Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Disproportionate Response...and Our Children

Remember last Friday? December 14th? I do too. It was my birthday! And perhaps because of that, I purposefully stayed away from the news. I heard about the tragedy in Newtown, CT, of course. And I was heartbroken. I still am. But I also knew what was in store for everyone that day, and for many days to come—a media frenzy. A focus storm that would undoubtedly cause more harm than good. On so many levels.

So I refused to get pulled in. I've kept informed, but not by allowing the media to tug at my heart and hypnotizing me into believing that every ounce of my emotion needed to be focused on this event. The bandaid solutions that end up being the consequence of these reports and subsequent discussions never work long term, nor do they get at the root of the actual problem.

And so after a week of reflection, here are the three most important things on my mind.

1. Our Thoughtfulness Deficit—We are a society that demands immediate gratification. If we're hungry, we eat whatever is in front of us. We don't think about whether it's good for us and/or how much to eat. We "over-satiate" ourselves. If we're confused, we don't grapple with an idea. We Google it. And we accept the response. If we're angry, we retaliate in order to release the discomfort. (So if there are weapons around that can be used to release this anger, it could very well be the coping mechanism some desperate individual uses to move forward...I know there's much more to this current tragedy. That this situation is not straightforward. But it is still the consequence of a nurtured cultural perspective.) We need to practice what it means to be reflective, how to navigate different emotions, and develop coping mechanisms for our unique feelings. And we must nurture the mentality that an immediate "answer" robs us of our natural, remarkable human condition.

2. Our Mental Health Perspective—Mental Health is one part of our overall well-being and should be treated with the same level of importance as our physical health. Whether mental illness was a factor in the Newtown shooting, however, is unknown. We will probably never know why this happened. Yet, the event has sparked dialogue about our understanding and treatment (or lack thereof) regarding mental illness. But we should be very careful about using this tragic event as the foundation for any sort of improvement in the area of mental health diagnosis, treatment, etc. Too often mental illness ends up being the scapegoat for a host of tragic events. And then we hear words like "evil," or "a message from God," following an inappropriate media diagnosis. This is intolerable and disgusting. In fact there are myriad conditions, as well as levels of said conditions, for mental illness. There are as many as there are physical ailments and disease. We should root our conversation about mental health, particularly with our young children, in a positive context. Whether one person suffers from a physical ailment and another from a mental disorder does not define who they are or what they are capable of contributing to their loved ones or society.

3. The Disproportionate Response—We should be ashamed of our response to this tragedy. Not because we "disproportionally" responded to what happened in Newtown by aching for the victims and their families and community. But to our LACK of response for communities who suffer this type of loss on a regular basis. Is it the number of children who died that provoked our response?  The city of Chicago lost 38 teenagers this past summer. Where was our support for those mothers, fathers, siblings, friends? Where are their candles, teddy bears and prayers? Or is it the fact that so many children died at once that matters? Because 30,000 children die every day from treatable or preventable causes. Why don't we fly the flag at half mast for them? Why don't we demand our government officials respond to those tragedies with the same level of passion and desperation? Or is it the location of where these children died? Most children are killed in a location where we would consider them, expect them to be safe. Or is it the fact that these children look like our children? Live lives like our children? My point is...ALL children deserve this type of response. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.

It's worth doing some honest reflection. In doing so, we must stop our emotions from demanding some knee-jerk, band-aid solution. We need to look LONG TERM. What solutions, strategies can we develop—not those through an economic or political lens, but in honest-to-goodness cultural improvement—that will work for all, forever? At least that's the bar we should shoot for. I'm in. Are you?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Jacob Riis and Flash Photography

Sleeping Children, 1890
Today, I was helping a former student edit her AP US History paper, and I became captivated by the subject, Mr. Jacob Riis. I was drawn in by the connection between art and science, and the resulting positive changes that occurred due to the meshing of the two. I was inspired by his creative problem-solving and his unwavering humanitarianism.

Mr. Riis was born in Denmark and emigrated to the United States in 1870. Eventually, he became one of many journalists who published works regarding the misery of the New York City slums. But he wondered how he might more vividly portray the destitution he was witnessing. The solution resulted in Riis becoming a self-taught photographer and his work proceeded in making him one of the most influential photojournalists in history. Many of his photographs can be seen in the publication, How the Other Half Lives, which is now on my list of must-read-books.

Taking a position on the night-shift, it became difficult for Riis to photograph the lives of the underprivileged immigrants in the slums. But he resolved this issue with a progressive new technique called flash photography. At the time, this magic potion allowed for photographing in the dark by reacting a mixture of magnesium with potassium chlorate, the first ever flash powder. Upon heating this (potentially dangerous) mixture, an intense flash of light was produced. What ingenuity! To use the result of a chemical reaction as a means of capturing the injustices of the tenement housing area. Incredible. Riis was one of the first American flash photographers.

The science behind Riis's photographs defined his work and is the reason why he was able to document such horrific conditions in a spontaneous manner, like street photography. It is why he was able to provide an indelible mental image of the these deplorable tenement house living conditions. And it is why he was able to call attention to the need for immediate relief by bringing these images to schools and churches and sharing them with the public.

Furthermore, Riis did not just call attention to these conditions through his photography; he recommended creative, practical and workable solutions. And continued to show off his photographs of  the horrors of the slums until he caught the attention of government officials, including President Theodore Roosevelt—then police commissioner—who called Riis, simply and endearingly, "The most useful citizen in New York." Riis was able to convince the wealthy and powerful to make positive change, and his work influenced new laws in the housing communities in not only New York, but Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and indeed many other corners of the world.

Riis made such incredible strides over the couple decades of his tenure as a police reporter and photo-journalist. So why haven't our present government officials continued the legacy he began in bettering the housing conditions of our current under-privileged communities at the same rate he did? It's been over 100 years...