Feb 052018
 February 5, 2018

Last week, I began assisting with SMART Girls, a program at the Durham chapter of the Boys & Girls Club, during which middle-school aged girls discuss issues related to female identity.  I will also be assisting with their health and wellness initiatives by leading group fitness classes for club members.  The Boys & Girls Club is a nation-wide, non-profit afterschool organization, providing an environment for students to study and receive homework assistance, interact with their peers through different programs, and participate in recreational activities.

Recently, I attended a lecture at the Sanford School of Public Policy presented by education specialist at the University of California, Irvine Dr. Deborah Vandell. Through data gathered from multiple 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a national, federally funded afterschool organization primarily serving students who attend low-performing schools, Vandell found that long-term benefits included fewer school suspensions, higher grades, and healthier habits amongst participants across grade levels. She also explained that the benefits of afterschool programs extend beyond student achievement, such as making communities safer as students are less likely to engage in criminal activities, if they are in a supervised setting.

The recent Trump administration proposal to cut over a billion dollars in funding from afterschool programs illustrates the lack of support provided for American families to raise and care for their children.  In her book, How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics, feminist critic Laura Briggs claims that although the second-wave feminist movement championed many more career options and financial freedoms for middle and upper-class women, it ignored the gaping issue as to whom would be responsible for the necessary work of caring for children.  Indeed, as Briggs notes, affluent white women soon hired low-income women and primarily women of color as caregivers.  Although almost all women experience this “double-bind”, the expectation to both work for wages in the office and without pay in the home, low-income women are unable to afford child-care or extra-curricular afterschool activities for their children.

As Briggs contends, our current apparatus regarding work is destined for failure.  With a typical work week exceeding more than forty hours, grossly inadequate resources for child-care for low-income families, and no mandatory, paid parental leave policy, one is left to wonder: are children expected to magically raise themselves? Despite being one of the most vital investments, programs related to developing a productive human capital are often the first to be slashed. While still a far cry from a perfect solution, afterschool programs, such as the Boys & Girls Club, help students succeed in the classroom, provide low-income households with critical support, and strengthen communities as a whole.

Jan 272018
 January 27, 2018

This week, I attended the third annual Sheluncheon, a discussion about the intersection of social entrepreneurship and feminism, featuring a panel of diverse, female social entrepreneurs in the Durham area.  Through their respective endeavors, these women elucidated how the second-wave feminist slogan the “personal is political” serves as a guiding force for re-shaping the male centric “public sphere” into one that is more encompassing of feminist values.  Indeed, one of the panelists, Areli Barrera de Grodski, co-founder of Cocoa Cinnamon along with her husband Leon Barrera de Grodski, explained that she modeled her business as a “microcosm for her ideal society” – one in which workers are not treated like commodities and business does not fracture a community. Although she pays her employees Durham’s living wage, purchases fair trade beans, and has a deep-seeded desire to “do good”, Barrera de Grodski stated that in order to remain competitive, she is currently unable to fulfill her vision for Cocoa Cinnamon entirely.  She expressed her internal struggle working in an environment that discourages many of the values she strives to promote.

I wondered if a tension, similar to the one Barrera de Grodski described, may also be a contributing factor to the gender wage gap.  Bibi Gnagnu, one of the moderators at the Sheluncheon event and the Student Development Coordinator at the Women’s Center, led a discussion about the gender wage gap for the eighth-grade girls group at Brogden Middle School this week. During the discussion, she challenged the young women to identify some of the underlying factors for the fact that the “average woman will earn $12,000 less than her male counter-part each year.”  Initially, many of the young women explained that they believed so-called innate aspects to their female identity prevented them from partaking in certain activities.  During an implicit bias training I attended, Dr. Benjamin Reese, Duke’s Vice President for Institutional Equity, mentioned a recent New York University study in which researchers discovered that by age six, children of both sexes overwhelming believed boys to be more knowledgeable than girls.  Thinking about the implications of this study, I wondered if women are less likely to ask for raises and promotions due to feelings of incompetence that begin to develop in early childhood.  Similar to Barrera de Grodski’s struggle with both wanting to treat her employees as fairly as possible, but also needing to make a profit, I realized that there is still little incentive for employers to increase the salaries of their female employees.

Although women of color earn even less than their white women peers, the gender wage gap is an obstacle confronting all women.  Furthermore, as many of the eighth-graders at Brogden reported wanting to hold part-time jobs in high school, I think the gender wage gap was an especially important and relevant topic for discussion.

Jan 202018
 January 20, 2018

During this week’s commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day, I noticed how Dr. King’s legacy of peaceful protest, compassionate collaboration, and inspirational revolution has paved the way for the recent women’s rights movement.  Following in the footsteps of 1963’s historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech”, last year the Women’s March on Washington made American history as the largest single-day demonstration. On January 21st, women of all ages, races, and socio-economic status plan to march again, this time bringing recognition to the importance of voting rights, an issue Dr. King fervently supported, and greater female representation in government with “Power to the Polls” as their rallying theme.

Despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a piece of legislation invalidating measures designed to disenfranchise African Americans, more than half a century later, the right to vote may still be abridged for many individuals.  In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court struck down the “coverage formula” or Sec. 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which mandated that Southern districts with a history of voting suppression, receive federal preclearance from the Justice Department before enacting legislation concerning voting. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”  According to the Brennan Center for Justice, between 2011 to 2015, twenty-one states adopted new laws making it more difficult to vote in ways that disproportionately affect low-income and minority populations, such as requiring a photo ID or shortening hours at polling stations.

In parallel to a rapid increase in legislation aimed at reducing access to the ballot, since 2010, a dramatic rise in gerrymandering has shifted the political balance across the country. While racial gerrymandering has been deemed unconstitutional, for the first time on January 9th, a trial court cited political disenfranchisement in ordering North Carolina’s Republican legislators to re-draw extremely partisan district boundaries, however, the Supreme Court recently blocked the lower court’s order.  In the 2016 election, although Republican congressional candidates won only slightly more than half of the state’s popular vote, they took 10 out of NC’s 13 congressional districts. I wondered if partisan gerrymandering has an equally discriminatory effect for minority voters as racial gerrymandering.

In his “Give Us the Ballot” speech delivered in 1957 Dr. King stated, “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me.”  As women have historically been considered unable to think for themselves, I thought this excerpt aptly captures the call for an expansion of accessibility to the ballot not only for women, but for all Americans in the Power to the Polls march.

Jan 052018
 January 5, 2018

Although 2017 began with the inauguration of a President whom feminist Gloria Steinem recently referred to as the “harasser in chief”, many victories for women’s rights have nevertheless occurred over the course of the year.  Last year, Donald Trump was TIME’s Person of the Year, this year’s cover, however, features actress Ashley Judd, singer Taylor Swift, former engineer at Uber Susan Fowler, lobbyist Adama Iwu, farm worker Isabel Pascual (a pseudonym to protect her identity), and the elbow of a hospital worker who has chosen to remain anonymous, represent just five of the millions of women who have shared their stories experiencing sexual assault or harassment.  As millions of women from all races, socio-economic status, and nationalities, join in solidarity behind #MeToo, 2018 stands as a year primed to change our entrenched culture of sexual violence.

Already, legislative policies drafted at the local, state, and federal level signal the beginning of an era in which sexual violence will no longer be tolerated.  Due to the rampant abuse of housekeepers, particularly those in the hospitality industry, lawmakers in Chicago recently passed an ordinance requiring hotel employers to equip workers with a portable “panic button.”  Moreover, Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo proposed legislative changes to the sexual harassment policies in both the public and private sector.  For example, two of his proposals call to end legal settlements of complaints against government officials that are funded by taxpayers and to void clauses in employment contracts that prevent allegations of sexual harassment from being prosecuted.  In Congress, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) along with Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA), Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH), and Bruce Poliquin (R-ME), have introduced bi-partisan legislation to change the difficult system of reporting instances of sexual harassment.

Unlike many other historical movements for women’s rights, #MeToo endeavors to support women from all races and socio-economic statuses.  While #MeToo has been criticized as a movement that disproportionately publicizes high-profile incidences of sexual assault, soon after the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, a coalition of more than three hundred powerful women in Hollywood announced Time’s Up, a groundbreaking initiative to end sexism in the workplace for all women, not just for celebrities.  Administered by the National Women’s Law Center, Time’s Up includes a legal defense fund that will provide low-income victims of workplace harassment with legal representation.  In response to the creation of Time’s Up, television producer Shonda Rhimes stated, “If this group of women can’t fight for a model for other women who don’t have as much power and privilege, then who can?”

While forty years ago the word “sexual harassment” did not exist, as it was brushed aside as normative behavior, many of the eighth-grade young women at Brogden Middle School did not understand why, for many women of #MeToo, it has taken several years to “break the silence.”. As reporter Megyn Kelly stated, “I think women are starting to believe we don’t have to live like this. I always thought maybe things could change for my daughter—I never thought things could change for me.”

Jan 042018
 January 4, 2018

Durham has a 40% white population, however, less than 20% of white children are enrolled in traditional public schools, such as Brogden.  Moreover, a higher percentage of students qualify for free or reduced lunches at more traditional public schools than at charter schools.  As these skewed statistics suggest, school choice may only be providing a “choice” to some students.  Looking specifically at the racial and class disparities between the student bodies at traditional public schools and charter schools, the school choice movement seems to be re-shaping Durham’s educational landscape as well.

While enrollment for charters is determined by a lottery system, many do not provide transportation, excluding low-income students who may otherwise be able to attend.  Jane Stancill, a journalist for The News & Observer found that “the northern part of the city, which has a higher proportion of white residents, who also tend to be more affluent, is a hotbed of charter schools.”  For example, when the large charter school Voyager opened, nearly half of Little River Elementary School’s enrollment dropped within a five-year period. An article in The Washington Post, detailing the growth of charter schools in the DPS system claims, “charters pluck advantaged kids out of the public-school system.” At Brogden, more than 84% of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, compared with less than 20% qualifying at Voyager.

As charter schools divert funding from the school district budget, they may be leaving students enrolled in traditional public schools at an educational disadvantage. Former DPS Superintendent Bert L’Homme stated, “the loss of traditional public-school students to charters has eroded Durham’s per-pupil spending…there’s smaller amount of money overall, while the district has many of the same fixed costs – it must operate all of its schools and provide services to a population with a significant proportion of low-income students.”

Although some charter schools have a greater proportion of more affluent students than traditional public schools, Darrell Allison, the executive director of the pro-school choice group Parents for Educational Freedom, explains that a few charter schools do cater specifically to minority and low-income students.  He states, “a number of families of color, where 70 percent or higher are single-parent… are actively looking for good educational institutions. They are also looking for Afro-American role models, particularly for their Afro-American boys.” Indeed, Maureen Joy Charter School, the oldest charter school in Durham, was created specifically to serve low-income students, providing transportation throughout Durham County. Overall, however, reporters at The News & Observer find that N.C. charter schools are both “richer and whiter.”

While ostensibly a solution to benefit all students in the Durham County school district, the greater concentration of white and higher socio-economic status students in charter schools, eerily reminds me of so-called ‘white flight’ following Brown v Board of Education, which saw white students flock to the Durham County School System, while the Durham City School System became predominantly African-American, until the two merged, in 1992.  As I learned about the racial and classist results of school choice happening right in my own backyard, I became more aware of the additional obstacles the girls at Brogden may be facing.

Jan 032018
 January 3, 2018

While discussing a photography essay by photographer Chris Buck titled “Let’s Talk About Race” featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, the girls at Brogden Middle School began to both question and recognize manifestations of racial inequality, such as the imbalance of minority teachers at Brogden compared to the majority-minority student body. Indeed, one of the Latina young women, who aspires to become a teacher, explained that she was bothered by the fact that she has never had a Latina teacher.

Although I found this young woman’s observation troubling, with 34% of educators from minority backgrounds, the Durham Public School (DPS) system certainly fares better, in terms of inclusivity, compared to the national average of less than 20%. Indeed, nearly three-quarters of the school principals in the DPS system are African American.  A majority white teaching staff, however, still does not accurately reflect the overwhelmingly majority-minority student body in traditional DPS schools.  At Brogden, nearly 45% of the students are African American and 34% are Latino.

The disproportionality between the racial composition of the student body and the teaching staff in schools is problematic because it may engender poor academic performance. A recent Johns Hopkins University study suggests that the implicit bias white teachers carry may contribute to low academic performance.   Indeed, it found that “when a white teacher and a black teacher consider the same black student, the white teacher is nearly 40 percent less likely to think that the black students will graduate from high school.” Shockingly, with only 36.2% of students at Brogden managing to pass all state-wide assessments, perhaps a more diversified teaching staff could encourage greater academic success.  Moreover, this bias may discourage minority students from taking certain courses and affect a student’s future career.  As Thomas S. Dee, a professor of education at Stanford University, states, “when minority students see someone at the blackboard that looks like you, it helps you reconceive what’s possible for you.” Similar to the message captured in “Let’s Talk about Race”, few diverse teachers at the front of the classroom may imply that minority students should not pursue careers in education.

Unfortunately, since public school systems have trouble retaining minority teachers, it may be difficult for DPS to remedy this lack of diversity.  According to Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, minority teachers are “disproportionately assigned to schools with large populations of children from low-income families, and are subjected to student discipline problems and lack of resources and lower salaries, with often more top-down and scripted curricula.”

As a white woman leading a group of Latina and African American women, I have recognized the potentially problematic dynamic that my race could create. Both by soliciting program suggestions from the group participants and by inviting diverse women to lead workshops, I have attempted to diffuse the power that my race presents. Mrs. Solorio, the Latina eighth-grade teacher who is supervising the group, however, mentioned that my presence compliments the goals of the program and conveys that white women can be allies in issues of intersectional feminism.

Dec 152017
 December 15, 2017

This Tuesday, the surprising result of Alabama’s special senatorial election not only suggests a shift in the political landscape, but also may allude to the growing currency of the #MeToo campaign.  Former federal prosecutor Doug Jones became the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the deep-red state in over twenty years, prevailing over former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.  While Moore has made bigoted remarks, such as claiming that Muslim Americans are unfit for office and that homosexuality should be criminalized, an alarming number of accusations regarding his prior sexual relations with under-aged women surfaced during the campaign.  Although Moore admits to approaching teenage girls while in his thirties, he continues to deny the allegations of sexual assault.

While the Alabama election upset could signify a greater concern for women’s issues, an exit poll conducted by The Washington Post suggests Moore’s defeat was not necessarily due to his character.  Despite a long history of obstacles to voting, an extremely high turn-out of the African American electorate – even higher than the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections when Barack Obama was on the ballot – may have been responsible for Moore’s defeat. Jones had a narrow victory, winning by less than 1.5% of the vote, with a majority of white voters, including those with college degrees, still supporting Moore. Nevertheless, as The Economist explains, many Republican voters chose to stay home on election day; thus, suggesting that some voters may have taken the allegations of sexual abuse into consideration before going to the polls.  Furthermore, Republican Richard Shelby, Alabama’s senior senator stated, “I wouldn’t vote for Roy Moore…the State of Alabama deserves better.”

As Moore’s alleged sexual abuse of younger women surfaced, it illuminated many important issues, pertaining to younger women in particular, such as child marriage and statutory rape laws, that also need to be addressed in this critical moment for women’s rights.  In response to Moore’s candidacy, activist Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained At Last, the only non-profit organization in the United States dedicated to assisting women and children escape from forced marriages, argues in an op-ed published by CNN, that legal loopholes, such as judicial approval, permit women under the age of eighteen to marry and that twenty-five states have no legal minimum age for marriage. Thus, as many marriages occur between younger women to much older men, Reiss argues that states are sanctioning statutory rape.  Furthermore, between 2000 and 2010, according to data from the thirty-eight states that track marital age, more than 167,000 children were married, some as young as ten.

Next week, as the topic for discussion for the eighth-grade group meetings is the #MeToo movement, I am eager to observe the similarities and differences between the responses of the younger and older women in the room.  I hope that the discussion provides the space, time and support necessary to process, understand, and heal from the mass storm of scandals.  As more and more men from Hollywood to Capitol Hill are ousted from their high-ranking positions each day, it is important to have a conversation with those who will ultimately be the inheritors of this dynamic political and social climate.

Dec 102017
 December 10, 2017

Seeing new headlines, almost daily, featuring a powerful man, who has been accused of sexual assault, has reinforced my belief in the importance of providing women – especially young women – with a safe space to discuss issues of women’s rights.  While the recent #MeToo campaign has provided women with a common phrase for advocacy, it was originally founded nearly a decade ago by Tarana Burke, a Senior Director at Girls for Gender Equity, in response to a lack of support for teenagers who were victims of sexual violence.  Although it was not until age nineteen – in my first Women’s Studies class at Duke – that I truly had my “Aha!” moment, providing the eighth-graders at Durham School of the Arts (DSA) and now at Brogden Middle School (BMS) with an opportunity to learn to both recognize and combat issues of gender inequity with confidence, will help contribute to this watershed moment for women’s rights.  As Sheryl Sandberg stated, “When women work together we accomplish amazing things.”

During the third meeting at DSA, after sharing our “highs” and lows” of the week, we delved into a discussion of a collage of magazine images we had previously crafted.  Although the girls began by commenting on their admiration for favorite celebrities, as the mentors prodded, topics such as body image, self-esteem, and effortless perfection began to surface, leading to a deeper conversation about problematic assumptions regarding female identity.  At the end of the meeting, the girls were beginning to recognize and question nuances in the treatment between themselves and their male peers. For example, one of the girls recalled her grandmother telling her to “clean herself up” while her brothers were allowed to wear their sweatpants to the Thanksgiving table.  Indeed, it was equally rewarding to not only create a space for these young women to convene, but also to provide validation for their frustrations.

While the eighth-graders at both DSA and BMS provided similar responses in their application questions to join (everyone was admitted) regarding their female role models, interests in possible discussion topics, and career aspirations, I have already observed some differences in the dynamics of the two groups. De-briefing the progress we had made at DSA thus far, the mentors and I recognized that in order to have a richer conversation, more of the girls needed to contribute. Although we wondered if a group of young men would be equally diffident, I was surprised by the outspoken nature of the girls during the initiatory meeting earlier this week at BMS.  Indeed, while we had difficulty getting the girls at DSA to suggest possible names for their group, the girls at BMS immediately began to volunteer a plethora of names.  From my perception of the “highs and lows” ice-breaking activity, I noticed that although the girls in both groups are involved in a variety of extra-curricular activities, ranging from orchestra to cheerleading, many of the girls at BMS stated academic performance as a “low” while friendship anxiety seemed to be more of a “low” for the girls at DSA.  As the year progresses, I am looking forward to noting the similarities and differences between the interactions that occur in the two groups and tailoring the activities and discussions accordingly.  Moreover, I am excited to see what directions these young women choose for their groups to take and to provide guidance and support along the way.

Dec 052017
 December 5, 2017

Before digging into the turkey and pie, my family shares what we are most thankful for each year during Thanksgiving.  While “health, family, friends and education” are mentioned year after year, this year after working with the girls at FMF and my MASTERY tutees, I realized, even more so, the extent to which I take many things in my life for granted.

During Black Friday, the very next day, I contemplated the mismatch between what my family shared at the Thanksgiving table and our culture of consumerism.  Despite claiming gratitude for family, friends, and health, things in life without a price tag, our primary metric for progress, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), strictly measures the total value of goods and services within a nation in a given year.  As Professor Dirk Philipsen writes, “GDP acts as a rulebook for our lives…and establishes the values we live by.”

In order to increase GDP, industries have developed inexpensive, fast-paced, and transnational techniques to manufacture enormous quantities of stuff.  According to Philipsen, GDP “encourages useless and pernicious production.” After searching through my closet for donations to the Refugee Clothing Drive, I managed to fill an entire laundry bin full of clothing and shoes, some worn just once or twice.  Although there is some debate regarding the casual relationship between consumer culture and environmental degradation, as the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, Annie Leonard, explains aptly in the short documentary, The Story of Stuff, a growing GDP depletes natural resources, contributes to carbon emissions, and heats the atmosphere at an alarming rate.  In addition to excessive production, many other harmful expenditures, such as medical bills from automobile accidents, an oil spill clean-up operation, or treatment for substance abuse, all boost GDP, contributing to a false perception of well-being.  As Robert Kennedy once noted, “it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Thinking even more about the disconnect between our “Thanksgiving values” and those measured by GDP, I wondered why there is little financial incentive to pursue a career reflective of the values we claim to be the most important.  Despite their incredibly valuable work assisting vulnerable populations and raising social capital, the social workers, counselors and educators whom I have partnered with at my various project sites, I would argue, are severely under-paid.  A Fortune 500 CEO earns more than a typical public-school teacher’s annual salary in a single day.  Furthermore, while researching potential law schools, I noticed that the median salary working in the private sector post-graduation is more than three times that of working in the public sector.  Although GDP developed as a response to the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression, I would argue that this metric needs to be revised to be more inclusive of the values we express at the Thanksgiving table.

Nov 202017
 November 20, 2017

Although in last week’s post I had discussed the relative absence of the issue of homelessness from political dialogue and conversation, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Duke was taking part in National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, hosting various events across campus.  I decided to attend a discussion of panelists from different non-profit organizations dedicated to providing support and services to at-risk members of the Durham community.  With Thanksgiving break and finals week just around the corner, I understood that it was certainly crunch time for students, however, I was still surprised by the extremely low turn-out for this event.  In addition to myself, there were only three others in attendance.  The number of panelists more than tripled those in the audience.  I wondered if this was still indicative of an apathetic attitude on campus regarding issues of poverty in the community.

The organizations each focused on different issues that can eventually lead to homelessness, such as, addiction, a positive HIV status, and mental illness. After hearing each representative explain the work their organization was accomplishing, it was interesting to see how each stigmatized issue was connected.  Indeed, the Director of the Triangle Empowerment Center explained that the Center was developed to not only provide preventative HIV care, but also temporary shelter for the many LGBTQ youth who would be kicked out of their homes after coming out or revealing a positive HIV status. Although it was promising to hear of the wonderful and impactful work occurring in the community, it was equally disheartening to learn that there is still much more need than there is support.  Sherrill Thomas of the Durham Crisis Response Center (DCRC) revealed that battered women are repeatedly refused shelter at DCRC due to a lack of space.  She stated that she found this especially frustrating given that there are “empty buildings everywhere that are owned by the city.”

The discussion made me more attune to the fact that I am still sheltered by the “Duke bubble.”  While I was familiar with the work of DCRC from my summer internship at the District Attorney’s office, I did not know that the other organizations present even existed.   In response to a question about what students can do to better assist the community, Thomas replied that students cannot have a “get up and go” mentality when it comes to service work, however, she also noted that the short time span of college is conducive to this problem.

Immediately, I thought about the implications Thomas’s words had in regard to my own project.  While the young women whom I am currently working with will also eventually depart from the groups, as families at Families Moving Forward typically stay for ninety days or less, and the eighth-graders at Durham School of the Arts will matriculate to high-school, I still contemplated whether the ephemeral nature of my project also embodies this problematic, cursory “get up and go” approach to service work.