The Castle

We had reached the castle- the ruin, the relic, the graffiti-covered-crumbling-skeleton-of-a-building-with-geometric-cut-out-windows, where the breeze from the lake was finally able to reach us.

We had reached this place after walking through part of a favela in what used to be the most violent area of the world, but has since changed due to the efforts of community initiatives. We were matched with a local host; a 16 year-old girl whose eyes we were instructed to see from. We passed a dog with a clearly broken leg, who staggered to move as we approached. We climbed steep, half-paved unfinished-government-project-streets, our translator sweating and out of breath from the stream of questions and answers trying to move through her.

“We are poets and composers”-the two men accompanying us, both whom worked for community initiatives in the region. One, a hip-hop music aficionado, aimed to connect young people through dance and music. He spoke of a church that opened up its basements to MC rap battles due to the efforts of a pastor. The other man created a soccer and reading program to further a culture of literacy, and asked us about the experience of moving through school in the United States.

Fast forward in the conversation and we are discussing the lack of fit of imposed public school curricula to the unique passions and needs of the children moving through the school system. Zooming out to “what is the purpose of education” and “is the education system serving this purpose”, the consensus reached is that “it could”. He spoke of a municipal school that was able to accomplish this “could” mostly through the single handed efforts of a change-making principal. I scribbled down information to conduct further research.

So here we stood, in this crumbling-building-skeleton, speaking about education inequality amidst spider webs my near-ceiling-height-lanky-form was eying. There was an atmosphere of mutual interest and sincerity, making eye contact while not understanding and then understanding through translation, then making eye contact and speaking without being understood, and then being understood through translation.

The crumbling building was a place members of the community visit, grounded in myths about its incomplete-ness. One tells of it as a brothel-casino visited by boats and abandoned, another of a child falling to its death during construction and the family subsequently abandoning the site.

This beautiful location is tiny microcosm of the vast expanse that makes up the Brazilian favelas. Red brick, waved tin roofs, enough structure to hint at permanence, dogs and damaged dogs, art, graffiti, graffiti that is art, clothes hanging on lines, pink children’s shirts, shit, mosaics, trash, people, humans, guitar music, laughter, wide-eyed ten year olds asking to practice their English on you, men with drugs in their hands-showing off, holes in walls like bit-off crackers, renovated and impressive tiled-green bathrooms, soccer on concrete, and people and life and people.

Week in Jaipur

I have spent the last week in Jaipur, away from my home in Delhi.

A quick run-down on the places we have visited in Jaipur:

Barefoot College is a vocational school for women, where women who are often from rural areas come to learn complex and impressive skills. Of its programs, the “Solar Mamas” are women who are studying solar engineering in order to go back and bring solar power to their communities. We entered a room to speak to the “mamas”, and encountered women from Myanmar, Peru, Turkey, and a variety of other countries. I had the chance to speak to one of the Turkish women, who explained that she wanted to bring solar power to Syrian refugee camps. I flipped through the engineering manual and was astounded by the complex directions and knowledge conveyed in pictures and diagrams, due to illiteracy and language barriers.

Jaipur rugs provides employment to rural women through placing looms in their villages. The women have woven extraordinary rugs that are then sold for the equivalent of thousands of US dollars. The Jaipur Rugs Foundation gives 40 percent of its total profits towards the salaries of the women.

Jaipur Foot provides prosthetic legs free of charge to anyone who comes in in need. 60 to 70 people are provided prosthetic limbs each day, and the materials used are inexpensive. For example, the plastic used to make the limbs is simply from melted irrigation pipes. The founder made it clear that he would never charge money for beneficiaries. These are direct quotes from our conversation with him:
“We get money because we don’t charge”
“We help people, we get help”
“Appreciation does not go up with the payment of money”

The founder of Vividya came to speak with us. She has created a newspaper to provide a forum for issues associated with gender inequality and gender violence. She expressed that the mainstream media had not done an adequate job at publishing stories that were for the whole population, but rather the news was for the privileged and those with high social status. Publishing stories raised awareness to issues, which has brought collective gatherings and needed protests to push for change. Women from all areas submit stories to be published, and the program also runs empowerment program for women. The programs focus on discussing personal experiences of women and creating situational action plans that the women can use when faced with an issue they are experiencing directly. The program also analyzes news articles, songs, and idioms, and facilitates discussion on gender, violence, patriarchy, government and development. The empowerment programs also incorporate discussions with men.

I had the amazing opportunity of serendipitously meeting a women in a café at a table I sat down at who immediately engaged my friend and I in conversation. It turned out that she is a social entrepreneur, who runs a micro loan organization. I discussed empowerment programs with her extensively, and she made it clear that the change has to start “bottom-up”, meaning that women must come together and support each other, and the change must start on a micro-level with changed attitudes and support. She made it clear that often women are the breadwinners of their households, so any program that helps women be able to support themselves and send their children to school is beneficial. Therefore, the tailoring and beautician programs which I analyzed critically in my last post are rather necessary,

When it comes to empowerment models, I believe Vividya is absolutely golden. The program addresses structural inequality and changes attitudes. It operates on a macro-level and a micro-level simultaneously. It does not ignore structural inequality, and its able to work on multiple levels through addressing direct experience and planning action. It is an empowerment program that is really giving women more power.

Is tailoring really all we’ve got?

Note: written in response to observation of a variety of empowerment programs in Uganda and India.

It is timely to scrutinize systems aimed to help women help themselves. Many of the empowerment programs that should situate themselves “against structural inequality” refuse to place the blame on the system, and place it instead on the women themselves. This is a product of an intense system of male privilege that propagates the message that there are no barriers, and therefore any issues with inequality lie in the deficit of the females. The male system believes it has no flaws, so it asks that the women who wish to be empowered to work within the system. Subsequently, women and allies structure their empowerment in accordance with this advice.

Money equates to some degree of control and leverage, which is an observation that has spurred the development of economic empowerment initiatives aimed to better the lives of women. Learning to become a tailor or beautician has thus become the foundation of becoming empowered. Although these skills may give women more money to spend and therefore build upon their own lives, it does nothing to tear down the walls of structural inequality. It is an approach that works within the system, conforming to the way women traditionally should be perceived. Short term, women with more money may be better off; however, is this how energy should be directed so that society should change?

Many economic empowerment programs often also preach the power of assertiveness. By encouraging self-advocacy, they expect the problems facing women to diminish. Although society needs strong women, placing the blame for problems, indicating what has gone wrong has been because women have not been assertive enough, is an inappropriate and inaccurate accusation. Because those who operate contentedly under the system of male privilege believe their system has no flaws, the indication that the problem lies in the lack of assertiveness of the female is a mere product of blindness that derives from privilege.

Women should keep their newfound prosperity due to economic empowerment programs, and continue to advance and grow. They can embrace the message of assertiveness and strength. However, they should be aware that behind some of the messages is blame from a patriarchal system that does not wish to change. The programs can say they want to be liberating, but yet in action they do not unbind.

I once was told that advocating for social justice is like placing a small bit of paint on a canvas. A little paint here and a little paint there can eventually color the whole canvas. In the context of the current state of empowerment programs for the alleviation of structural inequality, I am unconvinced that this metaphor applies. What good will a painted canvas do if it is the medium we care to change?

However dissatisfied I am that many empowerment programs I have seen fail to try to dismantle or at least examine systems of oppression, it is necessary to take into account other limitations that prevent what is possible to be done. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, basic needs must be satisfied before higher level needs can be addressed. Therefore, if one is in extreme poverty, examining and deconstructing oppressive systems may currently be “on the backburner”. A structural approach may not be timely. However, should advocating for justice just occur in privileged settings? Should only the privileged be responsible for influencing what happens to us all? Is the ability and privilege to take risks necessary for becoming a social justice advocate?

As a cornerstone of empowerment for dismantling structural inequality, I believe education on how to bring about social change should be a central tenant. I do not believe that thinking small will help people face issues that are big.

Note: I am seeking to create dialogue on programs that aim to empower. If you have feedback or thoughts, send me an email at

“What will you do with this information?”

It has taken me about a month to formulate this post, as I am facing an ever-evolving conception of my own identity and how it plays out in the spaces I occupy. I wish to reflect on experiences I have had learning about social entrepreneurship through meeting with beneficiaries of organizations and businesses.

YARID (Youth African Refugees for Integral Development) is a Ugandan organization that seeks to help refugees and asylum seekers become self-reliant through offering educational services, such as language and computer training. Prior to coming to the organization, we were not informed that we would be meeting with refugees. We sat in small groups with a translator and asked questions. Very sensitive information was shared; for example, one man shared that his daughter had been killed. I tried to tread lightly, to honor their experiences, and to proceed with sensitivity. At the end of our discussion, we were asked to stand up and present the information we had just heard from the beneficiaries in our group.

This was an extremely confusing and challenging experience for me. I did not want to serve as a “voice” for these people. I did not want to claim their experience and shift it into my own words. I felt as though constructing a presentation was a direct undermining of the legitimacy and intensity of what they had experienced. The tricky part was that the organization asked us to present the information this way.

While we were presenting, a woman raised her hand and asked us, “What will you do now that you have this information?”

At another organization, we received this same question from beneficiaries, who asked what we had to offer them. Beneficiaries of Tugende, an organization that helps motorcyclist taxi drivers own their own their own vehicles, took time away from earning money to meet with us. They were told we would share ideas with them, but yet, we were the ones who extracted as much information from them as we could from them, and contributed nothing.

These people have a right to ask us why we take time and information from them, but yet do not reciprocally give anything. The question is hard to answer, and usually the best answer we have found is to tell them we are students here to learn, not professionals, and that we are studying such organizations with the intent of engaging in some way with the field later down our career lines. We cannot offer false promises, we are not able to invest, and we could cause more harm than good if we intervened or offered “advice”. Additionally, there are complexities of our own identities that play into the role we might have engaging with organizations we visit in other countries where we know little.

It can be said that designing solutions, and imposing them upon a place could be considered to be a new form of colonialism or a type of imperialism. Because the USA is well-off, we may attribute our own prosperity to the inherent superiority of our systems, disregarding other influences that produced this prosperity. Many people I know are born into privilege, and are blind to how much they did not contribute to the way their life currently is. To go to a location, forgetting co-design and inclusive design, and imposing a solution might be a serious mistake.

On this program, we have extensively studied ethics, especially in the context of design anthropology. I am warned repeatedly and advised to think critically about the implications of “development work”, and how I should be cautious about my role as an outsider. But how should I respond when I am asked, “What will you do now?” after asking someone to speak with me about their organization for sometimes about three hours, as has happened on this program.

I have also felt unjustly privileged as a visitor to organizations on this program. When we visited a community meeting in a rural village in Uganda, we expected to observe quietly in the back. However, we were seated separately from the community and often the words of the speakers seemed addressed to us, rather than the community members at the meeting.

Amidst the ethical challenges, I have also highly valued certain experiences we have had engaging with beneficiaries, for there have been elements of cultural exchange where I have felt like I have had something to give. When we met young girls who were members of a women’s empowerment program, we exchanged games and learned more about each other. We laughed and formed relationships. We were all happy and fulfilled after this exchange.

Even after this site visit; however, I was faced with deliberation on my own engagement with social media. At many sites we have visited, people have taken many pictures of us without our consent. We have been the subject of blog posts, and we have been entertaining visual objects that people seem to want to have on their phones for who knows what purpose.

We have made sure to get consent for the images we have taken to share, such as the image that is posted on my blog with my case study group and the young girls of the empowerment program. Although we have consent for this image, one of my program members also posted it on social media. Putting this image on Facebook conveys the message that these people are part of our tourist experience, and may be shown to others with the intent of conveying a story. Is it meant to be a reflection of our own identities? Does it once again do more good for us than them?

My engagement with my own identity and privilege is ongoing. In no way does it end here, but I encourage my readers to think critically about exploitation that can occur in experiential learning, despite its immense value.

Little Ones

Doing homework on my top bunk is frequently interrupted by my four-year old host sister flinging open the door, and asking if we can listen to Frozen on my laptop. Sometimes, to humor her requests, I alternate Frozen songs with “ABC” by the Jackson Five, and swing her around when the intro to ABC starts playing, resulting in an uproar of giggles from her. The one-year old occasionally wanders into the room, usually with the TV remote in his mouth, which is occasionally substituted for miscellaneous items such as chicken bones, a pack of pills, or something that has gone “missing” from either my stuff or that of my homestay roommate’s.

Yesterday, my housemate and I had a mountain of homework, and the four-year old wandered into the room. I asked her if she could find something quiet to do, such as draw with the colored pencils we gave her. She went looking for the colored pencils (for about five seconds), and then came back saying they were lost. I told her to go get a book to read from the house. She ran out of the room, and yelled through a closed door to her mother, “MOMMY I NEED THE BIBLE”.

The little ones have been destructive, and they have managed to break a fan in our room that helps Olivia with her asthma and the toilet in the house. However destructive they are, though, we will dearly miss them.

The four-year old mirrors me as I brush my teeth with her, and if I make a noise and show my teeth as I brush them, she will do the same thing and laugh. We have mirrored each other as we eat, and I allow her to make ridiculous movements that I mirror to get her to eat healthy food.

I have stood outside on the front stoop with my little sister in my arms, watching the rain poor in the sunshine. Ugandans say this weather means a leopard is giving birth. In the rain-sunshine, I swept the four-year old through the air superman style so she could “swim” in the rain.

She cannot yet read, but will pick up my notebooks and books and tell me either what she thinks they say or what she wants them to say. She has tried my salt and vinegar chips and dark chocolate espresso beans only to be disgusted and them promptly ask for more. The bathroom door does not close all the way, so showering always requires some degree of alertness to ensure that she will not peep through the crack or fling the door open.

This spunky girl, along with her adorable siblings, will be the most challenging part of Uganda to leave behind.

Girl Up, Read Up

Red dust kicked up all around us as we sang, march, shrieked, and listened to the young girls of Girl Up. Eventually I sat in the dust, surrounded by about fifteen of the girls and had the chance to ask them about Girl Up and how it has affected their lives. Many Ugandan girls will not look you in the eye when you greet them, and tend to be soft-spoken and shy as a demonstration of respect. Contrary to this, the young girls I spoke to, who ranged from about 8 to 13 years old, looked me dead in the eye and confidently responded to my questions.

One of the girls mentioned that Girl Up gave her the skills and confidence to say no to sex. Another girl lauded the reusable pads the girls made together. The girls had gained self-advocacy skills, self-management and self-care skills, and most importantly, had learned that their bodies and their lives are under their own control.

In Uganda, domestic violence, HIV, early sex, pregnancy, lack of access to feminine hygiene products, and low self-esteem remain highly problematic for young girls. HIV newly infects about 500 young girls per day in Uganda, and many girls become pregnant around age 12. The cost of feminine hygiene products is too high for many girls, and many girls face husbands who do not want to use family planning. The rate of unsafe abortions is high.

The founder of Girl Up, a bright and welcoming woman named Monica, built the initiative to bring about positive change for young girls. The organization incudes a savings program to help women save independently of their husbands, a club in schools that trains young girls who then serve as “Big Sisters” to the other girls, a tailoring program, and many education initiatives to teach girls about their bodies, their rights, and self-advocacy skills.

The community is all linked in, as the organization works with teachers, parents, doctors, and even the police to create an environment conducive to support and empowerment. The program pulls in boys from schools and men from the community to create “champions” who fight societal norms that result in gender violence and serve as allies.

When we met with the “coaches” of the organization, we were welcomed with singing and dancing. As we danced, a woman came up behind me and tied a large, dark red sash around my waist. In Uganda, the sashes move when you shake your hips, and I attempted to try and imitate the coaches. The dancing and singing was reflective of the organization: unabashed, fearless, and instantly a positive and supportive.

Girl Up is a critical program working to better the lives of girls in Uganda. It is not large enough to reach as many girls as it would like to. It still needs all the support it can get to continue to grow. Check out the website here.

Transportation: A Series of Spontaneous Adventures, Unfortunate Mishaps, and Lasting Confusion and Chaos Featuring Homestay Partners Greta and Olivia (abbreviated G and O due to texting fee per character)

Adventure One: “You’ll go to jail!”

Joan, a student at the local Mkerere University, partners with Bryn and I to do a scavenger hunt around town. Joan grips our wrists and herds us through our first experience with the busy streets of Kampala. Boda-bodas, which are motorcycle taxis, flood the streets and unexpectedly appear at all angles. Cars zoom at us, often on the wrong sides of roads, and kids on the streets chase us and hang off our arms, saying “Hi Muzungu” (“white person” in Luganda). Bryn and I dodge traffic, sweating in the heat and sun, and jump briefly onto the grassy median in the middle of the street to avoid being hit by cars. Joan sharply tells us, “Get off!! That’s illegal! You’ll go to jail!”

Adventure Two: “Take them. I can’t.”

Olivia and I must get to our class in Wandegeya from our home in Ntinda by 9:30 a.m. Our homestay mother, Lisa, tells us her friend will drive us. Debi picks us up at 8:00, and we immediately end up stuck in immense traffic. Debi, extroverted and friendly, alternates chatting with us and calling various friends of hers. She occasionally drives on the sidewalk to pass lines of cars piled up. She tells us she must be at a meeting at 9, so we end up at her work place without an explanation of how we will proceed. After a few minutes, a friend of hers walks up to us and walks us about a half mile away where we board a taxi. The taxis here each have room for about 20 people, and to get on and off you say where you are going and bang on the walls of the taxi when you have reached your destination. Everyone sitting in front must clamber out in order for those in the back to be able to exit. It is a constant game of shuffling and squeezing in to fit on the edge of the seat. We exit the taxi and are lost. After wandering for some time we finally reach the classroom. Only an hour late.

Adventure Three: “Getting home is easy”.

Samuel, a homestay brother of Madeline and Kathryn, picks us up from school to help us get home. We board one taxi, and ride for a while before Samuel tells us we must get off to board another taxi. We ride for a bit, and Samuel tells us we need to get off again. We end up walking and find a few parked empty taxis. One is going where we want, but is parked so close to the other taxis I have to suck in my breath and turn sideways to get to the door. There we wait, until the taxi is full before driving again. Once more Samuel tells us we need to get off. Here we walk back to Samuel’s house and he gives us a ride home in his car. “Now you can do this by yourself!”

Adventure Four: “Get out of the car”

Our homestay parents decide to take us out on Friday night. Olivia and I drive with our homestay mother through the dark streets, A cop in blue camouflage on a motorcycle pulls ahead of us and signals for us to pull over. We have done nothing wrong or strange, so Lisa continues to drive. Once again the cop pulls ahead of us and signals for us to slow down. We stop, and the cop moves over to Lisa’s window. She asks what is wrong, and he won’t say. She asks again if she has a flat tire and he tells her to get out of the car. Olivia immediately says, “This doesn’t feel right” and I am braced with fear. Thoughts are racing through my mind of how quickly I will be able to jump in the driver’s seat and drive away if something goes wrong. A massive rifle is hanging around the cop’s neck, and he is speaking with our homestay mother in front of the car. Eventually, Lisa comes back in the car and tells us he wanted money. We drive away, safe.

Jumbled Spaces

I will not miss the heavy metal music that our hostel routinely blares each night. I have tried to shield myself against the angst and anxiety it has given me each weekday night with my headphones and mellow Ben Howard playlist, but yet it finds me each time I need to lend my ears to something other than my own music. The music accompanies the depictions of monstrous and distorted animals in frames, along with a plethora of misplaced “décor”; including a spinning red spew of light and dead plants. Each morning, the hostel also believes that no morning is complete without a soundless projection of a cartoon, including the fear-invoking “Spirited Away” which I have had absolutely no desire to re-watch since I saw it once and only once back in maybe, 2007. My friend Stephen inquired about the monstrous music and was met with a bearded and hardened “We don’t take requests”.

What I will miss is the city of San Francisco. The breeze and sun while biking across the Golden Gate Bridge, above sun-speckled water and vibrant color. Our time here has been full of minimalist and plant-filled tech offices, tool-filled spaces, and relentless and creative individuals. “Look what I made here” and “here is what I built” have pushed me to begin to sketch and create again; to open the notebook and press the end of my pen into my cheek, deep in thought.

In the tenderloin, we have stepped over heaps of blanketed and sleeping people, victimized by gentrification and high housing prices. We have avoided feces while walking to class, and not quite avoided a stomach illness that grounded us in bed for a few days. We have been met again and again with uncertainty and fear in the current political climate. People here are in suspense, watching the presidential decisions unfold with still, wide eyes. “How will it affect your organization?” “We aren’t quite sure yet.”

A special space this week was Tech Shop, where we saw “makers”, otherwise known as individuals buzzing about the myriad of tools in the creation space. These transformers clanked around or leaned in to their computer screens, unblinking. They seemed to be on the brink of toppling forward only to be engulfed by the device.

More gadgets were in IDEO’s design space. The heart defibrillator rested among the known and unknown objects, crafted by inventors in the space. There was a tent that was made to hover two feet above the ground, suspended between trees (How is there a market for this?). Sticky notes of all colors painted the walls and desks.

After some intense malaria pill calculations and laundromat hunt, we are finally off to Uganda tomorrow. Excited and intrigued.

Beginning in San Francisco

I am facing my first exposure to bricolage.

Bricolage as a word was previously unfamiliar. It is loosely defined as creation from what is available to a person; an improvisation using the resources on hand. I have been in San Francisco, admiring the novelty of entrepreneurial bricolage that leaders and activists have employed to address social issues.

It is important to note that our classroom is situated next to the Freedom Archives, and has served as a hideout for Angela Davis when she was evading law enforcement. I have participated in discussion generated from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s incredible talk The Danger of a Single Story, and have been lost in thought over the abundance of posters of Castro and references to Marxist thought in some of the spaces I have visited.

Of the entrepreneurial bricolage I have seen, my program visited the Delancey Street Foundation today. The organization has built a remarkable and effective program through employing the participants it aims to benefit. Through employment, participants do not earn wages, but rather gain skills and have opportunities to work their way up in the jobs available. The selection process is careful to select motivated participants who have experienced difficulty changing their lives, and the participants support each other as many have shared experiences and backgrounds.

Other examples I have seen of bricolage have been in response to the abundance of homelessness in San Francisco. In the Tenderloin, the presence of people without a home is large and uncomfortable. On a walking tour of the Tenderloin presented by the creator of Code Tenderloin, a program focused on helping people secure long term employment, we stopped in a church that opens its doors during the day to allow people to sleep on the pews. Looking around to see some thirty people resting, and leaving the church to nearly have to step over people laying on the streets, I have thought to myself again and again, this is not sufficient.
Partially due to the housing crisis in San Francisco and gentrification, homelessness has remained a problem that entrepreneurial bricolage has helped but needs massive structural readjustment to really be alleviated.

There is much to reflect on, and I am in the infancy of this tremendous experience. The bombardment of valuable information has been both overwhelming and invigorating.

Class Blog: Voices from Cornell Abroad

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