The idea was to plant and grow better people. She knew they could change, the people here. She’d seen it first-hand. A phrase dropped here or a word placed there; an idea left lingering after an interaction. And then she would come back and hear the word or phrase used by someone who’d found it there and the whole world lit up. She could see how to get in, how to be useful. She imagined what they might be able to do with an idea or two, radically different than what they’d experienced their whole lives. Ideas that could lift human beings out of toxic actualities.
Top-down, power-scarce systems and processes isolate human beings. Education is limited and curriculum controlled by authorities. Information is also limited, often outdated, and recirculated like stale air conditioning air. Internet access is scarce, and the only company in town shuts its tower down on Sundays. Television content is served up only by Sinclair. Nothing—what they know, how they know it—is in their control. And that’s normal. It’s the way things have always been done here.
Enforcement of top-down power traumatizes human beings. Punishment styles range in severity, but each punishment or threat relies on re-triggering the cause of the trauma: isolated helplessness in the face of overwhelming power. Enforcement threats often paralyze adults who, as children, lived in families where all the power was the father’s to use as he pleased, to punish. Childhood punishment serves to enforce authoritarian power when its trauma is re-triggered. Authoritarianism functionally recycles the trauma it creates to force human beings into compliance with top-down structures and processes. And tyrants.
“Why don’t they just stand up, speak up, take care of themselves? Why can’t they just resist? Why don’t they see how cruel their leader is? Why don’t they see he’s betrayed them? Why can’t they change their minds? They’re adults—why can’t they act like them?”
The gold went first. That warm light. It took months to recognize it for what it was. Surprisingly, the sudden shift to cold LED white isn’t really evident to the eye. Seeing is in the reflection, though; off the slant, if you will. Thousands of blown out shots. A monochromatic gray-green backdrop in the valley. Lightened blue eyes from shooting straight into the sun. Color that fades in weeks. This is not a basking sun. It is a force that demands respect, without question. It is the authority. Submission is the only appropriate response. Nothing democratic here.
An overwhelming sea of whiteness. Of white people. Visceral, immediate, consuming. Something to be endured. Drowning in white people. No eye contact from anyone not white. Difference must be passing-careful or withdraw entirely to feel safe or trusted. To embody a full range of expression. To have any chance at a lasting sense of well-being. To have the choice to feel fully human. Whiteness is the authority. Submission is the only appropriate response. Nothing democratic here.
Power is scarce. Steal for it, lie for it, cheat for it; debate, fight, kill. No collaboration. Nothing student-centered or client-centered or customer-centered or patient-centered. No power-sharers. No old people sharing power with young people. No one practicing with power. No. No. No. An enduring wall of no. This is not a place for the soft, the sensitive, the young. There is no place in a power scarce culture for vulnerability, for the grey areas, for uncertainty. They eat their young. Power is the authority. Compliance is the only appropriate response. Nothing democratic here.
In this version of the story, it’s all an accident. The woman is a San Francisco Bay Area Native (SFBAN!) whose cultural blinders are mega, all gilded and jeweled and feathered. She is a city girl looking for a change, for some alone time.
Her fantasy of living in the trees with her kittens and writing brilliant books that will make everyone love her seems possible when she finds a little cottage in the mountains on 3 acres that she can afford. She sells her Bay Area property and uses the equity to clear all her debts. She pays cash for her new little property in the trees, for a silver AWD, and some art she always wanted. She moves her kittens and herself to this rural.
She finds a thin world, where the membrane between solvency and squalor is super fine. She is accustomed to thickness in a world, where the layers–the stratum of civilization–cushion the occasional fall and veil the view of less fortunate neighbors. She’s accustomed to relational scaffolding–carefully chosen language that lubricates human interactions, social and professional. She is accustomed to assuming that there is a way to solve every problem if enough effort is expended. She assumed worlds were all the same in these ways. She was dead wrong.
Urban complexity gives way to rural scarcity, and she is buried, daily, in the pain and suffering that grinding poverty inflicts on human beings. She experiences first-hand the soul-crushing desperation that grows enormous when it becomes clear that there is no help, for her or anyone else here. She lives on her knees where she entered this culture: at the bottom. She looks up at familiar safety nets never meant to extend to these depths. To “these people.” She learns from her neighbors that being rural poor in the U.S. is a whole lot harder than not having money.
The city girl will spend 19 months is this rural world, and it will fundamentally change her as a human being.
In this version of the story, the urban woman buried in rural cultures research reaches for familiarity, for home–she is losing herself in the conservative wild west world she is studying. There are no professional standards, no law enforcement, information is unreliable, and no one trusts anyone else. She is surrounded by old people, authoritarian people; gatekeepers protecting little patches of power with passively fierce aggression. She is an outsider in this rural culture, never hears her name, and is socially isolated with no access to the internet. She is starving for the company of young people; her soul aches in its need for imagination, for possibilities, for life.
She decides to teach one course at the local college.
She chooses a textbook with no political messages, only ideas about how to relate in healthy ways with other human beings. She prepares a syllabus that revolves around students relating with one another, one-on-one, in conversation. Her lessons focus on understanding, not debating; the activities are designed so learners can play with and try on ideas about resiliency, about adapting, about creativity and imagination, about mercy and forgiveness. Ubuntu.
She does not find learners here. She finds students who are trapped in top-down power structures and systems that the old people have left behind, that keep everyone at the university locked in combat mode. She meets students who are fighters, students who virtually shoot to kill, in her direction. Most are uni-oriented: they can only orient to other human beings in an adversarial frame. Her non-adversarial approach confuses and frustrates them, and they don’t know where to punch. They can clap back, double down, attack, and defend, but they don’t know how to understand. They have been fighting for so long that they have forgotten how to learn.
White female students revolt, students of color vanish, grades are taken off the table, the administration gets involved, and hilarity ensues.