America, I Love You, So Listen Up

I am an American currently living in Indonesia, on the opposite side of the globe from my home country.  I sent my absentee ballot in weeks ago, and on November 9th I woke up as people in the United States were still going to the polls, and I spent my morning and afternoon watching the numbers come in until eventually the new president-elect of the United States was announced.

I am a farm girl from rural Central New York, who studied English Education at a liberal arts college, and who has lived in Indonesia since graduating with my undergraduate degree, teaching English and engaging in what most people call “soft diplomacy.”

I am a mixed bag of backgrounds and experiences and I have used all of them in whatever ways I thought I was qualified to do.  I wrote blog posts and slam poems about how I hope my experience here in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation would shape how people considered this election.  I tried to reason with family members and friends from home over Facebook and in person while I was in the U.S. this summer (though New York State may have gone to Hillary, my county voted 57% Trump), because I know from growing up in these areas that it is those personal connections that help people to listen to new ideas, and I thought that maybe because I from there, people might listen to me.  I posted long-form think pieces to my Facebook wall and sent critical videos to friends from college who were seeing a one-sided view of the people who raised me and in many ways created the social-justice oriented person I am today (my college education shaped it as well, but it cannot claim it in full as it would like to), because someone once told me the people with college degrees are more likely to read and listen to long texts.

And through it all, I listened.  Though I have a slightly more complex background, I knew I could not rely merely on that to take the pulse of the nation.  And so I read all the articles Facebook friends posted no matter how biased those articles were (on both sides), so that I could see where the far right and far left seemed to be standing.  I read political theories and commentaries from all sorts of sources.  I fact-checked.  I talked to people.  I read.  I listened.

I shared and discussed what I had learned.  I thought that by listening, asking questions, and trying to use the voice of reason on both sides, I was doing the right thing.

I cast my vote, and then waited for the rest of my country (or at least those who would turn out on election day), to do the same.  And then I was told that in January, Donald Trump would become the new president of my country.

I won’t say I wasn’t disappointed, sad, and angry: throughout the election I clung to my stubborn optimism and insisted that Americans would make the right choice, the kind choice.  That is what I told my friends here, who were horrified at this new side of the U.S. they didn’t really know existed before now.  And then America allowed Donald Trump to become the president-elect.

There are a lot of reasons people have given for why Donald Trump was able to win.  Here is mine: we didn’t listen.

If you voted for Trump, because you actually believe in the racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic vitriol that defined his campaign, I don’t really know what to say to you.  Did you listen to anyone at all, ever?

If you voted for Trump because you are tired of a broken system which seems to fail almost all ordinary Americans, okay, I hear you.  But did you not listen to the voices of the folks who are black, Latino/a, Muslim, Jewish, LGBTQA*, etc. who were scared to leave their homes even before he was actually elected, and who are even more scared now that he is the president-elect?  Don’t tell me that he didn’t commit all these atrocities as an individual (though he has committed enough of his own): the language of his campaign has had a powerful effect on the language and attitudes of even schoolchildren.  He has given so many (dare I say all) of the poisonous -isms that are still in the waters of America a platform to stand on.  If you knew all of this, then when you voted for Donald Trump, you said with your ballot that that was okay.  If you didn’t know this, it is because you didn’t listen.

If you did not vote for Trump and you are now blaming “racist, rural, poor whites” for the reason he won, you are not listening to the exit polls, who tell us that those whose income is less than 50,000 a year were more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton or a third party.  If you did not vote for Trump and refuse to recognize the broken system that may have led some in desperation to do so, and instead insist on referring to them as “the deplorables,” you are not listening to a group that feels ignored and disenfranchised, no matter who they voted for.  Is there racism and xenophobia imbedded into this particular brand of disenfranchisement?  Are the people they are voting for probably not interested in their well-being?  Yes and yes.  But this is part of a greater classist system that has existed for far longer than this election, and calling people names is not the way to fix this system.  If you continue to respond to this highly problematic population by painting them in one color and refusing to see them complexly, you are not listening.

If you voted third party, I understand that you want to be part of a system that allows more than two options, but this was not the time or the way to try to make that system a reality.  I know you didn’t want to be “responsible” for letting someone you could not agree with become president.  But in the end that’s not how this system allows your vote to work.  You were told this, and you too did not listen to the real fears of minority groups and therefore allowed this man into office.

If you critique the third-party voters without also recognizing that the two-party system is messed up and people should have been able to vote that way without sacrificing the respectability of our country, you are also not listening.

If you did not vote because you were protesting an election wherein no one seemed to care about you, or because you felt that you had not truly viable options available to you, I am so sorry that you feel as hurt as you do.  But the stakes were too high, and people were saying this, and you did not listen.

If you are treating those who did not vote as though they are the end of all democracy, if you are in any way criticizing the effect of their non-vote without also acknowledging their pain and realizing that, if you did vote, you most definitely voted for one of the reasons they feel this level of pain, then you are not listening.

If you voted for Clinton, like myself, we don’t get a free pass.  If you were “with her” and you feel fully confident that she was absolutely the best person to be the next president of the United States, you also were not listening.  There is no denying that Hilary had a resume of experience that made her much more qualified than any of the candidates.  There is also no denying that, in the Trump vs. Clinton dichotomy, she appeared to a huge number of people to be the “lesser of two evils.”  If you voted for her and did not note the ways in which she also, though to a much lesser degree, dehumanized parts of the American population, then you did not listen.  If you do not recognize that she stood to leave several minority groups behind if she was elected, then you did not listen.  If you do not see Hilary Clinton, as all of the candidates this election, as some level of problematic, then you did not listen.

I voted for Hillary Clinton.  I did not do so because she was all I sought for in a candidate: to be honest, I am still sad that Bernie Sanders was not an option on my ballot, as I felt he might be able to bring about real changes to a broken system.  I did not vote for her solely because I recognized that she was the least dangerous (even if she wasn’t completely harmless), to the minority groups I might not belong to but value and support, though I could not claim to have listened at all in this campaign if this did not factor in to how I cast my vote.

I voted for Hilary because along the way I began to notice that in many ways, Hilary Clinton listened too.  She was criticized for having gone back and forth on issues, but it seemed as though this was her responding to the pulse of America, in the same way I tried to respond, though on a much smaller scale.  I did not agree with Hilary on a lot of issues, and I disapproved of many of the ways she ran her campaign.  But I came to believe that she might be a leader who listened, and I put my hope, and my vote, in that.

There are some who say that Donald Trump’s acceptance speech shows that he too can listen.  I see far less evidence of that, but I pray that I am wrong.

The tale is not entirely bleak, and there are results of this election that give me hope for the future, and remind me why I still do love the place where I am from.  There are now four women of color in the senate.  Our nation’s first Somali-American legislator, Ilhan Omar, will represent Minnesota Hose District 60B.  Tulsi Gabbard became the first person to use the Bhagavad Gita to swear into her role as a congresswoman.  These small morsels lead me believe that not all is lost.

I won’t be one of those people who says that everything is going to be okay.  I will be one of those people who says that we shouldn’t give up.  I will be one of those people who says that now, more than ever, is a time for movement.  It is a time to create change which will create a more understanding United States, one that is less divided not because we have agreed to follow one extreme or the other because it is easy, but because we have changed ourselves to be more empathetic.  And to become more empathetic, we need to listen.

Of course, listening is where we need to start, but not not where we can stay forever, if we want to create real, productive change.  In many ways, I feel that I listened too much and spoke too little during this election season: recognizing that I am a small individual with little influence, there are still things I would have done differently.

There are many ideas out there for what individuals can do, especially if you were hoping for a Hillary win. I do not know yet what the right move is, nor what my own personal next move will be.  I need to re-take the pulse of America, now that it’s diet and exercise regimen has changed so drastically.  I must also consider my unique position in living abroad, and how that affects what I can do. (For now, it means I do not have the privilege to sit back and reflect to the same degree that many other white young people at home can do.  As a representative of America in a foreign country, I have to explain what happened to our friends who live across the world.  It also means I cannot physically offer protection on public transport to those who feel most threatened in this post-Trump America.)  I must consider what my own capacities are, and what I am actually capable of doing, and doing well, both right now, and in less than a year, when I will most likely return to the United States.

I will do my part.  I will take action, and raise my voice, in the way that is most appropriate to who I am and my situation.

But first, I have some listening to do.

Note: I have tried to link, when possible, to pieces I have read or videos I have watched which I think better illustrate some of these points.  Please click on these links.  Listen. 

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Taking It All In, from a Different Angle: The Road to Becoming RC

From August 2014 until May 2016, my life was pretty much defined by my position as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Indonesia.  I know there are many people who might point out that twenty-two months is not a particularly long time, in the grand scheme of things, but there is no denying the unbelievable growth I have experienced during this short time, and it often feels like as though my two grants lasted much longer.

After properly moving to Jakarta and making the time to start blogging again, I was reminded of just how much I have gained from the ETA experience just by opening up my WordPress account.  Throughout my two-ish years as an ETA, I published 70 numbered blog posts (as well as almost a dozen that I chose, for one reason or another, to not title numerically), on topics ranging from my struggle to understand different school systems, to my visits to some of the most incredible places on earth, to my frustrations with international religious intolerance, to my ongoing relationship with mati lampu.  I have had a wealth of opportunities as an ETA, from the things I have been able to do and the people—both Indonesian and American—whom I have been able to meet, and I have tried my hardest to make the most of all of this.

In some ways, I have been successful.  There is no denying that I dove in to my role as a teacher during both of my grants; being able to participate in the WORDS competition both in 2015 and 2016 allowed me a way to use my program to pass on an opportunity to one of my students; and I cannot help but look at The Bahasa Project with a simultaneous sense of pride and utmost humility (that so many ETAs were interested in working to make this a project a reality last year still amazes me, and I am excited to say that there are several ETAs from this current cohort who would like to continue the project).

At the same time, I have made a lot of mistakes as an ETA, and the road has not always been easy.  My inability to say no resulted in my teaching almost forty hours in the classroom every week, and on two campuses, during my first grant, and the level of strain this put on me both physically and mentally is probably why I contracted typhoid at the end of my first grant; I have made cultural mistake after cultural mistake, and I continue to do so quite regularly after two years of living in Indonesia; periods of loneliness, bouts of being fed up with standing out and all that implies, and times of low semangat have led me, during both of my grants, to hiding myself in my room and ignoring the community in which I should be engaging (I should note here that this is an entirely natural reaction to living in a place so far outside of your comfort zone, and I have tried very hard not to think of myself as less of an ETA for having these moments, though often that itself is a struggle).

I have had good days and bad days.  I have flown higher than I ever had before, and have sunk into dark pits of being the kind of person I had always promised myself I would never be.  I laughed, cried, agonized, celebrated, apologized, listened, and learned to an extent I would never have thought possible, until I did.

Having this kind of experience inspires, like nothing else, the desire to give back to the program that gave me this opportunity.  This is partially what brought me to become one of the Senior ETAs (SETAs, though we were called Returners then) and return to Indonesia for a second year.  And it is most definitely my greatest motivation for taking on my current position as the Researcher Coordinator (RC).  I have only really begun my time in this role, but I hope that I will be able to do it well, and be of use to the current cohort of ETAs, who have at this point been at their sites for about a month.

The first task of every RC, and perhaps the largest task they will take on all year, is to plan and develop the ETA orientation alongside the American Program Team from AMINEF and the 2016-17 SETAs.   A few months of planning via digital communication (hundreds of emails were sent in the making of orientation), and two weeks of intense planning in person in the AMINEF office resulted in a two-and-a-half-week training for the incoming cohort, in which they all participated after spending one week at their sites.

I have never in my life planned or run anything quite like ETA Orientation.  In less than three weeks we hoped to provide ETAs with the language training, introduction to teaching practices, and cultural understanding that they need to make the most of the nine months they will spend in Indonesia (time that will invariably fly by).  There are a million moving pieces, and if just one of those pieces decides to shift too drastically, it can create a ripple effect through a good portion of the planning that so many people have put so much work into.  More than once, when juggling some of the organizational and thematical issues which arose during orientation, I was quite convinced that the entire thing would come crashing down.

Fortunately, while I have never tackled anything quite on this scale, this is not my first leadership rodeo.  From acting as a Livestock Skill-a-thon Coach starting at age 15, to co-instructing a student-led Honors seminar my Junior year of college, to standing in front of dozens of classrooms full of wide-eyed young people who are somehow convinced I deserve to be at the head of the class, I have had my fair share of moments in which I am sure that I have absolutely failed everyone that I have sought to help.  I’ve yet to come to the point in my life in which I can stop myself from feeling that way in those moments, but I have learned very well how to keep pushing through, and to be able to reflect fairly on the experience afterwards, and see it for just what it was: usually something that was in no way perfect, but also not disastrous, and always an opportunity to learn (I recently finished the Orientation Summary Report for this year, and I hope that my more specific reflections will also be learning opportunities for the next RC).

Throughout the planning process and orientation itself, I was continually humbled by the level of dedication from everyone involved in making it run (from the AMINEF Team members, to the SETAs, to the hotel staff in charge of our group), the generosity with which professionals of all kinds were willing to give to orientation, and the openness and diligence with which the incoming ETAs approached the training.  The orientation was not perfect, and it certainly challenged me both personally and professionally, but in the end I feel there were some successes, and I feel incredibly privileged to have experienced all of it, and this feeling of satisfaction was caused in no small manner by the way in which the incredible people who helped me throughout were able to create what successes we had.

Orientation was also really the moment in which I truly stepped into my role as RC, leaving almost completely behind the ETA I had been for the past two years.  Though as a SETA I had assisted with orientation, I still participated in many of the sessions as an ordinary ETA.  This year, I was regularly making changes and preparations during language classes and such, and there were whole sessions I did not get to see because of behind-the-scenes work.  Even with all of this, though, it didn’t really hit me until all of the ETAs were headed back to their sites that I really wasn’t an ETA anymore.  Even now that orientation was over, I was not headed back to a school to work in the classrooms, where I am most comfortable.  I was headed back to an office in Jakarta to continue in my new role.

There is a part of me that was saddened by this.  I am a certified teacher for a reason: I love working with students, and I truly feel called to be an educator in a way that I cannot fully articulate except through the time and energy I have always promised myself I would never cease to pour into the teaching roles I have had.  Not having that every day this year had been hard, and while I am working on finding ways to bring young people into my life in Jakarta, I have not quite done so.  I knew that I would be giving something up by becoming RC, but I did not fully realize the extent to which I would feel this until I was in the middle of it.

But I continue to be mostly excited for this new role.  Though I miss the classroom desperately, it is because I do not have the demands of my ETA role in a school that I am able to give myself over so fully to trying to develop better programming and support systems for ETAs in Indonesia, and I cannot express how fortunate that makes me feel.  And though I am not in the classroom this year, I am still able to use the training and experience I have been blessed to have to assist ETAs: it is a kind of teaching, but in a different fashion.  And a huge part of my position this year is research, something in which I have very little experience, but which I am thrilled to be able to dive into the challenges of.  All teachers are learners, and I know that I will learn so much about so many realms this year, from leadership, to research, to myself.

I am sure I will continue to make mistakes as RC, and fall short in much of what I will try to do, in the same way that was not always successful in my efforts as an ETA.  But I do hope that, in the end, I am able to be of use to the many fabulous ETAs that make up this current cohort, and give back to the program that has, and will continue to, allow me the chance to stretch and grow in so many incredible ways.