Monday, June 19, 2017

"I Will Not Sit and Fold My Arms"

By the age of sixty, most academics have their courses worked out. But I taught a service-learning course for the first time this past term that was a blast.

The Portland State University students were from an Honor's College seminar class, and most of them volunteered as tutors with immigrant students at Reynolds High School under the direction of Debra Tavares. Two worked with middle school students taking an enrichment course on interviewing and research at St. Andrew Nativity School. One worked as a tutor at Africa House, part of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

The PSU students were delightful to work with. Some were immigrants themselves, most had been born in the U.S. Some were on the shy side, others very outgoing. Some had loved high school, some had hated it, and one had dropped out.

What they all shared in common was a passion for helping others and adapting to what students needed. And the younger students loved them.

I remember that about twenty years ago, when my life partner and I contemplated adoption across racial lines, I had a sense that having a son of color would entail leaving my cocoon of privilege, that I'd start to see the world at times from my dark-skinned child's perspective.

For me--and I think for the PSU students who had grown up in comfortable circumstances--tutoring vulnerable youth is a bit like that. You start to learn what sort of trauma refugees have witnessed, what sort of difficulties and prejudices that so many youth and their parents face. Like parenting a child of color, it becomes more difficult to assume and to assert that life is always good and easy and fair.

There is a lot of discussion these days among progressive-minded Americans about how to be in solidarity with refugees and other immigrants. I think what we found is that providing some concrete assistance (help in learning English) and a willingness to sit and listen to people's stories can be very powerful. Deep listening can provide youth with permission to start thinking about and sharing their remarkable, often painful, stories. And once you've heard those stories and witnessed the courage of the people telling them--well, your perspective on life is deepened and changed.

I'll give Joel, one of our courageous young students from Reynolds who lost her parents and siblings a day after her birth, the last word on this: ""I will not sit and fold my arms."

Why I'm Posting Less Here

I plan to keep posting blogs here every few weeks, but much of my blogging has been subsumed by Yo Ghana's website or Facebook page.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

My Author Interview

The Beyond Footnotes series of KPSU radio station and the PSU History Department recently interviewed me about my forthcoming book: African, American: From Tarzan to Dreams from My Father--Africa in the US Imagination. 

Click here to listen to the forty-five minute interview. The folks at Beyond Footnotes do a great job of preparing and asking questions, and there are many other interviews in the series.

The book will appear in mid-July and is dedicated to Mr. Brando Akoto, a Yo Ghana! board member who passed away late in 2015.

​For more information about the book, consult the Zed Books website.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Three Evening Scenes

  • Tuesday night had already been a full day when I arrived at the Troutdale City Hall. I was there to talk a little bit about Yo Ghana!'s partnership with Reynolds High School, but mainly I was there to support two of our students. One of them was Rando, a small, ebullient Muslim girl from East Africa who has been interviewing family elders to relate their journey through civil war and refugee camps to America. Her voice started very faint, then became stronger and stronger as she shared the remarkable story, and the council members' eyes filled with respect and wonder.

    About two hours later I boarded a transit train and heard the voice of Diana calling to me, another one of our students, a girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who in the rainy night was in charge of her little brother and wheel-chair bound mother, all of them struggling to understand a new language and new skills such as how to negotiate the transit system in a wheelchair. But they seemed much more resolute than frail and not at all deterred by missing a stop.

    ​Then I joined an apartment full of Ghanaians full of joyful expectation. The wife and children of a leading volunteer were about to arrive, ending a separation of nearly five years. When they stepped into their new home it exploded with noise and joy. The eyes of the three young children were wide. So much to take in. Twenty years from now they'll still remember that night, and by then they'll be doing great things.

    ​Americans often ponder going to Africa and helping Africans. But Africa is also coming to us, and Africans' resilience, warmth, and determination are helping all of us, now and far into the future.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Making Sense of Each Other

​Kwame Anthony Appiah, the distinguished philosopher born to an English mother and a Ghanaian father, remarks in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers: "when the stranger is no longer imaginary, but real and present, sharing a human social life, you may like or dislike him, you may agree or disagree; but, if it is what you both want, you can make sense of each other in the end."

His words came to Wednesday morning during the Yo Ghana! Student Showcase at St. Andrew Church's Community Center in Northeast Portland. Students of Deb Tavares (shown above) who are learning English shared their work. A boy from the Democratic Republic of the Congo related how his father survived and escaped war; a Muslim girl from East Africa spoke of how she has come to love wearing her hijab; and a student from Mexico showed a photograph of the truck his father uses for his landscape business, a job that leaves him exhausted, but "this is how we make a life."

Yo Ghana Board member Dr. Labissiere shared the delights and fears of growing up in Haiti and how coming to the U.S. brought new challenges of racial and personal identity. Yo Ghana Project Coordinator Ibrahim Ibrahim emceed, young Maddie from Fowler Middle School read some fine letters on overcoming hardship from Ghana, and a bunch of students received awards. Students and teachers from Reynolds High School, Vernon School, St. Andrew Nativity School, Fowler Middle School, George Middle School, Campfire Columbia, and Judson School--all the way from Salem!--attended.

We are often urged to exercise tolerance toward others. Appiah urges us to "make sense of each other." I hope that tolerance and understanding can lead to deeper exchanges in which we learn from and move forward together.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chance to Support Resilient Youth

Over the past ten weeks I've had the honor of working with some truly inspiring students who have immigrated to Portland from SE Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, West Africa, Eastern Europe, Mexico, and Central America. Next Wednesday, March 29, they'll be sharing from the interviews they've done of their parents and their photographs illustrating the rich range of cultures they are living out.
The event is 10:00 a.m. at the Community Center behind St. Andrew at NE Alberta and 7th in Portland. Admission is free.
Other students will read from their letters and letters from Ghana on the theme of adversity, stories of overcoming poverty, loss of parents, and abuse, among other challenges.
So please forward this to anyone who might be interested in learning from and supporting diverse, determined, and resilient young people.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Resilience: "There's Nothing More"

I'm one of those people who spent much of his life wondering what I should do when I grow up. I think I believed that there was one shining path that I was meant to walk, and all would be lost and wasted if I didn't find it. The poet Sylvia Plath wrote of watching figs ripen on a tree and being so afraid that she wouldn't pick the right one that they all grew rotten and fell to the ground. That image resonates for me.

A piece of advice I heard somewhere that made an impression on me was that one shouldn't try to do everything. Find a passion, something you are reasonably good at and care about, find others who feel the same, and work with them and stick to it. Christians often refer to this as one's "calling." But you don't need to be a Christian to be devoted to a particular cause, even in the face of apparent failure.

One problem that people like me, an American who has had a pretty comfortable life, commonly run into, is what to do when problems arise while pursuing one's calling. Many Americans are raised to expect happy endings, even if we are working with vulnerable people. As the humanitarian Paul Farmer puts it, we often assume that "all of the world problems can be fixed without any cost" to ourselves. Caring about other people inevitably leads to disappointment and suffering.

But if you truly believe in what you are doing and are collaborating with good people, you can decide that giving up simply isn't an option. One of my favorite fictional characters is the Nigerian headmaster in Helon Habila's Measuring Time, a man who is determined, against what seem to be impossible odds, to maintain a school for vulnerable children. "This is life," he explains. "There's nothing more." And that's more than enough.