US-Cuban Educational Exchanges and the Culture of Peace

Sharing a second article I co-authored published in the “Forum on International Education” that examined how US students studying in Cuba helped promote a culture of peace.

I do believe that in gradual ways having exchanges between students and faculty in the two countries helped contribute in some small way to the diplomatic opening finally occurring between the two near neighbors.  Sad it had to take so long, but pleased it finally seems to be happening.

Hopefully, Guantanamo will be the next issue to be resolved between the two nations!


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International Education Flows between the United States and Cuba (1959-2005)

As a way of celebrating the recent changes in US policy towards Cuba, I am sharing my research article published in the Journal of Cuban Studies, Vol, 37.  This article drew upon my experiences and research into US-Cuban relations, and the role that educational exchanges played in it.  Key people in both Cuban and the US were very generous in sharing their time and thoughts with me in writing this article.

At that period in my life, I was dedicating a good part of my professional time to working with Cuban educational programs.  In fact, I was the leader of the last summer study away program before the US government decided to change the rules to make it very hard to run study away programs in Cuba.  Gratefully, all of this policy see saw will now (hopefully) be a thing of the past!

Skye Stephenson Cuba article

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Photo of my father, James H. Stephenson, taken when a soldier in WWII.

Photo of my father, James H. Stephenson, taken when a soldier in WWII.

BARTH-town in Germany where my father was a prisoner of war in WWII

I like to think my heart
is as hard as stone,
cool and glinting;
tested by the upheaval of life
and lives
to know better than to cry
for personal and planetary
histories that have long gone by.

And yet today I stood by a stone
in a place called Barth
And – truly – cried
and cried
my heart out.

On those flat and flaxen fields
where now the sun
yields its harvest
of pulsating energy divine
that can stream through a machine
And move the pulse of time;

Yes, upon those meadowed lands
where these days grey-haired
German gents
quietly walk their canine breeds,
giving them some yearned for fresh air….

In those same fields
two generations past
sat my father –
bound by barbed wired vistas
as the Baltic winds raced through his frigid bones,
and turned his heart– forever – into icy glass.

A simple metal plaque,
placed upon the lonely stone,
stands as sentinel
to all that once existed in that windswept land –

placed there years
After my father’s
too soon death.

“Nothing has been forgotten”
It mutely claims.

But is that truly so?

My father spent a lifetime
running from his shadows,
and trying to forget a place
his fellow compatriots later said
Could never be

Oh my father dear,
how I wish I could share this memory
gathered today in this solitary space;

All alone I stood
and wished that you were by my side,
holding my hand,
wiping my tears away –

For this place –
unknown to me until a scant moment ago –
not only haunted you,
but it has haunted me as well.

It has stalked me as a feline might,
or better put a cobra,
twisting around my soul,
squeezing me unexpectedly,
bringing in the rains and pains
that I must have inherited
from you – my courageous father
of the artist soul – who never should have
had to go to war.

And I can only pray
and wish that what I did today
may help in some so subtle way
free my own children of the legacies
of wartime degradations
“never to be forgot.”

Be free, my son and daughter;
Linger long in the sun’s regal song
as you let its solar energies erase
any wartime memories
etched from generations past
deep in your innards, in the innards of
your souls.

Let them go,
to be forgotten as so many
things that ebb and flow in our lives.

And all I can say
is that rather then “never forgotten,”
let’s strive instead for
“never again.”

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It is only when we give up the strife;
moving forward to create a resplendent shining life,
that we access the simplest of secrets
which is that all the universe
and the universes yet to be born
dwell within each of our tiny cells,
just as they do in Sirius, Pluto and Orion.

So rejoice in this cosmic tale
of all life pulsating bright and strong,
and know that if you can step forth with your heart aflame
with the secret that can never be revealed,
which is that you are the tiniest of seeds
awaiting the gentle rains and bright sun
to grown into full plenitude
of all you were meant to be and have yet to become.

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World Family

What kind of world do you want to re-create?

If you make your family bigger indeed,
you will find that your arms encompass all the seas;
your hair flows like the rivers,
your arms become a tendrils of vines,
your feet root into obsidian,
and you are sprinkled with star dust, moonlight and sunbeams
in your gentle and peaceful eyes.

And when that happens, and when day is through,
It will be a better place for me and for you.

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The Peace Tree – Episode #2

One year ago, I wrote my monthly column about the peace tree in Keene: a special elm sapling donated to a state-wide peace conference held in Keene in 2012. At the opening ceremony of this conference, we made a blessing for peace over a large bucket of sacred water and all the participants offered small amounts of this water to the tree – imbuing it, from a ceremonial perspective, with our deep intentions and gratitude.

This small sapling resided in my backyard for more than a year, while the perfect spot was found for it in Keene. When the new North Park was inaugurated, this elm sapling (which was still quite spindly, standing about three to four feet tall) was planted with great fanfare at one corner of the park; a plaque (almost larger than the tree) commemorated the event.

And then, in May of 2014 (as I wrote last year), this tree was mowed over, cut down almost to the ground. Shards of its branches were scattered around the area while the nearby plaque still stood strong – proclaiming it to be a Liberty Elm. We wondered, perhaps, if there was something symbolic in this unintentional damage to the peace tree.

Gratefully, the Parks and Recreation team replaced the mowed down elm with a new one: bigger, taller, and stronger than the original. It now stands next to the plaque and is doing quite well. I want to publicly thank the people from Parks and Recreation for this act. It was truly the most healing thing they could have done, given the circumstances.

But the story of the peace tree continues…almost miraculously. When the new elm tree was planted, we noticed that the original elm, which had been cut down almost to the base, had already begun to regrow a rather frail looking trunk, which – truth be told – looked more like a branch than a trunk. We decided to replant this very small, frail fragment a few feet away, where the mowed grass meets the free and wild area that composes the center of the park.

Throughout the summer and into the fall, the little peace tree continued to grow upwards, gaining a few inches and sporting an odd looking trunk that looks more like two intertwined branches emerging from the ground. As the inevitable snows began to arrive, we wondered if this peace tree, already such a survivor, would make it through the winter.

And what a winter we had. So much snow. So long. Finally, when it all cleared out this spring, I headed down to see how the trees had fared. Lo and behold, the little original peace tree was still alive, and even a bit taller. (So too was the newer, bigger one). What great news!

A few weeks ago, I noticed that someone – perhaps carelessly; perhaps in passing, not paying attention; had snipped off the top few inches of what is still a very thin branch/trunk. And it lay on the ground nearby.

My heart leaped a beat. Another time something had happened to hurt this tree. Why, I wondered, was this happening again – albeit to a lesser extent?

And once again, this belabored sapling continued to fight, not giving in, still standing strong and sending forth a new sprout; continuing to grow. If you stop by North Street Park, you perhaps can spot it.

Last night I had the pleasure to have dinner with the man who had come from Boston for the Peace Conference, and who had led the water ceremony. I believe he would be not be uncomfortable with me commenting that he is African-American, and has done deep ceremonial work with Malidoma Some – one of the most eloquent writers and shamans I know, who is originally from Burkina Faso. Some holds two doctorates: one from the Sorbonne and one from Brandeis University.

I wanted to tell my friend about the peace tree, the one he had helped initiate, the one we watered together more than two years ago. As I told him the story, we both marveled about how this peace tree was truly embodying peace, in the deepest meaning. Even after being knocked down by a ruthless machine, and being later snipped and cut for no reason at all except that it was there: it came back. In fact, it seems to be coming back stronger than before.

We thought of all the peace workers and activists we have known personally and also historically, and the situations right now facing our country around institutional violence against minorities, and we conjectured how peace somehow, almost miraculously, can and does emerge even after those advocating for it have been ostensibly “cut down”, “broken” and “silenced.”

One of the greatest human right advocates I had the pleasure of knowing during my many years living in Chile – Jose Zalaquett – once told me in an interview that true peace is not the peace of the graveyard, silent and unmoving; rather it is the peace of action, of resistance to injustice, and that this peace is very powerful indeed.

So our little peace tree in Keene is a small, tangible reminder that there is room for optimism, even when things look like they are lost; that one should never give up the good fight, the struggle, for a more peaceful place both within and without.

My friend and I also decided that our Keene peace tree is a tangible reminder of a very important aspect of all indigenous and Earth-based practices the world over – which is that ceremony and ritual done with deep intention, respecting and connecting with the energies of the natural world (i.e. water, tree, etc.) truly shift and enhance the energy of the ceremonial object in powerful, yet imperceptible ways. So many of us blessed that sapling, thanked it, offered it water, offered it our heart wishes – maybe it made this little sapling stronger, more able to withstand its multiple cutting downs, more willing to come back again, against all odds.

And it may just be that some of the healing our planet and humanity so desperately need now may come more from the power of ceremony and ritual than from any thing our modern day technology can devise to help correct some of the problems we created in the first place when we become so disconnected to the Earth and its many beauties around us.

Published Jun 2015, Monadnock Shopper.

Posted in ceremonies, ceremony, Keene, New Hampshire, Peace, sacred wisdom, Skye Stephenson, trees | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Peace Tree – Episode 1

Healing comes in many forms and shapes, including trees. This column today is about several special trees, and the choices offered to us human in how we treat these fellow living beings who share space with us on planet Earth.

The first I want to talk about is a small liberty elm donated to the New Hampshire Peace conference held at Keene State College several years ago. We used this young sapling in our opening ceremony – lining up and one by one pouring water upon it as we spoke our intentions for peace and good-will.

This elm was then donated to the City of Keene. Since it was not the best time of year to plant it, I was lucky enough to bring the elm sapling to my house. For almost a year we carefully tended that sapling, even putting aluminum foil around its base when red ants seemed to be attacking her.

And then a home was found for the peace tree, one corner of the recently designated North St. Park. Parks and Recreation planted it carefully, kindly crafting a marker – taller than the tree – with its identification number. We held a ceremony for the opening of the park and the planting of the tree. Various City officials came, including the Mayor.

I would often stop by on my neighborhood walks to check on the tree and make sure it was okay. Scott, who runs the nearby market, also felt a special connection to this liberty elm, as did others community members as well, perhaps.

Thus when Beliza, an Ecuadorian exchange who is indigenous, shared with me the story of her tree, I felt I could really understand. Beliza explained that in her village, when every child reached the age of 5, they are given a tree to take care of. This tree became their responsibility, and their well-being is considered to be connected with their special tree.
Beliza told me that one of the hardest things about leaving her village was being so far from her tree. She said, “You may not believe this but one time I was feeling very bad in Quito, I did not know why, and when I returned to my village I discovered that my tree was sick, and I had to take care of it and make it well again.”

Two weeks ago I was uncharacteristically out of sorts – mad at the world, feeling the pain of unknown origins that reside beyond me full force. I had no clue why I was so out of kilter until my husband told me, gently and kindly, that someone had pulled the peace tree down.

Some detective work uncovered that the liberty tree had been mowed down. I found pieces of its shredded branches and trunk scattered around its once upon a time home. Whether by “mechanical mistake” or “human carelessness,” the beautiful peace tree that so many of us had wished upon and were inspired by was turned into splinters in a short second or two by large steel blades spinning via gasoline powered fires. (Note: They (i.e. city officials) say they will plant another tree – bigger and better.)

In our community now, others are saddened because trees special to them – without their consultation – are ostensibly to be cut down due to regulations in a government grant for runway expansion. Glad to know that there are others who feel attached to their trees, even in the harsh society we live in where clearly marked trees get mowed over unnecessarily and airport runways take precedence over tree preservation agreements.

And I wonder if we will ever move towards the kind of community that Beliza grew up in – where each one of us has our own special tree to tend and care for – a tree that we are connected with and whose existence is intertwined with our own. A place where a tree is considered sacred and wise, and is treated with respect and dignity. considered sacred and wise, and is treated with respect and dignity.

Published in the Monadnock Shopper, May 2014

Posted in elms, New Hampshire, Peace, sacred trees, skyestephenson | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment