Finding Higher Ground

Higher Ground: An Introduction

Caren: I’d like to intro­duce our High­er Ground team of edu­ca­tors, peace­mak­ers, and writ­ers: Ellie Rosch­er, Renee Dauk-Bleess, Joyce Bonafield-Pierce, and me, Caren Stel­son. The four of us have been read­ing, learn­ing, grow­ing, and exper­i­ment­ing with the con­cept of High­er Ground, a term fur­ther devel­oped by Dr. Joyce Bonafield-Pierce. In this arti­cle and the next three arti­cles to come, we will explore paths to peace and peace­build­ing in class­rooms and schools through the lens of High­er Ground and the pow­er of sto­ry and art.

What is Higher Ground?

Joyce Bonafield-Pierce’s life time work as a social work­er, ther­a­pist, and edu­ca­tor is to help adults and chil­dren shift into our high­er selves — to be our best selves — as we learn to be peace­mak­ers and builders in our com­mu­ni­ties. The con­cept of High­er Ground is an abil­i­ty to move to a high­er lev­el of see­ing and respond­ing. How can we learn to grow into a greater aware­ness of the needs of all so we are able to act more often “on behalf of the great­est good, respond com­pas­sion­ate­ly to the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers, move beyond our own com­fort lev­els to respond to the human needs of those dif­fer­ent from ourselves”?

Be You!Peter H. Reynolds’ delight­ful pic­ture book, Be You, helps chil­dren see them­selves step­ping onto High­er Ground. He writes direct­ly to chil­dren, “Be curi­ous, adven­tur­ous, patient, brave, also under­stand­ing and kind.” Look­ing at Reynolds’ pic­ture book through the lens of High­er Ground, his list of words are High­er Ground val­ues. Reynolds writes to his young audi­ence, “My wish for you — no mat­ter where your jour­ney leads — is for you to always be You!” Yet, we all know, being our High­er Ground selves, as Reynolds wish­es, is not always an easy goal to meet.

Going Deeper into Higher Ground

Joyce: It’s not easy to stay on High­er Ground. Our own ego’s needs and demands keep us, at best, on Mid­dle Ground. But all of us can and do slip onto Low­er Ground — our uncon­scious, reac­tive, “win-lose,” blam­ing selves, where we act out our trau­ma and anger with lit­tle regard for its impact on oth­ers. If we’re aware that’s what we have done, we can apol­o­gize and make amends. As mature adults, we nor­mal­ly oper­ate from Mid­dle Ground — our con­scious, more ratio­nal, less reac­tive selves, where we are more will­ing to nego­ti­ate, prob­lem-solve, coöper­ate, and where most of us set­tle com­fort­ably to do the mun­dane tasks of life.

But we, at times, can step up to High­er Ground — where our most con­scious selves reside, where we aim beyond our self-inter­ests and take inten­tion­al action on behalf of some­one or a group — to repair rela­tion­ships, treat some­one with fair­ness and kind­ness, or seek jus­tice. We call this proso­cial behav­ior, act­ing on behalf of some­thing larg­er than our­selves to help some­one in need with­out think­ing of our own needs or limits.

For the “Adults on the Rug,” Higher Ground for Us and Modeling It for Our Children

Ellie: None of us are born onto High­er Ground — it’s learned behav­ior. As babies, we are born com­plete­ly depen­dent, and have the instinct to seek out our basic needs. As we grow into chil­dren, the world is what we see right in front of us. Then, in old­er child­hood, we begin to think for our­selves, look at the wider world and ask big ques­tions like, “Why are some peo­ple cru­el? And “Why is the world unfair?” An eth­i­cal self forms.

As children’s eth­i­cal intel­li­gence devel­ops, par­ents and edu­ca­tors can work with chil­dren to deep­en their sense of self, the world, and their place in it. Each moment, we and chil­dren can choose to live out of High­er Ground at a height­ened state of aware­ness with a sense of the real­i­ty around us. High­er Ground is liv­ing out the Kent Kei­th quote, “Do good any­way.” It is act­ing from Michelle Obama’s under­stand­ing of “When they go low, we go high.” We do not have to respond in kind. In the heat of the moment, we can learn to pause and ask our­selves, “How can I go to High­er Ground here?”

The Sum of UsIn The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee argues that our coun­try was found­ed on a zero-sum mind­set. If you get more, that must mean I get less. “From the econ­o­my to the most per­son­al of rela­tion­ships to the rev­o­lu­tion itself, Amer­i­ca relied on a zero-sum mod­el of free­dom built on slav­ery” (p 12). Today, we con­tin­ue to hoard our assets, for­get­ting that pow­er and love can grow, for­get­ting that my doing well is not tied to you strug­gling. It did not work then and it is not work­ing today. The coun­ties that relied more on slave labor have the low­est per capi­ta incomes today.

Heather McGhee is call­ing us to High­er Ground. To erad­i­cate racism and turn the econ­o­my around, we have to drop our zero-sum game men­tal­i­ty and reach high­er, believ­ing that we will all do bet­ter togeth­er. For­mer Min­neso­ta Sen­a­tor Paul Well­stone’s adage, “We all do bet­ter when we ALL do bet­ter,” cap­tures this sen­ti­ment. “A func­tion­ing soci­ety rests on the web of mutu­al­i­ty, a will­ing­ness among all involved to share enough with one anoth­er to accom­plish what no one per­son can do alone” (p 21).

As we adults spend more time liv­ing from our High­er Ground, pri­or­i­tiz­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion, cul­ti­vat­ing imag­i­na­tion, and work­ing toward com­mon good, we can invite our chil­dren to join us, choos­ing High­er Ground in our class­rooms and homes. 

Higher Ground Art with Art Teacher Renee Dauk-Bleess

Caren: In Be You, Peter Reynolds writes: 

Go ahead.
Be your­self.
Be the best ver­sion of you.
Each day is
A new chance to be more you. 

Can “being the best ver­sion of you” be taught? Renee Dauk-Bleess has been explor­ing this High­er Ground idea in her 3 – 6 grade art class­rooms at Oak Crest Ele­men­tary in Belle Plaine, Minnesota.

Renee has been an ele­men­tary teacher since 1990 and is now an art spe­cial­ist in a 3 – 6 grade school in a small town in cen­tral Min­neso­ta. In the midst of the COVID pan­dem­ic, Renee wit­nessed the lives of her stu­dents and their fam­i­lies upend­ed, staff cohe­sion unrav­eled, and social inter­ac­tions frayed. Renee began to search for ways to inten­tion­al­ly shift and teach through the lens of peace. How could she help her stu­dents steady them­selves, learn to self-reg­u­late, find more com­pas­sion for them­selves and oth­ers, and grow into peace­mak­ers and builders through art? Dis­cus­sions with Joyce and the idea of High­er Ground got Renee thinking.

Joyce offered Renee a word bank of char­ac­ter­is­tics that described High­er Ground values.

Higher Ground Qualities
Click for an 11″ x 8.5″ down­load­able ver­sion of Char­ac­ter Capac­i­ties of the High­er Self, pro­vid­ed by Joyce Bonafield-Pierce.

Inspired, Renee cre­at­ed a ver­sion of Joyce’s “Char­ac­ter Capac­i­ties of the High­er Self” for her 3 – 6 grade stu­dents with a list that looked like this:

What is your word?
Click for an 11″ x 8.5″ down­load­able ver­sion of What is Your Word?, pro­vid­ed by Renee Dauk-Bleess.

Renee began: Have you heard the expres­sion “tak­ing the high road”? Her stu­dents nod­ded. What does that mean? Have you ever found your­self in a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion, and you or some­one else have “tak­en the high road’ to help resolve the conflict?

Renee shared her sim­pli­fied High­er Ground bank of words and invit­ed her stu­dents to choose one word on the list to “put in their pock­ets,” to claim as their own, to remem­ber the pow­er of that word in a dif­fi­cult situation.

Once stu­dents had cho­sen their words, it was time for the “Block Par­ty Col­lab­o­ra­tive Mur­al art project” to unfold.

Block Party Collaborative Mural
Block Par­ty Col­lab­o­ra­tive Mural

From Renee’s jour­nal: “Final­ly fin­ished putting up almost 500 quilt squares last Fri­day for our “Block Par­ty Col­lab­o­ra­tive Mur­al” out­side the art room!  Each indi­vid­ual quilt square fea­tures a spe­cial WORD: a word that will help stu­dents remem­ber to be more kind, more peace­ful, more com­pas­sion­ate — a word that will help them step onto High­er Ground when faced with a dif­fi­cult situation.

color coded squares

Renee col­or-cod­ed squares so stu­dents could find their indi­vid­ual signed art work while admir­ing the entire mur­al that brought the whole school together.

same word
Look­ing for oth­er stu­dents’ squares with the same word, a con­ver­sa­tion wait­ing to happen.

To fur­ther com­mu­ni­ty build­ing, Renee encour­aged kids to find, not only their High­er Ground square, but to look for oth­er stu­dents who chose the same word as they did — a con­ver­sa­tion wait­ing to happen.

Curi­ous, Renee want­ed to know why chil­dren chose a spe­cif­ic word. She designed a High­er Ground ques­tion­naire to find out.

Art Reflection for Higher Ground
Click for an 11″ x 8.5″ down­load­able ver­sion of Art Reflec­tion, pro­vid­ed by Renee Dauk-Bleess.

From Renee’s jour­nal: Today in art doing the High­er Ground les­son, I asked if kids felt com­fort­able shar­ing the rea­son WHY they had cho­sen their word in class … One stu­dent raised his hand. “Patience. Because it’s some­thing hard for me, and I want to try and be bet­ter with that.” Lat­er, he asked if he could also write: “Take a deep breath” above his word …


I went around as stu­dents were work­ing qui­et­ly, ask­ing them pri­vate­ly if they would be will­ing to share with me the rea­son behind their word:

  • HOPE: “Because this school year, I haven’t real­ly had any hope in school or even in myself, so I want to remem­ber to have hope and think about that word.” 
  • EMPATHY: “I remem­ber learn­ing this word in 3rd grade, and I know it’s some­thing real­ly impor­tant.  I want to try and show empathy.” 
  • TRUST: “I’m deal­ing with a lot of trust issues with oth­er people … ”
  • COMPASSION: “Because every­one should have just a lit­tle bit more compassion.”
  • PATIENCE: “It’s impor­tant to have patience and not get real­ly upset.  My step­dad some­times gets real­ly angry, so I need to use patience when he gets that way.”
  • CALM: “Because I have 3 broth­ers and have to take my time some­times and share and I need to be more calm.”
  • GENEROSITY: “I think about my uncle, who once helped out a woman and gave her $5 so she could get on the bus. Not many peo­ple are gen­er­ous, but when you are, it makes such a difference.”
  • PEACE: “When I look at all of the words on this list, they all make me think of peace, and that’s how I want to be.”

As stu­dents reflect­ed on their choice of High­er Ground words, Renee tal­lied the words most often chosen.

hope and trust

Of all the words list­ed in Renee’s High­er Ground word bank, hope and trust were the two words chil­dren need­ed most to put in their pock­ets, to step onto High­er Ground, to car­ry them through their days. Hope and trust are fun­da­men­tal. Human beings need both to become suc­cess­ful adults, grow into peace­mak­ers, and build stronger com­mu­ni­ties where every­one can find a place to belong.

Peter Reynolds, in Be You, reminds us to be true to our­selves. Heather McGhee, in The Sum of Us, reminds us that we need each oth­er. Joyce Bonafield-Pierce and Renee Dauk-Bleess remind us that we can learn to step onto High­er Ground, be our true selves, and help one anoth­er. It’s pos­si­ble. It’s nec­es­sary. It’s essential.


For each Peace-olo­gy post, Caren, Ellie, Renee, and Joyce part­ner to learn and explore the mean­ing of peace by talk­ing and lis­ten­ing with each oth­er. If you’d like to share your ideas about peace, books, and chil­dren, please share your com­ments here, vis­it our web­sites, or con­nect with Joyce and Renee about their High­er Ground work.

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