Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bayou - A webcomic after my soul

Bayou by Jeremy Love (ZudaComics/DC) is gorgeous. I've glanced at webcomics over the past few years and i've been amused and even delighted by some - particularly Scott McLoud's brilliant work. But i can't say as i have been wow'ed by any and my loyalty to the crisp, new still-got-the-smell-of-fresh-ink comic book has remained strong and intact. Now i am wow-ed. i noticed a print edition of Volume 1 of Bayou a few weeks ago in my local comic book emporium, The Beguiling, and i was sorely tempted to grab it immediately and, save for my weekly take (which had maxed my budget), i would have. A friend, knowing of my passion for comics, e-mailed me the link to ZudaComics (about which i knew nothing - thanks, Matt), and i was sold. Nor am i worried about my passion for the printed comic being diminished in any way.

Bayou is a comic that shines with light which, in the case of the on-line version, is literally true. The artwork, filled with earthtones of brown and mauve, sunset spectrums of orange and pink and fading yellows, is delicious. The style of drawing is a cross of bluthian cartoon with a dash of Walt Kelly's Pogo, and includes beautiful attention to facial expression. (It's somewhere in the realistic-cartoon zone of Scott McCloud's Big Triangle typology.) The elegance of the drawing is an excellent contrast with the horror and monstrosity that pervades this story - both the horror of racism of the early-20th Century American South and the horror of the fictional monsters who populate this tale.

The story is layered (or perhaps 'refracted' is a better descriptor) with the history of racist discrimination against former slaves, references to the African American folklore (Jeremy Love mentions being inspired, albeit problematically, by Disney's Song of the South and Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus Tales) and to comic book heroes such as Swamp Thing (a misunderstood monster who is, in fact, a champion). Bayou certainly shares some qualities in common with Swamp Thing. The story, however, is incomplete (with 225 pages on-line as of today) so it is to be seen what kind of champion Bayou proves to be. Lee Wagstaff, the young female protagonist, however, is a heroine with much good literary company: Mollie Whuppie, Buffy, Sarah Crewe, et al.

As i implied, i'm hooked. This webcomic is both an excellent on-line comic and a great story. I anxiously await further installments.

Raising Children with Moral intelligence

Now that i am a father of a soon-to-be 10-month-old (as well as a step-father these past two years to a teenager and an 8-year-old) i find that all that i do, read, see, and know gets immediately evaluated for its relevance to the kids. Ahhh, parenting.

My thoughts this week have turned to the teaching and learning of the young. Robert Strange McNamara's death has evoked an outpouring of renewed anger at the role he played in sending tens of thousands to their deaths as well as the murder of millions of Vietnamese (during the US's still-"undeclared" war). Joseph L. Galloway of McClatchy Newspapers wrote this scathing commentary that has drawn much fire (and i recommend reading the comments which moved me with the intensity of the hurt and anger that persists so many years later). Galloway's pithy assessment of McNamara is a cautionary note to us all: "McNamara was the original bean-counter — a man who knew the cost of everything but the worth of nothing."

It was Howard Zinn's words in this Democracy Now piece that pushed me to think about what we are teaching our children:
Well, assessing the legacy … It seems to me one things which we should be thinking about, is that McNamara represented all of those superficial qualities of brightness and intelligence and education that are so revered in our culture. This whole idea that you judge young kids today on the basis of what their test scores are, how smart they are, how much information they can digest, how much they can give back to you and remember. That’s what MacNamara was good at. He was bright and he was smart, but he had no moral intelligence. What strikes me as one of the many things we can learn from this McNamara experience is that we’ve got to stop revering these superficial qualities of brightness and smartness, and bring up a generation which thinks in moral terms, which has moral intelligence, and which asks questions not, “Do we win or do we lose?” Asks questions, " Is this right? Is it wrong?" And McNamara never asked that question. Even when he was leaving, even when he decided he had to leave the post of Secretary of Defense, even when he left, his leaving was not based on the fact that the war was wrong. His leaving was based on the fact, well, we weren’t going to win.
Looking at and assessing report cards is a relatively new thing for me. Grading, in particular, is something i've managed to avoid since i was in highschool. But i have had to grade almost 500 undergrads this past season. And i find myself looking at our kids' report cards for some insight into exactly what they are learning. It's easy to understand the marks for math and science and such. But what of their moral intelligence? It seems to me that our institutionalized mass education system still privileges those "superficial qualities of brightness and intelligence" that Zinn points out McNamara had in abundance. And i think of Hannah Arendt's assessment of Eichmann (Nazi 'architect' and manager of the Holocaust) in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil - perhaps not as highly educated as McNamara, but arguably a "normal" person (according to many psychologists who assessed him) Eichmann proved capable of horrifying war crimes. Nor did McNamara's education and greater intelligence (according to Arendt, Eichmann was not that intelligent) stop him from committing war crimes.

So i wonder about our expectations for our children when it comes to excelling in school. And just where and how are we teaching them moral intelligence, as Zinn suggests is so important? I've plucked Robert Coles' The Moral Life of Children (Houghton Mifflin, 1986) off my bookshelf for a re-read (a couple of good summaries of Coles' work can be found here and here). Coles has been a great inspiration to me over the years (not least because he's simply a wonderful writer). He talks about his work with Ruby Bridges, a young black girl who, when school desegregation laws were implemented in her town in Louisiana, famously attended class alone for many months as the parents of white children refused to let their children attend school with a black child. Ruby was six. Coles wrote:
Why not, too, think of the child as moral protagonist or antagonist - as in the South's racial conflict? Ruby, at ten, looked back at four years of somewhat unusual school attendance. A black child, she walked past hostile mobs at age six to enter a once all-white school in New Orleans... Her view of her experience? "I knew I was just Ruby," she told me once, in retrospect - "just Ruby trying to go to school, and worrying that I couldn't be helping my momma with the kids younger than me, like I did on the weekends and in the summer. But I guess I also knew I was the Ruby who had to do it - go into that school and stay there, no matter what those people said, standing outside. And besides, the minister reminded me that God chooses us to do His will, and so I had to be His Ruby, if that's what He wanted. And then that white lady wrote and told me she was going to stop shouting at me, because she decided I wasn't bad, even if integration was bad, then my momma said I'd become 'her Ruby', that lady's, just as she said in her letter, and I was glad; and I was glad I got all the nice letters from people who said I was standing up for them, and I was walking for them, and they were thinking of me, and they were with me, and I was their Ruby, too, they said." (p. 9)
It's easy to romanticize kids and their capacity for a seemingly "natural" wisdom. But Coles makes the point well that context and environment are as significant as whatever psychological capacity a person might have. Not that it is the context alone. But rather a perhaps more mysterious alchemy of personality, environment, family, etc. Zinn drives home this point about environment when he says:
Yes. Listening to Jonathan Schell and Marilyn Young about McNamara’s, well, his anguish and all of that, I understand what Jonathan is saying about the fact that you can’t find anybody in the Vietnam War or in other words, anybody at that level who is going to do anything in dissent, who is going to speak out. So, what does that tell us? I mean it’s true, it’s absolutely true. But what does that tell us?

I think it tells us that once you enter the machinery of government, once you enter the House of Empire, you are lost. You are going to be silenced. You may feel anguish and you may be torn and you may weep and so on, but you are not going to speak out.
A sobering warning. And i wonder how any of us would do in such circumstances. The still-controversial Milgram and Stanford prison experiments, for all their contradictions, still present us with humbling challenges to our self-conception.

I am interested in the links between popular education (which i consider a profoundly moral pedagogy) and child-rearing and childrens education. I can't help but feel that mostly we are doing things profoundly wrong. Already, at the age of 8, our daughter has developed a dislike for school and many of its ways (even while she loves the time she gets to spend with her friends). I hate how we teach our children to fear and loathe learning. And i suspect that this loathing that we are so good at passing on is instrumental in creating characteristic opinions of incapacity, e.g. "I don't know how to draw", "I can't sing", "I'm not a good writer." It doesn't have to be this way.

So, to conclude these meandering thoughts, a story and a quote from the abundance of jewish wisdom:
Once, the great Hassidic rabbi, Zusya of Anipoli, with tears in his eyes and fear in his voice, spoke to his followers: "last night i had a fearsome dream in which I learned the question that I will be asked about my life after i am dead. "

"I stood before God and said, "I tried all my life to be like Moses who led our people from slavery? I have sought to exercise wisdom and share learning as Solomon did? I have always sought to be faithful as Abraham was."

But I will not be asked, 'Why were you not more like Moses? Why were you not a better Solomon? Why were you not an Abraham to you people?'

His followers asked, “What will you be asked?”

He answered, with a trembling voice, "I will be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
Finally, Rabbi Hilllel, over 2000 years ago, said, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

Monday, July 13, 2009

Naming the Moment & Community Development

I thought i'd write a fresh intro to the Naming the Moment process looking at it from the point of view of community development.

Naming the Moment is a popular education method for doing social change and community development work.

There are two fundamentals upon which NTM is based:
  1. Creating just relationships (i.e. anti-oppression alliances, coalitions, etc.) for the long term necessitates making LEARNING a central feature of social change
  2. Change happens in society both incrementally (e.g. through institution-building, education, etc.) and suddenly when there is a conjuncture of various forces (political, economic, ideological, etc.) in a moment of crisis. (Naming the Moment sprang in large part from a process known as conjunctural analysis developed from the work of Paulo Freire, Antonio Gramsci and others).
Naming the Moment is a means by which people can learn to “read” these conjunctures (and the flows of forces that lead to them) and to predict to some extent the occurrence of and nature of such conjunctures.

Naming the Moment is a popular education method and thus a participatory and collective approach to learning that is based on social justice values and anti-oppression principles; it explicitly resists oppression and any unjust use of power; it seeks to build solidarity amongst individuals and groups resisting oppression; and it is a form of capacity-building for groups and individuals. It typically involves groups of people who share, in common, either geography, class, work situation, or some other form of identity (or set of these) and who therefore have the possibility of collective action to change the world in which they live. Popular education resists the structures of learning and teaching that create authoritarian experts and passive non-experts. Through democratic dialogue and using a diverse set of means of creating knowledge (e.g. talking, of course, but also including the use of art forms such as drawing, murals, ‘zines; popular theatre forms such as skits, sculpture, sociodramas, Theatre of the Oppressed; structured learning exercises of many kinds, etc.) popular education puts the tools of resistance into the hands of so-called ordinary citizens. It is a means of sharing power or practicing “power with” and of resisting “power over” as Starhawk suggests.

Naming the Moment has four steps or phases: Naming Ourselves, Naming the Issues, Assessing the Forces and Planning for Action. Each of these represents distinct goals and objectives for the collective work of sharing and analyzing experience and knowledge.

Naming the Moment is a dynamic process that grew from roots and connections between Canadian and Latin American educators. Developed within the Moment Project and led by Deborah Barndt (a ten-year effort within the Toronto-based Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice) it has continued to evolve as has its cousins in Latin America.

The Catalyst Centre, a popular education worker co-op in Toronto, has developed Naming the Moment by identifying and naming previously implicit steps creating a seven-step process dubbed Seizing the Moment. The steps include: Setting the Stage for Democratic Communication, Naming Ourselves, Naming the Issues, Crafting Meaning, Planning for Action, Taking Action and Evaluation. In Latin America – Mexico, Peru, Nicaragua, et al – a similar process has been developed and is called sistematizacion. A difficult word for English speakers and difficult to translate as well, nonetheless, the concept of systematizing knowledge is one that is also key to Naming the Moment.

Systematizing is a crucial aspect of popular, participatory processes that desire to have positive impact on the world, i.e to advance positive social change. The strength of popular education participatory processes is the success these have in drawing out people’s experience, sharing this in a creative and even compassionate manner and affirming the struggles that individuals undergo. Not surprisingly, this is also the weakness of participatory processes. A common mistake is to facilitate a wonderful sharing of experience and to leave it at that. This is called go-aroundism: everyone gets their few minutes, shares their two cents, it gets noted on flip chart and then the facilitator thanks everyone for coming and the meeting adjourns. Lacking here is the struggle to identify patterns in experience (allowing for agreements, challenges and dissent), to explain those patterns, critique them and then to negotiate and affirm those patterns that are consistent with our values and resist those we deem oppressive.

This identifying and explaining of patterns is nothing less than theory-making. However, to call it this often relegates this practice to the domain of academics and intellectuals. Popular education processes recognize that everyone makes theory all the time. Anytime we answer the “why” of things, we are venturing into theory-making. Popular education recognizes that theory can be made through dialogue (i.e. democratically, critically, creatively). But more than that, when we make theory this way, informed by social justice values, anti-oppression and anti-colonial politics, we make better theory! Finally, this theory-making need not happen only in the halls of academe, far from the messy and noisy streets of our lives, but can happen – in fact, MUST happen – in the midst of life.

This is what Naming the Moment and sistematizacion is all about: the making of transformative theory from the raw material of shared experience and collective knowledge and doing this within the messy challenges of life (including feeding each other, providing daycare, licking envelopes, making phone calls, providing assistance to those who need it in order to participate, and so on). Systematizing means that we do not simply accept everyone’s understanding of their own experience as the ultimate truth of that experience. If we are going to find patterns that connect and that can change things for the better, then sometimes we need to challenge each other’s understandings (even of our own experience). Doing this with compassion and respect is a fundamental popular education ethic. A key challenge is to move from the simple collection of anecdotes to the systematizing of that experience in order to tell the stories of those patterns that connect. Systematizing isn’t merely a fancy word for theory-making. It is democratic and participatory theory-making for social justice.

But, as noted, sistematizacion is a mouthful for an English-speaker. It’s not a word that runs trippingly off the tongue. Nor does conjunctural analysis help matters much. Thus the phrase “Naming the Moment” which has the advantage of being understood quickly in a common sense sort of way. But it also acts as a powerful metaphor and statement of intent: one goal of Naming the Moment is precisely to identify the patterns of change and to name what is going on such that it can be changed: name the moment, as it were.

The Catalyst Centre’s development of Seizing the Moment merely fills in some of the pieces, locating the original four phases of Naming the Moment in the more complete cycle from planning and preparation to implementation (of whatever actions were developed) and evaluation. Seizing the Moment also encourages a stronger action footing than “naming” suggests.

So what’s this got to do with community development? A popular education approach to community development has several distinct advantages and at least one very powerful (and often deal-breaking) disadvantage.

First, the disadvantage: it takes time. A popular education approach to community development takes a great deal of time. And the structure of society, the structure and availability of funding, the urgency and magnitude of the work that needs to be done, most often compels organizers, activists and agency personnel to seek faster more expedient solutions. Put quite simply, a democratic and participatory process of social change that treats with equal value the means and ends is one that needs time. Information can be shared quickly - and all the moreso in our hyperspeed, hyoer-wired world. Learning, however, takes time.

The advantages of this approach are numerous especially given that it accomplishes a number of things simultaneously: relationship building, collective analysis, theory-making, policy development, skills training, and much more. It is community development for the long haul.

One final thing to call attention to is the role of documentation in all this. Naming the Moment has always put great value on documenting the process well. This is important both for practicing democratic communication as well as preserving a collective memory over the years. Thus the documents that follow:
Newsletters from the 1991-1992 Series of Naming the Moment Workshops:
  1. Oct 1991
  2. Nov 1991
  3. Dec 1991
  4. Jan 1992
  5. Feb 1992
  6. March 1992
  7. April 1992
  8. May 1992

Friday, July 03, 2009

Popular Education and Pop Music

My mum sent me this video (thanks, mum) knowing that the cleverness of the "rainstorm" would appeal to me. As it turns out the hand-rubbing, finger-snapping, thigh-slapping, foot-stomping sequence is an activity that i have done with groups for over 20 years. I've always used it as a focusing or calming exercise. It works wonderfully as a way of closing a workshop and it has many other uses, i am sure. This Slovenian choir's use of it as an intro to their cover version of Toto's Africa is inspired. And the foot-stomping which each of the rows does sequentially is outstanding. And i confess a fondness for the occasional pop song.

Here's a downloadable activity description of "Rainstorm" which you can use with groups. Try it. It's a moving activity, one that i always find connects me with a deep stillness in the world.