Wednesday, July 21, 2010

what's your CQ?

I caught the tail-end of an interview on NPR's On Point yesterday. It sounded interesting. Po Bronson was one of the guests. I've not yet read any of his books, but with sincere reading-intentions I did check one out from the library once and read the intro before the book reached overdue status (that's worth something somewhere, right?). I'm intrigued by and appreciative of what I know about his approach to writing, reporting, and people. Due to all these factors, I hit up to find out what I'd just missed.

Among the topics du jour was Bronson's recent Newsweek article: The Creativity Crisis. It's a fascinating article that dredged up memories of taking IQ tests as a seven year old to see if I qualified for my county school system's gifted program. It also dredged up memories (from much more recent files) of things I observed about education systems while traveling abroad.

For whatever reason, I asked quite a lot of questions of my hosts, especially in Africa, about what education looks like in their locales. Maybe I did this more intentionally once I learned that African school systems in the former British colonies I visited are mostly based on the British system in terms of nomenclature for grade levels, etc., which means the terms aren't completely interchangeable with those of the American system. The British system never completely made sense in my American head, mostly, I think, because no one ever offered to draw me the diagram my visual self needed (all that A-level and O-level stuff doesn't seem to have an accurate American parallel). Eventually, though, many questions later and even sans map, I managed to get the gist of it.

I also had opportunity along the way to spend brief bits of time in schools. The bulk of my exposure was in Uganda where I assisted an aid organization with distribution of some school supplies, including at some schools that had been bombed by LRA rebels; toured and interviewed students at a private school; taught a class of 50-some students for almost an hour; and saw some study materials when kids on an island in Lake Victoria showed me what they were studying. In Zimbabwe I spent two weeks interviewing students at a university. In Ghana we spent time in villages where our guides described the changes Ghana was making in their public education system and the challenges of helping people understand the importance of it. In Haiti I visited a Save the Children summer program set up to prepare rural children to begin kindergarten in the fall, interviewed some older school-age children, and spent time on the grounds of a private school interviewing its founder/director. In London I participated in a junior high career day (students lost a fair bit of interest in my career path when the learned how little we writers make :-) ).

There's just something about understanding schooling that is one of the foundational pieces for understanding a culture. One of the observation gleaned from my educational question-asking in Africa three years ago and more recently from Africa-educated friends who now live in America is that the education systems in the parts of Africa I visited (particularly in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda) are very much based on memorization and rote learning. Training in problem-solving tends not to be a regular facet of mass education in these countries.

And, unfortunately, that reality bears out in many of the contemporary challenges that plague these particular countries. People complain of infrastructure that isn't maintained, systems that aren't effective, and other problems that can result when situations inevitably arise that require some imagination to solve, situations for which the rote answers that were hammered into them during their formal education aren't adequate. This is the state of things not because of lack of ability in the people but because they aren't taught or encouraged to think freely, to think outside the box, to figure out innovative solutions. Freedom and encouragement are key nurturing elements for creativity. Doing things as they've always been done and following the pack are not.

These observations all jive with what is described in Bronson's Newsweek article. The disconcerting evidence presented in the article indicates that while countries like China are making the switch from rote, memorization-based learning models to creativity-building models, American education is reverting to a less imaginative, more straight-laced model.

I'll throw my hat into the ring of agreement to say that based on my cursory observations abroad of the way lack of training in creativity impacts societies, this shift does not bode well for America. I agree that it's imperative for our own future problem-solving good and for the good of the rest of the world for us to re-incorporate creativity while we still can. Start by reading the article and then thinking of ways to solve this new crisis. Don't be surprised if you also find yourself wondering what your own creativity quotient, your CQ, is and how you can grow it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

being welcoming

You never know when you'll run into a good story. Who would expect that an errand-in-the-middle-of-rush-hour to replace a headlight you just noticed was out (I got tickets the last time my lights burned out before I noticed they were out, so there was no time to spare this time) would turn into a gem of an interaction?

As Lloyd helped me replace the worn-out headlamp, he happened to say something about welcoming people to America. He told me this as we walked out to the parking lot of an auto parts store not far from my house in the more immigrant heavy part of Nashville. There's a lot of Spanish spoken in this store, and probably some other languages too.

Lloyd prefaced his welcome-to-America story with a story of his own lack of welcome somewhere outside the States: As a soldier, years ago it seems, he was out and about somewhere in Europe when a man standing with a girlfriend asked Lloyd if he was "Americano." Lloyd, in his military get-up, said that he was. And the man spit in his face. Lloyd, as he tells it, is a redneck, so he charged the man. But the man's girlfriend held them apart. Some welcome.

Fast-forward to sometime more recently: Lloyd was helping a customer and asked the man where he was from. "Laos," the man replied. And Lloyd said, "Welcome to America!" And the man started to cry. Lloyd was afraid he'd said something wrong. But then the man explained, "I've been in America for 19 years, and you're the first American to welcome me here." Wow.

That gets you in the gut, doesn't it? Our pride in being American should translate into welcoming new people into our midst. Unwillingness to be welcoming sure looks a whole lot like insecurity and a whole lot like not loving our neighbor as ourself. How would you want to be treated if you were the new person in town?

Friday, January 29, 2010

keep following the news from Haiti

Blogs from folks I crossed paths with while in Haiti in '08:

Life of a Blan in Haiti
Lemuel Ministries blog
Hopital Bienfaisance/Promise for Haiti

If you're looking for places to donate, here are some reputable options that, because they're small and well connected locally, can get aid to needy people more quickly than some of the big organizations. These are all organizations I worked with while in Haiti and can vouch for.

Hosean International Ministries - housing earthquake refugees in facilities at the camp they run; also working to increase the capacity of their schools in order to get displaced kids back in school; supporting needs at Hopital Bienfaisance; helping with the airstrip in Pignon that is providing another way to get relief supplies into Haiti (since the Port au Prince airport is so clogged)

Hopital Bienfaisance - well-equipped hospital in Pignon, which is outside Port au Prince and has been treating earthquake victims

Lemuel Ministries - one base in Port au Prince and one far outside; also connected to and helping affected ministries and missions closer to PAP

Michael and Karen Broyles - friends who hosted me in Haiti; Michael stayed for a couple weeks after Karen and Kaydence were evacuated; now Mission Aviation Fellowship pilots are rotating through in Haiti; MAF is well-positioned at the PAP airport, where they already have offices and a hangar; they are supporting a flow of relief personnel and supplies and helping with evacuations

Broyles: specific Haiti relief needs

Mission Aviation Fellowship - providing key logistics, communications equipment, and air support in the Haiti relief effort from their long-standing base of Haiti operations

Christian Reformed World Missions - my friend Jenny works for this org but happened to be in the U.S. when the earthquake hit; they've been in Haiti for a while and have a solid network there

One last blog to mention:
Emily Troutman - I don't know this person but her reporting from Haiti is very good. She was there shortly before the 'quake, had left, and is back again.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I'm reading my way through E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (and need to speed up my reading since my third renewal is almost up, which means I'll have to give the book back to the library soon). For those who've not read it, the novel is set in India during the time of British rule and chronicles the relationships between various Indian and British characters.

I was recently struck by the following passage:
"[Aziz] held up his hand, palm outward, his eyes began to glow, his heart to fill with tenderness. Issuing still farther from his quilt, he recited a poem by Ghalib. It had no connection with anything that had gone before, but it came from his heart and spoke to theirs...The squalid bedroom grew quiet; the silly intrigues, the gossip, the shallow discontent were stilled, while words accepted as immortal filled the indifferent air...Of the company, only Hamidullah had any comprehension of poetry. The minds of the others were inferior and rough. Yet they listened with pleasure, because literature had not been divorced from their civilization."

I happened to mention this passage this morning during the wide-ranging discussion of a faith & arts book group I'm part of. We've been reading Lewis Hyde's The Gift and somehow this morning we came to discuss the way the easy access of entertainment has affected people's patience with and access to real art. I confessed that I sometimes wish I could gather friends at my house on a Friday night to read poetry aloud together, because poetry should be communal and audible, but the few times I've sacrificed my coolness ;-) enough to suggest such a thing, there have been no serious takers. :-) Which made me think of this passage. I don't know whether this respect for poetry was ever really true in India or whether it is now, but whether in India or elsewhere there must be places where I might not have such a hard time convincing people to partake of a poetry night. Perhaps I'll get to find those places one day.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

oh, haiti, we weep with you again

As images of Haiti's newest devastation trickle in, the photograph that has thus far resonated most for me in terms of representing this newest chapter in Haiti's hard story is this picture of the collapsed top levels of Haiti's National Palace. (Photo also available here.)

One day at the end of the month I spent in Haiti in July 2008, my Haitian-American friend Jack took me on a field trip to downtown Port-au-Prince, an area that had been the site of riots over food shortages a few months earlier. Even among some of the missionaries this was an area that didn't have the best of reputations. Jack knew the lay of this part of the city's land, though, so we hopped aboard a tap-tap that would take us from Petionville to next-door Port-au-Prince.

And when we arrived in downtown Port-au-Prince what did my wondering eyes behold? Nothing that was remotely scary. Sure, the riots had really happened: there were lingering broken windows as evidence. But there are not riots every day here. The day I was taking in the sights people lounged in the park like they do on nice days in parks down the block from the office I used to work at in Washington, DC; people went about their business; people sold souvenirs; people went to and fro; people were not menacing.

After nearly four weeks in Haiti, I had been impressed by all the things that don't make it into the bits of news we usually get from the country. I had met Haitians who were working hard for their communities and families. On two occasions new Haitian acquaintances who learned that I was in Haiti as a journalist asked me to tell stories of the good things in Haiti, too, rather than only telling the same stereotypical stories that are always told.

By the time I sat on the tap-tap, frustration was formulating over the reality that the only thing most of America and probably most of the so-called developed world routinely hears about Haiti is that it's the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. This is how the country is identified in nearly every news article that covers anything that happens in the country, which usually means some sort of natural disaster or an account of more political instability. These things are true, but Haiti is much more than these things alone.

And so, on that late July day when I stood in front of the National Palace that I had not previously heard of or seen images of (apparently not as famous as its White House cousin in America) I was surprised by its beauty. I loved its architecture and its gleaming white facade, even its nicely contrasting green iron fence. Regardless of whatever political realities it represented, for me it represented the unexpected beauty I had found in Haiti. It symbolically said that Haiti is not only poor, make-shift shacks stacked upon each other. There is hope for Haiti yet, it said, because there's beauty, pride, ability and hard-working humanity here.

So when I see photos of a demolished National Palace and think of the long rebuilding ahead for that one symbolic building, I weep for Haiti. Once again for me it symbolizes big things: why must Haiti's hard-won beauties be stripped away? How I hope that her people will survive this new blow and build a stronger country in place of the one that collapsed around them today. How I pray for God's mercy on these poor, beautiful people, people created in His image just like the rest of us.

*All photos are from my late July '08 visit.