I am, by training and vocation, a systems thinker. When I hear a problem, I first seek to understand the issue as best I can and then pose this question: What system might have caused or contributed to this issue and how can we utilize that same system to bring about movement towards a workable solution?
In the past few days, I have read about and heard a great deal of anger, confusion, frustration, angst, and, above all, grief in relationship to the Charlestown shooting. This morning, I listened to an NPR call in program where highly educated professors and journalists talked about the issue and what I came away with was this: there is a problem with racism in this country. Full stop.
Ok, so now what?
I mean, really – what can actually be DONE about this problem?
I humbly offer this as movement towards a workable solution:
- I have experienced over and over again that education and exposure leads to tolerance which, when leaned into, can produce (at its best) an eventual celebration of differences. I observed this phenomena at its height while overseeing the “7 Habits on the Inside” program. By the time I left after three years teaching and learning from my inmates, I watched as correctional professionals and inmates (some of whom had been going after each other for years) listen to one another. I watched them sit down, hear one another, seek to understand one another and seek mutually beneficial solutions. That kind of understanding only comes through intentional learning and growth – on both sides. The 7 Habits program fostered that growth.
- One of the reasons this worked was the hard work of CH (LTC) Mark Jones, myself, other committed correctional staff and chaplains who embraced their own growth and change while making the effort and sacrifice necessary to patiently teach others. In twelve weeks, inmates would look within themselves to discover what was holding them back, do deep personal work, and then seek to understand others. The change that families and correctional staff saw was convincing and permanent. Over them, trust happened when there was no trust before.
- Chaplains are professionals who are held to a professional ethic. They are responsible for ensuring the free exercise of religion. In that role, they often will work to expose others to different religions and thought while seeking to establish common denominators that are necessary for tolerance, dignity, and respect. In that way, they are able to help those who have different cultures, opposing viewpoints, religions etc to relate to one another and move forward in relationship.
Why couldn’t this happen in schools?
Why not have chaplains in schools?
In this country, we have an embedded system of thought which says that we just should not talk about “religion and politics.” The problem with that is, because we are not taught how to have respectful discourse, we only talk about those things in the worst way possible. I offer the anger, hate, and vitriol spewed on social media as evidence.
What if, as I did in my 7 Habits program, we taught religion in schools in a way that promoted healthy and respectful discourse based on seeking understanding? What if every school had a chaplain whose job it was to promote the free exercise of religion by educating (NOT proselytizing) all the students in all the systems of thought that make up our great nation? What if students took field trips to all the places of worship in their cities? What if religion included atheism and “free thought?” What if students learned to see other systems of thought as interesting and not as something to be afraid of and fight against?
There was this moment in teaching the 7 Habits that I came to really see how powerful this could be. The students were engaged in an exercise that had been written by myself, CH Jones, and other inmates. The exercise was to take an intentionally controversial question and discuss it. However, in discussing it, the students had to hear everyone’s past relationship to the problem. They had to make a real and concerted effort to understand the perspectives of everyone at the table (each person would have to agree they had been heard and understood) before they even began to work towards a solution.
It. Was. Powerful.
Over and over again, in class after class, students would break down decades old barriers simply by seeking to understand in a systematic way. It was there that I learned that we’re just not taught as Americans to hear and listen with understanding. It’s a skill that needs to be developed, honed, and constantly practiced.
What if that was a goal in education?
What if this troubled young man had to go through a class like this? Would it check the hate he was learning? Perhaps and perhaps not but I daresay it might have been enough of a check to hold back violence.
I’m a believer that if we taught our children how to listen with understanding, taught them that other races, cultures, belief systems were what make us great, exposed them to all those cultures in a systematic way then we would go a long way toward making better Americans.
I, for one, humbly advocate for chaplains in our school systems to do work like this.