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.

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