Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ryan Else - How will the humanities help lead America toward a brighter future?

Ryan is an attorney and proudly served as a member of the historic 2-135 Infantry Battalion of the Minnesota Army National Guard. Ryan carries this experience over to his civilian professional practice by advocating for veterans in the justice system. Ryan is an associate attorney at the law office of Brockton D. Hunter, P.A.; co-editor and co-author of a legal treatise entitled The Attorney’s Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court; and the executive director of the Veterans Defense Project, a non-profit aimed at promoting the effective legal representation of veterans charged with criminal offenses.

The greatest threat to our nation lies inside us all: the inability to see the humanity in those who are different from or in conflict with us. We are a strong nation of people who have proven a nearly absolute ability to defend against external threats, but, we are hurting ourselves at a greater rate than an enemy has ever been able. To illustrate that point, as most of us know, in 2001 we lost 2,977 Americans in the largest attack on American soil by an external threat in over a century. According to the Centers for Disease Control; however, for the most recent year with data, we killed each other 16,238 times in 2011 and another 38,285 Americans killed themselves that year.

Right or wrong, we have felt the need to militarize our police force, indicating that we now view ourselves as a danger matching the threats abroad. The problem goes beyond violence. Political divisiveness has peaked at a point where hatred and fear of each other dominate over working together to improve our physical infrastructure, schools, health care, or for any other constructive purpose. We are clearly failing to appreciate the humanity in each other, as this xenophobia leads to the dehumanization of each other necessary for such violence and hatred.

We need a reminder of our common humanity, the fact that despite our differences we all want the same thing out of the American experience—a safe place to live, raise families, express ourselves freely, and excel in our individual and collective pursuits of happiness. We need reminded reminder that we have more in common with each other than we have differences. We need to see that when we dehumanize a person different from ourselves we are extinguishing the same relationships and consciousness that we hold sacred in our own lives.

The humanities—defined as the study of human culture—force us to recognize these commonalities in one another. Whether it is a play that confronts the civilian population with the difficulties faced by returning combat Veterans or a children’s book that tells the story of a foreign community or culture, the stories are those that make us human. It is very difficult to hate those you recognize as human. They are stories that transcend any specific culture because they are the stories of family, trauma, pain, community, sport, faith, and other universal commonalities. The details change from culture to culture or experience to experience, but the themes are essential to us all.

Once we find common values, we face our differences not as threats but as diverse assets we all bring to the American experience. If we are to overcome the divisiveness we face, we must find common ground and unite around the unique diversity that makes up the United States. To do that, we must first get to know each other’s stories and the humanities can serve as our collective storyteller.

The Minnesota Humanities Center Blog will be taking a break next week for Thanksgiving. Blog posts will resume on Thursday, December 4. Have a happy and safe holiday weekend.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rose McGee - How will the Humanities help lead America toward a brighter future?

Rose McGee

Rose McGee is a Program Officer – Omaha Public Schools - at the Minnesota Humanities Center and the author of the new book Story Circle Stories.

…By Listening. By Listening. By Listening. By Sharing. By Sharing. By Sharing.

One of the basic applications of storytelling is to repeat a key statement three times. This allows the person telling or sharing to place emphasis on the main point which in turn helps the listener grasp the significant value of that being spoken. Our work here at the Minnesota Humanities Center is centered in story and by convening in circle. The circle connects and holds truth accountable among each and every participant in a way that also reinforces a strong sense of respect. Innately, being in circle formation generates effective repetitive narratives as each one listens and shares and listens and shares and listens and shares.

Being authentic and humble are critical traits for moving effectively and creatively into the future. People of the Akan Region of Ghana, West Africa often use the sankofa bird to illustrate a powerful lesson. The sankofa’s head is turned backwards while holding an egg in her mouth. Our learning from such a powerful image is to reflect on the past while in the present in order to step forward with wisdom and confidence into the future. This can be done by intentionally listening to stories from each other with the utmost respect. To be effective, negativity such as egos or entitlement must park themselves outside of a story circle. Everyone sits at the same level and should be able to look into each other’s eyes as sharing and listening occur. This evokes Respect. Respect. Respect.

So much chaos, acts of violence, and mistrust stomp around in our society. Racism is a ‘Boogie Man’ that lurks about, yet few are comfortable speaking out against it. When story circles convene around the topic of race, participants have a chance to get the ugly matter off their chests - whatever that means. A respectful story circle allows that story to be told without placing judgment on the teller. When a Veteran returns home in pain and traumatized from the assignment or sadly, from the mistreatment once having returned home, the circle allows the soldiers to talk about it, release it in a safe place, and somehow regain peace. Youth as well as the elderly who convene in story circles are able to feel as though someone really cares about their thoughts, their questions, and their dreams simply by listening to their stories.

Absent narratives are all around us in many shades, shapes, dialects, on reservations, in urban streets, in nursing homes, in schools, hospitals, in wars, in our homes, the workplace, corporations, the rich, the poor, the lonely. We walk among the silenced voices, and we sit next to them in public places. For a brighter future, an invitation into story circles must be extended to all. Invitation. Invitation. Invitation.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

J.A. Moad II - Veterans’ Voices Month: Listening to those who served

J.A. Moad II is a former Air Force C-130 pilot with over 100 combat missions who served as an Assistant Professor of War Literature at the United Air Force Academy and as a fiction editor for the War, Literature & the Arts Journal (WLA). He writes online essays for the WLA Blog, and his short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. He has performed on stage at the Library of Congress and The Guthrie Theater as part of The Telling Project. He currently resides in Northfield, MN where he flies for Delta Airlines and is working on a novel about an American military in a not too-distant future. 
(This was published as an Opinion piece in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on October 22, 2014.)

Whenever I speak on the topic of Veterans or war, I always start with the same questions: has anyone ever served in the military? How about your siblings, parents, or children? A few hands climb into the air, but only a few—a reality reflecting the small percentage of people who understand the challenges faced by Veterans. The Minnesota Humanities Center is working to change that in part through a new law dedicating the entire month of October as Veterans’ Voices Month.

Last year on Memorial Day, Sebastian Junger called on Veterans to tell their stories. He said it was a way of sharing “the moral burden of war”—an effort to reach out to the ninety-nine percent who’ve never put on a uniform. I acknowledged the importance of hearing Veterans’ stories, but realized they’d be hesitant to speak to civilians. How could I help to make this dialogue possible?

As a former educator, Veteran, and the son of a Vietnam Vet, I understood that it would require a concerted effort from artists and educators, along with community and government leaders. For me, the solution was grounded in the Humanities—a sentiment echoed by the Veterans’ Voices program at the Humanities Center.

While in discussions with the Humanities Center and key state legislators (Rep. Jerry Newton, Rep. Bob Dettmer, and Sen. John A. Hoffman), we crafted legislation that would dedicate the month of October to teaching and studying the stories of Veterans. It would serve as a prelude to Veterans Day, and with the help of some talented educators and writers in Northfield, we kicked off the project last fall. The results were astounding: the bill unanimously passed both legislative houses and on May 16, 2014, Governor Mark Dayton signed Veterans’ Voices Month into law. Minnesota is now the first state to devote an entire month to honor, recognize, and celebrate Veterans.

It seems all too appropriate that this initiative begins here in Minnesota, a leader in the humanities and the birthplace of Tim O’Brien, one of the greatest war writers of our generation. Much like the post-Vietnam Era, we’ve become a society inured and exhausted by the longest conflict in our history. We hear about Traumatic Brain Injury, Post Traumatic Stress (not a disorder), sexual assault, suicides, and a Veteran’s Administration plagued by failures of past and present policies. But we haven’t heard enough of the individual stories. It’s time we did.

Veterans’ Voices Month is only part of a long-term initiative of the Humanities Center that draws on the power of the humanities to call attention and amplify Veterans’ stories and contributions. Veterans’ Voices is building a network of Veteran organizations, artists and individuals to capture the authentic voices of the men and women who’ve served and died on our behalf.

While the project here is a just getting off the ground, it is part of larger endeavor that’s gaining momentum across the country. Over the last few years, I’ve witnessed the power of honest expression by Veterans. Whether it’s a production of The Telling Project, where their stories come alive on stage, a reading by the soldier-poet, Brian Turner, or the Pulitzer Prize-winning exhibit, Always Lost (currently touring Minnesota), the words and images always resonate through an audience. Veterans’ Voices is about bearing the weight of these stories into the present—into classrooms, libraries, community groups, churches and town halls… It’s about discovering what we can learn from these Veterans. It’s the only honest way to share the moral responsibility of war.

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Pioneer Press on October 21, 2014.