Building Just Communities

Thanks to a BLC Travel Grant I was able to attend the Building Just Communities conference that took place from October 8 to 11, 2015, at Howard University in Washington D.C.

The conference was organized by the Association of Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACHME), an interdisciplinary organization that brings together educators from 1,100 universities and colleges. These institutions of higher education are interested in a holistic liberal arts education that integrates academic training and research with personal reflection and civic action.

Previous ACHME conferences have focused on bringing contemplative practices to the academic classroom. Following that line of pedagogical interest, a few years ago in Amherst, MA, I presented at the ACMHE conference on the results of my BLC research on fostering creative teaching and learning, which culminated with the creation of my course, Borges, Buddhism and Cognitive Science. This course integrates short meditations in every class as a methodology to deeply inquire about the processes of the mind that Buddhism and cognitive science present to us, and to which Borges alludes in his evocative and metaphysical short stories. In 2015, the focus at the ACHME conference was on engaging students in a different kind of contemplation: one on how to work towards social justice. This time, another of the fruits of my research with the BLC about creative teaching and learning, my Spanish course on Telling the Stories of the Undocumented, was the focus of my presentation.

In 2015, the focus of the 9th ACMHE Conference was on developing awareness and methodologies to bear witness to unjust situations in our society and to work together in building nurturing and just communities. The main theme of the conference was Moving from Familiar Methods (practices of sitting with awareness and compassion) to New Methods (of beholding and bearing witness for restorative justice and creating bonding through sharing stories with common human experiences).

Some of the key questions were:
*How to inspire our students in this work and orientation of being witness for social justice and of cultivating peace and change?

*How to engage traditionally and newly marginalized students (African American, undocumented, disabled) in creating meaning and contributing their voices to shaping classroom enquiry?

The goals of the presentations and discussions at this Building Just Communities conference were to explore ways of nurturing interpersonal connectedness in the service of social justice and the creation of community among all people struggling for justice.

Again and again, as we discussed with colleagues—mainly from US academic institutions—we came to the understanding that the work is to be done at three levels simultaneously: Intrapersonal (self-inquiry—examining positionality and privilege, beginning with the self); Interpersonal (nurturing interpersonal connection in service of social justice—honoring lived experiences and perspectives); and Intersystem (Real change can happen if we all work together).

For real change to happen, we really do have to inspire students, engage everyone, and realize that injustice is global. The first step is to realize that we are all in this together, and that we have the responsibility and the power to bring forth the world we want to inhabit. Then, we can all reflect and contribute to make changes within our sphere of action towards a more just and sustainable world.

My presentation at this conference was titled Giving Voice to Voiceless: Telling the Stories of the Undocumented. To begin, I proposed to my audience a basic question: How can we prepare our students to transfer what they learn in the classroom to serve the broader community?

I shared with them that, in my own case, several years ago that question had taken the form of: How can we inspire students to engage in building just and nurturing communities both through writing (and publishing) and through service? And that the answer I arrived at—through meditation—was to create the course Spanish 102C (Biographical and Autobiographical Writing: Telling the Stories of the Undocumented).

In that course, students are assisted in developing their voices to tell true stories of their plight as undocumented, or that of their relatives, friends and classmates, and those of people they have met while volunteering in a legal service NGO or at a bilingual school. Students volunteer throughout the semester at Oakland International High School and at East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, using their Spanish in semi-professional environments to help those most in need. In the last weeks, each student selects her/his own story that they like the most, and translates it into English. Throughout the semester, students help each other, as editors and assistant translators, to hone their stories.

Those stories are then published in a bilingual anthology, to be able to reach a wider audience to raise awareness of and care for the plight of that invisible population of twelve million undocumented who live in the shadows in the US. Copies of the bilingual anthology are also given to the students to take back to their families and communities and are available at the UC Berkeley libraries.

In the interactive session I facilitated at the Association of Contemplative Mind in Higher Education conference, I shared effective methodologies I have developed working with the Latino population and with undocumented students. I also invited conference participants to reflect on ways they can apply these methodologies in their own settings.