Brush with Magic Realism Two: The Resurrection



Magic realism. Do you know what it is? It is defined as a literary genre where lines between reality and fantasy blur. Anyone who has read Garcia Marques’ wonderful book “100 Years of Solitude” knows how often in Latin America, magic realism is a way of living. Case in point. Becki even saw an ad for travel saying “Colombia IS Magic Realism” She would say ditto for Nicaragua. And Rio San Juan, out in the jungle, is magic realism “par excellence.”  Let me introduce Becki Cohn-Vargas and her story Brush with Magic Realism Two: The Resurrection 

Toastmaster Speech: February 2015

First let me set the scene. Imagine a river boat with a flat roof and open sides, set up like a bus with rows of seats going back and flaps to pull down when the rain comes and with aisles way too narrow. I was traveling on this river boat with my Nicaraguan husband, an American friend, and two others from the river, Eric and Yader, who had traveled along the San Juan River to the small town of San Juan de Nicaragua for a few days. Eric owns a watch repair booth in the town of San Carlos. A friendly guy in his forties, Eric seems to know everyone up and down the river. Yader is the caretaker of our property; he is in his late twenties, strong and capable of anything from expertly driving a motor boat to safely guiding night hikes amidst snakes and poisonous spiders. My friend Michelle would probably never have gone on one of those night hikes, but she was a trooper, being careful not to complain too much about the jungle bugs.

We wanted to go to San Juan because it is an historic town  San Juan is on the Caribbean Sea on the southern tip of Nicaragua at the border with Costa Rica where several rivers flow together toward the sea amid swamps. Over the years, this town was once a thriving port town. First conquered in the 1500s by the Spanish, in the 1800s, it was taken over by the British and frequented by pirates seeking to invade the Spanish territories of Nicaragua.  Later, in the 1850s San Juan had consulates for over 127 countries and served as a gateway for crossing from the Atlantic to Pacific coasts for over 20,000 gold-seekers heading to California. And now, little remains of those wild and wooly days, just an old British cemetery and a rusty 150 year old dredge, abandoned in the lagoons where the rivers join to spill into the sea.

Twice burned to the ground, and once a haven for narco-traffickers, now the town is dilapidated with only empty shells of narco-owned discotheques which were raided by the police. The town boasts new sidewalks (no cars are in this town) that allow people to not have to slosh through the mud. In addition to being easier to walk, the streets are safer because you can at least see the dangerous salt-water crocodiles who find refuge in town during floods.

We had loved our short visit to San Juan. We met a Rama Indian leader named Coyote, attended the graduation of adult education students, even an 83 year old woman who had just learned to read and completed a fourth grade education,  and were taken around by the local Chief of Police who offered his boat and even let us wear their rain gear. We also met the owner who invited us for beer at his hotel, the one luxury hotel, on an island, with chandeliers from Spain and a small zoo of rescued jungle animals. We also met a Danish consultant who was leading workshops with the the Rama Indians about their rights under international law to arm them with information as they determined how to respond to the plans for the interoceanic canal that would go through their property. We walked everywhere in the endless rain, and the two days flew by. Suddenly it was time to leave.

And the story? It actually happened on our return boat ride, but I just thought you needed to hear all the above to get the richness of this story.

And at 5 am we boarded the boat for a six-hour ride back to our property.  Our boat was the express, (the slow boat would take 12 hours). We were traveling with Mestizo, Creole, and Rama Indian mothers with babies, children of all ages, men on their way to work, one Italian tourist and a few chickens. The only way to reach San Juan de Nicaragua is by boat unless you have the cash and come on the right day to board the small plane that flies to Managua once a week.

So we were all crammed into the boat as we shoved off into the misty darkness. As we left town, we made our first stop at a village called Jojo. There we had our first hint of strangeness. It dim dark dawn mist, we saw at least 15 people of all ages standing there, along with a small wild pig with scratchy hair. It was obvious that they could possibly fit on the boat, but they made no attempt to do that. Eric called out “Is the pig for sale?”

“No”, was the reply from a tall man in bermuda shorts with a grim face and folded arms. Only a young woman boarded the boat in Jojo and was greeted by an older woman in a bronze-colored satin blouse and faded skirt. Later we realized why the whole town had come out to meet the boat.

The woman in the satin blouse must have gone from the front to the back of the boat in the first half our of the trip. Looking back at her, as she wended her way back, I noticed an IV bottle swinging from the wood beam on the ceiling of the boat.

As the boat made its way through the mist, the passengers pulled down the canvas tarps to stay warm and dry. The swamps were left behind and the river wound along. On one side was Costa Rica, with a road carved out of the hillsides, but few vehicles, just electrical wires strung along. On the Nicaraguan side, there were no wires, just thick forest. We passed five Nicaraguan border stations. The first was so primitive that the soldiers with machine guns in knee-high boots had to wade through flooded waters to climb aboard our boat and make their way to the back, cursorily rifling through our bags and purses, and review our paperwork. Luckily, this did not happen at each station. After about an hour, Maria, another friend of Eric’s with a short afro and a friendly face made her way to the front of the boat to talk to the captain. On her way back to her seat, she leaned over us and whispered “there’s a patient in the back who drank battery acid to kill himself over a broken heart. They are taking him to the hospital in San Carlos. But, he probably won’t make it.”

We all tried to be discrete as we turned our heads to view the young man, hooked up to the swinging IV bottle, his head was bobbing forward. The woman in the satin blouse was leaning over him, she was his mother. The young woman who got on was his sister. And now we realized that the man was from the town of Jojo and everyone from that tiny village, probably all related to each other, had come out to bid his farewell. Next to him was a nurse and behind them a police officer. Maria seemed to be the self-appointed emissary, going back and forth to speak to the captain. On another trip she said in a hushed voice. “Things look bad, we are going to make an unplanned stop on the Costa Rican side.”

Now, Costa Rica and Nicaragua are not happy campers these days. The world court had deemed the San Juan River to fully belong to Nicaragua and only gave Costa Ricans the privilege of navigating unarmed along the river. That was not acceptable to Costa Rica, who claimed they could not secure their border, and for that reason they swiftly built the unsightly road, a source of much controversy about environmental destruction, leaving great swathes of dirt and ugliness. Costa Rica shot back the Nicaragua was dredging the river, which was diverting water from Costa Rican rivers to the Nicaraguan side. Would that impact the need to save a Nicaraguan life by going to a Costa Rican clinic? We did not know.

The boat pulled over in the town of La Tigra, a town so small, I cannot find the population or anything about it online. The captains’ assistant called out to us “only the doctor will be getting off to make a phone call,”

No sooner than the words were out of his mouth, that in typical Nicaraguan fashion, half the boat got off. Just as the police officer was marching off the boat, my husband, Rito said to him “maybe you might not want to get off since you are armed and it could be misinterpreted.” The guy stopped in his tracks and thought better of creating an international incident.

A few minutes later, they all began boarding again, carrying bags of chips, cans of soda and other snacks. Yader, our caretaker had a cup of hot coffee and Rito asked him “what are you already having a wake for the poor guy?”

Another person called out, “look, the guy wanted to die, so hopefully he will hurry it up so we won’t be held up.”

The doctor re-emerged and the word on the boat was that we were continuing on to San Carlos as planned. I never was sure who she had consulted with, but before she made it to the back and as the boat was pulling out the man went into cardiac arrest. Looking back, now with no discretion, I could see the police officer doing CPR and his mother sobbing. Halfway to the back was Maria. The captain’s assistant, aware of the crisis moment, called out “should we go back to the dock?”

A moment of chaos ensued. People were all calling back “should we go or leave?” There seemed to be no answer coming. The people in the back were deeply engaged in the emergency CPR.

Finally someone shouted out “majority rules, let’s go.” and the boat headed back to the middle of the river. By now, it was mid-morning.

As the boat moved along things seemed quiet in the back. I had to go to the back to the bathroom and passed the people taking care of the young man. Things seemed to have calmed down. The hours passed slowly and we all dozed and snacked and forgot about what was happening with him.

Finally, after passing four border stations, we reached the big town of El Castillo where everyone was invited to get off for a break. And nearly everyone did get off, the lady in the satin blouse, the police officer, the doctor–all of our little group, except my husband. He stayed on board and decided to use the bathroom on the boat. On the way to the back, there was the patient sitting quietly. “Are you all right?” Rito asked.

“Yes, said the man, sitting there as if nothing was wrong, except for the IV fluid going into his arm.

We reached our destination without further incident and never heard any more about this man, but his resurrection marked a special moment for all of us. If we had not been there, we might not have believed it, hence Magic Realism, alive and well on the San Juan River in Nicaragua.


The Nicaraguan Interoceanic Canal: Ceremonies and Violence



Becki just returned from spending much of December with her husband in Nicaragua. Little did she know that she would directly experience a small piece of over 5 centuries of world history.

Toastmaster Speech: January , 2015

Have you ever traveled overland from the east to the west coast. How long did it take?

At the time of the gold rush it took 6-8 months to either go overland or around the Horn of South America. That is why they created a shorter route down Rio San Juan in Nicaragua- a potential canal route. You can see why they wanted an interoceanic canal.

And the twisted history of a Nicaraguan canal continues to this day.

Makengue, our 200 acres of rainforest property, is along Rio San Juan. This December, we found ourselves walking right into history–or should I say–riding on a bus at 1:00 am, two days before Christmas, stopped at a road block, surrounded by hundreds of angry, armed canal protesters. Fear not, we survived.

An interoceanic canal was first spoken of in the 1500’s by Spanish King Philip. Two areas were considered- Panama and Nicaragua. During the gold rush, in the 1850’s, the Vanderbilts began transporting prospectors in steamers from New York to the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. From there, they travelled up the Rio San Juan and across Lake Nicaragua where a stagecoach took them 12 miles to San Juan del Sur, where another steamer travelled to San Francisco. Claiming to be the cheapest route to California from the east, they soon carried 2,000 passengers monthly for $300 each. Vanderbilt’s contract with the Nicaraguans also gave him exclusive rights to construct a Canal until 1861, but that did not happen.

Years later, in 1881, a French company was contracted to work on a canal in Panama. Twenty thousand workers died and $300 million was lost, as the project failed due to design flaws and corruption. In 1901 Roosevelt signed a treaty with Britain, giving the US exclusive rights to build a canal in the Americas. The Canal Commission proposed building it in Nicaragua, distancing itself from the Panama fiasco. Congress voted 308 to 2 for the Nicaraguan route. But others in the US government, including members of the President’s family, stood to make a fortune if Panama was selected. Panama supporters lobbied heavily, hanging enormous 20 foot maps of Nicaragua in congressional chambers, pointing out the many volcanoes, They sent each senator a postage stamp picturing a Nicaraguan volcano. Their point, the canal route was laden with erupting volcanoes and shaking earth. They claimed Panama had no volcanoes and conveniently neglected to mention how an earthquake had rocked Panama while the French were building. It did not help that Mount Pelee had erupted in Martinique, killing 30,000. The advertising war worked, the tables turned and the canal was built in Panama. But, that did not the end dreams of a Nicaraguan canal route.

Over the last eight years since we bought our rain forest property, the risk of a canal has always hung over our heads. We are on a small river- only a mile from the San Juan and our property would certainly have been affected as the locks would be built and the river widened.

In 2013, a deal was signed between Nicaraguan President Ortega and Wang Jing, a billionaire from Hong Kong, who described the project as “the most important in the history of humanity.” They’d break ground on one of three routes on December 23, 2014, and finish building in five years. The deal also includes building two ports, a resort, and railroad, giving Wang Jing exclusive rights to profits for 50 years with a chance to extend another fifty. In the end, the 172 mile canal route will not be on Rio San Juan and for that we were relieved. But to date, no serious environmental impact study has been done. Over 30,000 people live on the route and the Nicaraguan constitution decrees their land will be taken.

On our trip in December, 2014 Nicaragua was buzzing about the canal and everyone seemed wary. First we traveled to the Caribbean coast, to San Juan, the town where Vanderbilt’s ships had arrived from New York. Now abandoned, this tiny outpost, reached only by water or very small planes, is surrounded by Rama Indian villages, swamps, and jungle. We met the Rama people and heard of a big meeting to discuss their rights. The canal route will run through their sovereign native lands, and they were never consulted. Like non-Indian campesinos, they were visited by Wang Jing’s staff, accompanied by armed police, who asked questions and measured their property without permission. All feared that they would not be fairly compensated and would not be able to afford land since prices had risen astronomically. The Rama sought dialogue, but the other the campesinos made a call to arms.

As groundbreaking grew near, we heard that protesters set up roadblocks along the canal route. They were a mix- mostly rural campesinos and some urban environmentalists.

When it was time for us to leave for Managua to get our flight home, we heard that at the small town of El Tule, on our bus route, the road was blocked. Everyone said the protesters were stopping buses for 20 minutes, but they weren’t mad at the “people.” They were hunting “Chinese invaders”. That struck a nerve with me, reminiscent of how Japanese were interned in the US.

The bus to from San Carlos to Managua takes 6 hours, but El Tule was about 15 miles through dark jungle roads from where we departed. In the middle of the night we reached the road block. From my window I saw 10-foot flames from a burning tires. A huge banner across the road said “No al Canal.” A man shouted into a microphone, “No Pasaran… they will not pass. We will die before we let the Chinese invade our land.” Men stood restlessly with huge sticks and machetes. Revolutionary music blasted. People were arriving on horseback and in trucks. Then, and I am not kidding, he also said “to the two women who just arrived on the truck, you have a secret admirer.”

I was still frightened. As the only white person on the bus, I recalled when “No Pasaran” referred to the “Gringo invaders” when I lived there in the 80’s. Back then, people catcalled me “CIA” when I walked by.

The hour our bus was stopped seemed to last forever. I breathed a sigh of relief as we drove off into the darkness for five more hours. Yet, I knew eventually something bad would happen in El Tule.

The next day, in Managua, we watched on tv as ground was broken for the canal. The tv did not show the images of the protest. And then on Christmas Eve, we heard that the army cracked down. At El Tule the government claimed 15 police and 20 protesters were injured, and 30 arrested. The authorities refused to confirm protester claims that two were killed at the bloody scene.

We keep in touch by phone and read the news on the internet, trying to sort out rumors and the truth. Our friends told us that after the incident, a dialogue happened in El Tule. On the Internet we read that both sides left unsatisfied.

As the canal construction proceeds who knows what’s up ahead. American University students are coming to Makengue in March and we hope things will be calm. In the long term, we wonder will lives be lost? Will the water supply be ruined? Will Rio San Juan be destroyed? Or will huge prosperity come to Nicaragua as the President claims? Some think the project is just to help some people get rich and the canal will never be built.

I close with excerpts of a Nicaraguan poem about the canal in the 1800’s that could still describe life today:

And that warm, sweet, green odor of Central America.
The white houses with red-tiled roofs and with wide sunny eaves,
and a muffled sound of flood waters rushing through the jungle
and the howls of monkeys on the opposite bank
how the little steamboat looked there, calm as could be,
anchored to the shade of the jungle.
And the sudden flop of an iguana into the water,
Hornsby spoke of Nicaragua, its blue lakes amid blue mountains under a blue sky,
and how it was the Transit route and the great passageway,
the pier of America, and how it would teem with merchant ships and with foreigners
speaking all tongues, waiting for the Canal.
                    From a poem by Father Ernesto Cardenal

The reality of racial profiling and the dangers of stereotyping


The reality of racial profiling and the dangers of stereotyping
by Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not in Our School
November 24, 2014

Published on Share My Lesson AFT

“The nation is listening. Their eyes, their ears are all open. So now it is our chance to elaborate on what we want—what we want to change. Let our voice be heard.”
— Jayde, a young leader who opened the Ferguson Youth Summit
Local student leaders from the Ferguson Youth Initiative wanted a summit to discuss how to make change after the tragedy in their community. In September, teens gathered just miles from where Michael Brown was shot the month before in Ferguson, Mo. They discussed racial profiling and how the relationship between youth and the police needs to change. This tragedy brings out the underlying prejudice that can lead to dehumanization and senseless killing. Young people across the country, like those in Ferguson, need opportunities for dialogue.

This blog won’t focus on the Michael Brown case. Many articles and op-eds have been written from a range of viewpoints. Our focus is on the need for teachers to open dialogue with students from all backgrounds on the reality of racial profiling and the dangers of stereotyping, and to find solutions.

The Reality of Profiling

In August 2014, at least five unarmed black men in the U.S. were killed by police. In addition to Brown, they include Eric Garner, the chokehold victim who died while members of the NYPD attempted to arrest him; John Crawford, who was gunned down by police in an Ohio Walmart, holding a BB gun he had taken off a shelf; Ezell Ford, who was shot in the back during an “investigative police stop” in Los Angeles; and Dante Parker, who died in police custody in California after being hit by a Taser.

Racial profiling is evident in the disparate treatment of black males in schools and the criminal justice system. Black students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.

One of three black men nationwide goes to prison sometime in his lifetime. That number is one in 17 for white males. Racial profiling and bias create the “school-to-prison” pipeline and profiling tragedies.

Explicit Bias, Implicit Bias and Stereotyping

Explicit bias and implicit bias are two sides of the same coin, but manifest as different mental constructs. Explicit bias is an overt bias or negative attitude about a racial or ethnic group, or a social identity that is overtly expressed. Implicit bias is unconscious; this unconscious negative association people make about different groups can be more subtle, but also extremely damaging. Whether conscious or unconscious, attitudes and stereotypes like “a black boy wearing a hoodie is dangerous” can lead to horrific results, as in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

A growing body of research points to implicit bias as a significant cause of disparity in the treatment of blacks and Latinos in America. The way to break the daily cycle of implicit and explicit bias and stereotypical attitudes is to create an identity-safe environment for everyone.

Identity safety is a concept that has all people feeling accepted, not in spite of, but because of who they are. It is the opposite of identity theft. Most people are familiar with the idea of having their identity stolen. It refers to someone using their credit cards and robbing their very identity. When people are negatively judged just for being themselves, they are also robbed. Shouldn’t we all be safe from implicit and explicit bias and stereotyping and free to be ourselves?

Opening the Dialogue

The events of Ferguson are part of an important national dialogue on issues of race in America and affect you and your students whether you teach in a public, private or charter school or in an urban, suburban or rural community. Giving voice to your students and creating identity-safe spaces is the first step in finding solutions to eliminating bias and stereotyping. Just like the courageous young people at the Ferguson Youth Summit, we need to make the time to be part of the discussion and the solution. Tools for having respectful and productive conversations, where all voices can be heard, and where students listen to each other’s perspectives, can be found below.

Taking the First Step Toward Healing

In the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, there has been a lot of finger-pointing. I would contend that we all are like fish that cannot see the water they are swimming in. “Water” that is polluted with toxic attitudes about race is actually what makes such shootings possible.

How can we help our students, colleagues and members of our community go beyond blaming and find ways to end the negative stereotyping and create identity safety? It starts by having meaningful conversations about acceptance, with opportunities to learn one another’s histories and backgrounds. Kids—no matter their gender identity, race or religion—can get to know each other and, together, create a kinder and more accepting society. The responsibility to change our society belongs to each of us.

Resources for Educators and Parents

Ferguson Youth Initiative Summit Video
Claude Steele talks about Stereotype Threat
Racial Profiling Tools for Educators, Parents and Administrators

Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas is the Director of Not In Our School (NIOS). She has spoken on the subject of how to combat bullying at conferences,schools, and universities across the United States. Becki’s newbook,“Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn,” co-authored with Dr. Dorothy Steele was published by Corwin Press. Prior to working at The Working Group, she spent over 35 years in public education in California. She was a preschool director in Healdsburg, teacher and principal in the Oakland Unified School District, Elementary Curriculum Director for the Palo Alto Unified School District and Superintendent of the Luther Burbank School District. While serving in Palo Alto in 2003, Becki initiated Not In Our School: Palo Alto, one of the first NIOS initiatives featured on KQED public television.

HATE is a Four-Letter Word


Reposted from Edutopia 9/29/14
When I was a district administrator, a parent called me, very distressed that a TIME for Kids article about 9-11 was being read in her fourth-grade child’s classroom. She told me that she was sheltering her child from all news media. I responded that children need help making sense of tragedies, and that we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we can forever shelter them. Yet many educators prefer not to speak about hate. After all, it is sheer ugliness and not something we want to draw attention to in our schools. But hate needs to be examined. Why? Because it exists, and because it is especially prevalent among youth.

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, youth ages 15-24 commit half of all hate crimes in the United States. In a recent New York Times op-ed, “White, Bigoted and Young: The Data of Hate,” economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz explored the demographics of Stormfront, the most popular U.S. white supremacist website. His findings revealed that the most common age of Stormfront members is 19. He also found that the most venomous hate was displayed against African Americans and Jews, often with tremendous ignorance about those targeted groups.

Educators are in a unique position to address these issues. To open the dialogue with young people about diversity and compassion, we must not be afraid to talk about hate.

When and How to Start Facing Hate
By fifth grade, children study Native Americans and the Civil War and must make meaning out of horrific historic events. Unlike the child above, who was sheltered, some have witnessed or directly experienced hateful acts, while others have seen them on the news, in movies, and video games.

Adults need to help youth make sense of these frightening things. Although there is often no other way to explain it than as hate, adults can balance brutal reality with a sensitivity to developmental levels, taking care not to raise anxiety. Explanations can actually calm fears by talking in understandable terms about how people can be mean to others while assuring children that many people are working to make a more accepting and safer world.

The focus can be on helping students become empathetic and compassionate while learning to appreciate differences. They can also work to create identity safe classroom environments, places where children of all backgrounds feel accepted and valued, and treat one another respectfully. Rather than sugar-coating history or ignoring hate, by naming it and explaining to children in a responsible way, we can guide young people toward engaging in efforts to make their community a place free of hate and bigotry.

Middle School and Beyond: Stop Hate Together
By sixth grade, students have become fully aware of history and the devastating power of hate that led to tragedies like the massacre of Native Americans, the brutality of slavery, and the genocide of the Holocaust. They now need even more support to analyze not only history, but also current events, whether it is a police officer killing an unarmed teenager and subsequent riots in Ferguson, Missouri or Christians crucified by terrorists in Iraq. Rather than ignoring these horrific scenes, educators can help students understand the roots of hate and bigotry and become proactive about preventing them in their own world. When exploring these issues, students have an opportunity to discuss provocative questions:

What can people do when hate rears its ugly head in a community?
What can schools do?
Is there room for a forgiving attitude?
What can be done to be proactive about avoiding hate?
Older students can dive deeper into these subjects by:

Learning skills of discourse with those who hold different opinions
Developing an understanding of different cultures and belief systems
Generating ways to spread kindness and respect.
Well-facilitated dialogue about news reports, films, and literature can open these conversations. Not In Our School, a program of Not In Our Town (NIOT), is dedicated to combat hate, bullying, and intolerance with over 70 free films and lesson plans featuring students taking action to address hate and bridge differences.

The new NIOT documentary Waking In Oak Creek (30 minutes, free to schools and communities) provides a powerful example of a how a community came together after six worshippers at a Sikh Temple were killed by a white supremacist. The accompanying lesson plan can also be used as a tool to explore identity safety, help students learn about Sikh culture and their attitude of forgiveness, or launch an anti-bullying campaign.

Engaging Parents in the Process
While recognizing parents’ reluctance to teach about hate, educators can help them understand that avoiding all references to hate will not erase it from their children’s lives. With the rare exception of the parent who attempted to totally shelter her children, in most cases it is not the schools that are exposing young people to the hate and violence in the world. Violence and hate are readily viewed on television, the internet, and movies everywhere, even in hotel and airport lobbies. Parents need to be invited into the conversation about the importance of addressing hate and all forms of intolerance, and join the school to take action in spreading kindness, compassion, and empathy.

As educators, it is incumbent upon us to prepare young people for the world that they are inheriting and give them tools to combat hate and work for a democratic and civil society. To start, we can open the conversation about forgiveness, compassion, and the importance of standing up.

Bullying Prevention
Hate is a 4-Letter Word
8 Tips for Schools Interested in Restorative Justice
Heteronormativity in Schools
Resources to Fight Bullying and Harassment at School
5 Ways to Stop Bullying and Move into Action
We Recommend
5 Ways to Stop Bullying and Move into Action
How to Teach Beyond Ferguson
Maya Angelou’s Poetry: A Lesson in Service, History, SEL, and Civics
Students Standing Up to Bullying and Hate
Teaching Children About the Brutality of War

Becki Cohn-Vargas
Director, Not In Our School at Not In Our Town

Pride of El Castillo


By Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director

Upstanders come in many forms. We hear about those who lead movements for social justice, but rarely do we hear about the people who quietly live their lives and stand up just by the fortitude they show in staying the course against great odds. Yamil Obregón Bustos is one such person. I heard about him when I was traveling in Nicaragua.

Pride of El Castillo
Yamil Obregón Bustos
Yamil owns Border’s Coffee, a small cafe and restaurant in El Castillo, a beautiful town along the San Juan River in Nicaragua. El Castillo is a bucolic town with no cars and a historic fortress that draws people from around the world. I heard that Lonely Planet had visited his cafe, calling it the best coffee in the region. They also had written a piece, “El Castillo’s Dirty Little Secret,” referencing the harassment that Yamil experienced as a result of being the only openly gay person in his small town. Yamil has not only been subjected to hateful anti-gay slurs and threats, but also attempts to shut down his business.

I went to the cafe and had a delicious meal and some great coffee prepared by Yamil himself. Then I asked if I could interview him to share his story with our NIOT readers. What struck me the most was that he chose to live and run a business in the town of his birth in spite of the rampant homophobia. He could easily have ventured into a larger city where he would not be so visible and vulnerable.

Lonely Planet publicized his plight and also drew people to his El Castillo cafe in the historic Nicaraguan town. I titled this piece “Pride of El Castillo” in honor of his courage. Listen to him in his own words.

And if you’re ever in Nicaragua, make sure to check out his restaurant.

Creating a Welcoming and Intellectually Challenging Classroom: Edutopia Article by Suzie Boss about our book “Identity Safe Classrooms, Places to Belong and Learn”


Creating a Welcoming and Intellectually Challenging Classroom
AUGUST 29, 2014
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As you set up your classroom for the new school year, try spending a few minutes in your students’ chairs. Are you comfortable? Now look closer: Will the seating arrangement invite conversations between students, or keep them isolated? What do you notice about what’s on display around the room? Will students see themselves and their families reflected in the diversity of images and books?

Are whiteboards, laptops, and other tools for learning within reach for students, or reserved for the teacher? Any other clues that you’re entering a space where all learners will feel welcome, safe, trusted, and curious about their world?

Veteran educators Dorothy M. Steele and Becki Cohn-Vargas offer this simple but powerful suggestion to build a more inclusive, equitable environment for learning: “Look at life in the classroom every day from the perspective of each of the students.” They have coined the term “identity safe classroom” to describe learning environments where every child feels welcome and eager to learn. This isn’t just feel-good talk. Building an identify safe classroom offers a deliberate strategy to reach students who feel alienated from school because of repeated failure, heavy-handed discipline, or negative stereotypes.

Their book, Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn (Corwin, 2013), offers thoughtful advice, grounded in research and practice, that’s worth considering throughout the school year. Steele, an early childhood educator, is former executive director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. Cohn-Vargas, currently director of Not In Our School, has been both teacher and principal during her 35 years in education.

The authors’ field-tested suggestions deserve special attention early in the year when you and your students have a fresh start on building a positive classroom culture.

Supporting Student Voice and Collaboration
If you’re planning to give project-based learning (PBL) a try this year, you’ll benefit from their suggestions to encourage student voice and collaboration — key ingredients for effective PBL. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Aim high: Warm and safe doesn’t mean easy. Set high expectations for all learners, the authors advise, and then provide necessary scaffolding to ensure that each student is working toward mastery.

Foster collaboration: Encourage collaboration rather than competition so that students benefit from peer feedback and help each other improve. If students are new to teamwork, start by having them work in pairs. Model what it means to be an active, respectful listener. Reinforce norms about resolving conflicts respectfully. That’s different from expecting your classroom to be a conflict-free zone.

Cultivate diversity as a resource: Cultivating diversity is not the same as taking a colorblind approach to teaching. The authors suggest drawing on students’ diverse backgrounds through music, literature, language, and current events. Foster critical thinking to help students analyze negative and stereotypical messages, in school and in the wider world. Don’t shy away from hard conversations about race and culture. Avoid what the authors call a “tourist” curriculum, which reduces multiculturalism to a tour of holidays. Invest time early in the year to learn about students’ diverse interests, talents, and backgrounds, and then incorporate this information as you plan projects. This will reinforce the message that students’ diverse experiences are classroom assets.

Listen for student voice: To develop their confidence as learners, students need regular opportunities to share their thoughts, make decisions, and reflect on their classroom experiences. That’s why the authors suggest strategies to amplify student voice. With regular opportunities to formulate ideas, explain their point of view, and elaborate on the ideas of others, students “feel the importance of their participation,” according to Steele and Cohn-Vargas. Peer feedback, common in PBL, is one of many ways to amplify student voice in the learning experience.

The authors also suggest rotating classroom roles, such as a “greeter” who welcomes visitors, or giving students a say when it comes to managing their own behavior. They share an example of a girl who learned to manage her restlessness by taking two-minute relaxation breaks in the library, whenever she needed them.

Promote autonomy: A classroom that promotes autonomy gives students room to make choices and take responsibility for their learning. Encourage autonomy by involving students in setting norms and reflecting on their progress. Use class meetings as opportunities for students to solve problems for themselves. As you gradually release responsibility to students, they will see themselves as capable people who can “make something happen,” the authors report. This goes hand-in-hand with PBL practices. At the end of a successful project, teachers often say they see students “standing a little taller.” It’s an apt metaphor for students developing autonomy and growing as learners.

What steps are you planning to ensure that your students feel welcome, safe, and intellectually challenged in your classroom this year? Please share your strategies in the comments.





By Patrice O’Neill, Not In Our Town CEO and Executive Producer
Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director

In his recent New York Times op-ed, “White, Bigoted, and Young: The Data of Hate,” Harvard economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz analyzes thousands of user profiles on Stormfront, the most popular white supremacist website in the United States. His findings paint a surprising—and disturbing—portrait of who joins a hate forum.

The most common age when people become Stormfront members is 19. Stormfront users are news and political junkies, and about 30 percent of the site’s members are female. Stormfront’s highest per capita membership is in the Pacific Northwest. And bias against Jewish and Black people are mentioned most in Stormfront user profiles.

At the end of his report, Stephens-Davidowitz says that despite his extensive research, he still doesn’t know why people join groups like Stormfront, or what can be done about it. But, fortunately, there is hope. There are things each one of us can do to stop hatred, and promote safety and inclusion for everyone.

For over two decades at Not In Our Town, we’ve made films about people all over the United States who are finding new ways to address bias, intolerance, and bullying. Here are five key lessons we’ve learned from remarkable everyday heroes who have faced down hate, and spoken up for their neighbors—and you can use them in your community:

Violent, hateful outbursts like the anti-Semitic killings at Jewish institutions outside Kansas City, the deadly attack at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, and the 200,000+ hate crimes that occur each year are dramatic reminders that bigotry is a real and dangerous threat. People from communities where hate hasn’t hit home, or individuals who may not experience everyday prejudice, may assume that intolerance isn’t a problem. When young people express hateful or intolerant messages, the response that they are “just being kids” sends a message that the community accepts this behavior. But people who have experienced hate in their towns have learned that facing these issues can bring residents together. As Montana State Representative Margaret MacDonald, a leader in the original Not In Our Town movement in Billings, Montana, shares in these guiding principles for confronting hate, by acknowledging bigotry, reaching out, and standing together, “the whole community is strengthened and relationships are built up.” Police departments can also play a vital role in hate crime prevention and response.

If the largest group of white supremacists and anti-Semites on Stormfront are 19-year-olds, we need to redouble efforts to reach our youth. We must give young people opportunities to take the lead in identifying problems, and encourage them to speak out when bigotry surfaces. Though it’s distressing to learn about youth on Stormfront, there are thousands of young people around the country who are working to create inclusive communities and schools—like these young Not In Our School leaders who shared their strategies for standing up to hate. It’s up to us to listen, and to support their positive efforts.

In his book My Life After Hate, former racist skinhead Arno Michaelis shares how alienation and a search for belonging pushed him into the white supremacist movement. Learning how to look at the world through other peoples’ eyes is an antidote to the sense of separation that can fuel intolerance. Some schools, like Grimmer Elementary in Fremont, CA, create kindness campaigns like “Leaving a Positive Footprint,” to help children explore the impact of bullying and practice compassion. Campaigns like Teaching Tolerance’s Mix It Up at Lunch Day encourage young people to move out of their comfort zones, cross social boundaries, and learn about each other.

When it comes to diversity, it can be tempting to say that we’re “colorblind” to our differences. However, the sad reality is that racial divisions haven’t gone away, and neither children nor adults are blind to the things that make us different. Ignoring race or culture can also dismiss the real lived experiences of intolerance that many people face each day. Being connected to others and feeling a sense of belonging is a key human need. Identity-safe environments are spaces that help people of all backgrounds to feel a sense of belonging and have a voice. As an example, immigrant students from Newcomers High School in Long Island City, NY and middle schoolers from Manhattan came together to share their stories, connect, and understand immigration on a personal level.


Mix It Up Day, from Teaching Tolerance
When discussing racism, bigotry, and other kinds of intolerance, strong emotions can emerge. Having a candid conversation about these issues can bring tensions to light and help people find common ground. Our video What Do You Say to “That’s So Gay”? depicts a teacher artfully navigating a difficult discussion in his classroom. He creates an environment where students feel free to speak up and contribute. To open community dialogue about bias and prejudice, Not In Our Town also offers films and discussion guides. Additionally, Public Conversations Project features a guidebook for facilitating constructive conversations on divisive topics.

Reaching the 19-year-olds who are ready to click into hate requires action from all of us. But we don’t have to wait for a horrific incident to do something. When we help one another, accept one another, and learn from one another, our actions create a force that is stronger than violence and hatred. And together, we can move toward a world of safety, acceptance, and respect for everyone.

Learn more about solutions and how to stop hate, together on

From the NIOS Website: The blog with all links is found here: Responding to this article in the New York Times: