In This World

in this world-2There are times when a movie just grabs me, despite technical flaws, my low expectations, and even a boring DVD case cover. In This World is one of those. The political message is clear, but understated, conveyed instead by an intimate look at the consequences of war and greed on the lives of decent people.

The movie presents a fictitious journey that conveys disturbing truths of life “in this world” we inhabit. Although it’s low-key and rough as cinema, it produces an intimate connection to its characters, Afghan refugees Jamal and Enayatullah, as they travel from Shamshatoo refugee camp near Peshāwar, Pakistan, across Pakistan, through Iran, Turkey, Italy and France, towards London.

ITW_trailerLike thousands of others every year, their desperation feeds the multibillion dollar human smuggling business, an unconscionable stain on any of our pretensions to justice. The smuggling fuels crime, violence, corruption, illegal drug trade, and too often leads to death, no longer being “in this world.”

The actors are Afghan refugees themselves, and the encounters in the movie elide life and art. I was fascinated by the places they moved through, and their resourcefulness in learning how to cope with diverse languages and unscrupulous people.

The camps near Peshāwar are filled with people displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and later, US bombing. UNHCR says that there are currently “1.7 million registered Afghans in Pakistan, with 45 percent residing in refugee villages and the rest scattered among host communities.” But the total, including children born to refugees, may be several million. The humanitarian crisis is compounded now by two million civilians fleeing the fighting in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier.

Even though the story is depressing about our institutions, I finished it feeling hopeful about our human capacity. I wanted to travel the modern silk road and more still to learn about the world of these refugees and the policies that lead to their plight.

Community as Intellectual Space, 2009

CI_2008The fifth annual Community as Intellectual Space Symposium will be held on June 12-14 at La Estancia on 2753 W. Division Street, Paseo Boricua, Chicago, Illinois.

The theme of the symposium is Critical Pedagogy: Community Building as Curriculum. As professionals and institutions are engaging with communities to enhance the life chances and well-being of residents, the conference examines how community-building and critical pedagogy can offer effective and sustainable change, locally and among collaborators as well.

BateyThe keynote speaker this year is Antonia Darder, a Professor at the University of Illinois in Educational Policy Studies and Latino/a Studies. There will be presentations and workshops on

The conference also offers Batey Urbano‘s production of Crime against Humanity, screenings of original documentaries filmed on Paseo Boricua, community tours, and art exhibits.

Community as Intellectual Space is co-organized by the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center (Chicago) and the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Continuing Professional Development Units (CDPUs), academic course credit for those who enroll in UI’s LIS590 CIO, and registration scholarships available.

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…

What we do not know: The betrayal of our values

I returned to the US in June after living a year living in Ireland. Many people have naturally asked, “What was it like? How was it different? What did you learn?”

It’s hard to know where to begin. I may have learned as much about myself and my home country as about Ireland, or other countries I’ve visited. And, mostly, if I learned anything, it was how much I don’t know about other people and places. As Confucius says: “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

Our Hollywood Self-Image

But one specific thing I’ve become more aware of is a gap between what most Americans conceive as their moral stance on the world and what many abroad see as our actual practice. I suspect that many of us in the US identify with Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s decent, naive, idealistic, earnest, fair, caring, and above all honest, embodying all the American small town values. He’s not sophisticated or slick, but he’s the kind of person you’d like to have as a friend or trust for political leadership. Mr. Smith asks us to adhere to “just one, plain, simple rule: Love thy neighbor” and reminds us that “there’s no compromise with the truth.”

What’s interesting today is that many abroad would also identify with Mr. Smith. And they admire the US for modeling his values, offering hope for other countries. They recall our promotion of the Kellogg-Briand pact, the struggle against authoritarian regimes, the Nuremburg trials, the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, as concrete examples of how we have stood for truth, peace, courage, and justice, just as Mr. Smith might have wanted. Their values are our values; their people are our people.

But then, we part ways, because of something many Americans do not know. Continue reading

“The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun”

I walk by a wonderful video rental store, called That’s Rentertainment, on my way to and from work. It has an amazing collection of foreign and independent films, anime, TV, and documentaries, as well as knowledgeable staff. The prices are good, too, so it often makes sense to take a chance on a movie I’ve never heard about before. One of these was director Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s, The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun (Slottet, or The Castle in Danish).

The description won’t appeal to everyone, and at times it may seem slow or disjointed. But it’s an unexpectedly good movie.

The true story is about Jørgen Laursen Vig, who lives alone in the derelict Hesbjerg Castle near Odense. His lifelong dream has been to create a monastery. Nearing the end of his life he turns to Russia and invites the Russian Patriarchate to use his castle as the site. They send Nun Amvrosija and a few others to assess the situation and begin the process of creating the monastery. As anyone might suspect, there are good intentions in the beginning, but problems arise as it becomes more a reality.

Through these events the film explores friendship, and what Allan Berg Nielsen describes in an excellent essay as The Manifold Nature of Love. It’s about life dreams, loss, and the challenge of opening up to others. Grønkjær (see photo), the director, is the interviewer, and becomes entwined at times in these questions.

At one point, Vig becomes frustrated with Nun Amvrosija. They argue about trivial things, while not addressing the larger issues. Perhaps he feels he’s losing control of the project. Referring to her, he says:

Vig: It’s hard to argue with people who are always right. Who don’t …
Grønkjær (interviewing): What if she came here just as much for you as for the monastery?
Vig: For me? I don’t know how to react to that. It’s the project we’re talking about, not me. Because that’s not what is needed.

A little later he grows discouraged, and puzzled:

Vig: I can’t solve all the problems.
Grønkjær: It’s not a problem, Vig.
Vig: Perhaps they’re problems you women have.
Grønkjær: We haven’t any problems.
Vig: You have feelings, or whatever. Things like that are not my business. I stay out of it.

That excerpt suggests the movies is about gender. It is, but one could also say that it’s about age, religion, nationality, language, and more than anything, about people trying to come together about things they both want, but struggle to achieve.

Nun Amvrosija writes to Mr. Vig:

Dear Mr. Vig, We were together for almost five years. We were very different, yet we were doing the same thing. We often disagreed with each other. But the Lord directs everything in His wisdom. Our Lord laid this gift in your hands. A gift which I believe opened the gates of paradise to you. I wish for the kingdom of heaven and eternal peace. Dear Mr. Vig, servant of Our Lord.

Vig is not only a fascinating character in the movie, but must have been throughout his life as well. See his East-West Seminar at Hesbjerg, 1995.

Today the monastery is run by Nun Amvrosija. A Russian Orthodox priest comes from Copenhagen to carry out the services. The Russian Patriarchate and the Hesbjerg Foundation now set the future plans for the monastery.

first Youth Community Informatics Forum

In the Youth Community Informatics Forum held June 27-28, 2008, about 40 young people and youth leaders came to Champaign from a variety of economically disadvantaged, mostly minority communities throughout the state.

There was a youth media festival on Friday. Then on Saturday, participants spent the morning working in one of four small groups to investigate “information spaces” in the community. These included the Center for Children’s Books, Champaign Public Library, the Independent Media Center, Espresso Royale, Native House, Cafe Paradiso, Transit Plaza, Illini Union, and bronze plaques around campus. The group leader introduced a staff member from the center to the students for a small tour and helped them use a Flip video camera and a GPS receiver to record their observations.

At each site, the youth asked questions such as:

  1. What do we see in this information center? How do we like it?
  2. What is this center about?
  3. What do we want people to know about the center?
  4. How can we give others a clear idea about the center through watching/hearing our report?

In the afternoon, they created a Google map with their videos, text, and GPS coordinates. They also added music (an innovation we hadn’t planned on, but perfectly appropriate). They then shared their findings in a public presentation.

The activity was conceived in terms of an Inquiry Cycle:

Inquiry cycle

Inquiry cycle

  • Ask: What are the information spaces in the community?
  • Investigate: Visit, listen, explore, video, determine geo-coordinates.
  • Create: Make a GIS site with video, music, text.
  • Discuss: Share the product and the findings with others.
  • Reflect: Think about issues of journalism, democracy, careers, technologies, etc.

We found that the students learned technology skills, problem solving, cooperative work, writing, public presentation, specific information spaces, community journalism, university life, and much more.

Although the June activity made use of diverse new technologies, it is important to note that the focus was on learning about the community, asking questions, and sharing findings with others, not on the technologies per se. The most effective use of these technologies in libraries and similar settings would likely involve embedding that use in a larger, purposeful context. That context in turn could be a way to help connect youth with other resources, such as books and structured activities.

We’re now planning a similar activity in October with the Mortenson Center Associates, a group of visiting, international librarians. This will be the first day of a two- or three-day event. The longer time will allow for discussion about how the information spaces might differ in different countries, what technologies are available in different contexts, how valuable the activity would be for youth in their libraries, and so on. Students from the Community Informatics (LEEP) course would lead the investigation of the local-area information centers.

Both youth leaders and young people said they enjoyed the Forum, learned a lot, and hope for more. One youth leader said that next year he’d like to bring a much larger group. Another wrote,

I believe, in the not too distant future, that this conference will be seen as a landmark in developing a new perspective as part of the partnership between those marginalized sectors of civil society and the university in bridging the digital divide.

As Myles Horton might say, that’s a long haul, but at least there was good spirit of cooperation in learning, which I hope will carry over to continuing work in these communities.

[Cross-posted on social issues]

The last flower in WALL-E

Our family had a rare trip to an in-theater movie on Sunday, as opposed to watching one of the many movies we see at home. It was a good choice for the theater, WALL-E, with its sweeping scenes of dance in outer space and the counterpoint of its portrayal of robots with minimalist, but very believable emotions.

It’s a delightful movie for children or adults, but the adults are more likely to squirm as they see characters depicted in lounge chairs with drink holders, more similar than they might like to see to the audience sitting in now extra-wide theater seats with holders for 44-ounce cups. The story shows how a culture of excess consumption, with little regard for the environment, community, or meaningful activity, ultimately destroys a livable earth and nearly, the people themselves.

The plot hinges on the robot Wall-E’s discovery of a living plant, either the last to survive massive environmental destruction, or perhaps, the first to signal a possible recovery of the planet. He and another robot, EVE, protect the plant until it re-energizes humankind to save the planet they nearly destroyed.

It reminded me of James Thurber’s The Last Flower, a graphic novel published in November 1939, two months after World War II began. I haven’t seen the parallel mentioned elsewhere, but it seemed surprisingly close to me. In Thurber’s story, we read:

One day a girl who had never seen a flower chanced to come upon the last one in the world…The only one who paid attention to her was a young man she found wandering about. Together the young man and the girl nurtured the flower and it began to live again.

In only 48 cartoon frames, Thurber talks about wars, which never end, and the causal factors of greed, intolerance, the inability to understand others, and a fetish of violence. He also describes human and environmental destruction in both words and pictures. There is a deep pessimism in the seeming inability of people to maintain a respect for life or to find common ground, but also optimism, in the refusal of the flower to disappear entirely.

WALL-E presents a happier, less complex position. Some of the causal factors are there, but WALL-E’s world seems to have eliminated wars and racism. And although humanity has come close to a final disaster, the plant that WALL-E and EVE nurture appears to redeem it once and for all.

Thurber’s plant, unlike WALL-E’s, has a flower, which holds the promise of reproduction, as do his (non-robot) people. It is essential that the plant have a flower, which is visited by a bee, because biological reproduction in all its messiness is integral to the rebirth of Thurber’s world. WALL-E offers a vision more akin to Coca-Cola commercials about holding hands around the world. I liked WALL-E, but seeing it gave me a new appreciation for what Thurber managed to do using much simpler technology, but a deep insight into people and life.

Premier of “Round Here”

Round Here sceneWe attended a gala movie premier last night at the National College of Ireland (NCI). The film, Round Here, explores themes of community and identity in the rapidly changing Dublin Docklands area.

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limoTwelve young people from the Docklands area not only star in the film, but devised it based on their own experiences there. Philip McMahon wrote the actual script following interviews with the young people; it was directed by Colin Thornton. I thought it was an excellent portrayal of the challenges facing many young people today.

NCI atriumThe event began with the young people arriving by limo and walking down a red carpet. They were announced by young escorts wearing top hats and tails. There was of course popcorn and soft drinks as for any cinema event. Kirsten Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America, August Rush) was a surprise guest who presented DVDs of the movie to the young stars. Afterwards, we were able to visit with the cast and crew over cocktails.

actorsThe project was a joint venture of NCI, Calipo Theatre and Picture Company, and the Sheriff Street After Schools Education and Support Programme (Celine Howard) and was funded by patrons of the NCI.

people-3Photos courtesy of the National College of Ireland.people-2

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Buffon’s plaqueAfter being inspired by George Reese’s work with Buffon’s needle, then seeing the movie, Le Pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf), then Buffon’s statue in the Jardin des Plantes, I’ve kept an eye out for Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. He did amazing work in natural history, mathematics, biology, cosmology, translation, and essays. He also examned alleged specimens for the beast of Gévaudan, which provided the basis for the movie.

On Sunday we saw his house in Dijon (where he lived from 1717 to 1742), on naturally, rue Buffon.

From his Wikipedia entry you can follow links to Buffon’s needle.