Thursday, June 2, 2011

May, 2011: Learning Experiences

Early this month the 15 students in this photo traveled with me to the state capital in Salem, Oregon. The trip helps make real what we were learning in our State and Local Government course. This learning experience included scheduled interviews with legislative leaders, the Attorney General (chief prosecutor of the state) and the Secretary of State (who may well become a future Governor). This was the eleventh such excursion I have taken students on over my now 24 years of teaching at Portland Community College. Experience tells me that this day will be remembered long after other memories from this course grow dim. That is because it is empowering. What fear or awe they may have had of politicians is dispelled and they come to see that every person can make a difference with their opinions if such are acted upon.

These groups also often develop friendships lasting into the future. That is no small accomplishment when considering the diversity often displayed among them. This group of 15, for example, include people ages 18 to 48; folks who are gay, lesbian, transgendered, and heterosexual; identifying themselves as Republican, Democrat, Green, and non-affiliated; two who have been homeless for much of the past two years and two others who have experienced jail time for past transgressions; highly skilled students and others struggling to develop skills. What now they have in common is respect for one another and a willingness to help each other learn from one another. They now know that the real learning experience involved not going anywhere, but simply developing relationships amongst themselves!

Just a year ago my wife and I were leaving India and beginning our travels in Italy. We find that much is remembered but nothing so fondly as relationships that blossomed into friendships. As Kris and I celebrated our 28th Wedding Anniversary this month, for example, we are now also reminded that our family friends Stand and Shanty celebrate theirs also just two weeks later! Time for a phone call half a world away in India! Though the connection did not allow for clear conversation, that was of little importance. The thought really is what counts most. I remember my students at St. Thomas College with the help of a fine group photo and the occasional emails which also find their way to me from the busy lives they lead. Yes, we all go on with our lives, but the relationships which serve to ground each of us are rooted in the shared learning experiences of the past. When my friend Ken Isserlis and his wife Nancy shared a meal with us two weeks ago, the fact that we had not seen each other for five years simply gave us more to catch up on in our sharing!

To the extent I am able, much of my life energy is devoted to providing learning experiences for others – which I now more consciously hope will draw the human family together. Beyond the classroom this month, for example, I made formal public presentations regarding Drug Cartel Violence in Mexico, Poverty in India, Corporate Globalization & Water, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and The Relevance of Nonviolence (which was aired on cable television). I was also involved in sponsoring events which focused on the May arrest (and, thankfully, release) of Mazin Qumsiyeh by Israeli soldiers in Palestine, a Memorial Day Tribute to the life of Dorothy Ackerman (a Korean War Veteran who is Native American), a fundraiser for Tsunami Relief for the still suffering people of Japan, and two public showings of the film ``3 Idiots`` intended to reduce student stress with the coming of Final exams next week.

The three biggest life events impacting us this month include Kris finally receiving a new prosthetic leg to replace the one that was ten years old and literally destroyed during our travels last year. We are hopeful that an initially painful adjustment to the new leg will soon yield to her having improved physical mobility. A second event involves my employer`s surprisingly speedy response to a Political Science Program Review which forcefully requested the need to have an additional full-time faculty position to better serve our students. Within days the request was granted and I was told that, for the first time I could teach full time on one campus of Portland Community College (rather than two campuses) and be replaced by a new full-time person on another (effective in September). A third event revolved around a seminar I arranged for those joined with me in developing a foundation for dramatically expanded International Exchange Programs for students and faculty at my institution in the future. Great progress was made which increases my hope that U.S. students may be able to exchange places with Indian students at St. Thomas College within two years (and that other such exchange programs will follow in tandem with this).

Learning Experiences already abound in our lives but can certainly be nurtured to expand to touch more and more others. As relationships grow locally and expand globally, the Gandhian vision I hold dear of one world empowered to heal itself may become a greater reality. The chill of the Cold War has passed and the chilling effects of the War on Terror are being resisted. Many hearts are being warmed by the heroic examples of people demanding greater democracy and human rights throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Their demands for empowerment and justice should be made ours also. Even as climate change is having many adverse impacts (a springtime here later than ever, tornados in the U.S. Midwest more dangerous than in decades), even our common climate can be positively impacted by cultural change becoming manifest this month. The painful experiences associated with the nuclear power meltdown in Japan, for example, together with a very active Green Movement, has prompted even the Conservative government ruling Germany to declare both a complete phasing out of nuclear power production by 2022 as well as a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% over the same time period!

Who knows but that one or more of the students featured in the photograph above may make a decisive difference in helping this world better realize its peaceful potentials? Long after our soul leaves the body we have been given and our individual names are lost to history, those we touch and they touch will continue to be empowered if the learning experiences we promote are continued. Whether or not the reader shares my faith in a spiritual life after death, surely the rippling effects of relationships can be seen. Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Mohammad, St. Francis and many others live on as they are embodied in our imperfect lives. A new spring will come to life on earth and ought we not be willing to nonviolently sacrifice in our lives to bring the warmth of kindness to others? Peace be with us All.