Monday, May 24, 2010

Music with a message and service learning

Last week was an exciting and emotionally-charged week for me. I have the great fortune of being able to lead a class of twelve students on a journey of discovery as part of a service learning class, actually the first of its kind at USF Sarasota-Manatee, called "Ending Homelessness in our community: How can we work for social change?" During the first day of class, as each student introduced him or herself, I could tell that this was going to be a very special experience for all of us, as they had such heartfelt and commendable reasons for wanting to enroll in the class. Once they learned they would be providing service to the Resurrection House, a local day shelter for the homeless, they were even more enthused about the class. Several came up afterward to thank me for the opportunity, which is always a nice thing to hear, since it really wasn't clear to me how students would perceive such an unusual class. For the second session last week, we took a group tour at Resurrection House, and the Executive Director, Volunteer Director, and Development Director pulled out all the stops to give the students an informative and very memorable glimpse into the day-to-day operations of the shelter. At the end of the session, the students signed up for various tasks at the shelter, which they would take on each week. I was glowing with pride throughout the process, because I could hardly believe how lucky I was to have such a wonderfully caring group participate in this class. Their questions were wise and perceptive and their enthusiasm palable. It truly inspired me!

In the midst of the excitement from the first week of class, my husband and I attended a Michael Franti concert in Ybor City. For those who aren't familiar with this artist, he is a soulful poet who uses his music to make a difference in the world. He said: “I want to bring people together through music and its unique power. And I hope that somehow that sense of unity extends beyond the music.” What I love about him is his positive spirit and his commitment to peace and the welfare of all. He also weaves his love of yoga, which is a transformative experience much like music, into everything he does. This was actually our second time seeing him this year. Each time, he radiates throughout his performances, and he has a refreshing group of followers, perhaps, very much like the kinds of people I might have seen at Woodstock, had I been around then. For more about Michael, see his website:
One of my favorite lines from his songs is "All the freaky people make the beauty of the world" -- I just love this message, which to me, asks the questions, why do we need everyone to fit into a corporate box? Why must we demand that people conform to social norms?
Which brings me back to the theme of the summer class -- do we do this with the homeless? Do we expect them to find a way to fit in to our expectations rather than giving them the resources they need to expand our notion of what a normal life is or should be?

One of the students in the class mentioned that an experiment was done where a number of homeless people were given jobs and apartments, and within a certain period of time, none of them were able to maintain what they were given and ended up back on the streets. One of the things I want the class to consider is whether our system is largely designed for people who are able to work within a 9 to 5 paradigm. Is it possible that we have not yet found a way to be able to help people discover their strengths and become self-sufficient? Shouldn't we first acknowledge that living a typical life with a mortgage payment and bi-weekly paycheck may be extremely difficult for many people, and then help them find what works for them so they can live on their own? As the Resurrection House leaders told us, there are as many different stories as there are people who use the day shelter. We are going to try to come up with a variety of different creative solutions that might work to relieve the financial and emotional struggles of this vast and growing population, because there does not appear to be one clear antidote to this complex problem. The students are tasked with writing papers with innovative problem-solving ideas, and then presenting those ideas at the end of the summer.

Michael Franti is a great storyteller, and early in his career he wrote a song specifically about homelessness, which I commend to everyone called "Hole in the Bucket." In the song, he sings about being approached by a person with "dirty dreads" who asks him for spare change while singing the old tune, "There's a whole in the bucket, dear Liza." Michael doesn't stop because he doesn't have change, but he is affected by the interaction with this man and finds himself humming the man's song. Later, he's out runnning errands, one of which is to get a spool of thread (although he can't remember why), and gets some spare change after making some purchases. He sings: "...what's going to happen if I give a man a quarter? Will he find a dealer and place an order? I'm not responsible for the man's depression, how can I find compassion in the midst of recession?" He walks past the man and decides not to give him his newly acquired change. Then he thinks better of it when he gets home: "my cup is half full but his is empty." When he reaches into his pocket to grab the extra change to give to the man, he suddenly remembers why he needed that spool of thread! He sings, "While I was busy thinkin' if he would buy smack, the jingle in my pocket, it slipped through the cracks," and he has the sudden realization that spare change that means nothing to him, and which he could easily lose due to some faulty threads, could be very important for this man he met on the street.

Although the common wisdom is that we should not stop and give money when asked for it by someone who seems to be living on the streets, there are few among us who probably don't feel some pang of guilt for walking past. While we should not risk our own safety or well-being, there is always that feeling that we would like to do more. Franti's song could be viewed on a metaphorical level, not necessarily as a plea to stop and give money to people on the streets, but it also could apply to giving our free time or even small donations to local charitable organizations. Time that we waste surfing the internet or small amounts of money that we forget that we have could be better spent in the service of those who have fewer resources than we do. The service learning class is an opportunity for the students to give their time to a worthy operation, and to perhaps serve as ambassadors spreading the word about their experience to others who might wish to help but not know where to begin. Rather than just letting our spare time or spare change "slip through the cracks," we can find a meaningful way to give to others.

There is so much more to say on this topic, which I will save for the next blog, but for those who are interested, I will update you about the class throughout the summer.

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