26 Mar 2011

Islamic ecology in the classroom

Ecology and community cohesion

Rokeby School's collaboration with the Climate Change Youth Development Trust (CCYDT) gave 20 of their pupils the opportunity to participate in weekly workshops on faith climate perspectives. One of the faith perspectives was to be the Islamic, and I had received invitation to deliver that week's workshop at this East London school. Alongside motivating action through faith, the aim, was to simultaneously nurture community cohesion. This conveniently resonated with my own value system of viewing the social ecology as inseparable from the wider one. I was excited to be a part of this.

Facilitator's homework

Prior to the workshop, I had been well primed as to the range and nature of the pupils
by the director of CCYDT, Sabino Miranda: I knew that the pupils would be boys, mostly Muslim, but also Hindu, Christian and no formal faith, within an age range of 13-15 years, with a few a little older. 

Most workshops I had delivered have been for adults and so I decided to reach out to my good friend and colleague across the pond, Mohamad Chakaki, to explore and hear ideas. Mohamad has given many more workshops to school age children than myself and I value his thoughts.

My ideas following these interactions were as follows: Keep it varied, keep it moving, and allow for some healthy disorder! 

Making it universal

I had 1½ hours.
We began with a go-round ice-breaker so everyone spoke from the start. Then, rather than going straight into any Islamic eco-theology, I had decided it might work better to explore principles through exercises that stimulated each participant to connect with their own inner compass/sense of ethics first, and then being given a chance to share. I attempted to frame this in a universal language to support inclusively. 

Such a foundation can, I feel, potentially lend itself to the terminology and principles associated with any faith tradition. The group would thus be better equipped to look at what initially emerged in an open way, and then later in the workshop, within the framework of core Islamic concepts that underlie the outward aspects of the faith, including action to restore ecological balance. 

The first exercise was the 'spectrum line', which is designed to draw out viewpoints and discussion on different issues. Participants choose to stand anywhere along the length of an imaginary line according to how strongly they agree or disagree with a statement. E.g. "Can we have too much of a good thing?" (to later explore the idea of mizan/balance). Varied ideas sprung from this exercise allowing for a healthy spread of viewpoints.

Then, using a numbering system, the pupils were divided into four groups, each taking on one of two questions for discussion (e.g. "Think 'natural world'. Think 'human communties'. Does the natural world have anything to teach us?"). They had fifteen minutes for this which I thought this might end up being too short. However, they got their ideas down faster than I anticipated. Their presentations were both intersting and varied in content. 

Weaving it together

Afterwards I attempted to weave into a short talk what had emerged from the exercises whilst drawing on key Islamic concepts. I followed this with a five minute slide-show on Muslims engaged in ecological action (Although they can have a place, I like to avoid too many visuals preferring instead to be more directly relating with those present). There was then space for questions, a bit of last minute sharing, and then the distributing of the WIN photo-booklets on Islam & Climate Change for the pupils.  

All in all, it was a fulfilling day, and although I am sure I had the luxury of a pretty focussed group of children, I'm looking forward to to engaging more with a younger age group as I am able.

Post workshop reflections
Here are some reflections/ideas/'things' I feel I want to make note of for myself following this workshop. Happy to hear anyone else's reflections on any of these areas as well..
  • With children, short varied exercises can engage them better than something that goes on for too long or too much of the same. 
  • Taking a group of children deep into Islamic eco-theology in a short time can be challenging, and is indeed impossible at 5pm when they've been at school since 8! On the other hand, giving a flavour of 2 or 3 basic concepts such as fitrah (natural disposition/innate goodness, which some seemed to grasp really well), mizan (balance), and tawhid (unity/oneness) is feasible to weave effectively into a single workshop on climate change dynamics and taking action. 
  • I found I could have addressed key themes/topics - that were raised by the children within the workshop - better than i did during my short talk at the end. What I might do next time in a similar situation is actually note down keywords as the themes/topics came up, and glance and reflect on them at appropriate times before I give a talk. 
  • A certain level of disorder is to be expected from time-to-time - not everyone can stay focussed the whole time. Thus, a limited degree of chaos or 'play' alongside the intended sequence of events seemed to act as a healthy release that then allowed a more naturally guided return to the formal thread of activities. That's how it felt with this kind group, but I'd be interested to hear of anyone else's experiences!? How much 'disorder' is healthy?...
  • I arrived at the school just 5 minutes before the workshop (due to a misunderstanding over timings) so had less time to organise e.g. pre-prepare some flip-charts, familiarise myself with the space etc... than I had imagined. This however pushed me to think more in terms of essentials and go more with instinct, which I have found can be a strength. On other occasions though, I am aware that too little time to settle before a workshop does little to help me be present.
  • With regards the 'spectrum line' exercise, after drawing out some thoughts from a group of participants bunched close together, thought-provoking questioning can tap into deeper layers. This of course needs balancing with the comfort level of the person being questioned and drawing our a variety of viewpoints in the time available.
So that's it for now. Whilst I always like to reflect on and learn from any workshop, I hadn't written such  reflections on a public forum, but I thought I'd give it a go to see if might be useful. So this is it! 

16 Mar 2011

Personal Story 3, by Amnah Ali: Islamic Community Food Project at Spitalfields

Arriving at Spitalfields City farm on a sunny Sunday morning armed with a rainproof jacket and impractical boots, I had little preconception of what the Islamic Community Food Project would entail. But the chance to create with my own two hands was incentive enough to go.

I had been thinking about growing my own food for awhile but my inability to sustain indoor plants for longer than a few weeks usually dimmed my hope. If I couldn’t keep a little plant alive would I be able to manage tomatoes; marrows; or even basic herbs. My success rate with coriander was abysmal and I couldn’t bear thinking about the chives.

However, being able to weave my desire to grow with Islamic principles of patience; adab (etiquette); taqwa (God consciousness); and beauty was enticement. As was being able to do it all under supervision of Wisdom In Nature members; Muzammal and Wasi, and the lovely Naomi Glass!

So I arrived, uncertain but relaxed, ready to take on any task given to me. First the boots were discarded; and the bag; a pair of wellies embraced. Then I was raking soil; clearing weeds; replanting rosemary; chitting potatoes; and getting acquainted with a handful of militant spiders. I named them all Henry and hoped none had decided to journey home with me that evening. I was even given my first sprig of lemon balm (a ‘natural air freshener’ as the gutters were being cleaned and emitting a not-so-fragrant smell).

After a morning of sun soaked toiling, we had a group lunch where once again I witnessed the generosity of the group. Being as usual, slightly disorganised and forgetting to bring lunch to share, the group kindly decided to feed me. I realised the importance of community and the bounteousness of sharing. It again made me think of the way we chose to live today: the isolated ‘me’ culture with the one-two person meals from your local supermarket, ingested by you in your home, whilst your unknown neighbours do the same. Meanwhile the ingredients for your meals come from a range of countries; communities who may not have the resources to eat the food they put on your plates. Is there any pleasure to be had in food that comes from discord or sorrow? Whilst I was aware my choices were affecting many people rarely did it feel tangible as it did in that moment.

I saw and felt firsthand that growing the food you eat changes your relationship with food. In my mind’s eye the food is suddenly imbued with blessings: the love; time; affection you gave to it in its growing phase. The process of growing it and then allowing it to nourish you and your beloved community is God consciousness in action. Is it possible not to be grateful when the food you’ve grown is ingested by you? The mercy that it grew, under your protection, when you were nervous it wouldn’t, and now it nourishes your dearest?

We had workshops – wonderful, free, organic workshops – in the afternoon which challenged our perceptions and called for us to really look at how responsible we were when it came to food. I realised that my middle classed upbringing and lifestyle gave me the freedom to make choices – to be fair-trade; organic etc. Yet, I still was unable to really take action. Since then I have ventured baby steps into home gardening. My balcony now supports coriander; chives; and basil. I look at them tenderly and consistently, like an overzealous new mother, hoping that they might survive the spring chill and that my sabr and taqwa will generate nourishment: physical and, spiritual.

11 Mar 2011

Filling the 'fertile void'

A couple of weekends ago, I found myself, once more, down on the farm.  Spitalfields City Farm, that is.  For the latest meeting of the Islamic Community Food Project.  As with other meetings we’d had, I really enjoyed the day - enjoyed interacting with new people, and others who had been a part of the project since the beginning; loved being back down on the farm, surrounded by the honking of the geese (who really own it) and the smells of other animals; and revelled in getting my hands properly dirty as I helped mix soil and compost for a new plant bed to be made in an old holey wheel-barrow.

As we chatted about what we had done to date, the phrase ‘fertile void’ was mentioned, and I immediately latched on to the brilliance of this as a description of the many possibilities that the project could fulfil.  It also reminded me, though, of a project that’s been bubbling in my mind for a few years now.

Behind our block of flats, there is a sort of court yard. It might once have been a tennis court, or maybe a children’s playground, whatever - whatever it was, it no longer is, as it has been locked up for the past...5 years? 10 years?  We’ve lived here nearly 20 years now, and I can’t remember when it was open, and what it was used for back then.  Right now, it’s overgrown with weeds, and full of various bits of trash - a broken chair, a trolley that’s unlikely to see its supermarket ever again, an old hula hoop all bent out of shape.  It’s an eyesore, and just a massive shameful waste of space.

And when I first heard about guerilla gardening a few years back, an idea started forming…  What if we took this space, reclaimed it, and turned it into a space where the estate could plant and grow?  Where people could sit and enjoy the sight of blooming plants, and kids could maybe learn a bit about where their food comes from, other than the local supermarket.  And maybe butterflies would tend the blossom, and the place would become the central hub for our whole community. Yeah, and throw in a rainbow and a couple of unicorns there too!  OK, so maybe I had a slightly rosy, overoptimistic view of what could become of the courtyard.  But thinking realistically, I still believed something could be done with the place.

So, I come back to this idea of the ‘fertile void’.  Imagine filling that?  This neglected dumping ground, that’s basically just an eyesore, waiting to be further vandalised and dumped in.  How amazing is the potential of this place!  Maybe it won’t become a massive community garden and a safe haven for all of the area’s wildlife.  But maybe it could be somewhere where maybe just one or two people will come, and clear up a little.  Maybe put out some young plants, and tend them.  And maybe, a few others, looking out of their windows, and seeing something new, positive, will be encouraged to join in, or just curious to know what’s going on.  And maybe they’ll come down and ask a few questions.  And perhaps those neighbours who we’re still only on nodding acquaintance with will become those neighbours who have a friend that has a few spare seeds, or knows where to get some great compost, or has a few old tyres lying around.  And maybe, just maybe, the seeds of community could flourish in what for now is just an empty space, but one  that is, I feel, absolutely brimming with opportunity.