I’m not a tragedy blogger. Thoughts on Boston.

And yet, sometimes I feel compelled to use the space created by a tragedy to discuss important topics. It seems that the only time these topics come up is in response to tragic events. My post on the Connecticut shooting is still the most popular post on this blog, many months later. Which disheartens me a little bit, because I’ve written on a lot of other things, some equally or more important.

I got into it a little bit today on Twitter with someone on the topic of Justin Trudeau’s initial comments, of the need to examine “root causes” behind these kinds of tragedies, be they terror attacks or lone school gunmen. Apparently a lot of people (government’s included) are content to offer condolences to the victims, condemnation of the perpetrators, and move on as quickly as possible.

I firmly believe that there are no acts of violence, aggression or “evil” without first there being oppression. Whether this oppression is intentional or consequential, it has to be present in these kinds of circumstances. Why else would someone kill another human being? What drives that? The opposite view on this would be that evil is simply inherent in the world, and that some people are going to do crazy, evil and inhumane things for no reason.

Believing the latter is incredibly convenient, for it lets society off the hook. It couldn’t have been something I did (or didn’t do). Be it foreign policy, religious persecution, child abuse, neglect, or marginalizing mental illness (or a host of other oppressive acts)….pretending that there are people in the world that aren’t oppressed, and don’t react to that oppression, is misguided and perpetuates cycles of oppression and reaction.

I’m not suggesting all of our tragedies are a result of racism, but this definition does a nice job of capturing “systemized oppression”.

A common response to questions around “root causes” is that it then justifies the actions of the perpetrator. As if understanding and justifying are synonymous. As if having the real information, the kind of information that can lead to better systems that are less oppressive, is a bad thing.

Unquestionably we need to console the victims, and condemn the acts. But that can’t be the end of the conversation. We can’t shrug our shoulders and say “geez, wish there was something we could have done” and walk on. What if there was? What if there is?

Of course we don’t want to ask questions about root causes of oppression. We might not like the answers.

Good to the last drop.

I had the privilege of attending a “Water Conversation” last night here in Cochrane. It brought together a range of interested folks (from normal citizens to town employees and businessman) to chat about 4 key areas related to water, and was facilitated by folks from WaterSmart. There was also representation from Alberta Energy and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB)…not surprising given that one of the areas under discussion was hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

I’m not going to be able to encapsulate the whole discussion, but a few interesting things popped out for me.

Water usage: Did you know the average Canadian uses 329 liters of water a day? (The average Albertan uses 350L). Compare this to places like France (150L/day) and Sweden (200L). Same, or better, standard of living…half the water consumption.

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Water cost: How much do those 350L cost you? The answer…not nearly enough.

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So what does this look like for Cochrane? Well, if you’ve been reading the Cochrane Sustainability Plan Progress Reports (which I know you have), you would have noticed that the 2011 average for Cochrane was 203L/person/day! This is thanks in large part to an innovative pricing scheme, where residents and businesses pay a tiered rate for water consumption, along with good educational programs.

For the first 25 cubic meters (25000L!), you pay 1.13/meter ($0.00113/L). For 26-60 cubic meters, you pay $1.51/1000L. Anything over 60,000L/month and you pay $2.25 per 1000L.  This tiered rate is in and of itself pretty innovative, but I argue that it’s still too cheap.

If the goal is to continue to reduce TOTAL water consumption (not just per/capita), then we’re going to have to take things to the next level. The flow of the Bow River doesn’t change, and Cochrane’s population is growing rapidly. This scenario will result in water scarcity issues, regardless of how efficiently we’re currently using water.

A couple of ideas:

  1. Make the first 40L/person/day FREE. Totally free. Water should be a right, just like the air we breathe. 40L should provide for drinking, cooking and basic sanitation. After 40L….charge the hell out of it. Triple or quadruple the current pricing scheme. Make me think about how much water I’m using, and give me an economic incentive to use less. At 1/10th of a cent per liter…I don’t even blink when I flush the toilet. And I drive a truck on vegetable oil.
  2. Create bylaws around grey water recycling. All the water that goes down the sink or the bathtub could be reused to flush toilets, or recycled and used for watering the garden. Using expensive, treated water for EVERYTHING is unsustainable.
  3. Develop a full-cost accounting structure for water, from intake to discharge. Include that price in the consumption of the commodity. Change the tiered structure so that the thresholds are much lower.

There were some interesting conversations around “private management” of water resources here in the province. A lot of us at the table were pretty leery of that idea, although business certainly has a track record of improving efficiency and getting products to markets in the leanest way possible. What about a social business or non profit? Someone tasked with managing the resource, but not standing to make a killing from it?

I highly recommend you get acquainted with what’s going on with water resources in this province, because it’s changing quickly. Check out the water conversation here (you have until FRIDAY APRIL 12th to contribute to the online survey).

Relationship is an action.

I recently had the distinct pleasure of facilitating a workshop at the Calgary City Teacher’s Convention. The workshop was The Resilient Classroom, and the conversation that flowed around the room for 3 hours was awesome, and a little frightening.

Working with teenage addicts, I all to often get to see the dark side of being a youth these days, and the challenges that some of our young people face. I’ve always assumed that I get to work with the anomalies, the kids who’ve been severely traumatized, abused, neglected, bullied, etc. After spending the morning with a bunch of teachers I realized that what I see in treatment is but the tip of the iceberg.

Teachers were describing kids being diagnosed with anxiety disorders at the age of 8. SERIOUSLY? What is there to be anxious about at the age of 8?

Not just anxiety, but isolation, depression, bullying, anger, ADD/ADHD, promiscuity…the list of challenges our young people face appeared to be endless and universal, with different areas of the city experiencing slightly different challenges based on the demographics of the families that lived there.

We talked an awful lot about the importance of belonging. How and why do students belong in their school and classroom? Do they belong because they score well on tests? Because they can memorize some facts and regurgitate them to the teacher? Because they do as they’re told and never challenge the establishment?

We came up with 6 ideas to implement the idea of “belonging” into the classroom. The first of these ideas is that relationship is an action, not a feeling. We tend to assume that students will feel a sense of belonging to their school, regardless of what we do to foster or discourage it. Because nothing screams “you belong” more than a building full of cliques, standardized testing and the opportunity to feel inadequate when you don’t know the answer to the out-dated question.

Of course relationship is an action… why else do we go on dates with someone while falling in love? Love is an emotion, relationship is a set of interactions. And how can you possibly feel like you belong to something, if you don’t have a relationship with it?

And how exactly do you foster a strong relationship with your students? I don’t know, because I’m not you, nor am I one of your students. But here’s a few things to think about:

  1. Authenticity. Be real. It’s ok. Talk about real issues, set aside your “expert” hat for a few minutes everyday and connect with a couple of students in a human way. 
  2. Share space and time. And by this, I mean really SHARE the space. Sit down for lunch together.
  3. Invite participation. Yes, students are forced to be in your classroom. Being forced to do anything sucks, whether you’re 14 or 40. The least you can do is invite them to be a part of creating a shared vision of what your time together is going to look like.

A pretty common theme among the young people that I work with is that they “hate school”. I’m sure if I polled their teachers over the years, there’d be some pretty strong feelings about the young person and their effort/attitude/behavior as well. Underlying it though, is a sense that they don’t “belong” in the school. I’m not the only one who believes this, and thankfully more and more schools are looking at this idea. For the first 10-days of the 90-day treatment program, all we do is invite belonging….by building relationship.

Which leaves me with a final thought to wrap up this blog post. I’ll tackle the other 5 ideas to create belonging in the classroom soon.

Does a child need to belong, in order to be loved? Or be loved in order to belong?

Hyper-Individualism and the loss of Empathy

I threw these two ideas out there in the last post (There’s no such thing as a senseless shooting). Empathy is what we need….individualism on overdrive seems to be what we’re getting.

What’s empathy? And why is it so important?

Empathy is defined in many different ways, but the common definition is “the capacity to recognize feelings that are being experienced by another being”. Being empathetic is not the same as being nice. It’s not sympathy. It’s not compassion (although to be compassionate, you need to have empathy). It’s simply the ability to place yourself in another person’s shoes, and understand (and feel) their emotional state.

I believe that empathy is a critical component of a healthy and functioning society. Thankfully it’s rooted in our biology. Children as young as two years old display empathy, and “children between the ages of 7 and 12 appear to be naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain”. What happens to our natural empathic tendencies?

We become individuals. And not in the rugged, western movie-star kind of way. We start playing video games. And surfing the internet. And going home after school to an empty house. We no longer live in a village, or even a town. We live in suburbs full of high fences, surrounded by neighbours that we never meet, let alone invite over for dinner. We teach our kids to fear strangers, and our schools practice lockdowns as often as fire drills. We sit in restaurants with our friends and spend the evening texting or tweeting everyone else. We have our natural empathic tendencies repressed by the systems we’ve created, systems created under the false assumption that we’re all endlessly materialistic, narcissistic and pleasure-seeking people.

We’re actively creating hyper-individuals, all the while lamenting the loss of our communities.

Of course, this isn’t a universal truth. There are people actively engaged in community building, in driving forward an empathic civilization. Online and offline, people are gathering together, in small groups and large, in a beautifully unstructured and chaotic movement towards a society built on empathy and love.

Here’s one of my favorite animated talks from the Royal Society for the Arts;

As I wrote this post, my Dad forwarded me an email. A rant, really, about creating the future we want. In it was a line that caught me.

Our humanity is our power.

It’s probably time to use it.