broken english

broken english

I’ve held on to this poem for quite some time, now. It pierced my soul, made me feel some kind of way when I saw it. Mostly the vast differences between the opportunities I had and the ones my mother had, so starkly highlighted in my ability to manipulate this language of global power, holding a degree in english, and her struggles and frustrations with not being able to express herself in a language as foreign to her tongue as it was to her heart.

She spent a great part of her school years working in the agricultural circuit of California, making it very difficult for her to attend school constantly, leaving her with many gaps in her learning process.

My grandmother never learned to speak or write english, and felt some of the same frustrations of not being able to navigate the basic systems of this country. Though in her later years, learning the fundamental cuss words in english, like you know, “beetch, fack you, and estuped uss-ole,” gave her a great sense of empowerment and satisfaction. LOL! And she definitely always knew what we were saying in english.

For my mother, the frustration of struggling with the english language meant a lack of opportunities to lift herself and her children out of the poverty she had met as a child. A few years ago, she joined San Diego Reads, a phenomenal volunteer organization that supports adults in improving and refining their literacy skills. For so long she questioned her intelligence , feeling inferior and insecure, and withheld so much of what she had to offer the world. She now works at the pharmacy at SDSU, has been there for 10 years, and continues to find the courage to express herself in a language that once tried to crush her under its angry syllables and hardened consonants.

The privileges and successes. I enjoy, the opportunities I have to live a vibrant and bold life, and the risks and failures I am able to endure, all are upheld by my mother and my grandmother’s (and all the women that came before them) sacrifices, humiliation, oppression, grit, and love. I am because they were. I thrive because they endured. I overcome because they conquered. I stand because they dug deep enough to give me fierce roots.


The Q’ewar Project

The Q’ewar poject is a social and economic initiative working with the indigenous women living in the Quechua Community of Q’ewar in Southern Peru.  The women of the Q’ewar Project live in extreme poverty, and for most, this is the first chance they have had to learn skills to earn money in a humane and respectful working environment.  Although the project is young, the original intention to provide the opportunity for these women to improve the difficult conditions of their lives is bearing fruit, little by little.  The project is self-sustainable and everything that has been accomplished by the project has been possible because of the beautiful dolls the women make.

Unlike many of the dolls made with plastic and other toxic materials, the dolls are made with natural fibers from the interior, stuffed with pure sheep’s wool, to the dolls’ hair, made from alpaca yarn.  The women wash, card, and spin the wool used for hair, sweaters and shoes, sewing and knitting all the distinctive clothes. Hand dyed fibers color the hats and the panchos.  Much of the dye used is made from indigenous plants.  The dolls’ clothing reflects a wide variety of styles worn by the rural dwellers.  Most importantly, unlike the mass-produced dolls that companies like Mattel manufacture, these dolls are made with love and joy by the very hands of the women whose lives are being changed by the dolls.  

The Project is located in a beautiful commune-like complex nestled in the hills of Andahuaylillas. As you walk in, the first aspect that catches your attention is the loving and nurturing community that women build as they work surrounded by large windows that let in the healing light of the sun and the beauty of the surrounding landscape.  Here, the women lift each other, teach each other, and inspire each other to be more than they have been treated.

It’s a place where women can recapture their sense of self-worth and confidence, stripped away by centuries of colonization.  In a world in which the Quechua women often suffer marginalization through domestic violence, modern economies, and social systems that perpetuate ethnic discrimination, the Q’ewar Project offers them a space for healing, reconnecting, and building a dignified life. In this beautiful space founded by Don Julio Herrera and his wife Lucy, women are able to come together and act on their concern for creating a more just and moral society.   While engaged in their work,women share personal stories and discuss issues pertaining to child-bearing and rearing, personal and family health, economic stability, sustainable agriculture, access to natural resources, spiritual practices, etc.  Women circles have been around for centuries, and they have been the hub for the sharing of wisdom and solidarity as well as the incubators of transformative ideas and visions.  By teaching and empowering each other, these women, our sisters, are changing the course of how their children will participate and contribute to their community.




I had the honor of listening to some of the stories these inspirational leaders shared.  In telling their stories, they are able to heal and find the strength to continue to transform their lives and the lives of others.  Vilma, one of the women with the most longevity at the project was recently asked, by one of the service learning students I mentored at the project, Alana, if she owned one of the dolls she had hand-made for 13 years. When Vilma responded no, Hanah took it upon herself to purchase a doll for her, and had Vilma select the doll of her choice.  This act of generosity overwhelmed Vilma, but not just for the obvious reason. Vilma lost both of her parents when she was eight years old. As a result, she had to work from a very young age to support herself and her siblings.

The doll Alana gave her was the first doll anyone had given her, and the first doll she had owned.  The doll she had yearned for since she was a child had finally come to her at age 40.  Vilma felt in her heart that her mother’s spirit had nudged Alana’s heart, so that through Alana’s gesture, she could finally give her daughter the doll she had not been able to give her. In this act of kindness, Vilma was not only able to find healing for the little girl inside of her whose childhood had ended so abruptly, but she was also finally able to find closure to her mom’s death, because she had a presentiment that her mom had been with her all along. Witnessing all of this allowed me to see that this is what the magic of life looks like when we are open to it.

Paulina is another woman I met through the Q’ewar project.  I felt drawn to her spirit before I knew I’d become such good friends with her. She had a vibrant spark in her eyes and a confidence that is not commonly observed in the women from Andahuaylillas.  As I began to speak to her and learn about her journey of healing, I became so inspired by her.  In her I saw the journey of liberation and truth I have been on, and that so many beautiful women I know strive everyday to achieve.

She got married at a very young age, 17, and became widowed and a single mother at age 18.  In time she married again, to a man that abused her verbally and repeatedly reminded her that she was “used goods.” He told her she was lucky she had found someone who would want to marry her, especially because she had a son my another man.  In the midst of the abuse, she lost the will to live.  She had lost all understanding of the purpose of life.

Her work at Q’ewar helped her to find that purpose again and have a more concrete vision for the kind of life she wanted to begin to work toward.  We had conversations in which we both held a sacred and respectful space to be able to share some of the most intimate and painful parts of our lives.  One image that she shared with me that was so powerfully imprinted in my mind was one of her sessions with a local psychologists she had begun to visit when she felt she had nothing to live for.

As she sat in his office describing the degrading experiences she lived with her husband, he grabbed her hands and told her she was consumed by fear, so much fear she had forgotten how to live.  He then covered her mouth with his hands and she began to feel a sense of suffocation.  A slow loss of breath, an oppressive heaviness in her chest synonymous to the overwhelming fear that was dictating her life.  He pressed his hands harder against her mouth and nose.  She became agitated and tried to shake her head away with no success, until she gathered enough strength to pull his hands off her mouth and push him away from her.  He then raised his voice at her and asked, “Quien respira por ti! Quien respira por ti! Quien respira por ti!” (Who breathes for you!)  Over and over, until she sreamed back, “Yo, you respiro por mi!” (I breathe for me!)  She now speaks without her voice quivering or her hands shaking.  She says she is not afraid anymore.  Her life is hers to create.


Like many of the women, when she started working at the Q’ewar project, Paulina wouldn’t look at anyone in the eyes; didn’t feel worthy enough, to.  At Q’ewar she learned about labor laws and just labor conditions.  Simple regulations like keeping track of the hours she worked, understanding full-time and part-time shifts, knowing she had a right to two breaks during an eight-hour shift, and demanding overtime pay when she worked over her eight hours empowered her to demand dignity, both at work and her house.  Here was a seemingly vulnerable, but confident woman starting her own quiet revolution; beginning to assert her truth and demanding the dignity she was born to deserve.

When Don Julio began this project, he hired three women, whom he paid from his own salary as a teacher.  The project now hires over 40 women.  More than 60% percent of the women have been able to build their homes from the sustainable work they do at the project.  Many have also been able to find the self-reliance they needed to leave their abusive spouses.  The Q’ewar project has also expanded into other areas.  They have an on-site kindergarten school, “Wawa Munakuy” (giving love to children – in Quechua),  based on the Waldorf pedagogy, which strives to transform education into an art that educates the whole child – “the heart and the hands, as well as the head.”  The children of the women that work at the Q’ewar project attend the kindergarten school free of charge and are supplied with all the materials they need for learning.  The blueprints for the expansion of the school to include primary grades have already been created, and Don Julio along with supporters are working on raising funds to see this vision come to fruition.  Change happens when opportunities are created for people to empower themselves and have ownership and determination over their lives.

One last anecdote:  One of the students during the last session bought a doll, specifically assembled to reflect the student’s physical features.  When the student saw her doll, she became overwhelmed and welled up with tears.  The women, concerned with her reaction, questioned what was wrong, to which she responded that it was “so beautiful and the first time [she] had a doll that looked like [her].  The student was of Indian heritage and had lived in the United States her whole life, yet it was in this magical place that she finally found the very thing that would allow her, like the women, to rescue a piece of the self-acceptance she had struggled for so long to experience.

To order a girl or boy Village or  Collector’s doll, please contact JoAnne at or by phone in the U.S. (802)425-4185.  You may also visit the website at

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.



Human Beings Are Not Built In Silence


My daughter exerting her right to speak up for the dignity of others.

A weeke ago, I substituted at an elementary school.  In the morning, while the students were eating breakfast in the classroom, I noticed they were absolutely quiet, so quiet, I could hear my breath.  I proceeded to say, you all are so quiet.  To which a student responded, “Thank you.”  I was taken a back as I hadn’t made the comment as a compliment, but rather as a disapproving observation.  Breakfast time after all, should be an opportunity for students to build relationships and comradery, and other than teaching students to pay attention and focus during direct instruction and projects, it goes against all child development theory to expect children to be completely quiet all the time, especially during social activities.

And then it hit me.  From the time our students are children, their voice begins to be hushed, quieted, until it completely disappears, leaving them with some distant echo of it when they become adults. It is our ability to speak that makes us human; it is the word that affirms to ourselves and the world that we exist.  Language is power – it is our power to assert that we are here, that we matter, that we are significant.  Paulo Freire states, “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.”  It is our ability to dialogue that allows us to reflect, and it is through refelction that we mediate the world and act upon it.

Many of the lessons we have learned from our parents, grandparents, and ancestors have been passed down from generation to generation. It is language and the ability to speak it that allowed them to tell stories and pass them down through history, so we can learn who we are and where we come from.  Like roots, these lessons and stories hold us firm in our humanity and our completeness.  Without our voice, there would be no books, no songs, no film, no theater, and no concrete thoughts and ideas. Through our voice we discover who we are, how we fit in this vast, complicated world, and how we hold steadfast to our authentic selves.  “It is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings” (Paulo Freire). Dialogue is an existential necessity.  At birth, we enter this world with a powerful cry; the first time we get to exert our right to say, “Hey World!  I am here!”


My daughter exerting her right to speak up for the dignity of others.

Education must be the practice of freedom, as opposed to the practice of domination.  Children must be taught that their voice, beyond being perceived as a disruption in the class, is a powerful right for self-realization and liberation. Overwhelming control, oppression, is a slow death of the soul.  As children’s voices are controlled, so are their thoughts and actions, inhibiting their full potential as human beings.  When the self-realization of another is hindered, even in the most subtle manner, it is an act of violence.  “Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry (dialogue, critical thinking, reflection) is one of violence” (Paulo Freire). When we teach our children to accept this violence, we are inherently teaching them to subjugate themselves to all other forms of violence, leading them to a tortuous journey of dehumanization.

“We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for the final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us . . . The transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger. We fear the very visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which is also the source of our greatest strength” (Audre Lorde)

We are conditioned to stay silent, and then we spend the rest of our adult lives learning how to speak again. This idea of moving from self-censorship to self-expression to self-awareness to self-determination and ultimately to liberation has become such a powerful theme in all that I’ve been reading, experiencing, and learning lately. From the writings of Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou to the philosophies and work of Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal, and Myles Horton. And it all starts with the courage to tell our stories and make the space for others to tell theirs.


My daughter exerting her right to speak up for the dignity of others.


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.



You came into this world

like a ray of sunlight

invading darkness.

Pushing your way through bars

created to keep God out.



While folks around you

buried themselves under layers

of fear, concrete-heavy,

you allowed your petals to unfold,

bravely showing the world

the essence of your soul.


Your love was too great to keep

restrained within a bud.

Despite the perils of winter,

you bloomed, magnificently, under

pewter skies.


What some may deem a weed,

is a flower with grit, refusing

to be conquered by her environment.


Like a Field Daisy, you root

yourself in the soil of hope,

expanding your rhizomes

like arms reaching for dreams.


You are a Queen,

wrapped in an ebony robe,

glittering with star dust

created millions of years ago

as a vision of you.


You look deep within the corners

of your flaws, within the crevasses

of your wounds and somehow, every time,

you find the star dust that glitters on your robe.

Remembering you were made radiantly perfect!


You shined your way and broke darkness.

You shined your way and exposed day.

Oh, my beautiful Jameelah, you have never

diminished against the fray!




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.