May 25, 2011 - 10:08 PM
It's that time again at the University of Oregon: time for the Honors College students to finish the thesis process, defend their theses, and pass that last major mark of their undergraduate years. And tonight, I had the enormous pleasure of watching my best friend, Madeline, defend her project with the most conviction and poise of anyone I've witnessed in my time at the UO.
Madeline's thesis, entitled "Beyond the Walls: From Political Imprisonment to Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland," included some of the most creative and significant original research I've ever had a chance to witness. She interviewed former political prisoners from the Northern Ireland "Troubles": former members of Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups who were incarcerated for their violent political actions. She spoke with sixteen of the most prominent members of these groups, and gathered evidence that these men and women were a crucial component in the delicate peace that now exists in the British Northern Ireland.
Over thirty of Madeline's friends, colleagues, and family members showed up for her defense. We heard the stories of her experience, listened to a powerful audio clip from one of her interviews with Protestant ex-political prisoner and current peace worker Alistair Little, and watched her explain her conclusions. She spoke for almost half an hour, and then another half hour was spent by her answering questions from the group: first from her advisers and then from the audience.
She was perfect. She passed with distinction, the highest honor possible for an Honors thesis.
Watching Madeline defend was powerful for many reasons for me. It was the most professional defense I have seen, for one. I was proud of my friend, and it closed off a year of my experiences witnessing her research and writing process. I spoke with her on the phone from Ireland many times as she scheduled or completed the interviews. She wrote the majority of the thesis in my living room. I watched her processes: her success and her anxieties, and the infuriating process of turning 6 one-hour interviews into typed pages.
Today also made me realize the way time has caught up with me. It's been a year since I watched my friends defend their projects, and since I stood in Chapman 303 and took my own turn defending. Beyond this, I'm at the balancing point between two projects: a year from now I will be defending my Masters thesis, possibly in this very same room. Time has gone so fast and I've learned so much from this year. My last project feels a bit distant (although I could probably still reel off a defense speech and a moment's notice--this is an intense process that tends to stick with a person) and my next project is just now forming.
A year from now, I'll be finished, standing in celebration as Madeline did today.
Congratulations, Madeline! It's been quite the year, and I am so glad it turned out like it did: with the greatest praise for all you have done.
May 23, 2011 - 3:37 PM
Last weekend I attended a conference entitled "Peace, Prisons, and Compassion." It was hosted by the UNESCO Chair in Transcultural Studies, Interreligious Dialogue, and Peace. This effort is part of the Compassionate Action Network, and brought together members of the initiatives working for more compassionate and effective incarceration policies in the Northwest.
In case you're wondering why "peace" and "compassion" belong in the same title as "peace," here's an introduction from the letter welcoming us to the conference:
"The Global Peace Index ranks countries around the world according to how much each is deemed to contribute to world peace. The USA ranks very low, and this dismal showing is the direct result of the USA's incarceration rate, which is the highest in the world. American has only 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison population. Thus, the scandalously high incarceration rate is a peace issue." --Steven Shankman
This meeting took place outside of Mount Vernon, Washington, and brought together some of the most creative thinkers for compassionate prison change in the Northwest. As someone who works in education in prison, it can be easy to become discouraged, and feel that you are fighting a losing battle against a massive bureaucracy that will not change in your lifetime. Yet, I met staff and administration from Cedar Creek Corrections Center, who are committed to the idea that changing prison policies will keep the country safer and better serve to rehabilitate the incarcerated population. I met members of the Sustainable Prisons Project, who are working to bring sciences into prisons through seminars and other creative projects, such as training inmates to raise endangered species of grasses, butterflies, and frogs.
The weekend also featured a display of beautiful crocheted and other artwork from the "Crocheting 4 Community" program from the Oregon State Correctional Institute. Through this project, a group of men at OSCI meet three nights a week to crochet, and produce beautiful hats, scarves, blankets, and artwork to donate to charities on the outside. They contribute to local daycare centers, hospitals, and disaster-relief organizations. Their projects were completely beautiful, and challenged some of the ideas of what projects might interest some hardened criminals. Quite the juxtaposition.
The weekend involved presentations, discussions, art, workshops, and efforts to organize and act as a group to support each other in our efforts, and to improve incarceration practices generally.
I was inspired by this conference. I believe intensely in the importance of education in prisons, and my conviction is backed up by research indicating that programs like Inside-Out not only reduce re-incarceration rates, but they also change the culture within prisons to reduce violence and rule-breaking. Through the weekend, I heard from stakeholders in the prison system who are calling for transformation, and stating their need through both a place of statistical grounding in efficiency and public safety, as well as from a human stance of compassion and empathy.
I am so grateful to have been a part of this conference, and to be a member of this community. Whether it's crochet, science, re-entry programming, or college classes inside we are not alone in what we are doing to improve the lives of those incarcerated in Northwest prisons. I hope we can continue to work together over the next three years of conferences and programs related to prisons and peace to effect some real change in our communities and our world.
May 21, 2011 - 9:00 PM
One month from today, I will be arriving in Central America for my summer of reasearch, internship, travel, and adventure! That's right, folks, I bought my ticket. The plans are set and I am so, so ready to go.
Because of a quirk in flight prices, I am adding some extra adventure to an already exciting summer. I'll be living and working in Tegucigalpa for the summer, but I will be flying into San Juan, Costa Rica on June 21st. It was either a fifteen-hour layover in the Huston airport, or a side trip to Costa Rica. Bring it on! I'll spend a couple of days in Costa Rica before taking a bus to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, where I will also spend a couple of days (if all goes well) and then take another bus to Tegucigalpa. I'll then settle down to work and living in Honduras for two months of the summer.
I could not be more happy about these travel plans. I have the travel bug. Itchy feet. The insatiable need to travel and see new places. I have been enormously blessed in my past travels and current opportunities: I am always in motion, it seems (I am writing tonight from a retreat center near Mount Vernon, Washington--but more on this next week). However, I have not traveled anywhere truly exciting since I returned from my study abroad in Valdivia, Chile three years ago. (Long time readers will remember my very first blog, written about my week-long trip to Peru during my time studying abroad: http://www.isupportuoregon.org/my_duckstory/blog/katie_d/one_ticket_to_peru)
As I think about it, perhaps I am misrepresenting these past three years. Since Chile, I have visited Philadelphia twice; Vancouver, British Columbia; the California Redwoods; and the border region of Arizona and Mexico. I haven't exactly been a homebody.
And yet...I miss the thrill of an international adventure. I miss Latin America. I can't wait to see the jungles of Costa Rica, to snorkel in the Caribbean waters, to birdwatch in some of the most bio-diverse regions of the world, and to get down to witnessing the daily lives of folks who are in a very different context than my everyday experience. I loved riding the buses during my Guatemala trip in 2007--packed in with dozens of folks in a brightly-painted American school bus, careening through the mountains and surrounded by the voices and bodies of the people around me. There is such an odd sense in being a foreigner in those situations: in some ways I stuck out boldly and embodied my American identity without ever opening my mouth. In other ways, I was invisible and anonymous outside of my own context.
So anyway, my summer plans. First Costa Rica and some short-term adventures, then on to Nicaragua for a spin around the capital, and on to Tegucigalpa for two months. The trip from Costa Rica to Honduras will cost $61, so hopefully I'll be able to set off on several short-term adventures within my larger experience in Tegucigalpa.
At the end of August, I'll pack up and say goodbye to Honduras, and head to Denver by way of El Salvador. I'll see another small corner of a complex region even as I'm leaving for home.
I have decided to continue blogging this summer. So you can look forward to another month of regular, school year blogs, which will include my leave-taking of this house (so sad!) and the end of the academic year. I'll also be writing about my developing thesis plans, my spring adventures, and the specific plans for the summer in Honduras. From mid-June until the end of August, I hope to blog regularly about my internship, research, and travels. I'll want to share my day-to-day life on the road, as well as stories of the people I meet and the places I visit. I hope to continue to blog twice a week during this time, but we'll see! A month from today, everything changes. I can't wait to share it with you!
May 19, 2011 - 9:42 PM
Alternative title: Eugene Never Ceases to Amaze.
Today was an amazingly beautiful day. Spring is finally in full swing in Eugene, with an explosion of flowers, migrating birds, and overgrown lawns. Every year, Eugene still manages to take me by surprise when the rhododendrons start blooming and the spring flowers make their appearances: first the flowering trees, then the daffodils, then tulips, then everything else under the sun. There are colors blooming in my neighbors' yards I had never even imagined before arriving here in Oregon. It makes the long, cold winter worth the wait.
I celebrated by going on a walk this evening, beginning with a stroll through the South Eugene neighborhoods, then proceeding down the Amazon trail. Eugene is full of these beautiful pedestrian through-ways. I've taken this particular walk many times in the three years I've lived in the neighborhood, and I always love it. Eugene has enough character that walking down a city street can be an adventure.
But the day got better.
I walked to the end of Amazon Park, and remembered hearing that there was a trailhead out toward Spencer's Butte near the end of Amazon. Completely by accident, I had stumbled upon the Ridgeline Trail (see map here: http://www.eugene-or.gov/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_2_359713_0_0_18/RidgelineMapBrochureWEB.pdf)
Within moments, I was hiking in wilderness. It's shocking how fast the city dropped away and I was in a maze of ferns and mossy trees. I was walking along the headwaters of Amazon Creek, listening to the sounds of water and birds singing. It's migration season in Eugene, so I was surrounded by flocks of tiny migrating songbirds. The sun was slanting through the treetops, and the whole world looked completely beautiful from that small, well-maintained trail.
I hiked a mile along that trail, until I arrived at the Fox Hollow Trailhead. It was getting on toward dark, so I paused only long enough to study the map, and realize that there was a whole network of beautiful wilderness trails available from that point. From that point, it would be only another two miles to the base of Spencer's Butte, which is one of the most beautiful spots in Eugene and which I had previously only accessed by car. I saw that there was this whole series of trailheads and hikes within this walking distance from my home. As I walked back down the beautiful trail and back into the Eugene streets, I was so excited for future day hikes.
When I got home, I looked at the map and used mapquest to really figure out how far I had gone. On the ridgeline trail map, you can follow my route. I essentially walked from 30th and Potter (near my house) to the end of Amazon Parkway at Martin Street. Then I hiked from the Martin Street Trailhead up to the Fox Hollow Trailhead. All told, I walked 6.5 miles in two hours. And all I had planned was a late afternoon stroll in the sun.
I love Eugene so much for its intense natural beauty and the easy access to such a diversity of cultural and social activities. I love the folks who live in Eugene, and the near-universal tendency to walk through the city wearing hiking gear. It's like we're a whole city of people just dying to stumble into the wilderness on the way home from a social protest.
Now I'm exhausted and happy back home, and feel so happy to have been in motion in the sun. My next Ridgeline adventures will hopefully include an exploration of the Ribbon Trail to Hendricks Park, and perhaps a climb of Mt. Baldy along the Spring Boulevard Trail (which will be adventure in itself through the South Eugene Hills.
I have a month left in Eugene, and with weather like this I'm dying to hit the trails. From front door to wilderness in 45 minutes! It is such a blessing to live in this beautiful place.
May 15, 2011 - 4:39 PM
This class has been a serious roller coaster.
I don't usually write about the negative stuff in my blog. I try to blog the way I try to live: focused on the solutions and the good things in life. Aside from that, I also don't feel comfortable writing negative things about professors on this University blog. But sometimes there are bad classes. Sometimes there are conflicts and sometimes I feel almost unbearably frustrated. And, in the occasional scenario, everything ends up working out OK.
The first five weeks of Drafting Settlement Agreements were some of the most unpleasant educational experiences of my life. The problem began with a simple disconnect between the subject matter and the interests and experiences of the CRES cohort. Unlike many past cohorts, most of us do not want to be mediators. We are not in Law School. We are somewhere on the spectrum between family mediation and radical peacemaker. We have a huge variety of passions and experiences, and have become a group that is very much self-aware and self-supporting.
So when we were trapped in a class that is essentially designed to draw up contracts between two parties mid-law suit, many of us felt a little out of our league, and a little disinterested.
It didn't help that our cohort has become accustomed to a full participatory style of learning, complete with frequent questions and the occasional calling-out of our professors when our needs aren't being met. These tendencies, which have worked well in some of our past classes, did not mesh well with our professor's style. She was teaching from the past year's syllabus, and was defensive and evasive of our questions and concerns. She shut several of us down when we asked for more detailed explanations of the homework. For our first assignment, we received no model for a legal Agreement, but were simply told to write a draft of one. One person received an A, while most received a C or below, which is a failing grade at the graduate level.
Many of us were furious. We were confused and angry and offended, and afraid for our grades. We met with the program director, and did not feel much better after the conversation with him. Two Cohort members dropped the class, too overwhelmed and emotional to continue in the situation. Then we actually met as a group with our professor. We brought our concerns to her, and had an emotionally charged discussion of the class and our perceptions.
I left class that week feeling desperate and angry and hopeless.
This week, Drafting Settlement Agreements could not have been more utterly changed. She had heard us. She postponed two due dates, clarified assignments, and changed our final to better reflect our feedback and interests. Most importantly, she apologized to us. She apologized for the misfit between the syllabus and our interests. She apologized for not responding to our initial concerns, and for the poor dynamic that had developed between us. She told us that she really hoped we would learn to write these agreements, and that we would be able to use them in our future work, whatever kind of work that was. She was gracious and kind and responsive.
I don't know that I have ever felt more angry, more shut out, and more powerless than I did in the first weeks of class. And now I feel so affirmed and so supported. I am still shocked at the transformation, and awed by how kind she was in her response. It must have taken enormous courage to stand up for herself in front of almost thirty students, and even more to maintain the integrity of the course while making adjustments in policy and curriculum here at the last moment. Last week at this time, I was still considering dropping the class. I would have said it was hopeless. Now I feel I've learned a valuable lesson. I will not end up writing legal documents for my livelihood. But now I know what one should look like, and I have a sense of the mechanisms for drafting settlements.
Imagine conflict resolution like that happening in the CRES program. It's so cliche it almost hurts to write it. But it's also true, and that gives me a great deal of relief, and hope.