Break Away Blog | Read + Act Weekly

A Commitment to Inward

A common draw to immersive experiences is to get outside of ourselves - to encounter a different culture, build new relationships, seek the discomfort in which we often find growth. In alternative breaks, we witness the recurring pattern of finding disruption in the world we thought we fully understood. Thereafter, we’re tasked with unearthing new meaning - essentially relearning what we once thought was true.

There’s a catch here: after we experience disruption, it’s dangerous to think our newfound understanding is static. Essentially, if we’ve managed to learn something that has dismantled our previous version of the “truth”, there will likely be something more to learn that challenges our thinking again. For example - at some point, we realize assigned sex has no correlation to a child’s favorite color. We may have felt enlightened when we realized that girls aren’t obligated to like pink just as boys don’t have to like blue, but if we’re not willing to continually be critical of our understanding of gender and gender identity - to push beyond that first new understanding - we’re missing the mark. In a changing world, the (sometimes frustrating) reality is that we never - and will never- be all-knowing.

As much as we ache to look outward and soak up everything around us, the real work is inward - a constant deconstruction of ourselves and what we think we know is essential. The desire for a disruptive experience - like alternative breaks - must be paired with a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and critique (affectionately known as cultural humility). Without it, what we find while looking outward creates no lasting change because it wasn’t internalized.

As you get closer to spring break, consider: how are you preparing yourself and the participants on each trip to look inward rather than out? In what ways are you educating yourself to challenge your own perceptions of the world, rather than waiting for an interaction or story to disrupt them?

Do We Need Safe or Brave Spaces?

An often daunting aspect of navigating the world of higher education and social justice is attempting to keep up with the ever-changing terminology. We’re committed to the work of being constant learners (and unlearners) - recognizing social justice is a process and goal. But as we work to maintain pace with changing structures and semantics, we must remain both critical and thoughtful in our follow through.

In recent years, we’ve seen the intentional shift within student and academic affairs to advocate for creating brave spaces over safe spaces. There is an arguable difference, considering the implications of each term:

  • A safe space is ideally one that doesn’t incite judgment based on identity or experience - where the expression of both can exist and be affirmed without fear of repercussion and without the pressure to educate. While learning may occur in these spaces, the ultimate goal is to provide support.
  • A brave space encourages dialogue. Recognizing difference and holding each person accountable to do the work of sharing experiences and coming to new understandings - a feat that’s often hard, and typically uncomfortable.

We’d be remiss to simply hear the new term brave space and throw the old one out like a mistake we’d like to quickly forget. The reality is: they’re different spaces, providing different outcomes. And on alternative breaks, we should be balancing both.

Expecting people to only expose their identity and face what may be traumatic for the sake of their own progress (and more often, the progress of others) is unfair, and a poor practice. But on the flipside - for an authentic and impactful experience - there’s a level of discomfort and vulnerability that is necessary. Here, the facilitator plays an important role: to 1) preemptively consider the experience of all participants, and 2) understand how to create both safe and brave spaces to validate and challenge one another.

With that in mind, recall the last time you were in a space where you felt both supported and challenged - where you were both teaching and learning? What did it take to create that experience and how can you do it (or do it better) for others?

Of The Earth: Reimagining Nature as Community | Grand Canyon ABCs

When humankind first began to traverse the planet, people and the natural environment were practically inseparable, symbiotic even. This “spiritual interdependence”, as articulated in the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit’s Principles of Environmental Justice, was simply the natural state of things.

But as humans evolved, we began to forge deep divides between us and Mother Earth. With the emergence of capitalism in the late 18th century, we began to commodify - whittling every product, every service, down to its potential profit. In the same way, we began to profitize and dominate the natural environment - putting a price on lumber, oil & natural gas, even water. We distorted what was once a cyclical, reciprocal system of existence, into what is now an imbalanced, linear cycle of take→make→use→dispose.

Indeed, this commodification of Nature had disastrous consequences for the Earth, and eventually for its inhabitants. Years of oil spills, hazardous gas leaks, and toxic industrial waste sites have made the call for environmental justice ever more compelling. Recognizing this indivisible relationship between Human and Earth, Rebecca Adamson, founder of First Nations Development Institute and First Peoples Worldwide, says:

“All things are bound together. All things connect. What happens to the Earth happens to the children of Earth. Humankind has not woven the web of life; we are but one thread. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

So, what now? At the Grand Canyon ABCs, Minimizing Human Impact in a Changing Climate, participants made an individualized eco-friendly commitment - eating vegan or vegetarian for the week, recycling and composting, or even simply monitoring their trash output for the days to come. In this way, students began to explore and expand their understanding of the root of active citizenship - community - to include more than just human beings, but all other aspects of the Earth: soils, water, plants, animals… the land. We acknowledged that if the path toward environmental justice is active citizenship, it must be forged with an understanding that, “when we [also] see land as a community to which we belong [as opposed to a commodity belonging to us], we may begin to use it with love and respect” (Leopold 1949).

Improving the trajectory of our natural environment goes beyond conscious consumerism, which, supports our approach to take→make→use→dispose. Instead, we must also address systems and structures that contribute to environmental degradation: we must reinvest in a circular economy -  one which mimics the natural cycle, thereby realigning humans with the land and all other living beings. By taking our time, our votes, and our dollars away from the profit-motivated economy that industrializes land, and by reimagining our relationship to community as one that incorporates and, even originates, from the natural environment, we may be able to save ourselves and our community from, well… ourselves.

Finding the Power | Keene ABCs

Conscientious Citizenship, on the Active Citizen Continuum, is defined by the examination of the root causes of social issues - here, we quickly find out that 1) the roots run deep - historically and systemically, and 2) many of them are connected. This can become a dark stage for people: while knowledge is power, it can also be a heavy burden; and in the work of social change, the feeling of powerlessness is an easy place to get trapped, but a dangerous one to remain.

At the Keene ABCs, we acknowledged that food systems are influenced by larger economic and political forces and, and in turn, the functions (or dysfunctions) of food systems impact four broad categories: communities, the Earth, producers, and consumers. Corporate consolidation is a common thread which affects each of these. Large companies are generally trying to gain as much capital as possible, as quickly as possible, with as few expenditures as possible - affecting the aforementioned categories in negative ways (for example, unjust wages and working conditions for farm workers).

Corporations are informed by millions of consumers, so as a single individual trying to resist something so large, that familiar sense of powerlessness begins to creep back in and we find ourselves frozen into inaction in the face of such an immense problem.

In the world of alternative breaks, we know stagnancy isn’t an option, and we believe, deeply, in the power of small groups. Like many social movements before our time, the food justice movement calls for individual, institutional, and societal changes in the way we produce, process, distribute, consume, and discard food. While expanding our own awareness of conscious consumption and "voting with our dollar" can be a start, individualistic approaches to fighting a broken food system will not create a lasting, structural difference.

In order to mobilize, we must find where we hold power in communities. On college campuses with dining facilities, the power we hold as consumers is much stronger, campus organizing is streamlined, and students’ voice and dollar directly influence the institution. The fraction of one in millions in the corporate world turns into an optimistic one in thousands (or less!) on a college campus.

To make the seemingly impossible task of resisting large forces that dominate our food systems and harm our communities, workers, and land - we looked to our friends at the Real Food Challenge (RFC) for realistic action steps to take on college campuses. If you're interested in creating a structural shift on your campus, we’d recommend you look to RFC to take meaningful action toward justice for the land and hands that caretake our food - from seed to plate and everything in between.