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You Are Perfect As You Are AND You Could ALSO Use Some Improvement

October 16, 2018


“You Are Perfect As You Are and You Could Use Some Improvement,” says Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.

Confused? It’s all about discrimination, and I say that discrimination has gotten a bad rap.

As a wine writer, I have a discriminating palate — without it, all wine would taste the same, right? I wouldn’t be able to discriminate or tell the difference between a good wine and a bad one, one that is worth $25 or $5, one that exhibits red or white stone fruit, cigar box or spice cabinet, herbal notes or floral ones.

We discriminate between colors of clothes choosing certain colors, textures, styles to go together.

And we have to discriminate in our writing about which word to use and how to spell it, where to use a comma, a colon, a semi-colon or a period and how to indicate what proofreading mark to use when and where:

Discrimination also comes into play into what and how I teach: I only have five hours a week for about 16 weeks for EVERYTHING. I have to discriminate between what texts and ideas we should focus on to write about AND discuss the writing process and research techniques as well as sentence style, grammar, and punctuation.

I mean should I teach about the work and insights of my friend from psych grad school Harry Grammer or English Grammar?

In the long run, what’s the more important lesson? What will my students remember more? What matters to their careers and to their education — especially since so many of my students are interested in criminal justice and several are reading Always Running about youths in gangs in LA?

Harry Grammer Civic Innovator for Youth Justice

Harry Grammer is an activist, scholar, and poet who founded New Earth in 2002 and since then has been an integral part of reforming the juvenile justice nationwide system. In 2017, New Earth was honored as Non-Profit of the Year by California Senator Holly Mitchell and Harry was honored as a CNN Hero. In 2018, Harry was selected as an inaugural Obama Foundation Fellow. As the Founder and President, Harry brings his leadership and visionary spirit with a background in teaching poetry, advocacy to incarcerated and at-risk youth. Harry has personally worked directly with over 15,000 youth since the inception of the organization. In addition to developing and teaching core curriculum, and designing new programs, Harry also trains and manages New Earth staff. He has a stellar track record with an 83% success rate in keeping the youth he works with on a path of productivity. Harry is currently a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara. 

It is really really hard for me to decide which texts to choose for my students to read and write about during their 8-10 hours of homework a week. I feel a huge responsibility about this. I remember the criticism of the first syllabus I put together for a class I took on how to teach college writing. The course I created had a nature theme and was pretty much all white male writers — because those were the only writers I knew following my courses in environmental studies and in literature/creative writing at UCSC in the 1980s. Just about every teacher I had was a white male, except my thesis advisor Al Young, who is African American.

While uncomfortable at the time, and I know I said something stupid in my defense like “but there’s hardly any women nature writers,” I’m grateful for the eye-opening schooling and the introduction to a number of wonderful women writers; while almost all white writers, with the addition of a few women, my revised syllabus was accepted and I was invited to teach college composition at UCSC alongside the faculty and fellow grad students of that class. I subsequently taught a class themed around women’s voices for the world at UCSC.

There’s so many amazing texts out there to teach from and so many diverse voices. I’m glad to say that my syllabus today comes close to reflecting the diversity in my classroom and my community even though the overarching theme continues to be environmental problem solving and opportunities for students to choose which texts they read.

We can have no environmental or social justice until we learn about each other from the book of humanity — reading the stories from many different voices and perspectives.

The importance of decolonizing the college syllabus is explored in this essay by Yvette DeChavez in last week’s LA Times, an essay that came to my attention because it was posted on twitter by a former student of mine who now teaches at a local high school. In the article — which is illustrated with a photo of Ernest Hemingway, DeChavez writes:

“Like many students, I grew up thinking that the most important books were written by white men. I mean, it only makes sense — by the time I finished high school, my teachers had assigned Hemingway, Faulkner and Thoreau so often that the names were synonymous in my mind with great and important writing.”

“Academia, like most institutions, has long allowed white men to define the American story,” argues DeChavez. “Every year, students take class after class in which white writers dominate the syllabus, and students of color walk away feeling like that’s all that matters, like their voices are unimportant.”

Why does this matter? Dechavez points out that, “If students are able to hear a different version of the story, one straight from the source, perhaps their worldviews might shift in a direction that means indigenous and black and brown people will no longer have to fight for their basic human rights.”

What most people (okay most white poeple) don’t recognize is that…

and this is where this white woman got pulled away by her family and her other responsibilities … and lost the thread.

And I’m not exactly sure where to pick it up in part because there is SO MUCH that is going on. There are so many stories to share, to tell, the links to post — it is hard to know where to start and where to stop. It’s overwhelming.

I started this post around the time of the recent Supreme Court nomination and confirmation when so many women have come forward to talk about harassment and sexual assault.

This seems to have created a space where people can talk about various forms of discrimination and assaults they have experienced. And discussions about who has it “hard” — who is this time “scary” for?

And don’t even get me started on yesterday’s news about Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test and blood quantum politics and how that is leading to the erasure of Native Americans…

This week my students will be comparing and contrasting discrimination experienced by a Puerto Rican woman Judith Ortiz Cofer in “Myth of the Latin Woman” and African American journalist Brent Staples in “Black Men in Public Space;” here are some possible questions to consider in writing and in class. They can also reflect on their own experiences (if they want) and about the authors of their book club books — Cheryl Strayed, Zhena Muzyka, Alice Bag, Luis Rodrigues, Hope Jahren; a few students are reading Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing which is not as obvious as the others — I have some ideas but I am curious about theirs!

I could go on and on but I’m going to close with a story posted by a wine friend of mine who goes by Tivo Vino:

I’ll never forget the time I worked at Walmart and employees were told two Tuskegee Airmen would be in the break room for an hour to talk about their experiences during World War II. A few dozen of us showed up to listen. One of the things they mentioned was Jim Crow. Afterward, they asked if anyone had questions. The store’s assistant manager raised his hand and asked, “Who is Jim Crow?”

When I attended Isabel Wilkerson’s presentation for “The Warmth of Other Suns,” she mentioned the response she receives by far the most from people after they read her book is, “I had no idea.” We’re talking about a mass exodus of nearly six million black people from the South to northern and western cities to escape Jim Crow terrorism from 1915 to 1970, yet many Americans have NO IDEA.

This ignorance is painfully evident in various dialogues I see on the topic of racial injustice taking place throughout the social media realm. People fixate on the abolishment of slavery that happened “sooo long ago.”


Graphic from here.

As someone commented to Tivon’s story — slavery happened two 77 year old aunts ago.

Some of us may think that times are great today — we don’t need to fight about discrimination, we don’t need feminism, racism is not a big deal… but what do you think we accept as “normal” today — that we say “So What” about — that will be offensive to future generations?



Artist Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo’s work is simultaneously traditional and contemporary, and her fascinating story is the subject of the acclaimed documentary film, Creating Buddhas: the Making and Meaning of Fabric Thangkas. Leslie mentors a select group of students around the world through her Stitching Buddhas Virtual Apprentice Program, and her Weekly Wake-ups like the one above provide a thread of inspiration to set the week on the path to awakening.


One Comment leave one →
  1. October 23, 2018 10:58 am

    Reblogged this on whisper down the write alley and commented:

    and remember to register and vote!

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