2015 Summer Fellows Research Journal

 

Each year, the Kenan Institute for Ethics provides funding for a cohort of undergraduates to form summer projects that explore the question: “What does it mean to live an ethical life?” Read along for weekly updates and reflections from this year’s Kenan Summer Fellows:

Gautam Chebrolu is a rising junior and Biomedical Engineering major from outside of Atlanta, GA. His project focuses on social entrepreneurship, and whether this field can do as much good as it claims to do. Throughout the summer, he is working with Kiva, a non-profit, to follow a micro loan from San Francisco to Nairobi, Kenya.

Jeff Feng is a rising junior from Virginia majoring in Environmental Sciences & Policy and minoring in Economics. His project examines the impacts of surface mining and the ethics of necessity through interviews with miners, activists, and other community members in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and the Hunter Valley of Australia.

Snehan Sharma is a rising sophomore from Grayson, Georgia studying History and Public Policy. His project takes him to Clarkston, GA, near his home town, to explore the challenges faced by resettled refugee youth. Over the last few decades, Clarkston has been identified as a key location for refugee resettlement in the United States.

Alex Zrenner is a rising junior from St. Louis, Missouri majoring in Economics with a minor in Mathematics. Her project looks at the ethics of the online society and economy. She is working with a cyber harassment victim advocacy organization with the goal of creating a collection of different techniques that targets of cyber harassment can use to respond.

 

Snehan – Welcome to Clarkston

Sharma01-400Hello!

My name is Snehan and I am a rising sophomore from Georgia. Although I was born and raised in the States, my family’s Nepalese heritage is an essential part of my identity. I am fluent in the Nepali language and am familiar with many common customs. Over the years, hearing countless stories about my older relatives’ childhoods—and realizing how much their early years differed from my own—has meant a lot to me. It has led me to question and want to explore the unique social challenges faced by immigrants. I’m especially interested in the experiences of the children of immigrants, who must walk the delicate tightrope between two (or more) cultures, as I have had to.

I was intentionally raised so that hopefully I would identify as much with my Nepalese influences as I do with my American ones. Personally, I think that the degree to which balancing two cultures is difficult depends on how much assimilation parents allow to occur. If my parents had named me something stereotypically American like “Joshua,” for example, some tricky identity dilemmas would be less significant. They would likely be even less significant if my family had converted to Christianity. This was never the case for me, however. A distinguishing feature of my childhood influenced by my “mixed” upbringing has been the lack of homogeneity of any kind. Socially, I’ve never been a part of the majority regarding race, religion, ethnicity, etc. I’ve maybe only ever met a handful of people who are “like” me. Although this in itself is not inherently problematic, it has certainly contributed to how I view my place in American society relative to those who may have been raised mono-culturally. Many of my own experiences served as primary motivators for my project, which is focused on identifying and exploring ethical challenges faced by refugee youth.

As a Summer Fellow, I will be spending much of my time in the city of Clarkston, Georgia, located about 11 miles northeast from the heart of Atlanta. Once a predominantly white area, its cultural landscape started changing after it was identified as a key location for refugee resettlement because of its low cost of living. Today, Clarkston is an incredibly diverse city and is home to immigrants from around the world– in fact, it is estimated that there are roughly 60 languages spoken within its 1.1 square miles. PBS has even called it “the Ellis Island of the South.”

I must admit, it feels bizarre to be back home in suburban Atlanta and yet to be growing so excited with each passing day. See, I’m home but I’m not really home—I’m soon to fully immerse myself into a community that isn’t my own and hopefully, after some time, I can be accepted more as an insider. With my project slated to begin in just a few days, all of the possibilities are finally starting to dawn on me; I have an incredible opportunity to learn so much. But I’ve realized that what has been on my mind the most is the potential of unintentionally offending the people that I interact with. After all, I am going to interview people who have endured unimaginable hardship. I’m essentially prying into personal aspects of their lives and that could lead me into sensitive territory if I am not careful about how I conduct myself.

I hope that by keeping the purpose of my project in the forefront of my day-to-day communications with the Clarkstonians will help everything run smoothly. I intend to identify and analyze the moral conflicts that are endured by resettled refugee youth on a daily basis and how these influence their pursuit of personal goals. As I mentioned earlier, they fall into the category of “mixed” upbringing individuals. However, their circumstances are even more challenging, considering that they were raised mono-culturally for a large part of their lives and are now having to adjust. Therefore, I have a hunch that refugee youth must have to make some difficult decisions regarding their identities and relationships. Do they try to appease their parents and relatives who have remained very culturally traditional? Do they make an effort to assimilate and subsequently “fit in” by trying new American traditions? Where should the line be drawn? How can the youth resolve this discord whilst also remaining true to their own hopes and dreams for themselves? Who and what, if anything, might be actively complicating the process of identity formation for youth? This is what I would like to better understand after my many weeks of conducting interviews.

Having volunteered at a predominantly Bhutanese after-school program in Clarkston during my final year of high school, I have some experience with this community. I feel like I have some basic understanding of the types of daily struggles faced by a lot of the young people in Clarkston, but much of it is still unfamiliar to me. I have heard rumors of mental disorders, gang violence, drug abuse, etc. in the community—but now, I have a chance to see for myself. Then, during the final weeks of my project, I hope to work with existing organizations in Clarkston to work toward resolving an issue that has proven to be socially problematic. While undetermined, I hope to uncover what this problem might be during the interviewing phase of the project.

I’ve decided that it is probably best to get acclimated to the Clarkston a little bit better before starting the interviews. It’ll allow me the opportunity to make some important observations that will help me better form my questions. I can also use this opportunity to record some of the sounds of the city.

But, before any of this, I should probably figure out how to work the ridiculously technical audio recorder that I have…

Wish me luck,

Snehan Sharma


Gautam – Chasing Good Intentions

Gautam01-400As I write this on the way to San Francisco, I am pretty anxious. Not because I am cramped in the middle seat on the runway for 2.5 hours (which I am), but because I have no idea what is going to happen in the next three months. Not to overstate it, but I am terrified.

I’ve done the planning. I’ve found the contacts. I know, to some extent, what I am supposed to do. But I’ve never done anything like this before and have doubts about my success. Of course, that all hinges on what you consider a “successful” project. I simply want to understand more. How can I accept the empowering magic of social ventures wholeheartedly like I am told to do in entrepreneurship programs, if I have no experience with it? So here I am, on my way to broaden my mind. First stop: the San Francisco Bay Area, THE hub of innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Sorry, we are just swamped at the moment.”

Great.

This is the not-at-all surprising response I have received from the majority of companies that I contacted. Just like Duke students, they are busy all the time. And this seems to be how the fast-paced, innovative environment of the Bay Area—a social entrepreneurship Mecca—operates. Constantly in motion. Searching for the next BIG thing.

In a world where 20% of Harvard’s grads are going into finance–and a number represent Duke as well—for the financial stability and the prestige, I have to wonder if the popularity of microfinance has to do with the same reasons, except now coupled with the automatic assumption that the investor is a “good person.”

Then there is the huge push for innovation and entrepreneurship on the engineering and business side, leading to the creation of an entire department-like initiative and a certificate program at Duke in the past two years. Within this, there are multiple calls for “social entrepreneurship,” which is as broad a term as the California coast, boiling down to when finances and social good are intertwined. And many of Duke’s departments and initiatives are being aggressive about it: The Ebola Innovation Challenge, ChangeWorks, HackDuke: Code for Good, the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke, Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, 10+ Student Organizations, and multiple events and conferences throughout the year.

This is the fertile land I was planted in.

And these were the ideas that got me thinking about this project. Although motives are not going to be my only focus, there are numerous examples of unintended consequences when working with social good:

  • There is some evidence that after a group of volunteers for Habitat for Humanity (read: unskilled construction workers) completes a house and leaves, a group of contractors is called in to mark up the house and essentially rebuild certain parts. If the original job was especially egregious, the cost of this whole operation pushes near to the market price, leaving little benefit gained from the volunteers.
  • Before the NCAA final, championship shirts are made for both of the teams. The shirts featuring the losing team (read: not Duke) are then donated to various villages across developing nations. Sounds good, right? However, a lot of these villages rely on a used goods market and a new influx of free clothing undermines it and potentially puts individuals out of work.
  • When I was in Guatemala last year, there are multiple service groups that take vans up to villages in remote mountain areas to provide basic clinic care for free. They are consistent, but their dedication causes a few issues. The engineer I was working with that had lived there for many years described how if serious health complications come about in the few-month period between visits, the villagers will wait until the van comes again with happy college students, assuming that they would know how to treat the patient.
  • Then there is Toms, a for-profit whose business model is that for every pair of shoes bought in America, one pair is donated to someone in Peru. However, the distribution of these free shoes is haphazard at best and the actual shoes themselves only last a few months in the mountains. This is even worse when considering that an equivalent amount of funds provided directly to the community could put a much larger and more sustainable dent in public health and safety issues.

All of these examples are based in good intention. I am not refuting that. But what does intention account for, if the end result hurts? I guess since there is more benefit—a slightly cheaper house, a free shirt for many, free basic clinic care, and shoes for at least a few months—they are “good” initiatives.

But then how do we evaluate all social ventures, especially when they are intertwined with business?

The reason I ended up choosing to focus on microfinance was because of the story of SKS. It was and is the largest microfinance corporation in Andhra Pradesh, the state in India where my parents grew up and nearly all my extended family lives. After there were public protests against the company, some journalists decided to look closer and found that SKS’ business model led to more aggressive collection practices and making riskier loans. The end result: over 200 suicides.

One would have been too much.

But we can’t forget that SKS has helped thousands of individuals who needed a small loan. There are hundreds of thousands of success stories across the world, and the founder of the Grameen Bank (the first microloan institution), Mohammed Yunus, even received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

So do we take a more utilitarian approach when thinking about these institutions? I don’t think so? Should there be more regulation on microfinance and possibly social entrepreneurship? Definitely. How do we do that? I don’t know, but I want to see what I can find out.

The process I am going to take is to invest in an individual through Kiva (a non-profit facilitator of microloans). I can go to their website, pool in about $20 with a bunch of other investors, all of which is sent as one payment. I will visit the Kiva offices in San Francisco, see how they process my money, and then make it across the world to work with the entrepreneur himself. I have chosen Charles of Whiteline Entrepreneurs because he is very close by to where I am staying and is in the electrical equipment business. As you can see at the bottom of the picture, there is a “personal story” and an “endorsement,” which Kiva provides. I will get more into these in the coming weeks.


Jeff – Ethics of Necessity

Feng01-400Last summer, I ventured into the Appalachian Mountains for the first time. The mountains stretched across the sky, puncturing and rolling across the atmosphere. They seemed to go on and on methodically like the waves of a massage chair, gently kneading the clouds and relaxing anyone happening to drive by. But my ten-minute mountain massage would soon come to an end as I entered coal country.

With fellow environmental activists, I saw something that would change my view of environmental issues: a mountaintop removal site. Mountaintop removal is a surface mining practice that, through dynamite and heavy explosives, blasts off the tops of mountains in order to access the coal within. Trees and native vegetation are removed from the area, before the topsoil is wiped away and the mountaintop is blown off. Since the 1970s, the mining practice has primarily centered in the Appalachian Mountains that traverse Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Mining operations have worked on more than 500 mountaintops once full of biodiversity. In addition to these ecological concerns, the contentious process raises public health issues for communities and dilutes the job market, as the advanced technology requires less manpower. But these weren’t my first thoughts as I glanced upon the mining site.

In exchange for the rolling mountains that I was familiar with, stubbed excuses for geologic beauties entered my line of sight. I wondered how the practice could be legal when the resulting land was clearly in disarray. The notion of reclamation was called into question—how can a mountain without its top ever look like its original state? At the time I could not deny the collateral damage of the surface mining, and from personal anecdotes that I would later hear, each step of the process posed numerous risks to both the environment and the surrounding communities. The stubbed mountains served as reminders of the drastic externalized costs that residents accept for a livelihood in one of the most impoverished regions in the nation.

That week I was attending a training camp for environmental activists opposed to mountaintop removal. Their views of the mining practice were cohesive and united: stop mountaintop removal. As they listed out the grievances that I had already observed, I began to push the ethical questions I had about miners away. If all these activists were not explicitly mentioning the ethics of necessity that the miners faced, in that miners can either choose to provide for their families or not, then I would only footnote these concerns in my mind as well. The initial shock of seeing the mining site prevented me from distinguishing the ethical questions that activists face in their advocacy.

And that brings me to my summer project. As an outsider I cannot even fathom what it is like to work in the mines, be a local activist, or frankly live as a community member who chooses not to have a say in the environmental conflicts that inevitably arise from surface mining operations. I have a choice in which issues I advocate for just as mining companies can decide who bears the costs of their operations. The people living in those communities —miners, activists —they don’t have as much of a choice and confront the ethics of necessity. Miners accept the tradeoffs to the environment, their health, and other risks in exchange for economic sustenance, while local activists accept that miners will lose jobs in the hopes of protecting communities and the environment. By respecting local knowledge, I can begin to understand this environmental conflict and how people experience the impacts of surface mining depending on the ethics of necessity.

Environmental conflicts arise out of different contexts, which has led me to return to the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia and decide to go to Australia, where the differences are stark. Studying multiple case studies will allow me to determine if there are similarities with the ways in which people regard surface mining. In the communities that I visit in the same region, the mining process will remain constant; however, the extent of the environmental impacts will differ. By looking at two different regions in the United States and Australia, I will attempt to determine how similar the conflicts can be and how they can vary according to culture. In West Virginia, I will live in a community on the cusp of a mountaintop removal site and interview local miners, activists, and other community leaders. In the second leg of my project, I will travel to the Hunter Valley of Australia and interview the same cohorts, but the questions will focus on open cut coal mining instead of mountaintop removal. The ethical questions that each region faces may be similar or they may be completely different, given the cases stretch across two countries.

By the end of this experience, I hope to leverage a greater understanding of environmental conflicts and confront my own personal bias. It will be challenging to navigate interactions with cultural awareness, as I will be clearly marked as an outsider. Furthermore, I wonder how many miners will agree to talk with me if they assume that I am only there to end their way of life. In my conversations, I expect I’ll run into more challenges and experience dissonant consciousness-raising that may highlight the shadow side of loving the mountains.

Snehan – A Migrant Generational Divide

Sharma02-400From the first time I visited Clarkston a few years ago, I could feel that it is a special place. But the time I spent there this past week has made me realize that it is truly a hidden gem. I have not experienced any other place in the United States that is anything like it. Even just a few hours spent in the town is a treat for the senses–smells and sights are often reminiscent of those found in other countries. Forgetting where you are can be a strange yet delightful occurrence. Most of the stores near the heart of the town, around the intersection of Market Street and North Indian Creek Drive, are independently owned and operated by local residents. Most common are Vietnamese, Bhutanese, and Eritrean enterprises located in two main plazas. This sense of internationality seems to culminate at the Your Dekalb Farmers Market, a massive international grocery store that has flags from every country hanging from its ceiling; the employees are mostly immigrants, and the merchandise is fresh and often exotic. However, it seems that shopping at this establishment, which has long been a Metro Atlanta staple and is approaching its 40th year of operation, is the only interaction that most Atlantans have with the Clarkston area.

Whether they are walking or driving, there are always people around town. And the generally affable and hardworking locals seem to radiate a sense of unity. Things aren’t perfect in Clarkston—the condition of the infrastructure in many areas is poor and crime, violent or otherwise, is not uncommon. People seem to realize and embrace this notion well, however. Everyone seems to know what needs to get done and how he or she can make it happen. Armed with that alone, the rest comes naturally.

For instance, I witnessed what appeared to be a refugee woman carrying a twelve-can box of pineapple Fanta and other groceries across a particularly busy road called Memorial Drive. A young boy held her right hand, and they traversed together. This scenario seems pretty ordinary—except that this box was being impressively balanced and carried on her head. See, this woman didn’t pointlessly abandon a method that had served her well simply because it is considered unorthodox by the common social norms of the country where she now lives. To carry the box in her arms would have been accepting a small opportunity to integrate into American culture. But to what avail? Nothing significant. But in exchange, by altering how she performed an everyday task, she would have further transformed her identity and lost a part of her culture too. Now, whether this woman ever faced such an internal struggle I’ll never know, but I think it is a reasonable speculative assessment.  It’s this incredible pairing of these “can do” and “will do however I please” mindsets which can be seen all around Clarkston that contributes to its charming sense of resilience.

Despite all of the great things about Clarkston, ranging from its diversity to its engaged city government, there are certain aspects of the social climate that are too imposing for some to ignore.

Apart from exploring the area, I spent most of my time in Clarkston this week at after school sites operated by the Center for Pan Asian Community Services (CPACS). I began the week at the primarily Bhutanese site I used to frequent when I was in high school and got in touch with some employees there.

Based on some of the conversations I had, it is evident that many of the rumored problems that I mentioned in my last post are indeed common. Loosely organized gangs of friends partake in unnecessary violence, underage drinking is rampant, and school attendance is low. I was disheartened to hear these problems explained to me in tones of resignation; the community seems to be at a loss without any solutions. I was told that even the parents who work long shifts most days of the week are on the verge of “giving up” on their children. They yearn to move to suburban cities like Lilburn, where the schools are better. There, they can own single-family homes instead of living in populous apartment complexes; as explained to me by a CPACS employee, this is key because a more isolated living arrangement effectively complicates logistics for groups of teens that might be looking to loiter about. Still, many Bhutanese have yet to actually realize this dream.

I can’t help but wonder if relocating just five or six miles away from Clarkston is truly the golden remedy for which these concerned parents have been searching. For growing a new family and raising very young children, these sanitized neighborhoods to which many want to escape might be ideal. But for families with adolescents, such a transition may prove futile. After all, just as the transition from the refugee camps in Eastern Nepal to Clarkston wasn’t without obstacles, the move from Clarkston to a quiet suburban town is sure to provide some hurdles as well (although not likely as severe). The youth will have to learn to readapt—surely this process can be frustrating and lead to some familial discord.

To hear about some of the issues that plague this dynamic city is certainly disconcerting, but it also manages to be somewhat inspiring. In spite of the many temptations that they face on a daily basis, so many of the youth seem to have managed to block them out successfully. I met an uncannily diligent fourth grade student at this particular after school site who craved new knowledge. At the time, he had just been told by his class tutor to learn the spellings and capitals of major world countries by writing each one numerous times. With unwavering focus and brilliant accuracy, he set to work and began internalizing the information. It was especially impressive considering that this was during the last week of school, a notoriously laid-back and fun time for elementary students in particular. For me, witnessing this raised the following questions: what is keeping this boy, and so many other students, coming to their after school program armed with notebooks and pencils each day? What motivates these kids? Do they know what is good for him and, if so, how?

Dekalb County schools closed for the summer last Friday, the 22nd. As the youth-centered non-profits like CPACS take a short break before starting their respective summer programs, I intend to work with other organizations and meet with new people who may help me build a clearer picture of the life of resettled refugee youth is like in Clarkston.

Although I feel as though I have already learned so much, I’d be naïve not to realize that I’ve only just scraped the surface when it comes to understanding the complexities of this town and its people—there’s so much still to explore.


Gautam – What Separates Social Entrepreneurship?

Gautam02-400In the past week, I got upgraded; now I am typing this from the WINDOW seat of a flight on the runway. Just kidding. Now I’m in the middle seat of the middle section, confined to a 7” screen as my connection to the outside world. And I fear this will happen to me this fall: the world of social entrepreneurship is around me, and I have been given the chance to witness a portion of it directly through a window. But when I come back to school, will I fall back into using others’ productions to understand it, even if it is a few feet away? It’s just so massive.

But back to what I saw through the window.

Even though I wore pants and long-sleeves my whole time here, the Bay Area has no chill. There is so much going on at all times, and as a self-certified high-grade people watcher, I was overwhelmed. But I believe such a close-encounter (physically, dangerously, and of the “third-kind”) environment drastically changes your perception of the world. Of course, I am the outsider commenting on a population I did not grow up around, so here is a cautious generalization/theory: when there is an abundance of sensory information at all times of the day, the body adapts and begins to focus on what seems to be the most crucial and ignore details in the surroundings because of the brain’s processing limit (aka the blasé attitude described by George Simmel). Entrepreneurs in the Bay Area are very mission-driven; they like to focus on the net impact of their ventures, and that is what motivates them. The bottom line (or the double bottom line in the case of social entrepreneurship) becomes the forefront, a mentality that has helped so many businesses find their root here.

Since I last posted, I have been soul-searching. For the soul of social entrepreneurship. Who are these mythical altruists who have decided, “Yes, I could easily run a profitable business, but why don’t I distribute the returns to someone else?”

I spent a great deal of time at places called ImpactHubs. They are spaces all over the world that are designed to support people starting up a social venture. It is almost like what a hackathon would become if it graduated from college and stopped partying all the time. There are social as well as entrepreneurial events and you can definitely feel the high amounts of energy. The first time I went to the one in San Francisco, I meandered about, too awkward to go up to any individual, because they all seemed too busy. I finally went up to one man who said that the guy sitting on the couch next to him was probably a better bet. I went with it, and it turned out to be the CEO of MissionHub, which is in charge of the major ImpactHubs across the nation (SF, Berkeley, NYC, Philly, and DC) as well as the Social Capital Markets Conference (SOCAP), one of the largest for social entrepreneurship. Thanks, universe!

What he told me is that social entrepreneurship lies in its own sector, separate from for-profit companies and non-profits, and there are important distinctions between social ventures, social entrepreneurs, social enterprises, and impact investors. I’m not going to go into details about those (probably will at the final presentation), but one thing to note is that there was A LOT of thought put into the entire structure. The answers I received were based on popular ideas in the tech industry and focused on trying to blend in social good, kind of like having a service-learning course where your main job is to learn, but you do so through volunteering. The main job is to make money, but you do so through helping others.

I also spent quite a bit of time at ImpactHub Oakland, and on May 23rd, they held the first Youth Impact Hub People’s Pitch Event, which were presentations for 9 youth-run businesses. Although IH Oakland provides essentially the same services, it is not run under Mission Hub, and because of the unique demographics and spectacularly high crime rate, this ImpactHub seems to be more focused on the local community. They partnered up with a local non-profit called United Roots that provides various resources–especially related to different forms of media–to youth in the area.

The air in the ImpactHub this Saturday was bombastic. It seemed as though everyone was excited. Before AND after every pitch and judge’s comments, there were standing ovations from nearly all of the ~80 attendees. For the actual content, nine pitches were given by Oakland natives ranging from ages 17-24, all with a focus on using a business model to empower others. I won’t describe each pitch, but I will tell you that although they were inspiring, I had my own qualms. There was one team of two high school guys that were very interested in video games and, after dealing with the deaths of family members and using video games to cope, decided they wanted to create an online multiplayer game that would help users handle grief by always playing with a partner through the challenges. They would sell this game to school systems. This is a great idea and really epitomizes using traditional commercial products to help others! However, I kept thinking about coping being a way to not remind yourself about issues and how addressing this type of situation has to be well-informed and done skillfully.

Then there were three other groups that simply seemed to be fronts for hip hop music and fashion brands to me, where the “entrepreneurs” claimed that they would reform general mentalities in the communities by making music that is not focused on sex, drugs, and money like the “junk” on the radio. This sounds great because it attempts to reform a system that creates negative environments, but as someone who has closely followed the music scene–especially hip hop–for the past couple of years and even had the same thoughts about the music industry, I have to shake my head. It is noble, and I hope that they do create the music that they do because it will add to the gradual weakening of the industrial stronghold. I just don’t agree with the presentation as a business asking for money. Hip hop is about providing for the community, not becoming a famous rapper and then donating money to the community. There is a fine but important distinction.

But why am I so negative?

Do I even have the right to criticize their pursuits? THEY are the ones putting the work in. THEY are doing so to help THEIR communities. THEIR communities are the ones that are supporting THEM financially and emotionally.

There were initiatives that were presented that definitely had my full support. These came from the women at the event and they were truly focused on empowering others. The first was a young woman who wanted to create a collective for Guatemalan immigrants–many of whom fled their homes because of political turmoil–to produce traditional clothing to sell. The purpose of the venture was to network many of the immigrants, provide an outlet to support themselves, and prevent cultural appropriation. Another was called The BIZ Stoop and acts almost like a youth temp agency to employ and connect communities with black business in the Bay Area. Not only is it a grassroots attempt to support small businesses, it is a way to culturally connect black communities all across the region.

So what did I get out of the Bay Area in the end? LinkedIn connections, of course, but also this feeling of ambivalence as well as assurance. I want to save my experience at Kiva for next week, because I am still getting settled in Nairobi, and I have a lot to say.


Jeff – Looking Behind Resistance

Feng02A-400From the tranquil breezes of autumn to the boisterous storms of winter. From the bright lights of the city to the rolling hills of the countryside. From the flying tops of a mountain to the churning blades of a wind farm. Oh, change, you seem to have no ills. You are undeniable, just as we know that Winter is Coming.

Alas, change is in the eyes of the beholder. What I perceive as a metamorphosis from waste to self-sustaining may in actuality be a shift from prescription medicine to over the counter cough syrup. How that change is introduced is another question to confront as well.

In my first interview, I suspected that change would make its stand once again. To some extent, my project explores the assumption that miners are opposed to change and activists are advocating for it and how that assumed opposition could lead to environmental conflicts.

Sally* wasn’t sure initially what people were most apprehensive about regarding the inevitable change that she predicted in the region’s future. Sally works at one of the local shops**, but her father is a coal miner and because of that she actually supports coal. She hoped that something would change, but her circumstances prevented her from taking an activist stance.

Nonetheless, she offered her insights, stating “I don’t know if people are afraid of losing their jobs or afraid of change.”

She eventually decided that a fear of change was the largest barrier to improving the economic situation in the state. Coming into this experience, people were frank in telling me that the bottom line for miners was jobs. That’s true to an extent because the desire for maintaining a good-paying job belies the resistance to change. Yet necessity runs much deeper than the loss of jobs that we examine at first glance. On the one hand, the few interviews I’ve completed with miners indicated they enjoy(ed) their work, despite the risks. Yet Sally’s insights tell more, that the jobs are a cover for something that is much more complicated and nuanced. People can move and find jobs, but a longing for the home in which you were raised is not so easy to replace.

Using jobs as the reasoning for everything falls short. It seems like the jobs argument is a mask, a rational means to tell people that they need to provide for their families without addressing the discomfort of losing more than employment. The culture that comes with being a miner, living in an area that was built on coal, longing to preserve your identity by clinging to what you know and your home; that’s no easy task to quantify like the necessity of an income.

With that in mind, Sally seemed to liken ending coal to cutting off the head of the snake. Here in West Virginia, coal is everything. Coal is life itself it would seem. When the transition to another form of energy comes, so too here, West Virginians will feel the repercussions. Nothing would remain in the wake of such an event. Coal, despite its decline here, is the lifeline for the few community anchors that remain: a couple of gas stations, a Rite Aid, a Dairy Queen, and garages. All with coal miners as their patrons and likely to disappear without their support. She knew that the change would come eventually, but the people here would make that transition difficult—the initial collateral would be overwhelming. It will sting and swell for the years to come. In our insatiable need to power the world, we are all guilty although we will not bear the burden. No, that is of course reserved for West Virginians, as it has been for generations.

Taking a note from our country’s past, slavery ended over a hundred and fifty years ago, yet that history is ingrained in our policies and institutions to this day. Slavery in the north was nowhere near the numbers found in the south. Nonetheless, the north, in using products born on the backs of slave labor, is implicated in the practice and delaying the transition. Rather than confronting these problems, denying is a means to Band-Aid our ruptured consciences.

Denial is often easier in the short run than confronting the immediacy and repercussions of what is initially uncomfortable. We deny hegemony.  We deny climate change. We deny our sexuality. We deny anything that challenges our worldview and life as we know it. In presenting arguments that rely on environmental and health impacts of mining, seemingly objective if we’re talking statistics, activists make the impersonal personal for miners. Especially coming from outsider activists, to make these arguments is to challenge mining livelihoods and veil a diatribe on the high grounds of objectivity. Denying empirical evidence is just the same as denying personal accounts.

If miners were to equate activism with change following Sally’s train of thought, then it isn’t difficult to understand why they might claim activists are doing more than take away jobs – they’re taking away their way of life. But that doesn’t make it right to delay that transition per se. As Sally said, it’s going to happen eventually and the region will disproportionately feel the impact.

Activists face many challenges in both attempting to stop mountaintop removal and presenting alternatives that are convincing for the people that live here. Each present changes to the status quo. For those opposed to mountaintop removal, it may be a return to enjoying the remnants of mountains and preserving culturally relevant practices.

Harry*, in another interview, reminisced about an idyllic wild where he forged his identity and connected with his home. Reclamation to him fell short of remedying the loss of his cultural upbringing.

“Their idea of reclamation is completely different from mine. They plant locust trees. I don’t even know an animal that would eat the bark… We’ve got a tree in this area called paw paw. Other states call it the West Virginia banana. Have you ever seen one? When I grew up, there was a thing called a grouse… People used to hunt it for food and now it’s completely gone. When they’re taking the mountains off, they’re wiping all that off.”

Regardless of their arguments, they seem to fall short for current miners. As for alternatives, I’ve certainly espoused riding the solar, wind, and adventure tourism trajectory. I think they could be viable, but again the necessity of staying true to the region’s roots seems to invalidate even a discussion about alternatives. The assumption remains that such a future would be much worse than the status quo. When something does change, whether it is from extracting all the coal that remains in these mountains or some policy change, activist work won’t end.

**To protect interviewees, pseudonyms are used

**This job is fabricated for confidentiality

Snehan – What Allows Refugee Youth to Succeed?

Sharma03-400Seeking Peace and Normalcy

To be honest, the last week was not as productive as I had anticipated it would be. Some days, I found myself just wandering around Clarkston and taking in its aura, because I had no idea of where I should go and whom I should talk to. I felt like I was entering a slump, and the nasty head cold I developed didn’t help much either. Despite some of these inevitable deviations from my original plan, my idea about the social dynamics in Clarkston is beginning to shape up nicely. Since the CPACS summer camp that I intend to work with has yet to begin, I have decided to focus just on interviewing and speaking with local educators at the non-profits for the time-being, and this has proven to be extremely insightful.

Naturally, as I meet more people and learn which questions to ask and how to ask them, it is becoming easier to get to the heart of matters. Each person that I have spoken to so far has had a lot to say about life in Clarkston, not just in the context of the youth but in general as well. What I found to be most surprising is the degree to which self-segregation happens in Clarkston. Each ethnic community seems to be in its own bubble of sorts—they have their own stores, their own places of worship, etc. From what I’ve been told, this self-segregation is even prevalent in the schools. From my understanding, this voluntary dividedness doesn’t breed any hostility between different groups other than when incidents of cross-cultural bullying occur.  But, all in all, it does not seem that self-segregation is viewed negatively in Clarkston, because it is accomplished in a friendly manner and it works for everyone. Not surprisingly, some of this self-segregation can also be noted in the childcare/youth empowerment programs as well. From my observations, the success of these programs can make essential contributions to improving the overall morale of each ethnic community in Clarkston. The children are the future of these communities. And as worn-out as this cliché is, nowhere else have I been able to sense the truth to this statement as strongly as I have here. There is pressure on the kids to make something of themselves, and their successes are viewed as a measure of parental success. For a refugee in their late teens to be in college with a career trajectory can be considered by some parents to be a validation of the exceptional sacrifices they had make as refugees. Anything less might be considered disappointing and a risk for causing psychological turmoil for older relatives, a demographic—at least in the Bhutanese community—that is especially susceptible to suicides, as revealed to me in an interview. (Because the children’s academic performances are paramount to parents initially, it may be possible that parents initially pressure them excessively.)

I’d argue that these childcare programs, which often include both after-school and summer camp services, are the flagship methods by which the community-centric non-profits can positively influence the refugee youth in Clarkston. It makes sense to me. After all, most kids resent school, even the ones who, academically speaking, struggle less than their peers. So these extracurricular sites are safe havens for learning; there are no grades and mistakes are not penalized. This type of environment encourages the good kind of learning to occur—the kind that is characterized by the joyful and worry-free acquisition of quality knowledge.

This does not mean, however, that these programs operate without curricula. They seem to be very well organized and deliberate about what they teach the kids that enroll with them. At CPACS, the focus is more academic, and they emphasize the value of education to keep the kids engaged; many of the high school students enrolled in its programs have already attended numerous tours of local universities. I have also seen a website for a program led by other non-profits that explicitly addressed the issue of youth violence in Clarkston. The active support and early exposure to higher education that is provided by these programs for the students tends to bode well for their futures. Some of the tutors who I’ve had a chance to interview insinuate that most of their students will go on to attend college. I have even come across some students who are maintaining good grades while taking numerous Advanced Placement courses at their high schools, despite having had only a handful of years of experience with the American education system.

But while these childcare/youth empowerment programs are so crucial, there is still a portion of the youth population in Clarkston that is not directly exposed to their influence, mostly by choice. These would be the young people that I mentioned in a previous post, who have fully rejected the notion of schooling and, perhaps, even respect for authority. Lesson plans exist on how their better-behaved counterparts may combat and avoid their irresponsible antics. Is there any hope in Clarkston for reaching these kids and reclaiming their unruly spirits? Certainly. I refuse to believe that there exists people of any age, let alone children, who genuinely find fulfillment by disappointing their parents and distressing their communities; of course, I may be wrong. But how successful are these established efforts for re-guiding the youth and what more can be done? Is compromise being utilized as a tool? These are things that I plan to investigate in the coming weeks.

However, it is important for me to first clarify what I mean when I write that students have “rejected the notion of schooling.” I do not mean that students have completely given up on education and with the often-lengthy process of securing degrees, but rather with how it is facilitated. I had a lengthy interview with a former site manager at the predominantly Bhutanese CPACS site that I keep mentioning. As a refugee and as someone who, during his tenure, felt like he was a third parent to many of the kids he helped mentor, he offered a compelling theory.

He suggested that many refugee students have experiences that make them feel that school is not an accommodating academic environment. He told me that students felt alienated because teachers often ignored their questions and, in some cases, essentially mocked them for not knowing material that was considered to be basic. Without adequate support from home or school to pursue their educations in such an unfamiliar setting, the Bhutanese youth find it more agreeable to simply stop attending classes. To make the decision to dropout is an easy one, because their busy parents do not have time to realistically stop them from skipping school.

This trend seems to have already established itself as a norm in Clarkston, albeit a detrimental one. It is interesting to wonder whether the ones who make the decision to leave school realize that in a different setting, their lack of a high school education might prove more problematic than it has thus far in Clarkston.

Now, with some appropriate background knowledge, I am really eager to start speaking to the students, parents, and public school teachers. These dynamics are extremely fascinating and their impact on the Clarkston community is oh so significant. I can only imagine what I will learn next week.

Wish me luck,

Snehan Sharma

Gautam – Complicated Consumer Choices

Gautam03-400First a hypothetical: Say we had two shoe companies in the world–Company A and Company B. Company A is a traditional business where a basic transaction occurs; you trade money for a pair of shoes. When you buy a pair of shoes from Company B, you get a pair of shoes, but the company will also donate a pair of shoes to an individual in a different country.

Whose shoes do you buy?

If you said yes to Company B, I commend you, but I hope that you would ask a few questions first. Is the quality of the shoes the same? How effective is Company B’s initiative? Is Company B relinquishing profits with their initiative, or are they cost-cutting in other ways like using cheaper, harmful chemicals in production or creating a poor-quality product? Are they using fair labor practices? What is Company B’s true impact?

Those last few are what I got from talking to an employee of B Lab in San Francisco, a non-profit organization that offers a certification to for-profit companies. They define themselves as analogous to LEED certification for green tech companies and Fair Trade for coffee growers. Companies that go through the evaluation process and are labeled as B Corporations are analyzed for their social and environmental standards, accountability, and transparency. B Lab provides them with a grading scale and a final number indicating how well they compare to other companies as well as where there is need for improvement. (Bull City Burger & Brewery is actually a B Corp.)

I was even more excited to understand that they are located in the Impact Hub, in a glass room, with their door open, free to offer advice and guidance to any of the tens of social venture startups sharing the space. That is the whole point of having such a system! These are consultants that want to see companies have a sustainable and substantial way of addressing societal problems, and they are in the vicinity from the beginning. And they do a thorough job: https://www.bcorporation.net/b-the-change/ads.

But I did have one issue, and that is something that leads straight into my own questions about social entrepreneurship as a whole. You can run quantitative analyses on the economics of a company and make sure that there are standards in place that minimize harm, but you cannot account for unintended consequences the first time through. And B Lab simply does not have the resources to do subsequential review anyway–there are currently 1279 registered B Corps. By the way, Toms, the real-life company that has the One-for-One model where they donate a pair of shoes for each pair bought, is not currently listed as a B Corp. That being said, there is no evidence to suggest that they have unfair labor practices, use harmful chemicals, or have a substantially poorer quality product.

How do we minimize unintended consequences? Are there certain structures or forms of social entrepreneurship that reduce harm effectively?

I’ll get back to that. I want to go back to the shoes.

When I was looking for the Kiva offices, which was a block away from the Impact Hub, B Lab, and various other social ventures on Mission St., I did not see any huge signs or anything indicating Kiva operated there. After going into the supposed address, I finally see the letters “KIVA” on a small directory in one of the corners. I ride the elevator up to the third floor, and there it is, in all of its majesty–a boring solid gray warehouse door. It looked like the opening to a closet in the basement of a hotel, but cleaner. I hesitated for a while and was thinking that if I rang the doorbell and entered, I would probably be confronted with a single guy sitting in the middle of a dark room with his laptop and a sign that says, “Surprise! Your mythical non-profit is in a different office.”

Luckily, some Kiva employees came by and I slid in with them. Like other Bay Area offices, this had a very open, energetic, and enthusiastic feel to it. The front desk and wall were designed to look like a woven basket (as shown in picture). There was something in the air that felt relaxed, but full of dedication.

Let’s now say that Company A and Company B are the exact same in terms of quality of and production of their shoes. Everything is the same, except that Company B donates a pair.

Whose shoes do you buy now?

If you say Company B, what if the price increases? Is there then a limit at which you say, “I can’t afford this”? Also, take a look at my first blog. Or check out these links: <http://www.whydev.org/some-bad-news-about-toms-shoes/> <http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/12/business/second-hand-clothes-africa/>

I posed this hypothetical to the Education Development Manager at Kiva and she said Company A with little hesitation. She reasoned that there are many things that need to be considered and we do not know the full effect of our actions. The donation of shoes could disrupt a local economy, create a cycle of dependency, or produce inequality in a community where a few receive pairs. It is noble to think of global problems, and we should encourage the understanding of situations all over the world. But we should be wary of our own actions because they are derived from living within the structures of our societies, which does not always translate.

That is why I am looking specifically into microfinance. From my point of view, it is the form of social entrepreneurship that imposes the least and seems to be the most fluid. Money, or some form of transactable power, is found in nearly every community (for better or for worse) so using that as a way to rise within the confines of whatever economic system is in place has and is working. However, tragedies like what happened with SKS Microfinance still shake me and make me wonder, where is it going wrong? Microfinance might be good already, but how do we make it perfect? And I don’t mean in a monetary sense of making it more profitable.

In a world where social entrepreneurship is constantly defined as creating social change through business (technically Wal-mart would fit this definition), how do we remove human pain from business?

So this blog narrates what happened a week ago, because I tried to jam-pack my time in the Bay Area. I have actually been in Nairobi for a week already. I did have some trouble the first hour I was in Kenya, though. After I got my bags, paid my $50 for a Visa (why?), and was heading out, three female police officers surrounded me and asked for my passport. I did so, thinking it was a basic customs check but then they held it and questioned why I don’t have a yellow immunization card (I have all my shots in order). They then waxed poetic about how they cannot let me into the country and I will have to go back to the US, of course, unless I give them something. I showed them that I only had $10 in my wallet (I always store my money in various locations), but they laughed and said that is not enough. I stood my ground and said I will go back to the States. This went on for 30 minutes as hundreds of other passengers walked by unchecked until they finally relented and said I have to go to the city and get my shots. Not ten minutes later, as I was getting into my uncle’s car, a police officer hopped in and said let’s drive to the police station so he can write my uncle up for stopping illegally on the road. I do not remember the final sum that it took to get him out of the car, but he did not let up easily and he knew that he would get paid.

If I didn’t question the security and solidarity of the financial system in Kenya before, I definitely do now. I thought “following the money” would be pretty simple–from me to Kiva to the borrower and back, but now I have to consider that money does not flow in the same way in Kenya as it does in the United States. I’m definitely keeping this in mind when I start looking closer at microfinance in Kenya.

Jeff – A Community Divided

Feng03-400This past semester I watched the environmental documentary A Fierce Green Fire in which Robert Bullard, a pioneer in environmental justice research, stated something along the lines that caring about what’s in our air, water, or food and any combination of the three was to be an environmentalist, even if you didn’t realize it. So it turns out that it isn’t so hard to be a “tree hugger”— how the miners derogatorily refer to activists and the activists around here facetiously call themselves. Of course, if we were to follow this definition strictly, then the miners and frankly everyone who lives on this Earth would be able to call themselves environmentalists. If I asked people questions about what they want in their community, such as cleaner water or air, the answer would be yes regardless of miner or activist status. But it isn’t time to pack up the bags yet, because we still need to unpack what it means to be an outsider or local environmentalist in Southern West Virginia.

I’m staying in the office building of the nonprofit Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW). They’re dedicated to stopping mountaintop removal to restore the water and air prior to impairment. So, check and check, two out of three of Bullard’s definition and we have the “Tree Huggers’ Office” as one miner referred to the building.

They have a couple of rooms upstairs to accommodate volunteers that help out with their programming. Although I’m the only one in the building during the night, I didn’t imagine that there was anything I had to worry about. But by staying in this building, I am automatically coded to be against mountaintop removal and a tree hugger. And if it hasn’t come across in my previous writings, that isn’t always the most enviable position in southern West Virginia. I haven’t experienced anything of concern and feel safe, but someone close to staff recounted instances in the past where trash and rocks were thrown at the building and people tried to break in. Apparently the American drapery that covered the CRMW sign was put up for my safety instead of Memorial Day.

As an outsider, what else does my presence say? Although I have no intentions of vilifying any current surface miners that are willing to speak to me, my asking for an interview is a tough sell even with the promise of anonymity. Outsiders are typically seen to side with environmentalists. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything else. I mean, put yourself in their shoes. These miners are almost all non-union — the UMW barely has any clout and the coal companies are all about production. When the coal company calls you to haul yourself back to work, you better be there to pick up. The slightest of infractions is grounds to send you packing. Why not? There aren’t many jobs here, so a replacement will be quick to find. As a result, my off-the-books maneuvering with CRMW’s network of contacts hasn’t been all too successful in lining up interviews with current miners, but even more transparent tactics don’t seem fruitful. I’m thinking of standing outside some places of local currency, such as the gas station or the post office, and describing my project and my hopes of interviewing current miners. Maybe a bar would be better but there really isn’t much within 30 miles of where I’m staying. As the locals tell me though, most of these scenarios would end in me getting punched in the face. I’m thinking of trusting their intuition.

I’m not even participating in direct actions that protest mountaintop removal, which is far more irksome for miners. Local activists often lead these protests, but outsiders constitute the majority of their numbers. In such close-knit and inclusive communities, miners may believe that outsiders shouldn’t have a stake in these issues — at least local activists were raised here. One miner remembered an instance when an outside activist spit on him during a protest. Maybe the activist’s response was rooted in thinking that the worker was a cog in the wheels of an insidious industry. But as the miner emphasized and I’ve discussed, they are doing as they are told seemingly because there are no other options. Later on, the miner wasn’t sure where all the local activists were. He figured they were scared.

But I don’t think that’s the case. In my most recent interview, I was chatting with Lisa Henderson, on the board of CRMW. Her mother, Judy Bonds, had been a stalwart leader in the fight to end mountaintop removal. No doubt, the pressure of being an environmentalist in the midst of coal country was a difficult undertaking. In defending her views, Lisa and other local activists have endured threats and physical altercations, but perhaps severing relationships with friends that she grew up with has been the most impactful.

I was driving around with an activist on the way to another interview, and as we strolled along the hollow, she pointed out who lived in each house and dished out a story for each person. In such small communities, everyone knew each other and had grown up together, and she recalled multiple times that she called her acquaintances — these aren’t your best friends— to drive over to another town to help her son. No wonder home is so enduring and integral to the experience in southern West Virginia.

When these locals take an activist stance, they do more than fight for clean air or clean water, they risk severing relationships and watching them deteriorate to verbal or physical confrontation. I think the next step would be to push miners some more and see how they must cut off relationships with activists in order to keep their jobs. I’ll keep thinking of ways to reach current miners without getting punched.

Snehan – Cultural Confusion

Sharma04-400Fearing failure is wholly counterproductive; this is likely the most important lesson that I’ve learned this far into my project. Fearing failure makes it too easy for me to do what feels comfortable. But, as (I think) the saying goes, “comfort breeds complacency”– and complacency is simply no good when investigating a community as lively as Clarkston.

Working at CPACS sites had been comfortable yet, for the second week in a row, its schedule of operations was not very ideal for the purposes of my project. Although it took some time, I reached out to other non-profits and that has been leading me to many informative experiences.

I discovered an organization based in Clarkston called Positive Growth Inc. that operates a group home for boys, summer camps and after school programs, as well as other programs. I was fortunate enough to have a chance to speak with the education director at length. He provided many insights during our conversation, but what I found to be particularly striking were some of the ethical challenges that arise in classrooms.

For example, copying another student’s work in-class after the teacher has already given instructions is usually considered cheating. But should this definition be upheld if there is a group of refugee students in the classroom and only a couple of them understand the instructions? In this case, a student discussing the material with others is not cheating, but rather he or she making an active attempt to learn. Paradoxes like this complicate decision-making not only for refugee students but for their educators as well. Given the current system, there is no clear right answer. To keep with tradition and to punish refugee students for cheating is essentially cheating them of an education. But to allow this behavior will create an unequal academic atmosphere that jeopardizes the motivation of the students who are Clarkston natives. The ideal remedy would be to provide additional support to refugee students that extends beyond the English as a Second Language (ESL) programs which are offered; to do this would likely require significant reforms in education policy in this area.

I also spent some time last week as a volunteer for the summer camp hosted by the Clarkston Community Center. The center is ostensibly the cultural programming hub of the city and regularly hosts a variety of programs ranging from martial arts sessions to English classes for adults. The summer camp then, unsurprisingly, focuses heavily on the arts. Kids ranging from elementary school-aged to teenagers enjoy exploring the community center’s bountiful garden, doing yoga, and learning about spoken word poetry. During periods of free time, like lunch, I had a chance to get to know the kids, who were mostly refugees, better.

Some of the things they would say were amusing but also wildly interesting. “Do you know?—When you say ‘black’ that means racist,” exclaimed a Malaysian fourth grader to me after hearing one student accuse another of being “racist.” As bizarre as his declaration sounds, it is important to understand that he seemed to genuinely believe that any utterance of the word  “black” – regardless of context – would incite accusations of racism.

Although, in the moment, I did my best to clarify the definition of racial prejudice, I wonder how many misconceptions of such a caliber are still understood by this boy to be truths. He and some others seem to be at risk for letting their misunderstandings guide their actions in a big way.  These misunderstandings don’t necessarily pertain to prejudiced beliefs, and can even refer to simpler concepts (like manners) being muddled because of limited cultural exposure. The eleven or twelve year-old girl who, with an impassioned look of disgust, told me that I should shave my legs comes to mind…

But this is what is so tricky. The moral landscape of American culture is currently undergoing unprecedented transformations on the most mainstream level. The rigid walls that once defined norms for gender and sexual identity are steadily crumbling. Drugs that have been considered illicit for decades are being reconsidered and slowly de-stigmatized. This transformation is even difficult for many who have long been attuned to mainstream ideals to accept. So, for new immigrants who come to the States with many of the ideas of their home countries, one can imagine how adjusting to new norms might be a shocking and uncomfortable experience. As for the fourth grader, he is still young; by the time he is an adult, he will have learned a great deal more than what he knows now, thus allowing him to distinguish fact from phony—of that there is no doubt.

Was this what led to the formation of Clarkston’s infamous “Asian Boys Gang,” affectionately known as ABG? Are they troublemakers actively looking to cause disruptions or are they simply confused kids? And though it’s possible to argue that perhaps this distinction is meaningless, I believe that it can alter these groups’ image around Clarkston.

Additionally, I feel as though I am slowly making the appropriate contacts that will allow me to meet with families, and more specifically, parents. These next few weeks are looking as if they’ll be fairly eventful—wish me luck.

Gautam – Meeting the Microloan Borrower

Gautam04-400After my run-in with corrupt government officials at the airport, I had a long weekend to digest and celebrate Madaraka Day (in honor of independence from British rule) by watching 40-year old Indian men play cricket for hours and sleeping out the jet lag. You know, the traditional way.

The first thing I did was take my aunt’s old cracked Nokia phone and get a new Safaricom SIM. I am now ready for the apocalypse. Loaded with 500 Kenyan shillings (about five bucks) worth of talk time, I entered in the 10 digits that would connect me voice-to-voice with Charles, the electrical engineer that I “invested” 20 dollars in through KivaZip.

Beep.

It seemed as though someone had dumped a packet of Pop Rocks into my bloodstream. This is actually happening. I came all the way across the world, and this is actually happening. What do I say? What if I don’t like him? What if he doesn’t like me?

“I’m sorry, the number you have dialed has been disconnected.”

Great. Again.

Luckily, I also had the number of his trustee (Dennis Gichana), the individual or group that vouches for a borrower. I called him up and made plans to meet him two days later at his shop.

What I did in the meantime is go into overdrive finding new avenues to explore, no matter how dusty and out of the way. I went to the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke office in Nairobi, but they are, predictably, focused more on health-related ventures. I went to social entrepreneurship meetups in the city and met a great deal of expatriates starting social enterprises in Nairobi. I made a number of phone calls and sent e-mails, stepping on some toes along the way, but I was mostly left with the same pattern of No Reply/”Too Busy” that I met in the Bay Area.

So I spent most of the time trying to refine what my actual project is. During the planning phases, I laid out that I would compare the scalability of three organizations that are involved in microfinance: m-Pesa, Juhudi Kilimo, and Kiva. I would go through all three while “following the money” and then working with the borrower of the loan–Charles–to track his developments and be able to present a final narrative at the conclusion.

I went to talk to Dennis Gichana at his shop. The space was small, but the trustee was extremely friendly. The vibe I got was that he simply wanted his community to grow with him. It turns out that I did have the correct phone number for Charles, but I caught him at some random time when he disconnected the line. But Dennis was able to get a hold of him, and I made plans to meet him the next day.

This is actually happening.

I met Charles at a local shopping mall. There was no work for him that day, so he took a couple of matatus (ridiculously dangerous and obnoxious, but common buses) to a nearby shopping mall. Talking to him, I mostly got the gist of the story that was already displayed on his profile. But of course there is something different about hearing it in person and being able to take a hold of the intonation and real person behind it all. The first repayment was actually due that day, so I was asking him about the details of the loan. One thing that began to stick out was that the use of the loan is not as simple as we like to think. Sure, he used part of the money to invest in more equipment, but it was mostly to protect from the tides. As the oldest son in his family and the only one with a job, he had to pay the school fees and feed his siblings. Then, since he is contracted out, there is always a lag time between jobs that needs to be accounted for as well as his employees’ wages, since the compensation for work is provided only after completion. This whole idea of variability in these small and micro businesses has been cropping up more and more this past week while visiting a whole bunch of other Kiva borrowers, which I will get to in the next blog.

But there was something else that kept nagging at me since I visited the youth pitch event at ImpactHub Oakland. You might remember that I mentioned The BIZ Stoop which was essentially a culturally-based youth employment initiative. The two girls with the vision behind it had set up a triboard behind a large glass pitcher of homegrown tea. The triboard was plastered with various images and statistics, but one title of a research article stood out to me. I do not remember the exact phrasing, but the main message went along a toned-down, less radical version of this: http://www.youngist.org/why-liberal-academics-and-ivory-tower-radicals-make/#.VX3ZAvlViko

I can present a narrative, but so what? Did I change anything? I understand that the idea of a narrative allows us to package the contents of our analysis in a way that is accessible and in a way that connects through emotions, but what have I changed? To me, it seems like a different side of slacktivism. Maybe there is a possibility of touching someone so much that it causes he/she to act, but that is definitely assumed. Desire Johnson, one half of The BIZ Stoop, talked about how there is this whole wealth of knowledge that keeps being added to, but the populations that are oppressed have little to no access to it, so there is not much change in the end. As a college graduate, she says she was one of the “liberal academics” and had to realize that true empowerment must come from more.

Let’s say that my project runs perfectly. I follow the story of the borrower and there are some very poignant plots that unfold. I analyze the scalabilities of the three organizations. I come back and present what I learned. Best case: I produce a documentary and publish a paper. And what has that done to change the situation? The reason I even started this project in the first place was that I was moved by the stories journalists told about suicides linked to the business practices of SKS Microfinance. That was messed up, and I could not believe that there are tons of other people attempting to do good but ignoring important considerations.

But is that movement enough?

And what does that mean for me physically being here and my future career? Ms. Johnson also mentioned how there is sometimes a disconnect when students are involved in research, discover important knowledge about a community, but then simply leave and move on. I really do not know what my final career will be, but I do know that no matter what, I will be participating in social entrepreneurship, consciously or not. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish intent of social good from a profit-making business, but that just makes it more important to look critically at the pathways of participation that are provided to us. So I guess that this project is to make sure that I feel comfortable that my future actions are informed and create the least amount of harm possible, and in the process I can advocate to others. I may currently be a “liberal researcher,” but I am going to act as well.

Jeff – “Save the Endangered Hillbilly”

Feng04-400Yesterday, I went fishing for the first time. You can bet that I imagined stopping for a couple photo ops—sideways candids of me standing beside the pond and hopefully one of me holding up a large fish. But besides that, an environmentalist participates in these outdoor activities, so I thought. And since I’m in West Virginia, this was a chance for me to get in touch with a practice that locals told me was ingrained in their culture, as much as riding four-wheelers or hunting.

The pictures turned out fine, but I don’t know if I enjoy fishing. Maybe it was the context. In this case, the pond was murky, littered with trash, and altogether unhealthy for any of the water’s inhabitants. I reeled in a blue gill that was a couple inches long. It flopped around in my hands as I tried to untangle its mouth from the hook and I dropped it on the land before flicking it in the water. I didn’t understand completely why someone would enjoy fishing recreationally. I had put that fish through strenuous times and I don’t even know if it made it out alive.

But I suppose I don’t need to understand the sport completely to know that it fits a larger narrative of saving the mountains to preserve these culturally relevant practices. So those t-shirts that say “Save the endangered hillbilly” are arguing for more than just mitigating the health impacts of mountaintop removal: stop mountaintop removal to reduce cancer rates and maintain a way of life that is built upon the outdoors. This is a compelling narrative that I don’t need to experience to know that others will listen. And they’re all anthropocentric— nature for the sake of humans, not for the sake of nature.

Thinking back, when I said stop mountaintop removal, my intentions were rooted in traditional environmentalism. These mountains and the surrounding environment had value in and of themselves, and that rhetoric was all I needed to justify my decision that mountaintop removal needed to end. The Appalachians are some of the most biodiverse regions of the world, and the clean streams that remain thread through jagged rocks and lush valleys. Shouldn’t that be enough, that this land not be destroyed to extract a declining energy source? As I wrap up my interviews, I’ve realized how short that argument falls for the people here. When you’re either fighting to keep a job to provide for your family or you’re fighting for your health and those of your neighbors, then thinking about endangered animals and biodiversity for the sake of biodiversity isn’t much of a concern. Through my identity as an outsider environmentalist, I’ve had the privilege of thinking about mountaintop removal much like Big Green groups such as the Sierra Club, through a traditional environmental lens. In talking with some activists here, they were a big presence a couple years ago when awareness about mountaintop removal was trending up, but abruptly left in the light of waning public interest. Maybe they came into this like me, fighting for the environment and nothing else, let alone acknowledging the human and cultural effects of energy.

So, in learning about the human impacts of mountaintop removal, from both activists and miners, doesn’t it make sense to supplement my original argument with the loss of cultural practices? Perhaps, but as I said, I hadn’t fished before and it didn’t resonate with me, I’ve never hunted before, and I wasn’t raised in the area. As miners have said, what gives these outside activists the right to come in here, criticize coal, their way of life, when this isn’t their home? Furthermore, I have qualms about using these arguments to talk about the impacts if they are largely secondary to me. In arguing that the culture is being wiped aside along with the mountaintops, am I as an outsider simply relegating their experiences to talking points to buttress my own goals? Or in other words, am I using them as corollary to my main objective of improving the environment? When a future economy arises, and I fight for a cleaner environment, will I care about the cost of these amenities?

Do I acknowledge the collateral of having service jobs that pay more than half the coal-mining job and rationalize my actions by thinking that the people here will simply adapt?

I don’t know what will happen in the future. No one does, but we can all offer our opinions. And this varies widely depending on whom you consult. Some of the miners imagine that an Armageddon will ensue, nothing will remain and the few towns that survive will be little more than Ghost Towns. Those who are more hopeful think that the population will decline as the economy moves toward service jobs. Activists, on the other hand, think that other industries will move into the area and while it will be tough, people will move on. So in this regard, the miners and activists find commonality in having to wait and see what happens in the community. Along the way, they’ll also continue doing their jobs, whether it be stopping permits even though another comes up or mining despite its impacts on the community. Despite the conflict, I think this place will survive as local leaders pave the way to rediscovering community. As for me, I’m wrapping up my time in West Virginia with important reflections on environmentalism and going outside the comfort zone of rationalizations.

Alex – Project Intro: Cyber Harassment

Alex01-400“What are you doing this summer?” In second semester, college students are asked this question as frequently as “How are you?”

I have two answers to the summer plans question. The formal, resume-approved answer is, “I am studying the ethics of cyber harassment and free speech.” The “I have already answered this question five times today” answer is “I’m going to fix the Internet.”

The follow up questions to my tongue-in-cheek second answer are “What’s wrong with the Internet and how will you fix it?” The problem is cyber harassment. The Internet is the ultimate platform for free expression, but it is being abused. People are using the Internet to send rape and death threats, destroy reputations, publish  , and spread blatant and pervasive hate. I am going to “fix” it with a bit of determination, smidge of over-confidence, some videos, and a whole lot of free speech.

First, let me elaborate on what cyber harassment exactly is. In Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Professor Danielle Citron writes, “Cyber harassment is often understood to involve the intentional infliction of substantial emotional distress that is persistent enough to amount to a ‘course of conduct’ rather than an isolated incident.” In layman’s terms, cyber harassment is someone(s) purposefully and repeatedly creating severe emotional hurt for another person. Throughout the course of the summer, I will explore many different forms and examples of cyber harassment. For now, I will describe one of the first accounts of harassment that drew me to pursue this project.

About June or July of last year, I found Amanda Hess’ piece “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” which was published by the Pacific Standard Magazine in January 2014. Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer and has written extensively on women’s issues. Hess describes her experience receiving rape and death threats from an anonymous Twitter account. The first tweet said, “I see you are physically not very attractive. Figured.” The following tweets quickly escalated to, “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter,’ I killed a woman, like you, who decided to make fun of guys cocks,” and, “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”

Hess received hate and threats similar to those above with what I would consider a terrifying frequency. Unfortunately, Hess is not an isolated case of cyber harassment. Just in her article, Hess describes ten different individuals’ experiences with harassment, each disturbing in its own right. If anecdotal evidence doesn’t convince you, a University of Maryland study found that feminine usernames in chat rooms “incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.” I was outraged.

When online, people just spew vitriolic hate, and direct most of it towards women. It is Freud’s “id” alive with a megaphone. The hate isn’t even isolated to one corner of the Internet. It’s on Twitter, Facebook, Yik Yak, 4chan (which is the most infamous corner of hate online), and in the comment sections of news articles and blogs. It appeared that if a woman writes anything online, she is attacked by a hoard of anonymous haters hell-bent on terrifying and silencing the writer. Each example of cyber harassment I found further fueled my outrage. Why wasn’t everyone doing something to stop the hate?

The answer to that question is aggravatingly simple: free speech.

Nearly everything done or said online falls into the category of “speech,” including most forms of cyber harassment. Did you post a Facebook status today? Yes? Great, you exercised your right to free speech. It doesn’t matter if the status was a beautiful, eloquent rant about the upcoming Presidential election or just a video of your dog chasing its tail; that’s speech. Even those abhorrent tweets from Hess’ harasser are still speech.

When faced with loathsome speech, I couldn’t help but think of the quote falsely attributed to Voltaire: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The preservation of free speech means the protection of even the speech you hate. (The Supreme Court has found that there are certain limits on free speech, which I will discuss in a later post.)

As much as I want to do anything to protect the targets of cyber harassment, I also want to protect free speech online. (Almost) regardless of what someone says, he or she has a right to say it. That’s the First Amendment…or at least how the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment. Silencing someone violates his or her free speech. I immediately recognized that cyber harassment aims to silence people, and I wanted to fight that silence. However, as I read more about free speech, I had to reconsider the fight I was about to enter. If you silence the harassers, you may protect the target’s speech, but what does that do for the preservation of free speech online? I have to consider the value of both the harasser’s and target’s rights to free speech.

Which brings me back to how I will fix the Internet.

By the time this is published, I will be in Miami working with a cyber harassment victim advocacy and support organization. Without trying to sound cynical, I realize that there will always be harassers in the world. So I am focusing on how the targets of cyber harassment can respond, while preserving free speech online. Each week, possibly more frequently, I will create a video discussing free speech and cyber harassment, which will be available through the Kenan Institute for Ethics Youtube channel. In most of the videos, I will look at the different ways individuals responded to harassment and how free speech is treated with those responses.

So this summer, I will be spending a slightly concerning number of hours in front of my laptop screen. My hope for this project is to rekindle my faith in humanity online after a year of informal cyber harassment research created a cynic.

Here’s to the optimism online.

Snehan – Omnipresent Ethics

Sharma05-400Last week began with a highly informative lunch meeting with someone whose work influences Clarkston in a different way than that of most others whom I’ve spoken to thus far. Mr. Smith*, who works with refugee resettlement for Jewish Community and Family Services, met me at Kathmandu Kitchen, one of the most popular eateries in Clarkston. During our meeting he shared numerous facts about Clarkston and common challenges that arise for refugees when they first arrive— starting with disembarking the plane.

He explained that although he and his colleagues try their very best to obtain gate passes in order to meet the new arrivals as soon as possible, this is not always possible due to bureaucratic processes and generally heightened security concerns. Consequently, many refugees take hours to exit the airport without the assistance of a case manager. And it makes sense— after all, many of the newcomers have never experienced so many features of daily life that Westerners take for granted, like toilets and escalators. Though what is incredibly surprising is how quickly so many refugees adapt to their new lives in a new country; within 5 months of arriving to the United States, 82% of immigrants in Georgia are employed.

This meeting set my frame of mind for the week. I had a new-found admiration for the refugees that I was meeting and interacting with daily. For instance, I was in awe to meet a refugee high school student later that very day who had been admitted to numerous elite universities, including Duke, with full rides. He informed me that to become a Blue Devil had been his second choice (darn), and that he is eager to head to Boston to study physics. Later, I learned that he was also the valedictorian of a Dekalb high school, one that is considered to be more competitive than Clarkston High. His story, at least from the outset, is one of success and promise. He seems to be a source of pride, not just for the Bhutanese community, but also for any local.

But students seem to be pragmatic; many of the high school students with whom I’ve spent time accept that being valedictorian or taking AP classes is out of their reach, and they’re all right with that. They know that the circumstances under which they were resettled to this country come with some inherent limitations, like when it comes to gaining grade-level English proficiency. But there is a desire to overcome some of these limitations, because it is possible to do so. So, they are hopeful but reasonable.

Such an attitude is pervasive at this one summer camp site that I frequent, which is meant for students who perform at a grade level below their own and live in poverty. There is a fairly rigid protocol for admission into this program, because students are provided with a stipend.

What’s also interesting is that this site also has volunteer tutors who are often the same age if not younger than the majority of the refugee students whom they are tasked to tutor. I’ve noticed that this creates a very interesting social climate during camp hours. It’s almost classist— the volunteer students, who attend more privileged high schools, are very deliberate about isolating themselves from the other students. Perception is a very key part of any interaction so when the volunteers practice this self-segregation, it may indicate to others that they think that they are superior (regardless of how they actually view themselves). I am curious to see how the relationships between these two groups of students will evolve over the next few weeks.

I also had the opportunity to attend a citizenship class for elderly Bhutanese refugees on Saturday. Of the amazing things that I have had a chance to witness in this miracle square mile, this has been one of the most incredible. In the Bhutanese community center (which also doubles as a temple), tables are arranged in a horseshoe formation around a whiteboard. Then, either Mr. Dhakal (a notable leader in the Bhutanese community), his wife, or their niece teaches a group of thirty or so adults how to prepare for the US citizenship exam. They read sentences like “Mexico is to the south of the United States” and “George Washington was the first president” aloud, and then their pupils are expected to repeat the phrases and then write them down. It is wildly fascinating watching individuals, many who are well in their 70s, learn a new language and sometimes lesser-known, but nonetheless significant, facts about America. This class, which meets twice a week, has created approximately 20 new American citizens since its establishment. The day I attended class, two people happened to be celebrating their “graduations” by sharing soda and sweets with everyone. They also detailed their entire examination experiences in hopes of making the process less daunting for their peers who’ve yet to test. To become a citizen is a significant accomplishment for everyone who applies to do so. But those who accomplish this at a late age seem to defy all odds.

Does this serve as a motivator for the youth? Or, contrarily, does it frustrate them? This has yet to be determined, but I suspect that there are some interesting dynamics at play here.

Every day in Clarkston, I discover how ethics is more omnipresent in daily life than I had ever imagined. There are life-altering decisions being made constantly and they are rarely simple. There are always trade-offs involved and there are never questions of whether to sacrifice, but rather, in what ways.

So many high school students are already so astute about matters concerning employment outlook in particular fields and the desirability of degrees because they have to be. For many students, attending college is only feasible if they apply for and receive scholarships. Those who are determined to attend college must make sacrifices, for instance spending their summers working and enrolling in college prep camps instead of decompressing before their next year of school. Others might put off schooling until they’ve spent some time working to support their families, although they might not want to. In Clarkston, I’ve sensed overwhelmingly that everyone is conscientious about how the pursuit of his or her personal desires might affect those around them. They are proud of who they are, they feel fortunate to be where they are, and they want to honor the hardships that were endured by people like them. The concept of selfishness is lost on Clarkston, and I’m so fortunate to have found a place about which I can say this so confidently.

I begin the next week, I’m very eager to observe how else ethics can be applied to the situation in Clarkston.

*A pseudonym

Gautam – What Does it Take to be Entrepreneurial?

Gautam05-400Today, I had lunch where the well-off and elite eat: KFC. No, really. When nearly half of the city’s population lives below the poverty line but the price of food in fast food restaurants is higher than in an American counterpart, KFC becomes filled with the upper-class, government officials (usually the upper class anyway), and expatriates.

My uncle had a Paneer Burger. This is not only a deep-fried slab of cheese clam-shelled with special sauce and carb-bombs that could stop as many hearts as the Double Down, but it is also indicative of the pretty interesting demographics of the region. Paneer is an Indian cheese. When you see Coke bottles as part of the “Share a Coke with…” campaign, you often see names like “Ajay” or “Amit.” Indian names. Even if you sum up all the Kenyan Asians and the Asians in Kenya with foreign citizenship (~80,000), they make up less than 1% of the total population (~38,000,000).

A side note here is that this is important to understand how I am personally seen when I travel throughout the city. The Indians are mostly middle to upper class here, and while there is no evident tension between the Indian community and native Africans, there is little mingling. It’s what you would expect from a population entrenched in tradition and only one generation removed from a formal caste system now placed among darker-skinned individuals with massive amounts of industrialization as the backdrop. Indians have taken over many businesses. Especially in the district I am in, there are multiple shopping malls with Indian namesakes and a whole gamut of streets, apartments, and schools to match.

But my main point has to do with a bit of a generalization. Actually, a large generalization, but one that is widely held across India. The business-minded Indians are aggressive residents from the state of Gujurat, while the engineers are from South India. This comes from different cultural stereotypes: that Gujurati are good at business and that wealth and development are concentrated in South Indian states. Aside: Gandhi was Gujurati and studied in South Africa, where there was already a large established Gujurati population in business. The community of Indians in Nairobi is no exception.

I mention all of this because of a thought I want to dry out that has been tumbling in my head as I was following Kiva Fellows and meeting borrowers at their small businesses: not everybody is an entrepreneur.

Even my uncle brings up the idea that he is not a businessman, “South Indians can work for somebody else in a regular job, but we do not have the business mind.”This is something that is repeated by so many Indian adults that I know that I think it is like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Now, Kiva does not make any claims that it can empower everybody. Microfinance as a whole (often with ridiculously high interest rates around 20-30%) focuses on the entrepreneurs that are able to take money and make more money with it. And this is an extremely effective approach because of the popularity of Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs), especially in the slum regions.

But, Gautam, you say, there are so many other forms of social entrepreneurship that are available to help others. You can’t force microfinance to help EVERYBODY.

Yes, voice in my head, that is valid, but I think there needs to be some clarification. After talking to many of the borrowers, especially Charles, it turns out that major portions of the loans are being used for necessary bills (school fees is a big one here) and day-to-day life. As someone who loans through Kiva, I assumed that the money’s sole purpose was investment in the company, but it makes more sense that money will be used for survival, and that is how the borrowers see it. They need to be able to pay for their necessities. By offering a loan with zero percent interest that can be paid off over several weeks,  Kiva essentially allows them to put everything on layaway; they just have to continue working and use their returns to pay their weekly installments, and that takes away a lot of the pressure.

Speaking of Charles, he actually has not paid his installment last week. I have been in contact with him and did not ask specifically about the non-payment, but he went upcountry, so he did not have work and no income to pay back the loan. But he did have school fees for all of his younger siblings and other living expenses.

So back to the original thought. Take a look at this video from PBS Frontline. It is a story of a woman in Uganda who takes out a loan from Kiva to sustain and grow her small peanut butter enterprise. As they are walking to the shop, though, the reporter and the woman pass tens of other women who are stuck breaking rocks with small handheld tools all day to earn enough money for food. That is the main source of employment in the region.

What about them? A no interest microloan could help them, too. But they might not have an aggressive attitude to push their business or even the extra capital to start one in the first place.

Two weeks ago, I was at the head offices of the CAP Youth Empowerment Institute, which is a branch of an international non-profit focused on providing education and training for youth to enter the workforce. To continue the web of organizations in microfinance, they act as a trustee on KivaZip, endorsing a few of their students (100% Repayment Rate!). In a society where 66% of the population is under 25 years old and the rate of youth unemployment is double the overall rate, CAP-YIE’s work is becoming more and more important. Actually, the last link (from Brookings) looks toward SMEs/the “informal sector” as a solution to unemployment, but then there are the issues of overcrowding in the markets and access to capital. CAP-YIE thinks about it a little differently.

Even though they partner with the Mastercard Foundation and multiple large microfinance banks and put an emphasis on Financial Literacy training, they focus on vocational/on-the-job skills training. Out of the couple of thousand students that have gone through the program in Kenya, only 4-5% actually are funneled into entrepreneurship. The way they decide who does start their own business is through an aptitude test and taking note when there is already interest in entrepreneurship. The director strongly believes that entrepreneurship is not for everyone and that Microfinance Institutions are skipping over a large portion of the pie because they only give money to those who use money to make money.

One thing is for sure though. If I was down on my luck, in the dregs of a developing nation, in need of a loan, I would be screwed. I do NOT have a business sense or the aggressive personality that often accompanies entrepreneurs. I would not get a loan.

Jeff – Changing Sense of Home

Feng05-400Over the course of my stay in West Virginia, others graciously invited me into their home. From my visits, I was able to glean what defined their home environment. The lasting remnants of French fries settled on my clothes and my nostril, the dog yapped upon my arrival, the smoke wafted through the vents, my fingers ran through the pelt of the couch, and I stuffed my face with a special mud pie. This is their home and even though I can step in there and experience some of what they do, I can never perceive what it means to have that home changed permanently.

In the interlude between my experience in West Virginia and traveling to Australia, I’ve spent a couple days back home in Radford, Virginia. But I’m not sure that “home” is the appropriate term for how I view this place. On the one hand, this was the place in which I lived for 18 years while being raised by my parents.  I found permanent residence here and came to know a quaint life on the cusp of the countryside. Yet, I suppose I never envisioned staying here permanently, waiting for the day I could leave this town for a future I deemed bigger and better. For that reason, I’m not sure I would feel anything if the town changed drastically, for better or for worse. But for now, this is my home, and it hasn’t changed too much in the aggregate. As time goes on, my home has not yet changed, but I have, and it loses value to me with each passing year. I don’t know how to refer to this feeling; perhaps it’s just growing up.

In doing some background research, however, I have come across a term that captures the ailment that results from having your home change: solastalgia. Coined by Australian Glenn Albrecht, solastalgia is the notion that, as a result of environmental change, one can feel homesick while remaining home.[1] Your common culprits are climate change and natural disasters, possibly brought upon by extractive mining practices.  It would seem that disrupting the ecosystem and the natural environment go hand in hand with bringing about human existential crisis.

As I’ve talked about in previous posts, many West Virginians have lost connections with their home as a result of mountaintop removal. The deterioration of the environment brings about health concerns, but additionally results in the loss of culture: ardent hunters barred access from the places in which they were raised and ginseng and molly moocher mushroom collectors unable to capitalize in an area with abundant sources. These reasons alone are sufficient justifications for many interviewees to oppose mountaintop removal, whether they are an activist or a miner.

In talking with retired miners and recently laid off miners that worked surface, they run into a dissonant dilemma. While they can deny the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, in part influenced by the rhetoric of coal companies, they cannot deny the cultural cost of the mining, the fact that their home is turning to ruin. They haven’t experienced the environmental impacts, at least to their knowledge, but they have noticed what blasting off the tops of mountains has done to their home and to the practices that were threaded throughout the community. Alas, being opposed to mountaintop removal in and of itself is not enough, meaning the miners could not knock the practice off because of the jobs it provided. In their own words, many were unsure how to proceed, cognizant that their views were almost contradictions.

But this leaves space for a discussion of the future. The polarized climate that I predicted still exists, yet the blatant acts of confrontation such as threats and fistfights have died down over time. There are still some misconceptions that miners and activists hold of each other, but for the most part, they understand what they are each trying to do. Sitting down and talking about the stranglehold that coal has on the local economy has consequently gained ground, ever so slowly. The social narrative from environmental impacts is one that I think will unite people, especially those on the fence, in thinking about fighting for home and restoring the community.

And this will be my goal in Australia, to find out more about the social costs of environmental impact.  Activists in Bulga, Hunter Valley are engrossed in a legal battle with Rio Tinto, a global mining/metal conglomerate, and the New South Wales Government over the expansion of the Mount Thorley Warkworth Mine. By their own admission, Rio Tinto was breaking community trust and going back on their commitment to mine closer to the village for the sake of economic benefit.

I’m hoping to dig into what may be a contradiction for local miners. The mine employs many miners who travel quite a distance for work, so interviewing outsider miners will be important. But local miners, like in West Virginia, face a similar dilemma of accepting a good paying job at the detriment of their natural environment, both for themselves and their neighbors. This is their home, too. Will they deny the environmental and health impacts of mining? Do they experience a similar sense of solastalgia that is enough for them to speak up and let NIMBYism (Not in my backyard) kick in to fight the expansion of the mine?

By the end of my experience, I hope to understand the polarized climate in the Hunter Valley and the differences and similarities to Southern West Virginia. What are the barriers that activists face in trying to protect their community? How nuanced are their goals? In fighting for the community, are all other changes incidental to their main vision? What comes first? How do they respond to the ever-present question of jobs and economic growth?

While these questions may be similar to what I asked in West Virginia, I’ll soon be entering a completely new context with myriad differences: cultural values, the strength of the union, and the mining itself. It’s time to leave home to explore the dynamics of home and the environment.

[1] G. Albrecht, Solastalgia, a new concept in human health and identity, Philosophy Activism Nature 3:41-44 (2005).

Alex – Shame on You

Alex02-400Shame on You (Shame and Privacy)

I began working with the victim advocacy and support organization this week. Right now, I am just trying to get a handle on the many, many stories of cyber harassment I have seen in the past year. So I have been reading my Google news alerts for “cyber harassment” and revisiting some of the more memorable stories from the previous year. Oddly enough, I am finding this theme of shame in my readings, including The Daily Beast article, “How Long can the Internet Run on Hate?” which discussed the following:

To top it off, the final episode of Game of Thrones include a very public walk of shame in which a character walked naked through the city while a nun-like woman stood behind her ringing a little bell and saying “Shame” over and over again. Despite the fictional and historic aspects of Game of Thrones, it reflects a modern interest and concern of public shame.

Slate author Eric Posner wrote, “Shaming is a form of social control. It occurs when a person violates the norms of the community, and other people respond by publicly criticizing, avoiding, or ostracizing him.” If you violate a social norm, you are punished, and I see the same idea in how harassers justify cyber harassment. I begin to wonder how shame influenced the marketplace of ideas.

Before looking at the different examples of public shame, I am going to briefly describe the marketplace of ideas. The theory of the marketplace of ideas is that an open, or what an econ major would call free, market competition of ideas will be “the best test of truth.” Abrams v. United States established that the United States protects the freedom of speech, so to protect the marketplace of ideas; just as with the free market economic theory, the more competing ideas, the closer we come to the (theoretically perfect) one true price of one true idea. This normative theory of free speech is the foundation for my project on cyber harassment. With the easy access of posting ideas online, the Internet seems like the closest we are getting to the marketplace of ideas. If instigating or responding to cyber harassment easily silences someone online, then there are fewer ideas, and the marketplace is weaker.

Before the Internet, shame was constrained to two places: gossip and publications. In the first place, the shame was just like Hester’s: isolated to the town, the people involved, and a specific context so the individual may actually have a chance at redemption. Since publications were expensive, shame was directed at public figures, who many knew of and cared about, making their lives newsworthy. For the everyday person online, the Internet combines both the bad parts of small town gossip and large publications. Our Facebook friends and Twitter followers become our small town, and the fact that we have Facebook or Twitter makes us public figures.

Justine Sacco, who was previously relatively unknown, had her reputation destroyed online after tweeting “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The tweet went viral while Sacco was on the 11-hour flight from Heathrow to Cape Town, and thousands of tweets shamed her. Sacco told the New York Times that “I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours.” She told her small Twitter village a tasteless joke, but the publication of the joke shot her into national spotlight. What happened to Sacco is why our parents keep reminding us that everything said online is permanent.

Sacco said something racist that was intend as a joke but could only be seen as racist without the context of knowing Sacco. Despite the historical norm, most Americans are working to make racism an unacceptable social norm, so we typically punish people who are blatantly racist. While I do not condone Sacco’s words, I can’t help but wonder if the punishment fits the crime; did the massive backlash fit a relatively contextually innocuous and thoughtless tweet? With the amount of shame she received, I wonder if Sacco will ever receive a second-chance or if she will be hunted with that tweet for the rest of her life.

I’m still not sure where I think the marketplace of ideas stands on public shame. Does the marketplace of ideas support shame because it reveals the truth? Or does the shame silence someone’s ideas that could contribute to the marketplace? What about privacy? What about the idea that private ideas exist? Do those fall under the purview of the marketplace? What about ideas online shared in our perceived private networks of Twitter followers and Facebook friends?

Privacy has been a fairly perpetual pain for the US Courts, which is representative of the confusion of how to define a right to privacy. There is a question of what is newsworthy and non-newsworthy. For example: is Anthony Weiner’s sex life newsworthy because he was in Congress? Does Jennifer Lawrence’s sex life matter because she is a celebrity? Or Zoe Quinn, one of the original targets of Gamergate, who was accused of cheating on her boyfriend to advance her career?

Then there is a question of what speech belongs in the public discourse, especially pertaining to online speech. Most everything that is said online is accessible by the general public, excluding private messaging services. Does a tweet that Justine Sacco sent within the context of her Twitter followers belong to public discourse? Must we shame Sacco for a stupidly racist joke so that the idea loses in the marketplace? Is shame the necessary counter speech for shameful or even hateful ideas in the marketplace of ideas? Do we have to shame people for things that are done in private, or even in a perceived-private place like on one person’s Twitter feed, to force an idea out of the marketplace?

I don’t have any answers this week, only questions. I have made a video about my struggle to understand and to connect these topics this week, which you can watch here (and check out the full playlist featured at the top of the page, which will feature more videos throughout the summer). The only conclusion I came to was that I completely understand why the European Union created the Right to be Forgotten.

Snehan – Hope and Pragmatism

Sharma06Last week, I made an effort to live like a responsible Clarkstonian by attending a public meeting held by the city government. The meeting, which was dedicated to determining the community projects to be initiated and completed within the coming months, drew a small crowd of about twenty people. Not surprisingly, most of those who were in attendance are widely recognized leaders in Clarkston who come from an assortment of backgrounds. And judging by their interactions with one another, it was evident that there is a shared cooperative spirit among them. Five proposals were presented and each had its own set of likeable features. One proposal, which I found to be particularly neat, aims to expand the Little Free Library program to Clarkston; upon this project’s completion, Clarkston is set to receive international recognition as the city with the most libraries per square mile.

Voting for the participatory budget was conducted by voters placing lima beans in large mason jars; each jar represented a different proposal. The results were determined immediately after the vote by Clarkston’s affable leader, Mayor Ted. Despite the different colors and cultures represented in the room, this process seemed so unapologetically Southern. And I don’t mean this negatively. Clarkston’s Southern charm has the ability to unify all of its residents. A place like Clarkston may be evolving constantly, but its origin will forever remain a constant.
In the end, all of the proposals received votes and were approved because they’re aggregate cost estimate did not exceed the budget.

Genuinely, I feel my connection with Clarkston and its people growing each day. My meetings with new people coerce me to alter my perspectives and to understand things from an unfamiliar point of view. Sure– to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” or something similar has always been a familiar concept. But only now do I feel that I have begun to understand what it actually means.

When I think of words like “resilience,” “bravery,” and “American” now, different images come to mind than once did. I picture those for whom the privilege to call themselves Westerners was not a birthright, but rather a journey not to be taken for granted. Frankly, I feel as though I am less entitled to call myself an American than so many of the refugees and normal immigrants who come to the United States and must sacrifice to earn citizenship. They must dedicate their time to learn some of the most mundane facts about America—as I discussed in a prior post, even to accomplish this sometimes entails learning a new language entirely. They must test and prove their worth to a bureaucratic official who doesn’t necessarily have any regard or respect for the struggles endured by some of the individuals who come seeking their services.

Most monumentally, they must make the difficult decision to relinquish any hope of returning to their countries and regaining the normalcy that was once so natural. They must overcome feelings of heartbreak and betrayal regarding the events that distorted their plans for their futures and families permanently.

At the time of the “eviction” (as he kindly euphemizes it) of the ethnically Nepalese Lhotshampas from Bhutan in the early 90s, Mr. Gurung* had been a college student at a university in the capital, Thimphu. Initially, living in the camp, he was jobless and without any immediate prospects. Soon, however, his strong English skills earned him employment with the UNHCR and its partners. An optimist at heart, Mr. Gurung slowly began the process of making his camp a home. He got married and had a child. As his relatives began resettling abroad in the 00s, he voluntarily stayed in the camp. Despite their continual pleading, Mr. Gurung remained steadfast. He needed to see this thing through to the end; he felt it was his duty. He told me that he hadn’t expected to leave his camp until 2017, but not wanting to hinder his now-teenage daughter’s educational future in any way, he and his wife decided to resettle in early January 2015.

In total, Mr. Gurung spent 22 years in a camp in eastern Nepal. This is an unusually long period of time for someone with his skills and level of education. Despite our lengthy interview, surely my understanding of Mr. Gurung’s struggles is still only very minimal; just at the mention of life in the camp, I noticed that his eyes would begin welling with tears as he prepared an answer.

And I mentioned his optimism, but his bold pragmatism is something I also admire. When I asked Mr. Gurung about his life in Clarkston, he said he could not name anything negative about it. The, more specifically, I asked if he viewed the criminal activity and substance abuse issues involving the youth of Clarkston to be a negative influence, he still said no. Contrarily, he conveyed to me that, in many ways, having exposure to these destructive influences is a positive. Mr. Gurung views them as lessons he can teach his daughter before she graduates and lives independently. From my observations, I’m aware that this view is the opposite of those widely shared by other parents in Clarkston.

His views also differ from those of other refugees concerning the topic of integration. Mr. Gurung cites the fact that his family has been speaking Nepali their whole lives in order to justify why nowadays they speak English primarily. I get a sense that he wants to learn to love America; after all, this is where he resides now. The ease with which he conveyed these general ideas to me shocked me a bit, considering how he has only lived in the States for a handful of months. Perhaps his lengthy stay at the Nepalese camp and his only recent departure from it has firmly instilled in Mr. Gurung that Bhutan will not be taking his people back. Therefore, he lacks that longing to reconnect with his homeland and perhaps finds it easier to “move on.”

I realize that attitude is an intangible factor of resettlement, but a crucial one nonetheless. With an open mind and forward-looking attitude to lead the way, it seems like success and happiness can be attained, in spite of the injustices that might mire the past.

*pseudonym

Gautam – Variability and Unpredictability

Gautam06-400The same day I completed my last blog, a fire wiped out 70% of Gikomba Market, the largest open-air clothing market in East Africa. About $1.1 million dollars of goods—mostly secondhand clothing imported from all over the world—flowed from producers to consumers every month through this collage of single-story shacks, cacophonous crowds, and the aspirations of micro-entrepreneurs to educate their children and provide a life with fewer struggles than they went through.

And all of those were gone the next day.

I went onto the KivaZip website and found that there are a couple of borrowers operating in Gikomba that are currently paying back loans. Here is one: George has not updated the business or personal section. Here is another: Pamela lost her shop over a decade ago in a similar fire in the same market, but was able to slowly build back up. Then there were multiple other borrowers that go to Gikomba to purchase wholesale and sell in other parts of the town. This is not counting the number that had borrowed from Kiva in the past and are located in Gikomba. I contacted Kiva to find out if there is a clause in place that would provide for amnesty or an extension, but I was not able to get a full response. The lack of an answer indicates that there is not one in place.

The cause of the fire is still unknown, though the deputy chief of the police believes that it was the work of arsonists and the shopkeepers have said that there are land grabbers trying to force them out. Another possibility is an electrical malfunction from the numerous live wires of stolen electricity that power many stores in such markets. Shown is Gikomba Market last year in full bustle.

The government was quick to the scene but did not act on the fire because their fire trucks could not reach it without destroying other parts of the market. Five million shillings (about $52,000) and a promise for more permanent structures were set aside for the victims (compare this to the 185 million shillings that are being used for a “beautification” project for Obama’s visit that was announced a few days later). Two of the business owners who lost their stock and shop to the flames stated that they each lost at least half as much as the government is spending for everyone affected.

Now, it is not necessarily the government’s job to pay for the protection and reparations of tons of private moneymakers–although they can bailout a private sugar mill for 1 BILLION shillings (about $10.6 million) the same week. And in light of the fact that there have been multiple fires in the past (5 major ones in the past decade and even a minor one last week), the question of why the sellers didn’t protect themselves gets raised. There are reasons that I will get to later, but the most important idea to consider when dealing with microfinance is that there is huge amount  of variability and unpredictability.

Last week, I mentioned that Charles had missed a payment. Yet, the next day I got a notification that he repaid, an amount that was unusually large. He had caught up and paid for the next 1.5 weeks. The week he was “delinquent,” he was upcountry without work. When he gets contracts, he completes the work and pays his workers and THEN gets a lump sum for his services. If he goes through a dry spell, he is in deep trouble.

And with a large amount of rural populations in agriculture being targeted by microfinance, these worries play out on a larger scale. If there is a poor harvest or a natural disaster or a plague or an infestation or any other plausible reason, the family that took out a microloan that year is instantly submerged into debt for at least a year. And the minimalist lifestyle that usually partners farming in a developing country has to be stripped down even further.

I think what needs to be understood more is that those that take out microloans tend to be on the edge. The money is not just for a business venture, but it is for survival. Not only that, but the money is often used for costs of living: shelter, food, school fees, and such. I was ridiculously frustrated when I would put in hours and hours of effort and sanity and still end up nearly failing at school, so I cannot even imagine how difficult it is when the consequences are serious, that you can work day in and day out, putting nearly every ounce of motivation into a risky business as your only hope, only to have angry ”social good” collectors banging on your door, demanding for their payments.

Too often in financial situations, risks are accounted for, but they are dealt with in impersonal ways. Any type of danger is given a monetary value and slapped onto the price. And it follows throughout the loan period and even afterwards. The various collection practices that some very aggressive MFIs use can enact psychological harm and really damage the social collateral of a family in a small community, affecting their livelihoods. Similar to the shortcomings of GDP, traditional banks do not take into account the social impact and benefit from a loan. So how do we expect microfinance—which is filled with a range of institutions, many that are scaled-down versions of traditional banks—to do so?

If this all sounds a bit down on microfinance overall, I have been watching quite a few interviews with borrowers that have been slighted by the process, and focusing on their stories is biasing me a little bit. Also, I hold the personal philosophy of “Do No Harm,” meaning that I simply want to do the least amount of bad to the world. The amount of good I do is irrelevant unless it heavily outweighs the amount of harm I enact.

But I still have hope for microfinance. The tens of borrowers that I met when following Kiva interns seemed truly happy. They could very well be in the same position that they were in before the loan (which has been concluded by previous research), but they were happier. And who am I to say that is not enough?

So I tried looking at what the possible solutions are. The most obvious: insurance. There is a social venture focused on providing health insurance (healthcare costs being the most damaging to the financial stability of most individuals, entrepreneur or not) that I hope to talk to later, so I talked to the head underwriter at a “regular” insurance company this week. The underwriter’s job is risk assessment, and one of the most surprising pieces of information he related was that SME’s are not necessarily riskier than a larger business. Sometimes a SME is so small, no one will steal from it. Also, because of lack of capital and financial “street” smarts, SME’s have less bargaining power, and usually get a considerably worse deal from an insurance company. This, coupled with a widespread suspicion of institutions, is why most business owners are uninsured.

“Insurance has not developed to the point that it feels necessary.”

I’m increasingly afraid that even when it feels necessary, it might be too much of a financial burden and if parts of microloans go to paying insurance fees, that means less that is being invested into something that will provide a return.

Jeff – Quantity vs. Quality

Feng06-400My last interviewee just left the glass boardroom of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) office. I sighed, unable to shake the thought that I was copying and pasting the same thing into each chapter of a story. The sunlight, exacerbated through the glass panes of the door, burrowed into my skin and exposed the vulnerabilities that have stockpiled over the days. Bottom line—I’m tired. I’ve completed 19 interviews in the span of four days. In West Virginia I completed a total of 24 interviews in four weeks. At first glance, it would appear that a) I was horribly incompetent in West Virginia or b) I’ve simply been on top of my game here in Australia. The answer, in reality, is neither.

First of all, all of the interviews I’ve done this week have been with miners, so I haven’t captured the necessary nuance for completing this project according to my original intentions. I’m actually only slightly ahead of schedule with the initial plan of finishing 20 interviews on each side of the divide. Nonetheless, I’ve flown through these interviews, hitting my questions and gathering myriad perspectives even within the mining community. By reaching out to the right set of groups, i.e. the CFMEU and the BMPA (Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association), and understanding the field well, I am plowing ahead and seemingly on course to finish up in another week despite allocating three more.

But therein lies the problem. In my quest for efficiency, in part influenced by my lack of transportation and relying on others to lift me, I’ve neglected the aspects of these interviews that aren’t so easily quantified. Playing the numbers game has drawn me closer to the coal company more than anything. The clock runs down, the questions ingrained in my mind are ready to be whipped out for each marker, interview number [insert here] needs to be transcribed—it’s all become too formulaic. I want to be engaged with the people I’m interviewing, but it all just seems like I’m trying to make my quota and nothing more. A methodology that paints the whole picture and experience of the people I’m interviewing is escaping my line of sight. I’m asking the same questions over and over again, which is within the confines of my interview guide, but I need to do more and get a sense of what it means to live and work here.

I even added some phone interviews to my queue. Why did I agree to do phone interviews? For one, my mind wanders all over the place. Furthermore, the wired confines of a phone conversation are not suitable for picking up the unspoken language of gestures and body language. As a researcher, is this all that I have amounted to? Doing for the sake of doing?

I hope to recapture the mentality that made my experiences in West Virginia monumental. In West Virginia, I had time to let the culture seep in, to step in some of my interviewees’ homes and walk the path they crossed since early childhood. To breathe in the mountains that towered above, to settle down to the low tunes of chirping birds…it was all part of the holistic representation of my research. My transcriptions can carry the weight of providing quotable material fit for a research report, but the tingling ecstasy of remembering everything that came before, during, and after interviews is not so easily captured. I was researching, but I was also stepping back and living in the moment. There was no need to think about the next interview, because most of time they were scheduled the day of. I was present and only existed within the framework of each interview. Time was no longer a precious resource and master of excruciating pressure. With that in mind, I rediscovered myself. I could harbor no ill thought towards my performance. I knew I was getting the experience, confident that I would figure out a means to strike all aspects of my project, regardless of whether I met the goals in the methods section of my research plan. I knew something was going to happen because I was riding the waves of intrinsic motivation, cognizant that I was finally doing something that I wanted to do. I loved life again and any research results would come naturally.

That being said, in this vein of research, you need a rich, diverse palate that reflects a multitude of colors and schemes. I’m still trying to figure out the balance of my personal and larger research goals. I don’t want to treat people as numbers, but I also don’t want to make this experience all about the context. If I go in the direction of conventional research, I’ll skip over the complete picture of their experiences, yet if I let the moment be my only muse, there will be few interviews to decipher. Maybe I don’t even need to think about that balance too much. Different forces were and are at play that influenced the nature of my research. The union has been much more helpful in Australia, and I’m actually interviewing current miners, which didn’t happen in the U.S. That being said, the culture and the context have completely shifted, so it makes sense to change how I go about the project and compile background research.

I do know that I felt the most excitement in sitting down with some people at the Bulga Beats Festival over the weekend. The Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association organized the music and crafts festival as a means to both bring community programming and cover costs from confronting Rio Tinto in the court. It was the first time I met activists from BMPA, yet I wasn’t interviewing them. We were chatting, perhaps about coal at some points, but it was so much more than that. I took in the words, my surroundings—it was as if I was imbued with a sense of newfound excitement. Without a doubt, I remember that afternoon much more vividly than any of the interviews I completed this week.

So, as I move forward next week, I’ll be interacting with Bulga residents and searching for a blend of hitting my research and personal goals, which I know is possible.

Alex – Contextual Ethics and #YesAllWomen

Alex03-400What if we listened first?

I picked probably the best week to start working with a cyber harassment organization. On Friday, Google announced that it would honor the take down requests of victims of nonconsensual porn (also known as “revenge porn”), and it was leaked that John Oliver’s main segment for Last Week Tonight would discuss cyber harassment and nonconsensual porn (NCP). Google banning revenge porn is huge on its own: the biggest image search engine will now take down the images of the victims so they can now regain control of their online reputations (a topic I will explore at a later date). Then Oliver spends over fifteen minutes talking about cyber harassment and NCP, and when Oliver covers a story, things start to get done…or at least are talked about.

Cyber harassment is definitely being talked about. Look no further than the comment sections of the of Oliver’s online harassment YouTube video. There’s this beautiful irony between the content of the Last Week Tonight segment and the YouTube comments. In the video, Oliver explains why victim blaming with cyber harassment is wrong, and the vast amounts of harassment women face online. The commenters respond with victim blaming, arguments that men are harassed more online than women, and outrage that Oliver’s segment was so poorly researched (because on the Internet, everyone is a journalist and researcher).

As I read and screenshot-ed many of these comments, I thought of the #YesAllWomen and #NotAllMen twitter campaigns. John Oliver made the #YesAllWomen argument, and the commenters made the #NotAllMen argument and took it a step further arguing men face similar if not worse harassment. Then, my thoughts traced back to Professor Adam Hollowell’s contextual ethics lesson in my public policy course last semester.

According to my professor’s definition, contextual ethics is a call for recognition of systematic power imbalances. It is a call for the disempowered to recognize their identities, rather than the identities an oppressive system manipulated.  It is then a call for the empowered to recognize the existence of the oppressive system by listening to the disempowered. The first step to fixing any problem is admitting there is a problem. Contextual ethics is the disempowered and the empowered recognizing that there is a problem; it’s the first step.

My professor introduced contextual ethics to the class with the introduction and first chapter of Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. Given my focus on gendered harassment, I am now reading the full book on my way to and from work.

As it has been a couple months since the class, I was again shocked reading the first chapter. Solnit connects incidents of violence against women that are typically spoken about in isolation. It’s shocking, even when I had already read this many weeks ago. She writes, “Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert your right to control over their right to exist.” That same right to control is what the #YesAllWomen campaign was talking about. Solnit and #YesAllWomen are asking their audiences to recognize this pervasive male entitlement to women and the violence used to protect the entitlement.

In the most recent portion of Men Explain Things to Me I’ve read, Solnit talks about how women have, and in some places still are, property of their husbands. You don’t get more entitled to something than your own “property.” The catalyst for the #YesAllWomen campaign was the stated motives of the UC Santa Barbara shooter from May 2014. The shooter justified murdering six people because women were not romantically interested in him. At the heart of his justification is that entitlement: he did not receive the women to whom he was entitled, so he killed them for rejecting him. So not only is this entitlement demeaning, it’s incredibly dangerous for women who do not submit.

Then women decide to go online. They begin to voice thoughts, thoughts sometimes similar to the thoughts of this post, that make some men uncomfortable. As these opinions should, they are asking men to acknowledge their privilege and that’s uncomfortable. (A quick aside: #YesAllWomen knows not “all men” are a violent sexist time bomb. #YesAllWomen is about a system of privilege that all men benefit from. For more about this, read this. Also, this system of privilege can be harmful to men. See here.)

I come from a white upper-middle class background; since being at Duke I am working on acknowledging that privilege. I get it. Being privileged is admitting you participate and benefit from a system that harms others, and that sucks because we want to believe we are good people who don’t harm others. Some men handle these realities just fine. Others do not and lash out online.

Gendered cyber harassment, using Solnit’s words, is “trying to silence and punish women for claiming their voice, power and the right to participate.” If women stop talking about male entitlement or privilege, men don’t have to feel uncomfortable.

John Stuart Mill warned about the power a tyrannical group has to silence the minority. He wrote that, “There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.” Mill is saying that we need to protect the right of the disempowered to speak and express ideas, not only from a government but also from the empowered.

By combining Mill’s warning with the call of contextual ethics, I think I figured out how we can protect freedom of speech: stop talking and start listening. I listened to the men’s rights activists in the YouTube comments; this is my response. Maybe if we listen to each other, the Internet can become the marketplace of ideas I hope it can be.

Snehan – World Refugee Day

Sharma07-400Necessarily, World Refugee Day is a big deal in Clarkston. However, the event was not as large-scale nor its effects felt so pervasively throughout the community as I had anticipated. The gym of one of the largest churches in the city was rented-out to host the event, which lasted from 2 to 5 in the afternoon. The festivities were a tangible example of cooperation and collaboration, and they brought together people from countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Bhutan. Each country had a table showcasing different cultural objects and was staffed by its respective community representatives. Both the food and the presentations were plentiful and varied and offered guests a lot to take in.

Because I knew one of the head coordinators of the event, I had the opportunity to serve as a floating volunteer. After working the Bhutanese food table during the lunch rush, I worked the sign-in counter where I had an opportunity to speak at length with a rising senior at Clarkston High School who is a refugee. A lively personality with big dreams, she shared some curious facets of her life with me. For instance, her parents, who are both illiterate in English, find it difficult to believe that she must complete a certain number of community service hours in order to graduate. From how she described her predicament, it seems that this concept is foreign to her parents; after all, not all cultures emphasize volunteerism the way Americans tend to. The shortage of credible sources that can communicate this information to the parents in their native tongues may also contribute to this situation.  Ultimately, her parents are left to take their child’s word about something that, to them, is bizarre. From what I’ve observed, this happens a lot.

I had a chance to interview Elise*, a Karen refugee who is also a rising senior. An avid reader who enjoys her science classes the best, she aspires to become a nurse. Elise said that she wants to help people, especially those who are still in the refugee camps in Thailand, where she was born and raised. Perhaps her desire to care for others is innate, or maybe it’s born of her experiences after resettling to the United States.

As the youngest of her siblings by over a decade, Elise essentially had been coddled by her family for the first thirteen years of her life. However, after the resettlement their family dynamics changed drastically. Her parents cannot read or write English, and though once the family baby, almost immediately Elise became her family’s guide in their new home. She admits that this continues to be a challenge because her parents are still English-illiterate, but she is very optimistic and hopes to be the first in her family to complete schooling. Having to cater to many of her parents’ needs (driving, etc.) whilst also building her own future means that Elise must sacrifice regularly. Sometimes, she is not able to indulge in some of the “luxuries” that other refugee students are able to.  This includes simple things like hanging out with friends outside of school.

In an earlier post, I had mentioned the importance of non-profit sponsored afterschool and summer camps. I made it seem as though only the students who chose not to attend would miss out on the guidance and structure that is provided by these programs. However, I understand now that there are students like Elise who enjoy attending these programs and find them to be an escape of sorts from the realities of new immigrant life who cannot always do so because of familial obligations. When it comes to making a decision about where to go to college, similar ethical crossroads arise. A student might have to turn down a full ride to a prestigious out-of-state university if she has young siblings, sick relatives, or poorly integrated parents, instead opting for a local commuter school. Additionally, as some of the people whom I’ve interviewed reiterated, in many cultures children must take on added responsibilities in the home upon reaching adulthood, regardless of any special circumstances like the ones I’ve listed above.  Essentially, an excellent opportunity for individual growth must be abandoned for the more urgent support required by the group. Of course, instances like this one are not exclusive to just refugee students but, nevertheless, are especially heartbreaking when the journey has been particularly taxing.

The concept of the “American dream” is unique to every individual. Many of us who were born and raised in the US take the “American” part for granted; we’ve known no other home, nor have we desired to achieve our ideal lives anywhere else. Our hopes do not take into account privileges like freedom of expression and ease of mobility—those have always been guaranteed. But just because many native-born citizens have sophisticated dreams does not mean that simpler dreams are not being worked toward as well. The “American dream” is a weighted term and I’m looking forward to learning more about what it means for refugees in Clarkston.

Gautam – History and Future of Microfinance

Gautam07-400Microfinance is a lot like my power or Internet connection here. It’s available most of the time, but it’s not something I can completely depend on. Sometimes when I need it, it is gone. Sometimes when I don’t need it, it is there. However, overall, I have benefited from it. Microfinance has a whole World Book series of troubles, but there are definite pockets of good in the subtexts. The industry is definitely not going away soon, so we need to make it better and ask questions. Thus, here is my first set of explicit ethical questions that I would like feedback on.

*Drum roll, please*

Actually, I think I should do a short history and a few definitions first.

*Keep the drums rolling, though*

In 1976, Professor Muhammad Yunus paved the path to an entire, modernized field of microlending with a research project. The idea was not invented by Yunus, and was already put into place by numerous small communities across the world (even Jonathan Swift lists it as one of his practical answers to A Modest Proposal). After studying uses of microcredit throughout history, Yunus lent the equivalent of $27 to poor female entrepreneurs in a local village to further their businesses. Ten years earlier, ACCION was founded in Venezuela with a similar mission, starting with community-based projects, introducing microloans, and then expanding to other parts of Latin America. Essentially, this was the beginning of the institutionalization of microfinance and recording the numbers.

I also need to make the clarification here that when the Grameen Bank (Yunus’ establishment) and ACCION began, they were microcredit institutions, meaning that they only provided loans, or extending credit to others. But they very quickly evolved into MFIs (microfinance institutions). The term microfinance refers to the availability of other financial services, such as savings or insurance. Since microfinance as an institution was developed as a way to address poverty, nearly all of the MFIs also provided financial education and training prior to disbursing a loan. The Grameen Bank even had a set of Life Guidelines that had to be signed with such clauses as “We see to it that our children and homes are clean” and “We are always ready to help each other.” Since such work was only beginning to seem self-sustainable and was still considered “social work,” many of the MFIs were NGOs.

A lot of this shifted in 2005 when the UN declared it the International Year of Microcredit. The following year, Professor Yunus and the Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to create economic and social development from below.” With an unprecedented amount of press and increasing popularity of “social entrepreneurship,” for-profit models of microfinance began cropping up faster than the fruits and vegetable plants of some of the farmers they served. By this time in 2005, the Grameen Bank had identified 14 different MFI models, each with different levels of scope, scalability, and savings.

The basis of having a for-profit model was to incentivize private investment, create a self-sustainable model, increase financial inclusion by quickly expanding services to reach poorer areas, incentivize innovation with competition, and attract talent to create efficient, more effective MFIs. Note: most of these reasons are also applied to social enterprise as a whole. SKS Microfinance in India was founded on this principle and its IPO in 2010 brought the company a valuation of $1.5 billion USD. As you might remember, a few months later, the government slapped restrictions on the entire microfinance industry after it was revealed that SKS’ business practices were linked to multiple suicides.

Should MFIs be non-profit or for-profit?

The reasons to have a for-profit model are valid and have been relatively successful in many other parts of world–there are 12 currently registered by the Central Bank of Kenya–and have contributed to a wider appeal and prominence of the field as a whole.

Muhammad Yunus disagrees with a for-profit model. Here he is debating with Vikram Akula (founder/CEO of SKS) soon after SKS’ IPO. He states, “I am not opposed to profit….We are opposed to who makes the profit and how much.” Grameen’s profits are recycled into the business.

Now, if you are wondering about the profit motives of MFIs causing them to shift towards more financially stable and profitable borrowers, this study in 2010 finds that there is no significant “mission drift.”

As for interest rates, two different studies, from Emory University  and Forbes, find that stronger profit orientations actually lead to higher interest rates as competition rises, MFIs expand, and costs rise, although the for-profits have a much greater outreach.

Then, here is Akula a month ago talking about the crisis in 2010 and why it happened<http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-indias-microloan-meltdown-taught-one-entrepreneur-1433878202>. “Back in 2008 and 2009, a whole new set of players started coming in….Eventually, even the pioneering institutions that had once had a five-day process [of financial training] slashed their training to four days, three days, etc. to stay competitive.”

This has always been an ever-present question, and does not seem to be going away soon, especially with the recent exposé of the Red Cross’ failures in Haiti.

Which brings me to my next question:

Is it ok to oversell your impact?

Before KivaZip came into existence, the Kiva.org model (which continues to operate alongside KivaZip) was to partner with existing MFIs in areas around the world. In exchange for a picture and story about a borrower, Kiva would provide interest-free capital to the MFI. What was actually happening was that a loan would already be disbursed to a borrower weeks in advance, and then Kiva was essentially buying the loan off of the MFI (which by the way, would still take all of the interest from the loan. This process was not hidden from users, but Kiva was marketed as a Peer-2-Peer money lending service so that it seemed as if my money specifically goes directly from Kiva to the MFI and to the borrower, forming a “connection.”

Muhammad Yunus, in his Nobel acceptance speech, talks about how the next generation will have to go to museums to see what poverty was and microfinance can “eradicate poverty.”

These are astronomical claims, which thousands of other organizations are guilty of. But without the vision and fervor, would people stand behind the claims and bring in the donations and talent and begin to innovate? If Kiva did not have the marketing, it would not be at its position today where it CAN offer Peer-2-Peer microlending and use its influence to push the field along. If it were not for Yunus’ claims, I would not be thinking about microfinance right now.

Overselling can also lead to discontent among funders when stated goals are not reached. Interviewing nonprofits, it seems that the prime objective for such an organization is to not exist anymore. This should make sense, because it means that the ultimate goal of the group, say “solving world hunger,” has been solved. In light of that, but also in light of the fact that there are multiple long-standing non-profits (and this post is getting a bit lengthy), I will leave you with one final thought:

Should social ventures, especially for-profits, have an exit strategy? If a company can refocus their efforts elsewhere and make a “greater” impact, when does a profit-making entity say that they have done enough good and made enough of an impact doing what it is currently doing?

What are thoughts without dialogue? If you have anything to add, want to discuss, or want links for more info (I have tons), email me at gsc13@duke.edu.

Jeff – Public Hearing in New South Wales

Feng07-400In a movement so often dominated by court battles over new permits and expanding mines, environmentalists hope to use public hearings to sway decision-making bodies. Whenever I think about public hearings, I harken back to Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation[1] in which she lays out distinctions between forms of community involvement. I mostly view public hearings somewhere between placation and consultation (placation: place citizen members on the planning body as it was in this case; consultation: provide a way for citizens to voice their ideas/concerns; compare these to “informing,” where the decision making body simply tells the public what they’re going to do without any input and there are no guarantees that decision makers reflect the views of the public). Despite the uncertainty surrounding the ultimate outcome, organizers often use them to indicate widespread support or opposition to policy. Building upon the numbers game, it is integral for each side to both have the people and myriad perspectives that color the argument. As someone who has attended my fair share of public hearings at both the state and federal level, having spoken at some of them too, it was no surprise to see a contingent of Bulga supporters waving their signs and letting out a short string of chants at the Planning Assessment Commission’s latest round of public input.

But of course, the planning process is nonetheless a stark contrast to what I have experienced in the States. With a whopping 124 people signed up to speak in the course of two days, I had no doubt that this was a salient issue for the community and the state of New South Wales at large. The high turnout speaks volumes about the growing awareness of what has seemed like a lopsided resource battle between the Bulga community and the Rio Tinto-owned Mount Thorley Warkworth. Since the original proposal to expand the mine closer to the community more than five years ago, Bulga stepped into the Land & Environment Court and the Supreme Court to win both times on the basis that economic projections were ill-conceived and environmental & social impacts were inadequately considered. Might I add that the New South Wales government sided with Rio Tinto in court. Shortly thereafter, New South Wales changed its State Environmental Planning Policy to prioritize economic benefit over environmental & social costs. Despite indignant responses that claimed it was coincidental, here I was in the PAC meeting hearing about the same extension simply split into two: Mounty Thorley and Warkworth. It’s like those instances in the schoolyard when the bully knows the rules are of no consequence while being in cahoots with the schoolteacher.

The thing is that Bulga residents aren’t the only victims from Rio Tinto’s bully mentality. One Sydney speaker recounted instances in which Rio Tinto oppressed and underpaid its workers across the globe because they could get away with it. And they’re trying to get away with what they can in Australia as well. From interviewing miners last week, that is the culture in which they work. This is a world that incentivizes blindly going about your job and not questioning what is undeniably questionable. Enticed by a high paying job that requires a relatively low skill level if you’re driving a truck, operators recount how they initially enjoyed their jobs. When all goes well, there is no reason to jump ship and change profession. In those years that go by, operators grow older and do not pick up many additional skills, thus cutting down their ability to find employment after “retrenchment” in what is inherently a volatile market. Nonetheless, it’s a job. And it pays well enough for these people to continue working there, and if they’re union, sometimes dare to speak up for co-workers that endure harassment and denial of company culpability.

But still, I don’t completely understand. I know that for miners there is a distinction between defending your co-workers versus community members impacted by mining. These miners are cognizant of the collateral damage that their work spews over the environment and the community. And they know that Rio Tinto’s treatment of the Bulga community has been unethical and reminiscent of the same bully mentality that plagues their own work environment. Yet it’s not enough for most of them to say no, to publicly side with a community that has strong moral footing. The company provided an income for them, so speaking in favor of the community is deemed contrary to their whole working life. They’ll talk about the mine’s responsibility to respect their rights, but the question of social responsibility becomes iffy.

Those speaking in favor of the extension emphasized the ways in which Rio Tinto and the mine have given back to the community. For instance, one local high school teacher lauded the effectiveness of their Aboriginal school program graciously funded by coal. But, it simply does not make sense to claim that you are socially responsible on one hand while wiping away another community with the other.

So, while I listened to a couple of miners at the PAC hearing speak in support of the extension, I didn’t hear this struggle that they’ve certainly experienced. Jobs, simply put, encapsulate much of their argument, centered on paying mortgages, supporting their families, and so on. And that’s the choice that miners often make publicly. As one miner put it, the extension is working towards the “greater good,” sustaining the much-cited 1300 jobs at Mount Thorley Warkworth and providing AU$1.5 billion to the economy through wages, salaries, and royalties. For others, I think it would be more appropriate to call it a choice of the lesser of two evils.

And this is, as many miners expressed in my interviews last week, a Catch-22. I think you would have a stronger case in arguing that the economic contribution outweighed other factors if mining had a stranglehold on the economy in the Hunter Valley. However, very few Bulga residents work in the mines, so it’s not like West Virginia where just about every person I met either work(ed) in the mines or was related to someone working in the mines. In West Virginia, activists often make it their talking point to emphasize that the economy needs to be diversified. The Hunter Valley, in contrast, has a rich history of dairy farms, vineyards and wineries, and horse studs. I’ll cover mining conflicts with those industries and the concept of co-existence in another entry.

Of course, you’re not going to hear the internal mining struggle at a public meeting. I didn’t know how much to expect from this meeting. I was skeptical of its effectiveness and thought that the PAC would approve the extension to move forward. But the Bulga residents I spoke with indicated that they were hopeful about the mounting levels of public support. In addition to many Bulga residents, speakers from Sydney and other communities that face Bulga-esque challenges were in full force.  They had won the day, and for all intents and purposes, I would agree. They had both the numbers and a range of compelling arguments that masterfully blended together anecdote and fact. But what value does this victory hold if the multinational giant already captured the government and knows the PAC will move forward? Perhaps they actually stand to benefit from further community meetings, making it seem like the government is listening to what the public has to say. Let them have their moral victory, for we have consorted with the government before and don’t think a little public momentum will get the government backing us now.

[1] Arnstein, Sherry R. “A ladder of citizen participation.” Journal of the American Institute of planners 35.4 (1969): 216-224.

Alex – Right to be Forgotten?

Alex-MiamiThe Right to be Forgotten or the Right to Privacy?

This week is Nonconsensual Porn Week, which really doesn’t many anything except that I declared it NCP week for my project. As of two weeks ago, when Google announced it would honor take down requests, it is impossible to talk about NCP without this news.

The Google news (coupled with John Oliver’s online harassment segment) was such big news that the president of the organization I am working with was sent congratulatory flowers. Google honoring the take down requests is a huge relief for the victims; they will have the opportunity to regain their online reputations. As John Oliver put it, “For Google to do that is not nothing, because we all know not even vindictive perverts will use Bing.”

From my perspective, this news was amazing, because Google was respecting the victims’ right to privacy. The photos were taken in a specific context and not meant to be shared outside that context; they were private. Then I started seeing tweets and articles wondering if Google was transferring the new European Union’s “right to be forgotten” to the States with this new rule. Even the Wikipedia page for “The Right to be Forgotten” says, “There are… concerns about problems such as revenge porn sites appearing in search engine listings for a person’s name” in the first paragraph.

My initial reaction to the question “is the Google ban a version of the ‘right to be forgotten’?” was incredulous anger. Did we forget that we do believe in a right to privacy in the States? Or has the mass amount of data collection by NSA and tech companies placed us in a state of resignation where privacy is practically impossible? Is the thinking that we don’t have a right to privacy online, only maybe a right to be forgotten? The victims of revenge porn had their privacy violated, so Google choosing not to further spread the images is just respecting privacy…right?

I began to question myself. So what if it isn’t privacy? What if it is the right to be forgotten? Since I am now playing (Blue) Devil’s advocate, I had some research to do.

The European Union’s factsheet on the case that resulted in the right to be forgotten states, “Individuals have the right—under  certain conditions—to ask search engines to remove links with personal information about them. This applies where information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive for the purposes of data processing.” My initial response focused in on “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, and excessive.”

If information is “irrelevant” isn’t that similar to the States’ “non-newsworthy” qualification? Privacy in American courts is protected more strongly for those who are “non-newsworthy” individuals, because strongly protecting privacy for “newsworthy” individuals would restrict the freedom of the press. Similarly, I think I could also argue that “inaccurate,” “irrelevant” and “excessive” could all be covered under American defamation laws. So are the right to be forgotten and the right to privacy really that different?

So “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” could be the European version of American privacy torts? Sure, the European countries value privacy much more than America does, so enforcement of the right to be forgotten would be very different. The EU would more frequently use the right whereas the US would be very cautious. If privacy is so valued by Europeans, why isn’t the right to be forgotten just the right to privacy? Well, there are six words I ignored when I first looked at the EU’s wording of the right: “for the purposes of data processing.”

With those words, the right to be forgotten applies directly to search engines and other “data processing” companies. Is the right to be forgotten just Google respecting your right to privacy? Google’s decision to respect the take down requests is respecting the violation of privacy for NCP victims. In that case, the right to be forgotten is a European citizen’s right that Google respect their privacy.

Maybe? Despite reaching a logical conclusion, I was still uneasy.

The United States values speech over privacy, whereas most European nations value privacy over speech. From what I am reading and seeing online, Americans seem to value speech so much that we immediately become defensive at the idea of removing speech, even if that speech is private speech. The idea of the right to be forgotten is terrifying.  Everyone can censor himself or herself and manipulate the marketplace of ideas. If I censor myself, how do you know I’m not lying or withholding valuable information? The Ministry of Truth—what my Google-intern friend calls Big Brother Google—can no longer share the truth. While one portion of my discomfort stemmed from not calling NCP a violation of privacy, the other portion was from this “protect speech” value. If Google, with its algorithmic approach to the spread of the truth, must restrict speech with the right to be forgotten, Justice Holmes must be turning over in his grave.

Then I remember what Google was “forgetting”: non-consensual porn. Taking those pictures is a private act. Sharing them is a violation of privacy. Even Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, authors of “The Right to Privacy,” wrote, “For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons.” This was back in 1890. It’s eerie when historical figures so accurately address a very modern problem, isn’t it?

Around the end of this thought process, I spoke to a privacy law academic about this topic. During our conversation, it felt as if her comments turned my thoughts inside out again. She asked me what if the right to be forgotten is just an enforcement of privacy. The idea stopped my thoughts in their tracks as I contemplated it. The right to be forgotten seems much less restrictive in those terms. With that idea in mind as I wrote this, my thoughts raced towards a (temporary) reconciliation with the right to be forgotten. It’s just an enforcement mechanism, one that can be used differently between Europe and the United States.

With this enforcement mechanism, maybe we can regain that second chance that shame or harassment had previously taken away. If it allows harassment victims the opportunity to speak, I think I like this right to be forgotten.

Snehan – American Dream Continued

Sharma08-400Having only been raised in cities with small percentages of Asians, I’m used to being ethnically misidentified. In my 19 years I’ve been called anything from Mexican to Chinese, and honestly, it doesn’t bother me. But I’ll admit that I didn’t expect so many people to be stumped by my background in Clarkston, given its sizable Nepali-speaking populace. Upon meeting me, so many people have admitted that they had initially thought I was Indian. One person had remained under the impression that I was Indian even minutes after our fluent conversation in Nepali… Anyway, it was one of these scenarios that led to one of my most memorable of interviews of the summer so far.

“We have rodents the size of cats,” she told me in Nepali. I didn’t really believe her at first. But what I had initially understood to be typical Nepali hyperbole seemed more realistic as Mrs. Monger* led me into the dim apartment. She pointed to different parts of her home: ceiling tiles, carpet, and baseboards. In some places they were crumbling—clearly the result of incessant nibbling. I think I might’ve winced a little when her husband pointed to his jagged toes and made it clear that they had not been spared by the rats either. As she walked me around the ostensibly infested apartment, there was a pungent stench that grew increasingly unbearable as the tour continued; I couldn’t really pin it down, but I remain satisfied with my educated guess. I tried not to stare in any one direction for too long, for I didn’t want to risk seeming impolite.

Though she agreed to speak with me at length, it was close to 10:30 AM and Mrs. Monger had just returned from her 9-hour night shift at a chicken factory only about 25 minutes earlier. Her husband is unemployed. Her three children, she said, were not home; two of them attend the CPACS summer camp program located within the apartment complex. Despite approaching their third year of residency in America, the couple’s English capacity is still very minimal. Earlier this summer I might’ve been confused by this, but after so many weeks it makes perfect sense: they’re the textbook example of a struggling refugee family in Clarkston. Over a third of Clarkston residents are living in poverty, but this isn’t always overt. What is obvious are the friendly faces and inquisitive personalities.

I was told by an employee at a non-profit that many refugees view opportunities to interact with “real Americans,” or native-born Americans who don’t work in the field, to be exciting. Whether I’ve always fallen into this category this summer, I’m not too sure. But for many, such encounters resurrect their images of an ideal America that were squashed soon after their arrivals. Refugees’ expectations about the US are often grandiose, having been influenced by exaggerated hearsay and the media’s selective portrayal of American life. So, although life in the States is an improvement from what life was like at home, it’s still somewhat disappointing.
I want to continue discussing the American Dream. According to William Damon of the Hoover Institution, it can be viewed as a binary concept that fundamentally relates to either freedom or “material aspirations” made possible by attaining a comfortable financial state. Freedom is a relative idea and therefore can be interpreted rather broadly. For refugees who were confined to crowded camps for decades, the physical freedom they have now is likely a big deal. Similarly, those who were unable to work due to dearth of employment opportunities or other obstructions feel privileged to now be able to earn money; this too is freedom. And even if some jobs like Mrs. Monger’s at the chicken factory seem stagnating with little chance of upward mobility, I suppose that just the knowledge that the situation can be changed is reassuring. American society is largely cause and effect—those who sacrifice and put forth hard work will be recognized and reap the fruits of their efforts. Now, whether these benefits are always proportional to the input is a separate issue.

How does this affect a new immigrant’s concept of their American Dream? And what are the roles of heritage and community when it comes to shaping these dreams? The limitations in terms of economic mobility can be depressingly clear. People who were lawyers in Bosnia or military leaders of high rank in Somalia cannot maintain their statuses or their salaries after resettling; their credentials often mean nothing in America. They must drive taxis or work at grocery stores to make a living and support their families; it must be humiliating to some extent, but it is necessary to stay afloat financially.

When those refugees who are the most poised to succeed struggle—those who are educated and have done right by their cultural standards—it sends a signal to their respective communities that in Clarkston, comfort will not come easily. The game is different now because the landscape has totally changed. For this reason, a refugee’s native culture, although still extremely important, might be less influential or have to be adapted. Sometimes, work will take precedence over spending time with children, school will come before babysitting younger siblings, etc. Certain aspects of daily life that were once so common at home must be re-evaluated for the sake of being able to pursue the American Dream, now the only dream.

Now, after weeks of observing, interviewing, and making friends, it’s time for me to shift focus just a bit. I hope to assist an organization to establish a youth leadership initiative in Clarkston. Although programs like this seem to be in no short supply (similar to after school and summer programs), those who understand the Clarkston environment best don’t believe that there is any serious redundancy. I’ve asked a few people about this directly, and they insinuate that any support is welcome. I sense that every program has something that sets it apart from the others, but what that is I’m still not sure.

*pseudonym

Jeff – Social License to Operate

Feng08-400In one of my latest interviews, I sat down with John Martin*, mayor of Singleton Shire, a town close to Bulga that happens to govern it as well. We had connected the other week at the Singleton Festival launch, before the political banter of local government drew him away from me. It so happens that the month-long festivities are sponsored partially by Glencore — the multinational mining company that operates the underground mining lease adjacent to Rio Tinto’s Mount Thorley Warkworth mine.

This is an example of a mining company investing in a meaningful set of events that will hopefully bring the community together and also highlight the amenities in the area, not just in Singleton but the Broke Fordwich Wine Region. But more importantly than simply investing in the community, Glencore has taken the steps to consult with the community whenever they intend to move forward with a project. Here’s the thing: community members have a stake in the matter and should be allowed a say in the planning process. In establishing that working relationship, Glencore is saving a lot of headaches down the road. As a result, the BMPA doesn’t really have any qualms with the company even though their mines are still surrounding their homes. Of course, it’s not as though the company is helping out the community for the sake of helping. More importantly for them they’re keeping the community from devastating their reputation and shying away the investors. As John Drinan of the Singleton Healthy Environment Group put it (and corporate social responsibility explains), they’re getting their “social license to operate (SLO).”

If we follow this line of reasoning, then it makes sense to call community investments and tools of community involvement social responsibility rather than social duty. The SLO approval is contingent upon community support of a project and is granted if the mining company is able to handle opposition and mitigate risks with the community. Of course, mining companies are often required to hold public hearings as a part of the planning process; however, applying for a social license often entails going above and beyond what is delineated in law.  I, for example, did not have to get a driver’s license, but as I felt the need to decrease the impact on my parents’ schedule, I went ahead with it, as a rural area usually necessitates vehicular mobility. Similarly, getting a social license requires time and adequate planning. That being said, it is not difficult to at least attempt to take the steps to engage with the community.

Rio Tinto, in all its proceedings with Bulga, has failed miserably in procuring a legitimate social license. Rather, much of the local community opposes the Mount Thorely Warkworth expansion. Nonetheless, the company continues to maintain how the community (more so Singleton as I noticed at the PAC hearing) has greatly benefitted from their presence. Maintaining this image and hoping to attain a SLO is fundamentally an ethical question of what mining companies are obligated to do. Since I am referring to corporations, then their primary responsibility is to their shareholders. Consequently, deontological ethics that demarcate the company’s unspoken duties and obligations to the environment and people take a back seat. These duties include everything which is not explicitly laid out in the planning process, whereas for example Environmental Impact Statement must be performed if said condition is met. Well then, what should a business do? Focus primarily on profits? Still, within that purview of appeasing investors, shouldn’t a company be required to create an inviting workplace, limit impacts on the environment, and consult the communities in which they operate? They are to some extent, but I think we’re at the point when governmental bodies are trying to keep up with the technological advances in mining, which brings an onset of associated impacts. As it is, social impact assessments are not an integral part of the planning process. Unfortunately for both activists and miners, this often results in a shortsighted fixation on shareholders.

How then can the company reasonably operate in the community? This is one of the challenges that the mayor faces, trying to leverage industry presence and the impact on the community. I wasn’t able to prod a definitive answer out of him, speaking in favor or against the extension. I was flabbergasted as to how he could say he was taking a balanced approach to the extension on the pretense of co-existence. In this case, I don’t think you can argue that point anymore. On the one hand, he maintained that Singleton is made up of roughly 30% miners. Singleton is by far the largest mining town in the area and has forged a close relationship with the mines in terms of the industries that cater to coal. Still, the extension has threatened the Bulga community. As he is not a scientist, he couldn’t speak to the health and dust impacts that the Bulga community had been experiencing. Yet, this isn’t hearsay, and anyone could tell that there have been cumulative impacts, whether it is from the dust or stress. How can someone’s stance change and backtrack from clearly raising concerns about the extension to taking a more “balanced” approach? In looking at some of the requirements that would come with the extension, I think the rationale for the shift is elucidated. Singleton Council will maintain a flow of money that will amount in total to AU$11 million in order to buttress local services and infrastructure. One would think that Bulga would receive these funds from having a mine right on their doorsteps, but the mayor maintained that other parts of the region, even Singleton, would require a share as well.  He proceeded to pull out a health study that delineated air quality problems in the Hunter Valley, and while agreeing with some of its points, concluded that it was bad for tourism. The town, therefore, needs to be able to adapt to the damage to their reputation.

He was “balanced”, but it seems as though he was leaning towards one side. And as I conclude my project, I’ve been thinking about my intentions at the start of my experience. I was (and still am) an environmentalist, but hadn’t really looked at how my arguments were framed towards the miners.  This was my chance to be “balanced” and make my conclusions under the guise of objectivity. Let it be known that from the get-go, I believed that the coal mining companies were after the quickest buck and that has been affirmed in these last few weeks. West Virginia, Australia… it hasn’t mattered. Coal is King and has reigned for years — mining companies will never voluntarily give up on their commodity. My task then was to understand the repercussions of a system that awards flimsy social licenses to these companies.

This community is divided, and rightly so, because this is a personal matter that evokes questions of survival and the uncertainty of what comes next. In the PAC hearing and in interviews, I’ve heard miners speak to the value of my job and activists fighting for my home. And this is integral to flushing out the social impacts of narrative. That’s what I seek, to avoid blanket generalizations and to dabble in personal anecdotes to collectively present a holistic understanding of this environmental conflict. And collectively, I don’t think there has been an adequate look at how each entity that has a stake has been affected by mining and the extension proposal. One of the most difficult parts of this project has been sifting through the personal bias and looking at these matters as a whole.

Ethnographically, I think I’ve learned that co-existence within this community is a fantasy. Rio Tinto’s antics in the Hunter have pitted activists and miners against each other. Activists maintain it isn’t about the jobs and consequently call out the miners to wake up and think about the future. And in some fashion, I’ve done that as well. But it would seem that miners don’t have the privilege of thinking about what lies down the road because the present is arduous enough. How would you feel if someone told you that you weren’t capable of making the right decisions both for yourself and the future of your children? Each side has been clinging on to survive, and hope that something will happen that tips the scales to their sides.

And I think I’m beginning to understand what these people are saying after all these weeks. Similar to how the mayor has considered both sides, I have balanced the arguments and talked with a range of people. You can take a balanced approach and consider all sides, but when interpreting a conflict, neutrality does not exist. In the framework of coal mining, saying nothing and feigning “neutrality” equates to silently accepting the status quo and supporting coal. So Mayor, I’d like you to reconsider how you answered my question.

* His personal views do not reflect those of the Singleton Council

Gautam – Myth of the Entrepreneur

Gautam08-400I want to return to the idea that not everyone is an entrepreneur and propose a theory on why that is. I do not want to beat a dead horse, but I do want to glue this idea onto the dry-erase board of my thoughts on this project.

As a Western society, we romanticize the notion of entrepreneurship. With the rise of Silicon Valley and its gigabytes (good one, right?) of success stories, entrepreneurship has been conflated with ingenuity, persistence, hard-work, and intelligence. These are all admirable, but most of all, it is the thought of the volume of riches and how quickly they can be gained that brings the most glamour.

Sometimes we love it because it gives an underdog narrative that we can latch onto. What was The Pursuit of Happyness without Will Smith’s dedication and ultimate drive to succeed against bleak circumstances. It evokes the idea of becoming a “self-made” man and the “American Dream.”

One of the reasons for this is that we put innovation and entrepreneurship on different sides of the same flashcard. But that should not be surprising. We celebrate Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Walt Disney, Mark Zuckerberg and others because they have implemented (not necessarily introduced) ideas that have changed our lives and interactions on a personal level.

The idea that innovation and entrepreneurship have been attached at the hip like Siamese twins is an idea that has been in existence since, well, the birth of the modern study of it. Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian-American economist, developed the idea of “creative destruction” and that the spirit of an entrepreneur comes from doing new things or doing things that are already being done in a new way.

Let’s look at the statistics. Only 13% of America’s labor force are actual entrepreneurs, and half of these businesses fail within 5 years. The International Labor Organization recently pegged the number of wage-earning laborers in developed countries around 90%. Compare this to the economic report from Kenya this year which states that the informal sector (the collection of small enterprises) accounts for 82.7% of total jobs in the country.

There are a ton of variables floating around, but when I first saw the difference I thought there has to be something more obvious about it. What if microenterprise is the only option? What if microenterprise is not something that is really desired? What if microenterprise is a symptom of poverty and not a cure for it?

When I was researching for this blog, I found a paper written by a professor at the business school at University of Michigan. It was as if the man took my ideas, went back to when I was in middle school, and published a paper, eloquently summarizing the main points.

The truth is that not everyone wants to be–or even has the skills to be–an entrepreneur. Many poor turn to these forms of employment as substinence, as a way to survive. Talk to many of them and you realize that they would much rather have a consistent and safe income through something such as a factory job. Many studies show this. But I also wanted to check it out myself.

So I went to the local Curios (essentially “traditional African” trinkets sold to tourists) Market and asked a few sellers. I ended up having a two hour conversation with one man–I will have to talk about the conversation in detail on another day–who fashions soapstone into different shapes. He had recently lost his job. He came to this shop for something to do and keep himself moving, but he will most likely move back to his village and live on his ancestral land. Overall, the replies were mixed, with a couple expressing that they enjoy their business because it is simple, not tiring, and flexible. However, this is also a very small sample of business owners that cater to foreigners and charge 5-10 times more than what they pay for. I am going to pose the question to many of the kiosks selling basic snacks and soda that you cannot go five minutes of walking without seeing. Also interesting: everyone I asked said they have not and will not take a loan from a microfinance bank because they are afraid of paying it back.

This also feeds into the innovation aspect. Nearly every microenterprise has a clone maybe a few feet away. Go to any market here and you find tens of the exact same store. Go to the City Park Market less than half a mile from where I am staying and you see ~75 stalls selling the exact same fruits and vegetables. The same goes for the Curios market; there are about 30 stalls selling the same items. I mention this because I was reading lender profiles on Kiva, and many, many of them mentioned that they want to loan because they want to support “fellow entrepreneurs,” and I think there is a disconnect of how we view entrepreneurs in a different country.

Microfinance comes in because the common notion is that the poor are naturally “resilient and creative entrepreneurs” and the usage of microloans will allow them to build businesses to lift themselves out of poverty. This is a progressive thought that does want to meaningfully address poverty. Unfortunately, there might be legitimate concern that this mentality could be doing some harm.

Overemphasis on the magic of microfinance and the individual entrepreneur takes attention away from the important system of networks, infrastructure, and clean pipelines that the government needs to provide to make a “free market” system flow as smoothly as possible. It also overestimates the impact that microcredit can have, ignoring what many actually want. Microcredit sounds like a great idea because it removes the paternalistic mentalities of traditional aid and “voluntourism,” but assuming giving money to the poor to solve all their problems is similarly paternalistic.

There are also issues that can interfere with future development.

Let me give you a current case.  Remember when I talked about the Gikomba market burning a couple of weeks ago? It was the largest secondhand clothing market East Africa. And the secondhand clothing market is huge in this region. More than 70% of donated clothes from around the world are imported and sold in Africa. (Aside: more than 90% of the vehicles on the road in Kenya are secondhand, so it is interesting to note that there might be psychological effects of always receiving the West’s hand-me-downs). This has led to thousands of small stalls selling these used clothes. On KivaZip alone, out of the 8920 total direct loans in Kenya, 1463 are specifically under the “Clothing/Jewelry/Accessories” category. That’s a lot, right?

But what if they were selling African-made clothing? The Guardian article talks about how the textile industry in Africa has fallen by over 96% since the 1980s. When neoliberalization policies were introduced, secondhand clothes flooded in and created many new jobs, but there is also the question of how many jobs are being missed out on because of a lack of factory work? What about in terms of developing local industries and infrastructure?

Check out this short TED Talk.

Questions, thoughts, complaints? Contact gsc13@duke.edu. Please. Sometimes it gets lonely.

Alex – Reddit Revolt

Zrenner05-400This past weekend I saw something interesting online in relation to my project. I honestly saw at least ten things online I could probably easily spend a thousand words on, but I decided this one something would do it for this week’s post.

I saw Reddit almost implode after the company fired one of the beloved mods of IAmA.

Unless you frequently use Reddit, that previous statement probably made no sense.

Reddit describes itself as “the front page of the Internet.” It is a bulletin board system website. Anyone with a Reddit account can post content and then other Redditors, users on the site, can comment on the post. Reddit has users self-categorize content under subreddits that range in topic from discussions of the news, philosophy, misogyny and racism, and cats. Certain reddit users are moderators (“mods”) for subreddits; mods ensure the content on the subreddit adheres to the subreddit’s rules. Mods are usually volunteers and keep reddit working.

By far one of the most popular subreddits is IAmA, which describes itself as: “Basically, /r/IAmA is a place to interview people, but in a new way. ‘IAmA’ is the traditional way of beginning the description of who you are; ‘AMA’ is the traditional way of ending the description; the acronym means ‘Ask me anything.’” President Obama, Peter Dinklage and a vacuum repair guy are some of the most popular people to have done an AmA. This past weekend, the beloved and public moderator of IAmA, a woman named Victoria, was unexpectedly fired. (I noticed that of the most popular IAmAs, the only named woman on the list is the fired mod, and that is only a request for her to conduct an AmA. However I digress.)

To say that Redditors were not happy is a monumental understatement. Moderators of many popular subreddits made the subreddits private, effectively shutting down the site. Journalists are calling it the “Reddit Revolt.” The users are revolting against Interim CEO Ellen Pao. She’s not very popular right now, even after admitting, “We screwed up. Not just on July 2, but also over the past several years…We haven’t communicated well, and we have surprised moderators and the community with big changes.” While writing this, Pao announced her resignation.

There are many who don’t want Reddit to change. When the company executives make these big surprise changes, the users are shocked and mad. The users don’t trust the executives to make changes. Especially when “Reddit is a shrine to the Internet we wanted.” People usually don’t like others, which is how Redditors see the executives, changing or threatening the shrine.

“The Internet we wanted” was a completely free exchange of ideas and expressions. Reddit looked a lot like this shrine: completely unregulated free speech for everyone and privacy for no one…except for the anonymous person posting the information. With unregulated speech and no privacy, everyone (except the poster) becomes a public subject in the exchange of ideas. You can say whatever you want about whatever or whomever. In September 2014, Reddit CEO said, “We uphold the ideal of free speech on reddit as much as possible not because we are legally bound to, but because we believe that you — the user — has the right to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, and that it is your responsibility to do so. When you know something is right, you should choose to do it. But as much as possible, we will not force you to do it.” (For the other statements on free speech made by Reddit CEOs over the years, see  .)

When placed in these terms, I saw a disconnect between Reddit and the United States’ history. Whereas Reddit is lots of speech and a little privacy, historically the US has had lots of privacy and little speech.

The First Amendment was ratified in 1791. We communicated in person or by hand-written letters or messengers. Information was public if you published it, used a town crier, or told the town gossip. The information shared within the walls of your house stayed there. Our lives were very private and remained as such through the 19th century. In the 20th century, the technology for wiretapping was created, but even with this technology, there were physical limitations to how far wiretapping could diminish privacy. You would have had decide who to wiretap, someone to listen to tapes, etc.

Since most exchanges were private, the amount of public speech then is small compared to the amount of public speech today. Furthermore, public speech was quickly restricted with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Then again, speech was explicitly restricted during the Civil War, both World Wars, the Cold War, with McCarthyism, and with Vietnam. Geoffrey Stone outlines these restrictions in Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime. (For the sake of clarity, I am ignoring speech restrictions during the War on Terrorism, and I am considering historic US up until the modern Internet.) I read the book the week before I left for Miami and was surprised to reference it in relation to Reddit.

The United States had the problem of too little speech in the context of having lots of privacy; this is not to say there wasn’t speech, but since speech was expressed in a private setting, it would not consistently be as widely discussed as we see online. Reddit has the problem of too much speech in the context of little privacy. The U.S. had the problem of not allowing criticism of public figures. The problem was government censorship, which is what we have been trying to fix for the last couple centuries. Reddit’s problem is too much criticism that becomes harassment. Reddit waged a war against Ellen Pao with hate. It isn’t just, “We disagree with your policy change.” It is, “F*** Ellen Pao,” and a few other derogatory words.

We don’t have experience fixing this problem. What do you do when so many are abusing the freedom of speech? We are afraid to censor them because of our history; it appears we are afraid of this slippery slope from censoring harassment to censoring criticism. As I state in my free speech video, Reddit is not Congress, so it is technically not bound by the First Amendment. However, Redditors act like Reddit is the supreme example of free speech and should not and must not censor content (for further discussion on Reddit’s free speech position, see here). The Redditors are particularly terrified of this slippery slope and of being censored by Reddit. If Reddit just censors the harassment, it will then censor criticism and Reddit is no longer the site it set out to be. Yes, harassment is bad, but criticism is good, and doesn’t the value of criticism outweigh the danger of harassment?

I am uncertain if the harassment is worth the ability to criticize. I am certain that we need a different approach to this problem of speech and privacy, because our historical experiences have not prepared us for the vast amounts of speech and lack of privacy we have online.

Jeff – Social Web

Feng09-400Judge Preston had a grueling task ahead of him when he tried to balance the economic benefits with the environmental & social impacts of the Mount Thorley Warkworth extension. First, he needed to sift through each side’s arguments and determine their worth in a court of law — were the economic projections valid, were the environmental mitigation techniques up to par, and were the social impact assessments encompassing the community as a whole? Second, once he accounted for personal bias that each side undeniably had, would the economic gains be greater than the costs and therefore be sufficient grounds for the extension to move forward?

Before I get to his conclusions, he made a point to emphasize the complexity of balancing the economy, the environment, & the community. His prime example was that of a spider weaving a delicate, yet intricate and interlinked web; messing with one individual thread would completely skew the entire web into something different. The web is inherently fragile and is liable to change with the slightest of infractions, thus remaining impressionable by myriad factors and stakeholders. As mortal beings, we can only predict which way the web will sway, but it is not unreasonable to think that ripples in the wind hold more clout.

Rio Tinto purported that their project would morph the web completely into something with layers upon layers of further strands, strengthening the system as a whole and stabilizing jobs; all costs would be the price of business. The Judge, as I’ve revealed in an earlier post, ruled that the projections were misleading to the point where the economic gains were not greater than the environmental/social costs; therefore, he did not believe the extension should move forward. In other words, the standard of messing with the web wasn’t met.

Should these projects move forward, it then becomes a question of measuring the success of social mitigation. And when companies are not up to par with the standards, why has that been the case and in what ways can they improve? Fittingly, I spent the greater part of my last week in Australia traveling to Brisbane to meet with researchers at University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining. Coming into these interviews, I wasn’t sure what to expect — would these researchers be pro-coal since companies such as Rio Tinto have often commissioned them? And specifically in regard to the Bulga case or other case studies they’ve studied, have mining companies been able to achieve social responsibility? How well has the Centre been able to influence their policies in achieving that goal? In addition to these researchers, I managed to schedule a couple interviews with a PhD student and a cultural anthropologist. Each offered a unique perspective that catered to their field of expertise.

I chatted with a researcher named Jo-Anne who has done work in the Hunter Valley and was intrigued in hearing about how she used the phrase “social fabric.” This is a term, like a web, that depends on each individual pattern to culminate into something grander. Her research has looked at managing the cumulative impacts of mining in diversified economies, and she’s needed to understand the context of the communities in which she works. In other words, who makes it up? What factions might there be? And when changes do come—the fabric gets bleached for instance—then how do the respective colors fade, if at all? And specific to my project, I hoped to comprehend what happens when one facet of the story simply does not appear.

Over the course of the summer, I’ve worked to understand what each thread constitutes and stands for in light of extractive surface mining operations. Both personally and I think for the project, the most neglected group—and thus the most important—was the miners. We hear about the companies coming up with new permits and extensions and the economic value. On the other side, activists from across their respective countries and local community members are quite explicit in what they want to see happen and don’t skip a beat in telling their story. The lived experiences of miners never seem to make it into the conversation, and those I think are integral for a social assessment of these environmental conflicts.

As Jo-Anne and the cultural anthropologist emphasized, that is duly influenced by each party’s definition of community. Although a few of the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association members were not generationally connected to Bulga, they were still considered a part of the community whereas recent miners that moved in were not. Perhaps for the BMPA members I spoke with, becoming a part of the community was contingent upon going to gatherings and having a presence with those that have already established themselves. With these conditions and the divisiveness of the Mount Thorely Warkworth extension, then it isn’t hard to comprehend how Bulga could be divided. As a Duke student, I’ve wondered about my stake in Durham and how my transience makes it difficult to be a part of the community amidst other factors. Institutionally, Duke has found its base in Durham and has established continuity through its programming. But, in light of the concepts of community and social license to operate, it seems that Duke has a lot to gain in fostering a relationship with Durham through its students.

These were common themes that I encountered in both West Virginia and the Hunter Valley, and as I conclude this experience, I believe that there’s more that could be done policy-wise. After I get back, I’ll take some more time to piece out the role of the government in their accountability to locals, miners and otherwise. Each country’s norms dictate distinct duties that rely upon rights and how policy has been framed. The planning process in New South Wales, for example, has changed over the course of the past few years. Just two weeks ago, NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes put forth an amendment to restore the SEPP to balance economic, environmental, and social impacts on equal terms. This is but one aspect of the planning process, whereas other forms of community involvement such as collaboration and public reporting have not been formalized.

I can say though that it’s pretty clear that I’m not the only one who loves the mountains. To hear about each person’s unique story and perspective was an eye-opening experience that allowed me to understand that miners and activists do share in some aspects. There may be no middle ground in these current situations, but looking at these conflicts will be integral to rethinking planning that involves each of these stakeholders.

Gautam – Cost of Doing Business

Gautam09a-400I had a whole extended metaphor planned out for this week, but I went on a safari this weekend and the experience surrounding the weekend stuck with me, so I want to explore it a little.

I spent this past weekend as a tourist, going on a safari in the Masai Mara Reserve because the wildebeest migration has started recently. Although I did not get to see any wildebeest cross the Mara River/get eaten by crocodiles hiding in the river, I saw hundreds of them gathered around with zebras (which I believe are some of the most awkward-looking creatures) and four of the “Big Five” (lions, elephants, leopards, buffalos, and rhinos). I had a great time and, of course, took some great pictures–if I do say so myself.

However, every step of the way, I was reminded that this was a tourist trap, and it got me thinking about the other experiences I’ve been having around Nairobi. A few examples: The travel agency takes payment in US dollars, but when I wanted to pay in Kenyan shillings, they used an inflated exchange rate and charged me around $15 extra. Then on the way to the reserve, the driver was trying to make up something about the park rules being changed on timings of entering and exiting so we would have to give up a game drive, essentially cutting the 3-day trip everybody had paid for into a 2-day one and allowing the driver/agency to pocket $80 in park fees PER PERSON. At the park gates (where there was a 15 minute wait for no apparent reason), there were dozens of Masai women peddling their trinkets and souvenirs (which are said to be handmade by themselves but are really manufactured and I am pretty sure that keychains are never handmade) by going up to every van and harassing every tourist. They stuck their hands into every open window pushing beads and wooden carvings into every face in vicinity, even though the only things they spoke were “Boss!”, “Good price!”, and “Hakuna Matata.” It was just a rock in my shoe the whole time.

Gautam09-400Gautam, you say in your understanding but corrective tone, this is the same deal at tourist traps all over the world. And what does this have to do with microfinance, anyway?

Well, fictionalized you, I kept meeting these same situations where someone is very aggressively trying to get my money all around Nairobi. It seems to be the most consistent experience throughout my time here. And I’m getting to the relevance of this. Gosh.

But I do have to realize that my being a foreigner drastically changes my relationship with native Kenyans. That sounds obvious, but it’s easy to gloss over. I am an individual that has the money to travel around the world. And it would be hypocritical and somewhat ignorant to go into a country for its resources (wildlife) and not expect someone in the country to want my resources (money), especially since I want to see wildlife, and individuals in a relatively impoverished country like Kenya may need money. Not being aggressive and calling out to foreigners would seem like letting a windfall just walk on by.

I still had some qualms.

On the way back from the safari, we had four different “rest” stops, at a souvenir shop every single time. At the first stop, I walked through the doorway that was littered with the stickers from tens of travel agencies, into a medium-sized shack with the exact same trinkets I have seen everywhere else. I stopped at the first table with a bunch of tiny colorful stone hippos. Within seconds, a seller was there staring me dead in the eye.

“You buy?”

“How much is this?”

“How many you buy?”

“Just one.”

“Take more. I give you good discount.”

“Ok. How much if I buy three?”

“1500 for one.”

I chuckled a little and then immediately walked away quickly. He came after me throughout the store yelling “Boss! Boss! Name your price! I’ll give you good deal!” After a few meters (I’ve converted to the Metric system), I simply replied coldly, “I don’t want to talk to you” and left the shop.

If you go to most shops in Nairobi, one of those little stone hippos costs 75 shillings, at most 100 shillings. This guy was trying to upsell me by 15 times. And I know that it is completely negotiable, but I absolutely hate this process. I’ll name a price. He will say “That is too low” and give me a slightly lower price. I will say “I cannot do that” and raise my price slightly. This will go on and on until you meet at a point. If I am adamant and say that I do not want the item, he will pressure me to name a “final price,” that he will try to maximize. I have never been happy after one of these, and it is entirely uncomfortable for me.

Go to any open-air market in town and you have the same calls to check out their products when you walk by and a whole show when you refuse. Even at small stores, there is a constant need for bartering, with the store owner trying to convince you their electronics or whatever are original (they almost never are). Drive on any busy road and there are tens of hawkers standing in between car lanes, knocking on every window, trying to sell their fruit or basic consumer goods. Even for a cob of roasted corn, there is so much trouble. When another African family wanted to buy some, the seller upselled them by 2.5 times and they had to argue to get it down to the price that it is sold for at many other stalls. And I do not necessarily think that I feel more of the brunt because I am a foreigner and seen as a source of money. I definitely am targeted more and am given a higher price, but local citizens deal with it as well. Even when my aunt in India needs to get vegetables from a market in a city that she has lived in nearly her entire life, she has to argue about the price.

But what bothers me even more is that the people from the travel agency were all very nice and helpful. The driver never sulked; he did not ever look unhappy; he did not get angry; he constantly cracked jokes; he listened to when and where we wanted to go in the reserve and did his best to get us the best viewing locations. They did want us to enjoy the trip. But they also wanted to nickel and dime us at every point. It’s as if there was no real problem that they were trying to deceive us, and that it is simply what is commonly done.

Some other tourists enjoyed the process of haggling because they falsely believed that they were able to successfully negotiate their way to a “good” price and advise potential visitors to do the same, because “bartering is part of Kenyan culture” and is a way of showing one another respect.  I cannot figure out how truthful this statement is, but the only reference I find is that bartering was the way of life during tribal periods. I’m skeptical that what I experienced is some holdover from an earlier time.

However, I do think this might be a way of thinking that subjugates the inefficiency/lack of information of the market to a cultural “quirk,” instead of taking aim at the market system that is more likely the culprit.

When there is a massive amount of competition at the micro level (which is present in nearly every impoverished population in medium- to large-sized cities), a business owner has to be aggressive to survive. In any economic situation, the value of an item is determined by how much someone is willing to pay for it. When neither the seller nor the buyer has access to what a “market price” would be, it is only rational for the seller to charge as much as he/she believes the product can get and then adapt, leading to haggling.

These frustrating situations (well for me, an inhabitant of a relatively well-regulated mixed market system with much better distribution of market information) exist in the regions that are main targets of microfinance.

This is the real free market. One where self-interests rule.

I also wanted to bring back a thought from my previous post: “What if microenterprise is a symptom of poverty and not a cure for it?” I mentioned that there is a lack of consistent, rationalized sources of income such as a factory job, so sometimes a microenterprise becomes a backup, a necessity to survive. On the other side, there are others who chose business in the first place because they perceive it as a way to make money quicker, depending on how hard they hustle and peddle. When interviewed, Kenyan youth express the idea of “Getting rich quick,” although it is important to note that this is not just a Kenya-specific phenomenon. (See the popularity of the lottery among the lower-income.)

And I am reminded of the many stories of corruption throughout Kenya’s history. And my first experience in the country with police officers requesting bribes. And the tour guide on my safari trip that took us on a five minute walk to look at hippos and then personally asked each person in the group for a tip, getting angry at the ones who did not want to give anything. And when I asked a security guard for directions, and he brought his friend, who asked how much I will give him to know how to get to a place that ended up being less than two blocks away.

Maybe, without a true “market price,” people are constantly trying to gauge how much their services are worth and seeing what they can get. Maybe corruption is an extension of this idea that government officials know that there are customers that value their services higher, and thus, charge a bribe.

The perception of corruption in Kenya by Kenyans is increasing. In 2014, 81% of the sampled population reported that corruption in Kenya is high, up from 64% the previous year. In this type of climate, it almost normalizes non-legitimate sources of income, making it more and more difficult to implement formal institutions, financial or not.

If we want to alleviate poverty by targeting microenterprises, then we need to understand that business is operated in a completely different way from country to country and in a completely different regulatory environment that will favor certain attitudes and personalities.

One more thought I wanted to put forward is that the main way I can become involved in microfinance is through lending on platforms on Kiva, by buying into the personal story of a borrower. Luckily, I have full faith in Charles, the electrical engineer in whom I invested, and know that he is a very nice and humble guy (we text or talk on the phone every once in a while). However, if a borrower is as rude, aggressive, and relentless as half of the shop owners I have personally interacted with, I would definitely not invest in that borrower. But how would I know that? Maybe the question is how can microfinance change how microbusinesses operate in other countries? Or is it wrong to impose my ideals–that are most likely a result of growing up where I did–of how business should run? What about how people act? Am I just being culturally insensitive?

Alex – Tweeting While Female

I intended this post to be “It’s the end.” I leave Miami next Wednesday. I will be in Southern California for VidCon and then the Bay Area for NNEDV’s Tech Summit. These conferences signify the end of my fellowship.

I planned to write about how I was surprised how important privacy and feminism became to me in the past weeks. I thought I was going to become more speech-focused during this summer. I did not expect to make a video declaring myself a Social Justice Warrior or become an online privacy advocate. It’s been an astounding and powerful six weeks for me.

But I am not writing a “The End” post. I am writing about why I am angry. I’m angry because for the past six weeks, I have been apprehensively waiting for an online attack to come. I know that because I am talking about the problem of cyber harassment and feminism that I am vulnerable to attacks. It wasn’t until this Thursday I realized how uneasy I was.

On Thursday, I tweeted something that resulted in a new Twitter follower. (I am purposefully avoiding specifics of the Twitter interactions because it’s not important to my argument and I still like the idea that I have some privacy.) My tweet did not use a Twitter mention to direct the tweet to my account. However, the account followed me. I also want to take a moment to apologize to the Internet: I did not check my grammar before tweeting, and it is wrong. I am very sorry and ashamed by this mistake.) While my improper grammar annoyed me, this account following me was unnerving. The name associated with this account is known for online harassment…and it was following me.

The next morning, I read Jessica Valenti’s article stating that Ellen Pao is attacked on Reddit not because she is a woman but because she is a feminist. I retweeted this from my personal account. Within a few minutes, the twitter account retweeted me. In the next minute the account responded by directly tweeting to me. Again this threw me off balance. The response tweet wasn’t anything hateful; this is just an invitation to debate the argument. However, given the name associated with the account, I considered this invitation to debate as an invitation to be trolled. I don’t know if he just wanted to debate free speech on Twitter, attack my project or myself, or maybe he was just interested in following my account. Not knowing is a little nerve-wracking.

It’s the uncertainty of the next two weeks left of this project that is more unnerving. I don’t know what to expect from the Internet. Should I prepare myself for an onslaught of rape and death threats? Hate speech? Will my information be ? Maybe I will be lucky and my arguments will just be intellectually criticized, which is how the marketplace of ideas should work.

Despite that uncertainty for these next two weeks, I plan to leave my Twitter account public. Given the free speech component of this project, my intention is to very limitedly ban accounts or report tweets if they arise and only if the speech would not be protected in a First Amendment setting. However once this project is completed, I want my privacy on Twitter. I will block individuals I don’t know and increase my privacy settings. I have no obligation to see tweets from people I don’t want to see. Also, blocking a Twitter account only bans them from appearing on my Twitter feed. My block does not silence the account, it just means I don’t have to listen to that account. Although the marketplace of ideas encourages me to listen, it is not a requirement.

In two weeks, I get to recreate my private life in the Duke bubble. Then I will begin to decide how and when I want to be public or private online because I do am unsure whether I am. But why am I so anxious thinking about what could happen within those two weeks?

Because I am vulnerable online. I am in enemy territory. I’m no longer in the safe confines of my private Facebook account, where yes I have friends who may disagree with a liberal or feminist article I share, but those friends won’t call me a “c***” or threaten to kill me in the comments. On Twitter and YouTube or Reddit, users can and frequently do so to other women who say the same things I am. There is a lot of misogyny online. It’s a hard fight to speak as a feminist or even as a woman online.

Everyday Feminism recently published, “20 Reminders Every Feminist Needs (But No One’s Telling Us).” The author writes for Number 7, “You Can Sign Off of Twitter: At the time of writing this, I’ve currently got a few people on the Internet really angry with me…So my partner offered to log into my Twitter account for the weekend in order to ban all of the trolls for me so that I never have to see their comments. (I know. Swoon-worthy, right?)” I laughed because this is true: it is incredibly swoon-worthy to have someone battle the trolls for you. Feminists make calls of recognition of oppression and are then attacked. So yeah, having friends and family support this fight by protecting you from trolls is a beautiful sign of support.

I have yet to be attacked online, but the possibility of it makes me fear a constant Jaws-music ominousness. I have said before, I do not feel oppressed especially looking back at how I was raised. That ominous threat of an attack is a threat of something trying (and I guarantee, failing) to oppress me.

This strikes me as insane. I am a college student writing for an Institute on campus. I am not an activist; I may be in the future or on my campus, but not nationally. I am not a public figure. Even if I were a public figure, it is utterly insane that I am fortifying myself because I want to talk about feminism and cyber harassment directed at women online. I am prepared for criticism. I should not have to be prepared for rape threats. It is absurd that I am preparing for a battle online just because I am a woman and I want to speak.

What’s next? Well obviously I will continue to speak. I will keep writing. I will begin to consider how to balance my desire to speak publicly about online culture with my desire to protect my privacy. I refuse to spend my time online tense and nervous waiting for something bad to happen. To deal with these bizarre tweets at least for today, I am grabbing my headphones, ignoring Twitter, dancing to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” laughing at the absurd fight feminists must to wage just to speak online, and most importantly, laughing at my own lack of dance skills.

Jeff – Lessons on Field Work

Feng10-400As I interviewed folks in the Hunter Valley about the impacts of surface mining—or, I suppose the lack thereof for some people—and inquired about their community, I thought back to the beginning of the project in West Virginia. In attempting to perform some semblance of a social impact assessment of these communities in the Hunter Valley and West Virginia, I footnoted the concept of solastalgia—the term, if you recall, that refers to a sense of homesickness when you’re still physically home. In order to give this notion serious thought, it was necessary to contextualize what each side has been arguing and the specific circumstances that necessitated these responses. Throughout this time, I chatted with people formally, but also informally took the time to experience some of what constituted their daily lives. It was my task as an outsider, to attempt to imbibe that which these people had experienced spanning from years to generations in four weeks. And then, I was to relay and feed this hard fought information to readers. The goal was not necessarily to become part of the community—this is hard enough with my transience and college commitment—but instead to comprehend without overstepping. And with my field experience over, I’m fully in the process of decontextualizing what all this work would mean to you—someone who has not physically been on the same journey as me.

It becomes necessary, then, to explicitly delineate the ways in which West Virginia and the Hunter Valley were both similar and different. Each of the case studies resembled each other in a couple ways. First, many of the mines were operated by multinational companies and thus highlighted the globalized nature of coal. The corporate nature of operation manifested itself in how miners interacted with their bosses. With such a large scope of projects to maintain, the chain of command was gargantuan and only trickled down to the miners. In particular, miners from both regions often mentioned how they were treated as numbers, and in cases of work place injury, were neglected by the company. There was a general distrust of coal companies based on past experiences, directed towards leaders such as Don Blackenship of Massey in West Virginia and more so Rio Tinto in the Hunter Valley. Second, the community groups in each region—Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) in West Virginia and the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association (BMPA)—proved to be salient issues in themselves. Whether it is opposing new mountaintop removal (MTR) permits or the extension of a mine, they occupy precarious positions for the miners. With some of their policy stances, members in the community, perhaps more supportive of coal, have even shied away from participating in events that are not quite as explicitly political.

That being said, the differences between the cases were apparent as well, but I’m mostly going to cover a few of the ways we could briefly look at the historical context for each. In Australia, the union has endured over the years and this was exemplified in how they were able to schedule many interviews with me. By contrast, West Virginia’s union has deteriorated due to successful tactics by companies. The influxes of unions were of course precipitated by poor working conditions, however, Australia has seen a longer history of worker organization that began years before the coalfields of West Virginia were looked into. Further, there are differences in environmental policy, but there may also be distinct ways that each country has looked at risk assessment. How has the Affordable Care Act influenced miners that have been injured? The Australian health care system, by principle, differs in its approach by maintaining that people have the right to healthcare based on their needs, not their ability to pay. Finally, and more specifically, CRMW began with the primary purpose of raising concerns about MTR whereas the BMPA was already an established community group with other goals before speaking out about the Mount Thorley Warkworth mine.

In each of these cases, I was coming in at a time that was tiring for each side of the divide. Globally, coal has been in decline—in the US coal production has declined by more than 15 percent since 2008—but still mining companies have been trying to expand their operations. They have met regulatory challenges in extricating and challenges moving forward with projects influenced in part by community organizing. And everyone’s been waiting for certainty of some degree. Will all these jobs be saved or will these communities feel the impact of their departure? This question assumes then that jobs are contingent upon these micro projects without considering what’s happening around the world. In lieu of asking other questions, this one lends some more hope to miners. I’d say generally though that this whole situation has been on people’s minds for so long that they sometimes don’t want to talk about it any longer. But as they have forged their home in their respective region, they don’t have a choice. The choice to work in the mines or take a stance against the mines was an acknowledgment of the risks involved—to the environment, to self—and how they have dealt with the impacts. As the project progressed, I was sometimes consumed with thoughts about the repercussions of coal mining—they entered my dreams at some point. For the people I talked with, this was their whole life and they faced these thoughts every waking moment. I was doing a summer project.

As it turns out, seeing mountaintop removal and other forms of open cut mining—albeit in a much different context—was just as formative as the first time I viewed the process. I set out on this project with a mindset to question some of the assumptions that I held first about mountaintop removal and—in the grander scheme—about coal. The environment needed to be conserved, and it simply did not make any sense to extract the fossil fuel in such a destructive manner. Based solely on this justification, I felt it sufficient to continue my opposition to the practice. But as I’ve learned over the course of my first two years of college, and as it has manifested in this project, my definition of the environment was fit into parameters that were too narrow. While I was cognizant of how the environment was interlinked with other issues, I struggled to comprehend the complexity of the case studies I looked at. Interviews with miners were especially eye-opening, but instead of making me regret loving the mountains and calling for ending MTR, I’m more inclined to call for even more reform with my expanded definition of the environment. Equipped with this experience, I’ve laid the framework for further ethical inquiry into community governance and the interplay between miners, activists, the mining companies, the government, and other stakeholders.

Alex – When to Be Heard

Alex07-400I’m confused.

When I left Miami, I was ready to retire from the Internet. I don’t like the idea that at any moment something I say can go viral. It’s terrifying.

I was going to retire for at least the duration of my career as a student. I would spend the next few years deciding if I want to be online, whether on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. as a public or a private figure. If I want to be a public figure, then deciding how I want to separate my private life and public life.

When you are a public figure online, you are more susceptible to cyber harassment. Logistically speaking, it is easier to target a public social media account than it is to target a private account. As I am currently a public figure by making YouTube videos and with a public Twitter account, and I am specifically a public figure discussing controversial issues like feminism, harassment, speech and privacy online, I’m easy target for harassment. It’s scary. On top of that, I’m just a college student and bound to make mistakes, and the Internet is not forgiving of mistakes. Privacy would take away those risks. So just before I left Miami, I decided I wanted my privacy.

Then I got to VidCon.

There are thousands of people here. I’ve listened to many creators and have talked to a few more. Videos and the Internet are these amazing platforms to engage with people around the world. Videos can mean something for the viewers. Online videos are powerful.

After listening to these creators who are passionate about creating content, I better understand the appeal of creating videos. For these creators, it’s not about a loss of privacy but about finding a community of people who share their passions. The creators made a conscious decision to grow and change and develop on YouTube. It’s admirable. It humanizes the Internet.

During this first day of VidCon, I keep swinging between “I want people to see my content!” and “I don’t want to live my life online!” As I said in my last video, just as Twitter is powerful so is online video. You share a part yourself, your human-ness, when you make an online video. You share a message in a very absorbable way for an audience in a video; they just have to decide to listen to you.

Then at the same time, I decided a long time ago that I don’t want to be famous. As a kid, I didn’t want to be a famous actress; I wanted to be the President because I wanted to change the world. Living my life in the public eye is terrifying. I don’t want hundreds or thousands of people to have access to my life. I really don’t care what people think of me, but I don’t think people should have access to the details about my life. As of today, I am willing to share my thoughts but I don’t really care what the mass public thinks about my thoughts. If I want feedback or thoughts from people, I’ll ask.

Even separate from receiving feedback or comments, I don’t know if I want to be the “Cyber harassment, speech, privacy, feminism” person for the Internet. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. If my friends and family make a joke about me being the “Internet law feminist,” it’s okay because they know the other dimensions to me. The Internet only knows one dimension of me. I don’t want to be a one-dimensional person.

Then again, it’s amazing to be recognized by others for your passion. It’s great when people go, “You have such passion for this thing and that’s cool.” It’s incredibly reaffirming. YouTube views, the likes, and certain comments are all people affirming that you are doing good work. Recognition is awesome. For example, I found out that Duke Today shared my SJW-video and I freaked! This was a recognition that, “Yeah, I’m doing something cool that I love!”

Recognition is great, but I’m afraid of the cost. What would happen if Buzzfeed shared my videos tomorrow? Thousands of people I didn’t know would see them. That’s powerful, and a little terrifying given the topics of my videos. Why are they watching? What are their motives? Are they going to be supportive? Are they going to attack? Will they just watch and move on with their lives? That lack of control and knowledge is terrifying.

I don’t know if I am willing to be a community leader for this topic. I don’t know if I want to even be a leader for this topic right now. I don’t know if I am the person to be the leader for this topic.

One of the best aspects of my Duke career has been learning how to shut up and listen to others first. I was that student in high school who always knew the answer and always had something to say. Coming to Duke and realizing I don’t have to speak because I don’t know, someone else could say the same thing, or it doesn’t even need to be said was hard, but ultimately it’s been a relief. I love being able to sit quietly in a conversation and listen to others, and it’s always great to hear someone else say what I was thinking. So do I want to continue to speak about this topic, and do I feel that it needs to be me speaking?

I’m cautious of when and how I use my voice. I’m nervous that I may lose privacy, that I may misspeak, that I am not the person who should be speaking. As inspiring as these YouTubers are and as passionate as they are about creating content, I’m nervous.

The most annoying part is that I have more panels to go to so I don’t have time to make any decisions regarding making videos.

Gautam – Lessons in Buying Beats

Gautam10-400With one more week left in Nairobi, I wanted to throw down some real info.

Using the most ubiquitous symbol of “I don’t care about the quality of my music”: Beats headphones.

For those that do not know, Beats are the wildly popular brand of headphones, geared mostly toward bass-heavy music listeners, as well as a fashion accessory. It carries the credo of famed rapper/producer Dr. Dre of N.W.A. and is worn by numerous athletes, celebrities, and rich kids (the cheapest pair of headphones is around ~$200). The company has become massive in the past few years and is now being acquired by Apple, making Dr. Dre the first billionaire in hip-hop.

I’m an experiential learner. So, for the sake of ethics, I went out and bought–with my own money, of course–four pairs of headphones (3 “Beats” and 1 plain) and checked out many more.

With great success, comes a great amount of imitators, especially when the image is a large component. Tons of counterfeit headphones are manufactured in China and shipped all across the world. They can be found all over Nairobi in mobile and electronic shops. Likewise, there are many microfinance replicates found on all the continents with human populations.

And they come in all shapes and sizes.

The first pair I bought had one side not working. I bought it for about $8 because I knew how to fix them (torn speaker wire), but the fact that the guy wanted to originally charge me $15 for a defunct piece of technology is messed up. And he lied about what audio cable he would give me and that I could not return it, but that is a different story. In the same way, there are microfinance organizations selling defunct financial plans: offering loans with high interest rates that lead to cycles of debt, not providing financial information that would lead to better decision making, or lending to people with no intention of investing in a revenue-generating venture. The base of it was there; I could listen to music, and someone taking a basic loan can make something out of it. However, the consumer has to put in extra work in order to mine the full potential, which could be legitimate, if there weren’t so many miraculous claims about what microfinance has done, is doing, and will do.

The second pair that I bought was the cheapest and the price reflected the quality. I bought them for about $4 from a small shop selling mobile products and calling minutes. It was smaller, uncomfortable (I actually got a headache from wearing these for a few minutes, so I am actually worried it was made with lead paint and am not using it anymore), and definitely not sturdy. The sound quality was not amazing and the detachable audio cable was replaced with extremely flimsy permanent wires. But they did look like Beats and even had bass boosting, essentially performing the same tasks as authentic Beats.

One thing that really bothered me was the variability. This pair that was obviously fake with a much smaller box that did not even try to look like the real deal: cheap plastic, a horrible paint job, and just overall lack of quality. Those were all consistent in the tens of shops that I saw selling them, but the prices were totally different. Less than a block away from where I bought the cheap pair, at the Diamond Plaza (a shopping complex with every store being run by a South Asian), it averaged around $35. And it was the same exact product, probably bought for around $2 or $3 on wholesale. In the same way, microfinance institutions will charge a huge range of interest rates from 10% to 126% , often providing essentially the same product. While talking to employees working on a financial inclusion project funded by USAID, I was told how there are many Western investors that are surprised to hear that after they lend money to a microfinance institution at a rate of about 2-3%, the MFI turns around and charges around 30-40% in interest on loans. (Aside: the similarity in the numbers is actually a pretty cool coincidence).

And, of course, the Beats-branded headphones are going to be more expensive, fake or not. Microfinance banks will charge a higher interest rate compared to traditional banks, whether they are deposit-taking or not.

The benefits of microfinance are financial inclusion and poverty alleviation. For Beats headphones, it is essentially faux social status in the form of fashion and being able to listen to music. In each case, the major benefit is not really quantifiable and depends on the social environments. What is quantifiable (financial status and sound quality) is probably more important in the long run on a day to day basis, but is actually not gained. Beats are relatively poor in sound quality. That’s pretty well known. Here is a summary of six randomized controlled trials that were completed by a group of MIT researchers of microfinance in different countries across the world. Overall, there were no statistically significant increases in total household income, consumption(which is usually used as a proxy for living standards), child schooling, or female empowerment/decision making. Dang. (Important: The researchers did not stop there and sought out what does work, which is a “multifaceted program” focused on “graduating” people into financial systems based on the BRAC program formed in Bangladesh. Alternatively, you can watch Esther Duflo’s TED Talk about using randomized trials.)

We cannot expect microfinance to solve all issues, just like we know Beats do not solve all audio or fashion issues. Give a person without a music player a pair of headphones, and nothing changes. Give a struggling microentrepreneur a microloan with no financial structures in place like savings and insurance, and nothing will change. And this is crucial.

I do want to qualify that there are reasons each has a premium. Beats may cost around $16 to make and retail at $200 for the cheapest model, but that differential revenue is funneled into Monster’s–the parent company–massive marketing budget. For microfinance, there are higher fixed costs to administering and monitoring multiple microloans and a need to physically reach larger, often rural regions. But when do large margins venture into profiteering territory?

The third pair that I bought was nothing special, but I liked that the ends rotated in to form a compact set and looked relatively nice. There are MFIs that provide comfortable services that may not give the satisfaction of all the bells and whistles, but can do the job.

There was a pair that I was on the verge of buying, but stopped because I told myself I was not going to spend more than $10 and, really, what am I going to do with them? They were about $20 and were knockoffs of the Beats Solo 2’s, which is just an updated look to the popular on-ear set of headphones. And they looked really nice. Almost exactly like the real ones. Actually, with a slight different colored ring on the side caps, I thought they looked nicer than the authentic pairs. And the sound was not bad at all. Only one shop sold these out of the tens that I visited. There are the rare MFIs out there in the world that provide easier access to manage loans, reach more of the underbanked, and match up more with consumer preferences. I did haggle with the worker at the store and got the price down to $15, which supposedly was the price that the store purchased it for. Likewise, there may be MFIs that run on low profit margins but make borrowers happier.

Then there is the final pair of headphones that I purchased. They are a sleek black, nothing fancy, but I got them because they had some nice features. First was that they accept a memory card, so there is no need to have a device to play music, but you can connect one if you want. Second, it is USB-chargable so the entire set can be wireless. And it has FM. These were all qualities that I was not really looking for, but definitely make the entire listening experience better and make me happier. So it begs the question, what if there are other initiatives out there that we simply did not explore that address financial inclusion and underbanking? They could be more useful, more practical. They might not have the flash and hype of microfinance, but they solve issues that we did not realize should be addressed.

The main point that I want to get across is that there are tons of different ways microfinance is presented. Give a little kid who doesn’t know the difference between real and fake Beats a pair of knockoffs, and he/she will be incredibly happy. There would be no knowledge of what is being missed out on, and the middle men, the imitators, profit.

When large for-profit players are now entering the field–Apple purchasing Beats and multiple large banks creating microfinance subsidiaries or acquiring already existing ones–we need to start questioning how that is going to change the playing field.

Snehan – Community Action

Sharma09-400A community can take action in different ways, whether it be in a completely grassroots manner or in conjunction with the local government via policy reform. In so many cases, adult actors who, after many years of being jaded by their pursuits of personal success realize that they have a considerable amount of influence when it comes to improving the immediate world around them, and instigate action. At least that’s how it seems to me. Civic engagement is a very casual concept in my hometown of Grayson, GA. And it might be because there aren’t any real issues plaguing the community. Things are stable. Other than the minor isolated incidents of crime that occur every so often, the most newsworthy items in Grayson often have something to do with high school sports. This contrast is stark in comparison to Clarkston.

A couple of weeks back, I had the opportunity to attend a minority youth violence prevention meeting held by the Dekalb County Board of Health. In a small conference room with a few rows of tables and chairs sat formally dressed employees, each representing local nonprofit and state organizations that have chosen to be invested in this issue. I had heard about this meeting from a contact that works with the Atlanta International Rescue Committee. So without an official invitation and after having initially driven to the wrong location, I crept into the meeting room late wearing an Atlanta Hawks t-shirt and crumpled khakis. Though out of place, I was determined to learn some new information that was pertinent to my interests.

Soon, it became evident that this meeting, as well as the five others that preceded it, was focused heavily on minority youth crime in Clarkston. In fact, the Board of Health along with Dekalb County Police and Clarkston Police were awarded a $1.1 million grant to focus on this issue. Though a detective I interviewed told me that crime rates in Clarkston is not really that significant compared to crimes anywhere else, there still seems to be a preemptive push to focus on it from the city government; this is primarily because Clarkston recently annexed another square mile of Dekalb County, which means that its population grew by thousands literally overnight. And based on the most recent data I could obtain, there are certainly some young people getting into trouble, which means that there is room for improvement. Ethnic “gangs” that are most often just groups of boys being mischievous have a tendency to get violent with one another; though they’ve been described to me as “wannabes,” the stuff they get up to is still legitimately problematic. Both Clarkston’s city manager and police chief were present and seemed very determined to keep violent crime and its effects a minimal concern in their city.

For most of the time I was there, the atmosphere seemed lackluster. This all changed when a woman who I later learned to be Mrs. L*, one of the founders of an organization called Women Watch Afrika, stood up and started voicing her concerns. In essence, she argued that these meetings being held every so often were inefficient and relied too much on top-down tactics. What works, she argued, are solutions that are organically developed by the community itself. This approach resonated with me, and so I reached out during a break. After a few initial meetings, I was invited to sit in on a meeting of young minds in Clarkston facilitated by Women Watch Afrika.

It was refreshing to see high schoolers and rising college freshmen meet together at what was called the Community Youth Assembly. These weren’t exhausted adults, but rather ambitious and high-spirited teens banding together for the sake of bettering the problems facing their own demographic. To my knowledge, this is the only regularly held gathering of its kind in Clarkston. Following an awkward round of introductions, the mood eased up with a discussion about solutions to current issues plaguing the community. Passionate debates arose, and potential pitfalls were sorted through. Then, the students started throwing around the word mentorship—this is when I interjected and pitched an idea that I had discussed with Mrs. L earlier. And really, it was like a pitch. In order to go forward with this idea, this particular group of students had to like it first.

Essentially, I grew fond of the idea of initiating a youth mentorship program for refugee and new immigrant teens. As a part of this program, “veteran” refugee youth, those who are well-established in the US and are on a constructive path, are paired with youth with similar cultural profiles but are new to the country. The students liked the idea, and for that I am very grateful. Now comes the trickier part, which is actually bringing it to fruition. There’s a lot of planning to be done, but this concept, more or less, ties together my experiences in Clarkston. Many of the improvements that the different ethnic communities of Clarkston hope to witness are the same—and, as I’ve attempted to drive home every week, these changes typically involve the younger generation. A peer-facilitated program such as this mentorship program would foster confidence growth, better communication skills, and create a space for reflection. The beauty of such an initiative, in my opinion, is its subtlety—the plusses I listed above are implicitly absorbed. The youth will learn purely from life experiences.

Alex – Guidelines for Online Life?

Alex08-400This is the last week of my project. Yet, it doesn’t feel like the end. So much has happened, and there is still so much to do.

In the past two weeks, I left Miami, attended VidCon, and then went to the San Francisco to attend NNEDV’s (National Network to End Domestic Violence’s) Tech Summit. In a few days, I will finally be home and be able to contemplate what’s next.

The two conferences, VidCon and the Tech Summit, present this bizarre summary of my project. VidCon’s message was, “CONSTANTLY (and consciously) create content to build a community.” (The alliteration of this message was purely coincidental.) NNEDV’s Tech Summit’s message was, “Ask what information are you sharing, with whom, how, and whether you have consent to share that information. Be cautious when sharing information online as it can be used for abuse.” VidCon is the free speech side of my project: contribute all the ideas to the marketplace and eventually we will determine the truth. NNEDV is my project’s focus on privacy and harassment. VidCon argued that free speech is great and powerful, and NNEDV asked but what are the costs of that speech.

Coincidentally, these two conferences happened within a day of each other and in the same state. As an attendee of both, it would be awesome to see some collaboration of ideas between these conferences. VidCon teaches the Tech Summit how empowering technology can be, and the Tech Summit teaches VidCon the importance of being cautious and private online. Imagine teenage and twentysomething YouTube stars teaching domestic violence victim advocates how to reach larger audiences to spread awareness, and NNEDV giving away webcam-stickers to protect the YouTube fans from webcam hacks and as a reminder to protect your privacy. Or NNEDV gives a lesson to YouTube stars about consensual image sharing (Looking at you  , did you have any consent process?), or just  .

After this summer, there is this separation between tech developers and engineers, who want to create the new cool platform for sharing ideas, and advocates, who watch abusers destroy people’s lives with these technologies. The abusers are on the bridge dividing the techies and the advocates: they understand how to use the technology to make victims’ lives hell. We need more people to go onto the bridge to stop the abusers. Techies need to stand on the bridge to stop abusers from abusing their technology and advocates need to stand on the bridge to understand help victims understand how technology can be empowering. There are individuals from both groups, the tech developers and advocates, that are starting to stand on the bridge. We just need the rest of the communities to stand on the bridge.

Which leads me to what’s next? How do we get people on the bridge and what do they need to know?

As a collective Internet citizenship, we need to be more aware of privacy issues. It starts with basic privacy settings on our social media. For tech developers, do those privacy settings exist? For advocates, do other advocates or survivors know how to use these settings? We need each individual Internet citizen to ask themselves, “What information am I willing to share publicly and on what platform?” Once we have these building blocks for privacy, I think the average Internet user needs to engage in conversations about the EU’s Right to be Forgotten and how the right to privacy operates in the United States.

After determining privacy, then I think Internet citizens begin to contemplate how they exercise freedom of speech online. I love that tech developers want to create platforms for engagement and dialogues. However, tech developers and advocates must continue to think critically about for what and how people will use those platforms. If the Internet is embodying the marketplace of ideas, then what rules are the tech developers creating? What rules do the advocates and survivors need? What are responsibilities of Internet citizens when practicing free speech?

With speech and privacy established, because those will be incredibly easy and non-controversial things to do, the Internet citizenship then needs to confront its dangerous cesspool of hate. Technology can be empowering for advocates and for survivors; it gives them a pulpit. However, tech developers must be careful creating platforms that allow for equal footing and protect the pulpits from being abused. For example, Twitter needs vocal feminists online to combat the misogynists, and then the engineers of Twitter must ensure neither side abuses the platform.

I would like to end this project with a set of guidelines specific to conduct on the Internet. But the Internet is just another form of “regular” life, which means the guidelines are the varying theories of ethics. The solution to how to be an ethical person online and to address all the questions and issues I presented is to just study ethics. The Internet is just a new platform for societal, political, communal and personal interactions, but those interactions are still the same. We govern our interactions and actions with ethics, so all we need to do is start applying our ethics directly to our online conduct.

While this post marks the end of this project, the Internet is still broken. My mission to fix is not complete. And I’ll fix it one video, blog post, tweet, conversation and cup of coffee at a time.