Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reimagining "Homeless"

Alpha Manzueta, who has lived in a homeless shelter for three years, says she feels “stuck.” Michael Nagle for the New York Times

Yesterday in class my lecture was about qualitative data collecting in cultural anthropology, I spoke about the pluses and minuses of surveys. One problem in standard questionnaires can be that participants misunderstand your terminology. For example, if you are doing research on the 'homeless,' everyone must be in agreement as to what it means to be homeless.  I then asked my class, "What does it mean to you to be homeless? What kind of picture comes to mind?"  Like every other semester, these college freshman said, "Someone living on the street," "Someone who doesn't have anything," or "Someone who has to go to a shelter." They never really bring up families or employed people in their scenarios. They also think of homeless people as dirty and disheveled.

I then talk about a family I once knew, an employed mother of three whose son participated in sports with my son. They lived during the week in hotels, and not always the same one. On weekends the children often stayed with relatives in a nearby city. In the summer they stayed with relatives who lived out-of-state. The children never missed school. They went to play dates and parties at the homes of their classmates, played sports, joined after school activities in art and dance, and on some days spent afternoons at the library. We live in suburban Connecticut and these children knew the city bus system backwards and forwards. Their mother often shopped at Goodwill stores for their clothing. "Would this family be considered homeless?"I asked my class. "Do you think the family sees themselves as homeless?" I'm not sure myself, and I never asked.

While indeed this family may have been 'situationally homeless" by some definitions, the mother worked very hard to keep the children in their routine of school, play and family. Fortunately, this episode in the lives of this family passed. The mother obtained a good job, they moved to another city and the children thrived. Always outgoing socially and excellent students, the older two are now in college.

While this scenario may sound like an anomaly, sadly it is not.  Today, in a New York Times article by Mireya Navarro, "In New York, Having a Job, or 2, Doesn’t Mean Having a Home,"
we learn that more and more single people and families, even though they are employed, cannot move from shelters to their own homes. Barriers include low wages, poor credit records, high rents and a lack of low income housing units. People living in shelters and maintaining respectable jobs juggle dual identities everyday. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the same edition of the New York Times shows that "Household Incomes Remain Flat Despite Improving Economy." Or, in a related issue, the "Percentage of Americans Lacking Health Coverage Falls Again." The way out of poverty and into the middle class seems to become a steeper mountain to climb even as corporate profits grow and the economy, on paper, improves. Which leaves me where we began - redefining the word "homeless."

For the complete article on the working homeless in New York, click here or continue below.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Foreign Adoption Dutch Style - from America

 Seventy Dutch families who adopted U.S. kids gather for an annual Fathers Day picnic in June.
Seventy Dutch families who adopted U.S. kids gather for an annual Fathers Day picnic in June.
CNN profiled recently how the Dutch are at the forefront of foreign adoption  - of black American children. Dutch parents are often the first and only choice of mothers considering placing their black children with another family. The mothers are often in difficult circumstances - poor, in jail or addicted to drugs - and they hope for a better life for their children. Placing their children with families in the Netherlands seems a very smart choice.

On the United Nations Gender Equality Index , the Netherlands is number one, followed by Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Finland, Slovenia, and France: the US is ranked at 42 (just behind Albania and tied with Hungary). In addition, the US has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world (25% of the world's prisoners are in the US), while the Netherlands ranks 163. Moreover, blacks, mainly males, make up one million of the 2.3 million in US jails, imprisoned at six times the rate of whites. While the US is building prisons, the the Netherlands is closing them. For mothers placing their black children with new 'forever families,' based on this information, their belief in chances of a better life in Holland vs. the US looks well-founded.

The Netherlands also boasts less income inequality, as do other developed nations in comparison to the US (see below). In addition, efforts to increase racial inequality in the US is a continuing story. A CNN Money infographic shows blacks at the lowest end of the racial wealth income gap. Lack of home ownership and financial investments are contributing factors.

Of course, white families in America do adopt black children too - including, recently, several well-known celebrities like Charlize Theron and Sandra Bullock. In these and other families, most kids do just fine; but, in others, adopted children may face problems in sorting out their racial identity.

Darron Smith, author of "White Parents, Black Children: Experiencing Transracial Adoption," believes that few Whites are truly equipped to help Black children prepare for survival in America. Smith is quoted as saying, "You would need to change your circle of friends, move to an integrated neighborhood and unlearn the racist history you learned about being an American."  In addition, while the National Association of Black Social Workers  no longer oppose transracial adoption, they are concerned about keeping black families together.

Which brings us back to Holland.

Despite their often limited educational and financial circumstances, American mothers who place their children with Dutch families are keenly aware that their children will probably face less racial stigma and gain more social and economic opportunities living abroad in what they see are 'exotic locales.' After they are adopted, these mothers often have more open contact with their children and their new families. Regarding the placement of their black children with white families, these mothers also do not face the scrutiny of American blacks or whites whose history of racial relations is still evolving. From the looks of it, the choice of these mothers to 'go Dutch' seems like a very wise decision.

Click here for Sophie Brown's report, "Overseas Adoptions Rise - for Black American Children."
Or, continue reading below.
Global Income Inequality

The Great Recession has widened the wealth gap, and race is a major factor.
The Great Recession has widened the wealth gap, and race is a major factor.

Gender Roles, Meet Urban Planning

A view into one of the courtyards at Women-Work-City. (Image courtesy archive Franziska Ullmann)

In the Atlantic Monthly, in a section called, Atlantic Cities section, "Place Matters," Clare Foran explores how urban planners in Vienna, Austria, take into account how men and women use public space differently.  This program began in 1999. City administrators used questionnaires to solicit information on the daily habits of their citizens. They found that "The majority of men reported using either a car or public transit twice a day -- to go to work in the morning and come home at night. Women, on the other hand, used the city’s network of sidewalks, bus routes, subway lines and streetcars more frequently and for a myriad reasons." More probing allowed designers to create an environment that made daily activities convenient for all people, regardless of age and ability. Despite the success of the project, city administrator Ursula Bauer still finds that "Gender can be an emotional issue . . . When you tell people that up until now they haven’t taken the women’s perspective into account they feel attacked. We still have people asking, ‘Is this really necessary?'"

The article is so well done I encourage you to scroll down and read. I would also ask you to consider how the gender division of labor (both at work and at home) and cultural norms regarding male and female safety influence the "social construction of space," and not just in Vienna. That is, how the use of space is shaped by how we live. I think what Vienna is doing is ingenious, humane, feminist. It's just downright smart. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Bread House 'GLOWs' in Veliko Tarnovo

GLOW counselors and their fresh-baked bread!
Nadezhda Savova of Bread Houses in Bulgaria visited with Leadership Academy GLOW this past August and at left you can see the 'fruits of her labor" (it was delicious!).

The first Bread House Cultural Center,, was born in the mountain town of Gabrovo, Bulgaria, on May 9th, 2009, housed at the old family house of I3C President, Nadezhda Savova, who ceded the space for service to the community as an experiment with a community cultural center where the core of art activities is food, and in particular the sculpture-like making and decorating of bread, being perhaps the most universally-appealing art/creative activity. 

The Bread House strives to foment inter-religious dialogue and cooperation among different generations and professional and ethnic groups as all knead together around the same table and during the baking time in a fire oven people share their artistic talents, from poetry and music to theater and sewing. The major aim is to enable people to discover their creative potential and identify the social assets of the community – rather than delving into local problems - to help one another move forward.

The counselors and campers of LA GLOW were inspired by Nadezdha's mission and her enthusiasm. GLOW teaches respect of others, goal setting, and team work, all important aspects of the Bread House mission.
Mixing the dough, all hands in the bowl!

There are Bread Houses in England, Russia, South Africa, Egypt, Brazil, Romania and many more countries, including the US. Harlem, New York, has an 'evolving' Bread House for low income children and their parents at Emmaus House ( Theater of Crumbs Program. Many of the parents have been recently released from prison. Bread making is used as a tool "to form family bonds and inter-generational cooperation."  Other activities include "improvising and performing bread puppet plays as socially transformative theater (inspired by the Brazilian "Theater of the Oppressed" by Boal)."

Many thanks to Nadezdha for spreading her unique approach to creating community from the local to the global!

Poverty, Entitlement and Gender Violence

 Protesters hold signs in outrage over the gang-rape and death of a 23-year-old student in Delhi in 2012. 
In a report published in the Lancet about why men rape, some disturbing and other not so surprising characteristics of men who sexually abuse women was revealed. The authors conducted surveys in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka. Conducted by the Partners for Prevention, 10,178 men were questioned about their lives. The word 'rape' was never used, but the men were instead asked if they had ever forced sex upon a woman.

In the Lancet study, the majority of men who raped started in their teens, were unmarried, had low levels of education, were victimized as children, and were raised without a father present. Moreover, these men gave as their primary reason for rape a "sense of entitlement" (73%), followed by a search for "entertainment" (58%). 

Gender inequality creates an environment where gender violence and male entitlement thrive, particularly in poor countries. The graph above shows that PNG has twice the number of rapists as the next closest country. In August, Medicins sans Frontieres stated that 70% of women in this country will be physically assaulted in their lifetime. Some estimates are even higher. Moreover, "PNG ranks 134 out of 148 countries in the 2012 UNDP Gender Inequality Index, and 156 out of 186 in the Human Development Index - the lowest in the Pacific."

While this week Indian courts sentenced to death four men convicted of gang raping a New Delhi woman last December, other women - and girls - continue to suffer, and also sometimes die, as result of cultural and political norms. Recently, a Dubai news agency reported that an eight-year old bride died as a result of vaginal tearing after sex with her 40 year-old husband. Indeed, the World Health Organization reports that 39,000 girls under 18 are married everyday. Many of these marriages are the result of poverty, but that cannot excuse a warped sense of male privilege that robs women of their dignity and their lives.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Himalayan Exchanges

The team, Rupin Valley 2013
New reading glasses!
This summer I had the privilege and pleasure to volunteer with the Himalayan Health Exchange on a medical/dental trek to the Inner Himalayas. Our team consisted of four medical doctors, 15 medical students and two anthropology professors from all parts of the US and Britain. As an anthropology professor, I gave lectures on health and inequality, medical anthropology and shamanism. Other lectures included Ayurvedic healing and the history of India, parts one through three!

Our trip took us over the Chansal Pass to the remote villages of Dodra and Kwar in Himachal Pradesh, on the border of Uttarakhand, in India. The worst rains in 50 years cut short our clinic days as we evacuated our riverside campsite and moved to higher ground, gaining refuge at the home of a local teacher. Thanks to this wonderful family who welcomed our midnight visit as the river raged.

The doctors treated headaches, body aches, infections, cuts, and venereal disease. They gave referrals for more serious conditions and handed out reading glasses, antibiotics, vitamins, toothbrushes and tooth paste. In all, about 800 patients were seen over a dozen clinic days.
On the road, before the rains.
Ravi Singh, founder of HHE, is very wise in calling this an 'exchange.' As a seasoned humanitarian volunteer on international trips, medical and otherwise, I believe that in many ways we always take-away much more than we give. Sure, we bring medical expertise, supplies, technical knowledge, money and man power to under served peoples, but we bring back cultural, political and social knowledge of another society whose language, customs, world view may be very different from our own. In this globalized environment, knowledge is power and these kinds of trips provide an understanding of community and of service that can only make all of us better citizens of our own country and of the world.

'Everybody' Helps

Willson and Mat painting with one of the older boys.
 In July, 14 volunteers traveled to Vratsa, Bulgaria, with Humanitarian Travel Abroad to teach, play and paint at Assen Zlatarov, a social home for 70 children aged 7 to 18 whose families are unable to provide for them. Arranged along with Tabitha Foundation, we want to thank all of the people who donated through Fundrazr. Without your support, we could never have repaired and painted as much as we did: five rooms and a common area.

Our volunteers, all from Connecticut, ranged in age from 15 to 74. There were college students from WCSU and the University of Connecticut, a lawyer, a social worker, university professors, a UPS driver, an IT specialist, a nursing student, and a kid in high school. A special thanks to all of you!

Our oldest volunteer was very moved by the home as his own half-brother was raised in an orphanage in the US. In fact, a Bulgarian colleague insisted that there were no more orphanages in Bulgaria when I told her of our project. She was quite shocked to learn that indeed they do exist. While the children are safe and cared for, they still live in an institution with scheduled meals and play time. The children must be let in and out of the building and younger children leave the grounds only on prearranged outings. There is a stigma associated with orphanage living, and the children do not attend the nearby school but are bussed to another one.

A high percentage of the children are Roma, known more commonly outside the region as Gypsies. The Roma constitute a minority population in Bulgaria and many families live in poverty. Many other children at the orphanage have developmental disabilities - one girl could not speak. As this is not a home designed for children with special needs, they receive no therapeutic assistance.