Thursday, February 23, 2017

Dr. Bradley Sidle - Veterans' Voices Found

Dr. Bradley Sidle teaches 7th Grade U. S. Studies at Folwell School (Performing Arts Magnet) in Minneapolis, MN. The student body at Folwell is urban, diverse, and committed to learning in and through the arts.


Stop talking.

I'm not interested.

Talk to the hand.

And so it is, when our voices are silenced, our stories cut short, our contribution squashed.

The Minnesota Humanities Center offers a course, the Veterans’ Voices Workshop for Educators, which I was honored and pleased to take, on giving place to a too often neglected voice—namely, the voice of the Veteran. We in the social studies discipline study wars and war plans; we count the number of fatalities and clearly communicate the final outcomes of the battles waged on the field. But the voices of the Veterans we too often overlook.

Our class was held at Camp Ripley in central Minnesota. I have driven past this area many times, and had no idea of the vast resource for military training here in my backyard. I checked in at the gate with the slightest twinge of fear and trepidation. I certainly did not know quite what to expect. My first real inclination that I was in a different world was when we came out of our first plenary and went to the dining hall. Everywhere were uniforms and insignia that I did not understand and could not interpret. The Veterans in our group were quite familiar, and told me that though I felt like a thousand eyes were on these non-uniformed civilians, I was underestimating the truth! Many eyes were on us, but it turned out the vast majority were friendly eyes. Many conversations took place with women and men on active or reserve duty, and the narratives that had long been absent were already being spoken in a sense of honesty and frankness that I greatly appreciated.

We toured the facilities of Camp Ripley, and the Veterans in our midst were quite entertaining as they told of their own experiences at camp and in service. I rather expected a monolithic sharing of the same old, same old. I think my first major learning was that there is not one Veteran's voice, but a wide variety of Veterans' voices. I certainly knew that multiple sources and multiple attestations of a narrative give that narrative verifiability, but I also learned with new confidence that no voice accounts for all voices. Hearing the highly individualized and significant narratives of a wide variety of Veterans brought a vitality and personal representation to the truth.

The plenaries themselves were filled with extraordinary bursts of insight. I will never forget the passion in the story of an officer speaking about the Minnesota First in the battle of Gettysburg. I wanted to thank him for what felt like his personal presence at the battle! We were all visibly moved. The resources I received from the experience were also tremendously valuable and immediately applicable when teaching about the behind-the-scenes experiences of war. The extraordinary resource, Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian by Donald H. Whitfield, ed., contained short readings I could use to examine a wide range of reporting on the Veterans' experience. Each reading contains a brief introduction and discussion questions that provided ample material for use in my seventh grade classroom. Interestingly, the History Theater in St. Paul recently staged a show, "The Things They Carried," which is represented in this anthology with a nice excerpt.

I left the professional development with a profoundly greater appreciation for the sacrifices and accomplishments of all who engaged in military service. On a more personal note, it also gave me the opportunity to talk to my 100-year-old father about his service in World War II and hear his response to the lectures I heard and the articles I had read. This was a tremendous workshop offered by the Humanities Center, and I encourage anyone who is able to take part in the Veterans’ Voices Workshop for Educators. I am confident in stating that no one will leave without their professional and personal sensitivities engaged and enlarged.

The Humanities Center is offering the Veterans’ Voices Workshop for Educators at Camp Ripley in Little Falls, April 28-30, 2017. To learn more visit:

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Derek Wilson - Combatting Exclusion with Humility

Derek Wilson is a husband and father of two children. He has been teaching Social Studies for 15 years at Roseville Area High School, where he currently serves as curriculum leader. Derek participated in the 2016 Minnesota Humanities Center’s Educator Institute.

I am trying to replace ‘exclusion’ with ‘embrace.’†

Patterns of exclusion stain hearts and minds, and blind institutions. Without check, the cognitive reflex that files and sorts—creating implicit bias—has become a weapon of power, pushing people to the margins. This reflex builds patterns of thought, ways of being, and entire systems that privilege some over others.

Since the Enlightenment era, we have increasingly relied on data, analysis, and strategies to solve social problems. A growing body of science suggests that exclusion within our institutions cannot be fixed without first acknowledging and addressing the biases that exist within us. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt used Daniel Kahneman’s (Thinking Fast and Slow) research to create a metaphor of a rider on an elephant to describe the automatic and controlled processes of the brain. While we like to believe the rider controls the elephant with logic and analysis, reality is often quite different. Habits, biases, and intuitions are quick automatic processes and are as difficult to direct and control as a six-ton elephant. We need more than effective strategies to combat exclusion.

Much of the solution, then, lies in noticing and shifting our unconscious processes. How do I stop habits, combat biases and challenge intuitions that create and perpetuate systemic exclusion?

My answer starts with affection, rather than indifference. Affection for others emerges from a conviction that what binds us is greater than what divides us. This binding agent transcends the fluidity of identity and is at the core of every human being; it is the divine spark we all share. It levels the playing field, and does not bow to moral or merit.

Pressing into this conviction leads me to listen and learn from the stories of others. Early in my adult life, I can recall listening in order to respond, repeatedly categorizing and analyzing others’ words. Truth be told, it still happens, but I am working on suspending this kind of judgment, and listening with humility and solidarity. I agree with Paul Tillich when he wrote, “In order to know what is just in a person-to-person encounter, love listens. It is its first task to listen."

Listening like this is dangerous, though. It exposes and threatens habits, intuitions, and biases. It creates uncertainty about those things of which we were once certain, and challenges our place as central arbiters of knowing and being. It also means holding cherished ideologies and metanarratives loosely. Finally, this act of humble listening will eventually require action.

These are the risks of embrace, but they are worth it to end exclusion.

Note: I first learned about the contrast of exclusion and embrace from theologian Miroslov Volf.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Max Rayneard - Home

Max Rayneard is the Senior Writer / Producer of The Telling Project. He has written and/or directed 27 Telling Project productions across the United States, including Telling: Minnesota, Telling: Minnesota 2015, and Telling: Minnesota 2016 in the Dowling Studio of the Guthrie Theatre. In 2017, he and Jonathan Wei will co-write and co-direct She Went to War (premiering March 17) in The Dowling Studio, as well as a Vietnam War-themed production in collaboration with Twin Cities Public Television. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Oregon and lives in Houston, Texas. The Humanities Center has partnered with The Telling Project on Telling: Minnesota.

I think about the meaning of home a lot. I am a foreigner in the United States, a transplanted South African who misses the complexities of my beautiful country. I also think about the meaning of home because I work for The Telling Project — a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that uses storytelling to bridge the gap between military veterans and the civilian communities in which they make their homes.

Coming home after military service is not easy. There’s an entire literary tradition, spanning back to the great nostos texts of the Ancient Greeks, dedicated to its complexity. Simply put, many veterans have a difficult time adjusting to civilian society because military service is an intense overload of experiences. It has a way of reprioritizing everything you think you know. For many veterans, returning to a civilian world that doesn’t get it and doesn’t seem overly interested in understanding, it doesn’t feel like a homecoming. It feels like loss. It feels like being a foreigner in your own country.

So, what does home mean? I’ve come to think of it as a fleeting thing – an alchemical moment that happens when hearts align. Striving for the next such moment and holding to the memory of the last holds the world together.

Allow me to explain: I grew up a privileged white kid in the waning years of Apartheid. The townships were on fire while Apartheid’s white beneficiaries lived mostly insulated lives. When Apartheid ended, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] was established. I came into my young adulthood, sheltered as I had been, watching national broadcasts in which the mostly black survivors of human rights violations told their stories.

The success of the TRC is hotly debated, and so I only speak for myself. I was opened up. I had to admit my own racism and complicity, my own ignorance. I hurt with the people that were hurt in my name. I reveled in their resilience. I was in awe of their generosity. They made themselves publicly vulnerable in the act of telling. The very least anyone could do was to listen. South Africa remains a broken country, and I remain accountable, but for those few moments; I felt like we were all home together.

When Jonathan Wei, the founder of The Telling Project invited me in 2007 to help develop the Telling Project process, I didn’t know that I was being invited to come home. The Telling Project asks veterans to tell their stories in interviews that are recorded, transcribed, and shaped into play scripts. We provide performance training and rehearsal. And then the veterans step onto stages and gift civilians with the opportunity to listen to stories of loss and triumph, of laughter and grief, of guilt and pride, of disappointment and patriotism.

When people make themselves vulnerable to each other by telling their stories and listening, they become home to each other, whether or not they served, no matter where they come from.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Rachel Schmitt - The Win-Win-Win Scenario

Rachel Schmitt is pursuing her Master’s in Evaluation Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is currently at the Minnesota Humanities Center as their in-house evaluator and Graduate Research Assistant. Rachel, who is native to Excelsior, Minnesota, also teaches English to adult non-native speakers and studies flamenco in her free time. She is fluent in Spanish and comes from a beautiful blended bilingual family. Rachel believes in the importance of community participation in decisions, and inclusion of absent narratives in education and evaluation.

Following 2016’s tumultuous election season and the ensuing months, I have been trying to reclaim the word “win.” Rather than a term with a shallow, holier-than-thou connotation, I am working on underscoring the essence of positivity that lies in “winning.” I want to get back to the burst of warmth that wraps around you after achieving something and working hard, and de-emphasize the fame and grandeur that comes with winning.

In reflecting on my role here at the Minnesota Humanities Center, it is truly a win-win-win situation. Here’s why:

I win:

I have the opportunity to develop and refine my evaluation skills at the Humanities Center. Not only is it a beautiful building with rich history, I get to interact with and learn from talented and insightful people. The Humanities Center is home to an astute staff well equipped to have evaluative conversations, which makes my role as an evaluation research assistant much easier.

I also ‘win’ because I have found the Humanities Center to be the ideal environment for the kind of evaluation that I hope to focus on in my career. I am drawn to the approaches known in the field as Utilization-Focused, Interactive, and Developmental Evaluation. Basically, this means that all the techniques and approaches I keep in my “evaluator toolkit” are relationship-driven, use-based (because what’s the point if the work isn’t going to be used?), and continuously evolving.

What’s more, I have had the chance to participate in some paradigm-shifting, deeply impactful programming like the Increase Engagement Through Absent Narratives workshop, the Bdote Field Trip, and various Veterans’ Voices events. These experiences have both required and encouraged me to listen to authentic, courageous people, all while learning, unlearning, and relearning stories of place, privilege, and voice.

Finally, I win having an amazing professor who is my advisor as well as my mentor. My mentor is the quintessential teacher/role model, who deeply values people in the work she does. Her contagious passion for evaluation is what first steered me in the direction of this career. Her work and teachings in interactive evaluation practice continue to inspire me. My mentor is one of those rare gems you encounter in life. She is sincere and incredibly humble, all while blazing a beautiful trail for evaluators around the world to follow. It is quite the privilege to work alongside and learn from her.

My mentor wins:

And finally, if you were to ask her, my mentor would say she wins by having one of her advisees here working on the ground with the organization.

The Humanities Center wins:

With a new evaluator’s perspective and my developing skills, the Humanities Center wins, too. I hope that my energy and dedication to the work goes somewhere. I want to be asking the right questions. I want to develop my practice and use my heart, mind, and spirit to better understand the Humanities Center’s role in Minnesota’s legacy, and in the lives of those who are fortunate enough to be in relationship with this human-centered organization.