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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Man Plans, God Laughs

So, you know how I was supposed to go to Arkansas?

Well, due to state budget cuts there and an opening in DC, my organization has decided to keep me in DC. I knew this about a month ago but have been fairly busy with trying to save money for a more permanent housing arrangement. I also haven't figured out what to call my blog, now that I won't be going "down South."

I did feel very mixed when I heard the news. On the one hand, I'm pretty happy. I always felt like I wasn't seeing enough of DC, even though I've been here for four years. Now, I'll have my chance to see it, to be a part of it in ways I wasn't able to as a college student. I also don't have to consider the ramifications of a long-distance relationship, something that, while probably worth it in this case, would have added to stress and anxiety on my part. I can actually be a part of my church community in DC and take advantage of the city, now that I don't have to worry about paying rent while trying to make good grades.

At the same time, I did feel a bit sad. I was starting to feel excited about a new adventure, in a city I hadn't experienced before. I was looking forward to seeing a part of my own country I really haven't been to for a long period of time. In addition, as many of my friends are heading for new places overseas and I really don't have a chance to go on vacation, I was a bit bummed that I'd simply be staying.

Yet, I realize that this too will be a new adventure. While I've lived in DC for four years, I haven't really experienced it. I always knew DC had its own problems, but I was largely hidden from them, nestled away in the northwest quadrant. Aside from internship and volunteer opportunities, I didn't have much of a reason to head out, except to go downtown for social events and tourist attractions. Now, I can participate in DC in a new way, not as a college student, but as a volunteer, a community member, and an activist. To me, that's quite exciting.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Will I Join Peace Corps?

This question has come up numerous times throughout my college career. As I have specialized in International Development, hold a deep love of travel, and have done a variety of service (domestic) trips in addition to my Kenya experience, Peace Corps seems to be the natural step. Multiple friends and professors have done it and my year in Americorps will make me more competitive for a stint in Peace Corps. Peace Corps not only gives one the opportunity to give back, it includes tons of benefits such as non-competitive entry for government job applications, loan forgiveness, and the possibility of scholarships for grad school, as well as a sizable readjustment package. I'd be silly not to jump on it, right?


While I am not completely ruling out Peace Corps, I have several reasons to hesitate before completing an application. One, I do not get to pick the region I go to. While that's not always a bad thing, I tend to change my mind about where I'd want to go to. Right now, I've got an Africa bias, especially toward Kenya. Or, I might want to go to some place in Latin America for a change and to finally put eight years of Spanish to the test. Peace Corps, however, could decide (for whatever reason) to send me to Micronesia, Eastern Europe or something. Also, I'd rather be in a city, especially if it's a country I've never been to before, but I would have no say in that either. Granted, I like the idea of trotting off to some remote place in the world, but if I am going to do work there, work that involves the quality of life for some people, I wouldn't want to go without prior knowledge of the area and at least minimal language skills.

Two, I started the application before ending up in a serious relationship. Now, before anyone says anything, I am not putting my relationship before my career and aspirations and I did make a willingness to travel a deal breaker in mine. However, while other organizations are OK with taking on an unmarried couple (maybe with prohibitions about living together, which, as a Catholic, I'm OK with), Peace Corps is not one of them. Even if they were to accept us both, we'd likely end up in vastly different areas. In addition, we are already going to be long distance while I'm in Americorps and, while we're committed, it's still difficult. If it doesn't work out, I might consider Peace Corps a little more, but I'm not willing to throw away a good relationship if we have other options to travel together. Nor would I do something as foolhardy as to rush into marriage just to have my cake and eat it too.

Three, I have enough issues with the U.S. agenda on matters such as foreign aid and assistance. While we have done great things with our money, we've also contributed to dependency, to increased poverty, and to the collapse of local markets (due to pushing our food products and clothes). An example is hiring someone to teach in a school. Yes, you'll have an English teacher for a year and people can retain skills but what happens when you lose that teacher? You'd have to get another American to fulfill that job. It's much better, in my opinion, to train local teachers and create a sustainable project. Further, we're expecting to make huge changes in two years. You can't change thousands of years of culture in two years. I'd rather go with an organization such as Tostan that does long term, grassroots outreach with local staff, where foreigners understand that they're providing temporary, logistical support.

Four, much like my issues with where I am sent, I also do not have a choice about the kind of work I do. After Americorps, I'll be more qualified for Peace Corps' education and youth branches but I am not guaranteed those branches. They could choose me for an aspect of agriculture which I wouldn't mind. At the same time, there are definite interests I have and I want to be able to pursue and gain more experience with them. I understand that there's an aspect of needing to be flexible and innovative and that there's also training. However, if I am going to commit two years, I do want to have a say in how I spend them, regardless of who's paying. Once I'm in, I'm in, and I want to make sure there's no going back.

These are just a few reasons for my skepticism. I am not completely ruling out Peace Corps and understand that I could very well change my mind in a year. I just want to make sure that this is what I want. I don't want to do it simply because everyone tells me to do it and because it looks good on my resume.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Blog has been revamped

While my adventures in Kenya have passed, the journey continues. I will still use this blog to process thoughts I have about my Kenyan experience, to tell stories as they come and to rant about issues in foreign aid and development (Katie's FAVORITE topic :D). However, I thought I'd use this blog to chronicle a new experience. I have decided to commit to a year of service through a community service program. I will serve in Little Rock, AR and it looks like I will be tutoring and mentoring kids while also planning community events in low-income communities. I am very excited.

This opportunity actually came through an email I received while in Kenya. I had discovered a passion for working with young people through my internship overseas and was debating over what to do post-college. This seemed too perfect, so I applied and did two phone interviews. Having only been in the American South on a couple of occasions (one week with the Cherokee in North Carolina and another in Disney World, which doesn't count), it will be an opportunity for me to see a bit more of my own country. The adventures continue!

Disclaimer: My friends debate about whether Arkansas is truly in the South. Some say it's more Midwest, others say it's more like the love child of the two. Since I am a Northeast chick to my core and was raised to believe that anything below the Mason-Dixon line is the South, AR counts in this blog. Also, it borders Texas and Louisiana. You cannot GET more South than that. I'm sorry if this offends anyone. I do not mean it as an insult.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

"But at least they're giving!!!!" Katie's head hurts........

I rant about celebrities a lot. I think our society gives them way too much status as it is and I'm sick of their attempts to pass as experts on world issues. Where does this sudden rant come from? Well, I posted a Guardian article this morning that discusses a failed attempt of Madonna's to build a school in Malawi. Apparently, she and the government failed to recognize little things like land rights and, well, consulting the people. Of course, I posted this on my Facebook with a few things celebrities need to do before rushing to support a cause, like consulting experts and learning about basic economics, politics, world history, etc. Immediately, I got a response about how at least they're giving and should we all inform ourselves so heavily before we give to charity? Not to mention, why should we tell other people what they do with their money?

Granted, I believe all citizens should be informed about work that their charities do. I believe they should think carefully before entering into commitments like child sponsorship (which can lead to divided communities, due to preference of one child over another). I believe our education fails us when it comes to a basic understanding of geography, history and cultures from anywhere but the West. Our culture also holds suspicion for the elite, which includes experts on things like politics, economics, etc. However, we do place high status on celebrities and that's where the problem lies.

You see, most of our celebrities are famous for things like sports, acting, singing, dancing, or simply being born into wealthy families and doing stupid things. Whether or not they're even good at their crafts is debatable but they are good at getting attention. Of course, would I rather them shining the spotlight on poverty than on their own lascivious adventures? Absolutely. The problem I have is that, because of their status, people consider them the experts on issues of poverty and development. So they'll support things like HIV/AIDS treatment because it's sexy. Now, HIV/AIDS treatment is needed but not as much as prevention or treatment for things like diarrhea or pneumonia, which kills more children under the age of five than HIV/AIDS. However, no one's supporting that because it's not sexy. It's not in. No one reports on it so no one really knows about it anyway. Or, they'll do what Madonna did and build schools without consulting the people, which is a problem because it involves issues like land rights and property rights, which are already tenuous. Or, they'll adopt kids who actually have parents but make the argument that they can provide better, never mind that this encourages people to try and give their kid to any seemingly wealthy foreigner, which can open the door to evils such as human trafficking. Not to mention that there are hundreds of thousands of American children who age out of foster care and don't experience a loving home because adopting older American children of color or with special needs just isn't sexy.

These people and their decisions have a huge sway on a populace that may have good hearts but still are uninformed. People may say, "But this organization FEEDS people!" without realizing that it's killing local farmers because they can't compete with free food. "But this organization sponsors children who need our help!" Yes-if that child is lucky enough to be sponsored. What about organizations that offer services to people, but at a small price (enough for people making under $1 a day), so that they value the service and the organization sustains itself? Nope-not fair, all aid should be free. What about organizations that help people start small businesses? Becoming more mainstream-but not as sexy as starving kids!!! "But Angelina/Bono/etc have BEEN to Africa!!!!" OK, first, where in Africa because each country's different. Second, they go on short trips and go back home. I lived in Kenya, one out of fifty-four countries, for one semester and I STILL feel like I don't know anything.

If ending poverty is truly your fight, it requires intensive study and, at the very least, a lot of self education. It requires extensive work with communities who are finding ways to address their own ills but may need/want backup/someone to truly learn and understand what issues are at play. It requires a life of challenging the status quo, of making sure that the people who deal the cards deal fair hands and give people the tools to play them well. It requires strength to commit to a lifelong battle. Poverty can't be solved with a pretty face and a check going who knows where. It requires generations committed to fighting for a better world and it requires everyone.

Monday, March 21, 2011

I Hate Slum Tours

Much like eco-tourism, slum tours have become part of a growing trend to "understand and see" poverty as well as an attempt to hopefully "encourage income generation" for the residents. OK, now that I've made my disdain for these disgusting displays of objectification fairly obvious, here's the link. This article, from Kenya's Daily Nation, show what a disgrace slum tours are. From intruding on a resident's childbirth to filming acts of defecation to taking pictures without so much as an attempt to ask for permission, I see a scary trend. Slums are becoming the new zoos.

People, taking a tour of a slum does not make you more enlightened. Intruding on the most base and private of human conditions with a camera does not make you more aware of foreign affairs. Yes, slums are full of poverty. Yes, they are a testament to a huge disparity of income (the one I worked in was next to my university, a school where wealthy Kenyans and foreigners attended). Yes, there is a lot of poop. They are also full of human beings. People who, despite stereotypes, go to school and get an education. People who are aware of the world. People who try their damned hardest to make something for themselves and their families. People who have feelings, who have dignity. People who are my friends.

If you want to help the world, educate yourself. I've got a million and one sources for you. Give to organizations that invest in local businesses and help raise employment. Learn about the charities you support. Legislate and advocate. And, if you're going to a developing nation, pick a program that honors the people and actually develop relationships once you're there. But please, please, please, do not go on a slum tour. People are not objects you can photograph to show others that you've "experienced" poverty. Poverty won't end until we see people as people. It certainly won't just because you toured a slum.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Let's talk about Kenya!"

Some days, I can't stop talking about Kenya and some days, I don't want to talk about Kenya. Some days, I can't say enough about the people I worked with and the things I saw and did. Other days, if I have to hear another, "How was Africa?" or, "Let's talk for five hours about Kenya," I may have my own version of a "youth uprising." It seems to be cyclical for me. I understand people are curious and want to hear, want to know. At the same time, there are more things to me than just Kenya. I may want to talk about my Youth and Conflict course, my rediscovery of my musical passions, or how I actually like my job this semester. Or my Peace Corps application. Or how I'm back at St. Thomas and I love it even more. Or, how I'm thinking of starting a band.

I'll admit, the "How was Africa?" has always been a pet peeve because I only went to one country. If I went to Europe, it would make more sense to ask, "How was Europe?" because I'll likely have gone to a bunch of different countries. Yet, maybe due to ignorance (because we only learn about other countries when it concerns bad things or beautiful celebrities), we have to assume Africa is a monolithic continent and all Africans are the same. So it does make me cringe a bit. Also, where do I start? I experienced A LOT in four months, I can't put it in one nice little sentence.

And then there are days where everything out of my mouth is, "Kenya, Kenya, KENYA!!!!!!" Like, I'll respond to statements in Swahili, talk non stop about the good, the bad, and the ugly, and go on and on about every tiny little thing I did. Those are the days where everything relates to Kenya somehow and I must talk at great length (surprise, surprise) about it. I can't stop those days and it takes a friend to tell me to breathe before I can shut up.

I wonder if this is how new mothers feel, sometimes? Some days, they want people to ask them about something other than the baby and other days, they can't stop talking about their baby. At any rate, this is how I feel about Kenya. Please bear with me.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I Feel Guilty......

One of my buddies told me reentry was going to suck. First, thanks buddy (remember, sarcasm means I care). Second, while it actually does not suck (I am happy to be back to my life in the District), I will admit to having a few difficulties adjusting to life back in the U.S. Kenya did change my mindset and force me to question values I held dearly (such as my faith) as well as behaviors I rarely gave much thought (such as, throwing as much away as I do). Being away for so long made me realize relationships that I needed to reestablish, especially because I kept in touch with few people on a regular basis and it's hard to really give them an accurate depiction. Mainly though, there is a ton of guilt.

Given my ancestry and my religious tradition, guilt does not surprise me. It seems built into my bloodstream along with a side helping of stubborn. But this guilt is different. I feel the guilt of leaving someone behind, a beloved. I feel guilty for all the cultural gaffes and mistakes I made, for the relationships I could have developed but didn't. I feel guilty for not being able to do more, especially being as privileged as I am. I feel guilty for all the things I took personally when no offense was meant. I feel guilty for the opportunities I didn't take. Mainly, I just feel guilty for leaving. I felt I left so many behind.

I know that I am not completely responsible for this. I know that some of it was personal growth I needed to undergo so that I can do this again. I know that I was really busy (going to school, having an internship, plus a four hour daily commute) and I couldn't do all that I set out to do. I know I needed to give myself a break. I know that I needed to make those mistakes I had made, in order to learn and grow from them. I know that I can only own up to the things I did do wrong and move on. I know I can't save the world.

Still, I feel it. Even more than guilt, I feel sad. I miss it. I miss them. As much as I love my life in DC (and I do), I don't go through a day when I don't wish I was still there on some level. I miss my colleagues, my friends, the kids....I miss it. I feel that, while my body is in America, a piece of my heart is somewhere in Kenya. I'm not going to lie, it hurts.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Celeb Causes-A Perspective

According to this article, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie made their first huge donation to charity of the new year. They have donated $2 million to a wildlife sanctuary in Namibia (by the way, dear journalist, it's Namibia, not Nambia). This sanctuary takes care of injured animals and protects threatened species. A heartwarming cause, right?

I've never rolled my eyes so much in my entire life.

Look, I don't know the hearts of Ms. Jolie and Mr. Pitt. However, there are a couple things that irk me. First, this so called Namibian sanctuary is not even run by local people. While that doesn't automatically make it a bad organization and I've known several that have the goal of transitioning to local management, I have also known several organizations that ARE run locally, do amazing, sustainable work and don't even get half of the recognition of an organization run by white people. I worked with a wonderful organization that helped over 200 young people get trained in computers in the slums and learn how to manage their own businesses despite odds of lack of education and insecure property rights while also founding a medical clinic. They get NONE of the recognition as an organization that also happens to run a luxury guest house (as seen here). While Naankuse may be a good organization, all I'm seeing currently is an excuse for white tourists to do a small act of good while living in style. I'm not seeing a true impact.

Second, it seems that issues are only worth mentioning if they've got a pretty celebrity on the cover. Never mind that local people working on these issues may know a little more than Ms. Jolie does (considering she gets to fly home in luxury the next day), never mind that there are so many complexities to the issues of poverty and oppression, never mind that money isn't everything, as long as Angie's looking pretty and holding a cute African baby, the world is saved. While I know celebrities can at least shine a light on certain situations that would have been ignored (and, I'll admit, my pull to Africa started with a U2 obsession), there is a reason they are actors and entertainers, not development economists or environmental experts. It is a sad day when they get more recognition than those struggling and fighting to improve their countries and their situations.

If you really want to help, give your money to organizations that aid people to stand on their own but may not get that kind of recognition. The Acumen Fund allows people to invest in entrepreneurs in developing nations (examples: those selling malaria bed nets, thus creating a sustainable livelihood while also combating a major infectious disease). Global Giving allows others to give to local projects that may not have received attention (including a few projects by Seed of Hope, an externship site for one of my Kenya mates). Amani ya Juu is a business that creates amazing jewelry and products for people all over the world, products created by refugee women who are currently picking up their lives and making a living, thanks to this business. Finally, I must put in a good word for Alta'awon Youth Trust, a Kenyan organization that helps youth in the slums gain access to technology and entrepreneurship training, thus building their own livelihoods and gaining a leg to stand on (contact me for more info).

So, what's my consensus? Celebrities, to their credit, help make us aware. However, beware of what they endorse, lest it sound as glitzy as themselves. As mentioned, celebrities are only experts of their own craft (and sometimes, that's debatable). They also are extremely disconnected from the developing world and have the ability to escape from it (in their designer clothes and private jets) any time they want. What about those who stay behind? When will it be time to give them THEIR voice?