Sunday, April 28, 2019

Guest Author: Christina Mai

The author, center, with two of her FRINQ students,
Meiling and Paola, after they led a story exchange.

Three and a half years ago, I was at my sophomore year in college. One day, my dad pulled me aside and asked me whether I wanted to study abroad. My family is not rich at all. I guess I am the child who is the best at studying among my siblings, so I was given the privilege to use such a big amount of money. I thought about my dad’s question. I imagined how my next few years would look like if staying in China or if studying in the U.S. For the first scenario – staying in China – I knew I would finish the rest of college, find a not-bad job, and probably be urged to get married with someone. (In our culture, people usually think girls should settle down and enter another life stage of marriage right after graduation.) I could see clearly the day to day life and already knew what would come along the way. What if l left for the U.S.? It was unknown. I could not imagine the possibilities. It would be challenging definitely to start up in a new environment. But the process of figuring out the uncertainty and observing how I would react to this intrigued me. So I made up my mind. I wanted to go.
When I arrived in the U.S., I was excited and curious about most of the things I saw, including the delicious and big-sized hot dog at Costco at the price of only $1.50. However, the honeymoon period didn’t last for long. Actually, on the first Friday night of the first term, having been holding all the emotions for the whole week, I cried out in front of my roommate. I barely understood the class and I couldn’t join the conversation of classmates at all because my English was so poor. I felt deprived of the right to express myself. All that I could do was either looking at people with a puzzled face, or maintaining an awkward smile pretending that I got what they were saying. At that moment, I felt huge restriction here while back in my home country, I knew the language, the culture; I could laugh immediately after hearing the jokes; I could tell my true thoughts fluently and completely. I didn’t have to tell others my favorite snack was chocolate, when asked, only because I didn’t know the English name of other snacks. Besides losing a way of self-expression, I passively lost or/and unconsciously gave up my way of interacting with people. For some reasons, which I haven’t figured out yet, I believed that my culture would not work here. Such a thought put me into a tough situation actually. Every time when I wanted to chat with others, before my mouth opened, I doubted myself – was it normal for Americans to ask this? Did they say like this? Would I sound weird? With such questions popping in my brain, I stepped back and stayed silent. Gradually, I increasingly feared interacting with people. I avoided talking with anyone. My life was plain, class and home, but no friends. I started to become addicted in Youtube since it took over my mind and allowed me to stop thinking about the frustrating reality. Obviously, it didn’t help at all but worsened my life. I was stuck in my comfort zone. On my first Christmas holiday in the U.S., I was at home sleeping all day long and thinking that I was so useless and incapable. Until then, I realized that I might be sick mentally, seized by the depressed emotion.
After the darkest and saddest Christmas holiday in my life (hopefully there will be no worse one :p), another term started. To some extent, it saved me. It forced me to walk out from home and meet people. At that moment, the only thing that I thought I could do well was my school work. I made efforts and saw the progress, which brought me happiness and increased my feeling of self-worth. I understood only 50% of the lessons, but I put 200% of my attention on every single word of professors and tried to comprehend and even guess it. It took me 15 minutes to read one full page, but I kept reading the textbooks and spent hours and hours in front of the desk. I wish I could share some miracles about how I overcame the language barrier in one night. But there is none. The process was slow and exhausting, but I have been improving my English skills and building up my confidence. I also went to a Chinese church where I could speak both Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese every week and made some friends there. They prayed for me. They helped me choose to accept my current situation instead of blaming myself for the weaknesses. They encouraged me to stop feeling guilty about the time that I had wasted in watching Youtube, and instead, to look forward and make the most of what I had and do what I could do. A baby step was still a step!
With a renewed mindset, I pushed myself a bit further out of my comfort zone by checking out the opportunities to interact with others. During the process, I practiced my English and also learned more about American culture through observing how people talk and act. I started volunteering in free food distribution to the community and homework help for high schoolers. The first turning point of my journey in America came in the end of my first academic year. A student leadership program called International Students Mentor Program was recruiting mentors for new international students. I was eager to help international students as one of them who struggled with the adjustment process. I was not sure if I could be capable to help, but I wanted to give it a try. So I applied for it and got the interview invitation. With zero experience in American interviews, I did badly. But maybe my strong desire to help international students impressed the interviewers. I finally heard back from the program right before their first meeting as the last candidate chosen. I was thrilled about the valuable opportunity. I met with other international student mentors on the training days and we formed friendships with each other. For the first time, I felt belonging because there was a group of people who I knew about and could say hi to on campus. I was not nobody anymore.
After this leadership program, I realized that I could do more than what I thought, so I began looking for part-time jobs and other opportunities to get involved in the campus life and American society. I applied for jobs till midnight. As a result of no working experience in the U.S., I got refusal emails. I felt sad that no one was willing to pay for my hard work. But I told myself that I would not consider giving up before I received the 100th rejection. Fortunately, before getting 100 “NO”s I got my first job in the U.S. as a peer advisor helping business students with course selection and other academic issues. Later on, I became coordinator of Organization of International Students at school, Peer Mentor conducting mentor sessions for freshmen twice a week, and got multiple internships in various industries. The process seems smooth but I know it was not in reality. In my first few weeks advising business students, I was scared that I couldn’t understand their cases and help them. So I had to pray and calm myself down before meeting each of them. As I got familiar with the work, I gained more confidence and started to purely enjoy helping students solve their problems after putting down my worries. There were many moments like this when I faced the difficulties and failures, kept trying, and finally overcame them and moved forward.
Looking back to the past few years in America, I want to thank all the nice people who supported me and encouraged me, and thank myself who didn’t give up in face of whatever obstacles. I am so proud of all the efforts that I made to get adjusted to the new culture. At this moment, I don’t clearly know my future. But I know I will thrive as I keep trying to make the most of the situation where I am.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Guest Author: Briana Keo-Williams

When I was in high school, my Art teacher posed a question: “Why do biracial people always say they are Black when they are half Black and half white? Why not say they are white?” At the time, she asked this question to a predominantly white class. Why? Maybe she was trying to get them to question their world view. No matter her motive, her reaction to my response of, “It is because we are treated as Black. We do not get any other privileges” highlighted her own ignorance. I was the only Black kid in the class and the question pertained to me specifically as a mixed race person. Yet, she ignored me and just walked away like I hadn’t said anything.
            The world has a tendency to not look beyond the surface and accepting perceptions as facts. Personally, I never really “feel Black” until someone or something reminds me that I am. When I was younger, my identity was less about being a Black American and more about being my parents’ daughter. My father is Jamaican and a quarter English, while my mother is Cambodian and Chinese. Thus, I am not new to the question “So, what are you mixed with?” or “Wait, you’re Asian?”. It’s clear to everyone that I’m Black, and it’s clear to me that I am treated as such.
Like so many other Black kids growing up in the United States, I resented being Black for a very long time. I did not have the capacity to question or reflect deeply about what it meant to be Black, all I saw were the drawbacks. Being Black meant my skin and hair were never going to be pretty enough for a magazine. It meant I stuck out in school. It meant that I didn’t look enough like my beautiful mother.  It meant the same people I wanted to like me, used slurs and names that were hurtful. So maybe there was just something wrong with being Black? My skin felt like a flaw, not a part of my identity, so I tried to distance myself and imagine I was anything else.
I encountered the ignorance and discrimination that Black people inherently face. Growing up, I lived in a white suburb where my house was vandalized more times than I can count on one hand. Skinheads would gut animals and throw them all over our porch, they would spray paint “N*gger go home” and swastikas on our house and car.  All the while, tapping at windows and rattling doors. My sister and I were young enough that we slept through these “visits.” I do not remember seeing the men or hateful words. I only remember the police visits in the kitchen while I kept my little sister occupied with barbies in the next room. This was my introduction to discrimination. By the time I was old enough to put the pieces together and understand it, I had become a bit numb to it.
In middle school, plenty of kids assumed I was dumb because I’m Black. I remember my teacher applauding me for a nearly perfect test score and how confused my tablemate looked. Realization washed over his face as he said: “Oh that’s right, your mom’s Asian, that’s why you did so well.” It seemed clear to him that me being half-Asian gave me an academic edge and that my Black half would lack.  Even more disappointing was the fact that I accepted it. Never mind that my father was an engineer with a 150 IQ and my mom never graduated from college, my estimated worth was determined by the fact that my mother was Asian, and I believed that.
These are just some examples, albeit blatant ones, of the way Black Americans are treated at a young age and how that impacts their self-image. I know the term “White Privilege” can get controversial, but I think this is an apt example of it. There is the moment in every Black person’s life where they realize they are growing up differently from their white counterparts. As a kid, I listened to my father warn me about people who would wish me harm and think of me as lesser. He grew up a Black immigrant in the 1960s and having white men with violent intentions on his front lawn was nothing new to him. He had already given my older brother his stories and advice, and it was my turn.  It’s a conversation we wouldn’t have had to have if we were white. He told me that it was more than just people being mean, it was about my safety. My dad has always believed that his job was to prepare his children to live in a world without him. In his case, teaching his children how to handle and respond to discrimination was just part of that.  It hurt him because it was something he could not protect us from. His usually goofy disposition was replaced with a new intensity, his teasing jokes replaced by stern pleading words; in minutes you could see him become a different man. My white peers did not have to dissect and digest that. They did not have to look at their skin in the mirror and remember all the things that have been said to them because of it. They did not have to fumble and find it hard to love.
This is something I don’t think my mother understood or that my father even knew I felt. I struggled with wanting to be liked. I struggled with wanting to be accepted. I struggled with wanting to be conventionally beautiful. I was deeply insecure and it stemmed from how I knew the world saw me and its familiar capacity for cruelty, a collection of feelings and experiences I know so many other people of color share.
I know now I wasn’t alone even during the worst moments. It was the way my friend of ten years urged me to tell our teacher that two boys had been calling me slurs and vandalizing my things. It was the way my 7th grade humanities teacher held my hands and cried when she told me it was okay to be upset. It was moments like these that helped me learn my worth. I was a shy kid who internalized every insult hurled my way, and it’s heartbreaking to think that other young people feel the same way. It was allies like them that offered real time support and validation. It’s musicians like Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce and Solange Knowles that continue to remind us it’s okay to be unapologetically Black. It’s people like Serena Williams, Ryan Coogler and Barack Obama that exude and celebrate Black Excellence. They show us there is not just one way to be Black and that the ignorant do not deserve our admiration. To quote the late icon, Nina Simone, “We must begin to tell our young, there's a world waiting for you. This is a quest that's just begun. When you feel really low… there's a great truth you should know. When you're young, gifted and Black, your soul's intact.” Every Black kid deserves to embrace and cherish every part of their identity, and it’s important we teach them that.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Profile in Service: Livingstone Delali Agbo

 My name is Livingstone Delali Agbo, a graduate of the University for Development Studies, Ghana, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Integrated Community Development. I have a total of five years working experience in the non-profit sector and rural communities.

Throughout my professional life, I always seek to work with people. My passion for youth activism, volunteering, teaching and working with pupils, was first sparked while volunteering with the UK-Government-Funded International Citizenship Service program in the Adaklu district of the Volta Region, Ghana. I worked with a team of volunteers from the UK and Ghana to develop an action-research program for the Adaklu Waya Livelihood Project. I organized and facilitated training sessions with farmer's groups and engaged with the youth and District Assembly to develop market knowledge through research to enhance the livelihood activities of the community members.

I was later appointed as a Team Leader on the Latitude Ghana Volunteers project, where I led a Team of eight volunteers on the Adaklu Waya Livelihood Project. I worked with farmers in rural communities to deliver trainings in good agricultural practices, business planning, marketing, and branding to improve their conditions. I also led a skill training event in Tie and Dye making, which served as an alternative source of livelihood for the community folks. Together with my team, we successfully won a grant of GHS 2,500.00 as start-up capital for five farmers groups we've established. I also took the initiative to raise awareness on the importance of educating the girl child through a door to door campaign to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy among the girls in the community.
I recently completed a two-year Fellowship Program with Teach for Ghana (TFG), a movement of solution-driven leaders expanding educational opportunities to all children in Ghana. I taught English Language in the Metsrikasa District Assembly Basic School in the Volta Region of Ghana, and served as a mentor for Teacher Trainees. Being on the Teach for Ghana Fellowship Program has influenced my leadership capacity and developed my commitment to bridging the educational inequity gap in my country, Ghana. I have built a strong bond with pupils, parents and the community I worked with. As a teacher and leader of my pupils, I sought to deliver lessons that enhanced pupils’ academic excellence and mind-sets and access to opportunities. I exposed my pupils to the world through a letter exchange programme led by Yo Ghana, a US based NGO in Ghana; they write and receive letters from their penpals U.S. schools. I have also established a reading culture in the school through a reading club I have established, where I engaged pupils three times a week after normal school hours to read. I also led a school painting project, where I painted the JHS block with my pupils and posted motivational messages from some African and European leaders on 48 trees on the school compound. I also led the establishment of a library and computer lab in the school.

One major challenge I faced while working on the Metsrikasa School Library and Computer Lab Project was fundraising issues, and hence could not meet the timeline for executing the project. It was very difficult at the beginning trying to fundraise from friends and family members in Ghana as they did not understand the reasons why they should support such an initiative. However, the enthusiasm and support of the community folks and the Parents Teachers Association (P.T.A) refueled my drive to pursue the project. The community members through the P.T.A levies were able to construct bookshelves, provide spaces for computers, and use their own labor to raise this structure. My colleague Obed Nhyira Sam and I won a grant from Yo Ghana to purchase a three-in-one printer, which has helped in duplicating learning materials for pupils and also printing out the letters they receive from their U.S. penpals. We won a second grant to purchase six computers for the school. Through a partnership with ‘Scholars in Our Society and Africa’ (SOSA), a nonprofit in the United States, we have received over 500 books for the library. We raised an additional 300 books from other sources.

I derive my motivation from seeing people's lives change by the little support I give.  Giving back to my community and country has helped me to discover my strengths, weaknesses and skills as a Leader. Volunteering and teaching has helped me to identify my career path and long term vision.

Although I seek to work with people, it has been very challenging working with people with different characters and temperaments. I learned to respect the views of others and not always base my judgements on single stories or hearsay. I believe the best way to know people and to work with them is to develop a personal relationship with them. This strategy helped me in the classroom as I tried to know my pupils beyond the class. As I learned not to please man, I became more expressive than impressive. This also helped me to grow as a Leader and become more confident with my values.

I have served in various leadership positions which have earned me a wide spectrum of leadership skills and achievements on my career path.  I was appointed as the Assistant Departmental Head and Secretary for the Metsrikasa D/A Basic School. I was voted as the District Lead for Teach For Ghana fellows in the Akatsi North District and Project Director for Everyday People-GH, an alumni volunteering organisation promoting active citizenship among the youth in Ghana.

I am also a social entrepreneur and Founder of DEEP Creative Arts (DCA). DCA is a graphic design and fine art firm, engaged in business branding, paintings, t-shirt/screen printing, and skills development of pupils in the basic and Senior High Schools of Ghana.

My hope is to one day become an astute development practitioner, who invests his skills and talents in the lives of others. I seek to do this through youth empowerment, educational leadership, volunteerism and community development.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Why Stories Draw Us

A daily meditation from Frederick Buechner touched me deeply this morning. The widely read novelist and ponderer asks why "stories have such power." Think of toddlers sitting in a half circle and gazing in silent wonder at a picture book or how engrossed we get in a novel or movie.

Buchner believes  that storytellers are assuring us "that life has meaning, . . . . that life adds up somehow," even that stories "may give us some clue as to what the meaning of our lives is."

It seems to me that the meaning of stories have changed over time. For most of the history of humanity, groups had a long list of highly detailed stories that explained why one existed and what the purpose of life is. Stories reminded everyone of shared values.

Today more and more of us life in highly diverse and fragmented societies. Unlike the great majority of our ancestors, we have a great deal of choice over what we choose to believe, why we are here, how we should act and conduct ourselves. That sort of boundless freedom can be unsettling, even terrifying. We don't seem to be wired to figure out what life is for all on our own.

Stories are imaginative, of course, both in the telling and the hearing. But they also offer substance, evidence from outside our lives. Attending to the stories of others breaks through our little bubbles and offers the unbounded sky. The more we hear and the better we listen, the better sense we get of what life might be about, even why we are here.

Monday, August 13, 2018

No Love Without Sacrifice: Karen Armstrong and Warren Hardy

I was nearing the end of Karen Armstrong's fine short history of myth when I ran across an assertion that I knew I had heard before.                                                                                Armstrong points out that our ancestors turned to myth, to stories, for courage in the face of danger and suffering. A good myth was neither a fiction nor a diversion; rather, it reminded them that a good life required sacrifice. An effective myth, she summarizes, "demands action."

Myth, stories that told people how to be in the world, allowed our ancestors to "live with the unacceptable," to act heroically in the face of death and suffering.  We now, she says, commonly turn to drugs, music, and celebrities for a whiff of the transcendent, experiences that at best provide vicarious and pale versions of the sort of stories that inspired our ancestors to risk their lives for the welfare of the group.

This all could not help but remind me of my Narrative 4 friend, Warren "there is no love without sacrifice" Hardy. Warren is at the heart of Helping Young People Evolve in Hartford, Connecticut, an organization devoted to offering hope to at-risk youth.

Life is so much better when we find the Warren Hardys of this world, listen to their stories, and follow their examples.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Narrative 4 Summit: Meeting Ishmael Beah and Other Inspiring People

Last month I had the great honor of attending the annual Narrative 4 Summit, which this year was in New Orleans. I got to meet Ishmael Beah, the organization's Vice President. I had read his memoir of being a child soldier when my son was required to read it for high school. Now that I regularly work with refugee youth who are telling their own stories of loss and resilience, it was a blessing to receive some counsel from someone so much more experienced in that work. In fact the gathering, like the organization, offered a feast of widely read writers who excel at describing hard-won hopes.

But what I most enjoyed about the summit was being surrounded, every day, by scores of people who were deeply committed to learning from and caring for others. From Tel Aviv, Israel to Tampico, Mexico, to small towns in the Southern U.S. and South Africa to big cities in the Northern U.S. and Northern Italy and beyond, the rooms and the buses were full of people who were having a blast pouring out their lives in collaboration with others to create bonds of understanding and love.

We are constantly told in the modern U.S. that our principal goal in life should be to pursue and expand our privileges, to get and defend our piece of the American Dream, to "have a good time, all the time"--to "live for the week-end" and "grab the gusto."

But there are many people across the world whose lives suggest that a deeper meaning and even happiness resides in struggling to understand and care for each other. Much of the magic of Narrative 4, I believe, comes from inviting people to experience that way of looking at and living in the world. Being with ninety or so people from across the world devoted to that work revealed and confirmed that an empathetic life is a rich life. Thank you.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Video of Two Brave Story Exchangers

It's a story in itself of how Milen and Zeinab, the two Reynolds High School students in this MetroEast Television interview, became heavily involved with Narrative 4 story exchanges.

My dear friend Michelle and University Studies brought Narrative 4 to Portland State late last year, and I loved the story exchange so much that I started doing them in my freshman inquiry class on immigration. The students loved it, too, and in January several of them started working with another dear friend, Debra, and her Reynolds High School students. Some of the Reynolds students started an official story-share club at the school around issues of equity. In June Narrative 4 invited two students (including Milen), teacher Deb, and I to their annual Summit in New Orleans, where we met nearly one hundred youth and adults from across the globe who are also hooked on story exchanges. Some of the PSU and Reynolds students, including Zeinab, are trained facilitators.

In sum, the power of exchanging meaningful stories has caused a lot to happen in a short amount of time. Bridging the many divides at Reynolds, Portland State, and the broader Portland Metro Area seems impossible. But carrying each others' stories has brought to us all a sense of joyful purpose, even hope. We have become friends who know and count on each other.

Each of the young women wears a shirt with the word "blessing" on it. It's been a deep blessing for me to work with these students and others as we strive to care for each other and do the hard, good work of spreading empathy.