An Open Response to Conrad Hughes

Dear Conrad,

I read your TIE Online article, “How Might International Schools Position Themselves in Times of Armed Conflict?”. You’re right; it’s not a simple stance and the reality is all-encompassing. The violence we read about, hear about or experience is unavoidable. Many of our students and colleagues bear this weight as they enter our school doors.

Before I respond, I would like to name my own positionality and the lenses that I am writing from. I’m a Queer, non-binary, half white half Latinx American. I also have a multicultural family – my partner is Kuwaiti American, and his American side of the family is Jewish. I acknowledge that many of my intersectional identities inform my experiences within the international school community. 

For those of us who have the privilege to live away from the shadow of terrible human suffering that we see in the world, what position should we take when it comes to armed conflicts?

This is not a simple question, and one that many would probably rather avoid altogether, but we cannot because the reality that is around us engulfs the minds and experiences of our communities and students, either directly or vicariously through social media.

Avoiding international crises and global disasters is indeed a privilege. Turning off the news or avoiding social media is not something everyone can do, especially for those who have families being directly affected by these crises. Therefore, It’s impossible to leave our whole selves at the front doors of our schools. Global events will inevitably affect us through family, friends, our colleagues, or our students. 

International Schools, in general, are beholden by a set of values around peaceful cooperation, critical thinking and social custodianship. In times of armed conflict, these four core principles might help you navigate your way:

  • An international school is a place of learning and not a political organisation or national government – while all those working in international schools should deplore all forms of conflict, especially those that contravene international law, the purpose of an international school is not to publicly condemn nation states or governments, individuals or groups, nor is it to encourage our students to take sides, it is always to stand on the side of peace. While individuals might have their own positions, the school represents several nationalities and does not pick and choose a position that the whole organization is expected to stand by.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire wrote: “All education is political; teaching is never a neutral act” (1971). In 1984, bell hooks asserted a similar sentiment in her transformative book Teaching To Transgress where she argues that no education is politically neutral because teaching “is a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement that makes education the practice of freedom” (hooks,1984).

International schools, by nature, are inherently political spaces, and we need to reckon with that fact as educators. The reasoning is clear:

  • Schools are only accessible to the extremely wealthy and privileged
  • Curriculum centers Western lenses, experiences, and ideologies
  • Leadership is predominantly cis, white, male, and heterosexual
  • English is normally the primary language of instruction
  • Teaching staff from the “inner circle” Western countries like the US, UK, Canada, etc. are privileged over teachers from the Global South.

How are schools not political spaces? How can we achieve justice and liberation for everyone within our community if we don’t acknowledge the positionality of our schools? If we ignore the political nature of our schools, then we’re upholding the status quo.

Also, the word conflict can be misleading. A conflict can be defined as a struggle, clash, or disagreement between two forces. What if power is asymmetrical? What if one side has disproportionate military technology and global influence? This is a power over dynamic, which is built upon force, domination, and control. This dynamic characterizes sustained, systemic violence, not a conflict. When we engage in discussion and critique institutional powers and systemic discrimination, we can take action to help those who are affected now and take steps to prevent violence in the future

Also, by your logic, we should condemn all forms of conflict…but how can we condemn  a conflict without naming what’s happening right in front of us? While I don’t think that schools need to necessarily take a political stance, our collective silence around how violence is disproportionately affecting members of our community is action.

  • In times of extreme emotional turmoil, such as that which armed conflict creates, as educators we must not forget the vital importance of remaining focussed on being critical thinkers, not swayed by any form of propaganda and not assuming, most especially in the middle of such conflict, that information is unbiased or depoliticised, complete or not charged with complex details of context. Therefore, encouraging listening, learning, reflection, questioning and suspending judgement should be centred. 

I agree – we need to remain critical thinkers, especially in times of global catastrophe. Propaganda exists everywhere we turn, so we must teach our students to be vigilant in identifying and understanding how propaganda can inform our actions and beliefs. One purpose behind propaganda is to silence the voices of others; to shape a single story narrative designed to uphold a certain set of beliefs and values that, if challenged, are met with hostility. Information is never unbiased or depoliticized, because information is used to privilege certain narratives over others. We also need to remember to listen to the stories of people affected by these global catastrophes, especially the stories of our most marginalized community members. In my experience as an educator, many of these stories are intentionally omitted in the name of a false sense neutrality.

  • Students, parents and staff may be traumatised by events and schools will clearly therefore do what they can to be supportive, allowing members of the community who are affected to feel safe and using pastoral and human resources teams to give care and moral support to the community. 

The unfolding of world events can traumatize many in our community in a multitude of ways. Schools need to provide adequate support for these individuals, and also seek to invest in external support. Our pastoral team may not be equipped or comfortable to support families through global traumatic events. Do our pastoral teams have adequate trauma response training? Are they Queer and gender affirming? Do we hire people of color with lived experiences that can relate to our students? Also, there should be multiple pathways of healing, and having that responsibility fall on the few counselors we have at our schools would be unfair and harmful. Trauma and violence goes far beyond moral support and care. Organizations like The International Institution of Restorative Practices is a starting point to ensure that our schools have the tools needed to address harm. We also need to critique our hiring practices. Do our pastoral and human resources team reflect the identities of the global majority?

In order to begin healing, we must be able to name harm as well as develop systems to support our diverse student and faculty body. There can be no healing without acknowledgment of reality.

  • Armed conflict leads to several forms of real but also symbolic violence and we must be attentive to the dangers of overgeneralisation, prejudice, stereotyping and in-grouping or out-grouping that occur. Staff should be attentive to this and ensure that no one in their school community is ostracised because of the country they come from, their religion, culture or political orientation.

No single person should be conflated with the politics or government of their nationality. Stereotyping and prejudice cause harm to everyone in our community. As schools, we also need to be realistic; politics and government will be conflated with the identities of our students and teachers. We need to ensure that safeguards are in place to address when they happen. Failure to address the violence, especially with our most vulnerable community members, contributes to ongoing violence.

The bottom line is that international schools, and perhaps all schools for that matter, should never allow the armed conflict of the outside world to enter the classroom. 

The same unfortunately can’t be said for many people in the world. I think about schools in the US that constantly worry about gun violence. I think about how the war in Ukraine interrupted the school for so many people. I think about the violence in Sudan and how that’s affected our students. There are too many instances of armed conflicts forcing their ways into classrooms.

Silence and moving forward with the status quo is a missed opportunity. It’s false and irresponsible to assume that our school spaces are bubbles, somehow immune and sheltered from what’s happening in the “outside world”. When, in fact, what’s going on outside of our walls has very real consequences in our community. I believe that we can be on the path of healing and liberation through ongoing dialogue and meaningful action. Let’s reflect on the wisdom of civil rights advocate and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw; “When there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem. When you can’t see a problem, you can’t solve it.”

I think the four principles you proposed are helpful. I would like to add some ideas to them:

Four principles, therefore, in these terrible and difficult times:

  • Stand on the side of peace and openly denounce violence
  • Think independently and critically, and name bias
  • Demonstrate love and care to everyone within our community

Name and address prejudice

Reflections from White International School Leaders

The DEIJ agenda in schools and school districts is being led by many courageous, committed and skilled people, the vast majority of whom can draw on real life experiences of dealing with the effects of personal and systemic prejudice and/or discrimination. Too often these people are isolated, insufficiently supported and recognised. They deserve better and their work will become more deeply impactful if they have the active support of their Heads of School/school leaders, especially those of us like me, white, male, cisgender, wealthy and possessing many other aspects of identity that afford me great privilege. In order to provide active support school leaders must model the learning journey that we expect our stakeholders to undergo; deeply interrogating and understanding their own identity, the identity of others; the opportunities and the struggles that aspects of identity can result in and our own privilege and internal biases. They also need to be active allies, if not advocates rather than the passive stance that I see so often. I have walked this journey with our talented and courageous Director of DEIJ. Most of the time I stand behind her, sometimes I stand beside her and occasionally I stand in front of her to help lead this work.

John Wray

AIELOC Statement

AIELOC condemns any and all forms of oppression. The violence in Palestine and Israel has resulted in the loss of innocent lives and immense suffering for both Palestinians and Israelis. It is crucial to acknowledge the human cost of this conflict and strive for a peaceful resolution.

We would like to take a step back from the escalating rhetoric we have been seeing and hearing around us. We want to take a moment to acknowledge the sanctity of human life – all human life. We want to beseech all of those, in and out of our circles, to apply the same definitions of humanity, equality and dignity to all people regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or otherwise. We plead with those in positions of power to stop adding fuel to a fire which has been burning for too long and has consumed too many innocent lives.

The only way forward is with open hearts and minds and a solid plan of action that ensures Israelis and Palestinians can live full, meaningful lives with equal opportunities for peace and self-determination. It is impossible to do this without recognizing and acknowledging the real and devastating impact that the military occupation has had on Palestinian lives and livelihoods and the failure of the international community to address the systemic discrimination, apartheid, and colonization faced by Palestinians.

We encourage schools to take this stance in both supporting Palestine and Israel’s right to exist and recognizing that our Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim and Arab students and community members need our support during this horrific time.

AIELOC calls for unity in our movements for liberation of all people. We emphasize that supporting Palestinian liberation is not and should not be equated with anti-Semitism. This statement should not be co-opted for any other purpose than to support the people of Palestine and Israel.

Ada Aharoni poem:

The Lie That Exploded in Gaza

That night in Gaza, under the stars,
under the full moon in an inky sky,
the big lie suddenly exploded
with a Big Bang
in my heart and in my mind
shattering all my limbs
and all my heroic values.

The big lie suddenly exploded
Like a whizzing shrapnel through my brain
The big lie “Violence can stop conflicts!”

What a lie! What a big, horrible lie –
Violence cannot stop conflicts!
Only peace talks and peace negotiations
Can stop conflicts
Only a clear peacemaking Road Map
Can stop conflicts.

The Big Bang Lie
exploded in the depths of my heart
And of my deluded mind
together with the the dynamite
exploding the Philadelphi house
of an old grandmother desperately
searching for her glasses and medicine in
the rubble –

That explosive night was my epiphany
And I suddenly saw the light.

Resources:

Bending The Arc Mid-October 2023 (Click Here)

What International Schools Get Wrong About International Politics and Grief (Click Here)

CRISIS AND GRIEF RESPONSE
https://iscainfo.com/Crisis-and-Grief

Organizations to learn more about 
 
Palestine Children’s Relief Fund
 
BDS Movement
 
Anera

 

Comfort

Comfort

Tariro Chinondo (2007-)

When day came we went to school.

Beginning to develop our knowledge.

But between class was when we started to realize,

We were divided.

With your fingers in our braids, you ask,

“Is your hair fake? And how do you wash it?”

At the end of the day, we learned to embrace discomfort.

 

We graduated primary and with that, the queries faded;

Nevertheless, the silence did not always bring peace.

Never spotting a teacher who looked like us,

Never learning about our motherland.

But when we did, all was associated with slavery.

The ignorance of our comrades began to show,

And our education further ignited it.

 

Approaching the end of our school years,

We formed clubs.

We examined and carried forth plans,

But our advancements were ineffective.

Now here we stand pleading to you all,

And yet you still ask if we are comfortable.

It will take long until we are comfortable.

 

Bio: Tariro Chinondo is a member of the Black Student Union and a DEIJ-CEESA student representative at the Vienna International School. She is a student advocate on matters of inclusion and justice. This poem reflects experiences that Black students face within the international school ecosystem.

Film Review of Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey

Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey is like an anthem for those who grow up internationally but its genius has thus far escaped the attention of the international school community. Elizabeth Liang’s gripping film and performance is a godsend for international educators grappling to find creative ways to address difficult, complex issues relating to racism and inequalities that speak to both children and adults.

Written and produced by Liang, Alien Citizen opens with a booming voice taunting her on stage to answer the unanswerable questions that Third Culture Kids (Pollock et. al., 2017) and mixed-race children often hear: ‘Where are you from? … What are you?’ It then follows Liang’s childhood of moving internationally with her ‘Guate’-Chinese-Irish-European-hodgepodge- American family, partly to escape the civil war in Guatemala in the 1970s at first and then later as a ‘business brat’ when Xerox posted her father up and down and across the Atlantic Ocean.

Liang—the sole actor in Alien Citizen—seamlessly switches from one character to another as she humorously unearths a hoard of deep-seated pain that many children experience but have no words with which to express it. After moving to Fairfield County in Connecticut, USA, she notices that ‘nobody on TV looks like me, except maybe Spock on the Star Trek reruns!’ Just as Liang is feeling culturally displaced and in need for a sense of belonging, she begins losing her Spanish, the language that connected her to her father’s large and loving extended family in Guatemala.

But she does not stop there. Liang deftly places those same issues that have been covered a myriad times in expat memoirs squarely in the middle of a world riddled with social inequalities that spans across centuries. Liang spares no one from critique, not even herself.

In a poignant scene, after trying and failing to speak Spanish to their housekeeper, five-year-old Liang takes a broom in an attempt to hit their housekeeper, Filomena, while her older brother tries to stop her. My own doctoral research shows that when children are overwhelmed by language barriers, they sometimes express it in ways that look like the behavioural problems of a spoiled, privileged brat, such as by punching their classmate or yelling ‘shut up’ at their teacher (Tanu, 2018).

It is not lost on the adult Liang that ‘Filomena left her home in the highlands of Guatemala’ out of poverty to take care of her privileged family in ‘the coldest, unfriendliest town in New England’. Later, she alludes back to Filomena as Liang makes fun of her beloved Chinese Guatemalan family elders who were horrified by the dark tan she had picked up from playing in the sun at her next home in Panama because they were ‘obsessed’ by anti-indigenous colorism (see Knight, 2015).

Liang’s brilliance lies in her ability to convey the child’s deep sense of loss at the exact same time that she exposes the absurdity of the prejudice borne out of vast, global inequalities. While many with similar international childhoods like hers struggle to go beyond addressing identity or transition issues in generic terms, it is not so for Liang who is far too talented and fiercely honest for such a myopic focus.

A teenage Liang realises how tender she feels towards Egypt when she witnesses a group of Egyptian boys playing soccer appear helpless in the face of one European boy taunting them with ‘fake Arabic’. Liang delicately addresses the ambivalent feelings that emerge when social class hinders a child’s desire to build meaningful relationships with the local community.

In high school, Liang becomes ‘excellent friends’ with Hamed, a local student who does not ‘speak any language without a foreign accent’—not even Arabic, thanks to his international schooling—and seems out of place in Egypt despite having never lived anywhere else. According to the psychologist Drs. Doug Ota (2014), ‘stayers’; are often forgotten by school transition programs even though they are repeatedly left behind by ‘expat’ classmates who come and go as though through a revolving door.

The goofy Hamed became my favourite character even though the Grease-loving Liang won’t dance with him at a school dance because he is not ‘cool’—never mind the fact that the teenaged Liang was just as awkward—because…high school is high school. Be prepared to cry and laugh (hard) at the same time.

In all this, Liang never loses sight of the child bewildered by the constantly changing world around her. As she takes the audience with her from Guatemala to Costa Rica, the US, Panama, Morocco and Egypt, we see a young child gradually shut down from ‘transition fatigue’ as she turns into a teenager in her sixth country. All the while, her adolescent body is subjected to regular sexual harassment that she could neither fend off nor comprehend at that age.

Covering everything from mobility, identity confusion, racism, class prejudice and sexism to eating disorders, Liang is able to distill the essence of these difficult and deeply personal experiences and present them in a manner no scholar possibly could. And she does it with superb comic timing.

The film is a dynamic viewing experience thanks to director Sofie Calderon and editor Daniel Lawrence. Shot at different angles in front of a live audience, the energy of the performance and the editorial pacing are top notch. Audio effects enhance the atmospheric storytelling while visual effects add welcome texture, with scenes changing to the sound of a Xerox photocopy machine.

What’s more, because Liang is a master storyteller of childhood emotions, international school students would be able to instinctively pick up on the complex issues more than you might anticipate. In fact, Alien Citizen gives voice to what your students already know but are rarely invited to talk about. Indeed, it is a film that you ‘feel’ as much as you see.

It was a crisp evening in March 2014 near Washington D.C. in the US when I reluctantly dragged my jet-lagged body to the hotel ballroom of the Families in Global Transition (www.figt.org) conference to watch a live performance of Alien Citizen for the first time. I had initially thought,

‘What can one woman in a black T-shirt and jeans possibly do on a near empty stage?’ I came late and slumped into my chair.

But by the time the stage lights faded on Liang to signal the end, a third of the 142 attendees were bawling out our eyes.

‘It hit you hard, huh?’ It was the American international school educator who had been sitting next to me. He looked amused. I was a dripping wreck of snot while he looked curiously as fresh as when he first sat. So, I glanced around. The ones sobbing seemed mostly to be those who identified as having spent their childhoods ‘growing up among worlds’.

It was the first time we had heard our stories told with such compassion and brutal honesty.

This film review was first published in the EARCOS Triannual Journal (Fall 2022): https://issuu.com/earcosorg/docs/et-september-2022/74

About the Film
Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey is available on DVD and digital streaming in Individual (home use) and Institutional versions: www.aliencitizensoloshow.com . The DVD includes a Q&A with Elizabeth Liang and director Sofie Calderon, and interviews with Liang’s brother and parents. The Institutional DVD and Streaming License both include a digital toolkit with over 35 clips from the film, each followed by questions to promote learning and discussion.

References
Knight, D. (2015). What is colorism? Teaching Tolerance, Fall(51), 45-48. Retrieved from
www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/fall-2015/whats-colorism

Ota, D.W. (2014). Safe Passage: How Mobility Affects People and What International Schools Can Do About It. Stamford, Lincolnshire: Summertime Publishing. www.safepassage.nl/the-
book

Pollock, D., Van Reken, R.E. & Pollock, M. (2017). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (3rd ed.). Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. (See also www.crossculturalkid.org )

Tanu, D. (2018). Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School. New York: Berghahn Books. www.berghahnbooks.com/title/TanuGrowing

About the Author
Danau Tanu, PhD, is the author of Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School and a Japan Foundation Research Fellow at Waseda University. Website: www.danautanu.com ; Twitter/Instagram @danautanu