Monday, April 4, 2011
Saturday, March 5, 2011
Saturday, February 26, 2011
I developed the idea to begin this organization after spending what totaled over a year living, traveling and volunteering in parts of the world that show up on World Bank reports as developing or undeveloped. Before beginning Of Rags I had spent the other 19 years of my life living in an upper class family in Bethesda, Maryland—home to many World Bank economists, politicians, high-powered Washingtonians and the residents of what was at one point the relatively low-income apartment complex right across the street from the house where I grew up. While living in Bethesda and attending one of the Nation’s top prep schools, I immersed myself in a world far away.
In high school I was determined to become fluent in Spanish, so I watched Telemundo and Univision everyday after class. I even subscribed to the Spanish packet on Cable in order to tune in every afternoon to Franscisco el Matemático, and other Colombian TV Programs. I also volunteered as a tutor at a community center for primarily Hispanic low-income youth.
I’m not really sure why I did all of these things. At first my determination to learn Spanish was motivated by my romantic interest in a young lady from Venezuela who I met during a summer program at one of the world’s top universities. But I think there were other causes—the desire to fit in with a certain group of people? The desire to stand out from another? Did all of the history lessons and storybooks of change makers in my Quaker school’s curriculum actually rub off on me as they were intended? What it was that opened my eyes to another world right in front of me, I cannot say. All I know now is that my interest in something other than my familiar environment has matured into a passion for changing that very same environment.
Around the time I started Of Rags a year and a half ago I launched this blog. And when I launched Of Rags, I wrote this post http://www.theparallelworld.com/2009/10/of-rags-to-riches.html explaining my theory behind the failure of development. To elaborate on this I’ve created a couple of diagrams:
This is of course one of the key points in the call for change of writers such as Dambisa Moyo and NYU’s Bill Easterly (who doesn’t hold office hours against department policy but who does rightfully claim that the best economic outcome is when private good is equal to social good), who have made a lot of money stating the obvious about why poor people are poor.
Arturo Escobar was one of the first of these writers. Easterly and Moyo owe him their houses (and Jeffrey Sachs lives in a brownstone on the Upper East Side while arguing the contrary point), but well beyond the typical self-inflating AidWatch style debates, Escobar’s Encountering Development brings several key points to the table…or page, really. A few of these points are listed here:
- "Development relies on setting up the world as a picture, so that the whole can be grasped in some orderly fashion as forming a structure or system (56).” This point is furthered by the fact as Escobar explains it that development is based primarily on economics which use simple models to sum up complicated situations.
- That labor once defined the value of a product, but soon value was redefined by utility. (64)
- That development and social service institutions are the main players in the developing world whereas they are just one of many players in the developed world. And that development professionals educated in the US and England often plan with the toolbox most familiar to them seeing only that development institutions such as the federal works program made a great impact in US history, but disregarding the context in which these program took place.
- “According to de Janvry, industrialization in the world’s periphery depends on the availability of cheap labor, which is maintained chiefly thought the provision of cheap food and the exploitation of the peasantry and urban working class. The requirement of cheap labor is imposed by the “laws of motion” of capital globally and its contradictions…The result is a structural situation in which a “modern” sector—based on a combination of multinational, state, and local capital---coexists with a “backward,” or traditional, sector, the chief function of which is to provide cheap labor and cheap food for the former. Because the dynamic sectors of the economy produce for export or for the modern sector, there is no real need for consolidating an internal market that would encompass most of the population.”
- Anthropologists frequently only have unilateral conversations.
The conclusion I draw from all of this is that development functions outside of the consumer economy. In the name of capitalism, a centrally derived socialist system is set up with connections to the “free market” only at the highest levels. Development planners do not see themselves as part of the system they are planning. More importantly as Marx would point out and as Escobar outlines courtesy of de Janvry in the above point 4, consumers don’t see producers. It’s as if community didn’t exist, only numbers on a page. No friends, neighbors, colleagues, loved ones, family or traditions, just columns of GDP, GINI, and HDI.
This is where development traditionally fails.
With Of Rags community is what makes us different. We are grounded in building pride among community members about the work that they themselves can do to deliver on the populist political promises of healthier living conditions, better education and job opportunities. We plug some of the most marginalized producers into the global market place. We put consumers and the people who make their clothes as face-to-face as a computer screen will allow.
This is all great. But we represent 0.0000004% of the annual dollars flowing into development. Other community-based development programs are for the most part similar specs of dust in the scheme of things. Even fair trade in total represents no more than a 300 million dollars industry. While the 50billion dollar aid industry is only 10% of the annual dollars flowing into armed forces. Creating substantial systemic change based in one community at a time will take a very very very long time. Yet it’s no coincidence that I’m talking about the value of communities.
Community, whatever the word really means, is what motivates me to type out a blog post on social change at 3am. Seeing the faces of the people for whom many development agencies only see numbers is what drove me to think outside of the box and start an organization in partnership with a Ghanaian artist and designer. Whether those faces were through the TV or in a corn field in Honduras, I saw from a relatively early age that there was something more going on behind the scenes of the poverty that Children International shows in the ads asking for a dollar a day. I worked with the Water Committee and the Youth Action Group in the small town of Coalaca. I saw that there were organizations on the smallest level working to build a kitchen at the village school and holding soccer matches to raise funds for a new community center.
Five years later this is still my inspiration. Tattooed on my side are the words “vida verdad amor.” Life truth love—The same words one of my friends in Honduras said to me when I left to return to the comfort of my recently renovated house in Bethesda. She told me “No tenemos mucho acá como tu tienes allá, pero sí tenemos vida, verdad y mucho amor. No te olvides de eso. Pues nunca te vamos a olvidar. --We don’t have much here like you have there in the States, but we do have life, truth and love. Don’t forget that. We’ll never forget you.”
Talking face to face. Asking “…y como fue que llegó a la USA?” Listening. Sharing. All those healthy values that they taught in the storybooks really must have worn off on me somehow. But I don’t know if it was in the classroom. My experiences are unique, but I’m not alone in my knowledge of the world and of community. Almost every single person I know who has travelled in the same way I have, shares the opinion that change must come about on both ends of the spectrum for any one end to be sustainable.
Tuition for Peace institutionalizes community-based development and face-to-face sharing. The idea is to put college aged people into unfamiliar environments where they volunteer in whatever capacity they are able. Their volunteer service would be facilitated by a college scholarship drawing in many ways on the ROTC program for the “all volunteer” military. Not only will this solve the failure of development and the current economic system, but it will also open the doorway to jobs and career opportunities that students otherwise would not have the interest in or the access to. If Tuition for Peace were implemented tomorrow, twenty years from now development would reflect the value of community to its very core.
But if one thing is clear to me at this point it is that even the best idea isn’t getting anywhere without a community supporting it from the start. In the case of Of Rags, we have the Labadi Town community in Ghana and we are growing our community here in New York. With Tuition for Peace I find myself a lone voice sounding a drowned out call to action. Yet there are two ripe communities to which I am yet to turn.
My focus with Tuition for Peace is on finding a small community of people like myself—four or five dedicated believers. From there we will target communities that would benefit the most from the program—high schools, where the threat of college tuition looms large.
But I’m yet to figure out one elemental aspect and that is whether or not those core believers will be all, or even partly, located in New York City where I am. If they are not all located in New York, then one key question remains—a question, not put too lightly, that may determine the fate of the world—is our belief in community enough to bring us together if we are not face-to-face?
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Saturday, February 19, 2011
A call to action is only as good as the people who hear it, and we've got to listen to be heard. In the Civil Rights Movement, whether the action was registering to vote, sitting in at segregated lunch counters, boycotting stores or just talking about making a difference, the call was sounded most clearly through face-to-face dialogue. While the telephone, the postal service and certain newspapers spread word of what was occurring in towns like Greenwood, Mississippi to other areas throughout the United States, the forums that instigated action took place in churches, social halls, barber shops and in people’s homes. Spurred on by Sam Block and other SNCC activists, Greenwood residents discussed how they could uphold their constitutional right to vote and their basic human right to a dignified existence. In the book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne charts the course of change that occurs through each discussion. Be it in a mass meeting, or on door-to-door canvassing activities, every time people engaged in conversation they built trust, community, confidence in themselves and buy-in to the cause. This laid the foundation for the actions that broke the chains of segregation.
Fifty years later we must rebuild that foundation. As we’ve added more forms of communication, mainly the Internet, to our repertoire of organizing tactics, too frequently have we forgotten what it means to share stories of personal experiences and aspirations in a face-to-face conversation. At least this is what I have observed over the past year as I have tried to organize my peers and colleagues around a cause. With some help from one or two supporters and the power of today’s connectivity at my fingertips, I have organized visits to 15 of the nation’s best colleges and universities in order to promote sustainable consumerism. At first I thought it would be easy to leverage this network into support for the concrete goal of passing legislation to open up volunteer opportunities as a way to help pay for college. But quickly I realized that standing in the front of a room with a microphone and speaking to my peers is not the same thing as sitting in a circle and sharing stories and ideas in conversation with one another.
While there is some value in preaching to the choir, the opportunity that I am now aiming to create is a forum where every voice can be heard distinctly. I believe that only with this approach, the same approach that kept Greenwood fighting for freedom even when run down by injustice, will individuals truly take action on any scale of significance beyond just nodding their heads in ascension or clicking a button online. If we congregate as a group of supporters for a cause, but do not listen to one another’s voices, how can we expect that we will believe in each of our own unique stories and set of values enough to keep taking action on an individual level until we achieve our collective goal? This is a matter of faith—not in any higher power, but in ourselves. And as we share our stories, ideas, values and opinions gained from our own experiences we will also be able to craft a more universally accessible call to action and a more comprehensive strategy to reach our goal.
With today’s 24-hour network news cycle and 140-character thought process, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeking change overnight. I am only just beginning to pull myself out of that trap through a course of reading and guided thinking in much greater depth than I’ll bore you with. To truly live up to the clichéd promise of the 21st century and give voices to the masses, we have a bigger chunk of work cut out for us than I think many people would like to admit. We’ll have to go into classrooms, church basements, and community center meeting halls over and over and over in order to develop a dialogue well beyond the complexity of a Facebook newsfeed. But if we forge these traditional tactics with our contemporary connectivity, then we can create not just a movement, but a revolution.