Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Round of Encouragement

Working toward the goal of living in a more just world can sometimes be a discouraging line of work. We fight against apathy, ignorance, computers, ourselves, and many other barriers on a daily basis. But then every once in a while, there comes that momentary ray of glimmering validating sunlight that reminds us why we do our work and that we really are accomplishing things after all. I have been very blessed to have been given two of those wonderful moments in the last few weeks that are still clearly impressed on me, and that I want to share as a means of encouragement.

The first was more than a moment, it was a whole afternoon of glimmering light. Last weekend, I attended a conference in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan entitled "A Broken Dream: Human Rights in Urban America" which was put together by the university student organization Human Rights Through Education (HRTE). The conference began on Friday with the screening of a documentary entitled "The Vanishing City" which talked about gentrification issues in New York City. The Saturday portion of the conference featured Chazz Miller (Public Art Workz) speaking on art as means of empowerment in Detroit, Mo Abdollahi (ONEMichigan) speaking on the DREAM Act and immigration issues, and Nusrat Venimiglia (Equality Michigan) speaking on her work against bullying towards the LGBT community. I found out about this conference because one of my good friends from middle school is a part of HRTE and spent the last year working to make this happen. It was like a breath of fresh air to go to another university and hear about work being done in different communities, to hear college students getting hardcore about issues of social justice, to hear them having the same kinds of conversations that we have in our staff meetings at the Service-Learning Center, to be able to get excited and talk with my friend about things that we didn't know we both cared about. It was very much a thing of beauty.

The second glimmering light came at the bi-annual Spanish service-learning agency meeting. As the coordinator for the Literature, Languages, and Arts division of the college, this is something I organize at the beginning of every semester. I create a place where agency partners can come talk about the work they are doing in the community and how students can get involved, and where students can come listen and learn and then talk to agency representatives and get connected. My very favorite part of the meeting every time is after the students have left, when the agency representatives and I stick around and chat for a bit. I love getting to know them as people and seeing them talk to each other and learn about each other's work in the nonprofit sector. This semester, two of the agency representatives turned out to be old friends that had lost contact. When they saw each other, they both got very excited and greeted each other with this huge embrace that was very heartening to see.

These two rays of light beaming into my world have been very instrumental in helping me to see my work through a wider lens. It's very easy to get bogged down on failures or just on the magnitude of the work that remains to be done for the bringing of the kingdom. For those of you feeling overwhelmed by these burdens, let me give you this encouragement: look around you and be stregthened in your resolve by the fortitude and passion of those working for justice in your world, in your country, in your state. Be encouraged by those working right alongside you in your community. Be renewed by the sense of common purpose not only with those who believe the same as you, but also with those who may believe very differently than you, yet who are still carrying on wonderful work. Stretch outside of your normal circles to look for commonality. I tell you now with all confidence, you will surely find it!

Posted by Angela Svaan

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dwelling in the Grey

We were talking at our staff meeting last night about part of Dan Butin's "Service-Learning in Theory and Practice," particularly about what it means to dwell in the grey. In the chapter we read, Butin is writing about various ways to theorize service-learning, one of them being an approach he calls "antifoundationalism." This obnoxiously-long phrase means something just as vague as the word itself: it's about challenging our biases and assumptions, avoiding an end goal which is too-easily achieved, and forcing us to remain open to different ideas and continue hard discussions. In short, antifoundationalism is about seeing the world in shades of grey.

Which is hard, eh? (I don't know why my Canadian side is coming out so much right now... hmm, maybe it's an unconscious attempt to challenge your assumptions! Just for clarification since I will continue to refer to the US as "our country," etc., in this post: I'm American, but my mom is not. And sorry to any non-American readers--it's a convenient shorthand, though an ironic assumption for this post...) Anyway. We were sitting at our meeting wondering how well our office does at the job of encouraging dialogue on the 'greyness' of life and service, which is an important question to ask, when I realized how inadequate I am to help lead that discussion. I struggle with allowing grey in my own life.

Personally, I am far too prone to trying to figure things out in my head, reducing them to black and white so that I can form an opinion about them and proclaim it boldly. It's tiring to dwell in the grey! It can be exhausting to never settle, to continuously probe for the other side of the story, to sweat long and hard in the dirty dig for truth. So, sometimes I long for easy answers that simply work, no matter what. But I don't think they exist. We're often guilty of thinking they do, but the reality is that things in life are never--yes, I think that's an appropriately-strong word--black and white.

This interim I took a class on war. I had been to Vietnam and Cambodia last interim to study the Vietnam War (or, in their words, the American War... interesting switch of perspective, eh?). I also was able to spend time in Bosnia this summer studying the war there and reconciliation efforts in the wake of the violence. My worldview was literally exploded this year, expanding so fast that I'm still not even sure what's happened--sometimes, all I know is that the world is much bigger and more complicated than I once thought. It hit home again over interim: war--in fact, all of life!--is not black and white. My war class frustrated me because of its over-simplicity, because of the way we often focused exclusively on the American military, neglecting to engage really deeply with 'other' (non-mainstream-American) traditions, voices, points of view, beliefs about what is just and right. Maybe we would still end up in disagreement. But the 'other' still deserves legitimacy. To assume that the story of our own country's interests is the only proper metanarrative to use in explaining war--and the rightness and wrongness of what happens there--is a scary, scary problem.

I think there's a connection here to the work of the Service-Learning Center. Part of our work is to take Calvin students, a majority of whom still come from the same socioeconomic, racial, and educational background, and expose them to the 'other.' It doesn't stop there, of course--from that exposure we hopefully move to relationship, challenge, questions, acceptance; hopefully we move from focusing on our own ability to serve to humbly being served ourselves, and from giving charity to learning how to really love. It can be a transformative process, a really beautiful and challenging thing. But a large part of that process is the difficult and terrifying piece in which we let go of our assumptions. In studying war, that means acknowledging that the 'other' was fighting for a cause he or she believed in just as legitimately as your own country's soldier, and that the lives of 'other' soldiers and their families are just as valuable as the lives of your own people. It's a difficult (and often unpopular) thing. It challenges the way we act, if we really believe it. In service-learning, a similar thing happens, but in our context, it means asking difficult and terrifying questions that challenge our assumptions about our own motives, privilege, efficacy, pride, and wisdom--asking whether or not, at the end of the day, we actually have offered anything to to our neighbors after all. That's not always popular either, but it's the greyness we must dwell in if we're going to be engaging our community as authentically as we ought.

It's not simple. There are too many people with heart-wrenching stories and valid perspectives for life to ever be simple. War is not simple, once we start to hear the stories of refugees and Iraqi soldiers and Afghani store owners and American Marines. Loving and serving and learning with our community is not simple either, once we start to hear the stories of partner agencies, homeless alcoholics who have been abandoned by their churches, pastors who sacrifice every evening to work with refugees, parole officers, store owners involved in urban renewal, and refugees from wars... no, none of it is easy. The truth is not black and white. It's complicated and grey, and this is the reality of the world we live in. Thank God we're in a place where we can embrace it. Let's keep doing so.

Posted by Kelly

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Institute on College Student Values

I had the privilege of attending a small conference last weekend - the John C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values at Florida State University in Tallahassee. There were about 200 other conferees in attendance, from as far away as Alaska and Maine and California. Keynote speakers included Parker Palmer and Marcia Baxter Magolda, both of whom were excellent in their own ways. Workshops touched on topics ranging from Reflective Practices, to a better understanding of the Strengths Inventory, to an explanation of Aristotle's ideas about Eudaimonia. Two other workshops were offered by Calvin folks, in addition to mine, which was on Covenant-Making as Orienting Practice.

Ashley Pace, Calvin senior and Service-Learning Center student staff member, gave what may have been the only presentation by an undergraduate student at the conference - she talked about her summer research on findings from the CIRP and NSSE national surveys - trends that relate to how students are affected by service-learning practice on college campuses. And a group of three Resident Directors - Aaron Einfeld, Kyle Heys, and Annie Mas-Smith - presented on 4 practices in Calvin's Residence Life experience that foster benevolent purpose in Calvin students. I learned a lot, met new people, and came away with a deeper appreciation for the work that is done by way of the Service-Learning Center at Calvin College.

So many of the ideas that were presented were ideas that are essentially already underway, if not well established, in our office and among our students. For this we can be grateful. Do we have much to learn from others in different institutions? Absolutely. I made contacts and took notes, and have plans for sharing information and strategies with our group over the next several weeks. For now though, I am grateful for the opportunity to attend the Institute, yes; but more importantly, to return to work.