Speech on a "Pedagogy of Compassion" 04/25/2015

On April 25, 2015 I spoke to a group of United Methodist Women in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They are part of a service organization that engages with various social mission throughout the city. I was the speaker for their Quarterly Meeting. I spoke about my engagement with the work of Sistema, music education, and social justice. (Sistema is an after-school and full scholarship music program that serves youth and families who can benefit from an intensive, disciplined, and joyful approach to education.) I focused on sharing several ideas. One that resonated was the role a pedagogy of compassion plays in redefining priorities for education. Here is an excerpt of my speech which I have recently revised to follow an essay format:

You will recognize these words: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” These are the words of John Wesley. His teachings were instrumental in the founding of Methodism and they continually inspire many to think in terms of offering their lives as instruments of service in a spirit of social action or communal fraternity.

We need to think service in terms of a pedagogy of compassion. Such pedagogy may not just apply to the work of Sistema or music education but can spill over in and through other service missions. So many projects that you are already part of. In order to discern our role in nourishing compassion, we need to take a hard look at the reality of our world. Not in the way the famous actress Gwyneth Paltrow was challenged by the Food Bank of New York and sought out to live on $29 a week for food and then failed what turned out to be a widely broadcasted publicity stunt. Not like that. I am talking about getting to know people at the core of their humanity. Yet getting to know people also means suffering with them. That can be difficult for so many of us. Where should we start? Nelson Mandela said, that human compassion must bind us to one another—not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future. Let’s pause and ponder the words. I invite you to explore those ideas. What does a pedagogy of compassion really entail? Does it entail experimenting with whether you can survive on little money for food or really getting to know people at the core of their humanity? And to suffer along with them. Those who are in service to others cannot ever pontificate from a pedestal. You might fight in the trenches, be in the trenches. Before my speech today, someone asked me whether I had an assistant to take Sistema student applications to schools or do some of the things that directors don’t have time to do? I said that I did not need such help. I need to take those applications myself. See the Principals, meet with parents, and speak to teachers. I need to meet them face to face so that I can feel who they are. To understand where our participants come from. I need to know the needs that inhabit their being. Because when I do that I realize that I have a lot to learn. We can all learn from one another. As we do, we come to cultivate a richness, an affluence of the Spirit as a community and as people. Even as we struggle and also as we thrive together.

As an educator, it is very important for me to engage with social contexts. What are some of the challenges that students living in poverty today face? I am asking about Tulsa, and Chicago and Philadelphia and the inner cities across the country. The Harvard Center for the Developing Child has uncovered many of these general challenges. The list several and include environments of violence in neighborhoods where there are almost daily thefts and drive-by shootings. Chronic parental neglect not because of choice, but because parents must work extra shifts and have other jobs to make ends meet; and they can’t see their children to bed, or read them a story, or sing them a lullaby. And then there is economic uncertainly. These all can become toxic stressors that impede proper brain development. The stressors have an impact in the development of executive functions, the brain’s air traffic control system, if you will. Working memory, mental flexibility, and inhibitory control are all essential tools that young people need to succeed later in life as they go to school, engage with their families, and play soccer at the local league. Here in Tulsa, George Kaiser is working to alleviate some of those challenges by providing a robust services platform for children between 0-3 years of age. This is the time when brain architecture is developed and is a crucial moment to invest to change the trajectory of child’s cognitive and emotional capabilities. This is important.

I hear educational leaders talk about the need to improve test scores and build better school infrastructures as if these could improve in a year or two. It doesn’t work like that. There are no magic wands to achieve instant success. We first need to understand where people are coming from. And then work with them and suffer with them. We have a lot of challenges. One of such challenges is segregation in our schools. Years after the civil rights movement, we the people have still have not achieved the ideals of equality and justice that all rightfully and unequivocally deserve. As I travel to schools in Tulsa, I see schools that are made up of a large number of minorities, sometimes up to 90 percent. And this is due in part because there is residential segregation. This of course is a larger issue that merits revision into many archaic public policies. Richard Rothstein has written eloquently about this and has expressed that social and economic disadvantage—not only poverty, but also a host of associated conditions—depresses student performance and that "concentrating students with these disadvantages in racially and economically homogenous schools depresses it even further." As we are building the Sistema Tulsa program, I’ve been very much aware of this phenomenon. And I ask myself, if we are truly looking to seek a social change through music education and believe that the orchestra can be a model for integration and social inclusion, shouldn’t we bring students together to play from all walks of life, rich and poor? So we are finding schools that together would strike that balance. Yet when I mentioned Lee Elementary to a few people, a school known for its maturity and perceived higher economic affluence, I received criticism. “Isn’t your Sistema program, an initiative for the poor?” they said. I believe this criticism was unfounded and lacked seriousness or understanding. I explained that our logic follows a research based approach and belief that if we integrate disadvantaged with more privileged students we can help narrow the achievement gap. Rothstein further explains that if we were to only focus on those students who are challenged the consequences of disadvantage would be exacerbated. So we must work towards inclusion not just in the orchestra but in the universe of our daily conversations, work spaces, and positions of leadership.

Not too long ago, I visited Chouteau Elementary to promote our program as part of a formal presentation. As I walked out of the room a family of Hispanic descent stopped me and asked, “Are you Mexican?” I said yes, my parents grew up in Mexico. Their eyes light up and I could sense that the little girl felt very proud about this. All of a sudden there was validation towards her heritage and in being able to feel that she can play a part in shaping the fabric of her own community. This also reminds me of the need to be role models for children. Especially teenage boys who because of their engagement with video games or music videos might develop a distorted view of the world and their role in it. (There aren’t that many male teachers in our schools. A recent study concluded that 1 of 10 Elementary level teachers is male. We need to encourage more participation because strong male role models are an important piece of the educational process.)

Speaking of views that shape habits of minds, I am also concerned about the amount of standardized testing that goes on at our schools. A few days ago, I sat as a monitor to the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test or OCCT and I learned much from this experience. I was also reminded of Paulo Freire’s luminous book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” as he warns socially conscious educators of employing any kind of activity that might have the potential to depreciate students. Every year, as test results come in to schools that are at-risk or disadvantaged their report cards tell them that they have made very little or no gains whatsoever. A letter grade of F is issued, and as a result, the community becomes demoralized. This tells them, as Freire contends, that “they’re good for nothing” and with time “they finally believe it.” This is a very dangerous educational practice. We must do everything we can to turn these flawed perceptions of non-aspiration around. This where I think music education can play a liberating role by recognizing each person as an asset, including them in an experience far greater than themselves, and weaving them into the fabric of beauty. And as they work hard to sound better they come to the quiet and spiritual realization that "nothing will work unless they do" (wise words from Maya Angelou). I think this is what compassion is all about. The British poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote a poem that I really like and I think it reflects the kind of feelings I’d like to impress upon you today:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

The bird is such a compelling metaphor as for everyone must find their voice and their passion and then sing it out loud to the world. As compassionate people, we must be there to help make that happen and feel that our song is bound up with theirs in the darkest and brightest passages of harmony. Even in the midst of our condition, I am still hopeful. And I hope that you will be too because we need people like you to help others understand how to make our communities a better and much richer place.

-Jose Luis

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