Scholar, writer, editor

Category: Archived (Page 1 of 8)

Why One Educator Tells Bullies And Their Victims To Take It Outside—Way Outside

This post was originally published on GOOD.Is on 2 May 2017.

I learned to teach in a nontraditional classroom. It rarely has a roof or walls, and my students are not always younger than me. My only direct lessons involve tying climbing knots or how to keep people safe in trust-based activities. I observe more than I lecture. Over the course of a day, if I am doing my job well, I listen more than I speak.

For over 20 years now, I have been lucky to be a participant in, and then a facilitator for Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience, or COPE, a program in the Boy Scouts of America. That listening is a full-body activity becomes more apparent when the classroom of the day includes the wind blowing over a lake, redtail hawks soaring overhead, and squirrels chattering.

When participants in COPE programs in Killingworth, Connecticut, leave the school bus or their cars, they walk over a causeway between a lake and a lagoon, and then up the dirt road into the field. Once there, they enter a new space where how they learn is turned on its head. Technically speaking, the methodology is pulled from the theories of John Dewey and Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development—forming, storming, norming, and performing—but it falls under the ever-expanding umbrella of “team building.”

We ask our participants, who range from scouts and school groups to college athletic teams and corporate groups, to be open to new experiences. At a time when 3.2 million kids are bullied every year, we also talk about what discounting—dismissing another person’s thoughts and feelings—means.

Our no discounting policy is strict: Everyone has value and the ability to contribute. Everyone else can teach us something about our world and ourselves, even if we think we have nothing in common. Once we stop discounting and create space where everyone is empowered, we learn that we have far more in common than we might initially think. And then, we walk further into the woods.

We talk about “leave no trace”—the idea that we can leave the outdoor space in a better condition than we found it, and act as good custodians so that the next group of people has the opportunity to enjoy this piece of wilderness. We talk about challenge by choice, and how this not only means that no one will be forced past their own boundaries, but also how their attitude in approaching challenges can determine what activity they might be offered next.

Our activities include obstacle courses and brain teasers that build skills as we move through different sequences. As the degree of difficulty and risk steadily increases, so does the group’s reliance on each other. Reaching the final goal of rock climbing or completing a high ropes course becomes a progressive lesson in learning and practicing communication and reflection skills.

Indeed, after every task, the groups debrief. They might be asked to reflect on something to be celebrated in another member’s efforts, or something they would change about their own. They might be asked to identify how they worked together and what roles they take on in the group, or where the learning moments were. Unlike a multiple-choice exam or a short-answer pop quiz, there are no wrong answers. The students are only building a tool kit that we hope they access after they leave.

But most significantly, as each program closes and our staff comes together for our own debrief, we discuss our highlights—the things that could have gone better, and our own opportunities to learn. I have found that there is an intrinsic empathy necessary to teach students to push outside of their comfort zone, face their fears, and learn to see the world in a different way. The discomfort of not only forcing oneself to live another’s experience in a particular moment, but also to actively search for a way to help is one of the hardest things to overcome. Perhaps, as the needs of classrooms change and the world shifts beyond all of our comfort zones, this lesson is more relevant than ever.

Not everyone can afford “mindfulness”: Freelancing and the things the self-care industry takes for granted

A version of this post originally appeared on Oxygen Blog’s “The Zeitgeist” in 2019.

By all accounts, my life is stressful. I’m balancing both finishing a PhD and getting married via a highly international, cross-cultural wedding in the next year, with applying for jobs, and setting up what the next academic project will be. My current moment life is in some ways the most stable, least hectic and least stressful, and most supported period of my life thus far. For the first time in a very long time, I’m not working multiple jobs, or commuting hours per week and watching the cost of doing work eat into the earnings of said work. I don’t need to worry about what I’m going to eat, where I’m going to live, or if I need a week of relying on public transportation or even taxis if I don’t have the energy to walk around the city dragging twenty books with me everywhere. I’m supported by both my fiancé and my college in such a way that my basic needs – and beyond – are taken care of. Because of this, I can afford to have weekly therapy appointments and take yoga classes on average four times a week, and visit a physical therapist as needed to deal with the mental, emotional, and physical ramifications of a stressful life while also being a productive scholar, writing when I want to, and doing volunteer work I care about. I am incredibly privileged to be able to put my mental, physical, and emotional health first, in a holistic way, the way in which the current attitude towards “wellness” or “mindfulness” peddles as the secret to happiness in an ever-more precarious world.

From college campuses to corporate strategy to what feels like every fifth Instagram hashtag, “wellness” and “mindfulness” sometimes seem to have replaced the chi bracelets and essential oils of several years ago (never mind yoga-as-cure-for-all-ills) as the “health” movements du jour. It’s a wonderful fantasy – if only we could all just tap into a sense of inner peace, live our lives more deliberately, well, we’d all be so much healthier. We’d all just be able to put aside our stress and insecurity and precarity and be happy with what we have. Again, it is a wonderful, wishful fantasy, that the right mindset is all one needs to overcome all odds.

However, it is also an attitude towards health, and what it means to be healthy in society, that is highly problematic in the face of structural inequities that consistently undermine the security of society’s most vulnerable, on top of being incredibly classist, racist, and ableist, as well as often Orientalizing or co-opting specific cultural practices to fit Western narratives of “wellness.” Like most “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap” arguments, such thinking puts the onus on the people struggling to “just do better”: as such it is a form of victim-blaming that ignores that it is only possible to buy into these movements if you are not struggling just to cover your basic needs.  One very concrete example of this as explored by Christine Byrne for HuffPost US is the swell of “simple” or “budget-friendly” cooking tips, to keep children and families healthy. However, as Byrne explores, most of these tips and cookbooks actually ignore that such practices as bulk-buying and relying on instant pot recipes require a certain amount of time and money that the proponents of such measures take for granted while essentially pointing a finger and crying “why don’t they just…” in the direction of people struggling. A budget crockpot or slow-cooker on Amazon is about $40 – the most inexpensive instant pot I could find was about $68. The fact of the matter is that if you already work multiple jobs and are still not sure about being able to feed yourself, you are not going to be dropping that kind of money on an appliance. Essentially, the attitude to “wellness” and “mindfulness” are the same – you need to have your basic needs secure (think the base of the pyramid from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) before you can start to think about self-actualization.

When we direct people to wellness and mindfulness, under the guise of just practicing self-care, we are making a lot of assumptions about both their health and their resources while putting the onus on them to deal with adversity better, rather than addressing the causes of adversity in the first place. Telling someone to meditate or practice mindfulness as a way to “cure” their anxiety regarding their financial precarity is a bit like telling someone to light some incense to “cure” a broken arm because they cannot afford the hospital bill. It doesn’t work. While practices like meditation have greatly improved my own life, I am very aware that it is in part because I’m not in a precarious position, and I have an actual doctor that I work with on my mental health as well. My self-care is expensive – maybe it shouldn’t be, but it doesn’t change the fact that ignoring the expense related to such care will not fix the systemic problems that contribute to poor mental health among freelancers and other precarious workers. The only way to fix those problems is to stop focusing on ‘life-hacks’ and shortcuts, and start demanding change in terms of how freelancers are undervalued and even then still do not get paid on time. In other words, it’s not about making self-care ‘affordable’ or ‘accessible’ or something that can ‘be done quickly on your own time,’ if the wellness industry actually cares about the mental health and wellbeing for people facing precarity it needs to start using its considerable voice to advocate for systemic change.

The Juggle: when downtime is work time

A version of this post originally appeared on Oxygen Blog’s “The Zeitgeist” in 2019.

I remember the first day I got back into a newsroom – it was like being back at my college newspaper, truly one of my happy places. Newsprint has a very distinct smell, the ink specifically, and when it is piled and stacked everywhere it can have the same effect as walking into one’s favorite coffeeshop. It hits your nose, and you just perk up a little, and the buzz around you of many people all working on different parts of one specific goal gets under your skin a little bit. As enlivening and wonderful as this feels, however, being in that newsroom was not just about a higher calling to serve the fourth estate in my little corner of the world. I was, at the end of the day, in it for the paycheck. Between graduate programs and bored with my shop-job, I was so happy when the opportunity to do something I loved appeared, but precarity is a real problem. Labors of love and duty and purpose can take a long time to show dividends – if they ever do. And so, even working two jobs I needed to supplement my income, and there weren’t enough hours in the day to add yet another set-but-variable-weekly-schedule.

Adding some freelancing seemed the obvious choice. In theory, I would have control over my time, my assignments, my rates – I could decide what my time and knowledge were worth. And after all, so many people constantly seemed ready to ask questions about writing or editing or social media, or ask for favors, or a quick look at something, well, of course there was a market waiting to be tapped, right? Well, let’s just say that early-enquirers reactions to the lower end of the Freelancers’ Union’s suggested rates were as good as cold water to the face to break me out of any illusion that adding this on to the rest of my life was going to be easy. But like with anything, you have to decide what you want, and how much it matters to you – so you learn to face those moments and make the negatives, positives. You pivot; instead of trying to argue your worth, you learn to answer the “why should I pay you for something that I can do myself” with, “okay, then do it yourself.” Instead of chasing private clients, you learn how to network online and look for calls for pitches. You stop being scared of rejection, of being wrong. And for me, the biggest thing, was learning that actually, I did have things to say – things that I needed to pull out of myself after two other jobs, after long days and being devalued by others, and that writing and engaging with the world and being able to work on my own terms was a certain kind of self-care. One of the hardest things about freelancing is that it is not necessarily a cure for precarity – in some ways, the fine line between supplemental income and the gig economy, and the even finer one between the gig economy and exploitation, make you even more precarious. People don’t pay – individuals or companies, so it can become a drain on both your time and your own money chasing what is owed. You become mentally drained and exhausted because downtime from the work you do for other people starts to feel like time you should be spending working for yourself, in order to build something that gets you out of the precarity and somewhere more financially stable. While sometimes you find that moment or project that makes everything worth it, more often than not, the grind of both the 9 to 5 and the freelance hustle would just wear me down.

And yet, I would not trade it – even now, even having moved on from that life, of being torn between a shop and a newsroom and other gigs and still trying to find the time for myself. There’s something about doing a job well, doing it quickly, and cleanly, and seeing it put into the world, that is absolutely satisfying – a small way to break up the routine, a way to find a piece of satisfaction (however fleeting) in the routine of survival, a way to always, always know my own worth and that, actually, I can say know to things that don’t honor that. As the economy continues to shift to nonpermanent labor, it is really easy to be convinced that freelancers are somehow expendable because there are so many of us, that there will always be someone with a lower rate and you don’t want to lose the money. But I think that is what makes ‘making it’ whatever that means to any freelancer even better. Because when you hit your own personal metric, it has nothing to do with anyone’s standards but yours.

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