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Allessandra Bradley-Burns Headshot

Searching For Answers In Cuba

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My preliminary thoughts the eve of heading to Cuba are a series of questions. These questions are about religion, technology, politics and human connection, areas that I have been a dedicated student of over the last twenty years. My first questions are broad: what will be the spiritual, technological and human development of a cloistered people who have experienced the benefit of a directed cultural and social policy? Whether or not one agrees with the Cuban political point of view, there is much to be admired in the Cuban commitment to not only educating, but providing life experiences that allowed people to grow into their belief and acceptance of socialist humanism. As a lifelong observer of human connection, I am intrigued by a political and social policy that builds in time to adjust as part of its political development.

As someone who has studied, guided and worked to craft elegant spaces for human interaction to take place, I am on the edge of my seat to learn from those who have grown up in a cultural revolution. In my own world, personal responsibility, commitment to the greater good, awareness of and responsibility to the needs of others were taught around the dining room table and the tables of my orthodox neighbors.

Our community recycled before it was in vogue or national policy. It was clear in Mari's kitchen that paper bags, egg cartons, first drafts were perfect resources for arts and crafts projects in the many families that surrounded us. When raising four children in a two bedroom apartment, where the financial resources that came in and those that went out were part of a communal flow tied up in religious, political and reasons of humanity, all of this generated daily activity was in response to our awareness of and response to the needs of our family and our community. I was raised in the microcosm of a tiny orthodox Jewish community just outside of Boston.

My own mother, left to raise two small biracial children in 1970 Boston, did not espouse the politics of a socialist agenda, but she lived it and raised my sister and myself in the dirt of her Fenway community garden, her co-op child care arrangement, and her willingness to live within the boundaries and strictures of another culture in order to provide us a safe home and good education. Years later I entered Georgetown so closely identified with the orthodox Jewish culture in which I was raised, that I thought my world history professor was joking when he spoke of Palestine. I could see that he was pointing to Israel on the map.

While the way that we grew up was a microcosm within a larger society driven by market principles and individualism, I am now eager to learn what it is like to grow up within a majority both educated and steeped in life lessons of focusing on the common good. Will these new friends feel like fellow tribesmen or entirely new?

For a short time in my early twenties I studied socialist economies in east Africa. I did so at a time when socialism as a political paradigm was a recent reaction to a colonialist history of oppression and the subjugation of indigenous cultural values to an outside force. The people themselves were just beginning to try on these concepts in order to make their own sense of them. Like a ball-gown given to an African grandmother from a small interior village, they were removing the train and repurposing it as head wrap, kanga, and baby carrier. It was an intriguing time to peek into the development of a new political identity of a people. It informs my hopes for this trip.

I am fascinated to learn more about how religious/spiritual consciousness has and is unfolding in Cuba. According to Dr. Meg Crahan: in 1950 Cuba, 5% reported themselves to be practicing Catholics. In recent studies, 75% identify as believing in the divine spirit and just about 50% say they practice some form of African or European religion. Does a strong and isolated political philosophy act as a replacement for religion with its well delineated parameters and expectations of behavior? Do these powerful and restrictive political philosophies repress religious opportunity so that a slight opening draws a multitude seeking for something less practical to believe in? Is there a pyrrhic dance at play or a symbiotic unfolding about to take place? As faith in the revolution erodes, does the search for a transcendental understanding of life increase?

I have recently done work with the Fahs Collaborative in Chicago. They are exploring concepts of faith development that do not require someone to unlearn concepts of God as they grow, in order to continue to believe. One of the ways in which they are seeking to grow is to leverage technology in the act of faith development. As they explore collaborations, the use of social media, and creating worship communities through online engagement I am beginning to see Cuba's religio-techno reality through the other side of the lens. In Cuba, churches are bringing people to worship by offering courses on business and technology. What will unfold as I dig deeper into the opposite sides of this religio-techno construct?

Our panel this evening was white, criollo, trigueno, blanquito. Where are the Taino, Arawak and Afro-Cuban intelligentsia? What impact does their lack of representation have on the cultural, spiritual and political unfolding of the Cuban revolution? What would Marti, Che and Castro have to say about those with the voices and influence as Cuba welcomes new visitors and contemplates opening her doors? Would they cheer the success of a people who embody the political ideals of socialist humanism? Would they see failure in a lack of representation of the grandsons and granddaughters of Cubans worst off, identified during the revolutionary days of the late 1950s as the poor and people of color? Has access to free health care and free education led to permanent revolutionary flip of the worldwide social paradigm that maintains wealthy, land-owning whites on top and in power? Castro himself was born of Cuba's educated upper class. As I met my Cuban cultural informants this evening I was left to wonder, after so much sacrifice, why am I still learning about the revolution from those who have always sat at the top?

In a culture of people raised to believe that moral reward is most worthy, how would Dan Pink adjust his theories around motivation and drive as Cuba begins these initial steps into free enterprise? If I have been raised to grow, build, create that which is essential, how would I adapt to providing that which gives me a material reward? An economic edge? Would this signal a step towards what is innate or a leap away from what has served as my guiding principal?

And finally, what is it that these microcosms like Cuba with institutional cultures, philosophies and economies can teach newly emerging influential technology giants like Facebook and Google as the reach a stage of maturity and decide what they will do with their captive audience?

I hope you will join me as I search out answers to these questions over the next week in Cuba and as I form friendships and partnerships that will lead to answers and new questions well beyond.