Language, Learning and Love

Welcome! Use the pull-down menu in the upper right corner (“Research, Teaching and Writing) to find information about my work on these inter-related themes: Language Brokering, Cultural Modeling (pedagogical design connecting in and out of school practices), pedagogies of heart and mind (an approach to learning we take at B-Club, an after-school program in Los Angeles that connects elementary school youth and UCLA undergraduates),  immigrant youth and families, and gender/literacy and power.  You will find links to public blogposts, academic papers, Youtube videos, course syllabi and more. I invite you to leave comments: your reactions to my work, sharing of your own work, and dialogue with other readers.

On this main page you’ll find my blog, which offers ongoing reflections on these and other issues.  I have been thinking about these matters of heart and mind in41T4j75d6sL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ different ways since 1983: first as a classroom teacher, then as a researcher of language and literacy in immigrant communities and a designer of pedagogies, and always as a learner myself.  Topics include:

  • Reports from a new study I’m conducting on the impact of Covid-19 on family life and learning.
  • Reflections from my ongoing research on language and literacy practices in immigrant communities, both in and out of school. See a new volume I co-edited, along with Inmaculada García Sánchez, on connecting home and school practices:
  • Reflections on ethnographic research and other methodological issues.  See also my 2020 book:
  • Reports from my ongoing research and praxis in at B-Club. See also my 2016 book: Immigrant Children in Transcultural Spaces: Language, Learning and Love)
  • Issues facing immigrant communities more broadly
  • Other random lessons from the grand School of Life


The COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons for Schools

Note: This blogpost was developed in collaboration with my project team, Priscilla Liu and Sophia Ángeles. Thanks to all the families who are participating in our project.  Thanks to the Spencer Foundation for supporting our work.

The COVID-19 pandemic, with all the suffering and challenges it has brought, offers us all a tremendous opportunity to see our social worlds and to re-imagine them. In this blog we suggest a few lessons that we have learned from our research exploring the impact of the pandemic on the lives and learning experiences in a diverse set of 33 U.S. households, and offer suggestions for schools.

Three lessons

  1. Social processes and practices can change very quickly, and do, when circumstances force them. The rapidity with which we collectively moved our lives (and schooling) online and rearranged our social lives is really quite astounding. For sure, it wasn’t without upheaval, dissension, discord, and uneven-ness – partly because of the mixed messages we got from our leadership. And the changes may be more in form than in substance. But we did make certain kinds of changes very fast – changes that might have seemed impossible a year ago.
  2. Existing social inequities are illuminated and magnified. The pandemic has made more visible long-standing disparities in health, well-being, economic stability, and education. The rapid changes are enacted in unequal ways and their effects may further exacerbate those inequities.
  3. New possibilities emerge, if we are able to see them. This is where we find hope. We are trying to focus our attention here, as we draw lessons from the families in our project, for reimagining schools.



While schools have rather quickly gone “on-line” or adapted to remote instruction, for the most part they have not changed basic practices to respond to the moment. Generally, schools seem to be trying to do the same lessons they would do in person, in an effort to keep students “on track.”  (We might ask, on track to what?) The rapid changes have been largely in form – learning to work on line – than in substance.

What’s worse, on-line instruction has forced a retreat to practices that we know are not pedagogically sound: ones that magnify and exacerbate existing inequalities, as a report by my colleague John Rogers makes clear. This includes more disembodied approaches to teaching and learning; more reliance on decontextualized language (without the supports that would benefit all students, and English Learners in particular); more “reductionistic” tasks that students experience as disconnected from their lives and experiences, and boring.  More drill-and-kill, rather than working with the affordances of technology to open up the new possibilities that many of us are discovering for ourselves in our everyday lives, such as the fact that we can connect across great distances, build new social networks, and collaborate in new ways. More solo work rather than collaborative project-based learning.

This reinforces inequities. Some children in our project had the material and technological resources – and space within their home – to concentrate on schoolwork. Some had older siblings or parents who could tutor them, and help them “broker” technology, so they could address problems that arose as well as use the Internet to explore their own interests. Others used school-loaned Ipads mostly just to do the textbook-like exercises the school gave them, as best they could, on their own.

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Given these inequities, and given the stressors that  all families are experiencing right now, we have been asking: How could schools support all kids in engaging in rich learning at home during this time?


There is an extensive body of educational research and practice that calls for recognizing and building on what Luis Moll and Norma González called “community funds of knowledge:” the knowledge and skills that are learned and shared in everyday contexts. This work calls for bridging homes and schools in the service of learning, equity, and educational opportunity.

Under the pandemic, the bridge between homes and schools has gotten much shorter. In fact, schools have moved into homes.  But movement across the bridge seems to go mostly in one direction, as teachers send home long lists of tasks for children to complete at home.


We want to suggest a few ways in which teachers might cross the bridge themselves, and invite families to cross as well – bringing lived experiences during the pandemic into view and connecting schools and homes in more meaningful, generative, and engaging ways.

Household Activities as Source of Inquiry

One mother of three elementary-school aged children in our study described trying to supervise her children as they completed more than 30 discrete assignments on the iPads each had been loaned by the school. María’s own mother, Isabel, who lived with the family, had meanwhile moved her domestic work outside, so as not to disturb the children. She set up a portable stove on the porch where she prepared “mole,” a heritage-food from her native Oaxaca that involves toasting pumpkin seeds, grinding chocolate, chopping red chili peppers, and mixing some 20 other ingredients.


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María struggled with the transformation of her role as a mother into that of teacher/disciplinarian, especially having to enforce silence as the kids tuned into their separate “classrooms” from within the small space her living room offered. She wasn’t always sure what the tasks required or how to guide her children, in English.  She did, on the other hand, find creative ways to involve her children in everyday activities that involved all kinds of learning – to, as she put it, “reinvent” themselves, as they struggled with the challenges of the pandemic and its emotional impact. She regularly involved her children in food preparation.


What if schools supported families in learning together,  as they participate in daily life?

While not all families may be preparing things as elaborate or culturally/historically rich as mole, most certainly they are all budgeting, shopping, cooking and sharing food. This everyday lived practice is going on around children as they try to “do school” at home, and many parents are struggling to juggle shopping, cooking, and cleaning with their new roles as tutors, teachers and school disciplinarians. How much stress might be alleviated if this work could be combined? What if we honored the work that is happening in homes, and invited children to learn about and share in this essential, everyday work?

Teachers could invite families to prepare a meal together from start to finish, and/or ask students to observe the preparation process. They could write lists of the ingredients, identify how much they cost (perhaps comparing the prices in several local stores), take pictures of the preparation process and the finished products, and write about the experience. Class lessons could involve writing out recipes (which families may never have written out before) to share, describing the meals, graphing favorite foods, comparing and contrasting different ways of preparing common foods such as rice. These activities could easily be connected with state standards in math, science, social studies and language arts.

Importantly, we want to caution against discussions of food preparation that simply reinforce cultural stereotypes or assume  cultural norms. We also urge teachers to be careful in the ways comparisons are made across households. Not all families prepare the elaborate kinds of traditional heritage-culture food that Helen, another participant in our study, displayed in photos.


Some families may be struggling just to put food on the table. (In anticipation of that possibility, teachers might offer a list of local food bank resources.)

If families do share food that might be considered more “typical” of their cultural heritages, teachers can help elicit the stories behind these foods, contemplating the meanings these foods take on both historically and in households. Helen, for example, shared the history of the Dragon Boat Festival in China, explaining why people make rice dumplings and do boat racing on this day.


Domestic work: Divisions of labor

The pandemic has increased the domestic labor required in many households, as families are spending more time at home, often combining paid and domestic labor in that space. As with food preparation, children may be witness to work that previously took place when they were away at school, or when their parents were out of the home.  This was true in María’s home, as the family stepped up food preparation partly in order to sell it as a new source of income after they lost their outside work.  It was true as well in the homes of professionals in our study, such as Luz, who taught her own third-graders from her living room while her two pre-school children played nearby. 

Why not make this a source of inquiry as well? Children could interview family members about the work they do at home (both domestic work and paid labor).  As with food preparation, they could take photos, write stories, share and compare. (See for example Wendy Luttrell’s article, A Camera Is a Big Responsibility”: A Lens for Analysing Children’s Visual Voices). Perhaps they could support their parents’ work in some way. Luz, for example, involved her own children in the work of recording videos for the classroom.

This might easily lead to discussions of equity. Who does what work, and how is that work valued both in homes and society? What kinds of work are more invisible in households? (For example, who does the work of brokering language, literacy and technology?  Here are some ideas about how this kind of everyday language work could be leveraged in school.)  They could discuss ways of distributing the work at home – and in society – more equitably.  

Healthy habits

The families in our study have described a number of new practices they have taken on to enhance their health, happiness and well-being during this time. This includes taking walks in nature, writing “gratitude journals,” hosting game nights, establishing family weight loss competitions, and more  Schools could be a place for sharing these practices. Teachers could support students in exploring how these new practices impact their health and well-being. They could also consider what practices interfere with health and well-being. (The stressors that “doing school” at home might be one of them.)

Learning together while easing family stress

We have offered just a few ideas for how schools could integrate learning activities with the things that families are doing every day.  The first step to doing this would involve talking with children and families about their daily lives: using the bridge that has opened between home and schools to cross both ways.

We are suggesting that this kind of integration could perhaps ease some of the stress that many households are experiencing at this time. Rather than adding additional, unrelated chores to family life, and forcing parents into untenable roles as disciplinarians while managing household tasks, families could better attend to their own health, well being, and social-emotional needs – which are surely greater than ever during this time. Schools would be supporting families in developing or solidifying practices that could enhance their well-being for the long-term.

For sure, this kind of creative, relational and dynamic approach to learning might not ensure that kids are prepared in exactly the same way for standardized tests at the end of the year. And projects like this might be hard to grade in equitable ways, especially given the diversity of household experiences. It requires creativity, adaptability and flexibility on the part of teachers – teachers who are also experiencing tremendous stress due to the pandemic.

This returns us to the first lesson outlined above: that practices can and do change very quickly when circumstances force them. Perhaps it’s time to re-imagine accountability processes to better respond to the needs and realities facing children, families and teachers during an incredibly challenging time.

And perhaps this re-imagining could help us make much-needed, substantive changes for education in the future as well.

Happy New Year!

When we began 2020 I thought the big event of 2020 would be a personal one: turning 60.  I reflected on my life – now most certainly past any “mid” point – and wondered what the years ahead would bring. I revisited a birthday blog I wrote in 2018 in which I reflected on the generally-taboo topic of Death.

It turned out that my February birthday celebration was the last “normal” thing I recall. I took an amazing boat ride out to Santa Cruz Island with my kids, then had old and new friends over to my house to write “get out the vote” letters that I saved until October to mail. 121615412_10158379599896928_5144305000363540761_n

That’s the last clear memory I have of sharing food and drink in a crowded room without worrying that standing too close and simply breathing could lead to someone’s death.

A few weeks later, the world turned upside down. The great taboo topic of Death became harder and harder to ignore. (But somehow, most people managed to ignore it anyway.)

When the pandemic first began, I read many thoughtful, philosophical essays and blogposts about the lessons that Mother Earth, the universe, God or the goddesses seemed to be trying to teach us. I wrote a few myself: about the opportunities that this crisis presented for seeing the social world in new ways and for re-imagining it; about the contradictions we were all suddenly living; about what it would mean to really, truly, deeply appreciate what we have right now, by embracing “the cups already broken” – the fact of our impermanence.

I joined a chorus of people who focused on what we might take from this experience:  Slow down. Be more present. Be grateful for each moment, each connection we have with our loved ones, each breath. Re-evaluate our priorities. Drive less, consume less, produce less, and BE more.

But then those lessons seemed to fly out the window, as we – especially those of us in Academia – ramped up. While Death was all around us, we acted as if we were invincible.  While the plans of the whole world got derailed, we just kept chugging along the same train tracks.  We got schools on line, meetings on line, everything on line…and we taught more or less the same lesson plans we would have, because we were worried about keeping everyone “on track.”

On track to what?

Admittedly, I ramped up my own work this year by taking on a whole new project:  a study of the impact of the pandemic on 33 households across the country, part of a study of households in ten countries around the globe.  While this added significantly to my work load, it also helped me to slow down.  Reading the diaries of our participants, I and my research team (Priscilla Liu and Sophia Ángeles) cried and laughed and heard the lessons our participants were learning this year.  While not all their words were hopeful – some expressed great despair, and cynicism – I was struck by how many seemed to be learning profound lessons about what really seems to matter in life. Here are a few excerpts:

“Things that mean more to me now: a warm hug, a belly-laugh with my girlfriends, our little apartment with a window full of green leaves that blow in the breeze, the peaceful crash of waves at the beach, an evening stroll in the neighborhood, a freshly-baked slice of banana bread, a drive up the coast, Thai take-out, and smiling eyes peeking out from behind a face mask.  Simple, beautiful things that fill my small days with happiness.”

“I was able to appreciate spring this year. Since we were home most of the days, I was able to see the leaves and flowers grow. It’s like time stood still.”

“I have learned to be grateful and take nothing for granted.”

“We’re learning that patience and grace are imperative.”

“This time together is a blessing, and no matter what challenges come with this pandemic, I hope to forever be grateful for this time together.”
“This pandemic has taught me to make the most of a bad situations.”

“What an increase in awareness I now have on the freedom and privileges I have taken for granted in life!”

“Living with gratitude in my heart is the single easiest and most gratifying way I know of that grounds me in the moment and allows me to see the blessings manifest in my life and in the lives of my loved ones.”

“Without love, this pandemic is just a thing that brings disappointment and despair.”

As we launch 2021 I’m hearing lots of platitudes like: “It has to get better.”  But does it?  I don’t think the universe works by simple rules like that.  Unless by “better” we mean the things we have power to change – which is probably, mostly, or only, the way we view things, what we do with what we get, and how we respond to whatever comes our way.


As for my own New Year’s resolutions? Through the years, I have written countless  lists for self-improvement. I’ve also made commitments to the world – ones I revisited today, and stand by, because accepting things as they are doesn’t mean we can’t, simultaneously, take action to forge a better world. We can help the arc of the universe bend toward justice.

But mostly, this year, I hope to be a little less “resolute.”  Google’s on-line dictionary defines resolute as “purposeful, determined, and unwavering.”  Instead, I hope to be more flexible, adaptable, present, and ready to respond thoughtfully to whatever comes up. 

Because really, who knows?

Maybe that’s the real lesson that 2020 can teach us.  To get a little better at responding rather than reacting. To recognize that “better” is what we make it. To see the cups we hold right now as already broken so that we treasure them now, while we have them, all the


Getting in and along: Connecting with Clarity and Compassion

Here’s a summary of one more chapter from Mindful Ethnography – one that addresses one of the most important issues in this book, not just for ethnographers, but in terms of the lessons I want to take from ethnography for living in the world. It explores how we can connect compassionately and empathically with others (and with ourselves), staying connected with both our heads and our hearts, as we engage in activity in the world:

It digs deep into the question of “othering.” Just who do we create as others (in both small and big ways, along large social axes of race, class and gender, as well as in all kinds of everyday ways).  To what aspects of our selves do we construct these “others”?   What “empathy walls” do we put up – what Arlie Hochschild refers to “obstacle(s) to deep understanding of another person, one(s) that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs ”? Can mind-hearted practices help us surmount them, transcending our own limits on how far we are able or willing to go – or at least better recognizing them? What might we see on the other side, and how might that help us in our efforts to transform the world?

I also share an “aside” in this chapter – on the paradox of accepting things as they are while acting to change the world – one of several paradoxes I sit with in this book as I bring together scholarship, spiritual pursuits, and social action.  (See also this blogpost:

At the end, I offer a guided “metta” meditation for field workers: a way of connecting with more clarity and compassion with all of the people in our field site.

Seeing with Beginners’ Eyes: For Ethnographers Entering the Field

Here’s an overview of Chapter 2 from my book, Mindful Ethnography: Mind, Heart and Activity for Transformative Social Research:  download-1As with the other chapter summaries, it is set to music composed by Andrés Orellana (Abstract Apathy).images

This chapter takes us to the first day of a new field enterprise and offers mindful ways of entering a field site and seeing it for the first time. Considering the human tendency to leap to evaluation, summaries, category-formation, and pattern-seeking, I suggest ways of slowing down those analytical processes, becoming more aware of our thoughts and feelings and creating more room to listen, and see, with our hearts. I’m curious what people think about my reflections on the term “reflexivity” versus “reflectivity.”  A guided meditation for first visits to the field begins around 6:00.

I hope this format is a useful teaching tool for introducing students to ethnography,  with, perhaps, some more general lessons for Life.


Living and Learning during a Global Pandemic: Lessons from Diverse U.S. Households



Here is a link to a blog about a new project I have been conducting since May (with Dr. Priscilla Liu and advanced graduate student Sophia Ángeles) – following the experiences of 33 families across the U.S. as we move through this global pandemic.  The project is part of a 10-country study (that includes Chile, Argentina, Taiwan, Singapore, South Africa, Pakistan, Great Britain, Sweden, and the U.S.). This blog is housed on the website for this international consortium. Each country will be posting there, so you can read about how families around the world are experiencing this “unprecedented” time.

Talking about Mindful Ethnography

Here’s a link to a Youtube channel ( where I read some excerpts from my new book, Mindful Ethnography: Mind, Heart and Activity for Transformative Social Research, summarize the key ideas I address in each chapter, and reflect further on these ideas and my motivations for writing them. I include some brief activities for applying mindfulness to ethnographic research, guiding listeners in some short meditative and contemplative practices oriented around field work.

The tracks are accompanied by music: composed, electronically produced and mastered by my son, Andrés Orellana (who goes by the name “Abstract Apathy” for his music, which can be found on Spotify and other music platforms). The cover image of the book was designed by my visual-and-performing artist daughter, Elisa Noemí. 9781138361041 I enlisted my children’s artistic talents not just to support them as emerging artists, and not just because I’m a “proud mama” (though I am), but because despite our very different approaches (Elisa via theatre, storytelling and visual arts; Andrés via music; I via research and writing), we have much in common.  We have influenced each others’ thinking and ways of being over the year.  For sure, my kids have learned some stuff from me, but I have also learned from them in substantive and important ways. They really have been some of my greatest teachers, and my own ways of seeing, thinking, doing, and being have been enriched through our extended, informal, family collaboration.  I also share their art and music as a way of balancing the heady or “mind”-centric nature of academic writing with more heart-centered stances. As you listen to my words, you can rest your eyes on the beautiful image Elisa created, and imbibe the gentle background music Andrés performs. Academic reading doesn’t have to be onerous. And academic work doesn’t have to be boring.  It can be a creative, spiritual and aesthetic experience that connects our minds and bodies and anchors us in the world. I hope you will enjoy!

The cups already broken

IMG_0607 2“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

From Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein.

On this 45th day of Los Angeles’ “Shelter in Place” initiative, I sit with my Barcelona coffee mug in hand, treasuring all that is already broken.

Memories, still vivid in my mind’s eye, but someday broken too. And new experiences that may leave us feeling a little cheated, but that I treasure just the same, knowing that these, too, will become memories, and that even the memories will shatter one day:

…Standing shoulder to shoulder in a circle with my students on the first day of class; setting our intentions as we pass a ball of yarn around, weaving ourselves together in an interconnected web that we promise to uphold. This spring, we have stretched the threads almost to the breaking point, through the world-wide web that is even more invisible but just as real.  But we each still get to hold our little piece of it, for now.

…Sitting on the filthy floor (how I hated that floor) of the room where our precious B-Club was held, watching young people of all ages move freely as they learned and played together. IMG_3924Now, I smile at video clips of those days, as our team gathers in a Zoom Room to analyze the embodied nature of learning. I relish the connections we are managing to sustain with the kids in our program, through letter exchanges, Remind App messages, and a new and interactive web page. Not the same as playing together, but precious just the same.

…Eating lunch at a faculty meeting in a small room in Moore Hall, another floor beneath us scuffed by countless footsteps in and out. (I never thought I would say that I missed going to faculty meetings, or the opportunity to re-scuff that now-polished floor.) Now, I delight in the tiny glimpses we get of each other’s lives while we struggle through Zoom Gloom meetings: our children, our pets, the books on our shelves or the paintings on our walls or the virtual backgrounds we choose to represent ourselves with. I am happy to see the faces of these dear, smart colleagues, to know they are out there, in the world, doing their good work, fighting the good fight, coming together as best we can with our shared commitments to make the world a better place.

download…Running with friends along the beach path on moonlit winter nights. (I hated wearing a headlight and couldn’t wait for daylight’s saving.) Cheering these loyal friends on, as they pounded with thousands of others through the streets of LA in March’s marathon, right before that cup broke. Now, I treasure the daily texts my running friends send, posting photos of their solo routes on empty streets, reports on distances and times; and I cheer them on in a strange new thing called “virtual races.” I am learning to run alone again,  breathing in city air that is miraculously clean.

…Yoga classes in sweat-filled studios. Holding a plank for an interminable length of time as our teacher prepared us to deal with anything life might throw at us, with a smile.  Now, I treasure meeting up with friends from around the world in my daily kundalini yoga class, listening to my sister-in-law as she leads us in movement and meditation with a chorus of tropical birds around her. I hold in my heart sweet memories of being with her in her Costa Rican paradise, along with those birds…and biting ants and mosquitos. Now we sweat and smile and chat together in this physically distanced but spiritually connected and still-fully-embodied way.

…Places, all around the world, where my feet have touched the earth. The shop where I purchased this mug, on a crowded, narrow, winding street in Old Town Barcelona. Shuttered now, perhaps. Not crowded. IMG_5020The trains and planes and buses that took me there, filled with people going somewhere, oblivious to the privilege of this movement across borders, ignoring the passengers beside them or greeting them with a nod, a smile, or friendly banter, not with fear of the invisible enemy that could spew from their mouths or the pores of their skin and silently spread. All the crowds I have pushed through and the queues I have stood in with aching feet and grumbling mind. I cherish the broken cups of these memories, and embrace the six-foot-spacing-to-buy-toilet-paper-queue that is in the cup I hold right now.

…Greeting friends and family with a handshake, a hug, a kiss on one cheek, or two, or three, or the surprising sweet salt of lips meeting unexpectedly. Selfies and video clips and group shots we took to record precious moments together. Carefree people with linked arms and uncovered smiles for the camera: “Squeeze in! We don’t all fit!”

My hands come together in a prayer, as I bow to these memories, and to all the people I now greet from six feet’s distance: Namaste.

What cups are you holding, right now?



Embracing contradictions: The beauty and terror of life during a pandemic

Words, like the virus, are circulating madly through invisible networks of exchange these days: words of conviction and certainty, anxiety and fear, blame and shame, praise and support, anger and outrage, compassion and kindness, hope and wonder, terror and grief.

Most writers take one tack or another.  Some point to the injustices that the coronavirus brings into relief. Others highlight the possibilities that emerge when people work together for collective good. Some find creative ways to send uplifting messages for the future. Others look to the past, seeking someone or something to blame. Some anticipate the Apocalypse. Others see the Dawning of a New Age.

I am trying to embrace all these contradictions, and to feel it all: beautLet everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going ...y and terror, hope and fear, love and anger, humor and horror, joy and grief. I see the best and worst of humanity, and both dread and relish what could lie ahead.

The things I am witnessing are both difficult and wonderful, both terrible and beautiful, both full of possibility and filled with tremendous pain.

They are the result of actions taken or not taken in the past, and caused by things that none of us could ever fully control. We know what we can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and we also know these things may not work.

The suffering is, and will continue to be, both shared and unequally distributed. The pandemic will target particularly vulnerable populations and it will hit all sectors in an inexplicable, seemingly random way.  It will likely lead to creative solutions to long-standing social issues and to the deepening and hardening of existing inequities.

We already miss things we can no longer do, even as we are discovering new ways of connecting and of reinvigorating social life.

We will surely weather some aspects of the crisis with grace and strength, and fall apart at other times. We will rise to our best selves and succumb to our worst. This will be true at both an individual and collective level.

In short, there is no single, definitive narrative to tell about the coronavirus, just like life.

Except, perhaps, the ones we choose to tell, and work to make come true.

Where do we want to put our energy, our thoughts, our time? What words and ideas will we send into the ethosphere?  Which ones will we breathe in, and which will we block with a metaphorical mask? Could we collectively bend the arc of the universe even just a little bit toward justice? Could we tip the balance from terror to wonder, fear to peace, anger to love?

This may be the most disconcerting and liberating lesson we can take from this time.  To some degree, it’s up to us.

The coronavirus may seem like our enemy, but perhaps it is our greatest teacher – and even, despite or because of all of the contradictions it brings – our friend.Life: The Greatest teacher of them all | EdTerra Edventures

Ethnography in a time of social distancing: We are all ethnographers now

Note: I’m blogging because it feels like something I can do in the face of the crises unfolding all around us, not because I think words are necessarily the medicine we most need right now.  But it helps me to have some sense of purpose, something that I hope could be helpful to others in some small way, as we live through and respond to an unprecedented situation. Perhaps we can draw some lessons from this experience for imagining, and bringing into being, a better world.

My recently published book, Mindful Ethnography: Mind, Heart and Action for Transformative Social Research, is a guide for scholar-activists who want to immerse themselves fully in social contexts: working with the instruments of our beings to see, hear, smell, taste, feel, think and understand the world, and connecting mind, heart and activity in order to do scholarship that contributes to much needed social transformation.  But in the current moment we are being asked to stay home, maintain at least six feet from other people, and work “remotely.” This contradicts the hands-on, grounded, immersive, engaged, participatory ways that are at the heart of ethnographic and socially-transformative research.  What does it mean to be an ethnographer in a time of “social distancing” and in the midst of this unprecedented global COV19 pandemic?download

While the particular field work projects that social science researchers have been pursuing will undoubtedly have to change or be put on hold for some time, I believe that all of us – researchers and the general public alike – can draw on some core principles of ethnography in order to observe, experience, document, and understand the moment we are living in.  Moreover, I think the mindful approaches I call for in my book could serve us all as social beings in a rapidly changing world, and for bringing into being a more just, equitable, loving and transformative one. I distill a few of those lessons from my book here, applying them to the COV19 pandemic. We are all ethnographers now.

The familiar has been made strange for us

We are all participating in, and surely observing, an unprecedented global experiment. The social world we live in is being transformed in uncharted, unpredictable, and unchosen ways. We are transforming it as we respond to calls to change all our everyday habits. And we are experiencing those changes as we make them.

One of the core principles of ethnography is to “make the familiar strange” in order to see in new ways, rather than through unexamined assumptions or established patterns of our culture. Becoming more aware of how we move and operate in the world may help us as we face the immediate threat of COV19: by refraining from touching our faces, shaking hands, or passing the virus in other ways. It may also help us to see things we took for granted, such as the essential labor of grocery store workers, health care providers, and others who were invisible before. The familiar has been made strange for us. All we have to do is look around. But can we do so more awarefully?

Notice everything you think and feel

The conavirus crisis offers us a tremendous opportunity not just to see the world in new ways, but to experience profound changes: in institutions and societal structures, interpersonal relationships, local ecologies, the environment, and more. There is much to be noticed right now. Pay attention to it all.  What do you see, hear, feel, smell, taste, touch and think?  What do you not get to see, hear, feel, smell, touch and taste right now?  (We may come to see what we have taken for granted by experiencing their absence.)  What do we sense, worry, fear, anticipate, intuit and imagine? Using “mindful” practices, we can notice how our thoughts and feelings arise and change as circumstances around us change. Using the skills of ethnography, we can pay attention to the details: what, exactly, do we see, hear, smell, taste, feel and intuit?  Historians might appreciate the efforts we make to document these thoughts and feelings, and to record them as carefully as we can.  But as I suggest in my book, our thoughts and feelings are always intertwined, and we can expect that they will be only more so in a time of such uncertainty and anxiety. So notice how your emotions may shape your perceptions, and vice versa.t3_06_thoughts_feelings_emotions

Pause before you interpret or act

 The human tendency is to immediately judge any changes we experience. Social media is filled with people’s responses to the Conavirus crisis: what people hate about it, what they love, how it personally impacts them. Some of the changes we are being asked to make feel incredibly difficult. Others might feel liberating. People have many opinions about these things, too. And many, many emotional responses.

But in a time of rapid change, we would benefit from slowing down. Here is where a mindfully ethnographic approach can help us. Pay attention. Notice everything we think and feel.   Try to stay close to the direct observations of what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Then press pause. Don’t rush to premature interpretations.  And don’t let our perceptions and opinions impulsively drive our actions.

Suspending both evaluation and interpretation, we may identify possibilities that can be acted upon in thoughtful ways to enact long term much-needed transformations in society once we get through the immediate crisis. We can also contribute more thoughtfully to what is needed now if we don’t just react, mindlessly putting our own thoughts and feelings out into the chaos that is swirling around us. We can think carefully about what we can contribute that is truthful, helpful and kind (following Buddhist precepts). 

Don’t assume others’ experiences are the same as yours

Different  kinds of people are being impacted in different ways by the COV19 pandemic. The effects will likely be felt differently along well-established lines of power in society. This is where social science theory can help us: we can ask who is hurt, and who potentially benefits, from this crisis, attending to the important categories of our culture (race/ethnicity, class, gender) as well as other categories of difference. This crisis will surely make visible the privileges that some people enjoy, and the vulnerability of others.  But just  how it will do so isn’t clear, and may not be visible unless we pay attention. We can’t be sure we know all of the ways this crisis will affect people, how they will feel about it, or how they will respond. And we certainly can’t assume that our exact experiences – and responses to them – will be shared with others.  This is a time to observe keenly, listen deeply, and ask critical questions about how this global crisis is impacting us, in both shared and divergent, and good and bad, ways.

Let go

download-6My ulterior motive in writing Mindful Ethnography was to share some of the lessons I have learned about life in general and academia in particular, by working through my own health crises and an extended healing process. (See my previous blog.)  I wrote it with my younger, anxiety-filled, angst-ridden school-girl self in mind, filling it with reassurances for young scholars entering this business, and calls to let go, as best we can, of our fears, worries, plans, hopes and expectations. We are being forced to let go of many plans right now.

We can also let go of our ideas about perfection and completion, or about getting the words “just right” or having “the answer” to complex questions.  Leading to and following from this book, in the face of the existential crises facing our planet, I’m feeling compelled to write in much more personal ways than I ever thought I would dare to in academia (which can be such a critical world). I feel a sense of urgency, and so I’m throwing caution to the wind, and sharing my thoughts in the hope that they will be helpful to some people (as well as truthful and kind)….but not perfect, and not complete.

Stay tuned for more ways I hope to apply my approach to “mindful ethnography” to the contemporary global crisis: by conjoining mind, heart and activity; thinking deeply about the language we use to name our experiences; sitting with paradoxes; and moving beyond dualities as we experience through the COV19 crisis the profound nature of our interconnectedness – in both terrible and wonderful ways.

For social science researchers

Before concluding, let me offer a few more specific lessons for social science researchers.  Some of you may be able to continue doing your fieldwork where-ever you are, just observing with a little more distance, and conducting interviews from six feet apart! But more likely, you may need to withdraw from the field and shift your modes of gathering data, as well as the questions you pursue.  That’s OK. 

Your best laid plans may go out the window

download-2This is not a time to go about business as usual. My heart goes out to the many doctoral students who cannot pursue the projects they have planned for some time – like my own protégé, Sophia Angeles, who was poised to begin her dissertation research this spring, doing participant observation in a Los Angeles high school, to explore the experiences of undocumented, “unaccompanied minor” adolescent youth.  Gaining access to this population will be much more challenging now.

I encourage students to notice your thoughts and feelings about changes to carefully-laid plans. Consider these as lessons for life. We really don’t have as much control over the world as we might like. And we can’t out-think or out-plan it all. What we can do is better respond to a changing world.  So stop. Breathe. Sit with the thoughts and feelings that come up about how this impacts your research agenda. Feel it all: rage, disappointment, fear, confusion. Let it settle through your body and your mind. Don’t try to rush through this stage of the grieving process.

But look through the window to see what lies beyond

download At some point you may be ready to turn your mind in some new directions. And there are very new, important questions that are emerging. Identify the ways this global pandemic impacts the questions you had planned to explore, or were already exploring. For example, in Sophia’s case: How are unaccompanied minor adolescents in the U.S. being affected by COV19 in particular ways? How does the pandemic influence their social, emotional, health and well being, as well as their ideas about possible futures?  What access do they have to health care, and how are their families and communities being impacted? And how are they making sense of this experience?

The challenge for ethnographers is how to pursue these at a distance – e.g. via social media or personal connections that can be leveraged virtually. I don’t want to minimize those challenges. I only want to suggest to young researchers that it is OK to change your questions – and your contributions will likely be so much greater now, as you will be asking questions that none of us really have any answers to at all, and that speak to really pressing matters of the day, and of the futures we might imagine, and work to bring into being.


Crises and Opportunities for Re-Prioritizing Our Lives and Re-imagining the World

2007-08 was a year of multiple personal crises as I faced cancer, divorce, five surgeries, the death of my father, and a series of difficult decisions for what one doctor told me was “the most unusual case he had ever seen.” But I was lucky. I survived, and ten years later I am still drawing profound Life Lessons from the experience. I share a few of these here, in the hope that this may help others, as we collectively face different kinds of existential crises: both the immediate Conavirus scare, and the larger threat of Climate Change looming close behind.

(1) Seize the opportunity to grow, learn and change. If I had the chance to go back in time and skip the painful years of my treatment and recovery, I would not choose to do so. I am not the only survivor to feel that crises were a blessing in disguise, nor the only person to realize what really matters when we confront our mortality head on. Really grasping our own impermanence, and the loss of many things we love (including the ability to travel, go where we like, gather together, hug) – may be the greatest gift we can give ourselves, so we can more fully appreciate things we have taken for granted, and what we do have now. This is an opportunity to re-think all our priorities, re-evaluate our ways of living, doing, and being, and re-imagine the world in new ways.

(1) Know that it will be confusing. As I did when I faced cancer, we can look to experts and others who have experienced similar things for advice. But even they can’t see the future or know everything we might want or need to know.  We can expect all kinds of reactions: denial, rage, fear, panic, grief, acceptance, love. We have a lot to grieve right now, with small and large download-1losses in our immediate and long-term futures. It may take time, even beyond the immediate crisis, to process and heal; and new crises may be looming. Both individually and collectively we will likely experience many emotions. Allow for it all, and don’t try to rush to resolution. Slowing down and really feeling whatever comes up for us can be the best thing to do during times of tremendous uncertainty. Just trust that if we ride the waves, we will get to a clearer place where we will be able to really appreciate the lessons that are there to be learned.

(2) Be careful not to put your confusion onto others, and on the world. The impact of CoVID19 will be uneven. Some populations will be more vulnerable to the illness than others; some lives will be more impacted than others. Hold your own anxieties in check to better be there for those who most need it. The people who helped me the most during a time of tremendous personal turmoil were the ones who could hold space for me, who were able to seek out information for me when I couldn’t face reading one more web page with the word “carcinoma” sprinkled through it, who kept their own feelings about my divorce and disease in reserve.

(3) Don’t think you can out-plan it all. My cancer diagnosis helped me to realize that the best laid plans can turn on a dime, what we have one moment can be snatched from us without warning, and illusions of control are just that: illusions. But we can get better at responding to what happens, as it happens, in centered and clear ways. What can help? Slowing down, not proceeding with business as usual, listening more to others, and doing whatever helps you to stay centered and clear.

(4) Go inward to gather strength. We are being asked quite literally to go inward as we stay home and slow down from our normal routines. But how we go inward matters. Are we sitting in front of our computer screens, or TVs, numbing out, or fomenting anxiety for ourselves and others? Are we going about business as usual, just in “socially-distanced” ways? Or are we really going inward, to gather strength?

When I faced cancer, I learned the power of meditation: of calming and centering myself in order to face whatever I needed to face. I continue to meditate daily, which helps me to calm my own anxieties and better support others with theirs. We need people who can hold the pain of the world right now. That means sitting with our own pain and confusion, and meditative practices can really help. There are lots of on-line resources for developing or cultivating a practice of meditation. You could even sit together on-line with friends.

(5) Take in the profound nature of our interconnection. I believe the cancer I faced was partly the result of stressors I had lived with for years, as well as toxins in the environment. We face a different kind of disease now, but one that may also well be the product of environmental change. The spread of the disease makes evident our social interconnections; no walls can keep this virus out. (The idea that we can solve our social problems by building walls is equally an illusion.) We can expect more, future impacts on our lives as glaciers melt, sea levels rise, species go extinct, ecosystems are altered, people are forced to flee their homes, migrants get crammed into camps at borders. (Think about how vulnerable refugees may be to the Conavirus, with already difficult living conditions, and little soap to wash their hands…) I do not say download-5this to raise fears, only to see as clearly as we can what is in front of us, so we can make more conscious choices, as the CoVID19 is helping us to do now.

(6) Re-imagine and re-invigorate our social ties. To combat the silent enemy of the Conavirus, we are being asked to “distance” ourselves socially, and to work with “remote” connections. I suggest we change that vocabulary, and use this instead as a time to re-imagine and re-invigorate our interconnections. Pick up the phone and talk to someone you haven’t called in a long time. Write handwritten letters to the people you love. Use Skype, zoom, or whatever – not just to do business, but to feel connected with each other during this time of social isolation. We can laugh, cry, and dance together on line, read stories to our nieces and nephews, entertain our elderly parents, or lean out our windows to sing with our neighbors, taking inspiration from our friends in Italy:

(7) Treasure this moment, right here, right now. Whatever you are doing: caring for a child or an elderly parent, searching for toilet paper, washing your hands, fretting over the latest news, recording your thoughts in a journal, talking with a friend: remember, you are alive, and you get to have this moment right now. How you live it is your choice. I think about the many moments I have been able to live, post-cancer – filled with experiences of joy, but also drudgery and pain – and I am grateful that I have lived them ALL much more fully than I would downloadhave had I not really grasped the fact that there are no guarantees in life, at all – except the fact that we do, all, someday, die. How do you want to live this moment, here today? What really matters to you?

Note: I develop these ideas in different ways, and apply them to social science research, as well as to the larger aim of social transformation, in my latest book: Mindful Ethnography: Mind, Heart and Activity for Transformative Social Research (Routledge, 2019).

Musings on Children, Migration, Pedagogy and Possibilities