Friday, April 6, 2018

Doing Real Work at University

At a symposium yesterday six first-year students at Portland State University, my twenty-year-old son and I constituted a panel on the impact of story sharing for radical empathy on our class and in working with at-risk youth, I was asked whether or not I thought such young people were ready for such responsibility. Perhaps I misunderstood the question, but it puzzled me. Most of the first-year students I've worked with at PSU have gone through a lot to get here; they've learned to be extremely resourceful.

I also believe that what our youth and young adults hunger for is not less responsibility, but more real responsibility to be invited to work in contexts where they can truly make a difference. Certainly I've noticed that my own students are adept, flexible, and poised when, for example, confronted by a group of ninth-grade students who don't want to talk about their feelings, their lives, or their stories.

We tell our students that if they work hard in school for seventeen years--or maybe nineteen or more--some day they may get to be an adult, become independent, maybe even do something important, maybe even have a sliver of a chance of making a difference. In the meantime, mass media demands that they be passive consumers, eat and drink empty calories, consume banal entertainment, play interminable video games. Many never make it to the finish line of school or the threshold of adulthood, and many who do are exhausted, jaded, or both.

They want more than that, and they are ready for much more than that--not to mention that the world we are handing over to them requires much more than that.

Monday, March 26, 2018

When the "Strangers Drowning" Aren't Strangers

A very thoughtful book that came out a few years ago, Strangers Drowning, by Larissa MacFarquhar, seems more and more relevant to our world. The author argues that some of us are so sensitive that when we put a dollar or two in a vending machine, for example, we perceive the starving child that money could have fed standing next to the machine. Or if we hear that a child in our community needs a home, we believe that the child's needs are so compelling that they trump whatever inconvenience might come our way by adopting another child. In other words, pace the book's title, such people take the drowning of people seriously and feel responsible for doing something about it.

In our increasingly interconnected world, it has become more and more difficult to pretend that not just strangers but people we know or should know are drowning. I facilitate letter exchanges between roughly 2,000 students in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest, and some of them are so very sad. Talk to most any school teacher across the globe--certainly in the Portland Metro Area--and you will hear heart-breaking stories. If you start volunteering with vulnerable students, you will start to hear such stories for yourself. People all around us are drowning, if drowning is understood to be struggling with poverty, abuse, fear of deportation, and other tragedies.

Does being human entail knowing these tragedies and comforting those afflicted by them? Does it entail seeking to understand and, if possible, correct the causes of that suffering? What does it mean to live a good life in the midst of so much suffering? What do we owe each other?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Reflections on Writing, Teaching, and Mentoring

A few weeks ago the History Department at PSU kindly hosted a reading at which I shared some thoughts about and from my recently published African, American: From Tarzan to Dreams from My Father--Africa in the U.S. Imagination. It was my seventh book and, like all the other readings I have given, it was lightly attended. And all signs point to the conclusion that this book, like the others, will be lightly read. As with my other books, a few people have told me that they have profited from reading it and found it useful. But it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that I have spent a very large fraction of the past thirty years working on books that have had a substantial impact on just a handful of people.

At the reading, however, I also invited immigrants from Africa whom I work with at Portland State or Reynolds High School to talk about their lives. Over the past several years I have found myself spending more and more time with students, from speaking to classes as part of my work with the Yo Ghana! letter exchanges to sitting with particular students in my office or at their schools to encourage them, to assure them that they have powerful stories worth sharing. Watching them share those stories was the best part of the evening.

Academics are trained and socialized to believe that we possess or will possess special insights that will change the world. It would be more accurate to say that we are in a position to nurture and encourage thousands of students who can and might well change the world.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Our Story-Share Workshop

My spouse and I had the great pleasure of working with the peer mentor and two students from my PSU Freshman Inquiry class on Immigration, Migration, and Belonging Friday and Saturday in Seaside. We did a workshop on story sharing. Christina did a wonderful job laying out the process, then Meiling and Paola shared each other's stories in front of about sixty people to give them an idea of what the process could be like, and it was such an incredible experience.

Story sharing entails telling a meaningful story to someone, then they do the same with you. Then the two of you join other pairs in a circle, and everyone shares. The point of the process is to build a sense of radical empathy. When you try to embody someone else's story, the walls that separate us strt to crumble.

That certainly happened at our work shop. There were so many stories of suffering and redemption, and the high school students at the workshop resolved to go back and start a story-share movement in their school to bridge the many divides.

It was the courage of my young students who really made it work, another reminder of why I so love teaching at PSU in general and this class in particular.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Actually, President Trump, We Need More Africans

OregonLive just published my opinion piece on why the U.S. would benefit from more rather than fewer Africans. It is scheduled to appear in the print version of the Oregonian on Sunday.

I've come to believe that most people learn empathy through interpersonal interactions with diverse people than through what anyone might write, but at the very least I'd like the countless Africans in Ghana and the U.S. to know that many white people in the U.S. appreciate Africa and Africans.

Thank you for so deeply enriching and informing my life and the lives of many others in the U.S.

Monday, January 1, 2018

"I finished the book!" Why We Should Volunteer with Youth

The Oregonian recently published an alarming article on the decline of mental health among Oregon teens. Although many of the large number of commentators focused on the evils of cell phones, much of the reaction fell along political lines. Conservatives tended to blame youth's emotional fragility on liberal permissiveness. Liberals pointed to conservative economic policies.

What I have observed in my thirty years or so of volunteering with children in classrooms and other venues is that youth need caring people in their lives. I was stunned to learn a few months ago that in a city festooned with signs proclaiming that "refugees are welcome here," refugee children who are desperate to learn English lack sufficient tutors. But it's not just refugees who are suffering. In the past couple of decades class sizes have gone up and the stability of many homes have declined. On average, Americans of all ages have fewer close friends than we used to. Many of our youth trust no one.

Most of us can do something about this--and I don't mean just blaming the other side. Start by checking with your local school about volunteer activities. You can play a crucial role in a child's life, and in spending more time with youth you will have a much more informed opinion on what sort of larger political, economic, social, and cultural changes would help youth. You will also be pushed to develop larger reservoirs of patience and empathy.

One of the many times I learned that lesson was about ten years ago, working with a boy with severe behavior problems. He had just been allowed back into a classroom, and I spent an hour each week helping him to work his way through a book. He tried everything he could think of to get me to read the book for him, and he seemed incapable of reading more than three or four words at a time without kicking the wall, staring at the ceiling, stumbling over words, and bitterly complaining about the cruel task at hand. I think I hated the process as much as he did. I was discouraged. But somehow we inched our way through most of the book before my time with him mercifully ended.

About a month later, he came jetting toward me on the playground yelling: "I finished the book! I finished the book!"

I don't know if he remembers that achievement, but I'll never forget it.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Three Timely Books on the Impact of Refugees on the West

I recently read three novels with a similar theme: Chris Cleave, Little Bee; Mohsin Hamid, Exit West; and Jenny Erpenbeck, Go, Went, Gone. The three authors from England, Pakistan, and Germany, respectively, all write about refugees from the Middle East or Africa in the West.

Each of the novels makes the point that the boundaries we establish between nations and between the West and developing nations are arbitrary, often cruelly so, and that one of the often-overlooked casualties in creating these boundaries is the humanity of well-to-do westerners.

The authors made me think about how much energy that I and people like me put into obscuring and ignoring the profound and undeserved privileges that benefit us and the powerful economic and political forces devoted to maintaining these cruel advantages. Beginning to dismantle these privileges and cruelties is not the work of an afternoon. But profound benefits await those who start trying, not least of which are a much deeper sense of our common and vulnerable humanity.

Hamid puts it this way: "we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed [one of the novel's protagonists] felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity's potential for building a better world. . . ."