12 Years a Slave. How About a Lifetime in Slavery ?

Moving as the film is, even more gut-wrenching is a global index published today that shows a staggering 29.8 million people serving as modern-day slaves in countries ranging from Nigeria to Myanmar.

Ten countries account for three-fourths of the world’s slaves, and India alone is host to almost half the total, according to Walk Free, an Australia-based rights group. While slavery is illegal in every country, the fight against it is not a big priority for most governments, and some forms of the practice – including forced marriage and trafficking of women and children for domestic work and as sex workers – may not be considered slavery in these countries.

Walk Free doesn’t break down the numbers to show how many modern-day slaves are women, but it’s likely to be a high proportion of the total. Yet there’s not much action on say, domestic workers in Asia or the Middle East, a practice that encourages the trafficking of women. Despite reports of violence against domestic workers in cities from New Delhi to Dubai, the demand – ironically fueled at least in part by greater numbers of working women – hasn’t abated.

Some Philippine recruiters recently decided to stop sending maids to Singapore till the issue of the payment of a placement fee is addressed – which often leaves maids with little cash in hand. Indonesia has demanded more safety for its workers in Singapore after a frightening number fell to their deaths cleaning windows in high-rise apartments.

worker

Yet, while the decision in Hong Kong to not grant residency permits to domestic workers who have lived there for years has fueled the debate for greater rights, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to end slave-like conditions – or even grant a mandatory day off to domestic workers.

So for every country that steps in to try and protect the rights of its women who are trafficked to richer countries, poorer countries including Cambodia and Myanmar willingly send their womenfolk into slavery.  Public apathy is as much to blame as government inaction.

Colourful Histories

The first chapter of my Master’s thesis looked at the history of Carnival in the Caribbean. In order to represent the syncretic nature of the festival, I chose to tell 3 separate narratives: the African story, the European story and the Indian Story. One story would not have done it justice. Now, having lived in metropolitan societies with many cultural groups, I’m beginning to see how the history of any given place is layered by many stories. Neighbourhoods become defined by cultural and racial borders, so that the city itself becomes a tapestry that immediately reflects the cultures that constitute its parts.

That being said, although there is great beauty in seeing the diversity of a place and people, I can’t help but wonder at the effect of separating the larger historical narratives of a society into racial counterparts. Why, for example, is the history of Black Americans segregated as Black History? Why isn’t their narrative equally represented as American history? Why is Native American history in Canada, taught as Native American studies? Why isn’t it just Canadian History? I can’t help but wonder if allowing history to be represented in racially skewed narratives does more harm than good. Is it still useful in society for the prevalent history to be by the conquerors? I would argue that there is nothing to be gained through a polarized history of a place or people.

There are many more useful insights to be gained from stories like those presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s books or Freakonomics or from podcasts like This American Life that look at real stories of real people. There’s a great Ted talk from novelist Chimamanda Adichie called ‘The danger of the Single Story’ that illuminates what I’m getting at with much more poise and eloquence. In her example she talks about the narrow way in which people respond to her, when they discovered she is from Nigeria. She talked about moving to America and being perceived as ‘African’ for the first time. She talks about the danger of creating single visions of entire cultures that preclude the opportunity for true empathy between cultural groups.

zmtkm

In a world that is learning to incorporate many cultures into the mainstream, we need to ease up on looking at individual histories as ‘us’ and ‘them’. That is no longer really useful. As an immigrant to Canada, it’s sometimes nice to be recognized for my cultural differences, but at the same time there’s danger in being seen as outside of what’s normal or expected. Being different makes it hard for people to respect you and impossible for you to feel like a real member of the society, when you are constantly reminded of how ‘other’ you are. People take for granted that they know my history because they have some vague notion of what being from the Caribbean might mean, based on all inclusive vacations, bad movies and Reggae music. They’re not interested in being corrected either. They’re already convinced of their own imagined story of my ‘otherness’.

Maybe there’s a more temperate way for everyone to look at history and cultural diversity. I wonder for example in the modern situation of world travellers, if we can demand truer histories of the places that we inhabit that are more inclusive of all the stakeholders of places and events. I wonder if it’s possible for people to back off on believing that they know everything about everyone and look at the world without the need to polarize things.

We Can Be Superheroes, Burkas And All

One wouldn’t generally expect Pakistan to produce role models for women – not since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and not the kind for Birkin bags that a certain foreign minister is famous for.

So Geo TV’s animated kids’ show Burka Avenger has been nothing short of a revelation. It is set in a picturesque green valley, where the arrival of a villain with a long beard who shuts down the local girls’ school casts a pall of gloom. Until, that is, the appearance of a figure in a flowing black burka, who takes on the religious zealots and corrupt politicians alike. Turns out – spoiler alert – it’s a teacher, who wields the chalk by day and displays her considerable martial-arts skills by night to protect the girls’ right to education, clad in a black burka.

There are so many facts about this one could focus on, especially when the young Afghan schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban for daring to go to school is being touted for a Nobel Peace Prize. Amazingly though, some of the conversation about the Burka Avenger has centred – not on the brave, new stance of Geo TV or the much-needed focus on education or the hopes for change in depicting women on TV and as superheroes – but on her burka, and the fact that it’s a symbol of oppression. Really.

That’s a debate worth having, yes. But picking on this series for just this reason is a bit disingenuous, surely. And hey, maybe just maybe, the show’s creators meant to show the burka as also being a symbol of power. Why must superheroes everywhere conform to the Western ideal of one, including their dress code? Is it more inconceivable to have a heroine clad in a saree, a kimono, an ao dai – or, indeed, a burka – than it is to imagine one with cat’s whiskers?Image

When getting home safe is all that matters

Stunned by yet another report last month of yet another gang-rape in India, this time in Mumbai, where I lived and worked for eight years, and which I believed to be the safest city in India, the most woman-friendly. It’s hard to wrap my head around the facts of the story, given that the mill-area where the 22-year-old was raped in the presence of a male colleague is where I went into work for nearly six years. The former textile mills now house media companies and private-equity firms, malls and restaurants, and is a bustling bee-hive of activity in the centre of the city. A city that doesn’t feel safe anymore, like dozens of other Indian cities.

What’s also worrying is that recent attacks on women – including the horrendous one in New Delhi last December – appear to be targeting a certain kind of woman, in particular: educated and working, usually in the city. This is not to belittle other attacks on women that occur every day across India, where a rape reportedly takes place every 21 minutes. But it seems that the more Indian women break with tradition and embark on careers and independent lives, the more determined men are to bring them down – sometimes violently.

The blowback also targets women: following the rape and eventual death of the young woman in New Delhi last year, some offices banned women from working overtime, while others barred women from certain kinds of jobs including at call centers, which may require working night shifts. Women are being unfairly discriminated against at the workplace and denied equal opportunities, and they have no one to turn to, not even the police or lawmakers, who rather than pledge to address the security issues, have said women should not stay out late, dress provocatively or take public transport.

India has a lot to lose should its women be forced to quit work because of concerns over safety. Already, despite rising levels of female literacy, labour-force participation by women fell to 16.8 percent in 2011 from 22.4 percent in 2005, according to data from the Asian Development Bank. In the World Economic Forum’s ranking of gender parity in economic participation, India languishes near the bottom, ranking only above Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen, a gap that “will be detrimental to India’s growth,” WEF said in a 2011 report. This is not progress.

Since the attack in Mumbai, women journalists – and even visitors to India – have been speaking out about their own experiences with sexual harassment and violence on the job. They are not the only ones being targeted, clearly.

I fear for my young niece’s future. What good is having your country counted among the economic powerhouses if she must one day make a career choice based on how late she must stay at work or whether she will be required to travel? When women across the world are debating issues including the glass ceiling, leaning in and pay parity, women in India are worried simply about getting home safe from work.

How I finished “The High Cost of Opportunity”

When Stacy-Marie sent me this article of nifty infographics politely pointing out how native-born “low-income” New Yorkers are lagging behind the entrepreneurship curve, something struck a nerve… and I became incredibly angry. I moved to New York City two weeks after Hurricane Katrina with two freelance jobs and a dream waiting here for me. I quit both jobs and spent my FEMA check trying to be “all in” starting a clothing line and ended up broke as broke could be, in one of the most expensive cities in the world, eating hot dogs and ramen noodles and wondering what on earth was to become of me… when on the day I was going to take my last $300 and buy a plane ticket back home to my family a crazy group of guys gave an equally crazy, PTSD little black girl from New Orleans a chance at a full-time gig and my fortunes turned. It wasn’t until I was getting a check every two weeks that I was able to plan to survive. As someone who went from making $12K/yr as a “working” artist at 20, who has spent nearly all my savings and free time over the years in various failed entrepreneurial projects to becoming solidly middle-class, I can promise you that getting a salaried job with benefits is the only way to “pull oneself” up out of poverty. The risk inherent in entrepreneurship is one that the poor frankly cannot afford. Why? Because theyre trying to EAT! How insulting that at the most vulnerable juncture of my life I would be expected to make my own “opportunity” magically appear, when I could barely keep a roof over my head.

So I’d been sitting on bits and pieces of this article for the last few months, my thoughts unclear and stifled… when this righteous anger brought it all together. Here’s what I came up with, and posted today here:

“… while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity — and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities.”
– Nick Kristof, “Profiting From A Child’s Illiteracy”

When discussing poverty and the distribution of wealth, two views typically emerge. Conservatives, fond of bothRandian self-accreditation and those proverbial bootstraps we’re all supposed to use as leverage, tend to hold the single individual responsible for their own destiny, regardless of where they started. Liberals, fond of blaming the system and clinging to the “entitlement programs” that seek to alleviate the stresses of said system, are more likely to forgive the personal missteps that often hold individuals in poverty. So it was refreshing to read textbook-liberal Nick Kristof turn a critical eye to a welfare program’s unfortunate misuse. However, the quote above struck me as worthy of inquiry. How, indeed, do we create an environment that leads people to seize the opportunities that we will ensure are there?

The definition of an opportunity is a favorable juncture of circumstances and a good chance for advancement or progress. People who are born wealthy have access to the best doctors and educators in the world, and are nurtured by not only tutors but by family members whose business ventures and financial savvy are constantly accessible. At the opposite end of the spectrum, people who are born poor often have working parents with less time and resources to give, poor health, and are raised by themselves or the television. The only proven route for the poor to the hallowed middle class is for poor individuals to seize positive opportunities — the most accessible of which are education and jobs — to build their skills and resources and avoid the negative, short-term opportunities (i.e. using drugs, committing crimes) that will prevent growth. But how will they know how to recognize said opportunities and in turn teach their children if no one taught them? How will they maintain their resolve to stay a difficult course that leads to success when life’s inevitable challenges present themselves?

Conservatives want to privatize the solutions, which only works if you have the money to pay, the whole problem with which is that poor people don’t. If my tax dollars are being invested in a necessary social safety net, the goals of said safety net should not only be to meet urgent needs but to provide a plan to help individuals exit the system. We need to eradicate the “case worker”/paper-pusher mentality (starting out by paying higher wages to our service providers) and invest in more life coaches, career advisors, teachers, childcare professionals and financial advisors. Create programs that make the outcome of a healthy family the product the agency is responsible for, not just the child in isolation. Government as a whole should not escape the scrutiny of accountability, and can benefit from more influence from the business community: not lobbying to maintain tax loopholes and other corporate-personhood benefits, but cooperation to help spur process improvement, trim bloated bureaucracies and create a better product in service of the American people.

Poor parents need to be educated first of their own opportunities to earn money and build wealth through setting goals and being disciplined enough to budget, prioritize and maintain legal employment — skills they may be learning or trying out for the first time. They become empowered by choosing a path of action to follow and achieving the goals they themselves set to pursue. Only then can they do the same for their children. If the system of incentives we’ve provided to alleviate urgent physical needs is counterproductive and keeps families in a generational cycle of poverty, let’s create new incentives such as guaranteed access to physical benefits (e.g. free metro cards, cell phones, gym memberships) when parents in the programs gain employment, meet savings goals, attend counseling, keep the kids in school and achieve goals of their own. Develop a long-term follow up system with resources people can access in the months after leaving assistance programs when things might get hairy.

recent report by the Center for an Urban Future laments the lack of “low-income” entrepreneurs in New York City. The entire premise of the report is strange to me, the concept that our most vulnerable populations should be responsible for creating opportunities for employment. The very definition of poverty is to be lacking the money to cover the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and healthcare. If you can’t do that, how can you choose to spend money to start a business when it will ultimately mean yet more physical sacrifice, possibly at the expense of your health, sanity, and what little stability one might have? The risks inherent in entrepreneurship are such that the poor frankly cannot afford it, evident in the questionable success of micro-lending programs worldwide. These pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps perspectives are short-sighted products of the privileged, relieving governments and policymakers of the responsibility to abandon austerity measures and private interests and invest in the types of WPA-style projects that created the American middle class in the first place.

No taxpaying American should go without food, shelter and access to medicine for simply failing to succeed in the game of life. Success is laudable and learned through trial, error, and perseverance; but an opportunity is only a chance at success, not a guarantee. Our approach to poverty and raising people out of it should be encapsulated within the larger strategy of reducing global waste; reusing and repurposing infrastructure to create green economy jobs and sustainable, affordable housing; and re-investing money currently used to build prison and war infrastructure into schools and programs that will break the cycles of poverty. Only then will we be able to provide good chances for advancement and progress, not just to kids, but to their parents as well.

*****

Then another friend in response sent me this op-ed piece today, “No Rich Child Left Behind” that I felt further validated my thoughts. What say ye?

~yvahn

What should I do with my life?

career

I had an epiphany this morning while thinking about the ways in which people choose careers.

Every vocation answers some human need. Doctors answer people’s health needs. Architects address problems of community and shelter. Media people share information and facilitate communication between large networks of people. Engineers create solutions to various kinds of design problems. I could go on. But you get the point.

I think therefore, people choose fields that answer the questions that matter most to them. So for me, the questions that fascinate me most are problems of design, aesthetics, space and community. Because of this I’m in Architecture. My boyfriend recently went into Economics, because he voraciously devours information regarding politics, markets and wealth distribution. Environmental designers and researchers are consumed by the need to discover more sustainable ways for us to live. Picking a career therefore is kind of like an individual quest for answers to the questions that are most meaningful to us.

Of course this only relates to certain kinds of professions. There are other types of work that attract people who want to perform a certain kind of service or use a particular skill. Others still, do not have the luxury of choosing an occupation. In a very real way, the answer to what should I do with my life is primarily a ‘first world problem’. I’m also sure that there are many people out there who give much less of a damn than I do about what their career is.

I think this approach applies though, to the people who are virtually haunted by questions. Other people like me, who need to do yoga and aggressively manage their anxiety levels about the state of this world.

No Pity Party here

I literally started this a while ago and just didn’t know how to end it. So I just left it. Then every so often, I’d return to it to add (and remove) another sentence. But with everything I tried, I just couldn’t finish it. Where would I leave off, on such a sensitive topic? So finally I decided to buckle down and hammer this one out through my own mind’s eye. Forget the rest, or I’d never get it done.

It doesn’t bother me that I’m single – it really doesn’t. What does bother me is that there are some who are bothered by my singleness. What bothers me even more than that is how bothered some seem to be by my not being bothered by it. Up to speed? Now imagine if I let that get to me what a staggered life I’d live.

As a single 30-something in the busy city of Toronto, it is very easy to feel the pressure of “getting up there” and not having settled down yet. There was a time when quite frankly that very thought had really terrified me.  What am I going to do, I would ask myself, if I get up there and I’m still single? But once I started to follow the path my life had laid out for me, I am more concerned about taking in the sights along the way. I’m doing so much that it makes up for the other parts.

Don’t get me wrong, singleness will always harbour some fear and doubt. But the fact is that times have changed. Independence is a commodity that we all strive towards. So who says you have to be “settled” by a certain age? So what if you don’t? I’d like to read the chapter in this proverbial Handbook of Life that states that you have a deadline to settle down.

As we evolve, we see that tables are turning; women are taking control of their lives in ways that would render our grandmothers speechless. And how many of us can say our grandmothers didn’t voice their malcontent? Many women are the sole or predominant breadwinner; we’re going back to school, taking on 2nd even 3rd jobs, travelling the world and learning different languages. But you know what the best part is? We’re speaking up and acting out.

The statistic of single 30-something women has increased because we are so focused that we don’t slow down to notice that certain areas of our lives remain unfulfilled. We see success on the horizon and would stop at nothing to get there. If there is an obstacle, it is viewed only as a slight delay as we iron out the kinks and handle it accordingly before we continue. Tunnel vision – that’s what it’s called.

So while you’re sitting there looking at your happily coupled-up friends and reflecting on your life asking yourself “why am I still single?” maybe you should ask:  “why can’t I still be single?” Or perhaps the question you need to ask yourself: “am I ready for a relationship?” Many of us think we are, or feel we need to and may even end up making the wrong choices. But being single means moving at your own pace, changing your direction when you feel like it and taking longer than you need to on things. It really is the ultimate selfishness. And I think with all the hard work I put in, I have earned the right to be selfish. And to add a cliché: if something isn’t meant to happen, nothing in your power will make it happen.

I’m happy with the way my life is going even with the unattended area, or void if I may. I’m content with knowing what I want and having the luxury of taking my time. Yes, I’m “picky” but I’m really tired of hearing that, because quite frankly I deserve to be. I have always taken my time on things, so I’m not going to start rushing now. And I really do believe that if it’s meant to happen then it will. Some things just don’t follow a timeline or are limited to a deadline. So I might as well keep doing what I have to do to enjoy my life; by myself, for myself. This for no other reason than I’m allowed to be selfish.

Being Sweet

The co-owner of the building in which my office is located, introduced me to a stranger as ‘One of John’s (my boss) girls’. He felt awkward saying it too, I could tell. But he wasn’t quite up for calling me ‘architect’ to my face it would seem. ‘An intern architect working at John’s company’, would have been the proper introduction. But instead he went with the introduction that gave me the least bit of credit possible. What’s worse is that I didn’t correct him. I laughed it off and walked away. Why didn’t I say something? I wish I did but I don’t really know what I would say even now.

This is just a little something to serve as an example of the quandary I find myself in as I learn how to be a professional. On site, the men are mostly very sweet to me. They treat me with a certain amount of deference – but it has more to do with me being a woman than a professional. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I can blame them either. I don’t need deference but I look at John. People listen to him. He has that air about him of trustworthiness and authority. That’s what you need to project as an Architect so that your contractors, clients and consultants listen.

I think about what I project. I think about the social habits people develop to fit in. For example, I’m nice and kind of funny/weird. People like me because I’m nice and remember me because I’m kind of eccentric. Being nice has gotten a bad rap over the years. But it’s true. I’m not very loud or pushy or even particularly opinionated. I can be all of those things of course, but they aren’t my prevailing spirit. What does that mean though as I exist in the workplace? Does it doom me to being ‘one of the girls’? Or can I be respected without being brash? I’ve felt this disconnect for a long time, between who I need to be to succeed and who I am. I’m an artist – entirely self indulgent but reflective and passionate. I’m a human great dane. Anyone who knows the breed knows they’re big showy goof balls. That’s me. Sure I understand that at the office, you can’t be the big dope you might be after hours. That’s fine. What confuses me are the social habits, especially the way in which I communicate with the opposite sex. I’m daddy’s little girl. That’s kind of my default if I were to pick a female stereotype. But in truth, can daddy’s little girl really grow up to be an Architect?

I reflect on the way that people perceive me and the dysfunctional things that people consider assets in our way too jaded world. I refuse to become dysfunctional in order to fit a dysfunctional system. Refuse. I refuse to be someone I’m not, so that I can play out a social game that I resent. So my quandary is how. How to be two things at once – the goof ball that I am as well as the professional I am becoming.

I don’t want to be ‘One of the girls’. As everything, I suppose it will evolve through trial and error, until I have a learned response for days like today, when someone tries to put a label on me.

 

10 years

This weekend marks my 10 year anniversary of moving to Canada.

10 years ago I thought I was moving to Canada to go to school. It was so clear to me then that I’d go home to Trinidad at every work term and that upon graduation I’d head straight back there to marry my high school sweetheart and stay close with my friends and family. At the time I was fiercely nationalistic and would never have believed that I’d stay in Canada.

10 years is a long time it turns out, even though it flew by. I sit now in the living room of my apartment in Kitchener. Mauri (my bf) is asleep in the bedroom beside me. I bid farewell to the high school sweetheart a long time ago. I like my job and I have a good life now in Canada. It took a very long time to become something like a home. But after 10 years, many tears and heartbreaks later, I have a circle of friends here who have become my family.

A City with Two Faces (my masters thesis) I suppose was my saudade. My heart remains an immigrant heart. Forever longing and forever unsure. Nothing holds me where I am the way that living at ‘home’ would hold me. But then here I have a kind of liberty I couldn’t have at home. A life that is relatively free of fear. So like all of the other immigrants, I wander through this new landscape that’s become my new home. Perhaps it’s my inner buddhist or perhaps it’s because I have absolutely no idea what comes next, but I am finally okay with living in the now.