Monday, November 14, 2016

This is one way to do it.

Camp began on Monday June 27th 2016 at 10:00 am in the sun porch. The students hunkered onto couches arranged around the edge of the room. The shades were pulled against morning sun. I sat cross-legged on the carpet in the center. We were safely ensconced. Unorthodox as a classroom, yet as cozy as a womb,  a suitable metaphor for the idea were were trying to fertilize here. A suitable atmosphere for the purpose of forming a cohesive group. Six of my students were soon to be freshman girls, one of which was my daughter, and the other two students were to be seniors, both of which were dear family friends--one a non-binary transgender fiction writer, the other a male Minnesotan ex-pat, come Oregonian poet. Some of these youth I had known a long long time. Some were new friends. We were all in this together.
This was World Camp version 2.0. In the first edition, students created joint imaginary worlds and then we forayed out into Minneapolis to feed our imaginations. Camp had always been fabulous, but 2016 was updated to honor interests of 2015 campers, plus my own evolving focus. I had reimagined camp with a focus on tourism. But unlike expected far flung destinations, ours would introduce us to unfamiliar parts of our city.
My camp is home spun and had its genesis in a particularly liberal and affluent part of Minneapolis, Linden Hills (although it had since moved toward the center of Minneapolis). Linden Hills is a part of the city that feels more like a small town with wide, quiet streets and green lawns. It has a central playground and a pool in the summer, a  skating rink in winter, a library, many bakeries and foodie restaurants, and a quaint and upscale shopping area. It’s separated from the rest of the city by lakes and a golf course and a cemetery. Linden Hills had a reputation for being family friendly and mine isn’t the only small-scale homespun-style camp to grow out of this fertile soil. It sees itself as a enclave of progressiveness in a progressive city. Many of us chose to live there because we wanted a certain growing-up experience for our children. But there was one thing missing. Diversity.
My camp has always included my own children and has pulled heavily from a circle of friends and friends of friends that come from the neighborhood, essentially a homogenous group. Minneapolis is a segregated city. Historical covenants in property deeds had kept people of color from buying homes in white neighborhoods. The Minneapolis school system had stopped its bussing program in favor of neighborhood schools. And as housing prices increased with the bubble, and the divide between incomes of people of color and whites grew wider, our neighborhood was only getting whiter. Despite my progressive white person lament for diversity, I lived in a white system that didn’t know how to recognize it was broken, let alone how to break free. Therefore, my camp  is a white camp, has always experienced the privileges of whiteness, and I wanted to see if we could figure it out for ourselves. My itinerary planned to take our privilege into our hands and attempt to spend it wisely.
I will admit to having lofty intentions of transforming an entire social system by introducing these young people to new neighborhoods. I recognized that the shift in perception required to influence that change would take more than one week’s time and certainly more than the 8 young people I had space in camp for. It would also require the letting go of an old point of view in order to make way for a new one, and I couldn’t assume I knew what that was or what that would take. I was asking them to cross boundaries that didn’t really exist and challenge identities that I couldn’t fully understand. Culture is a many layered thing, and it has a mysterious infrastructure, so that there was no way to know what belief was supporting what human characteristic. Therefore, I fretted about whether it was responsible of me to challenge something that just might be holding up the whole house of cards.
In fact, it felt like a brazen act. What gave me the right to threaten the illusion of white progressiveness? How essential was the illusion to the mental health of these young people? Was I disrespecting people of color by parading white youngsters through their neighborhoods? It has taken me some time to acknowledge how unsettling these questions were and how much they plagued me.
We are conditioned to certain responses by our experiences. There are subtle cognitive processes that fire within our brains and elicit emotional reactions and therefore behavior. My fear before we even began was one. To experience and explore that was the point. As with all travel, the process requires leaving a comfort zone. My explicit goal was to disrupt the cultural patterns that keep communities from mixing, to do that we have to experience what is implicit and build our tolerance around less comfortable cross-cultural experiences. I believed that making new pathways, both for our feet and for our neural impulses, would disrupt the insulation of this particular group of young people and myself. And eventually find its way into the culture through our relationships with others. But I could not know the consequences of camp for sure.
Despite the uncertainty of the process, my students and their parents trusted me. For that I am very grateful.
World Camp 2.0 was conceived.
On the day it began, in the porch/womb I did the things I know how to do to create a close-knit group. I started by explaining how groups worked best when individuals are willing to be vulnerable with each other and everyone gets equal opportunity to speak. To begin, I related my fear that I might leave out some essential part of the instruction and therefore put their education at risk. (In retrospect this exactly articulates my fear, but somehow I couldn’t see it. It served to make them feel like they could ask me what they didn’t understand and I might know, which I liked.) Then we went around and related various levels of social anxieties, fears of offending, fears of writing and reading out loud. D shared their preferred pronoun and asked us to please ask them if and when we had any questions about what it means to be transgender. And then I went about preparing them for our adventures as best I could, explaining what we might feel inside our chests in unfamiliar situations. Setting the expectation for discomfort and that tolerating and describing those feelings would be part of the work we would do. I also told them that the same vulnerability that would allow them to go out and do this work of witnessing the world, would also allow them to get closer to each other. From the get-go we acknowledged that we may make mistakes and the possibility of offending people always exists. We came up with a best practice response when we have made a mistake: apologize profusely, admit to ourselves and others that there are many things we can not know, be kind to ourselves because we are doing the best we can which is a wonderful lot given the privileges we have.
Then we went to Hmong Village, an indoor market on the east side of St. Paul, for lunch. Minneapolis-St. Paul has the largest Hmong urban population in the world and it seemed to be an easy place to start. Also, magical. It is an indoor wonderland, bursting with bright colors and rows upon rows of stands displaying merchandise. Anime characters populating the aisles, dolls and clothes and utensils and electronic devices and bubble tea. How could our first visit be anything but successful with bubble tea?

Not to say that ordering lunch wasn’t a challenge. Keeping track of price and serving size was hard, then add unfamiliar menu items and you have a stressful experience. But it is all a part of your education when you travel. All in all a perfect first day to get to know each other and have a good time. My mother-in-law was a welcome addition (see photo below).
Day 2 Somali Mall.
The next morning we started camp all over again, nestled into the porch, where we had finished up the night before. We talked about worries from our day before and how they had panned out or not. Students were more nervous about the Somali Mall than they had been about Hmong Village. E said she had a friend that was Somali, and she was nervous of offending. C and S asked if it would be more respectful to wear long pants. We talked about what we wondered about and the questions we might ask, given the opportunity. The Somali community in Minneapolis is younger and smaller than the Hmong community. We compared their histories and talked about the idea of travel as a political act, being an activist through strategic placement of money and attention, going to visit new cultures with the intention of learning about your own. We defined cultural relativism and how to relate to different cultural practices. We tried to practice that attitude with our writing and then adjusted our perspectives on what we wrote. We talked about how confusing that is, and in the end, being willing to be confused is an important part of travel.

And then we walked there.

Day 2 we witnessed two car crashes. The first one we may have caused -- just because we were there, walking down the street, a spectacle in itself.
Do you remember that classic picture book, Madeline, where the main character roamed the streets of Paris with her governess and classmates, Miss Clavel? That image occurred to me as we walked together, although we did not walk in two straight lines and rarely was I at the front. The book chronicled Madeline’s mis-adventures as she and her classmates received a structured introduction to the world with its inherent danger and beauty. It provided me with a kind of metaphor for the experience I wanted to provide. Finding a historical precedent (not just through Madeline, also other cotillion-type classes that teach civil/social engagement) for this education was helpful to me in legitimizing its worthiness despite the unknowns -- it is noteworthy that knowing the convention, helped it to feel it all the more wholesome.
Like Miss Clavel and her youth, we attracted attention out on the streets. We had walked from a big old house, to the greenway, to city streets, with our practiced posture, our open hearts and on the last leg of our journey, two white men driving a pickup veered towards us on a one way. We didn’t see them coming, just heard the crash on our right as they collided with a car in the left lane. The truck pulled off into the driveway in front of us. The other car pulled alongside. A white man in overalls stepped out of the passenger side of the first car, a lit cigarette between his fingers. First thing he said to the young white woman in the other car, “We got it worse than you.” He had not appeared to have inspected the damage. The woman looked dazed.
ND turned and looked into my face, searching for an explanation as to what had just happened. We stood on the sidewalk in a huddle about ten feet away. S asked, “what happened?” J and D, the oldest of the campers, offered explanations about one-ways, but also seemed confused, shrugging their shoulders.
I approached the other driver with my number and explained to my campers that that’s what you do if you are a witness, telling them that accidents happen, about blind spots, about paying attention to the present moment, and in this case, we were the ones in the right place at the right time. I called these best practices and we rely on them for consistency and order when the outcome is unknown.
A Latina woman with a shopping bag passed us and said something just then. I don’t remember what it was she said but she repeated the words that I had just spoke. Almost as if she was mocking me, but while she looked over us kindly. It felt both appreciative and teasing. Perfect for the moment. Whatever greater metaphor the whole experience provided, it gave us the opportunity to pause and note the threshold between the normal, everyday world that we lived in and the special one we were about to enter.
We crossed at a street light. The mall was on our left. In almost all ways it looked like a plain warehouse building, windowless and unlabeled, not a normal destination for a group of tourists, except there was a crescent and star filial on the roof, the kind that decorates the minaret of a mosque.
Under her breath, NK said, “I’m nervous.” Everyone seemed to sigh in relief that someone said out loud what we all felt. We set our intentions on learning and walked to the building and into the front doors.
Like Hmong Village, the space was divided into many small stalls that served as individual shops with relatively narrow aisles to walk between them. Somali ladies in hijabs sat on stools minding the stores. Some ladies huddled together talking, barely making note of us as we walked in. We touched the beautiful fabrics and wound between the stalls at first just wandering and aimless. But our intention was to make contact. So we looked at their faces as we had said we would and smiled, saying hello. After a hesitation, they smiled back. My students would report that they thought the shop owners were angry at first, that they didn’t want us there, until they smiled. That provided a lesson on assumptions and how we relate to things.
My students went from shop to shop on their own or in small groups. They reported that they spoke to one man who worked  on a sewing machine. He told them he had lived in Texas before here. He said, the weather there was good, but the people were racist. My students bought henna and made plans to come back and get it done by a woman in a shop. Many Somalis we spoke to made a point of saying that they were here in Minnesota because the people are nice. I felt that their intentions were to be welcoming and open with us. I felt that they were appreciative of our efforts and rewarding us with kindness.
As we were making our way back out of the mall, after lingering longer than we intended, we wove through a group of kids milling about with their mother shop owners. There was curiosity in young people’s eyes, both my white students and young Somalis. We continued straight through, and there was no hesitation now. Smiling, mutual interest and happiness. A Somali man made his way toward us, weaving into the crowd from the opposite direction. He and I exchanged a smile. We shared a camaraderie I felt, an awareness that we were all occupied in raising a community together.
We opened the door, hungry and exhilarated, back to bright sunlight and heat, in time to witness our second car crash and the sound of metal collapsing on impact. A woman in a hijab got out to assess the damage. There were many people around. This time we sailed on past, Miss Clavel and her two straight lines, on to lunch.
On Day 3,
We were exhausted. It was hot. Our plan was to walk into North Side of Minneapolis from our classroom in my house. The route would take us past the Walker Museum, under the freeway and over a bridge above the city’s impound lot, the boundary between north and south.
This particular excursion was the whole impetus for my update to World Camp.
But I will back up to the things that had been happening in my city, a stone’s throw from my house in Lowry Hill. It began with the shooting of Jamar Clark by a cop on Broadway Avenue in North Minneapolis, November of 2015. Afterwards a vigil sprung up along Plymouth Avenue in front of police headquarters. Somehow this encampment had me feeling irked that I had lived in Minneapolis nearly 30 years, but had no regular forays into the north side of Minneapolis. My mental map of the city was bisected by a multitude of pathways, but the north was mostly blank space. It was as if my behaviors had been repelled from it all of my Minneapolitan life.
This reminded me of how, through my work as a yoga instructor and practitioner, I understood some emotions to take up physical space in the body. Because of negative associations with these emotions, we resist the feeling and the stories associated. This action, the movement away from the emotion becomes a source of suffering, a feedback loop of sorts, and over time operates like the like-poles of a magnet repelling us from experience the emotion and many other experiences in the body. We are stuck until we sink into our resistance and explore and eventually transform our way of relating to it. My yoga training allowed me to re-story my feelings of shame in order to gain access to a larger mobility in my body and mind. I wondered if this education could be applied to a city as well.
It took a while before I thought of a way to do that. A long time back, when we were dating, my husband was residential counselor at a group home called Peace House. I would visit him there and had met the residents. But I would literally get off the freeway at Dowling Avenue and drive the 5 blocks to it without ever walking, shopping, or spending any other time in the neighborhood. Every other place he or I have lived, we walk and try out businesses in order to make ourselves at home. In my mind the Northside was unsafe, a place of gang activity and danger, not a place to get to know. It took my daughter and her best friend E’s desire to travel to Guatemala with the high school spanish class for an idea to finally come. When they first spoke of such a trip, my first thought was a resounding no, they were too young to go so far away, there were many places closer to have that kind of cultural experience. My second thought came a while later like a lightbulb above my head.
If they wanted to travel, I had a destination.
I didn’t want to presume the Northside needed us, but I was sure the world did and perhaps instead the Northside did deserve for us to get to know them and on their terms. But how? I had to figure out a curriculum that would make this work. I had began to grapple with my own white privilege during the year. It is not a comfortable reality to face. I knew I couldn’t deny that I benefited in countless ways from it, but could I find a new way to react to my privilege and spend it towards something I valued. I decided that through my regular summer camp we could take privilege on the road.
After asking around, a friend of a friend hooked me up with Michele Horovitz at Appetite for Change, an organization looking to inspire social change by creating community and opportunity around food: growing, cooking and eating it. They had a restaurant we could visit called Breaking Bread Cafe, a gathering place for the community, which also employs people who live there, and serves healthy and delicious food. After speaking with her, I decided during camp we would hike north from my house, about 2 miles through a few neighborhoods and sit down and have a meal.
Before we left that day, we wrote in the porch as usual. We talked about what to make of the term privilege. About neighborhoods and ghettos, the covert racism of realtors steering people to particular neighborhoods and the overt racism of communities excluding certain ethnicities from purchasing homes. About the difference in housing prices from neighborhood to neighborhood. And we talked a little history. I tried to give them knowledge of how communities that are side by side can also grow separate and segregated from one another.

And then we set out to cross the boundary between north and south. Past what is an industrial neighborhood and then affordable housing projects. We didn’t find the housing project to look so different from other places.  It looked a bit like a suburb. Matching houses, front steps, green lawns with few trees and sprinklers going. The people we passed didn’t smile back. We passed through Old Highland, a neighborhood of big houses that was unevenly tidy, seemingly in the process of gentrification. We discussed why or why not the Northside met or didn’t meet our expectations. We arrived on Broadway to a hub of community development. And our destination for lunch.  Breaking Bread. They were waiting for us. Our table was ready. A black woman in a headscarf poured water in our glasses. We were hot and sweaty and the air conditioning cool and fresh. We ordered lemonade and breathed. It was wonderful.
After our lunch, we got a tour of AFC’s facilities and learned about all the ways they support the community through connecting around healthy food, a rarity on the North Side and the ways they work to effect policy and behaviors of the institutions who serve the neighborhood. And my group seemed glassy eyed, after days of stretching their minds, walking miles through the heat, they were tired. I was tired.
The rest is kind of a blur. We toured nearby organization, Juxtaposition Arts, and bought a cookie at Cookie Cart across the street. And ran to catch the bus to head back to the porch.
Day 4 was a rest day. We cooked together. Sushi and birthday cake. Students choice. In the morning we wrote, making lists of the experiences we wouldn’t forget and hoped to write about one day, even if we didn't have time and it was still too soon to be able to write about it now. Then one group went grocery shopping and another group stayed back to measure and mix. This day was mellow and retreat-like but also a learning experience. I learned I had underestimated the many skills and steps required in the cooking. The food may have taken longer than anticipated to prepare but the California rolls and red velvet cake turned out well.

We also played a writing round robin. Fun was had by all.
And on Day 5 we walked to the beach. Our walk took us down through the old big mansions of Lowry Hill and onto the bike trail. There the world opens up. Wild flowers and a view of our city’s skyline. We cross the railroad tracks and then skirt Cedar lake in order to get to my favorite beach. It is restorative to be out in nature and especially while the city surrounds you. This walk is full of camaraderie and ease. Every year, 2.0 or no, we do this and it is a joy.
We ate in a huddle on blankets. Everyone offering something up. The quesadillas were a hit, as were the cherries, cookies, and quinoa salad. After a long time in the water the new high schoolers warmed up on the beach, while my longtime students built a sand world from their bare hands, which is what they have always done and will do again.

On the walk back, C had blisters from her sandals. ND, S and C  switched shoes, traded socks, eventually finding a solution so C could make it all the way home her feet relatively intact. My campers are resourceful and kind and have a ton of endurance. They took these experiences in their stride and we have yet to see what they will do with them.

The experience of travel teaches about privilege, by leaving your comfort zone you test your endurance, and get to see the patterns of behavior that come with discomfort. It requires a certain vigilance in attention, making sure that you are always relating to yourself and others with respect and humility. This is an important aspect of learning and I am only beginning to fully understand the ways I can and cannot influence that attention as a teacher. If and when I do this camp again, or versions of this camp, I will spend more time writing about identity, and I would have had us prepare together our group introduction to the people we met when we were out in the world. Identities are a construct that culture imposes, but we can chose to believe it or not and get to portray ourselves how we see fit.
As a group we were by no means strong enough nor important enough to affect change. Or sometimes it feels like that. But when I see these kids out in the world, I can tell they have changed. Our experience of the world over that week interrupted the regularly broadcasted programming. The crisp picture on the digital television set is now glitching and falling apart. It is up to these kids to put new pictures on the blue screen underneath. They must use what they have learned for their own benefit. And it is to my benefit that I let that be up to them. I am willing to leave our future to their brave and caring hands. These young people are warriors-in-training. And their work has just begun.
The following week, on July 6, Philando Castille, a young black man who was brave and caring himself, was shot and killed by a policeman during a routine traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Like our trip to Somali Mall, the camp I created was bookended by the deaths of two young black Minneapolis men, the only greater metaphor I can find is that perhaps it marks a special world that we had entered and exited over my whole camp journey. My only relief is that with us we brought back the elixir, which has the power to transform the world in the way that we have been transformed.
I went to Philando’s funeral. I wasn’t sure if I belonged there. The only way I could do it was with a mantra in my head, “Sorry it took me so long to show up.” That is my promise now. I will take this privilege and travel. His funeral was populated by a diverse group of people, who like me, were moved to show up. This work of showing up is hard to do and even harder to know if it is the right thing. We can’t afford to be perfectionists just now.

Here are some resources:
One of my students sent us a link to this Youtube of a short play about identity. It taught me a lot about how identity is constructed:
Travel as a Political Act
If you want to learn more about how segregation happens in a city and how people of color experience it, read this:
Mapping prejudice
If you want to read about Jamar Clark:

Here is the Wikepedia page for Philando Castille: