Olympic Dreams

You’ve probably seen the photograph of Gabby Douglas hugging her Chinese-American coach with the subtitle “America” celebrating the peculiar and wonderful diversity that comes from being a nation of immigrants.  Inherent in the photograph is the message that our country wins because of our differences not in spite of them.  And just as the Olympic athletes make their work look effortless, the picture makes cross-cultural understanding look completely easy and natural.  We know that it is anything but.  Creating a society where ethnic, cultural, political, educational and myriad other differences are embraced and not squelched requires unceasing commitment and dedication.  Just as Olympians train for hours, days, weeks, and years to be able to “execute” when it counts, all of us have to do the same in maintaining our ability to learn about and embrace the “other” whoever that might be today.

Last week we were able to bring our teacher training entitled Yo Veo (I see) to a new school that has a different composition from others with which we have worked.  Not only the student body but the teachers were different – a bit more cosmopolitan and more skeptical in very sophisticated ways.  Our two days were challenging and took our team to a new level in being able to respond and navigate different waters than we’d previously sailed.  Yo Veo uses pictures to bring people into a narrative about immigration from Mexico.  The photographs we are using come from a photojournalist who lives and works in Mexico and has followed a particular family for over a decade documenting their “Dream of the Rich North.”  [see janetjarman.com to view the series] They are beautiful and stark and compelling.  Combined with well-facilitated discussion and additional information, they seem to have the power to open people’s hearts to see additional dimensions of their students’ lives.  At least that’s what our results thus far suggest.

And, yet, as our team experienced this week, there is a tendency to distance from the photographs’ impact by all manner of acceptable and sophisticated means.  “That photograph had to be staged.”  “Clearly, the photographer has set up extra lighting for that one.  So it’s not completely candid or objective.”   What? Of course these photographs weren’t staged.  The photojournalist we’re working with subscribes to the ethical standards of her profession which prohibit such things.  We were surprised by a line of questioning that one might expect to hear in an advanced art history discussion where the focus is on the point of view of the artist and not the creation itself.   But our team is diverse both in ethnicity, life experiences, and academic disciplines and together we were able to respond and move the group forward.  Our art historian took on the post-modernist critique.  I went for the clinical approach – what do you gain by focusing on how the pictures were made versus the content that you see?  And our therapist who comes from Mexico and has witnessed the realities depicted said simply, “This is completely real.”

The school has asked us to come back for further conversation.  Individual teachers have started engaging in their own research on the topic and have told us they are going to be thinking about their immigrant students differently than they had before.  They are encouraged to be the teachers they wanted to be when they started out – teachers that can reach every child not just those with dozens of books, computers, and helicopter parents at home.  And our team has grown too.  We trained different muscles and used our collective strength that comes from diverse places to run this race.  We aren’t the “Team USA.”  Yet, like them, we draw strength and flexibility from our diversity.

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