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Radiating empathy

Houston will retire after 38 years at college, plans to focus free time on writing

By Lorenzo Morotti, associate editor
On May 1, 2014

  • After 38 years at the college, David “Dajarah” Houston, current humanities chairperson, will retire to focus more time on writing books. He plans to come back and teach philosophy classes part time. Cody Casares / The Advocate

Rebecca Canales walked into the small hallway of offices in the Physical Science Building cradling her 13-month-old daughter Sofia to present her to a person who, she said, has changed her life.
Canales said she felt compelled to bring Sofia to visit him, because it could be the last time she could before his retirement.
"I was so sad when he told us in our class that he would be retiring next semester - all of us were," Canales said.
Humanities and philosophy professor David Houston, or Dajarah as he is known to his students and friends, is clearing out his office but he set aside the time to admire his student's child.
"She is so precious," he said with tears in his eyes as Canales showed him her daughter.
Houston has taught at Contra Costa College since 1976 and said he would be retiring at the end of June.
His office space is cramped and was moved from the old Humanities Building, but students have always been welcome to drop by during his office hours for 38 years.
"I'm here for no other reason than to change the world. I love what I do," he said. He said the demands of the job, however, have simply become too much over the years.
"I am working too hard and writing less and less because of the demands from the college," he said. Houston has published four books while working at CCC, including "Mongain" in 2011.
Former art department chairperson John Diestler has known Houston for the entirety of his teaching career at CCC. He said he remembers Houston's enthusiasm dating back to when he was hired.
"He loves students. You can tell he connects very well with them," Diestler said. "He is a very calm and compassionate person with a tremendous passion for life, a passion that he transfers to students."
Apart from his responsibilities as the humanities department chairperson, Houston is currently teaching two courses, an Introduction to Philosophy Ethics course and an Understanding Love course that he created in 2011.
"It is the responsibility of teachers to create new courses, and Dajarah (Houston) has been very innovative in those regards," Diestler said.

Houston said "David Houston," is what he used to call himself until he realized that his life experiences had altered him so significantly that he was no longer the person he used to be.
"Dajarah" has become the pen name he uses as an acronym. He said the letters represent different people in his life who have molded him into the compassionate person he is today.
"It means awakening to the healing power of love," Houston said.
He said after graduating with a double major in philosophy and psychology from Indiana University in Bloomington, he moved to the Bay Area in 1966. He said the furor for social change attracted him to the Bay Area, which he believed was the epicenter of social change. Houston took a job as a minister when he first emigrated to the Bay Area.
He was inspired to become a minister because of his experiences growing up as young man during the civil rights movement.
"I marched from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery during one of Martin Luther King's marches when I was young," Houston said. "It was a profound experience."
He said he left the church because he felt it was too restrictive of a means for the social change he wished to discuss and see.
He decided to begin teaching as a way to fulfill his passion for social change.
"Community college was a better fit for me," Houston said.

Radiating empathy
He said he wanted to start teaching when he took his eldest son, Jason, to a day care in Albany. As he was leaving, Houston saw his son step out onto the playground and decided to watch him through the fence for a while.
He said he watched his son walk up to the roundabout on the playground where three other boys were playing, and tried to join them but was pushed away.
"As the naive, happy boy he was, Jason thought that they were playing in good spirits with him," Houston said.
He tried to get on the second time and was again pushed away. It was then he realized that he was not welcome.
"I could see in his face, this realization of sadness," he said. Instead of fighting for a spot on the roundabout, he walked away to the corner of the playground to play with a toy truck by himself. He said that moment awoke something inside of him.
"I want a world that welcomes all my sons and daughters or anyone who is not treated well," he said. "It struck me that a community college would be as good a place as any to create a different world."
What Houston said he teaches in Understanding of Love course is empathy to all, devotion to the pursuit of knowledge and the appreciation of all life.
He also makes students share with the class moments from their lives when they felt an intense feeling of love or hate.
Houston said sharing is the most important part of the course.
Canales said, "You have to have (courage) to get up in front of the class and share."
Houston said many students drop the course the session after finding out if they do not present an experience, they will not get a grade higher than a C.
"(Understanding of Love) is not just a class to me - it's a little crusade," Houston said. "I believe in the possibility, a vision, of what we (humanity) can be. That is the way I have to live and go out. Hoping to infect."
Canales was enrolled in the course the second time it was offered. The experience was so powerful she said she shared multiple times.
She said she talked about the relationship she has with her mother and the connection she is now sharing with her newborn daughter.
"It was hard to go up there and talk about it. A lot of people listening started crying too," she said. "Having a child is a relationship that a person cannot understand until they have kids of their own."
Houston said that the Understanding of Love course would survive in his absence. He said he has two people in mind to take over teaching it.
Diestler said most faculty realize that they are replaceable. He said the faculty all realize they do not own the college.
"When we move on it still exists," Diestler said. "We are not meant to be irreplaceable, but we are meant to be missed. And David (Houston) will be missed." 

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