Category Archives: Education

Dalai Lama and the Synergy Center

It turns out that the Tibetan New Year was celebrated yesterday, and none other than His Holiness the Dalai Lama was present in the TwinThe Dalai Lama Cities to celebrate the occasion.  He is the spiritual leader of Tibet,  and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for advocating “peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect….”  He also spoke in the opening plenary session of this year’s Peace Prize Forum (an event that is supported once again by Winds of Peace Foundation).  His message on Saturday morning included a reflection on the complex conditions of our world and the potential impacts we each have through our own personal influences.  The message may have seemed too simplistic for many in the audience, who perhaps expected solutions far more detailed and involved than personal commitment.  But in his offering of that view, I was struck by its direct endorsement of what WPF has come to refer to as its “synergy center.” (See the January 31, 2014 WPF blog, “The Difficult Work of Bridges.)

Really?  The Dalai Lama weighing in on a synergy center in NIcaragua?  Indirectly, yes.  Read on.

At one point in the question and answer session following his remarks, the Dalai Lama was asked for three things that young people might do to bring about a more just and peaceful mindset to the world’s problems.  His Holiness chuckled a bit at the question, perhaps because it sounded a bit like a request for a “top ten” list.  But he gave his response with gentle gravity.  “Change begins first in your own heart, and in the values you carry,” he offered.  “Become aware.  Amend what you find there first, and it will impact those around you, in your family.  And soon, other families will feel the change, as well.  And then the transformation can carry into the communities and the world.”  In other words, international movements always begin with the seed of feeling in someone’s heart; nothing more is needed, and nothing less is required.

The formula offered by the Dalai Lama is as plain and painful as any admonition could be, filled with promise, power and enough personal, internal confrontation to make us shiver.  Instead of suggesting a “do” list, he invited us to look inside ourselves, where no one else can be blamed or credited, where the obstacles to peace are of our own making.  Simple advice, grueling work.

Awareness, reflection, and transforming ourselves first: His Holiness might have been reading from one of the brochures offered by The Center for Global Education (CGE) of Augsburg College or from the mission of WPF.   For thirty years,  CGE (and WPF) has been facilitating the transformational, personal journeys of thousands of students and adult learners, as participants first gained new awareness of other people’s realities, then came to terms with the reasons for those realities and finally reflected on their own feelings about those realities.  The  doors to self-examination and transformation have been open wide for decades.

At the same time, WPF established a wide network of development partnerships, creating a wealth of information and contacts which have been complementary to the experiential process described above.  The two entities have served each other well in cultivating the  very introspection the Dalai Lama encourages.

Thus, the synergy center idea actually takes the Dalai Lama’s notion of self-examination and expands it. The concept brings together rising personal awareness and potential outlets for actions to impact communities and even an entire country through further learning.  Access to the synergy center could bring directly into classrooms and our hearts a wide variety of people and input whose voices are not usually heard. The practical experience of people working in every discipline in Nicaragua, including the challenges they are confronting from their location in the global reality, can enrich research and teaching, and also people’s active engagement with these same issues.  This type of international grassroots access can make for a more global experience in the personal development of students, travelers and everyday pilgrims who simply seek to know and understand our world a bit better.  In a sense, it can enhance both the invitation to awareness as well as access to action.

Well, the Dalai Lama never actually mentioned the synergy center in his comments on Saturday; maybe I did use some poetic license to read into his wisdom.  But the resonance between his invitation to personal change and the history of transformational experiences in Nicaragua is unmistakable.  And I think the Dalai Lama might agree that this initiative is just the sort of seed planted in the heart to make a world of difference….






Going to Extremes

It’s been a year of extremes thus far.

In January, I spent a week in the high heat of Managua, Nicaragua, where the daytime temperatures are routinely at 90+ degrees Fahrenheit; simply, there is no escape from the humid heat, even in air conditioning.  Last week, I returned from a time on Madeline Island on Lake Superior.  There, the evening temperatures reached -40 degrees Fahrenheit, with windchill factors of -60; simply, there is no escape from the cold at such depths, even when sitting in front of a wood stove.  I suspect I must have been approaching the full range of ambient temperature extremes at which the human creature can survive.

Here in the north, people can be cold to the point where they don’t even recognize each other!  It’s hard to see or acknowledge someone when peering out from the relative warmth and comfort of an insulated cocoon.  We’d actually rather not stop to discourse anyway:  we all sound as though we are actually speaking a different language when muttering from behind frigid faces.  It’s different in the south.  The discomforts that are felt there have nothing to do with cold,  but rather stem from perpetual hot air which suffocates even the heartiest Nicaraguans eventually.

Temperatures aren’t the only extremes I’ve experienced.  My January visit to Nicaragua included a conversation with Vanessa Castro Cardenal, vocal and energetic advocate for educating the youth of Nicaragua.  (See my blog at this site, “Reading Between the Lines,” dated February 17.)   Her fervent hope is to place a book in the hand of every Nicaraguan child in the hope of cultivating a love for reading, and a capacity beyond a third grade level.  Literally days later, meeting with several representatives from the Jesuit University community  was like being on a different planet.  Hearing the aspirations strategized from within that community made me wistful for my youth!  How I would cherish a second chance to embrace the holistic health of such an education as they envision, as would so many in Nicaragua.

In January I “moonlighted” by working on some private employment contracts that contained language providing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual compensation and incentives.  And then within days, I found myself updating my own often-cited statistics concerning average Nicaraguan pay: $2.50 per day, up from previous years at $2.00 daily.  The disparity of those two realities was reinforced last week while watching the Sochi Olympics.  I learned that staging the games in Russia incurred a $51 billion price tag, in a country where the average pay might be $20 a day.  Inequity is apparently universal, without national boundaries.

While musing out loud about such wide disparities, an acquaintance suggested that the world has always been this way, both in terms of the divergent natural habitats found on earth as well as in the differences we encounter as its inhabitants.  It was offered up as an explanation of sorts, but I took it as a condemnation.  For while there may be little we can do to moderate the hot and cold temperatures of the air, we certainly control both the warmth and the coolness radiated out from ourselves.  While students will never reach perfect parity with one another in their capacities to learn, we surely owe each the opportunity to achieve that which they can.   And while each of us are owed the full fruits of our labor, it can never be at the expense of other lives.

We seem to have allowed ourselves the latitude to remain cold in the heat of the human struggle, a posture that feels a bit extreme….





Reading Between the Lines

The uphill struggles of many in Nicaragua have been well-chronicled both here and in countless other reflections written by visitors to that country.  The reality of need is evident not only in statistics (such as percentage of people earning less than $2.50 a day, second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, etc.), but also in the endless stream of mission, outreach and development agency people visible on flights in and out of the country every single day.  Nicaragua is a worthy and close-by neighborhood for the exercise of our largesse.  But the needs evidenced in Nicaragua are not likely to be eased by short-term and sometimes short-sighted North American efforts.  There exists a more systemic and underlying difficulty.

Education.  Or rather, the insufficiency of it, both in terms of quantity and quality.  Now, we’re all fond of stating the obvious when it comes to education, that as a society the more of it we have the better our long-term prospects for the future become.  We compare our educational outcomes with those in other countries, we gnash our teeth when math and science scores seem to fall further behind other nations, and we wonder aloud whether the cost of a college education is worth the investment vocationally.  These are all reasonable concerns to have, and we acknowledge them continuously.  But in Nicaragua, the level of urgency and need for education improvement is on another plane altogether.  And without substantive interventions, the outlook is not good. This is a country where most kids don’t last beyond the third grade.  Where teachers all too often have no training for the classroom.  Where the compensation for teachers is less than half the average monthly need for cost of living.  Where even the first lady of the land has described the education performance as, “mediocre.”  Clearly, the scope of both the need and the impact is well-known across society.  Despite all the sources of assistance and other forms of aid coming into Nicaragua, its developmental outlook can never be hopeful without address of its education shortfall.

IMG_3977The plight seems pretty dire on the face of it, and that’s why our visit a couple of weeks ago with Vanessa Castro was so uplifting.  She’s a well-educated educator:  a PhD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has worked with the World BankIADBUNESCO, and CIASES .  And her passion is education of Nicaragua’s kids, especially through reading development.

On a national level, Vanessa and others are trying to motivate children with a campaign to encourage reading with greater speed and comprehension.  Underwritten by several sponsoring organizations, the campaign consists of a contest accepting first-grade classes from all around the country that wish to participate.  Any class with a teacher who is full-time and present in class can compete at the school, municipal, and departmental level to reach the finals.  80% of each class must pass the requirements, which include reading an average of at least 25 words per minute and answering 80% of the comprehension questions correctly.  The success rates are improving as the number of schools and participants increases, and the excitement is evident in Vanessa’s  face as she tells stories of small successes.  “Offering awards is just the means to the end of raising these children’s reading fluency to acceptable international standards. We need community motivation, parent participation, and teacher training to spur the children towards these goals.”

Those goals constitute a big part of why WPF has added education as one of its main focal points for assistance.  The Foundation’s activities undertaken over the past three years are varied and widespread across public and private organizations, but all with the aim to lift Nicaragua’s children through enhanced education.  For example, with WPF involvement the reading literacy program  purchased more than 12,000 books last year for placement in primary schools, often constituting the only books available to students in those schools.  Some 8,000 children were served by the effort, a mere fraction of the need but nonetheless an important number of kids exposed to new, engaging stories, and a love for reading.

There are lots of ways that organizations like WPF might seek to make a difference in the lives and futures of Nicaraguans, to be sure.  But even a cursory assessment of their greatest needs underscores the reality that, reading between the lines, education is the basis of future hope….