In mid-October, I woke up early on the tiny island at Hanasaari, and drew the curtains so that I could see sunrise over the bay. I started to collect my thoughts and reflection on my own Finnish Lessons from the past two weeks. When I met with Minister of Education and Culture, Kriista Kiuru, last week, she summed Finnish success in one word : trust. Finns trust their government and trust authority. Parents trust teachers. Teachers trust students. Parents trust children. Children trust adults. This pervasive trust creates ideal conditions for peaceful living and common practices.
That particular Thursday morning, when I tuned into my Twitter feed, I was overwhelmed by the images, reports, and commentary from the police-officer involved shooting of VonDerritt Myers Jr, just a few blocks away from my home. When I moved my family to Shaw in April, I was (and still am) convinced that this is absolutely where I want my kids to grow up. I appreciate the diversity of our neighborhood, the crew of intentional, critical parent friends who inspire me, and the space for our kids to go out and play. I want my children to be able to go to a friend’s house and ask them to come out and play, ride their bikes to the park, and walk to the store— the normal kid life that we had growing up. The store at the center of last month’s shooting is our neighborhood corner store. The store folks stop in on their way to the Botanical Garden. The store that has weekly Eritrean specials (yummy!) in addition to American sandwiches and regular corner store snacks. When I learned of this shooting, I actually thought it would be safer to just send for the kids and raise them in Finland. We’re talented with languages and great at friend-making. I know how to navigate life in a new country, and I was becoming less confident that I could keep my children safe at home.
Being in Finland during the most recent officer-involved shooting in St. Louis, provided a very stark cross-cultural comparison for trust and authority. Finnish culture has much respect and trust for government, which frames Finnish expectations for authority. Children in Finland have a great degree of autonomy from a very young age and adults respect children as people (see
my previous post Hei! from Helsinki!). One of my primary observations in all of the schools that I visited was the absence of micro-aggressions and policing youth. Even when a student was doing something inappropriate (coming to class late, standing on a table, wandering the recess field without their class), none of the adult responses were aggressive or antagonistic. No one reached to subdue the child, demand immediate behaviour change, assign a consequence, send or threaten to send an authority to respond. In fact, there were no security officers, Deans of Students, Deans of Culture, or crisis response teams. When I mentioned my observation to one building principal, she asked if they should hire some such position. She wasn’t aware of any schools in her region with any behaviour, crisis, or security specialists. This observation made me think that we antagonize youth here and then punish them when they become defensive or reactive. Our recent police shootings are lethal forms of the same micro-aggressions that we recreate in our schools.
For the second time that week, I sobbed uncontrollably on the flight to London about the state of affairs in St. Louis. I have family members who have been, currently are, or may in the future be incarcerated for their choices. We loved them before their crimes, supported and encouraged them during their incarceration, and welcomed them back home. They made mistakes and learned from their mistakes. They came home and made better lives for their families, raised their own children and mentored others. I am proud of the fathers and men that they have become. This fall in St. Louis we’ve become consumed with classifying the victims of police shootings as innocent bystanders, active criminals, former criminals, or potential criminals. What we are losing sight of is that all of these people are people. I am not nor will I ever condone criminal behavior, but what I have witnessed is that people can grow and learn from their mistakes. If we kill every teenager who makes a poor decision, we kill that opportunity. We are not just losing the lives of these five young men, we are losing hope for our future selves. We are giving up on who our own children can be. I remain hopeful for our region and our children. Leaders and critics of gun violence within our communities and between police and citizens are lending their perspective to the Ferguson Commission.
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” – Martin Luther King, Jr. from Letter from a Birmingham Jail
We choose love.