Talking about Mindful Ethnography


Here’s a link to a Youtube channel ( where I read some excerpts from my new book, Mindful Ethnography: Mind, Heart and Activity for Transformative Social Research, summarize the key ideas I address in each chapter, and reflect further on these ideas and my motivations for writing them. I include some brief activities for applying mindfulness to ethnographic research, guiding listeners in some short meditative and contemplative practices oriented around field work.

The tracks are accompanied by music: composed, electronically produced and mastered by my son, Andrés Orellana (who goes by the name “Abstract Apathy” for his music, which can be found on Spotify and other music platforms). The cover image of the book was designed by my visual-and-performing artist daughter, Elisa Noemí. 9781138361041 I enlisted my children’s artistic talents not just to support them as emerging artists, and not just because I’m a “proud mama” (though I am), but because despite our very different approaches (Elisa via theatre, storytelling and visual arts; Andrés via music; I via research and writing), we have much in common.  We have influenced each others’ thinking and ways of being over the year.  For sure, my kids have learned some stuff from me, but I have also learned from them in substantive and important ways. They really have been some of my greatest teachers, and my own ways of seeing, thinking, doing, and being have been enriched through our extended, informal, family collaboration.  I also share their art and music as a way of balancing the heady or “mind”-centric nature of academic writing with more heart-centered stances. As you listen to my words, you can rest your eyes on the beautiful image Elisa created, and imbibe the gentle background music Andrés performs. Academic reading doesn’t have to be onerous. And academic work doesn’t have to be boring.  It can be a creative, spiritual and aesthetic experience that connects our minds and bodies and anchors us in the world. I hope you will enjoy!

The cups already broken


IMG_0607 2“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

From Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein.

On this 45th day of Los Angeles’ “Shelter in Place” initiative, I sit with my Barcelona coffee mug in hand, treasuring all that is already broken.

Memories, still vivid in my mind’s eye, but someday broken too. And new experiences that may leave us feeling a little cheated, but that I treasure just the same, knowing that these, too, will become memories, and that even the memories will shatter one day:

…Standing shoulder to shoulder in a circle with my students on the first day of class; setting our intentions as we pass a ball of yarn around, weaving ourselves together in an interconnected web that we promise to uphold. This spring, we have stretched the threads almost to the breaking point, through the world-wide web that is even more invisible but just as real.  But we each still get to hold our little piece of it, for now.

…Sitting on the filthy floor (how I hated that floor) of the room where our precious B-Club was held, watching young people of all ages move freely as they learned and played together. IMG_3924Now, I smile at video clips of those days, as our team gathers in a Zoom Room to analyze the embodied nature of learning. I relish the connections we are managing to sustain with the kids in our program, through letter exchanges, Remind App messages, and a new and interactive web page. Not the same as playing together, but precious just the same.

…Eating lunch at a faculty meeting in a small room in Moore Hall, another floor beneath us scuffed by countless footsteps in and out. (I never thought I would say that I missed going to faculty meetings, or the opportunity to re-scuff that now-polished floor.) Now, I delight in the tiny glimpses we get of each other’s lives while we struggle through Zoom Gloom meetings: our children, our pets, the books on our shelves or the paintings on our walls or the virtual backgrounds we choose to represent ourselves with. I am happy to see the faces of these dear, smart colleagues, to know they are out there, in the world, doing their good work, fighting the good fight, coming together as best we can with our shared commitments to make the world a better place.

download…Running with friends along the beach path on moonlit winter nights. (I hated wearing a headlight and couldn’t wait for daylight’s saving.) Cheering these loyal friends on, as they pounded with thousands of others through the streets of LA in March’s marathon, right before that cup broke. Now, I treasure the daily texts my running friends send, posting photos of their solo routes on empty streets, reports on distances and times; and I cheer them on in a strange new thing called “virtual races.” I am learning to run alone again,  breathing in city air that is miraculously clean.

…Yoga classes in sweat-filled studios. Holding a plank for an interminable length of time as our teacher prepared us to deal with anything life might throw at us, with a smile.  Now, I treasure meeting up with friends from around the world in my daily kundalini yoga class, listening to my sister-in-law as she leads us in movement and meditation with a chorus of tropical birds around her. I hold in my heart sweet memories of being with her in her Costa Rican paradise, along with those birds…and biting ants and mosquitos. Now we sweat and smile and chat together in this physically distanced but spiritually connected and still-fully-embodied way.

…Places, all around the world, where my feet have touched the earth. The shop where I purchased this mug, on a crowded, narrow, winding street in Old Town Barcelona. Shuttered now, perhaps. Not crowded. IMG_5020The trains and planes and buses that took me there, filled with people going somewhere, oblivious to the privilege of this movement across borders, ignoring the passengers beside them or greeting them with a nod, a smile, or friendly banter, not with fear of the invisible enemy that could spew from their mouths or the pores of their skin and silently spread. All the crowds I have pushed through and the queues I have stood in with aching feet and grumbling mind. I cherish the broken cups of these memories, and embrace the six-foot-spacing-to-buy-toilet-paper-queue that is in the cup I hold right now.

…Greeting friends and family with a handshake, a hug, a kiss on one cheek, or two, or three, or the surprising sweet salt of lips meeting unexpectedly. Selfies and video clips and group shots we took to record precious moments together. Carefree people with linked arms and uncovered smiles for the camera: “Squeeze in! We don’t all fit!”

My hands come together in a prayer, as I bow to these memories, and to all the people I now greet from six feet’s distance: Namaste.

What cups are you holding, right now?



Embracing contradictions: The beauty and terror of life during a pandemic


Words, like the virus, are circulating madly through invisible networks of exchange these days: words of conviction and certainty, anxiety and fear, blame and shame, praise and support, anger and outrage, compassion and kindness, hope and wonder, terror and grief.

Most writers take one tack or another.  Some point to the injustices that the coronavirus brings into relief. Others highlight the possibilities that emerge when people work together for collective good. Some find creative ways to send uplifting messages for the future. Others look to the past, seeking someone or something to blame. Some anticipate the Apocalypse. Others see the Dawning of a New Age.

I am trying to embrace all these contradictions, and to feel it all: beautLet everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going ...y and terror, hope and fear, love and anger, humor and horror, joy and grief. I see the best and worst of humanity, and both dread and relish what could lie ahead.

The things I am witnessing are both difficult and wonderful, both terrible and beautiful, both full of possibility and filled with tremendous pain.

They are the result of actions taken or not taken in the past, and caused by things that none of us could ever fully control. We know what we can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and we also know these things may not work.

The suffering is, and will continue to be, both shared and unequally distributed. The pandemic will target particularly vulnerable populations and it will hit all sectors in an inexplicable, seemingly random way.  It will likely lead to creative solutions to long-standing social issues and to the deepening and hardening of existing inequities.

We already miss things we can no longer do, even as we are discovering new ways of connecting and of reinvigorating social life.

We will surely weather some aspects of the crisis with grace and strength, and fall apart at other times. We will rise to our best selves and succumb to our worst. This will be true at both an individual and collective level.

In short, there is no single, definitive narrative to tell about the coronavirus, just like life.

Except, perhaps, the ones we choose to tell, and work to make come true.

Where do we want to put our energy, our thoughts, our time? What words and ideas will we send into the ethosphere?  Which ones will we breathe in, and which will we block with a metaphorical mask? Could we collectively bend the arc of the universe even just a little bit toward justice? Could we tip the balance from terror to wonder, fear to peace, anger to love?

This may be the most disconcerting and liberating lesson we can take from this time.  To some degree, it’s up to us.

The coronavirus may seem like our enemy, but perhaps it is our greatest teacher – and even, despite or because of all of the contradictions it brings – our friend.Life: The Greatest teacher of them all | EdTerra Edventures

Ethnography in a time of social distancing: We are all ethnographers now


Note: I’m blogging because it feels like something I can do in the face of the crises unfolding all around us, not because I think words are necessarily the medicine we most need right now.  But it helps me to have some sense of purpose, something that I hope could be helpful to others in some small way, as we live through and respond to an unprecedented situation. Perhaps we can draw some lessons from this experience for imagining, and bringing into being, a better world.

My recently published book, Mindful Ethnography: Mind, Heart and Action for Transformative Social Research, is a guide for scholar-activists who want to immerse themselves fully in social contexts: working with the instruments of our beings to see, hear, smell, taste, feel, think and understand the world, and connecting mind, heart and activity in order to do scholarship that contributes to much needed social transformation.  But in the current moment we are being asked to stay home, maintain at least six feet from other people, and work “remotely.” This contradicts the hands-on, grounded, immersive, engaged, participatory ways that are at the heart of ethnographic and socially-transformative research.  What does it mean to be an ethnographer in a time of “social distancing” and in the midst of this unprecedented global COV19 pandemic?download

While the particular field work projects that social science researchers have been pursuing will undoubtedly have to change or be put on hold for some time, I believe that all of us – researchers and the general public alike – can draw on some core principles of ethnography in order to observe, experience, document, and understand the moment we are living in.  Moreover, I think the mindful approaches I call for in my book could serve us all as social beings in a rapidly changing world, and for bringing into being a more just, equitable, loving and transformative one. I distill a few of those lessons from my book here, applying them to the COV19 pandemic. We are all ethnographers now.

The familiar has been made strange for us

We are all participating in, and surely observing, an unprecedented global experiment. The social world we live in is being transformed in uncharted, unpredictable, and unchosen ways. We are transforming it as we respond to calls to change all our everyday habits. And we are experiencing those changes as we make them.

One of the core principles of ethnography is to “make the familiar strange” in order to see in new ways, rather than through unexamined assumptions or established patterns of our culture. Becoming more aware of how we move and operate in the world may help us as we face the immediate threat of COV19: by refraining from touching our faces, shaking hands, or passing the virus in other ways. It may also help us to see things we took for granted, such as the essential labor of grocery store workers, health care providers, and others who were invisible before. The familiar has been made strange for us. All we have to do is look around. But can we do so more awarefully?

Notice everything you think and feel

The conavirus crisis offers us a tremendous opportunity not just to see the world in new ways, but to experience profound changes: in institutions and societal structures, interpersonal relationships, local ecologies, the environment, and more. There is much to be noticed right now. Pay attention to it all.  What do you see, hear, feel, smell, taste, touch and think?  What do you not get to see, hear, feel, smell, touch and taste right now?  (We may come to see what we have taken for granted by experiencing their absence.)  What do we sense, worry, fear, anticipate, intuit and imagine? Using “mindful” practices, we can notice how our thoughts and feelings arise and change as circumstances around us change. Using the skills of ethnography, we can pay attention to the details: what, exactly, do we see, hear, smell, taste, feel and intuit?  Historians might appreciate the efforts we make to document these thoughts and feelings, and to record them as carefully as we can.  But as I suggest in my book, our thoughts and feelings are always intertwined, and we can expect that they will be only more so in a time of such uncertainty and anxiety. So notice how your emotions may shape your perceptions, and vice versa.t3_06_thoughts_feelings_emotions

Pause before you interpret or act

 The human tendency is to immediately judge any changes we experience. Social media is filled with people’s responses to the Conavirus crisis: what people hate about it, what they love, how it personally impacts them. Some of the changes we are being asked to make feel incredibly difficult. Others might feel liberating. People have many opinions about these things, too. And many, many emotional responses.

But in a time of rapid change, we would benefit from slowing down. Here is where a mindfully ethnographic approach can help us. Pay attention. Notice everything we think and feel.   Try to stay close to the direct observations of what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Then press pause. Don’t rush to premature interpretations.  And don’t let our perceptions and opinions impulsively drive our actions.

Suspending both evaluation and interpretation, we may identify possibilities that can be acted upon in thoughtful ways to enact long term much-needed transformations in society once we get through the immediate crisis. We can also contribute more thoughtfully to what is needed now if we don’t just react, mindlessly putting our own thoughts and feelings out into the chaos that is swirling around us. We can think carefully about what we can contribute that is truthful, helpful and kind (following Buddhist precepts). 

Don’t assume others’ experiences are the same as yours

Different  kinds of people are being impacted in different ways by the COV19 pandemic. The effects will likely be felt differently along well-established lines of power in society. This is where social science theory can help us: we can ask who is hurt, and who potentially benefits, from this crisis, attending to the important categories of our culture (race/ethnicity, class, gender) as well as other categories of difference. This crisis will surely make visible the privileges that some people enjoy, and the vulnerability of others.  But just  how it will do so isn’t clear, and may not be visible unless we pay attention. We can’t be sure we know all of the ways this crisis will affect people, how they will feel about it, or how they will respond. And we certainly can’t assume that our exact experiences – and responses to them – will be shared with others.  This is a time to observe keenly, listen deeply, and ask critical questions about how this global crisis is impacting us, in both shared and divergent, and good and bad, ways.

Let go

download-6My ulterior motive in writing Mindful Ethnography was to share some of the lessons I have learned about life in general and academia in particular, by working through my own health crises and an extended healing process. (See my previous blog.)  I wrote it with my younger, anxiety-filled, angst-ridden school-girl self in mind, filling it with reassurances for young scholars entering this business, and calls to let go, as best we can, of our fears, worries, plans, hopes and expectations. We are being forced to let go of many plans right now.

We can also let go of our ideas about perfection and completion, or about getting the words “just right” or having “the answer” to complex questions.  Leading to and following from this book, in the face of the existential crises facing our planet, I’m feeling compelled to write in much more personal ways than I ever thought I would dare to in academia (which can be such a critical world). I feel a sense of urgency, and so I’m throwing caution to the wind, and sharing my thoughts in the hope that they will be helpful to some people (as well as truthful and kind)….but not perfect, and not complete.

Stay tuned for more ways I hope to apply my approach to “mindful ethnography” to the contemporary global crisis: by conjoining mind, heart and activity; thinking deeply about the language we use to name our experiences; sitting with paradoxes; and moving beyond dualities as we experience through the COV19 crisis the profound nature of our interconnectedness – in both terrible and wonderful ways.

For social science researchers

Before concluding, let me offer a few more specific lessons for social science researchers.  Some of you may be able to continue doing your fieldwork where-ever you are, just observing with a little more distance, and conducting interviews from six feet apart! But more likely, you may need to withdraw from the field and shift your modes of gathering data, as well as the questions you pursue.  That’s OK. 

Your best laid plans may go out the window

download-2This is not a time to go about business as usual. My heart goes out to the many doctoral students who cannot pursue the projects they have planned for some time – like my own protégé, Sophia Angeles, who was poised to begin her dissertation research this spring, doing participant observation in a Los Angeles high school, to explore the experiences of undocumented, “unaccompanied minor” adolescent youth.  Gaining access to this population will be much more challenging now.

I encourage students to notice your thoughts and feelings about changes to carefully-laid plans. Consider these as lessons for life. We really don’t have as much control over the world as we might like. And we can’t out-think or out-plan it all. What we can do is better respond to a changing world.  So stop. Breathe. Sit with the thoughts and feelings that come up about how this impacts your research agenda. Feel it all: rage, disappointment, fear, confusion. Let it settle through your body and your mind. Don’t try to rush through this stage of the grieving process.

But look through the window to see what lies beyond

download At some point you may be ready to turn your mind in some new directions. And there are very new, important questions that are emerging. Identify the ways this global pandemic impacts the questions you had planned to explore, or were already exploring. For example, in Sophia’s case: How are unaccompanied minor adolescents in the U.S. being affected by COV19 in particular ways? How does the pandemic influence their social, emotional, health and well being, as well as their ideas about possible futures?  What access do they have to health care, and how are their families and communities being impacted? And how are they making sense of this experience?

The challenge for ethnographers is how to pursue these at a distance – e.g. via social media or personal connections that can be leveraged virtually. I don’t want to minimize those challenges. I only want to suggest to young researchers that it is OK to change your questions – and your contributions will likely be so much greater now, as you will be asking questions that none of us really have any answers to at all, and that speak to really pressing matters of the day, and of the futures we might imagine, and work to bring into being.


Crises and Opportunities for Re-Prioritizing Our Lives and Re-imagining the World


2007-08 was a year of multiple personal crises as I faced cancer, divorce, five surgeries, the death of my father, and a series of difficult decisions for what one doctor told me was “the most unusual case he had ever seen.” But I was lucky. I survived, and ten years later I am still drawing profound Life Lessons from the experience. I share a few of these here, in the hope that this may help others, as we collectively face different kinds of existential crises: both the immediate Conavirus scare, and the larger threat of Climate Change looming close behind.

(1) Seize the opportunity to grow, learn and change. If I had the chance to go back in time and skip the painful years of my treatment and recovery, I would not choose to do so. I am not the only survivor to feel that crises were a blessing in disguise, nor the only person to realize what really matters when we confront our mortality head on. Really grasping our own impermanence, and the loss of many things we love (including the ability to travel, go where we like, gather together, hug) – may be the greatest gift we can give ourselves, so we can more fully appreciate things we have taken for granted, and what we do have now. This is an opportunity to re-think all our priorities, re-evaluate our ways of living, doing, and being, and re-imagine the world in new ways.

(1) Know that it will be confusing. As I did when I faced cancer, we can look to experts and others who have experienced similar things for advice. But even they can’t see the future or know everything we might want or need to know.  We can expect all kinds of reactions: denial, rage, fear, panic, grief, acceptance, love. We have a lot to grieve right now, with small and large download-1losses in our immediate and long-term futures. It may take time, even beyond the immediate crisis, to process and heal; and new crises may be looming. Both individually and collectively we will likely experience many emotions. Allow for it all, and don’t try to rush to resolution. Slowing down and really feeling whatever comes up for us can be the best thing to do during times of tremendous uncertainty. Just trust that if we ride the waves, we will get to a clearer place where we will be able to really appreciate the lessons that are there to be learned.

(2) Be careful not to put your confusion onto others, and on the world. The impact of CoVID19 will be uneven. Some populations will be more vulnerable to the illness than others; some lives will be more impacted than others. Hold your own anxieties in check to better be there for those who most need it. The people who helped me the most during a time of tremendous personal turmoil were the ones who could hold space for me, who were able to seek out information for me when I couldn’t face reading one more web page with the word “carcinoma” sprinkled through it, who kept their own feelings about my divorce and disease in reserve.

(3) Don’t think you can out-plan it all. My cancer diagnosis helped me to realize that the best laid plans can turn on a dime, what we have one moment can be snatched from us without warning, and illusions of control are just that: illusions. But we can get better at responding to what happens, as it happens, in centered and clear ways. What can help? Slowing down, not proceeding with business as usual, listening more to others, and doing whatever helps you to stay centered and clear.

(4) Go inward to gather strength. We are being asked quite literally to go inward as we stay home and slow down from our normal routines. But how we go inward matters. Are we sitting in front of our computer screens, or TVs, numbing out, or fomenting anxiety for ourselves and others? Are we going about business as usual, just in “socially-distanced” ways? Or are we really going inward, to gather strength?

When I faced cancer, I learned the power of meditation: of calming and centering myself in order to face whatever I needed to face. I continue to meditate daily, which helps me to calm my own anxieties and better support others with theirs. We need people who can hold the pain of the world right now. That means sitting with our own pain and confusion, and meditative practices can really help. There are lots of on-line resources for developing or cultivating a practice of meditation. You could even sit together on-line with friends.

(5) Take in the profound nature of our interconnection. I believe the cancer I faced was partly the result of stressors I had lived with for years, as well as toxins in the environment. We face a different kind of disease now, but one that may also well be the product of environmental change. The spread of the disease makes evident our social interconnections; no walls can keep this virus out. (The idea that we can solve our social problems by building walls is equally an illusion.) We can expect more, future impacts on our lives as glaciers melt, sea levels rise, species go extinct, ecosystems are altered, people are forced to flee their homes, migrants get crammed into camps at borders. (Think about how vulnerable refugees may be to the Conavirus, with already difficult living conditions, and little soap to wash their hands…) I do not say download-5this to raise fears, only to see as clearly as we can what is in front of us, so we can make more conscious choices, as the CoVID19 is helping us to do now.

(6) Re-imagine and re-invigorate our social ties. To combat the silent enemy of the Conavirus, we are being asked to “distance” ourselves socially, and to work with “remote” connections. I suggest we change that vocabulary, and use this instead as a time to re-imagine and re-invigorate our interconnections. Pick up the phone and talk to someone you haven’t called in a long time. Write handwritten letters to the people you love. Use Skype, zoom, or whatever – not just to do business, but to feel connected with each other during this time of social isolation. We can laugh, cry, and dance together on line, read stories to our nieces and nephews, entertain our elderly parents, or lean out our windows to sing with our neighbors, taking inspiration from our friends in Italy:

(7) Treasure this moment, right here, right now. Whatever you are doing: caring for a child or an elderly parent, searching for toilet paper, washing your hands, fretting over the latest news, recording your thoughts in a journal, talking with a friend: remember, you are alive, and you get to have this moment right now. How you live it is your choice. I think about the many moments I have been able to live, post-cancer – filled with experiences of joy, but also drudgery and pain – and I am grateful that I have lived them ALL much more fully than I would downloadhave had I not really grasped the fact that there are no guarantees in life, at all – except the fact that we do, all, someday, die. How do you want to live this moment, here today? What really matters to you?

Note: I develop these ideas in different ways, and apply them to social science research, as well as to the larger aim of social transformation, in my latest book: Mindful Ethnography: Mind, Heart and Activity for Transformative Social Research (Routledge, 2019).

Giving Thanks under the Threat of Extinction


downloadIMG_4845On this pre-Thanksgiving travel day, I am riding a train from Copenhagen to Amsterdam – opting for ground travel rather than a much shorter plane ride, as my small contribution to reducing my overly large carbon footprint. I love traveling this way: seeing the land stretch out before me, mingling with locals, hearing the sounds of multiple languages, feeling the distances between points that are eclipsed in the air. Plus train travel offers undistracted time for reflection and writing.

I will be meeting up with two dear friends/colleagues from London (also traveling by train): Ann Phoenix and Elaine Bauer. I met Ann and Elaine in 2009 when I spent six weeks on sabbatical working on Ann’s study of “non-normative” childhoods (see, analyzing interviews with the adult children of immigrants who serve as language and cultural brokers between their families and the larger social world. It was such a treat to meld minds with these brilliant and generous women, and to build friendships that have stretched across space and time.

That year I was in recovery from what I now call my “year from hell:” a time of multiple losses dealt through cancer, divorce, five surgeries, and the death of my father. It took me a long time to move through the grieving process, to heal and reach a profound sense of gratitude not just for surviving, but for all I learned about what really matters in life by facing the losses head on. I have reflected on that journey in another Thanksgiving blog (, and I channeled what I learned from these life lessons into my work, culminating in a book that just went to press last week (

Ten years later, as I approach another milestone birthday, and as the world moves into an increasingly threatening climate emergency, I want to dig deeper on the gratitude front, and think hard about what my moral and ethical responsibility is to the world, given all that I have received in my lifetime. Because in so many ways, I have come to see that I have been gifted with living through the very best years of the entire history of the species on the planet (from my social location, with all the privileges that my whiteness and location in the global north accords).

What do I mean by “the best years of the species”? The world was expanding; the Cold War had ended; and things were looking up, including on the social front, through the expansion of human and civil rights, and on the economic front, via the expansion of the global economy. Travel became more affordable and globalization had not yet set in (thus the world actually looked quite different in different places; you didn’t see a Starbucks on every corner). Social media had not yet colonized our lives. And we did not yet realize the possibility of our species’ extinction.

Ironically, the very things that made my lifestyle more comfortable (and that made it possible for my parents to raise eight children in modest circumstances, such as the invention of convenience foods and plastic) are now the very things that are contributing to the threat of

What is my responsibility in the face of these realizations?

When Trump was elected, my brother Robert suggested, only half facetiously, that perhaps it was time for us aging white folks to sacrifice ourselves for the welfare of the planet: via self-immolation in front of the White House, much as Buddhist priests did to protest the Vietnamese war. Robert has also suggested, again only half facetiously, that perhaps everyone should be given a “death day” – an appointed time to check out, once we’ve used up our fair share of the resources needed for life.

downloadI don’t think I’m brave or enlightened enough to set myself on fire. I’m not sure I’ll ever be courageous enough to voluntarily “check out” of life.  And while I believe deeply in the equitable sharing of resources – not just a political stance, but one that was strongly enculturated by growing up in a family of ten people – I also recognize that even in an ideal world all resources can never be distributed with complete equity. We can strive to make things fair for others, but in the end, we each get what we get, of both tangibles and intangibles, such as our share of beauty, intelligence, love, belonging, and connection.

The question is, what do we do with what we get?

Perhaps we can do more good by staying alive and sharing our gifts with others than by sending shock waves through our families and nation through the kind of dramatic actions my brother suggested. (So please don’t worry that I am suicidal. Nor is my brother.)

The first thing we can do, I think, is to deeply and fully embrace what we have, with gratefulness, rather than focusing on what we didn’t get, or what we have lost. (However, as per my previous Thanksgiving blog, I realize that grieving can’t be rushed, anger and resentment can be part of the journey, and we can achieve a deeper sense of gratefulness when there is room for us to name our suffering as well.)

And then, we can do what we can to pay it all forward. The tangibles and the intangibles. Share what we have received with the world. For me, the spaces I most aim to do this are with my family, my students, and at B-Club. (See for blogs about this space that is my main place for community-engaged research and that is so dear to my heart; see also,204,203,200_

Feeling guilty or ashamed for what we have (as I have often done) won’t make the world a better place. Focusing on what we didn’t get won’t bring those things to us.  But we can make the world better by sharing what we have been given – and perhaps also by giving to others what we wished we had gotten ourselves. Perhaps, if enough of us do this, we can even turn the threat of extinction around, by moving beyond the grasping, never-enough, need-more-more-more human mentality that seems to have led us into this mess in the first place.

And we may even find that what we give to others comes circling back to ourselves – as indeed I have found, in the sense of connection, love and belonging I have received from B-Club love.

Visit to Adelanto ICE Processing Center


This blog reports on a  visit to the ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, California, organized by the Center for the Study of International Migration at UCLA.

We headed out from UCLA around 9:30 am on Thursday, November 14. Five of us packed in to the car: two Sociology professors (Roger Waldinger and César Ayala), two graduate students and I. Another student was to meet us near the Detention Center. The freeway was remarkably open, and we sailed across the City of Angels and out into the southeastern desert. In the car we discussed what we each anticipated the visit would involve, and realized that most of us had rather little idea of what to expect.

Ninety minutes later we encountered a sign telling us we had arrived at Adelanto: “The city of unlimited possibilities.” The irony was not lost on us.


We met at a coffee shop with our contact to the facilities, a visitor-volunteer who spends countless hours as well as her own money to support migrants. She keeps records about who is housed in the facilities, the status of their asylum cases, and other basic information. She helps them advocate for their rights and secure things they need, including visitors, basic supplies, and access to lawyers, as well as information, help and basic goods if and when they are released.  We were provided with a list of asylum seekers who don’t have families and friends in the area and who have not had visitors in a long time.

IMG_4758The facilities were tucked in a far corner of this desert town, itself already well isolated from the larger metropolitan area of Los Angeles. A sign bears the GEO label; this “Modified Community Correctional Facility” is actually a complex of facilities, including a prison and two migration detention center buildings, all run by the GEO group, a for-profit management company that claims it is “committed to providing leading, evidence-based rehabilitation programs to individuals while in-custody and post-release into the community.”

Isolation and separation are a large part of how the detention system works, like the prison system. People in detention are removed from the larger society – kept out of sight and thus out of mind. They are further separated and isolated within the centers, with visits possible only under carefully controlled situations. I spoke with a migrant from Ghana who told me there were three other Ghaneans in the facility, but they were (seemingly deliberately) housed in separate units, and had been discouraged from talking to each other. Men and women are also separated, not surprisingly, with different visiting days for each.  I don’t know where transgender people – a growing group of refugee seekers escaping persecution in their home countries – would be housed. Thursdays were designated for men.

IMG_4768We walked into the reception area. A framed poster behind the front desk read, “General Library” and sported an image of neatly organized books. To the right of the desk was a notice for “Attorney Appointments” with a phone number. There were two bank-teller-like machines across from the desk with a potted fern in between. These machines boasted “Send money the fast, easy, reliable way.” Other signs on the walls included one that decIMG_4769lared, “Keep Detention Safe” and proclaimed “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse and assault. The waiting area off to the side was lined with blue plastic chairs, and sported another series of framed posters: pristine images from around the facilities, all eerily devoid of people.

A guard in a powdered blue button-down shirt and uniform grey pants welcomed us, though “welcome” is surely not the right word. Most of the receptionists and guards that we interacted with that day avoided eye contact and stuck with the regulations: recording our names and the numbers of the migrants we wanted to visit, collecting our government-issued IDs, handing us keys to lock up our valuables – or not just our valuables, but rather everything we had with us, down to the chapstick I found in my pocket. We were given badges with our visitation numbers. The guards showed little curiosity about why our merry band was there.IMG_4770

One of our members had forgotten to bring his license. Not surprisingly, he was told that he would not be allowed to enter the facilities. This was an awakening to the privilege that many of us operate with: to move about the world without carrying official documentation of our legal status, not expecting to encounter checkpoints where our entry would be barred.

After waiting for some time in the waiting area, we were told we could proceed through the security detector. We were escorted by armed guards through a series of heavily bolted doors, past a window into the guards’ area where we saw a large board filled with handcuffs of different sizes, and into a holding area, where a “Continuum of Care” poster was prominently displayed.Screen Shot 2019-11-17 at 3.40.34 PM

We were then allowed into the visiting area: a room set with small tables and chairs, not unlike the one in the waiting room poster. Five or six men were there, waiting, spaced around the room. We were told where to sit – across from the migrant we had signed up to visit, not next to him. (This arrangement made it hard to hear – a fact that was aggravated by the ambient noise in the room.)

There were strict regulations about how people many could be in the room at the same time, and who could be mixed with whom. No recording instruments were allowed past the waiting area: no phones, notebooks, pencils or pens. At the end of the visits, we were allowed to write down the names and bunk/dorm numbers of the migrants, and to offer them our contact information – but only under the strict vigilance of the guards, who gave us stubby pencils and small scraps of paper. One of my colleagues reached over the desk to borrow a pen to jot something down, and was promptly scolded by the guard: “You should ask to borrow my pen.”

The migrants were all dressed in clean blue prison-like garb, except one older man who was in orange, visiting with a middle-aged woman, three younger women of varying ages, and a baby. We learned from that this man had lived in Los Angeles for 25 years; he had been detained by ICE after a traffic stop, and was now awaiting his deportation hearing.

Later, we asked our guide about the different color uniforms. She explained that those migrants who are deemed “low risk” or “docile” wear blue; red is for those who are considered “belligerent;” orange is for those deemed “in between docile and belligerent.” There is a careful system of monitoring who gets to be in the room at the same time: red and blue are never to mix. Some migrants are also “quarantined” when they are ill.

I met with a migrant whom I’ll call Ronald. Ronald was from Ghana. He had been in detention since December. He had left Ghana in June last year, traveling to Ecuador, then by boat to Colombia, and up through the Panamanian jungle. He said it was “very difficult” and he talked repeatedly about pain –both physical and psychological. I did not get a clear story about Ronald’s asylum case, though he mentioned that someone had wanted him killed. When I asked him what he wanted me to say to the world on his behalf, he said, “I am not a criminal. Not here, not there, and I never will be.” He made clear that he felt he was being treated as one. (We might wonder, just what are refugee seekers to be “rehabilitated” from, in GEO’s Continuum of Care?)

Ronald told me that he works in the cafeteria for 7-8 hours a day. For this, he is paid $1/day. He needs the money to buy items at the prison’s commissary (at heavily marked up prices) or to make phone calls – the phone calls that are promised in a waiting room poster. These phone calls cost $1 per MINUTE.

In the afternoon, I met with another migrant at the other unit of the detention center – this after our group waited for more than an hour. Eduardo (a pseudonym) was from Honduras.  His story was that he had been recruited by his uncle, who was a drug lord, into a gang. “I am not a killer,” he told me, and he felt he had to leave Honduras or be killed for his resistance. His asylum case had been denied, but was under appeal. He was afraid for his life, should he be deported back to Honduras. And he had lost contact with his wife and children.

Eduardo teared up as he, like Ronald, told me of his suffering. His immediate concern was physical pain. He had been hospitalized a few days earlier and had returned to find that his things had been stolen (documents and a few items he had purchased in the commissary, his pain medication, and the Claritin that he needed for allergies.) But it was the indignity that he had experienced that seemed most distressing: going in handcuffs to the hospital, then returning, still in great pain, and being told he had to stand in line like everyone else for his dinner. When he couldn’t stand, the guard let him sit down – but then told him he couldn’t eat.

When we parted, Eduardo asked me to call his mother to tell him he was ok. He asked me not to tell her about the pain he was in.  But the guard insisted that he write down the number for me. This meant that Eduardo had to translate the phone number into English for the guard. Perhaps it was a problem that arose in the translation or transcription, but when I called that number, and spoke in Spanish asking for Eduardo, I was met with the voice of an angry woman who told me, “Speak in English or get out of this country.”

These are just two of many migrants’ stories. Some eventually pass through the system and are released on bail to await their asylum hearings – like Donaldo, a 21-year-old Cuban who met with César.  Donaldo was released a few days later. With help from César and the foundation that supports migrants, he managed to post his $7500 bail, rent the required GPS surveillance device that will be used to track him, buy new clothes (because the clothes migrants bring into detention often do not serve them upon release), purchase a ticket to Tampa, stay over night in Los Angeles, and fly out to stay with relatives. Note: Without the help of foundations that post bail, migrants are left to borrow the money from bondspeople, who charge $1000 plus 20% of the bond. [One of the best ways you can help refugees is to contribute to organizations who post bonds. See below for a links.]

A few migrants may eventually be granted official refugee status. A few may give up on detention and opt to return to their home countries on their own. Others will be deported, to uncertain fates.


When we walked out the door at the end of the day I felt a tremendous surge of gratitude for freedoms I take for granted every day: to walk where I want to walk, in the open air, sunshine, or night sky. To eat what and when I choose. To purchase basic supplies, treat my own allergies, and go to the doctor without handcuffs around my wrists. Never mind to live without fear for my life.

Certainly, refugees suffer in many places around the world, not just the Unite States. Thousands are crowded into tents in northern Africa and put onto islands off the coast of Australia. There have been refugees throughout history who have been denied entry to this and other countries, even when we knew they were at risk for being rounded up and sent to their deaths.

But this clinical, neat, clean, prison-like approach seems uniquely American, and driven by a profit motive. Note that GEO’s stock portfolio shows a huge spike in November, 2016, right after Donald Trump was elected.Screen Shot 2019-11-17 at 3.29.23 PM

To me, the overall look and feel of Adelanto’s detention center was eerily reminiscent of the concentration camp I visited outside Munich this summer. Dachau was begun as a work camp, not an extermination camp; but that work was done in service to the nation, by people that the nation did not value as their own. I wonder what other Germans knew about what went on in these camps.

The American detention center system is not an extermination camp, though when we deny asylum we may well be sending people to their deaths. It is not a work camp, though at $1/day migrants’ labor surely contributes to the profits GEO reaps. But the parallels still bear consideration. Surely we can learn from history about the importance of knowing what is being done behind barbed wires, by people our nation deems less than fully human, in our name?

What we can do in the face of this system? I went to Adelanto in order to see with my own eyes the things that my government wants to keep out of view. I wanted to listen to people, hear their stories, and give them a chance to be heard. I wanted to respond to Ronald’s plea: “I need someone to talk with to receive my pain and sadness.” And I wanted to bring migrants’ stories to a larger public, so that no one can say, “But we didn’t know.”

The Center for the Study of International Migration at UCLA will continue to organize monthly visits. If you’d like to join us, please contact me or reach out the Center. We are also organizing letter-writing campaigns and a penpal program with migrants. This in addition to our work bringing together diverse forms of scholarship about migration matters. Check out the calendar of events at

See also for a list of actions you can take in support of migrants, including links to foundations that provide bail funds.

A proud mamá moment and reflections on all the gifts to the world that are lost


May I be a proud mama for a moment? I am filled with so many feelings as I contrast my personal joy with the pain I see in the world around me, and it’s all blurring together; I hope you will indulge me in sharing both.

First, I’m brimming with admiration at the hard work my son has done over the last four years at Berklee College of Music, where he has both pursued his love of jazz music as a tenor saxophone player, and acquired a whole new set of skills as an electronic sound designer. He has put together his musicality and these new technical skills to produce these three songs, which are now available on Spotify, Itunes, and other music platforms. He composed the music, plays sax and synthesizer on these tracks, mixed the sounds and did all the production work.

Have a listen:  (Or find it on your favorite music platform – Prism by Abstract Apathy.)

So that’s my proud-mama-bragging. But now I want to shift to some other thoughts and feelings that are jumbled together with this pride.

I know some people may look at my children and see them as white-looking, privileged children of a UCLA professor. On the one hand, this is who they are. I was able to pay for Andres’ college education (with the help of scholarships he earned), and he got to take music lessons while he was growing up. He also benefited from a public school that funds and supports arts education, including a fabulous jazz program.

But for the record, I wasn’t a professor when my kids were born; and I was one of eight children with a father who dreamed of but never got to go to college. Further – and more to the point that I want to make in this political moment: their own father was what would today be called an “unaccompanied minor:” he crossed the border at age 16, with his siblings, to join his mother, who had left Guatemala eight years before, to work in a garment factory in downtown LA, in order to send money back to her six children, who were struggling to survive under a military dictatorship in Guatemala. He was fleeing poverty and war in Central America – war that was funded and supported by the U.S.A. and that reverberates today in a new round of refugees.

And so, as I listen to the beautiful music Andrés has gifted to the world, I think about the young people who have recently died in the hands of the border patrol – all young, all from Guatemala – who didn’t get to pursue their own dreams, didn’t get to have children who got to go to college, didn’t get to follow their own passions, didn’t get to have the opportunities that my children got, due to sheer luck, pathways to citizenship, and quality public education.


I hope you will enjoy Andrés’ music, and take in the fact that he is the son of someone not unlike the 16-year-old who died this month in the hands of the border patrol: Carlos Hernández Vásquez.  (Say his name.) We might wonder at how much talent is lost to the world every day. What would happen if we treated all people as precious, as full of possibility, and supported them in surviving the injustices that have delimited their lives, and finding the gifts that they can offer to the world?


Becoming Marjorie Elaine?



I am trying on the idea of changing my name. After 35 years living legally as Marjorie Elaine Orellana, or, in my professional life, in a hyphenated state (without actually using a hyphen), as Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, I am preparing to cut off the last six syllables of my public persona, and privilege my given names, not the ones I inherited or married into: Marjorie Elaine. That rolls off the tongue easily; I could gloss it as Marjelaine or Marjolaine (which happens to be a lovely herb).

downloadI had thought my choices were to continue to walk the world as Marjorie Elaine Orellana (my legal name) or to file for an official reversion to my “maiden” name (Marjorie Elaine Faulstich), returning me as the person I once was: the sixth child and third daughter of Anna Marie Walter and Charles Nicholas Faulstich.  But this left me feeling tugged between two poles of patriarchy that no longer served my life. I’m not sure I would know how to re-become Margie Faulstich.  Nor would I necessarily want to.

In dropping Faulstich, I mean no disrespect to my own father.  In fact Charles Nicholas was the only b7db2a1357be94fc8c63aa9c330ad266person who ever called me Marjorie Elaine. Choosing to be Marjorie E. Laine is about connecting with my father, in my own unique way, and with my self: a version of myself that holds some continuity with the past, while offering a fresh way to move into the future. (Though I must admit, there is a part of me that is declaring: “Fuck the patriarchy” – something little Margie Faulstich would never have dared say.)

It’s not a simple thing to change a name that I have used professionally and personally for so many years.  I see this as a time of transition, and take inspiration from those who have made much more complex transitions, such as between gendered identities.  I will have to petition for the legal right to be Marjorie E. Laine; pay a fee; be prepared for reactions from – and confusion among – colleagues, families and friends; figure out how to change the domain name and master-head for this blog (something I’ve attempted, and was stymied by – so it may have to remain as is), and a gazillion other things.  It’s possible all of that will feel too daunting.  I may just take the path of least resistance and remind myself that a name is…just a name. My name does not define my character, and it can never name all that I am. A surname is a tag to mark some ties to other people. (Indeed, a reason to remain Marjorie Orellana is to mark my ties to my own children; but I trust that our bond does not depend on our names.)

I have written several longer versions of this announcement, elaborating on my thought processes, and reflecting on the meanings and histories of names. (Did you know that Faulstich loosely translates as “Lazy Bones?” Or even worse: “Putrid Wound”? There is some hidden history there that bears exploration, and perhaps some very old wounds to heal.  Just how did all my “Lazybone” family members gain such reputations as hard workers, who always do more than their share? )

Sharing drafts with a few friends and family members, I have been inviting responses. Reactions have helped me to consider things I want to examine further. I am sure that work will continue as I try on the idea of becoming Marjorie Elaine, and see how the world responds to her.  So while I am not looking for opinions about whether or not I should make this change – that’s something I need to decide for myself – I welcome your thoughts about names, choices, and life transformations.

The LA teachers’ strike and the ratification of the rights and needs of teachers, children and families


49501656_10156582604186928_187270869142208512_nI walked the line in ’89.  I was a teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District when the teachers’ union (UTLA) led the last teachers’ strike.  Thirty years later, I see things from a somewhat different angle.  I’m happy to report one big difference between 1989 and now: LA teachers asked for – and won – much more than a modest and well-deserved pay raise for themselves. They advocated loudly and clearly  for the rights of children and families in a public education system that has been severely eroded over the years since I left the classroom.


In 1989 conditions in schools were challenging too, but those problems weren’t up front and center in the strike rhetoric. Then, one of the biggest issues was overcrowding.  I worked in a multi-track, “year-round” school, where three classes shared two classroom spaces, rotating between them – and shuffling all our materials – as each class came on for two months and then off for one throughout the year.  Then, as now, we were short-staffed on support services. Once a week we had access to a school psychologist, whose main job was to conduct testing, not secure services for kids who had experienced multiple traumas in the new-immigrant, high poverty school where I worked. There was only one part-time nurse on duty to serve a school of 700 kids. Students were not allowed to run on the asphalt playground for fear of the scraped knees that could result. (And in schools with high levels of trauma, nurses play important roles in terms of providing kids some respite from psychosomatic illnesses.)

Image result for image Los Angeles teachers strike

Thirty years later, overcrowded schools are not the biggest problem LA schools face. That is in large part due to gentrification and the exodus of students from public to private or charter schools – the continuation of a long process of “white flight” and a growing abandonment of everything public by those with the means to buy services.  But overcrowded classrooms are a real problem, with upwards of 45 students squeezing into many classrooms.  And support staff has shrunk even more. The strike called attention to these issues. The resolution of the strike does not mean that these problems are resolved, but at least there is an awareness of them, and some effort to address them.


In the 1980s there were groups within UTLA who advocated for the rights and needs of the children and families.  I worked with the Teachers Committee on Central America to support children whose families had fled civil war in their home countrieswars that were fueled with U.S. dollars and that left a legacy of violence that reverberates in the current migration crisis, which in turn shows up as trauma in our schools.  In the Human Rights Committee, we highlighted the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls for devotion to the best interests of all children, regardless of nationality, and for protections for children’s health, education and well-being. This convention has been ratified by all members of the United Nations except the United States.

Image result for image Los Angeles teachers strike

The advocacy work for children and families that was relegated to special UTLA committees in the past are at the center stage today. The union made the issues of investment in community schools, special education, early childhood and bilingual education central to the strike.  From my current standpoint, I know that there are no easy solutions to entrenched social inequities. But Los Angeles teachers gave us all the opportunity to publicly ratify the human rights of teachers, families and all children, and to call for an end to the erosion of public education in the second largest school district in the nation. Thank you to UTLA and to the teachers of LAUSD.