Tuesday, October 25, 2016

***Chicago Part 1***

"For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you."  -- Neil deGrasse Tyson

Chicago Skyline Dominating the Sunday Scenery

To a select few Gap students, the geography and attractions of Chicago are nothing new. To others, Chicago is as strange and unfamiliar as a peanut butter and kiwi sandwich. Still, others find themselves in some sort of middle ground -- intrigued with new landmarks, yet savvy to the big city hustle and bustle. Nonetheless, each student was eager to learn about the numerous social issues afflicting the Windy City.

Hangin' in the Kitchen at Cornerstone Community Outreach

On Monday, October 17th, students left Union Station and set out for the Br David Darst Center where they would be living for the next two weeks. The transition was smooth, thanks to Darst Center staff members Suzanne and Evelynn, who led students on a brief tour of their new temporary home. When the tour was complete, students settled into their rooms and shared a warm meal of hearty vegetarian chili, managed some free time for finishing up homework, and turned in for an early nights' sleep; the students were exhausted after their 26 hour train ride. Tuesday greeted the Gapsters with an abnormally warm autumn sun, and a comfortable midwestern breeze. After breakfast, Suzanne and Evelynn lead the students in an opening reflection to begin a conversation on the social issues they would be exposed to throughout the course of their two weeks in the city. The first issue discussed was homelessness in the greater Chicago area. To help give students intimate insight on this one aspect of urban poverty, the Gapsters loaded up in the vans, and headed to Cornerstone Community Outreach, a local men's homeless shelter in Uptown. In between discussions with the shelter's director Vince, students engaged with the clients by playing cards, performing magic tricks, and creating conversation to get to know the men on an individual level. For the students, homelessness was no longer a faceless issue. The stereotypes suggesting that homelessness was strictly a result of laziness, substance abuse, or a lack of education was completely obliterated. The concept of poverty was now coupled with curiosity and a longing to empower, rather than feelings of pity or guilt.

Pui Tak Center at The Heart of Chinatown

On Wednesday, the Darst Center prepared students for their day in Chinatown by hosting a conversation with Tong, a community organizer from the Coalition for A Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC). In her loaded discussion, Tong spoke with the students about local efforts to preserve traditional Chinese culture deeply rooted in community, issues of language and citizenship hindering political involvement, increasing living costs, racism, and the impending gentrification of historic Chinatown. To give students a first hand look at the community they had just learned about, the seventeen Gapsters took a morning walk through Chinatown en route to Pui Tak Christian School.

At Pui Tak, our cohort was tasked with tutoring, reading to, playing with, and getting to know elementary and middle school students from the predominantly Chinese American institution. The school prides itself in offering a curriculum that builds upon the standard American educational paradigm by teaching the Mandarin language, preserving Chinese tradition, and encouraging students to be interactive rather than passive learners. The conversation with Tong, the walk through Chinatown, and the time spent with Pui Tak's students presented the Gap cohort with a fresh understanding of Chinese immigrant struggles, successes, and community based values.

Tour Guide Kassie Speaking About The Plant's Closed Cycle Systems

Halstead Avenue: A trip down Chicago's longest street lead students through a variety of neighborhoods, including Back of the Yards, home to the our next site visit at The Plant. This ex-meat processing facility was converted into a closed-cycle realty hub consisting of sixteen micro-businesses housed in the same location. Each business that rents space must commit to creating zero waste, and be open to the idea of contributing to the closed cycle model. For example, the basement was home to an aquaponic farm in which plants are fed by nutrients contained in the waste of fish housed on site. There is also a brewery that converts its used grains into compressed fire starter for ovens in The Plants bakery. Future power generation for the buildings tenants will utilize an anaerobic compost chamber that captures energy from decomposing waste, filtering it back into the building. Students found this site visit to be particularly refreshing due to the organization's contribution to Chicago's environmental sustainability. 

All Ears at The Human Trafficking Seminar

On Friday, the students took public transportation into the heart of Chicago for an informative session with Karolina, a representative from the Human Trafficking Initiative housed in Chicago's Metropolitan Family Services Office. Initially, there was a noticeable aura of discomfort as Karolina began discussing sexual trafficking, human smuggling, and labor trafficking. Her stories and experiences made the presentation genuinely concerning. Throughout their discussion, students learned how to identify trafficking victims, how to help victims after they have been identified, the differences in types of trafficking, and the lasting effects of trafficking on victims. At evening meeting, our students pointed out the similarities between labor trafficking, and the issue of wage theft that was addressed in our visit to Somos Un Pueblo Unidos in New Mexico. Conceptually, both of these forms of inhumane treatment of others are topics explored in the course that they are currently taking: American Myths: Community & the Individual, which encourages the students to take a critical look at how we perpetuate local and even global disparities between those that 'have' and those who 'have not' by continuing to follow the myth of the "rugged individual".

Gen Dorje And The Crew Posing After The Kadampa Meditation Service

On Sunday morning, the students sat in on their first public meditation ceremony, on their second visit to a Kadampa Meditation Center since week one in New Mexico. Lead by resident teacher Gen Dorje, attendees engaged in communal meditation and prayer before having conversations with their neighbors on what they took away from the day's teachings. After a post-service meal, students were invited to continue a conversation with Gen Dorje on suffering and enlightenment as it relates to the student experience in the Gap Program. The Buddhist approach suggests that suffering and anxiety are the by-products of our own untamed mind, and that all human beings experience some level of suffering. And through that first hand experience of suffering, we learn compassion. It is first through this experience of suffering, we learn compassion -- in other words, we learn how to put ourselves in another's shoes. Through this act of extending compassion to others, we not only help to alleviate our own suffering, but we additionally alleviate the suffering of others.  Moreover, most forms of Buddhist thought suggests that as long as we remain self-ignorant -- or deny our own suffering, which is largely created or at least magnified by the mind -- we keep ourselves locked in a cycle of negativity and internal suffering, which Buddhism calls samsara. This is not to imply that Buddhist belief suggests that all human suffering -- such as not having enough food to eat -- is largely a construction of the mind, but rather that we as individuals can choose to either respond to food scarcity by sharing our food with others, or merely ignore it, which Buddhism identifies is simply a form of ignorance. In other words -- although seemingly paradoxical -- we largely create our reality within our minds by either choosing to act, or to remain passive and complacent in the face of injustice. And furthermore, Kadampa Buddhism suggests that it is through individual action and seeking the path toward enlightenment that we collectively can address some of our global and societal concerns.

For more pictures of the Gapsters first week in Chicago, please follow the link below:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Two Sides to Every Story

Full Moon Rising Over the Sandia Mountain Range

Week two of our time in Albuquerque has come to a close. And we think they got the phrase, “time flies,” wrong. Time does not fly, it more so disappears, especially when every moment is filled with learning about different perspectives or laughter with good friends—both of which characterized the Gapsters’ final days in Albuquerque.

Ken Explaining the Intricacies of an Alter.

The National Hispanic Cultural Center welcomed the Gap students with open arms. The Gapsters spent three days learning about various historical and cultural topics relevant to one of the fastest growing populations in our country. During their inaugural visit to the NHCC, students dove into Hispanic culture by learning about Día de los Muertos. It is thought that the Day of The Dead is the one time throughout the year when the veil between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Deceased is lifted, so that those from both sides can come together for 24 hours.

The sojourn to get back to the Land of the Living is a strenuous and complex one that requires assistance from the living. Leading up to The Day of the Dead, families construct altars for their loved ones (including pets) who have passed away. These alters are not only decorated with items that the deceased enjoyed (sports teams, hobbies, books, foods, etc.), but also items that give strength and clues for their journey, so that they may be successful in reuniting with their families in the Land of the Living. Common items on an altar include bread for energy; water to relieve thirst; marigolds for a strong guiding scent; and candles as bright beacons to light the treacherous path. After hearing about the traditions of Día de los Muertos, students created their own mini altars, honoring their loved ones, pets, and causes that are close to their hearts.

Outside View of the Torreón (No Pictures Allowed Inside)

Students ended their first visit to the National Hispanic Cultural Center with a tour of the Torreón and the facility’s art museum. The Torreón left the students spewing questions—it is a good thing that our guide, Ken, was incredibly knowledgeable. The interior of this tower is adorned with a massive 360-degree fresco mural by New Mexican artist Frederico Vigil. The fresco recounts pivotal moments of world history through the Hispanic-perspective. Represented in the mural were ancient indigenous peoples and ceremonies, pueblo communities, the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas, great Jewish and Moorish philosophers, four different ethnic interpretations of Lady Guadalupe, Western expansion, etc. Sitting high above these depictions, the artist showcased various universal concepts such as medicine, hope, music, science, peace, military, architecture, faith, justice, education, love, and sacred earth. Of all of the questions the students asked, Bry’s question was one our guide had never heard: “What is the significance of everyone’s hands appearing to reach out?” Ken pondered a while then decided it was an artistic invitation for all visiting the Torreón to become a part of history; become part of our world’s story; become a catalyst of change—a common theme the Gapsters are hearing through the community partners with whom they are visiting.

Dr. Gauderman Speaking to the Gap Student about Immigration and Asylum

Dr. Kimberly Gauderman, associate professor in the history department at the University of New Mexico, spoke with the Gap students during their second visit to the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Her talk centered around emigration from Latin America to the U.S. Students’ minds reeled after learning about some statistics revolving around the issue of immigration. Dr. Gauderman mentioned that Mexico and the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) are the countries of origin for the majority of Latino immigrants in the U.S. She also revealed that the largest population seeking asylum via the U.S./Mexico border is children 12 years-old and under—a staggering statistic that stunned the Gapsters. Dr. Gauderman also presented an international view of the United State’s immigration situation—that it more closely resembles refugee conditions, rather than immigration. This view definitely piqued student-intrigue. Dr. Gauderman concluded this conversation by informing the Gapsters about the work she does as an expert witness in various asylum cases. The students’ time with Dr. Gauderman was too short, as they were vying for the floor to ask her questions until she absolutely had to leave. Needless to say, thoughtful discussion took place after this talk, and due to the diversity of experience and thought within the Gap group, the conversation proved respectful, vulnerable, and colorful.

The Gap cohort bid the National Hispanic Cultural Center adieu after attending the performance, “Woman On Fire.” This Antigone-inspired play more fully immersed the Gapsters in the kaleidoscope of cultures that make up our country, as well as revealed some of the dilemmas that come with it. The main character of "Woman On Fire" grapples with what it means to be Mexican-American living on the Arizona/Mexico border while being married to a border patrol officer. Students walked away from this show praising its unbiased views and balanced representation of various perspectives on immigration throughout our country. Their time at the National Hispanic Cultural Center sparked a new Gapster motto that has been flowing ever since, “There are two sides (or more) to every story.”

Students Walking through Acoma Pueblo
On Thursday, everyone loaded up in our hefty 12-passenger vans and headed northwest to Acoma Pueblo—one of the 19 New Mexican pueblos. Acoma is known as the City in the Sky, as it was built atop of a mesa 400 feet above the valley floor. Having learned so much history and culture about Native peoples from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center the week before, the Gapsters appreciated the opportunity to visit an existing pueblo. They valued the efforts of the Acoma community to preserve and share its culture with non-Native peoples. Students walked away having learned about the symbolism used in various art forms, the significance of a three-story housing system, the intricacies of architecture to protect against raids, as well as current marriage practices.

Chris and Father Graham at The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe
Friday was call for yet another road trip, during which our Gapsters did not bring their cell phones--this is a common practice during the Gap Experience, so as to to encourage intentionality and engagement with the people and place surrounding them. On the way to Santa Fe, the vans were filled with continuous chatter (and the occasional interruption from a snore of someone catching up on rest). Upon arrival, the group met with Somos Un Pueblo Unido (“We Are a United Village”), a grassroots activist group that works with marginalized populations in New Mexico, specifically those who are undocumented. Somos Un Pueblo Unido specializes in community organizing to change or enforce various policies and laws. Some of their accomplishments include providing access to college education for undocumented young people at in-state tuition costs, campaigning so that immigrant families could maintain their right to a driver’s license, and tackling the issue of wage theft experienced by many immigrant families through winning multiple legal cases at the state level. For most of the Gapsters, it was their first exposure to these concepts. Regarding wage theft, students were shocked to hear that one woman who worked in hotel housekeeping made $500 for working 132 hours in two weeks. She made less than $4.00/hour when minimum wage in New Mexico is $10.91/hour. Needless to say, the Gapsters gained yet another perspective with this site visit, which only further reinforced their new-found motto: There are two sides (or more) to every story.

Hiking Tree Spring Trail
To celebrate their time spent in New Mexico, the Gap crew finally made it to the Sandia Range. If you speak Spanish, you know that this title translates to “Watermelon Range.” This name comes from the pink hue covering the west side of the mountain range during sunset. Waking up and looking out into the Sandias every morning from the Abbey made the students' Saturday hike that much more special. Huffing and puffing up Tree Spring Trail's two mile climb was all worthwhile when the students reached their lunch spot at one of the breathtaking lookout points (see picture above). Eating lunch at 9,500 feet surrounded by such powerful scenery allowed the Gapsters to reflect on all of their service and shared experiences during their time in New Mexico, while the exercise made memories of their Outward Bound experience loom in the back of their minds.

New Mexico will be deeply missed by the Gapsters. Nonetheless, excitement abounds as the Gap students begin to make their way to the Mid-West again.
Some of the Gapsters Holding Down the Fort at the Amtrak Station in Albuquerque.

For more pictures of the Gapsters' second week in New Mexico, click the link below:

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Operation Albuquerque

 Early Morning View of the Sandia Range from the Norbertine Community Santa Maria de la Vid

Salutations from Santa Maria de la Vid in the sunny Southwest! Prickly pear cacti, defiant desert landscapes, and wonderfully warm October days have become the new reality for this year's Gap students. Transitioning from the dense woods and abundant lakes of Northern Minnesota has presented the cohort with a new sense of wonder and belonging. In the words of one student, New Mexico "feels like home." The comfort and curiosity throughout the group has grown everyday, and continues to develop as they become exposed to the rich and diverse communities of New Mexico. Let's check it out!

Mandy's Farm
This past Tuesday the students kicked off their first week in Albuquerque with a visit to Mandy's Farm. After a kind greeting from some friendly farm dogs, the site director, Jeb, put the students to work--mucking stalls, pulling weeds, and tending to the animals. Sunscreen was flowing freely, and burrs were delicately plucked from pants and gloves. The following Thursday, students reported to Lakeview, a sister site owned by Mandy's Farm. Coming from the lands of lakes, much to the students' surprise this site lacked views of any lake. While at the Lakeview, students sorted worms that would be sold at market to buyers interested in improving or regulating their composting efficiency. Still, other students took to the fields to lend a helping hand in preparing the land for next year's round of growth and harvest. Carrying out fieldwork in the desert southwest, as students will tell you, was accompanied by an abundance of Goatheads and other thistly vegetation. These harsh and thorny weeds restricted the growth of productive crops and vegetation, however, were not enough to break the spirit of our Gapsters.

Mountain of Pulled-Weeds to Rival the Sandia Range

Mandy's Farm is a nonprofit organization that prides itself in assisting those who are other-abled. Rooted in a culture that supports and teaches self-sufficiency, the organization provides an opportunity for individuals to work in integrated settings in the pursuit of a higher quality of life. Upon reflection, the St. Norbert College Gap Experience students came to the realization that their service was much more than physical labor: The work that the students accomplished allows the staff at Mandy's Farm to focus their time, efforts, and specialized skill-sets on meeting the needs of the community they serve.

Kadampa Meditation Center

Feeling Refreshed in The Kadampa Temple after a Guided Meditation

Coming off of their first day of service at Mandy's Farm, the Gap crew headed to the Kadampa Meditation Center near downtown Albuquerque. Following a guided meditation focused on the nature of universal suffering, the students were given time to reflect on their own spirituality and enter into a dialog about the underlying tenets of Buddhist thought with one of the center's community members. The conversation covered many current topics: the abundance and commoditization of violence throughout our country; the power of our actions, words, and thoughts; the necessity of mindfulness and 'right' intention as an antidote to our fast-paced modern lives, filled with distraction -- often leaving us feeling overwhelmed and anxious. The students approached the conversations with Kadampa Center's staff with curiosity, and the notion of 'wholeness' and 'compassion for others' seemed to be two of the common themes they explored with the KMC staff. To conclude the day, students learned first-hand how many hands make for light work, as they performed building maintenance in order to beautify this contemplative, welcoming place.

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

Look at All Those Green Thumbs!

What's the best way to spend National Indigenous People's Day? For the Gap students, the best way to celebrate the holiday and honor the people commemorated by it was by learning about authentic Native American culture and history, rather than the "westernized" version that dominates so much of what we were taught. Students spent the first part of their day exploring the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center's museum and art gallery. They were accompanied by 3 young employees of the IPCC--Bettina, Kevin, and Ruth--who answered questions and told stories of their pueblos, as well as their native upbringing. Our students were impressed and intrigued by the connection and knowledge these young Native American's had for their heritage, history, and identity. Hearing thir stories and the conviction of our young Native tour guides truly left an impression on the Gapsters--through the personal connection they made with Bettina, Kevin, and Ruth, they now have a better understanding of how the Native peoples' history differs from the popularly held "western" view of history and historical events. New Mexican Pueblo culture and history is now somewhat personal to the Gapsters, in that, rather than being some abstract historical account of a particular event, they heard first-hand how these kids interpreted historical events, and how it affected their elders. Furthermore, the Gap students' constant chatter about how Native American culture and history "is direct proof of," "exemplifies," or "relates perfectly to" the various themes they are learning in Dr. Egan-Ryan's class -- this particular experience at the Peublo reinforces that these Gapsters are diving deeply into their college academics. 

After the tour of the IPCC, the students left the comforts of air conditioning and took to the ever-radiating New Mexican sun in the garden. This garden was not like any garden, in essense, it was a garden that functioned as a teaching garden, educating those who visited about indigenous agricultural practices, and how those practices changed over time with the arrival of European explorers. Quite literally, rows of plants paralleled the timeline of the arrival of foreigners and tracked how their agriculture crops were impacted by North American occupancy by white Europeans. On the far side of the garden were native plants mostly consisting of the three sisters: bean, squash, and corn (representing North America as occupied by Native Americans). Another section of the garden had grapes vines, apple trees, and pear trees (representing the arrival of the Spanish to North America). Working in this educational garden gave students a greater appreciation not only for the effort it takes to grow plants in the dry soils of the desert southwest, but also for the preservation of Native American history.

Balloon Fiesta

Nathaniel, Bry, Natalie, Jake, and Danielle after the Grand Ascension

With the smell of funnel cakes filling the air, pins from across the world peppering every shop's table, laser shows lighting up the early morning sky, and hundreds of hot air balloons greeting the Gapsters, the weekend was off to an incredible (and incredibly early) start! Students were up and at 'em by 3:30 am on Saturday morning. Voyageur starts are part of the Balloon Fiesta tradition. Before the sun even came up, students enjoyed the festivities of this international event--carnival rides, t-shirt booths, typical festival food in New Mexican flare (i.e. green chili is added), and watching as hot air balloons began to take flight as early as 5am. Although the morning was fraught with high winds, the wind eventually calmed down and the Grand Ascension was a go! During Grand Ascension over 500 hot air balloons inflate and ascend into the sky.

After watching the Grand Ascension, the Gapsters were off to serve! They were in charge of setting up the fairgrounds for a live concert that would happen later that day. Before the music began, the group set up the barriers, fences, and chairs for the entire audience. This was by no means, a small task. In addition to setting up, the students were in charge of ushering the concert: checking tickets, issuing entry wristbands, and showing the V.I.P. guests to their seats during the concert. The students' long day came to a climax as they got the opportunity to watch the spectacular concert from Chris Young. 

Santa Maria de la Vid

Santa Maria de la Vid During a Desert Storm. Photo Credit: Alexis Renikow

Since their arrival over a week ago, the students have been staying with the Norbertine brothers of Santa Maria de la Vid. The Abbey's occupants have greeted the students with immeasurable kindness. The radical hospitality shown by the Norbertines is not only inspirational, but also a catalyst for positive community-building within the Gap group. Having a familiar, inviting, and peaceful space that students can come back to after long days has allowed the Gapsters to start, or continue, the difficult conversations sparked by social issues addressed in their classes and community visits. As students continue their second week in New Mexico, productive conversations will continue to be had. Community partners will continue to teach students lessons on poverty, oppression, faith, and social engagement. Students' classes will continue to challenge their intellectual processes and productivity. The group will continue to build a more well-rounded understanding of responsibility and personal ownership. Last, but certainly not least, the students will continue to have fun getting to know one another, themselves, and the places they are calling temporary homes. 

If you wish to see a few more photos from this week's adventures, please follow the link below. 

Until next time, Operation Albuquerque over and out...