My mother’s family had a genius for upcycling. Their county roads were scraped dirt, so driving in severe weather was scary and daring, particularly in the school bus and particularly since the drivers were high school seniors. If the bus strayed from its well-worn ruts, the dirt road became a Slip ’n Slide, landing the delighted riders in a ditch.
When the buses had lived out their useful lives, they were auctioned off to local citizens. My grandfather had one towed to their farm. Remove the long center bench, and the children had a playhouse with accommodations for 20. After the kids aged out of tea parties, the vehicle transformed again. Into a chicken tractor.
The genius of upcycling is the ability to peel off the label of what we call something to see the thing as it actually is. A free-range imagination takes it from there.
This spring Hidden Voices hosted a preview of “None of the Above: Dismantling the school to prison pipeline.” High school and college students presented monologues crafted from interviews with students, teachers, advocates, judges, inmates. The audience heard of children arrested for talking back, for defending a younger sibling, for bumping into a teacher. One young middle-school student brought a knife to school to “do suicide” on herself. A worried girlfriend brought her to the office. The student was suspended and sent to court for bringing a weapon to school.
These troubling stories are common as dirt. They aren’t flukes of the system; they are the system. Afterward, listeners asked, “What can we do?” One student presenter answered, “You have to start with yourself; you have to change your own relationship to these the issues first.”
“Yes, of course,” the audience responded, “But what can we do?”
Who doesn’t like to move as quickly as possible from personal responsibility to action? We don’t want to change ourselves; we want to rush out and change someone else. The work of changing ourselves requires questioning our personal role in creating the problems we wish to solve. It requires that we move out of our comfortable ruts and into a slippery unknown. We may get hurt. The ditches are deep.
Recently in a windowless classroom, around some seminar tables, I witnessed a fumbling journey along this unpaved landscape. The class looked like a random sampling for jury duty. About one-fourth were African-Americans; one-third were non-traditional students: mothers with nearly grown children, a police officer, an EMT, a social worker, a veteran, a man with a felony conviction. All around the same table.
The students discussed justice, race, poverty, and incarceration. An older black student recounted The Conversation, wherein parents instructed their sons exactly what to say when they were stopped by the police. Another student responded that she recently initiated The Same Conversation with her own young boys. You will be stopped. It is dangerous.
A middle-aged white woman confessed that these discussions were troubling. I thought we had gotten past all this. I had no idea things were still so bad. Another white student insisted that we just needed to move on. Forgive and forget, someone offered. Another student responded, Forgiveness requires memory.
Forgiveness also requires relationship. The fact that we have no idea how bad it is, in our schools or in our neighboring communities, is exactly why we can’t move on. To move on, we must know who is wounded and how they got so wounded and what our responsibility is in healing that wound. How do I restore the balance of community? How do I restore relationship?
Months later, a student caught up her courage and shared that every male in her family had been a member of the Klan. She never expected to tell anyone. What a weight off her heart.
The African-American student with a felony conviction revealed just how much skin he had in the game. He spoke about his childhood and how the discussion issues bore fruit in his own life. How the children tried to function with the power cut off; how his mother worked three jobs and was never home before midnight; how they were often hungry. But he noted they were fortunate, too. On their walk to school, the children passed a McDonald’s and were able to pull food from the Dumpster to eat.
The police officer finally spoke. How is it possible we send thousands upon thousands of dollars to other countries to fight starvation when we have children digging in Dumpsters for food? What kind of society forces its own children to eat trash?
We seem to cycle around and around the same old wounds. But perhaps we aren’t repeating the same mistakes so much as re-working them. The issues are the same but we are not. Life in relationship requires that we take the difficult waste of our lives and upcycle it into something rich and unexpected. When certainty collapses, curiosity can grow. Instead of being overwhelmed by the wounds of the world, we are inspired by the connections. These are not students who will change the future. These are students who already did.
Lynden Harris is the founder of Hidden Voices. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org