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. . . ."

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Sending Professors Back to High School

As I near my one-year anniversary of volunteering weekly at Reynolds High School, I am beginning to appreciate how much I have benefited from the experience.

Over a decade ago a participated in a program that worked the other way around: Teaching American History projects that entailed exposing elementary, middle, and high school teachers to academic historians. Some of them confided that there was often a big gap between what we wanted to teach them and what their students were interested in and capable of learning in the here and now, the world in which they operated.

Many high school students present challenges that university faculty are unaccustomed to. They may be actively hostile to learning, to being in school. Some are many years behind. Others are dealing with various types of trauma.

But these are often the students who are the most rewarding to work with, as their successes are so consequential. There are all these little awakenings that you get to help ignite or at least witness. As class sizes grow, schools need more of us to step up and provide the sort of attention that makes such awakenings more and more common.

I love working with high school teachers because they teach me so much about teaching. I have learned that engagement always comes first. University professors often expect our students to rise to whatever level we set. Teachers who are expected to help every student improve must instead find a topic or activity that engages them and then work from there. It doesn't always work, but it often does. I have also learned from high school teachers that students are much more likely to care about learning if they have reason to believe that their teacher cares about them, that there is a highly relational element to teaching and that if you can find part of a student's work to praise, she or he will usually work harder.

For many intellectual types, high school was a difficult, awkward time we were glad to put behind us. But going back has been very rewarding and a boon to my own teaching. find myself caring much more about my university students and much more engaged with my own classrooms, plus I get to get to be part of little miracles, moments when youth recognize their potential to be somebody.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Women are People

In the early 1970s it was routine for boys at Astoria Junior and Senior High Schools to snap or grab and pull women's bra straps. When I went to the University of Idaho in the fall of 1975, about half of the runners on the cross country team got in the habit of squeezing young women's bottoms when we ran past. It got to the point that women would back up against trees when they saw the University of Idaho cross country team coming. Then someone complained to someone at the university, and our coach said to knock it off. There was no punishment or lectures.

I didn't participate in the harassment, but neither did I confront anyone who did. My point is, the whole thing was viewed by we young men as routine.

Now the routine is being confronted, head on. Men across the political and cultural spectrum are at last being called out for behavior that leaves women feeling humiliated--or worse. We may be seeing hundreds if not thousands of resignations coming. Men have been getting a pass for this sort of behavior for a long time.

Perhaps the time has come when most men will accept this idea with all of its implications: women are people.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Narrative4 Story Sharing and Radical Empathy

About three weeks ago I took a workshop at Portland State on Narrative4 Story Sharing and then tried it out with my Freshman Inquiry class. What a blast!

Narrative4 is an organization that promotes shared story telling as a way of achieving deep empathy with others, particularly those with quite different experiences or beliefs.

The format is simple but profound. Participants after getting a brief introduction pair up and share a meaningful story with each other. The goal of the listener is to listen closely and to ask questions only if confused. Then the pairs return to a circle of a dozen or so people, and people share and listen to each others' stories. The tellers relate that they feel like they have stepped into someone else's life. Those whose stories are being told are able to examine the story from a different perspective. At the end, the members of each pair tell each other their hopes for each other.

I was paired with a friend whom I have long had great respect for, and her story took me much deeper into her life and how she views herself. In my class, we were blown away by the bravery and intensity of the stories, how people we thought we knew had such deep and powerful experiences.  It brought people from diverse ethnic and backgrounds together and radically deepened my regard for the class members, as I now have such a deeper appreciation for who they are and what they have been through.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Mark Reynolds at PopMatters, "an international magazine of cultural criticism and analysis," just did a long, thoughtful reflection on my book on American views of Africa from a Pan-African perspective. It is entitled "You May Be Black or You May Be White But in Africa You're an American First."

Like many liberal-minded white academics, I wrestle with the question of how to approach African-American history and life in my work. Growing up in rural Clatsop County did not exactly give me a working knowledge of black culture, and I was immersed in the racism, patent and latent, of that time and place. But not addressing the lives of African Americans in one's work hardly seems like a workable or helpful approach, either.

The more I learn about African-American culture, the more I am struck by how ignorant I remain, and how complex the subject often is. Certainly listening--whether it is to friends talking or writers writing--to many different people is a good start.