Teaching difference to combat indifference

She’s a jazz drummer, which immediately changes the complexion of the tattoos on her forearms. In summer, she cultivates tomatoes with her wife on their organic farm in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. She also cultivates minds, humbly calling herself a storyteller. She’s worked as a high school teacher in the area for 19 years. Lisa Brown was my landlady on vacation this summer, on a spit of white sand off Boston. She tossed out two or three words in Creole while encouraging me to help myself to her basketful of organic beets. I knew I was talking to a character. Even on vacation, they pursue me.

You don’t stumble across gay pacifists who studied ethnomusicology at a university in Baranas (also known as Varanasi) in India every day, and who attended classes at the age of 20 taught by the Dalai Lama. “His course was called ‘Buddhism, Peace and Politics in the Modern World.’ It had a major impact on me,” she recalls.

Today, Lisa teaches diversity to young people (aged 14 to 18) from privileged backgrounds. Her unique course is called “Exploring and Respecting Differences.” On her business card, she describes herself as a “Diversity Educator.” She’s the only one of her kind in Massachusetts, and her course has become so popular that it’s led to her nomination as a finalist in the Teacher of the Year 2018 competition in this Democratic state.

Not only do her students learn to understand themselves better, they also learn to evaluate the extent of their responsibility as citizens of the global village, their rights and their duties (human rights and human wrongs). Lisa’s program offers an apprenticeship as social as it is emotional, at a crucial age for the pursuit of meaning and understanding, and for high ideals to flourish.

“What matter where, if I be still the same, and what I should be?” − John Milton

The course is framed around contemporary issues, while relying on the vast experience of its mentor-teacher-mother figure. “The education system is fucked up. I knew I couldn’t teach straight after leaving school. At 24, you know nothing. You’re asked to repeat what you’ve learned to young people almost your own age. And the point of view you pass on is always that of winning, never losing.”

The Real Losers

Lisa Brown visited 57 countries across four continents and waited till she was 40 before becoming a teacher. Today, at 59, the way she looks at the world – inherited from a long line of pacifists – serves her well. “My parents were open, tolerant people. They passed that on to me from a young age; it’s been a lifetime’s work for me, so why not for my students? I show them human rights aren’t like money. It doesn’t work that others receiving more dignity and more respect means there is less of it for you. You lose nothing in the deal.”

During the course of their conversations on the origins of their values, and on morals and ethics, Lisa offers them her mantra: “Express your truth, without accusation, shame or judgment.” She sees her educational mission as a way of reshuffling the deck, she who was born white and American quite by chance. “I’m not ashamed to be white, or ashamed to be gay, as my behavior isn’t blameworthy. But I recognize the privileges I inherited.”

Dragging her belongings all over the world has given her a broader perspective than the NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard) and has shaped her empathy. “We Americans are built on oppressing others. The good thing about Trump coming to power is that it shows us our dark side and what we need to work on.”

The day before, Charlottesville had happened. “Black Lives Matter.” At home in Québec, La Meute,* and some inhabitants of the city of Boucherville were up in arms that Haitians were being housed in their backyard. But not many people know what it’s like to live in a Haitian’s backyard. Lisa knows.

The Pearl of the Antilles

Every year, this teacher of “diversity” leaves Cape Cod with her students for two weeks, taking them to La Gonâve Island, a few kilometers off the coast of Haiti, the poorest country in the West. Not to escape the winter, as one might expect. But rather so that they can question themselves, their many certainties, and their conditioning as little white Americans. It’s a time to escape the comforts they take for granted and to reach out to others.

“The North-South divide instead showed two worlds separated by wealth. The connection was that the wealth of one was intrinsically linked to the poverty of the other.” Dany Laferrière

In a village without water or electricity (but mainly no Wi-Fi), they learn a little Creole and teach the children English. They live with Haitian families and collect water from the source, all the while assimilating the differences they encounter. “They learn that for us to live as we do, a large percentage of people on the planet survive on $2 to $5 a day. They come back more aware, more thoughtful, responsible.” These young people, whose pets are treated better than many Haitians, are sometimes transformed and choose to go on and study international relations, diplomacy or human rights at a university.

“I don’t need to play politics, I have no hidden agenda,” emphasizes their teacher. “I don’t need to use promotion, I believe in attraction. I attract the young. I’m a facilitator. I have experience, but they have a new perspective.”

Lisa, an optimist by nature, makes every effort to escape the pervading gloom and fear of the unknown. And she acts. “I believe that, as a species, we’re evolving with more and more existential anxiety, which breeds fear. We know that we’re abusing the planet and some scientists predict a sixth extinction. I tell young people we can have a positive impact on what’s around us, in spite of everything. It’s the only thing we have power over. Pessimism has no future.”

The rain-flecked breeze rises over the dunes and ushers Lisa’s final words through the young pines. We talk of the sun still shining in a billion years. And the possibility of a more intelligent life form taking our place. “Let’s hope next time’s better.”

I find that optimistic.

*Translator’s note: “La Meute” is “The Wolf Pack,” a Canadian anti-illegal immigration and anti-radical Islam group.