Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Ubuntu, Emmanuel Jal, and the Amazing Coincidences of Birmingham, Alabama @EmmanuelJAL @USNBHAM2013 @RalphTRich

I traveled to the USN Writing Conference last week to present with teachers about the power of textual, tech-tual, and textured literacies in 21st century classrooms and to share my experiences of conducting professional development in urban schools. At the conference, I also led a workshop called Ubuntu Matters! Emphasizing Community in Writing Activity Systems where I shared writing achievements from my experiences with students in Louisville, Syracuse, and Bridgeport. At the heart of this conversation, however, was what the young men from Liberia, Somalia, Egypt, Congo, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Sudan taught me about writing in a new nation.

As the conference approached, I learned that Emmanuel Jal was going to perform at Lessons of the Birmingham Movement: Youth, Activism & The Struggle for Human Rights symposium and I asked Dr. Tonya Perry if she would introduce us. I knew he rapped and I checked out a video  where Alicia Keys introduced him. I did not know he had written a book with Megan Lloyd Davies or that he was cast in the upcoming movie, The Good Lie, with Reese Witherspoon (although I knew of the movie because several friends in Syracuse auditioned, but were not casted). Tonya told me, "I don't know him. Just introduce yourself," so I did.

I also packed copies of Trina Paulus's Hope For The Flowers because we are paying it forward in response to December 14th - I thought he should have a copy. I didn't know Jal sang about peace when I brought him a copy or that his organization, GUA, works to help individuals and families in Sudan  overcome poverty and circumstances of war. I definitely didn't know that he had a book, War Child; A Child Soldier's Story, written about his life. As a favor, Jal autographed a copy to give a young man from Sudan I mentor who is currently turning his life around in Syracuse. I read Jal's book on the plane as I returned to Connecticut and was captivated by each and every page. The narrative, harsh truths, and incredible journey are what I've come to learn from working with refugee populations. Jal, however, provides hope as he works - as an artist with many talents - to make a difference.

War Child; A Child Soldier's Story is definitely going into my curriculum (and I recommend it to the NWP community). History remains important and Jal's story is relevant in to lifetime. To know his story is to recognize the American one. His memoir is going to be placed on my bookshelf with many of the other texts I have used with students and for professional development.
  • What is the What by David Eggers (and Valentino Akech)
  • Outcasts United by Warren St. John
  • Running For My Life by Lopez Lomong
  • Lost Boy, Lost Girl by John Dau and Mary Akech
  • When Go Grew Tired of Us by John Dau
  • Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan
  • Now Is The Time For Running by Michael Williams
  • A Longway Gone by Ishmael Beah
  • A Long Walk To Water by Linda Sue Park
  • Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian
When began volunteering with relocated "Lost Boys" in Louisville in 2001 I would not have predicted that I would one day meet Valentino Akech and Lopez Lomong, let alone work with relocated populations in the U.S. Who would have  thought I would meet John Dau at a bookstore in Syracuse or work with Dr. Felicia McMahon through the Lost Boys of Sudan Cow Project? (Here's another: Raphael T. Richard graduated with his masters last year from Syracuse University when I completed my dissertation. He sat next to me at graduation and we bonded over our interests, hopes, and visions for the future. We then parted. Yet, who happened to be at this same conference in Alabama? This man who I talked with this time last year awaiting my diploma).

Meeting Emmanuel Jal at the USN conference is yet another unexplainable highlight of my life. I used to joke with students that "Pain makes you beautiful, and that is why I'm gorgeous." Yet, Jal has the right to claim that he's stunning. I was stunned by his memoir and the beauty he offers from doing  good in despite all the evil he's endured.  

In Jal's book it is written, 
...people go back to the place of their birth just as birds return to their nests. Even if nothing was left, they would still go back and rebuild on the place their ancestors knew. (27)
When I read this quote, I thought about why I chose to leave Syracuse as an 18 year-old high school graduate and why, almost 20 years later, I left Louisville to return HOME to learn once again. I know much of this has to do with the top down changes within Kentucky's curriculum (including less opportunities for writing instruction and much more emphasis on state assessments). Yet, Louisville was my HOME, too. Shoot, now I've left Syracuse again.

I suppose it will always be my nature to rebuild a home wherever I go and wherever I am This, I'm proud to say, has is why I promote the collective wisdom of the National Writing Project and the amazing stories of individuals like Emmanuel Jal.

Yes, I am me because of who we are together. I am this community.

(a community connected to Syracuse University)

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