Sunday, April 10, 2011

it's time for a change

This blog has been so important to me for my life's journey and as indicated by the title, it has also been pretty random. I think I've gained some focus recently. In the summer of 2010, I decided to focus my energies on two passions: technology teaching and social justice. This has led to a wonderful year of learning and growing. It has also led to some life transforming moments:

On a whim, I submitted a scholarship application to attend The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference: K12 Workshops. What I learned is that there is a crisis in computer science education both in quality and access. The result of this crisis is that women and minorities are missing opportunities to advance academically and economically in a field whose employment potential far exceeds the number of students preparing for it. Also, if we don't get more diverse participation in technology, then we miss out on innovations that are relevant and usable by a wider range of people.

This convergence of technology and justice led to the Project Justice week long immersion experience that I created for the middle school students. This project began as an opportunity expand the students thinking about social justice and to give them an avenue through technology to raise awareness about issues they care about. I can't measure the change this experience had on the students, but what I didn't expect was the change it caused in me. What I've learned from my middle school students is that they want a world where:
  • the hungry are fed;
  • the homeless are sheltered;
  • the use of rape and violence against women and children as a tool of war is not tolerated;
  • the environment is treated as a cherished resource.
One project in particular kind of haunted and hounded me: Falling Whistles. I found myself crashing a high school gathering in Richmond to hear Yves and Sean (founders) share their stories. They were compelling, frightening, engaging, inspiring, passionate and humbling. I bought a whistle and I changed a little more.

The latest experience was at the Ecumenical Advocacy Days Conference. The overall theme of this conference was "Development Security and Economic Justice: What's Gender Got to Do with It?" Here I learned that women and girls have suffered setbacks disproportionately across the board with regard to wages, education and human rights abuses.
  • the 21st century has brought us the objectification of the world;
  • trafficking is the extreme in a norm that is exploitation, squeezing a little more profit from human labor;
  • when you destroy the women, you basically destroy the community;
  • we have enough when we can share;
  • the opposite of abundance is not poverty, it is fear;
  • poverty is a political issue, it is evidence that we are not yet making the right choices;
  • violence against women is the most normalized evil in our world today.
So now what? There's a lot to be cynical, ambivalent, overwhelmed and outraged about. My natural inclination is to rebel, but what will that accomplish? I sense that my purpose lies somewhere between teaching technology and empowering the voices and actions of young people. What form that will take, I don't know.   I do know that I want to take Thomas Merton's words to heart. I still have a hard time recognizing the light shining in myself or for that matter in many adults, but I can see it in our children. I'll be trying to shine the light @
“As if the sorrows and stupidities of the world could overwhelm me now that I realize what we all are. I wish everyone could realize this, but there is no way of telling people they are all walking around shining like the sun.” - Thomas Merton

Sunday, December 05, 2010

six impossible things before breakfast

Yesterday I was asked to consider how to explain faith to children in a Sunday children's sermon.  For some reason, when I thought of explaining faith to children (and adults), I thought of Alice in Wonderland.

What is faith and why is it so difficult to understand?

Here's one definition:
"complete confidence or trust in a person" - World English Dictionary

That's not so hard to imagine.  We all probably know someone that we have complete trust in. Someone that we know loves us and will do anything in their power to keep us safe and happy. (*)

Now how about this next definition:
"a strong or unshakeable belief in something, especially without proof or evidence" - World English Dictionary

That definition is much harder to understand.  How can we believe in something that we cannot prove exists?  Something that we can't taste, smell, touch or hear?  Something that seems impossible?

This definition reminds me of Alice in Wonderland (2010).  When she is having tea with the Mad Hatter, she says "sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast."  And the Mad Hatter's response is "that is excellent practice."

It's a curious exchange.  What is the point in trying to believe in impossible things?  Why would it be excellent practice?

I imagine that is was quite difficult for Mary and Joseph to believe that they were going to be parents to "the Messiah".  In the Old Testament, Isaiah proclaimed this child would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  What kind of child was this going to be?  Can you imagine?

What about the shepherds that heard from the angels announcing Jesus' birth.  Don't you think they wondered if they imagined the whole thing.  Who would believe their story? Or the wise men who had this idea they should follow a star to find the king of the Jews and give him expensive gifts even when they found him in a stable.  Where did they get that impossible idea?

We don't know why they believed these impossible things, but we do know they had faith that these things would be possible with God.  Faith gave them hope when things seemed hopeless.  Faith gave them courage when the odds were against them.  Faith gave them joy in experiencing the love of God.  Believing six impossible things before breakfast may seem like a silly idea, but when we have faith that God makes things possible, we are also given the gifts of hope and courage and joy.

* I realize that having complete confidence in someone else is a real challenge for many of us, but my thought is that as a child, one usually hasn't yet experienced crushing betrayal or disappointment by a trusted person.  Then again perhaps my glasses are still too rosy.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

project justice - days 4, 5 & beyond

When I talk to people about this justice week that I had imagined for my middle school students, it sounds like a risky proposition, even to me.  How was I going to expose these children to social justice in a way that didn't go too far or not far enough?  Would they really find an issue they were passionate about?  Would they comprehend the difference between justice and charity?  Would they complete a project?  Would they follow-up?  Would their hearts and minds be changed? for a day? for a week? for a lifetime?

I can't measure how they changed, but I can tell you what I saw.  I saw struggles with jumping to a solution before understanding the problem.  I saw anger at the way things are.  I saw stereotypes broken down.  I saw passion, commitment and the dawning of comprehension.  I heard ideas and saw projects that changed me (click here for the complete list of justice projects).

One project in particular was a video for Falling Whistles: A Campaign for Peace in the Congo.  I had never heard of this organization, but one of my students had seen their video a month ago and when it came time to pick a project, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.  The kids working on this project disappeared into a room for a day and a half and produced this video.

Project Justice: Falling Whistles from Kim Wilkens on Vimeo.

The first time they showed it to me, I was stunned - by their interpretation and by the stats they shared.  The next day, I didn't believe it.  45,000 killed in a month?  Biggest war of your generation?  Are you sure?   Yes, they were.  I started researching online.  There's not much to find.  I went to and they tell a compelling story, but was it really real?  Even so, I wanted to buy a whistle to show my support for the students, but they were sold out.  I happened to click on the Tour dates and noticed they would be in Richmond this past Sunday.  I couldn't pass up the opportunity to find out more, so I went.

When I got there, I felt a little like a party crasher and also old.  I met some of the interns and shared my story.  I saw a large room filling up with high school students that were part of a human rights and history club.  I heard Yves and Sean share their stories.  They were compelling, frightening, engaging, inspiring, passionate and humbling.  I bought a whistle and I changed a little more.

But now that I'm wearing the whistle, what do I say?  My brain still can't cope with the reality - it's searching for other answers.  There are precious few answers to be found along the information highway, but something is definitely not right in the Congo. 
  • "no humanitarian crisis generates so little attention per million corpses, or such a pathetic international response" - Nicholas Kristof (NYTimes)
  • Congo's war without end (Globe)
  • Smartphones Caught up in Congo War Controversy (CBS)
  • Raped women used as pawns in Congo War (CNN)
  • The US blinks, and children will suffer (Huffington Post)
I had no idea!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

project justice - days 2 & 3

Yesterday morning, the students heard from the Family Support Coordinator of the local International Rescue Committee and visited Computers4Kids in the afternoon.   Today we had our last speaker, the Lead Organizer from IMPACT.  She really helped the students gain a deeper understanding of the difference between charity and justice. 

It has been a whirlwind of activity and lots of information to absorb, but the students eagerly brainstormed possible education and advocacy projects to work on and were busy all afternoon making plans.  The energy and passion of these youth is inspiring and a little overwhelming. 

Everyone we encountered along the way made comments about how impressed they were with these kids and their ability to grasp complex concepts and be so engaged.  While I also think this is a special group of kids, I know they can't be the only ones with this potential and it makes me wonder why we, as society, have such a difficult time appreciating the input, perspectives and contributions of our youth.  I know I've certainly been aggravated by the idea of anyone not taking these kids seriously.

Monday, November 08, 2010

project justice - day 1

I have been so excited about the opportunity I've been given to pull together a week long immersion experience for my middle school students that focuses on local social justice issues.  We just completed our first day which included a field trip to The Haven at First and Market, a day shelter for the homeless, and speakers from The International Rescue Committee.  I'm taking it as good omen that we bumped into Tom Shadyac on the way into the Haven and that he wanted to speak to the kids about this project.  I myself was a little star struck and couldn't seem to put the camera down.  Luckily, the kids put it all into perspective and I've posted some of their comments @ Opening Our Eyes to Homelessness.