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Plexus Summit 2010: Relationships Bridge Distances Between Peoples, Create Fountains of Learning

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, December 3, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I am a human being. Everything that occurs to other human beings occurs also to me.

Immanuel Kant’s translation of an observation of the poet and playwright Terentius, who was freed after arriving in Rome as a slave.

When people view the world through a lens of classical realism, Norbert Wetzel says, they assume they perceive reality exactly as it is, that cognition matters more than relationships, and that it is possible to measure the core of another person. This view assumes people are the same, he says, and that experts can understand them. It’s a hierarchical process that happens in schools, prisons and hospitals.

In health care, he says, that means medical professionals looks for evidence and pathology that can be diagnosed and treated. And diagnosis can be an instrument of control, he adds, noting there's a Medical Information Bureau, where insurers and others can look up information about our medical histories and life styles.

Wetzel, a psychologist and family therapist, is co-founder of the Center for Family, Community and Social Justice in Princeton, N.J. He has served on the faculties of Rutgers University and the Family Institute of the University of Heidelberg Medical School in Germany, and is adjunct associate professor for couples and family therapy at the Princeton Theological Seminary. He spoke at the annual gathering of the Plexus community November 5-7, co-hosted by Plexus Institute and the Social Justice Initiative of the Department of Communications at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP)

Wetzel now guides the Center’s Family Empowerment Program for inner-city youth and their families. The center sends 18 to 20 teams of social workers, clinicians and community resource specialists to New Jersey schools. "I recently spoke with someone who said to me, you are in the land of someone. I am in the land of no one,” Wetzel recalls. "We work in inner cities, areas of poverty. There are immigrants with no documents. They fit the definition of stateless people, with no rights. They are outsiders.”

Diversity: A Fountain of Interruption and Surprise

In a school, he recalls, his team heard a guard say heavy security and police presence are necessary because that’s what students will need to understand when they go to prison.

But schools don’t need to be gateways to prison. And we are not all the same. In fact, says Wetzel, what makes is human is our "otherness,” whether that means race, age, gender, culture or personal experience. In this view, diversity is a source of interruption and surprise. And a valuable resource. Viewing the world through a relational lens, Wetzel says, "We realize the self is not sufficient. We live with a metaphysical desire to escape the self, to get into relationship.” Kant’s translation of Terentius suggests the philosophical underpinning of the relational paradigm and Wetzel’s work.

The Land of No One, the Land of Someone

Wetzel and his teams work with families and communities rather than individuals. He recalls a 14-year-old caught possessing a gun. A psychiatrist described the boy as pathologically dangerous. In a session with the youngster and his family, it turned out the boy had been terrorized by gang members who fatally shot his older brother. Context brought out new information about the boy, and identified people who were a healing presence in his life. In another instance, a troubled girl was able to change her own behavior after learning part of her family narrative. Coyotes—who are paid to smuggle people—had brought her mother on a dangerous journey from Central America to the U.S. Understanding what her mother had endured to try to give her child a better, safer life gave the girl a new perspective.

The theme of the gathering was Bridges and Borders: Transforming Constraints into Opportunities. Relationships bridge the distances between peoples and cultures. As Wetzel puts it, there is no end to the process of relationship-founded learning. Attendees could also consider lessons learned in examining physical boundaries and geographical differences.

Gardens and Fountains: Growing, Building, Processing

The session began with a tour of the Chihuahuan Desert Gardens, a botanical garden where nearly 800 species of plants native to the Chihuahua Desert and adjacent regions in Mexico and the U.S. are cultivated on the UTEP campus. Some are exotic, some endangered. Some have lacy delicate leaves and some have the bold shapes of cacti and stiff-spined grasses. There is wild cotton, vivid salvia, and flowers with subtle yellow and gold colors. There is apache pine, which has long needles that have been used since ancient times in basket weaving. Plants are artfully placed and carefully trended. In the Sensory Garden, a gentle waterfall on shallow ledges of a re-circulating fountain provides a safe watering place for insects, butterflies and small birds. The Contemplative Garden, protected by circular walls and a wooden overhead lattice, features another fountain where drops of water fall softly onto metal bell-shaped resonators that hang gracefully above a pool in a large copper pan. University metallurgy students made the resonators.

Elsewhere in the garden, a Bhutanese prayer wheel, given to the university by Bhutan in 2003, is housed in a wooden enclosure built by a local master carpenter who followed the Bhutanese tradition of using oak pegs rather than nails or bolts. All the buildings on the UTEP campus, new and old, are designed in styles inspired by classical Bhutanese architecture,with colorful ceramic medallions embedded in walls, and overhanging roofs.

Other conference events included a workshop on positive deviance and social change, and a presentation by Henri Lipmanowicz on liberating structures, a collection of processes that allow large and small groups to address problems and make decisions by tapping into the collective wisdom of their members. Lipmanowicz is chair of Plexus Institute and a retired executive who was president of the Merck Intercontinental and Japan Division. Several small group discussions followed the presentations. Some probed work and career issues, communication among those with differing views, the value of small changes, music as medicine, and the importance of stories and story telling. One discussion centered on the need for hospital patients to tell their stories, and the need for others to hear them. Another explored the way informal conversation can influence public policy. In one group, Wetzel observed that stories are relational because they are always told TO someone. A UTEP doctoral student described interviewing elderly braceros—migrant workers—who remained kind and grateful despite years of hardships. She said their spirit made her feel humble and determined to overlook minor inconveniences of her own. Another student told of greater sympathy for a difficult boss after she learned how the woman had overcome abusive relationships and changed her own life.

Learning Science, Relationships on the Move

Remember learning about the laws of motion? Bill Robertson, also known as Doctor Skateboard, is an assistant professor of science education. He gives breath-taking physical performances to illustrate principles in physics, geometry, mechanics, balance, and the relationship between velocity and acceleration. He explains why the skateboard is a machine, then talks about the forces in play as he spins, flips, flies, and does handstands on the speeding platform. What’s the opposite of gravity, he asks. "Levity,” someone wisecracks. Robertson laughs, and in another amazing air-born maneuver, demonstrates the concept of lift.

Creative Crossings through Music and Art

Through out, the versatile modern day troubadour Scott Grace explained, extolled, prodded and entertained with the kind of extemporaneously created melodies and lyrics that move audiences to laughter and tears.

Contra Flujo, meaning "Against the Flow,” a modern art exhibit at the UTEP Rubin Center for the Visual Arts was a stunning immersion in realities and relationships on both sides of the U.S.—Mexican border. A visitor first sees I-Machinarius, which represents Mexico in a wall sized display of moving gears and chains and crude oil. The Mexican artist, Marcela Armas, has explained the piece is a commentary on energy consumption, politics and relations with the U.S. Kerry Doyle, assistant director of the center and curator of the exhibit, guided visitors through the displays. She explained the idea was to celebrate 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution as well as the challenges of today’s border issues. Art serves as a metaphorical bridge between Cuidad Juarez on the Mexican side of the border, and El Paso, on the US side. Doyle, a community organizer and artist who has lived and worked in both cities, says a UTEP chemistry professor involved in research on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico supplied the crude oil for Armas’s piece. She says Juarez has an active artist community, including some young artists determined their city will be known for something other than violence. Murals they have created on the walls of buildings, she says, are appreciated by neighbors, who plant nearby gardens and protect them from would-be vandals.

Armas has another emotionally powerful piece. A wall sized abstract map shows portions of Mexico and the U.S. The border is electrified and designed to light up bright red as human bodies approach. A series of fine lines cross the border and reach far into both countries. It is a gripping dramatization of danger and structural interconnection. Another interactive exhibit invites visitors to hold each end of a level until it is perfectly centered. Video and photographs show people in differing circumstances achieving balance. Some manage the balance through the metal mesh of the border fence. Read Doyle’s insightful discussion of the exhibit pieces here.

Worlds of Wonder

The concluding event was a visit to one of the world’s great natural wonders, the 275 square miles of glistening, undulating mounds of white sand created by the largest gypsum dune field on earth. The White Sands Monument in New Mexico in the Chihuahuan Desert has exceptionally dynamic dunes that change shape and move as much as 30 feet a year depending on the winds. As sand is piled high by winds, it moves forward by gravity, then collapses as gravity continues its downward force. Visitors can slide and sled on some of the steeper slopes. The ephemeral sands and colors that shift with changing sunlight, weather and advancing hours create awesome beauty and majesty. The place is an inspiration for exploringscienceIt also has its share of folk tales and myths. The vinagarroon is a real arachnid, but the supposedly fearsome children of the earth, insects rumored to be fatally venomous, are really pretty harmless potato bugs also known as Jerusalem crickets. Read the Legend of Pavla BlancaThe ghost of the lovely young Manuela, who perished in the desert while searching for her lost lover nearly five centuries ago, is said to appear in her gossamer white wedding gown on certain lonely wind-swept evenings.

Special thanks to Professor Arvind Singhaldoctoral student Lucia Duraand the students, faculty, staff and others at UTEP as well as conference attendees, presenters and people at Plexus Institute who helped make this gathering memorable.

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