Our Journey is Our Story

You know a conference has left an impact when you find yourself itching to write while on the early morning flight home. On my 16-hour travel, I continue to think about and process the experience at the first joint conference of CACUSS and ARUCC.

I blogged on Day 1 of my professional learning journey, sharing how much I valued and was humbled by the opportunity to connect with the ancestral, unceded land of the Mi’kmaq people as I walked a part of the Confederation Trail. The walk centered my mind and provided me with a clear intention for the conference.

Stated simply, I was blown away by the depth of learning, vulnerability, and authenticity that was shared at this week’s CACUSS-ARUCC conference in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. On a more personal note, going into the conference with a very clear intention, I am humbled by the peaks and valleys that I know I will encounter on my personal learning journey to examine my settler/colonial assumptions and biases.

Sitting in Circle

My conference journey began literally on the road. I drove 1000 km from my home to Thompson Rivers University where I learned with the wonderful Faculty of Student Development team. In circle, I shared my name and where I’m from. We were a large group and it took almost an hour to go around the circle one time. I felt myself getting a little antsy and my western/colonial mind wondered if this was a good use of time. I had to quiet my mind and commit to being in the present moment in which Paul Michel, Executive Director of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, shared the importance of beginning in a good way. By acknowledging our ancestry first, we communicate our connection to the land and our relations. As we went around the circle, we not only learned about each other but new connections were discovered.

I found that two others in the circle have family whose last name is Gunn. They are from the Clan Gunn of Scotland. I thought my grandmother’s family was from the Gunn’s in Wales. Maybe they migrated from Scotland? Spending time in circle in this way, I’m motivated to learn more about the land in which I come and my relations. Irrespective, I feel a new closeness to these colleagues.

Lesson 1

Paul shared that our stories stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. It is what connects us to our ancestors’ journey. All journey is story and our story is our journey.

Skiing, Struggling, Steeling Resolve

From TRU to Charlottetown via Calgary, my conference journey began with story and continued with story front and center at the CACUSS-ARUCC conference.

Candy Palmater took the stage and enthralled the audience with her story. There were moments that were hilarious and others that were heartbreaking. I would hunch that parts of her story resonated differently with each person in the audience. This is the power of story; it invites people to connect with whatever chapter compels a response.

I am a skier and I was mesmerized by Candy recounting when her brother taught her to ski. I know firsthand it is no fun to fall when skiing. It hurts and it’s hard to get up with long planks strapped to your feet. But falling is part of skiing and having to get up is inevitable. If you fear falling, then you ski with fear. If you learn first how to get up, you can ski without fear.

Lesson 2

These were two key lessons that I gained while on my conference journey but I have to confess that I struggled throughout. The US policy of separating children from their parents who were seeking asylum at the border weighed so heavy on my heart. Throughout the conference, I was angry. I was communicating with my Congressional delegation daily through social media. I am still angry and still tweeting, Facebook posting, and calling.

I acutely felt my privilege to be at a conference in which the opening statement acknowledged that the conference attendees were occupying and visiting the ancestral and unceded land of the Mi’kmaq people. The Europeans who came to this land committed horrible atrocities and a taking of the land.

It was not lost on me that at in the same minutes that Pat Pardo, CACUSS President uttered those words, border agents of my home country were forcibly taking small children from their families. Not unlike the forcible taking of Indigenous children from their families and placing them in boarding schools in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Haskell, Kansas to “kill the Indian, save the man.”

The notion of truth and reconciliation, as painfully imperfect as it is in Canada, feels unattainable in the United States in which the truth is denied, distorted, and dismissed. With truth questioned at every turn, I wonder if we may ever engage a process of reconciliation.

There are moments that I feel helpless and hopeless. But thankfully, most moments are fueled by a passion and persistence to RESIST! I gain strength from my Indigenous colleagues who have resisted and survived in the face of broken treaties and cultural genocide. One of my colleagues shared that he is the first in his family not to go to residential school. His generation and the two previous, if allowed to participate in post-secondary education at all, became lawyers and teachers and social workers. His daughter, the fourth generation, wants to be a rock star.

I do not share this glibly. I share this story because it gives me hope. I am deeply grateful for my CACUSS family who have shared their stories with me. This story and the many others told this past week steel my resolve to examine the colonial assumptions and biases that pervade our post-secondary program. To expose these assumptions and biases in plain light. To name them for the colonial privilege and power that they provide to some and the oppression they impose on others.

I don’t have the map for decolonizing the programs over which I have influence at my institution. But I am on the journey and looking for some good company. Let me know if I you will be on the trail.

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I invite you to “leave a comment” about your learning journey. There’s great value in having friends to share with along the way.

— Tricia Seifert is associate professor of Adult & Higher Education and department head of Education at Montana State University. She is also the principal investigator of the Supporting Student Success research project.

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Times They are A-Changin’ – Part II

By Tricia Seifert (@TriciaSeifert)

In the last week, two countries in North America have celebrated birthdays. On July 1, Canada celebrated 150 years of Confederation, which many have reclaimed as 150+ years in recognition of the centuries of indigenous people inhabiting that land. The United States celebrated 241 years of the signing of the #DeclarationOfIndependence, which was read aloud and tweeted by @NPR on the 4th of July.

Education has long been heralded as key to a thriving democracy. The historical trauma that residential boarding schools inflicted on indigenous people in both Canada and the US, however, has sullied the promise of education. Yet, “facing the truth,” as Suzanne Stewart (@SuzanneLStewart) and Charles Pascal suggest in their editorial in the Toronto Star, is indeed worthy of celebration.

Many institutions including my own, Montana State University, purport to “to improve the human prospect through excellence in education, research, creativity and civic responsibility.” With celebrations this past week north and south of the 49th parallel, I have been thinking a great deal about how educators engage students to enact their civic responsibility such that education’s promise can be fully realized in these two countries and beyond their borders in the next 150 years.

I believe part of civic responsibility is engaging in the political and public policy process. Today I share a small action I took to bring public policy discussions, particularly as they pertain to education policy, to the forefront in the MSU Department of Education.

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Engaging in the Policy Conversation

Every week I send an email communication, the Monday Minutes, to students, staff, and faculty in the Department of Education. With the start of a new year, a new President taking office in the US, and new legislative session beginning in our state capital, it seemed timely to begin including information about various public policy proposals at the local, state, and federal level in addition to the usual announcements, opportunities, and event information.

Recognizing that this was an addition to the previous semester’s weekly communication, I prefaced the section titled, Policy Update – Opportunities for Civic Engagement with the following statement,

Part of being an educator and professional is to be aware of and engage with public policy relevant to your work and daily practice. This section of the Monday Minutes is designed to share public policy and legislation that pertains to our work as educators.

In each week’s communication, I aimed to include information about policies at the national/federal, state, and local level. I wanted people to recognize that public policy discussions, pertinent to their professional practice, happen all around them and at every level of governance. Over the course of the second semester, I shared information about a:

  • Local bond issue to fund a second high school in our community
  • State legislation that would provide less operating funds to the Montana University System, resulting in a tuition increase for students
  • President Trump’s federal budget proposal

In each case, I provided links to learn more about the issue and how to contact directly one’s elected and appointed public officials (US Congress, state legislators, school district personnel).

In the heat of these political times, many may wonder how to engage students, staff, and faculty in a way that is non-partisan. The text below is taken verbatim from how I introduced the federal budget proposal.

From a National perspective:

If you have not reviewed President Trump’s budget proposal, I encourage you to do so here. The proposal has SIGNIFICANT implications for public schooling and higher education accessibility. Please voice your support or opposition to our federal legislators. It¹s easy to do, simply click on this link: https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/

I was clear to frame the civic action in response to the policy proposal in terms of one’s “support or opposition.” This is crucial; I am more than aware of the public discourse that purports faculty members seek to indoctrinate students. The US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, drew much attention in February stating,

“The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”

My intention with this small action with the Monday Minutes Policy Update – Opportunities for Civic Engagement is not to influence students, staff, or faculty members’ policy perspectives but to invite them to engage in public policy discussions as a matter of professional and civic obligation. To me, education that encourages and invites the community to engage in matters of public policy debate, development, and implementation is central to a healthy democracy.

Although I need to assess to what extent Department of Education students, staff, and faculty acted on this information, a number of people stopped by my office this semester to thank me for making this information easily accessible. Sometimes all you need is an accessible link to inform yourself in order to take action and make your voice heard.

Two Small Wins

So what’s my take-away from the two small actions discussed in the last blog posts?

I think what hits home is that providing an opportunity for people to interact with new ideas (whether those ideas are advanced by people in a discussion or a policy document) is simply what educators do. It’s not flashy; it’s part and parcel of what education is — interacting with new ideas. I didn’t do anything big in either of my actions but people came out of the experience with more information. They encountered new things to think about, questions to ponder, and possibilities for action. As David Kolb stated years ago, “learning is a process.” The small actions I took gave a chance for folks to further engage in that process.

I’m curious what others have done to discuss religious, spiritual and worldview diversity with students. I’m also interested in how you have invited students, staff, and faculty to engage in the public policy conversation.

What have been your successes? What challenges have you experienced? Please take a moment to “leave a reply” and be part of this critical conversation as we navigate these changing times.