Archive for the ‘Justice’ 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.


This past weekend, I returned as part of a team to Tlapacoyan, Veracruz for what is likely my final outreach trip during my time here. We were in Tlapacoyan before Christmas and managed to get in some rafting and awestruck gazes at a waterfall around our workshops and meetings. Tlapacoyan is a community where CDM has done a lot of work in the past and where there are a number of migrants who travel on temporary visas. It is difficult to find anyone in these communities whose life hasn’t been touched by immigration in some way and, during this trip, we learned of busloads of workers who had gone to pick oranges in Florida and a bus leaving the next day to bring carnival workers to the northeast United States.

We gave five workshops while we were there, traveling to small communities on the outskirts of the municipality, up winding dirt roads into the mountainous jungle. The area is strikingly beautiful with banana and orange groves pressing close against the highways. The air was thick and humid and, one night while I sat in the hotel lobby, I watched the plaza fill up with low-hanging clouds before a tremendous rainstorm.

Our new rights-promoter and outreach worker, Brenda, in Zapote Redondo, Tlapacoyan, VER.

I spoke briefly about minimum wage and overtime in San Pedro Buenavista, Tlapacoyan, VER.

Brenda and Lilian display a minimum wage map as part of the curriculum I've been writing in Novara, Tlapacoyan, VER.

As we spoke to workers, it became obvious to me that, while cases of abuse are rampant (from illegally low wages and wage garnishing to racially motivated assault), workers are not easily convinced to pursue their damages. The internalization of their condition is profound and there is a hesitancy to speak out as they believe this might endanger their ability to get one of these temporary jobs, even with these abusive conditions, in the future. I sat in on several interviews with Silas, our legal director, who with time and careful explanation, was able to convince these men to accept help. I witnessed a stark transition in these interviews. When we would knock at their doors and introduce ourselves, we were told there was no time, “I was just leaving,” or “I’m busy.” With persistence though and a few questions about their life in the United State, the tone shifted dramatically from insisting “No, no… no problems…” to excitedly bringing out battered folders to show us their pay-stubs and carefully collected documents and calling their brother on the phone to see if he would be interested in joining the case. We spent hours in their homes, drinking juice out of tall glasses, and listening to their stories while Silas guided them to reveal their own experiences.

This, I believe, is what we study in development as empowerment. It’s a tricky phrase that we dance around defining academically. It’s frequently a part of mission statements, a goal of development organizations, and appears as an objective in logframes. Is it something you can teach or something you can facilitate? Is it formulaic or always individual? I don’t know, but something lit up in these interviews with patient legal questioning about schedules and pay and living conditions. I believe it was the unspoken phrase that these men could hear, an undercurrent to the interview that they understood: What you experienced was not right, but there is something that can be done.


Yesterday, American journalist Marie Colvin was killed in a government bombardment in Syria. Her final report, issued from the city of Homs, can be found here and reads in part:

Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.

Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.

It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.

Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.

Marie Colvin

For better or worse, it feels particularly poignant to learn of the death of a journalist as she set to the crucial work of telling the stories of the world’s most endangered and most vulnerable. Amazingly, in the conditions described above, the people of Homs braved the streets of their decimated city en masse last night to honor Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik with a show of gratitude.

In the United Nations, intervention for Syria, such as that that the U.S. sent to topple Qaddafi in Libya, was double-vetoed in the Security Council by Russia and China earlier this month. There is still hope for action by the Arab League, but meanwhile the Assad government continues to attack its own people mercilessly. Bashar Al-Assad acknowledges in this interview with Barbara Walters that no government in the world kills its own people unless it is led by a crazy person as Syria clearly is.

Marie Colvin in her final report wrote that throughout Homs, “On the lips of everyone was the question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?”” When Assad questions the legitimacy of the United Nations, it is hard for me to disagree, but not because the horrific reports are unsubstantiated. Rather because it cannot seem to move its behemoth bureaucracy to fulfill its purpose: to prevent atrocities, protect the innocent, and create a world where that question can be answered with a resounding “You haven’t.”

There has been some terrible news out of America’s prisons in the past few days. Yesterday, a prison riot in Mexico near Monterrey resulted in 20 deaths, the latest in a string of prison riots in the country (31 deaths in Altimara, Tamaulipas in January, another 20 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas in October of 2011 to cover just the past six-months). In Honduras, an indescribable tragedy occurred last week when 358 prisoners, at latest count, burned alive in a fire. Most had not been convicted of any crime.

Although we have more effective facilities in terms of control –better systems, I suppose, to prevent the destructive chaos of riots and fires– the United States ought take the longest and hardest look at itself following these grievous and preventable outrages. The state and federal governments of the United States incarcerate  far more of their own citizens than any other industrialized country in the world –a large percentage for non-violent drug crimes.

I am grateful for Chris Hayes reporting on this silent population that we too often discount in our minds as being undeserving of our attention. How dare we, or any other government authority, shutter people away in such great numbers and with so little recourse?

I highly recommend watching his excellent reporting here.

Likely the first and last thing that liberal intellectual Christopher Hitchens and conservative talk-radio host ManCow(?) agreed upon was the designation of the so-called enhanced interrogation technique known as waterboarding. Torture, they both said, unequivocally, after experiencing it first hand.

Here is something from Hitchen’s account, published in Vanity Fair in 2008.

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.

Read the rest of, “Believe Me, It’s Torture” by Hitchens.

The U.S. has a long and complex history with the practice, from hanging Japanese soldiers who waterboarded American POWs during WWII to military brass explicitly banning waterboarding during the Vietnam War and punishing rogue soldiers who defied the ban. Sometime in 2007, allegation began to surface that the U.S. was using waterboarding on suspected terrorists during interrogations and, as was its style, the Bush administration produced a dubious legal document dating back to 2002 that determined the practice was not torture and authorized its use. Obama banned it, again, in 2009.

In our current age, at the intersection of unbridled curiosity, free time, and media, you can watch dozens of videos on YouTube of people, mostly men, trying it out for themselves –again, mostly journalists and frat guys. The consensus seems to be that, even in a voluntary setting, it’s pretty terrible. Hitchens and ManCow both last about five-seconds and are both visibly shaken after the experience.

Amazingly, in the race to the radical right fringe of the Republican Party, in the latest of what feels like a hundred GOP primary debates, two candidates advocated reinstating waterboarding to enthusiastic applause. We’ve heard GOP audiences cheer letting people without insurance die, whoop for more lethal injections, and boo a gay veteran serving in Iraq. Now, at least about half the room seems to advocate reinstating this immoral, illegal, and ineffective practice, what would be an abrupt about-face for America’s floundering efforts towards credibility in the world.

My best defense of Cain and Bachmann is that they both seem to have  no idea what they are talking about. Cain seems to be taking his cues directly from the applause, as though there is a meter in the back to tell him when he’s getting warm, and Bachmann has already proved there is no point that she won’t chase farther to the right. At least there is some dissent in the small but important voices of Ron Paul and Jon Hunstman.

Sudden death from cardiac arrest or asphyxiation during waterboarding is a threat and I am not advocating these experimental runs, but I do think it is telling that two men from such opposite sides of the political spectrum (Hitchens with his book God is Not Great and ManCow with his conservative talk-radio show) came so quickly and confidently to the same conclusion.

Waterboarding is torture. Torture, as Ron Paul reminds the debate audience, is against U.S. law, international law, it is immoral, and, as though this point might still be needed, it doesn’t work.

Many, maybe most, of us are powerfully compelled to act differently when others are around. This is especially apparent to anyone who works with adolescents. The same kid who will have a heart-to-heart with you in a one-on-one situation will not hesitate to throw you under the bus when buddies are present. Adults do it too, though we’re more practiced and more subtle.

This is something to consider seriously in the wake of the Penn State cover-up, not just as an abstract mental exercise, but as an affirmative committment to take right action should you ever be required to. Bystander psychology says we willingly live in denial when something we witness is too horrific to fit into our mental paradigm or when we are able to rationalize the probability that someone else will do what is right, thus exonerating ourselves.

The rest of us would like to believe that no matter how small or scared we were, if we saw a child being raped, we’d step in and stop it, or at the very least call 911 immediately. But social psychology research on “bystander” behavior suggests that many of us might actually turn away.

My hero in disproving this is this Penn State student who stands in front of a jeering, booing mob to try to argue for accountability in the face of enormous opposition.

If you aren’t up on the Penn State story, it mirrors much of the Catholic Church child-abuse scandal in terms of institutional complicity and the covering-up of monstrous crimes. Chris Hayes had an excellent debrief and discussion of the scandal on his show, Up with Chris Hayes, on Saturday. I highly recommend watching it here.

Obama said that such an incident should lead to “soul-searching” and I like to think he meant that seriously, not just rhetorically. It is an opportunity to consider what we value most and how we ourselves might behave, even if it means standing against what is revered and protected, even if it means personal risk.

What do you get a planet for its seven-billionth person? published this article back in May announcing the UN claim that in just a few weeks, around Halloween of 2011, the seven-billionth person will be born on Earth. We started thinking of ourselves as a six-billion person planet way back in 1999. At least we started referring to ourselves that way –I’m not sure six billion is something we’re capable of thinking of.

World population hit 1 billion people in 1804. It took 123 years to add the next billion, but less than a century to cruise past the next four billion — from 2 billion people in 1927 to 6 billion people in 1999.

The music is cheesy, but this is worth a watch. It’s not that there are just too dang many of us –or them, more likely– it’s that we seem to be fundamentally so bad at sharing