Time for a Domestic Version of the Foreign Student Exchange Program.
Time for Community Ambassadors/Community Mediators.
Time to change. Time for a new paradigm.
Political and cultural polarization over the last several years and recent unrest/protesting over police brutality got me to thinking…. what if we established throughout the USA…..
- Ride along in cop cars
- Teach along in classrooms
- Walk along in hallways of detox/rehab facilities
- Feed along in soup kitchens and housing shelters
You get the idea. Why am I so keen on “ride-teach-walk-feed alongs”?
Most people drive by cops, schools, mental health/detox/rehab facilities, public housing projects, soup kitchens and housing shelters and never get a first hand experience of what it’s like to be a provider of these services or a beneficiary of them. We drive through neighborhoods that we consider foreign at best and dangerous at worst.
We live in an increasingly polarized world of sound chambers reinforcing our own thoughts and values and ignoring or worse yet denigrating those of others.
When changes and reforms are implemented, they are often done in a top-down manor. Communities establish Citizen Advisory Boards, Educational Oversite Commissions, Blue Ribbon Panels. You get the idea. The elites of the community interact with the other elites while the real action and interaction at the ground level, the street level never is experienced. This is not to say that advisory boards and higher level oversight is bad. In fact, it’s often needed but it’s still not exposing the “man on the street” and the “outsider” to what the cop, teacher, student, housing resident, patient, and client all experience on a day-to-day basis.
It’s ironic that for years we have had a Foreign Student Exchange Program that encourages exchanges of languages, cultures, values and experiences to benefit both the foreign student and the host family. For years we have had a Peace Corp (internationally) and AmeriCorps (domestic version) with similar missions to expand the horizons and understandings of all participants. For years we have fielded local sports teams composed of persons of various backgrounds who share a common interest in their respective sports. We have a long tradition of employees of various backgrounds sharing their lives (at least during working hours) in support of their common goal of bringing home a paycheck. We have increasing popularity of Air BNB’s, house swaps and extended stay residences. We have Sister/Brother Cities initiatives and school children had pen-pal programs exchanging letters and experiences with students in far off lands.
However, prejudices and misunderstandings are threatening to turn the American melting pot into a boiling cauldron of distrust and dissention. Why is it that we can accept someone who we play ball with or work with or went to school with but refer to them as “one of the good ones”. Does this imply that the “rest of them are bad?”. Why do we usually get to like the person we know and distrust the rest? The answer lies in the realization that this is the person we know.
So why not establish a national exchange program. How would it work?
- Let’s start small, organic and doable. Let’s start simply with “walk alongs” where persons from different paths in life can stroll together (keeping appropriate social distance during the pandemic and wearing masks) exchanging stories and experiences. Now isn’t that more productive than angry tweets? Plus, we all could benefit from burning some calories while walking. This would not be a stressful blind date situation. Rather, there could be an intermediary who introduces the walkers and accompanies them while facilitating conversations. Think of the intermediary as a match maker. What let me to this proposal for a walk-talk-share-reflect model? Evenings during the pandemic, I take a one mile walk with my sons. All sorts of topics are covered. At the half mile mark, I do push ups and sit-ups on a stone wall and we return, talking/reflecting and sharing ideas all the way back. I’m the old guy in the group and I’m not sure why I’m the one doing the push-ups and sit-ups but that’s a topic for another blog. I was further inspired to propose a “walking-talking-sharing” event by a radio interview of the director of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. This is a retreat house which is a place for peace and reconciliation among otherwise waring factions. The mantra of this initiative which was created to facilitate the end of the 30 years of sectarian warfare in Ireland is “to live well together”. In gaelic there are 2 interpretations of the meaning of Corrymeela. One version is it means “Hill of Harmony”. The other version is that “It’s is a place of lumpy crossings”. I like both versions and the “lumpy crossings” seems a good fit for current USA circumstances. Whatever the true meaning, we could use some Corrymeela’s in the USA. We could start simply with some strolls among strangers. This reminds me of poet William Butler Yeats astute phrase “There are no stranger here, only friends who have not yet met”.
- Moving beyond “walk alongs”, let’s consider more “ride alongs” in police cars, classrooms, mental health facilities, detox centers, soup kitchens and any other environment where the general public needs to get a better appreciation of the persons being served and the persons doing the serving. This could serve multiple purposes. The hard working, honest and well intentioned servers (cops, teachers, counselors, social workers) would get a boost of moral by the general publics better appreciation of the challenges they face and the value of the services they offer. For the “bad apples” among the afore mentioned professions, the heightened transparency would be like turning on the light forcing the cockroaches to scurry away. For the persons receiving the services, they might be bolstered by the fact that members of the greater community gained an appreciation of them. They might appreciate that persons other than professionals assigned to serve them (cops, teachers, etc.) care about them. They might feel more valued and appreciated. This could be the groundwork for real progress. The “outsiders” and “observers” would be able to attach a human face to what previously was limited to statistical announcements on the evening news and editorials by the pundits in their respective commentary silos.
So back to the grander notion of creating a Domestic Version of the Foreign Student Exchange Program
This may not be for everybody. As someone who works 2 and 3 jobs, I do not have the luxury of taking a sabbatical to experience the customs, circumstances and value systems of persons in other parts of the USA or even in a nearby city or the other side of my town. However, with social security and retirement days on the horizon, it’s something I would consider if given the opportunity. As a writer, full emersion into the lives of those with whom I am not familiar will certainly provide material for the next book. Speaking of “full emersion”, an exchange program that plops me into a non-English speaking setting would turbo charge the learning curve of an unfamiliar language. For a long time, a pet peeve of mine has been seeing my kids take Spanish from 7th grade through high school. Now they rarely speak it. They passed the tests but promptly lost the words. Participants would be kept busy at the host sites while engaged in projects that match their interests and skills, advance their careers while making a meaningful contribution to that host site. Many communities have a Voluntary Action Council where volunteers are matched with needs and interests. Think of my Domestic Exchange Program with the longer term mission of “living well together” just like the previously described mantra of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland.
An incentive for participation could be college credit and/or work study payment with stipends to students who enroll in this Domestic Exchange Program, just like college students get credit for spending a semester abroad. Under proper supervision, some participants might be required to participate as a condition of community service. They could be persons enrolled in anger management programs, particularly if their anger is related to racial, cultural, religious animosity. With an up-tick in hate crime related offenses, there will be no shortage of potential candidates who could benefit from the racial-social-cultural-religious enlightenment offered by a Domestic Exchange Program.
Lastly, in this day and age of global terrorism, participating in a Domestic Exchange Program might be preferable to a Foreign Exchange Program. It’s closer, more convenient and less costly for participants than travelling overseas. With the recent interest in “experiential vacations” rather than traditional “play vacations” , this might appeal to persons seeking a learning/inspirational vacation experience without travelling to a far off jungle or wilderness. As the divide between “Red States” and “Blue States” expands, there might be a role for a Domestic Exchange Program (or a cultural sabbatical if you prefer that definition) to better enlighten eachother and regain a sense of empathy and national unity. Now that would really be patriotic!
My fear is that if we do not implement some sort of Socio-Cultural Exchange program and the cancer of polarization grows, so will the specter of violence, anarchy and potential civil war.
I hate to conclude with this ominous warning but that’s my dystopic vision if we do not start taking small steps like strolling and riding with each other on a one-on-one basis to get to know, appreciate and respect each other.