Thursday, October 27, 2016

Paul Riedner - Rethinking the Modern American Veteran

Paul Riedner is an Army Veteran from Minneapolis who served as a deep sea diver. Currently, Paul is the Executive Director of the Veteran Resilience Project. He is involved in the Veterans’ Voices Storytelling Project and is a 2016 Veterans’ Voices Awardee.

It was 2006 when I started distilling my life. It wasn’t filling me up. It was draining me. By day I traded on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. By night I searched for meaning. Everyone else seemed to know theirs. What was mine? Why did I feel so empty?

I began an internal audit of my life. I reflected about, “What brings me joy?” “What experiences fill me up?” “What physical settings or landscapes I’ve traveled to fire me up?”

I discovered a need to do something that required physical work with my hands, not my head. I discovered a need to work with water. Growing up on the Mississippi River in Red Wing, Minnesota, learning how to live on the water from a father who served on submarines in the Navy, left me yearning for the water.

In addition, I needed to do something meaningful. Thousands of young people were sacrificing and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; it felt like something important was happening without me.

Then one day an Army recruiter showed me a video of Army Deep Sea Divers. To the chagrin of friends and family, I joined the Army.

Not long after beginning my service in the dive field, my unit, the 86th Engineer Dive Team, deployed to the Middle East. Most people wondered, “Why would divers go to Iraq?” not realizing the amount of water there. Two great rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, are key features of Iraqi geography – it’s not barren desert.

Divers are brought in when U.S. assets find their way into the water, including weapons, vehicles, or troops. At this time, Army divers were working on rebuilding the bridges that were destroyed in the invasion and ensuing fighting. The riverbed was littered with debris and the substructures needed to be prepared. Our job was difficult, expensive, and risky work anywhere, but especially in a war zone.

After leaving the Army, all of these events and experiences began re-orienting themselves in my mind. New associations were developing. Old rationales were becoming obsolete. I found prior assumptions and frameworks sometimes dissolved entirely under the pressure of a new understanding from my military days. It stunned me to realize that while we worked on bridges in Iraq, the 35W bridge in my home state collapsed. There are trade-offs. And choices have consequences.

Life seems to observe similar laws that water does. Like a wave that rises from trough to crest, we too have cycles of activity versus reflection, spending versus saving, talking versus listening, working versus resting. A re-balancing will happen one way or another.

If we took an audit of our collective well-being as a community in Minnesota, what would we find? Do most Minnesotans have what they need to thrive? Are we being good stewards of our future? When will we, as Minnesotans, take the time to reflect honestly on the events since 9/11, as a state, a country, and as a community?

Not only acknowledging the underhandedness of the political machinations leading up to the invasion, sparking the first ever worldwide protests, but to see and understand the human damage--its scale, its depth. Other repercussions are still ripping through our local and global community. We must not be naïve about the life-long effects of this type of violence on the souls of both warriors and civilians. These wars were conducted by very few, on behalf of the many, and continued for many years by the collective decisions of the people.

When will the local needs of Minnesotans get priority? When will we apply our finest resources, blood, and treasure to returning veterans, our kids, and a future that reflects our values?

As the only state in the U.S. with an entire month dedicated to Veteran Voices, we have the unique chance to take direct lessons from the profound experiences of those we send to war. We need the gifts of those who serve to rebuild our communities. Let us not leave money on the table.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Melissa Townsend - Water: The First Medicine

Melissa Townsend is an independent reporter and audio producer. She now reports and produces Minnesota Native News, a weekly news broadcast that airs on tribal and community radio stations around the state, funded by Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund. Melissa interviewed people in and around St. Peter, Minnesota for the Water/Ways exhibit at the Nicollet County Historical Society/ Treaty Site History Center. As part of the project, she interviewed Glenn Wasicuna [wah-SEE-chew-nah]. Glenn is a Dakota elder with roots in Minnesota.

The first time I met Glenn he told me a story from when he was a teacher in a Dakota tribal school. At the end of the academic year, faculty conducted exit interviews with graduating students. One boy, who was very successful in school, chose to do his exit interview first in the Dakota language, and then in English. He talked very eloquently about his experience in school and his future plans. When it was over, the teachers talked amongst themselves - what an impressive young man with exceptional academic and Dakota knowledge.

Glenn said, he listened and then, he spoke up - Why are we so impressed? He is a Dakota boy. This is what a Dakota boy looks like. This is what we should expect from all our Dakota young people.

When our conversations turned to the subject of water, Glenn said it’s much the same. He said there was a time you could take a dipper to the river and get a drink. He brought his hand toward his mouth as if holding the handle of a dipper. Maybe it was made of metal or wood. It reminded me of constellations of stars in the sky.

Glenn said water that we can drink with a dipper or a cup should be our expectation for all rivers, lakes, and streams. And then he asked me — Why can’t I take a cup to the river and get a drink of water?

With this in mind, I went out and stood on the banks of the Minnesota River where it meanders through Mankato. It was January, and I watched the long, wide slabs of ice float downstream between the river banks. I was amazed at its volume — there is so much water there.

If this were a river of dollar bills, or cars with keys in the ignition — we might have an overwhelming sense of gratitude. How fortunate we are to come across such a treasure. Oh thank God, we might say.

But much of the time we don’t react that way. Farmers in this area drain their fields to get rid of it. City dwellers build walls to keep it out. I was trained as an urban planner. In my coursework, water was generally an adjective, i.e., water source, water treatment, water feature. We were taught how to manage water, direct it, use it and yes, take care of it if its use required it.

But Glenn proposes something else. He says we already know that all waterways are parts of one enormous, life-giving body — the first medicine. We already know that our own well-being is linked to the health of this body of water. And as such, we already know our primary responsibility is to keep the entire body clean enough to drink.

He says, “We already know what to do.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Blake Rondeau - Community of Conversation: Civilian and Military Engagement

Blake Rondeau is a Marine Corps Veteran who works at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. He is the Marketing Director for the Minnesota Warriors, a disabled Veteran hockey team. As a member of the Veterans Mental Health Advisory Council for the VA Medical Hospital, he is dedicated to finding and fixing the problems between Veterans and health care. Blake is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Health Care Communication and is a discussion leader for the Humanities Center’s Echoes of War public discussion events at Carleton College in October.

Recently I was sitting in a small group circle meeting with a couple of young Veterans, and we were sharing stories of trials we were dealing with in the civilian world. One of the quieter Vets said, “They [civilians] just don’t understand what I’m going through.” This is a sentiment that I hear a lot from Veterans, and have felt it myself.

So I asked, “Have you told them how you are feeling?”

A question I would never have asked before. A question that may have been a little rude—too daunting to do it myself, so why ask it of him? When he replied that he hadn’t, I asked another question that surprised him and me, “Have you ever asked how they are feeling?”

A few weeks ago I participated in the Humanities Center’s Echoes of War discussion leader training where we focused on a number of things; one that struck me was the idea that knowledge and learning can come from anywhere, if we let it. The discussion leaders and Humanities Center staff encouraged civilian participation and ensured that everyone’s voice needed to be heard.

On the first day I found myself scared, trapped in a room with strangers that would be dissecting me. Perhaps many Veterans have felt this way. But in the span of a week I learned from Veterans and civilians alike by listening and asking what their thoughts were. By creating a dialogue between all of us we were able to relate to one another’s experiences and find similarities: A driving force to help build up a community instead of separating it.

I shared my stories and shed some tears throughout the week. Often times these actions can be seen as a sign of weakness, but leaving the Humanities Center at the end of the week I left supported by new friends, new views, and a new community.

Armed with those experiences and living proof that the Humanities Center’s way of teaching worked, I sat in that small group and asked those questions. I wanted to push back, put the onus back on the Veteran, back on all of us, wanted to see where the conversation would go.

We cannot fear to speak to one another or to learn from one another.

I implore all those who feel the way the ‘quiet’ Veteran did or, if you are someone who doesn’t know how to start a conversation, just ask. If they say no, respect that. If they say yes, take the time to engage. We are all human and have good and bad days but if we, as humans, take the time to listen rather than be discouraged, we can find ourselves living in a truly engaged society.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Paul Sommers - Connecting With Each Other: Sharing Stories and Common Life Threads

For more than 20 years Paul Sommers has worked as an educator in middle and high schools in Chicago, Illinois, Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, England. He has also worked in non-traditional educational settings in Brazil for a number of years. Paul currently teaches sixth grade Minnesota History at Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The story of a place reminds me of the many places of story we walk through every day, and how much the places we walk through connect to the stories we remember.

In all of the places I have walked in my life, luck seems to follow me. Certainly bad things have happened to me and my family, but from an early age, I learned that the stories we share contextualize the places we visit and the people we connect to in ways that can bridge divides and heal wounds.

It’s not a stretch to say that my training as a humanities teacher began at home, around the dinner table. My mom — a mother of thirteen children — challenged my siblings and me to listen to each other’s stories. Even with a full, noisy table, she heroically championed for us the need to slow down and listen to each other. She established for us a ritual — blessing of the food, passing of the dishes, some side talking, a quiet lull, and my mom saying, “Can we just talk about…” She called it a table ministry. She reminded us that peace depended on different groups of people sitting around the table and sharing their stories. For me, the dinner table became a place of stories.

As I grew older, the stories multiplied, as did the places. Some story places chose us, like the spot in the road where my sister Pat broke her leg in a bike accident, or the exit ramp where my brother Joe tragically died. Driving by these places still triggers memories; the stories get told and retold.

And sometimes, we choose our places of story. I will never forget the three trees planted in the golf course behind my parent’s house. I can still hear the snow crunch as my family and I plodded through the snow to carol to the trees, and I can still recall singing to trees with my dad, my brother, and my sister Ann.

For me, teaching humanities evokes the discovery of common threads found in multiple stories — past, present, future, across generations, and, across cultures and nations. As much as I try to highlight and build on these common threads in our stories, I find that my students make connections that we, as adults, fail to notice. The classroom becomes a place of story when a student, Nimo, compares her struggles with assimilation to the Dakota being forced into boarding schools so many years ago.

Sometimes connections fail and invite humiliation and microaggressions. Sometimes those very stories of hurt facilitate their own connections. A recent immigrant, Safia, told us she had never heard of Elvis; the laughter burned and made her feel like an outsider. Two other students then shared that a similar experience had happened to them.

Sharing stories involves risk, yet Nimo and Safia’s risks freed others to do the same. Quiet Eduardo shared that he can’t wait to turn 12 this summer because then he will finally be old enough to hear the full story of his father’s deportation. Mirage stood up and shared the story of her hijab.

I believe that my job — the job of a teacher — depends on my ability to transform my classroom into a safe place for stories. Some days I feel like the stories shared weave together like a fine fabric. Other times I feel like the threads are not yet in the loom. Every day, the story of my classroom remains the same: creating a place where stories help us uncover what the Dakota refer to as “Mitakuye Oywasin” — We are all related.