Archive for the ‘Activism’ Category

Last week was an important milepost for me in my practicum process –a meeting with the Open Societies Foundation to introduce my project, a labor rights curriculum for community organizers, to a new and perhaps future donor. The week leading up to the meeting involved a lot of final proof-reading, making of last-minute changes and corrections, then printing and assembling a prototype of the curriculum and creating a presentation. It was helpful to me to remind myself of the understandings that were agreed upon at the outset of the project and to feel as though we had fulfilled the objectives we set out to fulfill.

The curriculum is seven modules and I’m currently finishing writing a workshop for training the comite (our community organizers) to use it. Each comite member will get a toolkit consisting of a binder with all the materials, handouts, laminated posters, dry erase markers, etc. and some training on how to facilitate, how to present, how to organize a meeting, which CDM will support to as needed. Below is the slide I presented on regarding my underlying understandings as I undertook the project.

OSF Presentation.

The points down the side in the blue arrows read: Accessible, Participatory, and Flexible.

Accessible: Detailed facilitator instructions, Clear and simple bullet-points of information, and Visual resources. I knew that individuals with varying skill levels would be using the curriculum including our promoters, new volunteers with CDM, and the community organizers themselves. I also knew the materials would be used in communities with variable levels of literacy and so it was a priority to create visual resources in each module to be as inclusive as possible.

Participatory: Questions to access participants knowledge and encourage them to share their experiences, Activities for small groups, Interactive activities. Everyone has been to good workshops and bad workshops (classes, professional development, etc.), but for some reason we often act as though what makes them good or bad is a mystery. Research has demonstrated again and again that people, regardless of age, learn more when they have the opportunity to engage with the material. Consistently participants say they enjoy attending events when they have the opportunity to network and share their stories with others. Finally, at the heart of this point, is the development dogma that participatory is better. I happen to agree. Often in a workshop you find that the greatest resources are the attendees and facilitating a space where they can share and interact around important themes is a much better role than lecturing. Designing workshops that are participatory is a moral obligation and it also happens to make them better.

A few pages from the curriculum --Module 5 is on reprisals or employers taking punitive action against workers for speaking up or organizing. The document on the right we printed in poster size as well and had laminated. It is a four-cuadrant reflection asking participants to consider the power dynamics between employers and workers.

Flexible: Options to change activities depending on the size of the group, Modules with interchangeable parts. Outreach is unpredictable. Often we go places where it is difficult to find someone by phone. Organization and promotion sometimes happen and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we arrive at a site to find the entire municipio, men, women, and children, turned out waiting for our presentation. Sometimes there are only two or three attendees. Additionally, communities vary widely by what is most relevant –in some communities in Oaxaca there have been many cases of illness due to pesticides, so a presentation on health and safety with an emphasis on toxic chemicals is needed. The curriculum was designed so that any block of information or activity could be pulled from any module to create a workshop with the most relevant parts or so that, in the case of a community we have visited many times, there is new material to use.

The Curriculum: A thematic guide for promoters of U.S. labor rights.

It was a big project for me. It ended up being over a hundred pages of materials and it’s taken the majority of my time here. Initially I was able to see a few CDM workshops in action and we shared the first few drafts of the modules with our comite members to collect their feedback and incorporate their suggestions. And last week, we printed up the draft and presented it to a donor. This week, thirty copies arrived from the printer in big boxes and this weekend we’re supposed to have our first training with a community organizer. I am thinking about what kind of sustainability plan I want to leave behind as I’m concerned that the project needs sustained engagement and support to be successful.

Presentation Morning: Lilian reviews the presentation while Brenda and Jesus pose.

Brenda and Jesus pose with curriculum binder and posters.

Jesus and I with my practicum project.

In any case, I can’t help feeling that this practicum has had a very nice arc –from the comite national reunion in September where I got to meet the organizers, plan workshops and activities, and then immediately see them in action and get feedback, to presenting a comprehensive and (largely) finished project to OSF. I’m truly grateful for having had the opportunity through CDM to undertake this work.


Sometime right after Thanksgiving I went to the field to work. In Tlapocoyan, Veracruz and the surrounding communities. The outreach team split up into two groups, but I managed to get in on every workshop we gave. In total we spoke to about a hundred people about the workplace rights of migrants in the United States. Everyone came on invitation. Here I am reading aloud a part of a case study. The guy in the red shirt had a pretty sad story of being badly injured working for one of the traveling carnivals in the northeast United States.

Taller in El Jobo, Veracruz. Participants read a case-study of a migrant fair worker.

Right after Christmas, I came back to the office and to my project. I’m writing a curriculum for CDM’s basic workshops.

Workshop titles include:
Wages and Hours
Health and Security
Temporary Visas
Civil Rights (which includes things like ones right to remain silent and speak to a lawyer and ones right to be protected from warrant-less searches in the home).

Writing a whole curriculum with content and facilitator instructions in Spanish has been a challenge and I have been at it since mid-September. It is finally coming together. I’ve drafted all seven of the presentations and one of my Mexican colleagues has made track changes in Spanish. We’ve introduced them to comité members (who will be receiving and giving the trainings and learning to facilitate using these materials) and gotten and incorporated their feedback. Once I finish incorporating all of the track changes and doing some formatting, I’ll be done with this significant part of my project.

Also, when I went to Veracruz, the outreach team took a brief detour to go rafting to and swimming in an amazing waterfall. I feel very blessed entering a new year.

The team rafting. It's hard to look cool in this getup, but who cares?

El Encanto cascada/waterfall.

Good for perspective. This cave was huge.


Looking good in those rolled up pants. I know everyone in this photo felt so happy just then.

Vamos 2012, let's see it.



I haven’t been blogging –first I was hosting, then I was traveling, then I was sick. Now I am less sick, back from my travels, and once again alone in my apartment.

First, some general updates on my work here.

Practicum: I am halfway done with this six-month obligation for my Masters. As promised, my work has focused on improving education and outreach materials for community empowerment, self-advocacy, and leadership development in migrant communities and tracking these efforts. The organization I have partnered with, CDM, is a fantastic entity filled with great people who are working vigorously on a number of interesting and important fronts for migrant rights. For me, there are two main challenges here: working full-time in another language and spending too much time alone with my computer writing curriculum. When I am out in the communities meeting with people and hearing their stories, the work feels very real, vibrant, and significant. When I am stuck in the office day after day trying to figure out how to structure a particular presentation, things feel pretty dull and it is easy to forget the broader fight and the gross injustices that propel the work. I remember when I said something like this to my brother about the monotony of the work-day after getting my first job out of college. He wrote back, “Hey, if it was supposed to be fun, they would charge you tuition!” …Wait a second…

To go back in time and then attempt to catch up, I had guests here from November 17th until the 27th which was fantastic because I finally had an opportunity to do so many of the fun and touristy things that seem lame alone but are ideal with company. On Sunday, November 20th, after brunch at the Casa de los Azulejos, I had planned a walk to the Zócalo to see the Palacio Nacional, the Catedral, and the weekend market –but, as has happened before here, my plan was subverted by a parade. November 20th marked the national Día de la Revolución –Revolution Day, not to be confused with Independence Day. I’ll be honest and say I don’t understand the celebration very well. True, the revolution began with the overthrow of a dictator, but then it descended into a series of further coup d’états and a chaotic, decade long civil war. The fight for greater wealth equality and popular rule was far from successful… I’m hoping someone will buy me this PBS documentary for Christmas, “The Storm that Swept Mexico,” then maybe I will understand better why this is a holiday and a source of national pride. I’ve asked Mexican friends and, maybe as a result of my language abilities, have been only given a grade-school version… i.e. Porfírio Díaz was a bad man. Uh huh.

In any case, our progress towards the Zócalo was halted by a crush of people. Huge plumes of white, red, and green smoke were rising from the center of the square, and vendors were hawking periscopes made from empty cracker boxes and little mirrors to see over the crowds.

Smoke rising from the Zócalo and periscopes to see over the crowd.

While trying to decide what to do, rather to push forward or abandon the plan, we realized everyone around us had ditched the periscopes in favor of gazing skyward –which made sense, because a dozen parachuters with Mexican flags were skydiving towards the plaza.

Parachuters over the Catedral Municipal. Those kiddos, some of whom looked as old as three, are standing on a port-a-potty for a better view.

Another view of the parachuters.

This dramatically kicked off the parade which was almost entirely on horseback with different groups representing distinct regions or periods. There was one battalion of all female riders who were hooted and catcalled disgracefully while the men were greeted with cheers and applause –ah, machismo.

Revolutionaries riding into town.

Lasso tricks on horseback.

The parade concluded with a few floats of living tableaux where models reconstructed scenes of the revolution.

Cheerily smiling and waving women with giant guns.

With a little patience and lucky timing, we were able to catch all of this by accident. We weren’t lucky enough, however, to miss the street sweepers that came by immediately afterwards and quickly scattered the crowd with a fine mist of dust and horse poop. ¡Viva la revolución!

I had some catching up to do on Occupy Wall Street this week. Why did I not know much about this thousands strong anti-corporate, anti-Wall Street movement sweeping the country? Here is a bit of what I’ve learned and a bit of what I think.

This is my fault and it is also the fault of the media which has consistently under-reported progressive activism. Despite that the largest anti-war protests in world history swept the globe in 2002-3, the media largely sat out the anti-war outcry and focused instead on the much more entertaining political drumbeat to war in the lead up to the Iraq invasion. There was no reason to expect the brilliant work of Billionaires for Bush, the efforts of Code Pink, or the grassroots firestorm in Wisconsin, just to name a few, to be any different.

But Occupy Wall Street does feel different and not because the media is paying attention to it (they largely aren’t). It feels different because it really feels like there are a lot of people out there who are out of options, for whom If not this, then what? is a legitimate question. I think the lull and distraction of entertainment is wearing off and the frustration has itched to the point of sparking action. One thing I’ve consistently read about this protests is that there are lots of young people, college students and recent graduates especially, in attendance who don’t have jobs and do have tons of debt. Looking at any press, however, it seems like there are a range of people with many ages and backgrounds represented. It would seem from the photographs that there are a range of people who feel that for them the economy is a failure.

The little bit of history I’ve read on the protests indicate that they started “as a call to arms from anti-consumerist magazine AdBusters” which is the same anti-consumerist magazine that got me to stop eating meat over eight-years ago (true story). The popular criticism in the media is that the protesters are not organized and demands are not clear. There is a fascinating and super educational report on Up with Chris Hayes on the organization and aims of Occupy Wall Street (it is the first segment on this clip). The movement is 14-days old and complaints are multitudinous and complex, so I think a little disorganization can be forgiven so far.

I agree that our economic system, focused on power and wealth accumulation rather than poverty reduction and shared prosperity, is a failure.

So, what’s going on down there? There’s lots of chanting, drumming, marching –standard street-protest stuff. There’s also apparently an amazing nightly General Assembly (which you will learn about if you watch the report linked above from Chris Hayes) where opinions are heard and decisions are made in a fascinating display of direct democracy. There are some confrontations with the police, like today where apparently 700 protesters were arrested. Protesters have also been attacked with pepper spray even though the movement has consistently been peaceful. They’ve been getting a lot of outside donations and support, especially food.

In other big news, big unions like the Transport Workers Union in New York, teachers unions, health-care unions, and progressive groups like are just now joining up, so it seems like we can expect this to get a lot bigger in the coming weeks which is sort of exciting, though I also feel wary and nervous for the participants. At my most un-cynical core, I wish them all the best and hope their progressive, inclusive, anti-corporate message grows and resonates and sparks positive change.

I snagged these pictures off the comments thread of the Huffington Post article and would love to credit them:

Some of the crowd on day 14 of the protests. Photographer unknown.


Amen to this man's message from day 14 of the protests. Photographer unknown.

On September 19th, CDM called a press conference to announce the filing of a complaint against the United States under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) claiming that the U.S. is failing to uphold its obligation to protect migrant workers.

From the Media Center at the AFL-CIO:

(Mexico City, Sept. 19) “The AFL-CIO, together with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), the Southern Poverty Law Center, PRODESC and other civil society organizations filed a complaint today against the United States under NAFTA’s North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) on behalf of workers who were brought to the United States to work under the H-2B visa program.  The workers have attempted under U.S. law to gain redress with no success so are using NAALC to hold their employer accountable. The complaint states that the United States failed to comply with its obligations under NAALC by permitting companies to routinely pay H-2B workers less than the minimum hourly wage and deny them overtime and reimbursement for  travel, visa and recruitment costs.” Read the rest of the article here.

CDM's Comité members speak out against workplace abuses in the United States (photo by Gracia Cuzzi).

Comité members who signed on to the complaint spoke at the press conference, along with Silas, CDM’s Legal Director in Mexico City. Seven or eight press organization attended, including the New York Times and Univision. This action highlighted the existence of complaint mechanisms under international law but also, perhaps more importantly, the need to publicize their use as widely as possible in the hope of raising awareness and increasing the likelihood of a desirable outcome.

More press here (Spanish) and here (also Spanish).

Me on the issues: Gun Control? Pro. If I were to make a list of things I would like my government to do, Make it harder for us to kill each other would be pretty near the top. Pro-Gun people will scoff at this. There is the, “What if someone breaks into your house?” argument and the argument that guns prevent crime. Not in Mexico, they don’t. Guns are super sad, I don’t believe my Constitution gives me the right to one, and I feel compelled to live the way I want to live, not how I imagine society forcing me to live. I don’t want to shoot people or other things. I’d prefer that people and other things not be shot.

Naturally, I like to imagine that people who disagree with me don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and are probably a little crazy. But then the educated side of my brain says no, it’s important to listen to other points of view and weigh their merit, consider context, motivation, and objective, etc… Write an essay about it. Yawn.

This clip from “The Daily Show,” however, really makes the crazy just pop. A quote, to get into it: “Barack Obama has been good to the NRA, but if you want to take away [NRA CEO] Wayne LaPierre’s preconceived narrative, you’ll have to pry it from his cold dead hands.”

"The Daily Show" September 29th, 2011.

On Thursday I was finishing a list of agenda ideas for the comité reunion when Silas, the legal director, asked me to participate in a conference call with the team from Oaxaca. The ladies there, Rebeca and Adelina, were planning a training for up to 1500 people this past Sunday, and Silas and Lilían and I offered our advice. Truthfully, anything that large is outside of my experience, but I was interested in the discussion of engaging a large group, using testimonies, building energy, etc…

As Silas and Lilian were sharing their ideas, I have to admit I was spacing out at times. Occasionally my brain will decide, seemingly on its own, to take a break from speaking in Spanish and do some thinking in English and this was what it was doing until I realized that Silas had asked me a question which was, “Do you want to go?”

On Friday night I bought a ticket onto a rattling overnight bus to Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca. Oaxaca is incredibly rainy and, almost without fail, from the moment I arrived until the moment I left it alternately drizzled and poured. While Tlaxiaco is small, it’s something of a hub in the even smaller mountain communities that surround it. I spent the day reading at the hotel and exploring the Saturday market until Rebeca and Adelina arrived.

El Hotel Mexico in Tlaxiaco with its adorable, brightly painted patio.

El Hotel Mexico in Tlaxiaco with its adorable, brightly painted patio.

Sunday morning we took an hour cab ride up a twisting mountain road to the community of San Esteban Atatlahuca.

A helpful public mural with information about cervical and uterine cancer, some medically dubious.

A helpful public mural with information about cervical and uterine cancer, some medically dubious.

El Centro de San Esteban Atatlahuca.

El Centro de San Esteban Atatlahuca.

Residents of all the surrounding villages had been invited for what was described to me by one attendee, Jesus, as a kind of election, “Like for Arnold Schwarzenegger in California…” I decided not to point out that probably every possible thing was different about these two elections since I was grateful for Jesus’ attempt at a point of reference. The reference itself was notably out of place in this otherwise isolated, largely indigenous community but Jesus had worked in Denver, Colorado for ten-years and wanted to try his English out on me. To most everyone else who arrived for the day, I stuck out like a space alien.

Over the course of several morning hours, the public meeting space filled up. An impromptu table was set up in the back and filled with food to sell –taquitos, elote, tamales. Intense games of tag and chase were initiated by the under-eight crowd.

Reunion, training, and election in the public meeting space.

Reunion, training, and election in the public meeting space.

Before the election, Rebeca and Adelina had been invited to give a training on some CDM basics for anyone who had worked or wanted to work in the United States –federal minimum wage law, discrimination in hiring, protection from pesticides, etc… The space was huge and the group, while in no way unruly, seemed collectively a bit confused by our presence. I don’t know if there is a good way to present detailed information to a large group that has been rallied to attendance for some other purpose, but everyone was kind and eager to take pamphlets and fliers.

The Policia Municipal acted as helpful roadies for the events of the day.

The Policia Municipal acted as helpful roadies for the events of the day.

Rebeca and Adelina present on wages and salaries for migrant workers.

Rebeca and Adelina present on wages and salaries for migrant workers.

CDM's training gets underway.

CDM's training gets underway.

Afterward, Rebeca and Adelina took down names, listened to stories, and answered questions but told me in the taxi back that people aren’t usually forthcoming about their experiences in the United States, even to a migrant rights organization, even though they speak Mixotec and Spanish fluently and are from small Oaxacan communities themselves. People are afraid and not understanding their rights and the context of their experiences only furthers that fear.

My goal in attending was to observe the training and see what I could learn to inform the training materials I will produce for CDM staff like Rebeca and Adelina, as well as to think about how we should be measuring the impact of such events. For me, the impact of the day was entirely unexpected. As I waited by my pack for Rebeca and Adelina to finish up, an extremely old woman came up to me. Like all of the women there for the day, she had brought a woven basket slung over her shoulder, filled with whatever she had grown or made to sell or trade. She came right up to me saying, “Good afternoon,” so of course I stood and took her hand and returned her greeting. She asked me the obvious questions that most others had avoided, “Who are you? Why are you here?” When I smiled at her and answered her questions she lit up with great warmth and told me I was very welcome there. Her name is Teresa, she said, and she was glad to know me. She then asked if I wanted an avocado and, assuming she meant to buy, I said I would gladly take one. She slowly set her basket down and bent into it and then started putting avocados in my hands, one after another after another. She gave me seven and she said I should take them as a gift to remember my time and eat them with some tortillas. She then smiled, waved goodbye, picked up her basket and proceeded into the meeting.

Teresa's avocados back at my apartment.

Teresa's avocados back at my apartment.