the sold project – and a call to arms!

So last week I mentioned that when we move to Thailand, I will be working with an advocacy group. Today I want to tell you a little bit about them. The SOLD Project is a group of American twenty-somethings who created a documentary exposing the massive sex industry in Thailand, and how little girls and boys are abducted and sold into prostitution. They thought they were just doing a hard-core expose. Little did they know their hearts would tug and break in the meantime! Some of the children end up in brothels because they were trying to find jobs at restaurants in Bangkok to help support their families. Others are trafficked in from oppressed ethnic groups in neighboring countries like Burma.

The documentary is intense and emotional – once you hear the actual stories of these children, it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to the issue. When the documentary was released, people began asking how they could help…and thus a non-profit was born.

The SOLD Project starts with prevention and their aim is four-fold: they hope to 1) provide scholarships to children through individual donors like you and me so that at-risk children don’t have to pay for their education, thus easing the grip of extreme poverty, 2) provide mentors for each child with a scholarship, 3) build a resource center for the community, and 4) develop awareness programs in schools to help children learn how to protect themselves.

While I am there, I will be doing two things. I plan on volunteering time to tutor and mentor children at the resource center as well as lead weekly rotating seminars open to the community, focusing on various professional skills: computer literacy, basic accounting, college application/grant writing, etc. But my little baby is a project called “Operation Shackle Free”. I’m setting up an email exchange program between the sponsored children in Thailand and students in the US and other western nations. The goal is to give the kids in Thailand a chance to practice their English literacy skills – giving them an edge in the job market – and to motivate them to dream of a better life, one that is far away from the brothels. For the students here in the US, the goal is to raise global awareness and cultural sensitivity, and show them how one little action, as simple as sending emails has global implications not only in the lives of their Thai counterparts but also for GDP, national health – even reducing terrorism.

A lot of this will be happening at the resource center The SOLD Project is trying to build. Check out how it’s coming along! And feel free to browse The SOLD Project website to find out more about what they do. You can even host your own documentary viewing party!

The resource center is well under way, BUT WE NEED YOUR HELP! We need help raising funds for supplies like children’s books (we {heart} the Seuss), desks, stationary, computers, a security system (so no A-hole jacks our computers), and staff support (because, yo, we’ll need to eat too).

If you look to the top right of this page you’ll see a link to donate. I’ve created a profile through CrowdRise and I’ve set an {albeit ambitious} goal of raising $1,000 by June 1 to go to building and running this resource center. Do you think we can do it? I think we can do it!

Every dollar helps! I think it’s easy to forget these days just how far a dollar can go. But for these girls and boys in Thailand, $1 is all it takes to keep one kid in school one day more.

If there’s anyone who can be counted on for love and support, I know it’s the blogging community. Bloggers and blog readers alike, you all are such amazing people with such large, warm hearts. Every day, there’s an unbelievable outpouring of affection, advice, and well-wishes to friends in need. So I’m just asking for a little help for some very little friends in need: the young girls and boys in Thailand who want nothing more than to just be home with their families, go to school, and live a decent life. Let’s keep them home with their families and away from pervy men and brothel gangstas!

tell it to me tuesday – a letter to our sons

When I think of myself having children, somehow I always seem to picture myself having a son. Although there are many reasons I would love to have a daughter and there is no logical or rational reason to expect I would bear a son, it is always a son I imagine.

And if I had a chance to tell him something (other than that I love him), I would probably tell him something very similar to what my father used to tell me. My father always used to tell me to be a lady. What would a lady do or say? That is how I should behave.

So, I would tell my son: Be a gentleman.

It is not old-fashioned to be a gentleman; gentlemen are timeless. Gentlemanly behavior is not weak, nor does it seek to put others down. Gentlemen act with respect towards others as well as themselves.

Gentlemen take ownership. Of themselves, of responsibility, and of their lives.

They live not just for pleasure, but for a higher purpose.

Gentlemen give of themselves to their nation and their community. Whether it be through military service, civic duty, or mentorship, gentlemen do not subscribe to the notion that they are an island.

Gentlemen act not with narcissism, but with pride.

Think of your legacy, not just when you reach the tail end of your days, but also as you move through this beautiful thing called life. What legacy will you leave behind?

Have a dream of who you wish to be and what you wish for your life. Then go out and chase it with everything you’ve got. You can be anything you want, but you do have to work for it. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we fail. But the most important thing is to put in the very best effort you can. And only you can know whether you’ve given it your very best. Be not afraid of failure, for failure happens to everyone. It is nothing more than the opportunity to learn and try again. The only thing to fear is not being true to yourself.

As your grandfather would say: Be true to who you are, and for that, you must know what your values are. Stay true to your values and you’ll never go wrong.

TITMT

The Rules
You can respond in any way you choose. You can give a fictional response or a true one. You can use words, sentences, and/or photographs. If you have a blog, you can link it with Mr. Linky below. Please be sure to include “Tell It To Me Tuesdays” in the post, and link back to this post. Feel free to use the “Tell It To Me Tuesday” button available to the right. If you don’t have a blog, but want to join in, you can just leave a comment. Please follow the rules. I don’t want to have to delete links. I like links! Don’t make me delete them.

Next week’s challenge: Complete the phrase “It all started…”

i thought it was just me

As expected, the book on male brains is indeed shorter. :)“The quality and longevity of a marriage could be measured by the number of bite marks on a woman’s tongue.” – Louann Brizendine, The Female Brain

For the longest time, I’ve always thought I had a personal deficiency when it came to arguing with others. When someone says something offensive or something that makes me hurt or angry, I have a tendency to shut down. I would love to be able to defend myself or to call them out on the hurtful or undermining comment they made, but I am often physically incapable of doing so. My body shuts down on me and I am unable to process. And it often isn’t until hours – or even days – later that I figure out precisely why I was so angry and how I would have like to have responded.

Turns out, the female brain is hardwired this way. As Brizendine explains, “even if a woman wanted to express her anger right away, often her brain circuits would attempt to hijack the response, to reflect on it first out of fear and anticipation of retaliation.” The female brain is extremely averse to conflict, due to fear of angering others and losing relationships. Though women may be slower to act out of anger than are men, once aroused, they can “unleash a barrage of angry words that a man can’t match.”

This little tidbit is but one morsel of fascinating information I’ve come across in reading these two books: The Male Brain and The Female Brain. In both books, the author culls together analysis from all kinds of neuropsychiatry, biology, and cognitive psychology to explain what it is scientists have learned about the human brain – all in language that is witty, fun, and easy accessible to anyone who isn’t familiar with big scientific words (my hand is in the air). In a lot of ways, these books begin to answer the nature versus nurture questions…but often we discover it works in ways we didn’t quite expect.

I think, a lot more than we anticipate, human behavior begins with our hormones and chemicals in the brain. And more often than not, our behavior and how we even perceive the world is gender specific. Plus it changes as we go through different parts of our life cycle.

Here are just a few other interesting morsels to whet your appetite:

- By seven months, a boy can tell by his mother’s face when she’s angry or afraid, but by 12 months, he becomes so immune to them, he can easily ignore her expressions. But a subtle expression of fear on a mother’s face would stop a baby girl in her tracks.

- There is a gene called the vasopressin receptor gene. In men, a longer version of this gene tends to produce monogamy, whereas shorter versions of this gene produce philanderers. So when it comes to fidelity, longer actually is better – at least if you’re talking about the vasopressin receptor gene!

- Apparently, the way that daddies play with their children tends to be more creative and unpredictable – and thus more stimulating, making their kids more curious and improving their ability to learn. Children whose fathers play more roughly with them tend to be the most self-confident by adolescence. But the sweet spot: dads bond with daughters by helping to solve their problems – and this is true whether the daughter is 4 or 44, whether the problem is a broken doll or a financial portfolio.

- Girls are years ahead of boys in their ability to observe and mirror gestures, expressions, postures, gazes, and breathing rates as a way of intuiting how others are feeling. This is the secret of female intuition or a woman’s ability to read others’ minds. Imagining another’s emotional state actually triggers similar brain patterns in the observer and females are really good at this kind of emotional mirroring. They are sometimes able to intuit how a man is feeling before the man himself is able to figure it out.

- Women’s brains are smaller than men’s in size, but they have the same number of brain cells. When women become pregnant, their brain size actually shrinks more as the brain circuitry rewires itself for motherhood and some country roads in the brain become superhighways. But by six months after childbirth, the brain returns to its usual size. The sweet smell of a baby’s head carries pheremones that stimulate a deep hunger to have a child. The pheremones produced by a pregnant woman may actually cause neurochemical changes in her mate, preparing him to be a doting father and equipping him – through smell! – with some of the special nurturing mechanisms of the mommy brain.

- Dads might be slower to figure out how to respond to their baby’s cries, but the ways that they interact and bond with their children is vital – and different – from mothers. Having daily hands-on contact is critical in developing parent-child synchrony AND when moms encourage the dad’s interactions with the child, it actually tends to strengthen the marriage.

So really, a lot of male and female behavior we might think are due to personality differences or societal influences actually have at least some basis in the makeup of our brains. However, a lot of these things are probably natural tendencies, but like anything else you learn in life, practice and repetition is important too. So, even though girls may be hardwired to act like girls and boys will be boys (sometimes regardless of socialization), certain traits are enforced and reinforced through parenting and practice.

If you ever feel there is something you just don’t understand about yourself or about the other sex, chances are, you’ll find an answer within these pages. These books are a must-read for, well…everybody!

women unbound – half the sky

At least Mao said something worth hearing.“‘If you cry out, we will kill you,’ one of the told Dina. So she kept quiet as, one by one, the five men raped her. Then they held her down as one of them shoved the stick inside her.

When Dina didn’t come home, her father and friends bravely went out to the fields, and there they found her, half dead in the grass. They covered her and carried her back to her home. There was a health center in Kindu, but Dina’s family couldn’t afford to take her there to be treated, so she was cared for only at home. She lay paralyzed in her bed, unable to walk. The stick had broken into her bladder and rectum, causing a fistula, or hole, in the tissues. As a result, urine and feces trickled constantly through her vagina and down her legs. These injuries, rectovaginal and vesicovaginal fistulas, are common in Congo because of sexual violence….[where] everyone knows that rape is routine…it is the troops’ right to rape women.”

This is but one part of one of the stories that come from this book. It will open your eyes, change your mind, and inspire you. Of course most of us here in the West agree violence against women is wrong, even though rape is prevalent in our own society. But this book not only chronicles the stories of extraordinary women, it changes how we see these problems and what solutions are available and achievable. Most require less money in foreign aid, not more.

Here is just a snapshot of a handful of the things I have learned in reading this book:

- The “Girl Effect”: giving women equal rights and access to education can raise GNP and national savings rates as well as cure a whole wealth of social ills from poverty to malnutrition to terrorism. Yes, terrorism. Because security experts have noticed the countries that breed terrorism are also the ones which marginalize women.

- The modern global slave trade is larger in absolute terms than the Atlantic slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was. (citing Foreign Affairs)

- Rescuing girls is the easy part. Combating poverty and shame is the hard part in keeping girls from seeing they have options other and deserve more than to go back to the brothels. Because it’s not about shame. It’s about basic human rights everyone is entitled to, no matter their past.

- Violence against women has mutated into new forms: hurling acid into the faces of women and girls, burning brides, and throwing chili powder and lit cigarettes into…well, you can imagine where.

- Over and over again, the saving grace? Education. Education in a multitude of ways and for a million different reasons. So women know what their rights are. So women and girls know they are not alone in their suffering. So they know it is possible to speak out and to demand better. So they have the tools they need to achieve better.

- What prevents them from getting an education or having better lives? More often than not, the answer does not lie in sending more money. The answer lies in looking at the individual community or situation and innovating better, more efficient solutions.

- Usually these solutions are stupidly, stupidly simple and cheap. Solutions like putting a girls’ toilet in schools and giving the girls maxi pads so they can privately change and keep clean instead of skipping school for being humiliated one week each moth. Solutions like iodized salt to eradicate health problems associated with iodine deficiency. Solutions like allowing women to work from their homes so they don’t have to face potential rape and violence on the streets of dangerous, war-torn cities.

I think what prevents most of us from acting is the feeling overwhelmed by such huge problems. That we don’t know where to begin and we feel we face forces much larger than ourselves. What this book shows is a different story: solutions aren’t easy, but they’re not so difficult as we might imagine. It’s not about making men the enemy. It’s not about making Islam the enemy. It’s about re-envisioning approaches and showing how easing the oppression off women not only save the life of the individual women, but it can save nations and eradicate problems that affect everyone.

Reading this book will transform you. It’s the only nonfiction book I’ve ever stayed up half the night reading, and I owe my mother-in-law a credit for drawing my attention to it.

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“Educate a girl and she will do the rest.”

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post expressing my deep sense of helplessness and futility when I look at the government and prominent leaders who are so completely out of touch with the reality of life their people face every day. And I expressed my sense that the real movement is the movement of people. Ordinary citizens started making statements with their words, their actions, and often their dollars, either through donations or financial endorsements. They are choosing to live a different way and reclaiming their right to do so. This was my sense in just looking at the world around me in communities supporting local or urban farming, women reaching out and reinvesting in midwives, mothers deciding to home school, neighbors donating their meager wages to Haiti relief, or people turning away from corporate greed and choosing instead to run their own businesses. My sense was people were taking a moment to look at their lives and ask: what is my legacy? What will I contribute to this world? And in multitudes of different ways, they were choosing a road of progress. This was my sense.

This weekend, I found proof. In New York City this weekend, the Women In the World Conference harnessed the power of women the likes of Sec. Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Queen Rania of Jordan, Meryl Streep, Christiane Amanpour, Barbara Walters, Christine Lagarde…and oh God, so many more. CEOs and top managers of companies like Morgan Stanley and HP, and so many amazing and inspiring women activists from all around the world who have made enormous contributions ranging from sex strikes to protest civil war and the use of rape as a weapon of war (in countries where 92% of women had been raped or sexually abused), raiding brothels to rescue sex slaves, organizing women’s prisons as sanctuaries from prostitution and gendercide, educating and organizing African villages against the practice of female genital mutilation, and doing everything they can to provide women and communities with the resources they need to gain access to knowledge, information and power. These words have become so cliché to our ears, but when you hear their stories you feel how real this is. How millions of women are gang raped, mutilated, and oppressed every day, often multiple and multiple times a day.

But what came out of the conference is not a sense of powerlessness. These women were living proof that it is possible to reach out to the powerless and emancipate them. And not only could they do it, but we here in the U.S. can too. What came from this conference was the message over and over again that government-to-government solutions are not always the most effective way. Yes, government solutions, laws, and enforcement of those laws help. But often times it is the most simple of ideas and tiniest of investments that reap the biggest dividends.

The Girl Effect
Economists worldwide are finding more and more evidence everywhere they look that educating women has such far-reaching implications as to be the literal saving grace of a state. Indeed, educating women has been the linchpin, the key to East Asia’s most recent economic successes and development. It not only hugely increases the labor force, it also delays marriage and reduces childbearing. The women finance the education of younger relatives (and future generations) and save enough to boost national savings rates. Not only does it combat poverty and reduce instances that come along with poverty (like families selling their children into slavery – a $36 billion a year black market, second only to weapons and drugs), it helps reduce infant mortality, improves societal health and nutrition. And security experts now are suggesting that empowering girls disempowers terrorists. Educating women, helping them participate more, enables them to be a more powerful voice in their households and in their countries. For we find that the countries that nurture terrorism are disproportionately those that marginalize women. (Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn)

And the saddest part is that it is often the girls who dreamed, who dreamed they could have a job, bring money home to the family, who had goals in the name of love and marriage and family, who often have that dream betrayed. They are sold, beaten, drugged and pushed into a four-walled room with no doors. When asked what they wanted to do, if they could leave the brothels, if they could do anything else, what would they do…they respond, “Madam, how can we use these hands for something else?” (Kiran Bedi) For if they did leave, they would be so shamed and reviled by their families and communities. They carry such burdens of shame and guilt they DO NOT DESERVE, it often leads to suicide or return to the brothels.

So what are these simple solutions? For one, we can invest in these girls, in their rehabilitation and help them become entrepreneurial members of society. Many have dreams to open shops or salons or to turn a craft skill into a business. Micro-lending and other forms of support – $100 to us, the price of a couple of dinners out or a day shopping, except it gets paid back with interest – can literally be the difference between life and death for these women. Some women are talking about programs in countries life Afghanistan and Pakistan to help women work from home, sewing or doing whatever, but that allows them to support their families both by being home with the kids and bring home money and by keeping them safe from the deadly violence of the streets of Kabul. It also changes the power dynamic in the household, for once a woman starts contributing financially to the household she begins to gain the respect of the men in the home. Individuals and corporations can also make small investments in infrastructure like wells, bus routes, and bathrooms in schools that suddenly make education for girls possible where it was not possible before.

But above all the answer is education. Here the work of so many NGOs provides powerful relief and access to education (though we should be reminded that NGOs cannot be the substitute actors of government – they can help where governments fail, but we must still pressure government into action where we can). And volunteering for or donating to NGOs can be a powerful way to help. But education is critical because it gives women and girls knowledge and know-how for careers, yes. But it also allows them to even just know what their rights are and to learn how to speak up against practices like female genital mutilation and how and why to say no when there is talk of sending their children away to “work”, because sending children away often leads condemns them to abduction into slavery.

This is not just political. This IS personal. In a globalized world such as ours has become, we can no longer pretend that the problems of these women are not our problems. We can no longer pretend that our actions – both the ones we take and the ones we don’t – do not have massive repercussions in the lives of so many people who live on under $2 a day. When the CIA estimates 50,000 slaves are trafficked into the U.S. annually, we cannot pretend the problem is not here at our doorstep.

The question isn’t “Can we afford to help?” or “Do they deserve it?” The question is “In what ways can we innovate to engineer other simple solutions?” If you don’t think the victims of oppression living and dying every day deserve our attention, then at least realize we owe it to the victims and families of victims of 9/11 and troops fighting terrorists every day.

“I realized the price of being silent is higher than the price of doing something.”
– Leymah Gbowee, the woman who organized a sex strike to bring an end to civil war in Liberia, Women in the World Conference 2010

Here are a couple of powerful clips. Click here to see more memorable moments.

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women unbound – reading lolita in tehran

reading-lolitaReading Lolita in Tehran is a powerful account of a woman’s journey through the Iranian Revolution and the gripping challenges her young students had to face as the society underwent cataclysmic changes. Iran went from being a country that could rival many of its Western counterparts in the freedoms and liberties it offered its citizens – even the women – to one that became among the most repressive regimes ever seen in the modern world.  The different generations of women lived in different time zones, it seemed, with the older generations experiencing more freedom than the younger ones could.

Some of the earlier chapters are the most poignant…after a while the book did get a little repetitive and difficult for me to wade through (especially since I’ve become a pro at skimming – thank you, grad school). But I pushed myself to read it in its entirety. It is worth reading, to catch a glimpse behind the veil. To see what these women had to endure and how they found inner resources to help themselves survive imprisonment (on multiple levels), fear, violence, erasing of self and theft of their rights to do even the most basic things like express who they are and love whom they choose.

But the part I loved most about this book is that Nafisi, who is a university professor, collected a select group of her top female students and invited them to weekly meetings in her home – free from the oppression of prying eyes and suspcious ears – to read literature together. In these classes, the students read everything from The Great Gatsby to Pride and Prejudice to, of course, Lolita. And through the literature, these women were able to find themselves. They used important themes from the texts to discuss the world around them and to understand their place in it. The literature gave them a forum in which they could break down the barriers they had around them and begin to talk about their own lives; first, obliquely, and then more assertively and directly as they gained confidence and built mutual trust and respect. Indeed, the book itself is divided into four subsections, each one based on a different piece of literature. Each subsection draws from its literary namesake to highlight themes Nafisi faces in her own life as the Revolution begins, when the oppressive regime comes to power and she is forced out of job and under a veil, until the time when Nafisi plans to leave Iran and the students must make their own plans for survival.

It is for this reason I love this book. It highlights and illustrates so well why books are so important for us. We have our favorite books: ones that entertain us, that uplift us, that comfort us. If there is a lesson here, it is one we already agree with and and maybe already intuitively know. Or, perhaps it is something we can just appreciate, even if it differs from our own experience. But then, we have our books that touch the essence of who we are. They help us see our own world in a different way, and maybe help us understand who we are and what our situations are a little bit better. Reading them is like an epiphany. And sometimes it rocks you to your core.

I have one such book that has been important in my life: Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. Shantaram almost isn’t even a favorite book, though it is a really entertaining read. But I’ve only read it once; it’s not one I go to for comfort or escape. But it speaks to my heart. And why should I be able to identify with it so much? It’s a book about an Australian convict who escapes and flees to India, gets involved with some humanitarian work, the local mafia, the movies and eventually the muhajadeen. It’s quite the adventure (and based on a real story) – but far from my life. But the main character is a powerful narrator, and under the adventure was pain, loneliness, emptiness and a swollen and bruised heart. And that I understood. I was in that place and his words made me understand the blackness, so that instead of staring at a gaping, dark hole, I could begin to see fragments and facets of life. Dimensions to hold on to, and through understanding, grasp and clutch my way towards finding forgiveness and redemption.

It has beautiful quotes like:
“Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope. Sometimes we cry with everything except tears.”
and
“The past reflects eternally between two mirrors -the bright mirror of words and deeds, and the dark one, full of things we didn’t do or say.”
and
“In this way justice is done…because justice is a judgment that is both fair and forgiving…justice is not only the way we punish those who do wrong. It is also the way we try to save them.”

Do you have a book like this? One that has changed you or been important to you in some way?

on the nature of being human

banner_social_policyThe story we are told about human nature is that man is inherently self-interested, pleasure-seeking, sinning and utilitarian – doing the minimum to get the maximum benefits for oneself, and that this nature is driven by a life that is nasty, brutish and short. Indeed, all we have to do is take a cursory glance over history, and we’ll see the world stricken with crime, wars, genocide, power games, and greedy, greedy people taking advantage for themselves, to the detriment of everyone else (*cough* Bernie Madoff *cough*).

But maybe we are overlooking something. I heard an interview with Jeremy Rifkin, which you can listen to here, in which he discusses his new book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. You can read the first chapter of it here. I haven’t read the book yet, but the interview alone blew me away. Rifkin talks about evolutionary biology and a wealth of science coming out now that suggests that human beings may not naturally be so self-interested. In fact, what really drives humans is our need for social contact. We are social beings and we engage with others through our ability to empathize. (This makes sense right? Why else would we love literature and movies so much except by our ability to empathize with the main characters for example? Why else would we need love and affection, friends and family in our lives if that weren’t so? But that is not our view of ourselves, especially not where politics or religion is concerned.) What we see when we look at history is not actually the norm of human behavior, but rather the product of historians who are interested in power games and struggles, in wars and who has power and who doesn’t. In short, historians are interested not in the norm of human nature, but in the aberrations. People helping each other with their daily survival needs, people talking kindly to each other, people working together…none of this is interesting.

If you are unconvinced, think for a moment about our news. Our news is filled with the Iraq War, Afghanistan, political scandals, intrigues, anything that involves sex, blood or mayhem. Saying hello to your neighbor and giving money to the homeless is not newsworthy. So if you consider what is deemed “interesting”, you see it is the stuff that is different, outside the norm of accepted behavior. Thus what we have of recorded history is what was “news” of the time. In the historical research I’ve done, (looking into ancient Greece and ancient Persia for example) it is far easier to find records of warfare, technology, and kings and their courts than it is to find out the social ceremonies when people invited guests into their homes. We might have records of what they ate and how they worked, but it’s harder to find out how they greeted each other and how often they had time to socialize. As it was put in the interview, “history is made by the pathological”. It’s not normal human behavior that gets recorded, nor is it normal people who usually lead nations. That turn of phrase really made me think just how much of human history might have been lost to the fascination with the pathological.

The interview goes on to discuss how young babies are not inherently scheming, self-interested utilitarians. What they want most is social connectedness. They yearn for the connection with their mothers, and when they do not get it, that’s when we begin to see narcissism, selfishness, and a very slow erosion of the ability to connect. This insight really caught me because I recall earlier parenting advice often advocated letting babies cry themselves out, instead of going to pick them up every time they cried. But, if I understand correctly, there has been a shift in thinking (for example, with advocates of babywearing) that suggests babies should in fact be picked up when they need attention because that need is very real and very important for their development.

Towards the end of the interview, Rifkin discusses the different ages man has gone through and how technological development has shifted man’s consciousness and ability to empathize with others, moving from blood kin through religious associations, national affiliation…to where we are now on the precipice of a global age, aided by digital technology that puts us in touch with people all over the globe. He warns we must be clear about what we want from this technology and how we apply it, in our ability to empathize with others.

If it is true that humans are naturally social, empathetic beings, that has powerful implications for the possibilities of our entire world order, how we engage in politics, and how we understand ourselves. I’m sure Rifkin’s book explores this angle much more fully. But what I find fascinating is the possibility that we assume man to be self-interested utilitarians and that this frame of reference actually shapes how we interact with each other. If we can take empathy as the status quo, how differently would we behave? If we assumed others merely wanted our love, how would we treat them?

It also strikes me that this view of human nature has a decidedly feminine bent. By feminine, I don’t mean female in the sense that only women have this trait. Rather, I mean, if humans have both masculine and feminine traits, with each individual (and maybe each society) falling somewhere along a spectrum between extreme masculinity and extreme femininity…this worldview has a feminine quality to it, with its emphasis on social connectivity and emotive needs and desires. And the view we have had before has had more of a masculine quality to it, as it has been written primarily by men and about men. Now I want to be careful here. I’m not saying masculinity is pathological. Obviously not. Both sides of the spectrum have important and valuable contributions to a functioning society. But I’m suggesting that our view of mankind might have been skewed by a suppression of the feminine voice. And what I find most interesting is that so much of scientific, psychological, sociological, and literary pursuits (among a wealth of others) are starting to reflect the feminine voice more – and this coincides with research that suggests women are beginning to move more into positions of power. They are graduating at greater rates than men, they are scoring higher on exams and getting higher degrees and beginning to take up greater proportions of typically “male” fields. Now it is no where near parity and equality has not been achieved in a lot of areas. But it is happening at a rate that educators are beginning to fear there is a gender gap crisis – with boys being the ones who are falling behind.

I know I’m connected in meaningful ways with people with whom I’d never have been able to in any other time before this. And all of that is due to the wonders of the digital age. But can the digital age really fuel greater connectivity? And can it really provide a means for helping us change our basic assumptions about those with whom we connect?

* Photo courtesy of: http://thenewwriters.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/a-possible-vision-social-harmony/

giving a child the chance to learn

PlanThis Christmas, my husband and I received an amazing gift: a chance to help a child. My husband’s father set us up with the sponsorship of a little 5 year old girl in Laos. Her name is Boun, but for her safety, I won’t post a picture of her online (thus the picture of the information packet we received). Through this program, Plan USA, we send an annual amount of money and it goes towards her education and well-being until she is 18.

It’s a fabulous sponsorship program. The children who benefit from this program are all in underdeveloped countries and they’ve been voluntarily enrolled by their families to be the beneficiaries, should a sponsor come along. The contribution dollars go towards literacy programs, initiatives to end violence against children or child trafficking, health services in rural areas, HIV/AIDS counseling where applicable, livelihood training…and the list goes on. All of it is geared towards empowering the beneficiaries to lift themselves out of poverty and towards creating sustainable development in some of the more impoverished parts of the world.

It’s not an adoption; she still lives with her family. We’re just offering financial support on her behalf. And while the sponsorship lasts, we can exchange letters with her and even arrange to visit her.

It’s an amazing feeling being in direct contact with a stranger you can help. We’ve given donations to disaster relief like in Haiti and after the tsunami in Asia in 2004, and we also participate in micro-lending programs. But those are much more anonymous. Being able to actually see the child we’re helping and write letters to her and read her letters in return makes the whole thing so much more personal and immediate.

We just sent our first letter to her. (And by ‘just sent’, I mean we did it a week ago, but I’m just that far behind on my blog posts…) I can’t wait to get a letter back. I wonder who will translate for her. I wonder what she will think when she sees our letters and photos. I wonder how long before she can read our letters all by herself. I wonder what her letters will say…a year from now…ten years from now.

There’s a lot in this world I feel I don’t have a whole lot of power over. It’s nice feeling that we can do something at least that makes a little bit of difference to someone.

Women Unbound – The Poisonwood Bible

For my second entry for the Women Unbound challenge, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. As with my first entry, I’m not doing a traditional book review on these books, but instead discussing issues and thoughts that the book raised in my head. And hopefully I can provoke a discussion where I can hear and learn from the perspectives of others.

(As a side note: It was really interesting to read this one right after reading The Red Tent, because two of the main characters in this book are also named Rachel and Leah – two figures from Genesis. It made me think about the extent to which our names might shape our identity. Knowing that my name is Jade, does that compel me to be what I think a “Jade” should be? Would I be different if I were named Claudia or Brittany?)

To be honest, I was a little hesitant to post this review. I actually finished reading this a while ago, but took my sweet time before I posted it because it raises questions I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with here. But I decided to not post it and not deal with what the book made me think about – however uncomfortable – would be dishonest. And what other point would there be of this challenge than to make us face things we should face, even if we’d rather not? It wouldn’t be much of a “challenge” otherwise. So, here it is.

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Barbara Kingsolver’s novel is an exquisite work told from the perspective of the wife and four daughters of a Baptist preacher from Georgia on a mission to bring the Christian religion to the Congo. They come full of idealism and the smugness of good intentions, but soon find themselves consumed alive by the depth and mystery of the heart of Africa.

The novel tells a story of oppression on the family level mirrored on the nation level. The preacher, Nathan Price, is so full of his own assumptions: that he has all the answers and that he knows better than anyone else what is the higher good. He rules his family with an iron fist, refusing to listen to his wife and daughters, even when his actions bring them to suffering. Likewise, he attempts to impose the same rule over the natives. But his lack of understanding and refusal to listen and learn from others prevents him from seeing not only how his methods are ineffective (or sometimes positively dangerous) in helping the natives deal with their daily lives, but also how he makes a mockery of himself and renders him incapable of caring for even his own family. Kingsolver deftly weaves the various narratives, drawing forceful allusions to the character of U.S. foreign policy as well, as evidenced by Eisenhower and the CIA’s actions inserting the puppet dictator, Mobuto.

But to all these people who rule without understanding: the father, the preacher, the dictator, the imperialist, Kingsolver warns they will bring about their own demise. As she says, “Whether it’s wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them….Even a language won’t stand still. A territory is only possessed for a moment in time….What does Okinawa remember of its fall? Forbidden to make engines of war, Japan made automobiles instead, and won the world. It all moves on.” (384) (And isn’t that a fabulous turn of expression? That the processes of time are more powerful that the most iron-fisted tyrant? The occupier will cling, but the world will move on.)

The question that arises from the work for me, however, is what is the role of the oppressed? What do they do? What can they do? Price’s daughters offer each their own perspective: Ruth May, the innocent who is sacrificed; Rachel, the oblivious who makes her way anyway she can; Leah, the obedient who eventually becomes the disillusioned disciple hell-bent on repenting the sins of the father; and Adah, the cynic and martyr who sees all but can only survive by going her own way. Price’s wife, Orleanna, offers a final point of view: “To resist occupation, whether you’re a nation or merely a woman, you must understand the language of your enemy. Conquest and liberation and democracy and divorce are words that mean squat, basically, when you have hungry children and clothes to get out on the line and it looks like rain.” (383)

I often tell my students, in an effort to get them to become informed and active participants of the democratic process, that they need to be informed so they can protect themselves. I tell them they need to be engaged in politics to protect themselves from oppression – for how can you fight for your interests if you don’t even know how you’re being taken advantage of? But this is the story we tell ourselves when we live in a democracy. We tell ourselves the citizens have real power and that we can hold our leaders accountable. And this is true in theory, and it is true in anecdotes. But sometimes it is a little disingenuous because sometimes we don’t have such power. Sometimes we fight and fight, but there are higher powers in play, more powerful forces at work. And sometimes, I think we really need to be honest in admitting there might be a valid point to consider when someone asks – I mean, really, really asks the question: What is the point of knowing the chess master’s moves when you have no choice, whether he puts you in play or sacrifices you to silence at the side of the chessboard? Ignorance is bliss and sometimes it seems a blessing not to know the whys and wherefores of our pain.

Of course we want to inspire citizens to action. Of course we want them to feel empowered, to fight the good fight, and to not give up. But are we doing that to really empower them – including citizens with whom we disagree (or may even think are bat-sh*t crazy or impossibly naïve)? Or are we doing that to prove we’re right: that our ideology, democracy, really does work? And can we do that and still listen (without assuming we know better) and really hear them when they say, “Mama, it hurts”?

I ask this because sometimes the “language” people speak is not always the one we’re accustomed to listening for or hearing.

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P.S. Incidentally, after posting this, I was listening to an interview with Anne Kornblut (author of Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win) on NPR, where she mentioned that the US ranks 70th in the world when it comes to the proportion of elected representatives who are women. We rank 70th. Behind countries like Rwanda and North Korea – which, at least last I’ve heard, are not exactly the front-runners of social progress. So the question isn’t: “can women lead nations?” It’s: “Why, in the US, are women not leaders?” (Though, for my part, I think the reason people might not have voted for Clinton or Palin was not because they were women, but because they were those particular women. They did come with quite some baggage.)

P.P.S. I just have to add: I totally disagree with reviews that say this book is anti-Christian, anti-male because people don’t like the way she portrays Nathan Price. There are other Christians (including those who initially funded his mission) who behave very differently from he and meet with better success with the natives. As she says in the book, “There are Christians and then there are Christians.” It’s not Christianity she has a problem with, it’s Price’s attitude. Likewise with men. She has several other male figures who are more exemplary, Anatole, for instance. However, if I were to critique the book, I would say just about all of the last section could be lopped off and you wouldn’t miss much. It just went on and on and on…felt like she didn’t know how to end the book and so just kept writing.

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