Category Archives: Feminism/Gender Dynamics

Street Harassment and Traveling Advice for Women

Everyone has a lot to say about women travelers, especially if they’re solo, especially if they go somewhere in the Global South.  And really, everyone has a lot to say about women.  Some of the advice is good, like researching backup plans ahead of time so you don’t get stuck staying somewhere that makes you uncomfortable.  It’s pretty obvious and rather good advice for everyone, but at least it’s not bad.  There’s also a lot fo bad advice out there, ranging from racist to victim-blaming, restrictive to non-sensical.  Some people just can’t seem to stop themselves from sharing this advice, even if I don’t ask.  Even if they’ve never been where I’m going.  All of the advice essentially boils down to one premise: as a woman, you are vulnerable and it is therefore your responsibility to alter your behavior in every way imaginable in order to prevent other people from harming you.  If you fail in this, you will be judged for your poor safety efforts and it will be used as an excuse to make blanket statements about what women travelers should or should not do.  Its for your own good, honey.

Thankfully, there was very little street harassment directed my way on my trip to Kerala, India, contrary to the typical American view of the country.  Some of us were discussing possible reasons for this, with the most obvious being that we spent very little time on actual streets.  We were generally in our bus, and when we walked we tended to be on the grounds of a hotel or other attraction where the only people we see are staff.  Not that staffers never harass customers, but it is in their best interest to treat us right, even more so considering we are travel bloggers.  I was very rarely alone, and the group had gender parity (for the bloggers.  On the staff side, Rutavi was holding it down for team XX by herself) so it was rare for me to walk somewhere without someone who presents as a man nearby.  And of course, I do not speak Malayalam or Hindi, so it’s possible I missed some things.

I did enjoy one little insight into the minds of my male compatriots.  One night, 7 or 8 of us went out to buy alcohol.  There were only two women, myself and another blogger.  To buy alcohol in Kerala, a person needs to stand in a line at a small storefront and ask the clerk for what they want, then pay.  All of these stores seem to perpetually have a line, and line culture in India involves a bit more jockeying for position and a lot less personal space than an American is used to.  I took one look at the situation and knew that we didn’t all need to wait in line and that I was definitely not going to be one of the people who did.  It didn’t look scary, and if I needed to I could have, but it just seemed obvious to me that if I could avoid being the only woman in close quarters with a lot of men trying to buy alcohol (and some who had clearly already had their fill), than I should avoid it.  One of the guys must have had the same thought because right away he said that the two women would wait here.  Another guy was confused by this, which is how most guys I have traveled with would react.  It simply doesn’t occur to them–they have never had to think that way.  The idea of a man considering a woman’s safety without being told to (or assuming it’s either exaggeration or an excuse to completely restrict her behavior) is a rare quality indeed, and it immediately raised my positive opinion of him.  Of course, for every helpful precaution there is an annoying bit of paternalism, and one of the men came walking back to us instead of toward the store.  He was nominated on the sly to babysit us women.  I called him on it immediately, and he begrudgingly admitted it.  I didn’t mind the company of course, and the sentiment was frustrating but understandable.  It was just weird that it seemed somewhat covert.

In that story we were in one of the few populated areas where we were able to wander off.  We spent a lot of our walking around time in more rural areas, which offer fewer opportunities for harassment from a purely numeric perspective, though harassment in all forms occurs everywhere.   We are also foreigners, and while that attracts a different sort of attention, it also can cause people in the service industry to be overly deferential and more careful how they behave around us.  Sometimes that extends to average people in the country, out of a sense of hospitality or awareness of the importance of the tourism industry, or a mix of the two.

It’s imperative to remember that my experience here is not universal, and that Kerala is not all of India.  Those with different perceived gender identities and sexual orientations, skin tones, ethnic groups, socioeconomic status, castes, and physical and mental ability levels could all be treated much differently than I. There is the biggest difference that is often overlooked by travelers: those who are local likely experience their own communities in a completely different way than I do.  All this is to say that just because I have barely been harassed doesn’t mean other travelers or Indians won’t be.  Moreover, the State of Kerala is very different from other parts of India, which have their own, often more intense, histories with gender-based violence.  This is not to say Kerala doesn’t also have a problem with gender-based violence (it does; everywhere does) but it does not tend to make the headlines the way Delhi has.

When we discuss street harassment abroad, we must remember that this is not a foreign behavior, or one unique to a certain climate, region, language, religion, or culture.  It looks different from one place to the next, but street harassment happens all over the world so it should be combated all over the world.  Relegating terrible behavior to certain places or types of people lets those who harass but do not fit our mold off the hook.  It can also leave people feeling singled out instead of supported, as evidenced by some of the backlash from the story of a white American study abroad student in India this past year.

At the same time, I feel it is important for those who experience street harassment to find ways of bringing the behavior into the light no matter where they live or who perpetrates harassment.  Many women who travel downplay street harassment abroad in order to keep from worrying loved ones, to minimize racist responses from listeners, to distance themselves from upsetting memories, or because they’re so used to others minimizing their experiences.  However, when we stay silent it can feel like being victimized again.  Personally, my best tool for dealing with street harassment isn’t fighting back or preventative measures.  It’s discussing my experiences with fellow female travelers.  I have mostly given up talking about it with male travelers because their responses range from neutral to disappointing to extremely upsetting, but when they do get it, as in the story above, it brings a feeling of relief.  On the other side of things, I love it when I am able to discuss street harassment with local women in order to learn more about their experience.  Sharing these stories reminds me that this behavior is real, it is not okay, it is not my fault, and I am not alone in experiencing it.  It can also minimize the level of daily stress that street harassment piles on.

LGBTQ and women travelers receive a lot of advice from all directions, all of whom are completely confident that they know what is best.  It is a complicated mix of contradicting and often insulting or victim-blaming information.  I’m a big believer in the Hollaback! model for dealing with mistreatment of women and LGBTQ folks worldwide, which is that local communities are experts on their own experiences, and that however a person feels most safe and empowered is the right choice for them.  Translated to international travel, this means it can be the best decision for one person to travel solo, while for another it is better to arrange to travel with companions.  Or, more realistically, the same traveler could arrive at varying conclusions depending on many factors, including their comfort level with independent travel, their assessment of their own safety, and their preference.  I am equally sick of hearing women being shamed and blamed for solo travel as when they are bullied as less-than for opting to go a safer, more comfortable route such as traveling with a package tour, a touring group, friends, family, or a partner.  We really don’t need more people telling women what to do.  However you manage to feel safe and comfortable while traveling is what you should do, because I firmly believe we need to make travel more accessible, not less.

What’s your experience of street harassment, at home or abroad?  Does it match what others who live or travel to there experience?  How do you feel about all the advice people constantly give women?

Preventing Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Image credit: The Enliven Project http://theenlivenproject.com/
Image credit: The Enliven Project http://theenlivenproject.com/

Sexual assault* is being discussed publicly now more than ever, and with the president’s task force to combat on campus sexual assault as well as several lawsuits against universities under Title IX for mishandling sexual assault reports from students, the focus is more intense.  Sexual assault and gender-based violence as a whole is a public health crisis in the United States, and people are starting to notice.  It is amazing progress that people are starting to discuss sexual assault on facebook, among friends, and in major news outlets, and we need to keep that momentum going with concrete action.  While we need to work on prevention with people of all ages, including those in high school, the high rates and mobilization of activists on college campuses has brought that environment to the forefront.  For those colleges and universities looking to make a real difference, here is my advice on how to reduce sexual assault and its harmful effects on campus.

  • Train RAs in bystander intervention and receiving disclosures.  This will enable them to step in when they see an unsafe situation, and better prepare them if a student discloses to them that they have been assaulted.  Disclosure training helps a person understand the possible needs of a survivor**, how best to speak with them, which resources are available, and how to quickly ensure the safety of the survivor and connect them to resources, like medical advocates, SANE nurses, counseling, legal assistance, and university-related assistance.  If your school is in the Boston Area, get in touch with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) about their trainings.
  • Train campus security, police, health services, and any other personnel who are likely to receive disclosures.  Personnel should be well-versed in all the options and resources available to a survivor, the proper way to treat and speak to a survivor.
  • Have a dedicated office to prevent sexual violence.  This office should be staffed with people from the world of victim services and victim advocacy, and their professional guidance should be sought after and respected to improve university disciplinary and judicial practices, resources available to survivors, and campaigns to combat sexual assault.  They should have a reasonable budget and a high level of access to information and the ability to influence practices on campus.
  • Require all incoming freshmen to pass an exam on consent and resources, just as most universities require all incoming freshmen to pass an exam on alcohol and its effects.
  • Speaking of consent: update your definition in your code of conduct, judicial materials, on campus resources and the exam to reflect that all sexual acts are opt-in, not opt out.  Silence does not equal consent.  We should not be lowering the bar on consent but raising it, to enthusiastic consent.  Consenting once does not mean you consent forever, or even for the next five minutes; a person is entitled to change their mind at any time and have that respected.  Consenting to one person or to one sex act does not have any bearing on whether that person consents to any other sex act or to be with any other person, or even with that same person again.  Those who are intoxicated cannot consent.
  • Update your definition in your code of conduct, judicial materials, on campus resources and the exam to accurately reflect what sexual assault can look like, and update on campus attitudes about sexual assault as well.  Sexual assault does not have to involve a weapon or even violence.  All it takes is the threat of violence, and that threat can be communicated non-verbally.  It is sexual assault to coerce a person into sex, whether by quid pro quo, verbal threats, or merely persisting until a no becomes a yes or silence.  Silence is not consent; a coerced yes is not really a yes.
  • Work with other universities to establish best practices, like the upcoming conference Dartmouth is hosting this summer.  There should be representation of victims’ rights advocates, medical advocates, law enforcement, and survivors at that conference to give their valuable input.  That input needs to be prioritized over other concerns like the reputations of colleges or the financial cost of these measures.  That Title IX money isn’t for free.
  • Report all data as required by the Clery Act in a timely and accurate manner.  Sadly, not all schools are living up to this law.  We all have a right to know about the rate of sexual assaults on campus, and it is illegal for universities to alter or delay the data.
  • Cooperate fully with law enforcement and legal entities if the survivor chooses to seek legal action such as prosecution or a restraining order.  Many universities have not been cooperative in the past, or have attempted to keep assaults from reaching law enforcement in an attempt to protect their own reputation.  This is reprehensible.
  • Offer the survivor all options available to them, and let them decide.  Do not tell them it will make their life miserable or no one will believe them, or that it would be better for everyone if they just let it go or took time off.  Do not attempt to coerce or influence them in any way.  Sadly many universities have done this in the past (and likely still do this) in order to protect their reputation, and several are currently being sued under Title IX for this exact problem.
  • Make campus safe for the survivor as quickly as possible.  This can include anything from moving the attacker to different housing, switching the attacker’s classes, to suspending or expelling them from campus.  The attacked should be the one whose life has to change to accommodate the health and safety of the survivor, not the other way around, and these changes need to happen swiftly.
  • Do not turn a sexual assault into a “teaching moment” for the perpetrator.  Their rights are not more important than the rights of the person they violated.  While the percentage of men who commit sexual assault is quite low, two-thirds of those who do commit the crime on college campuses do so almost six times on average. David Lisak’s research shows that undetected rapists, “plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically.”  This is not an issue of mere misunderstanding, contrary to the implications of the term “date rape.”  The university punishment for sexual assault should be at least as harsh as punishments for underage drinking, drug possession, hazing, and non-sexual violence.  At many schools this is not the case and perpetrators, even when found at fault, get off with a slap on the wrist.
Image credit: The Enliven Project http://theenlivenproject.com/
Image credit: The Enliven Project http://theenlivenproject.com/

Other, less concrete actions are also necessary.  Colleges and universities need to recognize other behavior on the continuum of gender- and sexuality-based violence and get proactive, such as by ridding their campuses of sexual harassment, street harassment, and misogynist events or attitudes on campus.  Students and on-campus groups should not be allowed to make shirts depicting women as pigs on a spit, or gather in groups to chant degrading things at women.  A community that does not tolerate degrading behavior that is considered non-violent is a less welcoming place for perpetrators. Moreover, a community that fosters open discussion on these issues, such as in town hall meetings, student and faculty senates, school publications, and by hosting relevant on-campus events is a community that actively wants to improve safety for all of its members.

We are a long way from eradicating this crime and its widespread affects, but if we want to get serious about ending sexual assault, it’s time we focus on all aspects of this public health epidemic and get down to business.  Universities have at times been progressive leaders in this country, on the cutting edge of doing the right thing.  It’s time they live up to that reputation and prioritize the people within their communities over alumni donations and their reputation.  Personally, I think universities that take effective, proactive measures will be rewarded, as our culture has recently shown that we are no longer willing to ignore this crisis.

What measures have I forgotten to include?  Do you know of any campuses doing a particularly good job, in one area or another?

*I use the terms sexual assault here to encompass all manner of sexual crimes, including rape.  Personally I find the distinction between whether someone penetrated a person while they performed sex acts on them without their permission to be an artificial one, used by antagonizes (and survivors themselves) to attempt to downplay the serious nature of the crime. 

**I use the term survivor where most newspapers, universities, and lay people would use the term victim.  It comes from the community of people who have experienced these crimes and those who advocate for them.  There is already enough dis-empowering messaging in discussions of sexual assault, making the empowering term “survivor” preferable.  A victim is a passive person in a crime.  A survivor is someone who has actively striven to make it through something horrific, which is an accurate depiction of every survivor I’ve ever met, and more accurately reflects the on-going nature of recovery.  Not everyone self-identifies with this term and it is best to honor their wishes on an individual basis, but when speaking in broad terms I prefer to use the term survivor. 

***Top image CAROLYN KASTER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Since moving from a study abroad participant to a leader of trips abroad, I have had some recalibrating to do.  There is a difference between the risks I’m willing to take myself and those I’m willing to allow my students to take.

This came rushing to the fore last summer when I was walking at night in Havana with the majority of our students, and at least one of the Cubans with us was stopped by the police for walking with white women while black.  It is important to note that this is a significantly worse offense than walking while black, although that’s an issue in Cuba as well.  The reason is not only due to racism and history, but also tourism, industry, and hegemony.  While I find the term “tourism apartheid” a bit strident, there is more than a nugget of truth to it, and the way it plays out in Cuba is that it’s somewhat acceptable if the white woman is visibly into it, but otherwise all young black men are assumed to be harassing your tourist dollars away.  Of course, not once has the policia ever showed up to stop genuine harassment (to my knowledge).  And the component of hegemony: when it comes down to it, some lives are deemed more worthy than others, and white skin and our little blue books protect us.  Somewhere in the 20th century, it became unacceptable for an American to lose their life abroad.  It’s cool at home, especially if they lost their life to a legally purchased gun, or if they are not white and middle class.  But that’s a whole other thing.

But back to the story, and the risks involved.  This was probably during what most people would call my time off, but it was nonetheless immediately obvious to me that I was in charge and it was my job to keep my students safe.  This is because regardless of what time of day or night, my state of mind, whether I’m with friends, coworkers, clients or students, or how undesirable the task may be, when something needs to get done, I see it as just doing my job.  This is because I have a pretty broad definition of my job, which goes beyond the things for which I am paid, things done in a cubicle, or times when I am expected to watch how I dress, speak, or act.  In my mind, my job is to keep everyone safe, and increase justice and knowledge whenever possible.  Literally all of the time, for the entire time I’m alive.  I’m off the hook if I’m sleeping, but if someone wakes me up I’m right back in it.

So this leaves me with some dueling priorities.  Number 1, I need to make sure nothing happens to my students, who are likely best served by calmly walking away from the cops questioning their friend across the street.  Number 2, I know why the cops are talking to their friend, and I know it’s bullshit.  I know we have more pull than they do in this scenario, but I also know that if I (or my students) screw up, we will not face the consequences.  The Cubans will.  And then there’s the guilt.  If these guys had been doing their own thing, without a giant pack of white women to whom they were nothing but polite and friendly, no one would be talking to the cops right now.  Oh and number 3, none of my students have any clue that the cops are questioning him for no good reason, or that they have played any role in all of this, or that they could do serious damage by trying to help.  Or rather, I thought this had occurred to none of them.

I get the high sign from one of the Cubans, and a couple of people (who I didn’t realize were intoxicated) translate my message of “keep walking, wait for me at the end of the street, and don’t cause a fuss,”  into something loosely resembling, “holy shit we got that guy arrested!  and now no one can have fun and everyone should scream!”  Somehow everyone instantly became belligerent and less logical in that moment, but eventually they reluctantly followed instructions.  I’ve written before about this, and about how strange it was the next morning to hear 22 different versions of the same night.  But after they left was the real trouble.

After they left was the real trouble because that’s when those students from before, the ones I didn’t count on understanding precisely what was happening, remained.  And they did what I would have done.  They asked the other Cubans what would fix it, and they did their best to follow through.  It didn’t work, but they’re good people for trying.  Meanwhile, I got to be someone I never imagined being: the callous authority figure, giving them instructions that would protect them but not their friends.  Normally, I would have been the one going over to talk to the cops.  Instead, I was the one with a plan for how to get their US passports here before they could potentially be taken to jail.

Luckily, my students were fine, although those who remained till the end were certainly hurt in an irreparable way, the way that only powerlessly watching complete injustice from a place of informed privilege can make you feel.  The guy who the police brought away in cuffs had to pay an unimaginably high fine for a Cuban salary, but he was a free man the next day.  I was of course fine too, as my students and I never wore cuffs and didn’t have to pay a dime, but I was left wrestling with the idea of choosing the safety of one group of people over justice (and potentially safety) for another.  When it comes down to it, I am responsible for my students.  And I don’t know them as well as I know myself, so there is a greater unpredictability to their risks than mine.  But finally, when I take my risks, I can really only take them when I travel on my own, when I am not endangering anyone but myself.  And therein lies the downside of being in a group: a risk for one becomes a risk for all, whether we mean it to be or not.

So yes, I tell them not to swim  off the malecon, but I also don’t say a word when I know they’re doing it.  I told my kids in Greece they better not go to protests, but I was pissed I missed them myself, and Sarah knew without my asking that the first thing I wanted to see in Cairo, other than her gorgeous face, was Tahrir Square.  I count their heads and make them promise me that they’ll use the buddy system, and I tell them they’re not allowed to scare me like that when they get back to the bus late or have too much to drink.

But sometimes it gets trickier, if you can believe it.

I take cabs and walk alone, I dress how I want to dress.  No, I will not tell my female students they can’t wear a mini-skirt to a club on a Friday night.  First of all, I wouldn’t believe in doing that even if it would help.  But second, I know for a fact it won’t do anything to keep away the cat calls and the groping.  Driving and walking alone is harder.  I think in general, everyone is safer with the buddy system.  But I also know it drove us to insanity in Cairo when for six weeks we were basically never alone.  It’s why I would hide in the lobbies between floors reading, or insist on wandering museums alone.  When I could have my independence, I took it.  There’s also something to the idea that if a guy doesn’t have a buddy, it’s not a huge deal.  If a girl doesn’t have one, whatever happens next is her fault.

I don’t want my students to be alarmist, and I sort of read one the riot act when she claimed last summer that her roommate was not only certain to be raped in Havana’s most crowded, safe, zero-violent-crime neighborhood, but that it would be the roommate’s fault, and how dare that roommate scare her like that.  I hate the pearl clutching and the victim blaming and those who would scare us into never leaving America or our hometowns or our kitchens, but I also count heads compulsively.  I always know where the exits and the cops are.  I waited behind because one of them ran off at night to get his fifteenth sandwich of the day, and everyone going home without telling him was unacceptable.

So I let them hate me for not “stopping” or “letting them stop” their friend from getting arrested.  And I do my best not to get into arguments about the futility and misogyny of dress codes as safety measures.  I want them to know street harassment, sexual assault, political violence, corruption, all of these injustices, they happen all the time.  But that shouldn’t keep them home or moving around in air-conditioned vehicles in knee-length baggy skirts in groups of ten or more.  The world is simultaneously more terrifying and more kind than they’ve ever imagined.  I just don’t know how to tell them that.

Walk for Change

UPDATE on 4/7/2014: This post was updated to reflect my 2014 donation page. I’m proud to share that quotes from this article have been featured on BARCC’s print ads, MBTA ads (share a picture if you see it on the red line!), and the back of the Walk t-shirts.

This April, I will be participating in Boston Area Rape Crisis Center’s Walk for Change.  I first learned of the organization last year, during my final semester at Northeastern, when I got involved in some related activism.  BARCC is a local organization serving the Greater Boston Area with counseling, a 24-hour hotline, medical advocates, and lobbying power.  They do good work for little pay, and their services are invaluable for the people who need them.  I will be joined by an amazing group of women who are strong, bold, smart and high-achieving.

I’m walking because I have heard so many stories that break my heart, stories of things that never should have happened.  But instead they happened again and again, often to the same people, and they will keep happening.

I am walking because I shouldn’t be afraid to name the organization I was with when I learned about BARCC, nor should I be afraid to name what we were protesting.  But I am.  I am afraid to write about it, to mention it to fellow Northeastern students and alumni, or to associate myself with it online.  Because when a group of young men and women and some of their teachers stood up and said we would not have our university associated with a group that treats this wretched violence so casually, that treats the safety and well-being and freedoms of young women so casually, members and fans of the organization set out to make us feel insane, overly sensitive, ugly, and unsafe.  They pursued us relentlessly online, insulted us in the comments and in person, wrote threats, posted addresses and personal details, and surrounded us at our protest.

I am walking because those people won a little bit, when those threats were so serious they were taken to the police, and some people were advised to stay home and stay offline.  And they won a little bit when they made us afraid, and when they made us feel small, and when they made me feel like a Super Bowl party or a sports bar was one less place where I could be safe and happy.

I am walking because I should have been able to think of at least one fellow student at Northeastern with whom I felt comfortable sharing our plans for the protest: a person I could trust not to invite the trolls, or tell me I was wrong or stupid, or downplay the importance of this issue.  But I couldn’t.

I am walking because there is no magic formula to keep ourselves safe, no right time of day or night to go out, no right type of person or situation to avoid, no dress code, no secret signal not to send, no magic way of saying no that will be honored by everyone everywhere in every situation no matter what, no appropriate number of drinks to have or companions to walk us home.

I am walking because people tell me that it cannot possibly be true that a woman is more likely to be attacked if she goes to college, because people tell me I must be lying, because people claim no one they know has ever been sexually assaulted or raped, even though we know that statistically, for a person my age, that is nigh impossible.

I am walking because I have sat in a car while men screamed out the window at women walking home alone in the middle of the night.  I said nothing while they yelled, “slut!” at women who had no way of knowing whether the car would slow down and someone would come to harm them or not.  I said nothing while they laughed about it, because I was tired of being their punching bag and I was afraid of what they would think of me if I kept standing up for the women they called sluts.

I am walking because the American legal system, the military, the lower house of congress, much of the media and far too many doctors have utterly failed the country and their humanity on this issue.

I am walking because of Delhi and Steubenville, and because those communities are not unique.  Because when an 11 year old was raped by 18 men and teenage boys, the New York Times saw fit to report only on those wondering where the girl’s mother was, and saying how grown up her clothing and makeup was.  Because a fake girlfriend received more attention than a rape victim who committed suicide.  Because so many at Penn State rioted to support its football team and its coach, instead of stopping to think about who the real victims are.  Because our collective first thoughts after an accusation are always to wonder what she was wearing or drinking, whether she flirted or was promiscuous, whether he is gay or weak, and to say what a horrible thing it is to ruin someone’s reputation, and to frantically repeat the words “Duke Lacrosse” like it’s an incantation.

I am walking because everyone’s right to a good time and their right to free speech and their right to make crappy jokes and comments is not more important than our right to feel safe or our obligation as human beings to treat one another with respect and a sense of compassion.

I am walking because there are too many bystanders, too many who see it as someone else’s problem, and too many people who call themselves “good” and “nice” while ignoring the jokes, the threats, the injustices, and the violence that happen in our own communities.

I am walking because it is a big deal, and it does happen in all kinds of places and to all kinds of people, and I’m sorry bringing up these issues bums people out but good lord, imagine what experiencing them firsthand must feel like.

I am walking because sometimes using your voice, showing your presence, and providing support for those fighting the good fight is the only thing any of us can do, and that is a very important thing.

I am walking because what they want is silence.  What they want is compliance.  What they want is fear, and what they want is power.

I am walking because no one can be silenced, no one should live in fear or shame, no one should ever be or feel powerless, and because we will not go quietly.

I am walking because I can, I am walking because I feel I must, and I am walking for those who cannot yet walk for themselves.

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Slacktivism

“Slacktivists don’t raise money”

“Slacktivists aren’t informed”

“Slacktivists aren’t connected to the cause”

“Slacktivists aren’t real activists”

“Slacktivists don’t accomplish anything”

I have some SERIOUS issues with KONY 2012, but this is still interesting information. Click through to enlarge

I’ve heard and read these complaints a million times over.  How many times do we need to see a campaign like the one launched to restore Planned Parenthood funding when Susan G. Komen Foundation pulled out?  Over $400,000 were raised rapidly, Komen went back on their decision, and at least one board member was fired/resigned.  That strikes me as a lot of money and accomplishment for a bunch of people who, “don’t care,” and “can’t accomplish anything.”

I would like to point out that the TOMS Day Without Shoes (which appears to have accomplished nothing more than clogging my inbox) is considered “activism,” while buying something BOGO is “slacktivism.”  I have an inherent problem with the term slacktivism, but I also have issues with how we define it. I don’t thinkwe have to choose between one or the other, and I think there is far more overlap within these groups than is usually portrayed.  How often do I have to go to protests to maintain my credibility?  How many times can I tweet about a cause before I shift into “slacktivism” territory?

Traditionally, buying BOGO, purchases where a percentage goes to a cause, signing an online petition and donating via “like” or text message are all considered Slacktivism.  Isn’t my money just as good if it comes via text?  In the paraphrased words of my friend Eduardo, we all have to wear clothes, so they may as well mean something and do some good.  Isn’t my slacktivist clothing accomplishing more than your sweatshop-produced, unsustainable stuff?  Isn’t my support for a petition just as good online as in person?

Not only are these things as good, but I think they’re better.  Change.org can gather way more signatures than I can on foot.  People are more likely to donate when it is convenient, and a text or like is nothing if not that. I’m buying clothes and other products anyway, so shouldn’t everything I buy go to some good cause, whether its breast cancer research (which has mobilized this method quite well), AIDS medication in Africa or university apparel made by a unionized workforce earning a living wage.

Then there is the other category of Slacktivism.  The “likes” that aren’t attached to a donation. The shirts that say “Occupy” and serve only the profit of an individual.  The act of sharing a video like Kony 2012.  This isn’t armchair activism, this is not really giving a shit.  Can’t we please just separate the two?

I think it’s unrealistic to expect people to take hundreds of hours out of their time to go to rallies and protests and knock on doors and gather signatures.  But why should we?  I think about the schedule of someone like my mother, who works full-time and is involved with her family and community.  There are several causes about which she is passionate, including MS research, Breast Cancer and women’s rights.  Sites like change.org allow her to be informed and to inform her online network about the causes that matter to her.  She can post the link and recruit signatures while she makes dinner.  She can shop for my Christmas present and support small businessnesswomen in Africa at the same time.  Why shouldn’t we harness the power of caring yet busy individuals?  Of course we still need the employees at NGOs, advocacy groups and in public policy, and we need the weekend warriors to make a powerful, physical statement for news cameras.  But my mother’s donation to Planned Parenthood is just as good as those of “real” activists.  To ignore the power of modern media and a busy but empathetic public is foolishness.  If online and in-person activists work in concert and organizations harness that power and direct it to the proper systems of power, I see this as a gain for activists everywhere.

So please, banish the term slactivist from your vocabulary.  How about we get back to the causes instead of trashing on other people who just want to help advance them?

Marx Was Wrong

The other day, we were casually discussing women’s rights when Chris piped in with a Marx quote:

How can men and women ever be equal if men are not equal to each other?”

At the time, I didn’t respond because I was so dumbfounded by the sentiment, especially coming from him.  I know he loves Marx, but this quote so clearly places women in the backseat of societal development, waiting patiently for men to sort out all of this “equality” stuff.  In general, I found the entire statement to be absurd, false, and a pithy one-off as an excuse to dismiss women.  I’ve read the Communist manifesto, and I’ve been to countries with varying degrees of socialism.  I like Marx perhaps more than most Americans, but that doesn’t mean I can’t question him when he’s so obviously full of shit.  Moreover, I’ve learned from development that as the women go, so goes the country.

In matriarchal societies, people in general are fairly equal.  Meanwhile, in patriarchal societies, there are high levels of gender inequality.  That is to say, when women are in power, we are equals.  When women are more educated, that spreads to their children, limits fertility, and leads to better health.  When men are more educated…well, we have the world as it currently is, with overpopulation, girls not in school and a worldwide healthcare crisis.  So why would we wait for men to figure it out, idly twiddling our thumbs as they continue to increase the inequality gap across income and health?

“Voluntary”

Can we talk about the word voluntary?  and, unusually, I don’t mean it like helping out at the food pantry down the street or building an irrigation system in Uganda.  I’m talking about structural violence, and when privilege allows us to declare things as voluntary when they really aren’t.

Reading Nick Kristof’s article and accompanying blog post brought me back to a conversation I had with my roommates a few weeks ago about prostitution.  There tends to be, especially in the United States, this sentiment that the women choose to live this life, and really why can’t you just get a job at McDonald’s?

Well, as Kristof’s blog post points out:

“Skeptics will note that there is also voluntary prostitution. Of course there is. There was also voluntary work on cotton plantations. But my point is that some of what appears voluntary is in fact coerced, and that should be a higher law enforcement priority. “

If you’re not okay with the master-slave relationship, you shouldn’t be okay with the pimp-prostitute relationship.  Are there significant differences?  Yes.  But is the woman, who foten enters the trade at a young, impressionable age, really empowered to fight back? No.  And that’s due in part to the fact that in America, she is a criminal, not a victim.  

Can a woman who needs to prostitute herself really just get a job at McDonald’s?  Not if she’s a runaway with doesn’t have her birth certificate and social security card, or is too young to work formally in the US.  Not if she’s a single-income mother, who can’t afford childcare on minimum wage (because the minimum wage isn’t really a living wage, remember?).  Not if she is already saddled with debt, which happens easily enough between scammy credit cards, people without access to fair (or formal) credit, and students.  And of course, not if she was sold, kidnapped or tricked into sexual slavery, which involves an incredibly high debt with high interest that compounds with great frequency standing between herself and freedom.

So back to institutional violence.  It isn’t when the IRS comes and hits you with a bat for tax evasion, it’s when the system we live in allows certain people freedom, protection and choice, while others have great limits exerted on all three.  For example, when someone says “practice safe sex; don’t get AIDS” to a group of young people from my hometown, we can say okay, and easily follow the guidelines.  Condoms, abstinence, getting tested and awareness all come easily to us.  They are available, affordable and accessible.  This is not true for a poor young black woman in South Africa, or in Roxbury for that matter.  Institutional violence is when something that we see as a choice (because we are priveleged enough to have options) really isn’t a choice at all for someone in a different situation.

Paul Farmer discussed this at length in the various articles in his Reader, and found that your nationality is not so much a factor in your risk of contracting HIV or TB, but rather your demographic information.  A poor woman in NYC has more in common with a poor woman in India than she does with me.  And when it comes to trafficking themselves, it is entirely likely that neither of them will have an option.

I think it’s important that people like Farmer and Kristoff make these connections to poverty and institutional violence in the United States, not because our poor are more important or greater in numbers than those abroad, but in order to help break false prejudices against the poor.  We need to get away from the myth of meritocracy in the US, this illusion of hard work producing success and freedom for all.  We need to recognize the reality that for many people, things like subsistence living, selling their bodies or contracting AIDS simply cannot be prevented by their choice and sheer force of will.  Because if we don’t recognize that it isn’t a poor person’s fault that they are sick or hungry or even poor, we can never attack the root cause of their suffering.

Lessons Learned from Jacqueline Novogratz

Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of the Acumen found, world traveler, social entrepreneur and all-around badass wrote the book The Blue Sweater.  Ms. Novogratz is one of a growing group of business people who believe that we can combine the goals of philanthropy with the methods of for-profit business and come up with a sustainable way to help people.  The emphasis is on providing opportunities for people in developing countries to make their own money, rather than simply giving it away.

I’ll be writing about the book and these ideas quite a bit on here, since I greatly admire her path in life and would like to emulate her.  Before a formal review, though, here are some take-aways from her book:

  • Don’t create more dependence
  • Invest in good people
  • Listen.  Really, really listen.
  • Involve people in the formal sector of the economy
  • If you want to be taken seriously, take everyone else seriously.  That means real logos and an office, but it also means that if someone defaults on a loan, there needs to be some sort of punitive measure.  Just because the work is motivated from a place of humanitarianism doesn’t mean your customers and clients can do whatever they want.
  • Focus on building upon systems that are already in place.  Starting scratch often means failing.
  • Sell to them on their terms, not yours (know your audience)
  • Everyone can contribute
  • You need feedback, something the market can provide that is often missing from traditional philanthropy
  • Don’t leave people behind
  • The world’s poor are active customers, not passive receptacles of charity
  • We are all smarter for knowing one another

It is worth noting, I think, that her book was not ghost-written, as far as I can tell.  I highly recommend that you read it, even if this isn’t usually your thing.

10 Things People Say About My Travels

  1. Have you read Eat, Pray, Love?
    Good lord, no!  But might I interest you in some Ayn Rand, Ayun Halliday or Malcolm Gladwell?
  2. Have you been to___________?
    Probably not.  I’ve only been to a few places.  They just all happen to be a little scary to the average bear, and one trip right after another.
  3. Why don’t you just go where they speak English?
    I speak other languages and I want to learn more.  Also, my travel is an integral part of my education.  It is not based on areas of high booze, sex or beaches, but rather areas I want to study.  England and Australia appeal to me as a traveler, but not as a student.  It would be counter-productive and perhaps a bit unethical for me to take money from NU, the government, and my parents to go abroad for non-educational purposes.
  4. Wasn’t it scary?  And don’t they just treat women like crap? And aren’t they awful?  (you get the picture…)
    No!  I promise!  I really have enjoyed everywhere I have gone, and I have never felt truly unsafe.  I research where I go pretty heavily, and I have turned down opportunities because I deemed them unsafe.  And if you come away from reading this blog thinking the people were awful and mistreated women everywhere I went, then I’ve failed.  I tell it like it is, and that means mentioning the harassment.  But I also get an alarming number of doors opened for me, and strangers who make sure I’m not lost, and people giving me presents at random.  It’s a mixed bag, like anywhere else.
  5. I wish I could do that!
    You can!  And please do!  If you’re in college, travel is super-easy.  If you go to Northeastern, absolutely no complaints out of you!  Leave a comment or shoot me an email if you want help figuring out how you can go abroad.
  6. But did you go sky-diving/bungee jumping?
    Absolutely not.  I think I would vomit profusely if I ever tried.  It doesn’t really appeal to me, and that’s a lot of money for something I don’t have any interest in.  We don’t all have the same tastes or the exact same experience on study abroad, even if it sometimes seems that way.  I prefer wandering around a city solo, meeting little kids, going to lectures and impromptu fun over the dare-devil type stuff.  I guess I’m just not that brave.
  7. Stop going to scary places!
    Again I say: absolutely not.  Also, as the person who actually went, they’re not so scary.  My old apartment in Roxbury was scarier than anywhere I’ve been abroad.
  8. Is that from place x/y/z?
    While I do LOVE to buy jewelry, clothing, decorations and accessories from abroad, lots of it is just Made in China and sold at H&M.  Sorry, I’m just not that exotic.  And suitcases are small.
  9. …But I bet it cost a ton of money
    It didn’t!  I swear!  Look for a dedicated post on this soon, but Financial Aid and my NU scholarships applied, so that certainly helped.  Also, I would be going to school anyway and nothing cost much over tuition.  Finally, I go to developing countries where my dollar goes farther, and I’m a pretty frugal person in general.  So I live happily average at home, and abroad I can often stretch that to average with many nights of excess if I feel like it–but I usually just save it for my next trip!
  10. You went to…Turkey (or Lebanon or Costa Rica or South Africa or wherever), right?
    Hehe no, but that’s fine.  I don’t expect everyone to remember everywhere I went and when and why, especially if you don’t see me that often.  Let’s make a deal: don’t get mad if I forget the names and schedules of your kids, and I won’t get mad when you forget all my countries.  Just don’t refer to them as “vacations”!

Domino

This is my best possible recollection of something that happened about a year ago.  The quotes may be a bit off, but the sentiment is there. Also, some names are changed because I felt weird.

I wander down the broken street, and my steps start to bounce because I can hear Rigoletto floating down to me out of a high Havana window.  Bum bum bum bum-ba-da, bum bum bum bum-ba-da, baa daa daa daa-daa, baa daa daa daa-daa.  I think briefly of seeing that opera at the Met when I was in high school, and the warmth of the memory has Havana feeling like home.  But still, I get slow and cautious as I approach the tiny barrio within itself.  It isn’t about safety; I don’t want to be the first one to show up.

There are no women poking their heads out of windows tonight, no children running around and curling themselves around my ankles.  One little, bare bright, bulb shines and makes shadows out of Brittan and Fernando.  Rather than playing dominoes and crouching on the metal skeletons of chairs, they rest comfortably on a low, cement wall.  They drink, but their voices are relaxed and slow and the bottle remains upright and still most of the time.

Brit smirks and stands to hug me, and suddenly Fernando is animated.  He immediately busies himself getting me the closest thing to a proper chair and a jam jar for the clear, grainy rum.

“Heh, Have I got a story for you,” Brit quietly laughs to me.  So Fernando won’t hear it: “we’ve been talking about you.”  He seems pleased at my immediate shock, annoyance and curiosity.  But it will have to wait, as Fernando rushes back out.

We talk about what they do when it floods, where the high water marks are.  How they take to the roof with dominoes and rum, and laugh the disaster in its face.  I feel guilty for complaining about my hunger enforced by the massive flood the other day, because I was safe and dry on the fourteenth floor.  They lose everything in the barrio every time there’s a flood, but I only lost my lights and wifi, something they never have in this neighborhood, even on a good day.

“I…I cannot talk about that.  It is shit.  I cannot talk about it.”

Fernando’s suddenly stoic expression shatters into a million pieces with a high, forced laugh that seems to take up the whole alleyway.  The severity is gone as soon as it came.  I wonder if the children are sleeping, and where his daughter is.  She usually spends this time curled up in my lap, playing with my hair or glasses, or hitting Brit and calling him ugly while she laughs and makes eyes at him.  I think she likes his beard.

Instead, a woman I’ve never seen before struts up.  In typical Cuban fashion, she is wearing heels, her hair is immaculate, her clothing tight.  I’m wearing a dirty t-shirt, flip-flops and shorts that feel like pajamas.  I haven’t brushed my hair in a few days.  Fernando stops tending to me to greet and chat with the woman, something that extends for hours.  He leaves the bottle with Brit and I, and we work our way through it as he tells me what I missed.

“He wants to marry you.”

“What?!” I try to keep my voice quiet, but Brit’s dancing eyes infuriate me even more.

“Yeah, yeah, he says you’re so good with his daughter, you’d be such a good mother.  You two talk about politics and you both speak french, and you’re so nice to always be coming over.  Get it girl!”

Truthfully, I probably do send all sorts of weird signals to every Cuban I meet.  I am usually the only female playing dominó, and I do bring his daughter gum or nail polish to play with.  My presence has apparently not gone unnoticed.  But I’ve never been anywhere alone with Fernando.  I’ve never offered my contact information for when I go home, or been the one to make plans.  He gets no more of my attention than any of the other aseres we play dominó with, even when he tries to egg me on.

I look back on all the afternoon baseball games, to find what I must have done or said.  Drinking rum with my male friends as well as his, trying not to let his little girl get on my nerves when she won’t stop playing the same game for hours on end.  Winning dominó when Britito is my partner, losing atrociously when I’m paired with anyone else.  Fighting with Fernando’s friend about politics, and trying not to get myself in a discussion about Castro.

And it makes me miss home.  It makes me miss people who believe that a novio means something, no matter how many miles I am from him.

Not long after, on my last day in Havana, I didn’t say goodbye to Fernando, his daughter or the neighborhood.  I just up and left.