Renewal, transformation, & social change: some reflections

 “The sisters and brothers that you meet give you the materials which your character uses to build itself. It is said that some people are born great, others achieve it, some have it thrust upon them. In truth, the ways in which your character is built have to do with all three of those. Those around you, those you choose, and those who choose you.” –Maya Angelou

It seemed only appropriate on the 18th anniversary of Cesar Chavez’s passing, and the Easter weekend to take time to reflect on the ideas of renewal, transformation, and social change. Too often, we move through life and forget to take a moment to reflect on the beauty of the moment, and the impact we make on the world around us.  We fail to adequately think about what Maya Angelou calls, “the materials which your character uses to build itself.”  We fly through life without regard to the path we’re following or the journey we’re taking. We can’t see the forest through the trees.

For the past few weeks,  –or really perhaps over the course of my lifetime, I’ve contemplated the importance of integrity in motivating and achieving social change.  As a scholar, teacher, and activist I constantly ask myself if my work stays true to the principles of equality, inclusion, and social change that I believe changes the world in positive and meaningful ways. In essence, how do we practice what we preach?

Not surprisingly in moments of transition you find yourself mulling over these deep philosophical questions.  Although, in this case, this blog post is inspired by transitions that those around me are experiencing.  Working in higher education often translates to being surrounded by transition and change. Sometimes it’s change in thought or practice, changes in location, or as is prevalent around graduation time – life changes.  The most frequently asked question during this time period is, “What Next?”  Unfortunately, I never have an answer?  I sit, listen, and wonder if my students feel as if they’re wasting their time because, clearly, I’m not giving them any answers.  Of course I realize, half the battle is listening –providing a safe space for students, friends, and colleagues to voice the questions running through their mind; to allow them the space to work through the ideas and come to the answers and conclusions they already know.

As a sociologist, you find yourself telling truths about society that many don’t want to hear. You teach about the proliferation if inequality, the impact of gentrification, poverty and homelessness, immigration, health disparities and the ways that race, class, gender, and sexuality matter. For some, they wonder what the repercussions will be if they acknowledge the fact that social inequalities exist.  For others however, they ask “what can I do to change what exists?”  Like many, I find myself heartened by this latter response –and hope that more students and colleagues will respond this way.  However, it’s the former that causes me to lose sleep. In recent year’s I’ve had to remind myself that 1) you can’t please everyone, 2) education is a team/group process –hopefully you started the resistant student on a path of discovery, and, 3) don’t’ try and control, what you cannot control.

As I think out loud about these issues, I am slowly realizing that what I need to embrace about renewal, change and transformation is that we all have our part to play, even if we don’t know the bigger picture.  Today, as we celebrate Easter and the renewal of life, and remember Cesar Chavez’s commitment to social transformation and social justice, I think it’s important to ask ourselves what we can do to change the world.   Dorothy Day once said “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us? “  Let’s start that revolution today.

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Escaping the April Abyss: a Reflection & (a first) Thanks to the Seniors

I’m finally escaping “the Abyss of April.” This month on the college academic calendar is CRAZY. You start the month believing that Spring Break will help you catch up on the numerous projects on your plate, only to face the fact that at the end of that sacred week away from teaching you are still behind. Classes start back up and you realize there is now less than two months before finals and graduation!! For professors this usually means that we have another set of midterms and/or papers we need to collect and grade, student projects to oversee, and the inevitable reality that you over-assigned readings and topics that you still hope you will finish. During this time, we also find ourselves advising –helping continuing students select classes and stay on course to graduate, and the life advising for graduating seniors (which I’ll get back to.) Compounding this –April is admissions recruitment month where we are inundated with events related to recruiting next year’s incoming classes –so add to the calendar dinners, lunches, and coffees. Oh did I forget to mention that every organization, academic and student affair unit has also scheduled some sort of event that they’d like you to attend. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve double scheduled myself –only to be saved from offending my students or colleagues by the fact that I teach evening classes. (translation,: I rsvp’d yes to an event I never could have attended–that’s how busy it’s been). Yes –negotiating the Abyss of April requires a firm hold on the little bit of sanity you have left at the end of the school year. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and my students –but sometimes you just want to slow down, take a breathe, and savor the moment –particularly when you feel like time is flying by.

This May marks the end of my fourth year at the University of San Diego, and over the last few weeks I’ve come to the bittersweet realization that this year’s graduating seniors that I advise (formally and informally) are the first group I’ve traveled the academic cycle with –they started with me at USD and are now moving on to get jobs in ‘the real world’ we’ve ‘prepared’ them for over the past 4 years. This group of students survived my transition into teaching (which wasn’t always pretty), some started the Sociology Major in my Introduction to Sociology, almost every single one of them was tortured/taught Research Methods from me. These students taught me the USD culture, which included: dedication to philanthropy and community service, redefining the terms ‘academic drive,”commitment,” “ambition” and “excellence.” I learned Thursday nights redefined my understanding of ‘club attire’ and that Coachella is a university holiday. I learned the importance of waiver forms when you ask students to do observations on the San Diego trolley (thank goodness my softball player students didn’t have to beat up the man who decided to inappropriately flash them.) I learned the delicate balance between tough love and student support. I’ve witnessed my students’ great capacity to love, and their ability to redefine what resilience and perseverance means. Maybe more than anything else, this group makes me laugh until I’m ready to cry or fall out of my chair –they gifted me with the kind of laughter that heals and sustains the soul.

I’ve watched them grow from 18 year old, wide-eyed fresh persons into the young men and women set to conquer the world. Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve learned that my students are set to start post-baccalaureate programs to prepare for health careers, are enrolling in Masters or PhD programs. Some will work for Teach for America, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or the Peace Corps. Other students are heading to international locations to work for non governmental organizations (NGO’s) on HIV/AIDS prevention, sustainability, or education. While I’ve graduated a lot of really phenomenal and amazing students before –this year is different.

Now as my mind clears from the Abyss of April, I realize what makes this moment special is that that I’ve traveled a parallel road with this year’s seniors and grown up quite a bit too. While I will savor the next five weeks, I know that as they continue on their life’s path –they will do nothing short of amazing things. So, before life speeds up, and time flies by, I’m stopping for a moment to thank each of them for helping me improve, change, and grow.

The Ocean and the Present Moment

“Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.” –Thich Nhat Hahn

My friend once told me that water is therapeutic and cleansing. You dip your feet in and let your worries, stresses, and all other things that ail you wash away with the tide. How easy it is to forget that simplicity can often bring such clarity. The purification of the soul can be found by simply taking a minute to breathe, reflect, and listen to your heart.

I sat and listened to the ocean today –closed my eyes and let the sounds of the ocean wash over me. I heard waves hitting the shore, the sound of seagulls in the distance, and the wind blowing steadily across the water. I felt the breeze (ok, really cold wind by San Diego standards) hitting my face, and could taste the salt water on my lips. I felt the stress fall from my shoulders as I simply sat and listened.

My visit to the beach was not alone; I was with my friend and his 3 children (one of which is my god-daughter. Being around Katya, Emilio, and Nadya (all are under the age of 7_ reminds me of the importance of simplicity. I watched 7-year-old Katya, and five-year old Emilio run in and out of the (freezing cold) waves for over an hour. They challenged each other not to be caught, and laughing when one of them ended up soaked. 2-year-old Nadya dragged her daddy out into the ocean with her and waited for her dad to swing her out of the way of the oncoming waves. Yesterday, living the present moment was the epitome of happiness and a reminder to breathe and absorb life and its many little miracles.