July 2009

Calling all socially-minded readers and writers…

It’s that time again!

Alejna and I are seeking nominations for Just Posts for a Just World for the month of July. What did you read this month that made you think, blew your mind, or tugged your heart into a broader perspective? We’re looking for thoughtful posts made by people who write personal blogs. For more information, see the Just Posts page.

We welcome nominations from EVERYONE and hope you’ll contribute to our roundtable!


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Of Two Minds

In class on Tuesday, I showed students part of a documentary film called SASA! about the interplay of violence and HIV in women’s lives in Uganda and Tanzania.  Sasa means “now” in Kiswahili (the Bantu language most of us know as Swahili) and was chosen as the name of the film to emphasize the need for knowledge building about how violence, disease, and cultural power dynamics impact women.  The organization that worked to create the film, Raising Voices, is a respected NGO working in non-violence, specifically regarding women and children. The film itself was made by The People’s Picture Company in partnership with Raising Voices.

The film follows the stories of women who have been personally impacted by violence and HIV.  Their lives illustrate the common barriers women face to health and personhood.  The issues are not particularly unique to this one place nor are they revolutionary in terms of what we already know about women, poverty, and heath — but they are still tremendously tragic.  Bride prices, cultural expectations, personal beliefs of a woman as economically dependent, social acceptance of plural marriage… when these are combined with violence and poverty, disease is not far behind.

(Quicktime 30 minute film here.)  SASA (30 minutes)

I was surprised at how much of the material discussed in the film came as a surprise to students, or at least, that they showed such great pain at the realities in the film.  I had been taking it for granted that these were things everyone knew about women in poverty: that their lives are characterized by great abuses and limitations that are unthinkable to women raised in the West.  In fact, I usually am frustrated by the over-characterization of ALL women, particularly AFRICAN WOMEN, of living these oppressed lives.  Films like this often frustrate me because I feel it gives us wealthy Westerners reason to pity women who aren’t like us, infantilizing their lives and experiences in patronizing, imperialist ways.  I’m more comfortable talking about strengths, resistance, community building, and learning.  These sort of films and stories can paints the picture that women, even women within these terrible circumstances, are completely passive — controlled by the whims of their fathers and husbands — providing no self-directed action toward any part of their lives.  In depth research into these issues shows us that women who we view as the most “oppressed” by our definitions of oppression still act in resistance in ways that we might not see or appreciate.  Those are the sorts of conversations I like to have.  Let’s talk about what works and build on it.

But this class is an overview class.  Many students within it have never been outside of the United States, least of all to a non-OECD country.  First, then, they learn of the realities of poverty.  Thus, the film.  Thus, the discussion.

It was a good class, a fine, interesting discussion.  But it left me a bit raw.  I’m not sure how to teach an introduction to the realities of global poverty without painting the “woe is me” picture.  Is there a way to tell a tragic, terrible story, showing relevant barriers and challenges without painting a picture of a passive victim and active perpetrator?  I tried my best to break up that binary dynamic, about how the limits on one equally limits and defines the other – if you define one as black, then by definition the other one is completely white, leaving no room for gray.  I tried to walk that line of breaking thought out of submission versus aggressive, masculine versus feminine, victim versus perpetrator… but who knows how far that was absorbed.

Maybe it’s just that easy to believe that men are assholes?  Or, maybe it’s easier to believe that women are passive, submissive, and silent.

Donors do like a good victim story, after all.

Still, I like this film.  I think it does a good job of showing the problems and gives focus to how the community is coming together in their own terms to deal with them.  It does an excellent job of showing the ridiculousness of the “ABC” approach and how utterly useless it is in women’s lives.  (The ABC approach is the “Abstinence, Be faithful, use Condoms” approach to HIV prevention.  You might as well tell women that drinking Kool-Aid will prevent HIV.  Actually, the chemicals in Kool-Aid are probably more effective in limiting HIV infection than ABC.  But I digress.)

It ends in a positive light, showing the impact of peer counseling and community work.  And of course it does!  Because ultimately the film needs to show interest and build compassion.  Ultimately, this is an agency that relies on donations.  It is a wonderful organization doing work I respect and admire.  The sort of place I’d love to work, actually.  When you think about it, they tread a fine line in this film: showing just enough compelling story for donors and then showing the proactive ways a good organization can be capable of improving even the most difficult of lives.

So why do we focus so much on all that terrible, victimizing stuff?  What is it that is so compelling?  Is it the same thing that makes us listen harder when the neighbors start to fight, or slow down to look at the scene of a traffic accident?  Do the realities of living in poverty provide good voyeur material?

I can’t help but feel a little frustrated.  Maybe it’s that I’m jaded and tired of the essentializing of ‘women in the developing world’.  Maybe I’m tired of seeing the same solutions for problems that seem never-ending.

In the end, I felt that putting it here might be a way to work it out.  Maybe I’m wrong and there are very surprising things to be found in this film.  Maybe I’m alone in my frustrations.  And maybe there is more we can do?


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Portrait of Ardis

Kate’s first caregiver, Ms. Gladys, (blog mentions of her are here) retired last week.  I used to hang out with Gladys when Kate was a baby. Usually it was to nurse (since Kate was adverse to the bottle and I am adverse to the pump) but sometimes when I’d go in for that afternoon feeding, it was hard to leave. I’d help out around the room, giving a bottle, changing a diaper, or rocking someone to sleep. The perk was that it meant I got to talk to Gladys. Gladys can tell it straight, but has a way of gently leading you to the answer so that you come to it in your own time. She is such a wonderful listener that it is easy to get carried away and babble on and on to her soft affirmations. Eventually, it got easier to ask her questions. This was how I learned about her daughter, Ardis, who died shortly before the Flood came and engulfed their home, taking with it most of their physical memories.

Abeona threw a big surprise retirement party for her last Saturday, with people there representing her 27 years of service.  We helped a friend put together a book, scanning pictures and sending photographs from Abeona’s first three years.  She did a fantastic job on the book, which included photos, stories from families, scanned art projects, and memories reflecting many years of work. But I wanted to do something else and asked for help from staff to make it happen.

As I understand, it took some serious work to get this photograph scanned — the last one taken of Ardis. 

As usual, I forgot about taking photographs of the process until I was well into the piece.

This was my toughest portrait to date, mostly because I was so very nervous to do it.  It felt very personal and, in a way, invasive to be doing this as a surprise.  She hadn’t asked me to do this because she felt I could do the job correctly — it was something I was just doing.  What if there was something I missed?

This is the only finished photograph I have — I didn’t take any of it in it’s frame.

Even now, I’m at a loss of what to say about it.

This is Ardis.  She was a beautiful, smart young woman born to an amazing, compassionate woman.  It was a pleasure to draw her.

Arts & Photography
Family Life in NOLA
Life in New Orleans

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15 Books

Dear Dissertation: I promise I am getting back to it after this quick lunch break.

Facebook note!
What 15 books will stay with you forever?

Here are the rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. They don’t have to be the greatest books you’ve ever read, just the ones that stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Copy these instructions and tag 15 ( or more) friends, including me – because I’m interested in seeing what books are in your head.

1. The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison)
2. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
3. Birth as an American Rite of Passage (Robbie Davis-Floyd)
4. Native Son (Richard Wright)
5. Killing the Black Body (Dorothy Roberts)
6. Death Without Weeping (Nancy Scheper-Hughes)
7. Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser)
8. Betrayal of Trust (Laurie Garrett)
9. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
10. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
11. The Woman and the Body (Emily Martin)
12. The Lorax (Dr. Seuss)
13. D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths (Eric and Ingrid D’aulaire)
14. Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
15. Harry Potter Series (JK Rowling)



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Jimmy Buffet sings in French?

Will’s last summer camp performance included the kids singing along to Jimmy Buffet. Paul and I felt that it was too strange to hear Jimmy Buffet without adult beverages, so we concluded that parents should be encouraged to play drinking games at kids performances. It would go something like this: Drink when your kid does X on stage.

Most likely, the drink list would include:
— Nose picking
— Tooth wiggling
— Crotch grabbing
— Lip pulling
— Butt picking
— Yawning
— Staring off into space while other kids sing
— Making excuse of stage time to hold hand of cute girl or boy,
— Stage diving.

The stage dive wasn’t captured on video. Which is probably a good thing, as we’re trying to keep our un-insurable people ratio at 1:1.

Maybe he can get some extra points for speaking French?

Family Life in NOLA
Mi Familia

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While waiting for files to copy.

TO DO, before August 1st.

— Apply 4 years of ethnographic research to roughly 60-80 pages of unwritten manuscript, comparing to (approximately) last 50 years of research on relevant topics.
— Hire desperate computer-savvy person to enter several hundred sources into new software and tie them into ongoing drafts.
— Hire or beg help to improve terrible translations… currently over 20 pages of them.
— Draw two portraits.
— Wean Kate from the pacifier before she gets herself into (more) trouble.
— Get glitter for the coming tooth fairy return.
— Finish one major grant submission.
— Be okay with putting all other work tasks on hold… cancel meetings, apologize, explain, and try to delegate.
— Have a least one meeting that would not go on hold from above.
— Finish lodging reservations for Scotland.
— Arrange camera rental for Scotland.
— Presents: mail wrapped b-day gifts for C, W, and R… and just cuz present for W. Figure out birthday present and send to B. Order/ship wedding present. Belated b-day for brother and anniversary for brother and sis-in-law, too.
— Find house/cat sitter.
— Make beach decisions.
— Prepare two 2-hour classes with lecture and discussion… bonus points for being alive to deliver them.
— Freak out over all the things I’m forgetting.


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Work, Writing, and Wanderings.

— Since last weekend’s writing retreat, which took place in an out-of-town colleague’s apartment, I’ve been able to fall into a much more productive writing schedule.
— My dissertation is fleshed out into 10 Chapters. All currently have written sections… none of which are finished. I’m guessing 1/3-1/2 of it is written… and of that, the majority ranges from “okay” to “crap.” Somehow it all makes sense in my head but makes no sense on paper. Hmmmmm.
— I know what each needs to say and getting them to that point really scares me.
— How come I’m freaked out by my own visions for The Thing? I thought I’d feel better at this point in the game.

— We’re spending the first week of August in Scotland. One my best friends from college is getting married in Ayr… in a castle… on a cliff… by the sea. We’re going in a few days early to check out the Western Island(s) and Highland area before the wedding.
— When we get back from Scotland, we’re going to the beach with the kids. Paul will be working then, but we’re hoping to manage it all to get in some quality family time before the school year starts.

— My committee chair is back in town in a little over a week. We’re meeting on the 30th. YIKES.

— Work is still overwhelming, but I had a few learning moments and realized that I needed to let go a bit until the dissertation draft was done.

Seeking….? Advice on Scotland. And the post-Scotland beach. (Did I mention we’re flying direct in and out of ORLANDO?) Ideas on balancing. And strategies for sustained writing inspiration.


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Zee Boy, he can READ

Will’s been working on sight words in the past few months and has been working up to actually putting them all together. In the French system, reading isn’t emphasized (particularly in French) until 1st grade. During Kindergarten over the last school year, he had English 2-3 times a week for about an hour each time. I didn’t think that it would actually amount to much. We read regularly and have helped him build his words as he’s learned to write, but there was no heroic effort on our part to push skills on him. Yet, here he is… working on completing a Summer Reading program that requires his reading a dozen English books and 3 French books.

I felt his reading this book was particularly appropriate.

Especially since he now has ANOTHER loose tooth.

Mi Familia
Special Family Moments

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Let them eat cloud!

Today is Bastille Day and, as one might expect for a French summer camp, there were school-related activities.  Sometime last week, Kate’s teacher sent home notes asking the students to wear costumes for Bastille Day for their party and parade.  Accordingly, I planned on not thinking about it until 8am this morning, roughly 30 minutes before leaving for school.

Thanks to a tu-tu stuck in the back of her closet, Kate was a cloud:

She is holding a Christmas ornament with a picture of herself in it at age 7 months.  I have no idea from where she took said ornament or why she insisted on posing with it this morning.

The white bracelet?  She made it at school last week.  I thought it gave her outfit just the right touch.

Family Life in NOLA
Family Photos
Mi Familia

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Hello? Tooth Fairy?

Remember this guy?

And the whole loose tooth thing?

Uh-oh. What’s this?

What happened at school today?

Uh-ho. I thought I’d have one more day!?

Roughly twelve hours until he wakes up tomorrow morning… anyone got advice? What does/did the tooth fairy do in YOUR house??


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