One of the things that has always fascinated me is the diversity of vocations people find themselves in. Where a person has been is important information. Where I have lived, people I have met, and places I have experienced all have bearing on who I am and on who others think I am. With the inception of certain programs and apps, it is now easy to track where one has been. And, if you are a Facebook fan, you can even tell your friends all the places you have been, whom you were with, and even post pictures from your journeys – all in one place. Some people post everywhere they have been and everything they have done; others tend to be less self-revealing. One is not better than the other; they are just different styles. So what “social geographies” have importance to me? Which geographies have most shaped me into the person I am today, particularly in my vocation?
In his text Social Geographies: Space and Society, author Gill Valentine says that this field of study can best be summed up as follows: “the study of social relations and the spatial structures that underpin those relations.” Our bodies (and the bodies we meet along the way) shape who we are. The homes we live in (or don’t live in) also shape who we are. Communities and institutions also shape us, as do the urban or rural environments we find ourselves in. And, the nations, societies, cultures, and sub-cultures in which we live definitely shape who we are and who we become over time. The meanings we give to all of these places and experiences have great influence on the people we are. Yes, our nurture does make a difference. No matter who we are genetically, a large percentage of who we are is also based on where we find ourselves in this world. That is a large part of what this book is about. But are we “fated” to these spaces, or can we imagine ourselves into other spaces, new spaces? This question is an important, both as a student of social science and as a philosopher/theologian. Just how do social geographies fit with social imaginaries? A bottom-line question then becomes: Are we stuck or are we free? A related question becomes: Am I a victim of my environment, or can I escape from this predetermination?
I am a Baby Boomer who was born in the 50’s in East Los Angeles, California, to a lower middle-class family of third-generation Russian Molokans. I was a minority in a predominately Hispanic community. My parents were both blue-collar workers who both worked for Montebello School District. Conversations around our dinner table often revolved around the evil “certified employees” in the district. I grew up with a bias against the wealthy and the educated. “We” were we; “they” were they. “Us” and “them” conversations flourished around our table. And as we kids became older, the all-important question of higher education became a hot topic. Should we kids go to college? And if so, what should we study? What should we become? Do we stay with the status quo or do we become “the other”? Ironically, my two siblings and I became the “other.” Two of us became teachers (certified); one became a school secretary (classified). All of us made our livings from educational organizations. What caused these circumstances? Was it chance or was it divine providence? How much was intentional and how much was unintentional? I did not dream of becoming a teacher or a leader. Actually, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut or a stand-up comedian. So how did this unfold? How did I end up in higher education leadership? It was definitely not a straight-line journey. Actually, the older I get the more I doubt if there are any straight lines, where a person goes seamlessly from Point A to Point B.
As I look at my life, I see several pieces of my journey leading to this place, some were positive influencers, others, were negative influencers. As I have mentioned in previous posts, my home was not the healthiest place. So, to escape the chaos, much of my childhood was spent at my best friend’s house. This was a Mexican family where education was highly valued, not because the parents were educated but because they had high expectations for their five children. By the way, three of them became doctors; the other two went into education. The Galindo home was a social geography that laid some deep, heart-felt values in me. I am grateful for this family till this day and even as I am writing this post, my heart rejoices for the opportunities I had in this wonderfully loving and accepting home.
The next major influencer on me was the public school system. School was an escape for me. It was an escape into new worlds of reading and imagination, but it was also a place of escaping the fighting and dysfunction of my family. I loved school and school loved me. As early as seventh grade, I was voted as a student leader and continued in student leadership every year of my public education. With the encouragement of teachers and advisors I became a good student and a respectable leader. I have good memories of this social geography and of the certified employees there who spoke into my life.
I began attending Sunday School by myself while in first grade. I would wait on the corner for the Baptist Church bus to come by. Eventually each Sunday, my best friend Ramon Galindo and I would ride the bus together. I met Jesus while in fourth grade under the teaching of Mr. Hansel who literally, “scared the hell out of us” one morning. I will never forget that day. I wept myself to sleep that night. I kept going to church until my high school years. The youth groups I was involved in really rubbed off on me, so much so that for the first 16 years of my working life I did so as a youth pastor. Those years were filled with much joy, many changed lives, and eventually, with a lot of disillusionment and discouragement. As much as I loved the Church, the church leadership I hooked up with turned out to be far from Christ-like. So again, another institution shaped me, both for good and for ill. These proved to be serendipitous events as I began to consider what I really wanted to do with my life.
As I type this post, I am reminded of the next social geography that helped shape the person I am today. You see, I have an appointment this afternoon with a therapist with whom I have had a monthly meeting for almost ten years now. I started seeing a therapist 34 years ago. It has become a regular part of my mental health regime. This person has become influential in my understanding of myself and of those around me. I see life more clearly because of this commitment. And although our book does not mention counseling particularly, I see a counseling office as a community that has greatly helped to shape the inner person I am today. Two quotes come to mind that connect with this social geography. The first is by Father John Powell, a wonderful author and psychologist. Powell says, “We are shaped by the words people say…and by the words they refuse to say.” Sometimes, I have learned, we have to find someone to say the words to us that we have needed to hear since those who should have spoken remained silent. Sometimes a counselor can teach us to say the words to ourselves using healthy self-talk. This is a skill I have learned. The other quote is by Dr. John Ortmann, who said this, “Failure is not an event; it is the interpretation of an event.” If I have learned anything in the last 34 years, it is the fact that I am not a failure just because I have failed – and I have failed! Rather, failures are merely a part of my journey, the non-straight line journey that I have been on these past 59 years.
The last social geography I would like to point out is my time spent in other cultures, particularly in Egypt. What attracted me to the LGP program was the travel and global perspective that I hoped to gain while in the program. I have not been disappointed. But what caused me to have a love for other cultures, other perspectives, and other belief systems in the first place? I have been privileged to do quite a bit of international travel, primarily to Africa. I lived in Egypt for a couple of years while doing my master’s internship. That was one of the toughest stretches of my life. While there, I struggled with a new language, I struggled with depression, and I struggled with worldview understanding. But I came away different, shaped into a different form. My mind and by spirit were stretched. And I have never been the same since. I tell my students now that if they ever have an opportunity to do a portion of their studies cross-culturally to jump at the opportunity, and those who have done this always come back to thank me for the suggestion.
This post was very personal, more personal than I had intended to be. But I am OK with that. We all have a story; this is part of mine, such as it is. I would love to know your story as well and look forward to Hong Kong where we can all sit down around cups of tea sharing our stories…and celebrating Deve’s birthday together.
What social geographies have shaped you? Let’s sit and talk about that soon.
 Social Geographies: Space and Society, Gill Valentine (Harlow, England: Prentice Hall, 2001) 1.