Category Archives: Education

Naman

In October, we lost someone so magnetic that he’s still pulling us together, even in death.  Someone so funny and kind that at his funeral we laughed (almost) as much as we cried.  Someone so good to the core that he was donating as much time and money as he could, without fanfare or pretense.  Someone who is the only person who would know what to say to during all of these raw times.

I met Naman on my trip to the Dominican Republic in May and June of 2011.  He was on my team, Rojo, and immediately became the most distinctive person on the entire trip.  As many have said, everyone felt like he was their best friend on the trip, because he treated everyone like the most important person he had ever met.  As we rumbled in a hot van with too few cracked pleather seats around that wonderful island country, Naman was always there with a song, dance, or imitation to keep our spirits up.  He always took his work seriously, although he never saw it as work.

Everyone grieves in their own way.  But for people like us, people who can’t sleep at night because we can’t stop thinking of injustice in the world, people who are no fun at parties because we keep talking about this great new NGO or social business we just learned about, passive or solitary grief is not for us.  We have to do something, we have to organize, mobilize, and funderize.  We have to do this not just because it’s who we are, but also because it’s who Naman was.

So we have made the Naman Shah Memorial Fund.  The fund will be used to send students like Naman, students who are passionate, smart, kind, and want to do good by being good, back to the Dominican Republic to learn what he learned, and contribute to the organizations, people, and country to which he contributed.  Today, we will be gathering in the Alumni Center of Northeastern to learn about Akshaya Patra from its President and CEO, Ms. Madhu Sridhar.  Akshaya Patra is one of several organizations Naman supported.  They provide free, balanced meals for school children, because no child should struggle in school because they’re distracted by hunger.  We will also have a silent auction, networking, and an opportunity to donate to both Akshaya Patra and the NSM Fund.

While I would love donations, I would also love non-monetary contributions.

I ask for your connections and talents; if you are able to donate anything to our future fundraising endeavors (a gift card or service from your business, for example), it would help us raise more.

I ask for you voice; if you could publicize the event, the fund, or Naman’s life’s message of living every day to its fullest and helping others to do so as well, it will encourage others to give and keep his memory alive.

And I ask for your presence, which is strangely the hardest thing to ask.  Our SEI family has circled the wagons to care for each other and launch this fundraising effort, which sometimes means crying during meetings and other times means pretending I don’t know the person we’re doing this for because that’s the only way to get anything done.  But most of the time it feels like no one in the rest of my life has any idea that I’ve lost someone, or any comprehension of how impossible it feels for that someone to be Naman.  I would love it if you could join me tonight, to learn about a cause he cared for, to hear his family and friends tell his story, and to support this segment of the Northeastern and Boston communities that is still hurting.

For Naman’s sake, I will try to smile.  I will try not to be “so belidge!”  And I will try to do a really good job.  Because that’s all we can do anymore.

The Global Experience

Whiny 18 year olds keep asking us, “What do you even do all day?!” (Just kidding on the whiney, they’re actually very thoughtful and a bunch of fun, and so far not getting into too much trouble.)  Well, every Thursday I TA a section of the Global Experience course, taught by Staci, an Asst Site Director.  Edlira, part of the ACT staff, and an adorable Albanian, is also a TA.  So far this means I send mass-emails and recieve questions every time I leave my room, and for good measure there are emails waiting when I’m back in my room. I also was up at 7am Tuesday, excorting students to their service-learning placement.  More on how that went later.

TAing this class is one of the aspects of the job I was most excited about.  Ideally, I want to someday run/work for study abroad that fuses together cultural/political awareness with concrete social justice action.  To that end, I’m really enjoying the experiential (hands-on, discussion-based) pedagogy of the Global Experience class, as well as the culture, justice, and critical-thinking subject matter.

This week’s assignment was a blog post on the role of education in creating citizens, the possibility of the American Dream, how discrimination and prejudice inhibit societal change, and which community issues are of greatest concern.

Personally, I believe education is the way to create citizens.  Of course if you’re reading this blog, you will notice that I consider all kinds of things to constitute my education: classes, free lectures, film festivals, museum visits, outside reading, embassy visits, television shows (yes, I’m serious), live performance, travel, community service, and interacting with new people.  I don’t understand the concept of compartmentalizing our lives so that ‘education’ is just during lectures and ‘work’ is a 9 to 5 chore and ‘happiness’ is on nights, weekends, and after we retire.  If you don’t enjoy your education, then learn about something else, or find a kind of teacher, whether it be a singer or a friend or a librarian.  If you don’t like your work, then find a way to be doing something else.

When it comes to the American Dream, I think we need to seriously edit the concept.  I’ve discussed before how I think that meritocracy is a myth, a bedtime story that capitalists tell their children so they can sleep at night and feel a little less ruthless about their days.  I don’t think we are all on equal footing, or that hard work is enough for everyone.  If you don’t believe me, look into the growing gap in wealth in this country, compare our working hours a year to other prosperous nations (eg France, UK), and check out how much discrimination takes place on the perceived ethnicity of names (that’s even before you get to skin color or institutionalized education discrimination.)  I think anyone who believes we all get a fair shake is either not paying attention or has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.  And I stand by that, even as my fellow staff members preach stories of successful immigrants and the allegedly bountiful opportunities for homeless people in the States.

Discrimination and prejudice are at the heart of all obstacles to societal change.  I’m currently reading Half the Sky by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and they talk about the pattern of dehumanizing the other in order to be comfortable mistreating them.  This was the case with American Indians (Savages!), Africans who were brought over as slaves, and is now true about the millions of “low class” women around the world who are bought and sold as sex slaves.  If we truly believe that all people are equal and worthy, there is no reason to act unfairly.  A large part of the problem in this country is that we have skewed beliefs about our economic statuses.  Collectively, Americans believe that the rich people in this country are significantly less wealthy than they actually are, and at the same time hold the false belief that the poorest in this country have more capital than they truly do.  If we were honest and accurate about what is really occurring in this country, whether it’s discrimination in the education and hiring systems or the true wealth disparity, it would be much harder to stand in the way of welfare programs and effective methods of change.

As far as the greatest concern?  For me I have decided to focus my energies on the Girl Effect as well as experiential education abroad.  To me, it’s a mixture of efficacy, efficiency and my own interests/talents.  If I focus on something important that I’m not good at, I’ll be fairly useless.  Working with women, especially young girls (9-13) is highly eficient when it comes to producing sea change, since women have a greater effect on their community than men.  For example, in matriarchal societies, equality is high, whereas in patriarchal societies there is a high level of gender inequality.  Another example is that when women are educated, overall health of the family increases, the population decreases (since empowered women produce fewer children, but the same is not true of men), and there is less stress on the entire system.  While men are more likely to spend their additional income on booze, drugs, women and unnecessary goods, women are far more likely to invest the money in their children’s health and education, as well as into improving their overall status (eg a better house or expanding their business.)

As you can tell, I’m really jazzed about this class and can’t wait to hear from the students on Thursday and read all their blogs.  Enjoy your Tuesday!

Group Travel: Recognition

In light of my upcoming time in Greece with a group of 145 students, 11 other staff and myself, I’ve been thinking about what has made my past travel groups some of the best communities of which I have ever been a part. 

The way we recognize the members of our community shows a lot about ourselves, and what we value.

A fraction of the students, posing above the city

I’ve had some truly beautiful communities, like the Egypt and DR summer experiences, as well as the past spring’s Model NATO/Model Arab League travel teams.  I’m trying to draw from these good examples when I plan the activities and traditions I want to embed in this year’s N.U.in Greece program.

At the end of our Benin trip, during our wonderful Memorial Day at a Lebanese hotel (read: a pool and American food) we had two great forms of recognition: superlatives and speeches.  The superlatives covered everything, from most afraid of bugs to to most prepared to most likely to eat cous cous again.  With write-ins and multiple winners, it was a laid-back way to reminisce.  After, we gave our speeches.  The day before, each of us had drawn a name out of a hat of someone else on the trip.  That night at dinner, starting randomly and following the chain of speeches back around, we each took a turn to rise and recognize the singular, spectacular achievements and contribution that person made to the group.  While this can be uncomfortable if the group stays sectioned off, it’s a nice way leave everyone feeling good about their time.

When Esther was in Zambia, they passed a baton that had been all over the world.  The idea is to recognize those who have been excellent (diligent, polite, optimistic, helpful, kind) but who have been lacking in attention thus far.  This original baton continues on, and you can track it at The Baton Lives Free.  In order to recreate the awesome of the baton but not have to continually hijack it, SEI has opted to create a new baton or set of batons for every trip.  They are passed from Professor and Esther, and from there they are awarded to students, by students.  Each student adds or alters the baton in some way.  For example, with our capstone baton, Kevin added a star to DR on the globe.  The baton can be anything–for our Dialogue, it was a star wand and a crown.  It’s interesting to see the meandering path of the baton, and the speeches for the next recipient are thoughtful and heartfelt.  People tend to pay more attention to their behavior, too, when they know they could be publicly awarded for it (or not).

Superlatives are a great way of ending your time in any type of group.  It’s important to make sure someone is in charge of it, although I would say not a student, as people sometimes vote for cruel or thoughtless superlatives.  We did these in Benin as well as the DR, and people got pretty rabid in the DR when we delayed announcements in an effort to add photos.  I noticed that the superlatives that mean the most are more creative than “best smile” or “best laugh”, and less obvious than whatever running jokes have been present from day one.

I’m looking forward to adapting these to our large group of 145 in Greece.  We’re going to need a lot of batons.  What methods of recognition have you seen in the past?  Do you have any ideas for how to recognize good behavior and create a strong sense of community in such a large group?

Group Travel: Reflection

Now that I’ve accepted a job leading a group of brave young travelers, I’ve been thinking back on my many, fabulous travel groups and what made them so great.

Reflection is one of my favorite things, clearly.  I love writing, reading, thinking (blogging!) and discussing ad nauseum.  When I was in Egypt, the hours of conversation I shared with J9, Sheff, Iskandriyya, Goldilocks and others helped me grow exponentially.  It deepened my comprehension of Middle East and Egyptian culture, helped me work through my conflicted feelings of our daily experiences, and brought me to a better understanding of our own country.  Sharing my experiences out loud in a safe forum, while hearing from phenomenal, brilliant women whom I hope to emulate really made me get the most out of Egypt.  I honestly don’t think I would have learned as much or been as happy if it weren’t for those ladies and those conversations.

It is conversations like those that are the basis for this blog.  Every time someone compliments the ideas here, I feel like that praise belongs equally to those aforementioned ladies, as well as to Marisa, Jordyn, Kate and Leif, to my roommates in Cuba, to the ballers that made up the DR Dialogue and to my capstone class, all of whom sparked great discussions and debates that I later share with all of you.

I’m sure reflection is already a significant part of the N.U.in curriculum, especially considering there is a 1-credit course devoted to service-learning, introspection and their “Global Experience” as a whole.  However, I plan to make sure some of the best practices that have been shown to me are introduced into their discussions as well.

  • From Amnesty/Benin: Step Up/Step Back.
    On stepup/stepback days, everyone self selects and does the opposite of what they normally do.  Those who are shy are heavily encouraged to participate more strongly, and those who usually contribute greatly (or, like me, dominate the conversation) are asked to hang back.  While I personally have huge difficulty observing the rules of step up/step back, I think it’s incredibly valuable.  I can see that even more clearly after the spring break capstone trip, in which I was uncharacteristically quiet. [note of awesome: Chris, the Site Director for Greece AKA my boss mentioned both this and One Mic during our very first pre-departure orientation!  Woohoo!]
  • From Amnesty (mostly Thenjiwe): One Mic.
    The one mic policy is very simple: there is only one mic, and if you don’t have it you can’t speak.  Let me clarify: I prefer to never have a physical object like a talk stick or whatever, if it is at all possible.  But it’s nice to be able to just say hey, can I get one mic up here? If people start speaking over you when you have the floor.  Much less disruptive than me banging the gavel and saying “decorum delegates!” in the iciest voice I can muster.
  • From SEI: Base your comments on facts and observations. 
    This is actually the rule that pissed me off the most, if only because so many of our discussions were asking for our opinions, and people gave me shit every time I said the word “think” even if it was couched in the statement, “based on those observations, I think…”  But nonetheless, I think it’s good to get students in the mindset of only making statements they can back up, and I have changed its wording to reflect that.  Much like Oberheim’s exericse (read: torture) of not letting us write with the verb ‘to be’, it is not so much meant to be held to with fascist fervor, but is rather a good tool for getting you to leave behind bad habits, like saying a stereotype without realizing you’ve based it on nothing.

Structure

This Dialogue has been reminding me more and more of the Egypt trip every day.  And it must be so, because people who aren’t here have been commenting that it seems like I feel the same way about this Dialogue as that one.  After Esther asked me about the trip that has had the most impact on me personally, I began thinking about it more directly.  I’ve loved all the travel in between, but this trip seems to align the ever-fickle planets of academics, leadership, location and group members.

I love the books we read.  Why the Cocks Fight is maybe a little boorish and poorly written, but is nevertheless entirely necessary as it’s the only real history of the island of Hispaniola as a whole.  I can’t understand why there aren’t more books about this topic, and why the author (Michelle Wucker) didn’t arrange the book chronologically instead of thematically.  But alas, we are able to bypass so many basic overviews of DR/Haiti history when we are on site visits or in the field, and instead move on to deeper issues.  With Drown and The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (DR) and The Farming of the Bones and Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), we have been able to see the contemporary lives of Haitians and Dominicans at home and abroad, and just how important history, race, nationality and poverty have been to their lives.  I highly recommend all four of those books, and those two authors in general.  Nothing could make the 1937 massacre come to life as much as Farming of the Bones, to the point where I know flinch when I see the word perejil.

It seems that being informed about where you go is a basic form of respect, much like learning hello, goodbye and thank you in the native language.  It is a small token of effort and understanding that is overwhelmingly appreciated by every local population I’ve encountered thus far.  When Haitians learn I’ve read a few Danticat books they take me more seriously, and raise the intensity level of the conversation.  While I’m not in expert in the languages, history and culture of Hispaniola, at least I’m making a good faith effort.  I love that in this group, we named our traveling parrot Tousaint (l’Ouverture) and no one has to ask why.  When Junior references “the election thief” in Wao, no one is unsure about whom he is speaking.  We are better travelers, better students, and better…helpers? because of the reading we’ve done.

Beyond that, it is invaluable to my education.  Our discussions are more enriching, due in part to the books as well as to the overall attitude of this group.  I’ve mentioned before that we have a large proportion of freshmen (1 in 4 students on the trip) but that has only been an asset.  On the whole, the group mixes well and frequently, and is full of people who are dedicated to and excited by social business.  People are practical and enthusiastic, and have their head in the game.  Drinking hasn’t been an issue, no one complains about our long or fruitless bus rides, and everyone has taken the workload in stride.

I was a little nervous after our spring break Capstone trip, because there were a lot of areas for improvement.  I enjoyed myself, but I had various concerns and often felt like an outsider.  It turns out that the issues worrying me also bothered the SEI leadership, and are simply not present on this trip.  The readings were required before and during the trip, the intentions of our trip have been clear since the beginning, and everyone in this group is amazing.  On the whole, this is one of the best run trips pf which I have ever had the pleasure to be a part.

Happiness and Poverty

People ask all the time if the poorest of the poor are happy.  Actually, they don’t.  ask me if the people of country x are happy, most likely without realizing where they fall on the poverty scale.  I’ve been learning to distinguish between incredibly similar levels of poverty, which at first glance are indistinguishable since they’re all so devastating compared to the America many of us live in.  When we think of poverty, it’s fast food and metal detectors in schools and no health insurance.  Poverty in a batey is no food all day, no high school diploma even if you manage to walk to a school 3 km away and no access to health care.

The things we look for to distinguish amongst the levels of poverty:

  • Tin roof vs. cement walls vs. wood
  • How healthy the dogs are (are they pets or a nuisance?)
  • distance in km to a clinic or school
  • presence or absence of power lines, televisions, microwaves, washing machines etc
  • the color of children’s hair, the presence or absence of pits in their teeth, their age as compared to their apparent height and weight
  • distance from the closest city, paved road, or bus stop

When we go visit the bateyes (which are current or former sugar plantation barracks, mostly inhabited by people somewhere in nationality limbo between Haitian and Dominican, and largely forgotten by the world) it’s often hard to process.  Kids come running and singing, or sometimes people spit at our feet.  There is an overwhelming sadness to seeing so many grown adults with no work all day and so many caved in roofs, and yet we are welcomed with the frenzy warranted to celebrities and religious figures.  bearing that in mind, there is a natural inclination to declare these people (especially their children) as happy.  They sing, they dance, they hold our hands and climb on our shoulders.  They are tiny and adorable, as long as you don’t ask too many questions or look at anything other than their smiling faces.

It worries me sometimes that once we begin to see those in the bateyes as happy, we can excuse ourselves for forgetting them or for not doing enough to help them. But then you think about how awful a life without occupation would be.  How much a toothache hurts, and how bad that would be if it just went on for days months or years.  How unfulfilling to never advance or have a chance of advancing, to be illiterate with virtually no chance of ever changing that fact.  To not have a country to call your own, to be subject to arrest at any moment, to be hated in the most insidious and subversive of ways:  neglect, condescension and collective denial.  I’m sure there is happiness in their lives, and in a way that is perhaps enviable because it involves tradition, community and pastoral cliches.  But it is not the lasting happiness and sense of content that comes from autonomy, advancement and stimulating work.

what we’re doing for Esperanza will (i hope) help their borrowers, especially those of Haitian descent or nationality, but we can’t know that for sure.  it’s very abstract, what we’re doing.  We’re not sure yet that our results will be worthwhile, or what they’ll say, if we will have good recommendations based on that data, or if our recommendations will be taken.  I think social entrepreneurship can be harder than straight charity because (at least for us) we’re not seeing results.  There is no school to take pictures in front of, or bags of food to hand over.  Just us and our clipboards, fumbling through Spanish, French and Kreyol, trying to make sense of hundreds of years of oppression, racial tension, poverty and industry.

I Got a Job!

For my final coop, I knew I wanted something international. This job will be leading Northeastern freshmen who were accepted to the January semester (Jan starts as we call them) on a fall semester abroad.  I will TA one of their classes, organize their service-learning projects, lead them on excursions, tutor when necessary, help with homesickness and culture shock, and make sure everyone makes it home alive.

No, I don’t know where I’m going yet.  I could be sent to Australia, London, Costa Rica, or Thesaloniki, Greece.  Of course I prefer the developing nations, and the chance to be back in Latin America or the Mediterranean is amazing.  It doesn’t hurt that this position is well compensated, and I felt better about it when Sheff said she feels like it fits my niche well.  What exactly is that niche?  Well I think it’s something like educational, socially-minded travel.

But I still had a lot of trouble with this one.  It all comes back to the conundrum I’ve been having for the last few years: there are a lot of subjects that interest me, and whenever I’m doing something that doesn’t directly help people, I feel guilty.  I feel like I’m slacking, like I’m a coward, like I’m taking the easy way out.  It doesn’t help that so many people told me they think it isn’t challenging enough, hard core enough for me.  Several people, after I told them I accepted the job, referred to it as babysitting.  (side note: I will never understand why people think it’s okay to bash your job to your face, but it happens all the time at NU with coops.)

I did, however, find some great comfort from an unlikely source.  The Global Poverty Impact groups that my friend Kevin started are interfaith conversations about equality, poverty, giving, eradicating poverty, why we care and the best way to help.  We also make small, permanent lifestyle changes in order to spend more thoughtfully and set aside some money to go towards a cause of our choosing.  I love how thought provoking this group is, how respectful and smart its members are, and the “Live Deliberately” ethos that I think anyone can get behind, regardless of their religious views.

But I digress.  Jen, a social entrepreneurship person and member of my capstone class, had great insight.

“Just think abut how many freshman you will be effecting.  You can teach them about all the opportunities they have to do good at Northeastern, and be a role model to them.”

It meant a lot to me to hear this from Jen, someone who has also struggled with how to combine socially-minded endeavors, earning money, furthering a career and getting the most out of Northeastern.  When I think about it that way, N.U.in still helps me with the mission I once (and still?) have:

I want to travel to parts of the world with injustice, spend my time there in a meaningful way, and learn their stories so I may tell them on their behalf.  If I can make people understand and care using the gift of my writing, I can catalyze more action than I ever could have accomplished as just one person.

At the time, I was assuming that fact-based fictional stories, plays, or screenplays would be my method.  I never even considered blogging or any sort of journalism, which now seems like such a silly omission.  If I can use service-learning, reflection and this time abroad (perhaps in a less-developed country) to instill an ethic of global awareness and helping others in a useful way, I can consider working for N.U.in a success, and progress toward my mission.  When I think about how much impact Julie Miller had on all of us in Benin, this seems attainable.  Because of her, we were more thoughtful, patient, cooperative, positive and open-minded individuals.

So I am genuinely excited about this job, and the possibilities it brings.