Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Front yards and public spaces

I have been thinking about my garden a LOT lately, probably too much.  It is my currently preferred distraction.  Instead of reading and writing at my computer while developing some serious upper-back pain, I can be outside getting my hands dirty, building garden beds and planting seeds that will grow into beautiful and healthy plants that my family and I can eat.  I love that.

My spouse and I are debating about the front yard. I have big plans.  She has legitimate reservations.  My plans include eliminating grass (which, frankly, isn't so much grass as it is weeds) and replacing it with fruit trees, flowering plants, and a patio.  Her reservations are primarily aesthetic (whatever we do needs to look nice) and economic (whatever we do needs to add value to the lot so that it is not an impediment when it comes time to sell). 

Part of my motivation for the big plan is rooted in my urge for more public life. Here's the backstory:)

We live on a quiet St. Paul suburban street, and our front yard is maybe 40' by 30'.  When we moved here in 1998, there were two older ash trees in the front, but most of the area was grass. We have slowly been removing the grass.   One ash tree came down in 2002 because it was dying, and the other ash tree came down in 2008 for the same reason. This left a large chunk of chewed-up yard that we addressed by spreading mulch and wood chips over the blighted area (it's not much, but it kept the weeds down).

In addition, the middle of the front yard kept flowering with crab grass, and no matter what we did, we couldn't get the stuff to die.  We removed the sod, dug down 6"-12", and found . . . chunks of asphalt?!  We think that the current sod was placed on top of driveway asphalt waste.  Fabulous - our own private brownfield.  After we removed the sod from the center of the yard, we added some compost and mulch, bordered it with recycle planks from a deck remodeling that we had done recently, and planted two apple trees: a Macintosh and a Harrelson.  Last year, the Harrelson produced enough apples that we ate four pies, and my son grabbed an apple on his way to school for all of September and a big part of October. 

This is what the yard looks like now (photos taken from the roof of my house looking south). 

I have big plans for the rest of the front yard.  I want to remove the sod between the apple tree bed and the maple-and-lilac bed; I want to place another apple tree - maybe a Honeycrisp? - to the south of this new bed, and I want to place another apple tree (or maybe an apricot tree) to the southeast of the current bed, and I would encircle both trees with the current garden beds to create one large garden bed with four fruit trees, a large lilac bush, and a beautiful maple tree. We could plant lovely native plants, some flowering plants, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, zucchini, . . . whatever we like.  I would like to create a stone patio between the house and the apple tree bed, complete with comfortable chairs and a fire stand.

I won't disclose the nature of my spousal negotiations except to say that this is not a done deal, and that I will have to be persuasive.  It's a good debate, and I respect her position.  I know she respects mine, too.

So what does this have to do with a web site that professes to be about civic engagement?  Quite a bit, actually.

Dennis Donovan, the national organizer for Public Achievement, likes to talk about how our houses and landscape architecture have changed the way that we interact with one another.  His words inform my thinking about my own front yard.  In fact, I'd like to think that my landscaping efforts are an example of trying to return to something that was once fairly common: the front yard as a public space.

Today, at least in the suburb where I live, most of the action is in the backyard.  My 1970s split-level home is a perfect example of this.  The backyard is big enough for a full-size volleyball court (and we take advantage of this every summer), and there is still room left over for five 4' X 8' garden beds along the back fence.  Attached to the second floor of the house is a deck overlooking the backyard.  When we are on the deck, we barbecue, read, listen to a baseball game on the radio, enjoy the sun, and watch whatever is happening in the backyard, but it is essentially a private endeavor. Even the interior of our house orients itself to the backyard: the dining room and living room windows both face north and the backyard. No one accidentally wanders into our backyard, and if they did, I would be suspicious or surprised.  The backyard is a private space.  Granted, I will speak with my neighbors over the back fence.  Often, this is when both of us are outside, working in the yard.  That's pleasant and arguably public, but it is a very small public sphere.

There was a time when the dominant orientation of a house and yard was the front yard and the street.  Front porches faced the street.  Flower gardens and shade or fruit trees dominated front yards.  One can still see this orientation in much of older portions of St. Paul and Minneapolis and in some of the newer, smaller sub-divisions in our neighborhood.  This orientation means that people are in the front yard.  This promotes interacting with neighbors who are also outside, working in their yards or walking down the street. This has happened to me repeatedly since we started working in the front yard a few years ago.  People will stop as they walk by and comment on the yard.  Teen-agers who normally ignore the middle-aged guy in the split-level at the end of the block (that's me) say "hello" when they see me hunched over a tomatoe plant.  The new young couple down the street who walk their dogs have said "hello" many times, and I suspect that in the not-too-distant future, they'll stop and we'll talk.  Drivers slow their cars when I work near the curb (ever seen The World According to Garp, the sledgehammer scene? If you have children, and you live on a street, then you can appreciate Robin Williams' character's response to speeding cars). Unlike the backyard, it wouldn't surprise me if interested people wandered into my front yard to have a chat while I was working.  When I am done gardening in the front yard, I will relax on the stone patio, admiring my handiwork and watching the world go by my house.  In public.

This argument for more public life, coming from an admitted introvert, is surprising even to me.  I think that when we are in the front yard, and we can see others and be seen by others, it adds a layer of humanity to what we do.  It reminds us that we live not by ourselves in our homes but that we live amongst others.  This makes us think and behave differently. We become more conscientious about how we live our lives amongst others.  I think that's a good thing.

How do you use your front yard?  How much do you encounter your neighbors?  Is the notion of your front yard as a public space something that appeals to you, or do you prefer to keep your home and yard private, not public?

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Magnificent Ambersons

Jim Groom recently posted his thoughts about an excerpt from The Magnificent Ambersons that rang true for me (follow the "posted" link to view the excerpt and read Groom's ideas).  The clip displays a brief conversation about the impact of the automobile on society.  I won't repeat Groom's summary nor his analysis, but I strongly encourage people to view this.

As a late adopter of technology, I try to remind myself of why technology (and especially social media like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, this blog, and so on) can be useful.  I just got off the telephone with my friend Ben Fink, and we talked about how technology can actually add to my humanity, such as when I posted about Kurban Said's Ali and Nino, and my friends and colleagues in Azerbaijan commented, and in doing so extended my monologue into a dialogue.  That adds to my humanity.  I hope that it adds to theirs.

However, there are times, too, when social media and technology can be dehumanizing, and I am painfully aware of that.  The mindless emails that we must read and respond to because they are part of our jobs: the endless voicemails that need to be heard and the ensuing telephone calls that we will make, often to a disembodied outgoing message; the blog posting that will be read by . . . no one . . . .  I recognize this.

The Joseph Cotton soliloquy in the short clip is brilliant in its balancing act.  Even though Cotton's character played a role in inventing the automobile and now sells them, he is distinctly and brilliantly ambivalent about what it means (not indifferent but ambivalent).  It's not a matter of being a technology champion or a luddite: it's a question of how technology can connect us rather than divide us.

What has the computer and social media done for you?  Has it isolated you or connected you?  Are you primarily a consumer of social media or are you a creator?

Image from jovisala47's photostream
Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, April 23, 2010

Kurban Said's Ali and Nino

I finally finished reading Kurban Said's Ali and Nino: A Love Story, a gift from my Azeri host, Vali Huseynov.  The novel was published in 1937, and Kurban Said is likely a pseudonym.  The novel was most likely a collaboration between the Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels and Essad Bey, who was born Lev Nussimbaum in Baku, Azerbaijan, but took the name Essad Bey when he converted to Islam from Judaism as a child. 

Like most love stories, this one ends tragically; however,I enjoyed the book not for its love story but rather for its depicition of Ali and Nino's cultural conflict.  Nino is a Georgian Christian living in Baku; Ali is an Azeri Muslim.  Their love symbolizes the meeting of the West and the East. 

I once asked Vali if Azeris think of themselves as Europeans or as Asians.  He told me that this book actually begins with this very question.  Even in the conclusion, the author describes Baku as the place where East meets West, although this is more an expression of the war during which the Russians overtake the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan (for +70 years until Azerbaijan gains its independence with the fall of the Soviet Union).

It is probably an unfair or absurd question to ask.  And yet, it is not without precedent in the USA.  When I was a little boy, it was not uncommon for us to identify ourselves to each other by way of our ethnically hyphenated ancestry.  I was, depending on the audience, Irish-American or German-American.  I think for my grandparents' generation possibly and my great-grandparents certainly, this split identity was something tangible, as tangible as the accented English on their tongues.  Today, my children don't think this way.  In fact, they are often perplexed by the question, "who are you?" as if the answer were obvious.

I would love to hear what my friends in Georgia and Azerbaijan they think about the novel (if they have read it) and the question posed by the Russian teacher in Ali's Baku school: 
It can therefore be said, my children, that is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia. (4)


I had a recent series of events that strangely interwove with one another.  While I was in the Republic of Georgia, my Polish friend Ala made a list of films and books that I should know.  One of those films was Katyn, which is a 2007 Polish production directed by Andrzej Wajda.  The film focuses on a Soviet and Stalin atrocity: the massacre of over 20,000 Polish military officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia in the Katyn Forest in 1940.  Immediately after the massacre, the Soviets blamed the Nazis for the deaths.  It was only recently that Russia recognized their complicity, first in 1990 when Mikhail Gorbachev admitted to the Soviet Union's role and then more recently when Vladimir Putin spoke about the Soviet Union's role. (I am embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about Katyn.)   I took the film from my local library on 3 April, just a day after I arrived in the US.

On 10 April, President Lech Kacyniski, the Polish First Lady, and 94 others, among them Poland's political elite, died when their plane crashed outside of Smolensk near the Katyn memorial.  Kacyniski and his party were flying to Smolensk to observe the anniversary of the Katyn massacre along with Russia's political elite.

I read everything I could about Kacyniski and the memorial service, about Poland in the days after the crash, and then yesterday, I finally watched the film.  It is not an easy film to watch.  It is very beautiful, but it is also gruesome.  The film focuses on the lives of the women whose men died in the massacre, as well as a few of the men who met their end at Katyn.  I watched an interview, too, with Wajda, whose father was killed at Katyn.  I watched a documentary about the making of the film, including interviews with one of the primary female actors Maja Ostaszewska, whose great-grandfather was executed at Katyn.  It felt a bit like viewing someone else's tragic family photograph album.

Poland will survive the loss of Kaxyniski and the others.  Already, there are plans for Poland to have an election yet this year, and there will be a peaceful transfer of power.  However, the irony of the plane's destination coupled with the 96 deaths seems an awfully cruel blow to the Polish people.  

One thing that I did learn on my trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan is how well-respected and -loved the Polish people are in that part of the world.  Poland has been quick to assist these new democracies with financial, humanitarian, and cultural resources.  That experience, along with my more recent readings and viewings, have given me a newfound respect for Poland and its people.  Poland's democracy and its destiny are inexorably linked to its history.  May their future be bright.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

'Point of No Return'

Ramadhan Pohan is a member of Indonesia's Parliment.  In Norimitsu Onishi's 20 April NYTimes article "In Indonesia, the Internet Emerges as a (Too?) Powerful Tool," Pohan is quoted as suggesting that "[old-style politicians and bureaucrats] don't realize that in terms of democracy and freedom of expression, we've reached a kind of point of no return," referring to recent political activity in Indonesia taking place on . . . Facebook and Twitter.  Onishi outlines four different instances where social networking altered the political course in Indonesia, which has the third greatest number of Facebook users (behind the US and the UK).

Readers of Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody will not be surprised.  Nor will the young people of Moldova, who used Twitter to rally an anti-government rally of several thousand last year (follow the link to read Nathan Hodges even-handed analysis in Wired).

None of this seems random.  As someone who has organized events in the past, I am always interested in how people are finally drawn into an action.  Moving from "interested" to "acting" is a major leap.  Something about social media, it seems, motivates connected people to make that leap.

Long ago, I discarded the Field of Dreams adage that "if you build it, [they] will come."  Experience has shown me time and time again that simply building something (an event, a gathering, a blog!) does not ensure that people will actually appear.

Through social media, there is a group of people who have built the types of relationships that we who aspire to community organizing desire.  Social media is the conduit for this group of people to learn each other's self-interest and then to act on that knowledge to create "happenings" (with a nod to Geoff Sirc)  that draw people into the action.

(Speaking of Sirc, after meeting with him a few years ago about student writing, my colleague Gill Creel and I came away with an apt aphorism: follow the fun.  Social media is one of the places where the fun is happening.)

Check out the new research offered at the Pew Center for the Internet and American Life.  Young people use their cell phones as a texting machine more frequently than they use it to make telephone calls (unless they are calling their parents).   They are motivated communicators.

I still use my cell phone for the banal telephone conversation (I don't even use texting).  I still use email as my primary mode of communication with others.  That said, I am trying.  I have a blog (but so few people respond that I feel like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills).  I created a Facebook site (and my 17-year old does NOT want me as a Facebook "friend").  I tweet - rarely - on Twitter, but if this blog feels quixotic, Twitter feels positively surreal: I am on top of a hill yelling "Hellloooooo . . ." to millions of fellow twitterians, waiting for a response. I could wait a long time.

For all of this (what is this? indifference? rejection? ineffectual use of the medium - that's my guess), I still want to find out what's happening here.  Somethin's cookin', no doubt.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Death of Education, but the Dawn of Learning

It had been a while since I checked out the work that colleagues at Minnesota Campus Compact are doing.  One of the more exciting developments is the Center for Digital Civic Engagement blog that John Hamerlinck has been nurturing.  I find it exciting because it is melding two interests that fascinate me: social media/technology and civic engagement.  For a taste of what the blog is about, I encourage you to grab a cup of coffee/tea/milk/water (whatever) and go to the posting titled "Why this technology conversation is important to educators."  It's a short 5+-minute video that says what others elsewhere have been suggesting for awhile: technology is transforming education, and we in education have been generally slow to react.  The title for this posting is a direct quote from the video.

Those interested in civic engagement served straight-up without the technology focus should view Minnesota Campus Compact's other blog, Campus in Community.  

Both blogs are testaments to the interesting and important work that Minnesota Campus Compact is doing.

Props to Aaron Spiegel, MCTC Student

Aaron Spiegel was recently honored by USA Today as member of their 2010 All-USA Community College Academic Team.  Aaron was a member of MCTC's Student Committee on Public Engagement (SCOPE) in 2008, where he learned the basics of community organizing.  Truth be told, he came to SCOPE with considerable organizing instincts and skills.   He is one of the top student organizers I have had the pleasure of working with in my almost-30 years of education.  Congratulations, Aaron!

A Public Achievement Coach's Reflection

I read with interest the By the People's recent posting, which is the reflection of a college student coaching a Public Achievement team in Milledgeville, Georgia (USA).  John Fogelman's story is a good one, not rose-colored but truthful in its assessment of public work as hard work, work that changes coaches as well as team members.

I think all Public Achievement coaches will be interested in this story, but I want to invite my Georgian and Azeri friends in particular (as well as the Public Achievement crew at MCTC) to read John Fogelman's "Ups and Downs of Public Work" posting. Please comment there to let John and others know what you think.

'The Disaggregation of Higher Education'

Will Richardson, whose Weblogg-ed is a must-read for anyone thinking about that Texas-sized intersection of technology and education, recently wrote about a New York Times Magazine article titled "An Open Mind" by Kate Hafner. I won't repeat Richardson's analysis, other than to recommend it to all of you reading this blog. 

Instead, I want to draw some attention to some of Hafner's points that ring more loudly and true for me as a community college instructor.  Hafner writes,
But just 9 percent of those who use M.I.T. OpenCourseWare are educators. Forty-two percent are students enrolled at other institutions, while another 43 percent are independent learners like Mr. Gates. Yale, which began putting free courses online just four years ago, is seeing similar proportions: 25 percent are students, a majority of them enrolled at Yale or prospective students; just 6 percent are educators; and 69 percent are independent learners.
Think about those numbers:  43% of MIT OpenCourseWare users are independent learners - people not necessarily associated with an institution of higher education, people who . . . just . . .  want . . . to . . . learn!  IN certain circles, I have been accused of being a pie-eyed optimist, but I'll admit that I find this number incredibly heartening.   The other big number - 42% of MIT OpenCourseWare users are students at other higher ed. institutions - strikes me as remarkable as well.  These users want to learn as well, but they are using the resource to enrich the learning that they are experiencing elsewhere (one with a grade attached to it).  These could be the students that I teach (if I do my job well).  Hafner describes some of the work being done with the Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative,where the learning is shaped for"'someone with limited prior knowledge in a college subject and with little or no experience in successfully directing his or her own learning,'" These resources are exactly the kind that can benefit many of the students whom I teach.

The title of this posting comes from a David Wiley quote within Hafner's article.  I invoke it here because it captures what I have been thinking about for some time now, which is the morphing of higher education.  There is a part of me that embraces this change, the part that applauds collaborative learning and a different kind of economics for learning.  There's another part of me that wonders how I'll keep up with the changes, how the morphing of higher education will morph me. 

I encourage you to check out Richardson's blog (bookmark it, RSS it, make it your home page) and read Hafner's article. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mingachevir's PA Team "Charitable Youth" Wins National Azerbaijan Award

Through the email listserv created by Shukufe Nacafova, I was informed that the Public Achievement team Charitable Youth, mentored by teacher Gulnaz Hajiyeva and college student Elvin Aliyev in Mingachevir, Azerbaijan, recently received a national award in Baku for their ecological project to keep the River Kura clean and pure.  I am hoping that Gulnaz, Elvin or their team will comment and let us know more about the project.  (In a comment on the Shutterfly web site, Gulnaz writes that the team won a silver medal at the event.)

However, what I appreciate about this team is that they have taken their public work to a new degree and level of public-ness, first by pursuing the national award (which, in and of itself, is a meaningful way to add meaning to a Public Achievement team's public work) and then by winning the award.  Gulnaz writes that the local television station has given air time to describe the team's accomplishments and that many people who did not know about Public Achievement are now asking many questions.  This is a great way to spread interest in Public Achievement., which in turn I hope spreads enthusiasm for young people and civic agency.  I applaud the team members of Charitable Youth and their mentor Gulnaz Hajiyeva!

With Gulnaz's permission, I have uploaded a series of photographs to my Shutterfly site, which you can view at http://michaelkuhne.shutterfly.com/

As usual, I invite you to comment, either here or on the Shutterfly site.

Like many, I have been touched, both by the outpouring of emotion over the death of Poland's political elite this past weekend and by the stability of the Polish people and their new government in light of this tragedy.  I will be writing a posting about this in the days to come.

Until then, be well.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Thomas Goltz's Chechnya Diary

I finished Thomas Goltz's Chechnya Diary over the weekend. I highly recommend this book (as well as Georgia Diary and Azerbaijan Diary) if people are interested in reading about these three remarkably interesting countries and regions.   However, I read the Goltz Caucasus trilogy out of order.  This posting briefly summarizes all three books and provides a short review of Chechnya Diary.

The first book in the trilogy that Goltz published was Azerbaijan Diary (M.E.Sharpe, 1999).  He does an admirable job of exploring the early Post-Soviet years in Azerbaijan, tracking the rise and fall of the popular political leader Elchibey, the rise and power of Heydar Aliyev, and the ethnic insanity of Nagorno (Mountainous) Karabagh, the still disputed portion of southwestern Azerbaijan that is currently occupied by Armenia.  It's 496 pages long, I finished it on my flight to Tblisi last month, and there was no way I was going to tote that tome back to Minneapolis: I left it in Vali Huseynov's capable hands and bright mind.

The final book in the trilogy is Georgian Diary (M.E. Sharpe, 2006).  The central story is the fall of Sukhumi and the secession of Abkhazia from Georgia in the tumultuous Post-Soviet years, a battle that left a profound mark on Goltz's worldview.  Goltz also writes about the political battles and includes the rise and fall of Gamsakhurdia and the eventual rise of former Central Communist Party bigwig-turn-champion of "democracy," Eduard Shevardnaze.  My recommendation: if you read only one of the trilogy, Georgia Diary is where you should begin.

"'The observer affects the observed.' --Essence of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle."  This is how Goltz's Chechnya Diary (Thomas Dunne, 2003) begins.  The middle book is, in many ways from a literary perspective, the most intriguing.   The other two Caucacus books are bold and broad attempts at examining nascent independence in two complex societies/cultures/countries.  Both books are filled with photographs and multiple maps of the region, as well as detailed descriptions of events and critical analysis.  Chechnya Diary strikes me as the most difficult for Goltz to have written.  Instead of multiple maps and photographs, there is but one graph: a hand-drawn map of Samashki, a small Chechnyan village and the focus of Goltz's story.  Samashki is home to Hussein and his family.  It is also the site of a a bloody Russian double-cross, one where the Russians first assured the villagers that if they cooperated that they would be spared, but in the end, the Russians "clear cut" the village.  Hussein's story plays against a background of rebel leaders and Moscow chaos, but unlike the other two books, Goltz allows Hussein's story to represent the larger Chechnyan story.  It is a profile writ large.

What I appreciated about this book was Goltz's willingness to disclose his own ignorance of Chechnya, its complicated history, its difficult language.  More than once, Goltz wonders why he is in Chechnya, and more than once, he comes very close to dying while covering a war that very few people outside of Chechnya understood nor cared to know.  What does a journalist do when writing stories that no editor is interested in publishing?  Eventually, Goltz is able to get the "money shot" (essentially, five minutes of video framing dead bodies in Samashki), and he goes from jounralist pariah to a man in demand, including a nomination for the Rory Peck Award.  The attention and attendant prosperity is not without complications, since Goltz recognizes that his prestige comes at a steep human price.  The book ends with a desperate call from an exiled Hussein living somewhere in Kazakhstan, asking Goltz to speak with him, that Hussein can trust no one else, and Goltz admitting to the reader that he had yet to make the trek because he was finishing this book.

There are other books that present a more "objective" perspective about Chechnya, but if you are looking for a book that shows the limits of "objective" reporting, of how war effects those who report war, and how both the observed and the observer are shaped and altered by that relationship, Chechnya Diary is a perfect book.

You can read more about Thomas Goltz and his work at his web site.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

You can see more photographs of the Azerbaijan and Republic of Georgia trip

at my new Shutterfly website.  Who knows?  You might be in one of those photographs!:)

As usual, I'd love to hear from people.  Please use the "comment" feature at the bottom of the postings to let me and the readers know what you think.

Georgia and Azerbaijan - Concluding Thoughts

Map Photo by lyndonK2's photostream
Flickr Creative Commons

It's Thursday, 8 April, and I spent part of this morning reading a New York Times article titled, "An Insurgency Evolves in the Caucasus Region as Wounds Fester," which describes the resurgence of violence in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, all resistant Russian states just over the Caucasus mountains from Georgia and Azerbaijan.  While tracking down the link to that article, I found another NYTimes article about the unrest in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian country just across the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan.  Almost daily since I returned to the US a week ago, I have been reminded of how tenuous normalcy and daily routine can be for the people of the Caucasus region, and I think about the people that I met and the lives that they lead, and I hope nothing but the best for all of them.

This will be my last posting devoted primarily to Georgia and Azerbaijan.  I have written about Public Achievement and Theatre of the Oppressed.  I have written about my eye-opening trip to Ganja and Mingachevir, Azerbaijan, as well as Public Achievement site visits to Mtshketa, Gori, and Borjumi in Georgia.  I also wrote about passport and visa anxiety, as well as my jet-lagged staggers around Tblisi the first couple of days, entries that don't really warrant back-links:)

I want to devote today's posting to some of the incidental encounters that have stayed with me.

A day trip to Mingachevir from Ganja in fog so thick I could not see more than a 100 meters - the clouds lifting in Mingachevir - driving to the reservoir, the sun warming our backs, our faces - Lale and Gulshen running here and there with the wonder and enthusiasm of children - looking over the water to the mountains and thinking it looked not unlike water and mountains I'd seen elsewhere (the Ozarks, fall 2009; the Black Hills of South Dakota; mountain lakes in Colorado).

Visiting Vali Huseynov's classroom in Ganja - participating in an English conversation class with Azir, Rabim, Zaaur, and Aynur with a map of the Midwest spread on a table, me ranting about Lake Superior, the farm land where I was born, the Twin Cities and the Mississippi River - Vali's generosity, hospitality, and protective spirit, him asking if I wanted to see "both sides" of Ganja, and me eagerly acquiescing - discussing his Fulbright college plans for the US, knowing that Boston University was his first choice but selfishly hoping he'd select the University of Iowa:)

Look as Esmira's smile.  Look at Edgar's smile.

Me, a bit anxious about crossing the border from Azerbaijan into Georgia with the none-too-friendly Azeri border guards - a middle-aged woman with a nasty cough and a long pea green overcoat uses sign language to say, "Follow me.  I'll stay with you" - she waits with me while the border guards laugh at my passport photo, while an Azeri border guard in broken English tells me that he trained in Texas; she walks with me the one kilometer dirt-and-occasional pavement path to the Georgian checkpoints.  I smile and wish that I had taken the bloody time to learn how to say "Thank you - thank you so very much!" in Azeri.

Charles Merrill, the son of the man who created Merrill-Lynch, good and dear friend to Julie Boudreaux of MTO (the group that sponsored my trip), sitting on a wall in Borjumi with Kurban Said's Ali and Nino in his hand - Charles, who started progressive schools in Boston and St. Louis, author of numerous books, now an abstract watercolorist (there's a framed painting that survived the checked baggage flights home that's waiting to be hung somewhere in my living room) - Charles, who at 89 years of age is still fascinated by the world around him, and me hoping I can be that curious and open when I am his age, inshallah; Charles, whose self-deprecating sense of humor can light up a room.  Charles and Julie walking arm-in-arm in Gori, all of us a bit thunderstruck by the hometown monuments to the Man of Steel, Josef Stalin.

Rodami Tsomaia, translator of the mono-language trainer, me.  She, fluent in Georgian, Russian, English, and who knows what else.  Me, smiling the first time she completes a thought of mine without me saying anything.  Me, speaking with someone after a workshop session and waiting for Rodami to translate, even though she was nowhere to be seen and I was speaking to a fellow English speaker.  Wondering if she would like to study in the USA, knowing that she could,  and the responsibility that comes with that.

Salty soup broth (just the way I like it), meat filled dumplings, garlic oil, and chives.  Large steamed noodle dumplings filled with salty broth (just the way I like it) and ground meat, eaten best with a loud slurping noise.  Khatchapuri (cheese pie) and kata (flat bread stuffed with spinach), sour yoghurt drink to wash it down.  Eating while walking the Tblisi streets.  Raw bacon served at breakfast, and Ala telling me that "you don't know what's good!"  Bread baked in outdoor, round, concrete ovens, eaten hot and fresh, like school children on an outing.

Sitting on Main Street in Ganja, and feeling two strong feelings: one that I stand out like a tree in the prairie, that it couldn't be much more obvious if I were wearing the redwhiteblue USA flag around my shoulders AND two that the small town streets looked like the small town streets back home: could be Alexandria, or Sauk Centre, or Mora, or Duluth, or just about anywhere.

Sitting in an airport and wondering how the Twins finished the spring exhibition baseball season and thumbing my wallet schedule.
Looking at photographs of my family when I felt just a little bit alone.

Wondering when I can return.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Using Theatre of the Oppressed as a Public Achievement Learning Tool

I became familiar with Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) approximately the same time that I became familiar with Public Achievement (1998 - 2000), so in my mind, these two pedagogies (and I call them that because for me they have always been about different ways of teaching and learning) frequently compliment one another.  Along with a number of colleagues from the Courageous Conversations Theatre of the Oppressed group at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, we began analyzing how we could use TO to enrich and deepen the work of Public Achievement (PA).

The training in Georgia was the first time where I could build TO into PA training over a period of time longer than a quick one-hour workshop.  Over the course of three days, the participants enjoyed a series of TO games and exercises (those interested in a great introduction to TO games and exercises should read Augusto Boal's Games for Actors and Non-Actors; those interested in the theoretical underpinnings of TO should read Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed).  These included the circle and the plus-sign, the three greetings, the basic image, Colombian Hypnosis (multiple variations), push-and-pull, stop-walk, Image Theatre, the images-in-transition, and a truncated version of the Rainbow of Desire.  For the sake of this posting, however, I will limit my discussion to just a few of these games and exercises.

Colombian Hypnosis and Push-and-Pull   Colombian Hypnosis and its variant push-and-pull have always been two of my favorite games.  Colombian Hypnosis asks one person to be the hypnotist by placing her hand six inches from the face of the person being hyponized.  The hypnotist then moves her hand and the hypnotized must follow, keeping his face six inches from the hypnotist's hand.  The two never touch (although you'll notice that Shahnaz to the left "cheated" just slightly:)).  Variations add additional people to the activity, increase the distance between the hypnotist and hypnotized, or play with different postures.   These first two photographs show a chain of people involved
in Colombian Hypnosis.  We used Colombian Hypnosis as an introduction to the Public Achievement roles of mentoring and mentor coordinating.  I wanted them to see how they used their bodies to analyze what it means to "mentor" or "lead" or "facilitate," what it means to "be in control" or "to follow."  In the discussion that followed the activity, participants spoke of forms of resistance to roles, of how working together made the activity "more beautiful," of how hard it was to both follow and lead at the same time.

A variation of Colombian Hypnosis is push-and-pull.  To the right, you see Maia doing this exercise with Badri (or at least Badri's hands and forearms:)).  I was struck by how assertive, even aggressive, some of the participants were.  When demonstrating with Shahnaz, she almost pushed me to the ground before grabbing my wrists and pulling me up!  I had done this game maybe 50 times before this, and that had never happened (even when I played with Nickia Jensen, who is someone to be reckoned with:)).  During the discussion, the participants talked about the ambiguous roles prompted by the game (who is following? leading? who has the power?  what does it mean to exercise power?).  It was good stuff.

The Images-in-Transition
Another exercise that we used was the Images-in-Transition to introduce a discussion of the Public Achievement core concept of power.  Briefly, people form small groups and create two body sculpture/images: one depicting powerlessness and another depicting powerfulness.  I will let you determine which is which in these photographs:)  The groups then form their "powerlessness" image and, over the course of thirty seconds, morph the image into the same "powerfulness" image.  We had to do this exercise twice to get it right.  The first time, all four groups were done after five seconds.  I tried explaining the reasoning behind
moving slowly: that change normally takes time, that I am asking them to self-consciously and critically feel the change, that - frankly - it is more fun to do this exercise slowly (an entire book could be written on the subversive nature of fun - actually, it probably already has been).  When we did it again, the images were very powerful indeed.  I saw the look of surprise and awe on a number of the participants' faces.  I was so moved that I had to work hard to keep from tearing up (yeah, I'm a softy - so kill me).  The discussion about the exercise was rich, and this led seamlessly into the core concept discussion of power.

Rainbow of Desire  The participants over the three days were so willing to engage in TO exercises that they inspired me to lead an exercise I had never done before; in fact, I had only learned of the exercise Rainbow of Desire  from Nickia Jensen the week before I left.  In short, one person volunteers to describe briefly a long-term problem that they would like to overcome.  That person recognizes the need to overcome the problem, has perhaps even tried to solve the problem, but has been unsuccessful in doing so.  The person on the far right is the volunteer Jeyhun, whose problem is that he Facebooks five hours per day.Jeyhun then describes what he desires when he is on Facebook: for him, it was both recognition and praise.  Two more volunteers came to the front and strike poses.  Above right, Vali (far left) is Praise, and Elvin is Recognition.

Then, Jeyhun describes what fears keep him from solving the problem: he says that it is Indifference of others to him (portrayed by Salome, photo left, middle character) and Rejection (portrayed by Asia, far right).

Next, Jeyhun has discussions with his Fears and his Desires.  At one point, Recognition has a discussion with Rejection (an editorial aside: Asia was absolutely fabulous and indomitable as Rejection!).  In many ways, this exercise was the most fascinating one for the participants, but it was also my least successful facilitation.  I was trying to use the exercise to introduce the Public Achievement core concepts, how the core concepts are merely abstractions until we give them meaning.  Only because the participants were so engaged and analytical (not because of any adept facilitation on my part) did this exercise work well.  I am glad that I did this, however, because it taught me much about the potential for this exercise.  I thank Asia, Salome, Jeyhun, Elvin, Vali, and the participants for being my teachers.

I don't mean to argue that Theatre of the Oppressed is some magical tool to help train Public Achievement concepts.  Instead, this training has reawakened in me a line of thought that connects creativity with democracy.  For the emerging democracies of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Georgia, after 80 years of rule by the Soviet Union, I argue that building a democracy is ultimately a creative act, one that asks citizens to think and behave differently.  For the still-young democracy of the United States, I argue that keeping democracy vibrant requires powerful acts of creativity to contest media-packaged and consumerist-driven models of democracy.  If democracy is going to survive and thrive, it requires the citizen's creativity.  For me, then, Theatre of the Oppressed is a useful tool in this effort.  What might it be for others?  Music and song?  Drawing, painting?  Architecure?  Landscaping, gardening?  Sculpture?  Dance?  Think about it.  I know that I am.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Ben Fink and Nickia Jensen for their bright minds and insightful analysis regarding the use of TO within PA, and I also must recognize Chaka Mkali and Dennis Hopkins (D-hop), Minneapolis community organizers at Hope Community, for helping me think about TO within the larger community organizing world.  Finally, Sonja Kuftinec at the University of Minnesota has been a wonderful teacher - her criticism and analysis has helped to make the Courageous Conversations work better.

I welcome all comments, but I am especially interested in the TO communities' response to this work.  What do you think?

Tomorrow, Thursday, 8 April, I will write my final posting about the work in Azerbaijan and Georgia.  It will be mostly a traveler's/tourist's impressionistic rendering of what I enjoyed.  Then, folks, I really need to "return" to the work here, not least being filing my taxes, which are due 15 April!  

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Comparing and Contrasting Public Achievement USA and Caucacus Versions

On April 2, Nickia Jensen, a great PA team member and PA coach in her own right, commented on this blog, asking, "I am wondering how you see/think of the connections between the PA you see there and the PA you see in the US. Are they the same structure? What can we learn from the way that PA is done in other countries that we can apply to PA in the US?  These are great questions.  After all, the primary reason for the trip was to train Public Achievement mentors/coaches.  (I include a brief description of the Public Achievement photographs at the bottom of this posting.)

Briefly for the non-PA crowd, Public Achievement is a democracy movement intended to teach people the skills (public work, acting from a position of self-interest, working from positions of relational power)) and attitudes (freedom, free spaces, diversity of ideas)  necessary to be active citizens.  PA incorporates the best of community organizing principles (relational power, understanding public v. private, working in the spaces between the World As It Is and the World As It Should Be).  Those interested can read more at the Public Achievement web site.  Those interested about community organizing can read more at the Gamaliel Foundation or the Industrial Areas Foundation web sites, the two community organizations that I know best.  (Don't let the anti-community organizing rhetoric that Sarah Palin and the Fox News crowd likes to exercise fool you: good community organizing has been and continues to transform people's lives in constructive ways that make a democracy deeper and richer.)

Description  Public Achievement in Georgia takes place primarily in Internally Displaced People's (IDP) settlements.  These are people displaced by the Russian encroachments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Many of us remember the brief and devastating battle between Russian and Georgian troops in 2008, but there is a longer history; many of the IDP settlements we visited had people who had lived as IDPs since the chaotic early days of independence from the Soviet Union (1991-1993).  Many of the Public Achievement teams in Georgia tend to be young and middle-aged adults, and the mentors, too, tend to be young or middle-aged adults.  In Azerbaijan, much of the Public Achievement work takes place in education settings.  Most of the mentors/coaches are teachers or recent college graduates.  (I encourage more knowledgeable readers to add corrective information in the comment section.)  Follow these links to learn a bit more about the Georgian and Azerbaijan PA teams.

Similarities  The similarities are many.  The Public Achievement process (Issue-Problem-Project/Action) is the same as the USA model.  The basic requirements for any Public Achievement project/action are the same: it must be legal, non-violent, and contribute to the common wealth or public good.  PA teams are formed the same way around the individual team members' interests.  I noted similar learning outcomes between PA USA and PA Caucacus: the team members spoke of the "honor" that they felt when they did their public work, as well as the power that they experienced; the mentor/coaches spoke of a new-found respect for the team members as individuals, how it positively morphed the relationships they had with team members, and how it made their career lives richer and deeper.

 Differences  1) The difference that I most immediately noticed involves subtle semantic variations.  In the Caucacus, a PA coach is a PA mentor because coach doesn't have the same connotations, while mentoring captures best the type of relationship the Caucacus want to encourage.  Instead of Issue - Problem - Project the Caucacus use Issue - Problem - Action, and while I never asked anyone directly about the difference, my sense is that project is more static while action is more dynamic.  The biggest difference, however, is how people understand leading, leader, and leadership.  I won't repeat myself here: you can read about the hornet's nest I batted around in the 28 March posting titled "The Workshop is Finished."

2) On the one hand, the Georgia PA actions/projects are much larger in scope and scale and reflect the urgency of the teams involved: running water, playgrounds, employment, building safety.  The school-based projects, on the other hand, look very much like the PA actions/projects that I see in the USA: classroom-focused or school-building focused (with notable exceptions in Mingachevir, where PA teams conducted ethnographic-style studies to learn more about the history of their city or worked with local health officials to rid a school of mice and the accompanying threat of dysentery).  Seeing this reminded me of how frustrating I often am with the PA issue conventions in the USA.  Too often, especially with the college-based or school-based issues, teams are selecting unnecessarily parochial issues that are tame and too frequently not central to the hearts and minds of the teams' individual members.  Is it the foucaldian discipline of school settings that often drain the teams of more inspired selections?  What role does the instructor/coach coordinator/coach play in this (and I am thinking in particular about how I want to change the way that I address issue development in my own PA environments)?  Is it fear of failure or fear of success?  I don't know.  I do know, however, that this trip has jolted me awake when it comes to issue development.

3)  There seems to be more willingness to collaborate and share the learning in the Caucasus.  This inference is probably colored by my experience with really talented mentors, but I have worked with talented coaches in the USA and Northern Ireland, and I didn't get this sense of wanting to learn from each other.  This might be a by-product of US rugged individualism and Soviet-style inspired cooperation, but I think it is more complex than that.  I know that as a PA coach and coach coordinator, I want to structure learning environments where team members and coaches can genuinely and authentically learn from one another.  (I'll try to remember to write about this sometime in the fall when I'll have my first chance to act on this analysis.)

What can USA PA learn?  I was humbled by the seriousness of the work in Georgia and Azerbaijan.  Nobody is "playing at democracy."  Because both countries are nascent democracies, this group of citizens is establishing a baseline for what it means to be a citizen in a new democracy.  Older citizens are learning from younger citizens, and the young are learning from the more seasoned (this, from a guy who's 51 years old:)).  I am wondering how I can co-create environments wherein this can of seriousness can rise to the surface.  If I don't, then my concern is that I will only contribute to the growing cynicism that many people experience.  I have to keep asking myself how to make the work more real. 

I am writing an evaluative report for Julie and Ala at the Educational Society for Malopolska (MTO) and the folks at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.  I'll share a link in a future blog posting for those who are interested in a more formal and thorough evaluation.

First two photographs:  Ganja PS 39 classrooms.
Third photograph: Aufto's kitchen in Borjumi (after he worked with others to remodel over 20 kitchens in the Borjumi IDP sanatorium, he worked with others to remodel his own)
Fourth and fifth photographs: Khaka's PA team member Dadto and the field that the team will turn into a soccer field and playground for the IDP settlement between Mshkteka and Gori.
Fifth photograph:  Gori IDP settlement, and the PA staircase.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Ganja and Mingachevir, Azerbaijan

I spent parts of three days and two nights in Azerbaijan.  Although I had a wonderful experience, everything I write needs to be understood within this very short time frame, and while  prone to sweeping (and enthusiastic) generalizations, I'll try to mute that impulse.

I traveled to Ganja with the Public Achievement mentors who participated in the Mentor Training in Tblisi.  This included Gulshon, Vafa, Shunafa, Shahnaz, Esmira, Gulnaz, Halima, Elvin, Seymur, Vali, Jeyhun, and Elvin.  The four-hour trip ended a block from where Halima's family graciously hosted me in a spare apartment that they own.  The apartment was on the fifth floor of a five-story building, and it had hardwood floors, a kitchen, a bathroom (with a sit-down toilet and shower), a spacious living room, and a bedroom.  The only time I spent there was at night to sleep, but I am thankful for Halima's family hospitality.  I took the photograph below from the kitchen window. 

I spent Tuesday night with a group of Public Achievement mentors from Ganja.  What struck me is what Harry Boyte calls the "citizen-professional."

One mentor, a licensed psychologist, led a PA team of 8 psychology students to work with families from a poor school with mental health issues.  It sounds very much like a service-learning experience.  When asked what she enjoyed about coaching, she said that PA "helped her to do her job better."

Another person, a journalist, led a Public Achievement team named "Nice Apples."  He mentored a team of 16 journalism students.  They organized a community journalism project that had them working with local apple orchard owners to research a blight that had been plaguing the owners.  The students surveyed the owners, conducted research, and worked with agricultural experts (the school where they study is an agriculture school) to produce a public service television show that provided both the background to the blight problem and effective ways for the farmers to address the problem.

A third person worked for a Ganja  insurance company, but she lived in a small village a short distance from Ganja.  Her children did not have a place to play.  Rather than building something in her backyard, she worked with others in her community to form a PA team called, "Would you like to play?"  Together, they built a public playground.

These people are good examples of what Boyte identifies as citizen-professionals.  They understand their profession within the larger context of what it means to be a citizen, someone who works from their self-interest to improve the commonwealth.  Harry, you would have loved this meeting, and I thought of you often!

Wednesday, I traveled via the omnipresent Lada to Mingachevir.  Seymur from Ganja joined me.  We sped through a fog so thick that visibility was cut to 100 meters.  Once in Mingachevir, we were met by the Mingachevir mentors: the two Elvins, Gulnaz, and Gulshon.  Gulnaz and Gulshon are teacher; the two Elvins are graduates of the local college.  They took me to their school for a presentation.

Lada 2103 5.9.2009 1123

At the school, I had the pleasure of hearing from five different teams.  One team of 13-14 year old children decided to research the local river's water quality and work to preserve its purity.  Another group worked with the local health officials to rid their school of mice and rats and the accompanying threat of dysentery.  I heard many mentors explain with passion their team's work, but my favorite presentations were when I could hear from the team members, who were enthusiastic, poised, and happy.

(Photographs to the left: two PA teams explain their public work.)

After the presentations, we walked the length of Mingachevir's beautiful boulevard.  I may have mentioned this before, but Mingachevir is a relatively new city, created in 1948 when the Soviet Union built a hydro-electric plant on the Kura River.  This brought workers from all over the Soviet Union who stayed to raise their families when they had completed the dam.  Given its history, Mingachevir strikes me as a clean and well-planned city with green spaces aplenty.  My posse showed me the boulevard, complete with a billboard depicting a white feather on a red background (Gulnaz explained that it exhorted viewers to love their mother tongue!), multiple statues or posters reminding all of the importance of Heyday Aliyev, and fountains, some running, some not.We ate and had tea had a lovely restaurant near the river (which runs aquamarine clear), scooted up to the reservoir (a first trip for some in the party), and returned for tea in Gulnaz husband's shoe shop.  It was really hard to leave, but we had to return to Ganja. 

(Photograph to the right: Lale and Gulshon at Mingachevir Reservoir)

Wednesday night, I met Hasan Huseynli, the director of Intelligent Citizen, the Enlightenment Center Public Union.  What an interesting meeting!  Dr. Huseynli was trained as a physicist, but in 1991, when Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union, Hasan left physics to enter public life.  For a while, he worked in the president's press corps, and he knows Thomas Goltz, my primary informant about Georgia and Azerbaijan through his books: Georgia Diary and Azerbaijan Diary.  Hasan taught me so much about Azerbaijan politics - first and foremost, he tells me that Azerbaijan not only must have free, fair, and transparent elections, but must also have free, fair, and transparent election results!  Too often, the sense among the Azeris is that election results are altered.  This kind of election fraud, over time, can only create a jaded public: why vote if my vote will be revised?  I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Hasan.  He is taking a trip to New Orleans in the new future, and I hope to arrange a meeting with my son-in-law's sister, Sarah Andert, the service-learning coordinator at Tulane University.  When I explained Sarah's work, Hasan was very interested.

That night, Vali, Nijat, and Ahmed showed me Ganja's main park, and then we dined with Mushfiq, whom I had met that morning.  Mushfig directs the Bridge to the Tomorrow center, which does great work teaching people skills such as computing, sewing, and barbering, all while emphasizing the democratic dimensions of public life.  Mushfiq likes PA, and he hopes to expand soon into Kazakhstan and Krygyzstan based on relationships that he already has with people there.  I admire the ambition and the vision.

Thursday morning, I went to a local Ganja school where five teachers use Public Achievement during part of their day with the students.  I met with the school's principal and the five teachers.  They were, for the most part, a young group, all under 35 years old, and none of them had been teaching longer than 6 years.  They all thoroughly enjoyed using PA (the two classes that I saw agreed to use PA to solve problems with their classrooms: the first photograph to the right shows a classroom where the students and their mentor/teacher agreed that the room was not pleasant and that they wanted to paint it; the second photograph, taken in a history classroom, shows some of the public work the students did - they worked to post maps, historical documents, and other pertinent materials on their walls: the photo doesn't do justice to all of the public work that they did).  Two comments seemed common: one, they enjoyed PA because they got to know their students in a different way, and two, they thought that using PA made them better teachers, too!  Interestingly, the students in both classes, when asked what they liked about doing the PA work, responded by saying, "honor."  It was an honor to do the public work; it was an honor to walk in each day to see the fruits of their work; it was an honor knowing that future students would see and appreciate the work.  What a pleasure to see this work and the people who did it.

A special thanks to Vali, who was my guide and handler throughout my time in Azerbaijan.  Vali is a Fulbright scholar, and while he has been accepted to the University of Rochester and Boston University for the fall semester, he still waits to hear from Penn State and the University of Iowa.  Good luck, Vali!  A special thanks, as well, to Halima and her family for putting me up in their spare apartment.  I hope that you enjoyed the book and sweetcake I left for you!  Thanks to Vali, Esmira, and Halima for organizing the Tuesday night meeting with the area mentors.  Thanks, too, to the Elivns, Gulnaz, and Gulshon for hosting me for a wonderful and all-too-brief trip to Mingachevir.  I hope I can return soon!  Finally, a quick thanks to Seymur, who journeyed with me to Mingachevir.  You were a great travel companion.

Tomorrow, I'll write about the differences and similarities between PA USA and PA Caucasus.  Feel free to ask questions, and I'll use them to frame my writing.  Thanks for reading!

Saturday, April 3, 2010


I began my westward journey on Wednesday, 31 March, in Mingachevir, central Azerbaijan, at 0630 Minneapolis time, and what with long layovers in Tblisi and Istanbul (plus, a missed connection in Chicago), I returned home last night, Friday, 2 April, at 2100 for a total journey of 62 1/2 hours!  You know how one feels after spinning around a dozen times?  That's a little how I feel today:)

This is just a quick note to let you know that, although I am back in the USA, I will be writing at least four more postings about the trip: one to describe and reflect on my all-too-brief time in Azerbaijan; one to reflect on the difference between the Public Achievement work in Georgia and Azerbaijan and PA work in the USA, as well as what we can learn from those differences (thanks, Nickia, for the great questions, which I will use to frame that posting); another about the TO work that I did with the workshop participants and what I learned from that experience; and then a final posting which is intended for the general interest traveler, those who are reading this blog who know little about Public Achievement, Theatre of the Oppressed, Georgia, or Azerbaijan, but who are reading this nevertheless (in other words, family members and close friends who love me and indulge me:)). 

There are new audience members to this blog, friends and colleagues that I met along my journey, and to them, I say "welcome" and "thank you!"  I would love to hear from you on this blog.  Please use the comment feature to communicate with me.  I know that the others who read this blog will be interested to hear from you, too. 

Quick note: when I was describing to my family my brief trip to Mingachevir, I mentioned Elvin M., Elvin A, Gulshon, Gulnaz, and my Ganja travel companion Seymur, and I told my family that "I missed them already," and then I began to tear up.  How strange these ever-brief human connections are, how strong the web.

More later.