Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Things that make you go "Hmmm..."

Richard Daley unexpectedly announces he will not seek a record seventh term as mayor of Chicago. The announcement leaves potential candidates scrambling to prepare for an election that will happen in just five months.

Shortly after the announcement, White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emannuel resigns and announces his candidacy for mayor. His name recognition, political connections, and financial resources make him the overwhelming favorite for the job.

Then President Obama announces his pick for the new White House Chief of Staff: William Daley, who just happens to be the brother of the retiring mayor.


And now this dude is involved:

Double Hmmmm...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Beloved Community

Back in elementary school, it seemed like every year we did the same art project involving the likeness of Martin Luther King, Jr. We cut his profile from construction paper, colored his face with rainbow crayons, and pinned him to a multi-hued bulletin board near the front of class. This activity was usually followed by the teacher telling us about dreams and how this man, the one with the wide mustache and shiny forehead and chubby cheeks, had had a dream, and how this dream was about a peaceful world without Black and White, and how we were a part of his dream, and how we should never let go of our dreams because he hadn’t ever let go of the dream he had for us. George Washington had a cherry tree, Abraham Lincoln had a stovetop hat, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. That’s what I learned.

And as a young child, King seemed like a kindred spirit. In those days, I too did a lot of dreaming. I dreamed
I would finally get a little brother, I dreamed I would make webs shoot from my wrists a la Spiderman, I dreamed I would finally get to kiss a girl. Rarely did you hear adults talking about their dreams, especially to us kids, but here was a man who was unafraid to share his, indeed had died as a result of his sharing.
But as I got older, and I became (sadly, perhaps) less of a dreamer, King fell out of my favor. I started to realize that it wasn’t just enough to dream about things, that without action, dreams were forever deferred. I started to notice how his talk of dreams was used more often to pacify than inspire people. By high school I was rocking an X hat, a neck full of African medallions, and had little time for a preacher’s dreams.
It wasn’t until I became a teacher myself that I started to see the error in my thinking.

As a young man, it’s hard to shake the crippling feeling that no one is qualified to tell you a daggone thing. I describe it this way because that feeling keeps you ignorant to how dependent you are on other people, and this limits your world-view. But as I became responsible for the education of young people myself, and as I read more of King’s writings and speeches, I saw another side of things. I saw that I had been wrong to think that this man was all about dreams and not about action. I discovered that although he was buoyed by an incredible faith in the goodness of the human spirit, he also took a pragmatic approach towards countering the grim realities of the world in which he lived. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than his advocacy for “Beloved Community.”

King describes the Beloved Community as a system of individuals working together to promote justice and nonviolence in thought, speech, and action. This Beloved Community is by no means perfect, it can only rise as high as the imperfect potential of its human members, but it is based on the premise that all of humanity shares a single spiritual connection. 

It goes like this: If you do violence to your neighbor, than you too are subjected to that same violence. And if you choose to ignore your neighbor’s pain, than you increase and perpetuate your own suffering. King believed that the Beloved Community should strive to provide a social, political, and emotional framework for its members to resolve conflict without violence. He believed that if we could get a critical mass of people to commit to these principles than we could move the larger masses of peoples and governments as well.

Members of the Beloved Community must have an open heart and a capacity to give and receive love. This helps to keep people strong, hopeful, and inspired, even in times of trouble and doubt. But members of the Beloved community must also possess the critical faculties to discern truth from what we merely wish, or fear, was true. These critical faculties provide structured thought that allows for the movement from feeling to action. And King was all about action. He wouldn’t have called people together just for the sake of hearing his own voice. He knew his time on Earth was short, and that the task before all of us was great, so he didn’t have a moment to waste.

For me, teaching is an important part of how I am trying to create and support a Beloved Community. King wrote that the community’s individuals should strive toward a three-part balance. The first part was the degree to which they showed care and concern for themselves. The second was the degree to which they showed care and concern for their friends and family. The third, which of course was the most difficult, was the care and concern they showed for the larger world, all of humanity. As I see it, King’s description of three-part balance should be the standard for any successful education. In a word, school should make us better people, more thoughtful, more capable of community.

This outlook has had a profound affect on my approach to teaching. One of a teacher’s primary objectives, in any subject, should be to foster an environment where development of critical faculties is not only encouraged, but expected. This expectation lays the foundation for Beloved Community because it requires students to interrogate the rigid structures of identity they bring into class and hopefully enlarge their self-concept to include the needs and concerns of others in the classroom and the world.

No matter if we’re rich or poor, from the city or country, Black or White, we all suffer. And we all need to learn to cope with that suffering in ways that don’t create more violence and injustice in the world. If we fail to teach our students this lesson, then we’ll be merely training perpetuators, instead of educating reformers. 

Some students aren’t ready for this type of community; maybe they’re afraid, or brainwashed, or even worse apathetic. And sometimes I’m not prepared enough, or I don’t articulate the message clearly enough, or I don’t even believe in it enough to help my students. But sometimes we do get it. Sometimes we start to truly understand the necessity of striving for non-violence and justice. When that does happen, and when we are able to make our little class a Beloved Community, even for just a few moments, a tremendous power courses through the room. There’s a connection, like we’re doing important work and maybe what we’re learning will help change things for the better. This feeling, unfortunately, often passes when I hand back graded essays, but hopefully some students leave my class hooked enough on the experience to seek opportunities to build more communities, Beloved Communities. This is the critical mass of which King spoke.

I think the real genius of King’s Beloved Community is that it requires so much action from us. It’s not about creating a perfect state devoid of all our woes. It’s not a club you enter to leave your earthly concerns at the door. (King would gently remind us that there’s a name for that place already.) No, this club has a different type of membership policy. It’s not predicated on degrees earned or bank accounts filled or church services attended or essay contests entered. This membership is renewed daily, in our spirit, in our thought, and in our action.