Formative and Memorable Events

Unlike the other participants in SPP, I took the course for credit at MIIS, and the credits were added to my Fall semester workload. It is now December 14th, and the end of the semester is just around the corner, BUT I have not finished all of the supplementary work I need to in order to receive academic credit for SPP. I could easily beat myself up for not being more proactive and instead waiting until the last minute to write blog posts, but, in all honesty, I am thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to go back over the readings and my notes and reflections from SPP…even though it is now four months after the program ended. I feel like this is giving me an opportunity to revisit three of the richest and most challenging/inspiring weeks I’ve ever lived through. I also appreciate how this is forcing me to refresh my knowledge on the topics we covered because it is apparent that I didn’t retain as much as I could have (or wish I had!). Fortunately for me, I still have all of the course materials and I am just as interested in peace building as I ever was before. This is also a good reminder that I will be a lifelong student of peace building and I should always be revisiting what I learned in the past.

With that said, instead of continuing to analyze some of the themes/topics and lessons learned from SPP, in this blog post I want to write about two formative events that took place at MIIS this semester. I think they directly relate to what I studied in SPP and they keep popping up in my head as I revisit the SPP curriculum.

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The first event was having Dr. Peggy McIntosh as the keynote speaker at the annual conference put on by the Center for Conflict Studies (the center is directed by Dr. Pushpa Iyer and organizes SPP every year. I also had the opportunity to work for CCS during my first semester at MIIS). This year’s conference was titled: Breaking Through Shades of Color: Transforming Race Relations and Conflict.

This was the fifth annual conference put on by CCS, and they now have quite a reputation for brining together inspiring activists, artists, academics, practitioners, among others, for three days of storytelling, panel presentations, discussions, films, theatrical performances, community building, and so much more than I can ever express. The point I’m trying to make is that these conferences are special. It is not your traditional academic setting where experts talk about what they’ve accomplished/what they know and open it up for questions. Instead, the CCS conferences encourage a much more interactive experience where thought leaders and newbies come together and learn in a dynamic space that is conducive to sharing, reflection, and analysis through deep/crucial conversations and activities. I really love these conferences and hope to attend many more in the future.

Before I revisit her keynote address, I want to say that Peggy McIntosh was one of the most influential scholars on my late teenage/early twenty years). I still remember reading her famous article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” when I was 17 years old and the speechless awe I felt afterwards. How had I lived on this earth for almost two decades and was completely oblivious to how much unearned privileged I carried with me everywhere I went simply because of the color of my skin? Sure, I had explored issues around racial injustice and knew there were systems in place that disadvantaged people of color, but I was overwhelmingly oblivious to how deep this issue permeated into the very structure of U.S. society, and also the extent of advantage and privilege it gave me. Fortunately, Peggy McIntosh (and the help of several other inspiring and patient mentors) woke me up!

Remembering how Dr. McIntosh had shaped my teenage years and played a pivotal role in inspiring me/helping me to become an advocate for racial equity and social justice throughout my time as an undergraduate, I felt very fortunate to get the chance meet her this past November at the conference. And, just as my expectations alluded to her being great, she was truly magnificent. 🙂

Dr. McIntosh spent a good amount of time sharing her story of how she came to realize both her white privilege and internalized racism. She humbly spoke about how she would often feel noble for working with people of color during a time when few others would. Yet, she recalled that she was still looking at her coworkers of color as if they were lesser or different than her and her white counterparts. She was tolerating them, but she was not accepting them. Dr. McIntosh then compared this to the way she felt when her male coworkers would allow her to work with them, but they usually failed to acknowledge her abilities, intelligence, and potential. Something clicked for her back then, and we have all reaped the benefits. Since beginning to understand the way in which her behaviors and attitude were not supportive or accepting of people of color, her journey as a feminist and anti-racism activist took off.

In addition to sharing her personal journey, Dr. McIntosh asked the audience to participate in a reflective exercise. We divided ourselves into pairs and were given two minutes to share openly about advantages and disadvantages that we’ve all faced in our lives. Whoever wasn’t speaking would listen actively, but without showing any emotion whatsoever, or responding to the person talking in any way. After two minutes the speaker and listener would switch. We also did a second round where we talked about things we have done to weaken systems of oppression around us, and things we wish we had done. Rereading this on the screen, my words don’t exhibit the powerful experience that this activity created. Although my partner was a good friend of mine, I learned things about his identity and past that I would never have learned otherwise. I also discovered aspects of my own privilege, as well as deep regrets around specific events, that I hadn’t given myself the opportunity to explore. In less than ten minutes, the entire audience had been transformed and the energy in that auditorium seemed completely different.

However, this activity is just one example of how her keynote address was able to challenge the audience to think in new ways. When I think back on the other parts of her talk, one phrase that has consistently stood out to me is “I am a body in the body of the world.” I won’t retell the story of how this phrase came about, but I think the point Dr. McIntosh was making is that that we are all connected through our humanity – the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful that lives in each of us – but, at the same time, each one of us is also unique and moves through the world in their own beautiful way. As I continue to reflect on what she shared, and also what I experienced in SPP, my goal is to learn to embrace this way of viewing humanity so that I may do a better job at dismantling my own biases and assumptions about what is appropriate, right, normal etc…After all, I am only one body in the body of the world, but I can make that one body stronger and wiser if I am intentional and committed. Perhaps I’ll start by reading every paper by Dr. McIntosh that I can get my hands on. 🙂

 

Musings on Culture

As I reflect on SPP, I find myself thinking a lot about culture. It seems like the more I study or use culture, the more aware I become of it’s complexity.

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I’ve always appreciated the iceberg model and the idea that culture is divided between observable and unobservable characteristics. What we often see immediately when we meet someone new is obvious cultural characteristics like attire and language, but it takes much more time and dedication to decipher what lies beneath the surface –e.g. core values and learned behaviors.  Things like “concept of justice” and “attitude toward the environment” are certainly not visible to someone who merely observes or engages in light interaction with someone of another culture.

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I also like the idea of culture as a toolkit. I’ve never thought of culture as a set of assets that you can utilize as you need – but it is exactly that! Culture is a toolkit of learned values and behaviors, and that toolkit is unique to each person, even though there are commonalities among members of a specific community, geographic area, ethnic group etc… For me, this metaphor helps me better understand how our own cultural identity is a combination of multiple components, and that certain aspects are useful/helpful in certain situations, perhaps while being a hindrance or barrier in others.

The above metaphor also tells me that I will not always have the right tool for every situation. Really, I could look at part of my life’s work as expanding this cultural toolkit so that I am better prepared for challenges in multicultural or foreign/unfamiliar setting, but I know that there will always be more tools to acquire and old tools to be sharpened.

Going back to SPP now, I appreciate how Dr. Pushpa Iyer talked about cultural analysis as an essential component of peace building. How can one ever understand a conflict without examining the cultural landscape of the parties involved? This is similarly expressed by Dr. Kevin Avruch, who wrote about the necessity of cultural analysis in “Conflict Resolution in Intercultural Settings; Problems and Prospects.” In this chapter (and also when I saw him present in my intro to conflict resolution course at MIIS last year), he explained that that we must perform cultural analysis on ourselves. When analyzing a conflict, we are, in a way, bringing ourself into that conflict and therefore must understand where we are coming from. For example one must be hyper aware of when and how we confront moments of “non comprehension and unintelligibility.” Instead of dismissing these, or glossing over them with value judgments, we must try to understand why we don’t understand, and then take it a step further – attempt to learn how to view what was previously unintelligible  to us as normal/regular/essential etc… In this way we are building upon our ability to empathize, and also strengthening our understanding of cultural norms and identities that are very different than our own.

I now find myself reflecting on all the times I thought something was strange or crazy when I lived in Laos or Tanzania, and even how I made fun of certain norms or traditions. While I was certainly not right to do that, and sincerely hope I will be more open minded in the future, I appreciate the memories for showing me how I could have done a cultural analysis on myself at the time. 

An Abundance of Privilege

I wrote this post in August, but for some reason never actually published it. I guess now is as good a time as ever!

It’s hard to believe this three week course has come to an end. What an incredible journey it has been: inspiring students from all over the world who have influenced me to challenge my assumptions and opinions; practitioners, academics, and activists who have made me revisit my personal code of ethics and make sure I know what my values are and why they are so important to me.

I feel truly honored to have participated in this program, however, I am currently so overwhelmed by all that we have learned and experienced that it’s hard for me to pick something specific to write about here. Instead, I think I’ll return to the two things that have helped ground me throughout this entire course: yoga and singing.

While at Mt. Madonna, I snuck away from the group several times to pass quiet moments in the yoga shala. On one such outings, I began to sing some of my favorite songs. One that seemed appropriate at the time is a song called “Beautiful Day,” by India Arie. I made a recording of the song on my phone while in this peaceful place and you can click the link below if you would like to listen to it.

This is a song that I often sing when I’m stressed out, but in this particular instance, I began to reflect on my most common theme this class: my abundant privilege. One: I’m sitting alone in a peaceful yoga studio at a retreat center in one of the most stunning parts of California. Two: I happen to be at this retreat center as part of a course for my master’s degree in development practice and policy. Three: I’m singing a song about how I can make any day beautiful simply by choosing to open my heart and mind to the lovely things in and around me (a choice that is perhaps/probably not available to people who are constantly bombarded with violence or oppression). Four: I could go on and on and on and the point remains the same. Most people do not have the opportunity or time to improve their surroundings by positive thought. I believe we must already be in a zone of heightened privilege in order to do that. I know that this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t continue to embrace my optimistic nature and attempt to see things in a positive light, but I do need to better understand why/how I am able to do this.

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