Tag Archives: continuous learning

We’re all in the trade together

I just returned from watching this film. It was a screening organized by my employer, Public Allies. The filmmaker, Katrina Browne, is half of the pair who founded the organization almost 20 years ago. Staff, friends and guests brought in pizza and sweets, and settled into chairs more suitable to a half-hour meeting than a 90-minute film.

But it was hardly the chairs that created the discomfort.

“Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” is about some descendants of the DeWolfs, who made an incredible fortune in the slave trade. Katrina is one of those descendants. The film’s basic premise — a group of people go on a journey to understand a shared, shameful family history — could be intriguing enough, but what I walked away with was a profound sense of never-ending complicity.

The movie has many streams that split, merge, cross and mix with each other. The stream that I’m reflecting on now was crystallized, for me, by a scene in Cuba, when the group –retracing the triangle of rum/slaves/sugar their ancestors so cleverly exploited — visited a plantation once owned by a DeWolf. There, they came across a large contraption that extracted juice from sugar cane by pushing a wheel that turned gears. We see the DeWolf descendants attempting to use it, with the suggestion that slave labor once made the gears turn. The contraption’s origins were stamped on its side “Buffalo, N.Y.,” dated (if I recall correctly) early 1800s.

It was one of many ways the movie smashed my facile assumptions about who’s responsible, and about who can relax by feeling not responsible. I shouldn’t need to hear it again, but apparently I do: No one has clean hands.

Your forebears came to the U.S. after the Civil War, you say? Check the long list of nations that built slaves fortresses in Ghana to get in on the action, they might very well hail from one of them. They farmed in the Midwest, you say? If the Midwest wasn’t growing wheat and selling it to the south, the south could not have afforded to plant so much land with lucrative cotton — picked by slaves — hence giving them resources to buy the wheat. You come from poor folks, you say? Yes, but if your granddad was educated on the G.I. bill, he could not have been black, and that’s probably why by the time you came along he had climbed into the middle class.

The logic trots on along those lines. And as I listened to the discussion, I started thinking about Native Americans …. child labor … the Jewish Holocaust … Japanese-American displacement camps … . How many of us can claim that nothing about our lives has benefitted from some aspect of exploitation, and very likely still is? If you truly can say you are not part of that group, you are probably among the exploited.

Katrina didn’t stop when the film is over. She and many of the people on the trip have pursued various ways of raising consciousness, seeking repatriation, advocating for change. That’s the whole point, after all. Stop the cycle. Acknowledge, admit, act. I liked what she said about letting the guilt and defensiveness give way to anger and grief, because the latter creates a starting point while the former gets you nowhere. I liked so much of what she said. Only part of it is being processed right here. I’ll continue to think.

But in what way will I act?

:: Katrina Browne has started a nonprofit that is dedicated to exploring the legacies of the slave trade. It’s called the Tracing Center: www.tracingcenter.org
:: One of the family members on the trip has written a book about the experience, “Inheriting the Trade”:  www.inheritingthetrade.com
:: You can find out more about the film — including information about organizing classes or workshops around it: www.tracesofthetrade.org.
:: Find out about Katrina Browne’s connection to Public Allies here: www.publicallies.org.



Filed under Musings

It’s book club morning

I am in a wonderful book club, one that deserves better from me. We are now reading “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold, and I woke up early this morning to catch up. It’s a sad fact that I haven’t finished a book club book in more than a year, and so far this one isn’t likely to be an exception. However, I am (again) thankful to my clubmates for giving me a reason to read something wonderful, however sluggishly I’m doing it.

I want to share a few things I’ve circled so far.

Reflecting upon the eagerness of a trout to take the bait, and of a fisherman to cast it:  How like fish we are: ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river to time! And how we rue our haste … Even so, I think there is some virtue in eagerness, whether its object prove true or false. How utterly dull would be a wholly prudent man, or trout, or world!

Reflecting on the irony of killing off wolves to protect the deer, which in turn means large swaths of defoliation: Too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.

And this one needs no set-up: … all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.

Aldo’s prose strikes me as old-fashioned in a wonderful way (he died in 1948 and the first of these essays were published a year later).  It has the effect of being very much of its time, and also respectful of its topic. The natural world — be it a pristine lagoon in the Delta of the Colorado or bird poop on a Wisconsin farm — is elevated through a more formal (to our modern ears) language, and I’m transported to a more slow-moving moment in the history of language and syntax.

Change came more gradually then, but Aldo’s writings explain that it was sudden in the greater context of the natural world.

*  *  *

I won’t belabor the point about Wisconsin’s pokey springs. They put us through an annual agony. I’ll just fast-forward to the fact that the temperature went above 80 (!) yesterday, a stunning development in May for these parts. Between errands, I took my car through Estabrook Park. Trees were coming into leaf (as opposed to promising it for weeks) and some of them were in bloom (as opposed to bud). As the road curved gently through this new green and pink and white, and as I felt the sensation, for the first time in six months, of an open window, my eyes teared up. This is a little embarrassing to admit.

How must it have felt, then, for Aldo Leopold to take his canoe down a wild river in the 1930s, when “wild” meant something more true to its meaning?

I’ve been thinking about that all morning and can’t shake the feeling of loss.

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Filed under Books

Why I’ve created this blog

At Public Allies, I often feel like a stone in the middle of a creek. There’s a constant flow of information around me. This is an institution that’s about many many things, but the one that seems most palpable to me right now is continuous learning.

Now, this can mean something different to each person (more on that later).  But to me right now, it’s all about the creek. All around me, the institution is at work — raising funds, recruiting a new class of Allies, trying to build an interactive application form, developing new learning tools, launching new sites. Individuals are at their own stages of meeting goals. Work relationships are at different phases of ups and downs. Same as any office anywhere.

I dropped into this particular creek about two months ago. The creek might have shifted a bit to work around me, but mostly it kept moving, oblivious to the interruption.

This metaphor is going to break down pretty quickly and I won’t belabor it much longer, but work with me here. Being new in an organization means a certain amount of time spent letting information wash over you, and absorbing as much as you can. Much like a stone exposed to moving water, the flow can reshape a person.

Public Allies talks a lot about the transformative experience their Allies have when they sign up for 10-month apprenticeships. I’m thinking about the transformative experience I’m undergoing now, the slower kind you have at a time of life when you’ve been kicked around a bit, know a little more, are ready to say no to an awful lot of things and yes to a few very good things.

My new employer identifies continuous learning as a value, and defines it this way:

The ability to question assumptions and beliefs, understand strengths and shortcomings, and commit to continued growth within a community context.

OK, so I’m the communications person here, right? I am not so sure I have digested this completely. Question assumptions and beliefs — check. Understand strengths and shortcomings — check already! Commit to continued growth — check. Within a community context — gotta get my head wrapped around that one.

I’ll let you know what I find out.

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Filed under Musings