“We are the people who knew how to say thank you.” Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, uses this phrase to describe her Potawatomi family. Gratitude is an idea I want to cultivate in music education. Western society is ingrateful. In the West, our industry steals from Mother Earth, poisoning her children. A friend on Facebook shared a Truthout article outlining the evidence for fracking chemicals in the bodies of Pennsylvania Children in Westmoreland and Washington counties. Rural PA has been the focal point for the shale gas “boom,” though economically it’s been a boom for international business and Texan workers shipped up on the cheap—not local economies. The “body burden” for living near natural gas wells and other fracking infrastructure includes “benzene, ethylbenzene, styrene and toluene” and at least seven other dangerous industrial chemicals.
What does all of this mean for social justice interested music teachers and institutions (such as Penn State where I work)? It means social justice must begin at home. Here in PA we’re facing the ongoing poisoning of our school-aged children by global industry. No social justice minded teacher can ignore this fact. If you pretend to care for distant others, but ignore the suffering of the poor on the land you exploit, your university isn’t socially just—just the opposite.
As Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well” (p. 44). As bell hooks wrote in Teaching Community, “Where there is domination there is no place for love” (p. 128). And as Madhu Suri Prakash and Gustavo Esteva wrote in Escaping Education, “In every corner of the world, cultural destruction and decimation follow as communities learn to take-off on the education runway” (p. 8). It’s not that one of these quotes is true, and the others false. They are each true. And they're not opposed to indigenous and rural conceptions of gratitude. In fact, they cannot be accomplished except alongside genuine gratitude. Do our institutions show gratitude to the land and poor local communities? Is this the center of any social justice campaigns, as it should be? As educators, rather than continuing to exploit the poor living in communities around our institutions, we must lend a hand, when we can, in their liberation process, continually dismantling our educational systems of domination, to upkeep non-educated musical culture.
Music education may provide distinctive opportunities for gratitude toward Mother Earth, who sustains us in our dismantling of destructive forces in education and other global industries. Let's make it happen by cultivating gratitude.