Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thoughts and Laughs from the Past

I recently finished a masters degree from an international service sort of school. As a part of the finishing up process we were given our admissions essays back. I read mine over with great trepidation, fearing the arrogance and idealism of my youth (all of four years ago:)) Instead I found the seeds of my then eminent change in how I saw the world. I won't burden you all with the whole thing, but just the inspiring and funny parts. Enjoy!

For almost as long as I can remember I have wanted to save the world. My earliest memories are of hearing of people in pain and distress and picturing myself sweeping in to rescues them. It doesn't take one long to realize that this was a selfish and vain goal, a goal entirely based on a desire for glory and praise. As I have grown, the nature of my desire for international service has changed dramatically I learned that "saving the world" is not as easy as it sounds, and that it is more likely to happen in tiny increments that are hardly visible, rather than one sweeping action by a sole woman on a mission. I also learned that though there are many Mother Teresas in this world, only one of them has ever been given proper recognition.

....When I arrived in Argentina I was naive thinking that my one year of college Spanish would prepare me to be fully immersed in a country where they speak Castellano. It took me all of four seconds in the airport to figure out I was wrong. Then the house dog biting my my first night in my English-less host home taught me that communication is in no way limited to words. Three months later I discovered that you could wear the same outfit for three days in a row. Not only was there no snickering, but also, life continued much the same as it had when I wore a new outfit every day, only less laundry and less decision making.....

Just a few reflections. I would say there was still some arrogance, still some assumptions about helping and helplessness - I will save that for the next post.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Guest Blog from Lu

So my housemate, Lu, sent me and several other people this email yesterday. I asked her if I could paste it in here as a guest blog post and she said yes. I love it for its frankness and the revelations - enjoy.....

I'm only writing about this because if I could have coffee with any of you, I would tell you about it in person. But by the time I see you again, life will have gone on and there will be other news to share, so I just didn't want to go without sharing something that is deeply shaking me today.

I'm particularly outraged right now because I spent all day yesterday at a Virginia jail meeting with detained immigrants, many of whom were traumatized women who came to me in tears desperately asking me to find out what had happened to their families. Many of these women were arrested while in bed with their husbands one night (one of them told me they handcuffed her naked, didn't even give her enough time to dress). Then they separate the parents from their children (who are often U.S. citizens, so they don't get deported) and finally, they send each parent to a jail corresponding to their gender. They are not told where the other spouse was sent, when they will be deported, or what happened to their children. Needless to say, it is difficult to keep your composure when you are listening to a woman telling you this in the hopes that you can help her, when all you want to do is break down with her and cry because your country has learned nothing from all the lessons it tried to teach you in high school about what happened during WWII in the U.S. and abroad, and so many other examples of horrible inhumane behavior that we claim is unacceptable and we use to chastise other cultures. Shame on the U.S. gov for what it is doing. And the part that hurts me the most is how I see it affecting American society, sending a message to people that it is ok to see the "other" as inferior and unworthy of compassion or at least respect. It doesn't help that I just finished reading the book Beloved about the incomprehensible carnage that results when we violate the sacred bonds between human beings, such as mother and child.

Anyway, and then I see something in the news, and I just can't handle it. It is one thing for Americans to treat presidential elections like they're sport events - which lowers the integrity of the process bad enough - but this. How can we ever think that we can solve a problem of terrorism stemming from a place so far away, when we are doing this to each other right here at home. This is deeply disturbing to me.

"A women's club in San Bernardino County sent out a recent newsletter with a photo of Barack Obama surrounded by fried chicken, watermelon and ribs, sparking widespread outrage and rebuke from GOP leaders and Democrats."

What struck me about the article was a comment by a member of the organization which speaks volumes about what I feel lies at the heart of the problems I encountered at the jail yesterday.

"If I was racist, I would have looked at it through racist eyes," she said. "I am not racist, which is why it probably didn't register . . . None of us are racists"

I know you are all living your lives in different parts of the country, working in different professions and interacting with different people. But, please, I beg you, don't fail to engage in dialog about these issues when the opportunity arises. It is so important. I know it is difficult for us to talk about these kinds of moral challenges facing our society. But there are people who are being deprived of their liberty, who don't know if their lives will ever bring them back to their most beloved and whose voices cannot be heard.

A woman at the jail yesterday said to Brooke (another volunteer like me), "you come here and give us hope, but what can you really do for us?" Brooke responded "We will tell others. We will tell your story so other people know."


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Stinky Elections

So I didn't want to write about the elections. I will frequently turn off the radio or change the station when there is yet another round of analysis. Also, in my recent reading of A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn repeatedly makes the argument that electoral politics creates a government safety valve for the people's anger against the inequality and injustice that exists in this country. Well, I mean he talks about how over and over again, energy and anger that might of gone into strikes, protests, and direct action was redirected into elections for people who have not and probably won't change the fundamental structures that create the inequality and injustice. That said I have just two things to say about the current elections. I will keep it brief and leave the interpretation up to the rest.

1. I feel that over and over it has been implied that Sarah Palin's being a mother of 5, a "hockey mom" makes her less qualified as a leader - That argument is total malarkey - at the same time, I sincerely hope we do not elect her as a vice president or Mccain as president for many other reasons.

2. Come on, we HAVE to elect Obama - he probably won't bring about all the fantastic change he speaks of, but we need whatever change we can get at this point - and yes, my reasons run a liitle deeper - i am hoping everyone will develop their own though at this point. if you have questions or comments, please comment :)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Because I didn't raise my hand high enough...

... and because my bike ride home wasn't long enough, get ready for some angry ranting on free trade. I just attended a showing of the film Maquilapolis. One I highly recommend seeing if you get a chance. The film itself was great. It was produced by a group of women in Tijuana Mexico and a few directors from the United States. In beautiful (and disturbing) images and strong narrative it tells the experience of women working in factories on the US/Mexico Border. The film does a great job of showing the agency that the women use to fight corporate and government giants without romanticizing the story, or the poverty. What so enraged me was the discussion afterwards. It is all mezclado en mi cabeza (mixed up in my head) so let me lay out a few points.

FREE Trade is only free for the corporations. the movie did a great job of showing how the North American Free Trade Agreement put companies above both human beings and governments. In the discussion a few clauses were brought up to illustrate this. One is that the companies that bring factories in cannot be held accountable for the development or protection of the surrounding communities. Meaning, there is no responsibility for creating healthy or safe housing/infrastructure/communities for maquiladora workers. Also there is no way to hold the companies accountable for pollution that affects surrounding communities. (Yes there are environmental and labor side accords, but both have proven to be utterly useless) The women in the movie were bound to their $10 a day labor by the need for basic necessities that they still could not afford. NAFTA includes no protection for workers rights or for immigration rights. NAFTA also inhibits government from creating and enforcing certain environmental and labor laws.

So on person made the point that i have so often heard..."Isn't it better that these people at least have job even if they are bad? If the industries weren't there, they would have no jobs at all?" this level of thinking always infuriates me. Lets take the question one step further. Why would the people of Mexico, or China, or Indonesia not have jobs to begin with? Why must they have jobs. We could go back ten years, or thousands of years on this one. The ten year answer for Mexico at least would have to include how NAFTA forced Mexico to open its market to corn grown in the United States. While the US government could afford to subsidize corn production, thus driving down prices, the Mexican government was trying to pay off debt to the IMF. Though the NAFTA agreement had been for a slow introduction of US corn that piece was ignored and soon Mexican markets were flooded with cheap subsidized corn from the United States. This put millions of Mexican farmers out of business, forcing them to leave the country side and flood the urban areas. This created an influx of workers that exceeded demand, thus creating the perfect scene for multinationals to come in and exploit the situation and get cheap labor out of the deal.

Disposability - the above described scenario made workers disposable. I once read a chilling article about maquiladora workers that described how they were comodified and objectified. Women have always been preferred in these factories for their small hands, patience, and passiveness. Younger women are even preferred for their good eyesight. Once these qualities of eyesight, energy and dexterity wear out the women are discarded. Like a machine that no longer functions they are simply thrown out. this was made sadly and poignantly made clear by a series of murders in the late 90s of maquiladora workers.

The other thing that was made clear in the film that only one person was willing to bring up in the discussion was the differing standards we set for US Americans (frequently limited to white, middle class) and people from other countries. It is ok for them to have lower environmental standards, in fact we are going to hold them accountable for it although it helps keep the prices of the things we buy down. And really they should be grateful for those jobs where they are exposed to chemicals, not allowed to drink water or use the restroom and are paid almost nothing. Inherent is the idea that this is all good enough for "them." An idea riddled with racism.

Most frustrating was watching people grapple with how to make this better within the free trade and capitalist framework. One person suggested offering voluntary measures that companies could take to make things better - nice idea except that such a small percentage of companies would volunteer for such a thing. Someone else suggested laws forcing companies to invest more in communities. That might make the system kinder, but it will not change the fact that labor (meaning human beings) and the environment (also affecting human beings and many other things) are considered exploitable and disposable in a world where profit reigns as king. People really sat there scratching their heads trying to figure out how to maintain fair competition for companies while making life a little better for humans. Never mind any equity or fairness for people. I don't claim to have any perfect answers for all of this, but i am convinced that they won't be found in the sacred hallows of free trade.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Do something that doesn't work....

I was having a conversation with my mother the other night. My mom is great. She has this amazing ability to draw wisdom out of others. It is really quite magical. Anyway, we were having the often had conversation about how social change really happens, and how, as an individual, we can contribute towards social change. She asked me what she should do. First I told her to join a community or organization that is doing something she believes in. Then I told her to do something that doesn't work. Which isn't really what I meant. I should have said, you have to be willing to do something that doesn't work, or doesn't work at first.

I think when we look back at history we only hear the stories about the parts of things that were successful. When learning about the Civil Rights Movement the success stories get all the air time, the thousands of attempted projects are never spoken of. It creates a false consciousness about social change. It makes it sound like it was clear and easy, that the battles were well planned and executed perfectly.

The reality is that social change is messy and hard. there are never enough people, never enough money, never enough hours in the day, and almost never a clear plan or idea. Nothing comes with guaranteed success.

Sometimes I think we are waiting for some magic plan, some perfect organization, or just the right moment to step in and do our part. We excuse our inaction by saying that action is pointless, that it does not work, that we are up against too much. We don't want to choose a team til we know which one is winning.

Instead, we need to be willing to be a part of something that doesn't work. We can send letters to representatives even if we are convinced it won't change their mind. We can go to the protest even if we think that one more body won't make that much difference. We can ask someone not to make a racist joke even if we think they will just do it in our absence anyway.

For me, there are at least three reasons to be a part of something that might not be working right now. One, it might work. You never know if you will be the person that turns a group into a critical mass. Also, something that is not working now might change into something that does work. Second, you have to include the impact your efforts have beyond just the stated goal. Maybe others who see you trying will be inspired to try as well, maybe you will learn something new in the process, or meet a wonderful person. There are lots of benefits that happen along the way.

Finally, for me at least, to not try is not an option. As long as I know what I know about the world, I have to be trying to change it in some way whether i am "successful" or not. It is the only way i can get out of bed in the morning.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Hidden Face of Foreign Aid Work

There are so many things that could be said about this article. But I will focus on the main points. That of the non-profit world existing as a profit making industry. And yes, some will argue in countries that are void of sustainable economies, any industry is good. But we must ask who this industry really benefits and who it does not. If our foreign aid dollars are going into sushi and SUVs instead of material aid for those in need - what good is that doing. How much do those in the non-profit, international sector depend on poverty and crisis for their own livelihood? Thinking of some of the recent posts on Haiti, what policies are the World Bank, IMF and United States enforcing that create the poverty expats get paid to try to alleviate. On the Haiti note, my friend who recently returned from 6 months there noticed a stark contrast in the living situation of herself and the World Bank folks who worked there that would be reflective of what this article is about. Sorry, this isn't clear. Read the article, ask yourself some questions, see where it gets you.

In Postwar Liberia, Paradise Amid the Poverty
Feelings Mixed as Aid Workers Live Well

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 30, 2008; A01

MONROVIA, Liberia -- The second sushi bar to open in ragged postwar Liberia did not settle for having its chefs wear simple T-shirts, or for serving $25 worth of sliced fish on plain white plates.

Instead, the Barracuda Bar -- the new favorite hangout of ambassadors, U.N. officials and legions of aid workers whose shiny white SUVs jam the parking lot most nights -- opted to dress its staff in Japanese-style robes and red bandannas. Bigger orders of salmon and yellowtail arrived not on flatware but on little wooden sushi boats. Lobsters languished sullenly in a tank near the door, waving their antennae as customers walked by.

As this impoverished country climbs its way back from 13 years of civil war with the tiniest of steps, a boom is underway in the industries that cater to the rarified tastes of thousands of mostly European and U.S. expatriates who have come to help since peace arrived in 2003. The increasingly visible splendors available to this relatively wealthy group have left some Liberians wondering whether the foreigners are here to serve the nation or themselves.

"They drive the best of car, go to the best of entertainment center," said Allen Weedor, 42, the Liberian manager of a modest bar in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of town. "You can't really see what they've done." Full Story

Thursday, May 29, 2008

In Response...

So shortly after reading and posting that last article, I came across a recent interview on Democracy Now! with Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health and the author of several books addressing social justice and health care. I found the discussion pertinent to the other article and wanted to share. In this particular section he talks about the system they developed in Haiti and how it in many ways provides better care than what is offered in the United States...

And the system that we built up in the ’80s, really confronting another disease, tuberculosis, relied very heavily on community health workers, who we trained and, more to the point, we paid. You know, we thought, you know, do we expropriate the labor of the poor, or do we actually pay them, like someone like I would get paid a fortune to do consulting work like this. And we said no, no, no, it’s clear they have to be our employees and coworkers. So it worked great. And it worked great for tuberculosis. It worked great for other chronic diseases. And when AIDS came along, what we did was to say, well, clearly, we need to take the same system, which is free diagnosis and free care to the patient, because this is a public health problem, and they have a community health worker, you know, visiting them.
Entire Interview

The Wealthiest Country in the World?

On my daily rounds of BBC news, this item caught my eye. I wish that I was surprised, but I am not.

Medical charity helping US poor

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Tennessee

Stan Brock is like a 21st-Century Florence Nightingale.

The DC3 used by RAM to deliver medical support
RAM's vintage plane was used to drop troops on D-Day

He started a charity - Remote Area Medical (RAM) - more than 20 years ago to bring relief to those cut off from healthcare.

Originally it was to help poor tribes in the former British colony of Guyana, South America.

That is where he lived after leaving Preston, Lancashire, more than half a century ago - he still is a British citizen.

But now Stan spends most of his time bringing relief to the richest country in the world. Full article

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Real Story

The food riots taking place around the world bring up some important points that few are looking at. Putting the blame on higher fuel prices, drought, and low food production, few news sources are looking at the impact of global trade and the bullies of global trade. Both of these articles take a closer look at the history behind the food riots in Haiti. Important things to know before we flip the TV channel...

From the BBC...
This valley used to produce nearly enough rice to feed the entire country, but back in the 1980s the International Monetary Fund and World Bank demanded that Haiti drop import tariffs in return for loans.

Haiti was soon flooded with cheap and heavily subsidised US food.

"We can't compete with imported rice," Maye says.

It is estimated that the US rice crop costs $1.8bn (£900m) to grow, but its farmers get subsidies of $1.3bn (£650m), and there was no way that Haiti could cope with competition like that. entire article

This is from a Human Rights Lawyer at Loyola University:
The New York Times lectured Haiti on April 18 that “Haiti, its agriculture industry in shambles, needs to better feed itself.” Unfortunately, the article did not talk at all about one of the main causes of the shortages -- the fact that the U.S. and other international financial bodies destroyed Haitian rice farmers to create a major market for the heavily subsidized rice from U.S. farmers. This is not the only cause of hunger in Haiti and other poor countries, but it is a major force. Whole article

This is also a shout out to my friend Kate who is spending her last days in Haiti, thanks for keeping us posted - besos!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Long Times Silence

Apologies to all for the long silence. Part of me has been waiting for something to write about, and it hasn't come. Most of my mental energies have been devoted to writing a thesis and figuring next year out. So I will write and see what comes to my mind.

I have been thinking a lot lately about happiness, or contentedness. Happiness seems to be considered a higher state of being here in the United States, the thing that advertisement companies bank on, literally. We are sold everything from food to cars with a pretty smile, the standard emblem of happiness. The obsession with happiness has even been capitalized on by the pharmaceutical companies who send a message that any unhappiness can be cured with a little pill as long as you don't mind the headaches, constipation, and dizziness that might come with it. I have noticed this obsession with happiness most in myself. When asking questions about the future, or current actions I measure their value in terms of potential happiness that I might experience.

This pattern has led me to question two things. One, is happiness really what i want, or have i just been suckered by everything around me? And second, what is it that will make me feel content? For some reason this word fits better for me than Happy. But really, what is it? Will it be working for a cause i believe in? Is it being a part of some sort of community? Or is it finding a way of fitting into the world. This also brings up the issue of why I am so focused on my own personal individual satisfaction, it shows how deeply runs the individual, self-entitlement that also runs rampant in this country. So here are a lot of big questions and no answers. I have felt moments of being right in the world, not in the I am right you are wrong sense, but in a I am alright in the world right now sense, doing the right things, being the person i want to be and enjoying those around me. This is what I think I am hoping for on a more permanent basis. It is more than just having a lack of pain, another thing consumerism tries to sell us, it is something constructive that i think requires a certain amount of challenge, not physical pain necessarily, but discomfort.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

International Day of Women

Hey all, I know it has been a while, but I wanted to send a shout out to all the women out there. Some people are against celebrating these days and months when the rest of the year is still devoted to the white ones who are men, but I will take what i can get for now. Please peruse some of the blog poetry from the Global Voices competition. GV is one of my favorite blog logs - I recommend visiting it for a more global view on the blogging world. Please don't forget to celebrate all the women in your lives, mothers, sisters, writing group friends, co-workers, nieces, aunts, grandmothers...all of them!

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Most Frightening of Journies

I took the wrong bus on my way home tonight and just missed the one going in the opposite direction. While waiting for another, i reached in to the pouch of my hoodie for the James Baldwin book I had put there for just such an occasion. While trying to find enough light to read by a gentleman joined me at the bus stop - he asked what i was reading and i shared. The conversation that ensued was one of favorite authors and a shared love of reading, we decided maybe we were twins, a strange proposition between myself and an older Black man, but one i liked. This whole encounter only served to sweeten the taste of James Baldwin's words. I may gave read a few essays of his before, but do not recollect them - the introduction of Nobody Knows My Name contained words so profound and pertinent to my life at this moment i wanted to ingest them in some way, make them a part of my thinking and perspective. As a part of this desire, i decided to share a few of them here. In this part he is writing about his time in Europe and his return from there to the United States....

In America, the color of my skin had stood between myself and me; in Europe, that barrier was down. Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch. It turned out that the question of who I was was not solved because I had removed myself from the social forces which menaced me - anyway, these forces had become interior, and I had dragged them across the ocean with me. The question of who I was had at last become a personal question, and the answer was to be found in me.

I think that there is always something frightening about this realization. I know it frightened me - that was one of the reasons that I dawdled n the European haven for so long. And yet, I could not escape the knowledge...that if I was still in need of havens, my journey had been for nothing....

What it came to for me was that I no longer needed to fear leaving Europe...The world was enormous and I could go anywhere in it I chose - including America: and I decided to return there because I was afraid to. But the question that confronted me...was: Am I afraid of returning to America? Or am I afraid of journeying any further into myself?

...And even in icy Sweden, I found myself talking with man whose endless questioning has given him himself...The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one's key to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion. This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours. James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

In the spirit of this work, I would love to ask Baldwin some questions, and need to ask myself some in response to this brief piece of writing. i hope you join me.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The People's Dance

So last weekend i had the wonderful experience of going to The People's Dance Party. It took place at a community rec center and had been put together by a group of people who like to dance but don't like clubs. We were a small group but represented many ages, skin colors, and abilities. No one, except for maybe a seven year old boy, was a very good dancer. Everyone had fun. Afterwards I commented to the friends I had gone there with that you have to unlearn a certain inhibition, a certain need to be "cool" in order to dance like that and enjoy it. All three of us in our late twenties had to admit we hadn't unlearned whatever that was - but we were working on it. Personally I tried to ignore my feelings of self-consciousness and enjoy the music and watching others enjoy what they were doing. In many ways or little dance party was an act of defiance against all the expectations and demands our society/culture make. We were going to dance and enjoy it, no matter what others may think. and in the process of getting comfortable with ourselves dancing, we got comfortable with everyone else dancing - a brief euphoric four hours perhaps, but i am still going to chalk this one up as a victory against "the man"


Do you remember those long days in highschool of squirming and shifting in the hard plastic, metal or fiberglass chair while looking longingly at the teacher's cushy plush chairs? This "chair hierarchy" can be found in most schools including colleges and universities where students will unquestioningly spend hours in discomfort while the teacher or professor lounges in luxury. This is one of the many ways institutions of education teach us to accept authority and hierarchy without question or critique. It also sends a clear message about how students are valued.

For me, things like the chair differential and the authoritarian style of teaching did wonders in getting me to accept, even crave hierarchy and authority. I must admit that when participating in a graduate school program that was supposed to be more student centered and involved lots of sitting in circles and having discussions, i loved my economics class that was almost strictly lecture style. In my post graduate wanderings from job to volunteer program and from city to city I have often longed for a job at a place like McDonalds where they just told me what to do, and i could do it. It frightens me to realize now how much a seek this authority and hierarchy. I feel it when i am in a bookstore looking for the book that is just going to tell me how to save the world, a list of instructions that require no independent or creative thought. Which leads me to the flip side of this. How much have i lost in terms of my own ability to "think outside the box" of instruction and authority? I find myself now having to "unlearn authority" in order to question it and stand against it. This unlearning is proving to be quite the challenge.

As a teacher now I am constantly aware of the way that myself and the school I work at enforce authority. At times it feels like we put more energy into authority than into learning and it frightens me. I am always on the lookout for ways to make space in the curriculum for questioning what goes on at school and in the city outside the school walls. However, this requires the unlearning of my own need for authority. When I am not willing to question or criticize authority, how can i possibly expect the same from my students?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Makeup Confessions

So I did it. I spent a ridiculous amount of money on makeup. My first "real" batch of makeup at age 27 almost 28. Why is this a confession? Because ever since high school I have held very firm principles against makeup. It was at that time that I started to understand makeup to be yet another part of the consumer machine that drives this country. Actually, I think i just wanted to be beautiful naturally, with whatever God had given me. But I was also resisting an entire industry that thrives on telling women that they are not good enough as they are, that they have to spend exorbitant amounts of money covering up their true selves to be made acceptable and pleasing to society.

This whole industry of course starts with the beauty myth which says that women are defined and valued almost solely on face values (beauty or sex value), and that the only path to true happiness and fulfillment comes in being beautiful enough to be chosen by prince charming and taken to the place of happily ever after. As a child and even a teenager, I awaited my "Cinderella" moment, when the unnoticed girl, me, would suddenly transform into a real beauty who outshone everyone around. Part of my not wearing makeup was in anticipation of that transformation. Another part was a burgeoning awareness of the forces that try to control women and keep them so worried about their faces that they have little time, energy, or money to put into more important things.

Anyway, this is all to say that in spite of my strongly held principles against buying into the consumerist ideology that spending money on masking myself can make me happy, i still grew up in a conventional white middle class home and world that i have not been able to break free from, and in moments of weakness, the desire for beauty and acceptance can be overwhelming. My brain can tell me one thing, i can rant and rave about the evils of the makeup industry, and yet there is still a part of me that wants to take part. One of the many struggles of living in a world that is so screwed up. You want to change it, and at the same time, you have to live in it. Small defeats like this one could lend someone to throw in the towel and stop resisting the status quo, for now i am going to chalk this one up to contradiction, continue to think about it and challenge it, and also have a little grace and forgiveness with myself.