I’d like to start part of my story by asking you to reflect on a question: Where did you learn to love?
Those of us who learned to love at home are very fortunate. Not everyone has the privilege of learning to love at home. And not every home is equipped with the ideal tools to instill self-love and love for others. Imagine you grow up in a home where you are abused but you are told you are loved. Perhaps you grow up associating abuse with love. Or imagine if you grow up in a home where your parents or caretakers didn’t receive love growing up, and so they have a very difficult time figuring out how to love you…
I believe we need to start with this seemingly simple question in order to recognize that love is not just something that we ‘pick up’ along the way, nor should it be assumed that we will learn it at home.
Love is a choice we get to make. But how can we make that choice if we never learned how to love?
The question that follows then is “what is love and how do you teach it?” In other words, what does love look like?
I have made it my life’s work to answer these questions, because all my experiences have taught me that love is made visible through our actions and that we can in fact learn to love.
I was born and raised in Venezuela, in a safe and loving environment where from a young age I understood the importance of inclusion and diversity- and not just in the sense we use these words today as items to tick off a list to carry out “diversity trainings” and “inclusive spaces” in our companies and organizations… But in a very real, relevant, close-to home way: my oldest sister, whom we call Tuti, has special needs. She suffered from a very high fever when she turned one which left her with a severe motor problem and developmental delays. Even though she is the oldest in age, she will forever be the youngest because she is completely innocent, just like a child. Tuti is the personification of love. Growing up next to her planted the seeds in my heart that have allowed me to become a Lovescaper.
Irene and her book “Lovescaping: Building the Humanity of Tomorrow by Practicing Love in Action”
Because my sister wasn’t “normal,” she was denied entry, access or participation in schools and different activities or programs, she was pointed at, made fun of, and excluded. I remember my mother desperately looking for a school that would take us all in. “We’ll accept these two” they would say, referring to me and my youngest sister, “but not Tuti.”
My mother wouldn’t budge. She was determined for my sister to be included and to have as normal a life as possible. From an early age, I learned that Inclusion is not merely allowing entry to someone “different” into a group, as in you are doing them a favor – but instead, it’s about realizing that every human being is unique and different, and we all become enriched by embracing each other.
We finally found a school that understood this, and with open arms, took all three of us in. At graduation, Tuti received the “best friend” award from her classmates, and to this day they talk about how going to school with her changed their lives forever.
Growing up in my family taught me one of the most fundamental lessons that allowed me to Lovescape: “Love does not become diminished when shared.”
I left Venezuela 15 years ago, and in those years I’ve had the great privilege of living, studying, working and volunteering in different parts of the world, dedicating my life to service, education and community development. I took those seeds that had been planted in me, and carried my love to the world, from the most remote corners in still-uncharted places by Google maps, to the most bustling urban centers on our planet. And what happened was extraordinary: that love grew. Living with different communities around the world, in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas taught me that love transcends all differences.
Lovescaping is the result of all my roaming around- in all my living and loving across opposite corners of the world, I have learned that we human beings are more similar than we are different, and that love is what unites us.
Lovescaping has been a process of putting practice into theory, of uncovering the actions that make love possible. What allowed me to create a home in all these different communities around the world? What allowed us to become one family despite our obvious differences? I realized that what we were doing was practicing love in action. That led me to look closer at all my interactions throughout the years to uncover exactly what those actions were- what does love look like? And that was the birth of Lovescaping: my philosophy of life, the work of my life, my legacy.
I looked closely at countless letters, notes, messages and feedback from students, colleagues, friends, community members, family, etc.- what were the themes that came up over and over when they talked about our classes, our interactions, our time together, our shared moments? This is how the 15 pillars revealed themselves: this is what love in action looks like.
Lovescaping is practicing love in action through the intentional and purposeful engagement of its 15 pillars: empathy, respect, care, honesty, communication, compassion, trust, vulnerability, patience, liberation, humility, gratitude, solidarity, forgiveness and hope.
I realized that in order to teach love, I had to explicitly break it down, to make very clear what it is and what it is not. This is the formula for love, if you will.
Imagine the humanity of tomorrow, based on a system of trust and respect, where organizations are led with honesty, resolving conflicts with empathy and humility; where we are taught to forgive; where we express our concern for one another through solidarity and caring actions; where we celebrate being vulnerable; where we extend our compassion to share our suffering; where we communicate clearly and unabashedly; where we value patience as we understand that important things take time; where we practice gratitude for all the small daily joys; where our liberation is tied to each other’s, and where we never lose hope and use it as a guiding light through this rocky but rewarding path called life.
This humanity is possible if we learn to practice and embody the pillars of Lovescaping. It is our ability to love that lies at the core of what it means to be human. Every human being wants to be seen, heard, valued and embraced. Every human being wants to matter. Every human being wants to love and be loved. Our love needs to cover our communities. You see, the exceptional quality of love is that it is contagious and infinite, and it does not become diminished when shared.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But simple does not equal easy. Indeed, I’ve come to understand that the important things in life are really quite simple.
I envision Lovescaping as a movement, a paradigm-shift to address the single most essential, urgent and timely need in our world: learning to love. If we believe that love is the answer, where and how are we teaching love?
I believe this should be the most important purpose of education. What are we teaching our children and to what end? Is there anything more vital than equipping our humanity with the tools to develop self-love and love for others?
Lovescaping is my attempt to address this simple and yet monumental task we have ahead of us of learning to love. Over the past year and a half, I have been carrying out Lovescaping pilot programs at elementary, middle and high schools in underserved communities throughout Houston. The vast majority of my students are economically disadvantaged and at-risk of dropping out. Our classes consist of safe, inclusive and loving spaces where students can learn to express their feelings and emotions, where they can be heard, valued, and embraced. Where they can belong. Where they can heal. Where they can learn to build healthy relationships. Where they can learn to develop self-love and practice love in action. I have designed curricula to teach students each one of the pillars of Lovescaping so that they can learn to embody them. What does empathy look like? What does humility look like? What does compassion look like…?
The results are palpable, students blossom into self-confident and hopeful individuals, and exhibit kinder behavior towards others. Many of my students have experienced unimaginable trauma, and our class offers a space where we can support each other in our healing journey. Can you imagine what our world would look like if every student had access to Lovescaping class throughout their schooling journey?
Throughout my life, I have witnessed over and over the transformation that individuals undergo once they are loved. We often hear that you can’t possibly love anyone if you don’t love yourself. I agree in part with this statement- but I believe that love is not something that we develop on our own. We are social beings very much affected by our environment. We don’t develop self-love in a vacuum. What I have discovered is that love creates a virtuous cycle in which your act of loving someone instills in that person self-love, which in turn allows them to love others, and on and on…. Love is contagious.
Practicing love in action is a constant endeavor, a continuous commitment- because until we are all not loved, we have work to do. We are all interconnected and interdependent. Lovescaping is informed by a vision of the world based on uBuntu, which I learned about while living in Mozambique: I am because you are, I am because we are. In uBuntu, there is no “I” without you, no “I” without we, and so we uphold the intrinsic dignity of every human being, and we tirelessly work to lift each other up. Nobody sums this notion better than the Murri Artist, Educator and Activist Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you’ve come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Our Lovescaping work starts with the small daily actions: in the way, we notice people in our daily routine, in the way we treat each, in the ways that we engage with our communities, not just the one off-volunteer day or donation we make, but truly it’s a lifestyle, a way of BEING where we actualize love in action in every interaction with our families, friends, colleagues, strangers and every human being we encounter.
I always like to start my classes by showing students a picture of an iceberg. Every one of us is an iceberg. What we see is just the tip, your appearance, your physical presence… but I do not know your story, I do not know your struggle, your pain, your grief, your joy, your love… and if we remembered that upon meeting a fellow human, we would refrain from making assumptions and would be infinitely kinder and respectful to one another.
Our Lovescaping work also starts with the work we do internally: to grow the self-awareness to look deep into our own lives, to reflect, to unlearn where necessary and ask ourselves to question our own biases and beliefs to develop the humility that will allow us to see every human being as an equal, because ultimately, we are all shaped by our own environment and experiences.
This is the invitation I want to make to you today: to choose love- and in choosing love, you acknowledge that you are choosing the hardest road, because love is hard work. Think about it: it is much easier to disengage and shut out people in your life that you disagree with or dislike; it is much easier to turn a blind eye and ignore the problems in the world; it is much easier to use fear to control, threaten, or get what you want. It is much harder to be intentional about being empathic, compassionate, vulnerable, patient… It takes much more time and effort. But LOVE is the most worthwhile work there is, because it is what makes us human.
In an ever-increasing globalized and polarized world, a need for an education that nurtures and teaches how to cultivate love, humility, solidarity, respect, and that helps develop critical thinking, empathy, perspective-taking, passion and compassion, can be a force for collaboration instead of conflict, and a force for peace. It is the only source of hope we have left as we embark upon the challenge of dealing with conflict and the dehumanization of the world. An education that ignores the socio-emotional development of young minds and that defines it for narrow economic gain and competitive mindset bears the risk of more conflict and little respect for humanity in the world. Education needs to serve the broader goal for all students and for the future of the world with all its multiple diversity. If we can prioritize love and make it a core component of our education systems, we would be equipping the next generation with the tools to practice love in action.
Imagine the humanity of tomorrow filled with Lovescapers! It is possible. It starts with me. It starts with you. It starts with us. It’s up to each one of us to learn and intentionally practice the pillars of Lovescaping.
I know that if we take it upon ourselves to embody and carry out love in action in all our interactions, we can rescue our humanity and make our world a more loving place.
I choose to start here, with the systematic cultivation of love. I hope you will you join me.
To learn more about Irene’s project visit: lovescaping.org.
Her first book “Lovescaping: Building the Humanity of Tomorrow by Practicing Love in Action” is available on Amazon.