Power and Prejudice

by Christel Striekwold

Some years ago in 2009 the female Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie appeared at a TED conference. I was not present but saw her speech online a while later. She immediately caught my attention with her graceful and charismatic way of talking. Adichie spoke about the “danger of a single story”: about how we can often be so sure to understand how the world works and the people who live in it and how it can all turn around the other way if you hear a second story. Ever since I heard her talk I keep her words in mind and I like to show people her speech. Here I would like share with you some of my own experiences concerning a single story.

When I saw war and poverty on TV as a child I was sure that I would be able to solve it one day. I felt responsible and angry. At a very young age I was aware that there were people in this world who were not as fortunate as me. Injustice was unacceptable and people were either good or bad and rich or poor. My life was simple. I guess that’s how a child’s life is supposed to be.  After elementary school I went to a high school like any other high school in my country. I was, if I may so, a pretty ideal high school student. I never ditched classes, always did my homework the way I was supposed to and I even listened to what teachers had to say. I was a good girl who hung out with everyone she wanted to. But I remember a classmate asking me one day which group I belonged to. Having all these different cliques that are so typical of high schools, he found it necessary to put me in one. I found his question so stupid. Was it really necessary to belong to a group? Did I need to be one thing only for people to accept me? For him it definitely seemed necessary to put me in a box, otherwise he apparently couldn’t understand me and he didn’t really seem to try either. I guess labelling people made it easier for him to get a grasp on the world around him.

After graduating from high school I studied social work for four years. Once I finished, I kept on studying and traded the Netherlands for Belgium where I started criminology. I guess I always liked hearing different sides of the story. Then in the summer of 2009, after I had a pretty tough year, I thought it was time to spread my wings and go to South Africa to volunteer. I paid a lot of money to be able to go there. And that money, so I found out later on, mostly ended up going to the organization that took care of my trip, not to the family where I was staying. That’s one of the reasons why I now encourage people to take care of their own trip whenever they choose to volunteer. The money I made could have fed about 50 children in a rural African village. Nonetheless I was ready to make the world a better place and filled with young enthusiasm I eventually left. The situation makes me think now of what Adichie said in her speech; “Africans, ready to be saved by a kind white man”. What was I even thinking? Me, a young girl from the Netherlands, being able to help a whole country? A whole continent? Nevertheless, I had one of the most incredible eye-opening moments during my stay there.

The African continent had made quite an impression on me and in October 2010 I left again for Senegal. I started a second bachelor in International Cooperation and a six month internship was obliged. I started working with an NGO in Rufisque, a small town next to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Not being able to speak French at that time made it more difficult for me to integrate, although that experience made me realize later on how frightening it can be if you change cultures and everything is completely different from what you’re used to. But the Senegalese people being really friendly and hospital made me feel at home very quickly.

Around the fourth month of my stay I remember sitting on the seaside in Dakar with a new friend. We were enjoying the lovely view and the soft breeze when two middle-aged Western women walked by. They were being followed by a group of street children. Me and my friend were watching them as street children always find a way to get something out of tourists. One woman handed her terribly expensive camera to her friend after which she took some candy out of her bag. When she started handing it to the children the other woman made sure her generous friend as well as the poor children were in the picture. The situation made me really angry and I realized that I was already so much used to my new home that I got to see it in a different way. Then I could see the women sitting around the dining table with their families sharing stories of how the children were begging for candy and showing them pictures of it. Why could they not take pictures of the wonderful experiences that I’ve had living there? Could they not take pictures of the happy families living around? The craftsmen on the local markets? The fishermen? The women owning beauty salons? Why could they not share a different story?

It made me think and I realized later on that showing a different story is not only about randomly pointing your camera in a different direction, although I’m sure it can take you places. It’s merely about making a choice not to try and judge on the single story you already know and to keep gathering stories so you can learn and share your experiences. Although our opinions are often formed of what we see and hear directly around us it’s important to realize that there will always be another world we don’t know about and is left there for us to discover: a world without a political agenda, a world where power is only a word simply because it has no value. We each have the power and privilege to experience, feel and share that undiscovered part of the world. I’m not saying this because I suddenly became an expert on the topic. I’m saying this to make you think because in the end, we all cope with prejudices in our lives. So we also have to handle them. My Kenyan boyfriend told me a while ago about a party he went to when he was still studying in California. A girl came up and asked him for how long he had to drive to come there. Or the time when my roommate thought Kenyans are good runners because they cannot afford bicycles to go to school. And the numerous times when people react after seeing my passport and cannot understand why they don’t hear any Dutch accent, assuming being born in one country means you cannot speak other languages. Or all the years that I had my dreadlocks and everyone automatically assumed that I was a Bob Marley fan. I do appreciate his music, but that is not the point. It’s like Adichie said; “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete”.

I’ve been working as a community worker and counselor for a little while and I learn everyday from the people that I meet. Like a few weeks ago, when I went to visit a mosque in our neighbourhood. When I was having tea with the two Egyptian men responsible for the place they almost felt kind of pressured at some point to tell me that they were not terrorists. I felt the need to say; “don’t apologize”, but then I realized one person saying that wouldn’t make any difference.

My point is, and I think a lot of you will agree with me on this, that I take my “job” to tell stories, build bridges between people and start discussions very seriously. It goes beyond a professional level.  It’s who I am and who I choose to be. Or at least, how I choose to act and re-act. My world now is not good or bad neither is it only black or white. It’s black, white, and every colour in between. So I’m not going to end this article with a famous quote, because that would only assume people like you and me have nothing important to say. I’m going to end this article by saying that I believe in stories, many stories, stories that matter and make a difference. Stories that surprise us, touch us and wake us up. Because in the end, we are all part of the same novel.

Housing in Blue, Homeless in Red

housing

Today public housing continues to exist, but eligibility and aid depends on one’s location. While the federal government has developed nation-wide programs, states and local agencies provide the actual housing to their citizens. A state must follow the federal guidelines but can determine how much aid it receives, and each state can set some of its own guidelines in terms of preferential treatment and eligibility. All this means that one’s state of choice, particularly the choice between a red or blue state, will determine his or her level of aid in terms of public housing.

Before looking at the differences at state level though, let’s cover today’s policies. The basic principles of public housing today have stayed consistent with the policies beginning in the 1960’s when civil rights were first being incorporated. In 1974, Nixon created the Section 8 Rental Assistance Program, which is still very much alive today. The program provides rental certificates for low-income families to use to pay a portion of their rent on privately owned units. This was a change from the past policies because it allowed low-income families to break away from large public housing facilities and instead lease private units. At the time, families were expected to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities and then HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, would cover the rest as long as it was under the maximum aid level. It seemed that the 1960’s brought positive changes, but in the 1980’s housing programs were dramatically cut. The 1990’s saw a huge increase in the need for homeless shelters due to the lack of public housing. Today, while subsidizing of housing projects has continued to decline, more rent vouchers and Section 8 certificates are being handed out each year.

But how have the changes come about in different states? Massachusetts is viewed as the prime example of a blue state and has one of the best public housing programs in the country. This is generally because Massachusetts applies for and accepts a great deal of federal funding. In addition, the state has low qualifications in terms of who can receive public housing assistance. For example, in order to qualify for the Section 8 Rental Assistance Voucher, one must simply show records of being a good tenant in the past and take in 80% or less than the median income in their community. Statewide, the income limit to qualify as a single person is $45,100 annually.

Texas, on the other hand, is viewed as a strong red state and is not highly prized for its public housing program. In fact, the state accepts much less federal aid and therefore has a much smaller public housing budget than Massachusetts, despite having a population four times the size of MA. Additionally, a single person must take in $33,650 annually or less in Texas to qualify for public housing aid. While the eligibility is calculated based upon the state’s median income; there are large gaps in terms of eligibility between states. In addition, the private sector in Texas has refused to aid low-income families in terms of housing. This means that citizens must rely solely on public sector housing, much of which is in poor condition as, in general, it has not been updated since the 1930s.

While in many eyes the Texas system is flawed, those in opposition to public housing would support Texas over Massachusetts. Many believe that public housing gives people a crutch and allows them to take unearned money. Others argue that public housing should have a time limit so that people have an incentive to work hard and get off the aid. While one can hope that one day public housing programs will no longer be needed, it should be not out of lack of funding or desire, but instead because it is no longer needed.  Until that day though, housing is a basic need that needs to be met regardless of race or income.

While public housing is a federally supported program, it is run by the local public housing authorities. It is up to the PHAs to determine how their public housing system will be run. The federal government applies a base funding to all, but when more funds are available, states can apply for more money. This often means, out of each state’s own choice and differences in opinions about public aid, that blue states will have larger public housing budgets than red states. Therefore, it is clear that a low-income family is much better off living in a blue state.

The right to a quality home should not, however, depend on one’s exact location within the United States. As a social worker, it shall be one’s duty to advocate for adequate housing for all, as shelter is a basic human need. For, as Cohn said, “this country has room for different approaches to policy. It doesn’t have room for different standards of human decency.”

References

Cohn, J. (2012, October 25). Blue states are from Scandinavia, red states are from Guatemala: a theory

of a divided nation. The New Republic. Retrieved from http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/magazine/108185/blue-states-are-scandinavia-red-states-are-guatemala#

HUD. (n.d.). Housing choice vouchers fact sheet. Retrieved from

Mass Resources. (n.d.). Public housing. Retrieved from http://www.massresources.org/public-housing.html

Texas Housing. (n.d.). Public housing in Texas. Retrieved from

Photo Credit:

Marian Wright Edelman: What Can I Do

by Deona Hooper, MSW

On October 25, 2012, Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund spoke at the Duke University Terry Sanford Public Policy Building in Durham, North Carolina. I had the privilege of attending this event along with many others who were interested in hearing her views on poverty and education. Ms. Edelman spoke in detail about the challenges children in poverty face in receiving a quality education. The event was sponsored by the Crown Lecture in Ethics, named after its benefactor Lester Crown, which was established to bring speakers to Duke in order to discuss ethics in arts, sciences, medicine, business, and other areas.

Ms. Edelman, a graduate of Spellman College and Yale Law School, began her career as the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi State Bar. She led the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Jackson, Mississippi before moving to Washington, D.C in 1968 as counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign created by Dr. Martin Luther King. Ms. Edelman also served as the Director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University for two years, prior to creating Children’s Defense Fund in 1973. Ms. Edelman was also award our country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Liftetime Achievement Award.

The theme of her speech was ” What Can I Do….Is the Question?”. She points out that society appears to be waiting for the next charismatic leader like Dr. King to lead us into the next movement of our day. However, Ms. Edelman points out that civic engagement must begin with each of us asking, “What Can I Do”.  She offered several lessons that she has learned from Noah’s Arc, and there were a couple that were really insightful for me. The first lesson was “Don’t Miss The Boat” which means listening to naysayers and critics may prevent you from fulfilling your destiny. The other profound lesson was that Noah’s Arch was built by an amateur and the Titanic was built by professionals. In essence, one’s status or level of importance does not determine the depths of one’s abilities and achievements. In conclusion of her speech, Ms. Edelman prayed for underprivileged children. However, she also said a prayer for children of privilege blessed with high intellect yet a low quotient of compassion.

The event was not without its controversy as a result of Ms. Edelman’s strong advocacy for Charter schools in lieu of public schools. During the Q & A section, a public school teacher had to be removed by security as result of his strong opposition to Ms. Edelman’s position and possible profit-making motivations for advocating for Charter Schools. In my observations of the event, I noticed a lot of educators, lawyers, and community members, but once again where were the Social Workers. How can there be a conversation about increasing outcomes for the poor without Social Workers being apart of that conversation? Charter schools or Public Schools, how much does the quality of an educational facility matter when a child is being abused and/or neglected at home? It feels like everyone is discussing what dishes to be served for a five course dinner, and what desserts to have without given thought to the table and chairs.

Our Children’s Place: Presents Mothers of Bedford

 

Our Children’s Place, a local Chapel Hill nonprofit, in partnership with Meredith College will be hosting a screening of the acclaimed documentary Mothers of Bedford on February 12, 2013, at 6:30 PM EST. Mothers of Bedford explores the complexities of motherhood while being confined in a maximum security prison. The harsh reality of our day is that 80 percent of women in US prisons are mothers of school aged children. The film examines the lives of five women, and the challenges they face being parents behind bars.

The screening will be held at Kresge Auditorium in the Cate Student Center at 3800 Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, NC. Suggested donations for the public is $30.00 for the community and $10.00 for students. Our Children’s Place is a local nonprofit in Chapel Hill, NC that is committed to serving children of incarcerated parents. They are one of the leading advocates and resources in the state for this population. To reserve your tickets go to Our Children’s Place.

According to the Mothers of Bedford website:

Many parents find it hard to imagine being away from a child for a week. Imagine being separated for ten or twenty years? Mothers of Bedford explores the effects of a long-term prison sentence on the mother-child relationship.

The film examines the struggles and joys these five women face as prisoners and mothers. It shows the normal frustrations of parenting as well as the surreal experiences of a child’s first birthday party inside prison, the cell that child lives in with her mother, and the biggest celebration of the year, Mother’s Day in prison! Read More

 

The Changing Electorate and What it Means for Immigration

by Jose Raul Gonzalez, BSW Student

Last Tuesday’s election losses for Republicans have been an embarrassment and their Mitt Romney “self-deportation” immigration solution.  Hispanic voters, the largest growing demographics, voted for President Obama in numbers above the 70 percent mark.  Many influential Republicans like former Florida governor Jeb Bush have advised his party to take a new stance on Latinos and immigration.

Even GOP House Speaker John Boehner has started to call for comprehensive immigration reform, something he has not advocated for in the past.  The extreme right has even delved into the political forum of immigration which was taboo for them since immigration reform was tantamount to amnesty.  Remember that the far right holds immigration reform, and entitlement programs with a condescending contempt not worthy of any elected official working for the people of the United States.  Now it seems that conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity is advocating for a “pathway to citizenship” for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants.

Courtesy of Mother Jones

The tide is turning and political futures are at stake now.  Many are changing their rhetoric to a softer stance not wanting to be the ones on their way to political suicide if they continue to denigrate the growing Hispanic electorate.

President Obama racked up a presidential victory with a 71-27 percent edge over Romney among Latinos, but on Election Day, the state of Maryland became the first to approve a measure that allows some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition.

The pressure has been applied and now it is incumbent for the Republicans to change their past extremism to a more moderate stance and for the Democrats to finally deliver on this controversial issue.

It is interesting to see what exactly will take shape if any reform is indeed passed.  Will the “Dream Act” effort that was defeated in 2010 finally become a reality for many struggling youths whom by virtue and deeds are as American as any of us who are born citizens?  The people have spoken with their votes and they have defined what it means.  This country is changing and we as a nation must change to reflect the ever growing electorate and to preserve the greatness we all feel as Americans!

 

Fighting Sex Trafficking From the Front Lines: The People Who Inspire Series: Sarah Elizabeth Pahman

Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian’s “The People Who Inspire series” highlights individuals from a variety of backgrounds and occupations who are seeking to impact the lives of others in a positive way. Through Truth-Telling: the honest sharing of their own experiences, they teach us a little about themselves, hopefully enabling us to be able to learn a little about ourselves through their stories.

Today’s post features Sarah Elizabeth Pahman, Treatment Foster Care Social Worker, and advocate for women and girls.

Could you tell us a little about your background and what led you to your current work?

My passion for trauma work originally began in a class I took at my alma mater, UW-Madison, where I learned about sex trafficking and began doing research on Somaly Mam and her non-profit organization in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – rescuing young girls enslaved into prostitution. I learned about 8-year-old girls being sold for high prices to men with AIDs who believed they could be cured by raping a virgin. These young girls were sewn back up again and again, resold as virgins to make large profits for their captors.

This modern form of slavery opened my eyes to the most pressing issue of our time, sex and labor trafficking – and led me to get involved in organizations in my city that focused on trauma.

I interned as a trauma counselor for sexual abuse victims in a domestic violence agency, and again did trauma therapy in a non-profit focused solely on supporting survivors of sexual abuse and sexual violence. This is where I began to connect the dots about domestic trafficking, and saw it is not just an international issue, but an issue on our own streets in the United States.

Although not all prostitutes are sex trafficking victims, ALL sex trafficking victims are pimped out as prostitutes, on the streets, in brothels, escort services, and in massage parlors. As I became more aware of this issue I began to volunteer at outreach programs in my city that focused on harm reduction and education for prostituted women.

We got in an old, beat up van with the entire backseat filled with bagged lunches and rapid HIV tests, and we drove the blighted neighborhoods where street prostitution and survival sex is known to be happening. We handed out food, condoms, gave HIV tests, “bad date” sheets (information for women in the sex trade that gives crime information, for example, the description of a John who beat a girl, or raped her, or didn’t pay her, and what street it happened on), and resources. Witnessing the reality of street prostitution made me realize just how inadequate harm reduction is – a band-aid on a gaping wound.

During my graduate field work I also began seeing how young girls end up in coercive situations. Vulnerable children and teenagers looking for a place to belong, and in need of guidance from parents and family that weren’t able, or simply not willing to provide it. Girls within foster care, involved with the child welfare system, are finding themselves on the streets and willing to do anything for a man who pays attention, shows love, care, and concern. These girls, due to their yearning for love, are easy victims for a pimp/trafficker with a slick mouth and a knack for business.

After I graduated I knew I wanted to stay on the frontlines, and I knew trauma was where I belonged. Taking the knowledge I’d gained from my field work I got involved in Treatment Foster Care Social Work in order to stay involved with a vulnerable population I am passionate about: teenage girls, most from abusive backgrounds, who are involved in the system. Being a strong role model and consistently present, supportive, and assertive force in a teenage girl’s life is a preventive measure. It is a preventive measure that can help keep girls away from prostitution, and the risk of being pimped, trafficked, and enslaved. This is how, and why, I got involved in my current work.

I know that you’re very passionate about trauma work. Can you tell us what that means to you?

Trauma work, for me, equates to being up to date on current research on trauma informed care, and applying it to direct practice. Trauma work is about asking people what happened to them, not what is wrong with them. Trauma work is about addressing underlying causes, and understanding that addressing the root problem can help cure present symptoms. Trauma work is about believing people’s stories, not trying to figure out what is a lie, and what is truth.

So many times we approach people with suspicion, and distrust in them – when the truth is it is not the stories making sense that should matter so much to us, but the message the person is trying to send us about themselves by telling us their stories. This is where trauma work lives, in the messages behind the stories.

In your view, what do you think are some necessary elements that are needed to be effective in this kind of work?

Sarah at a
Take Back The Night event for survivors of sexual violence.


To be effective in this kind of work one needs, first and foremost, to be able to connect with people who have every right, and reason, not to want to connect.

Many times in this field people have had previous experience with social workers, and it can leave them with quite a negative view of what we do and what our purpose is in their lives. Sometimes people view us in the same negative light as they view the police, or they had a bad experience with a social worker and have stereotyped us in a certain way.

Social work has quite negative connotations in some communities. My job as a social worker is to remain mindful of this truth, and respectful of this truth – while also remaining consistent in my work. In this field one must align their thoughts, feelings, and actions and be deliberate and honest in their intentions in order to be effective. “Being real” and authentic with people is key. Being able to have those hard conversations is a must.

We have to master the art of gentle confrontation, and be able to word harsh truths into a conversation that people are willing to have with us. We have to prevent shame by remaining open, honest, compassionate, and free of criticism and judgment. These are the essential ingredients for this type of work. We cannot “try” to be these things, we have to BE these things. For myself this is where the spiritual mixes with the real world.

Do you have any other issues that you’re interested in working on or working with others in terms of social justice/equity?

My life’s purpose is the pursuit of social justice for women and girls who have been marginalized by family background, life circumstance, economics, culture, society, and the systems we have in place.

My purpose is being a presence, a witness & a voice in the deepest trenches of women’s oppression. For me, the frontlines for social justice lie in the streets of the sex trade and in addressing trauma in people’s lives. So many times it is sexual, physical, emotional abuse that is the root cause of drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, low self-esteem, and undesirable behaviors.

My purpose is to get to the roots, and not reject that darkness when it is pulled up in people’s lives.

What are the parts of your work that you find most enjoyable?

What I find most enjoyable is seeing people acknowledge that they are stronger than they may have thought they were. Seeing kids who have every right to give up, and yet they persist. I enjoy witnessing a kid begin to recognize their emotions, and to name them. I enjoy watching kids and adults begin to link their trauma to their behaviors. I enjoy challenging kids to problem solve with me, and to take responsibility for themselves.

What aspects do you find challenging?

Apathy is the most challenging part of my work. Having kids who just do not want to take an active role in their own lives. Seeing adults make promises they cannot keep to children who have already been so let down is another challenge, because it is hard not to feel helpless when we see children being hurt.

You also share some of your thoughts though your blog: Rooted In Being. How did your blog come about? Do you have any words of advice for anyone who might want to start their own thoughts for social justice in terms of transforming their ideas to action?

Fostering Community

My advice for those interested in social justice is to find a focus, and stick to it. We cannot change the world by taking on the entire world, but if we can take on one aspect of social justice that really moves us and gets us fired up, then we can produce change.

Turning words into action involves getting involved in our communities. It is about understanding the issue on a macro scale and then finding out how that issue affects us locally. The next step is jumping in feet first, acknowledging that we are not the experts, allowing the discomfort of being immersed in something challenging – and remaining self-aware.

What/Who Inspires you?

Somaly Mam inspires me, Gloria Steinem inspires me, Melissa Farley’s research inspires me, Mona Eltahawy inspires me – as do so many of the activists in my city that I have learned and gained so much from.

What have been the Keys to your success so far?

I know that my success so far has come from being able to see how beauty and tragedy is intertwined. Being able to witness immense forms of emotional pain day in and day out, and still ponder the trees, and the universe – and its immense beauty.

I can remember having an especially difficult time when I first began interning as a trauma counselor, and my saving grace was catching the bus home with my headphones on every night – and looking up at the stars in the night sky, taking a deep breath, and accepting that I do not have control, nor understanding of how and why the world is such a painful, exquisite experience.

Acceptance of not knowing, and being fully present in the moment – has been my key.

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