Thursday, April 26, 2012

12th Annual World Summit of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates

The city of Chicago hosted the 12th annual World Summit of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates from April 23-25, 2012.  More than a dozen prominent laureates attended the summit whose theme was to, "Speak Up, Speak Out for Freedom and Rights" through discussions and presentations over the three days of the event.  The aim of the summit was to help motivate the young, civic leaders and the general public concerning matters of peace and social justice.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Meditation on Humanity

From the magical darkness

of the womb

into the abrupt light of

human contrivance.


In the dome of the implacable skull

the torch of consciousness

passed down through generations

and fashioned into

the protoplasmic wonder called human.


Dark, wild images implanted

in layers of distant memories

in the labrynth of brain.


Sleepless nights of

tumultous storms

tossing lightning through the skies

at the ground in haphazard folly,

trees snappig like helpless twigs,

rivers raging with their burdens of

relentless driving rain,

nights filled with utter darkness,

volcanic fury ripping the earth

as if it were paper,

sky overwhelmed by distant points of light and

moon, mysterious moon

casting pale shadows on the midnight earth,

howling beasts that break the silence

and impregnate the unsuspecting mind

with avenues of fear and deep distrust

of nature so capricious.


Lush rich beauty  of the world

enveloped by the seasons,

filled with wondrous creatures

gave pause to awakening spirit

to rest and meditate

upon the possibility of meaning,

to considere cause as well as effect.


Conflict between the inexplicable and the known,

horror of predation and joy of the kill,

fear and understanding,

health and disease,

plenty and the relentless pain of hunger,

harmony and upheaval,

rapture of sweet love and rage towards the enemy,

living and the end of life,

gave sustenance to the idea of the capricious gods

who hold creation in their playful hands

who can change the course of life

in an instant.


Born with the hunger to understand,

born with the relentless desire for harmony,

wrapped in mother's arms and

held sweetly at the breast,

we seek each other out

to enrich the joy,

to placate the suffering

that begins to unwind from first breath.


We are a vast tribe

grown from few to billions,

we carry the emotions

bundled in our minds like fire,

we have great capacity for

living fruitfully or

giving sway to ignorance

and a thirst for chaos and dissolution.


We are a vast tribe,

grown from few to billions,

we can continue to nurture hatred

sustain the idea of enemy,

need for mortal combat or

take the noble idea of equality

and give it true birth

in the human heart.


We are a vast tribe,

grown from few to billions,

we can hold on to pernicious ideas

that arose from a darker age

where ignorance resided or

embrace our capacity for wonder,

and enfold the whole of humanity

to our breast like the ancient mother that

gave birth to us all.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jonathan Kozol

As In so many other areas of the economic and social life of American citizens, there is a large and growing disparity between the quality of education afforded to those who happen to grow up in households of significant means and those who are in families struggling to survive.  In spite of the mandate for public education, millions of children are deprived of the kind of quality education so vitally important in the twenty-first century.  Jonathan Kozol has been an outspoken critic of this grievous imbalance for decades.


Jonathan Kozol was born on September 5, 1936 in Boston Massachusetts.  He graduated from Harvard University in 1958 with a degree in English Literature.  He was subsequently awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.  He did not complete his studies at Rhodes, however, but journeyed on to Paris in search of his dream of becoming a novelist.  He ultimately published his one and only work of fiction entitled, The Fume of Poppies

Following his graduation from Harvard and on his return from Paris, he began to tutor children in Roxbury, an economically depressed and racially segregated area of Boston, and eventually began to teach in the Boston Public Schools.  He was profoundly impacted by his experience teaching in a segregated school.  As he describes, "I had begun to teach in 1964 in Boston in a segregated school so crowded and so poor that it could not provide my fourth grade class with a classroom.  In the spring I was shifted to another fourth grade class that had had a string of substitutes all year.  The thirty-five children in the class hadn't had a permanent teacher since they entered kindergarten.  That year I was their thirteenth teacher."

He was so appalled by these conditions that he attempted to introduce material to the children that might inspire their interest.   He awakened them to the poetry of Robert Frost and Langston Hughes.  He was fired on this account, for it was the school's determination that, "…the poets he chose were too advanced for children of that age…" for Hughes was considered to be too inflammatory.  He subsequently went on to teach at a prosperous school in the Boston suburbs.  He was impressed and appalled by the stark difference in the quality of education available to those children born into families of means as compared to their underprivileged counterparts.  This set of experiences made him acutely aware of the issues of civil rights and social justice.


Jonathan Kozol has been an unfaltering advocate for the education of poor and underprivileged children for over forty years.   He has written numerous books on this issue including, The Night is Dark and I am far from Home, Savage Inequalities, Ordinary Resurrections and Amazing Grace.

In the fall of 1988 through 1990 he visited students throughout the United States.  He was struck by the extent of racial segregation and the stark differences that existed regarding the quality of education provided that was wholly dependent upon the racial character of the neighborhood.  In his experience, most of the urban schools were predominantly non-white.  This was particularly troubling, since the historic Supreme Court decision regarding Brown versus Board of Education was made some thirty-five years previous in 1954.  In that decision, the Court proclaimed that the argument posed by segregationists that education should be "separate but equal" was untrue and, more importantly, unconstitutional. 


In his book, Savage Inequalities, he describes his experiences visiting the public schools that serve poor and minority children in such diverse places as Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Texas.  He presents in vivid detail the environment of East St. Louis in Illinois.  At the time, this book was written (1991), the city was 98% black and in the author's words, "…has no obstetric services, no regular trash collection, and few jobs.  Nearly a third of the families live on less than $7,500 a year; 75 percent of its population lives on welfare of some form.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development describes it as, 'the most distressed small city in America.'  Nearby, Pfizer and Monsanto have chemical plants severely impacting air quality.  As a consequence, East St. Louis has one of the highest rates of child asthma in the country.  This city lies on the floodplain of the east side of the Mississippi River opposite St. Louis.  The concentration of black communities in lowland areas susceptible to flooding seems to represent a pattern within the United States."  As an example, Kozol compares East St. Louis to the Mississippi delta town of Tunica, Mississippi in the black community of Sugar Ditch where the residences live in close proximity to open sewers and incidences of liver tumors and abscesses found in children are remarkably high.  The devastating and disastrous impact of hurricane Katrina on the black communities living close to the Mississippi River also attests to this pattern.

Amid this backdrop of appalling social conditions, Kozol draws the reader's attention to the condition of the public schools.   The following are some examples of what he found –

"The science labs at East St. Louis High are 30 – 50 years out of date.  John McMillan, a soft-spoken man, teaches physics at the school.  He shows me his lab.  The six lab stations in the room have empty holes where pipes were once attached.  'It would be great if we had water,' says McMillan.

"The biology lab, which I visit next, has no laboratory tables.  Students work at regular desks.  'I need dissecting kits,' the teacher says.  'The few we have are incomplete.'  Chemical supplies she tells me, in a city poisoned by two chemical plants, are scarce.  'I need more microscopes,' she adds.

As part of Kozol's investigation, he also interviewed students to gauge their feelings and analysis regarding the environment in which they were expected to learn.  The following are comments made by such students:

"I don't go to physics class, because my lab has no equipment."

"The typewriters in my typing class don't work."

"The women's toilets…I'll be honest, I just don't use the toilets.  If I do, I come back into class and I feel dirty."

The following statements clearly show that the students are also very aware regarding the broader socio-economic issues that confront them.

"Well, the two things, race and money, go so close together – what's the difference?  I live here, they live there, and they don't want me in their school."

"On one side of us you have two chemical corporations.  One is Pfizer – that's out there.  They make paint and pigments.  The other is Monsanto.  On the other side are companies incinerating toxic waste.  So the trash is comin' at us this direction.  The chemicals is comin' from the other.  We right in the middle."


Even though these observations were made in 1991, the city of East St. Louis continues to suffer from the catastrophic hardships that are a direct consequence of severe economic devastation.


In his travels, Kozol discovered and reported on similar conditions in the inner-city and minority rural communities that he encountered.  He was profoundly touched by these stories and has devoted his life to bringing these situations to the widest possible audience through his books, lectures, speaking tours and conversations.  He has left an undeniable impact, but there is so much more that needs to be done.