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:

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