Moving the world: A celebration of writing and community

Parc de la Tête d'Or, Lyon, Sergio Canobbio

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate to attend a significant literary event, called Moving the World: A Celebration of Writing and Community.

Over a three-hour period, I heard essays, letters, poems, and collaborative writing, but also saw drawings and paintings. I got to meet with the artists and to ask them questions about their work. The intellectual and artistic quality as well as the variety of the works were outstanding. The program was beautifully organized by Patrick Berry and Cory Holding.

An event such as this one is not uncommon; what made this one special was that it was held in the chapel of the Danville Correctional Center, and the artists were all inmates. They showed off the work they’ve done through courses offered by the Education Justice Project (EJP), led by Rebecca Ginsburg. EJP is a response to the abundant evidence showing that

College-in-prison programs reduce arrest, conviction, and reincarceration rates among released prisoners. Evidence has also linked the presence of college-in-prison programs to fewer disciplinary incidents within prison, finding that such programs produce safer environments for prisoners and staff alike. College-prison programs also have benefits for inmates’ families and, hence, their communities.

Captured Potential, Larry Brent

The EJP is an outstanding effort to help young men who want to become better family and community members. If you had experienced Moving the World, you’d at least have seen inmate-students focusing their energies on reading and writing, on reflecting about their lives, families, and communities, and perhaps most significantly, engaged in how they can make positive contributions to the world both inside and outside the prison.

As I said, the quality of the writing and the oral performances was superb. I was impressed with nearly all of the works. One, entitled “Progressive tears: A prisoner’s retrospective cry for Dewey’s help,” asked the philosopher John Dewey whether his progressive vision was still relevant today. Do we as a people still believe in equality and justice? Do we still see education as a means for building a better society? One may wonder, since the use of Pell Grants for prisoners was eliminated in 1994, and most prison college programs have closed.

Another essay asserts “We all want the same things.” It shows that both prisoners and ordinary people on the outside want prisoners to turn from crime to productive citizenship. Other works included letters to family members, poems, reflections on life. The painting, “Captured potential,” and its accompanying text, express well both the tragedy of prison and the possibilities. I doubt whether anyone made it through the event with dry eyes.

You can see some of the writing itself in the National Gallery of Writing.

An event like Moving the World makes the drudgery and nonsense of many other parts of life much more bearable. I not only enjoyed it in the sense of savoring, rather than counting, the moments, I was also impressed by the obvious thoughtfulness, organization, and high standards that went into it. I now understand why one instructor said that her participation has raised the standards back at the university.


Schopenhauer’s porcupines

Several years ago, I read Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy, by Deborah Anna Luepnitz.

It’s a fascinating book, and you don’t need to be a Schopenhauer scholar, a zoologist, or a psychotherapy patient to get a lot out of it. The entry card instead is being someone who relates to others or would like to do so.

It was there that I encountered Schopenhauer’s parable of the porcupines, the last of many from his Studies in pessimism:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

Schopenhauer presents his parables as telling us just how life is, but Luepnitz takes this one in a constructive way. She shows through five case studies how we all have simultaneous needs and fears for intimacy, thus creating a dilemma for full living. As she puts it (p. 19):

Psychotherapy cannot make us whole, but it does allow us to transform suffering into speech and, ultimately, to learn to live with desire.

I was impressed with the book. Coincidentally, shortly after reading it, I had dinner in Philadelphia with a couple, one of whom was her patient.


  • Luepnitz, Deborah Anna (2002). Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur (1891). The essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; Studies in pessimism (tr. Thomas Bailey Saunders). London: Swan Sonnenschein.

How useful is the concept of community?

de_UnamunoMiguel de Unamuno says that anyone who invents a concept takes leave of reality. I like that statement both for its literal meaning that reality can nver be fully captured by a single concept, and in the suggestion that concepts imply a kind of madness.

Unamuno’s dictum applies to the question “How useful is the concept of community?”, because community designations betray the individual in two senses. One is that every community designation necessarily strips away the uniqueness of the individuals within. A term such as “immigrants” is clearly impoverished with respect to the many reasons, origins, and experiences of immigrants.

But a community designation can not only strip away individual meaning; it can attach wrong, or even contradictory meanings. For example, if we say that someone is a member of the “elderly community,” we impute a large set of attributes that may be totally off. She might be 90 years old, but rather than suffering “elderly decline,” she might be longing for that iPod we had provided to the “youth community” to share the latest music. There’s even some evidence that the very old are healthier than the somewhat old, because they were the ones who survived past critical health hurdles.

What makes this all even more interesting is that we can’t think without concepts, and we do better when we make use of even faulty information. A member of the “library patron community” may come to the library to get warm, to order some coffee (as at Urbana Free Library), to get a date, to sleep, or a host of other reasons.

Nevertheless, it’s helpful to know that many visitors seek information. Similarly, many immigrants may need help dealing with often absurd regulations that don’t apply to citizens in a country. Many elderly people have special physical or mental challenges well beyond those faced by most younger people.

These thoughts keep bringing me back to the need for dialogue. In so many cases, well-intentioned people make judgments and decisions without really listening to those they’re trying to help. Most examples of community designations betraying the individual, could at least be better addressed by starting with the idea of listening to each others’ experiences first.


Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL)

accueil_biblio1 I was very fortunate to hear Elizabeth Pierre-Louis speak yesterday.

Elizabeth was on campus to accept the 2008 Young Humanitarian Award. As Director of the Library Program at Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (FOKAL) in Haiti, she helped to set up 45 community libraries across the country. She coordinates the training and management of these libraries, which are improving the quality of live for the people there. Elizabeth described a wide variety of programs of FOKAL, including projects on supplying running water, developing basic literacy, supporting the visual arts, dance and music, debate, and economic education.

Throughout these many programs, there is an emphasis on participatory democracy, including organization and responsibility of citizens, leadership, financial and technical management, resolving conflicts, and collective decision making. Elizabeth’s work is just part of an amazing organization helping people work together toward common purposes.

The photo, of the Monique Calixte Library in FOKAL’s Cultural Center, and this text below are from the FOKAL site.

The Fondation Connaissance et Liberté / Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (FOKAL) Cultural Center, built in 2003 in the center of Port-au-Prince thanks to funding from the Open Society Institute (OSI) and support from George Soros, is designed for meetings, training, reading, debates, recreation and discovery.

The center is comprised of a public library, with a membership of over 5,000 where children and youths from the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince have access to reading materials in optimal conditions, a small auditorium, a café-terrasse and a cybercafé. The UNESCO auditorium is a hall designed for conferences, debates, meetings, audio-visual presentations, films, concerts and theatre. The center also includes a large atrium where one can discover the works of both Haitian and foreign painters, writers, and sculptors; and a sound and video production studio, a training hall and gardens…

FOKAL’s cultural center offers a place, eminently rare in Haiti, where peasants, women, children and youths from poor neighborhoods have a chance to interact with each other and with representatives of all sectors of society on subjects which concern education, the environment, culture, and democracy…

Cooking up a storm

9780811865777_normFrom Cooking up a Storm, ©2008 Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker. Used with permission of Chronicle Books, San Francisco

Residents of New Orleans lost their homes, their neighborhoods and schools, their jobs and businesses, and the lives of family members because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The effect on the community was devastating as has been documented in books and movies, e.g., Katrina’s Children and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. To this day major areas, such as the Ninth Ward, are still struggling to recover.

Of all the losses, losing keepsakes and family treasures was especially hard. One category had an especially acute impact on a city famous for its food: Residents lost their family recipe files. These included the family recipes handed down by generations, as well as those clipped from newspapers, such as the The Times-Picayune. Without these recipes the task of rebuilding families and communities was made much harder.

As residents started to rebuild their lives, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans became a post-hurricane swapping place for old recipes that were washed away in the storm. The newspaper has compiled 250 of these delicious, authentic recipes along with the stories about how they came to be and who created them. Cooking Up a Storm [Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans] includes the very best of classic and contemporary New Orleans cuisine, from seafood and meat to desserts and cocktails. But it also tells the story, recipe by recipe, of one of the great food cities in the world, and the determination of its citizens to preserve and safeguard their culinary legacy.

The collective effort to reconstruct family recipe collections is positive counterpoint to all of the negative stories that came out of the Katrina disaster. It’s a wonderful example of community informatics—people coming together to address a common need, making use of newspapers, fax, email, digital archives, and other communication tools.

The book is edited by Marcelle Bienvenue and Judy Walker. You can learn more about it in NPR’s story: ‘Cooking Up A Storm’: Recipes From The Big Easy.

Sharing your books, for a noble cause …

wordle_mark_quote [tag cloud from the UC Books to Prisoners site, created using wordle]

UC Books to Prisoners is an Urbana, IL based project providing books to Illinois inmates at no cost. Books to Prisoners offers books by mail to all Illinois inmates and operates lending libraries in the two Champaign County jails.

Is your book collection weighing you down? Do you have a home library that is threatening the structural integrity of your abode? Champaign-Urbana has many great places to donate books. One of the neediest is the Books to Prisoners program, profiled earlier in a Smile Politely piece.

We take donations of used books from the community, mail books in response to prisoner requests, and stock and staff the two local jail libraries. Those books that are not suitable for prisoners, for a variety of reasons, are sold to cover the postage to mail books.

Thanks to community support, we have sent 32,162 books in 8,281 packages to 5,096 inmates since we were founded five years ago. Go here for details about dropping off books.

If you’d like to get rid of your books, merely to make space to acquire more, come to our Spring Book Sale April 3–5 at the IMC in the old Urbana Post Office. A huge assortment of high quality books: paperbacks at 50 cents, hardbacks for a buck.

via Sharing your books, for a noble cause … : SPlog : Smile Politely

Grandeur in this view of life

Darwin bustCharles Darwin was born 200 years ago today. In November this year it will be 150 years since he published On the origin of species.

Although others talked about evolution and natural selection before he did, his work was what made the ideas enter our collective consciousness, changing forever our views of science and life. Aside from his detailed scientific work to reveal the workings of natural laws, Darwin was able to write in an engaging way. What’s most evident in those writings is that he revered life, yet saw in death the possibilities for renewal.

The last paragraph of On the origin of species is worth quoting again on this, his birthday:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us…

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

See the references for interesting stories about Darwin and the evolution of his own ideas and texts.


Darwin, Charles R. (1859). On the origin of species. Various publishers and editions; the link here and the quote are for the 1st edition, in Project Gutenberg.

Krulwich, Robert (2009, February 12, ). Death of child may have influenced Darwin’s work. NPR Morning Edition. speaker

Urbanowicz, Charles F. (2002). There is a grandeur In this view of life. In Amanda Chesworth et al. (eds.), Darwin Day collection one: The best single idea ever. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Tangled Bank. See also the full version: On Darwin: Countdown to 2008 / 2009!

No-Nonsense Guides

I’ve been reading the No-Nonsense Guides. These are clear, concise, very readable introductions to complex topics, such as globalization, women’s rights, and world food. They’re a bit like articles in The Economist, but from a critical perspective and with more evidence to back up the analysis. Even if you feel you understand one of the topics, the corresponding book is a great summary and resource. I highly recommend them.

The Guides are published by New Internationalist, whose mission is

to report on the issues of world poverty and inequality; to focus attention on the unjust relationship between the powerful and powerless worldwide; to debate and campaign for the radical changes necessary to meet the basic needs of all; and to bring to life the people, the ideas and the action in the fight for global justice.

Based in Oxford, New Internationalist also offers a free online newsletter, a magazine, and other publications.

“I Came a Stranger” by Hilda Polacheck

I Came A StrangerI just finished reading I Came a Stranger: The Story of a Hull-House Girl, by Hilda Satt Polacheck, and edited by her daughter, Dena J. Polacheck Epstein (University of Illinois Press, 1991). It’s a fascinating account of Polacheck’s journey from Wloclawek, Poland to Chicago, and the role that Jane Addams of Hull House played in her life.

The book is interesting on many levels: Hilda’s life is filled with many compelling, poignant, and humorous stories; she makes the immigrant experience in late-19th, early 20th century Chicago come alive; and she shows what Hull House meant to a girl like her, who “came a stranger” to Chicago, knowing no English and learning to survive by doing. The labor and feminist politics of the era have immediate meaning for her, and she recounts stories about Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, Clarence Darrow, Alice Hamilton, and other great figures of that time. She describes her struggles, romance, triumphs, and tragedies.

It’s a pity then, that the book wasn’t published in her lifetime, as there was no interest in the life of an “obscure woman.” But I was drawn in by her honesty and commitment to the ideals she saw in Jane Addams. I also gained a deeper understanding of the remarkable role that Hull House played in the effort to, as Addams says, “make the entire social organism democratic.”

Living teaching: The genius loci

My most memorable moments in Dublin came through encounters with living people, the many warm individuals who introduced me to life in the city and country, and from all the enriching, direct experiences, some of which I’ve tried to recount here.

But oddly enough, I also value the encounters I had with people who live on only in their writings or institutions. I say “oddly,” because I could easily have come to know them somewhat without being physically present in Ireland, and yet I seemed to need the tradition of place, or genius loci, to open the book.

One of these is Cardinal John Henry Newman. I didn’t know much about his work, other than valuing the many Newman Centers on university campuses. Frankly, I had a negative view, that his focus was on education for “gentlemen,” and that he held an elitist and sectarian approach to learning. At best, his ideas were locked away in 19th-century Ireland and unlikely to be relevant to my world today.

Cardinal John Henry NewmanFortunately, a colleague, Leo Casey, was able to gently point out that my conception was based on not knowing anything, and to suggest that if I did open a book, I might learn something.

In this case, the book was Cardinal Newman: The Catholic University, which contains a selection of his writings. University College Dublin, which he presided over, published it in 1990, to commemorate the century after his death. One of the essays in the collection is entitled “Living Teaching rather than passive reception of facts.” It’s from his The Idea of the University, and introduced me among other things to the term, genius loci.

Newman writes about “young men,” but I believe that today he’d quickly revise his essay to include all people. He asks a provocative question: Suppose we

had to choose between a so-called University, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a University which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years, and then sent them away…[which of these would be] more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind, which sent out men the more fitted for their secular duties, which produced better public men, men of the world, men whose names would descend to posterity

Newman is quick to say, in his 19th-century style, that he can’t fully endorse the second model, as he considers “idleness an intolerable mischief.” But he has “no hesitation in giving the preference to that University which did nothing, over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun.” He explains as follows:

When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, … come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day…students come from very different places, and with widely different notions, and there is much to generalize, much to adjust, much to eliminate, there are inter-relations to be defined, and conventional rules to be established, in the process, by which the whole assemblage is moulded together, and gains one tone and one character…

that youthful community will constitute a whole, it will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci

Here then is a real teaching…it at least recognizes that knowledge is something more than a sort of passive reception of scraps and details; it is a something, and it does a something, which never will issue from the most strenuous efforts of a set of teachers, with no mutual sympathies and no inter-communion, of a set of examiners with no opinions which they dare profess, and with no common principles, who are teaching or questioning a set of youths who do not know them, and do not know each other, on a large number of subjects, different in kind, and connected by no wide philosophy

Newman recognizes the limits of such self-education, but nevertheless argues, the result is better than for

those earnest but ill-used persons, who are forced to load their minds with a score of subjects against an examination, who have too much on their hands to indulge themselves in thinking or investigation, who devour premiss and conclusion together with indiscriminate greediness, who hold whole sciences on faith, and commit demonstrations to memory, and who too often, as might be expected, when their period of education is passed, throw up all they have learned in disgust…they leave their place of education simply dissipated and relaxed by the multiplicity of subjects, which they have never really mastered, and so shallow as not even to know their shallowness.

How much better, he says,

to eschew the College and the University altogether, than to submit to a drudgery so ignoble, a mockery so contumelious! How much more profitable for the independent mind, after the mere rudiments of education, to range through a library at random, taking down books as they meet him, and pursuing the trains of thought which his mother wit suggests! How much healthier to wander into the fields…

[or from] the beach, and the quay, and the fisher’s boat, and the inn’s fireside, and the tradesman’s shop, and the shepherd’s walk, and the smuggler’s hut, and the mossy moor, and the screaming gulls, and the restless waves, to fashion for himself a philosophy and a poetry of his own!

Newman’s style is dated, but his questions are more relevant today than when he wrote. Our university education, indeed formal education at all levels in both the US and Ireland, often strives to do little more than load minds against examinations. We run from the idea of genius loci and see no need for living teaching.

Meanwhile, university administrators worldwide now measure success against a benchmark of mechanization. Efficient, modular, and uniform delivery of certifications is the goal. Newman reminds us that achieving that goal means not only that students will “throw up all they have learned in disgust,” but that society will ultimately throw up the university in disgust as well.