Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Epistemology: Knowing Your Community

The Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Awareness conference in Chicago left me with awe. True awe, the jaw-dropping, mind-blowing "wow," so bear with me as I struggle to articulate the experience into a blog entry. First off to hear words like "evaluation" and "holographic" in the same sentence was certainly a new experience. These are the people that care more about the stories and "soft" qualitative evidence as the statistical quantitative data. There were large representations of native Hawaiians and New Zealand Maori people along with several American Indian tribes. The conference began with three of these tribes singing their equivalent to the national anthem and then the representatives of the visiting tribes bringing gifts to the local tribes to thank them for letting them be on their land. It was incredible to see the intentionality in these tribe members of not only thanking them for hosting, but acknowledging the land that we were standing upon. That in itself made me know this conference was going to be a game-changer.
The next 2.5 days were spent listening to speakers from many different communities of color and researchers and graduate students talking about how they had implemented culturally responsive practices in their cultural contexts and/or work. A main lesson I learned during the Sistema fellowship of tailoring your program to the community was discussed in almost every presentation. After breaking down epistemology (ways of knowing), I want to take that concept one step further: value your community. Knowledge is only the beginning. Knowledge means nothing if one doesn't use it to respond in a culturally responsive way, which requires valuing the culture(s) of the people one is working with.

I'm working on a case study for my graduate school Integrative Leadership course at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management where we had to select an initiative that exhibited integrative leadership and assess the presence/absence of integrative leadership in the initiative. While there are many definitions of Integrative leadership, our group has defined integrative leadership as the ability to bring diverse voices together to achieve collective impact ensuring all voices are represented at the executive/decision-making level. The organization we selected, Gen Next, has brought together many different stakeholders (corporations, foundations, schools, city officials, neighborhood associations) to close the nation's largest achievement gap and by doing so certainly exhibited qualities of integrative leadership at a sectoral level. However, in our interviews, we learned of contradicting viewpoints as to what extent the initiative has been successful. Mainly due to the fact that the communities GenNext is serving are feeling undervalued. A lesson I heard again and again during this conference was "It's not what you do what you do, but how you do what you do." The why of everyone wanting to close the achievement gap is certainly aligned, but when corporations and foundations want higher literacy and graduation scores, without looking at the youth holistically, particularly that of their cultural values, many community members have felt they are trying to produce worker bees. Efficiency and independence are two examples of assumed values. What if these character traits aren't valued in the communities for which Gen Next is trying to serve? In order for there to be a lasting, significant impact, one must have integrative leadership at a societal level, which requires aligning values, and that is tremendous, deliberate work. Work where people must be humble and make no assumptions and actively listen to each other without judgment. This requires giving up power and authority.

This conference discussed a lot of these dynamics that are part of Critical Theory discourse and was perfectly applicable to both my work in Sistema as well as my graduate coursework in international development. It's all about building trust in relationships and respecting the values of the community, which researchers/development practioners (especially funders) don't always do. I went into this conference with believing the ultimate indicator of social change is agency, that is the power that one has the ability and power to change his/her life trajectory. However, as we've seen in a case study in Uganda, autonomy and independence aren't necessarily values they share. Rather interdependence is part of life and it's through that interdependence that people are motivated to help one another (you scratched my back so I'll scratch yours).

As most good discussions and conferences go, I left the conference with more questions than answers, but also with a framework of knowing what types of questions one needs to ask and to make no assumptions. Aloha in Hawaiian is not just a mere greeting; it means love AND understanding. Now that's a beautiful thing. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Metamorphosis of Privilege and Situational Awareness

As I'm reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert about successes and failures and how your art, your thing that you love more than your self, it is challenging me to not censor my blog and just write. Not as candidly as a journal, mind you, but more so than I have in the past. Allowing me to be vulnerable, wrong, and perhaps not necessarily politically correct. But also hopefully provide a new perspective, or freshness into a usually familiar territory, and vulnerability in that way. As Brennan Brown says in her Power of Vulnerability TED Talk, there is power in that vulnerability. My intent is to articulate my thoughts and how I have noticed myself metamorphosize, not insult or offend, though I may make some judgment calls. After all, this is my blog and I'm allowed to do that.

It all started during the Sistema fellowship. Each fellow took a turn to teach something. I had just led a session on choral warm-ups. Our fellow class..well there were some tumultuous times..to say it nicely. Let's just say I know what happens when you put 10 alpha dogs in one room and it's not pretty. I also learned SOS for group dynamics and the toxic 4 horsemen of stonewalling, contempt, ignoring, and resignation. It was in this toxic context that I asked a fellow fellow we'll call Susie when she was going to do lead her session. She opened up to me and said something to the following effect, though now that it's been 3 years some of this may be paraphrased/reinterpreted, "Honestly, Sara? You've seen our group dynamic. Why should I [in a truthfully posing a question, non-contemptuous way, tone is impossible to communicate by text!)? And as enthusiastic as you are about underwater basketweaving (changed for identity protection), what do I owe Sara Zanussi, a privileged, white woman [about this topic]? I gathered this knowledge and am a master teacher and it's really special. Why should I pass it onto you?" This was one of those conversations that stung, but was truthful and brutally honest; she had no duty or obligation to teach me. It made me incredibly uncomfortable and full of guilt as many white privilege conversations then did, but I truthfully had no response. I'm sure at the time I said something like, "I'd just like to learn more about it, but if you're not comfortable doing so I guess I understand and I'm sorry," and shuffled away.

I can count the amount of brutally honest conversations I've had like this on one hand. But they're also the kind of conversations that stay with you and bring about what Stanford Business Review claims to be the most important characteristic of leadership: self-awareness. Despite being discriminated against in Tanzania for a full year, I was situationally unaware of the privilege I held during this fellowship purely because of my racial background. European Americans as I like to call "white" people like myself, were the minority in our fellowship. But despite being the minority, this was the first time I realized even being the minority I held the institutionalized privilege and thus my situational awareness began. I wanted to do something. I wanted to tell Susie, "Because I value your knowledge. Because I truly want to learn about underwater basketweaving. Because as you said you're a master teacher and I trust you." But I didn't. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

Working in a community of color, there are meetings where I am the one and only "white girl" in the room. Where I really can't empathize with some of the situations some of the participants in the room have been in, overcome, or identify with. I thought I couldn't possibly be a teacher of cultural resiliency, helping youth maintain/develop their cultural identity. Because I thought of it purely in racial/ethnic terms. How could I represent youth-of-color's culture not being of-color or from the community myself? How can that be my job?!

But a wise colleague helped me realize, cultural resiliency is cultivating and maintaining any part of one's culture- that of youth, that of music, that of being a community leader, that of one's ancestry, and with that I could certainly be on board. That wise colleague helped me realize that sure it was evident, I was the minority, the "little white girl" in the room. But I wouldn't have been invited to that meeting if I weren't trusted. If I weren't valued. If my opinions were ignored or my questions unanswered. And since then when that discomfort arises as being the clear outsider, I think of it no different than a physical-a necessary, important thing to do even if it involves exposing yourself in order to understand what's going on and live a healthy life. It keeps my mind open and I've seen community members feel safe to become vulnerable and talk about their challenges. And my job as an outsider in those moments? To just listen and let that person be heard. To not offer a suggestion or provide a solution or try to empathize with something I can't. To learn his/her story so I can develop an authentic relationship. So often, "acting out" (basically most of the evil doings in the world) happens when one doesn't feel heard.  If we all felt we were heard, the world would be a VERY different place.

So now three years later working in a community of color, I think of Susie's words often. How am I representing myself because I am a privileged European American and there is nothing i can do to change that fact? I realized the biggest thing I can do is create that awareness for others and not let it be a blind spot or ignored. Tonight was my first action towards awareness. My professor, a Scandinavian, older male, was telling us about the guest speakers that were coming in and I couldn't help but notice, all of them were white, older males. "We were going to have [a woman CEO] next week, but she couldn't make it." After my Integrative Leadership seminar course, I gutsily went up to him and said, "I was just curious. Are we going to have any diverse speakers? I couldn't help but notice all the people in our syllabus are white males." He sheepishly looked at me and said, "I know, but in these fields it's really hard to find someone and with our connections.." I understood this to mean, no. But then he thanked me and told me it was on his mind and he really was hoping for at least this woman CEO to come, but she cancelled. I told him I couldn't help but notice the diverse make-up of the class and how one of the biggest things I had learned in my cross-sector work were different perspectives from different backgrounds. I also admitted after some of the comments tonight in our debate it would be really good for our class to hear a different perspective. (During the debate, we were talking about if Hubert Humphrey's passage of the Civil Rights Act was an example of integrative leadership. The pro side argued it was cross-sector because of the constituent diversity (there were women, whites, blacks) as if that were the same as cross-sector. I was pretty taken aback and offended by the comment. "Diversity" does not mean cross-sector!)

Anyway, the professor told me last year they had a person-of-color come in to speak, but it's really hard with the topics and their networks and if I had any suggestions to write them down. He said, "There was a girl last year who asked the same thing. We really should...and it's one of my biggest struggles. But thank you. I'm really glad you brought it up." And after that, I realized I was representing the community I serve. I was uncovering a blindspot and not letting it be ignored. I was giving my youthMy Me a voice in a majorly predominantly "white" field. And while I by no means mean for this to be a self-congratulatory post, I do recognize the metamorphosis and awareness that all began with Susie's comment 3 years ago.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Travels to Thailand

What a failed blogger I've been! ComMUSICation has kept me quite busy with our new partnership at the Mt. Airy Boys & Girls' Club and starting a new less-intensive program, getting our own office space, hiring new staff, board expansion, and fundraising. IN addition, I also started graduate school this fall in Comparative International Development Education, which has been so refreshing to be around development-minded colleagues and others who have lived abroad. It has been so refreshing to hear individuals that share similar viewpoints on development and has been wonderful to be in classes that I can directly apply to my work (like writing CMC's parent and student program evaluation!).

After this busy semester, a vacation was in order. Here are my top 10 memories from my Travels in Thailand (w/ layovers in Hong Kong and Japan!).

1) Mountains in Hong Kong
Most talk about city life in Hong Kong, but under two hours away is BEAUTIFUL hiking paradise!
Landau Mountain 

2) Koh Phi Phi
This non-motorized small island is known for its party scene, but if you climb some stairs, the viewpoints are absolutely breathtaking!

3) Koh Lanta

Not nearly as well-known, you have the beaches and the jungle, and wonderful homegrown organic food @EasyLife Lanta Bungalows in jungle cabanas

If you like rock climbing, this is your paradise! But even if you don't, there are limestone caves, beautiful beaches, and truly awesome sunsets!
 Phranang Cave

5) Pai
Land of veg food, scooters and hippies. Also by a canyon, waterfalls you can slide down, and hot springs you can bathe in or boil eggs (bring your student ID and you can save on admission)!

                                         Mor Paeng Waterfall, the waterfall you can slide down
 Pai Canyon, be ready for some climbing and hoisting yourself up rocks, but well worth it!

6) Night markets
Are a must! Food, souvenirs, open mic/buskers, clothing, they have it all!
 Noodle choices for Pad Thai at Khao San Road, Bangkok
 They LOVED their waffles and crepes

7) Buatong Waterfall-Sticky Waterfalls
A bit of a drive outside Chiang Mai, but well worth it-you can climb up them (this pic is misleading, no rope required)

 8) Elephant trekking
If you're going to ride an elephant, make sure you go with an ethical company! Many elephants are treated poorly! I HIGHLY recommend Save&Rescue Ran-Tong elephant camp where they provide mahout (trainer) clothes, and you feed, bathe, and ride the elephants
 Feeding her favorite snack (look at that tongue!)
 Bath time

9) Chiang Mai
The land of temples, amazing yoga classes (Check out Wild Rose Yoga Studio!), and tigers 

                                          Tiger Kingdom

                                                      Doi Suthep Temple

Inmate Massage & Cafe
They train female inmates how to be masseuses and work in a cafe (and make delicious banana shakes!)
10) Tiger Cave Temple, Krabi
It's 1227 STEEP steps but it's a temple at the top of a mountain with a 360˚ view.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sightings in Scotland

What a whirlwind this fall has been. Some of the most beautiful foliage I can recall and amazing 60˚ days. We did it! We created a composed opera with MN Opera and performed it in three spaces across the Twin Cities and all but one student showed up for a Saturday performance!
The final week the opera was being prepared, I was a delegate at Big Noise in Raploch, Scotland meeting others from 28 countries and hearing about their programs. A lot I learned just by experiencing and seeing a full continuum from baby-adulthood. Really quite incredible. And to see their community efforts: adult orchestra, bringing teachers to family houses to perform, and my favorite from our friends in Sweden, a venstay, where the community comes together and sings and dances and shares together. It was a pity the positive motivation session didn't happen, but we did talk about discipline, music, etc. It was the first teaching conference and very duly noted that the frame and tone was completely distinct from that of a conference of managers/directors. It was incredibly inspiring to see the scope of to whom they offer programming and to hear that they didn't have a second site til six years in, working on solidifying and growing their first site. The other thing I wanted to applaud was not only the age range they served, but also the ability level; they had a program at every school including the special needs school and learning about the technological instruments that adapt music to be friendly toward their needs was also a highlight.
Watching orchestra classes also made me understand that there is just something about instruments that cannot be accomplished with choir; not good nor bad, just is. Though watching the National Youth Choir of Scotland rehearse reminded me how rehearsal can be musically productive with kid-friendly language like "trampoline tummies" and have silly exercises like a round of "One Bottle of Pop" that still have musical value.
 One of the largest differences I couldn't help but notice was the lack of behavioral problems and the homogeneity of the students. This is a huge advantage Venezuela also has of only having to address one cultural background. It's one of the reasons why ComMUSICation is so powerful, but makes it one of the most challenging. How do I coming from my background address the backgrounds of seven different cultures? The other large difference I noticed was the difference of school dynamic and structure. In Scotland, they don't have music during the day so something like Sistema is not competing with the current music education programs because there isn't such a thing. Here, there are music programs, albeit of a lower intensity and dare I say often times quality, but when the public schools are sustaining public music education the last thing I want to do is provide a scapegoat to providing this education. It is rare for cities to have public music magnet schools, but St. Paul has that and I do not want to supplant this excellent school. Perhaps we can be an addition to this, but as principal it would be no contest to have an organization offer a minimal charge for music class or have to pay a teacher with benefits, even at half-time.
The country of Scotland had some of the most welcoming, friendly people who were all thanking us for being there instead of us thanking them for making everything possible and working 14 hour days to ensure the conference was running smoothly. So humble. Their Chief Executive was so approachable and really seemed to try to know the delegates on a personal level, staying up far later than I did at the hotel bar to get to know people. I even succeeded in my vegetarian diet! The ceilh was an event I will never forget. Think contradancing with men in kilts and bagpipes and a Scottish lilt caller.
Sistema Europe is also worth mentioning. Most of their programs started before the US boom took place and many were chorally-based! They've gotten together for summer camps, seminarios, and don't have the competitive edge that exists in the US. Nothing but welcoming towards others and inviting everyone to work together.  It was also great to speak Italian and Spanish again :) Swedes were the majority of the conference and I surprisingly was of average height! There's an organization called Superar that is a multi-country Sistema choral based program! Sharing the songs from other delegates is something I hope to incorporate into the parent/community aspect of ComMUSICation, gathering parents monthly. What I heard again and again is persistence and using existing relationships to build new relationships.
Edinburgh as a city was the perfect city for Halloween with its underground vaults, alleys, and old charm, complete with a castle. It was originally built on a volcanic rock and when they wanted to expand the city they built up rather than out. I did have a couple days to do some hiking which was far worth it (See Facebook!). Dublin had a live music scene unlike any I'd ever seen, in fact Temple Bar even set the record for longest consecutive music session, but after 10 PM you had to be ready for ruckus.
Will the US ever get to that level of public transportation? I suppose time will tell, but was really incredible how cars were never an option, even going to tiny towns. To think a little town like Afton would have a train station, is really quite astounding.
I hope to return to Scotland to do the Highlands and Isle of Skye. With some of the most laid-back, friendly, genuine people, I highly recommend their country.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

My spring journey

I'm writing today without a purpose or a mere title. Just blogging to see what comes out. What a spring! My first serious relationship, my first full-time-with-an-office job, and the first time since high school that I've seen family more than monthly. As I'm back in my home state, despite the horrific weather we've had, I really feel at home. Sure, Boston is a very fun city and I'd love to be there, but purpose drove me home and purpose continues to form my each and every day.

I've realized tenacity carries into all areas of life, for better or worse. I don't end things, I don't give up. I just try to approach them from different angles. And so far it's worked :) This week has been crazy as we prepare for our spring concert next week with two mini-concerts this week and my interns in finals mode. My dear roommate moved out and my boyfriend studying on steroids. But it's hearing those kids sing that keeps me coming back each and every day. Today was my first day ever missing programming and it was so good to know that it would run without me there. I have an amazing staff and they can do it. We're certainly still learning, but I'm more the problem-solver rather than the implementor at this point. And thanks to our multiple partners, even when the bureaucratic carnival occurs, I have so much support in others.

I did the very notorious ED role of signing appeal letters and licking envelopes today and realized how many people are truly behind this in such a small time and it truly is remarkable. It gave me much more hope about raising our fundraising goal and knowing it WILL be sustained next year and beyond. I remember last year we talked about what if the director got hit by a bus? It is still too young to say it could run without me, but knowing days like today can happen without me, are a start. I'm more there to guide from the back, coaching and nurturing it rather than leading headon. A year ago, I don't think I would have understood this leadership style, but now I do. It empowers others AND requires independence and a strong trust.  I can't say enough about my staff. None of us knew the unexpected turns we'd encounter this spring, and yet still, we have a choir.

I think all relationships whether that be personal or professional are the same-you set expectations, but have to a) check-in to see if these are actually realistic and/or possible, b) have to see if the road has curved down an unexpected detour, or how you can make something that seems like a full-road pothole become a detour or at least a smaller pothole, and c) evaluate what the value of persistence for a particular matter is. If it's not worth it, don't fight it, and if it is DO! To quote American Beauty, so many people live life asleep, going through the motions, but not enjoying life, and yet they do nothing to try to change. Persistence is the key to innovation (knowing the right people and having  501c3 status always help) but really taking that risk was a huge leap of faith, but I did it and you can too! There's a TED talk on vulnerability that says vulnerable people are happier, and as I've realized in myself needier. But that's what it takes.

I was talking to a choir today on the pacific coast who just started a program and we couldn't relate more to each other. It's that connection, that community, that I experienced today that I hope I can provide to these families and their youth. It saddens me greatly when a student has to stop coming because they're moving so close to the end of the school year, or don't have a stable address where a bus can drop them, and yet we keep going. And even if only one value we foster sticks, whether that be our gratefulness, respect, or listening, we made a difference and we're making our mark.

Look out 2014-2015! I'm ready for you! And for the first time in my adult life, in the same city, in the same job, with the same boy. And not at ALL monotonous. Life gives us daily challenges and daily joys. Today was a lick-envelopes-and-eat-ice-cream-and-watch-Netflix day, tomorrow will be my kids singing alongside their band classmates, and the next day hopefully a Friday night filled with friends and laughter. Life ebbs and flows, just like the ocean. And yet we have to cherish every moment because it passes too quickly. We can't keep hoping for change if we're not proactively doing anything to change. As trite as it is, Gandhi really had it right: be the change you wish to see in the world. And that my friends is what I'm trying to do, by breaking down barriers and boundaries both within access to the program as well as between partners. It's time we do this as a whole community: neighborhoods, parents, music schools and teachers, schools, and youth programs ALL included. And if we can build that as a model, then we will truly have collaborated!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Generosity...or is it?

I was having a conversation with someone the other night about how there's no such thing as altruism. This led to a conversation about generosity and how while we claim someone is generous, there is always an alterior motive. If a man goes in to rescue a child in a fire, we would say he's a hero; but subconsciously, he is probably thinking how good it is going to make him look or how good he's going to feel saying he saved a life or..the list goes on. But my question is this: do subsconscious thoughts count as non-altruistic? If you're not consciously thinking them, aren't you doing something for an altruistic reason?

Something I really admire are generous people; people who give their time, resources, brainpower, hearts, lives..people who have helped me to be at the point I am today both professionally and personally. How can I say those people weren't generous? They know I can't offer them the same. Or the idea of Pay It Forward. Is that not generosity that is passed onto the next person? I suppose one could argue no since that person knows he/she should do something since someone did it for him/her. It wasn't happenstance generosity. But I've seen people give them wholeselves to something wholeheartedly. Obviously this demonstrates their passion for an issue/organization/person, but to say it's not generous..I can't do.

This is only a mere musing, hardly a post. And hopefully a spark for conversation!

Traveling, A Year and a Half Later

I just finished watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and as most travel movies do, I now want to travel. To see the beauty he hiked and experienced, especially when the weather here is subzero temperatures! I was reflecting on a post I wrote a year and a half ago: http://swzanussi.blogspot.com/2012/07/travelingdenotation-vs-connotation.html

And I thanked myself because I do not feel any differently, in fact I'm reaffirming what I said then. However I do have a new perspective. While I may not have seen as many exotic places recently, I've still grown in many new ways. I'm learning what life with an actual base involves, having regular friends, acquiring furniture and furnishing a place one calls home, and even a relationship. I don't crave wandering like I used to because my family, friends, and life are here now. I'm making a footprint in this community, one that I care about, where I was born. I've learned just as much in launching ComMUSICation and still felt blown away by the beauty of snow, the river, the sunsets here, up north, etc. You don't have to go far to appreciate the world.

But I do still want to conocer el mundo (get to know the world) and that does require more travel. I want to explore regions like southeast Asia I have never been and know little about aside from the stereotypical smiling people, spicy food, and elephant rides. Something in me needs to touch it, smell it, see it, hear it, taste it with my own senses, again reaffirming my sensual nature in the most literal sense of the word. Yet now I want to do it, knowing I am returning to this base, this community, my home. Knowing that my travels are temporary, enriching experiences, and at this stage in life, not my home.

So as I see Walter spotting ghost cats in Afghanistan, trekking the hills of Greenland, and meeting people, my spirit still lusts for those experiences, to adventure; though I'm not sure I can call it wanderlust anymore as it isn't the desire to wander. It's to conocer. To relate, to get to know others more, so I can learn more about others and myself. And that, my friends, cannot be learned from a book or travel documentary. That must be experienced for one's self, to reinvigorate, to spark curiosity, and grow one's self as a human. Unless I am going somewhere for work or to visit family, I am done traveling, etymologically speaking traversing. I am ready for a new type of exploring: to conocer, to understand.