Tag Archives: Sustainability

Travel Guide: Battambang x2

Two years ago, I spent a week in Battambang, Cambodia’s second-largest city, as part of my school’s field studies program. That week completely changed the way I see education, my role as an educator, and what is possible with and for students. Last week, I had the opportunity to return to Battambang with about sixty grade 10 students for the same program, a week that has left me again convinced that young people can do anything as long as we support them.

On this trip, I acted as the school trip leader and worked closely with the program lead from the JUMP! Foundation, the organization that really puts together the whole experience. I can’t say enough good things about the work they do for students and communities and I am so proud to partner with them.

As trip leader, I wasn’t attached to a particular group of students and instead filled in for staff as needed, managed all student issues from discipline to illness to homesickness, switched groups daily to get to know each student, and met nightly with school staff and JUMP!’s lead to hear feedback about the day. Prior to the trip, I arranged airplane travel and rooming assignment, worked with teachers on curriculum coordination, communicated with parents, and managed petty cash. And, despite mental fatigue that hasn’t quite worn off, I really enjoyed it!

Welcome to Battambang, the arts and culture center of the Kingdom of Cambodia!


We flew into Siem Reap and immediately drove the three hours to Battambang where we spent the rest of the week. One of my friends immediately pointed out how much greener Cambodia is in November than it was in February on our last trip. It was really nice to be back in a city I had come to know a couple years before and see how it had changed.

On our first full day, I went with a group taking a tuk tuk ride to Phnom Sampov. Many of the students had never been on a tuk tuk, which is a really lovely way to see and engage with the countryside. The ride itself is beautiful and provides insight into how people live in a country still recovering from decades of civil war.

Phnom Sampov is a mountain dotted with Buddhist temples. We paused in front of several, but the goal of our time there was to visit a killing cave, one of the many legacies of the Khmer Rouge. Each group was partnered with a local facilitator for the week, in addition to teachers and a JUMP! facilitator, which gave the students a cultural connection to Cambodia that they would not have had otherwise. That was a change from the first trip and made a great impact on the students’ understanding of where they were and why.

That afternoon we visited Buddhist University and two monks led us on a tour of the campus temple and then guided us through a short meditation. From there we visited teh university library, which, in addition to the novel sight of monks on laptops, had a specific section for writings by peacemakers. That made me very happy!

As our last activity of the day, we met the dancers of Cambodian Living Arts, one of the many organizations working to revive the arts and culture that were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era. They performed for us and then taught us a traditional dance involving coconuts, leaving everyone laughing and in high spirits. This was an uplifting change from the somber feel of the morning.

We caught a gorgeous sunset on our way to dinner, still travelling by tuk tuk. The sun rises and sets very early in Cambodia, something I always forget, but that also means that the stars are out when it’s still early enough to enjoy them.

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The next day I joined a group at FEDA, an educational organization we used to work with that had just stopped its operation. Now, the visionary leader behind FEDA is working to build a peace museum on FEDA’s campus to chronicle Cambodia’s history and ongoing reconciliation work. That afternoon, we visited Banteay Srei, an NGO working for women’s empowerment in a country where there is a clear status difference between men and women from childhood onward.

It rained the following day, which was delightful because it cooled everything down and left the air quite pleasant. It’s always amazing to me how great of an impact weather has on the way we experience pretty much anything.

Another group started their morning with COMPED, an NGO that focuses on waste management and composting. The students learn about what COMPED does before going to the market to pick up organic waste. They then deposit it at COMPED’s dump sight. I missed it this year but remember the lesson very vividly: Everything goes somewhere and nothing disappears; we leave traces of ourselves wherever we are and that impacts people the world over.

Laster that day, I joined a group heading to Cambodian Children’s Trust. This is the organization that had the greatest personal impact on me from our last trip. CCT opened my eyes to the realities and dangers of orphanage tourism and the astonishing statistic that 80% of children in residential facilities worldwide have living parents. CCT works to support families by providing holistic care and services to the children they work with and their family members.

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I went to bed laughing after spending the afternoon with a particularly entertaining group of young people. There’s a certain ease and genuineness that comes from eating together, learning together, and playing games together outside in sweaty clothes. It’s my favorite way to interact with students because everything I want for them, everything that leads to real questions, connections, and ideas, comes naturally.

The next morning we visited the Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit providing children with academic education as well as arts education, specifically centered on circus skills, as a way of providing them with future work opportunities. I’d seen Phare’s show in Siem Reap on this trip two years ago, but this time we were able to participate in an amazingly fun circus skills workshop! We learned tumbling and how to juggle, took a tour of the campus, and got to watch some of the students rehearsing. We saw Phare’s Battambang show on the last night of the trip and were excited to see the same students perform.

That afternoon, in keeping with the arts theme, we visited Lotus Gallery to meet a local artist and make some art. The gallery itself was beautiful and had a very calming influence on the students.

I spent most of the afternoon chatting with the artist about the creative process and how she gets inspiration from her love of nature and purposely surrounds herself with plants and flowers, even building a garden sidecar for her motorcycle!

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I also enjoyed chatting with her husband about his work in drugs education through theatre. He told me that the drug of choice in Cambodia is methamphetamine, which likely comes into the country from Thailand. It was a real joy to meet a couple who have invested their lives in work that they are passionate about and can also make a positive impact on others.

I spent our last full day on a cycling tour with Soksabike, which had been a highlight for me the first time around. We stopped periodically to learn about local livelihoods and the local families that Soksabike supports. We visited a family making rice paper . . .

. . . Cambodian scarves, which are called krama . . .

. . . banana chips . . .

. . . and bamboo sticky rice, which is a popular street snack. . . .

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The bridge that we would normally take to cross the river had been dismantled, so we crossed by ferry instead. Needless to say, I loved this part. Water and I get along really well.

After the cycle tour, we continued that day’s local living theme by visiting the market, which was just such a joy. The students had a scavenger hunt to help them interact with locals and my job was to follow a group and make sure they didn’t get into any trouble. We saw food stalls . . .

. . . the usual array of meat, fish, and produce (my favorite!)  . . .

. . . textiles, toys, and dry goods . . .

. . . cosmetics and toiletries (and hairdressers and nail salons!) . . .

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. . . and a surprising number of jewelry counters! (Hint: This is where we found the most English speakers.)

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I love markets. They are always my favorite part (or pretty close) of any place I visit. I love seeing people come together for the same needs the world over. I love watching people interact and engage in the common pursuits of humanity. I love watching life happen in its most natural ways.

After Phare’s circus performance to round out the program, it was time for an early night before a 3am wakeup so that we could make the three-hour drive to the airport in time for our 10:30 flight. Absolutely worth it.

JUMP!, I can’t thank you enough. I watched students learn, grow as individuals, become closer to each other, create new friendships, engage with new ideas, and experience a culture and a place that is very different from what they usually see in Singapore. Thank you for bringing out the best in our young people. Thank you for all that you do.

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“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

This is our last week of school and it’s hard. Saying goodbye is difficult and it’s not something I’m good at. I hold on for too long. I reach out for too long. I grow nostalgic before it’s even time to say goodbye and I let myself feel all the things I’ll miss before it’s time to miss them.

I’ve said goodbye enough times to know which stories will stick, which memories will make me smile and which will strike a chord that hurts a little bit. I’m lucky to have taught students who ask real questions, seek out real answers, and report back what they’ve learned. I’m lucky to have worked with truly good people who welcomed me with open arms and saved me from my darkest thoughts. I will miss them all.

This year was my sixth year in the classroom and the first year I considered seeking out avenues outside the classroom to satisfy my need to make an impact on the world. I’ve got a few more things I want to do in the classroom and we’ll see after that.

This is also the first year I let myself entertain the possibility of all kinds of change because this is year that nothing went as planned.

So I’m saying goodbye to good people, a good place, and the path I was following when I co-signed a lease for a New York City apartment a year ago. I’m thinking about the life I want to live going forward so that I can be satisfied when I look back in 100 years or so. What will I have done? What will I be proud of? What will I wish I’d known?

As my therapist says, “What does your 95-year-old self say to your current self?”

I needed this year because I needed time alone to think, to take a step back, and to make the decisions that make the most sense to me rather than the decisions that I thought others wanted me to make. I needed this year to prove to myself that I am capable of making those decisions and don’t need to rely on the opinions of others. Being happy is okay. Making changes to be happy is also okay. Putting oneself first is okay, too.

My 95-year-old self wants to look around and know that she’s touched lives in positive ways. She wants to see family and friends who are global citizens, who believe in the possibility of improvement for all, who work to help those around them realize a better, more peaceful, sustainable world. She wants to have taught students who are good people, who help others, and who harness their interests and skills to have a positive, meaningful, lasting impact on the world around them. She wants the people around her to know that they are loved, supported, and affirmed as members of a community. She wants nature alive and well, ecosystems thriving. My 95-year-old self wants clean air and clean energy; she wants peace, prosperity, and good health for all.

So what does this mean for me as I am now?

It means that I will continue to learn, read, write, and communicate my aspirations and ideas. It means that I will continue to educate because I believe that the next generation of leaders needs more than they are getting in schools today and I want to give that to them. It means that I am looking to surround myself with people who believe that we can build a world that is better, more peaceful, and environmentally sustainable as compared with today’s world. I want to be around people who push me to ask questions, find answers, and be the best person that I can be.

Change does not happen overnight and it does not happen without allies. Change requires teams with a shared vision and I want to be part of a team making a real impact. That’s what I’m working towards.

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” –Hamilton

I hope to live my story and I hope to find people who want to live it with me. If that’s you, post a comment below or send me a message through the contact page. I can’t wait to meet you.

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Building Peace: What’s Missing in the Definition

It has recently come to my attention that my use of the word “peace” extends far beyond the colloquial definition of “nonviolence”. A friend suggested that I write about my broader view of peace in order to provide context to my blog posts on peacebuilding in the classroom. So far, I’ve written about building peace as the purpose of education, redefining masculinity and femininity, use of words and language around students, and specific classroom situations that highlight the need for increased attention to peace. The purpose of this post is to clarify what peace means to me and how I envision a better, more peaceful world.

Definition
When I asked my students to define the word peace, most of them replied that peace means nonviolence, or the absence of war. They’re only partially correct. Merriam-Webster defines peace in four ways:

  • a state of tranquility or quiet: as
    • freedom from civil disturbance
    • a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom
  • freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions
  • harmony in personal relations
  • a state or period of mutual concord between governments or a pact of agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity

The bolded definitions above are what I see as missing from much of our conception of what peace is and how it plays a role in everything that we do on a daily basis, as well as everything we are. Seeking freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions, whether as an individual or working to do so with others, is a peaceful act. Working towards harmony in personal relations is a peaceful act.

It is those acts that are often missing from our interactions, society, and wider discussion of what it means to develop a peaceful world.

Going Further
I propose expanding this definition, however. I see peace as the keystone in the arch of what comprises a better world.

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The keystone is the last piece that goes into an arch during construction. The keystone holds the rest of the arch into position and allows it to bear weight. Without the keystone, the arch is unstable and falls. Without peace, we cannot build a better world.

We have to want a society that allows all people to be free from any sort of oppression, far beyond that of thoughts or emotions. That means working to reduce causes of suffering, including poverty, homelessness, preventable disease, hunger, and lack of clean water. The same is true for developing harmony in personal relations. We need to act with kindness, compassion, and caring towards all others, whether we know them or not. This would open the possibility for dialogue as a way of resolving conflicts, which is an aspect of the “nonviolence” definition of peace. These behaviors need to become part of social norms on local and global scales if we want to develop a better world.

A broader definition of peace also requires concern for the environment. The purpose of peace among humanity is to create a world that is better and more sustainable than the world we have today. Being peaceful in actions towards the environment, working to protect and preserve Earth’s existing resources, and developing technology like renewable energy are all essential components of creating a better world for all. As Planetwalker John Francis explains in his TED Talk, “I learned about people, and what we do and how we are. And environment changed from just being about trees and birds and endangered species to being about how we treated each other. Because if we are the environment, then all we need to do is look around us and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.”

Because if we are the environment, then all we need to do is look around us and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.

Do we treat the environment peacefully? Or are we destructive, harmful, greedy, competitive, aggressive, and violent in our actions towards the planet? What does that say about how we view sentient life?

Peace and Sustainable Development
At the end of last school year, I spent a few days discussing the UN Sustainable Development Goals with my grade nine students.

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Pairs of students chose a goal to research. They prepared presentations to teach the rest of the class what their goal means, work in progress towards the goal, and ways that students might be able to get involved in advancing the goal.

The way I see it, all of these goals reflect a peaceful world in which we care about those around us. The state of tranquility or quiet in Merriam-Webster’s definition will be realized when we end poverty and prevent diseases, assure that Maslow’s basic needs are met, and all humanity is guaranteed a financial safety net that provides the freedom to make choices, create, explore, develop, and achieve.

When we decide that we want to develop an age of sustainable development, we are choosing peace. Developing a peaceful world requires us to commit to treating those around us with dignity, and actively work to help all people increase overall well-being. Altruistic action is necessary towards humanity and towards the environment. These are inherently peaceful actions because they support those around us in the aim of improving our world for all. As Matthieu Ricard explains in Altruism, “In essence, altruism does indeed reside in the motivation that animates one’s behavior. Altruism can be regarded as authentic so long as the desire for the other’s welfare constitutes our ultimate goal, even if our motivation has not yet been transformed into actions.” This is how we will build and maintain a better world for ourselves, our children, and the rest of humanity. Choosing peace in this context requires active commitment to developing a sustainable world.

Peace
Truly choosing peace means looking at the world and its people and cultivating an attitude that reflects the messages we want to send. I think of peace as a state of mind and a way of being, which is what I try to explore with my students. It’s not enough to claim that we want peace for our world. We have to act, be, and think peacefully in order to make that world a reality.

That is the world I am working to build. I invite you to join the conversation about how to create our better, more peaceful sustainable world.

There can be no peace as long as there is grinding poverty, social injustice, inequality, oppression, environmental degradation, and as long as the weak and small continue to be trodden by the mighty and powerful. – Dalai Lama