Friday, 16 November 2012

Perhaps we can end bullying by "educating the hearts of children"

Bullying, we know, is not just a word used in a newspaper headline.  Nor is it something that just happens to someone else we’ve read about.  At some point in our lives we’ve all been there, on one side or the other of it: a schoolyard taunt that took teasing a step too far, a wisecrack intended to cause a laugh around the water cooler that instead brought tears, or the feeling that you’ve been completely forsaken by people you thought were your friends because for no reason that makes sense they’ve ganged up against you.  The moment may pass, or it may not.  What lingers is the aftertaste of shame, and the feeling that we can and should be better people.  Bullying, in other words, is about all of us.

When bullying becomes a public issue, and it certainly has in British Columbia for the past few weeks, the public asks what can be done to “stop” it.  One of the most poignant statements I remember hearing in the immediate aftermath of the tragic death of Amanda Todd was that there ought to be a law against bullying.  Well, it’s the way we are these days, I guess.  That we think we can stop a problem by asking someone else  to make or enforce more or better rules.

But surely if we really want to “stop” bullying, we’re all of us just going to have learn how to treat each other (and ourselves) with dignity and respect.  I said “learn” because there’s more to this than just hand-wringing and wanting to be a better person.  There are things we can do to help us develop the attributes and skills of compassion and resilience that are needed to flourish in a world filled with other people, and in doing so, to prevent bullying.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has a phrase for this.  He calls it “heart-mind” learning.  At the Vancouver Peace Summit in 2009, he asked those in attendance this question: “How can we educate the hearts of children?”  It’s not a religious or a political question.  It’s a question for all of us. Finding the answer to that question lies at the core of the work of the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, established in Vancouver in 2005.

What the Dalai Lama calls “heart-mind” learning is called social and emotional learning by education researchers.  Increasingly, those researchers are discovering that there are education practices that can help children build resilience and socially responsible skills and attitudes that nurture the development of empathy, confidence, compassion, trust, acceptance of differences, and respect.  All of which helps prevent harmful behaviours such as bullying.

It’s not just about learning to be nice.  What is perhaps even more important is that this research is proving that social and emotional learning improves academic outcomes in school children.  The largest ever meta-analysis involving 213 school-based programs and 270,000 kindergarten to Grade 12 students showed that programs to educate the heart improved student academic performance by at least 10 percentile points on achievement tests.  The power of that research is causing public education officials here in B.C. and around the world to incorporate social and emotional learning into formal curriculum goals.

The Dalai Lama Center works to advance efforts in BC to provide all children and youth with environments - in schools, families and communities - that enable and foster heart-mind learning.  The work is organized through four streams of programs and activities:  to educate, convene, research and advise.  I could say that is what “we” do because recently I had the opportunity to join the distinguished group of people who are the DLC’s board of trustees.

This work matters to me because, having spent much of my working life as a lawyer and politician trying to repair or patch together what has been broken by our failure to treat ourselves and each other with real respect and compassion, the DLC work is about, if you will, getting it right in the first place.  The ounce of prevention that will reduce the need for the pound of cure.

I could go on at length about the DLC’s work but the fact is that this information is only a click away:

It’s important work.  It’s a bold endeavour.  As Dr. Daniel Siegel, author of the bestseller Mindsight has said, “You can make the argument that the future of the planet depends on raising compassionate children.”  But it’s not something happening somewhere else or to someone else.  It’s right here in our own backyard.  Earlier this week, Premier Christy Clark referred to the work of the Dalai Lama Center in her wonderful speech at the ERASE bullying conference.

I encourage you to have a look at the DLC’s website.  It’s one of those “you, too, can make a difference” opportunities.  Because while the Dalai Lama endowed the centre with a mission, it has no financial endowment beyond the contributions of donors.  We are a small organization with mighty ambitions.  We would be most grateful for your support.  And maybe with this work, and all the other work we need to do, we can truly make a difference in they way we treat each other.

Monday, 12 November 2012

If the best music is really now, what should I be listening to?

Bear with me for a minute.  I have a favour to ask of you, but it will take a few paragraphs to get there.

Last Friday was voting day for CBC radio’s On The Coast search for the best decade in popular music.   The series started several weeks ago with the Fifties and concluded with the still-awkwardly-named Aughts.  It was great radio, not just because of the music (The first time I ever heard a Led Zeppelin song on the CBC afternoon show!), but also because of the very tangible sense that I was personally included in a conversation with Stephen Quinn, his guests, and the other regulars who share the studio with him, and all of us as listeners.  Or at least me.  More than once I found myself talking to Stephen as I was driving home; more precisely, shouting my opinion at the windshield.  

My mother passed away several years ago, and so I was denied the opportunity to hear her weigh in again on what was, for her, the only truly great decade in popular music, the Forties.  But hey, we all love best the music we grew up to (and with) and so, with a measure of regret that I will explain below, I confess that I voted for the Sixties and it must surely say something about the age demographic that listens to Stephen Quinn that the 60s won.  Are we really all that old?   

As for me, I could even narrow the window of time still further: the eighteen months between the release of Rubber Soul in December 1965 and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967 were just about as magically listenable and explosively inventive as music has ever been, and the fact that "Like a Rolling Stone" and "The Canadian Railroad Trilogy", and "Brown Eyed Girl" and a hundred other amazing songs were released in that same period just adds weight to the claim.

But I also think, or at least I hope (and here’s that note of regret), that the better answer to the question that asks us to choose the best moment for music is now and always now.

Almost every album Paul Simon ever made is amazing, but 2011’s So Beautiful or So What is just stunning - new sounds, new rhythms, and lyrics filled with new insights about living right now.  And for sheer pleasure of songwriting, it doesn’t get any better than Fleet Foxes’ "Helplessness Blues", or Kathleen Edwards’ "Empty Threat", or, for musicianship, really just about everything that Bon Iver and the Decemberists do, and all the other great musicians who weren’t even born when the Beatles were making masterpieces on Abbey Road.

The best new music always makes me glad I am alive today and still listening to music, and especially happy that I am not missing out on the really great music that is being made right now.

And so now to my favour.  It’s getting close to the end of 2012.  By this point last year I had a long list of 2011 favourites.   I must have been busy doing something else this year because I haven’t got as complete a list for this year. Hey Ocean’s Is.  Kathleen Edwards’s Voyageur.   The new Kate Rusby retrospective. Keane’s Strangeland.  Great albums by Fish & Bird (Every Whisper is a Shout Across the Void) and The Outside Track (Flash Company).  It’s all good, but it’s not enough, and truth be told, I don’t really even know what I’m missing.

So help me out.  One of my favourite Christmas chores (gasp! Did I actually mention Christmas?) is to buy music for my own stocking.  What music, released in 2012, needs to be added to my Santa list?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Ending cannabis prohibition - you can make a difference, too

Earlier this year I decided to publicly support the work of StoptheViolenceBC, a coalition of health care professionals, past and present public office holders, and community leaders, dedicated to the project of ending marijuana prohibition.
The polls tell us that three-quarters of British Columbians would like to replace prohibition with a carefully designed regime of regulation and taxation.  Earlier this week the voters of Washington State and Colorado decided it was time to stop waiting for politicians to play catch up, and have passed historic initiatives to legalize, tax and regulate cannabis.
I do not recommend that people use marijuana.  Far from it.  But I also don’t think that the over 400,000 British Columbians who do use marijuana are criminals.  They should be free to make their own choices.  A regime which regulated and taxed marijuana would: (1) drive out the organized crime cartels that control the manufacture and distribution of cannabis and increasingly penetrate every aspect of the mainstream economy; (2) end the carnage that ensues when gang members shoot each other in broad daylight on the streets of our cities as they fight for market share; and (3) provide additional revenues to government to support the health awareness and addiction treatment programs that are perennially underfunded.  
The voices that oppose change sometimes say it is foolish to expect that legalizing marijuana would end organized crime.  Well, that’s not what we’re saying.  What legalization would do is end organized crime’s control of the cannabis market.  Organized crime may find something else to do.  But at least gang members won’t be shooting each other in restaurants to increase their market share in cannabis.  And the pernicious spread of commercial grow ops will come to an end.  And people who do smoke pot won’t have to worry if some crook has laced their supply with meth.
Perhaps equally importantly, it’s clear that law enforcement often use possession laws not to deter mainstream use of marijuana, but instead as a 21st century equivalent of vagrancy laws - a handy tool to “manage” some of the most marginalized members of our community, by frisking the noisy panhandler or street homeless person to get them to “move along”. That's an illegitimate use of the criminal law, in my view, and it needs to stop.
In every way imaginable, the policy status quo is a failure.  Increasingly, I think the only thing that holds us back from change is simply that we are used to the status quo, and uncertain about what a new policy framework would look like.   
One of the achievements of the StoptheViolence campaign, in my view, has been to “mainstream” the discussion by getting acknowledged community leaders involved.  The coalition started with health care professionals, including physicians and public health officials.  The coalition’s supporters now include past and present mayors, city councilors, law enforcement officials and more.
Dear reader, maybe it’s time for you to get on board, too.
I know how challenging it can be to wade into a controversial issue which lies outside the main course of one’s duties and responsibilities.  But what we have learned from events in Washington in Colorado this week, and what we know from public opinion polls here in B.C. is that this issue is no longer really controversial.  It’s no longer a question of whether there will be change, but when.  
If you agree, why not add your voice to the dialogue?  Help make change happen sooner, rather than later.
Check out the website.  Better yet, write your Member of Parliament.  Tell them it’s time they started listening to their constituents and communities.  Tell them not to wait for change, but instead, lead it.