Transformative Teaching: The Swedish Fish Strategy

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A former student emailed me recently, excited to share the latest developments in her life. Wanda (pseudonym) transferred to a much larger campus and, despite a difficult adjustment, took the bold, unlikely step to get involved. She joined two clubs related to her major, sought out a professor for research experience, and started planning a summer internship. Wanda wrote,

 “I am very excited that a lot of doors are beginning to open for me. I honestly would not have gotten this far without your encouragement. The meetings that we had in your office have  had a huge impact on me and I can not begin to thank you enough.”

Students come to my office often, in search of direction, encouragement – and candy. Over Swedish Fish we talk about their interests and imagine the possibilities for their lives. Few know what they want to be when they grow up, or realize their awesomeness, but most are willing to kindle the inkling of potential that brought them to my door in the first place. In class I shamelessly bribe them to attend office hours with the promise of food, coffee, a rocking chair, and the opportunity to talk about themselves. Transformative teaching extends far beyond the classroom.

My goal is to help students identify their passions, create a strategic plan for their career path, and get excited about their abilities and options. I joke with them that it’s always easier to figure out someone else’s life rather than your own. It can also be downright fun to engage in intentional self-reflection. Who doesn’t love to talk about themselves, especially when there are snacks?

We start by discussing their interests and strengths. I ask them to describe the perfect job and work-life balance. If they imagine themselves 15 years post-graduation, what does the day-to-day look like? What is living the dream? We then plot out short- and long-term goals and an action plan. Together we create a “to do” list of simple Google searches they can conduct about certain careers, graduate programs, or causes to pursue. I refer them to inspiring books, TED Talks, and people they should meet. No one leaves without this homework, a hug, and a promise to meet again.

It was a joy to hear from Wanda. I’ve had hundreds of these conversations with students over 19 years of teaching but I don’t often know the outcome. Her note is a reminder of how simple it can be to touch a life. Sometimes all it takes is a little encouragement and some Swedish Fish.


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Panzi Hospital Has Treated 48,482 Survivors in the DR Congo Since 1999

More than just a number, each of the 48,482 women and girls has a name and a story. They come to Panzi Hospital in eastern DR Congo seeking treatment for their injuries due to rape. They leave with healed bodies, preserved dignity, and renewed hope thanks to Panzi’s holistic model of care. 

It’s been 6 years since Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of Panzi Hospital, Peter Frantz, and I started Panzi Foundation USA to help support the work of Dr. Mukwege and his remarkable hospital staff. The infographic below is a stark reminder that the atrocities continue and our efforts must not waver. Will you join us? Together we can help Dr. Mukwege and the women and girls of Congo realize their vision for safety and peace. Learn how by visiting 


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Thanks, Jackie Robinson

A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” – Jackie Robinson


Book I used 40 years ago for report on Jackie Robinson

This morning as I watched Ken Burns interviewed on Face the Nation about his new documentary on baseball legend Jackie Robinson, I had a flashback to 6th grade. I was in the middle school library during study hall, searching for a book on the LA Dodgers for a book report. My dad and I were big fans but mostly I wanted to impress classmate crush Brad Blom with my baseball trivia knowledge. I remember pulling this book off the shelf as if it was yesterday. I was 12-years-old and a farm kid in rural Iowa where everyone I knew was white and my awareness of structural inequalities, or my own privilege, was nil.

Learning about Jackie Robinson’s experiences with racial injustice and writing that book report for Mrs. Terlouw’s English class set me on a path to eventually become an educator and scholar-activist in pursuit of the larger social justice project. It’s only now, today in fact, that I realize the significance and power of Robinson’s story for my own life. He once said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Thanks, Jackie Robinson. Your legacy reaches far beyond baseball.

Oh, and Brad, if you’re reading this, Jackie Robinson played 1,382 games, had 4,877 at bats, a .311 life-time batting average, 734 RBIs, and 137 home runs.

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‘Rape as a Weapon of War’ Obscures Complexities of Violence in DR Congo

The following is an excerpt from my plenary speech, Daring to Make A Difference for DR Congo: Research, Theory, and the Critical Scholar-Activist at the 2015 annual meeting of the National Council on Family Relations conference held in Vancouver, BC, November 13.


When rape in conflict is framed as a weapon of war, it obscures important distinctions between contexts, perpetrators, the forms of sexualized violence beyond rape, and the forms of violence that are not sexual violations but also occurring in Congo.

For example, there is a difference between conflict-related sexualized violence and domestic sexualized violence. Intimate partner sexualized violence is considered to be the most pervasive form of violence against women in all areas of the DRC. However, reporting IPV is rare because women have no legal rights to property or wealth and fear losing their children or being shunned by the community. Further, there is no law against marital rape.

So we see that this concept of rape as a weapon of war fails to capture:

  1. domestic SV
  2. the difference between sexualized and non-sexualized IPV
  3. SV perpetrated by non-combatants such as police, criminals, people in                      positions of authority, women, civilians
  4. other forms of non-sexual violence: torture, forced labor, child soldiers, murder,              trafficking, and child abuse
  5. other forms of sexualized violence: sexual slavery, sexual harassment,                        trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced exposure to                        pornography, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, forced abortion, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, virginity tests, and incest

Finally, the conceptualization of rape as a weapon of war obscures other structural, social, and psychological factors that contribute to gender-based violence and violence in general in the DRC. Factors such as…..

  1. impunity
  2. poverty
  3. failed state (lack of infrastructure such as schools, roads, healthcare, etc.)
  4. trauma
  5. geopolitics of the region
  6. historical context (e.g., legacies of colonization, Mabuto, etc.)
  7. control of natural resources
  8. disputes over land rights, citizenship rights
  9. displaced persons
  10. corruption
  11. inferior status of women in DRC across all domains (economic, social, cultural,       political)
  12. hegemonic masculinity
  13. reintegration of combatants
  14. circulation of arms
  15. dynamics of armed groups
  16. status of conflict (pre-, active, post-)

These narrow conceptualizations result in ineffective responses to human suffering and stifle Congolese self-determination. The mass atrocities in Congo must be understood as a symptom of failed economic, social, and political structures rooted in the legacy of colonization, the geopolitics of the region, corruption, the scramble for natural resources, and the inferior status of women.

Select sources: Alexandra, 2010; Eriksson Baaz & Stern, 2013; Henry, 2015; Koos, 2015; Peterman, Palermo & Bredenkamp, 2011; Prio, 2010

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Thanks, Lasell College for a Remarkable Residency!

I was honored to be the Donahue Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Lasell College in Newtown, MA last week! My four days were jam packed with energizing discussions and thoughtful critical analyses of the DR Congo, human rights, activism, and social justice. I met with faculty, students, and community members over 8 meals, talked with 6 State Senators about pending conflict-minerals legislation, spoke to 5 classes, spent two days at the State House, and gave one keynote address, Daring to Make A Difference: Activism, Congo, and Finding Your Voice for Global Change.

A special thanks to Dr. Tessa le Roux for nominating me for the residency and to Dr. Jesse Tauriac, the Director of the Donahue Institute, for making it all happen. I am fortunate to call you colleagues and now dear friends. Thanks to the many students and faculty who took the time to engage and reflect on a variety of global issues and how we might impact change. Finally, a deep gratitude to Congo Action Now, Boston for Congo, Lasell for Congo and the entire Lasell community for your generous hospitality and inspirational interactions.

Professor Karin Raye’s class, Exploring Activism

Breakfast with fun faculty, Dr. Tauriac, Dr. Janbek & Dr. Athey

Dinner with Dr. le Roux, student Samantha Ramos, Dr. Tauriac and daughter Hyacinth

Sen. McGee and I on the State House Senate floor discussing Congo after he introduced me to the chamber. He is author of the conflict-mineral bill.

Congo Action Now community and student members

Lunch with Congo Action Now, Boston for Congo, Lasell for Congo members

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Defying Mass Violence and Genocide

Many thanks to the Stanley Foundation for publishing my article, Defying Mass Violence and Genocide in their latest issue of Courier and featuring articles by two additional Carl Wilkens Fellows, Anthony Kasongo and Tigranna Zakaryan. Thank you i-ACT for giving us the opportunity!

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Feminist Parenting, Privilege and Ubuntu: Lessons from the Field and Our Own Backyard

The following is my keynote address on March 25, 2015 for the Penn State Global Programs/Global Connections annual International Women’s Day Breakfast. My daughter, Arianna (a PSU senior), received the Spirit of Internationalizaiton Award that morning, too, an honor I received in 2009.

My daughter has a tattoo. It reads, “We find ourselves through selflessness.” While I am not a particular fan of body art – reflecting an obvious mother/daughter generation gap – the words DO reflect a guiding principle that we share.

Arianna broke the news to me carefully, about her tattoo, worried about how I might react, much as she announced that she would not be home for this past Thanksgiving because she was participating on a Penn State research project in The Gambia. As a parent, this is one of those moments when you wonder if somehow you got it all wrong. What was I thinking? Raising an independent child who would one day go off on her own adventures and have her own life– without me!

Well, Arianna is 22-years-old, having worked with me on service or research projects abroad every single year since the age of 10. I’ve always told her that had I been a physics professor, her life might have turned out quite differently, filled with chalkboard calculations and backyard rockets instead of social justice pursuits. I do have small parental guilt over the limited options I presented as a scholar-activist and a single-parent. Kiddo, you never had a chance.

Recently we’ve had opportunities to give joint research presentations of our work, particularly as it relates to lessons learned from indigenous knowledge. This was a proud parent moment for me and I struggled to maintain composure in front of the audience. I’m sure people must have been quite confused as I teared up, and my voice cracked, while explaining the theoretical frameworks that guided our projects.

We’ve actually had a variety of reactions to our travels and work. Most people have expressed support, of course. There is curiosity and sometimes even a little envy of our mother-daughter adventures. But our joint work is a logical outcome of the feminisms that have always informed our daily lives.

Early photos of Ari as a toddler show her bundled up in a stroller as we headed out to a “Take Back the Night” march during my graduate school days. Later photos include picket signs as we participated in women’s rights and peace marches in Washington, DC and there are snapshots of her with my students on field experiences abroad. Now she ventures out on her own, texting me photographs from Kenya of her greenhouse projects with small-scale farmers and pictures of her with village elders discussing water issues for a research project in Senegal.

The first time she traveled as a university student to Africa without me, I was a bit taken aback. As someone who studies child and adult development, this should not have been a surprise, that she was striking out on her own. But I’ve always felt several stages behind and have struggled to keep up. Even when she first started walking, she was still wearing footie pajamas or socks for months. Then one day it dawned on me, “I need to buy her shoes!”

Divorce, in my pursuit of independence and freedom, Ari’s constant exposure to NPR or BBC radio news in our house and car, my critical feminist analysis of everyday life (ad nauseam), and our immersion in university life no doubt impacted Ari’s early development. We had no TV, we boycotted Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Nike, and bought most of our clothes at thrift shops – all practices that I still engage in today. Now that Ari is an adult living on her own, she has wavered somewhat regarding our boycotts. And I try hard not to take it personally. Ari, in contrast, seizes the opportunity to challenge my social class privilege and hypocrisy with reminders that I can afford not to shop at Wal-Mart and that choosing Target instead, is no solution. Ahh, the proverbial (feminist) chicks have come home to roost! Her quick refrain of, “Mom, that is such a first world problem,” when I dither over trivial concerns, certainly puts our privilege into perspective, as well as makes me groan, albeit with a wee bit of pride.

Understanding privilege is an intentional pursuit for me, personally and professionally, in my research, in my teaching, and as part of a larger social justice pursuit. Consequently, Ari was exposed to this concept at an early age. She was also influenced by colleagues and friends, some of whom are in this room, people who model reflexivity or introspection and critical humility, and have certainly inspired us to new levels of self-awareness.

As a young teenager, during our multiple Penn State service-learning trips to Tanzania, Ari held her own, impressively, in discussions with my students about white and Western privilege. This was challenged, however, during her first trip with me to the Democratic Republic of the Congo when she was 17-years-old.

I had already been to the country several times to visit Panzi Hospital which is known for its exceptional holistic care of survivors of sexualized violence, led by Dr. Denis Mukwege, a pioneering surgeon, human rights activist, and founder of the hospital. It’s here that I still conduct research with survivors of assault and help support programs for women via Panzi Foundation USA, a non-profit I co-founded in 2010 with Dr. Mukwege and Peter Frantz.

Ari was very much aware of the situation in Congo, the on-going conflict, and the rampant rape that brought women to Panzi for treatment. She was savvy enough to understand the complexities of this failed state, the legacies of it’s brutal colonial history, the resulting poverty despite a wealth of natural resources, and the geo-politics of the Great Lakes region that fueled the conflicts. This reality was unsettling for her and despite my reassurances that I was safe in Congo, she still worried about mom. I knew that if I intended to continue my involvement with Panzi Hospital and the women, I needed to take Ari to the DRC and let her experience the country for herself.

Many people were critical of this decision to visit a country labeled as “the rape capital of the world” on the “dark continent”. Their implied judgment was clear, “What kind of a mother takes her daughter to a such a dangerous place and intentionally puts her child at risk?” While I appreciated the concern, this frequent criticism represented a very superficial understanding of the country’s context, culture, and gender. In turn, I tried to challenge the stereotypes of Africa and Congo, by comparing our level of safety in Congo to that of any major US city, for example. Or I would point out the unearned privileges that come with our white skin, and I’d talk about my personal commitment to collaborating for positive change at home and abroad. For me it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.

Ari and I spent two weeks in Congo during our first trip together. As outsiders, there is always much to absorb and process but I knew she was ready to embrace the experience after years of working with me in so many other international contexts. While I attended meetings and conducted research, she spent every day planning and delivering art and educational activities at the daycare for children who came with their injured mothers to the hospital. This was meaningful and great fun for her and the kids. But the daily exposure to people’s pain and suffering, individual’s legitimate pleas for money or food or travel to the US, the constant stares we drew, our constrained movement through masses of people on crammed streets trying to negotiate daily life, eventually took its toll.

There were late night tears and feelings of helplessness to work through, which I tried to counteract with hugs and discussion about the luxury and ineffectualness of white guilt, and our limited outsider “gaze” which sometimes overlooks all that is functional, healthy, and positive in Congo. I explained that if the women we were meeting and serving had hope, then we must have hope, too.

Our evenings spent with local youth her age, sharing meals, learning about each others cultures, and discussing politics in the Congo and US created new friendships and helped all of us better understand individual and global complexities. These interactions gave Ari perspective as these young men and women talked about not just their struggles but successes and pride for their country and people.

While I anticipated the difficulties Ari might have in Congo, I was not prepared for the negative reaction she would receive at home from some teachers and peers. This was actually a trend during her junior high and high school years in rural, central Pennsylvania where over 96% of the county population is white. Given her trips with me out of the country, she was quickly labeled “that Africa girl” and judged harshly for doing work abroad instead of in the US because, as her critics stated, “We have problems here, too, you know.”

Her close friends could not relate to these international experiences and most of her teachers expressed little to no interest or understanding. We were already treated as outsiders because we were not native to the area. I had not grown up here or graduated from the local high school. Our affiliation with the university and travel to non-tourist destinations in the global south further set us apart. As a parent, I never anticipated that giving my child a global perspective would somehow backfire – especially in a space dedicated to education. These were harsh lessons for her at a young age. But when we examined them through the lens of privilege, a larger perspective emerged. Now Ari was herself experiencing, to a certain extent, the outsiders’ gaze of unchecked whiteness, stereotypes, and American exceptionalism.

Navigating this situation and reconciling the tensions that are bound up in privilege, requires a constant introspection about how we, as white Westerners, might be positioned as dominant in a particular circumstance and marginalized in another. My tools for this process are found in feminisms, that help me think critically about the racialized-self and my position and complicitness in the oppression of others. Another tool in my toolbox is the African concept of Ubuntu.

Arianna was born in 1993, the same year South Africa ratified an Interim Constitution, which was followed in 1994 by the country’s first democratic elections and the historic selection of Nelson Mandela as president. As her mother, it is my prerogative to symbolically link these two very historic events in the narrative of her life. In the last quotation of the Constitution it states, “There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for Ubuntu but not for victimization”. The philosophy and tradition of Ubuntu is about our connected humanity. It was popularized by Desmond Tutu in his 1999 book, No Future without Forgiveness.

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

When I think about various forms of privilege and my position as dominant or marginalized, Ubuntu gives me an added depth of understanding. It reminds me that in the pursuit for human rights and freedoms, for social justice through the dismantling of oppression, we must always be guided and inspired by human dignity and the preservation of our collective humanness. My daughter and I try to realize this in our work with, for, and in service to, others. It helps us stay grounded, centered, humbled and with our own privilege in check.

As a parent, I’ve tried to model a consistent life ethic that draws from feminism and Ubuntu to inform all aspects of our personal and professional, public and private lives. It’s fraught with tensions, contradictions, generation gaps, and hypocrisies as well as great meaning and joy. So I will close not with answers but a question, inspired by Arianna’s tattoo, “How can each of us find ourselves through selflessness?”

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