City Year (internally) published an essay of mine!

City Year’s national office has published an essay of mine! It is posted on CYconnect, City Year’s internal communication system.

Unfortunately, it does not seem to be accessible by non-City Year people. If you do have a CYconnect login, the original essay is available here.

For everyone else, the essay is duplicated below.   The Idealist’s Journey is City Year’s (cornily named, but actually quite strong) model for personal development.

The Anatomy of Peace is an excellent book (click the link for its amazon page–currently quite cheap in kindle or physical form).

Striving to embody The Anatomy of Peace in our service

As my Idealist’s Journey proceeds, I continue to appreciate and reflect back upon a session from summer training about The Anatomy of Peace. Treating people as people with valid emotions and valid experiences as opposed to treating people as objects who simply do various helpful or not helpful things is a broadly applicable perspective on the world, continuously helpful when dealing with students, teachers, and fellow corps members.

The related principle of avoiding collusion in conflicts is just as profound: when a student is acting in a counterproductive way, I always need to do a better job of reflecting on how MY actions may subtly be encouraging this unhelpful behavior. My awareness of this principle has made instances of collusion apparent throughout my service. For example, my school encourages teachers to have students self-assess their own understanding periodically throughout a lesson by giving a thumbs-up, thumbs-to-the-side, or thumbs-down to indicate how well they understand the current topic. Many of my students weren’t doing these signals at all or weren’t answering honestly. For students who had been answering with a thumbs-down or thumbs-to-the-side, my teacher and I had been requiring them to explain their confusion or to ask a clarifying question. It turns out that putting them on the spot like this during class actually made it less likely for them to use their thumb signals in a valid way—they’d give a thumbs-up just so they wouldn’t have to talk about their own confusion. By probing them in this way, we were colluding in the problem of causing invalid responses!

In addition to my continuous efforts to reduce my collusion in conflicts, there is a second, deeper, insight I still frequently consider when interacting with my students and others. During the summer training, we had an excellent conversation about the challenge of being kind and respectful with people who have wronged us. This is extremely important in being able to effectively resolve a conflict in the long term. However, for most people, myself included, this is also very difficult to do successfully (particularly in response to others’ actions that are particularly cruel). It was good to have an opportunity to explicitly sit down and consider this in the context of our work this year.

Something I always struggle with when students have done or said cruel things to other students or to me is to move beyond that and still have a constructive relationship with the student. There are situations in which a student has severely disrupted a carefully planned activity or when a student has simply been mean to other students, or CMs, or school staff. It is often difficult to move past that and regain trust and respect for that student (or for that matter, a fellow CM, a family member, etc. in a similar situation). When stated explicitly, it seems obvious that moving past a negative situation in a constructive way is clearly the best outcome, but actually doing this can be quite difficult in practice.

This principle of moving beyond a major wrong without resorting to vengeance or ongoing hard feelings actually turns out to be more broadly relevant throughout history and literature in situations much larger and more severe than a student’s classroom misbehavior. In fact, this idea forms the basis of all non-violent resistance: MLK, Ghandi, Mandela, and others who represented groups of people who were SEVERELY wronged by those in power and still encouraged their followers to resist in a peaceful way. Even though angry retaliation against the oppressors may indeed have been justified and fair, they chose another alternative. This is hard.

The entire field of restorative justice is also based in these ideas. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid is an excellent example of this.

Finally, the best fictional account of this principle appears in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (the book, the musical, and the upcoming major motion picture). A man named Jean Valjean steals some bread, goes to jail for a long time, and eventually gets released–but he can’t find a good job since he is a convict.

He encounters a bishop who provides him some food and a place to sleep. The next morning, Valjean steals some silver from the Bishop, but Valjean is quickly caught and returned to the bishop. Instead of identifying Valjean as the thief (which he was), the bishop instead makes up a story about how the silver–and even an additional pair of candle sticks–were a gift to Valjean from him. The bishop and Valjean discuss the second chance Valjean has been given. Even though Valjean had severely wronged the bishop (by stealing from him), the bishop did NOT help the police make a case against him, but rather took the opposite course: forgiving Valjean for his crime and setting him up with the resources and inspiration necessary to turn his life around.

This is the turning point in Valjean’s life. He emerges as an extremely noble man, enriching the lives of many people around him. Meanwhile, his arch-enemy, Javert, a police inspector, has been continuously hunting Valjean since Valjean broke his parole years before. A bunch of revolutionary students eventually capture Javert and plan to execute him. Valjean saves Javert and frees him even though Javert had been pursuing Valjean for years.

Valjean was able to spare Javert from punishment (a punishment which may indeed have been deserved) only after the bishop had done the same for Valjean, decades earlier. Quite a ripple! As it turns out, the story still does not end well for Javert, who is utterly unable to comprehend how Valjean would have chosen to spare his life.

The bishop’s actions serve as a good reminder to keep in mind the humanity of those who have wronged you (a student, colleague, roommate, relative, etc.). Even though losing respect for another person or making the assumption that they are a bad person (or a bad student, or a bad teacher, or a bad friend) may indeed be fair and justified, it might not be productive. I need to continuously work on making sure I live up to this standard, instead of forming opinions and judgments that collude to make a problem worse.

As we all continue in our Idealists’ Journeys, this is certainly a perspective I will strive to strengthen in my own mind. The Les Miserables movie comes out in late December. That will provide a good opportunity to reflect on how much our interactions large and small resemble the actions of the bishop and Valjean! Even when we have been wronged, are we still willing to take positive action to support the wrongdoer? Is this reflected in our interactions with students? (…and are we doing enough to help our students achieve this in their own relationships with other people?)

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2 Responses to City Year (internally) published an essay of mine!

  1. zacksg1 says:

    I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right that some of the stuff in The Anatomy of Peace conjures some I-Thou kinds of ideas! I don’t think I’ve ever read any of Buber’s full works. Maybe I should!


  2. tjgaff says:

    Your brand of idealism is invigorating and puts me in mind of some Martin Buber (as recommended by basketball coaching great Dean Smith) I encountered in a decade long ago and far away . . .


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