Tuesday, July 2, 2013

South Africa, NEH Grant, Townships, the power of stories, and other dreams...

I just realized I haven't blogged since June 1. That is partly due to the fact that I could NOT blog in South Africa. I barely had internet, and when I did, the blog clogged the airwaves and crashed, so after multiple attempts, I gave up.

Let it also be known that every night now, I dream of South Africa.

My only week in Minnesota since May 18 was a bit hectic. Now I am in North Carolina at Nikki, Tom, and Alec's house, but Alec is sleeping, so here goes.

Yesterday morning, Nikki, Alec, and I had a delightful short morning at Noelle, Tony, and Maren's house in Arlington, Virginia, before we headed to Pennsylvania Avenue.

There I met Julia Nguyen, Senior Program Officer, Division of Education Programs, at the National Endowment for the Humanities Office in the historic Old Post Office complex. (Nikki and Alec went to the National Museum of Natural History).

Julia was entirely helpful and supportive of the ideas Scott Fee (Construction Management, MSU,M, now newly appointed Interim Assistant Dean in the College of Science, Engineering, and Technology) have cooked up. We want to apply for a big NEH grant for "Bridging Cultures" at Community Colleges...which also requires a Community College to be in collaboration with another institution. Seems as if this might have been written for what we are working toward.

I won't belabor all our plans here, but they do include bringing Prof Kobus van Wyk (below) to Mankato to speak at a conference at South Central College. Kobus is the endowed chair of the brand-new department of Human Settlement Development Management at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. This department has a focus of somehow revamping the rebuilding the townships while giving full consideration to human needs (safety, education, health, transportation, etc., etc. which all relate to Humanities).

Our approach to this grant is that stories are the medium that move information from our head to our hearts and move us to action.  Stories are what the Humanities convey--through art, music, literature, film, history, architecture, etc., etc. Stories about South Africa all end up leading us to the townships. THERE, in the townships, the Humanities converge with the Built Environment.

If you don't know, townships exist in every urban area of South Africa, and a version exists in most rural areas, too. Townships are the legacy of apartheid. Apartheid means "separateness" in Afrikaans. When segregation was forced because the Afrikaner government under the Nationalist Party believed that races could only thrive while separated (I can't even begin to comment on this outrageously horrific idea), non-white citizens were forced into specified areas and couldn't leave without passbooks...similar to passports but necessary for traveling outside the neighborhood.

Now the townships still exist, with vast overpopulation and poverty. BUT look at the joy and sense of community. As we walked through Vlei ("Swamp") Township on the edge of Cape Town, these kids were dancing their hearts out. The oldest boy drummed with amazing skill on an old washtub. The mamas were busy cooking. Joy and hope and community have NOTHING to do with affluence.

We all know that the one thing that can break down prejudice is meeting a specific person from the group against which we hold a prejudice (Think about the movie American History X). Stories do the same thing. STORIES help us meet individual people, help us empathize,  force us to understand oppression and misfortune; stories change our attitudes about "others."

We believe that South Africa is a microcosm that is a metaphor for the world.  South Africa is the site of one (not unlike the Holocaust) of the worst legalized systems of oppression in the world. There is racism of every type, and not only black/white conflict but between the "White tribes" (Afrikaners/Boers and English) themselves, East Indians, many other Asian groups, "colored," and more. There is also some of the most joyful, colorful hope in the universe, despite oppression.

When "Madiba"--Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela retired from the South African presidency, President Clinton said the following:

"In every gnarly, knotted, distorted situation in the world where people are kept from becoming the best they can be, there is an apartheid of the heart. And if we really honor this stunning sacrifice of twenty-seven year, if we really rejoice in the infinite justice of seeing this man happily married in the autumn of his life, if we really are seeking some driven wisdom from the poser of his example, it will be to do whatever we can, however we can, wherever we can, to take the apartheid out of our own and others' hearts."

That's what we want to do with this grant. Present some opportunities to explore how learning about South Africa can help us all eliminate APARTHEID OF THE HEART.

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