Friday, September 3, 2010

Why We Need Global Citizens

Cross-posted at!

Perhaps one of the barriers to global citizenship education has been a fear that one must necessarily choose between two identities—being either a citizen of one’ s country or a citizen of the world. In light of the increasingly nationalist and xenophobic dynamic observable in many countries over the past decade, challenging this false choice is urgent. Peace educators and global citizenship educators must make the argument that one can be both a citizen of one’s country and a citizen of the world.

I would even go further to argue that in today’s increasingly interconnected and increasingly armed world, the U.S. needs global citizens more than ever. What is a global citizen and why does her country need her?

A global citizen has a secure and multifaceted identity. What this means is that no one particular aspect of his identity (race, class, religion, gender) dominates the others. Research on identity suggests that this is a kind of “inoculation” against extremism. When someone has a monolithic identity, they are much easier to mobilize to violent conflict. Ervin Staub’s chapter in Ashmore’s volume on social identity and conflict (2001) makes this point powerfully through examples from Rwanda.

A global citizen is cross-culturally competent. She has developed an awareness of her own cultural blind-spots and biases and can apply this to avoiding (or at least resolving) misunderstandings that can often occur in intercultural contexts. A global citizen would be aware of the inherent social violence seen in video games in which players shoot at Mosques and minarets in Austria, and would feel a responsibility to speak up.

A global citizen understands, I would argue, the rapid and increasingly interdependent reality of the 21st century. Flowing from this, he understands that the most pressing challenges humanity faces today (environmental destruction, global terror, authoritarianism, poverty, the Great Recession) are inherently cross-border challenges. They simply cannot be solved by one country alone.

This is not a comment on the strength or weakness of any particular nation. Rather it is a comment on the qualitative nature of the problems the global community faces. Attempts to address these problems unilaterally will be partial and therefore will ultimately fail.

This brings me to a final quality of the global citizen which benefits the “home country”. A global citizen not only has the values and perspective which nations so urgently need right now, she has the skills to actually begin addressing these challenges. She can resolve conflict, build relationships and problem solve in diverse contexts. She can think in ways that are flexible, innovative and holistic, seeing how systems operate at a global systems level—without losing sight of local impacts and contexts. (And she is probably multi-lingual.)

The more of these sorts of citizens a nation in the 21st century has, the stronger, the more agile and the more able to meet current challenges that nation will be. Those who suggest that we must choose between one or the other—being a citizen of the U.S. (or any other nation) or a global citizen—are giving a false choice. They are putting forward a framework that limits our human potential.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Not the Crime but the Cover Up: How Obama Fell into the Gulf

by Dr. Solon Simmons
cross-posted from Confrontations

As you prepare to watch the President’s speech from the Oval Office tonight (unless other matters demand your time and attention), you might ask yourself why it is that this President is being blamed for this disaster. After all he did win the election against his opponent John “drill baby drill” McCain. Sure, the president did announce support for more offshore drilling just weeks before the disaster, and he did not clean house in the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which is a poster child for fox in the henhouse regulatory capture. But what caught Obama up in this imbroglio was not the crime of allowing BP to play Russian roulette with the Gulf of Mexico, but rather the cover-up afterward in which BP tried to assure the American people that the extent of the damage was going to be far less than it actually turned out to be.

When the President took office, he did have a lot going on: two wars, a run on the banks, the fall of the auto industry, depression era stagnation, health care, student loans, etc. When it came to energy policy he must have thought that splitting the middle with the Republican Party made sense. Obama was pushing for Cap and Trade, a climate approach that relied on market forces that could be used to cut a deal across party lines on energy reform. How bad could it be to rely on some mix of deep sea drilling given that the world’s nearly 7 million people need energy and must get it somehow. The gulf rigs did make it through Katrina after all. Here was a chance to be a uniter and not a divider.

This thinking actually made political sense to me at the time. I did not come out and say this then, but I thought that Obama was being quite savvy in his move to allow the Governors with a taste for more risk to take on more drilling off their own state’s shores. Remember how vicious the attacks on his lack of bi-partisanship were at the time as the health care vote loomed. Obama will face similar problems with nuclear power as we simultaneously confront increasing needs and global competition.

But this reasonable move to cross party cooperation was not what sunk Obama, instead the day that will live in infamy was May 14th 2010, when NPR commissioned an analysis of the flow rate from a scientist at Purdue university with expertise in estimating flow rates from video. If you recall this story, it was a shocker and could have been a pivotal moment for the President, but Obama did not take the bait. Because BP was engaged in an active spin campaign to play down the panic that would attend the validation of such estimates, Obama’s lack of attention to these findings, (which were confirmed by other experts at the time as well), placed him symbolically on the side of the cover-up. Up to that point most people seemed to have the reasonable sense that Obama was far less associated with careless drilling operations than the next best alternative: Sarah palin. After that, the slow transfer of ownership was underway. Today, the spill is widely blamed on Obama’s lack of oversight at MMS.

What else could he have done? I think that Obama’s decision not to take sides on the flow issue was reasonable enough in substantive terms. The administration knew that they could establish the extent of the damage after the fact if things turned out to be as bad as was anticipated, and getting the public riled up would only make it possible for small government Republicans to demand big government non-solution solutions like dumping scarce sand resources into untested barriers as has now been done in Louisiana. Even so, the President could have, and in my opinion should have, demanded that we begin an independent investigation into the extent of the damage to get science on our side.

By doing nothing in response to the NPR story Obama took the path which was the moral equivalent of waiting for science to prove that smoking causes cancer. His reticence made the scientists look like quacks and validated his being in cahoots with (B)ig (P)etroleum. We worry that he is not type A enough for us, that he should show more emotion and “go off”. The problem was that he was too type I for us (geek alert: check out the hypertext). He was so worried about getting behind a false positive test that improperly predicted an imminent disaster that he failed to warn us of the imminent disaster. This says nothing about Obama’s work behind the scenes, and given the Bush era legacies of regulatory strategies, I doubt that there is all that much that he could have done to make this better at that late date.

What he failed to do is to attend to the stagecraft. Obama does not like to vilify legitimate businesses, even those who gamble with the well being of the public at large, because that is the price of capitalism. The problem is that there are times when drama (confrontational in addition to inspirational) is justified and even essential to bending the arc of history toward justice. What Obama did not properly anticipate was that the confrontation of “the people” with BP was inevitable; now he is on the wrong side of it. Obama’s grown-up sensibilities may make him a great administrator, but they have left him with a populist tin ear.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Youth Development Is Security

During a class discussion on The Freedom Writers with my students at the Juvenile Detention Home School one afternoon, I asked my students why they thought kids joined gangs. Time and time again, from students who had not met one another, the same answer came.


Students shared in class debate, and in the privacy of their journals, that at the most basic level, gangs are a replacement for family.

Identity needs, such as esteem and relationship, are not negotiable, as we know from John Burton. If our students cannot get their need to belong, to feel safe, and be loved met by family or another group, the appeal of a gang (or similar group) can be overwhelming. Area gang task forces report that MS-13 and other gangs are recruiting not just at middle schools any longer, but increasingly at elementary schools.

Nor is this dynamic limited to the United States. States which have nearly failed have struggled with civil wars and ethnic violence. Sierra Leone is one example; combatants in this war were as young as eight! Ismael Beah, in one particularly harrowing scene from his memoir A Long Way Gone, describes two of his fellow soldiers who had to drag their AK-47s because the weapons were bigger than they were! We can see the same dynamic in the history of Liberia.

As Nick Kristof wrote in a fantastic op-ed today, fundamentalist madrassas are too often the only game in town for young people (let’s say 10-24) to imagine for themselves a meaningful future. Writes Kristof, “I can’t tell you how frustrating it is on visits to rural Pakistan to see fundamentalist Wahabi-funded madrassas as the only game in town. They offer free meals, and the best students are given further scholarships to study abroad at fundamentalist institutions so that they come back as respected ‘scholars.’ We don’t even compete. Medieval misogynist fundamentalists display greater faith in the power of education than Americans do.”

Conflict prevention necessitates that basic human needs are met. This requires the coordination of a number of practitioners who perhaps do not immediately view themselves as partners: those responsible for security and those responsible for education. As many students remind me daily, some feel impelled to join a gang or otherwise engage in violence because they feel they’re not safe otherwise. One young man from Washington, DC, shared his story with me. He told his father one night that he did not feel safe walking to school. His father told him to “man up”, so the boy bought a gun. He was arrested and served his time; months after his release, he shot and killed another young person. My latest understanding is that he will be tried as an adult. Had this young man’s security needs been met, this conflict could almost certainly have been avoided.

This student’s story, Ismael Beah’s and the students of whom Kristof writes, as well as the countless students who have come through my “juvie hall” classroom with tattoos from MS-13 or the Bloods, speak to an urgent need for peace education in every classroom globally. This can’t happen until we act on the clear truth that youth development is security.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Recession on the Inside

We got another glimpse recently of what the recession can look like on the inside. Like many institutions, we have faced budget cuts and possible lay offs. Administrative leadership has, of course, been looking for any way possible to bring more money into our Detention Center. Thus staff hours have been extended from eight to twelve hours and we’ve been opening up to many more non-English speaking ICE (Immigration Control and Enforcement) kids. The reason for this is, of course, that more funding comes for housing those kids. Money’s tight, and can you really justify laying off staff when there is a way to bring in more funding? That’s one argument, at least. I personally believe there is, from a macro, social perspective, always the money and time to achieve what we value the most. One can also argue that if we funded our schools and other public institutions they way we should (and the way that we currently fund Defense), these sorts of choices between housing kids that we are not really equipped for (only a few of our staff speak Spanish, the main language of the ICE kids) or laying off staff when people desperately need jobs wouldn’t be necessary. The lack of Spanish-speakers leaves everyone here, including the kids, less secure because if tension is growing between some kids, and we don’t know about it, we obviously can’t nip it in the proverbial bud as we normally would.

So this is the context in which the racially-charged fight, involving about five kids, happened last Friday. Inappropriate words in both English and Spanish had apparently been passed. A black student had been using some racial slurs over the past day or so; a Hispanic kid punched him and then it was, as they say, on. Several other Hispanic kids, at least two or three of whom are not incidentally members of MS13, joined in. Nearly every staff member available was needed to get things back under control. This was at 8:15ish Friday morning, and we were locked down all day.

We’ve made educational changes to better serve the ICE/ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) kids, but they happen so slowly and at times more on paper than in practice. Some of the extra (part-time, sadly) teaching staff that we’ve brought in find they are required to spend more of their time either being trained to give tests, testing or doing paperwork. Only on a rare day do these specialists actually get to teach students. This is compounded in our juvenile detention setting because when we do get to spend individual time with a kid who needs it, that kid might be with another professional (such as a lawyer or parole officer) or locked down. Budgeting has also meant that it’s been difficult keeping and training detention staff; for some, a twelve-hour shift is just too long, especially if they have another job.

So what then is to be done? In our debrief, I mentioned Dialogue and Difference, which I think is a strong program on understanding cultural differences and the kinds of conflicts they can cause. Unfortunately, our “jurisdiction” as teachers is limited here as we only see the kids during class. Each unit staff is supposed to being doing what’s called “group”, a community-builder in which kids are invited to share their thoughts on being in the unit and discuss concerns. I’ve seen it be quite effective, but it has to be consistent and is far more likely to successfully change prejudiced behavior and thinking if the student has important role models outside of our facility.

We will do what we can, but I keep coming back to the fundamental role of policy and the reality that budgets are moral documents, as I’ve heard Jim Wallis say. I worry that so many of the cuts we are making in social services and education are going to be what my grandma would have called penny-wise and pound-foolish. Part-time teachers means more kids fall through the cracks; extended hours for staff means good staff are hard to find and retain, which means security is undermined and too much time is invested in constant retraining. Hikes in college tuition, especially community colleges, means that kids looking for a way to a better (more legal) life see the first step out of reach, and so taxpayers may need to house them in adult facilities soon. How then are these cuts, from a long-term, big picture perspective, actually saving us money? Eventually, the bill is going to come due and if you put it off too long, it will be due with interest.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fear Factor

So much has been said about the effect of fear on a society. Murrow powerfully said, “We will not walk in fear of one another”. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that, “What begins in fear usually ends in folly.” We’ve recently had a few helpings added to our diet of fear in the aftermath of the failed attempt to blow up a plane headed to Detroit. (A while ago CNN had a tag line I loved: “Fight Fear with Facts”; I wish they’d bring it back.) As Roosevelt said so well, the freedom from fear is a key human right. How should peace and global educators respond, then, to the pervasive fear in society today?

A variety of activities and programs can be implemented in response to our culture’s feasting on fear. Happily for English and history teachers, literature and history are both filled with books, poems, essays, events and leaders who have led societies through fear and those who have led societies beyond it. But I wouldn’t count math and science out either. What is the body’s biological response to fear? What goes on in humans chemically when we fight or are threatened? What’s behind the statistics the media reports regarding terror and crime? Do they distort reality or reflect it? Such “essential questions” can form a vibrant and compelling curriculum, in my view, to begin a dialogue on what fear does to a society and its relationship to violence.

Nor should this dialogue be limited to the classroom. As I was reading some more Ian Harris this morning (Peace Education, 2nd Edition), I was reminded yet again how many other avenues there are for such community conversations—student groups, churches, synagogues, mosques, labor groups, VFWs, local media. Schools are a microcosm of society, and so we can never lose sight of the larger national and global picture.

Nothing reduces fear so much as taking action with others. Therefore students, teachers, parents and community leaders also need the opportunity to design and implement programs which address causes of fear, insecurity and conflict. School systems can partner with local faith leaders on interfaith dialogue, or victims-rights groups serving victims of crime (something like “Take Back the Night” seems like it would work wonderfully). So many of us rightly decry the lack of leadership in our country right now; without giving students the opportunity to lead, how can they gain these skills for the future? Also, such experiential learning respects the fact that, while clearly the media and politicians can foster and exploit fear, the emotion is sometimes quite real (acts of terror and crime of course do occur). The curriculum suggested briefly above is a starting point for classrooms and communities to examine social fear’s sources and causes, and then act, in the true spirit of praxis.