By Marguerite Jill Dye
“Be a nuisance where it counts. Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics – but never give up,” said Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) must be very proud of Emma Gonzalez and the other intelligent, articulate, courageous, and outspoken student survivors of the Parkland, Fla., mass shooting in the high school named after Douglas. They, too, have the courage to speak out as Ms. Douglas did, a journalist, author, suffragette, and conservationist who fought the U.S. Corps of Engineers and big business in their efforts to drain, reclaim land, and develop the Everglades. She fought for the survival of the Everglades, which Parkland borders.
Lena Nowak-Laird, a student at New College, in Sarasota, overheard my writing group and offered her insight. While we were talking, I noticed “Education for Critical Consciousness” by Brazilian pedagogue and author Paulo Freire, lying on the table.
Freire “demonstrated – more than anyone – that education was the foundation of all freedoms; that it alone can give people mastery over their destiny,” according to the UNESCO director general’s words on the book’s cover.
I recalled Freire from my work in Argentina when “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”  was helpful in understanding liberation theology, a Latin American theology aimed at including the poor and emancipating the oppressed. What I remembered most of all was the importance of teaching people through words and information that are relevant to their lives.
I asked Nowak-Laird if I could interview her about the school shooting, but when I learned she’s a philosophy major writing her thesis on Freire and education, I was interested in her ideas about our society, violence, and education. She said her thesis was related and began by describing our educational system.
“The U.S. has a history of progressive education, but in the last 30 years, neo-liberalism has led to the corporatization of schools, as in the voucher program where the government funds privatized schools.” She said it’s called a “negative feedback loop.” The students who do best receive the most money, and standardized tests already cater to the upper classes.
Freire advocated “problem-posing education,” which teaches children critical thinking skills so they will not accept things at face value.
“We are never done learning, but if we think that we know everything, then it’s all about the ego, which can make us less inclined to learn,” Lena continued.
“Our system of grading and class competition hurts our ability to exist collectively. Many people don’t have the option – and this competitive system fuels inequality, which in turn contributes to oppressive structures like our prison-industrial-military complex,” she explained. “Grading is based on an ability to follow rules, take tests, and through knowledge dissemination. It isn’t based on creative thinking, or independent and communal knowledge. I believe that all knowledge is created.”
I asked Lena about the school shootings and she replied, “When kids don’t fit into our society’s authoritarian structure, they are told they are dumb, can’t succeed, and can’t exist in this society or in our world.”
Disabilities, mental health challenges, behavioral problems, poverty, and homelessness contribute to a feeling of not being valued and not belonging. “We live in a patriarchy and are taught to be objective and to distance ourselves from emotions, when we should be learning about alternatives to violence and how to communicate properly.”
She talked about how students thrive when yoga, meditation, mindfulness and an awareness of their environment are added to their studies. “Schools look like prisons,” she observed. Students need choices that empower them, but with our system of testing, teachers are rewarded based on how well their students perform.
Lena told me that Oprah.com shows some clips on the Harper High School Turnaround project in Illinois. It began when Chicago and Naperville students switched schools for one week. It showed the vast disparity between their educational experiences and they were shocked by the differences in facilities, equipment, and opportunities, although the schools were only 30 miles apart.
“The education they were getting wasn’t comparable,” one teacher exclaimed. But the “Turnaround Project” transformed the school and continued to affect others, according to Oprah.com. It is clear to see that our educational system is typically catering to the rich and discriminating against minorities and the poor.
“What happened to the American spirit?” I asked, and Nowak-Laird replied, “The American spirit is a myth. I don’t think there ever was one because the Constitution excluded women and people of color. Rebellion, revolution, and workers’ movements are more ‘the American spirit.’”
I was fascinated when she spoke of her language and politics class and our liberal tradition of freedom of speech. Many poor white men who felt their voices weren’t heard turned to violence in the past. More recently, “Make America great again” attracted more white men’s attention.
“What can be done?” I asked Lena, and she confessed, “It’s hard to maintain a positive attitude, but Paulo Freire inspired me with his answer to that problem in ‘Pedagogy of Hope.’ Without hope and a utopia, one falls into fatalism. I believe that the solution is imagination. It’s one of the keys to change. For me, having hope means envisioning a utopia where people can get the help they need and access mental health care without being stigmatized. It’s also important that we learn to better understand ourselves.”
In Latin America, there is an expression, “el buen vivir,” the good life, which stems from indigenous cultures’ reciprocal relationships with nature, one another, and community. “It’s time we rethink our definition of success,” Nowak-Laird concluded. “Our society is very success-focused, but not in a good way.”
“We have failed to deliver a season of freedom, love, and justice for the future generations of our people,” Mandaza Kandemwa from Zimbabwe says. “Spirit is calling the youths of today to take their leadership position in human society. They know how the world should be run, but we say ‘No. Youths are youths.’”
Kandemwa was born into a lineage of spirit teachers, although he was raised as a Christian in an Apartheid society where he’d have been hanged for teaching what he knows now.
In the Sounds True Summit on Shamanism (soundstrue.com), the Zimbabwean Master warned, “We need to take a good look at the bleeding relationship between elders and youths in our societies today. Our youths are living in their own world, very separate from the world of our elders. They are not allowed to participate in the decisionmaking of any society, just because they are youths. We elders say, ‘Youths have no knowledge or experience.’ But youths are born with knowledge and experience. Give them the platform to tell us how the world should be run because our youths today are saying, ‘We do not want to belong to the U.S. as a country. We want to be citizens of the world.’ We need to heal the relationship between elders and youth” and listen to what our youth is saying, for they will lead the way.
On March 24, students from across the globe will march in solidarity with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors of America’s most recent mass school shooting. They will march on Washington and we will march in solidarity, wherever we are, so the victims’ lives were not lost in vain. We’ll march for freedom from grief and fear, for having sane citizens’ voices heard. We will march for unity in solving this problem of extreme gun violence that is facing only our nation.
These brave students are living the American spirit by thinking for themselves, acting with conviction, and creatively reimagining a society where children are valued, can learn, and are safe in their schools and their world.
When I was in Up With People, I learned an expression, “Harambee Africa” that means “Let’s pull together, Africa.” Well, let’s pull together, America, and be blessed with “el buen vivir.”
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between Vermont and Florida.