Sunday, December 24, 2017

"Essential Lists to Create Change"...In an age of instant and profound transformation.

Lists like this abound. Although well-intentioned, vague lists like this can be more dangerous than they are helpful. As an indigenous-Latina with strong European ancestry I know about straddling two cultures. My father's culture, Quechua Indian with Bolivian heritage is a communal culture where the strength is prized in the group. In my mother's European heritage, with the dominating spirit of the early pilgrims and subsequent puritans the strength of this culture is independence and individualistic efforts. So how the world is viewed and interacted with is very different to each. 

When you translate this into reforming school policy in an attempt to make schools more equitable, we have to be careful that we recognize the power of culture, the hidden belief systems held within each culture and how to honor these differences. 

For example, asking schools to make as a non-negotiable the importance of creating a warm and welcoming environment in and of itself is not bad. However, when it comes to implementing this, you have a very different picture. 

When I worked coordinating parent involvement at a school district, of course we visited this important list of non-negotiables, and more. According to research, the number one reason that influences parent involvement is creating a welcoming environment . So how to do this? I would sit with the school leadership team and we would pore over the research and these lists of non-negotiables, and school staff would say, "We do have a welcoming environment!" Here's what they do:
  • We send out flyers to invite them to meetings
  • We tell them about our events
  • We have pictures of staff on our walls
  • We have positive messages and decorations
  • We have back-to-school night
And on and on. And yes, these are wonderful efforts to invite families to your campus, if they are from your cultural script. In the dominant culture of our country - white, middle class values and beliefs - this is a great list. To each of these you could subscribe a belief system from this cultural group, in particular individualism. The flyer is to the point and it's up to you as an individual to make it happen. If you want to speak up at the meetings as an individual, you do. Staff pictures tell you about those in charge. Again, each of these subscribe to a belief system from this cultural group. But what if you serve people who are not from that cultural group? What if you serve people whose cultural group has very different norms of behavior and belief systems? Then these messages don't say the same thing. 

When I was a teacher, like all teachers, I was constantly moving from the moment I arrived on campus until late into the afternoon. I also knew the importance of developing relationships with the families of those I was serving. One day, as I ran from the staff lounge to my classroom, I heard someone call out to me.

Buenos Dias Ms. Marañón! I turned around and saw parents waving at me through the gates. 

A common response would be to wave back, "Hello, sorry I have to get ready for the day!"

I knew better.

I ran over to them to shake their hand and respond, "Buenos Dias! Disculpe que tengo que preparar la clase." 
"No se preocupe, anda, no mas queríamos saludarla!"

And with that brief interaction I gained countless hours. I knew from my home training that taking those few moments to shake their hand, say good morning and than politely excuse myself to set up my morning class spoke volumes about how important they were to me. 

When you come from a communal culture, relationships are everything. 

If I want you to join me in a meeting, I invite you personally and I greet you at the door with a warm handshake to welcome you. Food is waiting for you so that you have a nice drink and light snack while we meet and discuss ideas. Food is not there because I know that's why you'll come, but because I understand that food always helps create a warm and welcoming environment. Who we serve matters, not who's serving. Pictures of students and families and all the myriad activities that they're engaged in with our staff would abound. There is not just one night to engage with families on our year's learning, there are multiple moments and times to meet and connect around student learning. 

So when we say, Create a warm and welcoming environment, Develop students as good people and learners...we have to be very careful not to treat these as blithe statements, when in reality they are profound and require deep digging. How you interpret a warm and welcoming environment is different for each culture. What does it mean to develop a student into a good person and learner? Somebody who follows the rules? Someone who sits quietly and takes good notes and responds well on tests? Because these are not the people we venerate in history. These are not the people who created change in history. 

Non-negotiables in schools are a willingness to question, develop meaningful relationships with those we serve, learn to re-create and co-create our learning culture again and again as times change, people change and how we show up to our core values may also change. Our core values may not change, but how you approach them may. And probably most important of all, know that if we truly desire a learning culture, it means learning: make mistakes, listen with empathy, change course when needed.  

At the core of all of these statements is the true belief in equality. If I value you as equal to me, than learning your cultural language, your cultural norms, inviting you to help me co-create our shared learning culture that impacts someone we both love the most - your student - is not too much, nor too much trouble.   

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Disruption in Our Learning Cultures Develops Families as Learning Partners

Google glassesToday, technology is a bullet train and rapidly transforming every sector in society. Disruption is evident in companies like Airbnb and Lyft that have completely rearranged how we vacation and commute. This disruption not only shifts what we do, but impacts our mindset, as well. We think differently about lodging when we vacation now. Our boundaries and expectations change when we order a ride. So, when we think of the disruption technology has caused in education, we must ask ourselves: What is the mindshift that accompanies this change?

What often makes this feel uncertain is how new these learning spaces are to us - we have never had such a strong disruption in our learning culture before in formal education. This disruption asks us to rethink the role of the teacher, students, administrators, the tools that we use, the space we learn in, the time when we learn -- everything has been upended and is being reevaluated to best serve the needs of the 21st century. What makes this shift  unique is that the impact is not just on the school environment, but it impacts the home learning culture as well. How do we engage parents in a learning shift that we are still unsure of how to navigate ourselves?

Author presenting at a workshop for parents on educational technology
Workshop on ed tech for families
Every major learning shift requiring professional development for teachers also, necessitates training for parents. It does not have to be the same kind of training, but should be relevant to the person receiving it - from teachers to parents to bus drivers. This is not something district personnel need to figure out for everyone. We just need to create an opportunity for these different groups to come together to reflect on these new learning opportunities. Research shows that asking open-ended questions foments curiosity, and curiosity leads to new ideas. So, we should ask parents where there are opportunities to support the type of learning this research encourages in their homes, their learning spaces. The same is true for every person that comes into contact with students - bus drivers, office staff, etc. When I bring this up, I often hear, “That’s not their role, we are asking them to do something that belongs to teachers.” This is a false dichotomy based on assumptions that learning happens in silos, and that the community supporting the child is unable to nurture the academic learning that happens in the classroom. Including all members of the learning community in professional development, creates meaning that serves students in a very direct and profound way! We have to give all participants in the life of a child an opportunity to understand the shifts in learning that impact the child.

Here’s why this is important work and why it is imperative we include families in our learning spaces at schools: Kids go home somewhere! And wherever that home is, there is a learning space there. If it doesn’t mirror the learning space students experience in school, then they don’t know whom to listen to - their parents or their teachers?

This conundrum has practical implications. As educators, we know that students need to think critically, and, in order to do this, they need to learn to question and, to dig deep into a problem or idea and try to uncover the why. It is an incredible skill to develop and will help the world uncover truths that are sorely needed.

So, where do families come in? Developing What we have learned about any new skill requires two components in order to develop strong brain patterns and synapses: repetition and emotional connection. Time spent learning a new skill in school is not enough - students need to keep practicing in diverse learning spaces, including home. However, traditional methods of parenting often do not support this style of learning:

I want to go to my friend’s house tonight. You can’t go. Why not? Because I said so.

Whoa, why are your grades so bad?! I don’t know. That’s just an excuse. You need to try harder.

When we don’t include families in the conversation of learning that we are having, they will not know the powerful impact these type of answers can have on their child’s brain and thinking patterns. If we shared with families the learning we are having around the power of questions and the importance of repetition and emotion in developing strong brain patterns and synapses, their conversations could be more meaningful:

I want to go to my friend’s house tonight.
Tell me more about your plan. Why is tonight important?

Whoa, why are your grades so bad?!
I don’t know.
Let’s look at each one and tell me more about the class and what is making it a challenge.

Parent looking through google glasses
Parent workshop on technology
These are not new ideas, yet framing them in the context of learning, gives them added urgency and a deeper layer of understanding. It also gives parents one of the most powerful roles in parent involvement, according to Johns Hopkins researcher Joyce Epstein “There are Six Types of Parent Involvement “. According to Dr. Epstein’s research, learning at Home is the type of parent involvement that most strongly correlates with student achievement. No wonder! This is where parents get to engage on a profound and meaningful level with their kids in their learning. This doesn’t require them to have formal education, it just requires them to participate more effectively in their child’s learning environment - including the one they create at home.

When you integrate technology into the learning culture, it is imperative to involve families in this conversation. They, too, wonder how these new tools support learning and often believe that technology is just for playing. So, when kids come home with school-assigned devices and are watching videos for homework, parents don’t understand that this is part of the flipped classroom. Or, when kids come home with their school devices and are chatting in online classrooms, parents don’t understand that this is a powerful way to develop academic discourse. Including families in relevant trainings about the disruptions happening in our learning cultures empowers them to be active participants in this learning shift.

Author with district parent leaders
Author with district parent leaders
Now, we can begin to truly talk about equity. When we include families as equal learning partners in our schools’ learning cultures we will ultimately, begin to explore this question: How do learning cultures in our students’ homes impact our schools, and what can we learn from their families? This is another powerful path that further supports the dramatic shifts in learning.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Creating Magic in the Learning Culture

I am often invited to visit schools that have received awards because of high ratings in their use of educational technology and as innovative learning centers. This always excites me, a place where creative learning takes place for kids? Yes, sign me up! And from an initial glance they are definitely different learning environments. New flexible furniture, colorful walls and decor, excited adults - awesome!  It is apparent, that there is an effort to change the learning environment; whether or not it’s actually happening at the core level of values and belief systems remains to be seen. What eventually unfolds is something we are accustomed to: some children are eager to share their projects with you, while the majority sit back and quietly share when prompted. What is most striking, is the projects are all vastly similar, if not starkly the same. Where then is the innovation and more importantly, what was the professional development like?  

Student with imagination bubbleInnovation is a big buzzword right now in education. We need our kids to innovate - we want them to be creative thinkers - they need to think outside the box. The question then becomes, how do we do this?

In an effort to be innovative, schools often latch on to big ideas, like “maker spaces” (classrooms with Legos and art materials whose intention is to allow students to be creative and innovative in their thinking). Many schools are looking towards creating robotics or Lego clubs. All of these intentions are laudable. Unfortunately, these efforts alone do not impact learning for everyone. To do this, we must consider our learning environment.

Bringing in new furniture or programs without shifting the learning culture results in reverting to familiar classroom arrangements and teaching new programs with traditional, teacher driven pedagogy.

When exploring questions around access in education, we have to consider the learning culture of the classroom and school. Although many of the aforementioned efforts may intend to impact the learning culture, they often generate excitement among a small minority of teachers and students. How then, do we impact all students to truly think in creative and innovative ways?

Our starting point most likely is misplaced. Rather than look at students, we need to start with adults. Students are born ready for change and innovation, innately curious about the world around them. By middle school, this inherent drive to learn is minimized so drastically, it is troubling. That this happens in adolescence, when students’ brains once again have become as active as when they were toddlers undergoing an incredible transformative process, tells us that the learning culture surrounding them, rather than any innate characteristics, is what impedes innovative learning. We adults need to be willing to reflect on whether our learning culture truly allows all students to learn.

The good news is that there are adults who are very willing to take these risks and try something new, fail miserably, reflect, and try again! Every campus has at least one of these teachers who is, ready to create change and try new things. It is these teachers who create magic in our classrooms and from whom we can learn to do the same. How can we scale what they have mastered? First, start with the willing and then have them coach peer to peer. These risk-taking teachers are often more than willing to share. They have not just latched onto the tools but also the learning culture that is required to go with the  new tools and programs.

Being willing to reimagine our learning culture requires us to examine the skills we hope our students achieve, and to assess, whether the characteristics and qualities of the environments support these skills. If we desire to cultivate the skill of curiosity in our students, then we need to ask ourselves what corresponding change in the learning culture is required. A quality that complements curiosity is risk-taking. However, many react to the prospect of risk-taking with fear: What if our students fail? What if our school doesn’t do well in state testing? These fears often stifle the risk-taking that enables innovation.

My son a freshman in college, recently described to me the frustration he sees from his college teachers, who want their students to speak up and take risks in the classroom through problem-solving. He said none of his peers ever volunteered or spoke up, even though his teacher encouraged them to try, even if it results in mistakes. “Why?”, I asked. His response: “Because they’re afraid to fail.”

“Where does this come from?” I asked.

“It starts in middle school and solidifies in high school. If we make mistakes it affects our grades, and if our grades aren’t good, we know it’ll affect our college prospects or even passing a class. So we don’t like making mistakes, because it means we aren’t doing well and the consequences are too severe.”

Image of a standardized test
In one swift response to the question, “Why don’t students take risks?”
my son summarized our educational system’s culture that ties student performance to their grades, which are tied to school ratings, college entrance, prestige, etc.

I realize this asks us to reexamine our entire system, including our grading practices. Many schools are doing just this. Hampshire College in Massachusetts has dropped standardized testing as a requirement for admission. According to the school’s president Jonathan Nash, in an article published by The Independent
"Our applicants collectively were more motivated, mature, disciplined and consistent in their high school years than past applicants."

Although many of us cannot make sweeping decisions like this, we can begin by examining the very area where students will spend a good part of their day - our classrooms.

How will students feel when they walk in? Will they, for that brief period, feel encouraged to stretch their limits and take risks? Will they know this is a space where they can tackle tough questions? Learning asks all of us to be present - not just our intellect, but our full selves, which includes our emotions and spirit. What will drive students through problem-solving, if not the inner spirit to know, the gnashing of emotions to pull through the unknowns of questioning?

So when it comes to teacher buy-in and scaling up, start small. Good learning practices can catch like wildfire.

Professional development should not just consist of learning new programs and using new tools and furniture. It should also be a space where educators have an opportunity for deep reflection on their own learning practices. Asking big questions. Educators need time to wrestle with these questions, and then the freedom to begin cultivating a new culture in their classrooms. To do this once is not enough. Professional development is more effective if it models coaching. Ultimately, good professional development should open up more questions and offer an opportunity to continue honing in on these questions throughout the year.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves, what drives us, what keeps us moving through? And then, with an honest lens, open up to the risks that enable innovation - creating magic in the classroom.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Equity and Access: How to Bring All Voices to the Table

Recently, I was asked to assess the climate of a local school in preparation for the leadership team’s implementation of professional development that would have profound impact on the pedagogical and technological environment of learning. I walked the campus, spent time with the teachers, observed lessons and students and most importantly, I listened to the language being used. What was the word choice of the adults, what beliefs did it carry about learning and more importantly the students they were serving?

There was love present to be sure, in the humorous jostling of students who were late, the ones who were sleepy and wanted to take a nap and in general between the students and teachers there was little hostility. Until the lesson on social media came up and then the tone shifted. Teachers and teacher-aides were condescending of student use of social media. The adults chided the students for not knowing how to communicate anymore, for being attached to their devices, more importantly, conversation stopped and communication became one-way as teachers became the dominant voice in the classroom and students silently sat taking in the obviously biased view of them as incompetent in communication.

Communication is key to strong human relationships. And with the rise of social media and technology communication has shifted drastically for everyone.

Technology is the perfect amplifier that has uncovered many voices, even those we hope to keep quiet and in the dark. The voices of our deepest fears and our most guarded secrets have now been exposed to the light. We’ve seen this in particular with social media. In 2013 when the first Hunger Games movie came out and one of the most beloved characters, Rue, was cast as a young black girl, social media went wild. Tweets flooded the internet decrying, “why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie” and “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad” and on and on.

These sentiments have always existed, just underground and unexposed. To say social media or
Quote: Technology Amplifies Underlying Human Forces - Toyama
technology is why this is happening is to defer the attention from the real, hard issues we are facing in society, in this case racism. These are issues that have never been dealt with well and with meaningful dialogue in public spaces. Technology is changing this and bringing up opportunities for difficult conversations. Stepping up to this opportunity will create profound shifts in our society; doing this globally is a challenge.

Education is no exception to this shift in culture. Schools are shapers of culture and in an ever advancing civilization, this shift is both profound and deeply challenging. Schools not only react to the cultural shifts happening around them, they actively drive the culture forward.

In an attempt to embrace the profound shifts happening in society, education is making technology one of its central players in learning. This also inadvertently brings in all the issues society is trying to grapple, by amplifying these voices in the classroom. This, in turn, brings up the issue of access and voice - who gets technology and whose voices are heard? The discussion on access is broad and long with many players and entry points. In this article, my focus will be on providing access through a lens of equity. How do we address access with equity in mind?

Addressing access requires a two-pronged approach focused on technical and cultural change. Both of these require a new mindset where we question our preconceived notions, adapt our perceptions, and reexamine our biases.

Questions we need to ask are: When we work with students who are low income, do we see their lack of resources as  a deficit and their families unable to provide for them? When we work with students of color, how do sub-conscious biases show up in our expectation of student learning and behavior?
Infographic depicting black students disciplined more harshly than whites for same offense
For example, with Asian students, is there an assumption they’ll be good at math? Black students disruptive? Native American students environmentally conscious? How do our perceptions of different student groups get in the way of serving our students equitably? Are our assumptions of their use of devices congruent with our biases?

Do we draw unfair conclusions about students of a particular socioeconomic status or ethnicity or family structure -- and do these conclusions impede our ability to act fairly and effectively to increase access? Whereas if they were not low income, might we perceive them as school ready with greater access to resources? If they were not a student of color, might our biases about them not inhibit their educational experience (i.e. Asian students are naturally good at math and computer science, African-American students disproportionately being placed in special education, etc.)? How does any of this impact access to technology?

Biases and perceptions drive decision-making. They impact the opportunities we give our students to engage with technology, inhibiting how we prepare them with skills for the 21st century.

For those of us in education checking our perceptions is key; we hold the lives of children in our hands. Often, in working with districts, I am told that the population they serve is low-income, and therefore there is no way they can afford to buy their students devices or get high-speed internet connectivity. Again, perceptions drive behavior and decision making.

I come from a strong communal immigrant background on my father’s side of the family. I remember when one of my cousins needed something for school my aunt would call my father who would then call my uncle and so on, until all the adults had been consulted and it was agreed who would contribute what. Whatever it was that my cousin needed, it was purchased by everyone. Surely, my family was below the poverty line, but it didn’t matter. Education was a priority and when something was needed, the family (and community) would come together. While my family was perceived as unable to pay for educational materials, they found a way, because they understood the urgency and the need behind the materials that were needed for my cousin’s education. Had the school invited my family to the decision making table about materials students will need and why they will need them, they would find that low income families are more than willing to step up to the opportunity to participate and support schools in the decision making process. We continue to miss these opportunities in education because of our perceptions and biases.   

Often in education we solve problems through the dominant culture of our schools. In the United States, this is predominantly a white middle-class lens. But when applied to situations where communities solve problems differently, that lens may give a distorted picture. What looks like a below-the-poverty-line income in one family, is actually not when all family members ally forces as mine did. Every community is unique and it's important to make sure we check our perceptions at the door, and include them in the decision making process.

If families and students continue to be perceived through our biases, they may not be given the opportunity to use technology and thus participate effectively in these conversations, and we need everyone at the table to grapple with these most profound and painful elements of our society. We
Quote We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. Carl Jung
cannot afford to continue shaming students in their use of technology and social media, derailing their education with punitive measures that only drive the behavior underground - lives are at stake. We need to shift our belief system and truly follow our motto: every student matters.  

We cannot afford to miss these opportunities for empowering student voices and their families in schools. We must learn to have brave conversations about race, gender, income disparities and the false perceptions we carry about each other. Where else should we have these conversations but in our schools where learning is core to its existence?

Creating equity in access isn’t monetary; at its core, it’s a belief.

Friday, July 21, 2017

John Muir: How A Single Story Can Diminish All Other Stories

Yosemite National ParkI recently had an opportunity to read student essays that were being judged for a county competition. I came across an essay about the story of John Muir, renowned as an adventurer, environmentalist and botanist. As I read his story, I learned that he was an immigrant from Scotland in 1849 and after working on a farm, studying at the University about botany, he began working at a warehouse. After a year he decided he was done and he was going to respond to his true calling of being an explorer and the study of botany.

John Muir often called his explorations wanderings and it was at this point that I got irritated.

Indian fishing at Trinity LakeAs I reflected on John Muir and the option he had to wander after feeling that he wanted to follow his truth, I thought of all my indigenous ancestors who did not have that option in 1849. In fact, it was the opposite. See their truth had been to follow the traditional way of their ancestors and to wander in rhythm with nature and move according to her seasons. Western anthropologists call this a nomadic lifestyle. I call it, being in tune with nature and following her rhythm to provide for their families and community. No matter what we call it, as reported in 1850 by the Daily Alta California, "Whites are becoming impressed with the belief that it will be absolutely necessary to exterminate the savages before they can labor much longer in the mines with security." And with that, state sanctioned killings of entire villages took place. The Pomo tribe experienced 800 of its members killed in what became known as Bloody Island. 

In Yosemite, one of the most prized areas often associated with John Muir in 1850 was beginning the Mariposa War where the Ahwahneechees and Chowchillas traditionally lived and were being systematically removed so that miners could mine for gold "safely". They were not allowed to continue their traditional way of living, if they chose to wander they could be killed. Nevermind the wealth of information they carried of the land and all of the gifts the natural plant life had to offer. 

Picture of mass burial at wounded knee
Mass burial at Wounded Knee
And what of the plains tribes? In 1849 Crazy Horse from the Oglala Lakota was a child being raised in the traditional ways of his people. That would soon change as land across the plains was being divided and divvied up among the white settlers, displacing entire tribes from their ancestral land with force, indescribable violence and mass killings. For those, like Crazy Horse who would grow up to hold onto the traditional way of his people and as chief of his band live according to the seasons of the plains, their fate was very different than that of the Scottish immigrant. Unlike John Muir, they were not called wanderers, nor were his people being hailed as environmentalists who understood botany on a very intimate level, they were called Wild Indians and if they did not acquiesce to confinement on reservations where their travel and movement was limited to the confines of the reservation, they would be massacred. 

And what of the Black community? In 1849 maybe one of them thought they too were tired of working in the fields and wanted to follow their truth and wander across these lands to explore and discover. And yet had they done this, they would be a fugitive, killed or if they didn't work, called lazy and ignorant. 

And these quick reflections of mine does not begin to touch on the struggles of Mexicans who were caught between governments fighting for land, with pillaging and raping of their towns and villages. And the all too common stigma of lazy Mexican is one to reflect on in light of a European immigrant who wandered these United States, often not working and just taking in the solace that nature provides. 

So why be concerned? 

Because the only story told in our classrooms is that of John Muir and how his wanderings led him to "discover" the beauty of our land and the riches she has to offer. How his wanderings allowed for him to advocate for national land and protection of our natural heritage. That is all wonderful. 

But it negates that people of color have been doing this long before John Muir and were systematically massacred and silenced. 

Picture of three Lakota boys showing acculturation
Three Lakota boys
Those that survived were again cut from any of their ancestral heritage and wisdom by forcibly being placed in boarding schools that have been revealed to have been wrought with dehumanizing conditions and constant abuse. Tsianina Lomawaima, head of the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona, says from the start, the government's objective was to "erase and replace" Indian culture, part of a larger strategy to conquer Indians.

By being shut out from this narrative, people of color once again look as if they have not really accomplished anything. In this narrative of John Muir's that we tell in our classrooms it is only John Muir who is celebrated for following his truth and "saving" our environmental heritage. 
As a student of color you don't see yourself in this narrative, as a matter of fact, the only time you see yourself is as the defeated tribes who lived in the wild or enslaved people born of nowhere, working on plantations, or a strange people who came across the water only to work on railroads and mines with no families allowed, or a people who are strangers in their own land known to be lazy and violent. You see no other storyline in our schools and for all students this creates a false perception of divisiveness and notions of superiority and inferiority.

I am not talking about the need for a special class on ethnic heritage or a special series of books about certain chiefs or leaders of color for children to read about. Although these are noble attempts, they do not legitimize the voices of the people of color who have equal weight in knowledge and understanding - if not more - than the white person that has been chosen in their stead. In this case, an immigrant from Scotland. Would not Chief Joseph or any medicine man or woman from his tribe known more than an immigrant from Scotland and have been able to contribute meaningfully to the learning and discourse John Muir was having about the flora, fauna and geology of this beautiful country? 

The dominant discourse in this country on icons like John Muir is able to ignore the rampant injustices that were happening to the people from the same land John Muir was hailing, because the people being displaced from these soon to be National Parks were not seen with the same value as white Europeans. Had the 800 Pomo Indians massacred on Trinity Lake, a lake later hailed in John Muir's journals for its beauty, been Scottish, John Muir would not be talking about the lake!

Native American with quoteThe sting in all of this, is after systematically trying to dehumanize and destroy people of color and their contributions to the story of humanity, we today quote many of those chiefs and leaders we were so willing to destroy. 

It is not enough to say, "that is the past" or "I didn't do that" when we continue to perpetuate only one story of our shared history. This is not about making any one group a villain. It is about telling the whole story and when we do, sometimes the truth can be ugly. But if we are willing to walk through the pain together, hear how today the choices of our white ancestors gave an unfair advantage to people like John Muir and their descendants, who today may have a long standing history of education and financial gain and security because of the choices afforded their ancestors. And when you understand the entire picture and you realize that while many people of color may have wanted to pursue an education, start a business or wander these United States, they were unable to because they were facing massive persecution, incarceration, and systematic destruction of their people, then maybe we can ask ourselves - how do we heal and support one another to reach our true capacity as one people? 

If we are to truly embrace one another in brotherhood as one human family, we have to be willing to tell all stories. To not only hear other narratives, but to open up the discourse to other experiences and truths. 

In the end, I am grateful to John Muir, and like all of us this call to truth is important and can be hard to follow. But I have to say, it is not to him I look to for hope or strength or vision or even truth. I look to my ancestors who struggled to keep the truth of their vision alive, no matter the sacrifices, especially when powerful forces waged against them. To Wascar from the Quechua people, to Crazy Horse of the Oglala Lakota, to Nelson Mandela of the Thembu tribe to Malcolm X to my Nana Mitchell and Mama Cruzesa. These leaders are part of my narrative for they continued to dig in deep to find their connection to a greater source of power and with that understanding of themselves as noble beings, they pushed back against an oppressive and destructive system that would have them believe otherwise. 

This sustains me today and it is what I hope to share with students and teachers across the globe, that they may find many powerful stories in their heritage that sustain them in the face of oppression or even in just feeling forgotten. 

I see you. You are not forgotten.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Cuba: De aqui, para alla...a week's journey with my teenage son

To educate is to give man the keys to the world, which are independence and love, and to give him strength to journey on his own, light of step, a spontaneous and free being
- Jose Marti

Hijita, when you arrive do not compare, just look and see what the revolution has brought. Experience the people, enjoy and accept them.

As we prepared for Cuba, these words from my father was the best advice we received. Never before had a trip stirred such controversy, as did our trip to Cuba. Albeit, it was under pretty fascinating circumstances:
  • The U.S. just elected a new president after a pretty contentious campaign season
  • We were leaving on inauguration day 
  • My 17-year-old son and I co-wrote an academic paper and were presenting at an international conference
  • Restrictions to Cuba had just been relaxed in over 60 years with the U.S.
  • And it's Cuba...a socialist country able to sustain itself despite inciting ire in it's powerful neighbor 

The only billboards we saw in Cuba
What is it that brings on this ire? It is a question that many have tried to answer and understand in the larger discourse of politics and power, especially between Cuba and the United States. I was more interested in the discourse of the people we met, in the rhythm of the country and in their ability as a country to maintain such a strong sense of unity as a people, despite their long history of colonization by diverse Western powers.

Many people have asked about our impressions of Cuba since we have returned...there are many to be sure, but one feeling stands out above all else: Peace.

I read the world through the emotional window that opens in the center of my being, right above my belly button. I have always experienced the world as a deeply sentient being, connected to all things of the earth and very aware of my connection...I had a father who constantly reminded me of this tradition Tus antepasados viven en ti y estan conectados por Pachamama. So when asked about Cuba, how did I experience Cuba? Through this mystical portal that absorbs all energy in front of me; that's how!

My son and I on Trinidad's beach in Cuba
Our journey started in June when I asked my son to co-write an academic paper for this linguistic conference. He was surprised, but being a risk-taker and trusting in experiences that often unfold in front of him he accepted. He was in Mexico at that time spending a month with his grandfather and cousins. Amidst traveling through villages and towns in Mexico with limited wi-fi he co-wrote the paper with me on a shared google doc on his phone, while I was on the other end in the United States. We also used WhatsApp to share ideas and resources through recorded messages, articles we researched and notes we took. It was fabulous and we laughed often at the intensity of crossing ideas through time and space, hoping to meet our deadline with a finely tuned paper! We did, submitted it just before the midnight deadline and high-fived across international borders! 

Life continued at its rapid pace and between conference presentations, swift-blowing life experiences that often brought us to our knees and regular days of quiet hum, we heard a response two months later. Our paper was accepted and we were being invited to present in Cuba!! I love this story because it blows away all false dichotomies and belief systems that we must reach certain accomplishments before participating in the global discourse: Have a PhD, Be a published author, Have an expertise sanctioned by Western standards, even have a high school diploma. I'm a big believer in youth and the importance of hearing their voices now impact and participate in the global discourse - they have much to say and to offer new ideas untethered to political ideologies and allegiances. 
Horse drawn buggy and old cars on Cuban highway

When we finally landed in Cuba our first doesn't differ much from other Latin American countries we have lived in and traveled through extensively. Many people expressed concern when we left that the poverty would impact us or shock us. Both my son and I felt it was similar to our travels through Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, etc. none of which we feel are in dire circumstances. Our emotions ran strong in two directions: Transportation and People.

The transportation was the largest obstacle to hurdle, which brought the most adventure and submission of faith. When we landed in Habana we had to get across the island, a 16 hour travel by car - planes and buses all sold out. It was a true adventure as we bartered our way across the island from one taxi driver to another to finally a bus that could take us the rest of the way! 

70 cuc para los dos de Habana a Trinidad
140 cuc de Trinidad a Camaguey - es mucho - nadie va para Santiago de Cuba - pero no lo puede bajar - es que nadie va para ese lado, yo la llevo a medio camino
35 cuc en viazul de Camaguey para Santiago a las 4pm - yes!

The people...always the gift of any pueblo.

Stopping for gas!
First taxi driver - not a big Fidel fan. Che - nosotros lo Cubanos pensamos que es un es Cubano! Si Cuba nunca nego a los Estado Unidos, ellos nos negaron. Pero eso si, hay que ver de todo lo bueno y lo malo en las cosas - Socialismo nos trajo excelente educacion y aseguranza, todo gratis! Y Trump...eso se va poner fuerte ahorita en Norte America. Nos queria Obama. Ahora, vamos a ver. 

Second taxi driver - A government run taxi, no position politically...just focused on principle - Es que mira, si yo soy tu vecino a mi que me importa lo que esta pasando adentro de tu casa. Tengo que ser decente contigo y tu conmigo y ya. Si al final, todos somos una sola gente...porque tenemos que pelear porque no te gusta como manejo mi casa? Debemos ayudarnos y cuando hay un desacuerdo, tratar de entendernos. Digan lo que digan de Cuba...nosotros si tenemos excelente educacion y cubierto medico!

Everyone seemed to agree - if nothing else, the revolution brought an excellent educational system that is tuition free, including the university and free, universal healthcare that is considered among the best in the world!

Fruit stand on side of highway
On the third day of our journey I noticed something...I felt a deep peace surrounding me, a calm. It was then I noticed I had not seen a single billboard announcing a new product I needed to buy, the latest car on the market, the biggest homes I can buy, the newest shoes I need, the body size I should have...there was not this blaring consumerism  we are bombarded with in the U. S. There were political slogans, even those were few and their messages general in nature of standing together as a people. This calm, was a welcomed surprise for me. 

Conference committee
Arriving in Santiago de Cuba, our home for the week at an Airbnb we secured from the United States we settled into a rhythm with the conference schedule and our own interests. After many communications through email we finally connected with our conference organizer - Leonel - he must be the epitome of the Cuban experience of people...he immediately reached out in a huge hug to both of us and said, Ymasumac y David, por fin, que alegria ya llegaron! Bienvenidos, que bueno ya estan aqui!  

Leonel introduced us to a wonderful doctor from Guantanamo who shared with us her work: a pioneer in understanding and treating alcoholism and addiction she has spoken internationally, including in the United States.
Dra. from Guantanamo
She said, yes, este es un pueblo where the child of a campesino can become a doctor for free, but there is still struggle. And with that she shared with us her struggles as a young Black Cuban pushing through stigmas and barriers coming from one of the poorest communities in Cuba to become a doctor. Life is about struggles and hard-won rewards, but all of them guided by an invisible hand of God - never despair! She then turned to Misak David and asked him to come back when he was in college and to learn with her over summer or winter break. 

We had a few days until we presented so we moved from one experience to another: workshops from this global learning community focusing on language and culture, nightly dancing with our conference fellows, Cuban poet Jose Marti and Fidel's gravesite, swimming in the warm Cuban ocean, food in homes where their backyards were converted into restaurants, old cars breaking down requiring a good ole' push by many willing bodies that were around - aqui todos somos Cubanos y todos nos ayudamos.

My son and I preparing to present our paper
The day of our presentation arrived, we were ready! We presented in Spanish and English on the courageous voices that are stressing the dominant culture in the United States using technology as a platform to amplify other ideas, creating impact and changing policy! Misak David spoke about Chance the Rapper and his use of technology and social media to push out his work as an artist. Eventually, through his constant stressing of the dominant culture of the Grammy's Chance the Rapper was able to push through their archaic policy that didn't allow for independent artists streaming on multiple free platforms to be eligible for a Grammy nomination. 
Misak David in discourse on Chance the Rapper
This domination of one voice and one view from the Western perspective is one that prevails...including in our preparations to Cuba. With a perception of poverty and oppression, many cautioned us to not be shocked by the conditions of Cuba. Our experience did not support this belief system at all - Cuba was a society that was thriving, changing dynamically, reflecting deeply on world issues as we all are and ever focused on developing an educated and healthy populace!

Our return was on a 16-hour ride back on a bus from hard-won tickets that took 3 hours of waiting in line and a bit of haggling to keep our position in line. More great conversation with Cubans who loved their way of life...nosotros pasamos el tiempo bien aqui, vamos a casa de un amigo y hacemos una parrillada y esa misma noche bailamos y vida es buena aqui y la educacion y el sistema medico es asi en Norte America?

Art work by a local Cuban artist

Our final taxi driver to the airport was a true historical bible of the revolution whose grandparents fought in the revolution. He shared stories his grandparents told him: struggle is good for a people it keeps them strong and united, we may not have all the materialism that you have in the U.S. but we have espiritu y eso, eso es algo que les falta a los Estados Unidos...aqui todos somos Cubanos y todos, no importa el color, sabemos que el avanze depende de cada uno de nosotros ayudando el uno al otro...Norte America, todavia no sabe eso y eso es su debilidad.

Oye, y eso de Trump...'sta loco! Eso se va poner candela, eh. Se va poner caliente alli!

Cuban sunset
So what did I take away from my trip to Cuba...understanding the oneness of humanity it appears will not come without deep struggle for our people as a global nation...and for those of us in the United States, so long as we continue to measure everything to economic value and success, we will fall short of finding a lasting peace, because material goods and values are not is like building a house on sand. 
You cannot legislate this kind of morality, we have to be willing to find it together. For a people, like the Cubans who have experienced such profound struggles to still have peace and a true measure of success...I for one, am willing to learn from them.