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“Help me”...”help you”...

Updated: Feb 7, 2021


Sometimes these morning reflections are short journeys through brief glimpses, and other days they meander through big thoughts. This another one of the “big thought” meandering days.

I meditate for a short while early in my day. I close my eyes, often I listen to a guided meditation, but in general the constant that I return to is the breath. I was going to say “my breath”, but I realized that it is not mine, it is simply something that is happening, and when I choose, I can be aware that it is happening.

Years ago, I became aware that stopping to notice breath was helpful in moments when I was experiencing overwhelm, or overload. I would often feel this in work situations. I had set myself up for this dynamic by what I had chosen to do for “work”. The truth is that I was always at risk of being overwhelmed by “imposter syndrome”. I really felt that I did not know much, and this was built into the design of choices I had made.

In the early 1980s I had been drawn to the practice of group facilitation. I was interested in creating positive social change, but I knew that I, personally, did not know what needed to be done. I did however, sense that we could create collective solutions, just as much as we could create collective problems.

Around that time I became aware of movements for social change that had been emerging for decades in Latin America, and in particular the education of the “campesinos”, the people who lived and farmed in the rural countryside, growing crops and raising livestock to survive. The campesinos had either grown up without education, or had been poorly educated, and as a result many were illiterate, unable to read or write, and with no access to materials to read.


Changing the conditions that people lived in would require “education” of the people. Educators who cared about improving conditions for living and working, would travel to the countryside and enter into an educational relationship with the campesinos, with one of the goals being that people would learn how they could access and provide knowledge through literacy.

These educators (inspired by the work of Paolo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”) knew that the absence of skills in reading and writing, could not be equated with absence of knowledge and wisdom. The campesinos’ life and history was full of knowledge, ingenuity, and creativity, just not literacy.


At the same time as I was learning about this in Latin America, my friend (and mentor) Jack Pearpoint, was the President of Frontier College, Canada’s oldest adult literacy organization, reaching out to lumber camps, prisons, and the street youth in Toronto. In 1898, the founder of Frontier College, Alfred Fitzpatrick, built the organization on the founding principle:


"Whenever and wherever people shall have occasion to congregate, then and there shall be time, place, and the means of their education.”

The stories of educators in Latin America grabbed my attention. They would travel to the countryside and engage in assisting people to learn to read and write, through a process that would include “conscientización”, raising “critical consciousness” through reflection and action (based in Friere’s work), building upon the lived experience of the campesinos, serving as a means of introducing written language, words and concepts, at the same time people would explore meaningful action that could address the circumstances of their lives.


Educators would bring whatever resources they could find and carry to the countryside, including newspapers, tape, markers, pencils. pens, etc. They would gather people together, and engage in group conversations to raise the consciousness of the circumstances that people found themselves in. They would ask questions, have people tell stories about where they live, how they got there, and what life is like. They would listen to what people would say, and draw large simple "back of a napkin" style pictures and diagrams to capture what was being said in ways that everyone participating could see what they were collectively saying. They would add words to the pictures, to introduce written language to knowledge and meaning of things they had shared.


These conversations and pictures created would serve as a launching pad for decisions about what the people gathered could “do” about their circumstances; what actions could be agreed upon and tried, and then return to engage in conversation about how the story changed as a result of what they did.


This idea of conversation, listening, and creating pictures that reflect what is being said, to raise our collective consciousness, has captured my imagination and become one of the practices that I have engaged in for more more than 35 years.


In a world that seems to value “expertise” and knowledge, my “way” and this practice, often leaves me with my own version of “imposter syndrome”. Organizations, businesses, and governments, will pay for “knowledge and expertise”, but the truth is that I neither feel that I am an expert, or even knowledgable, about what must be done for people and organizations to experience their own version of success.

My “way” of doing assumes I don’t know. It starts with a blank page. I am more likely to live in questions than answers. I am more likely to dwell in “why” would we do something than “what” we will do. But we live in a world that often seems uninterested in why, and only interested in what and how, so much so that we get lost in a pile of more to do lists, with no real understanding about why we spend so much time and money on what we do in the ways we do it.

So getting back to where I started this morning...


I often find myself in the place of unknowing when knowing is expected and valued. For years it was an anxiety provoking experience. To deal with the intensity of feeling that would show up, I began developing my own spiritual survival practice, breathing in, and out. As I would breathe in I would say “help me”, and as I would breathe out I would say “help you”. In...“help me”, out... “help you”. I would do it long enough to notice that “me” and “you” is just “us”, and “we” can step into the unknowing to discover the richness of what we know, and what we can do about it.


Nothing much changes except that which can change when I notice I am breathing before I take the next step.

Winona Laduke speaking at OMEGA 2014

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