Saturday, October 15, 2011

I can't do it all

Throughout college and beyond, I've made poverty my life. I studied international relations and economics, worked alongside single moms and immigrants, interned at a hunger policy organization, studied in a developing country (while working in an informal settlement), volunteered at a pregnancy resource center, and now work in an inner city school. When I wasn't making it my studies or my work, I was attending seminars, protesting the government, listening to sermons at Mass, or hearing more of my family's story.

What does this mean? It means I take poverty issues very, very personally.

It's gotten to the point where political discussions have a strong emotional component, where ally my conversations lead back to social justice, where I can't sleep because all this stuff drives me crazy.

However, with the help of my fiance, I've realized something crucial.

I just can't do it all.

This isn't to say that I shouldn't make ending poverty the goal of my career or social justice a strong value of mine. This doesn't mean that I shouldn't try to make a difference.

It just means that I can't continue to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders by myself. I can't save the whole world. To think that I can makes me an arrogant fool seeking an early grave. If I want us all to see each other as equal, human beings, who deserve fulfilling lives, I have to remember that I belong in that category.

It means I also need time to take a breath.

It means I need time to contemplate.

It means I should simply enjoy the people in my life and have conversations without losing my head if someone asks me what I think about a certain policy.

It means I should give time to other interests, like my music and my writing-both of which keep me sane.

It means I should take care of myself, that I also need to have a good night's sleep, healthy meals, plenty of water, and at least a few minutes of fitness every day.

It means that, in order to love each person, I must at least love myself.

When I was training to work in rape crisis (before it became too much for me), my trainers made self care a crucial component. Often times, anyone who works in high need areas, especially under high stress conditions, has the tendency to neglect themselves. Mothers often do the same thing with their newborns. The problem with neglecting self care is that, of course, it makes you ineffective. Unfortunately, we also live in a culture that glorifies work and in a time where long hours of work are becoming more necessary to survive. We often glorify heroes while forgetting to think about their needs (as they, obviously, are not-that's what makes them heroes). We need to break this model.

Consider it a call to action. As we obviously cannot do this work by ourselves, we could use some help. Today, I challenge you to pick up that hammer of service. Whether you sign up for a long term program, pick up the trash in your neighborhood, make meals for the homeless, do an act of advocacy, or simply thank those you know who serve in your community, even the smallest act can make the whole world better. You may not be able to give a year but five minutes is the world if it comes from your heart.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

No offense, my TFA friends......

.......but I'm not a fan of Teach for America.

I know quite a few people, both friends and colleagues, who are part of TFA. I'm not saying that they are not good people because they are. They have genuine hearts and strong minds and, like a lot of us in my cohort, want to give a couple of years in service (though unlike the rest of us, they're making salaries). A lot of them do want to impact children's lives and there are those who end up becoming good teachers because of it. Heck, I know some WONDERFUL teachers who started in TFA.

However, TFA is a temporary program. Unlike other teaching programs, it's meant to have college grads, many of whom have never taught before, teach in inner city schools for two years before they start the rest of their lives. "No, I'm not going to keep teaching, I'm going to law school afterward," is a response I hear often. On top of that, they're placing these temporary teachers in schools that need consistency above anything else. With all of DC's restructuring, my students need someone who is going to stay. Someone who doesn't just know the kids, but takes time to know their parents, siblings, and community. Though I've only been in my school for a couple weeks, I've noticed that the best teachers are the ones who really take their time to get to know the kids, their friends (and whether or not it's a good idea to let them sit together), their families, their interests, and their needs. One who the parents can go to and know that this person cares about their child's education. One who knows the community and can use resources to help their kids learn.

Of course, all of that takes time. It's not easy to be a teacher, it's not something you can quickly master. If I've learned anything from my music teachers, it's that practice makes perfect all the time. Even if it doesn't make you perfect (though 10,000 hours should do the trick), it should make you better. It takes years to hone your craft. While there are people who show extreme talent in the beginning, even they have much to learn about their craft (hence, a child who's talented at singing is given MORE lessons and coaching, not less). Teaching is not easy, it actually requires supreme dedication and the willingness to learn as much as you can about your students. That doesn't happen in two years, even for the really good ones.

So, is it really fair to use these kids in the inner cities or the rural areas as your experiment, while you take time (and a salary) to figure out if you're even up to the task? Is it fair to these kids, who desperately need someone who's willing to stay with them? Is it fair to these parents, who, like most other parents, want what's best for their kids, including education and opportunities that they themselves might not have had? Is it fair to the communities, who look to teachers as leaders and consider them vital resources?

No. If I do become a teacher, something I'm giving some serious thought, I'm in it for the long hall. Even if I take time to go overseas, I'm always coming back. I WILL teach in the inner city because those kids have every inch of potential (and sometimes more than) that their well off counterparts have. I will shamelessly admit my bias and say that my students are awesome and they deserve someone who's willing to stay.

Oh, you're worried that I'm in an unsafe area? Puh-lease. We're as secure as the White House and the kids know us pretty well. What are they going to do, sneer at me? Oooh, I'm so scared!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Our heroes aren't perfect

We all have our greats, our kings and queens that we honor, whose codes, values, and ideals we preserve in order to build up future generations. In the idealistic, progressive community I've become part of, some of these greats include Greg Mortensen of Three Cups of Tea fame, Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Wangari Maathai, and I'm only naming a few. To us mere, idealistic mortals, many of whose names will not go down in history quite like theirs, these are saints, near gods of the human spirit. They managed to overcome such obstacles to make even their enemies start to listen. They must be perfection.

Yet we forget one thing about these heroes. Our heroes, above anything else, were human beings, subject to the same character flaws and temptations that so many of us struggle with. While they emphasize the importance of fighting them, they were not perfect and they did make mistakes. Greg Mortensen was recently accused of fraud and mismanagement of funds within his organization. MLK may have had extramarital affairs, apparently, Gandhi may have espoused racist views of his own. My own personal hero, Joan of Arc, would loved to have gone after heretics (and I have both Jewish and Protestant ancestry). Of course, I say may have because these are what I've heard from others but, because of their likely occurrences, I've seen people become disappointed, as if the entire cause is ruined. I'll admit, I've espoused similar feelings.

How do we work with it? We have to remember that, regardless of their imperfections, the work they did was still important. MLK may have been unfaithful but his work and inspiration changed the course of history. Gandhi's message of non-violent resistance sparked an entire world's conscience, even if he had the same beliefs as his oppressors. Greg Mortensen encouraged so many people to consider the importance of education, not drone attacks, as a weapon against terrorism. Joan of Arc gave courage to a despairing country and especially stands out in history as a woman, a youth who grew up in poverty yet was still willing to take a stand. Our heroes were no angels, but they stood up when it was needed.

There are no perfect heroes. There are imperfect human beings who, despite their flaws, can still turn their hearts, minds, and skills to right action. While this is not an excuse for bad behavior (it's bad for a reason), we should understand that their personalities aren't what destroys oppression. They may have the inspiration but it's up to each one of us to do the work. Our names may never be known like theirs are. That's no excuse. If we want a better world, it starts with us.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Please don't ever tell me I'm awesome for doing this work

Seriously. I don't want to hear it.

One, service is a basic requirement in my belief system. Not just my religious beliefs, although, over 2,000 verses about the need to seek justice for the poor are pretty convincing. In my beliefs about humanity, service is a prerequisite for loving other people. This includes the small acts. How can you say you love your family if you're not willing to do things for them? Your friends if you won't even be there for them (there emotionally if not physically)? Your companion if you won't sacrifice for them? I choose to do more service because, well, inside, there's a spoiled little princess who does need perspective, who needs reminders that there are others who were not blessed with what I have and deserve to be seen as people, too. Serving others helps me realize my faults and my failures in loving those close to me and reminds me that I need to practice what I preach with the people in my life.

Two, I look at the youth of the Middle East, the youth all over who hunger and thirst for justice to the point of death. I think of figures such as Dr. King, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Wangari Maathai, the guys who fought in the Easter Rising. Most of them were killed and Wangari Maathai, while still alive, faced government persecution. The youth in the Middle East risk their lives in protest and many have already died. Guess what? They all are taking much more of a risk than I am. I complain that I no longer have any disposable income and they're all giving up their personal safety. My sacrifices are pretty small compared to what others face in the fight for justice. So, I don't go out all the time and I work ten hour days. So, maybe my kids won't like me at first (or maybe they will). Compared to all those badasses, I'm not giving up that much.

Three, like I mentioned before, I have flaws. Trust me, I am no angel. I have the tendency to cut people off, get offended easily, developed quite a potty mouth in college, and I complain quite a bit. There is nothing I hate more than, "You're so much better than me, I could never do that." Um, yes you can. Or, if you're limited in time and resources, you can find something to raise your voice about. You don't want direct service, there's advocacy, fundraising, and a whole other slew of means to make change. Truly, there is something for everyone. If you're a parent, instill values of service in your kids. And, if you feel you need to curb some habits or change aspects of your life to do so, then do it. There's time as long you're breathing. Maybe you can't take a full year to do full time service. There are still many ways you can help your community while becoming a better person in the meantime.

I hate the, "you're awesome" or "you're the best" comments because I always feel there is room for improvement. I promise you, a diet and some exercise would be very good for my ego. Also, don't focus on me. I wouldn't do this if I didn't have a strong belief that this was required. In turn, I came from good parents, who never failed to remind me of my duty to humanity. Seriously, don't give me all the credit. Instead, I hope that what I am doing inspires you to figure out how you can improve yourself and your community.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Privilege and Gender

In our training, we had to walk a privilege line. For those who don't know what this is, a privilege line is when you all stand in a straight line, side to side. A leader will ask questions and, if your answer is yes, the leader will ask you to either step backward or forward. For example, a question that would have you step forward would be, "Did your parents graduate from college?" A question that would have you step back would be something like, "Were you ever denied employment due to your perceived race/religion/sexual orientation/etc?" It was interesting because I saw that there were areas where I wasn't privileged and where I was.

I am privileged in the sense that I was born white, with no disabilities. I am privileged in the sense that my companion is male and, as such, we face no harassment for expressing love to each other. I grew up with two parents, who, while they have not finished college, made sure that I could go and emphasized education in our house. My parents made sure that we did not go hungry, that we always knew they loved us, and did everything to ensure we could become the best people we could be. I've never encountered serious persecution for my religious beliefs or cultural practice.

However, I had to step back quite a few times. One, I am a woman. As a young girl, I DID hear people criticize my desires for a career, asking about if I wanted a family. I developed early, I did face sexual harassment in school and I have been lucky to escape situations that could have ended in a horrible manner (trust me, peeps, I know I'm lucky, and I know others aren't). Further, I've known many women who were raped or forced to do things they didn't want to do. I know my companion gets nervous when I have to go home at night and is pretty apprehensive about my choice of work. I know I'll likely get paid less and I came of age to see politicians debating about whether my own health care is either a luxury or a right, and I'm not even talking about abortion. I learned it's normal to trivialize violence against women and teen pregnancy because, "she should have kept her legs closed/worn different clothes/yada yada." I learned it was normal to hate other women for physical beauty and to hate myself for the way I looked. I learned that having morals made me a prude while questioning them made me a whore. I learned that my cycle makes me unfit to be a world leader. I learned that I could get what I want by flashing my boobs or putting out.

Further, I learned that, while being a woman already deemed me unfit, being a woman of color, a woman of different sexual preference, who has a disability or anything like that, marks one as inferior in our society. We cry about sex trafficked girls in Russia but our own sex trafficked American girls (usually African American) are listed as prostitutes and sent to prison when they can't even consent to sex. Latina women are sexualized in the media all the time and are portrayed much like the Irish used to, constantly having kids and such. Lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered women (especially the last one) are marked for violence. Women all over lighten their skin, relax their hair and dye it various shades of blonde and red because they can't even see themselves as beautiful. Muslim girlfriends of mine, from all backgrounds, have faced everything from verbal harassment to physical and sexual violence simply because people fear their faith. Magazines sexualize girls as young as ten, yes, TEN and clothing companies think it's cute to write sexual innuendos on clothing made for three-year-old girls (just ask my aunt about that one). We rarely even hear about disabilities, there weren't even any questions about it, that's how little they're included.

Being a woman is already one strike against me. My privilege in other areas means I have an even greater responsibility to fight. We are all equal. Why should I be judged for anything other than either my merits or my character?

What I learned from a former skinhead

At training the other day, we heard former skinhead Frank Meeink speak. He talked about his life, how he was horribly abused as a child by his stepdad and later bullied in school. The only one who reached out to him in his teens was his skinhead cousin, who ended up recruiting him into a movement of extreme hatred and violence. He told us about his times in prison and how he finally broke all ties with the skinheads when his employer, a Jewish man who knew his past, told him how capable he was. Mr. Meeink told his story to emphasize young people's need for role models, how a good one can mean the difference between creation and destruction.

Can I tell you I'm not surprised? I'll be working with adolescents, the age very few seem to care about. No longer the sweet little ones who adore you and not yet confident adults, adolescents undergo a huge physical and emotional transition that leaves them feeling quite conflicted. They are extremely conscious of what others think of them and no longer want to be seen as little kids. So, what do they do? They act tough. They act bitchy. If they really have no guidance, they act out. If no one believes in them, they stop caring. If someone does, they'll listen. If that person happens to be the wrong kind of person (:cough: gang leader: cough:terrorist: cough:cough), well, then we have problems.

We don't take youth seriously. They're just teenagers, bags of hormones, who don't give a damn about anyone else but themselves. Why should we care, the public cries. So some kid got into drugs, don't they know that drugs kill (never mind that maybe that's all that they have)? So, some girl got knocked up, she should have kept her legs closed (never mind that she may have been coerced or left with myths about and no access to birth control). They know right from wrong, they can make their own choices, even if it lands them in adult prison (never mind that their brains aren't as fully capable as that of an adult's). We particularly neglect the poor ones because either they'll pull themselves out if they care or they're weak (forget about our policies and institutions that keep them poor). And then we act all surprised when we hear that we still have neo-Nazis. Or flash mobs and race riots here and in Europe. Wake up, guys! Are you really that shocked?

When we neglect our youth, we neglect our future. Chew on that for a moment. If one group is falling, soon we all will.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Training, Team Building, and the Recovery of My Idealism

For the past week, I've been in training. Like any other school or work place orientation, training so far has consisted of me learning the organizational culture of this program. Most of the culture is based in the belief that a commitment to idealism can make a difference, not only in oneself but in the community and in the world. To my organization, idealism is not a naive belief in a world of "Kum Ba Ya" and rainbows. Instead, idealism is our own commitment to improving ourselves, our communities and our entire world. Far from being easy, it takes work.

This non profit manifests its belief in idealism by encouraging a positive attitude in all its members. To encourage a positive atmosphere, we constantly engage in team building activities. For the last week, before we found out our service teams, we were all placed in teams with people we did not know, under the leadership of senior corps members (second year volunteers). We gained practice in not only getting to know each other, but in learning how to work with each other to accomplish simple tasks. In addition, we learned about unity rallies, which are basically like pep rallies and allow the entire corps to come together and fuel each other's energy.

Why is this important? It's not just so we can indulge in games. We actually have learned of serious issues, such as the low proficiency rates of DC's public school students in math and English, as well as the huge high school dropout rate. We've also discussed racial and economic justice and learned about the high rates of unemployment in areas such as Anacostia (one of DC's poorest neighborhoods). However, as I've learned from my Kenya experience, issues of poverty are difficult to deal with, especially on one's own. Further, the fight against poverty is a battle that seems endless. If we let the darkness in, it will overpower us.

A united team and a positive attitude are what we can use to keep on fighting, even when the rest of the world gloats in telling us how useless it is.