Teaching White Supremacy

About a week ago, I attended a lecture entitled Discussing White Supremacy in Academic Classrooms. White supremacy is far from new in the United States, but the topic has taken on a renewed vitality given the current level of national discourse. I’ll summarize the lecturer’s key points below, then talk a bit about the implications for classroom teachers.

The lecturer, Adele Norris from the University of Waikato, talked about the problems she and others members of her university’s sociology faculty had when discussing race with students. She identified two main tensions, experienced both in faculty planning meetings and in the classroom:

  • Epistemic Exploitation (Berenstein, 2016). According Nora Berenstain, the theory’s originator, “Epistemic exploitation occurs when privileged persons compel marginalized persons to educate them about the nature of their oppression.” Educators and students of color are often expected to do additional unpaid labor teaching white teachers and students how not to be racist. In addition, women and people of color are often expected to hold specific roles at schools based on the assumptions of others.
  • White Fragility (DiAngelo, 2016). White people often do not grow up with the discourse of race and are therefore uncomfortable with it. Teachers must help students understand that the goal of discourse is not to make people feel bad, but to, in Norris’ words, “change the racist system in which we are all drowning.”

Norris made a couple of suggestions for the future:

  • White supremacy is not widely theorized. If we are to end its influence on U.S. American society, it needs to be actively studied and productively discussed in academic circles.
  • Institutions must be consciously organized to limit epistemic exploitation. At Waikato, the sociology department reflected on its practices, then went through a reorganization to ensure lecturers did not lead courses assigned to them based on externally identified characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality.
  • We should not look at racism as a binary either/or. To be called out for being racist is a difficult thing, but it should not be the end of the world. If someone calls you racist, it is probably because you said or did something racist. It is a call to personal reflection and action. The trick is to learn from the experience instead of resorting to feelings of outrage and despair.

What implications does this have for classroom teachers in the United States? We need to familiarize ourselves with the discourses of race and racism and become comfortable talking about them with students. It is abundantly clear that many students in the U.S. are not critically engaging with topics on race and racism while at school, and this negatively impacts their ability to deal with them as adults.

What’s more – epistemic exploitation is a demonstrably real phenomenon. I’ve seen it in schools in the U.S. and in New Zealand, where African American, Maori, and Pacific teachers are often expected to go far beyond the classroom requirements of their job for no additional pay. Beyond the additional stress and pressure this can cause, it’s plain not fair. Schools need to critically examine how much they ask of their faculty, and ensure the workload is evenly distributed.

The resources exist for us to learn – all we have to do is prioritize finding them. Norris, Berenstain, and DiAngelo are just part of a long tradition which seeks to help Americans learn to love one another.

The stakes could not be higher. If we are to remake the U.S. as an anti-racist society, we must actively reflect on what we contribute to that society. We must actively counter racism in all its forms.

Finding the Village

It’s difficult to imagine, but I’ve hit the halfway point of my Fulbright Fellowship in Aotearoa New Zealand. I gave my mid-point presentation last Thursday, and thought I’d share what I talked about.

My project focuses on community-inclusive schooling. It’s cliché to say it takes a village to raise a child – but it’s also true. Many people are invested in a student’s education. Often, they work in isolation. Researchers suggest teaching practices. Politicians set policy. Principals formulate institutional goals. Teachers plan and execute lessons. Parents guide, love, and support. Friends and family offer help along the way.

If the people involved in raising a child don’t work together, where is the village? If there is no village, what of the child?

With my project, I hope to provide some support for the village.

Research Question

Over the past few months, my broad research goals have gained greater focus. Here’s my current question:

What meanings and practices do students, parents, and educators bring to community-inclusive education in Aotearoa New Zealand?

This question provides a limited observational focus within set groups of people. When looking at meanings, we are concerned with how people understand the world around them. What do teachers think about community-inclusive education? Do students believe that schools help serve their individual goals, or do they see class as a necessary evil on the way to football practice? Do parents have positive or negative associations with school buildings – and if so what does this mean for parent-teacher conferences?

When discussing practices, we look at how people actively engage with the world. If schools exist as co-created institutions, actively seeking the wisdom of their communities, what does this look like? How do teachers go about creating lessons informed by their place and space? What do students think teachers and schools should do to better meet their academic needs? How can parents – who themselves have limited time and resources – best involve themselves in their child’s education?

We aren’t just looking at what people think here – we’re looking at how they think they should act.

Observational Context

I’ve spent time at all secondary schools – and an important community organization – within one Wellington-region city. I made this decision based on my nine years working in the same Chicago community. Instead of taking snapshots of educational practices across the entire country, I want to gain a better understanding of what people are doing in one area. My hope is that not only will my findings be useful to the people in the local community, but that they can inform positive actions for my home school community.

Theoretical Perspective

My study focuses on three main pedagogical approaches, each of which must be considered if the others are to be fully understood.

  • Place-based education (PBE): pedagogy rooted in that which is (physically) local. PBE emerges from the concern that by focusing on a student’s developing global competence we neglect the actual communities in which people live (Lane-Zucker, Sobel, 2004).
  • Culturally-Relevant Pedagogy (CRP): pedagogy rooted in a teacher’s ability to make course content meaningful within a student’s cultural context (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Gay, 2010).
  • Critical Pedagogy of Place (CPP): an effort to align both environmental and cultural pedagogical practices (Greenwood, 2003).

The community is not just a physical or cultural space – it is the combination of the two. Cultures do not emerge from the ether – they are the way they are because of their physical surroundings.

It is not sufficient for us to simply know who our students are and where they come from. If we are to teach them well, we must actively involve their place and space in our curricular design.

Informal Observations

My data comes from educator interviews, student focus groups, and parent focus groups. While it is too early in my project to report any findings, the following themes are starting to emerge.

  • Schools are trying to use PBE and CRP. There is an awareness among educators that students learn best when their place and space are considered.
  • Teachers crave research and best practices. Teachers want to use the best methods available to help their students learn.
  • Students enjoy PBE and CRP practices. When students see their place and space considered at school, they are more likely to be engaged.
  • Parents perceive that teachers are trying – but are “ruled by assessment.” Parents know that teachers often don’t have time to do everything they’re asked to accomplish. They are frustrated, but don’t know how to change the situation.
  • Parents want more teachers with local knowledge. Parents believe there is a link between student success and how well a teacher knows the community.
  • Real funding problems inhibit full rollout of PBE and CRP. As always, so much about school comes down to money. Even when schools have been able to identify community resources, they may not be able to access them due to lack of funds. This could simply mean the inability to hire someone to act as a community liaison.

Next Steps

I am continuing my interviews and focus groups, with the goal of learning the perspective of as many community members as possible. I won’t be able to talk with everyone in my chosen city, but my hope is to learn as much as possible from as many people as possible.

It takes a village to raise a child. We all know many children. If we work together, maybe we can find the village.

Re-thinking schools: hours, training, partnerships, and money.

In a recent, probably well-intentioned move, Florida Sheriff Peter Grinnell offered to provide teachers in his county with 130 hours of firearms training. This got me thinking about four things that affect teachers across the country: hours, training, partnerships, and money.

Hours. Most teachers I know do not have an extra 130 hours available for firearms training. A recent study notes that US teachers spend far more time teaching and less time planning than teachers in other countries, a fact my Fulbright experience has directly confirmed. Before I even left the States, a Fulbright teacher from Singapore visited my school. He could not say enough positive things about my students, but the workload of teachers left him near tears. Imagine this scenario:

  • You are a social studies teacher at an average US high school. You teach 5 classes a day, including 3 sections of Grade 9 World Studies, 1 section of Grade 11 Economics, and 1 section of Grade 12 AP Comparative Government. How many hours of your day do you need to plan effectively for each of those classes? How many hours of your day should you spend planning for each of these classes?

A teacher with that load is looking at 25 instructional hours a week. If we operate under the traditional US 40-hour work week, that teacher has 15 hours remaining to them. Of course, other duties will take up perhaps 10 hours of that time, so let’s say 5 hours. Is that enough to effectively plan for each class? How much overtime should teachers be expected to work?

So: extra training in general is a good idea – but – we must restructure school days to provide for it.

Training. Any training added to a teacher’s schedule must inform their primary responsibility: supporting student academic growth. This should include additional content-area learning as well as pedagogical learning. If I want my students to learn, I cannot forget what it is to learn myself. Most teachers are motivated academics in their own right – you don’t become a math teacher unless you really freaking love math. If we give teachers access to training that makes them better content area experts and better facilitators of learning, they will jump at it – if given the time, that is.

So – who should schools partner with to provide ongoing learning opportunities for their teachers?

Partnerships. Not local sheriff departments. Teaching and learning are not the primary responsibilities of sheriff departments, and so any partnership with them would not support the primary goal of schools and teachers. Instead, schools must partner with other institutions of learning.

It is increasingly common for teachers to enter the profession with not just an undergraduate degree in education but also a master’s degree. Even teachers who find a school right after undergrad are motivated to go back to school and get their master’s. Teachers want individual relationships with institutions of higher education. Perhaps schools themselves should actively seek out more direct institutional partnerships.

We must consider the cost of such partnerships. My school has hired outside university consultants in the past, and the price tag can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. As our understanding of “good teaching” continues to evolve every year, this is not a sustainable proposition, especially when schools tend to be the first things de-funded by municipalities looking to save money.

Money. As with most things, access to money is the problem. However, we must refuse to acknowledge it as a deterrent to worthwhile academic partnerships. The US is the wealthiest country in the world. We’ve essentially solved the problems of war, disease and hunger. We have enough money to think creatively about academics, even if it is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very few.

As things stand, universities are big money institutions. Whether or not they carry the for-profit label, schools function as businesses. Students pay exorbitant tuitions each year, and they keep increasing. The NCAA – a college organization – earned more than $1 billion this past year alone. Universities are a brand, and the successful ones roll in money.

High schools, on the other hand, are not intended to turn a profit. They are intended to provide a tax-funded education to all students. They cannot afford to partner with for-profit institutions of any kind – including universities. Critical knowledge that can help teachers is often held captive behind a paywall, accessible only to the most privileged high schools.

We must redirect our wealth so that we all profit from it. Let’s start with schools.

Kids speak. We should listen.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, everyone wants to talk about gun violence. Why, they ask, does the U.S. have so much of it? Why do nearly a third of Americans own a gun? Why do young people have to lead the opposition against gun manufacturers and their paid lobbyists?

The first two questions are too complicated for a short blog post, but to the third I say: Why not young people?

Let’s think about this for a moment. Adults have proven themselves incapable of stopping tens of thousands of Americans from being shot and killed each year. These stats aren’t new, but they’re always worth re-stating. Every year US Americans can count 13,000 homicides by gun, 21,000 suicides by gun, and 80,000 human beings who’ve been shot in some non-fatal manner. This doesn’t count the people who’ve otherwise had their lives irrevocably altered by a gun – for example, the students at Stoneman Douglas who were not shot or killed on February 14.

Adults as a body politic are not taking action, so maybe someone else should take a crack at it. What’s more, we’ve got a long history in the US of disenfranchising our youth until they stand up for themselves. This may be another sea change moment. I hope it is.

Ultimately, the reason I’m in Aotearoa New Zealand is to look at how schools and communities partner to empower young people to become active participants in society. This is the true aim of a culturally-relevant, place-based education. Over the past couple of weeks, however, I’ve been thinking I need to tweak my focus. Students aren’t becoming members of society – they are members of society. We minimize the voice of young people at our peril – they often have their fingers closer to society’s pulse than we do.

The classes I’m taking at Victoria University of Wellington have helped me think about these issues. In one, we are looking at the way adult society both fetishizes and criminalizes youth. We want to stay superficially young while shouting down young people as inexperienced, immature, and perhaps dangerous. Whether this sense of superiority is based in pseudo-science (their brains aren’t even finished growing until they’re 25!) or purported life experience (you’ll understand when you’re older!), it exists. As teachers, we need to structure our classrooms so that students enter as full members, thus helping them understand that they are just as equally full members of our society as a whole.

In the other class, we are studying how teachers help students actively participate in their society. Joel Westheimer, building on the work of Paulo Freire, Ira Shor, and others, identifies three different types of citizens: Personally Responsible, Participatory, and Justice-Oriented. Each type of citizenship has value, but the latter two categories imply a greater focus on identifying effective solutions to larger societal issues. It’s wonderful to so publicly see students acting as Justice-Oriented citizens across the United States. It’s equally disheartening to see so many adults dismiss their voices and actively pass laws intended to make it both less appealing and more difficult for young people to be politically active. If the role of social science teachers is to assist students in their growth as citizens, we must question any society that seeks to counteract those efforts.

Of course, the United States is certainly not the only country to limit youth voice. It happens in New Zealand too. However, there is a growing movement in the country to lower the voting age to sixteen. Whether or not it actually happens, it is an interesting proposition. Some point out that young people appear to be single-issue voters, but the same could be said for adult voters who evaluate candidates solely on their stance on abortion or gun rights. Others simply want to shrink the electorate rather than expand it – and young people certainly tend to lean more toward one end of the political spectrum than the other. The point is that the conversation is happening in earnest, with editorials written by young people popping up in the national news and politicians left and right forced to comment.

Whether or not we allow young people to vote, their voices must be part of the national conversation. They are not becoming people, they are people. It’s time we recognize that fact.

Urban Tramping: A close-up of Wellington’s environmental recovery

Fur Seals and Ocean Views on a tramp through the south of Wellington.

As my friend Amanda writes, it is easy for Aotearoa to become a beautiful blur. I’ve done and experienced so many things in my short time in Wellington that it’s hard to keep everything straight. Today I’ll focus on one thing – a tramp through the city to see the Red Rocks and Sinclair Head fur seal colony. On the way, we’ll learn a bit about New Zealand’s history and a lot about its environmental struggle.

To get to the reserve, I had to either take a bus or walk two hours through a part of Wellington I’d never seen. With nothing but gorgeous green around every corner, I figured the extra miles couldn’t hurt. I was right – well, mostly. But we’ll get to that.

IMG_5945a

I started up in the hills of Kelburn, the central suburb where I’m staying for the first couple months of the fellowship. Much of Wellington outside the CBD is situated on hills like this. Steep inclines are just a fact of life here.

 

IMG_5951

One of the neat things about Wellington is the Town Belt – a stretch of nature reserves set aside in 1840 which surrounds the city. Much of it – like this section – is undergoing work to ensure that native flora and fauna survive. This means removing invasive species like possums and ship rats by setting traps – like I saw two women doing in the woods at the top of these steps.

IMG_5954a

After a brief moment under the trees I found myself in Tanera Park – just another green space in a city that has so many.

IMG_5962

After the park it was onward to Ōwhiro Road, a street which stretches onward to the ocean, ending in the suburb of Ōwhiro Bay. The name – pronounced OH-fear-oh – means a couple of different things in Te Reo Māori depending on where you look. Google Translate spits out “embedded” when you type in Ōwhiro. Not quite believing this, I headed to the online Māori Dictionary and its extensive list of sources. Its definition, “moon on the first night of the lunar month,” sounds much better.

IMG_5977

About half way down Ōwhiro Road I started to see metal creations like this guy. I thought it was a little out of the blue at the time, but they made a lot more sense when I turned a corner and saw this:

IMG_5984

Yup – that’s the Wellington City Council Southern Landfill. The trash sculptures and garbage trucks I’d seen with increasing frequency made a lot more sense now. It’s not something we think about much – where does all this garbage we produce go? Until a recent ban on the importation of foreign waste went into effect, New Zealand sent much of its garbage – over $15 million USD worth – to China for recycling. The country will have to figure out a new plan for its trash. For now, Wellington’s Southern Landfill accepts “green waste, household hazardous waste, and electrical waste,” and appears to have robust composting and “second treasures” programs. Will the change in Chinese policy require it to change what it accepts? The answer remains unclear at the moment. What is clear is that like other places, New Zealand must cut its production of non-biodegradable waste. There just isn’t much room for garbage in a country the size of the state of Michigan.

IMG_5980

To deepen your sense of environmental despair, immediately opposite the landfill is the little Ōwhiro Stream, which – as a sign proclaims – is maintained by its friends. Unfortunately, despite their efforts, the stream has been contaminated by construction and demolition waste from the landfill. The landfill’s operators, T&T Landfills, were investigated for the contamination and have been fined, but locals continue to report problems with the stream. When I walked by, the area certainly smelled sweet and metallic – indicators of ammonia, magnesium, and iron in the water. The scent lingered as I continued down Ōwhiro Road (which changed its name to “Happy Valley Road” around the entrance to the landfill), passing beautiful houses built into the rolling hills. Rolling hills with what looked like white vents set at their peaks.

IMG_5987

At the next intersection I received my first reminder that, no matter how similar the environmental issues I saw were to those back home, I was definitely not in Chicago. This was the first of many earthquake and tsunami safety markings I saw along my hike. The whole area lies right on the Wellington fault, just one of many fault lines in the region. The image below (produced by GNS Science for the website Te Ara) gives a good view of the fault:

Wellington Fault Line

The 1855 Wairarapa Earthquake struck along this fault. At 8.2 on the Richter Scale – the largest quake ever recorded in Aotearoa – it fundamentally altered Wellington’s  landscape. Nowadays, people mostly remember it for raising the city center, creating the perfect surface for a train route around the bay and, more importantly, a cricket ground. It’s true – with less than ten people killed, the Wairarapa quake sounds relatively benign in terms of lives lost. My midwestern brain, conditioned to expect land to be flat and stationary, found all these signs warning me to watch whether or not the WATER HAS RECEDED AN UNUSUAL DISTANCE FROM THE SHORE and if so to HEAD FOR HIGH GROUND to be relatively terrifying.

DSC_0006a

Luckily, the view of Ōwhiro Bay was worth it. The rocky beach is part of the Taputeranga Marine Reserve, which runs along the coast for something like 10 kilometers. On the reserve, all marine life in the sea and on the foreshore are protected. In Ōwhiro Bay, this mostly means gulls.

DSC_0030a

Yes – those gulls. But, as fellow Fulbrighter Abby McBride (a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow) reminds us, there’s more than just one kind of gull. I believe I saw all three of New Zealand’s species, including the black-backed gulls pictured above, just on the beach, along with a group of variable oystercatchers.

DSC_0054a

The nearby visitor’s center had some helpful, terrifying advice.

DSC_0055a

But led to more excellent views.

DSC_0059a

The entire Tuputeranga Marine Reserve is a former quarry, as you can see from the cuts along the hills visible in the photo above. The Tonks family first collected shale from the beach, then later started the quarry operation in the early 1900’s. The quarry ran for years, but eventually the public grew concerned about the operation’s impact on the environment. Perhaps more importantly, the government wanted to remove quarrying from such a visible spot along the coastline. They bought the land from the Swiss conglomerate that owned it in 2000.

DSC_0067

The quarry’s impact on the area is clear. What is less visible is the human history of the bay. Signs at the park indicate that the Ngāti Mamoe iwi lived along the coast for 150 years, but left around 1460 CE, possibly in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake which caused what is now the Miramar Peninsula – then an island – to collide with the rest of Wellington.

karaka

Whatever the case, the Ngāti Mamoe and their successors planted karaka trees for their fruit. The berries of the karaka – seen above in this photo from the NZ news aggregator Stuff – produce a potent neurotoxin which can be fatal if ingested. The Ngāti Mamoe and other Māori iwi developed ways to prepare the berries to avoid the toxin, and the fruits look bright and smell sweet, a bit like dates. Still, it’s best to stay away from this beautiful tree.

DSC_0079

Back to the walk – the waves along this portion of the coast really are quite violent. But still, there are some people who live out this way, at least seasonally.

DSC_0088

At the foot of this hill is a bach house, the New Zealand answer to a holiday hideaway. Pronounced “batch,” three groups of these homes can be found throughout Tuputeranga. Though the origins of the name are obscure, their history is not. The ones in the reserve have been designated as “historic” by the NZ Historic Places Trust, and date back to 1910. One was even used as a supply depot during WWII.

DSC_0076a

Past the bachs was another of the landmarks on my hike, the Red Rocks, or Parwhero in Te Reo Māori. Science tells us that the coloration of these rocks is a result of the collision between the Pacific and the Australian Plate – the very forces which created New Zealand itself. Essentially, the land folded in upon itself, causing immense pressure on the basalt in the area. As the land eroded over time, these now-red rocks were exposed to the elements.

DSC_0081a

As is often the case, the Māori have a better story, and like so many this one involves Maui. In this story, Maui, “the greatest trickster hero of Polynesian mythology,” steals his grandmother’s jawbone in order to go fishing. He’d forgotten bait, so he punched himself in the nose, then smeared the resulting blood over the jawbone-hook. The red of the rocks, according to this story, is the red of Maui’s blood. The fish he caught? That’s the North Island of New Zealand, known in Te Reo Māori as Te Ika a Maui, the Fish of Maui.

Two other stories involve the hero Kupe. In one, Kupe cut his hand on a shell, staining the rocks red. In another, the red is the blood of Kupe’s neices, who mourned him so violently when he died that they cut themselves on the spot.

DSC_0124

Despite the violence of the myths, this section of the tramp is peaceful and flat. That doesn’t mean the name’s aren’t dramatic, as the gap known as Devil’s Gate shows us. The name itself is far more hellish than the terrain around it.

DSC_0123

The biggest danger, in fact, comes from the fact that people are allowed to take their vehicles through the rocky outcrop. As with everywhere in New Zealand, there’s a sign present reminding you that if you do something silly with a car not rated for this sort of environment, ther will be consequences.

DSC_0118

On the other side of the Devil’s Gate I found what I’d come for – the Sinclair Head fur seal colony. I’d been warned that I’d smell the seals long before I saw them, but this definitely was not the case during my visit. A strong breeze kept me upwind of the seals, so when I emerged from the Devil’s Gate I was shaken to find this guy resting on a rock fifteen feet away from me. I’d been warned by signs at the visitor center to stay “twenty meters away from the fur seals, or FARTHER AWAY THAN THIS ROOM IS LONG.” This was clearly not going to work out.

DSC_0101

The seals just lay there, however, sunning peacefully. It was serene, sitting with the sun on my face, watching these wholly alien creatures in this alien environment. I’d almost forgotten that I was in a tsunami-earthquake deathtrap.

DSC_0120

I could have sat peacefully for a while longer, but the slanting sunlight and the passage of the Cook Strait Inter-Island Ferry reminded me that it was getting late, the tide would come in eventually, and I had a long ways to go. There is such a thing as enough history and hiking for one day.

Map

By the time I got to a nearby brewpub for a much-needed burger and a pint, I’d gone around nineteen kilometers in six hours or so, counting stops to take photos and find the closest tsunami escape routes.

In all, you might just take the bus down and start from the trailhead, but I’ve always found there’s no better way to learn about a city than to walk it. By wearing out the soles of my shoes rather than a bus seat, I saw a truer picture of New Zealand’s environmentalism than I would have otherwise received. Plus – what’s a selfie in front of a big blue ocean if you haven’t got one of you sweating next to a parked car as well?

IMG_5949

Walk on.

 

 

Melbourne Music

I’m finally in Wellington, and soon this blog will become all New Zealand, all the time. Before that happens, I’d like to wrap up one last little thing about my time in Australia. Whether I’m in Chicago or abroad, I’m always on the lookout for a good concert. As it turns out, Melbourne is an incredible town for music. Take this as a “you should check this out” post, no more, no less.

After the march and rally I took part in on 1/26, I saw six different bands between the Share the Spirit Festival in Treasury Gardens and the GIVE IT BACK! Survival/Invasion Day Benefit Concert at The Tote. Now, I’m no music critic, but most of the bands I saw have limited exposure in the U.S., and they’re all worth a listen.

IMG_5526

The first song I heard wasn’t live, but rather blasted from a pair of speakers mounted in the back of the ute at the front of the march (you can see it way at the back of the above photo). Everyone knew it but me – Treaty by Yothu Yindi, a group made up of Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australians.

Treaty was written to commemorate an unfulfilled promise. Unlike other first nations groups (most relevant to my current situation, the Maori in New Zealand), Aboriginal Australians do not have a treaty with their country’s government. Whether or not similar governments have followed the treaties they make, the call for a treaty in Australia was loud and clear during the march and rally on Invasion/Australia Day. In 1990, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised such a treaty, but one has yet to be ratified.

Yothu Yindi’s frontman, Mandawuy Yunupingu, was first and foremost a teacher. He served as Australia’s first Aboriginal school principal, and worked to develop a culturally-appropriate pedagogy for his students. Treaty, his most famous song, is the perfect mix of message and music, with the driving refrain breaking up lyrics in English and Gumatj, backed by guitar and didgeridoo. For me it was a history lesson.

I followed the ute to the Share the Spirit Festival, which served as a necessary come-down from the events of the march and rally. Chants and speeches were replaced with informational booths, food trucks, and musical acts, none of which disappointed.

The first act I saw live was Kaiit, who had a bit of a Lauryn Hill feel and idolized Amy Winehouse. Here’s her big song, Natural Woman, which is an ear-worm if I’ve ever heard one.

She’s got other songs worth checking out, including the subdued 2000 n somethin, a meditation the artist’s space in the world. In the video, Kaiit wears a Free West Papua shirt, a cause which she mentioned during the show.

I listened to a couple of songs by Dan Sultan, who played solo electric without a band. At the festival his voice was set to ballad and his guitar was set to crunchy. His stuff with a band – like the song Kingdom – may give a more complete understanding of what he’s about.

Closing out the Share the Spirit festival was a Philly, an Aboriginal Australian rapper from Mildura, 500 km northwest of Melbourne. He brought energy and political commentary to the stage, though he had to settle for “featured” in the most important song his group performed on the day – Australia Does Not Exist.

Philly stood on his own on tracks like Dreamchaser, which you can hear in a studio session here. Other tracks focused on themes far too familiar to Americans – police brutality and the struggle for equality in an unequal nation. Sadly, Black Lives Matter is as necessary a statement in Australia as it is in the United States.

After the festival ended, I had two options: find a way to watch the Australian Open, or head to the Tote for more music. I chose the latter. Though it’s late and I’m too tired to do them the justice I’ve tried to do the above musicians, each of the following is worth at least a few minutes of your time.

  • MoonloverMy notes from the night tell me they were something of an early-’90’s Radiohead mixed with Bowie. Thou Shall Be Free is a representative track with dreamy guitar and lazy layered vocals, though most of what they played at the concert was more up-tempo.
  • Dave Arden. A living history lesson, Arden actually took the stage twice (the second time when Philly didn’s show up for his evening set) with two different bands of Aboriginal Australian artists. He was at turns hilarious and thought-provoking. Listen to Kookatha/Gunditjamara Clan, in which he layers a story about his roots atop driving acoustic guitar.
  • Squid Nebula. Questionable name, good band. That’s their picture at the top of this post. Really enjoyed the singer’s mellow voice and the professional rhythm section. I was ready to ignore the two guitar players until each ripped off a more than serviceable solo. Try Ricochet.

If you’ve read this far, hope you found something you liked to listen to – I certainly did. If I had to pick two musicians to keep following from this group, it would be Philly and Kaiit. Each packs a vital energy and essential voice that I’d love to hear more of. More than anything else, my time in Melbourne reminded me that it’s always worth keeping your ears open for new music. You never know what you’ll find.

Invasion

“Remember that you are standing on the lands of the Kulin Nation.”

I heard this statement in a video near the end of my trip through the Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Center. The center is named for Bunjil – the creator deity of south-eastern Australia. Literally, it means “the place of Bunjil,” and is meant to emphasize the continued existence and evolution of Australia’s Aboriginal people. Throughout my four days in Melbourne, I observed the active nature of this existence, and the struggle Aboriginal people face every day just to have their rights recognized in their own land.

Among the most visible signs of that struggle is the fight over Australia Day. Australia’s official national holiday falls on January 26 every year and commemorates the 1788 arrival of the first British fleet in what would become Sidney. It has been a controversial holiday throughout its history, and in 1938 was accompanied for the first time by an organized Aboriginal Day of Mourning. To many Australians, it’s an excuse for a family barbecue. For Aboriginal Australians, it marks the invasion of their countries, and carries different names: Survival Day, and more prominently during my visit, Invasion Day.

As an American, the date brought to my mind the celebration of October 12 as Columbus Day in the United States, and the recent movement to rename it Indigenous Peoples Day. But even that is not quite right – our national holiday, after all, is Independence Day, July 4. Australia Day is a combination of the two, the celebration of a nation on the very date which saw its original people conquered.

In Melbourne, the holiday took three major public forms.

  • An official parade would start with a flag raising in front of the Melbourne Town Hall and continue down Swanston Street and St. Kilda Road
  • A “far-right beach party” run by organizations like the True Blue Crew, a self-professed Pro-Australian, anti-Islamization group.
  • The Invasion Day rally and march, starting on the steps of Parliament (which is in Wurundjeri Country) and continuing down Bourke Street to Town Hall.

After my visit to the Bunjilaka Center, I chose to attend the Invasion Day rally.

IMG_5485

It was peaceful, heartfelt, and huge. Official estimates place the crowd at 60,000 people, more than the other celebrations. At the end, we listened to speeches by Aboriginal Australian leaders, including Gary Foley, a former Australian Black Panther who follows in the footsteps of Marcus Garvey, and Jenny Munro, a Wiradjuri elder. You can see video I took of Foley’s speech here, and of Munro’s speech here (though sadly you won’t see much of her face due to my angle). Both activists helped found Aboriginal “tent embassies” in Canberra and Redfern to promote aboriginal rights.

Both speeches were full of equal parts optimism, humor, and anger. Munro spoke of voting for politicians who resist the “white virus” brought by European settlers who felt they had a right to land held by Aboriginal Australians.

And it is a virus,” she said, “and it was and is as insidious as the chicken pox they introduced to us here. It will kill you if you let it. The virus is called racism. The virus is a sickness that make people think they’re better than other people by virtue of money, stolen wealth, stolen gain. We all stand the same way, we all sit the same way, we all shite the same way. Nothing different about us.”

Overall, Munro struck a conciliatory tone. “The only way you can stand on your own true feet and be proud is to embrace the truth, and not deny history. Learn from the mistakes of history and then we can go on and build a land we can truly call our home for all of us.”

Foley emphasized the importance of studying the past. An activist for most of his life, Foley entered a degree program in history at the University of Melbourne when he was nearly fifty, “because that’s where I considered some of the worst of the academic historians who were distorting our history [were].” He worried that the work of Aboriginal Australian activists had been misrepresented, and perhaps worse, forgotten. By earning a degree, he hoped to share his history with younger people, something which he was able to do, first at Melbourne University and later at Victoria University.

Foley lectured like a historian, peppering his speech with colorful language to draw reactions from the crowd. “In 1972 with the Black Power movement and the Aboriginal Embassy, we had Australian politicians shitting themselves, running for cover. They feared the movement we had created. And the movement that we had created was like this – I can see it today. The government cannot ignore this sort of protest, cannot ignore this sort of movement.”

Both speakers made me think of my project – about ensuring that the history we teach in American high schools includes multiple perspectives, especially those outside the dominant culture. For many people at the protest, myself included, the history of the Aboriginal Rights movement in Australia was completely foreign. As Munro said, it is only by learning the history of a land that all people can come together and work for a better future. We ignore the stories and knowledge of those around us at our peril.

As Aboriginal Australian singer Dave Arden put it later that night, on stage at the gloriously grungy old music club The Tote, “Once you’ve eaten honey from the wild bee, then you can come talk to me.” Arden’s ancestors have lived in Australia for 60,000 years. The knowledge they passed down about the land should not be forgotten by its modern government. Eat the wild honey. Learn the history of the land and its people. By doing so we will better understand our space and our time, and make it better for all of us.

IMG_5563