October 27, 2006

Speaker ‘Transforms’ Education

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Elijah Muhammad once demonstrated two glasses of water to his student, Malcolm X. He proceeded to pour oil into one of them. As he held up the two glasses, he said, “Never tell anyone that they are holding a dirty glass of water because they are going to resent you for pointing out their problems. Instead, hold up in your arm the clean glass of water and let them make the choice for themselves.”
This was one anecdote that Dr. Scott Sherman, the executive director of the Los Angeles-based Transformative Action Institute, presented as part an overview of an innovative model of education for personal and social change during last evening’s interactive workshop titled “Teaching to Change the World — An Innovative Approach to Education.” This event concluded Sherman’s three-day long visit to Cornell.
Social entrepreneur, activist, and educator, Sherman holds a JD from UC Berkley and a PhD in environmental justice from University of Michigan. Last year, together with his fellow Berkley graduate, Randy Parraz, he started the non-profit Transformative Action Institute.
Sherman’s career as a social activist began 13 years ago when, as an undergraduate student at Berkeley, he was puzzled by the nature of the classes on environmentalism.
“I noticed that every class on environmentalism was about environmental problems and there were no classes about solutions,” he said. Sherman’s response was to create his own class, “Environmental Problem Solving,” which was offered on non-credit basis. His current class, titled “Effective Methods of Social Change,” is one of the most popular ones at UCLA.
Sherman suggested that, during his undergraduate years, the students started a number of classes focusing on the solutions to environmental and social problems. One of them, “Changing ourselves, changing our world,” attracted many famous guests such as Isabelle Allende, Susan Griffin and Alice Walker.
“Because we were undergrads, we felt that we were not experts on these subjects and so we would just explore [the topics]. The classes would be very interactive, they’d be discussion based,” Sherman explained.
According to Anke Wessels, the director of Cornell-affiliated CRESP Center for Transformative Action (previously known as Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy), transformative action is a methodology that takes an alternative approach, which is not based on anger, to conflict resolution.
“Transformative action embraces an approach that drops enemy imaging and comes from a place of compassion and corroboration; with this shift in perspective a new world of possibilities comes into view,” she said. “We need grounding for a productive conversation.”
Sherman engaged the audience in two improvisation activities in order to empirically demonstrate just how transformative action works. First, he asked all of the attendees to pair up and to make an affirmative statement about their partner. The only condition was that the statement had to be the first thing that popped into the person’s mind. For example, one may say “you are ignorant.” The partner would then have to accept the statement and to come up with a two-minute story explaining how he or she came to be this way and how this would lead him or her to change. The exercise was meant to demonstrate that we are more likely to resolve our problems if we accept, rather than reject, the critiques.
For the second improvisation called “the power of yes,” Sherman asked everyone to stand up, form a circle and pretend to be a part of a marketing team that is working on a product that has never been marketed before. He would then ask a series of questions and the attendees had to shout out their answers. Sherman picked on certain people who would have to repeat what they had said. Everyone else had to scream “yes,” no matter how silly the proposals had seemed.
Sherman premeditated the question on everyone’s mind, “It may seem that what we are doing is kind of prosaic: what does this have to do with changing the world?”
He went on to provide an answer: “We are trying to embrace everyone as they are in order to be able to see that we can we work towards the common vision, embrace all of the people, and go beyond the us-versus-them attitude.”
By the end of the improvisation the positive energy had certainly built up. According to Sherman, the purpose of the activity was to demonstrate that hearing “yes” instead of “no” creates a more productive and engaging environment for solving problems.
After the workshop had ended, Tony Marks-Block ’07, natural resources major, commented on his experience, “At times it felt like a self-help session, but I liked doing interactive activities because they were able to model potential situation where I could utilize [the experience] as a future teacher or just with my friends”.
“Activities like that are important to get true feelings out,” he added.