Youth patriotism in Russia — What is it really?

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“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.

 

 

Against an Economy of Learning

DogBeach1.3sm

 

Dog people in Chicago know that Dog Beach is a space of boundless curiosity, delight in strangers, and freedom.  Usually dogs live their lives bounded by separate houses, yards, streets; their encounters with each other and the world are multiply controlled. At Dog Beach I never see fights; tensions are quickly dissolved in the sand, the flying feet, and in the sheer multiplicity of dogs.

We human companions exult in our dogs’ romping that so pungently expresses our own love of play.   Even when we aren’t partaking of the sniffing, capering, pissing extravaganza, we do loosen up with the other humans on the beach following their dogs around.  We are all offleash.

The dog beach is the best analogy I can find to the mode of learning I saw during my night at the San Francisco Exploratorium last Thursday.  Hundreds of people running around following their noses, their senses, leaving their marks in sand, in light, in sound waves, reeling past crazy mirrors as omnipresent and enticing as the lake here at Chicago’s Dog Beach.  A dazzling display of curiosity.

Exploratorium

I had stumbled upon Adult Night at the Exploratorium, which I think much more closely resembles Dog Beach than the usual family experience during the day.  While the Exploratorium specializes in “offleash” play, “Adult play” at the Exploratorium is an especially offleash experience.  True, kids don’t get enough chances to play and explore, but generally they get more than adults.  And adults are cripplingly play-deprived.

For me it was a novelty to be at the Exploratorium without kids in tow, observing, wandering, listening, touching – just taking it all in. I realized how habitually I formulate, distill, analyze, express – focusing on output and not a whole lot on input.

Back in schools, we teachers also habitually concern ourselves with the output of our students; the economy of learning in this country dictates that the value of inputs is measured by output.

Play defies this economy.  Play is input that resists measurable conversion into output.  This doesn’t mean the input just sits there though.  When I look at some of the ripples of the input of my childhood experiences of the Exploratorium, I realize they are actually waves – forceful and generative.  For example, playing with the many different kinds of mirrors in the Exploratorium, the way faces and bodies merge, shift, and multiply, entered into my developing understanding of multiple and overlapping identity.  It drew me to be fascinated by complexity and ambiguity, and attentive to patterns – interests that enable me to keep learning.

Giant Mirror Exhibit at The Exploratorium

There is an extravagance and dignity to the activity of taking in without having to put out right away.  It is vital that people have as much access as possible to exploration that is not constricted by forced output and rigid measurements, whether they be tests for children or evaluations for adults.  Even in places like Chicago, sorely lacking an Exploratorium, we can trust in “offleash” play to help our children — and we adults — grow as human beings.

The Outsourcing Game

 Our Pakistani exchange student has stirred up my interest in an issue that I hadn’t given much thought to before.  For his exchange program, he is required to choose a social issue in his home country to address while he’s here in the U.S.  He started out planning a project about making better traffic rules for drivers in Pakistan, so that streets would be safer for pedestrians.  That seemed like a good project, but it was a stretch for him to think about it; he didn’t have a burning interest.  I asked him why not focus on the issue that he has been talking about since the day he arrived: the drone attacks on Pakistan. 

Mateen decided that his project would be to do what he was already doing — asking people questions: “Do you know about drones?” “Do you think drone warfare is making the U.S. safer?” “Why do you think the Pakistani government doesn’t stop the drone attacks?”  “What would it take for the U.S. government to stop the drone attacks?”; and collecting stories, statistics, and research about drone warfare.

Mateen has converted me.  His questions have got me asking new questions.  I already opposed drone warfare, but I hadn’t been connecting it to other issues.  For instance, when Malala Yousafzai’s visit was the lead story in the news a few weeks ago, Mateen asked, “why is there all this concern about education for girls in Pakistan but not about the girls who are being killed in the drone attacks?”  He got me wondering if the media hype around Malala was a diversion, as Murtaza Hussain suggests in an article asking why no one was listening to 9 year-old Nabila Rehman testifying before Congress (though only a handful of Representatives showed up to hear her) about the drone attack that killed several members of her family.

But what Mateen’s questions have also helped me to notice is the phenomenal expansion of the outsourcing game.  Drones allow the U.S. to do an end run around the public institution of the army, to conduct warfare without public consent or knowledge.  Similarly, paramilitary forces both within the U.S. and abroad are instruments of warfare by remote control.  Until I started digging a little deeper, I assumed that such instruments were more efficient because they could be precisely targeted and leaner to operate than the unwieldy public institutions of police and army.  But when thousands of innocent people are killed in drone warfare and in paramilitary strikes, we must ask how well it works to wage war by remote control.  And how do remote control policies evolve when their use abroad has played out and the drones come home?

Of course, the U.S. weapons also provide excellent cover for the governments of the countries we’re attacking.  These governments are also skilled players at the outsourcing game: in Pakistan, the U.S. drones handily assist the government in controlling its tribal areas.  Who is the puppet master here; who is the puppet?

The big boys can worry about the question of who is controlling whom.  My question is if we as a public really want to be playing the outsourcing game at all?  Because if we continue to allow public knowledge, debate, and oversight to be bypassed through outsourcing, we are just being played for fools.