Forum for Community Action at FICA Seattle

By Njoli Brown

I was graciously invited by FICA Seattle to facilitate a conversation on how cultural orgs can effectively engage in social action.  In Seattle there are a large number of groups which participate in the ethnic/cultural arts of Latin america, Africa, central – SE Asia and so on.  But, aside from the artistic endeavor, how many make the determination to actively and positively effect, in profound and long term ways, the communities within which these arts were sustained through centuries of struggle and an infusion of intellectual, emotional and spiritual energy?

The first thing that came to mind for me was a discussion on the spate of ongoing disturbing events throughout our communities, but it seemed that the first step needed to be a deep dive into “identity.”  One of the most common falsely held presumptions in groups is that, “if we’re all here then we’re all ‘down.’ ”  But before getting to the “what” we’re doing, there’s a lot of figuring that has to go into the “why” so that when it becomes difficult and laborious there’s a foundation that we’re working from in common.  I give FICA a lot of credit for often trying to provide opportunities for critical evaluations of itself by its members.

How does this collection of people see itself?  Does the collective mission align with each individual’s personal mission?  Are we willing to lose members if we determine the mission is of tantamount importance? From where are we garnering vital information and through what lens are we evaluating it? Do the actions we hope to take stay true to the missions we’ve established for ourselves?   Etc, etc.  There is a lot to be said for a group which decides to wrestle with itself and deal with the discomfort of recognizing the failings, doubts.. the humanity of all its members.

There is a long history of misdirected actions which can often times do more damage than help. Often times these are a result of not establishing all the predetermination that will provide you with the fortitude to stay in the process for the long haul.  Simultaneously, there are advocates who have, at times, been discarded without a dedication to the difficult conversations which provide soil for effective growth and leadership.  I hope to hear more from the participants of this recent forum, to hear if they found worthwhile takeaways, if there are plans for next steps, suggestions.  I also hope that other groups will make use of the currently aroused energy to figure out how they can utilize their organizations as nuclei for positive change.

*Gratitute to co-facilitator, Jabali Stewart, and to Mestre Silvinho (FICA Seattle), Leika Suzumura and Chelsea Rae for getting the ball rolling.

http://www.papernopaper.wordpress.com

Training, Well Rounded

By Njoli Brown

I was recently having a conversation with some other martial arts instructors of various styles.  One of the things that came up was the fact that, for the most part, along with the physical stimulus that training provides, one of the things that’d kept us involved for so long was feeling a sense of richness through involvement with the people and  ideas of another culture.  Now, I don’t want to say that this is or must be an interest for all students.  But for us, in common, it’s been an integral part of our practice and, as such a priority in our instruction.

So how do we convey that to our students?  As importantly, how do we convey that in a way that doesn’t diminish the reasons that each individual has for investing their time and energy into an activity that often has no reward other than that which the participant gleans?

Is it timely?  Sometimes a moment presents itself.  Perhaps a situation occurs, a movement or idea reveals itself and, in this time a historical or cultural reference is the perfect framing feature.  It might give context for a way of doing things or for the evolution of a concept.  It might, as well, give some insight into the mindset of those figures who had, at times, practical reasons for the design of their craft.

Is it enriching?  For many students, having a deeper knowledge of the practice to which they have dedicated themselves gives them a greater sense of purpose.  They come to see themselves as guardians of ideas and, in the most fortunate of instances, as researchers who dispel myths and contribute to  the archive of developmental resources.

Is it relevant?  Class isn’t the time to bloviate about all of your past accomplishments, about the awards you’ve won or the opponents you’ve beaten. Check yourself and, if it isn’t in service of the practice maybe keep it til you’re out having a drink with your buddies.  Remember that your stories and the ideas they convey become part of the culture of your school as well.

Integrating history and culture into the practice of your students takes a real sense of scope and a strong concept of what you hope for your community to embody.  You are shaping values in subtle ways.  It can be tremendously enriching or it can be the “turn-off” that pushes hard training students out the door. Done well, it turns your students into teachers and re-creates the story as a living thing.

Building Community in the Martial Design

By Njoli Brown

It’d be simple enough if it was just about stepping in, training and stepping out. But recently had a conversation with students about the importance of fraternizing. Spoke about how some of the most valuable things I’ve learned in my time both in capoeira and kali were learned outside of class on my mestre’s stoop or over breakfast or building instruments, at my mandala’s favorite hangout or on the beach. Taking the time to connect with your teachers and your comrades reminds them of your investment and of the value you place in their investment in you. It’s where life talk happens and context for all the training gets explored. http://ow.ly/xz2J300ome9 http://ow.ly/i/jwNgS

Viva, Treinel Yehnana!!

A lot of the new heads in Capoeira Angola might not know her name but a lot of the legacy of powerful black women making strides in the game is due to her. I had the good fortune to share space with her during this trip to New Orleans and it came rushing back, the memory of her as a figure who refused to give up her personhood for the sake of hierarchical structures and who represented a powerful womanhood in a game that required an often confusing mixture of boldness and humility. In many ways she embodied and continues to embody the canonical elements of struggle and perseverance that our capoeira songs espouse.

I hope that our young and old angoleiros will come to recognize we don’t have to look so far back to find heroic figures and will look to our peers, at times, to find leadership, guidance and mentoring. For an array of life reasons some of these people are no longer in the roda but they’re always in the “roda.” Viva Yehnana! http://ow.ly/i/jO8j1

A Teacher’s Gratitude

So I just returned from another trip out to the Philippines.  This trip was, for the most part, a training endeavor for my practice in the Filipino martial arts but on every count it was spectacular.  Not only did I feel my learning expand day by day but, as well, in the company of some pretty fantastic people, I had the opportunity to explore the region in a way that was completely new to me.

So much knowledge was being shared student to student, teacher to teacher and teacher to student.  I felt I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge an aspect of teaching that can sometimes be overlooked.

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Tuhon Nonoy & Guro Njoli

Common knowledge, teaching can be extremely difficult.  Not only that, it is often one of the most culturally, and definitely financially, undervalued professions in our society at large.  But I wanted to speak not only to the amount of respect and gratitude that our educators deserve, but also of the special role that gratitude plays in effective teaching.

Although the training was often hard driven under intense heat and uncertain sand, the words I consistently heard from instructors were “thank you.”  Seems like such a small thing.  But being acknowledged for our presence, our time, our acceptance of our faults and shortcomings, created a recognition that the teacher acknowledged as well their own humanity and reliance on us, as participants in their process.

Over the past year or so, in every class I do, no matter how difficult, I’ve been trying to be more and more diligent about beginning with thanks and ending with the same amount of gratitude.  Teaching is only itself with the presence and attendance of students.  Optimal learning happens when teachers allow themselves to learn and to access their own human connectivity and when students find themselves connected to the process.

Additionally, not only can we create available spaces in which students can learn, but educators must also, provide tools so that learning peers and community members can demonstrate gratitude by supporting a matter of growth which will ripple effect throughout the environment.

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Sign language insert in the menu of a local Palawan restaurant

One evening we went to a local restaurant to commune and to bond.  As we entered I noticed that on almost every wall there were posters of American Sign Language.  It was curious but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this was relevant in the context of all the random kitsch wall adornments.  When we sat and I found another copy of the sign alphabet inserted in the menu I was so impressed, in reading closer, to find that it was meant as a tool for clients to use in support of the staff members who were deaf and hard of hearing.  Such a profound demonstration of gratitude!  We do not just hire deaf staff members, we don’t just hold the expectation that they will completely accommodate a hearing culture, but we also give our community tools and insight into the importance of broadening our vision of who makes up our society .

All of this said, it can be an important thing when we recognize that positive actions can influence and inspire in ways that read as actual visible productivity.

 

PTK Language Lab

I just recently spent another couple of weeks in the Philippines and was re-inspired.  I’m sure that most of my friends and family had their excitement for me based on some imaginings of days in the sun while the rest of the east coast remained buried in springtime snow.  Truth be told, there was a minimal amount of beach lounging and, instead, it was a brain-sizzling crash course on structure and repetition and diligence.  It was my PTK language lab.  I wanted to use this post as an opportunity to reflect on the virtues of exploring structure and examination in the context of creative arts.

“Arts.”  The fact is, there must be something scientific in the application of any martial art.  It requires a distinctive understanding of body mechanics, anatomy, psychology and simultaneously there is the creative ingenuity to realize all of these concepts in a 3 dimensional and changing laboratory.  The ground is uneven, stamina is wavering, it is early in the morning or late in the evening, there is an opponent which is exploring a completely different array of questions, etc. etc. It’s been of interest to me to look at some of the foundational elements of the styles I’ve been practicing and to examine them using a more scientific methodology.

Scientific_Method_3Particularly in the context of kali, which is predominately weapons based, there is not a lot of space for a reliance on techniques that have only been through the anecdotal fire. Sure, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel but we’d better make sure the wheel is well suited to the terrain we’re driving on.  So we need to “road test.”  That means taking each technique into a sparring scenario and hashing through its application.  It also means developing the vocabulary and grammar to see the opportunity for the technique’s execution by developing, through practice, the capacity to discharge the element with proper form, angle, energy and intent.

not really scientific method

 

Anyway, I’ll be following up on this as the weeks and months go by and hopefully I’ll be able to provide some worthwhile questions to add into the pool.

Why Train in Winter? Bodyweight Training for the Uninitiated

By Njoli Brown

I had a couple of moments this Christmas morning and, yes, here I am doing a little writing.  Maybe it’s because I know I’m about to go out and eat all kinds of delicious foods and spend some wonderful quality time with friends.  All that being said, I know this day will pass and I will be back to my process of building and developing my martial practice.

Now, none of this is to say I’ve been taking a break from my regular training, but my thought has been that a little extra diligence always has to happen during the winter months if I really want to take things to another level.  It’s the season where rich foods, nog drinks and all the rest bring us comfort.  I speak all this from a place of familiarity because I’m not one of those who was born with the natural gladiator genetics.  I have to work hard and consistently to put myself at high gear.

At the same time as winter draws us psychologically into a state of comforted hibernation, it is also the prime opportunity to make huge leaps and bounds.  As a general rule, spring ends up being a time of recovery and so, by end of summer, we hopefully reach our prime again.  Imagine if we built all the way through winter, and spring and summer were just continuing parts of the evolutionary process.


It may not be the time for your long outdoor runs (depending on where you’re living) but it’s definitely a great time for exploring the wonderful world of body weight training.  I’m not going to pretend to be a personal trainer or to be the go to source for advice but I did want to include some resources that I’ve found.

All of this being said, though, do your own research and know that your goals are out in front of you.  Winter can be a time for steps back or steps forward.  You choose.

Men’s Fitness article on bodyweight exercises

Just a little starter to remind you that the exercises you need in order to start your practice are well within your grasp and don’t require much, if any, equipment or space.

http://www.mensfitness.com/training/build-muscle/back-to-basics-the-best-bodyweight-exercises

The Complete Book of Abs by Kurt Brungardt

This book, along with The Complete Book of Shoulders and Arms, is a veritable bible of exercises.  But alongside that, it sets up a huge glossary of routines for you to scroll through, progressing week by week, month by month.  I know most of us don’t have the coin for our own personal trainer but having someone help you to establish a routine and then bouncing it off your doctor or a fitness professional might just be the first steps towards finding your own discipline.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Complete-Book-Abs-Expanded/dp/0375751432

Youtube:  44 Best (Beginner) Bodyweight Exercises Ever!

44 tremendously unpretentious bodyweight exercises.  Maybe you just feel like your exercise vocabulary is lacking or you just know that you’re more of a visual learner.  I found this video online and really enjoyed the fact that there was nothing in this that felt out of reach for the absolute beginner and, at the same time, relevant for adaptation as someone progresses.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEMcHVwzHPA

Fertile Soil For Seeds To Grow

By Njoli Brown

I’ve recently returned from another visit to Seattle.  Pastinha Weekend, an event that the International Capoeira Angola Foundation hosts annually in order to acknowledge our lineage, to reflect on the roles of revolution figures of African descent and to reconnect with our family and friends.  The weekend was beautifully put together and had all the richness and love that I’ve come to expect from these gatherings.  As an educator though, I wanted to reflect a bit on Mestre Silvinho’s standout capacity to create a nurturing environment within which his group seems to have truly flourished.

Mestre Silvinho @ FICA NY, 2013
Mestre Silvinho @ FICA NY, 2013

Holding space as a mestre of Capoeira Angola, as a teacher and as a mentor presents a wide array of challenges and rewards. Profoundly, this person is both, responsible for the maintenance of a centuries old tradition and, simultaneously, must assert the viability of traditional culture in contemporary society.  It isn’t enough for them to deny the existence of the word in which they live but they must also have a critical and evolving vision of how to reconcile the humanity of their community with the society wherein they function.

What make Silvinho’s model so particularly distinct is the feeling of mutual respect that he propagates within his collective.  Not only does he humbly distinguish himself as a remarkably knowledgeable and responsible patriarch, but he so clearly and openly recognizes the strengths and hopes of the members within his group.

That being said, while he provides the trajectory, his group drives its own forward motion.  As a teacher the best example we can often set is in our capacity to allow leadership to disseminate throughout.  True, there is no one else who has the capacity to teach capoeira at the same measure, but their functioning grant writing commission? The healthy foods project? Their regularly organized occasions for fraternization?  The youth projects? All of these are student inspired and driven.

Fertile soil for seeds to grow.  Inspiring to see things come to fruit Northwest.

Beauty in the Human Language: Capoeira & Connecting with Possibilities

By Njoli Brown

So, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to wrap my head around the entirety of my recent experience in Cuba.  Working with other artist-educators, exchanging ideas about this endless work of empowering youths in marginalized communities, all of it was tremendously inspiring and thought provoking.  I’ve been wanting to share that here but instead, in trying to encompass everything, I find myself spinning and inadequately capturing the profundity of things every time I try to put something on paper. I’ve decided I need to break this down for myself.  Over the next few weeks I figure I’ll take moments, pieces of that short but impactful time and engage in some explorations.

DSCF6965That being said I wanted to start by discussing the workshop I facilitated in Havana using capoeira as the medium.  My objectives were to explore the ideas and constructs that determine our process for valuating beauty. In addition I wanted to use this exercise as a catalyst for conversations on the concept of “embodying the spirit” and using the body as an efficient language tool.

We kicked it off by doing a brainstorm on popular concepts of beauty.  In part this was an opportunity for us to reflect on the ways in which social constructs sometimes diverge from our unqualified humanity.  When we moved into “ginga” I offered the structures as suggestions instead of rules. It was an interesting practice for me, to look at this form of engagement with laser focus on facilitating a journey of discovery instead of instructing a lesson.  A humbling thing to let go of my usual objectives and to hone in, much more deeply, on the method and process of sharing ideas.  We took the opportunity to explore the emotions tied to the tension and relaxation of muscles, the exploitation of the joints and the fear that is tied directly to the concept of equilibrium.

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Each individual then chose an emotion that they had recently engaged with, something to which they’d had a strong response and maintained vivid memories of the physical experience.  After a moment of meditating on this emotion they partnered off and used  ginga as a vessel through which they could embody this emotion and see how it might inform their interactions.  Our next step was to recall our conceptions of central figures in our lives, matriarchs, patriarchs, elders, youths and through each of these lenses we interacted with our emotion experiment in greater depth.

So, through this we were able to tap into an experience of beauty as a concept that exists in greater part due to its capacity to stimulate emotional resonance as opposed to a design which we accept as beautiful because particular language has been associated with it.

As a next step we DSCF7201decided to use the language of the body to investigate the experiences of our compeers.  In capoeira we often talk about the body conversation as a game of questions and answers.  As often as not though, a player may ask questions without giving truly intentional scrutiny to the merit of his/her camarada’s responses.  

It’s easy at times to get caught up in your own movement, in the power of inquisition, in the sound of your own voice.  But capoeira, as life entire, has the necessity of maintaining a balance between pressure and growth. We looked at our kicks and escapes as equal opportunities to observe ourselves as well as the our embodied identities of our counterparts.  We then processed the effects of the experience on our ideas about interpersonal communication.

How would we take this practice and apply it in our visual arts programming, our music, theater, writing? Did we gain some new DSCF7075connection to the somatic process underlying emotion?  How could this be relevant to the work we do with youths? What will it mean to create something “beautiful” in the future?