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Updated: 11 hours 45 min ago

Bridges out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 15:22

Before moving to Rochester last August, I was working and studying in Amman, Jordan.

One of my favorite parts about life in Jordan is the culture of hospitality. Within my first few weeks in Amman I met a family and was invited to eat lunch at their house. At the end of the meal, the mother of the family asked me how the food was. My mouth was full, but I still wanted to tell her that the food was delicious. So, I enthusiastically formed a circle with my index finger and thumb while keeping my other three fingers straight.

I was a little confused because instead of being happy, the mother seemed somewhat alarmed and immediately took two steps backward. Several weeks later I learned that the same gesture I was using to say “excellent” is used in Arab culture to threaten someone. Despite my good intentions, my message of “delicious” had been perceived as “I will mess you up!”

In this situation, the mother and I were operating under two different sets of cultural expectations, or hidden rules. As a result, our efforts to interact ran into a roadblock. In order to avoid running into roadblocks like this one while traveling in other countries, many people will use a guidebook. There is usually a section in each guidebook that explains where to sit in a taxi, how much to tip in restaurants, and what type of clothing is most appropriate in different settings. By learning about these unspoken expectations, we are able to have smoother conversations, show respect for others, and navigate around potential roadblocks.

In Bridges Out of Poverty, Ruby Payne points out that these types of hidden rules are not limited only to our interactions with people from countries outside of the United States. In fact, there are very clear cultural differences that separate people within the United States. Payne writes about the differences and hidden rules that exist between people who grew up in a middle class culture, a culture of poverty, and a culture of wealth. She writes about how people in each of these three cultures often think differently about topics like money, food, personality, time, and education.

In the United States, the distinctions between these cultures become particularly important when people who grew up in one culture interact with or work with organizations that are operating under a different set of hidden rules. For example, most workplaces in the US operate using the hidden rules of the middle class. In middle class culture, people are expected to arrive on time for work and appointments regardless of other events that are occurring in their lives. Additionally, someone’s achievements or credentials are often prioritized over interpersonal relationships. By contrast, Payne writes that in a culture of poverty, a person’s likability, sense of humor, and ability to entertain are usually emphasized over their education or qualifications.

Payne points out that being aware of these rules is important for people no matter their culture. When staff at schools, non-profits, and government organizations interact with and serve individuals who grew up and live in a culture of poverty, they frequently run into roadblocks. This can be because staff are operating under a different set of expectations than the people they are trying to serve. On the other hand, individuals who grew up in a culture of poverty can also benefit from understanding the hidden rules of the middle and wealthy classes. Payne does not encourage people living in a culture of poverty to leave behind their culture and assimilate to the norms of the wealthy or middle class. Rather, she states that people should be aware of the norms in different cultures so that they can switch between different rules when necessary.

By directly talking about the differences and assumptions that we all bring to our interactions with others, Ruby Payne has provided a valuable tool for anyone who would like to more effectively improve their own ability or their organization’s ability to build relationships with people from different backgrounds.

To get your own copy of Ruby Payne’s book, check at your local library or order it here.

Two Experiments in Communal Grieving

Sat, 05/19/2018 - 09:00

This past September, more than thirty years after finishing my undergraduate degree, I entered a graduate program on Social Innovation and Sustainability at Goddard College in Vermont. The focus of my studies arose from the work I have the privilege of doing at the MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, particularly in relation to addressing issues of alienation and sorrow that so many people of all ages report.

Specifically I am interested in:

  1. how to support people (myself included) to acquire a new set of lens on the world that includes an understanding of systems thinking, which feels critical for responding to and resolving many human challenges;
  2. understanding grief, and creating avenues for sharing unexpressed sorrow and loss that appears to be pervasive in people of all ages, blocking us from loving our lives and from recognizing our power to make the world a better place.

What follows is a description of two efforts to support communal grief work. The first was with a class studying the apocalypse as a theme in US culture at the University of Rochester and the second was a public event called a grief cafe. These two projects represented approximately forty hours of effort.

Learning from the Haudenosaunee

Dr. Leila Nadir is a professor at the University of Rochester in the Environmental Humanities Program.  We met in August in the garden at the Gandhi Institute, to speak about her fall 2017 class on the theme of apocalypse in US culture and media.  Remembering the emotional hardships of my undergraduate days, when issues of nuclear weapons and annihilation were discussed without any acknowledgement for the emotional impact, I asked Leila if she planned to help her students process any of the emotions that this content would stimulate.  She had not and this led to our collaboration. She applied for and received a small grant to bring her class to Syracuse NY to the Skä•noñh – Great Law of Peace Center. Our plan was two fold: for students to learn about the Haudenosaunee people and their two brushes with near-apocalypse, and for them to experience a communal grief ritual.

The Haudenosaunee, commonly called the name Iroquois given by French explorers, have occupied  the lands of what is now New York State for centuries. According to Haudenosaunee written histories, the first near apocalypse of the people over one thousand years ago was the result of an epidemic of warfare, violence, and even cannibalism.  The coming of the person now known as the Peacemaker who helped to establish the Five Nations of the Iroquois, was in response to this crisis.  The second near-apocalypse was a result of the policies of the English, French and then American governments, particularly the Sullivan campaign in 1779 when American troops destroyed forty Iroquois villages just after the fall harvests.  In addition to killing men, women and children, all food was destroyed in hopes of starving those left alive.

The values that emerged from and sustained the Iroquois people through these events, these twin potential apocalypses, are highlighted at the Skä•noñh – Great Law of Peace Center primarily through art and through more than a dozen brief videos featuring interviews with living Haudanosaunee elders who reflect on the values and traditions.

On Sunday, November 12 I spent the day at Skä•noñh with Dr. Nadir and thirteen students, led by Jack Manno and Cindy Squillace.  Both Jack and Cindy were deeply involved with the founding of the center as allies of the Onondaga people and have served as guides for white people to Haudanosaunee culture on many occasions.  Cindy, who is a grief counselor, led the grief ritual. Afterward, we were joined by one of the elders featured in the exhibits, Freida Jacques, clan mother of the Onondaga Nation. The day was designed to educate the students about some of the events named above and to highlight values and practices that sustain Haudenosaunee people to this day. Below are three student reflections from the experience:

“Learning more about Haudanosaunee culture and storytelling made me think about some of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of what is happening to us and the world around us. The story of the Peacemaker establishing peace without a war particularly struck me; all the previous narratives I had heard, of establishing order, had been preceded by defeating (usually killing) evil. And I guess that was still true in a sense; in a way, the power that evil had over Tadodaho was taken away, but was replaced with a sense of peace and belonging in a way that included him in the peacemaking. It showed that people can change if we have enough emotional reserves in ourselves to let them, and that the capitalist idea of people having their ‘preordained positions’ …is complete nonsense.”

“I was surprised at how moving I found this trip to be.  As someone coming in with little knowledge of Haudenosaunee culture, I did expect the trip to be informative, but I didn’t see it acting as a point of such deep reflection….I think I am not alone in getting alot out of the grief circle we took part in.  I am really grateful that we were able to do that together, and I found it really therapeutic.”

“The workshop on grieving had a very strong impact on me. Over the past few years, I have been spending an increasing amount of time trying to identify and change some of the behavioral characteristics that I had internalized because of the way in which I was raised, and I often felt isolated from my peers. I felt some of that loneliness disappear as people stepped forward to share their own losses and express their own grief at what they had been through. In listening to others share their memories of heartbreak, I felt empowered and more able to express my own pain without worrying about being invalidated or shut down. I also left feeling angry at the idea that we must live our lives in a practical way; so many people go through life without having an outlet for talking about their feelings or allowing themselves to heal from some of the pain that they experienced, simply because of this one assumption. It was an incredible experience for me, and I felt lucky to have been a part of it.”

The Grief Cafe

Last summer, I ran across the phrase ‘grief cafe’.  I liked the phrase as I have heard people express fear of grief rituals and ceremonies, and I wondered if calling it a ‘cafe’ would support interest and curiosity instead. I invited members from my women and race group, Shades of Sisterhood, and my colleagues at the Gandhi Institute to co-facilitate.  At the end, two women from my group and one woman from staff met with me to plan the first two hour event, which took place December 2.

Drawing on wisdom from Francis Weller’s book The Wild Edge of Sorrow as well as our collective past experience, we designed the event to include a welcome, gentle physical movement and meditation, creative exercises, a talking circle and a closing ritual.  The four facilitators decided which pieces they chose to lead and each spoke briefly about their own journey and experience with grief. Six participants attended the event, which was marketed by and hosted at the Gandhi Institute where I work.  With the four facilitators, there were 10 of us in total. All of us participated

After the welcoming circle, we invited silence for the twenty minutes of physical movement and meditation.  Silence continued as people spent thirty minutes in a creative exploration of self-connection, through using provided journals for writing or through drawing and art materials, which were also provided.  One participant elected to simply meditate in lieu of the creative exercise in the meditation space at the Institute. Hot tea was available in the nearby kitchen. Food was not provided, given the challenges many have with food as an emotional crutch.

During the 45 minute talking circle, participants were asked to share what felt true in the moment about their choice to attend and what arose during the quiet of the movement, meditation or creative periods.  One man said he didn’t experience grief and hadn’t cried in years. The only emotion he routinely notices is anger. Other participants shared stories of loss, grief and resilience. Two cried. Another person shared his self-portrait, noticing that in the midst of unacknowledged sorry he drew himself without hands or feet.  He commented, “I have no feet to leave and no hands to help”. After the talking circle, we concluded a closing ritual drawn directly from Weller’s book (p. 163), called the stone ritual.

Acknowledging that this event was an experiment, we asked participants to complete a written evaluation at the conclusion.  On a scale of 1-10, the average of the forms received back was 9.

Closing Reflection

Gandhi and King both spoke about suffering as a redemptive opportunity.  Father Richard Rohr speaks of love and suffering as the two great paths to transformation.  I would like to learn how to support people to turn the straw in their lives into gold, to take the loneliness and fear that we carry in our separate selves and bring them into the potential for fellowship and systemic change that can occur when we share our deep pain in community.

Interested in attending or helping to create a grief café in your school, neighborhood or community?  Email kit@gandhiinstitute.org and we’ll make it happen.

Shaking Hands with Nonviolence

Mon, 04/23/2018 - 14:24

In my school in Berlin, all the eleventh-graders have a project called “Alle Ins Ausland“ (Engl. “All Abroad“): Every student has to go for three months in another country, to work and live there. The project has to be preferably social, ecological and/or cultural. The assignment is to volunteer somewhere and stay with a family there.

I was sure that I want to go either to the US or to England, to improve my English. I wrote e-mails to all of my family members and friends and asked them if they know someone in the US or in England. My mother’s sister has two friends living in Rochester. The two had the idea that I could work at the Gandhi Institute and stay with Barbara van Kerkhove and her great little family. After exchange of contact and Skyping, it was fixed, on March/24/2018 I was going to fly to Rochester, New York.

I’d never before heard of nonviolent communication and nonviolent living. I have the luck to live in Germany, where this fortunately does not matter too much. We have small crimes and drug trafficking, but not as much as in other countries.

Very excited and with no idea what will happen in these three months, I sat in the plane via Frankfurt and New York City to Rochester. Never before had I been in the US or outside of Europe. After a lot of different movies in the airplane and the long waiting period before immigration, I arrived after 24 hours of traveling, in Rochester at 11:30pm, received by all great people who helped me organize this project, those who I can stay with and those who are helping to make this project unforgettable.

On the next morning I ate pancakes for the first time in my whole life. Today, I‘ve eaten them more than just once. In the next days I get to know America better and I´m still fascinated. Grocery stores that are opened for 24 hours all week, very tasty hot chocolate consisting of hot water and powder, and especially the way people always greet each other nicely, no matter if you know each other or don’t. Surprised that the Americans don’t have a word to say “Guten Appetit“ (maybe: “have a good meal“), I got to know more tasty things like, French Toast and Grilled Cheese.

And then my work at the M.K. Gandhi Institute started. I got to know a lot of new and very friendly people and also the figure Mahatma Gandhi, his story and his goals. I didn’t know that much about Gandhi either, I only watched the movie about Mahatma Gandhi, a very long time ago.

Kit Miller gave me the book “Legacy of Love,“ written by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and the “Gandhi Knowledge Cards,“ developed by the Gandhi Institute. Through these very interesting presents I get to know Mahatma Gandhi and his convictions better.

I had the luck to participate at the Nonviolence Intensive in my second week in the US. There were a lot of interesting topics and activities. It was difficult for me to understand everything and to concentrate five hours a day, but I learned a lot nevertheless.

I got to know the nine non-physical needs of the human and learned what happens if they aren’t available. Also I learned how conflict can arise in different situations and how to handle those. Another interesting topic for me was how to build a community and how to build trust in different communities. It would be interesting to know if Germany or the US are built on those important basics. In the end, I learned the rough basics of nonviolent communication, I think this is very important and I hope that I can get to know it better during my three month stay.

It also was very interesting to talk with all the different 50 participants in these four days. Through those conversations I got to know the problems of Rochester, NY and the whole US. Many told me about their work in schools and I noticed that this is very different than Germany, unfortunately often negatively. The very bad or almost nonexistent health care for people surprised me too. It is a pity that those important things are problems in such a present and big country like the US and some people have to suffer from it.

Apart from the bad things that are happening, I learned a lot of different things during the days of the nonviolence intensive and I met a lot of very friendly people. I also can say that about the people I met at the Gandhi Institute. On my first days I was received and introduced graciously. Several times I got the offer to do activities on the weekends with different persons to get to know Rochester and the surrounding area better.

I like it very much that the people in the Gandhi Institute don’t have any disputes and all are having conversations on a friendly level. Belonging to this, the people are always asking for real answers and are interested in how you are doing, you can almost always tell what you had experienced and what your feelings were in this situation. There is also room for this during the Check-ins with small or in big groups, that sometimes happen during the week.

Also you notice that there is almost no hierarchy here, that is a goal of the Gandhi Institute, in my opinion this is very remarkable. Because of this, everyone gets a task to keep the house clean, for example I do the dishes every day.

Also there is a wonderful and big garden beside the Gandhi Institute. I love to do gardening, because you get time for reflection. Or you can just think about nothing important and you can switch off and relax. And after a few days, weeks, or month there is an beautiful result, mostly colorful.

Recently I’ve worked at School No. 12 too. Every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday I help at the after school program and play or do homework with the kids of the sixth, seventh, and eight grades.We always try to get outside, but this only works if the weather is good. Sometimes it is hard to have a conversation with the children, because most of the students are just learning English (my English isn’t that good either) and those native languages are Spanish or Arabic. Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun the few times I went there and I´m happy that I can go there now several times a week.

A little bit more than two month are left before I go back to Germany and I´m very happy to be here and hope that I will learn and experience a lot of different things.

In the end, I want to say thank you to all the people who made this project possible and great: Barbara, John, Piper and their wonderful huge family, who I live and eat with and who are showing me Rochester and the surroundings. Jennifer and Jenny, who helped me organizing this project and do different interesting activities with me. Kit, Jamie, Maria, Alex, Izzie, Matt, Hoody, David, Erin, Spero, and Nick, the people who work at the Gandhi Institute and have received me greatly, who are showing me nonviolent living, giving me something to do, and who do different things with me on the weekends. Thank you!

M.K Gandhi Institute for Non Violence

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