Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Magnificent Gift You Came Here to Share: Commencement Address at Great Lakes Waldorf Institute, Milwaukee, WI 7/24/2015

Let's begin with a poem by Joy Harjo:

Eagle Poem

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like the eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River.
Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon, within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.
Congratulations and thanks to each of the graduates, for stepping forward to courageously embrace this immense task of Waldorf teaching.

We each chose on some conscious or unconscious level, to be here in this particular time and place. What is this time and place? We are facing an unprecedented human-made ravage to the planet: climate change, peak oil, toxins in our air and water…. Exacerbated by these conditions, we have multiple wars, genocides, and holders of power clamping down in desperate attempts to keep their power. Just look at Scott Walker, acting on behalf of the Koch brothers, and the damage systemic White supremacy is raging. Those on the margins—people of color, low-income, immigrants, differently-abled—are being pushed further and further out to the periphery. Meanwhile, our youth, who serve as our barometer for well-being, absorb all the tension and struggles of our times. Without needing to understand the issues, they act out the inherent contradictions of our times. In their growing bodies and in their interactions with each other, they provide a microcosm of current and ancestral struggles.

Through it all, my mentor and inspiration, 100 year-old Grace Lee Boggs says, “This is a wonderful time to be alive.” Why? According to Grace and other visionaries, we are in a time of transition, a great turning. Grace feels the 21st century is just as epic a time of change as the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and from agriculture to the industrial age. Now we are in a post-industrial, post-oil, even post-jobs age. What does this mean, and what will we make of it? We don’t know what our future is going to look like, but we have the most beautiful possibilities ahead of us.

Grace points out that the deepest human need is to feel useful, as if our lives have meaning and purpose. But what does that mean in a city like Detroit with 60% unemployment? With deindustrialization and globalization, there simply are not enough jobs to go around. Beyond jobs, how do we make ourselves useful?

Beyond utility, philosopher Charles Eisenstein notes, we each came with a magnificent gift, and our task in this life is to share that gift. Deep inside, we may believe that there is something that makes each of us unique. And that there is some, perhaps not obvious, perhaps not necessarily immense nor momentous gift, that we each harbor. It needn’t be a showy gift, nor a gift for the masses. But it’s something that is particular to you, that can only come through you. It may be an evolving gift, or a gift you grow into as you age. The magnificent gift may be different at age 10 than at age 20 or 40 or 60. What is the magnificent gift you came here to share? Don’t answer right away—take it into your contemplation.

As teachers, not only are you here to share your magnificent gift, but also to cultivate and receive the magnificent gifts of those you teach. How do we do this?

I moved to Detroit because the rapid changes in this period of humanity are very clear, and the city has been experiencing de-industrialization since the 1950s. The struggles in Detroit are very real: water shut-offs, the Wall Street-fueled bankruptcy and alleged recovery, corporate land grabs, poverty…. But the people of Detroit are nothing if not resilient, creative, collaborative, and fierce. When I go to nearby Ann Arbor, sometimes well-meaning middle class White folks comment, “How good you came to Detroit to help.”

No, not at all. I’m not helping. I’m here to learn, hoping not to be a burden. I’m hoping to contribute to the community, not to save it, or build it from scratch, or to extract what I want from it. The community doesn’t need me, or anyone else to rescue it. I can only hope that I don’t get in the way, and that if I lean in and add my shoulder to the wheel, we can turn it together. Anyway, Detroit doesn’t need rescuing. It has always been vibrant, through thick and thin, over centuries. It has survived ravages from all sides, and will continue to.

As such, let’s stop thinking of what we do as “service.” All too often, service means “a have” giving something to “a have-not.” It requires inequality. What if we are all “haves”? What if the person in the soup kitchen food line is someone with far more resilience, creativity, and stamina than I have? What if we are all “have-nots”? Walking wounded and traumatized, trying to heal ourselves in whatever way we can muster.

Stop helping. Stop being a martyr. Instead embrace the messy give and take of building beloved community. Building beloved community is partnership and collaboration, not a top-down gesture. Building community is horizontal, helping is vertical. Not that you don’t embrace leadership or responsibility, and as teachers, you remain the adult in charge in the classroom. But building community instead of service means we have to make ourselves vulnerable. It means we share the same risks as others in our community. We dismantle our privilege to be in kinship with others in our community.

To do this, we have to embrace difference while rejecting otherness. For instance, as a person of color, I identify with the Black Lives Matter movement. I and others in my family have experienced state violence, discrimination, and abuse. We have been victimized by White supremacy, and experienced daily microaggressions. However, I recognize my experience as an Asian American as different from African Americans. I recognize my light-skinned privilege and other privileges I benefit from, such as class and educational privileges. I acknowledge the daily danger my Black comrades endure as different in degree and kind from my experience. To conflate my experience with theirs would be insensitive and dangerous. We mustn’t pretend that we are all the same; we do not live in a colorblind society. To honor another’s experience is to really listen, learn, and embrace difference. At the same time, we must reject otherness by tapping into our shared humanity.

Speaking for myself, my immigrant parents raised us kids to succeed in White society. They moved to the USA to take advantage of opportunities unavailable in war-torn Korea, and they wanted us to maximize these opportunities, which meant assimilating into the White-dominated cultures of the suburbs, universities, and workplaces. However, as I became politicized and more aware of power dynamics, I soon came to realize I had more in common with other people of color than with White people. We had similar histories of oppression and colonization, and similar experiences of ongoing discrimination.

Detroit is an 85% Black city, which is reflected in my neighborhood. While politically I identify more with the struggles of the Black community than the White mainstream, I find that I experience just as many microaggressions and othering from Blacks as Whites. Just because various peoples of color have parallel histories of oppression doesn’t mean we understand each other or feel comfortable with each other. We may inadvertently “other” each other, which can show up as exoticizing (“Wow, do you eat kimchi?”) or fetishizing (“I just love kimchi!”) or alienating (“that kimchi sure stinks”) or stereotyping (“you people eat nothing but kimchi”).

It takes sensitivity and practice to find that space where we can affirm our differences, not “other” each other, recognize our shared humanity, and not lapse into colorblindness, which is really a failure to recognize privilege. We have to caucus with folks of our own race to support and learn from each other. White allies, take it upon yourselves to educate and support one another in developing racial consciousness.

We have to practice cultural humility more so than cultural competency. We have to be willing to make lots of mistakes, learn from them, forgive ourselves, and grow. Cultural competency assumes that we can become familiar and competent with those of different cultures. Cultural humility assumes that there is always space to learn, that we cannot fully know another’s experience, and that we must be willing to humble ourselves to be called out, corrected, and to shed deeper layers of ignorance in order to understand and empathize.

The Waldorf community in Milwaukee is exceptional for its racial and economic diversity. As you know, in most other cities, Waldorf education is relegated to middle and upper classes, which, in the USA, means majority White people. Teaching a racially and economically diverse class of students means you will need to put yourself into the shoes of people quite different from you. This requires humility: a willingness to ask, research, and learn. My teacher, BKS Iyengar, noted, “What I know is not important. It’s what I don’t know that is important.” That is the essence of cultural humility.

I hope you will always prioritize Waldorf pedagogy as education for liberation, and recall that Adolf Hitler closed Steiner schools in order to control the population. I hope you will always choose the side of the oppressed, those pushed to the margins, those who have been silenced and made invisible. Let’s not make Waldorf schools a ghetto for the privileged. Let’s make Waldorf education more relevant and necessary than ever, by using this amazing resource for the purpose of freedom and liberation during this era of the Great Transition: from fossil fuels to renewable energy, from jobs to meaningful vocation, from capitalism to sustainable and equitable economies, from the story of the separate self to the story of the interconnected self. You are educating the generation that will be imagining, innovating, collaborating our way into this next stage of humanity. Teach them well. The particular skills are unimportant, because rapidly changing technologies require ever evolving skills. But capacities are most important: the capacity to teach oneself, to relate to others, to empathize, to imagine, to collaborate, to be fearless, and much more.

Charles Eisenstein describes our era as a time of two competing narratives: The Story of the Separate Self, and The Story of the Interconnected Self. The story of the separate self emerges from traditional Eurocentric Cartesian thinking; “I think, therefore I am,” and the concept of individuality. It’s related to a mindset of scarcity, and a feeling of “what about me?” The story of the Interconnected Self says (in Eisenstein’s words):
·       That my being partakes of your being and that of all beings. This goes beyond interdependency—our very existence is relational.
·       That, therefore, what we do to another, we do to ourselves.
·       That each of us has a unique and necessary gift to give the world.
·       That the purpose of life is to express our gifts.
·       That every act is significant and has an effect on the cosmos.
·       That we are fundamentally unseparate from each other, from all beings, and from the universe.
·       That every person we encounter and every experience we have mirrors something in ourselves.
·       That humanity is meant to join fully the tribe of all life on Earth, offering our uniquely human gifts toward the well-being and development of the whole.
·       That purpose, consciousness, and intelligence are innate properties of matter and the universe.

We are so much richer together than apart. My money is worth more when I share it with you than when I hoard it in my bank account. My house is more valuable when it is filled with people. My dinners are more interesting and nutritious when it’s a potluck. My songs are better when you sing or play along.

Let me leave you with a poem I wrote last summer, a prayer as you venture out into this next stage of your lives.


may you surge like a michigan storm
may you cover the sky in seconds
and explode into brilliance and deafening thunder

may you drop back into the unknown
extend your hands and trust the earth will hold you
may you catch the rebound of your arms and legs
accept your dharma and embrace your fall

may you love like a pack of wild dogs
may you love for the sake of loving
with no expectation of return
may you grow more foolish with each heart opening

may you forgive yourself like trees forgive droughts
may you catch yourself in your own delusions
may you see yourself as your great grandmother sees you
may you gloat in unearned grace