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When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful

I recently finished reading the book I am Malala, which is a memoir of the young woman who just recently won the Nobel Peace Prize campaigning for women’s education. Since I do not spend much time watching the news I was relatively unaware of her story. A few months ago I saw her appear on John Stewart, and was so impressed that I had to read about her life. Make no mistake: books like this do have the ability to change how you see the world.

I was instantly drawn into her story as it transported me to the hills of Northern Pakistan, where her family is from. The book begins by helping the reader to understand life in that culture as well as the place women are allowed to play in it. I have heard these ideas before, but this book helped me to understand, from a real life example, what life in this part of the world was like. The story goes on to tell of the role of women’s education, the rise of the Taliban and eventually how Malala survived the hit put on her by the Taliban themselves. While I suggest you read the story if you are interested, here are the two main points I took from this story.

1. Small Changes can lead to big ones with enough time

The way the Taliban starts making their presence known in the book is incredibly interesting. First, they come into the area and promise the people whatever it was that the government was not providing. This helps to get an initial group on their side. Next they start raising money based on the idea of helping to overthrow the corrupt government, making the changes the people want to see, etc. When they have raised the money, they start to instruct their new followers on different rules they must follow, such as women cannot walk in public without covering their heads. While annoying to many of the women, it is not the end of the world so they accept it. Next, the rules get more intense, such as women cannot shop in the market place. After that it is women cannot go to school. At the end of the time described in the novel for them to take power, they are actually killing people who help to teach women by bombing schools.

I was impacted by this idea because I feel like it is true in every way of life. The more small compromises we make, the easier it is to chip away at our convictions and beliefs until there is not much left of what we originally were. We have to be able to see the full story. We have to be visionary enough to perceive how these little changes will lead to bigger ones so that we do not give up the rights we are born to protect.

2. I can make a big difference just with what I have

The other idea that convicted me was how little Malala and her family had and yet how big of a difference she was able to make. I think it is extremely easy to think that we do not have the platform necessary to make a difference, but I would challenge that we have access to a 100 times better and more platform than someone born in a third world country has. We have money, time, basic human rights, and all of the pieces necessary to change the world. We also have Netflix, iPhones, internet and fast food which can lead us to happily sedate ourselves to what is really out there that needs to be changed. Do not let this happen.

Through reading Malala’s account, I was convicted about and challenged to not just be happy with simply going through my daily life and living with my personal comforts. I have been given many more opportunities than that. If a 16 year old girl in Pakistan can change the world, then why am I wasting time on anything that isn’t?

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Thoughts on Water Projects

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “water projects” or “global clean water issues”? Most people respond with images of small sick children or women walking long distances for semi-clean water. They think about drilling new wells and people happy once clean water pours forth from the new well. These are popular images that lead one to believe that this issue can be easily addressed by drilling new wells, but does the problem end once the well is in place? What happens after there is a nearby source of clean water?

A few years ago, I worked on a project in Guatemala with a small group consisting of five civil engineers, a geologist, and a nurse. This group is an established chapter of a US based engineering-related, non-governmental organization (NGO). The group was connected with a village nearby Antigua, Guatemala through a separate NGO working with the schools and communities in that region. This particular area had little to no access to clean water mostly because they were located downstream of pig farms and other industries that regularly released sewage and other pollutants into the river. This not only pollutes the river, but also pollutes the groundwater supply upon which the villagers rely.

The engineering solution to this problem was two-fold: (1) drill a well into another unpolluted aquifer away from the village and construct a pump, piping system, and storage tank to transport and store the water within the village and (2) develop a separate cleaning and disinfection system for the water sources already established in the village. Both systems needed to be designed so that they could be easily and cheaply maintained by the village.

The NGO group worked with the mayor and his office on this project. When we came down to Guatemala, he would rally up some men from the village to work on the water systems, since this project was a collaboration between the village political leaders and the NGO. Together with the men from the community, we built the well, pump, piping system, and the tank. When the well was in, we tested the water and found it to be clean enough to drink straight from the well.

Six months after we installed the well, our group followed up on the well installation by sending a member down to the village. The purpose of this trip was to see how the village was adjusting to the clean water and to test the water again to make sure it was still coming out clean. I volunteered to go on this trip to follow up on the project. When I made it down to the village, I found that the people were given less access to the “clean water” than before and were still using the polluted sources of water to supplement what was given to them. I asked why they had less water and they said that the mayor reduced the water rations from two hours everyday to two hours four days a week. When I took water samples from their faucets that should have been hooked up to the new well water system, I found that the water coming out had as much contamination as before we installed the well. What happened?

After some investigation around the village and inquiries into this issue put before some of the village elders (not associated with the mayor), I found that the well mysteriously “broke down” two months after we installed it, and right after the local elections. Some villagers told me that the mayor was claiming that he installed the well and pump, pipes, and tanks and, therefore, only he could fix them. The majority of the villagers were unaware of the NGO’s work on the water system and the rest told me how ineffective we were. I couldn’t investigate the reason why the pump stopped working as the locks on the pump house were switched out with new locks that belonged to the mayor, who did not open the pump house for my investigation.

After meeting with people in their homes and seeing the dirty water come out of the faucets and the sick children home from school, reality hit me that the mayor chose to block the villagers’ access to clean water, even as the village’s children were sick from waterborne illnesses. I found mothers helplessly furious with the situation because it cost too much money to travel to the hospital (the closest was an hour ride on the bus, the most common form of transportation in the area) and to pay for the antibiotics. I found working men at home, sick because of the waterborne illness; their families, already below the poverty line, had to make due with less income for that week.

This project opened my eyes to the role of politics and power in clean water. Drilling the well was not enough; we also needed to ensure continued access to clean water, in direct opposition to the local government. The issue of clean water is not just a civil engineering problem that can be solved by drilling a well; it is one that must also be fought on a political level. As with other social issues, the lack of clean water cannot just be seen as only a hygiene issue, but must also be seen as a political issue.

Our project failed. We, as a group, failed to understand the political atmosphere. We did not make ourselves better known to the community elders. We relied on the other NGO established in Guatemala to be familiar with and communicate with the community, as our liaison, only to learn later that they were not as involved as we believed. In the end, this project did not meet its goals of providing clean water for the community, even though a well with clean water was installed and working. It failed because we didn’t engage the established social order.

Where does this leave us? Can we give support to charities to build wells and leave it at that? If we truly want to effect change in these communities, we need to support, through time and talent and/or through finance, charities who are involved with these communities and are aware of and willing to engage the community and local government. Here’s a list of questions to ask when researching a charity to whom you may donate time and/finances.

  • What is their level of involvement in the community? Do they understand the social dynamics where they are working?
  • What is their level of commitment to the community? Are they installing a well and taking off or are they in it for the long haul?
  • What is the local reputation of that charity in that area? Are they known for working with or separate from the locals?
  • What is their organizational structure? Do they have so much bureaucracy that they get bogged down with paperwork, limiting their support to teams in the field?

There are a lot of good charities out there who are involved with the community and provide long term access to clean water. A lot of these organizations do not focus primarily on water; instead, they focus on other social issues and clean water just happens to be a part of what they do because it affects the people they serve. I have often volunteered technical assistance for such agencies and have not directly volunteered with a charity that focuses on clean water only. For this reason and also because I want to encourage you to approach charities with these questions in mind, I won’t feed you a list of charities, but instead give you the parameters by which you should judge those you may be interested in supporting. Be responsible for the time and/or money you donate and remember that resolving clean water issues is not as straightforward as it appears. Water is power, and as such is given to corruption. Putting money or time into an organization who does not engage the political and social atmosphere is like constructing a well in an empty aquifer and wondering why you’re not producing water.

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Early Encounters: Respect vs. Ethnocentrism

“Look over there, Elizabeth. Do you see those men?”

“Yes, Daddy. Why are they there? Who are they?” asked a pale-skinned, blue eyed girl of 7 years old, as she gazed toward the group of men congregated near the railroad tracks.

“They’re day laborers. And, I want you to pay close attention to me right now. They are out here, every day, hoping for someone to hire them to work hard, doing manual labor. They’re out here because they love their families and want to provide for them, and they work harder than a lot of people in fancy suits and business clothes.” Then, after a pensive pause, he continued with the tone he only took when giving serious instructions: “Don’t you dare ever look down on them. Some people do because they weren’t born here or have different colored skin. But, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they work hard because they love their families. So, don’t you ever look down on them, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

Those were the beseeching words of my father who spoke so sincerely, that his almost stern tone conveyed the importance of the matter.

I didn’t know it then, but that moment was my first real experience with the concept of racism, more properly labeled as “ethnocentrism,” and the start of an awareness of different ethnic groups. The respectful words and perspective of ethnic equality which my father impressed upon me that hot, Southern California afternoon, have been emblazoned into my memory ever since.
Now I rejoin you, nearly two decades later, and many experiences later. Since then, my zip codes have had me in California, Alaska, and Texas. I can now differentiate my triad of experiences through the lenses of diversity, and cultural/ethnic perspectives and expectations. For brevity’s sake, we can focus solely through the lens of diversity, using it as a springboard into the powerful impact you can create, should you be blessed enough to live within a diverse population.

Growing up in Southern California (SoCal, per the natives’ colloquialisms) boasted a wealth of ethnic diversity, of which I was blithely oblivious for many years, much like the blessing of my father’s wise words. Not only could one easily find over a dozen different ethnicities in a small radius, there was a very good chance of finding it in your very own neighborhood. Surely, this could promote racism, to have so many differing groups crammed into the same space. Then again, it could promote acceptance, collaboration, and understanding by virtue of people’s general need for social interaction, and the close knit quarters of crowded SoCal cities.

So, what makes the difference? You do. I do. Our parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and other relations do. Growing up, ethnic diversity was as common to me as the sun rising and setting, and I was simply happy to have friends. However, what made respect inextricably tied to ethnic diversity was the socialization I received from the aforementioned individuals, along with neighbors and other passersby. It was a daily blessing for my parents to welcome my friends of any culture into our home, and vice versa. It was a jarring blessing to find out (in my teens) that certain extended relatives weren’t present at my earlier birthday parties because they sneered and didn’t want to be around, “the little brown kids,” who were my brother’s and my friends. I had positive and negative experiences connected to diversity, and these experiences offered me a choice: what experiences would I create for others? If you have never before been formally offered that same choice, I offer it to you now. Your daily actions and interactions spring forth from who you believe you are, and who you believe others are. Your daily actions and interactions create experiences for others.

It is an arduous, uphill battle to change another person’s opinion of who s/he is, and who others are to him/her. Likely, you cannot force change through argument. But, you can instead persuade on a daily basis, as you create experiences for that individual. Consider the next seven days to be your personal opportunity to pay close attention to the experiences which you create for others. In the midst of your busy week, be mindful of whether you choose to create a positive, negative, or plainly apathetic experience. Though it often takes work and intentionality, you can choose to create an experience that unarguably leaves the other person feeling respected and valued. And know that as you create positive experiences, there just might be a set of young, impressionable eyes nearby, through which a child imbibes his or her first lesson in human rights and equality from you.

If you are lucky enough to be surrounded by diversity, (and I assert that most of us are), then I must implore you, as my father implored me, “What matters is not skin color or region of birth, but character and work ethic. So, respect people accordingly, creating positive experiences for them, because I don’t want you to ever look down on them, do you hear me?”*

*My father’s words here were paraphrased, to better reflect the full intent of his words, which took me years to understand.

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Divorce: The Injustices Add Insult to Injury

In 2010, I got divorced.

Unfortunately, in modern society this happens all too often, and, while it is a tragedy, it is not an issue of justice. However, there is more to this story. There are two ways, in my experience, that injustice has become a part of many divorces.

The first kind of injustice deals with the nature of love and commitment in society. In modern marriages, either party can file for divorce at any time, with or without warning. He or she can decide suddenly, without explanation or reason, to leave the marriage. Aside from personal choice, there is nothing binding about the commitment of marriage. It can be entered on a whim, and it can be left on one as well.

In a letter addressed to his son Michael, author J. R. R. Tolkien describes the modern idea of love. He describes how, realistically, marriage takes a lot of work and hardship, and he characterizes life as living in a cold world. However, he contrasts this perspective with the Romantic idea of love that he believes most people hold, in which love is something easy and where, if it takes work, it must not be “true love.” This Romantic idea is where people “fall in love” and can just as easily fall out of it. He writes, “One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts.” As Tolkien explains, people think of love as warm feelings and as something “natural,” not as something that requires hard work. So, while both members of a marriage make a commitment in the beginning, either party can decide to leave if things no longer are going the way he or she expects. This is a problem that, in a lot of ways, our culture has perpetuated.

In my own experience, my ex-wife decided, for reasons unknown, that she was done with the marriage. In the time it took to tell me (one and a half years), she thought she had found something missing in our marriage, each time with someone else. None of those relationships lasted and were finished before our divorce had been finalized. I know that I am an imperfect person, with many faults and mistakes, many of which may have affected my ex-wife’s views on our marriage. While I have made peace with the fact of my divorce, I will always be left with a feeling of injustice. She never told me her reasons, never wanted to discuss the whys of the divorce. I have no idea why we got divorced. What I do know is that, for reasons unknown, my life crumbled and fell apart.

The other type of injustice that our modern day version of divorce allows is financial. While the first has more to do with the emotional or with a partner’s expectations, this one has to do with money. Yet, the two are intertwined.

With only one income in a two person family, money for my ex-wife and I was extremely tight. We often lived paycheck to paycheck, leaving credit cards or students loans unpaid for a couple months at a time, and we relied on our tax returns every April to catch up, only to start the vicious cycle again over the even leaner summer months when I wasn’t teaching. To be able to get through some of those summers, I had to take out personal loans from my credit union and payday loans, sometimes three at a time.

In an effort to make more money, in the long term at least, I went back to school and started a MA degree in English Literature in 2009. Like the tax returns, I took on extra loans as a means of helping us stay afloat, especially with the added costs of school. So, five semesters later when my wife finally told me that she wanted a divorce, we had to go through the arduous process of dividing up everything we had.

How hard could it have been to split up our belongings after only three years of marriage? Well, harder than imagined. In part, that was because I was an emotional wreck while, I suspect, she knew what she wanted and was after. The issue is that during a divorce, two people aren’t only splitting up their physical belongings, like cars, books, and clothing. There are also the assets and debts that have to be split up as well and in as fair and equitable a manner as possible.

According to this article in The Telegraph, it is this period of division which is exactly when divorce proceedings can become unjust. “The poorer party may let contentious matters go and accept compromises simply to keep costs down.” In hindsight, this is exactly what happened in my story.

At the time, it made sense for each of us to leave the marriage with what we entered, as it would be the easiest way to split up our belongings. However, in reality, that meant that she left with all of the assets and property, and I left with a job and all of the debt. Every time that I was unhappy with some aspect of the settlement, her response was something along the lines of, “Fine. I’ll call my parents and get the name of their lawyer, and you’ll need to get one, too. This could take years, if that’s what you want.” As I said, I was barely keeping up with the debt that I had, and I could afford neither the emotional cost of a protracted divorce nor the financial cost of hiring a lawyer over the course of several months. So, I will admit, I would let the matter drop, as I was too exhausted to resist the emotional manipulation. From conversations with friends and family members that have also been divorced, I know that I am not the only one who has been subjected to emotional manipulation. If I know that many people personally, I can only imagine how many people, on a state or national perspective, have to deal with the same problem.

It was only recently, as I was doing research for this post, that I found that this kind of manipulation, and other kinds of divorce-related injustice, is common in the legal proceedings. I found out that it is common for debt and assets to be balanced, so that someone who takes on more of the debt-and I had a lot of it-may also receive more of the assets to balance it out. If I had only known then what I know now, my divorce may have turned out very differently. The poor and women are more likely to give in to manipulation or accept unfair settlements to avoid the potential costs of divorce. Those costs, in America, average between $15,000 and $20,000, which is equal to the price of a year’s tuition at a state school in California, like Cal State Fullerton. Additionally, men tend to become richer after a divorce, while women tend to suffer financially after divorce.

My wife divorced me, and when the dust settled she had a new chance at a new life in a new state, debt free. What did I have? Over $75,000 dollars in debt. For a grand total of 3 years of a marriage, I am saddled with loans that will last a decade or two, if not longer. What happened to me, I must live with; but, there must be someway to to prevent this from happening to others.

There must be some way to make sure that more people know of their rights and duties during divorce. Part of the problem is the lack of easily accessible information about the divorce process. Each state in America has its own divorce laws and regulations. Additionally, it is difficult to make sense of all of the information without a law degree. There are many different options (annulment, separation, and divorce), a lot of confusing forms, and very little free help to make sense of it all. The help that we could find was a “seminar” at the city courthouse, which was essentially a clerk or lawyer with a PowerPoint presentation, who walked through the needed forms and tried to explain what each one required. However, there was no opportunity to have someone check our forms to see if we filled them in correctly, or to have individual help with our specific situation. Essentially, without a lawyer, the divorcing couple has to fill out the forms on their own, make sense of the information as best as they can, and this process can take months, as the court sends the forms back to the people to make corrections or clarifications or sign forms that were missed. I do my own taxes every year, and IRS forms and guides are a walk in the park compared to making sense of divorce legalities.

This brings us back to the high costs of divorce. To get the help to make sense of this process, divorcees need to shell out some serious money. Not everyone has those kinds of resources, and even when they do, the process of divorce is notorious for taking months, if not years. For example, in California, the process takes a minimum of 6 months before the couple is legally divorced, and that is only if the court has accepted the paperwork. The only consistent source of information is only available to those that can afford it. Sometimes, that is neither person in the divorce, or only one of them.

Even when it goes as smoothly as possible, divorce is an ugly process that destroys families and individuals. Americans, and Californians (as much of this is a state issue) must find a way to make sure that emotional and spiritual devastation does not translate into the kind of financial devastation that can last years and decades after the marriage itself has ended. Healing a heart takes long enough as is; mending a broken wallet does not need to be an additional injustice.

– Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. “43 From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941.” The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981. 48-54. Print.

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The Ebola Outbreak: Finding our Selflessness

Many of us know all too well the sound of one of our parent’s voices when we have done something disappointingly bad: you should be ashamed of yourself! We all know the feeling, and it isn’t good. Now, as the 2014 year begins to wind down and come to a close, I am going to have to call us ALL out. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

“Wait, what did we do?”

Well, to start with, we gave in to the fear mongering of the mainstream news networks and our own selfish behavior. More importantly, it is about what we did not do. We failed to care enough about the Ebola victims in Africa. Ebola was not even on our radar until it was in our own country, further emphasizing the self centeredness of the American citizen. While we got excited over trivial matters like celebrity baby bumps, and focused an irrational hatred toward our president over his latest supposed misstep, people were dieing. If it was not for the threat to our own personal well-being and security, we would have continued to ignore the problem.

Since March, when the outbreak first began in Africa, over 3,000 people have died. 3,000 men, women, and children. Some have lost entire families to the Ebola virus.

This woman is mourning the loss of her sister. The scene is tragic, but unfortunately, it is all too common. At one Ebola Treatment Unit in Liberia, an average of two people die each day. This is astounding, especially when we consider the ONE death in the U.S. that we have chosen to focus on. However, beyond numbers and statistics, I look to the woman in the photo to remind me that these deaths are not an abstract piece of data, but actual human beings.

Yet, despite how devastating the situation has become in Africa, what we have become more and more concerned with is this idea of “How will it affect us?” As a nation, Ebola is a growing fear. Our news networks are constantly following the spread of the virus within the United States. Rachel Maddow, a popular cable news show host, recently discussed how underprepared we are IF we have an outbreak in this country, further encouraging the fear of our own demise that has been growing within us. Even in hospitals, the warning signs for the virus cannot be missed. Hospitals should be discussing how the virus spreads in order to educate the public, in addition to advertising symptoms. Becoming educated about Ebola can help lessen the fear. However,this is not the case. Between our news networks and our medical professionals, you cannot get away from the encouragement to be afraid of Ebola, and we are giving into it. While caring for our own health and protecting the health of our nation is important, instead of giving into the fear these concerns produce, we should be concerned with the people who have been hit the hardest. We should be looking to Africa to help the people, and to also stop the spread of the virus from its epicenter. Not only would helping the people at the origin be the selfless thing to do, it would also be the most logical. If we are afraid of Ebola’s influence spreading, then we need to stop it at its inception. It has taken far too long to reach this realization.

Nearly six months after the World Health Organization (WHO) learned of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa,…[world leaders realized] that the battle against the virus was being lost. As of early September, with more than 1,800 confirmed Ebola deaths in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, there was still no coordinated global response… But it’s not at all clear that this belated muscular response will be enough to quell the epidemic before it takes tens of thousands of lives. (Achenbach, et al.)

As a nation, we are too concerned with ourselves, and collectively we have allowed this situation to get out of control. Our inactivity with regards to aid speaks volumes about us as a country. Is it not the responsibility of those who are in a position of success to help those who are not? If we take action now, we can set a positive example for national charity that will not be forgotten . Otherwise, when this all comes to an end, we will look back and say, “We could have prevented so much death, had we just acted sooner and with intensity.” Then, our example will be one of failure. The time to act was yesterday, but we can make up for it with an action today. Otherwise, we are just as responsible for the rising death toll as the virus itself.

What can we do? Well, first we should all strive to be a little more selfless. Do not give into the fears that our local news networks, hospitals, and our society are cultivating; instead, remember those who are hurting the most. The vast majority of us are worrying about Ebola from within the comfort of a system filled with the best hospitals, sanitation systems , clean water, and our immediate access to health care. The threat is relatively far away compared to those who are living with the daily reality of this lethal illness and the death toll it leaves in its wake. So, while we are well, write to your congressional representative asking for them to take action. Voice your opinion and help spread the word that this is not about us who have yet to feel the effects of Ebola, but about those who already have. Finally, give to charities that you feel will help stymie the spread of Ebola, like Doctors Without Borders or Samaritan’s Purse. And above all, this is not the time to be selfish. If we looked to help those who have been affected in Africa with the same intensity in which we fear the virus’s penetration of American soil, we would be able to stop Ebola. We could stop its spread, and stop the death toll from rising any higher. Then, another mother could live to raise her child, another husband could live to see his wife, and another family could live to see better days.

Achenbach, Joel, et al. “Out of Control: How the World’s Health Organizations Failed to Stop the Ebola Disaster.” The Washington Post. 4 October 2014. Web. 23 October 2014.

Kleeman, Sophie. “One Powerful Illustration Shows Exactly What’s Wrong With How the West Talks About Ebola.” World.Mic. October, 2014. Web. 18 October 2014.

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Less Ebola, More Mental Health, Please

I am a high school teacher. Which means that in 2014 America, I add “getting shot” to my list of daily worries, along with differentiating instruction, scaffolding for English language learners, managing classrooms of 36 teenagers, grading sets of 140 papers, and coaching after school activities.

This past weekend, some several hours after the tragic shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington, a coworker of mine posted on social media her disappointment in the news media’s lack of coverage of this recent event, especially compared to its coverage of ebola. Her point was that school shootings, which often claim the lives of multiple individuals, have become so common-place that it’s not front page material enough to merit local and national news. Instead, ebola, which has thus far only claimed the life of one person in America, garners the bulk of the media hype. I find myself in complete agreement with her, a bit disgusted, and desperately wishing that we would turn our sensationalism as a nation from fear-based suspicions to daily tragic realities and their causes.

What am I talking about? Gun violence? Better campus security? What causes do we need to treat to prevent more school shootings? Two words: mental health.

Is gun violence a problem? Yes. Can campuses be more secure? Most certainly. Does increasing vigilance in either of these areas do anything for my student combating anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts? No.

According to an article published in 2009 for Policymakers, approximately 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Diagnosable. It’s unsettling to think about how we would begin to statistically address the undiagnosed cases. In other words, at least approximately 1 in 5 young adults will struggle with mental illness. That means that in my classroom of 36 young people, I should be on the lookout for a minimum of seven of my students to display characteristics of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar, etc. In the last two years of my career, I can easily name two students who have shared with me their suicide attempts. I didn’t date a ton before I married my husband earlier this year, but two of my previous boyfriends struggled severely with mental health. A few members of my family battle anxiety and depression. I have close friends who have been or currently are on medication for anxiety and/or depression. There have been times in my own life when I have been medicated for mental health related diagnoses.

So, with numbers this high, where is the media? Where are the news reports? Why, when a student completely loses their mind and shoots their classmates, do we immediately turn to lawmakers and ask them to revise gun laws? Why do we add extra security locks on doors and have active shooter trainings at our school faculty meetings? Why don’t we have increased training on how to recognize mental illness? Moreover, why have I never sat in a training about how to help a student struggling with suicidal tendencies but I have told my kids where I want them to hide if a shooter comes in our classroom?

Unfortunately, when Robin Williams died in August of 2014 as a result of his own battle with mental illness, the media did begin to raise awareness of mental health. Sadly, it took the death of America’s beloved comedian and actor to heighten sensitivity to these issues and make them “ok” to discuss . The people who died at Columbine, at Virginia Tech, at UCSanta Barbara, at SandyHook, and at the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado were apparently not important enough for us to look into these problems in more depth.

Furthermore, Williams has been laid to rest long enough now that even the hype surrounding his passing has faded. Instead, we rang in the month of October with “I 3> boobies” bracelets, pink sweatbands, and breast cancer awareness tea parties, t-shirts, and 10ks. Now, look, there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with this. We need to do research on cancer, we need to encourage people to be fighters, we need to celebrate survivors. What does seem a bit amiss about our culture is that we place more of our focus and attention on some “diseases” than others. It is more culturally acceptable to tout a t-shirt that says “I defeated breast cancer” than it is to wear one that says, “I defeated manic depression.” It is more popular to give your money to cancer research than to local and national institutions fighting schizophrenia.

On my own high school campus, October was littered with pink; we hosted football games and volleyball games dedicated to raising money for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Every May, we fundraise for the American Cancer Society by having a seniors vs. staff softball game, and it is wildly successful, an icon of our school spirit and dedication to good-will and philanthropy. And I am proud of all these things. But, it does not, cannot, and never will help us fight the invasion of mental diseases, and the possibility of a shooting that could leave more dead than breast cancer or colon cancer ever will on a high school campus. Recently, a friend of mine tried to host a week long of events for Suicide Prevention Week on our campus through the non-profit TWLOHA. He was told by both our local site and our school district that there was a process he needed to walk through in order to host something like that on campus and to wait for “next time.” Instead, last week and this week, our school hosted an Anti-Bully campaign and Red Ribbon Week. This past summer, facebook and instagram feeds were overcome by the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” a successful attempt to raise awareness of and fundraise for ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. These are all good and fine and wonderful, but realistically need to happen a bit more than one week out of the year, or one summer out of a hundred, and they need to be in conjunction with an equal concern for students’ mental wellness. A few days after my coworker’s attempt was denied, we held parent-teacher conferences on our campus, and I sat back in my chair and listened to concerned parents share with me about their child’s struggle with depression. Are we going to say “next time” when one of these kids does not get the help they need and they chose to lash out by hurting themselves and other students, teachers, and school staff members?

I am not sure if the reason why we choose to promote cancer and other less stigmatized disease research over mental health related research is based on our American myth of self-reliance and success, or just good old fashioned shame. What I am certain of is that if we want to see an end to the much more shameful fact that school shootings have become “normal” occurrences in America, then we need to be willing to get in depression’s face. We need to train our teachers, counselors, and school staff members on how to use more than guest speaker forms to prevent unwanted intruders on campus. We will probably need to do more than just raise awareness by asking people to wear a certain color on one day out of the year or do something shocking in front of a camera. We will need to make it just as acceptable for kids, teachers, and administrators to wear shirts announcing their struggle with and defeat of mental illness as it is for them to wear cancer survivor shirts. We will need to put mental health initiatives on the ballot in equal measure with gun restriction laws. We will need to, as a nation, commit to caring about our young people with half as much concern as we care about foreign disease invasions. Because, the truth is the disease IS here, and it’s been killing for a lot longer than ebola.

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Do You know an International?

I wasn’t surprised when Claire* and Ahmed* told me that our house was the first American home they’d been in. And they didn’t just land in the racial mosaic of America’s southern California area yesterday.

I first met Claire, a Chinese doctor, and Ahmed, a Saudi Arabian businessman, in early July, along with a young man from Japan. I volunteered at a local university with an international program as a conversation partner to help students learn English. These three were paired with me for the whole summer and through the last few months have become friends.

When my husband and I invited them over for dinner one Friday night in September, it felt strangely exciting. I say strangely because I am ashamed to admit that I’ve never hosted an international “student” in my home before. I say student because while both Claire and Ahmed are technically here in America to learn English and/or attain master’s degrees, they really feel more like peers than students. Both in their 30s, married, and well established in a career, I found myself drawn repeatedly to our similar stations in life as newly married, working adults. I also sympathized with both of them, who left their homes and spouses thousands and thousands of miles away. And so it seemed a somewhat weighty and expectation-laden experience to open up our home to them. What if they don’t come? What if they don’t like the food? What if they’re too busy and something else comes up? What if they get lost?

Or, as it turns out, what if they came, appeared to like the food, were not too busy, found our place, and enjoyed some good old fashioned community? In fact, we talked quite a bit at dinner about how closed Americans are. Other countries are much more relational than the US. It would not be hard for visitors to assume that Americans come home from their busy days, pull their SUVs into their two and three car garages, turn the deadbolt, sink onto their sofas, drag themselves upstairs, and are lucky if they exchange stories of the day with their spouses and children. We often do not think about inviting others over to be a part of our community because our lives are busy enough as is. And, if we do choose to invest in others in our daily routines, they are typically people who think, operate, and maybe even look just like us. However, other parts of the world are littered with town squares, sidewalk cafes, apartment buildings with community centers, public parks, and other inviting and encouraging structures built into the fabric of their group-minded society. This disparity in cultures is not all that shocking, given that Americans are known for their fast paced lives, rugged individualism, self-reliance, and competitive nature that often leaves us climbing social ladders alone. What IS shocking is the equally well known American concepts of opportunity, freedom, liberty and justice for all. Just not hospitality. Freedom and justice and habeas corpus, sure, just not open doors, hot meals, and good old fashioned neighborliness for all.

Unfortunately, Ahmed and Claire’s experience of living in America for several months without once being invited into an American home is not unusual, or an exception. Sadly, “statistics prove that among the international students who study in the U.S., historically 70% have never been invited to an American home during their stay. More than 85% are never invited to an American church or have any meaningful contact with genuine Christians during an average stay of four years,” according to Dr. Tom Phillips, co-author of “The World at Your Door.” Now, whether an American is a professed Christian or church attender is not the point. The point is, for a nation that touts the Statue of Liberty beckoning the unwashed masses onto her shore as her icon, we do a very poor job of welcoming the foreigners in our midst, who are anything but unwashed. In fact, a lot of international students, such as my friends Claire and Ahmed, are already well-educated leaders or potential leaders in their communities and countries. We are hosting some of the world’s most influential citizens in our backyard and we don’t even think to have them over for coffee.

And so it hasn’t taken much to conclude that Americans are woefully pitiful at loving, hosting, hell, even helping, international students, or just foreigners in our nation at all. Somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that we’re all immigrants, that we’re all foreigners and as Maya Angelou reminds us in her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning”,

Each of you, descendant of some passed/ On traveler, has been paid for/…[So that] You may have the courage/ To look up and out and upon me the/ Rock, the River, the Tree, your country./ No less to Midas than the mendicant./ No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Americans do a lot of things well. A lot. Hosting people from other lands and loving our foreign visitors is just not one of them. Farbeit from me that Claire and Ahmed return home and have friends ask, “What are American homes like?” and not be able to answer the question. Farbeit that I have princes, princesses, and future world leaders in my own city and I shy away from just sharing a meal with them or asking them if they need a ride to Target.

So the question is how do we bring back some semblance of neighborliness? How can we live out the mythic image of the Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing the first Thanksgiving together? How can we re-embrace the legend of America, land of the free, home of the brave? How do we brave the world at our doorstep? Because, the problem is, if we don’t, we exclude a large group of people, who are and can be world leaders and changers. According to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs, in 2013 the ECA had 275,000 J-1 visa participants who came to the US from over 200 countries and territories. Moreover, the ECA, which provides exchange programs for both American and international students, boasts 55 alumni who are Nobel Prize winners.

Well, the ECA is a perfect place to start. There are programs for Americans who are willing to be host families of exchange students. Since America is so rich in institutions of higher learning, chances are most of us have a college (or more than one) within a 25 mile radius of our front door. Chances also are that that school has some international students who would love to make an American friend. And here’s the thing, you don’t have to be some fancy, upper-class, intellectual elite or super American to befriend an international student; you just have to speak English, and be nice. The holidays are coming up, and many international students will not have the opportunity to travel home. What better way to embrace the ideals of America than to make some new friends and invite them over to share in the Thanksgiving meal? I can think of no more patriotic and truly American act than to celebrate that first feast with someone of a different nationality than you. After all, isn’t that the whole legacy of our nation?

*- Names changed to protect individuals’ privacy

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Breaking The Cycle

Dear Citizens,

With the recent fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18 year old from Ferguson, Missouri, and the brutal beating of Marlene Pinnock on the side of a Los Angeles freeway, one begins to wonder if police brutality is not unusual, as we previously thought, but has instead become the new social norm.  But, what if the relationship between police officers and people who happen to have a skin color other than white, has always been strained, and American citizens are just beginning to be made aware of this fact on a large scale? Social media has certainly made us all more aware that discrimination against minority groups continues to occur.  However, if we look into our own lives, I am sure we can all recall a moment where we were made aware of discrimination.

I remember when a coworker once told me about his experience with the police. Steve was thin, soft spoken, and Black. He told me that whenever he was pulled over while driving, regardless of the reason, he would roll his window down, remove the keys from the ignition, and raise his hands in the air, just so there would be no confusion when the officer approached his car window. Confusion? What sort of confusion could there be surrounding a traffic stop? Apparently, there was room for a lot. Steve’s experience, and that of many other minorities, raises many questions about our culture. How and why does this sort of discrimination still exist? Have we become caught up in a cycle that continuously perpetuates the oppression of minority groups through police violence and brutality? Bobbie Harro discusses these cycles of oppression in her text, “The Cycle of Socialization.” Harro writes that we are socialized from birth to subscribe to a specific set of social and cultural rules.  If we happen to be a member of a group that benefits from these social rules, “we may not notice that [the rules] aren’t fair. If we are members of the groups that are penalized by the rules, we may have a constant feeling of discomfort” (Harro).  My coworker Steve knows what it feels like to be a member of a group that is penalized by the “rules;” he feels the effects of racism in even the most mundane situations.

Unfortunately, a cycle in which police officers  use excessive force, or take unnecessary violent action in a situation, has been created in our society, and it became “normal” when we were no longer surprised to hear stories of police brutality on the news. Our reaction has instead become one of grim disappointment.  Harro writes that in situations like this, “it is easiest to do nothing, and simply allow the perpetuation of the status quo” (Harro). However, we cannot simply do nothing.  By continuing to participate in the cycle, with our silence confirming our participation, we “reinforce stereotypes, collude in our own demise, and perpetuate the system of oppression” (Harro).  No one person should live in a society that oppresses him or her. Michael Brown, Marlene Pinnock and my coworker were, and are, unfortunately, participants in a cycle in which they are the oppressed. Whether justified or not, should an unarmed, 18 year old boy have to die during an altercation with an officer? Was there something else the officer could have done to deescalate the situation before he decided to shoot to kill? Something needs to change, but what?

The first step in breaking this cycle, or any cycle, is to break the silence. We must begin to speak out against the things that we feel are corrupt.  As Harro states, “Our silence is consent” (Harro). We cannot simply sit back any longer. We cannot remain passive participants in a culture that demands activity. We must at least speak up and voice our concerns, even in the small, or seemingly innocent situations.  For example, next time someone makes a racist, or a derogatory joke about any social group, speak up. Tell them that what they are saying is inappropriate because these jokes say, “It’s okay to dislike or make fun of this group of people. Their feelings do not matter. Essentially, they do not matter.” When we perpetuate the idea that a particular group of people does not matter, we end up with situations like that in Ferguson. While you may not be able to convince the joke teller to change, you may be able to break the cycle for someone else. Maya Angelou once said, “ the plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstream.” Maya Angelou is right, and racism in the form of a “joke” is just one of many seemingly innocuous ways we continue to allow racism to be a part of our  cultural and personal “bloodstream.”

I have two friends, a couple, who took their son to the zoo. Laughingly, my friend recounted a situation that happened with her son and husband.  Some Mexican landscapers were working near an exhibit they were observing. Her husband said, “Look, and there you can see the Mexican in his natural habitat.”  I was horrified, and said so. She said, “No, it’s okay, we are Mexican, we can say those things.” No, you cannot. The rest of the day, every time their son saw a Mexican, he would mimic what his father had said. Through a joke, their son was being conditioned to believe that Mexicans are landscapers, and not only that, but that they are also like animals in a zoo.  This one joke had dehumanized a human being in the eyes of a child. You can see how the cycle of racism is perpetuated with the telling of a joke. Now, a young child, on some level, believes that an entire race of people is less than human. Had someone in the vicinity said something then, letting them know that the joke was inappropriate, what would have happened? Would the cycle have been broken? Maybe. Maybe a young boy would learn a lesson from a brave stranger who decided to speak up.  We should all strive to be that brave, because then maybe situations like the one in Ferguson will cease to occur.

References
Harro, Bobbie. The Cycle of Socialization. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print

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Our Stories Matter

It was a simple statement that didn’t need to be said. Some things are that way. So the after school moment of cleaning up an empty classroom was quietly interrupted with pink hair and youthful seriousness. I paused the music and made eye contact when she said, “I just want to thank you for talking about suicide with us. Nobody else does and it means a lot.”

She left as nonchalantly as she walked in. Quiet. Calm. Collected. A walk tinged with a life that very few will know the struggle of. An understanding that others are also experiencing the same struggles and together there is a fighting chance of surviving.

Innocently is how it all started. At Invisible Children’s “Fourth Estate” conference in the summer of 2013, many non-profit speakers and break-out sessions spread the word about helping others in a variety of life needs. They included Saving Innocence, The Giving Keys, Charity Water (which I love!), International Justice Mission and many others. One particular presenter, fresh off a sabbatical, struck a chord within me. That was how I really began to understand Jamie Tworkowski and his movement “To Write Love On Her Arms”.

According to their mission, “To Write Love on Her Arms is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery.”

And I don’t know why it was this year or this time, but when I saw the campaign from TWLOHA for Suicide Prevention Week, I felt compelled to get involved and bought a “kit” complete with wristband, shirt, and posters proclaiming, “No one else can play your part.” And maybe that was the calling, this phrase reminding me of my fortune. My struggles. My ability to work every day with youth who inspire me to be a better person. My appreciation of how difficult others can make our lives by the simple way they look at us, or judge us, or accept us. My knowledge of how intimately affected one can be in the face of mounting pressures, both real and imagined.

Suicide Prevention Week 2014 lasted the first full week of September with Wednesday, September 10 as Suicide Prevention Day. I made many “No one else can play your part” posters and more “No one else can play my part because…” fill in the blank posters for my students. Leading up to the week, I posted the papers and shared with each of my classes that we are here together for a reason and I am thankful they were given the schedule with my name in the slot for their teacher. On September 10, I shared Jamie Tworkowski’s message about life being significant and it ended with my personal message of reaching out to others when we know they need it. Let the suffering souls know that you notice them. That you are there. That you care. That together we can make a difference. And we did.

Now I see my students walk in with binders proclaiming “No one else can play your part.” They’ve written on posters what their part of life contributes to the lives of others. And more than that, I’ve seen those who didn’t think this type of awareness matter see on the faces of their peers that it does. The pain is real. The need is real. The stories are real.

So how do you fill in the answer on a page emblazoned with “No one else can play my part because…”? Mine stated, “…words make me feel alive.” And they do. Always. Because they become the stories. They become understanding. Inspiration. Peace. Bonding. Love. It’s through words that my meaning-making exists and finds sustenance. Mental food. Soul water. When the look between two who know says more than any words could.

This is more than a message, it’s a challenge. Tread lightly with what you say knowing the story of the listener is likely unknown. Stray from judgment. Stray from silence, understanding that our stories are real. They need to be shared. They matter.

Links:
http://twloha.com/
http://invisiblechildren.com/
@jamietworkowski

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It Doesn’t Directly Affect Me, So Why Should I Care? – Apathy and Social Justice

I’ll admit that there was a period in my life when I pretty much avoided the news. It wasn’t because I was too busy or the news was too depressing, though that’s what I would sometimes say out loud. Instead, it was apathy. My mentality was that “those” issues just didn’t affect my life, so they didn’t matter. Wars across the globe, or injustices due to race and class in my own community, “didn’t directly affect me,” and I frankly didn’t really care. If I did happen to take in some news, I would comment on how sad an issue was and then turn off the TV or close the news article and move on with my life. Alternatively, I’d just flip over to the latest hit show and immerse myself in escapism, rather than wrestle with the truth of what I had just taken in. What I’ve learned is that many, if not all of those issues, did directly affect me. I just didn’t know it, or ignored it, or remained ignorant of it, because the way those things affected me were often by privilege. In many cases, I benefited from the injustice toward others (an example for a reader who may doubt this claim: Cheap goods available to me are often produced on the broken backs of sweatshop laborers in other countries). I’ve now come to a place where I’m uncomfortable and even ashamed with the comfort I had in that apathy.

I’m a middle-class, biracial female. I don’t have the full arsenal of privilege that my upper-class, white male friends have, but I will admit that I do hold quite a bit of privilege. Both of my parents and my spouse have college degrees. I am working on a terminal degree at a prestigious institution that essentially comes free to me. I have access to decent healthcare, feel safe most of the time, and even though I have debt, have never truly worried about how bills would be paid. My life has a notable amount of privilege. I could say “those” issues didn’t affect my life because my various sources of social, economic, and cultural capital protected me from being affected by them most of the time.

In all honesty, I truly believe there are folks who are simply unaware of their privilege. I hesitate to say “innocent” because I think it’s a responsibility to be aware of what privilege you have and to leverage that privilege to help others whenever possible. However, I know and was a part of systems that do not necessarily make folks aware of their own privilege, but instead simply reproduce the privileged structures from which these individuals came. They remain safely cocooned in that place of privilege and never really understand how privilege comes at the price for someone else.

All of this to say, social justice issues are everyone’s problem. If you are the oppressed, you are fighting a daily battle against injustice. If you are not oppressed, it is important to consider if you are somehow a part of or even an active player in being the oppressor. Even if we are not involved in the oppressive actions, it is our responsibility to consider ways we can use our own privilege to help fight these injustices. How do you spend your money and resources? Who benefits and who suffers as a result of the societal choices you make? How can you use your giftings to help change systems? How are you staying informed so that you can be a part of crucial conversations and use your democratic rights to influence the system? How can you raise awareness in your social circles? Social justice issues are systemic. They exist because those of us with power in the system allow them to be perpetuated. Considering these questions and others along these lines are first steps in changing the systems. It is why we write these letters; it is what we must do to ever see change.

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