Things Fall Apart

Last year when I turned 25 I decided that I wanted to be free. Free as a woman, free as a Black person in America and free as an activist to fight to get closer to the world as it should be. Since then I’ve made decisions and pursued certain goals. In that process some things have literally fallen apart. Things in my life have fallen apart before, but this time was different. For the first time I realized that in life things do fall apart, it is up to me to decide what’s worth putting back together again. Like many American students, I remember reading Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart.” The novel has a whole new meaning to me now.

I survived and lived 18 years on the South side of Chicago. I navigated the halls of public schools, stepped over crack pipes and avoided teenage pregnancy. I have survived an eviction in the dead cold of a Chicago winter, I’ve even survived Chicago winters without a heated home. I moved to Washington, DC with two bags, three boxes and an idea that I could somehow contribute to real change in this world. I started as an intern like so many of us in this movement. I was 23 years  old with a Master’s Degree and the resiliency of an urban girl. I came with the wherewithal to build relationships to sustain me professionally and emotionally. I have simply been blessed. From my car literally going up in flames to legal woes, I have simply been blessed.

My optimism for our world is based on the optimism I hold for myself. I am not ashamed of where I came from, it’s made me who I am today. I am not ashamed of the history of the United States of America, its narrative makes us the country we are today and sets the urgency for us to do better. My optimism for the world is grounded in reality. My optimism for myself is grounded in my experiences and the reality set before me.

Every time things fall apart in my life, I pray. I pray out of a need to recognize the wealth of blessings bestowed upon me and to recognize my own shortcomings. Recently, out of prayer the most valuable piece of clarity I’ve received was very simple, I woke up and thought “Charlene, you have a choice. In fact, you’ve always had a choice.” For me that idea is about freedom. The freedom to have control of the decisions I make, the freedom to have power in the work I do and the freedom to walk away from toxic situations. Equally evident to me now is that the process of things falling apart is as natural as life and death. What I also realize is that everyone simply doesn’t want me to be free. Conforming or fitting in nicely makes folks comfortable, the opposite can sometimes be a threat.

The world is yet again in the process of falling apart; physically and politically. Many people living in the world today want the status quo maintained. Unfortunately, the status quo just isn’t satisfactory. The choices we make as individuals and as leaders will undoubtedly shape the landscape of our futures. What is worth putting back together again? What are the best examples of humanity? What institutions should cease to exist? What institutions need to be re-worked? This choice will be made either by inaction or direct action. I choose to be an active participant. Putting things worth having back together again are not always easy, thats life.

I choose to be an active participant in my own life. I choose to actively decide who is a friend and who is foe.  I choose  to be bold enough to step away from the crowd and offer a dissenting opinion. I choose to take ownership over my body and what goes in it. I choose to love unapologetically.

For our world, we must make collective choices. We must vote at the polling place and with our dollar. We must decide the value of human life and what is fair. We must decide what world we want and figure out how to get there. Just as things fall apart, things come together. For every death a child is born somewhere. The ultimate question for me is what kind of world will that child inherit? Will they be a slave or slave-master? Will that child’s future be determined by someone else? Will they simply have the freedom to choose? I choose to help make sure the latter occurs. What do you choose?

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Don’t Retreat, RELOAD

“Don’t Retreat, Instead RELOAD”

Tell that to Christina Taylor-Green, she was shot and killed along with 5 others last Saturday in Tuscon, AZ. The nine year old student council member aspired to serve her country one day.

The now  infamous words tweeted by Sarah Palin, “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” now hold more significance for anyone trying to make sense of the shooting. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, one  the of victims, was  also listed on the now infamous “Take Back the 20” target list on Sarah Palin’s official Political Action Committee website. The final third in this trinity of hate is a map charting the targets using gunsights, with the words “We’ve diagnosed the problem…Help us prescribe the solution,” reeks of Third Reich propaganda. This trinity may not incriminate any one individual, they do successfully incriminate the propaganda machine operating by the political right and conservatives throughout the country. The violent political rhetoric in America has reared itself in a traumatic and deadly form.

While Palin did not shoot the 9mm handgun; her rhetoric and the rhetoric of those spewing the same hateful messages (ex. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh) play a major role in todays violent political climate. The use of fear, hate and violence to move forward a political agenda is not alien to the United States. Whether we explore the history of the Ku Klux Klan or the bombing of a Oklahoma Federal building, terrorism is no stranger in the United States. What does this mean for our democracy? What does the reality of the shooting in Arizona mean to our country?

Jared Loughner’s alleged (innocent until proven guilty, right?) shooting rampage at a public event hosted by a U.S. Congresswoman represents a distinct reality in America. These events expose a tangible truth about our country.  Loughner fired off at least 31 shots on Saturday using a high capacity ammunition magazine. He is now charged with an attempted assassination. This charge confirms much of the speculation behind what motivated Loughner to open fire at a public event, shoot a Congresswoman in the head at close range, wound 13 people and kill 6 individuals. The whole picture of the 22 year olds politics is not clear, I along with many others are waiting with anticipation to learn more.

Violence, hate and fear are as American as apple pie. We just tend to keep it locked away like a damaging family secret. This secret, like many of the incidents and occurrences shrouded in revisionism and plain untruths, puts the potential of our democracy in danger. The very fabric of our country is like a constantly growing patchwork quilt. Every piece adds to the prosperity, narrative and strength of America.

What can we learn from this? When you know better you are SUPPOSED to do better. Just as violence, hate and fear exist in America; hope, change and progress endure the same. Which side will we choose to stand on? What values will we choose to  possess? The challenge is clear, so is the choice. I beg you not to retreat from the heavy task to build a freer, more loving and just society. I beg you to instead reload your minds with the knowledge and values needed to move everyone forward. Don’t retreat in fear, reload with hope. The time is ripe with immediacy, begging for a choice to be made.

 


No Jobs, No Justice: The Black Unemployment Crisis

American Gothic
(Photo Credit :  Gordon Parks)

Give a (wo)man a fish and s/he will eat for a day
Teach a (wo)man to fish and s/he will eat for days
Teach your community to support themselves and you all eat for life

I live in the DC/Maryland/VA (DMV) area, where we boast one of the most highly educated populations in the country. Everything happens here. Want to go into politics? There’s something here for you. Want to teach in one of the nations largest labs for educational experimentation? There’s something here for YOU too. Do you just want to save the world…well you can do that here too, IF you have the papers and the relationships.

The reality for most Americans is not the reality many “Washingtonians” face. In fact as many of you know, unemployment rates are devastating communities across the country. Today over lunch with a friend I got extremely animated while talking about the rates of Black youth unemployment. Today I read the latest unemployment rates. According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics Black Americans are experiencing a 16% unemployment rate. That’s 16% of the Black civilian labor force. Now bear with me here.  Our total civilian labor force represents over 17,660,000 people.  This means that 2, 757,000 Black folks are unemployed as of November 2010. This number is derived from those who can legally work, seeking work, are not in the military and are not incarcerated.  So tack on nearly 900, 000 more for the Black men and women currently incarcerated (according to the Sentencing Project).  Prospects for unemployment are even more grim upon re-entry for ex-offenders.

How many of you know someone who makes barely enough to get by?  Underemployment isn’t something we often see vetted in national dialog. People across this country go to work everyday and barely make ends meet. Many of these people work more than one job.

I believe that at the end of the day, MOST people want to work and earn their own money. Given the current reality of our economy, many people simply cannot find work. Where did the jobs go and how do we get them back?

We need a truly inclusive progressive jobs movement.

This poses another natural question; who is the face of the jobs movement? Look around at the narratives we hear from the nations largest grassroots organizations. It’s about the factory worker whose manufacturing job was lost to off shoring in Indonesia. It’s about the former Chrysler worker how lost his/her job to a lack of innovation and corporate greed. Oh and lest I forget, the face has also become the young White female/male who can’t find a job EVEN WITH a fancy degree.  It’s not my Mama or my Cousin. It’s not the Black women and men who have limited employment options beyond fast food restaurants and other service based industries.  Go on almost any corner on the South side of Chicago, in Southeast D.C. or North St. Louis and you will see idle people. These are the people you won’t find on a campaign poster or in a national ad.

Unfortunately it isn’t sexy (or completely legal) to fund jobs just for Black folks. So what do we need? We need targeted job and education programs in areas where Black folks live. Not just in urban areas, but also rural areas. We also need Black folks to be engaged in the decision-making process. The common rhetoric that yes, jobs is an issue for all Americans.  I understand that. We all have to eat. But why not call a spade a spade? The current unemployment rate amongst White Americans is 8.9% that’s almost half that of Black Americans. Almost HALF. Hispanics are not too far behind Black folks at 13.2%. Black and Brown are typically not too far apart.

When the Congressional Black Caucus made a big to do on the Hill about securing jobs for Black Americans, it was problematic. How dare they demand jobs for Black folks? How dare they assert that a Black President ought to express deep concern for the population he drew moral, financial and political support from?  How dare they? Right…Wrong!

I could go on and on about the institutional factors contributing to this reality for Black folks in this country. As they say, when America gets a cold…Black folks get the Plague.  Where is the justice in the national jobs movement for Black Americans? Where is the justice in the halls of Capitol Hill for Black Americans? Where is the justice in the local Ward where people have been unemployed for years? Black issues are simply NOT sexy anymore. Deferring to multiculturalism skims over the meat and bones of reality.

Before we reach the end of this post I will point out one more fact. Nearly 34% of Black youth (aged 16-24) are currently unemployed. We have so much at stake.

WHERE IS THE BATTLE CRY? WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE?

In the face of so much struggle in the country we cant forget the struggles of those who have long been struggling. We must build on past successes and chart new courses for the future for ourselves. We need to do so in solidarity with others. We all should be able to eat. I know that until we achieve economic justice, we will have no real justice and no real peace in our streets.

Hyde Matters: Reproductive Justice and Women of Color

(Photo by Angela Hayden)

The Hyde Amendment was “designed to deprive poor and minority women of the constitutional right to choose abortion” – Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Yesterday I attended the “Separate and Unequal: The Hyde Amendment and Women of Color” panel at the Center for American Progress (CAP). I walked away feeling more knowledgeable and equipped to discuss the issue of reproductive service access with other women.  Whenever I walk into a space set-up to discuss issues impacting people of color in DC, I look for people of color. In this case I was looking for women of color. As soon as I walked in I saw a good friend and fellow woman of color who organizes for reproductive rights in the faith community. I also saw two Black women around my age (both actually work at CAP). I looked around some more and saw two or three more seasoned Black women in the room. After that I counted the number of rows and chairs in each row. Out of a room of 80 or so people, 9 were African American women and 2 Asian women. I know of at least 2 Latina’s in the room. The rest of the room was composed of primarily White women and men involved in the reproductive rights/justice movement.

So what is the Hyde Amendment?
Passed by Congress in 1976, the Hyde Amendment bans abortion care funding for Medicaid recipients in most circumstances.

What is Medicaid?
Medicaid is the federally and state funded health-care program for low-income individuals and families.

Women of color, particularly Black and Latina women, are more likely to rely on federal-state supported programs (e.g. Medicaid) for reproductive services. The most recent census data shows that 25.8 percent of African Americans, 25.3 percent of Hispanics are poor compared 12.3 percent of Whites and 12.5 percent of Asians.  The Hyde Amendment is a direct attack on the choices of low-income women, particularly women of color. Congressman Hyde attacked a basic civil right. Rep. Hyde admitted:

I’ll certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the …Medicaid bill –U.S Representative Henry Hyde (R-IL)

By intentionally targeting the most vulnerable group of women, those who often have to choose between paying bills and paying for an abortion, Congressman Hyde attacked a basic civil right. We could argue the morality of abortion until we turn blue in the face, however it is a constitutional right. The erosion of this constitutional right is a slippery slope starting in Black and Brown wombs. Women choose (or are forced to choose) to terminate a pregnancy for different reasons.  While the Hyde Amendment allows for Medicaid to fund abortion care in the event of rape and/incest; in practice this does not always happen. The panelists cited lower and slower reimbursement rates as reasons many providers simply refused to accept Medicaid payments for abortion care.

This isn’t an issue of citizens paying for abortion when they actually oppose it. This amendment was simply about diminishing the choices women can make. We fund wars, banks and prisons over education; all of to which I am fervently opposed.

So why hasn’t this policy been aggressively attacked by the larger reproductive justice movement? Well as Toni Bond Leonard, President and CEO of Black Women for Reproductive Justice, pointed out; we have been told to wait. Low-income and women of color have been told to wait. The issue of the Hyde Amendment has been pushed back in the larger reproductive rights movement. The reality faced by women of color presented with a difficult choice simply hasn’t mattered enuf. Advocacy organizations are slowly shifting to a reproductive justice framework. Once we begin to integrate systems of oppression such as racism and classism into any policy fight, things begin to get real and require power shifts. Any movement aimed at achieving reproductive justice, not just laws on the books, for the most marginalized women must have those same women in the forefront. We would be forced to undergo a real power analysis. The panelists and audience readily conceded to and asserted that position. Unfortunately the faces in the room and the movement don’t reflect those sentiments.  To concede and/or share power and leadership in the fight for reproductive choice threatens traditional groups. We also saw much of this dynamic in the broader women’s rights movement.

Toni Bond Leonard painted a quick picture of the moment African women landed in this country last night. From the introduction of the African women to the Americas as slaves, our wombs have been subject to the control and influence of others. Slave women were expected and forced to breed, yes breed. Once it was decided that they no longer had to reproduce (post-slavery) new tactics aimed to reduce pregnancy were introduced. The arch of reproductive control bends strongly away from women. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment would serve as a first step in pealing away the layers of control women of color are unwillingly cloaked under.

So why does Hyde matter? As a young woman any policy dealing with what I can and cannot do with my body is important to me. We have a duty to be engaged in this movement. We also have the right to demand a voice whenever anyone attempts to quiet our stories or devalue our experiences. Hyde matters for me, you and the daughters we may choose have in the future.

A free woman has the ability and power to choose.

 

Click here to read the Center for American Progress report “Separate and Unequal: The Hyde Amendment and Women of Color”

The Oppression Race

oppression [uh-presh-uh n]
-noun
1. The exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner
2. An act or instance of oppressing
3. The state of being oppressed
4. The feeling of being heavily  burdened, mentally or physically, by troubles, adverse conditions, anxiety, etc.

Are you….

A woman?

Youth?

An older adult?

Poor?

An Immigrant?

Black/Latino/Asian/Native American?

Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual/Trans-gendered?

Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Buddhist/Atheist/Hindu?

Living with a mental or physical  disability?

Chances are likely that you have faced or encountered oppression in some shape or form in your lifetime. The institutions of oppression are both tangible and intangible; sometimes we can feel them and sometimes we can’t. I felt the oppression of poverty as a child whenever we went to the welfare office and had to report to a caseworker. I could smell the oppression of colonialism apartheid in the township of Soweto and in a hospital in Haiti. I can hear the sound of oppression whenever I hear music demeaning women and elevating violence. I can taste oppression when I visit one of the many fast food joints planted in low-income neighborhoods across this country. I can see oppression whenever I walk down the street and see people who are homeless right across the street from the White House. Oppression comes in many forms and is experienced in many ways. Simply “making it” in America doesn’t make you exempt from the heel of oppression.

In my experience oppressed peoples have had the tendency to compare oppression. I’ve seen folks literally try to demonstrate why they were indeed more oppressed than someone else.

I’m Black

I’m African American

I’m a woman

What you got? Most of us have something. Most of us can look through our lives and identify how they have been discriminated against because of a group they belong to or an identity they possess. Group membership may have its privileges, but it can also have its pains. The prominent institutions in American society; including faith based institutions, government, schools and civic organizations actively participate in oppressing people.  Leaders across the spectrum have actively inflicted pain. They also actively participate in ending oppression. Oppression is not by happenstance,  much of it is intentional and focused. The depth of polarities is maddening.

There is plenty of oppression to spread around. As I told my friend who inspired this post, I refuse to enter the oppression race. I have enough competitors in the race to stand still. In fact, our line would go around the field twice AND circle it again.

So why do we compare oppression(s) in the first place?

1. The desire to obtain power

2. The desire to gain political power

3. The desire to gain financial power

If you live in this world you see these three things happening everyday. Organizations and individuals profit from oppression without ever alleviating any of its symptoms. Social service agencies, NGO’s/non-profits, socially responsible corporations, the government and the educational system all profit from oppression. Oppression puts food on the tables of professionals and low/no income people. Oppression gets funding for civic engagement and gets individuals hired for jobs they otherwise may have not been considered for. Oppression kills and gives birth the new ideas and approaches.

Not all power is bad, its what we do with it that matters.

However, all oppression is bad. How oppression impacts people also differs. Whether a person eats or lives can lie solely on the institutions with the power to decide to fund or not to fund a project. Whether a person can marry who s/he wants can not be compared to the choice to have/not have a child. The undocumented student and the student in a decaying school system can not be compared. They have unique characteristics, however the systems saying yay or nay are not very much different. Comparisons tend to diminish the experience of one group in order to favor the other.  Ideas of what the world looks like and should look like in the hands of oppressors affect us all. My lynching is no bigger than yours. My inability to fully and wholly choose is no smaller than yours. Let me own my experience, I am happy to I let you own yours.

Until we begin to really identify oppressions impact on every life and organize with a sense of holistic love for EVERY being; we will continue to fail in our pursuits for justice.

Who wins in a race of oppression?

No one.

What a Free Woman Looks Like

Today I chatted with a friend about some of the most influential Black women in popular culture. We talked about the Nicki Minaj/Lil Kim battle, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. I felt like I was undergoing a G-20 classified security clearance for a rouge feminist operation. I felt most at ease when he asked “what does a free woman look like?” and “what is her life like?”

Well I’m a woman. I also happen to be a woman in the pursuit of freedom. I started the Freedom Pages with idea to share with folks my musings on this journey towards freedom. Reading Pearl Cleage’s “I Wish I Had a Red Dress” novel was the first time I read a list of all things a Free Woman should possess. Her list impacted me so deeply. It was one of the reasons I decided to go to Haiti. So I decided to compile what we discussed along with some more ideas below.

1. A free woman has the  power to choose.

2. A free woman has the ability to make informed choices.

3. A free woman uses new tools to build her house.

4. A free woman is educated about the world around her.

5. A free woman has options and has the choice to explore them or not.

6. A free woman takes risks.

7. A free woman understands that she can only control actions of her own.

8. A free woman uses self-reflection as a platform for growth.

9. A free woman helps other women and girls become free.

10. A free woman defines and affirms her own image.

11. A free woman understands and embraces her body.

12. A free woman experiences and confronts challenges in life.

13. A free woman values relationships.

14. A free woman will read this list and begin to define what it means to be free for herself.

What do you think a free woman looks like? What does her life look like? What would you add to this list? Take away?

When the Authorities Fail: Reports of Rape by the United Nations Forces in Haiti

This week I spent a lot of time surfing the BBC news channel and website for news. I generally stay away from major news outlets in the States due to the overwhelming polarization, regardless of the station. This week was heavily dominated by the cholera outbreak in Haiti, collective resistance against aid and security operations. Violence in Haiti since the January 12th earthquake is a result of a number of realities, frustrations and conditions. Like many acts of violence the element of power is present. Gaining power, building power, relinquishing power; the struggle for power is not new in this context. Using the female body as a medium to exercise and gain power is also not new.

As noted in a previous post, the United Nations Mission in Haiti has been present for 20 years. During this tenure, its relationship with the Haitian people has been rocky (that’s putting it lightly). Recently, Haitians have collectively cried out for removal of UN forces given the cholera outbreak and sheer lack of action to confront basic infrastructure issues. The video below shows a Haitian aid volunteer, Charlotte Charles, giving a passionate and igniting  account of rapes in the tent camps by United Nations soldiers.

The world needs to hear the truth.

Who is telling this truth? After being arrested several times, being attacked in a tent camp while distributing aid and reporting other atrocities to the police; Ms. Charles refuses to quiet her voice. She is willing to die telling the truth.

The world needs to hear the truth.

What happens when the institutions and individuals meant to protect fail and actually harm those they are charged with protecting? The rape of women, girls, children and men robs individuals of their power. When a woman or girl has to choose between eating and rape, the decision is can not possibly be easy. When a woman or girl has to choose between shelter and rape, the decision can not possibly be easy. Power is the ability to act. When your actions are controlled by someone else your power is diminished. Stripping individuals of their dignity and power also strips the community of its dignity and power.

What would you do if you had to make this choice?

Unrest and Fear in the Time of Cholera…and Elections

I chatted with Gabrielle Vincent, Director of Sonje Ayiti, this morning on facebook after what sounds like a traumatic experience in North Haiti. A survivor of the January 12th earthquake, mother and community developer, Gabie always provides in depth insight. Below is what she shared.
I am in Cap-Haitien now.
I was on my way to Port-au-Prince at 8:30 to take care of the customs
clearance for the trucks and container.  I couldn’t make it to the
airport this morning due to instant riots all over the street in
Cap-Haitien. Election’s Frenzy. I was in the car then there were
rocks and bottles filled with I don’t know what throwing from everywhere.
The road was packed with students going to school and everyone else.
Some got hurt. I returned home and got behind Dadou’s motorcycle, boom
there were shootings when we were about to turn to the main road
(Shada) that would take us to the airport. There were shootings
everywhere, we returned home safe and sound. I am now waiting to see
what tomorrow might bring.
The CHOLERA issues are taking a toll on the population who is now
furious, frustrated by the inactions of the authorities and fearful for
their life. On top of it, the candidates are wasting a lot of money
for elections instead of addressing the real issues. People are
furious.
 

Please keep praying for Haiti
Gabie

You heard it here first. You won’t see this on prime time news.

Excuses are Tools of the Incompetent

It seems as though the people of Haiti can not catch a break.  Since January 12, 2010 images of the first republic led by people of African descent have been plastered across newspapers, websites, blogs and television. Interest in popular media seems to come in waves and lulls. When an imminent crisis crops up, the media is there. When people rise up against discontent, whether it be prisoners or displaced communities demanding to know WHERE THE MONEY WENT; reports reaching Western ears are skewed. False and biased reported isn’t new, in fact most Americans expect it. But get this, its even worse than any of us can imagine. Since my return from Haiti in August my ears have stayed open to those I know on the ground. I first got wind of the cholera outbreak in the Artibonite region on twitter. I didn’t pay too much attention to the first couple of tweets. Then I began the see more and hear more about what was going on. I immediately thought about my good friend who is from Saint Marc and his father who is currently living there. Most of the first confirmed cases of cholera and the first known deaths were all in Saint Marc. I then thought about my other friends in different parts of Haiti. Then I thought about the endless stream of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the sheer incompetence and lack of compassion many of them have shown not only in the past 10 months, but also prior to the earthquake. The recent cholera outbreak is no surprise to anyone who has laid eyes on the reality of Haiti. No toilets, no plumbing and no regular access to clean water is a recipe for disaster. The video below gives a glimpse at how the outbreak may have started.

Crazy right?

The United Nations mission in Haiti has been on the ground for 20 years. In that time various missions focused on restructuring and developing the national police and governing structures. International aid organizations such as Partners in Health have been in Haiti for over 20 years. Many leaders in the Diaspora are asking the questions funders and governments supporting the UN and NGO’s should ask. What tangible results have they achieved? Has the focus on security instead of sustainable economic development actually improved the lives of Haitians? Are you actually working yourselves out of jobs by working to help Haiti empower itself? The UN and other aid organizations tend to cite government corruption, lack of infrastructure and other uncontrollable circumstances when asked where the money ACTUALLY goes.

WHY so many excuses?

In the spring of 2007 while joining my sorority I learned a number of lessons. One enduring lesson I learned was that excuses are indeed the tools of the incompetent. They truly build monuments of nothingness. In the Haitian case those who use the most excuses deserve to be barred from ever touching Haitian soil again. The nothingness built by many aid organizations keep Haitian in the “hands out” position. It keeps a country at the mercy of those who act only in their own interests. It creates a situation where the only thing between over 1 million people and a tropical storm is a plastic tarpaulin and prayer.

The January 12th earthquake killed an estimated 250,000 people, injured 300,000 and left about 1.4 million Haitian citizens (not refugees) homeless and internally displaced. The earthquake killed at least 250,000; but poor infrastructure, poor  international led relief efforts and a government functioning without firm legs will kill more in the long run. Physical death by natural disaster is often unavoidable. I spoke with Gabrielle Vincent of Sonje Ayiti today over facebook chat and she shared shocking information with me. Tropical storm Tomas has already flooded a number of areas in the South including Port-Salus, Les Anglais, Cayes, and Leogane.  She even knows of one man how died in his car during the flooding while others where able to make it out in time.

Who will pay for the deaths caused by aid organizations claiming to build infrastructure and feed people? Anyone who uses excuses in the face of human suffering deserves to be banished from the space in which their incompetence thrives. Haiti is not the only space this incompetence lives, but that’s for another post and another day.

You are (‘nt) What You Eat

(Market in Miami)

As I was standing in the kitchen this afternoon picking kale and chopping vegetables I began to think about what food REALLY means to me. I’m an avid foodie; meaning I love food, love cooking food and love knowing how food is made. I also love knowing where my food comes from. These concepts seem simple but for many people the idea of attaining these pleasure just isn’t feasible. Let me be more specific, many Americans have no clue what real food tastes like, where their food comes from and how it was made. Food matters. What we put into our body matters. Now…I’m not going to go into some long explanation as to why we should all eat organic or why we should all remove processed foods from out diets; that just isn’t practical for most people. We do live in a busy world full of mis-perceptions about food and healthy eating. I’m not interesting in preaching or giving a lecture. What I am interested in is challenging us all to start considering some basic questions:

1. What is my (and my families) relationship with food?
2. Where does my food come from?
3. What influences my food choices?

My answers to those questions are constantly evolving, so should yours.

I grew up on welfare. I remember going to the store with a pack of food stamps and a Link card once those hit the streets of Chicago. The corner store only had so many options, most tasted good but were bad for my body. I ate a bag or two of Flaming Hot chips everyday. My mother tried her best to keep vegetables and fruit in our lives, but choices still had to be made. Until she started working my mom cooked regularly because she had the time. But money was still tight. When I ate at family members homes food choices were also made. Money was even tighter. On any given Saturday during a summer in Chicago there could be 10-15 kids at my aunts house. So what did she do?  She put on a pot of hot dogs or made us sandwiches. She didn’t have the time or the money to make an elaborate meal for all of us kids. There was a corner store or a candy lady nearby where we would buy potato chips and cookies. So between that and what she made we had our afternoon meals. Dinner, now dinners were a lot more well rounded on holidays and Sunday’s. My immediate family has its roots in Mississippi and most of our food didn’t stray too far for the typical Southern cuisine. Looking back I know there were a lot of issues with the food culture, what we had access to and how that affected our lives. Almost every Aunt and Uncle on my Fathers side of the family has diabetes or high blood pressure. That’s just not a coincidence.

African American families disproportionately live in areas with poor food options. We also have a cultural tradition which includes VERY tasty but not always the most healthy style of cooking. However looking at back to our Southern and African roots our diets have drastically changed. Go to almost any predominately Black (or Latino) community in America and you will see plenty fast food restaurants, “corner stores” and MAYBE a full service grocery store. I have a habit of looking in other peoples carts in the grocery store (yea…I’m nosey) and I usually see more food from the inside aisles than the outside aisles.

People say “You are what you eat.” Well low-income people in urban areas often eat a lot of fast/fried/processed food and also consume high amounts of sugar. What does that make them? I say it makes them people experiencing food injustice. According to the White House and the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” Initiative, 1 in 3 American children are overweight or obese. The Office of Minority Health reported in 2007 that 4 out of 5 African American women are overweight or obese. For me it isn’t about aesthetics, it’s about living or dying. Not every person who meets the government criteria for being overweight is unhealthy. However the odds are against us and our children. Who knows someone (or is someone) who thinks chubby babies and children are just cute?

I’ll pose a couple more questions. Who’s dying of heart disease at higher rates than any other group in America? Who’s receiving the most diagnoses of high risk cancer than any other group in America? What group has the highest rates of diabetes?

Something is wrong here. I argue that food is political. Many choices we make about food aren’t entirely our own. Food is not grown and sourced the way it was even 50 years ago. Farms are fewer and larger. Our meat and dairy products come from fewer places. How we sweeten and flavor our food has even changed. Food lobbyists have a large presence on Capitol Hill. Whether its the corn industry or the beef industry, they are all in the ears of those who make legislative decisions about the food that ends up on your plate. Did you know that our government (hence our tax dollars) subsidized over $75 BILLION dollars to the corn industry between 1995 and 2009? Where does all that corn end up? On your plate in its various forms of course.

Everyone should have access to healthy and affordable food. Healthy food full of nutrients and good flavor should not just for those who can afford to shop at Whole Foods. Everyone should be able to learn what this means as well.

Just like any behavior how we eat and what we eat is learned. As I got older I started making more informed choices about my food. I also now noticed that my Mom buys different food and makes different food choices. So does a lot of my family. I stopped eating pork and beef in college. One time during a trip back home I learned that my cousins decided to do the same. But some habits die hard. Some habits refuse to die because of institutional barriers. Food justice is important to me and should be important to everyone who eats food in America. What ends up in your body isn’t JUST based on decisions of your own (unless you grow everything you eat), but it can become a more informed choice. Communities across the country are deciding to have more say in what they eat by starting community gardens, participating in food co-ops and demanding healthier choices in local grocery stores. Not all is lost, but there is still much to be gained.