The civic responsibility of teachers: a view from Russia

epishkola - kto ia?

Late last Spring, my Russian colleague Mikhail Epshtein publicly shared a letter he had originally sent to the school community of which he has been principal for over 20 years. Epishkola is a private progressive school in St. Petersburg, born in the liberalizing era of the early 1990s. It is a school that continues to evolve its philosophy and practice of progressive education – albeit in an atmosphere of increasing fear and repression. In his letter, Mikhail mourns the dismantling of a “cornerstone of civil society” in the city. TSRNO, a non-profit incubator whose beneficiaries included Mikhail’s school, was targeted by a new law that designates non-profit organizations as “foreign agents,” effectively removing them from society and shutting them down. However, Mikhail’s letter doesn’t focus on the threat to his own school and other non-profits posed by this event. Rather, it focuses on his own complicity in what happened. His interpretation outlines the civic responsibility of teachers. My translation of Mikhail’s letter follows (click here for the original Russian version); in an upcoming blog post I will discuss connections with the education context in Chicago.

ABOUT CITIZENSHIP: Reflections at the broken trough

by Mikhail Epshtein

I wrote a private letter to colleagues – teachers, graduates, parents of students at the school, in which I have been working for 20 years. But writing it, I realized that what had happened could be important beyond just this community. I decided to publish my thoughts more widely. As an opportunity for all of us to reflect… on our near future.

This is the situation, which, unfortunately, has recently become the usual: prosecutors come to a non-profit organization in order to close it, or at least drastically complicate its life. The formal reason for coming? The organization has received grants from foreign foundations. Informally, though, the reason is that the organization has dared to act independently: it comes to public authorities with new ideas as to how they can improve their activities for the benefit of their citizens.

And for our government such impertinence is offensive, so, instead of stretching out a hand of cooperation, it clamps down on troublemakers by establishing draconian laws against NGOs.

This time, prosecutors came to check on the St. Petersburg NGO Development Center (TSRNO). The specialist found that TSRNO has committed two serious offenses (in essence – criminal offenses): it receives grants of foreign funds, and engages in political activities. So, under the guise of the Center, a nest of “foreign agents” has hatched.

And so, the employees of the organization get to choose one of two things: either “with feeling, with propriety, with deliberation,” drowning in a sea of ​​bureaucratic problems, or, self-destruct immediately.

TSRNO is one of the oldest non-profit organizations of the city. It helps other nonprofit organizations to operate more efficiently; it organizes dialogue between the community and the city government and business. I believe that TSRNO today is one of the cornerstones of civil society in St. Petersburg.

Our private school is one of these non-profit organizations. We have cooperated with TSRNO for many years. And, along with other colleagues involved in this work, I have been friends with people in this organization for almost 30 years. I know their motives and am deeply aware of the importance of this organization for the city. Of course, they are not in any way “foreign agents” – in whatever sense this term is used. They are people who freely and thoughtfully try to make life in Russia better.

What exactly is the “political activity” TSRNO does? It is charged with the desire to actively cooperate with the state, preparing draft legislation, participating in the examination of laws and so on. Today, this is called “undesirable activity.”

I, like my colleagues at TSRNO, believe it is important to cooperate with foreign counterparts – for the common good. I do not see why we have to be closed off from the outside world. I have lots of friends and partners in different countries, and I know that they wish us only well. And our organization has received numerous grants from foreign organizations and we used the money to develop the school. Should we therefore be considered foreign agents?

I see what is happening in the country – again, as in the 1930s and at the turn of 1940-1950-s: mutual hatred is being sowed, people are being forced to hang labels on others, labels which will block and ultimately shut down their activities.

But why do I go on at such length and with such pathos?!

Because this story is very personal to me.

* * *

The fact is that that prosecutor, who came to TSRNO and charged it with being a “foreign agent,” happens to be a graduate of our school.

What are my feelings and thoughts about this?

First. I consider it necessary to apologize to my TSRNO colleagues and the entire nonprofit community of the city. I apologize for the fact that it was a graduate of our school who was the prosecutor taking part in this awful event.

We took part in his education for 10 years. Hence, we bear some of the blame for his choice.

Second. I feel personally guilty in this situation.

Guilty in the first place toward our graduate who is now working in the prosecutor’s office. Obviously, we were not able to make school a place that would help him understand the value of civil society. We weren’t clear enough in telling him about the persecution of the Communist regime, the atmosphere that prevailed in the country during that time, the role of the interrogators and the judiciary, and about the mechanisms that initiated and maintained the persecutions. We did not create the conditions for kids to be able to get experience in civic participation in the life of the school, city and country. In the time that he was in our school, we didn’t succeed in instilling in him a sense of the joy of freedom – his own and others, and of the need to defend this freedom.

This guy always wanted to be a lawyer. And we didn’t succeed in warning him about the moral complexities that he would inevitably face while working in the prosecutor’s office at this time.

Third. I do not think it’s right to gloss over the situation. It is necessary to talk about it and to draw conclusions.

Many believe that a particular contractor is not at fault. They submit that this decision came down from above, and the employee of the prosecutor’s office just did what his bosses told him to.

But I do not think it’s right to put this all at the feet of the system. There are always specific actors. Remember, like E. Schwartz in the play “Dragon?” “I was taught …” – “We were all taught…” -“But why did you have to be the best student, you bastard?!”

Yes, of course, we can blame Stalin and the Communist Party in general for the repression way back then, but there were also those many individual neighbors and co-workers who “knocked,” and the many specific investigators who abused people in the dungeons, and took pleasure in it.

There are always specific people who could have, in their particular situation, done something differently.

It’s convenient to hide behind the “system” in doing harm. But I think that in these cases, the country must know the faces of its “heroes.” And it is important to publicly name all those involved: including that official, who had the power to make the lives of a large number of people really hard, and the school in which he was raised.

Maybe, if this kind of public naming had been done at the time, we would not now be experiencing this apparent return to the past.

Finally, the fourth matter. We need to think seriously about what this story pushes us to change in schooling. This young man was our student for 10 years. And he was a very diligent and successful student. In terms of learning the curriculum.

But his participation in “the TSRNO story” once again shows that academic success is not enough: it is important to help students to make ethical decisions in difficult situations – for example, when it comes to a choice between conscience and career.

We need to understand – as we continue to work to the socio-political situation that is emerging now in this country. The difficulty is that we are in a very contradictory situation.

We in the school can not (in fact – we aren’t allowed) to actively and thoroughly acquaint children with the current political situation; we can not articulate our point of view on what is happening. If we do, we pull children into political debate, and they and their parents may have different ideas about what is happening. Plus, there isn’t enough time for anything but physics-mathematics-geography …

But teaching the values of freedom must be more central in the educational program of the school. We must not fail to warn children about the time in which we live today, what difficulties they will face. They did not live in the Soviet Union, but we did, and we have experience.

Otherwise, I fear, very soon we too will find ourselves “foreign agents,” and our graduates will come to designate the school as unreliable and close it.

So I ask: Is it worth ten years of diligently providing children with an arsenal of intellectual tools, only then to see them put to use as prosecutors who destroy what is civically and humanly precious to us?

“Collective Creative Action:” Notes on informal education in Russia

children planting trees

I base this article on impressions, conversations, and reflections on a trip to Russia in the Spring of 2015, serving as an Advanced Practitioner Fellow with the U.S.- Russia Social Expertise Exchange’s Education and Youth Working Group. My huge thanks to U.S. Russia SEE for this fellowship opportunity. My trip was hosted by Mikhail Epshtein in St. Petersburg and Denis Rogatkin in Petrozavosk; I am grateful for their generosity in introducing me and other fellows to youth centers, schools, and individuals to help our Working Group learn about youth development in Russia. I am also grateful to Mikhail and Denis for helping me with this article. All mistakes in fact and interpretation are my own responsibility.


The woods enters into kids’ spirits, it sees in them protectors, people of consciousness and experience.

Kim Andreev

Do kids learn more on their feet or sitting down? Responding in the moment and planning for the next moment, or hearing about the past? Reading the stories of past heroes, or participating in a local social action project? Most teachers I know see these questions not as either-or, but aim for a balance of academic training and experiential learning in their classes. In Russia, the education system is set up to emphasize both – but separately, and somewhat in tension with each other. This article will explore this tension, and its implications, looking at some aspects of the relationship between formal and informal education in Russia. Informal education, embodied in the phrase “collective creative action,” focuses on the relationship of the individual to society, with awareness of the developmental stages of this important relationship.

The widespread education practices that I refer to here as “informal education” emphasize creative freedom and active social responsibility. They offer models for democratic education in an environment of both social stresses and governmental controls. This is relevant to both U.S. and Russian contexts of increased standardization and testing, when many students and teachers feel disconnected from learning that relates to real-world challenges and opportunities. In Russia, the education system is not set up to meet the challenges of significant demographic and political changes, such as the influx of migrants from former Soviet republics, the lack of young people entering fields of science and technology, and an aging teaching population.

For their part, U.S. schools are not equipped to deal with the problems emerging from a profoundly unequal society. In many urban areas of the U.S., the graduation rates of students is only 50%; the retention rate of teachers in the same areas who remain in the profession for more than 5 years is also about 50%. Young people, especially African American males, who leave school are less likely to gain stable employment and more likely to be incarcerated, leading to the catastrophic situation referred to in the U.S. as the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

In the face of such challenges, reforms rise up to overhaul schooling systems, often failing to take into account the personal and interpersonal learning processes that accompany academic learning. Education that focuses on these processes can be a powerful support for young people as they develop to meet the challenges of the world they enter into with focus, hope, and respect for others. Rooted in the strengths and knowledge of each individual, informal learning counters dehumanizing systems with reliable, realistic approaches to social health.

At a time when disagreements, disapproval, and distrust at political levels distort the way American and Russian people see each other, I want to highlight an area of common ground between our two countries. A close look at how Russian educators are approaching the relationship between informal and formal learning yields perspectives that point to new possibilities in the field of youth development. While counterpoints and different interpretations are necessary to fill out the picture more, in this article I focus only on a few aspects of these perspectives.
Doroga 1

Formal vs. Informal education in Russia

In Russian schools, as in schools in the United States and in many other countries, most students spend their days doing the routine work of preparing for exams, learning formulas, reciting vocabulary: the customary occupation of young people being trained in standard knowledge for a standardized world. They sit in desks; they are mostly quiet; they follow the temporal and spatial coordinates laid out for them on schedules and calendars. While many teachers want their students to ask questions, to imagine, to innovate – to practice the capacities best suited for a changing, challenging world – the structures of school block these capacities. Many schools reproduce the hierarchies, competitiveness, and boredom of adult society. In the words of a Petrozavodsk teacher, “schools are cemeteries of talent.”

But out of school, young people take part in a very different kind of education. They engage in elaborate role-playing games in explorations of gender equity; they ask questions in city council meetings about proposed development in their neighborhood (and observe the fury of the developers, unused to such challenges!); they create television programs that illuminate important issues; they dig in the dirt, climb trees, imitate different bird cries… experiential learning opportunities available to Russian kids seem to be infinite. And these are not special programs for special kids – enrichment learning is for everyone. Visionary and dynamic young adults staff these programs; they make a decent living and often spend their whole lives doing this work. The field of informal learning is more systematically developed in Russia than in the United States.
The out-of-school learning system is well-funded, rooted in the work of professionals with many years of training, and broadly respected.

In Russia, out-of-school learning is called pedagogy, and involves extensive, cutting-edge study in adolescent development, social theory, and philosophy. In-school learning, on the other hand, focuses less on the people and relationships involved in learning and more on subject matter. It is conducted by teachers who are certified as subject matter experts, but whose work is highly regulated by official standards and assessments. I found that classroom teachers’ discussions of the education profession were often permeated with pessimism and resignation. The exams, the authorities, the students, the parents, other teachers – all were getting in the way of the kind of education the teachers wanted to be able to deliver. It was discouraging.

In out-of-school spaces, however, educators expressed possibility, movement, hopefulness. The vitality they express directly reflects the energy and engagement of the young people they work with.

A few examples (with links) illustrate the dynamic nature of these out-of-school programs:

*A youth-produced video by teenage “Doroga” journalists, on naturalist-educator Kim Andreev, with footage from 50 years ago and today:

*“Parallels,” an intertwining of youth and adult programming emphasizing collaboration, creative connections, local and global partnerships, and ecological work:
http://ped-paralleli.ru/

*Engagement in real-life problem-solving in physics, chemistry, and technological development through the School League RUSNANO:
http://schoolnano.ru/

Each of these examples is one slice of a myriad of activities associated with these organizations. Out-of-school education programs are exponentially expanded versions of the tables that Montessori children circulate amongst. An array of intriguing choices — and an assumption that what the child chooses is just right for him or her at that moment – ensure that a great number of young people in Russia find something meaningful that they can find themselves in, expand into, and connect in with others. Of course, not all out-of-school programs are equal in quality (and in funding), but the models are widely available and supported.

The Pedagogy of Informal Education

Foundations of informal education include social learning, deep and broad expertise in child and youth development, and equality in relationship between adults and children. Russian out-of-school educators make up a vibrant community of innovative practitioners and visionary researchers. They draw upon and continue to develop the work of influential philosophers and psychologists of education. These foundations anchor their work in shared commitment and lifelong personal and professional connections. O. S. Gazman and I. P. Ivanov were two especially influential figures in the development of out-of-school pedagogy. While Gazman emphasized the importance of independent thinking and action, and Ivanov developed transformative technologies of group work, both educators, and their successors, have created a rich field of social learning with significant cultural, educational, and political dimensions.

Doroga 4

It is impossible to understand the importance of non-academic learning in Russia without knowing about Vospitanie, which has to do with the development of values, creativity, and social capacities like communication and leadership. It is sometimes translated as “upbringing,” but the concept is both more specific and more far-reaching. School and out-of-school learning share with parents the responsibility for vospitanie of young people, and out-of-school learning professionals especially familiarize themselves with the psychology and sociology of youth development. Although the new education state standards in Russia put a premium on education that fosters self-determination, initiative, and social responsibility, the state does not provide the supports needed for schools to meet such standards. Out-of-school learning programs are in a position to offer these supports (Rogatkin, 2014).

The education theories of L.S. Vygotsky have familiarized non-Russian educators with what I am calling informal education. Vygotsky emphasized the social bases of learning, human development, and emotional life. Intellectual learning is limited and distorted without grounding in relationships. “Human learning,” Vygotsky writes, “presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” Vygotsky’s models of educational relationships have helped educators all over the world to align learning conditions, conversations, and activities with children’s natural developmental processes. Education philosopher Alexander Sidorkin explains:

The best Russian schools I know are much, much more than just academic institutions. They possess the charm of a community, a family, a club. I have made one puzzling observation: when academics in students’ minds move to the second place, a school often gets better in academics. In order to improve learning one needs to improve teaching—this is an assumption that is much too linear. Those two processes are connected rather indirectly, through some mysterious medium, a nutritious broth that is as elusive as vital for the education. Vospitanie is an art of creating such a medium.

A glimpse at one of the most influential forms of vospitanie will give an idea of this educational art. The Communard movement of youth leadership developed in the 1960s and 1970s in Russia, and though it no longer exists as a formal organization, it had a lifelong impact on participants and adult leaders alike and its effects continue. In his book on self-government in Russian schools, for instance, Denis Rogatkin adapts social learning processes he participated in as a young person for contemporary school contexts. He writes that the role of self-government is “to release into life a new generation of people, whose activity will change society for the better.” Fresh ideas for a changing world grow through the process of sustaining the spirit of creative social responsibility across generations and contexts.

The philosophy embodied in Ivanov’s term “collective creative activity” took hold in a generation of young people and in the practices of informal education they carried out. Participants in the camps and programs run by Communards (as well as Scouts and other youth groups) went on to develop transformative educational programs that continue to thrive throughout Russia, propagating values of interdependence, critical thinking, and belief in the power of youth to change the world.

Informal education in action

Informal learning prepares young people to meet real-world challenges and opportunities. Furthermore, it creates space and supports for them to make an impact on society, in present contexts and in shaping the future. Informal educators support young people’s development through creating generative learning conditions. As Sidorkin notes, “One of the lessons of the Communards’ experiment is that an educator does not have to function as an organizer and authority figure in order to achieve educational goals. In the domain of vospitanie, indirect influences are more effective than direct ones.”

Through intentional small group activities, informal education fosters the development of the individual and the collective. Group work is based in several principles at the core of informal learning in Russia; these build on the foundations of informal education mentioned above:

1) An emphasis on play, and a well-developed developmental framework associated with games;
2) Equality in adult-child relationships, marked by lateral and mutual learning experiences; and
3) Metacognition about social and individual learning processes, expressed in real-time communication and action.

I will return to the programs mentioned earlier to demonstrate each of these areas. Bear in mind that that these examples offer a small representation of the thousands of informal learning programs in Russia, and that though I will focus on one aspect of each program, out-of-school learning programs generally combine all these three areas.

PLAY: Informal learning engages the intellect, creativity, and emotional literacy through sophisticated frameworks of play. As I explained in a blog post after visiting the office of “School League RUSNANO,” in Russia a number of camps are designed to focus on a key idea, which provides a generative focus for groups interested in different activities and questions. For a week or multiple weeks, young people engage in a large-scale roleplaying game involving intensive collaborative interdisciplinary work that is physical, social, and intellectual. It is an “immersion” experience and experiment. One camp, for example, was organized around the theme of “Chaos and Order.” Young people from the Epishkola School wrestled with ideas of physics, literature, philosophy, math, and history as they worked their way through a living social maze of order and chaos. Experientially digging into the complex world of The Dictionary of the Khazars, they navigated ideology, loyalty, passion, and treachery in their interactions with one another, with the help of intellectual lifelines that scientific and philosophical thinking offers to human society. This kind of “immersion” experience can be seen as an enactment of Vygotsky’s theory of play: “As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.”

EQUALITY: Whereas hierarchical structures can clog relationships and innovation in Russian society, informal education breaks down hierarchies, beginning by transforming the traditional adult-child relationship. At Youth Union “Doroga” in Petrozavodsk, young people participate in programs that draw out their capacities as leaders, thinkers, and observers of the world around them. From in-depth reporting on youth-related issues and stories, to outdoor education that children engage other children in, the activities Doroga supports center around confidence in young people. On the day I visited Doroga, for instance, 5th graders stationed themselves along a low-ropes course to guide the 4th grade participants. They didn’t tell them what to do; neither did the teachers who were present: adult and youth leaders alike respected the children’s problem-solving process. This kind of approach lends itself to systemic change, such as the model restorative justice program that Doroga runs at a regional level, advocating for community-based restorative practices in place of traditional juvenile justice measures.

METACOGNITION: Learning that heightens consciousness is the holy grail of education. Informal educators insist that people must experience uncertainty, risk, and supports for reflection and dialogue to grow in consciousness. This is a vital foundation for self-sustaining lifelong learning. Paralleli is a program that began as a camp combining the aims of young people engaged in real-world social problem solving with those of education researchers developing new approaches to group dynamics. Like the School League RUSNANO programs and Doroga, Paralleli is based in games and structures of mutual trust between adults and young people, but its leaders put special emphasis on the articulation of learning in real-time feedback structures. Paralleli leader Irina Rynkevich describes camp as a parallel world, one that you step into out of your world not to escape but to be able to enter back into the world with greater clarity. Like a novel or a film, camp has an arc that when examined leads to stronger self-awareness, intuition, and relational presence.

One compelling sign of the effectiveness of the principles of play, equality, and metacognition, is that the informal learning structures that include them continue over time and across generations. In Russia, the designation “youth” extends well beyond the teens and even twenties, and it is common to meet people in their thirties who are still involved in Scouts or other youth programs, either as participants or as leaders. The continuity of these youth programs has enabled the informal education community to develop a sophisticated social pedagogy.

This has important affects on political and cultural life. Alexander Sidorkin emphasizes that even under Soviet repression, strong currents of freedom have coursed through Russian education, especially in the forms of vospitanie that emphasize “collective creative activity.” “Most of the ideas about democracy, social engagement, and civic norms people had came from schools, summer camps and Pioneer Palaces.” He suggests that the current of freedom sustained in youth culture was strong enough to weaken the Soviet Union, which in fostering independence and interdependence in youth culture allowed for its own demise.

In Russia, informal education directly addresses questions of how people respond individually and collectively to changes in society. Informal education programs are taking on challenges such as the “brain drain” that is depleting Russia of its strong scientists, and the integration of migrants from former Soviet republics. The long history and pedagogy of social learning continues to evolve in out-of-school contexts. School programs that draw on the resources of out-of-school organizations experience the benefits of more authentic learning. These benefits include not only the growth of individual students, but wider social change. Increasingly, organizations are evolving programs that apply social technologies focused on equitable relationships, systems analysis, and self-awareness, to fields like multicultural education (see “Paralleli” and Project ‘Respekt’) and nanotechology (see Nanoschool).

Progressive Education in Russia and America

The philosophy of informal learning in Russia is relevant to a central concern of progressive education in America – the relationship of youth and society.

Informal education in Russia closely corresponds with the progressive philosophy that John Dewey lays out in his writing – a philosophy considered by many to be the most powerful and sustainable model of education developed in America. Dewey’s description of “Utopian” schools was clearly based on what he saw in the Soviet Union when he visited in the late 1920s. First and foremost, the relationship between adults and youth is one of mutual respect. As Dewey describes it, it is not a relationship of teaching – which he connects with acquisition of knowledge and achievements (and an overly acquisitionist society), but not with actual development. Rather, Dewey, writes, the ideal adult-child educational relationship is lateral, organic, shaped by curiosity about the world, the self, and one another:

[Adults] associate themselves with the young in carrying on some line of action. Just as in these older studios younger people were apprentices who observed the elders and took part along with them in doing at first some of the simpler things and then, as they got more experience, engaged directly in the more complex forms of activity, so in these directed activities in these centres the older people are first engaged in carrying on some work in which they themselves are competent, whether painting or music or scientific inquiry, observation of nature or industrial cooperation in some line. Then the younger children, watching them, listening to them, begin taking part in the simpler forms of the action –¬ a minor part, until as they develop they accept more and more responsibility for cooperating.

Like the informal education practice I described above, Dewey’s “Utopian” schools feature, in addition to adult-child equality, a strong emphasis on play and on consciousness. Though he recognized the role of indoctrination in Soviet schools, in his view, the independent thinking and capacities for collective activity that these schools fostered in young people undermined the force of indoctrination.

However, as I mentioned earlier, informal education was and is practiced more out of schools than in schools. Whether writing about American schools or learning in the Soviet Union, Dewey focused predominantly on schools, contributing to a tendency in American attitudes and policies to saddle schools with the responsibility of solving the problems of society. Education historian Lawrence Cremin criticizes Dewey’s neglect of out-of-school learning:

to think comprehensively about education, we must consider policies with respect to a wide variety of institutions that educate, not only schools and colleges, but libraries, museums, day-care centers, radio and tele¬vision stations, offices, factories, and farms. To be concerned solely with schools in the kind of educational world we are living in today is to have a kind of fortress mentality in contending with a very fluid and dynamic situation. Education must be looked at whole, across the entire life span, and in all the situations and institutions in which it occurs… wherever an effort goes forward in education, it must go forward not in isola¬tion from other educative institutions but in relation to them.

Cremin argues that to be conscious educators, we need to focus squarely on the relationships between the various areas of society and family life that impact children’s development. Educators outside of school contexts understand this: “For day-care workers, pastors, editors of children’s encyclopedias, and directors of senior citizen’s centers, the message is the same: Whatever is done, to be effective, must be done with an awareness of what has gone on and what is going on elsewhere.” Schools need to be working in tandem with other areas of society; by the same token, education policy must put the impact of social conditions front and center in shaping education. As educators Volkova, Stepanova, and Stepanov write,

Traditional education…underscores people’s dependence on decisions taken by others, and strengthens social inequality and subservience to authority, power. [In this new century,] we need people with a new mentality, who aren’t slaves…with a deep faith in themselves, their abilities, the ability to realize one’s own and the common happiness.

For over a century, Russian educators have been evolving models of social learning that offer a working technology of democratic education. Our world remains in need of effective approaches to education that fosters relationships across differences, self-reflection, and cooperation for the common good. For much of this century, however, models developed in Russia have been inaccessible to Western educators, in part due to the association of social learning with Soviet ideology. Now that concerns about communist indoctrination are a thing of the past, it is high time to move past the obstacles presented by terminology. Widening windows of professional pedagogic exchange will strengthen the foundations of humanizing and relevant education for both of our countries.

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Youth patriotism in Russia — What is it really?

Russian kid

“Is it true that Americans are afraid of Russians? That they hate us?” I had walked into my colleague’s English class, and, noticing an awkward hush among the students, had told my life story in a couple of minutes, highlighting my lifelong interest in Russia, beginning when I first went to Russia when I was just about their age. I thought maybe these students, sitting in a sunny room in an arts magnet school in the far Northern city of Petrozavodsk, would ask me about a singer they had seen on Youtube, or about pets or food. But instead, a thirteen year-old girl with bright eyes, a high forehead, and dark hair raised her hand and asked about American attitudes toward Russians.

So. Here we go again, I thought. Growing up during the Cold War, the hostility between our countries had weighed me down a lot. Gorbachev and Glasnost lightened the world tremendously: it had been 30 years since I had felt the terror about nuclear war that depressed me as a teenager. But the anxiety I saw in the girl’s face reminded of my worry at that age, my fear that political leaders with their own agendas would screw up the world I was entering into.

Students’ questions kept coming: “We listen to music from all over the world, but we don’t think people listen to our music. Why not? Is it not good? Is it because people can’t understand Russian?” “Why don’t people in other countries want to learn Russian? Is it really so hard?” “Why, when Russians are portrayed in movies, are their accents so bad?” “We have stereotypes of Americans as fat and stupid. Are these images true? (You aren’t offended, are you?!)”

I wished I could say to these kids, NO! Americans aren’t afraid of Russians! We like your music; your accents aren’t that weird, and it’s a lie to say that we’re fat and stupid! It’s my role as a guest, isn’t it: to reassure, entertain, and appreciate my hosts. But I can’t pretend that there aren’t truths in the stereotypes. So, I admit the parts that are true, and try to communicate that there is more to us, more to them, more to everything than simple associations can convey.
Irina's class

But I have been noticing an awful lot of stereotypes coming up in my own responses to what I’m seeing here. For instance, my host Irina and her students show me a charming video about this school, featuring the students’ and teachers’ many collective activities: dancing, building artful snowpeople…and shooting? The image of these kids in camouflage and gas masks running through the woods with rifles appalls me. When I learn that some of the kids I meet go to military after school programs rather than the music or dance programs I am used to, my view of these kids warps. I instantly assume they must be part of the new Russian youth ultra-nationalist movement that, according to American news stories I read, are being trained to inherit and continue Putinesque policies. Suddenly the stereotypes fill my head and start funneling my impressions of the students in front of me: I look for signs that fit my idea of militarized youth as machines, unquestioning and dangerously obedient.

I didn’t even realize I was carrying around so many prejudices about Russian patriotism. Where were my assumptions coming from? I started to realize how deeply media images and stories had penetrated my perception – some held over from when I was a kid, and certainly some recent stories. A tone of distrust, alarmism, and judgment had somehow become normal enough that I hadn’t even noticed it and its effects on me. I had allowed ideas to take hold in my brain without questioning them – sounds like fat and stupid to me!

If, in talking with young Russians, I wanted to urge them to look for multiple aspects of Americanness, Russianness, human complexity – I had to develop multiplicity in my own perspective. I needed to try to understand words, behaviors, and events in a greater range of meaning and contexts.
Putin and me

So, it was helpful to come across readings that opened up some of this range for me. For example, in her study of patriotic youth programs, Marlene Laruelle* emphasizes that in the context of Russia today, “patriotic” doesn’t really mean what we in the West think it means. For many participants and leaders, patriotic programs foster independence and care for the local community, not intensified nationalism. Laruelle talks about military clubs that defend young people who don’t want to enlist. She tells stories of young people in military archeology clubs who in their search for remains of WWII soldiers realize that the state didn’t give all their soldiers a proper burial. These young people participate avidly in patriotic clubs, but are decidedly anti-patriotic. “These patriotic practices,” Laruelle says, “are flexible, multidimensional, and open to diverse readings and levels of engagement. Patriotic narratives and practices are marked by a rejection of abstraction. They involve no messianism or ‘great-powerness’, but instead draw on living examples, local or familial heroes, life stories and sites to visit and cherish” (p. 25). This close look at how people actually understand patriotism in their local contexts made me realize that my understanding of patriotism was one-dimensional and abstract, based in hype, rhetoric, and my own fears.

Our young people are capable of constructing new stories about self and other, of growing the trust and respect that our interdependent world requires. It would help if we older folks stopped letting our own fears and assumptions get in the way.

*Marlene Laruelle (2015) Patriotic Youth Clubs in Russia. Professional Niches, Cultural Capital and Narratives of Social Engagement, Europe-Asia Studies, 67:1, 8-27.

Immersion Education, or Down the Rabbit Hole

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The biggest bowl of cookies I have ever seen sat on the table between us, and as its layers descended, we learned more and more about the layers of “The World of Edutainment.” “Klasno!” My colleague Vadim kept saying – something like “what class!” My sense of the word is that it communicates aesthetic admiration as well as excitement about an idea.

Vadim Riskin and I are in St. Petersburg, Russia on a Eurasia Foundation funded fellowship; our charge is to learn about how organizations, schools, and government policy approach youth development. We are serving as advanced practitioners for the US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange,* in the Education and Youth Working Group. On first day here, and our host Mikhail Epshtein and his colleague Valerii Puzyrevskii have brought us to The World of Edutainment. Across the street, they point out, from the hospital where Pavlov conducted his famous experiments.

We were in the physical center of Nanoschool; the place is airy and inviting, with touchables everywhere, from rope puzzles on the walls to tangrams and books on tables (and a beanbag loft which I eyed longingly as I struggled with jet lag). Playing at the interactive math museum and with the elaborate and beautiful physics-detective board games our hosts Mikhail and Valerii had created would have kept me engaged for a long time.

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This external center was, however, only the tip of the iceberg. Nanoschool extends out along lines that extend across Russia, touching hundreds of schools and tens of thousands of students, in virtual and live settings, with dynamic points of connection that continue to extend on their own. Dewey’s image of education as “the live creature” comes to mind: the structures that Mikhail and his colleagues have created to engage young people in real-world problem-solving are highly generative.

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Mikhail, Valerii, and the other staff at “Nanoschool,” are committed to experiential education through-and-through. They have formed a partnership with RusNano involving high school students in solving real-world problems. They have two main goals: providing authentic learning experience to students, and halting the “brain drain” that is slowing Russia’s development. In one of these projects, 10,000 students from all over the country take part in year-long online learning forums developed in collaboration with RusNano; then the most committed students come for a summer camp focused on solving an actual problem RusNano is dealing with.

Summer camps and after school programs are the living heart of youth development in Russia. “Supplemental” (дополительный) programs are as much part of the conversation about education as schools, if not more so. In the U.S., where such programs are more auxiliary, the overwhelming focus is on schools, in terms of policy, training, and personnel. But in Russia, the emphasis on “supplemental” programs corresponds to a general understanding that education spreads across multiple sites: in-school education is only one dimension. Out-of-school education, which is less regulated and more innovative than in-school learning, is an integral part of how, what, and why students learn.

Mikhail and Valerii and other educators run a number of such camps and programs, but they also integrate the innovative play of camp into school. At Epishkola School, the 7-18 year old students and their teachers participate in a week-long camp that focuses on a key idea. The large-scale roleplaying game involves intensive collaborative interdisciplinary work that is physical, social, and intellectual. It is an “immersion” experience and experiment. The theme one year, for example, was “Chaos and Order.” Young people wrestled with ideas of physics, literature, philosophy, math, and history as they worked their way through a living social maze of order and chaos. Experientially digging into the complex world of The Dictionary of the Khazars, they navigated ideology, loyalty, passion, and treachery in their interactions with one another — with the help of intellectual lifelines that scientific and philosophical thinking offers to human society.**

A book Valerii wrote opens by emphasizing the interdependence of education and philosophy: “Philosophy without education is like a body without legs, education without philosophy is like a body without eyes.” The “Immersion” camp Valerii has designed with Mikhail embodies this systemic interdependence. It is all designed to bring young people to the rabbit hole: immersion into a new amazing world that stretches and changes the brain and the self. I am getting a whiff of it just sitting here hearing about it.

But at this point we have been sitting for hours; the cookies could tide us over only so long. Our stomachs are empty and our brains are full. We head out of The World of Edutainment to a corner restaurant for mushroom soup and piroshkis.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SEE or Eurasia Foundation.

**Mikhail and Valerii wrote a book about this “Immersion” pedagogy: Mezhpredmetnye integrativnye pogrzheniia. St. Petersburg: Shkolnaia Liga Rosnano, 2014.

Borderlands Consciousness

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curious jorge at NDSG
I have been living in a language carnival over the past month, with several very different languages rolling through me and around me, as well as new questions about what kind of language gives us access to our inner strengths and to other people.

February began with a visit my Immigration Justice Civic Engagement group made to Heartland Alliance, for a conversation exchange with the ESL students, who hailed from Burma, Iraq, Ethiopia, and many other countries. The people we talked with have refugee status, which entitles them to a few months of services like housing, English classes, and job training. Certainly, it isn’t enough time for people to be able to get their feet on the ground – yet, the fact that these services do still exist speaks to our country’s immigrant-welcoming heritage. But the contrast with immigrants who are not designated refugees is striking. I see people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico fleeing violence in their countries not welcomed and stabilized but put in jail and deported.

A painting I saw as I walked into a conference a couple of weeks later pointed to this problematic contradiction. The text on the yellow “Curious Jorge” poster read:

Syria= refugee
Darfur=refugee
Uganda=refugee
Afghanistan= refugee
Latin America = ILLEGAL ALIENS

For generations, this country has sorted immigrants into legal and illegal, deserving and undeserving – contributing to a contradictory relationship to immigration in this country, but also an unhealthy relationship to culture. At this conference I learned about approaches to culture, language, and education that are healthy and generative. “Embracing the borderlands consciousness,” the conference’s keynote speaker Monica Valadez said, “we gain strength.”

The conference was in McAllen, Texas, right on the border with Mexico, and it moved fluidly between English and Spanish. Francisco and Miguel Guajardo and their many colleagues, students, and family members hosted the 3-day event, the annual North Dakota Study Group meeting. Alongside coalition-building to organize against corporate-driven education, the people in the meeting – community organizers, teachers, students, and professors from South Texas and from all over the country – considered the relationship of language and culture, and the informal education associated with plática, which, the Guajardos’ students explained to me, is culturally grounded conversation.

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Plática is learning that begins with one’s own experience, in connection with others, and grows outward from there; it leads to both keen critical analysis and deep cultural affirmation. Whereas much of academic discourse pretends to “objectivity” and disregards the specificity of people’s local, home, and inner experience, plática lives in human bodies and real space. The Guajardos write about plática as a base of their research, teaching, and writing, and learning plática from their parents:

The constant pedagogical tool was the plática, which made sense to us at every level. Plática was performed in language we understood, through an expressive cultural form that felt natural, and in a way that was respectful and affirming. It was a teaching and learning experience that conferred great privilege to our lives, the lives of our children, our students, and our communities (Guajardo & Guajardo 2013, p. 162).

This is language of learning that doesn’t stop at the doors of the school, but that affirms the human beings in home spaces as well as school spaces. The NDSG conference focuses on the power of school-community relationships, and the educators at the conference go out to learn from local community organizations in the same way that my Parker students do for their civic engagement learning. My group visited La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), the local United Farmworkers group founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. LUPE organizes in the colonias of the Rio Grande Valley, in which some 300,000 people live — and where they have to campaign to gain public services like lights, sanitation, and transportation. As LUPE’s sister organization Equal Voices Network emphasizes, organizers “bring the government to the people.” LUPE leaders gave us a handout that included this description of community organizing; it resonated with what I have been coming to understand about language:

Organizing does two central things to seek to rectify the problem of power imbalance – it builds a permanent base of people power so that dominant financial and institutional power can be challenged and held accountable to values of greater social, environmental, and economic justice; and, it transforms individuals and communities, making them mutually respectful co-creators of public life rather than passive objects of decisions made by others. — Mike Miller, Organize Training Center.

Language that is prescribed and controlled by faceless powers prevents people from developing as “co-creators of public life.” So, it’s no wonder that decision makers keep low-income and immigrant children in schools that ignore and devalue their home language, knowledge, and culture. Test-based education, just like English-only policies and de facto school segregation, ensures that the populace will be “passive objects of decisions made by others.” Local, place-based, culturally affirming practices, on the other hand, provides people with space to grow as human beings who see clearly, love fiercely, and act collectively for justice.

“No Place for Kids”

Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable.

— Adrienne Rich

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Whose Chicago?

Early in the summer a couple of years ago, I attended a screening of a film called “No Place for Kids.” The filmmakers, Parker Seniors Nina Friend and Keely Mullen, introduced this film about juvenile justice by describing the journey of self-discovery that the documentary process became for them. Wanting to tell the story of the injustice that their city and the legal system had done to young African American males, they realized that telling this story required that they ask themselves questions about race and privilege in their own lives. A pivotal moment was when they drove across the city for an interview with a man named Mr. Williams.

They knocked on the door and entered his house. Right away Mr. Williams challenged them: “what are a couple of white girls doing making a movie about incarceration?” This older African American man, who had been wrongfully convicted as a young man and who has spent most of his life in prison, turned their world upside down with his question. They drove back to their side of town, and stopped.

Suddenly the boundaries of segregation in the city loomed huge for these young women. They saw that the geography of the city was mapped out in the story of incarceration in Chicago. Everything about their lives took on a new register when plotted on this map: the car they drove, their physical appearance, but especially their freedom.

The story Nina and Keely told that night to this auditorium of 200 people was about their own transformation.  They learned to name patterns of privilege and oppression; this helped them to grow parts of themselves internally. Whereas they started the project as a way to carry out an independent social action plan, they found that their learning ended up depending on encounters with others. It was in watching the learning journey of these young women, and many other young people, that I came to recognize that meaningful social action is embedded in internal processes. Though the film the two young women made was a fine achievement, I want to argue that what happened to Nina and Keely internally was more important than the project itself.

Where are you in this story?

Here’s how the students introduce themselves:

“Our Chicago lies between Irving Park and Roosevelt, and as far west as Kedzie. But our Chicago isn’t everyone’s Chicago. With our fair skin and our private school education, we will never be a suspect class… we will never be tossed around by Chicago’s justice system. So who are we to tell you that this system is unfair? We are young, we have a camera, and we have a voice…”

In their film, we hear the young women’s voices alternate – they claim a collective voice that emphasizes their uneasy awareness of their class identity — and watch the streets of Chicago pass by as they drive along their social justice pilgrimage. By situating themselves within the bounds of a moving car, they are signaling their search and their movement – as well as the protection they have as they confront the system that they see their African-American peers persecuted by. They are noticing the boundaries of neighborhoods, and asking questions about why they hadn’t explored the boundaries before.

The more closely they study these boundaries, the more determined they become to challenge them. They are learning that the geography of the city is a matter of life and death for many Chicago youth – in many neighborhoods, young people are trying to navigate the Scylla of gang violence and the Charybdis of racial profiling. Nina and Keely are overwhelmed by the numbers of their peers who don’t make it.

They realize, though, that there is a danger of falling into despair; and they want their peers – the privileged ones, who “care,” to reject the temptation of resignation: “If you begin to believe that the system is too big, and too out of reach, you willingly give up your part in the conversation…What we see is a racist history of disempowerment. What we see is privilege that protects the privileged. What we see is a responsibility to stand in solidarity.”

Nina and Keely emphasize what they see – and they are starting to notice what they don’t see. Because of their experience, and their reflection on their experience, they are gaining the ability to be aware of multiple contradictory realities at once. They know that telling the story of what they see is important.

It took them a long time to find themselves in their narrative, to start to balance their focus on injustice that others experience with attention to the privilege that protects them, themselves, from injustice. Mr. Williams turned the young women away from his door – and showed them where to look instead. He urged them to talk with a white ally, and sent them to Bernadine Dohrn.

Later, Keely and Nina reflected, “after talking to Mr. Williams, we realized we were overstepping our boundaries in making this film. But learning about Bernadine had a big impact. She represented for us a white person respected as a voice of the people despite not being affected by the issue.” Dohrn, who at the time was the Director of the Children and Family Justice Center, says when they interview her for the film, “if you engage in the big issues, you find yourself with populations that otherwise are invisible to you. And then you get changed by it.” Through their interviews, the young women came to see patterns of oppression that had been invisible to them before.

Another door opened for Nina and Keely when a young African-American man who had been incarcerated said to them, “I love righteous white people. They can go places I can’t go and people who won’t listen to me will listen to them.” The words of this young man reassured them that they could learn to follow in the footsteps of the white allies they so respected. Taking this as the permission they needed, though still ambivalent, Nina and Keely continued their project.

Adult Allies and Adultism

The film No Place for Kids weaves together their journey of growing self-awareness with the voices of juvenile justice advocates and incarcerated youth. The young women open the film with an excerpt from a poem by Giuliano B., a young man in jail:

“My mind’s playing bricks on me. I don’t know what to do. For some, these bricks turn to bars as they pass time. It really doesn’t matter, because both are messing with your mind. People walk past and think, look at the brown kids in the brown bricks. I’ve been knowing them so long, that these bricks became my home.”

In his poem, Giuliano describes a process of transformation embedded in perspective. But whereas Nina and Keely experienced an opening up of their perspective and themselves, Giuliano’s poem expresses a closing off of perception, and therefore, self.

Giuliano is a member of Circles and Ciphers, which, Nina and Keely explain, is a hip-hop forum that fosters internal change through hearing and sharing stories and young participants’ reflections on the political realities that shape their lives. In the film, each of the Circles and Ciphers members emphasizes the difference between how they see themselves and how they’re being socially conditioned to see themselves. They tell stories of being handcuffed in their school hallways, neglected in jails, denied the supports they need to survive difficult lives.

One young man explains, “I smoke weed, and that’s the only illegal thing I do. It’s not because I want to get in trouble, not because I want to go to jail, I guess it’s because it’s the only way I can cope with life. I struggle at home, at school, and it’s not right that I have to go outside and worry about the cops, too.”

The adult world has targeted this vulnerable young man instead of nurturing him. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is also featured in the film. She says, “too often we see young people in schools as suspects, who we need to crack down on… instead of young people as deserving of our care and concern and support.” Adults in schools and in other institutions are distorting the perspectives of the young about themselves and one another.

Once young people see how this is working, they are loud in their outrage. Young people with the group Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), for instance, confront the assumption that the War on Drugs needs to be waged to protect young people from drugs. At a protest against the War on Drugs, Parker student leader Maddie Mullen spoke before a crowd of some 300 people, addressing the assumption that the War on Drugs is necessary to protect young people: “I stand before you as a member of this generation that refuses to be used as an excuse for this drug war.” She and other SSDP activists denounce the hypocrisy of politicians who know that the war on drugs is not really about protecting children, who know that it is a racist policy that drives mass incarceration and the devastation of whole communities, but who hide their knowledge behind political rhetoric.

Both sets of youth – the white youth from affluent neighborhoods and the youth of color from at-risk neighborhoods — are challenging the boundaries of who they’re supposed to be, according to their neighborhood and skin color. They are speaking out about those boundaries. In No Place for Kids, Michelle Alexander says to her young interviewers, “You look back in history, and you see that so many of the major movements were driven by young folks, who weren’t willing to believe the myths any more, who weren’t willing to accept the status quo, who were willing to take great risks, and speak the truth LOUDLY, and we need that today.” Alexander points out that adult society binds young people not only in schools and in prisons but also in ‘myths’ that perpetuate an unjust status quo – and that young people have the power to counter these myths.

The young people who made this film have the support of adult allies – not as teachers or as authorities, but as wise and wily traveling companions. History teacher Jeanne Barr leads the Students for a Sensible Drug Policy group. She sees challenging power as a necessary democratic skill for young people to develop. Ms. Barr put Nina and Keely in touch with Mariame Kaba.

Ms. Kaba became Nina and Keely’s project advisor. She is the director of Project Nia and a leader in juvenile justice advocacy. Ms. Kaba helped Nina and Keely with interview contacts and with planning their project. This kind of structural support aligns with the model of adult ally work that she has engaged in and taught for many years. She describes her role as “walking beside” youth: “We let young people know we’re walking beside them, including when they fall. Then what? We say what are we going to do? – you’re not alone with it when you fall.”

And Ms. Kaba knew that Nina and Keely were going to fall. Sooner or later they were going to run up against race and class barriers that would shake them up. She thought long and hard about how that difficult experience could be weathered safely. She hoped it wouldn’t cause the young women to lose heart. But she also had the backs of the people the young women were interviewing: she wanted to make sure that the students’ explorations and evolving understanding didn’t unintentionally harm any of their interview subjects.

So, she made sure that early on in their project they would talk with Mr. Williams, who she knew would challenge them: “I wanted them to talk to him before they talked to the young men in our neighborhood. They need to know their own location: where are you in this story? What made them extraordinary was how they took criticism and used it in a positive way.”

The question, “where are you in this story?” encapsulates the democratic education process. It posits that there is a story, a big picture, and that the person perceiving, telling, hearing the story has a place in it. The question is also a reminder that “where” a person is has a great deal to do with their place in the story.

The students were aware that their “where” was multi-dimensional: not only geographic and demographic but also historical, long-term, and current. And deeply contradictory. Their school educates some of Chicago’s wealthiest families – as well as the families of Black Panthers and people who have devoted their lives to fighting wrongful convictions and the school-to-prison pipeline. “No Place for Kids” pays tribute to this latter group. The film explicitly situates present-day drug war policies in the framework of police state tactics with 40 year-old footage of Black Panther leader Huey Newton pointing out, “the police in our community couldn’t possibly be there to protect our property, because we own no property… it’s very apparent that the police in our community are not here for the security of our community but for the security of the business owners.” By putting Huey Newton’s words and face alongside those of wrongful convictions and juvenile justice advocates, the young people are challenging the status quo that they have been born into, that expects the police and the law to be representatives of justice and peace. They are beginning to deconstruct the myths.

In reflecting on her project, Nina explained,

“The people we talked to, the places we traveled, the concepts we thought about have contributed to an ever-evolving sense of myself. One of the biggest questions that emerged for me throughout this experience is my role as a white, educated, privileged youth in today’s world, today’s America, and today’s criminal (in)justice system. I often wonder about the role of youth, particularly privileged youth, in shaping the system and the movement to reform the system. Nearly every person we interviewed was an adult, and something just doesn’t seem right about that to me. How can we let the adults of society take over a system that affects the youth? The criminal justice system is one thing, but the juvenile justice system is another thing, and I think it’s so important that youth begin opening their eyes to bring what’s out of sight (prisons and youth incarceration in our own city) into mind.”

Nina is questioning the system, critically analyzing the flawed institutions adults have constructed. The more she acknowledges the extents of her race and class privilege, the further she develops a new identity. She is naming herself part of a young generation that is connected by awareness of injustice and commitment to justice. This new identity doesn’t replace her inherited identity – in fact, the different identities must co-exist to function. Nina discovers that her embrace of a collective identity energizes her position of privilege from something she feels uncomfortably stuck in, to something that she can infuse with purpose and meaning.

One of the hazards of people using their privilege to “make a difference” is that it can further isolate them in their fixed class. But the person of privilege who develops a collective identity that relies on connections with people from different backgrounds creates thereby a porous and agile identity. As Maxine Greene writes, “It’s that you become a person… the more perspectives, the more viewpoints that you can internalize, the more eyes you can look through, the more people you feel are your brothers or sisters.”

Crossing Boundaries for Social Justice

(written for The Christian Citizen: http://www.abhms.org/resources/christian_citizen/docs/CC2014_v1.pdf (pp.

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As more and more schools in the United States shift their social mission from community service to social justice models, this is a good time for churches to explore the implications of this shift for church youth work.  Service projects foster community, expand exposure, and facilitate meaningful work in the world.  However, service projects fall short of the potential for social transformation that is at the heart of churches’ work in the world.  They focus on one aspect of Jesus’ story — namely, Jesus as helper – but neglect another — Jesus as social radical.  What might it mean for youth groups in our churches to connect with the radical side of Jesus?

Healing, giving, and welcoming were as much vehicles for connection between Jesus and people who were different as they were acts of help.  Many of these connections were forbidden.  While Jesus’ message has often been interpreted as “help others,” those stories of helping are also stories of crossing boundaries, models for getting close to people who have been culturally, religiously, economically separated from us.  In a world of hierarchies and inequality, boundary crossing challenges a status quo that holds people apart.  In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), for example, the Samaritan helping the Jew is crossing boundaries of culture and religion: this is what it is to be a neighbor, Jesus explains.

What would it look like to put aside the helping narrative for a moment, and focus on the boundary-crossing narrative?  After all, helping relationships often place us in boundary-crossing situations that are exciting, challenging, and confusing.  Boundary-crossing involves looking inward as well as outward, paying attention to the blocks within ourselves as well as power systems that perpetuate and exacerbate divisions.    The segregation and polarization that rack the Unites States today indicate that we have a long way to go in learning how to cross boundaries.  It is often said that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week — cause for despair in churches like mine, where the congregation would like very much to be more diverse.  Given the challenges of crossing boundaries, how can we hope to guide our young people in living out this part of spiritual community?  Perhaps we should let them be our guides.

The movie The Children’s March opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking in a Birmingham church, urging the African American citizens to come and get arrested with him, fill up the jails, and change the racist system.  The grown-ups stay quietly in their seats.  But the young people start standing up.  King and other Civil Rights movement leaders forbid the young people from getting involved.  Too late!  The children had already gotten the bit in their teeth: the young people of Birmingham, including children as young as 6 years old, mobilized.  Days later, they left school, marched downtown, and were arrested by the thousands.  The “Children’s March” set the stage for the March on Washington and helped to shape the principles, the energy, and the actions of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

The young people were crossing boundaries that their parents couldn’t, yet.   They were defying the rules, limits and expectations of the adult world.  This defiance, the Civil Rights movement came to understand and proclaim, was deeply rooted in Jesus’ radical work of overturning established conventions and assumptions.  Are our churches today supporting the potential of our young people to fight forces of division and inequality?

Youth group parent leaders at my church are experimenting with changes in our approach to community life with our youth group, and exploring the possibility that these changes could also breathe new life into youth programming.  We are questioning our assumptions about what we expect of our young people.  Does our church tap their energy, creativity, and resilience?  Where do these qualities intersect with the theological questions and community life that occupy our church?  Namely, what would it mean to walk with our young people in the tradition of social justice?

We decided to develop a social justice project focused on crossing boundaries – not on helping, on good character, or on bible study.  We are spending the year visiting other houses of worship (temples, synagogues, mosques, churches of different denominations and nationalities), and meeting with the youth of those congregations.  The question we bring everywhere we go is, “What is social justice in this community and what is the role of your religious community in living out the meaning of social justice?”  For crossing boundaries not only carries a political charge; it also sparks inquiry.  It puts us in the territory of questions, dialogue, and the unknown.  We are hoping that the inquiry we are collectively engaged in will help us to learn from one another – Christian from Muslim, adult from adolescent, individual from group – and begin to reconstruct for ourselves what the tradition of being a neighbor, as Jesus described in the story of the Good Samaritan, means for us today.

We are at the beginning of our journey, but one thing is clear so far: the defiant Christian is a very different proposition from the pious Christian.  We began with a trip from the far north of Chicago to the far South of the city, to visit St. Sabina Church, whose priest is a boundary-crosser of tremendous stature.  Father Pfleger, a white pastor in an African-American church, lives out his Christian faith through civil disobedience, breaking the rules, challenging the status quo.  He questions Catholic hierarchies and white Christian piety from the pulpit.

Our young people are standing in a space that they have been separated from by the unwritten laws of segregation, participating in unfamiliar rituals and listening to what people in St. Sabina name as being a neighbor.  They are not doing service.  They aren’t helping anyone.  They are experiencing boundary crossing… and we adults will be listening when they tell us what it means to them.