Humane Education in Action: Nurturing the Roots of Compassion, Striking at the Roots of Violence

Humane educator AmyLeo Barankovich is passionate about creating a better world for all beings by nurturing the roots of compassion through educating young children, and by striking at the roots of violence through working with people in prisons. AmyLeo's Teaching Compassion program, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, offers several classes for children in grades K-3. She uses stories, music, drama, art, and movement to teach children about compassion. And, through the Alternatives to Violence Project she leads workshops promoting nonviolence and compassion in prisons. AmyLeo kindly shared with us about her work for a better world.

IHE: What led you to the path of humane education?

ALB: I have been an animal rights activist since the mid 1980’s. My contribution to the movement has taken various forms, most of which has been with the Animal Rights Coalition. At one point I reached burnout from being barraged with facts, statistics, and images of animals being inhumanely treated for the sole purpose of satisfying human wants and (perceived) needs.

Eventually I withdrew completely from animal advocacy, as I was becoming paralyzed by the anger towards my own species and the destruction we were causing to so many animals and their habitats. It was during this hiatus that I realized that, in good conscience, I could not stay away from this work. I knew that in order to sustain this work for a lifetime I had to take another approach.

My experience has been that children have an innate love for animals. Unfortunately our culture, by and large, does not nurture this love. With this loss of empathy for animals at such a tender age, and the fact that we cannot legislate our way into compassionate living, it became clear to me that the next leg of my journey was education with young children. I chose humane education because it is a very holistic approach, and because it encourages critical thinking and has a profound opportunity to instill a lasting respect for the living community. Thus the birth of Teaching Compassion, which is sponsored by the Animal Rights Coalition.

IHE: Through your Teaching Compassion program, you bring humane education to young children (and adults) through stories, music, art, movement, and drama. What drew you to choose those creative outlets as your tools for teaching about compassion?

ALB: I became burnt out from the facts and statistics – a very dry and depressing form of information -- and information I believe to be inappropriate to place upon young children. I did not want to burden them with the ills of how humans exploit and harm so many animals. I wanted to focus on the positive rather than the negative; to offer children a rare glimpse into the glories and wonders of animals and the natural world. To show this to them is the planting of a seed that has the chance to last a lifetime. Because the arts touch the human soul in profound ways, it seemed very fitting to pair the arts with another realm of existence that also touches the human soul in profound ways: animals and the natural world.

IHE: You offer 10 different classes for children in grades K-3 to help them develop empathy for animals and the earth. Tell us about some of your classes.

ALB: One of the classes, Creating Compassionate Connections, has five parts. This five-part series provides children with experiences intended to help them develop awareness, respect, and compassion for all the beings who share the planet.

  1. It starts with Are Gorillas Like Us – a look at the similarities between gorillas and humans. This class serves as a gateway to recognizing that there are similarities between humans and all animals. Children are introduced to Srima, the Teaching Compassion ambassador. Srima is a lifelike plush chimpanzee who attends each and every class. The children tend to bond with her before they bond with me. We hoot and snort like the chimps, we move as they move, we learn what they eat and where they sleep and how they have social lives and family lives very similar to our own. Srima also reminds the children how to be kind to their classmates should any disruptions occur.
  2. The series then moves on to look at the importance of the Not So Creepy Crawlies, ants and bees. In these classes, children meet Ant Louise and Beeatrice, lifelike ant and bee puppets. In the ant class we hear Ant Louise’s story and read Hey Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose, which segue beautifully into a conversation about respect for all beings.
  3. In the bee class, the children learn about the life of the bees as we perform the waggle dance with Queen Beeatrice and her swarm of 10 worker bees (finger puppets worn by the children) before heading out to forage nectar and pollen to bring back to the hive. We read The Bumble Queen, by Pulley Sayre, in which the children learn about the life cycle of bees and how their community functions.
  4. What Do Trees Do? looks at how even trees are similar to us. We move our bodies through the seasons as we imagine how a tree might respond to the different kinds of weather throughout a year. Children learn about the life cycle of a tree: from the growth of a seedling to the tall mature tree that provides food and shelter to numerous species of animals and other life forms to the tree's death and decomposition and all the various life it supports as it returns to soil.
  5. The final session is a virtual Nature Walk. First, in the book, Tin Forest by Helen Ward and Wayne Anderson, the children learn about an old man who creates a tin forest from the waste in the wasteland in which he lives. Eventually the forest is brought to life, and he befriends the animals who take up residence. Next, the children embark on the virtual tour of a forest in which they collect feathers, pine cones, buckeyes and other natural objects they would find on a forest floor. After gathering in a circle and sharing about what they found, we talk about the importance of returning all that we find so we do not to disrupt the natural cycle of the forest.

IHE: In working with younger kids, I’m sure you have some inspiring and memorable stories. Care to share one or two?

ALB: One summer I offered Teaching Compassion at a summer camp. One of the classes focused on ants and bees. We talked about their qualities, their life and their inherent value. The children had an opportunity to act as bees and ants act. They were introduced to the puppets, Ant Louise and Beeatrice. The children seemed to bond with them and began to appreciate these tiny creatures. One of the days following this particular class an assistant who had not attended the other classes came in. An ant was crawling across the floor, and the assistant made a motion that led one of the children to believe he was going to kill it. I was across the room working with some of the children on an art project. Unaware of the crawling ant and the assistant’s actions, I heard in a very assertive, loud voice “We are in Compassionate Kids and we don’t kill insects.” Whether or not the assistant had intentions to kill the ant I still do not know. What I do know is that this ant’s life was not going to be taken in the presence of this child.

At another summer event, I was teaching Circus Schmircus (grades 1-3), in which we read a graphic novel, An Elephant’s Life. The children learned about the life of Daisy, an elephant who has been captured from the wild to serve in the circus. They also learned compassion and critical thinking as they discovered what was required to teach Daisy the tricks and to keep her as a traveling performer. The content of the class is disturbing; we looked at the difference between the life of a circus elephant and that of a wild elephant. At the end of the class, a small Somalian boy, about age nine, strolled over to me, stopped, and with very sad voice and eyes said “I don’t like this. How can we make this stop?” He was holding onto the graphic novel as if this book were somehow the answer to his question. I was able to comfort him by giving him some actions he could take, such as letter writing, boycotting animal circuses, and educating his friends and family. To this day, I feel the tenderness in this child’s heart and can only hope that this experience has planted a lifelong seed for caring deeply for and respectfully treating animals.

IHE: You also conduct workshops in conflict resolution and nonviolence in prisons. What are you learning and noticing about that experience?

ALB: To best answer this question let me say a little about how I came to be a facilitator for the Alternatives To Violence Project (AVP). Between the time I had dropped out of animal advocacy and the development of Teaching Compassion, while seeking employment that fit within my ethics, I stumbled across Friends for A Non-Violent World, the sponsoring organization of AVP. The gentleman I spoke with succeeded in enrolling me in the first level of the AVP training. Before I knew it I was on my way to becoming a facilitator. During this process I became keenly aware that the roots of animal abuse were the same roots as environmental abuse, which were the same roots as human abuse, which were the same as.... I could no longer separate the roots of exploitive and abusive human behavior. AVP became my commitment to my own species.

What has become apparent to me in my work with those who are incarcerated is that they are truly the same as those on the “outside.” I was confronted with my unexamined assumption that there exists an “us” and a “them”; and that I was clearly an “us.” Experience after experience showed me how easily any one of us could be in their shoes if we were raised in the utterly violent environments in which they had been raised.

I have seen many individuals recognize their destructive patterns and transform them. This work has been the key to their freedom from the walls of prison; either literally, when they are released to reenter society, or simply in allowing them to find freedom within their hearts and minds so they can live a more fulfilling life within the prison. This is one of the most humbling things I have witnessed in my lifetime.

Something else that I have noticed from my work with AVP is the tenderness and compassion that lies deep in the hearts of those who have committed violent crimes. The prison environment does not allow individuals, whether staff or those incarcerated, to be vulnerable or to live from a place of compassion; to do so can literally risk their well-being. Because of the nature of the workshops and the safe environment they create, AVP facilitators see a side of those who are incarcerated that most people do not see. I have been deeply touched by their experiences, their stories, and their transformation. I have met a number of individuals who, despite the harsh and sterile environment of their prison life, have come to realize the inherent cruelties within the meat industry and have chose to be vegetarian for this reason alone. This is no small feat, as the food in the prison industry is abysmal.

My biggest lesson from volunteering in prisons is this: short of sociopaths, there is love and respect tucked in all of our hearts. It has simply been buried a bit deeper for some of us, thus demanding more attentiveness and practice to live from our hearts.

IHE: Any future plans, dreams or projects?

ALB: I am currently creating a conversation, Claim Humane: How might humans evolve into an ultimately humane species in which we no longer view or use animals as utility or resource?

The form this conversation will take has yet to be fully determined. As it now stands, it will be a presentation and salon, in which small groups of people engage in vibrant, respectful conversations about this topic. I am currently considering having a blog and some other web presence. It might also work well to have a weekly or monthly column in publications. Claim Humane will eventually have a global presence.

~ Marsha

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