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act out now goes live

For almost a year now, Chris and I have been talking about taking our appreciation for service-learning to the next level. Last spring, I plunged more deeply into this approach with the research writing class I was teaching and the results were remarkable. Students really responded and I found myself with a renewed energy toward teaching. That year my students hosted the first Act Out event on campus–a service-learning and volunteer fair where students showcased their service-learning work beside the local non-profit organizations they had worked with that semester. We had over 20 organizations present, three guest speakers, 75 participating students, and many people from the community attending, looking for ways to get involved. It was fantastic experience and a great success. In fact, I was nominated and won Master Teacher for this project (blush).

Given this success and the feeling of so much untapped potential, I decided (along with Chris–my beautiful wife) to kick this whole project up a notch, and so we launched Act Out Now (actoutnow.org). This is the online home to our growing project. From the site, folks can join upcoming service-learning events, find quality organizations to get involved with, and browse a growing set of learning resources. We’re really excited about where this might be heading. People are getting excited and getting involved, and that’s always a good thing. Check out the site now, and see what you might do.

actin’ up at the global activism expo 2012

Chris, Aidan, and I went down to the UIC Forum back on April 28 (when I started writing this brief post) to take in the 2012 Global Activism Expo sponsored by Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ). It was an amazing event. We spent five hours there checking out nearly a hundred local non-profits, enjoying world music, eating gourmet vegan food, and taking in a couple of short lectures–all for free. It was such a great time that I can’t believe we didn’t check it out until this year. [singlepic=1114,300,300] Global Activism via Bike Power

Having so much positive energy in one place was really inspiring. We met a lot of great people and learned about many activist and charity organizations working to make our world a better place. When we got there we met our friend Mona from the Share Your Soles Foundation who has been changing people’s lives through shoes. Her organization has delivered over 1.5 million pairs of shoes to desperately impoverished people over the past 13 years. (Believe it or not, something as simple as shoes can make the difference between living and dying in many places of our world.) Mona is a force of kindness to be reckoned with. She’s well known in the community of organizations that were present at the expo, so she introduced us around. The conversations were good, and we made many contacts.

It was a great opportunity not just to find other ways for our family to get involved in these important causes, but also personally helpful to me as I am continuing to find opportunities for my students to get involved in activism/service-learning efforts happening in our communities. It’s so easy to get pulled down to a pit of negativity–or indifference–feeling the suffocating weight of all the problems in the world. Our time at the Global Activism Expo reminded me that there is hope, that there are people who really care and are acting to make positive changes, that our world is not as lost as it so often seems.

ecological thinking and doing

Over the past several years, my teaching has cultivated critical dialogue amongst students on social issues–education, gender, ethnic/racial conflict, classism, and so on. I raise questions; that’s what I do. Truth be told, my personal agenda is clearly a progressive one; although, I am very careful not to stack the deck against students with contrary world-views or inculcate them with my own views. I simply raise questions, qualify my own politics as necessary, and invite open and honest discussion and writing. We talk about things that are of great importance in our world, and yet I always end up dissatisfied at the end of the semester–as if nothing of any real value was accomplished. The thing is as much as I would like to think otherwise, the foundation of the course experience has been that conversation–in class and through reading and writing. Don’t get my wrong, I value conversation very highly. People don’t do it very well anymore, and I tend to believe that much of what’s wrong with our world could be traced back to a lack of conversation–on a fundamental level where people connect, share, listen, and seek mutual understanding. Conversation is key, but now I feel that in the 17 weeks I have each semester with my students, it’s not enough. This semester, I promised myself, would be based on ACTION. So, I’m moving forward clumsily with what one might call service/activist learning.

systems not machines; relationships not objects

To kick things off with my students, we read a piece by Fritjof Capra from his book The Web of Life where he talks about the importance of ecological literacy or systems thinking. This was shortly after we tossed a ball of yarn around the room (by way of cheesy ice breaker), creating our own human web to demonstrate the interconnectedness of the members in our class. (Yank one end of that string and we’d all feel it.) I wish I got a picture of my class all tangled up in this web of yarn. While the dean would likely disapprove of me tying my class up, the visual metaphor actually was pretty compelling by the time were done. Anyway, Capra distinguishes between a mechanistic or reductionist way of understanding the world where we tend to isolate what we want to study versus systems thinking where we recognize that we can best understand things by understanding their relationships to other things–by understanding the web of systems and processes in which all things are intertwined. He calls this understanding ecological literacy. Check out what he has to say in the video below.

Capra’s talking about much more than biological or environmental matters; he’s talking about matters of life itself. Life itself–social, cultural, economical, environmental–is interconnected. An action to one part affects the others. The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.

there are no others, there is only us

Another powerful metaphor for this concept of relationships that define life is a short film by Marc Silver entitled There Are No Others, There Is Only Us. It’s pretty amazing really if one can slow down long enough to watch the full ten minutes. The patterns are intricate and powerful. It’s a moving statement about crowds and what it means to be a part of the whole in the natural world of which we as human beings are integral part.

I played this film in the background as my students were working in small groups, discussing the Fritjof Capra essay and working to define the concept of sustainability. I said nothing, but before long everyone’s eyes were glued to the screen. They were amazed at what they were seeing. It offered opportunity for deeper conversation about our interconnections.

concern is not enough

So, it’s cool that we get we’re all connected. Bringing my students this far has been fun, but still just this understanding is not enough without action. This is why my students are presently in the midst of designing their own service or activism projects. The idea is that these projects will put us all into action so that we can make a very real and meaningful impact to an issue of great concern (as identified by the students themselves). Now, I’m new to this whole service/activist learning thing. Unlike many schools, my college does not have an office of service learning, so I’m a rogue here working with very little formal institutional support. So be it. We’ll get something done this semester. I am sure of that.

Dave Eggers wrote a story entitled “What It Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him From His Vehicle, and Then Mutilates Him in the Dust.” We read this in my class. It’s about a man who is deeply concerned about matters in his world, and yet he sits at home just thinking about it. He’s not apathetic. He cares. But he does not act. The final line of the story reads…

The man at home feels this way too often now. He feels tunneled, wrapped, desiccated. His eyes feel the strain of trying for too long to see in the dark. The man is watching the smoke from the factory, and though there are many things he could do that day, he will do none of them.

I don’t want to be that man. I don’t think any of us really want that. Today, we will do something.

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