much. You can give a few dollars here or there and feel you’ve met some obligation, or you can give a little time, effort or knowledge and know you’ve made a difference.

Investing in Your Retirement Income

How is investing in your retirement income like keeping yourself in food? Well, how do you keep yourself in food now?

Feed-Me #3: I eat at my parents’ until they invite (force) me out to work and live on my own. Okay. Partying, social media, Starbucks platinum level may have to back off in place of serious work, rent and utilities, and eating out—but giving up international cuisine is asking too much. After all, you only live once, right? And this is how it will go until I drop or marry into money, the latter of which is not likely to happen when I pass the retirement age of 70+. By then inflation is likely to have out-paced wages by 100%. Hello, cat food.

I had no pension plan, except Social Security, and years of small government conservative shrank that and Medicare to something less than the poverty level and free clinic visits. No one explained to me that not everyone wins the lottery or winds up in the top 2% of wealth.

Feed-Me #2: I make a plan before moving out to own a house by 35, so save for a down payment while working hard and long—a day job plus a part time. I buy smart and healthy at the co-op and learn the best buys in wine and craft beers. I take a cooking class or two and master some pretty good dishes that impress my friends and partner. Our children don’t appreciate the food, but demand much in clothes, sports activities and tech-toys. Our kids go off to very good schools, which we hope will earn them high paying jobs.

By the time we settle in to paying off the house and college loans, we realize that there has never been a time to contribute the advised 20% of income to an IRA. We will be working past retirement age if we can, but those last 5 years of life, which cost half or more of our total life medical costs may have to be covered by the kids. I may be watching a modest life drain away into a long, sad decline. It all balances out.

Feed-Me #1: I live at home, paying costs to my parents until I have a steady career job. I plan on buying a home as soon as I can arrange it. I live as cheaply as I can manage, valuing people over things, parks over concert halls, Mr. Coffee over Starbucks. I use public transportation, which alone saves enough for a down payment on a house in about five or six years. I buy smart and healthy at the Cub. I have learned what foods have real value and are affordable. As soon as I can, I get a garden plot to supplement the expensive stuff I can grow. Once I get a house, I plant an apple tree in the yard and a big garden in the back. These investments, along with running and biking, help keep me fit as well, and will reduce my medical costs even into very old age. Live starts early and ends late after all.

I was fortunate enough to have a public pension plan which with Social Security took about 15% of my salary, and that was matched by my employer. I have paid off my house, and the kids’ public college loans are handled. Since I also saved in 430(b) and 457 plans almost from day one, I will have enough income for the next 20-25 years to equal about 80% of my final working salary. That means travel, visiting the kids, and even reinvesting against expensive final years.

Just as I planted seeds in my garden, I planted financial seeds in my retirement plans, and because I started early and waited, as I did with the apple tree, I can actually wind up with more than I absolutely need. Just as I understand the growing season, I see the value of treating life as a whole process. I could have just lived on the harvest collected by others; then I would have been feeding the others as well, and that would be expensive and would have no end. I could have joined the harvesting, cutting the wheat I could later eat, and that would have reduced the cost, but because of waiting until late in the process, it would have offered too little a return, and even that return could be threatened by a bad crop. Worse, next season, when I wasn’t working, I would earn no return at all.

Even starting early, planning and exercising some prudence, while it could earn proportional wealth compared to those early years, — even that case offers no guarantee. Climate change, mining operations, social disorder, any number of things can spoil the crops or even poison the land. Social Security and Medicare can still be gutted, pension plans can be subverted, or the world economy can collapse.

There are no guarantees; there are risks. The trick is to minimize the risks, and that is best done by pooling our efforts. Going it on your own, no matter how good you are, leaves you the most vulnerable. There is safety in numbers. It doesn’t matter how confident you are in your abilities, the thing that will get you is beyond your control or anyone else’s. Life is a challenge; rise to it; don’t try to play it. Your public employee pension plan is your best hedge against tragedy. It’s your right. Support it.

In Search of Our Dignity

Almost 11 years ago, an Indian Ocean earthquake produced a devastating tsunami that was responsible for roughly 23,000 deaths and 100 millions displaced. Something like $5 billion was needed to provide assistance; $1.8 billion was pledged in emergency aid; and corruption, bureaucracy and nationalism hampered that humanitarian response on the ground and around the world.

Not long after it was clear that the Middle East had moved from unstable to incendiary. Sectarian conflict had been exacerbated, ethnic rivalries had become sharpened, and economic constraints following war in Iraq and sanctions in Iran raised anger as well as vulnerabilities. Once again tens or even hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed and millions have been displaced. The birthplace of civilization and many of its most important features from ‘0’ to ‘Z’ is being destroyed in in an enormous and ironic gesture of psychotic religiosity. Criminal destruction and sale of antiquities and brutal human trafficking are taking everything from individuals and from the whole of humanity. Ethnic and political conflicts are being exploited in the turmoil surrounding the Syrian/Iraqi free-for-all. Meanwhile, people are robbed and killed by the truckload, babies are drowned and washed ashore, women are given for rape and abuse as religious rewards, and the world largely stands by, slaps a few hands, drops some more bombs, and argues about how it’s a neighbor’s responsibility.

When did we lose our humanity? Humanitarianism is the highest form of human dignity: the belief that we never have too little to share with those in need; a hallmark of humanity. In Guatemala in 1999, a family living in a single room home with little more than the clothes they wore and the tools they worked with offered me, a comparatively rich American, a meal. Theirs was an act of gracious dignity. In France last week, we prided ourselves for awarding medals to three men who jumped to the defense of a train car full of strangers, yet within a week, train cars full of refugees and migrants are being herded like cattle into camps in Eastern Europe. If we recognize dignity, why don’t we recognize indignity?

Perhaps our humanity was never real. Perhaps it was just a carrot, dangling at the end of a stick before our eyes. We are never more than a few steps away from attaining humanity as we trudge along the treadmill of history, reliving one inhumane absurdity after another. We struggle, or think we struggle, to get ahead and prosper, and we confidently accept that destruction, despair and death is the lot of others and must simply be understood to be part of life in this world. These are the words of an egocentric and cowardly fool. There is no guarantee that disaster and strife will not strike any of us. When that happens, will we expect the humanity of others to come to our rescue?

I hasten to add that there have been many, I don’t know how many, who have individually stepped up to provide the help they could in whatever ways they could. It keeps my hope alive. I direct my words at those who have mistaken empowerment for leadership. These are the times when we can distinguish those who are good leaders from those who simply wield power. Those who have stepped up to help I would mark as showing good leadership.

Spoken-word Week: Why dip into youth culture?

I’m going to write about my best teaching experience. It took place at Edison High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota in March of 2009. It was the best experience because it encompassed all the best things about teaching and learning: modeling the joy of meaningful learning, supporting students in directing their own learning, and honoring all of the demonstrations of learning. Of importance to them was a change in their thinking, mostly about themselves and their capacities, and about their interest in learning. I called the lesson Spoken-word Week. Of importance to me was the opportunity to learn with the students and as a participant on their field of engagement, to bond with them.

I am certainly not the only teacher to use spoken-word as a teaching tool. I wasn’t first or even remotely early in doing so. That is only to my discredit. I do take credit for something more important than a race to be first. My goal was not to be a good teacher; being a good teacher is professional vanity, and worrying about it is driving American education nowhere. My goal was and remains to help the students have a better shot at a good life. I have wanted them to know themselves and the world they live in and, using that understanding, to continue to learn and to flourish. In the end, I think we accomplished that, at least to the point of moving in the right direction. Moreover, we accomplished a coup on a broken educational system. Students gained the kind of understanding of the power of words that adds depth to reading and strength to writing beyond the shallow mandates of education policy. My four classes of sophomores did outscore other sophomore classes at Edison on state mandated reading tests, but my classes included the only sophomore honors English class. So much for comparison testing.

My goal in doing a Spoken-word Week has roots in my longstanding desire to do a better job of connecting with my students. I have always felt effective teaching, like effective parenting, is an act of mutual love. It is after all a very personal activity, nurturing personalities, shoring up vulnerabilities, meddling with a person’s thinking. It has to do with feelings as well as cognition. Good learning does after all feel good. Good teaching feels good too, and it’s no blind luck that the two good feelings are concurrent. To access this sort of relationship meant knowing myself and my students at more than a casual level, and attempting to access this relationship revealed how little I knew them. They were not white, middle class, suburban, adult males! And since I was teaching in a multi-racial, increasingly multi-lingual and multi-national urban district, none of them ever would be. I had a lot to learn.

As it turns out, this was a good thing. Not only did I learn about them, I also learned a little about how to learn about others. As a survivor of the hippie years, “white, middle class, suburban, adult male” was something I had already done and had been moving beyond. Here was an opportunity to enrich my life enormously, because an asset almost all students have is that they are not locked into the “who” about themselves or others the way adults are. But there’s a downside to that too; they aren’t often very good at explaining from whence their “who” was coming. They live their values, they don’t recite them. They may know that Our Lady of Guadalupe is significant in their community and may even know the story of the vision, but few know the connection to Tonantzin. So they weren’t able to tell me about their psychological and moral development or their cultural or historical roots. To help me know my students, I have turned to professional sources to develop that knowledge, which I could then use to refine and individualize my instruction.

So when the Minnesota Humanities Center[1] offered a two day workshop on East African history and culture in 2008 and another on Teaching Latino Students in 2009, I jumped at the opportunities. Such offerings were not available to me for teaching Vietnamese, Lao, Hmong or Bosnian students when those waves came. Teaching African American students has been for a long time buried in teaching race relations. Teaching American Indians is still suffocated under the blanket genocide denial. And help in how to teach to poverty is unlikely to happen in our free-market equity glut. At Edison, my students were African American, Latino, Hmong, Congolese, Egyptian, Somali, Oromo and European American. Among these were many practicing Evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians, Shamanists and Muslims. A considerable number were out LGBT and allies. About one fifth lived in homes where English was not used regularly and 95% received free and reduced cost lunch. One in four was homeless or highly mobile. The Minnesota Humanities Center’s workshops were helpful to my understanding this feast of diversity. They gave me a cultural math to count my blessings.

From the East African history and culture workshop, I learned about the history of the region of the Horn of Africa and its relationship to Ethiopia, the European colonial powers and, of course, Islam and the Arabian influence. I also learned that oral poetry remains the traditional literary form of Somalia. Poems are created and recorded on cassettes now, and these are copied and distributed widely, their poets virtually universally recognized, respected and cited without any copyright law. The poems often deal with an admiration and respect for the land, and at other times commemorate leadership and bravery in colonial resistance or tribal conflicts. Both themes are deeply bound to the cultural roots of the nomadic people of the region.

The workshop on teaching Latino students was even more explicit in using poetry to explore and declare cultural roots. “Knowing one’s cultural roots is essential to forming a complete identity,” was the message central to the workshop and widely held by those in cultural studies and social justice. An excellent recent example of this is the Tlingit produced documentary Smokin’ Fish[2]. Learning from whence one comes informs us greatly on where we are going, and where they are going is the biggest part of school children’s life.

Learning about one’s roots was not the only recommendation for identity building however. Also significant to understanding one’s identity is understanding one’s place in the world, one’s situation or condition. Abuse and oppression ranked high with my students. Poverty is so shamed that it was not owned by many of them, even though most lived in unhealthy and dangerous poverty. So my students steered well clear of painting themselves with that brush. Yet these were the highly charged energy sources that made the poetry purposeful. Their spoken-word poems would be a way to assert this developing identity, a way to fight back at damage, and move forward with pride.

At the time of the workshop, a spoken-word open mic club thrived on St. Paul’s Latino West Side, and YouTube offered tens, perhaps hundreds of videos of spoken-word poetry by Latino, African American, American Indian, GLBT and other poets. These were messages confronting the denial, damage and destruction of group and personal identity. Victims spoke out against their abusers. Oppressed spoke out against their oppressors. A few spoke out about the liberation of being able to speak out. The message was clear; who they were was not going to change and their identities were not going to be denied. That meant that how they were viewed was going to have to change. Because the students in the classroom were preaching to a choir, of course, the wide world did not change, but my students did. It was clear to them and me that it is not necessary for any of them to accept the flawed view a repressive society had of them. Who they were and were going to become was up to them. These young poets stood up and declared who they were. They expounded a view of their world past and future that was theirs. They spoke with strength and pride, and that was just what my students needed to be able to do to break through the ceilings of race, language, culture and poverty that limited their futures.

That was my goal: empower students to be themselves and assert themselves into the best life possible for them. Spoken-word poetry was the vehicle, their identity the engine, their personal and cultural experience the fuel that would carry them forward. Would this improve their language skills? Students learn to read and write according to their perceived need for these things. Would the power of words to set one free, and the opportunity to be accepted and respected as ‘who one is’ help shape that perception? If this activity could open a door through which the possibility of a better life would appear, then walking through that door would indeed require one to develop one’s language skills. Pedagogically then, this was a good thing to do.

As a lover of literature who favored nineteenth and early twentieth century British novelists, I found spoken-word coarse and grating. As a privileged 63 year old, planning to retire from the classroom in just over two years, I had nothing to gain by going so far off my turf. But as a teacher, I had no choice; I believed this was the best thing I could do with my students. And I was right.

I would have to learn about this stuff with them. In fact, I would have to learn more and sooner. I would have to learn how to learn this as a student as well as learning about it for my knowledge base and lesson planning. Learning, however, is something I do well. I immersed myself in examples of spoken-word, listened, watched and reflected. I read about spoken-word and its background and activity—Harlem Renaissance, beat poets, hip-hop, Nuyoricans, Gil Scott Heron, Bob Dylan. I read about the background of Somali poets and poetry, and contemplated the parallels to Western styles. I explored how the poets worked and where they performed. As a past actor, I appreciated the value of sharing space and time with a performance. The dynamic of that sharing is unique in its immediacy and temporality. I understood that memorizing meant rereading and reexamining text for a deeper connection. As a poet, I knew that poetry can capture and express that about which we might otherwise say there are no words. I began to plan the lesson. They would have to do what I had done to learn what I had learned.

What have I done?

The lesson was simple: introduce with examples, discuss with open-ended questions, explore on the Internet for inspiration, write as groups—comparing and sharing as you go—refine and rehearse, present and listen to presentations. It would, I thought, take about a week to create and another to present.

Did this work?

Well, “work” is a relative term. Did this show demonstrable results on standardized tests that indicate something about America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace of the future? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I care about the individual student’s competitiveness in the American workplace, and I care about what the students see in the commonplace of a mirror. And in this assessment, it worked.

The most requested activity from the same students in the following year in my junior classes and those of others was classroom or school-wide open-mics for spoken-word. Their genre had been honored, their language had been honored, their words had been honored and they had been honored, and they liked it. Several of the students participated in an emerging spoken-word club and a school-hosted, public open-mic. A few participated in the city-wide slam later in the spring.

One poet, using the piece she wrote for my class, won an award at the city-wide slam. Hers was an intensely personal piece exposing the pain and rage her sexual abuse and the eventual forgiveness of her perpetrator. Najma, on the other hand, was able to leverage her college admissions the following year with the poetic skill demonstrated in my classroom, where she stunned her American classmates with an incredible, memorized poem expounding the endurance of national pride she held for her homeland and its people. Before her performance, she was simply another demurring Somali girl. From almost all, it was noted as the best, most remembered lesson of the year in my year-end survey.

I would have to say it worked because it changed their thinking about themselves and their capacities and about learning. And it worked for me because I modeled the joy of meaningful learning, supported students in directing their own learning, and honored all of the demonstrations of learning. Then I have often been the subversive in the system, who didn’t do as I was told and still got good results.

Would I do it again?

Well, I am doing it again. Now retired from the classroom, but still teaching and volunteering with the Latino Youth Development Coalition in Minneapolis, I was asked to help with a college entrance essay writing project for Latino middle and high school students. Their interest is to get these students, at high risk of dropping out, to start thinking about college as a real possibility in their lives. As part of what I will do in preparing them, spoken-word should help in focusing those with as yet forming self-identities, to aid in building a positive self-image, and to assist in revealing an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses that writing the essays will require. So, yes, I would do it again.

[1] Minnesota Humanities Center, 987 Ivy Avenue East, St. Paul, MN 55106,

[2] Smokin’ Fish. Luke Griswold-Tergis & Cory Mann, Producers, Native American Public Telecommunications, 1800 N. 33 St., Lincoln, NE 68503, 2011.

That We Can Be One Again

I am from golf clubs and carports.
I am from golden woods and rolling meadows.
I am from tall cities and
~   Revolutionary War encampments.
I am from the right way to do things,
~   from our way to do things,
~        from thing we don’t do.
I am from a place of two worlds,
~   a place of white and
~        black.
I am from a place where fathers build fences
~   in the minds of their sons.
I am from a place of fences that,
~   having been built up,
~        must now come
~            down.

The fences that hide us from danger and
~   over which we hurl destruction;
The fences that keep ours for ours and leave
~   theirs for theirs;
The fences that make us into
~   us and not us
~        and make not us
~            into them;
The fences that have cracks that
~   show us slivers of what we want to see
~        of them;
The fences that have rotten planks that
~   reveal views of what being
~        not us has wrought
~            on them
I am from a place of fences that,
~   having been built up,
~        must now come
~            down again.

All fences must now come down
~   that sprung up in the light of day or
~        in the dark of night.
All fences must now come down
~   that fathers fostered in sons,
~        that mothers nurtured in daughters.
All fences must now come down
~   that make us different, separate, apart,
~        cut off, left out,
~           alone.
All fences must now come down
~   that keep us us and
~        them them,
~            us and
~                not us.
All fences must now come down—
That we can be whole again.

 November 2012


~   This was written following a workshop with Shá Cage and E.G. Bailey at the Minnesota Humanities Center, St. Paul, Minnesota at their incentive and upon their model. It will be used as part of the identity formation lesson that begins the Latino Youth Development Coalition College Essay Project to be conducted this coming winter. They will start with an I Am spoken-word poem. So, yes, this is intended as spoken-word, though I believe all poetry is meant to be spoken out loud; it is an immediate art, a performance art. Story and poetry are rooted in the oral origins of all literature. All literature comes most alive when read aloud—a hint perhaps that all literature should be read aloud. Writing is, after all, simply a recording of the spoken word.

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