By Lisa Catterall
One exercise we had to do was to use a long list of “invisible privileges” to rate ourselves and our own privilege. It was painful on an empathetic level, and for me, as a woman, and as a person who identifies as bisexual, on a very direct level as well. Many of the privileges on the list are ones that I didn’t have due to one or both of those statuses in my own life.
Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do… nothing to kill or die for –John Lennon
At the beginning of this year, our administration announced that the school would focus on the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. We would have an assembly dedicated to the International Day of Peace on September 21, and we were given an explanation of all of the goals, why they are important, and how they were conceived of by the UN. I was impressed by how well each goal aligned with core learning objectives in engineering, in art, in science, in Spanish language, and in social science and literature classes.
I tried to think of a way that my science and engineering classes could participate in a one-hour assembly devoted to world peace and ending racism. This years’ peace focus is on racism. It seemed nebulous, as if I knew very well those two things were related, but I wasn’t able to clearly articulate exactly how. And I wasn’t sure what my kids could create in the Fab Lab (a fab lab is a Makers’ Studio, it’s short for “fabrication lab”) that would be meaningful. I also didn’t know how I’d get kids in their more tribal years of separating from adults to embrace the idea.
I thought back to my teacher training in “teaching in a multicultural society,” or something like that, when to everyone’s surprise, we spent an entire semester self-reflecting on our place in a systemically racist world. It was hard work. I’ve always wondered why that work doesn’t begin as soon as a preschooler sets foot in school. People assure me that it does, but I think it could be more direct. There’s no reason to leave a deep understanding of systemic racism to people with master’s degrees.
One exercise we had to do was to use a long list of “invisible privileges” to rate ourselves and our own privilege. It was painful on an empathetic level, and for me, as a woman, and as a person who identifies as bisexual, on a very direct level as well. Many of the privileges on the list are ones that I didn’t have due to one or both of those statuses in my own life. The most chilling ones to me were little, everyday privileges of race that I took for granted. Like that “flesh colored” band aids were my color. Everyone in that class was struck awake by different statements on the list. For example, as an openly gay couple, my wife and I have never once chosen a location to go on vacation without considering whether our family might be subject to prejudice or violence. Students in the class had similar and painful discoveries about both their privilege and their lack of privilege for many reasons, and it was difficult to be confronted with it.
There was no tool in that training I was sure I could share with younger students with the idea of exploring racism in our society. I didn’t feel equipped to help them through the difficult discoveries that are made in a class like that. When I listen to my high school students, I am sure they understand peace, war, violence and racism in a way I did not at their age, as they are living through a different time in history. I don’t know how deep that understanding goes in their psyche, and I don’t think my role is to peel them open and find out.
I began to search for inspiration all around me, and one walked in the door as an artist who works on our campus and builds and displays art made with Lego bricks. Lego are perfect for teaching kids how to build up interesting designs in single layers, just like a 3D printer does. This artist who walked in my room had created a beautiful bonsai tree with used Lego bricks, and I thought, we could build a peace garden!
I didn’t know what a “peace garden” really was, but it sounded cool, and like it must somehow fit the theme of the school for peace day. As I began to look into it, and look into how artists use Lego, and share these things with the kids, I was shocked at what happened in my classroom.
We discovered Ekow Nimako, a Ghanaian-Canadian artist who created an exhibit using only black Lego to make large faces reminiscent of African masks. The artist was exploring representation, and the lack of representation of black people in Lego. I played with Lego constantly growing up, and my children play with it. I was shocked to realize that no set we ever used had a black minifigure, or any representation of black or African culture. I am raising Latinx children, and they have never seen a Latinx minifigure in their many Lego sets. I went on eBay when they were babies and made certain their baby toys had representation, but Lego was a complete and total blind spot for me. My students all agreed and were very surprised as well.
Then we looked at peace gardens. I described the original vision of a peace garden, which was more than just a garden for contemplating and experiencing peace. The idea was for the garden to cross international borders, and for people in the garden to be able to freely walk back and forth between two nations as they explored the garden.
“Do you think someday there just won’t be any more borders?” asked a student.
Bingo. We are thinking about peace.
And about fear.
One definition of peace is that no human being on earth lives or walks in fear of violence. That simple sentence, to me, is the perfect articulation of why racism and peace are intertwined. My students and I agreed to think differently when we hear the word “racism.” Does it call to mind an image of a person the media would show us as “racist?” Or does it call to mind a person walking in fear? It felt like a call to action.
The classic adage “teach peace” is more urgent to me than ever after exploring this with my students. I am looking forward to commemorating the International Day of Peace.
Lisa Catterall teaches STEAM, math, science, and art at Mount Madonna School and is a senior associate of the Centers for Research on Creativity. She lectures and trains teachers and administrators on innovation in education in Beijing, China. Lisa has five children and lives in Santa Cruz County.