Tuesday, January 26, 2010

FNMI Inclusion and the Bigger Picture

Today I visited a woman at the college who is tasked with helping to develop a strategic plan to increase enrollment and completion rates of First Nations, Metis, Inuit (FNMI) students. I figure if they ask for input (they did), I'm happy to put in my $0.02.

My central idea was if the college is serious about increasing enrollment and involvement of FNMI students then the college should reflect FNMI community, values, and spirit. A big argument for implementing such a wholesale change is that it would also positively affect all students, faculty, and staff.

How would I describe what I mean? My own way of teaching and interacting reflect many of the same values. I operate from a standpoint that my first job is to love them (my students; I have written about how I am able to do this as teacher, not so skilled with the rest of humanity) and my second job is to create an environment where we can be our own supportive community. Measurement (who is first or who is winning) is not of interest to me; although in most of my classes I follow detailed rubrics to determine marks. Everyone is learning (me too); everyone is a potential teacher with real, human wisdom from their own experiences not just from their report cards, resumes, or credentials.

In my public speaking and communication classes people have felt safe enough to talk about very difficult issues. Among other subjects, people have spoken about their own personal experience with childhood sexual abuse, pornography addiction, drug and alcohol addiction, anorexia, being a bully, aftermath of residential schooling family history, living homeless, racial prejudice, etc.

Needless to say, this doesn't happen on the first day, but it does happen within a few weeks. I believe it happens because I have an intention to show up honestly. I am not interested in being the smartest or the bossiest, though I do take the job of holding a safe space seriously. I am not trying to take advantage of anyone. I once had a student make offensive remarks about a photo of a young girl, basically saying she was a slut who probably had sex with her brother. In class I said that I found his remarks offensive but I didn't hammer him over the head. After class, though, we discussed the implications of his "joke." Another guy once made offensive reference to "turban heads." Again, I didn't say too much; I corrected his context (Sikhs do not make up the ranks of Al Qaeda) and mentioned that his remarks were offensive. But after class, I asked him why he felt like saying those things and told him how they could be hurtful. He acknowledged that his dad said things like that all the time and that as soon as he said it he regretted it.

In that same class there was a guy who always made rude jokes and sarcastic remarks. One day I took him aside and asked him if he could give me a fucking break. I explained that I understood that this wasn't his thing but that it was a required course so we were basically stuck with each other and that I was giving him lots of breaks. He calmed down after that and eventually wrote me a golden email to say that he couldn't believe it but he'd actually gotten something out of the class. A lot of learning and healing can come out of being patient and holding the space and being respectful even when people are acting like jerks. Maybe they're just making a mistake or need time.

I'm not saying other teachers don't do this kind of thing, I'm saying that me behaving this way and treating people this way comes out of my wisdom, not out of some program-based expertise or training. Native traditions value wisdom over knowledge. Colonial/capitalist culture values knowledge as a commodity or means to an end.

I also started doing something really simple and powerful--I get my students to sit in a circle or semi-circle. This immediately makes everyone part of the group and equal. Nobody can hide; people are forced in some way to connect; it helps facilitate support. Sitting in a circle is a very basic FNMI tradition. It is a very cheap and powerful way to create a community of learners. My classes are "touchy feely;" on some level you have to deal with yourself as a communicator or public speaker in a way you don't have to in a biology or accounting class. But every type of class can create a community of learners by sitting their students in a circle.

The circle is a powerful but simple example. Perhaps if more people were exposed to the idea they would be moved to try to implement it in their classes, even though it's a pain in the ass because administration looks down upon moving the desks and in many classrooms the desks are simply fixed in place. Sometimes I have even had people sit on top of the desks. Anyway, I believe many people wouldn't be interested in the circle idea because with more connection comes more responsibility and more vulnerability. If I stand behind my podium I am safer than if I integrate myself in the classroom. And, for a student, if I sit at the back, no one will notice me.

Connection and responsibility and vulnerability create and affect each other. Historic FNMI cultures included violence; until I learn more I'm not yet an advocate of any culture's compassionate superiority. But FNMI values and spiritual understandings start with the same idea that quantum physics and yogic thought also share: we are all connected; our energy and actions make a difference. Also, our connection to the earth and to each other carries with it responsibility. We will die; dying and its partners, aging and vulnerability, are unavoidable. Our dominant culture's dominant responsibility is to the financial bottom line, at the expense of the physical world in which we all live.

I believe FNMI people and creative people (especially children) and both men and women with feminine values/energy have lost the most in this culture--through their culture, background, energy, aptitudes, sensitivity, they are simply more able to connect in a community sense and also in a holistic sense, e.g. to the energy of the earth and the damage that has been and is being done--but also the most able to help us out for the same reasons. But who gives a shit about FNMI people or children or creative people or feminine energy in a bottom line culture? (Yes, I include myself in that group.)

p.s. While I enjoy and applaud cultural and diversity celebrations, display booths with Indian art and the odd Native dance demonstration don't cut it.

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