Building Bridges Instead of Walls (Or, How I travel the world every Thursday without leaving town.)

I love to travel.

My whole life I dreamed of traveling. We didn’t have much money, and my single mama saved for years to make Disney World happen for us when I was 13. I was SO EXCITED to be going during Epcot Center’s inaugural year. The World Showcase was my favorite, even though only a few countries were finished back then. I walked through the Disney versions of far away places and dreamed that some day I’d see the real thing.

Headed into college I was sure I’d spend a year or more in the Peace Corps when I finished, but life takes unexpected turns. I was 27 before I went anywhere further than Mexico. My first transatlantic trip was to the London & Paris, and the UK will always have a special place in my heart, having visited friends studying at Cambridge several times over the years.  For 3 years early January meant a work trip to the (beautiful) southern coast of Spain, and I celebrated a delightful Christmas in China. I spent 2 memorable summers teaching English in Uzbekistan, another place where I left part of my heart.

My favorite thing about my pre-marriage and motherhood life was the opportunities it provided to travel, learn other cultures, meet people who are different from me.

Then I got married and became a mom. And moved to Lincoln, NE, which feels like the whitest white bread place on earth sometimes. I felt trapped in the very heartland of the United States, unable to travel, unable to find any outlet for the part of me that feels made to share life with people of other cultures.

There are certainly international students at the University here, and I’ve learned that my white bread city is a major welcome center for refugees (Go Nebraska!) But in those young mom years I never could figure out how to make either of those groups part of my weekly life. I always wanted to, but I never acted on it.

And then, 3 years ago, I found myself sitting with my then-15 year old at the DMV, jumping through the hoops we needed for his driving permit. As he took the written test, I sat in a room with all the waiting people. Is there a place that makes you feel more like a number/less like a person than the DMV? My seat faced directly into the doorway through which the wait-ers were called to jump through whatever hoops they needed to jump. I watched people move from testing location to camera to whomever else they needed to see in order to get what they need.

My eye was caught by a precious older lady, who looked Chinese, and definitely did not have English as her first language. She did not understand what the DMV worker wanted her to do. I’m sure that the DMV is a hard place to work, and maybe this DMV lady was having a rotten day. But her response to the lack of understanding was to repeat herself, several times, growing ever louder, and with an ever more distinct tone of “are you stupid?”

As I sat glued to my chair, memories of my time in China flashed back to me: The welcome I received. The kind politeness of everyone I met, listening as I practiced my 3 super-basic Mandarin phrases. The excitement of every English learner I met, so happy to have a native speaker to talk to.

Something rose up in me. I didn’t have this language for it at the time, but now I recognize it as the desire to build bridges rather than walls.

The desire I felt in that moment to help, to DO SOMETHING, was met 3 days later when my church hosted a community involvement weekend, where they invite various non-profits (faith based and otherwise) to have booths and share information. I walked out of the sanctuary and straight over the the Lincoln Literacy table.

Within a couple of months I had completed training and walked into a room of English Language Learners, well on my way to Thursdays being my favorite day of the week.

I wish I’d kept a running list of the countries represented in my classes. For sure I’ve spent time with people from Myanmar, China, Sudan, Eritrea, India, Ukraine, India, Japan, Korea, Bolivia, El Salvador, Tanzania, Egypt, Afghanistan, and many many friends from Iraq and Kurdistan.

For the first two years I tutored the highest level class, helping them practice reading, writing and speaking. My student friends were refugees, immigrants, wives of men working at the Kowasaki Office here, wives of Graduate Students, Graduate Students themselves. Many of them were far more educated than I am.

In the level 4 class the greatest skill I brought was my ability to talk. We discussed our lives and backgrounds, the weather and the world, we read books, we practiced grammar and we talked politics.

I’ll never forget teaching refugees and immigrants during the divisive 2016 election season, where such terrible things were said about non-Americans, with the focus on borders and walls.

I watched as people from thousands of miles apart, separated by geographical, religious, and gender barriers worked together to understand what their crazy American teacher wanted them to do. I watched them build bridges rather than walls.

I had a front row seat to hard work, determination, and the amount of hard work and determination it takes for someone from the other side of the world to end up here in Lincoln, Nebraska (the narrative that our borders are wide open and it is easy to get into the US is a lie.)

I cried with student friends who had been working hard and hoping endangered family members in their ISIS torn home country would be able to join them here in safety, as their hopes were dashed by ban on travel to the US from Muslim countries.

This year I’m working with beginners, the lowest level. I’m awed by the courage it takes to start life over in a place where you have to have carry a piece of paper with your name and pertinent information because you can’t communicate that yourself. I’m amazed at the sheer audacity of someone who is illiterate in her first language, trying to learn English. I’m in love with the smiles that light up my friends’ faces when they understand.

And from my home right here in the heartland, I am BLESSED. I am made rich. I’m inspired. I’m braver, I want to work harder. This is what I’ve learned from people who look and sound different from me. Though in many ways I’m their teacher, I’m the one who is learning. Though in many ways I’m their host, I’m the one who has been welcomed.

If you’ve been feeling the nudge to build bridges rather than walls, may I gently suggest that you respond, that you step into that, whatever it looks like for you, today? I wish I had done this sooner.

Maybe you’ve felt called to feed the poor. Serve with the homeless. Encourage prisoners. Welcome Refugees. Google what’s available in your area, and jump in. It might be scary, but I bet it will also be good.

If you’re local and interested in  helping English Language Learners, I could not recommend the work that Lincoln Literacy is doing more highly. They will train you, and the commitment is 1-2 hours a week (more if you want.) I tutor a class (8-10) because that was my preference, but they have 1 on 1 tutoring as well. It helps that I have an English Grammar background, and had some idea how to plan lessons. But if you can talk, you can do this. I volunteer in the refugee program, but they also work with folks from the wider international population as well as adults with disabilities who need literacy help. My fellow Lincoln Literacy tutors come from every background you can think of: Stay at home moms, retired folks from many fields, professors, armchair travel dreamers like me.

And if you’re interested in learning more about how we can build bridges instead of walls, there’s a whole chapter on this, including LOTS of practical suggestions, in my friend Osheta’s book, which I talked about last week!


Building Bridges Instead of Walls Insta Quote (1)

Photo used in my images is by Ben White on Unsplash

1 comment

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  1. Sarah Mast

    Renee, I LOVE this. I have often thought (now, of course, as my kids are out of the crazy baby-toddler-preschool years and I have my head on straight) that I wish I had also volunteered at Lincoln Literacy. We have a lot more diversity out here than in Lincoln, but I’ve often thought “I need to find something out here like that” and this was a good nudge. Going to google some things….

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