Monday, August 3, 2015

Reconnecting with Colombia

Memorial Day Weekend 1983
Arriving from Barranquilla,
Colombia to Salt Lake City, USA
I vividly remember this moment.  This is the moment I stepped off the plane with my new little sister from Colombia at the Salt Lake City Airport.  My Dad and I had gone to Barranquilla to pick-up her and her two brothers, who my parents were adopting.  My sister was around four year’s old. Her brothers were around five years old and around six or seven. The rest of our family was there waiting to meet them for the first time.

They didn’t come with official birthday information and so my parents just chose dates and spread them across the months. Mostly I only remember three things from this trip; the hotel swimming pool and going to a beach with black volcanic sand and my brother Carlos taking off all of his clothes at the airport.

After years of talking about going back, my sister and I finally bought tickets and got back on a plane to return to Colombia for the first time since she was adopted. 

Can you imagine being trapped on a trip with a brother who is a therapist and a psychology professor who never gets tired of "processing events" all day? As if video blogging were not enough, he might also think that writing exercises were fun! Below are some examples of both. To start, here are some thoughts from before our flight about returning to Colombia:

Our first stop was in the breathtaking city of Medellín, Colombia and here are some first impressions:

After Medellín, we first visited Cartagena and finally Barranquilla, the city where she was actually born. Using all five senses is an important part of immersing in a culture and both places provided a flood of sounds, tastes, smells and sights to see. Colombian music and Dance were a particularly powerful part of the experience. After trying and failing for hours to try and use music from Checo Acosta, I gave up and went with the slightly Caribbean music available from iMovies. If you have Colombian music recommendations beyond Juanes and Shakira (who we do love) we would be happy to hear them.

Jason: What do you want to remember about your experience in returning to Colombia and specifically Barranquilla? 

I don’ t think that there is anything in particular that I want to remember, but I won’t forget how it made me feel and how it has changed me as a person and how I feel about myself and my own environment. 

Jason: It seems like there is something spiritual for people that happens when they are born in one place and return to it later in life. Maybe spiritual isn’t the right word though. I also hear from others that returning to their origins is part of a process of finding themselves. What do you think people should understand about that process? 

Sis: It is a VERY personal experience and will be different for each person. There are things that I did not expect to have happen and other things that I anticipated and that never happened. I think the most important thing is to have an open mind and an open heart to the things you will see, hear, taste, and TOUCH. It is crazy how certain things will set off an explosion of memories or just feelings. It is spiritual, but not in the way one would think. It is more about connecting with yourself in a way that is indescribable until it happens.

Jason: What was your experience in going to Puerto Colombia and down to the river? 

Sis:  I was moved. I had a very strong emotional pull to the area and the surroundings. I looked near the water and saw a village of people and felt that the area was where I was from. It brought me to tears and I felt at peace and at home. Although Carmen and Manuel said that the area was scary, I was not frightened or felt fear for my safety. I wanted to walk closer to the homes.

Jason: My friend told me that people who live outside their home country always have their hearts in two places. It kind of sounds like you have lived, in some ways, with a sense of homelessness. Do you think that feeling will change for you now or be stronger? 

Sis: I have never felt like I belonged in Utah. I have always wanted something else and longed for something more. Something that just “fit.” This trip has given me a clearer understanding of my self and where I came from. It allowed me to see that I am not alone in this world, but it also gave me purpose to search for the truth in my story. 

Colombian food is diverse and delicious! Oh my! We had the fortunate opportunity to be hosted by an incredible couple who served us meals in their home and took us to great places to eat. We ate so much but we would still welcome recommendations of other Colombian foods that we should try! We documented some of our many food adventures and the first time my sister tried some popular Colombian foods and drinks:

Jason: What meaning did the food have for you that you ate in Barranquilla?

Sis: The food was DELICIOUS! There were a few things that we ate that I recall having tasted before. Anything with bananas was very good! The Bollo and the arrepa were my favorite dishes.

Jason: You have said that you now now want to learn to cook Colombian style food. Which one will you attempt to master first?

Sis: That is easy…  I will try the “mashed 'potato' bananas” LOL

What is a Colombian? What we learned is that there clearly is no single story and that whatever answers exist are immensely complex. Lots of groups arrived from other parts of the world and mixed with the diverse indigenous groups of Colombia and this has influenced the makeup of Colombian people and the culture. While we shouldn’t have been surprised, Colombian people are very diverse. Still, for my sister, who has always stood out in the United States, it was refreshing to experience being able to blend into a crowd.

We had a lot of conversations about skin tones, hair, body issues and her experience of being Colombian growing up in a primarily white community.

 Locals did tell us that racism exists in Colombia but we didn’t have enough time to learn what that looks like there. We’d enjoy hearing from other Colombians about their experiences either in Colombia or abroad. Here are a few examples of the topics related to skin tone, hair and race that we discussed:

Jason: What did you learn about the different groups that immigrated or came as slaves to Colombia? How does that change how you think about yourself? 

Sis: I always thought that being Colombian was more influenced by Hispanics and I never truly understood what it meant to be “Colombian”. It is amazing to the see the variety of people and the diversity even amongst the Colombians. We are black, brown, light skinned, tall, medium built, and the women have curves and own them. There is no shame in how they look and my whole life I have felt out of place and like I always stood out and not in a good way. I found a place where I blend in and still look slightly different. It was refreshing!

Jason: I have always loved you and I have always thought you were beautiful. I remember you taking diet pills, but before this trip I don’t think I realized how much looking different has been a challenge. I have really appreciated and learned a lot hearing about your thoughts comparing skin tones, hair and body types while on this trip and your experience of being Colombian in the United States. 

Sis: My weight has always been a challenge for me. I felt the expectation was to be a size 2 at a young age because all the girls around me were.  I would NEVER be a size two and I need to own my shape and my curves, but be healthy. My hair has always been a challenge and for most of my life I was ashamed of it. I thought it was ugly and I didn’t want to stand out I wanted to hide. 

Jason: So how does seeing people who look similar to you effect you? I can’t imagine what it would be like for you to feel like you could just blend in after so many years. 

Sis: It is heartbreaking. I wish I had known this when I was my ten year old self on diet pills and not wanting to eat food in front of other people. My size was NORMAL. As an adult I have taken on the role of being the person to set other people straight because I now know that Latinas have curves. I want my own daughter, who is twelve and struggles with this, not to have the same struggles that I did. 

Jason: What will you remember from Interactions with local people from Barranquilla?  

Sis: They LOVE their country and their heritage. They are proud and they are strong. They are truly good people and passionate. I think those are qualities that most Colombians possess. They wanted me to be knowledgeable about my roots and to OWN it and LOVE it and to just be filled by all the many great things that come with being a Colombian.

Jason: Do you think Colombian pride is different that US pride?

Sis: YES! It is passionate and affectionate and done in a loving way. There is HONOR in being Colombian, not because you OWN materialistic things… but because you have a heritage like nothing else. I saw the children and adults loving life even when they had little to nothing. It is a different kind of pride.
Okay okay, that is probably enough "processing" for now. I am so grateful for my sister and for the opportunity to have this experience with her. 


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Theories for Immersion Education or "What just happened!!!"

I jolted awake today wondering where I needed to run. The answer was “no where." Shifting realities I realized that today is a calm responsibility-free Sunday in Mexico City. Yesterday I ended my eleventh year of running a 35-Day Latin American Critical Pedagogical Group Crucible Educational Experiment and/or potential best reality show ever idea (contact me to make Hollywood offer$). Ok, that was wordy, but the program is about a lot of things. I wish I had written down notes about all the things I learned each day or research ideas that the experiences evoked for me. I loved this year and I learned a lot from the group of participants, faculty and the communities in Mexico with whom we had an opportunity to connect. This blog post is my attempt to capture, incompletely, some of the thoughts zipping through my head.

I once wrote an article about the Mexico program, but honestly I would write it completely different today (That was true before it was published because it didn’t come out for three years after being accepted). You can check out my thinking about immersion education at that time here. My hopes for the program remain the same though:

There are many ideas and theories that guide how I construct an immersion program, but here are three of the main overlapping ones:
I taught group therapy during the first few years I brought groups of students to Mexico and could not help notice that every group therapy concept I was teaching in the class was simultaneously occurring in the immersion group. I don’t think it would be an effective marketing approach to frame the program as an intensive encounter group (a group of people who meet to gain psychological benefit through close contact with one another), but perhaps I should consider it. In my defense, I do say that the program is focused on self-of-the-therapist work and that we are going to look at how nationality and class and other factors are important for clinicians in training (and faculty) to consider.  

Every year I think about group theory during immersion program, but three main concepts stood out to me this year:
  • The Stages of group development

  • The Therapeutic Factors of Group Therapy
  • The Dimensions of the Leader’s Role
A colleague of mine from Puerto Rico and I presented a few years ago at the Forum on Education Abroad conference about how the stages of group happen in immersion education. Here are a few of our ideas:

Normally it is a challenge to get people engaged in forming a group online, but this year's group jumped right in and were really vulnerable and open in their online introductions. 
I mention crucibles in the above slide. So, briefly, let me explain the concept as I understand it. For a number of years I also taught sex therapy during the summer immersion program which likely led to me linking ideas from David Schnarch’s Crucible approach with immersion education. A main concept from his approach is the idea’s of crucibles. There are two main definitions of a crucible:

¨     A severe test or hard trial.
¨     A highly nonreactive vessel in which a transfiguring reaction takes place.

Both definitions fit for immersion programs. Cultural learning and being part of a group is hard difficult work. The whole 5 weeks is a crucible. Characteristics of a crucible approach are:

¨     An emphasis on anxiety tolerance rather than anxiety avoidance.
¨     Focus on potential rather than dysfunction.
¨     Most positive things require anxiety.
¨     Everyone has a differentiation edge, a next step, pushing the envelope toward greater emotional/spiritual/physical connection.

During all immersion programs I am involved in, there are some planned crucible experiences and moments. In the Mexico program there are home stays, the temazcal, the two-day retreat where we sit in a circle and intensely process, exposure to poverty (which honestly I think is more difficult for people than facing other cultural differences). In Cambodia the crucible might be linked with visiting the killing fields. In India, it has been a visit to the gypsy community where children are living literally in landfill. 

There are also natural crucibles that occur such as:
  • Just being in a new culture and outside your nation of origin
  • Independent people being part of a group
  • Food differences
  • Language differences
  • Health (Damn you Montezuma!!!) 
The storming stage is vital. I would feel I had failed if we didn't get there because it is when really important growth happens and we move beyond superficial issues. I also think it is when we do the most work on differentiation:


The ability to differentiate and integrate two fundamental drives.
1. Attachment.
2. Self-Regulation

This is also the tricky part for me. How do I help competent adult people be part of a group AND respect their autonomy and individual needs. Us figuring that out really is the definition of differentiation---somewhere between attachment and self regulation.

 Luckily I don't have to handle that alone because the norming stage naturally happens and helps with that in immersion education. 

While I sometimes need to intervene, the group members socialize each other. This year I really appreciated the kindness the group gave each other. They challenged each other though in really powerful ways. 

Boy (or girl?) did our group this year perform! They were amazing. 

And the stage me and our group are still in:
Platt, J.J. & Jiménez, M. (2013) Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Adjourning:Ideas from Group Psychotherapy for Immersion Education. A paper presented at the 9th Annual Forum on Education Abroad Conference, Chicago, U.S.A. 

The group said their goodbyes yesterday and now they are processing their re-entry shock on Facebook (and I am sure in other ways). I think the return home is an under-focused on part of immersion programs. It normally gets framed as a problem, but it is also an opportunity. I think a lot of growth happens when people see their own nation with fresh eyes. What usually happens is there that there is a period of time where they see the US critically (in the negative sense). I hope that is a stage for people and that in the end they find a balanced view (of the US and any nation). My friend Tracey I call that balanced view "Critical Patriotism" and we define "critical patriotism as the ability to honestly and fairly reflect and assess the values, history, culture, and traditions of one’s country. Inherent in this process is the ability to consider the nation’s virtues and vices in a balanced way" (Platt & Lazloffy, 2013, p. 243)

Platt, J. J., & Laszloffy, T. A. (2013). Critical patriotism: Incorporating nationality into MFT education and training. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 39, 441–456. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2012.00325.x.

Please do not name names. It is also completely natural in every group for people to express their anxiety in different ways. I notice the below happening throughout all immersion programs but it is particularly evident during focused group dialogues (like our two-day retreat). Really, we are all human and we have our preferred "attempted solutions" for when we are under stress and they often are one of the problematic behaviors that Corey and Corey identify as occurring in groups. 

Group Theory and Crucibles fit with my interpretation of Freire's critical pedagogy. I have lots to say about that topic, but I am running out of writing steam. Immersion education also fits well in general with critical education. I think of everything we do or see as being a Freirean prompt for dialogues. ‘Unlike traditional visual aids, the function of pictures or photos in a participatory classroom is to uncover themes or to evoke powerful responses’’ (Auerbach, 1999, p. 36). Photos are great, but Mexico and the immersion program are full of other kinds of visual aids. For example, the US embassy surrounded by barriers, Diego Rivera's murals, my silly t-shirts (no really, WHO WOULD JESUS DEPORT?), graffiti, the home stay homes, the performances on the metro, etc.  Really everything in Mexico. 

Other thoughts, questions and struggles I will continue to think about for a while...

Transference is so powerful and so ubiquitous that the dictum “the leader shall have no favorites” seems to be essential for the stability of every working group. (Yalom, 1995 pg. 195)

How should or can I, as an immersion group leader, avoid having or appearing to have favorites?

(An interesting aspect of this is that sometimes I am working hard to connect with a participant that I find challenging and as a result others have perceived me as favoring that person).

 Immersion faculty and Transparency vs. Opaqueness
The 2015 Visiting Immersion Faculty

I have never found the perfect "middle path" between transparency and opaqueness in my role as a leader of immersion programs. I want to come from a Critical Education perspective that questions the normal boundaries or the tendency for faculty to take a one-up position. A couple of quotes that capture this idea: 

“In her book Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks (1994) suggests that faculty often maintain the status quo of oppressive societal structures by remaining hidden in the role of ‘‘all knowing silent interrogators,’’ whereas ‘‘when education is the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess’’ (p. 21).

Paulo Freire stated in his book Pedagogy of Freedom that “I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am.”
Immersion education clearly and inevitable pushes the boundaries of faculty and student relationships. Mainly because the amount and type of contact is significantly different than it is when you just meet each other once a week in a classroom. How human can faculty be while still being professional? What level of access to me is useful? What boundaries are healthy for me to maintain? This year I put the students with local families blocks from my home, introduced them to family and friends and groups I consider to be from my personal life. They are always curious about me. How much access should I give? 
  • When is "exposing who I am" NOT helpful? 
  • Twelve years ago I remember getting feedback from students I taught in Irvine that it was odd to see me without a tie.
  • I remember a more senior faculty member telling me the immersion students were calling me “Jason.”
  • I ran the immersion program in Mexico for several years without other faculty and we did a temezcal each year. When I brought faculty for the first time several of them did not want to do it because it they weren’t comfortable taking their shirt off in front of students. Afterward I was sad that something I had only thought of as beautiful and meaningful as possibly being considered something else.
  • I’ve brought my nephew, who I love so much and to whom I am very close, to the past two immersion programs. I notice the immersion folks observing this family relationship. Is that okay to open up to them?
  • Is sharing a not so private outhouse and sleeping on the same cement school house floor inappropriate?  Participants see me sleeping on the bus, we camp out together. I’ve invited them into my home sometimes for events.
  •  What about when I am working with participants whose challenge is respecting appropriate boundaries?
  • What should be done when people are confusing the educational intimacy with romantic intimacy?
  • Is it more risky for a single male to be engaged in critical approaches to education than it is for married men or women?
Other general questions:

Should people be more informed about the "group therapy" aspect of immersion education. It happens in any group, but because I come from a mental health perspective I happen to recognize it and use it intentionally. 

How do I know when complaining is about something valid that should be fixed versus an expression of natural anxiety tied to growth.

What would be helpful for me to tell visiting faculty who have never been exposed in the way immersion education exposes them?

Skip to 3:50 in this video and listen to Critical Educators Peter Mclaren & Nathalia Jaramillo. Does wanting to draw from Paulo Freire's work lead to job insecurity?

I have two groups of students during the summer. The visiting immersion students and local students who are here in Mexico for two years. What are the different needs of these two groups and how do I better meet them? I think the local students get the short end of the stick in some ways. The immersion students pay a program fee that allows me to set up tons of activities and speakers and experiences. I have no budget to provide the same level of activities for local students. There is so much value in mixing the two groups though. They have a lot to learn from each other. It is also an incredible networking opportunity for both groups. Every year there is some tension between the groups. How could I change that?

What did people learn about El Salvador, Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil this summer? Is just connecting people across national lines enough.

I realized more than ever before this year how many unintentional people are impacted by the program. The cleaning ladies. The home stay families. The Spanish instructors. The other students studying on the campus. The librarian. The school guards. Really there are hundreds of people who come in contact with our group. Not sure what the question is but I am thinking about the implications that might exist.

I don't always know when to trust the process or to force the process? Sometimes I think people will automatically connect the dots between different things and their clinical work, but I am not 100% sure.

I think the best learning experiences during the summer happen outside of official class rooms. There are some really mind blowing powerful and life changing experiences. Should I be trying to capture and quantify these spiritual, emotional, relational and important thing into some form that would be valued by the university system that are not aware of what happens in this program?

The program is fairly challenging physically. How can I better meet the needs of people with mobility issues?

Not that I always succeed, but I want to be "a highly nonreactive vessel that allows a transfiguring reaction takes place" for participants. Mostly I feel genuine love and compassion for people. On the rare occasion when I feel someone is being rude, I mostly can understand that it is coming from fear or discomfort and is a sign that they are in a process of growth. How would I know when it isn't though? Like a supervisor has both the role of a mentor and sometimes a gatekeeper, when do I know when it is time to shift roles and approaches?

Am I responsible for each person's unique dietary restrictions? I have some students/faculty who have dietary restrictions and I never hear about them because they just handle them. I have others who are frustrated with me for not accommodating them sufficiently.

Food in general is a very central part of immersion experiences. I use to militantly try to get people to not eat at any US establishments. I had a colleague who believed that people need their "McDonald" moments sometimes and that it helps them regroup. This year I didn't really challenge anyone to not go to US establishments. They are every where and it is almost impossible. Is there some middle path that I should take? I go to US establishments now too. I think the reason I stopped being militant it was kind of judgmental and led to competitiveness between folks about who is immersion the most. Not helpful. 

I think if I told a word by word account of every detail that has ever happened in past immersion programs to someone who is going to participate, it would still not be enough details. I also think each immersion program and each person in an immersion program is unique. I want to say "just let go and come experience it" when asked for details. That isn't helpful though. How much detail can I give and how much should I give? 

And unrelated to everything here is my top ten favorite parts of the 
2015 Mexico Immersion program

1) Doing theater of the Oppressed with the group

2) Our powerful retreat in Malinalco

3) Hearing everyone's poems based on what they learned in the program. They are all so talented. 

4) The visit to a Mexican prison where they are using theater to give voice to their experiences

5) The opportunity to eat in a local home in Oaxaca

6) Sleeping in a School in Oaxaca and the opportunity to wonder about "the meaning of how each of us handled the experience!" If I could have one last group process it would be about that experience. It brought out something for everyone and it was so interesting! 

7) The unexpected role that music had in this year's program

8) Having faculty with similar educational world views. It meant so much to me. I realize I am often a little isolated from an academic community. It was also so intellectually stimulating to have faculty and staff from Argentina, El Salvador, Mexico, US, Brazil, Venezuela and other places all together in an intense way. 

9) The camp with 175 children. They are our best professors in the program

10) Having my favorite Intern (and occasional guest blogger) back in Mexico. My favorite Afghan-Colombian in the whole wide world. My nephew Shareef  

A runner up was this cow that was happy to see me and just wanted to be friends

Okay. I have loved my quiet day to introvert and think. I would love to know any thoughts or reactions to my sharing my evolving thoughts about immersion education. Thank you to everyone who has participated in my education experiment!