Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Filling Space on the Front Page

7.56 million cartons of milk, 50,203 thousand rolls of cellophane tape, 944,643 reams of white copier paper. These numbers shock the senses. Coupled with pictures of pallets covered with boxes and Industrial-scale warehouses, they suggest big-time consumption. They are the predicted yearly purchases of Central Florida's school systems. Already the story has big implications for this area explaining it's front page coverage in Sunday's Orlando Sentinel local In-depth section. However, the article read more as a quaint reminder of the beginning of the school year than any in-depth look at what these numbers suggest. Certainly the peculiarity of the story makes it interesting but what exactly is the goal of the journalist compiling the numbers on school consumption? I hope the goal, in this time of global warming and massive ecological footprints, would be to report on the problems of having to produce so much stuff or perhaps recounting the efforts of industrial innovators to produce such quantities of goods in an environmentally sustainable fashion. Unfortunately, judging by the substance of the article such is not the goal.

Thinking about this article requires a kind of rereading. "Back-to-school shopping is a supersize event at Central Florida's school warehouses. When your mission is to keep about 350 public schools stocked, you deal with supplies by the case, pallet and truckload--because schools use a lot of stuff." Now certainly schools do use a lot of stuff and their mission is to keep their facilities stocked, but is this really news? I've reread this article to be pure fluff with no substantial interest to my life besides the concern I have for local news reporting.

It's about time local newspapers understood the importance of their role in the community. They are assets, not handicaps; they are our sentries, not bystanders.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Teacher's Intentions

Close to a year ago I was approached on the University of Maryland campus by a TFA recruiter looking to convince me that my best option after college was teaching. She knew my experience leading numerous social justice organizations, my passion for learning, and that I had a concentration in Education. She quoted statistics regarding the sad state of US education (Although she didn't need to. I spent every Friday afternoon at a local elementary school. I knew the state of US education.) and how vital this movement for inspired teachers is. She asked me bluntly, "If you won't teach, who will?" At the time I patiently explained to her that I knew the kind of responsibility teachers must shoulder, the energy they must have, and the skills required to hold the attention of any group of young people and teach them. I told her that while I possessed most of these qualities, I was not ready to be a teacher. I assured her and myself (because at this point the intensity of the moment reached a fevered pitch) that in the future I would be ready to teach. In the future I would be ready to look the state of US education in the eyes and add my shoulder to the millions of other teachers filling the breach. I told her when that time came TFA would hear from me.

The future is now.

My father was a teacher for thirteen years so his advice is almost priceless. When he tells me to foster discussions in classes I know its true. When he tells me to integrate fun into the curriculum I know its true. And reflecting on my own experience either under the tutelage of a good teacher or even think back on my limited teaching time, I know the best lessons/activities planned and run were the ones when the teacher's role evolves from dictator to moderator. The worst lessons are learned under a teacher who wrest authority from their class never to give it back. Lessons rooted in insecurity instead of creativity and fun too often fall on deaf ears and potentially do more harm than good. I seek to teach now because in the last eight months I have grown to know better the burden of inadequate education held by students.

I seek to join TFA because I know I can help young people become critical listeners and thinkers. I seek to join TFA so that I might empower our young people to take their education into their own hands and work with teachers instead of against them. I feel passionately about these facets of education because critical thinking and empowerment changed my life not too long ago. There was a time in college when I was completely ignorant to the power and freedom granted by education.

Originally entering college I was a Math major because among the list of majors it was the only area of study I recognized (obviously I hadn't yet committed much to my higher education). I stalled in my studies, I didn't see the application of the field I was studying to my life. I couldn't own my education until I developed an understanding and appreciation for the real world. Then, like a flash of lightning, the books I was reading for class began making sense of the world around me. And I cared. Not to become a number in a huge university, I saw my time from that point further as an opportunity to create my own theories and get involved with other people who were thinking and caring about the world around us. Whether they were teachers, peers, or local activists I had a new culture to believe in: education.

Since my introduction to critical pedagogies and action-oriented curriculum I changed my major area of study and have been across the country living my educational experiences amongst my peers and the real world instead of relying on textbooks to color my conception of the world. From Mississippi to Texas, I have applied my mind to real world problems that after critically studying, discussing, and acting out now seem ageless. But, no matter what the city I was in or the problem I was looking into I relied on critical thought and activism to solve the problems. The problem I am now looking at is one concerning American education. Only this systemic problem is a personal problem too; a problem close to my heart. I want the opportunity to invest myself, to change young peoples lives in the same way my life was changed through education. My success as a potential corp member is dependent on my ability to mentor my students and empower them through critical thought and discussion. A classroom infusing these ideals of education might show younger people a different way to enrich and understand their lives.

If I were to hope to accomplish anything through TFA it would be to do for other young people what was done for me through education. That kind of education is my luxury; it is my platform. Its a powerful motivating force that is matched only by its own fragility. If I could inspire my students to a high level of education and create a classroom culture of support to encourage each and every mind to pursue their educational interests I would consider myself a success.

The dreams of our young people are the future of our communities, nation, and world. If I have anything to do with it, future generations will be taught to reflect, discuss, and act. I'll teach them to think for themselves. Such is a future I can believe in.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The World As I KNow It

"With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch.
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch.
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings.
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things."
-Rudyard Kipling, The Gods of the Copybook

I believe the invisible hand of the free market has landed on my house. Well, not my house but the house directly behind my parents home here in Central Florida. I can hear the whispers of the 'F' word throughout the neighborhood. Foreclosure. Money lost with little understanding of where exactly it went. The market is mysterious like that. They tell us there are ups and downs.

Thoughts of the market are a luxury.
Until a few days ago I was living in a Trailer lacking reliable electricity and water, not to mention lacking a working refrigerator.
The market is a poison.
Beside my trailer lived 4 Mexican men lucky to have work. We spoke rarely because of the language barrier. We didn't have to say much. The market lived in their minds too. On the first day I arrived, the first question they asked me in broken english was: how long are you going to be here? Sizing up the competition.
The poison colors my world.

I spent about 4 days on a farm in Southern California working for a manager with no management skills. I spent 4 days on this farm and saw more of our broken system than ever before. At least two of those young men living next to me ran the border to live with their father here. In a meager trailer no more than 25 feet long and 7 feet wide I at my last meal on the farm and learned about courageous men who knew the hand of the Market better than me.

Later that day I was sizing up my trailer. Marking the smells of mouse piss in the shower and along the kitchen drawers. As thrilled as I was to be working on an organic farm, I knew Pigs couldn't fly. I knew my phone wasn't working and my boss was using me. It was only the first day so I had not started wondering what the Mexican guys were thinking. My mind was racing thinking of the work to be done.

I woke up early the next day hoping to get some early morning work done. I stood before the strawberry patch planning my point of attack. Looking for some tools to use I searched the barn, the road, and the field and found two buckets. I felt a little sick. My eyes began to burn. This might have been the first time I doubted my decision to uproot my life and commit myself to working this Southern California farm. The burning stretched from my eyes to my throat.

After close to half an hour I had a few trays full of strawberry runners ready to be propogated. I set up in the shade to start transplanting the delicate greens. There was no work station so I sat cross-legged and mixed the loose dirt I dug a dozen feet away with some manure and transplanted. I was working like this for about an hour or two before my boss walks out of his living quarters. I ask about my work but he seems uninterested. Pointing out loose potting soil on the ground a few feet from me he picks up a handful and tosses it at my feet. My future lays with the dirt at my feet. I didn't bend down to collect it. My throat tightens.

I see the farm for what it is: a disaster. I cannot work under these conditions and achieve anything besides burying a dead venture. I am not spending my time digging anymore of this man's dirt. The burning has reached a fevered pitch. I feel doubt: a new doubt I had never felt before. Like some meaningless product used and forgotten, I never again want to feel so cheap.

The burning resurges to my face and I begin to cry. My tears remind me of my dignity. I know then that I can stay no longer. I search out the owners and tell them I intend to leave as soon as possible. I have a hard time listening to either of them express their regrets. Even retired hippies can be utterly out of touch.

I leave early the next morning, thanks to my parents.

I arrive home Wednesday afternoon feeling mixed up. My chest no longer hurts but my mind rages with paranoia of failure and guilt. I do not know what I will do next. Farm? Not on any farm like the last one. I distrust anyone wearing overalls. Luckily my parents greet me with nothing but support. I knew I could count on them.

After a shower and a shave I feel a little bit more like myself. I intend to go to sleep early but stay up late talking with my brother of the world as we know it and the poisonous market. I dreamed of revival and relief. My parent's spare room does not smell like mouse piss.

I wake up Thursday morning and spend most of the day tying up my parents tomato plants and weeding in the back yard. I peek my head over the backyard wall a few times to look at the foreclosed property. My mom plans on buying it and turning the extra space into a garden area for me. With the Florida housing market being what it is, the house could go for as little as $100,000 dollars. Quite a deal. I could have my very own urban farm in the heart of Orlando. The market returns to its anointed position as the liberator it is.
Quite a deal.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Thoughts on Consumerism

There are days when you come to see what side you are on and today is that day for me. It is easy to suggest moderation when the conditions are right for a non-extreme position but when you read articles detailing horrific motives and potential catastrophe what else can you do but take a stand. I feel that way now. Reading of foreign investment in cheap agricultural land (http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2009/07/31/african_farmland/index.html) because of a perceived growing population and a resulting growing demand for food, I feel like my life is not of my own making. People must eat. This reality doesn't take into account the intricacies of the food system. Such a reality doesn't take the consequences of such investments and changes on the consumer into account.

As an organic farmer I implement a mentality of stewardship and sustainability when strategizing the creation of my food, but having left my Northern California farm two weeks ago to live with my parents here in Florida for close to a month I have been reunited with the non-organic, unsustainable, food system billions of people depend on and I am regularly disappointed and scared for the future. More to the point though, I have been reunited with the blind-consumerism that propels our economy for better or worse.

With a short term, individualized, perspective the consumer can be convinced that their actions have insignificant consequences, this of course isn't true. Consumerism plays a monstrous role in our political, social, environmental, and individual lives precisely for the fact that it is a mentality or attitude instead of just a practice of increasing consumption of goods. It is a mentality of entitlement to any and all products that might satisfy the individuals needs and wants. But as Wendell Berry wrote in Fatal Harvest, "And so we can say that the industrial economy's most-marketed commodity is satisfaction, and that this commodity, which is repeatedly promised, bought, and paid for, is never delivered." Why is it then, that consumers are not only not given a choice to be more sustainable but are encouraged to consume without regard to their needs? I suppose because there exists no organization with the credibility to show consumers the rest of the story of their stuff without seeming and present an alternative. So, who will paint an alternative picture?

The survival of the individual, their communities, their cities, and nations depends on a balancing of interests and investments. The alternative to the blind-consumer lifestyle is one of co-production and an amalgamation of the individual with their larger communities. Lucky for us, this change in culture extends beyond consumerism and individualism. Ironically such a change (many call the amalgam the "glocal" community) has its roots in a philosophy of satisfaction and quality of life.

The highest standard of living has little to do with material goods but with dignity, honor, and creativity. Resources are nothing but idle tools without the right minds to put them to the right work.