To Know Forgiveness

I have had the wonderful opportunity to facilitate forgiveness and restorative practice workshops through the Tariq Khamisa Foundation and learn from various groups of middle school students for a year now.  While I am greatly impacted by all the students I get to work with, this past session, a young man who I will refer to as Omar, had a very profound impact on my work and me.  From the onset of the workshops, Omar was resistant to the idea of non-violence and using restorative practices.  He pushed me to analyze and think more deeply about what it means to be committed to non-violence, not just in the ideological sense, but in the everyday world filled with violences, oppression, and injustice that we live in.  He said his father taught him that if someone came at him, he was not only to defend himself, but give the person a “beat down”; it would teach that person not to ever mess with Omar again.

“Effective non-violence is not about putting the right person in power, but awakening the right kind of power in people.” -Metta Center for Non-Violence 

I remembered my grandmother telling me about a group of girls who bullied my mom when she was in upper elementary school.  These girls were always ambushing my  mom in the bathroom taking her lunch money, her lunch or whatever they could take from her.  My grandmother brought the issue up in school to no avail.  Finally after weeks of attending school in fear, my grandmother had my mother meet up with the girls who were bullying her, and in very forward terms told my mother she either had to kick their ass or my grandmother would kick my mother’s ass.   So, against a fence near the school, my mother, as terrifying as it might have been, fought those girls with my grandmother cheering her on.  Those girls never bullied my mother again.  My grandmother had survived two abusive marriages, and fighting back was one of the ways she learned to defend herself when she was the target of violence, especially during a time and culture in which police very seldomly protected a woman from an abusive husband.

Omar was speaking a philosophy that had been spoken and taught in my family.  I also understood that in neighborhoods ridden with poverty, gangs, drugs, and all sorts of other violence there was a different code for survival, especially in the streets.  Who was I to dismiss his father; to dismiss what Omar had learned from his father and his own experiences to survive.  I grew up in neighborhoods where understanding and abiding by the law of the streets was what kept me safe.  I didn’t know what Omar’s environment was like nor what he had to do to ensure his safety and survival.  Restorative practice takes community effort and while an individual can commit to this kind of work, it is only within a committed community that the work can sustainably change behavior and thought patterns entrenched in violence.  Omar was being guided by his father’s own experiences of safety and survival and whether I agreed with his perspective or not, I had to tread lightly for I wasn’t their to diminish the bond that existed between Omar and his father; the minute it sounded like I was saying his father was wrong, that is exactly what Omar would perceive.

My approach with Omar wasn’t to tell him that the only option was non-violent action, so instead it was about looking at consequences and ripple effects of violence.  It was about teaching him problem-solving skills and what it meant to be intentional and mindful about his actions.  In this context, whatever action he chose to take in the future, he would do so understanding the potential consequences, stand with conviction, and take responsibility rather than feel ashamed or dishonored.  In other words, I was teaching him how to act and behave with dignity.  Our decisions should be made with conviction rather than simply from a place of reaction, which allows us to have ownership over the decisions we make in our lives, leaving us feeling empowered rather than helpless.

“Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim-letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.”
―C.R. Strahan 

Toward the second half of the workshop series, I started to notice a shift in Omar.  He began to describe scenarios and ask what would restorative practices look like in those situations.  On one particular day, when we were discussing forgiveness, he asked what would happen if he forgave someone who kept doing the same harm over and over again? I responded that forgiveness was a process for him to let go of the pain and anger that enslaved him to the person that caused the violence & harm, but it did not mean he was accepting the person’s behavior, and it certainly didn’t mean he had to have a relationship with the person nor accept him/her in his life.  We can forgive someone and still choose to never engage that person ever again.  He also stated in a questioning manner, “But if you don’t stand up for yourself, people will think they can keep messing with you.” I told him that he was absolutely right.  I went on to give him examples of people around the world that had and were using non-violent resistance to fight for their rights and dignity.  The reality is we aren’t always going to engage with people who are interested in restorative practices or justice, though that doesn’t mean we have to necessarily revert to violence. I also explained that we weren’t always going to engage with people who were sorry for the harm they caused us, but in order to be liberated from our pain we would have to find a way to forgive.

It takes a greater commitment to resist and fight back without violence.  I also exposed very complex historical examples of folks like Martin Luther King whose work was based on a philosophy of non-violence, but who had body guards who carried guns for protection. Dr. King was a nonviolent man, but even he understood the realities of self-defense and protecting his home and his family in the face of life-threatening violence, especially after his home was bombed, though many experts say that by the 1960s he abandoned the idea of weapons for self-defense.  I also talked about Harriet Tubman who carried a gun for protection and told the very slaves she was helping to escape that she would kill them before allowing them to go back.  She knew if they went back, they would be tortured and would compromise the work of the Underground Railroad.

Another students then responded, “yeah, but how are we supposed to be non-violent when everyone around us is violent,” to which Omar nodded his head.  In a world in which achievement, performance, competition and acquisition take precedence over integrity, honesty, compassion, collaboration and community the worst is brought out in all of us, unless we are taught to intentionally approach life in a different way. When all around us exploitation and dominance of our labor, bodies and minds is occurring, we grow up angry, and we grow up thinking “I’m going to get you before you get me.” The how becomes one of the most important questions to ask and continue to ask  ourselves as we embark on and commit to non-violence as a way of life.

“So how do I fix myself,” Omar asked hesitantly.  I knew how difficult and courageous this moment was for him; he was breaking away from the philosophy his father, the man he looked up to and admired,  had instilled in him and taken the first step to explore what forgiveness and restorative practice might look like in his life.  Of course, the first thing I told him was how important it was not to see himself as needing to be fixed, for he wasn’t broken, and there were so many beautiful things to celebrate about him.  When we feel better, we do better, and this is why we use our strengths to overcome our challenges.  I ultimately wanted him and the rest of the students to understand that none of this is easy, and that we are all bound to make mistakes and be backed into circumstances where violence might feel like the only choice. However, learning alternative ways to violence through skills and strategies and working with a community of people committed to non-violence empowers us to continue to explore and discover restorative practices that lead to forgiveness and healing.  And so, the second half of the workshop series we spent a lot of time focusing on skills, tools, and strategies.

Forgiveness can be a very difficult and complicated process, especially when the violence and harm are connected to deep systemic trajectories of dehumanization. Forgiveness is a process, and though there is so much I have learned about this process, I know, within the broader spectrum of society’s ills, I have so much more to learn. The students, though young, had some very profound discussions and never ceased to move me and challenge me to go deeper into my understanding of it, especially as I embark in understanding how to embrace forgiveness and restorative, non-violent practices in the work of resisting and confronting destructive power.

Watching these students discuss, reflect on, and own the process of forgiveness within the context of their own lives and experiences was a beautiful opportunity. While concepts of compassion, nonviolence, and restorative practice and justice become messy when the violence that is perpetrated is so horrific and generational, and when the perpetrators do not acknowledge the violence and harm, it is my hope that the strategies and skills the students have learned will allow them to be more aware of how to deal with conflict, navigate the pain, and ultimate take ownership of their healing.

“We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of non-violence. ”  -Mahatma Gandhi 

The students will continue to do work both in their school and community as peacemakers and facilitators of restorative practices. If they engage in the work now, they will be prepared for the difficult work when they become adults. Practicing forgiveness not only changes the karmic path of one’s life, but it also has tremendous neurological and biological benefits for those who are able to release the emotional and psychological trauma associated with the violence. If we engage our children at an early age to practice forgiveness and restorative processes, we are giving them a greater chance of peace.

“Giving and forgiving are matters of the heart. The more magnanimity we evolve in our hearts, the easier it is for us to give and forgive. The more we give and forgive, the more enriched our lives become, widening our circles to include not only those who we give, but also those who we forgive

Giving includes not just charitable gifts or material objects, or donating food and clothing. It is giving when we give of ourselves, our time, our service, our knowledge, even our organs; expanding our love and friendship in the spirit of advancing our humanity. Giving need not be a response of pity or sympathy, of helping the “poor” or the “needy.” It can be an exercise in building empathy and gratitude, opening our hearts, supporting a cause – a journey toward self-fulfilment and joy.

Forgiving or seeking forgiveness, though related to giving, is a much more challenging task than giving. It requires giving of one’s anger and ego so as to accept and embrace those we think have harmed us in some way. It is an exercise in utmost humility that enables us to seek forgiveness of any intended or unintended mistakes in any form. It is a process not based on forgetting the wrong or the harm done, but rather on remembering it so as to learn from it to not repeat it. Like giving, forgiveness too is ultimately good for the self.”

From the Ahimsa Center, Non-Violence in Thought and Action.




feel better Yesterday, a student I’ve been mentoring was suspended for giving a xanax to another student. He was expelled earlier in the year for selling weed.   The adults all seemed to be disappointed beyond redemption, mostly angry, and intent on punishing the student. This does not mean the student should not be held accountable for restoring the harm and learning the lesson. But when a child falters, the last thing we want to do is shame and isolate him.

Stay with me on this one. . .

When we feel better, we do better. This is why a compassionate community is so important, and the greatest predictor to how well an individual will do. There’s a lot of trendy talk around restorative processes at schools, but these processes will become just another failed intervention if we don’t truly understand the incredible amount of mercy that it takes to support our children through transformation and change. It’s not only about understanding that we can hold children accountable for their behavior and give them an opportunity to restore the harm without being punitive and retaliatory; it’s also about understanding what it takes for a child to redeem himself and develop new behaviors that are positive, productive, and build their sense of worth.

Every river is born from a single drip of melted snow. The drips collect together and trickle down the mountain forming into creaks and streams that meet together and converge into a river. Moving water is a powerful force and can wear away soil and rocks through erosion. Once a path is created by erosion, because water takes the path of less resistance, water will most likely continue to flow through that path, creating further erosion and therefore, greater flow. Our thoughts and behaviors work in the same way. The more we think or behave a certain way, the more we entrench ourselves in those patterns. Our patterns are the result of the repeated behavior, like rivers are the result of repeated erosion.

Once a river is established, it takes an incredible amount of force for it to create a new pathway. In this same manner, rewiring our brain’s cognitive processes and retraining it to develop new patterns takes an incredible amount of very specific and intentional work, along with immense determination and support systems. Rewiring takes time. It’s not a consistent process. It takes an extreme amount of motivation to perform a habit. The most difficult part of changing a behavior is one’s life is to actually start the behavior. Like a river starts with a drip, a new habit starts with a small behavior change that doesn’t feel threatening or exhausting. Something that seems easy and reasonable to do consistently and constantly.

We can’t expect our children to change a negative habit from one day to the other, or as some would put it, to never fall off the wagon. They will, and we have to be compassionate, forgiving, and patient enough to support them in getting right back up; encouraging them to try again. Each time they try again, they are reaffirming their worth, their goodness, and the idea that they are deserving of better.

Here is what we can expect them to do:

We can expect them to make mistakes from which they will learn lessons, especially when given the space to process the experiences. Similar experiences will repeat over and over again until the lesson is learned. As parents, mentors, teachers, counselors, and guides, this is where we have to do better than punishment. We have to guide our children to recognize the patterns of the experiences they are living to try to understand why they continue to find themselves in those same circumstances. When we recognize that life provides countless opportunities to heal and our experiences are far more than isolated occurrences, we can begin to feel empowered and determined to take ownership of how we give meaning to our experiences. We can expect to hold them accountable by guiding them to take the necessary steps to restore the harm they have caused as a result of their actions. This not only strengthens their individual dignity, but also allows them to continue to see themselves as part of a community that is always working together for the betterment of all. We can expect to teach them problem solving skills, because when a child learns to work things out on their own, they are less likely to blame others and make excuses. Mostly we can and must expect them to be the beautiful, loving human beings they were born to be.

The following is a community process that was described online in reference to how a tribe uplifts, redirects, and restores the individuals in their community when they have lost their way: When someone does something hurtful and wrong, they take the person to the center of town, and the entire tribe comes and surrounds him. For two days they’ll tell the man every good thing he has ever done.

The tribe believes that every human being comes into the world as good; each of us desiring safety, love, peace, and happiness. But sometimes in the pursuit of those things people make mistakes. The community sees misdeeds as a cry for help. They band together for the sake of their fellow man to hold him up, to reconnect him with his true nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth from which he’d temporarily been disconnected.. Ultimately to have him remember. “I Am Good.”

**Some sources state this is a made up story.  Some sources cite this process from a tribe in the continent of Africa.  It’s a beautiful process that I hope does exist in some form.

The Magic about Dragonflies

A few weeks ago I substituted for a group of moderate special education students.  I walked into a situation where a student, Carlos, had sprayed a few spritz of one of those drug store after-shave colognes like Axe.  Immediately a couple of instructional aides started to complain, although before Carlos sprayed his cologne, there was a stale and stagnant odor in the room.  I guess the smell of Axe cologne was a bit more forceful or pungent than the other odor, because one of the aides started to ask, “Who sprayed that?”  She started to frantically walk around the room looking for someone to reprimand.  She found Carlos and started to admonish him while he defensively tried to explain that “it stunk in the room.”  She then walked toward the phone threatening to call his parents, and he raised his voice and irritably said, “alright, alright, I’m sorry.”  She then walked past the phone, mumbling something about, “If you do it again, you’re out of here.”  Carlos seemed to be agitated, so I went ahead and validated that the room was a “bit stinky,” and that I understood why he had sprayed cologne.  I asked him not to spray anymore, and told him I would open up the windows and door instead.  He then started to work on a math packet the teacher had left for the students.

It was basic math such as simplifying fractions like 42/20 or turning fractions like 7/10  into decimals. He raised his hand and asked me to help him because simplifying fraction was too difficult for him.  I went over and modeled a couple of the problems for him and then had him do some guided practice.  He didn’t know the difference between an odd and an even number.  I explained to him that to simplify a fraction he had to find a number that both the numerator and denominator could be divided by.  I explained to him when the numerator and denominator are even numbers, one of the quickest ways to begin to simplify the fraction is to divide both by two.  When I showed him the fraction 24/16, he wasn’t able to recognize whether the numbers were odd or even.  Once I told him both numbers were even, I reminded him he could divide the top and bottom by two.  Because he didn’t know his basic multiplication, even with a calculator , the work was challenging.

Later on at lunch, I saw him sitting around a table with friends laughing away, just enjoying life and being in the moment.  I wondered how many of his friends were in special education?  How many had trouble with basic math? Was he the only one, and how did he hide that part of him to his friends, to the world? Carlos was probably a struggling reader, too.  I wondered how he compensated in high school classes for the lack of those skills?  How far along would he get through high school before his self-worth and dignity are buried under piles of IEP  (Individualized Education Program) forms and assessments.

Maybe he would become hopeless in a system that only has packets and Fs to offer him. Eighty-five percent of all juveniles who come in contact with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. Each day in America 763 Black children drop out of school.   A recent study shows that Black men in their 30s now, without a high school diploma, have a 70 percent chance of going to prison. The pipeline was already set at Carlos’ doorstep.


As I thought of him and his journey, my heart began to break.  All of a sudden, right there in the midst of all this injustice whirling in my head, I saw a dragonfly hover next to me for a few seconds, and continue on its path.

This is what I once heard referred to as a “God shot.”  A moment in which you are shown enough light to recognize you are falling into the darkness.  Then, I smiled.  Thought about Carlos as I held immense love in my heart for him.  That evening I researched the symbolism of a dragonfly, discovered it’s connected to the concept of change and light.  When it shows up in our lives, it may remind us to bring a bit more lightness and joy into our lives.  It calls on us to live and experience ourselves differently.  It reminds us of the ability to take things lightly, even in the darkest moment – to keep the light and have a positive outlook no matter what.  The solution may lie  in our ability to adapt and tackle the issue from a different angle.  The gift of the dragonfly in a moment when I was feeling heavyhearted helped me to shift and explore my emotions as an opportunity to focus on the empowerment of children rather than on their oppression.

I meditated and set an intention for Carlos and all the students like him – that they may all figure out how powerful and magnificent they are and grow to be the greatest versions of themselves.  As a substitute, I probably will never have contact with Carlos again, but I can hold the thought of him with immense hope and love, and maybe that energy will reach him when he most needs it.

I also meditated on my role as an advocate and activist for our children.  The challenges and injustices can seem so daunting.  This is when it is the most important to understand our own power.  Though we walk our paths normally, inside we harness an unlimited amount of power to envision and recreate the world we live in, whatever our purpose and service may be.  The education system is a microcosm of our society, and as such, its transformation will require a collective force. My role is to figure out how I can contribute to that force through inspirational and innovative ideas and work that will have a direct impact on our children now.



SEE ME Project – Introduction


The “SEE ME” Project is an attempt to break down some of the more dehumanizing stereotypes that chip away at our teen’s sense of worth and purpose.  Often the only stories told about them are from the perspective of adults, and very often the stories that receive the most attention are those that perpetuate negative paradigms of youth. The inspiration for this project grew from a yearning to see more profoundly into their heart and soul. I want to have the opportunity to interview youth across all economic, social, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, and be a vehicle through which they can safely reveal a part of themselves. There are various purposeful layers to this project.  By reflecting upon and speaking about the most significant parts of themselves, youth can begin to see themselves differently from the way society portrays them. In addition, their stories will confront and counter the more widely accepted  “single story” of the entitled, selfish, irresponsible teenager, awakening a new consciousness for how we should engage our youth. My passion has always been to work in meaningful and transformative ways with youth.  In order to serve them in the best way possible, I must continue to make opportunities to learn from them, and these interviews will yield the content for my own learning.

I  have come up with a set of interview questions that I hope will shine light on more powerful and significant aspects of our youth’s lives.

1.  How is your heart? (Shared by a friend)

2. When do you feel the most powerful?

3. When do you feel the most powerless?

4. When do you show your true self? When are you the most authentic? When are you closest to being/speaking your truth?

5.When are you the least authentic?

6. What do you like/love about yourself?

7. What do you dislike/hate about yourself?

8. What makes you strong?

9.What makes you (feel) week?

10. What do you fear?

11. What do you hope?

12. When are you the most visible?

13. When are you the most invisible?

14. What do you know for sure?

15. What do you wonder? (Question suggested by a student)

16. What are you looking for?

17. What really matters to you? What do you stand for?

18. What is your intention/purpose for your life?

19. What are you listening for or to?

20. Who are you?

21. What keeps you alive? (Question suggested by a student)


The idea of focusing on their eyes came from my own experience and belief that the first step we can take in acknowledging someone’s existence is by looking in their eyes. I originally wanted to photograph their faces, but many of the students did not feel safe in disclosing their identity. In a world in which they are so often shamed and bullied, it is very scary to disclose so much of themselves without feeling raw and vulnerable. However, I still wanted to somehow convey their essence while still honoring their request.  I cropped a few pictures and showed them to the students to see if this version of them would be something they would feel comfortable with – they liked the idea.

You can’t avoid someone when you are looking into their eyes. You can’t avoid their truth, their voice, nor their existence. It is very difficult to look into someone’s eyes and condense every stereotype we have of them into what is reflected through their eyes. You can objectify someone’s nose, or arm, or leg, but the eyes can very seldom be objectified. They reflect our very own existence. In the eyes of another we can see our very own humanity. This concept has been at the core of many indigenous societies around the world. Mayans expressed this concept of connectedness as they greeted each other saying, “In lak’ech,” I am another you, and, “Hala ken,” you are another me. In the Southern African region, Ubuntu, represents the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Desmond Tutu best describes it as, “My humanity is inextricably wrapped up in yours.” The paradox of this project is that by focusing on their eyes we are forced to acknowledge them wholly, and yet by only focusing on their eyes, we leave out the other beautiful parts of them. I hope that one day, our youth feel safe enough to disclose their truths and their identity without having to compromise one for the other.


A few years ago, when I was still teaching, I facilitated an activity in which I asked student to write down all the stereotypes adults and the media perpetuated of them.  The wrote: Lazy, entitled, rebellious, rude, apathetic, drug-users, complaining, aggressive, angry, dishonest, manipulative, violent, reckless, obnoxious, ignorant, disrespectful, inconsiderate, selfish, careless, troublemakers, disconnected, hypersexed, self-absorbed, materialistic, etc.  Our students feel like outcasts; a marginalized sector of society that is seen as more of a burden than a gift.  Not coincidently, historically, these are the same stereotypical perceptions that have been attributed to racially and ethnically “unwanted” groups.  This is why I found the students’ responses so alarming, along with what I have observed to be a downward spiral of humiliating and abusive treatment of youth in places that should be safe spaces for them such as home, school, community programs, and church.  While dealing with youth has its own set of challenges, as this period of development can be a difficult one for them to navigate due to hormonal changes, exploration of self-identity, assertion of independence, peer-pressure, and other factors, the disdain with which adults approach our youth is a matter of civil rights.  They too have a right to thrive in our society without fear of discrimination repression, and oppression.

In providing teens with opportunities and spaces where they can safely share their stories and have critical dialogue about their experiences, we can support them in dignifying their existence. Through self-awareness and self-expression, they are more likely to experience a sense of empowerment in which they begin to take a greater active role in asserting their decision-making power, thinking critically, speaking their truth, searching for information and resources, advocating on their behalf, reclaiming their identities, and becoming the main protagonists in creating the lives they deserve.  As our youth makes sense of their lives in the context of the world that surrounds them, they begin to discover themselves and their potential as they give name to what they see and experience.  This is how they come to a new awareness of self, with a new sense of dignity, and a new hope.  It takes many seeds to cultivate a forest.  If I can be a drop of rain in that process, I will have served my purpose.










Leadership is an Experience, Not a “How To” (Part 1)

As I sit and ponder what good leadership is, I can’t help but to think about the following passage on leadership from Lao-Tzu (600 B.C.)

A leader is best

when people barely know that

he exists,

not so good when people obey and

acclaim him,

worst when they despise him.

“Fail to honor people,

they fail to honor you;”

But of a good leader, who talks little,

when his work is done,

his aim fulfilled,

they will say,

“We did this ourselves.”

What does it mean to teach a child leadership? What are the most important aspects of leadership I can model for a child? What is the purpose of leadership? How can I facilitate the space, so youth can become humble, compassionate, loving, and perceptive leaders? These are questions I continuously asked and meditated on as I worked in a youth leadership program this past summer in Costa Rica. Sure there are your top seven or ten packaged qualities to being an effective leader like  honesty, communication, commitment, positive attitude, ability to delegate, confidence, etc. But these qualities are only as strong as the connection we have with essence of our  being.  Youth are so impressionable and vulnerable, and when I work alongside of them, I have a deep understanding of the great responsibility that I hold as I am guiding them and helping them shape the way they make meaning, and the ideas and perspectives that result from that. They come with their own values and belief systems, and though I don’t want to impose my views and values on them, I do want to instill in them the importance of leadership as a way to build community, expose light where there is darkness and create the kind of love that connects all that seems separate and fragmented.  As I thought about all the things I wanted to teach them in such a finite time, I decided to draw as a way to discover the guidance of my heart.  There were four images that came to mind as I selected the aspects I felt in my heart would make the greatest impact, not only in how they lead, but how they choose to live their lives.


No one person can solve the challenges and obstacles that we face as a community. To believe that, is arrogant and supremest. We have more experts than ever, and yet the problems we are facing seem insurmountable and no-0ne seems to have a solution to any of it. Each one of us has a unique life and a unique story, no one else has experienced the same thing.  While there is wisdom and lessons we share collectively, there are also things that we know that are particular to our individual life and circumstances.  We bring to the whole what no one else can bring, because each of us has an infinite number of decisions and reactions we can have at any given moment.  Each of us knows what no one else knows because no one has lived our lives. We are creators of our own experiences and therefore hold the power to change and recreate our lives, and in turn transform the whole when we each participate.

Similar to how our individual consciousness is connected to our collective consciousness, trees have a particular way of connecting and sharing knowledge with each other.  Even they understand that it takes each individual tree to create a thriving forest.  Scientists have discovered and underground web of fungi that allows trees to share information and resources with each other.  These networks are what allow trees to resist pathogens and adapt to even the most harsh conditions of survival.  Jimi Hendrix once said, “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”  In other words, your deep telling feeds my deep knowing.  Being in the presence of others whose experiences are vastly different from ours causes us to see the context of our lives in a new perspective and chip away at the limiting beliefs and ideas we have gained up to that point.  This is why 1+1 ≠ 2. Instead  1 + 1 = ∞.  As we turn more to each other and to nature to learn, the possibilities of what can be created from that encounter are infinite.  Neither objects nor people are independently existing entities.  This is why everyone and everything has a leading role to play in the transformation of our world.  To lead, we do not need to know the answers.  “We must only convene the circles, articulate the questions, frame the conversation, and direct attention to the issues that matter.” (Jan Phillips)

Like so many of us when we first begin to serve, the students in the program had an incomplete perspective on why they were in Costa Rica; many felt they were there to make a difference in the lives of the less privileged and to “help” those who otherwise would be destitute.  And like so many of us, the students realized soon enough that the gifts they’d receive from the people had a far more profound impact in the students’ lives than the students could ever have on those they were there to help.  It was especially powerful when the students began to see that many of the issues in Costa Rica were outgrowths of the development and tourism they perceived to be progress for the country and its people.  On the one hand, we were defining our role as service, and on the other, all we were doing was “alleviating some of the damage done by the world of affluence and achievement.”  I remember clearly the first time one of my students engaged in a conversation with an elder who had lived in Coco, the town we were staying in, since 1940.  The question she asked him was, “How do you make your living.”  That was a loaded question, because what he talked about next left us all questioning our role there and our participation in the damage.

He went on to tell his story.  Talked about a time when he was able to go grow rice in the land behind his home and fish the open seas to provide sustenance for his family.  He talked about a time when there was access to the land and abundance from it.  He could no longer  fishing to provide for his family.  Much of the area was being over fished due to commercial fishing, sports fishing, and the demand of the tourism industry.  While ecotourism and environmental protection laws were being created to safeguard the land, these laws were also making it very difficult for people who had made their livelihood from fishing to continue to do so, for they were restricted to when and where they could fish, sometimes forcing them to travel four hours to unrestricted fishing areas.   He explained that fisherman that were simply looking to catch fish to feed their family were being arrested like criminals, while there was little oversight for the people that were exploiting the land.  He was forced to take a job at a hotel as a dishwasher earning $2 per hour because, “we are starving as fisherman.”

His was a story that needed to be heard, because we had an incomplete picture of Costa Rica.  The issues are complicated, and no individual knows the answer, because each set of problems effects people in different ways.  In sharing our stories and listening to people’s stories, we are able to create a more complete picture of all the moving parts and how individual interests shape the conflicts and power structures.  If we can learn to “see” the individual within the context of the whole, and nothing is more powerful than a person’s story, then we have a greater chance of creating models of existence that benefit all.  Large groups of people are smarter than an elite few; no matter how much expertise or intelligence that elite few may have, it is the realization that wisdom is dispersed among all of us, that will ultimately allow us to discover just and dignified solutions.  While the students did not come up with solutions for the problems facing the people of Costa Rica, they walked away understanding that they are part of a greater whole and that change comes when we are willing to: (1) see others as co-creators of solutions and (2) analyze how our own individual interests and actions can play a huge role in the systemic oppression of others.  “Real leaders are those who can evoke the wisdom of others, summon them to find their voices, and create a forum for them to be heard.” (Jan Phillips)


For a seed to grow, to attempt to fully fulfill its purpose and magnificence, it must have courage to come out of its shell; to be vulnerable to the environment that is supposed to nurture it and help it thrive. Yes, that means that sometimes the very things that are suppose to protect us and keep us safe will sometimes hurt us and cause us pain, and yet, the pain of never fulfilling our purpose would be much more destructive.  In that same manner, as we are developing, we must have the courage to push into and through what we perceive to be our limitations, the way a seed pushes through its shell, because it is then that we learn the capacity that we have to reach and expand into the lives we are meant to have.  For a seed to grow, it must have the courage to take a risk and come out of the small world that encases it, into a greater world that will embrace it.  The germinating stage is the stage with the most risks for it is when the seed is the most susceptible to its environment.  Too much water and the sprouting seed will drown, yet too little will not allow it to move nutrients from the soil to the stem, prohibiting its growth.  You see everything aiding this seed to flourish must be in harmony and balance.  However, even in the absence of balance, the seed will try, as it must, to be.

I wanted the kids to see that courage isn’t the lack of fear, but the ability to move through something that frightens us. To have the courage to follow our hearts the way a seed follows its DNA, even if it means the possibility of opening themselves up to painful experiences, so that they can achieve an incredible life.  The students and I were already doing that by the mere fact that both, they and I, had left our families to immerse ourselves in a new culture and experience.  They had already committed to their growth, the way enzymes contained within each seed give it enough juice to push the sprouting plant through the darkness of the soil, to the surface.  But I wanted them to reflect at every stage of their experience and be conscientious of how they were moving through and beyond fear.  Sometimes that meant discussing why they were hesitant to take a risk, or why they felt hurt by what another student said, or why they didn’t share their thoughts and feelings about something.  Other times that meant sharing my own doubts and fears with them, or sharing struggles that I was facing and allowing them to participate with me in finding solutions to those struggles.  It also meant letting them see me stumble and make mistakes and reflect on my learning and growing with them, which in turn made them comfortable enough to take more risks.


The service learning project for the first group of students I mentored was painting one of the elementary schools.  The purpose of the project itself was campus beautification, but the learning took place when the students engaged with the local students, and when they reflected on the process of working as a team and painting the school.  From the get go, the students felt their project was inferior to the other students’ projects because they felt that painting was not as glamorous as the hard physical labor the other students were engaged in; projects such as making a sports court that required digging trenches and mixing cement, or building a new storage space for the school.  I imagine the students also felt peer-pressure from the other students about how “easy” they had it.  Most of the students in my group, however, pretty quickly learned that painting a whole school was no easy task.  Sanding by hand  and scraping chipping paint was very arduous work and though it was a mundane task, if done incorrectly, would later result in the new paint peeling off the walls, especially in the humid climate of Costa Rica.  Students also learned that painting took a lot of attention to detail and patience for it was a process, and not just a task.

Each day there was a student assigned to “leader of the day” and that student was responsible for overseeing set-up and clean-up, setting team goals for the day based on the progress from the day before, coordinating project tasks, checking-in with group members throughout the day, and debriefing with the group at the end of the day, among other things.  Several of the group members, especially after serving as “leader of the day” began to notice that a couple of the team members were spending a lot of time socializing with each other and walking around, and it began to affect the morale of the other members who had already started to feel positive about the service learning project.  While I had spoken to both of the students about the group’s concerns, I also decided that it was a great opportunity for me to model how a leader could use courage and vulnerability to create a stronger community.  I decided to sit down with the group and explain that I was at a cross roads with how to proceed.  I explained that I wanted to find a way to motivate the students to be fully present and participate in the project and at the same time hold them accountable to their responsibility.  I told them that as a teacher, if a student didn’t do his or her project the consequences would be a failing grade, and in the adult world the consequences would be loosing employment – both very punitive ways of dealing with human beings that ultimately serves more to marginalize and discourage rather than uplift.  In fact, the challenge that was being created was an opportunity for me to learn how to work with people rather than dispose of them.  All this I shared with the students.  What I was really saying was, “I don’t know, and I need your help to figure it out.”  I was able to engage them in sincere and honest conversation by putting myself out there first.  Not only were we able to analyze more deeply the roots of their resistance to the project, but also create accountability by allowing everyone to see that each person’s efforts mattered to the group and to the larger community we were working in. Accountability comes from knowing the profound impact we have on those who are counting on us.

Ramona’s Dream

A short screenplay based on conversations I have had with students in the past month.  As I continue to explore the importance of reclaiming our past, connecting to our ancestors, learning our heritage, and actively participating in passing these components of identity to future generations, I am also paying deep attention to the subversive ways in which colonization, racism, and poverty continue to devastate our children.

Int. Public School Classroom (K-8) – Any given school day

A dated resource classroom with brown linoleum floor and yellowing

perforated ceiling tiles with some water stains. 

Some pseudo motivational posters with messages like: “The Difference Between Losers and Winners is Attitude” and “Learning is an Adventure.”

Classroom furnished with five round tables with four chairs at each table. The classroom serves for small group instruction for students with IEPs (Individual Education Plans).

Resource books, instructional strategies written on posters, and some computers line one side of the room.

Three students are in the classroom with their support teacher who is helping them write their history essay which is already past due. The essay topic: Segregation in the South.

Two of the students, Jesus and Alberto, 8th graders, are giggling and murmuring to each other, searching through their back-pack for their work. They don’t seem interested in doing the assignment.

Ramona, the third student, also an 8th grader, is sitting across from them, to the right of the teacher, Mrs. Malo. Her head is bent over her textbook, and she stares intently at its cover, a photograph of the Statue of Liberty with a backdrop of the flag of the United States. Her hands are grasping the chair by the side of her thighs, as she drags her feet back and forth.

Ramona wears brown lackluster eyes, brown skin of a heritage indigenous to the central coast of Mexico, and long flowing hair that fall like Raven feathers along her arms.

Jesus has more pronounced indigenous features with hair that covers his head like a thick knitted cap.


Mrs. Malo

(Sternly and compassionately speaking to the boys)


Guys, come on, get your work out. We have to get started.



Jesus and Alberto

                  (giggling as they are pulling out their work)




What are we supposed to write about?


Mrs. Malo

                  (matter of fact)

You’re writing your essay for history. You have to write about segregation in the South.




What’s segregation?


Mrs. Malo

It’s when Blacks were not allowed to live alongside Whites. They had to use separate bathrooms, sit in different sections of a bus or restaurant, attend separate schools, and were treated as having less value than Whites.




That’s racist!


Mrs. Malo

                  (in agreement)

Yeah. So if we work on this essay, it will help you to learn more about how segregation caused a lot of suffering for Blacks who lived in the South. And actually, there have been many different groups of people that have suffered segregation in this country.


Students listening intently to Mrs. Malo


Mrs. Malo


Mexicans also had to deal with segregation, but most of the segregation Mexicans experienced happened in places like California, Texas, and Arizona.




Who made segregation?


Mrs. Malo

Segregation laws were put in place by White people.



                  (even more confused)

But why?


Mrs. Malo

Many reasons. Hate, fear, control, power, and also this idea called White supremacy.




What’s White supremacy?


Mrs. Malo

It’s this idea that Whites are better than the other races, and should have control of those races. But this same idea exists in many countries, not just the United States. For example, in Mexico you see that many of the people who hold power and wealth are disproportionately White.




My dream is to marry a white guy!


Mrs. Malo turns to Ramona in shock. Mrs. Malo instinctively assumes Ramona wants to marry a White guy because she has learned to see her brown skin as inferior and it would give her more accessibility into a world of more privilege, but quickly catches herself, so as to not criticize or judge what Ramona has just stated. Instead probes Ramona to understand Ramona’s perspective.


After Ramona’s comment, Jesus bends his head toward his textbook with his hands in the pockets of his hoodie.


Mrs. Malo

                  (probing, trying to hide her disappointment)

Why is that your dream?




Because, they are so cute and they have money, so they can take care of me.


Mrs. Malo

                  (trying desperately not to sound judgmental)


What about just saying, “My dream is to find a guy that is caring and understanding who will support me with my dreams?”


Ramona looks down on her essay, takes her thumb and rubs it on her paper, as if she is erasing something with it.


Mrs. Malo

                  (Redirecting the conversation)

What’s your dream for your life?


Ramona looks at her with a blank stare.


Mrs. Malo


What do you see yourself doing when you graduate high school? I know that’s a few years away, so you may not know exactly what you will be doing, but do you have an idea?



                  (mocking Ramona)

She’s not going to graduate. She’s failing all her classes.


Ramona, withdrawn, begins to rub her thumb on her paper again, as if she is erasing something with it.


Mrs. Malo


Ramona is having a challenging time with her assignments, but she can and will improve her grade; that’s why she is here getting extra support.   We all have times in our lives where we go through challenges, but it doesn’t mean we can’t bounce back.



(becomes pensive and then jolts out)


She failed all her classes last year too!


Mrs. Malo

                  (still trying to be sympathetic, probes Ramona about her relationship with her parents)

Ramona, what do your parents say about how you are doing in school?




                  (exhaling gently in a resigned manner)

Yeah, they always punish me. I’m used to it now. But that doesn’t really do anything for me.


Mrs. Malo

                  (still probing)

What about all your parents have had to go through in leaving their home and sacrificing themselves in an unknown country for a better future for you? Doesn’t that push you to want to do better?



                  (a bit aggravated)

This work is too boring. I don’t get it. If I could go back to Mexico, I’d rather study there.


Mrs. Malo

Did you do good in school there?



I never went to school there. But maybe the teachers there would understand me better. I don’t know.


Mrs. Malo


Well, what do you see yourself doing once you graduate? Sometimes that helps us figure out how to get there.



                  (slouching to the side a bit)

I’ll just work in a hotel like my aunts. They make good money. And since I have papers, I will get paid more. Plus it’s easy to start working there since my aunts work there already.


Mrs. Malo

                  (disappointed at Ramona’s response)

MMmmmmhh? What would you do?



                  (with a confused look)

I would do housekeeping. They make like $25 an hour if they have papers.


Mrs. Malo

                  (disappointed at Ramona’s response)


Is that all you aspire to? Cleaning after people for the rest of your life.




What’s wrong with cleaning rooms. My aunt’s do it. They make good money.


Mrs. Malo shifts in her chair, uncomfortable with Ramona’s question. A bit embarrassed that Ramona might feel that she is degrading the work that her aunts do.


Mrs. Malo

                  (still trying to make her point)

Are they happy?





Mrs. Malo

                  (trying not to sound judgmental)

All I’m saying is, wouldn’t you rather pick the journey of your life based on your passion instead of what is easy? Many Mexican women, including my mother, have worked as housekeepers in this country because they had very few other options. But you have more opportunities. Yes, maybe you’ll make good money as a housekeeper, but why not make money doing something that you love so much, it doesn’t even feel life work?



                  ( unconvinced)

The good jobs are for the white people.


Mrs. Malo


That’s not true. I’m a teacher – I graduated from college. Your principal is Mexican.




He’s not even nice to Mexican people. You should see the way he treats my mom. He’s always rude to her, and tells her she needs to pay attention to us.


Mrs. Malo

                  (with a stronger tone a bit more animated)


Okay, but what about all the people I know? Many of my friends who are Mexican are professionals. I have a friend who is a cop, another friend who is a lawyer, a bank manager, a veterinarian, some own their own businesses. Just cuz you are Mexican, doesn’t mean you can’t be anything you want to be.


I had a baby at 18, but made a choice that I would not give up on my journey and went on to graduate from college. But it’s not about graduating from college; it’s about believing in your dream and that you deserve to have that dream.



                  (animated, jumping forward on his chair)

Oh yeah! Like that guy who is running for mayor. He is Mexican. I saw in the news he would be the first one in San Diego!


Ramona cracks a brief cynical smile, looks down on her essay, staying quiet for a few seconds.



                  (trying to sound convincing)

I’m still going to work in housekeeping. I have papers and I will get paid more than the women who are illegal.


Mrs. Malo gives Ramona a thwarted smile, asks the students to open their textbook, and begins to guide them on how to structure the next paragraph of their essay.

















Lost in Expectations

English Seminar Class 

Ninety-seven percent of the students in this class are White-American.  They are in this GATE class (Gifted and Talented Education) because they are deemed very smart, in the high percentile, according to whichever assessment is used to profile them.  They will all excel in school because they have been academically socialized to fit the standard expectations of this school system.  They are expected to succeed, it is obvious simply in the work they are assigned and the work that is expected of them.

They are in 8th grade and read books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Grapes of Wrath.  They comport themselves with a sense of confidence and maybe a bit of entitlement that comes form an environment, a society, that has always told them, “You deserve the best,”  “You deserve it all.” They will graduate from high school.  All will probably be accepted to great colleges and go on to live what society deems successful lives.

English Class (In a low-performing school)

IMG_2479One hundred percent of the students in this class are youth with skin the color of earth.  They seem out of place, working too hard to belong, too hard to fulfill the expectations they have been given.  If they get a good enough teacher who cares, they may hear her or him say they deserve better, they deserve more.  But the rote curriculum and testing pedagogy they have to adhere to somehow seeps into their soul and tells them, “They are not good enough,” along with society and power structures led by people who don’t look like them.  How can a test be the only tool with which our schools appreciate or depreciate the intelligence and wisdom of our students? Despite what the caring teachers in their lives tell them, they internalize what they see.  The world doesn’t expect them to be “Somebodies.”  They manifest these low expectations through unruly and rebellious behavior, a form of subversive resistance against a system that doesn’t expect much from, and for them.


At the end of the day, neither group of students is liberated.  The students in the English Seminar class will live the dream society wants them to dream, not their own.  They will perceive success in the same way society does – wealth, status, productivity, class achievement, competition, perfection, control, and power.

The students the color of earth will go on believing they aren’t good enough, undeserving, and unworthy.  They’ll live their whole lives reaping the consequences of a dream deferred.  Their unruly and rebellious behavior will only proliferate the notions of unworthiness and low expectations.


That is until. . .

each breaks out of the shackles that imprison them to the illusions and perceptions of the world.  Both groups of students are requested to sit in confined desks all day, to engage in curriculum, policies, and rules set by others, and to adhere to the goals and visions of those in charge. Neither group is asked to authentically participate and engage in their education.  The same compulsory, standardized pedagogy is used on both groups of students: read the book, analyze it, answer questions, take a test, and occasionally create a poster or varied art project to go along with some thematic aspect of the book.  The group with the “higher” expectations may be asked questions that are more in-depth and their answers may require 500 words instead of 100.  Ultimately, neither group is asked to create, invent, and think beyond the extent and limitations of the classroom.

A student once asked me to describe what the greatest issues in education were.  Simply put, I responded, “It is a system that denies students their genius.” It keeps them trapped in scripted, test-driven curricula that doesn’t inspire them to explore and wonder, two fundamental aspects in the journey to finding one’s own genius.  “How do we change that,” asked the student.  Resistance is all we have.  Start it, however small.  Revolution is the accumulation of many small acts of resistance, which collectively becomes a surge on the power systems . . . and then it’s lights out! Revolutionary action is any collective action that rejects, and therefore confronts, some form of power or domination, but it is not a singular event. Every student has a genius inside of them – their journey is to find it, with or without the help of the school system.  This is where their resistance must begin.  To act as if they are already free.

IMG_2146At the core of any great revolution stand those who are the most effected by it.  Liberation will arrive only when the students are not simply on the receiving end of educational reform, but when they themselves are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for liberation.  When the students can no longer tolerate the conditions under which they are currently being “educated,” they will mobilize and organize.  Ten years ago it would have been unheard of to witness fast-food workers leave their jobs and risk getting fired in order to protest deplorable wages and working conditions, but just a couple of months ago, hundreds of fast-food workers in 100 cities across the country walked off their jobs to demand dignity and sustainability.