Ruminations on Global Citizenship-Professor Ahmed Samatar

As part of the Live It! Grant application, every individual was asked to give their definition of global citizenship.  This task was both easy and difficult.  It was easy to identify certain aspects of our project that identified with the idea of “global” and the idea of “citizenship”.   It was difficult to put into words how our activity was connected to us personally through identity, experiences, and our daily rhetoric.  Essentially, how well could we define our actions both locally, yet still transnationally?

The talk with Professor Samatar facilitated the ability to discuss our project on a narrower, but less limiting, discourse of global citizenship.  How does Project B.R.E.A.K.I.N transcend the contradictions of global and citizen; how, as a form of global citizenship, can it navigate nationalism and internationalism to become cosmopolitanism?

A guide to these struggles of contradictions can be found in zones of dialectical tension.   These four zones include war and peace, the intersection of humans and nature, the struggle between equality and quality, and the relationship between diversity/multiculturalism with commonalities/universalism.  If our project can confront one of these areas, we can become closer to defining it in terms of global citizenship and closer to understanding global living.

Project B.R.E.A.K.I.N. confronts the most multiculturalism and universalism.   Our project is heavily involved with the mixing of cultures.  Tiny Toones is a center that promotes the integration of a youth culture that is predominantly and originally American with the lifestyle of children in Cambodia.  In addition, the center advances the learning of both English and Khmer.

Without a doubt, the work of this center and the program we plan to institute there will benefit the children in Phnom Penh by providing them an avenue to education previously denied to them.  That, however, isn’t the question.  What is really being challenged and asked of us to consider is if Tiny Toones and Project B.R.E.A.K.I.N. really are forms of global citizenship or forms of globalization bordering on cultural imperialism.

From an outsider’s perspective Tiny Toones and Project B.R.E.A.K.I.N. can appear to be the dominance of one society’s culture over another’s.  Hip Hop and break dancing can appear to suppress the traditions of Cambodian culture.  It may be said children are not learning to be citizens of Phnom Penh, but cultural semi citizens of American hip hop—the consumers and the replicators, but not the producers.

Much of what is being culturally shared is the mode of expression.  The students at Tiny Toones have very much made Hip Hop and Rap a product of their own.  Although the style of music is being borrowed, and drastically different from Cambodian rhythm and sounds, the lyrical expression is entirely reflective of Cambodian life and culture.  It respects difference without suppressing identity.  English and Khmer being taught together reflect mutual value.  It’s multicultural without placing one at a greater importance.

Approaching our project from the perspective of conflict and this zone of contradictions wholly enables us to holistically look at how our project reflects global citizenship.  It exposes the dominant narrative for what it is and lets us explore our project on a discursive level.

by Mary Pheng

Buzz Words and Ideals

At Macalester, there are a lot of efforts to interpret “hackneyed buzz words,” as Professor Samatar termed them, like civic engagement, multiculturalism, and yes, global citizenship. This includes the Live It grant’s effort to develop and compile students’ understandings of global citizenship. An important component of my definition of global citizenship is to look inward in order to identify and remedy the issues we face as a society, and then expand that vision to larger communities and the rest of the world. As a citizen of the United States, I look to engage my ideals with a patriotic critique of my country and situate this in the context of the rest of the world. It starts with this project, but I hope to incorporate this perspective into the role I play on a global context, however big or small that ends up being.

All over the world, people struggle with life’s uneven circumstances, searching for economic equality and equality of treatment by others and under the law. The extremes of this vary. In some places, people face an impossible task of rising out of an undesirable situation, such as poverty, discrimination, violence, etc… Other places provide a better opportunity to do so. But nowhere is it easy.

In the United States, we would like to believe we live in a meritocracy. This rings true in some of the greatest stories of the improvement of people’s personal condition, from President Obama to the individuals we encounter on a daily basis. I certainly identify with this narrative. However, doing so leaves me in a weird bind, between my family overcoming the challenges of improvement to reach its promise, but also witnessing stagnancy for many as they slipped back down the path of meritocracy, unable to move beyond the enormous barriers they faced. From this, I see the need to improve upon the promise of upward mobility through access to higher education and will begin doing my part to address this need.

Sometimes, work on a community level seems insignificant in comparison to the imposing problems the world faces. I have to remind myself that people across the world hold the same ideals as me and have devoted their lives to the realization of these ideals in their own locality. Together, our accomplishments need to come together and forge the groundwork of say, a large and diverse educated world population.

I admit this sounds lofty, but is it also not necessary? As Professor Samatar stated, “Without ideals, life falls flat.” In the coming age of globalization and technology, we cannot effectively work toward equality without doing so in the area of education. In the United States, enormous disparities exist between students on the basis of race and class. In many parts of the world, educating more women will be essential to improving the life conditions of millions of people. Ideals like these drive the critique of society and culminate in the progress of society. The ideal of improving access to information on the college application process to high school students motivates my project. At the same time, other people lead similar efforts, driven by similar ideals. Some day, they can emerge in the form of an equally educated populace. Does that sound idealistic?

Lessons from the Civic Forum

Look no further than your local urban school district to see the severity of racial inequality in the United States. Callie, from the Civic Forum, and I realized this due to the glaring achievement gaps between students of color and white students at our high schools, in Pittsburgh and Seattle, respectively. Part of the reason for this is lack of support. By informing students on how to handle the challenges of the college application process, my Live It project addresses the need to work to reduce racial inequality and prepare for 21st century prosperity, by addressing and acknowledging the shortcomings of our education system.

Watching inequality play out, such as the disturbing rates at which many colored students leave school and end up incarcerated, should disappoint us, but also seek to improve our understanding of how to make schools greater agents of change. In this case, change will not come until we face the issue of race head on. We must come to a public consensus where we recognize that race and background do not determine a student’s potential and that every student who comes through the public school system should receive full support all the way through graduation and into college. If we came to this consensus, we would not idly observe racial imbalance unjustly widen in dropout and incarceration rates as is happening today. Educating everyone rests at the heart of eliminating inequalities and pursuing future prosperity. Instead, our cities’ schools lack the resources to adequately help students through the college application process.

This leaves students to their own devices to figure out one of the most monumental processes of their life. In high school, I also saw many older students passing down their advice to students who were just entering into the application process. At times, they passed down extremely valuable advice. The idea for my project came from these discussions, when I realized every student who advances through this process essentially becomes an expert on it, in possession of thousands of dollars worth of information. With all of this expertise, why not compile it into a useful resource for as many students as possible to access in a far more efficient manner than word of mouth?

Much still needs to happen on the broader level, from policy to public support. But this project lines up with Callie’s vision for turning leadership into more of a partnered relationship with students in order to build from the ground up. What better way to do so than for us to directly combat the shortcomings and inequalities afflicting our generation?

My project does that. It operates on the belief that information on the college application process should be openly available to all prospective college students, no matter what background or school they come from. It aims to capture the voices of current college students in an effort to address the needs of prospective college students. While on one hand it signals the need for greater action, it also has the potential to make a difference in hundreds of individual lives. I would call that a start.

“Ruminations on Global Citizenship”

            This past Wednesday I had the privilege of meeting with the highly regarded (and evidently highly feared?) Dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship and International Studies professor, Mr. Ahmed I. Samatar. He had a lil chat with all of us Live It! grant recipients about globalization, global citizenship, cosmopolitanism, and “zones of dialectical tension” (more on this later).

            One of the points he brought up during his discussion about the history of globalization was how the development of capitalism during the modern era also led to the onset of the “commodification of life.” I think this was a very powerful statement that is particularly resonant today, especially given the current age of “hyper-modernity” (as Samatar would say) that we live in. The planet’s biodiversity and ecosystems have been reduced down to exploitable “natural resources,” ideas are converted to “intellectual property rights” that must be bought or sold, and our worth as human beings is only relevant in terms of the “human capital” we have to offer to the economy. This last point is especially relevant to the working-classes of the United States, and the “commodification of life” is very applicable to the reality of migrant farm workers. They are only valued in terms of their labor, and their status as human beings is practically ignored. This is why the humane treatment of seasonal agricultural workers (such as livable wages, health benefits, and heaven-forbid the right to water/bathroom breaks) is so uncommon.

            This dilemma hits on one of the “four zones of dialectical tension” that Samatar talked about during his…talk. Anywho, he described how there are four main zones of tension in which global struggles/conflicts can be categorized: War & Peace, Humans & Nature, Equality & Quality, and Diversity/Multi-Culturalism & Universalism/Commonality. During the discussion, Samatar asked us to see which of the four categories our “Live It!” projects would fit under. I believe that my project with the United Farm Workers relates to the Equality and Quality “zone of dialectical tension,” or (as Samatar also described) the tension between economic justice and competitiveness/individual freedom. This is because the pursuit of economic justice on behalf of migrant farm workers comes into direct confrontation with the desires of grape growing companies to remain competitive. I am very interested to see how this tension is made manifest in the migrant farm workers’ daily lives.

Finally, Samatar talked about global citizenship and cosmopolitanism. He defined cosmopolitanism as embodying two aspects: 1) the ethic that all human beings belong to the same moral realm and we have an obligation to each other across this realm, and 2) the objective perspective of “global citizens” which allows us to have a critical stance toward state systems/society.  I think both of these aspects are pretty important for many of us Macalester students, who not only see ourselves as “global citizens” with an obligation to help others in need throughout the world, but also like to devote a lot of time to bitching about “the system” (no worries man, myself included!). Samatar also talked about global citizenship in relation to global governance and international decision-making institutions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m down with big international organizations that do good work and stuff, but I believe more emphasis should be given to how cosmopolitan ways of thinking can be acted upon in local contexts. Global thought does not necessarily denote globally-scaled actions. Cosmopolitan visions can be acted upon at a variety of levels (communities, cities, states) and in a variety of contexts (NGO work, volunteering, career choices). Basically, global citizenship is for everyone and how we choose to “Live it” out is up to us!

Approaching Global Citizenship from a Holistic Perspective

K.P. Hong began by explaining how even though human beings have a preset notion to fit observations into rational outlooks, there are still many unexplainable irrational aspects of the universe.  The Pythagoreans were a group who used mathematics in order to prove the universality and order present in the universe.  However, a simple right triangle defied the notions of rationality through the persistent presence of an irrational number, no matter what units were used, in the diagonal line.  Since the idea of irrationality was so unacceptable, the Pythagoreans kept this a secret for hundreds of years, and when one member leaked the knowledge, he was executed.  This displays the extent to which humans desire order.

In the same way, we try to fit different cultures in what we view as “rational” societies.  A person’s values and beliefs are influenced by his surroundings growing up.  Someone growing up in poverty, struggling to get by every day, would have very different aspirations and outlook than someone who grew up in a very rich neighborhood with all the commodities he desired given to him.  In the same way, our view of other cultures is influenced by the cultural experiences of our childhoods.  K.P. Hong explained how our minds were initially blank, and we really had to learn.  However, after certain knowledge and memories are put in place, we stop learning and started categorizing.  Our minds naturally take the easy way out instead of really discovering new outlooks and attitudes, we fit ideas into preexisting belief and knowledge structures preset in our brains.  This is why when people view other cultures, they unconsciously categorize people into stereotypes.  It is easier to do this than to reach past what we know, into the realm of the irrational, and start to really learn again.

This causes people to categorize between “us” and “them,” which promotes conflict, justifies segregation, and gives people a mindset of difference.  Difference inevitably means a hierarchical system, influencing a sense of superiority over those seen as “them.”  Social stratification and exploitation stem from these notions.

The members of project B.R.E.A.K.I.N. realize that we have biases and stereotypical notions of different societies as everyone does.  However, we understand that we must make an active effort in order to try and dissolve these barriers which prevent us from being able to really see a society for what it is rather than what we want to see.   When we go to Cambodia, we will seek to experience the culture in a way that helps us establish connections with the children going to Tiny Toones and promotes an active sharing of culture.  In this way, we will not only be able to understand and bring back their way of life, but also leave behind a little bit of ours.

–Stephen Peyton

Project B.R.E.A.K.I.N

Macalester Civic Forum: Leadership in the Age of Obama

The 2010 Civic Forum themed Civic Leadership in the Age of Obama was an exceptional educational experience for the members of B.R.E.A.K.I.N.  The overarching theme of the forum, civil leadership, is an important factor in global citizenship as defined by the members of this group.  It was inspiring to hear the many different ways that civic leadership is exemplified.  In particular, we identified with Callie Thuma’s presentation.

Callie focused on a local theatre teacher, Jan Mandel, from Saint Paul Central High School.  Jan uses the ‘black box’ to create a safe and engaging space where young people can express themselves through acting and original performances.  She founded Central Touring Theatre, a troupe of high school students who create and perform pieces developed from youth issues and themes.  As Callie told us, she actively addresses social, economic, racial and identity issues in her theatre class.  Her creative ways of education are changing conventions and deconstructing the “school to prison” pipeline.

How does Jan’s ‘black box’ address these issues? In her black box, student with different cultures, ethnicity and religion come together in a non-judgmental environment to express their feelings and their reality.  There is a role reverse of the traditional teacher and student role.  No one has the authority over ‘true’ knowledge.  Jan recognizes multiple intelligence and learning through various methods.  Some of the students were choreographing, some were designing the set and some were writing the script.  The result was a play that changed the students and the community.

KK, the founder of Tiny Toones, employs similar methods to educate the street kids of Phnom Penh.  He empowers the kids with the four elements of Hop Hop – Breaking, MCing, DJing, and Aerosol art – so that they can express themselves artistically rather than violently.  It allows the kids to express their views and beliefs creatively in an unconventional matter.  The dance floor at Tiny Toones is comparable to Jan’s ‘black box’.  It is a place with no ‘adult teacher’ figure to tell them what to do.  They learn and grow from each other.

Hearing the success of Jan’s example of civil leadership affirms our belief in what KK is doing.  It gave us confidence in our project.  If we can strengthen their capacity to operate, it would mean more kids get the opportunity to immerse in this engaging environment.  Furthermore, it showed us an alternative way of becoming a civil leader in which our passions are used in active education.  For Jan, it is theatre and for us, it is Hip-Hop.  Jan’s leadership shows us that a leader is someone who listens to the needs of the people and community, who organizes community and identifies self interests to meet self needs.

The Linchpin

1 – War versus Peace

2 – Humans versus Natural World – Sustainability

3 – Growth versus Distribution

4 – Diversity versus Commonality

These four areas, Professor Ahmed Samatar argued yesterday to me and my Live It! colleagues, constitute all realms of great human issues.  In this epoch of global citizenship, where “intensive and extensive encounters between the immediate and the distant [create] multiple contradictions that are pregnant with opportunities and dangers” (Samatar’s description), our actions will consistently take root in at least one of these four zones of tension.

He urged us to reflect and think critically about our roles with these issues as we embark on our projects. It might seem excessively elementary to begin a lecture by reminding us that action is subject to thinking.  I for one consider myself much more pragmatic than many of the theory-obsessed academics in this collegiate sphere.  But I did learn a new word: praxis, the process by which a theory, lesson or skill is embodied, enacted or realized.

So what theory do we realize? First, let me note I root my theories in ideals.  Yesterday I realized my ideals root themselves into the four realms of conflict mentioned above. This summer’s work, Dakota Birthright, will focus primarily on Zone 3, growth versus distribution. It will also dig into sustainability – cultural, environmental and economic (note ‘growth versus distribution’) – and reflect on the state of these Dakota communities since their periods of war with the U.S. government. And as I have mentioned in my previous posts, we will also explore issues of diversity versus commonality.

Some of my peers will work to improve education in Cambodia. One student will produce a video to improve access to the college application process. Another will research the struggles of migrant farm workers and advocate for basic standards of respect for health, dignity and working wages on the farms in California and ultimately around the world.  Me?  I’m leading a canoe trip to bring exiled individuals back to their homeland and reconnect them with a cultural heritage that’s continually diluted, both on reservations and in the urban cityscape.  This geographic and cultural exile that the Dakota live with today is a manifestation of ‘zones of exclusion.’ Professor Samatar argued (and it’s hard to disagree) these zones are examples of tension between mainstream culture and economics and struggle to maintain identity and individuality. (I have spent time in some Dakota reservations in Minnesota, but they have issues far different from those facing Santee and Crow Creek, which are virtually isolated and have no sparkling Casino to attract revenue to their communities.).

So when I visit this summer and find myself in the poorest place in North America (aside from Chiapas and Oaxaca, which are indigenous as well), I wonder if I will encounter the same “global citizen” identity I am supposed to bear.  I doubt that most people I meet on Dakota Birthright will have an identity that supercedes (or even complements) their immediate, local identity of the “invaded, exploited and forgotten.”  And that is the linchpin of colonialism: when the oppressed perpetuate the victimized identity. Like the liquor stores they build in the ghetto, certain elements continue the trajectory of a colonization and subjugation.  It’s my hope that the canoe trip can start to build the bridge between “us” and “them,” to welcome these people back to their own lands and start to reverse the legacy of exile.