Why I failed my Texas History class in the 7th grade…

It’s a true story – I failed Texas History in middle school. I can’t even remember why I failed the class. What I am pretty certain of is that the Texas history I was taught did not dive into the history of colonization in the state (at least not without the romance novel version, complete with Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston on horseback wearing flouncy shirts and saving everyone from savagery). I had no notion of local movements or struggles, either historical or current, that shaped my community. National news and issues were part of my thinking self, but not so much for the underlying context of those issues in my local community. And so the past remained as interesting as a summer reading list…entertaining, removed from my everyday life, and not taking up too much head space.

In thinking of how we educate about local social movements and weave those stories into the now to keep them alive, I immediately thought of two groups working here in Colorado. These groups bring together members of the community in ways that entertain while they challenge and inform, and create dialogue based on shared experiences that emerge from stories of the past. The Romero Theater Troupe is a social justice organic theater company focused on giving voice to those who have been silenced by history. The Troupe’s People’s History of Colorado is a series of productions about historical figures left out of text books who shaped the state in critical ways. Their method is to teach history through stories from the “bottom up”, broaching topics such as the history of white supremacy in Colorado, attempted border closings in the 1930’s to keep immigrants out of the state, the legacy of Adolf Coors and anti-LGBTQ legislation, and the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII in Amache, CO. The Troupe itself, as a collection of community volunteers, is part teacher, part organizer, part activist, and part convener.

Another group educating about local social movements in a slightly more irreverent way is Warm Cookies of the Revolution, a civic health club in the Denver metro area. Just as folks go to the gym for their physical health, Warm Cookies hosts events for civic health. My favorite of these events is the Stompin’ Ground Games, where participants learn crucial historical lessons about a specific neighborhood and its landmarks, as well as current issues affecting those areas and ways to take action for change. This dive into historical and current issues of a neighborhood are accompanied by musical performances, food vendors, and other cultural events selected by members of that neighborhood as relevant to them. In addition to the Stompin’ Ground Games there’s also This Machine Has a Soul, The People vs ______________, Sin Tax Bingo, Civic Stitch and Bitch, Bring Your Government, and lots more.

I’m not saying I definitely would have passed 7th grade Texas history if it was conveyed through a community theater focused on the unheard voices of social movements, or if it was incorporated into an experience that mixed levity with the seriousness of social change. But I do know that these groups, among many others out there in communities across the country, are powerful vehicles for bringing together community members in the name of social justice and understanding, starting with the understanding of what struggles and movements have come before to shape the struggles and movements of today.

Hopefully you’ll join the Agora Project conversation on March 16th at 11am MST to talk more about local social movements and how these are integrated into higher education engagement in and with communities. Here’s the link to join the conversation. As a final note, I ended up majoring in History in college, writing my thesis about the migration of maquiladores from Mexico to Texas when the Great Migration of African Americans to the north shifted labor supplies and demands. And I passed that time.

Lyrical Realities

“If our struggle is a strain then the strain is dominant
My name is prominent for entertainment that’s laced with consciousness…
The common myth that we’re savages with no history or accomplishments
Or knowledge of ourselves, they did a job on us
Considering the prediction of economists
Machines will do our jobs for us
The future for the working class is ominous
They got is indoctrinated through a brew
A religion mixed in with abuse…”

-Talib Kweli-

Though I didn’t watch the Grammys, it made me think about lyrics and how powerful (or not) music is to relate struggle, joy, history, identity, and on and on. Full disclosure: I’ve got a small obsession with Talib Kweli and Mos Def (Black Star). There are scores of artists out there who are adept at telling stories of local struggles and local knowledge, and how that local knowledge has been systematically de-legitimized, but I choose to focus on Black Star for today. Here’s my contribution to deeper thinking about social realities through lyrics. What’s yours?

Local Knowledge & Expertise

I’ve been thinking about the guiding question for the upcoming February Agora Project conversation concerning how we legitimize (or not) local knowledge within higher education, particularly within the field of community engagement. Two recent experiences stick out in my mind as pivot moments for me (which, thankfully, seem to happen a lot…otherwise, I’d be going nowhere fast).

In October 2017 I attended a Highlander Center workshop as part of the Conference on Community Writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. Highlander workshops “help create and support strong, democratic organizations that work for justice, equality, and sustainability in their own communities and…build broad movements for social, economic, and restorative environmental change.” A great deal of time during the workshop was spent learning about social movements that have led us, as a country, to where we are now. It was also spent talking with others in the room about our own work, aspirations, fears, etc. I remember feeling a bit confused/put off/dismissive because we weren’t being provided concrete tools, foolproof rubrics, or evidence-based program ideas. Instead, we were being guided through connecting with people, understanding social movements, and letting stories lead action. I was disappointed in myself for being dismissive, albeit temporarily, in the lack of “formal” expertise that was shared. For someone who relies upon informality and relationship building as a prerequisite to partnerships (I’ve been called folksy, but I think that was intended as an insult), I was upset at my own reaction.

The second recent experience occurred during the Collective Impact Summit hosted by The Civic Canopy in November 2017. During an informal roundtable with other event participants, a conversation began about how to reach across difference (particularly race) to build relationships and create coalitions for change. I listened to one person talk passionately about her own story and her own expectations for how folks should build relationships based on brutal honesty and transparency. She was the only person of color at the table, and when she was done speaking you could have heard crickets chirping. I realized that I was creating this strange, artificial barrier between my work life and my personal life that prevented me from responding to her story in a way that was real. As someone working in higher education, I felt conversationally stuck, as if I needed to have the “right” answer in order to respond. As a person in real life, I had a story to share that allowed the conversation to move forward. The notion that local and personal knowledge is not expertise is something I have to actively push against, both in my own mind and in the work that I do. I see it in myself, I see it in who is elevated as keynotes and trainers, and I see it in how individuals are professionally recognized or dismissed in higher education.

I’ll leave this post with a resource about local knowledge that includes a chapter on the work of the Highlander Center, in case you want to learn more about what they do. Enjoy!  http://www.cambridgescholars.com/download/sample/63174

The Journey Begins

Welcome to the Agora Project, a space for civic dialogue and reflection about campus and community engagement, hosted by Campus Compact of the Mountain West. Over the past 17 years that I’ve been a part of Campus Compact I’ve noticed that while formal workshops, conferences, and trainings are essential to moving the field of higher education engagement forward, they rarely provide opportunities for dialogue about the unanswered and oftentimes unanswerable questions that arise within the field.

The Agora Project is a space to dialogue, to share resources that deepen our thinking about the world around us, and to elevate the practice of learning from one another without the goal of winning an argument or emerging as the conversational victor. We all have a perspective to share that is real, that is valuable, and that is true. Share what is real to you. Share what is valuable and sacred to you. Share what is true for you. Join us in the Agora Project.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton


Now Read This

citizen“Marrying prose, poetry, and the visual image, Citizen investigates the ways in which racism pervades daily American social and cultural life, rendering certain of its citizens politically invisible. Rankine’s formally inventive book challenges our notion that citizenship is only a legal designation that the state determines by expanding that definition to include a larger understanding of civic belonging and identity, built out of cross-racial empathy, communal responsibility, and a deeply shared commitment to equality.”—National Book Award Judges’ Citation