Saturday, August 27, 2011

Coming back around: counter-clockwise

The hurricane a few days ago...when DC was busy having an earthquake.
Sure feels a lot like Central America 'round here these days!
As Hurricane Irene's counter-clockwise storm clouds continue to keep me homebound, I’ve taken to cleaning out my piles of paperwork, along with taking occasional breaks to watch the storm roll through. I came across a couple of papers I had forgotten about, ideas about education and development that I scribbled onto randomly found scraps of paper—including a shop receipt! Despite the mean writing materials and the disjointed nature of these musings, I found they put themselves together fairly well. And, the ideas are useful to return to, bits of wisdom I was picking up from my experiences at the time.


Empowerment has to be a central goal of all development and educational programs.

It is vital to look at the human element, not just at the overall entity. The development industry is made up of individuals, after all. I like to think of this as the gestalt problem.

Programs need to look to the creativity, resources, and needs of the community. What do they say they need? What do they want? What are the community’s goals?

Private charity schools may not be a good idea as a wide-spread structural solution, and they definitely shouldn’t be the only answer. This would prevent the government from being held accountable for providing their population with their basic rights to educational and opportunity.


Western development is not the only answer available to us.

Consumerism might just be the enemy of us all. We need to fill our own voids.

Making donations is not enough. We need to change the way we live. There is a beautiful adage, although I don’t know the original source, which says “Live simply, that others may simply live.”

No one is special. No one is worth more than another. No one deserves their good fortune anymore than they deserve their ill fortune. If gain is at the expense of any, it is really a loss.
We are not all born with the same capacities, not any of us. We must do what we can and forgive ourselves and each other for what we cannot do.

Competition is no more natural than is community, compromise, and compassion.

We must not assume that “progress” is something inevitable. We can redefine “progress” as successfully minimizing unnecessary suffering and increasing healthy forms of happiness. And, we need to work actively to ensure that this comes to pass.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Experiencing how the political is personal

"The personal is political." It's a beautiful adage from the feminist revolution. And it goes the other way. The political is personal.

Here in the U.S. we often think it odd the way world events can suddenly collide with daily existence. But every time it happens to me, I realize again to what extent the seemingly impersonal political and economic and social issues of this world are actually personally experienced realities. The Honduran teacher strikes are students missing out on their right to public schooling. The economic recession is a child going to live with grandparents when his parents’ house goes into foreclosure. And the strife in any number of countries leads to a family leaving their home and trying to grow and succeed in a place where they don’t know the culture and don’t speak the language.

That’s why I got into international education. My work abroad has allowed me to help students prepare themselves to face their lives with the resiliencies and skills they need, as well as providing them with the chance to comfortably and securely gain cross-cultural understandings and skills. My work here in the U.S. allows me to do the same, with the extra facet of being a bridge for my students to understand and access the culture that surrounds them, hopefully without losing any understanding, access, or membership in the culture of their home.

Today the world celebrates the democratic emergence of a new nation, South Sudan. I reflected on this coming event yesterday while I sat with a young Sudanese girl, L. (Because I respect the privacy of my students and issues of confidentiality, I will from now on refer to students anonymously.) She is attending the summer program at the family literacy school where I teach, although she is not in my class. That day we were on a field trip to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. We had walked through the Peace Corps themed activity area, where the kids had received “passports” which were stamped when they took part in each activity. We built a wall with bottles like they are now building in Guatemala. We helped paint a world map (that included South Sudan as clearly separate from Sudan!), and we made Malian mud cloth bracelets.

As we recovered from the heat and enjoyed a brief cool breeze under one of the dining tents, L struck up a conversation with me about her “passport.” We talked about all the activities in which she had taken part and I helped her pick out words she didn’t know in the booklet. We came across the blanks in the front cover that called for her name and nationality. I explained that nationality is where you are from.

L: Where are you from?
K: I’m from Texas.
L: I have a cousin in Texas!
K: You do? That’s great!
L: But I don’t know where Texas is.

So we looked at the world map in her passport booklet, marking DC and Texas.

L: I’m from Sudan. Well. (Pause.) Hang on.

She turned to her mother and spoke with her in their home language. There was some back and forth. Her mother, pregnant and tired, was also interacting with her 2 year old brother and 4 year old sister. L was obviously repeating herself to make sure her mother really understood her question. Finally satisfied, she turned back to me.

L: Yes. I was born in Sudan. (Her emphasis. I had not asked. It can be a complicated question for any child, especially an immigrant child.)
K. Okay. Let’s look at where Sudan is on the map.

So we marked the general location of Sudan with an X (it wasn’t a big map, thankfully). L wanted to label it the way we had labeled DC, but she didn’t know how to spell it. I spelled it out loud, and at her request I wrote it down so that she could copy it. After spelling it successfully several times in random places on random pages, she finally turned to the front cover and wrote “SUDAN” on the previously empty line for a nationality.

L’s personal experience was a mixture of culture, identity, literacy, and all the underlying structures and skills that support these facets of development. And there I was, to some extent experiencing it with her. The day before millions of her former countrymen got the chance to have a very similar experience.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Education as a right...and responsibility

Education is a basic human right.

Seems so simple and true, right? But, the first time I really heard this idea actually put into words—I am sad to admit—was within the last two years. The moment I heard it, I thought, “Duh, of course it is!” However, as I began to really delve into this beautiful concept, I found myself in a morass of questions, questions that helped me understand why the idea of education as a human right is so difficult to actually implement.
How much education? Do we all have the right to get whatever level of education we want? Whether or not it is within the resources available? Whether or not we will be employable after receiving that education?

To what kind of education do we have a right? What kind of education best serves the interests of society? A liberal arts education that teaches us to perceive beauty and speak languages and analyze issues? A professional or vocational education that provides us with excellent job skills? An education at a community school near home? An education at a prestigious private institution?

Who is to provide this education to which we each have a basic human right? The state? The community? The family?

What about those who don't want to get an adequate education? Do they have a right to give up a right? At what age? How do we motivate ourselves to complete our education? So, it's not just a right, actually, it's also a responsibility, isn't it?

Obvioulsy, it’s difficult to come to a consensus on exactly how to make education available so that every person’s right to it is honored. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of the effort. So, laying aside the concerns about how, it is important to establish why it is vital to honor this human right, despite the reasons it is so difficult and complicated to provide. This brought me to the following thoughts:

People need education to function in our complex society. People have a right to be able to access skills and information that will improve their lives and give them agency. This includes:
- literacy: the ability to read for in depth comprehension and to clearly communicate yourself verbally and in written form
- numeracy: the ability to solve problems involving amounts and numbers and measurements as well as spatial ability
- health education and basic sciences – to understand the world and the way it affects us as well as to be able to anticipate and resolve problems occurring between people and the physical/natural world

People also have the right to learn the social and psychological skills to navigate and resolve social conflicts and to function positively in the wider society, such as:
- civic education (social values, citizenship, peace, identity, governance, history)
- rights education (gender, human rights)

Finally, people have the right to learn skills that are necessary to secure fruitful and sustaining employment. This can come in many forms:
- professional education
- vocational education
- nonformal (think workshops, GED classes, apprenticeships) and informal (everyday learning)

So, I’ve worked through the why—at least my own personal version of it—but I doubt there are any blanket answers to the questions of how. The point is that the why is important and demands our attention, so it is unacceptable to give up trying to figure out the how(s).