The Well-Traveled Path

Our future doesn’t lie in the towers of power but in the well-traveled path from house to house.

Sometimes deep and sturdy wisdom comes in just a few words. This quote comes from NPR’s program OnBeing with David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk known for his work with interfaith dialogue. This simple sentence speaks volumes to the people of Michigan right now as we grapple with the unbelievable crisis of poisoned water in Flint. Democracy has taken a huge hit, and the people in Flint and in Michigan feel that government has failed them.  

I taught the state-required course in government with my incarcerated students. They didn’t trust the government either.  In fact, the mere word put them in the red zone. Most of them, imprisoned for drug offenses with very long sentences—and most of them people of color—had just cause to distrust the system they labeled as racist, corrupt and unfair. In the early years as I was finding my way, I got a knot in my stomach at 9:30 when my students filed in and took their seats in their least favorite class. Let me simply say we had some miserably bad days. We stumbled along. My first mistake was in thinking that I had to be in charge.

While teaching the course for several years out of the standard high school textbook, I added subjects, watched  and listened carefully. My students were very interested in ideas like non-violence. They were fascinated with The Civil Rights Movement. Because they represented so many cultural backgrounds, mainly African, Hispanic, and Native American, discussions around diversity came up all the time. I had students of all ages and from several religious backgrounds, which made discussions lively and rich. I saw people all over the prison treat each other with remarkable civility and caring. They were interested in issues of integrity.

So, one summer I completely changed the course. At its heart, government is learning how to live together. My students were learning this lesson under some of the worst possible conditions in the country. I decided to focus on good citizenship, knowing they had much to teach each other—and me. Re-naming the course Civics helped a lot. I realized how much they already knew from their lives at home, and by then I knew how well they got along in class.

Prisons have towers, both real and symbolic. They have a top-down, military chain of command with a heavy focus on rules and regulations. Prisons are designed to take control away from inmates. But, I was hearing and seeing how much my students wanted to determine the course of their lives, and being in school gave them that opportunity. Whenever I asked for ideas about class structure and what we should discuss, I got wonderful feedback. I learned to ask each class at the end of every semester what they would add or change for the next group. One man suggested that students read a news article every week and then discuss them together. Nothing we ever did was as popular or successful as their beloved Round Table. I insisted on a circle so that everyone would feel a part of it, but it was their time together and I stayed at my desk where I listened carefully to make sure they were on track. We agreed together that no one was ever left out. If the facilitator didn’t get all the way around the circle, the class insisted on time the next day to finish. The Round Table gave them a voice in a place where they had almost no voice at all.

Being in school, and especially participating in the Round Table, created community and the men said that often. “It’s cool to greet a fellow student around the compound,” one man wrote, “because I know that without school, I never would know the guy.” They were making connections in class, in the Chow Hall, on the yard and in their housing units. They were creating “well-worn paths.” I was seeing many of them take exquisite care of each other. In a communications class one semester, a white man wrote me a note at the end of it voicing his gratitude for the opportunity to get to know black men. He regretted that it was so much harder in the community he had grown up in.

That’s how democracy functions best: when people create community, go door-to-door, sit in a circle and make sure no one is left out. It functions when people have a voice and are heard. It works best when there is a diversity of people and opinions. It functions when people feel important and when elected officials regard every single person as important as anyone else. It functions when the people living in poor communities of color are as important as the people living in middle class or wealthy neighborhoods. It functions best when we try to get to know and understand people who are far different than we are. Democracy flourishes when we  care about each other.

People don’t like to be fixed. It’s patronizing to be told you cannot solve your own problems.  The citizens of Flint are angry about being told they had no voice and no power when emergency managers were installed by the governor. Our emergency managers in Michigan take local control away from communities and school districts. The roots of the water crisis lie in the stripping of power from Flint citizens. From their towers of power, the elected officials in Lansing, our state capital, did not listen. Though the people of Flint went to Lansing and to local meetings with their bottles of brown water, they were not heard. Even when Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha tested her pediatric patients and found dangerous levels of lead, she was ridiculed and attacked.

“Children are routinely screened for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2, Hanna-Attisha said. “So we had the data. It was the easiest research project I have ever done.” She found that levels of lead poisoning among children tested for lead poisoning had increased dramatically between 2013 and 2015, the year after the water supply started drawing from the Flint River. She immediately held a press conference, telling Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman:

“[T]hat evening, we were attacked. So I was called an ‘unfortunate researcher,’ that I was causing near hysteria, that I was splicing and dicing numbers, and that the state data was not consistent with my data. And as a scientist, as a researcher, as a professional, you double-check and you triple-check, and the numbers didn’t lie.”

–MintPress News, January 30, 2016

Things are tough in Michigan right now, and the nation grieves with us about the damage done to children. I can get bogged down and cynical if I don’t look for hope. There is hope, however. On February 1, 2016, Dr. Laura Sullivan, a global expert on water issues and a native of Flint, was a guest on NPR’s All Things Considered. She said she feels like she is helping her family and that jobs may open up to fix the broken pipes. She said it was their city. She said, “Light is shining so brightly on Flint right now, and we’re going to help you heal your city.”  People from all over the country are donating bottled water. 300 union plumbers showed up to install donated faucets and other plumbing supplies. The 300 plumbers are from local unions from across the country. 1 They’re going house to house.

more “The Well-Traveled Path”

Unlearning Long Divisions: Shipping Crates

 Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction

Though our American diversity and its attendant challenges have always created conflicts and divisions since the days when we first became a country, the current chasms between us seem to be growing wider and deeper. We focus on the dysfunction of Congress, but the people we elect to represent us also reflect who we are, and we have as much responsibility in solving the problems as they do. I think about how we can build bridges between us—right in our own back yards, within our families, in our neighborhoods and in our communities. Every act of courage, of kindness and of friendliness is not small, but adds to the larger picture of creating a more cooperative and compassionate world. I would like to address some of the problems I see that create divisions, the first of which follows here. Much of this was informed by my inmate students.


Shipping Crates:

If I’m upset about an issue in the news and hear negative reports about a person connected to it, I don’t automatically check the facts from several sources, especially when the narrative lines up with my politics and values. It seems like a common human tendency to form opinions without very much information when we’re bombarded with media images, squeezed by time and churned up with anger over things that hurt our hearts.  All kinds of people and groups who don’t share my worldview end up in my head like they’re in shipping crates, nailed shut so that no light can get in and with labels stamped firmly on the outside.

The students in my prison classroom constantly upended my crates, pried them open and erased the labels. Sometimes they dazzled me with the light in their boxes that forced me to see people and difficult situations in a whole new way.

Mr. Dunn was my student in several classes, and I rarely saw even a hint of a smile on his middle-aged, frowning face. He wasn’t a very confident student, but he did do all of his work. What really bothered me was that I had no relationship with him, no eye contact and no conversations about anything. I had him in a box with labels that said grumpy, unfriendly and most important doesn’t like me. I kept trying to talk to him, but got no further than a few humphs. He didn’t seem to brighten up anything or anybody, and I didn’t think he was adding a darn thing to the group.

One day another student blurted out an insult about gay people, and a few others laughed. Someone else added another offensive comment and an argument followed, heating up as it went along. I tried to stay out of such conflicts, wanting them to learn to solve problems by themselves. All of a sudden, Mr. Dunn’s deep voice rang out as he looked around from his customary seat in the middle of the room, “I can’t believe my ears! What in the world is the difference between how you’re talking and the prejudice we feel as black people? Gay people are no different than any of us, and I’m not going to sit here and listen to this!” The room went still and silent—and the subject was dropped. I was as surprised as everyone else, and told him as he was leaving that I was grateful he had spoken up. I got a usual monosyllabic humph. Later, as he was getting ready to go home, he appeared at my door. Many of them came to say good-bye, but I was very surprised to see this student standing there.

“Come out here Mrs. Wenzel,” he said, gesturing with his hand and moving me into a corner in the hall. “I have something to give you. I know I can’t give you a present, so this can be part of the program. I know how much you love poetry and I know you don’t have it, because I’ve been looking through all the poetry books in the room for a while now. I just know you’ll like it.” He pulled Nikki Giovanni’s Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea out of his blue net bag and put it in my hands. A huge smile spread across his face.

I wonder, do we ever get anyone’s whole story, really know who other people are? It’s so much easier to stay on the surface of things, keep our first impressions and maintain a distance. The prison fence keeps us on the surface–and at a distance. It is a powerful label on the shipping crate of the prison itself. The fence tells us that the people inside are so dangerous that we can’t see them or get to know them. Distance creates stereotypes of people all the time.

It’s easier for me to stay at a safe distance from people who struggle so much more than I do than it is to get closer to them and try to understand the box they are in. The men I met in prison over 25 years allowed me to get closer and hear their stories, so unlike my own, often making me uncomfortable as I began to understand the opportunity gap that existed between us. They taught me to investigate my notions about people and situations I know nothing about. I need to do that more often. I need to at least admit I don’t have all the information, that it’s nailed into the crate, and I don’t see any light—about human beings who might be as scared and uninformed as I am. I need to recognize the danger of distance and that I rarely experience things first hand. I need to remember what it feels like to have a black-eyed pea in my hand.

Don’t Think
“The most important thing
I know
about teaching
is that the teacher is also learning.
Don’t think
you have to know it all.”
–Nikki Giovanni, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (HarperCollins New York), 2002, 109

Teaching Integrity

in·teg·ri·ty | inˈtegritē/ noun
1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.
“he is known to be a man of integrity”
2. the state of being whole and undivided.
“upholding territorial integrity and national sovereignty”

I was teaching Civics when I first introduced the subject of integrity to a prison classroom. I didn’t know what to expect. but from the first day, my students sat up straighter, talked a lot and wanted more.

To introduce the everyday occurrence of integrity, we began by informally chatting about how people make choices in their daily lives. We all agreed that very few of us get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and review our firm set of rules about living an ethical life.

In my experience, reading plays had been a very successful activity to do with any group. Because of that, I used Sophocles’ Antigone as a place to start. Antigone is a tragic play, in which the characters face questions of civil disobedience, personal morality, and justice. In particular, the play asks questions about actions in defiance of one’s state. The classic dilemmas presented in the story about loyalty, principles, and the pitfalls of pride reach across the centuries and provide rich discussions. I divided them into groups to discuss which character had the most integrity and which was the most tragic. Discussions were always lively and interesting.

Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter’s book, Integrity, discusses Antigone in the early chapters. The work spins out the breadth of the challenges and problems that the characters face in the play. I used other moral dilemmas in Carter’s book to challenge my students, and lively discussions were created with them too.

My goal was to help my students see the complexity in many moral decisions that often involve two Right positions and not one Wrong and one Right.

Twelve Angry Men, a play by Reginald Rose, is the story of  jury deliberations in a murder trial, is another classroom gem. In working through this lesson,  I found that furniture arrangement in the classroom proved important. When we shaped the desks so that they formed a simple square with everyone facing in, the students commented that they felt like they were on a real jury. The discussion on Twelve Angry Men revolved around what it means to stand alone against the group and how the evidence on the surface is rarely the whole story.

Another teaching tool came from the old game of Scruples, which includes a stack of cards with moral dilemmas printed on them. I sorted through the cards, keeping only those that applied to my students and put one student in charge of each card. He had to come to the front of the room and lead the discussion. By then, as a group, they had made a list of some “bottom-line belief statements” like: stealing is wrong, lying damages trust, and the Golden Rule. I loved watching their enthusiasm and the vigorous arguments, trying to let them handle it by themselves. I told them often that it was no different for me to do the right thing in my life on the other side of the prison fence.

The word discernment was new to them, but it was gratifying to see them use it once they understood the concept of taking time and deep thought to work out a problem, a life choice or an ethical challenge–and to work at seeing what was not on the surface: that most problems have no simple answers. I also could have used the Scruples cards as “filler” while waiting for lunch or the bell to ring.

I taught integrity at the beginning of any Civics class, as it gave us some language and understanding about how people learn to be good citizens and live peaceably with others. That being said, the issues of integrity, the problems of moral choices, and the hard human work of figuring out what guiding principles make up ethical living, should not be contained in an isolated educational unit.

My students were adults working on a high school diploma, but these discussions could be adapted to any group of students at any age. I think most people are hard-wired to want to do the right thing, but we don’t talk very much about how hard it can be. The feedback I got was that they appreciated thinking about what they valued and believed.