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Celebrating Our Friend, Catherine Pastille

13 Sep
Catherine Pastille with African Community Education’s Kaska Yawo and student Lauren Cranston.

When Catherine Pastille came to teach Management at Assumption College in 2012, she didn’t waste any time applying the principles of community service-learning to her coursework. Even though Catherine was new to Worcester, she began forming CSL partnerships in the community as soon as she arrived, leading to CSL components in two courses and four total sections in her first year.

Her Management 311 course emphasized the need for students to actually experience Corporate Social Responsibility: “By working alongside professionals from corporations that take their responsibility to the community seriously,” Catherine wrote, “students are able to see how modern organizations strategically integrate their service to the community and their responsibilities to the natural environment into their everyday work life.”

The one I experienced directly, however, was her Management 100 students boldly taking on the planning and execution of a College Access Day for kids from African Community Education, an organization devoted to helping African refugees and other immigrants close the educational gap they encounter in adapting to an English-speaking school system and myriad other challenges.

Enjoying lunch amid the ACE College Access Day.

In the process, Catherine Pastille created plenty of challenges for herself and her students – one can easily imagine every logistical hitch that can arise in transporting a busload of kids to a college campus, moving them through every phase of a campus visit, and getting them home again. Especially when part of the challenge is giving one’s students space to do as much of the planning, execution, and critiquing as possible … yet students and professor teamed to facilitate a great day for refugee children, helping expand their vision of future possibilities in their new country. (You can read more about that extraordinary day in an earlier blog about the occasion.)

Sadly, the Assumption community lost this innovative and altruistic teacher and colleague this June after a long illness. So this morning I find myself launching the revival of Serving the Story by writing about her. I’m even reading the grant applications and syllabi from Catherine’s CSL courses – so bold and ambitious, the mark of a fearless teacher with a broad vision.

Of course, as I read what she wrote and scan the photos, I feel the sadness of what the Community Service-Learning Program and Assumption College as a whole lost with her passing. But my heart is warmed by memories of Catherine moving through all the steps of that day with a bemused grin, teaching her students how to navigate all the unknowns with a well-struck balance of serious focus and a sense of humor – and, in the process, help our students farther down the path to being mature, confident professionals and altruistic, empathetic citizens.

We will continue to miss Catherine Pastille – but we’ll continue to be inspired by her example.

One of Catherine’s students enjoying a visit with one of ACE’s.

Hunger, Unspoken and Spoken: Nature, Activism, and Terry Tempest Williams

2 Mar

In Tempest Williams country: The Bryce Canyon I beheld in June.

When I hiked through the spectacular desert landscapes of Utah last year, I can remember where I was for so many things. That when the sun rose on my trip’s second day, I was standing on an observation point at Bryce Canyon – absorbing the way the ghostly hoodoo towers materialized from grey shadows into their sandy orange of their daytime selves. I remember that the very next morning, I was working my way along a narrow ledge path, fighting my fear of heights long enough to see the Delicate Arch up close and person, then working my way back down, back to the stone wall. Then there was the third day, the white-water rafting down the Colorado River, reddish cliffs rising in  the distance in almost every direction.

But I don’t remember where, or when, it was that I picked up Terry Tempest Williams and took her along for the ride. I reckon it was some National Park gift shop or the other, either at Zion or Bryce, Arches or Canyonlands. Anyway, somehow, someway, I grabbed An Unspoken Hunger, the fine essay collection that, since I was too busy enjoying Utah through direct experience, I wound up saving for another grey winter in congested Worcester, Massachusetts, clear across the country from the sweepingly open homeland that the author invokes so vividly, I feel like I’m there instead.

I reveled in what I read. Tempest Williams writes of nature with a hypnotic blend of lyricism and practicality, writing about the people of the West – including Abbey and Georgia O’Keefe – with almost as much vividness as she does nature herself. There’s meditativeness and there’s mirth, reverence and irreverence. There is a haunting weaving of mythology – sometimes Native American, sometimes Greek – that suggests a visionary imagination. A biologist by training, she clearly knows her natural science, but her soul feels more like that of a poet.

But I write about Terry Tempest Williams here – in a blog focused on community service and related issues – for still another reason. Even as Dave Eggers – the writer I featured in my last blog – turned to helping start an imaginative tutoring center in San Francisco, Terry Tempest Williams has turned both her words and actions to social issues. Some causes, of course, are painfully personal. Her 1991 memoir – Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place – included the essay “The Clan of One-Breasted Women,” exploring the possibility that the high incidence of cancer in her family is the result of living downwind from nuclear weapon tests in Utah. But she’s journeyed east to D.C. at different times to protest in public and to testify before Congress itself, and – journeying even farther from home – worked as an artist in war-torn Rwanda.

No matter how deep one’s convictions run, the life of the activist and advocate requires spiritual renewal. As Tempest Williams herself puts it, “Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.” If you feel in such a reminder these days, turn to the beauty of nature, and wildness, and art, that I just discovered in An Unspoken Hunger.

Terry Tempest Williams in the land she loves. (Photo: Cheryl Himmelstein.)

 

Artistic collaboration, arghh!

25 Feb
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Dave Eggers, writer and advocate. (Photo from Huffington Post.)

One stereotype of authors is that, more than anything, they want to be left alone. There’s a profoundly individualistic side of the craft – a deep need for the flexibility of schedule that allows them to play out the conversations in their heads, and the exacting work of shaping those conversations into something of lasting creative merit. It creates a fear of distraction that makes each potential commitment to the community seem like a career-ender of a threat to one’s productivity.

Leave it to the ever-original Dave Eggers to find the flip side of the situation – one that turns writers’ need for freedom into an opportunity to serve others.

Eggers burst onto the literary scene as an author with his self-parodying memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a brilliantly self-conscious approach to storytelling in which he recounts the death of his parents within 35 days of each other and how he and his sister moved to San Francisco, where they raised their eight-year-old brother while also pursuing their own dreams as 20-somethings. But after this both moving and frequently hilarious book focused on his own family and friends, his vision expanded far beyond his own relationships or even the United States. You Shall Know Our Velocity! is a novel about two friends traveling the world trying to give away a huge amount of money, What is the What tells the story of an African refugee, Zeitoun focuses on the hardships of an Islamic family from Syria, and Surviving Justice offers interviews with the wrongfully incarcerated.

Meanwhile, during a 2014 road trip – in which I volunteered my way across the country in search of my own next cause – I came across Eggers again, in the form of his preface to a book about San Francisco’s famously activist Glide Memorial Methodist Church, where I volunteered myself. Eggers introduced Beyond the Possible by focusing on what seems impossible – living up to the church’s goal of “unconditional love” for any person who walks in the door.

In that preface, Eggers writes: “Could an individual person keep his or her own lights on, their arms and doors open, at all times?”

“It’s hard, that’s for sure. It’s really damned hard. There’s always someone who annoys us. … Wherever you are, there is someone who is unwelcome.”

Particularly, you might add, when you’re trying to write.

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Yet Eggers and his fellow writers at McSweeney’s found a remarkable way to keep their own doors open to all – by opening the literary magazine’s office to children in need of tutoring. Eggers tells the story of the tutoring organization, 826 Valencia, in a TED talk that, like so much of his writing, uses his quirky imagination and outright hilarity to move and inspire. Of course, the subject matter is intrinsically amusing and inspiring: 826 Valencia combines a tutoring center and the magazine office with a pirate supply store “for the working buccaneer.” (The latter because, as it turned out, real estate zoning required them to sell something.)

Since its start, 826 Valencia has inspired similar centers from coast to coast – the Brooklyn version includes a crime-fighters supply store with a “capery”, and the Los Angeles version offers a time travel quickie mart. Eggers stresses the local leadership of all these places, but what they all have in common is the merging of the adult writer and school children, who even generate their own books. Underlying the entire project seems to be a deep and abiding belief in the power of the imagination. Ironically, one of the things that make it possible is that due to their flexible schedules, creative types locked into individualistic pursuits are the most available to help future generations of writers and artists.

I urge anyone interested in education or community-building – or anyone who loves the life of the imagination or even just a good laugh – to check out Eggers’ TED talk, as well as my previous blog on Eggers and Glide As well as deeply consider the challenge Eggers makes to his audience at the end of his TED talk – to reach out to our own local schools and ask how we can help.

Storm Dogs

9 Feb

Once you embark on any endeavor to serve others, there are almost always unexpected opportunities to make a difference for some people – or, in the case of a dozen state troopers from Massachusetts sent to Puerto Rico, some dogs.

Some storm-surviving canines were fed by the state troopers, and eventually found their way to a Sterling animal shelter recently for adoption. See the story – and of course plenty of dog pictures in the Worcester Telegram.

Meanwhile, even as this commendable act of kindness unfolded, a more sobering article details the recent federal aid package for Puerto Rico, as well as how far it falls short, in the February 8th The New York Times.

The fact that, 12 years after Hurricane Katrina, we’re still paying aid in Louisiana is just one indication that we can’t afford to forget these disasters once they fall out of our daily news cycle.

When A Game Is More Than A Game

6 Oct

Source: When A Game Is More Than A Game

When A Game Is More Than A Game

6 Oct
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CETS stops ACE defender at Worcester World Cup 2017.

On a sunny Saturday in August, I find myself totally absorbed as Togo wins a thrilling soccer – OK, real football ­– match over Myanmar on the second day of an international competition featuring teams from five continents. Only this showdown isn’t the World Cup most of us know, but the Worcester World Cup, now in its 12th year. And as clichéd as it sounds, the winners won’t be limited to Togo, or eventual champion Italy – victory at Foley Stadium could be found even in the youth exhibition game.

Which, in fact, is what I’ve come to see. African Community Education, where I’ve often volunteered, was playing the kids from Cultural Exchange Through Soccer – which, in the spirit of Cultural Exchange, also featured some ACE kids. Therence, my friend and mentoring partner at ACE, is defending for CETS, while Jemal, the adoptive son of my friends Joanne and Chris, is his normal fleet self at the opposite end of the field, putting pressure on the ACE defenders.

One of the hidden victories, of course, was that they are there at all. As refugees, they have seen their share of impoverishment and danger in Africa, as well as all the hurdles of adapting to life in a new country. Much of the work of their young lives lies simply in closing the gap between themselves and native English speakers. Often kids I meet at ACE came to the U.S. knowing more languages than I ­– who didn’t even take a foreign language course until I was 36 years old – and many a day I feel linguistically inadequate by comparison with the students I’m supposedly helping. But English isn’t one of the languages most of the ACE kids happened to know before they arrive here. Every day offers challenges in both doing written work and in decoding the language and culture swirling around them.

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Terence thwarts a shot on goal.

But this is soccer, a physical language they know by reflex regardless of whether they speak the verbal languages of their opponents – a poetry of physicality offering its own richness of rhythm and rhyme. Here their actions are fluid and easy as they work the ball back and forth toward a common goal.

Which is a lot like Cultural Exchange Through Soccer itself – an organization that, from the beginning, was about much more than a sport.

“The original CETS vision was to unite neighbors in a diverse and seemingly divided neighborhood,” one of the organizers, Laura Suroviak, will tell me later via email. “Soccer came first for some of us. Community organizing/building for others. We found the perfect balance.”

Over the years, the program has evolved in surprising ways, with plenty of success stories along the way, according to Suroviak. One surprise was the emergence of a youth program to go along with the adult competition.

“CETS has become a successful youth leadership development organization over the years, without that having been an original intention. Our evolution has been very organic, which makes it successful to the core.

“Every time a young person who had joined simply to belong or to play soccer takes on a leadership role in our organization, it’s a success in the eyes of CETS. The success stories are innumerable.”

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If success stories ­are measured by lives changed for the better, they extend beyond all of the immigrants on the field  to the fans in the stands. I’m a mere mentor to Therence, a strong and confident student who is blessed to have both parents and all his siblings with him here in Worcester, but when he shuts out the opposition for his entire half as a goalie, I still feel a surge of pride and joy as I click away with the camera on the sidelines. I can’t help but feel blessed – as if undeservingly invited to be part of a community, and a world, so much larger than myself.

Meanwhile, I’m lucky enough to be sitting with Joanne and Chris when Jemal, nimble and intuitive, take a shot from the side.

Sitting almost directly behind him, we follow the seemingly impossible arc of the ball he kicks – looping by first a clump of defenders, then the desperately reaching goalie twice Jemal’s size, before curling into the far top corner of the goal. We exclaim our disbelief over the sheer physics of the shot while teammates congratulate Jemal – who flashes his quick smile, then immerses himself again in the flow of the game, patrolling the field where he is, as much as any soccer player, a master of his own destiny.

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Playing for CETS against his ACE friends, Jemal takes a shot.

The African Community Education Fall Fundraiser is coming up Thursday, October 12th; learn more at ace.children.org. (Or consider volunteering at either ACE or any of the other wide range of non-profits working with immigrant populations in the diverse community that is Worcester, among them Ascentria, Southeast Asian Coalition, Worcester Refugee Assistance Project, Training Resources of America, and more. To learn more about CETS, including a list of high school matches involving athletes in the program, click here.

Marching With Pride

12 Sep
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Marching down Salisbury on a Saturday morning.

I’ve never been much of a marcher.

Sure, I like to WALK. I’ve even been known to HIKE. In extreme situations, such as when meeting with one student made me late to teach a whole classroom of them, I might even RUN. But this business of massing with other humans to march, to call out the same chants that have been used for decades – only plugging in the names of the latest enemies, who are just the faces of the same enemy (our general inhumanity to other humans, our selfish indifference to the impact of our actions on the most vulnerable, human and otherwise – is something I’ve avoided, partly out of despair.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always admired the people who do march – at least, the ones on my side, and even the ones who aren’t. For one thing, they clearly get up earlier on a Saturday morning than I do. They are better at the arts and crafts aspect of the banner and costume-making process.

They know where to park.

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On a much deeper level, I’ve always admired marchers for the way they value the communal connection of walking side by side with fellow believers, and the faith they place in the power of public statement, even when the protested injustice does not disappear overnight. My call to community participation has been more result-oriented. For years, it was Habitat for Humanity, which gives volunteers the gratification of a physically tangible product, a home for someone who needs one. Now it’s tutoring with African Community Education, where I can at least see that kid has finished his/her homework.

Marching, though, is something I’ve been sneaking up on. I almost pulled it off last year in San Francisco. I returned there to attend the Pride Sunday service at Glide Memorial Methodist Church – a radically inclusive church with deep roots in the LGBTQ community, as well as the homeless and a wide range of other people who often have been marginalized by churches. I rode the buoyant emotion of Glide’s blend of pass-the-mike personal testimonials and soulful gospel and R&B music, congregation swaying and holding hands during a prayer that openly explored the grief after the Orlando shootings less than two weeks earlier.

Moved by particular passion after the Florida tragedy, the defiantly joyful congregation then flowed out across downtown to the staging area of the parade – while I blew it by going back to the hotel to check out, only to succumb to the temptation of the computer, my need to pour out of mind all the observations sweeping over me from the service. By the time I got down to the route, the parade had commenced. I told myself it was easier to take in the spectacle of the parade if I weren’t in it. So I stuck to the sidewalk on Market, taking notes and photos as the very people I’d just met with went by – once again I was the stereotypical observer, one step removed from the action.

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“Y’all means all” – the peddlers of Pride must’ve known I was coming.

So last Saturday in Worcester, I set out to remedy the situation at Worcester Pride. I overcame the practical obstacles – rummaging for the one shirt colorful enough to be Pride-worthy, trusting that someone would be selling on-site merch to make up for my distinct lack of rainbow clothing, that I’d find a group to insinuate myself with even though I was going alone, and that the eternal question that defines our lives in Worcester (“Where to park?”) would work itself out.

And, of course, it did. I made it to the staging area near Institute Park plenty early. There I mingled with a broad range of people from different eras and zones of my life, drawn to the parade by a variety of institutions and causes – united by the need, in these often intolerant times, to make a stand for kindness and inclusiveness, for love and grace, for a commitment to open-heartedness and open-mindedness that transcends human reflexes to the contrary. Plus, for the same reason I love New Orleans, I delighted in all the goofy colors and costumes of Pride – the Corgi-corn, a dog wearing a unicorn outfit – was one of the winners.

It was overpoweringly positive – friends and strangers defiantly making a serious statement while daring to laugh and to love. Meanwhile, others gathered along the route – in front of churches and one restaurant/bar, Armsby Abbey, that I attend more often than church – and cheered. I saw a half-dozen students and ex-students, and, in the spirit of the occasion, the professional handshake was discarded for the affectionate half-hug. Despite my 6-foot-5 height, as hugged at eye-level – for they were on the curb and, for once, I was not.

See the Worcester Telegram story and photos about Worcester Pride 2017 by going to this link.

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Corgi-corn!

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