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I recently came across this article, via the NY Times Motherlode blog, which describes the frustrations experienced by the mother of an autistic child. Her frustrations lie not with the travails of raising an autistic son, but with the world around him and how his peers respond to him: not through empathy or care, but as if he were their charity project. Worse still, they are self-congratulatory about the many ways that they have “helped” her son, through participation in an alternative sports club. A few key passages:

One Saturday morning last year, Marc and I sat in the synagogue listening to a boy we know from our town deliver his bar mitzvah speech. “For my mitzvah project I’m so proud of all the work I did for the Alternative League,” he said. “I’m really good at sports, so I was able to share all my skills with those kids.”

There it is again. Those kids.

“I hope I helped their lives in some way,” he added.

Marc leaned in. “Did he come to any of our games?” he whispered.

“I saw him there once. Maybe twice?” I whispered back.

Here’s what particularly galled me: this kid, all self-congratulatory smiles, actually lives in our neighborhood. He’s close in age to our son Mickey. But in all these years, this boy has never – – not once – rung the doorbell to ask if my son wants to come out and play.

*****

My friend Susan, the parent of a child with a disability, tells me that last year some boy on her block who had an assignment for his church’s confirmation class asked to “borrow” her son Jacob. They played basketball in the driveway for ten minutes, till the boy’s mother came running to document the event with her digital camera. Susan showed less forbearance than I. “I’m sorry,” she said, stepping firmly between Jacob and the camera. “I feel very uncomfortable with you photographing him. My son isn’t a project. He’s a person.”

*****

I’m tired of other parents who expect me to go all soft-eyed and grateful because their kids spend one hour a week on a soccer field kicking a ball around with my son. My child isn’t a mascot. He isn’t a charity case. He isn’t a community project. He’s a kind-hearted, teen-age boy who enjoys having friends. And he happens to have autism.

This article hit me really close to home as I read it. As the older sibling of two kids with disabilities, I respond pretty viscerally to stories like this. I remember watching my brother and sister (they’re twins) enter high school freshman year, when I was a senior. Watching them, with heartbreak, from afar as their peers teased them, ignored them, or talked down to them. I would’ve been enraged if I knew that people used them for their own self-promotion. That by “befriending” my siblings, they would gain access to scholarships, get into ivy league universities, etc. I can completely sympathize with the mom who wants people to view her son as a full person – not a project.

But, just as much as Kupferberg’s article reminded me of my own brother and sister, it reminded me of much of the workings and attitudes within the development world. When the poor and the marginalized become projects – absent from real relationships – we fail to do our jobs. When we make a group of people into “those people” who should consider themselves lucky to receive the charity we’re giving them, we’re reenacting the dynamic that Kupferberg describes in her article on a large scale. If we think that working with “those kids” or “those poor people” is a reason for us to congratulate ourselves on what wonderful people we are, we are sorely amiss. There is another subtle message in this article, which is that Kupferberg’s son, and others like him, have a lot to offer their peers. This mirrors what the asset based community development school of thought says about poor communities: there is much knowledge and value in these communities, and this value should be central to any development that takes place.

Put more simply: the “other”-ing of both individuals and communities for our own gain is not only harmful to the individual/community, it also prevents us from learning something new and useful.

I feel a bit of irony writing about this, as I have benefitted greatly on account of the work I’ve done with various communities: from my admittance to Northwestern to my Mitchell scholarship.  So the article hits me very personally as well.  But I think Kupferberg’s main point is about the attitude with which we engage these people and communities.  Is it for our own gain, where we possess all the knowledge and are mostly working to advance our own careers?  Or is it for collective gain, where everybody learns and everybody teaches, for everybody’s benefit?  I hope that I can continually strive to work towards the latter.

Reading this reminded me of the pain experienced by individuals who are made into a project.  I want to keep re-reading it, to remind myself of that danger in my own work, and the very real consequences it can have.

some of Galway's Christmas decorations

Merry Christmas from Galway!

On this, our second Christmas away from home, we tried to celebrate as best we could. Last year, at least, Jon and I had my dad, uncle Cliff, and friend Matt with us to celebrate. So it was still a family affair. This year, though, we were on our own. Lucky for us, Shane (a Mitchell scholar who studies in Limerick) took a bus up to Galway on Thursday to join us in our celebration.

Just before Christmas, Ireland was hit with a little bit of snow – which is quite rare. We were hoping for a white Christmas, but instead we got a frosty and foggy Christmas eve.

fog on Christmas eve morning

It was really a beautiful day. The ice/snow had frozen to the still-green leaves of plants and to barren tree branches, making the world around us feel a little more magical and Christmas-y.

To make up for the fact that we were away from home, we attempted to do as many fun Christmas things as we could. On Christmas Eve night, we lit a fire in the fireplace, opened gifts from my mom (which is our tradition from that side of the family), and baked Christmas cookies. We headed over to a midnight church service at our local Anglican church (where Christopher Columbus is reported to have once prayed), and welcomed Christmas with candlelight and carols.

Shane and I bake cookies on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas morning, we woke up and opened presents. Shane was wise and brought his gifts from his family to our place, and so we all had something to unwrap. We opened gifts in the tradition of my family: from youngest to oldest, one at a time.

After the gifts, we made a big brunch of crepes with all the fixings: berries, bananas, nutella, lemon and sugar, and whipped cream. After recovering from the big meal, we went for a long walk along the ocean with Michael (another Mitchell scholar) and his family, who are visiting him.

Christmas morning breakfast

Christmas dinner was another big cooking adventure – red wine, prune, and thyme chicken, with garlic green beans, carrots, and mashed potatoes. Everything turned out well, despite the fact that most of it was a first-time attempt.

Throughout both Christmas Eve and Christmas day, Shane, Jon, and I all made frequent use of Skype to be a part of our families’ Christmases far away. I opened my presents in front of the video camera so that mom could watch. Jon was a digital participant in his family’s gift unwrapping session as well. Between the three of us, we chatted with numerous uncles and aunts, grandparents, siblings, and nieces and nephews. What a relief it was to have the technology to help us feel a little closer to those we love and miss.

This year’s Christmas was peaceful, full of sweets, and full of love, despite the fact that our families were an ocean away.  As much as I look forward to spending Christmas with my family next year, I think I will always look back at this pleasant Christmas fondly.  Nollaig shona duit (merry Christmas!) to you and yours this week.

Last minute shopping on Shop Street in Galway.

a gorgeous streetscape in Rome, complete with motorcycles, graffiti, and that beautiful orange color.

We recently took a post-finals week break by booking cheap Ryanair flights to Rome for a couple days.  This is my favorite photo from the trip – I think it captures Rome perfectly.

Part of my “job” as a Mitchell Scholar is to write quarterly reflections on my experiences in Ireland.  Our reflections were published last week.  You can read mine, reposted below, and what the other scholars have to say, here.

I have a thing for birds. Last year, while living in Uganda, I became obsessed with identifying every weaver, hornbill, and crane that crossed my path. And although the birding is a bit less thrilling here in Ireland, I swoon every time I see a swan gently paddling down the canal that feeds into the River Corrib. So back in September, when Michael (Mitchell scholar), Jon (my husband), and I stumbled across a flock of 40 (yes, 40) swans while on a walk through the Claddagh, I knew that living in Galway would make me very happy indeed.

This year in Galway marks my second year living as an expatriate, and I find myself constantly comparing my life in Kampala to my life here. I’m sure you can imagine the many differences: in Galway, I wash our clothes in a spiffy little machine that resides in the kitchen. In Kampala, laundry was a chore I spent hours doing every week by hand (although, believe it or not, I rather enjoyed it). In Galway, every time the sun shines, I soak it in, because I know it won’t last long. In Kampala, I was constantly seeking out a patch of cool shade. In Galway, the language is English, and I manage to blend in, despite my painfully American accent and fashion sense. In Kampala, I struggled to use my hard-earned Luganda (the local language) correctly and became accustomed to the feeling of being watched. The similarities between my two adopted homes are apparent as well. In both Galway and Kampala, drinking tea is an important social custom, the soccer fans are zealous, and the people are so warm that you are immediately put at ease. Both Kampala and Galway have made their mark on me, and in Galway, I know that the process is still just beginning. Galway, with its twisty cobblestone streets, omnipresent street musicians, and sweet salt air, affords me with somewhat of a fairytale existence. It is easy to while away a day exploring the passageways near my apartment, in the center of the city, window-shopping when the weather is dry and escaping into a café when the rain inevitably begins again. And since Galway is a big tourist city, it’s easy to forget that I’m not actually on vacation; that I’m here to do work.

Work is definitely a big part of my life in Galway. Although at times it is frustrating to have my laid-back vacation bubble popped, I am so grateful that my program is turning out to be exactly what I hoped it would be. The MA in Gender, Globalization and Rights is a part of the Global Women’s Studies program at NUI Galway and is introducing me and my 10 classmates to the intricacies of feminist theory, the Bretton Woods institutions, the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, grassroots development methods, and how they are all connected. In other words: more than I bargained for, but in a good way. I am confident that what I’m learning now will be useful in the near future, and that’s a good feeling.

Although I love Galway, I have used the majority of my weekends to escape to other places in search of adventure. Traveling throughout the island of Ireland has been a main feature of my travel thus far, and I’ve spent time in Belfast, Cork, and Dublin with the Mitchells. In fact, tomorrow I’m taking a day trip to Limerick to learn more about Irish Aid and to pay a visit to Shane. I’ve also had the chance to visit London with friends from home, and Bremen, Germany, with Irish friends, Michael, and Jon. All of the travel has given me an excuse to improve my photography, a hobby I’ve kept up since my Uncle Cliff taught me how to use a darkroom in the fifth grade. Meanwhile, I am watching Jon and myself become more and more Irish as the days go by. Jon is starting to add “like” at the end of his sentences. I prefer “Dja know?” as it is awfully close to the old Minnesotan saying, “Dontcha know?” I’ve stopped complaining about the rain and started drinking tea several times a day. The familiar process of acquiring the idiosyncrasies of a place is beginning to happen to me once again.

I can’t write a about my first couple of months without mentioning my fellow Mitchell Scholars. So many words come to mind when I think of the group: energetic, social, well-read, empathetic, hilarious, loyal, open-minded. I’ve already had so much fun with the group, as well as with people one-on-one, that it’s exciting to think that we have much more in store this year. I feel especially lucky to have Michael in Galway with me, to share the joys of our Mitchell year, and look forward to having Rebekah join us here in January. To my fellow scholars: Here’s to many more weekends where we all sleep on the floor, meals that are cooked communally, days exploring whatever locale we end up in, and nights dancing to a certain Black Eyed Peas song.

I think it’s pretty clear that my life in Galway, and in Ireland more generally, is turning out to be pretty fantastic. Between the traveling, the perfection that is Galway, the Mitchell scholars, and my program, I’ve basically got it all. It is truly humbling to be a member of the Mitchell class of ’10, and I’m so grateful for this incredible opportunity. But the cherry on top has got to be this: a flock of swans lives less than a kilometer from my front door.

Living far away from friends and family is hard sometimes, but not nearly as hard as it used to be. I can remember my Grandpa telling me about how when he and my grandma lived in Alaska in the 1940s they used short-wave radios to communicate with family back in Illinois. Each comment was accompanied by several seconds of delay and fuzz. When I was doing fieldwork in Northern Uganda last year, Dr. Chris Dolan – Director of the Refugee Law Project where I was based – told me about how when he was doing dissertation research there in the 1990s he had to send written notes along with people on buses to get a message to Kampala. No texting, just good old word-of-mouth.

Contrasted with these former realities, the revolutionary power of Skype becomes obvious. While sitting in the same chair in my Galway apartment on a random afternoon I can see and listen to my Grandma in Belvidere, friends in Chicago, a former Ugandan colleague now studying at Notre Dame, parents and parents-in-law, etc. I can walk them around my apartment, even a little bit down the street…I can smile, laugh, choose to make eye contact or look away. In short, I can relate…and that means the world. Theoretically, I could even connect these people directly by doing a conference video call. In the click of a button my mom could see and talk to a friend I made a world away in Northern Uganda.

Of course, the joys of Skype are restricted to those who are privileged enough to have  high speed internet and a computer that can run the program. Thus, access is denied to billions. This is the curse and conundrum of the digital divide. I can only hope that with time, the divide will decrease and more and more of us that are separated by oceans will be able to walk each other around our homes, share pieces of ourselves, build relationships to the extant that the virtual world will allow, and begin the process of understanding each other just a bit better.

Me & Matt at the Mitchell Thanksgiving. Note I am eating a TOMATO!

I, along with the two other Americans in my 11-person class, have spent the last couple weeks sharing the excitement and tradition of Thanksgiving with our Irish classmates. We’ve been retelling the Thanksgiving story (well, the version we learned as Kindergardeners, maybe not the most accurate version), describing our family traditions, explaining the importance of the central idea of giving thanks, and reminiscing over the food. The Irish girls were probably sick and tired of hearing about how great Thanksgiving is by the time it rolled around last week. But no one can say we didn’t try to share its wonderfulness!

Jon and I love Thanksgiving so much, in fact, that we celebrated it three times last weekend!

On Thanksgiving day, the other Mitchell Scholars and I had the chance to visit the Irish Dail (their Parliament), sit in on some proceedings, and meet a couple of Senators, including the wonderful David Norris. We also spent some time with staff members at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Anglo – Irish Division, talking about the current state of affairs in Northern Ireland. It was a great way to spend the day. That evening, me, Jon, Michael, Matt, and Neil shared a lovely Thanksgiving dinner at Neil’s friend Sophia’s house. It was a casual night, filled with amazing food cooked lovingly by Americans missing home. We were lucky to have a couple Spanish, Irish, and English friends present for the big event.

Friday evening was Thanksgiving #2, and a big highlight of the weekend. We were invited to Irish entrepreneur (and tv personality) Niall O’Farrell’s beautiful home in Dublin for a home cooked meal. He graciously welcomed us with delicious wine and a multi-course dinner. When the final plate was set on the table, for the cheese course, I wondered if I was going to make it out alive. But you know me, always a corner of my stomach reserved for cheese. I left feeling beyond stuffed.

Saturday’s dinner was the official Mitchell celebration. Trina, the president of the US-Ireland Alliance, cooked a big ol’ turkey and the mashed potatoes, and we all brought something to share. One thing about the Mitchell Scholars: We really know our way around a kitchen! The Mitchells contributed amazing yams and sweet potatoes, lovely salads, beans, and of course, homebaked pie. Matt, an avid beer lover, even brought a variety of microbrews from his recent trip back to the States.

Christina and Bre, the bakers of pies.

If lack of wonderful food was a theme of living in Uganda last year, overeating may be the theme for this year in Ireland.

It was a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend which reminded me of the many things I have to be thankful for: good friends, amazing opportunities, my lovely husband. And of course, good food.

It seems that lately alot of good things have been happening to bad people. Corrupt politicians get to stay in office; failed businessmen get bonuses; loud, self-important media personalities get million-dollar book deals; warlords get paid off. And the good person – hardworking, humble, kind, honest – finishes second, just a step behind everyone else.

However, the recent successes of two friends challenge this reality and give me hope.

Tom Lee, a 2006 Northwestern graduate, got a big break last month when his photos for a story on the tuna fishing industry were used on the cover of the November 9 TIME Magazine. I met Tom while working on the Global Engagement Summit in 2005. Tom took photos for the Summit and was instrumental in the creation of the OpenShutter project – an annual student art project that seeks to challenge the stereotypical narratives we use to talk about ‘other’ people and places. I always cherished the time I spent with Tom. He exuded a combination of raw talent and down-to-Earth manor that I had never quite encountered before. You never hear Tom talk about his many awards or accomplishments. His interest is in listening and learning from whoever he’s with. He can talk to an amateur photographer – or someone like me with virtually no artistic sensibilities – and get genuinely excited about the incites they have to share about the topic of photography. In so doing, he makes you feel legitimate and equal. Tom is that kind of good person that you want to succeed, not just because he’s your friend, but because it gives you a sense that there is some justice in the world.

Matthew Baum is someone I’m just recently getting to know, but who invokes the same sort of sentiments in me that Tom does. Matt is a current Mitchell Scholar with Lauren that studied mollecular and cellular biology at Yale and initiated research that led to an important discovery in the field of Fragile X syndrome and the transformation of short-term memories into long-term memories. In his spare time he is a published artist and was captain of Yale’s wrestling team. But, meeting Matt, you would never know these things about him. He carries himself with a humility and humor that makes you feel welcomed, not threatened…no matter who you are or where you’re from. Last week Matt was awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. In all its preoccupation with status and the self-promotional, its heartening to know that the Rhodes felt attracted to someone like Matt.

If people like Matt and Tom are allowed to hold positions of leadership in the world over the next several decades, there is reason to hope.

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Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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