Engaging Social Justice Through Mindfulness: Runam Therchukovdam – Pay it Backward by Dr.Vijay Kanagala

Last Thursday, my Facebook status read: “satellite office—open :).” It was a targeted announcement to a few close friends. I was letting them know that I was once again involved in “projects” that my friends and mentors considered as detracting from my own work and reminded me so whenever they could. And, I agree. They’re right (usually, not always). I did not go looking to take on these “satellite office” projects, which often take up considerable amounts of my time, effort, energy and resources. I am sure many of you have your own satellite office projects and can relate to what I am talking about.

Other than an inexplicable feeling of self-accomplishment and happiness, which many of you may have experienced from your own advocacy work, and possibly a short-lived sense of gratitude from the beneficiary of my assistance, I wasn’t going to benefit (materialistically, at least). Instead, I am told how I should/could be investing in my own personal and professional growth. I wrestled with this advice in the past. I still do. After all, as an emerging/junior scholar in higher education, I ought to be writing, presenting at conferences and publishing my scholarship. Publish or perish, I am reminded.

But these satellite office projects have always made me wonder – if not me, who else then?

  • If not me, then who will advise that first generation high school student about college applications and/or scholarships?
  • If not me, then who will counsel a recent immigrant about race and racism that was experienced at the supermarket or for that matter with an advisor or faculty member on campus?
  • If not me, then who will assure the international student who sought me despite the presence of an International Student Office on campus that all will be okay despite a bad semester and that s/he can still maintain “legal” status? Or in another international student’s case, s/he will receive adequate financial aid to pay for tuition, which is no way guaranteed because s/he filed an affidavit that said s/he had enough financial resources to pay for college?
  • If not me, then who will work with a White student to encourage the process of self-exploration of her/his identity, privilege, oppression and racism and the ensuing guilt that employs a non-judgmental model for that White student’s ignorance and lack of exposure to diverse issues?
  • If not me, then who will give an anxious parent, despite FERPA, a patient listening about her/his child’s health (physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being) or poor grades because we as a community of educators prefer to reframe the child’s identity as a student to avoid scenarios like helicopter parents? I have witnessed on many occasions student affairs professionals and faculty intentionally refraining from using “your daughter” or “your son” in conversations (I was told that it assists the parent to cut the “cord”) but instead saying “y/our student”.

These arguments can very well apply to issues around equity, homosexuality, gender, religion, “non-citizens,” nationality, (dis)ability, equality and many others that we deal with in our mundane lives as social justice educators.

To be honest, I am not sure if the folks that benefited from my satellite office projects ever considered me as their last hope, but I certainly considered myself as their last hope. I needed to feel that way to be passionate, empathetic and devoted and to believe in what I was going to take on. Slightly narcissistic of me, you may say. I say, very. How arrogant of me to think that way? How could I be someone’s last hope? But then, I argue, why not? Who says I am not their last hope? Maybe I am? What if I am? And what if I hadn’t done all I could for them?

Almost all of my satellite projects have had to deal with the scenarios I mentioned above. Behind each scenario is a name of a real individual and an experience. An experience that was painful, scary, emotionally scarring and hard to deal with for both the individual and me. Another common characteristic I notice often, perhaps too often, is that these individuals were either international students or recent immigrants just like me.

I wonder if it was my own immigration experiences that made me accessible to the students or was it that no other staff on campus reached out, cared for or was mindful in asking themselves the question, “If not me, who’s going to advocate and assist this international student?” How many instances have each of us experienced when we considered social justice within a narrow prism? How many times have our students – any student: international, domestic, Black, Asian, White, Hispanic, Native American, (differently) able bodied, rich or poor reached out to us and we have been less than mindful because we had too much on our plates or felt it was someone else’s job? How many of us say we believe in social justice or are social justice oriented or have attended social justice training workshops? Is it the new cool thing to say in higher ed? My heart wrestles with these questions.

Extending the value of mindfulness from student services to student learning, I continuously wonder how our higher education programs engage with social justice learning. Often times in our student affairs preparation programs, as educators engaged in critical scholarship, when we discuss student experiences and issues in our classrooms, race and racism for example, we un/knowingly subscribe to an angry, confrontational classroom pedagogy that wishes to unburden (rightfully so) the oppressed from having to teach the oppressor. We tell: “It’s not the Black students’ job to teach the White students about racism.” Or that “it’s not the female students’ role to explain to male students about gender issues.” I agree. We should be tokenizing neither our students nor ourselves.

In fact, my own learning happened in similar spaces. I, too, have been burdened with teaching a thing or two to my peers about immigration, about being international, about being South Asian, about being generation 1.5. I’m still traumatized and get angry when I am asked by what many consider a simple, innocent question: “Where are you from?” I have demystified India and the Indian culture many a time. Oh, especially when Slumdog Millionaire was released. Only more recently, I find myself responding to questions about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a movie I have yet to watch. I only wish many among us were mindful of what we ask or assume of each other.

Having said all this, how then would I suggest we engage with our students and classrooms, one might wonder? My response: Can we engage with each other differently? Can we be critical yet caring? Can we have important dialogues but treat each other holistically? What is socially just about mocking an individual’s lack of knowledge around diverse issues when social justice is about humility and understanding? How about we engage in an “If not me, who?” scenario for teaching and learning as an educator committed to social justice? If not me, who will approach these emotional and contentious issues with a sense of openness and trust that is complemented with a big dose of mutual respect, understanding, willingness to learn, care and be concerned?”

As I posted that Facebook status on Thursday, I reflected on a conversation that I had with my mother the night before as I wrestled with the idea of taking on these satellite projects. As always, my mother’s wisdom guided me. She offered and reminded me of an alternative belief system that has guided us in a very spiritual sense over the years. Voilà, there was my answer!

Many of you may have used or heard others say “you reap what you sow” or “what goes around comes around” or “karma is a bi*ch” in one context or another. The essence of these sayings is that every individual’s actions have consequences, and are frequently used to comfort during or rationalize a potentially good/bad situation. Similarly, we have used the “pay it forward” expression to convey a sense of gratitude and good deed that would be worthy of repayment to benefit someone else in the future.

These expressions, if you notice, predominantly refer to the future. And, present a rationale that urges us to believe, explain and clarify to one another on a constant basis that if we did good, good will happen to us. Consequently, if we did bad things, bad things are bound to come our way.

While I believe in these philosophies just as much as others do around me, I could not explain why I am always unable to say no to my satellite office projects. I wondered, how many times have we told each other that we need to learn to say a big fat NO to keep our sanity? I have lost track of how many deep meaningful conversations that resulted in such resolutions, but the no never materialized.

The reason I profess is probably cultural, and I would like to introduce you to the twin concepts of “runam therchukovdam” and “runa padadham.” These are belief systems in the Telugu culture that demonstrate and explain the interconnectedness of our lives. Runam loosely translates to debt, and while therchukovdam signifies paying off or clearing off, padadham could mean to incur. This alternate belief system replaces the paradigm of good and bad with a spiritual paradigm of debt, debt to one another as humans.

In essence, one pays off her or his debts or alternatively one incurs debts. In a spiritual/cosmic sense, my satellite office project beneficiaries had helped me in the past (life), and I was, in fact, just repaying my debt back. In a way, rather than viewing it as paying it forward, my culture considers it paying it back(ward).

I am pretty sure if you’re reading the blog this far along, you’re probably saying: dude, I have a day job and I have actual things to do. I can’t be taking care of some random student on campus or in my community who does not come under the purview of my office. Or why should I be concerned? Or you may challenge me with, don’t you have a life? That is when I want you to challenge yourself to feel, think and ask yourself: whose last hope are you?

So the next time someone urges you to say NO to your own satellite office project or you’re feeling overwhelmed with everything you have to accomplish, take a deep breath and relax. As my mom would say, you’re probably just repaying your debt. And, that’s a good thing! Remember, if not you, who else then?

Vijay Kanagala is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Research and Policy in Education, The University of Texas at San Antonio, where he teaches in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. He is also a Co-Principal Investigator and the Project Director of Diplomàs, a Lumina Foundation funded grant project that seeks to understand barriers to college access and success among Latino students in the city of San Antonio. His current research interests include access, persistence, retention and graduation of low-income, first-generation college students, intersectionality of education and immigration among South Asian communities, experiences of international, generation 1.5 and Asian American students. He is very passionate about employing contemplative education and spirituality in the classroom to engage with social justice issues. You can contact Dr. Kanagala at vijay.kanagala@utsa.edu.

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