Tuesday, April 21

This I Believe

The group just spent two weeks in Douthat State Park in western Virginia.  We spent the time reflecting on the trip and processing our experiences to create individual presentations of learning.  One group activity that we did early on to begin thinking about our travels was listening to NPR's This I Believe series and try writing our own.  Here's mine...


I believe in the power of a smile to a stranger. 

I have never been the type to strike up a conversation in an elevator or linger at the coffee shop, chatting to the barista about the weather.  I’m not naturally at ease with people I don’t know.   But spending six months traveling abroad has given me confidence in the ability of this casual gesture to forge inherently human connections. 

As if I didn’t already stand out enough as a foreigner in rural villages in Ecuador, industrial cities in China, remote communities in Thailand, and townships in South Africa, I determined to go on daily runs.  The habit inevitably drew curious stares; in most of these places, exercise for the sake of exercise is unfamiliar.  Furthermore, many of these areas never saw visitors, no less white ones, and there I was, a real live blond in the flesh. 

Initially, I ran as I always had, in my own world of pounding feet, pulsing muscles, and rousing music: alone, in my zone.  Still, I noticed locals gawking at this strange and unusual sight.  It was in no way unfriendly, but it made me uncomfortable to merely ignore it or pretend I didn’t notice.  I quickly assumed the habit of smiling at those I passed, raising my hand in greeting.  Some people found my wave even more baffling, but by and large, this acknowledgment completely changed the way I was perceived.  I was a stranger, yes, a foreigner, and what I was doing seemed a little bizarre, but I was being friendly. 

Some folks cheered my progress, others jogged alongside me for a dozen paces.  In smaller communities, they came to recognize me and expect my regular passes.  Even though these interactions were fleeting, they stand out to me as moments of genuine, cross-cultural engagement.  There was nothing more gratifying than a smile returned, acceptance of my presence.  For two strangers to hold each other’s attention for just a moment is to recognize someone else’s humanity.  We may not know each other.  We may be different.  But we can connect through this universal gesture. 

After six months abroad, acknowledging others in this way had become second nature, not just on runs, but as I walked anywhere.  It wasn’t until I returned to the United States that I realized how precious it had been.  I understood it during my first run back in New York City.  In some ways, I was home.  But in others, I was alone.  Anonymous.  I could no longer smile at strangers – not only would they think me peculiar, but they often didn’t even offer eye contact.  I resolved to try, but the only responses I got were a whistle and a bewildered glower. 

I despaired, a little, of the culture I had returned to.  I missed the smiles and even the stares of locals in foreign places, because they, at least, had acknowledged seeing me.  But I’ve persuaded myself our society is not completely devoid of casual friendliness between strangers: people offer up their subway seat, hold the elevator, prop open a door.   Thank them.  Linger over this brief interaction.  People want to connect to each other.  It’s human nature.  So smile at a stranger.  It feels good. 

Washington DC

Our week in DC coincided with the cherry blossom season, so the city was gorgeous and the weather lovely.  We met with a number of organizations -- Center for Global Development, the World Bank, and my favorite, the Global Fairness Initiative.  With this non-profit consulting group, I was particularly impressed by the comprehensive efforts to solve problems, such as garment manufacturing, by involving all the stakeholders.  By creating solutions that incorporate and serve everyone involved -- the government, citizens, the private sector, they are far more likely to be sustainable and effective.  

A large portion of our time was devoted to a day on Capitol Hill.  We spent one day preparing at the RESULTS office -- an organization designed to train and mobilize citizens to lobby in favor of hunger and poverty legislation that pertains both to domestic and international aid.  We went over procedural and persuasive methods for our meetings with reps the next day.  The plan was to ask House Representatives to sign a letter in favor of allocating foreign budget to microfinance, and to ask Senators to vote in favor of restoring the foreign aid budget to Obama's original request.  

The next day we did indeed go to Capitol Hill, dressed to impress and ready to meet with our representatives.   Between the fourteen students, we had a number of meetings with representatives from our districts and from any other states that had time to see us.  I met with aids in the offices of Barney Frank and John Kerry, both from Massachusetts, as well as Benjamin Lujan from New Mexico.  I was even fortunate to meet directly with a representative from New Jersey, Donald Payne, the first black representative from his state.  Just about everyone we met with readily agreed to at the very least sign the letter of support; as soon as they heard direct requests from constituents, they were willing to act.  They are, of course, ready to support things that citizens from their districts want, as they are responsible for electing reps.  

After meeting with Barney Frank's office

The Boston crew -- making a "B"

Each meeting lasted twenty to forty minutes.  Some aides were well-versed in microfinance and already supported those efforts, others needed detailed explanations of how it empowers the impoverished to earn their own income by supplying them with a very small seed loan that they are able to repay with very low interest.  We had very interesting conversations with all of them, and almost all of them revolved around the idea of sending money abroad, in this particularly poor economic time.  Many of them had humanitarian interests in mind, but admitted that the way they've got to pitch aid to constituents is in terms of self-interest.  National defense is the primary argument, using development money as a preventative measure against poverty that could lead to unrest and even terrorism.  That of course focuses money towards the middle east but leaves out Africa, which has not been much of a violent threat.  I can see how it is hard to tell Americans that their tax dollars are being sent out-of-country when jobs are being lost at home.  I'm not even necessarily sure if all international problems ought to be funded by developed countries' governments, but I do know the NGOs on the ground need money to continue their work.  More than 50 million people are expected to fall below the poverty line in the coming year due to the financial crisis.

The idea was for this to be an empowering experience, and it was.  I was surprised and impressed by how easy it was to have an influence on these seemingly allmighty representatives -- all it took was a quick meeting with good reasoning to support a request.  Yet at the same time, I had the sense that to make any substantive impact on an issue, you'd have to move to DC and schedule these sorts of meetings all day, every day.  Then I realized some people do do that -- from Marlboro and Monsanto.  And no one should be able to purchase political power in this democracy.  A theme I've seen over the year has been the need for campaign finance reform; it would address issues across the board, from agricultural subsidies to drug patenting to healthcare.  

Sunday, April 5

Back in the US of A

After six and a half months abroad, we are indeed back in the United States of America! On the afternoon of March 22nd, we arrived in New York City, a far cry from our last stop abroad – Addo national park in South Africa.  I wouldn’t say I was necessarily looking forward to returning from abroad, but the rest of our trip should be good.  The TBB program is not over yet; six weeks remain in our schedule.  

We’ll spend a week each in New York City and Washington DC meeting with NGOs and larger organizations that relate to what we’ve been learning abroad.  Then the group will retreat to an isolated center in Virginia to process everything we’ve seen and create individual “presentations of learning”.    We’ll split into groups and present these projects to schools, interest groups, and philanthropy organizations around the country.  My group will be traveling to Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Louisville.  Our program will culminate with graduation in Boston on May 2nd and 3rd. 

Our schedule in New York included various meetings with the New York State Department of Environmental Protection, the United Nations, Sustainable South Bronx, Michael Pollan – author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Just Food, UNICEF, and the Clinton Foundation.  Many of the visits turned out to be briefings with Q&A.

One of our more frustrating days was our trip to the UN; I think most of the group came away from it with a sense that this huge organization didn’t have the ability to enforce it’s recommendations and was laden with bureaucratic processes.  It actually put me in a pretty aggressive mood because nearly all of the questions we asked were met with defensive, prescribed and evasive responses. 

We saw some more enlightening things, too.  Michael Pollan’s speech was wildly entertaining; our visit to Just Food included a visit to a tiny, acre-large community farm in the Bronx; at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis we volunteered by preparing – I kid you not – “pussy packs” of condoms for distribution.   Other highlights included mastering the subway system, seeing Bill Clinton’s office, and receiving an abundance of printed material about each of the organizations we visited.

I feel like I ought to have more culture shock, but beyond the first jet-lagged afternoon, I’ve mostly returned to life as normal.  Having experienced only summer weather since the trip began, almost the most shocking part was the bitter chill of lingering winter.  It’s nice to have access to the New York Times, to speak to anyone in English, and have cell phones; on the other hand, we’ve never spent more on food and the city is overwhelming.