About Me

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Policy provokes me to think and write. I currently work in ivory towers inspiring people to engage in their world. I am a student of the human condition and my classroom is the world. I don't need credentials to have an opinion but I've got paper to prove I know a few things about public health, social welfare and economics. I'm coming out of the tower and taking the words to the people and hope you will send some words back at me.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Charitable-Industrial Complex - A review

This opinion piece by Warren Buffet's son Peter Buffet is a game-changer in the world of philanthropy not because of what is said but for who is saying it and where and what the implications are for his foundation and others.

It's good to see the wealthy, powerful, and charitable own up to their shortcomings, their savior complexes and their ignorance. Of particular significance if the 'conscience laundering' (his term) and the inappropriate use of certain business principles in the growing industry that is philanthropy.

For those of us who are part of the implementation of these philanthropic endeavors who have struggled with the challenges of changing priorities, trendy strategies and what often seems like the whims and fancies of well-meaning (and guilty-feeling) wealthy donors, this op/ed (his first, hopefully of more) makes us feel heard. That finally, someone gets what we have been saying, writing and even whining about all these years; that just because you have money and hired some bright and eager, Harvard-minted consultant does not mean you have THE answer to the world's problems.

As Mr. Buffet admits, people are solving problems with their right hands that others (and in my view sometimes themselves) help create with their left. The same tax laws that benefits the wealthy and encourage the creation of foundations are the same tax laws which reduce the amount of money that the federal government has to spend on the same social problems that these philanthropist want to address.

I am not against wealth. I am not against capitalism. But there is something perverse about how wealth is created and preserved in the USA. Even Peter Buffet's own launch into philanthropy (his dad Warren Buffet set up foundations for his children) reflects the self-serving gifting of the wealthy who obviously think they can do a better job than government or anyone else. Each non-profit being based on a great idea competing with other non-profits for funding of the next attempt to solving 'the problems of poverty' often maintained (through union-busting, foreign outsourcing etc) by the same corporations which fund these foundations.

So it really is a relief, surprise and a bit of a validation to read this piece by Peter Buffet.

Thank you Peter Buffet for saying what needed to be said by someone with the money and power to make a difference in how philanthropy operates in the USA and the world. You have opened the door to new ways of thinking by saying you are willing to listen.

The Charitable-Industrial Complex by Peter Buffet, New York Times, July 25, 2013, p. A19


Friday, July 26, 2013

Dear Barack Obama, What About the Poor?

I could write a long list of statistics about poor people in the USA but at the end of it all, you will know what you already know: being poor in America is a hard row to hoe. What with the cutbacks in food stamps, subsidized childcare and a stubborn unemployment rate, being poor means to do without and to struggle to get what you have and fight to get what help is offered.

And yet.... it is not the poor that President Obama is worried about as he does his stump(?) speech on his economic plan for America. It's the middle class. It's the people who may have to tighten their belts but their kids will go to college. They have health insurance (or soon will be forced to under Obamacare) and tend to live in the suburbs unless they are flush enough to live the more expensive life of the urbanite. It seems the poor have nothing to contribute to economic growth. Our Gini index could put us on par close to Jamaica and Cameroon and behind Uganda in terms of income inequality, which data in several social sciences link to quality of life.

So as a social worker, public health professional, professor and mental health activist, I would like to ask our president, "What about the poor?" What do they get from Congress? Where do they fit in your economic plan for America's future?

Mr President, it was the middle class who 'occupied' America fighting against the inequality that keeps growing because it seems that most politicians in this country do not care about the poor, even when they are not running for election.... like you.

Mr President, you have already admitted that Congress is going to fight you on whatever economic strategies you put forth to help the middle class so since they are already middle class and it is the poor that is being left behind, why not just go for it and fight for the poor the way some Republicans fight for wealthy taxpayers or the unborn.

Go for it, Mr President, be THAT guy. Be the President remembered for using his last 3 years to fight for those who are being left behind. Those with whom you worked as a community organizer in Chicago. As my Dad would say, these are the people for whom the first meal is a surprise and the second a wonder. The people for whom the roof is a sky and a pillow a rock. The ones with kids who have decaying teeth despite having insurance (but have low health literacy). The ones in crappy schools and unsafe/crowded housing. The ones eating one meal a day and sometimes it's the one their kid brought home from a free lunch program... of course that's if they still qualify.

I get it. Middle class people vote more than poor people. And maybe that's because noone is representing the interests of the poor. They get nothing from their vote but to give some guy another chance to screw them over.

So dear Mr President, I ask you..... "What about the poor?"

If you get this far, click on the following link: contact the white house  and write to the president and ask him what he is doing for poor people.                                                                                       

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Global Citizen v Global Subject: A critical discussion of study/service abroad

Full disclosure: I have developed and led service-learning abroad programs in Central America for 5 years. It is my experience as leader and as traveler that have led me to question the methodology and intent of such programs with regard to their implications for the communities outside the USA in which they are implemented.

As globalization penetrates the towers of ivory, there is a push for the development of graduates who can participate in the world beyond their own localities and their own national borders. This corps of 'global citizens' are supposed to have an identity that transcends geography and borders with an identification with the common humanity that bounds us all.

To create this cadre of new world graduates, institutes of higher learning are pushing the study/service abroad agenda. With colleges and universities setting targets for how many of their students get to go abroad before they graduate. Of course, this trend is also growing among the high school crowd who seek to gain an edge on college admissions or to improve their language skills.

The primary goals of study abroad are usually to build intercultural skills and often to build language fluency that help develop such skills. There is also an emphasis on experiential learning of global problems. The places students go include local language schools, foreign-based branches of American or UK institutions, international schools or a home-stay and attendance at a local educational institution.According to Sachau and Braser (2010), more than 250,000 American students study abroad.

Service learning abroad includes the goals of study abroad but these are achieved through direct service in local communities abroad. Reflection is an integral part of this process as students grapple with the issues that come with integrating service into their learning.

So I am not going to argue that there is anything wrong with the intention of service/study abroad programs. Human beings need to engage with each other across borders in order to understand each other, both culturally and linguistically.

However, I will argue that the one-directional structure of most programs create global subjects that are studied or serviced in the development of global citizens. The class bias of the latter is obvious as most middle class or poor students cannot afford the cost of study abroad tuition and travel and the opportunity costs of lost wages from their jobs that support their educational pursuits. This class bias that already exists in higher education relegates most study/service abroad programs to the reach of wealthier students who then gain further advantage for graduate and hiring programs who give an edge to such 'global citizens'.

But how much global citizenry do these students develop? On a recent trip to Greece, I ran into a group of students who were obviously American students doing study abroad. (As a leader of such trips I have acquired a sense of who these students are when I see them). These students were mostly white, mostly girls and were exploring the Ancient Agora on their day trip from their Semester at Sea. I spoke to a few of them about their engagement with local populations as they traversed the oceans and were taught on board by an international faculty. They admitted that the trip was what each person made it but that most people hung out with their friends and did not make friends where they visited. This tends to be the trend among most students who don't do a home-stay version of these programs. Language programs that are full immersion are much better than ones where groups of American students go off to Florence or Paris and spend a lot of time visiting sites and partying as much as they spend learning the language, which they often don't speak because they have each other with whom to speak English. Having local communities learn about American life through these programs is not usually an objective. There is hardly an 'exchange' but more of a "Thank you for letting me learn about you" attitude. And if you're an Italian in Florence, you don't learn more than a bad stereotype of the worse of what American college life can be.

As for service-learning projects, these also tend to be one-dimensional. Students fly from the USA to countries near and far in the East and South (mostly) to donate their time and develop their skills, in contexts that challenge them in many ways. This is great for the American student but the short-term and often non-sustainable aspects of this service is questionable in value for the local communities. I am sure there are programs for foreigners to do service in the USA but I have yet to read of them. Foreigners may come on their own but America is not seen a place that needs 'service' but is a source of 'service'. The socio-cultural and economic implications of this belief reinforce neo-imperialistic ideas of who Americans are and what their place is in the world.

After reviewing hundreds of articles on these programs, there were only a few that bothered to evaluate the impact on communities because the focus is on the education of the students. Most of the time, the communities that students serve are not the ones requesting such service but are the ones that are chosen for students to serve. These sites are chosen for many reasons that often have to do with the connections of the instructor to those communities or historical ties of an institution to a community.

So how do we make these programs more of an exchange and not an exercise in which students in one country gain skills through their contact or engagement with people of another culture? How do these programs go beyond 'educational tourism' or 'volun-tourism' to be a cultural engagement that involves meeting and greeting and engaging with local people? I will keep the list short.

1. Make them truly an exchange. Students of each country should engage with each other in learning about each other and learning language skills from each other. If possible, there should be an exchange of students across borders; not a visit of one to the other.

2. Let reception communities drive the service/learning that occurs. What are their needs? How can they be met in a sustainable way? Projects should include products like grant proposals, educational curricula, training, buildings etc

3. Evaluate the impact of these programs on local communities. People of the South and East do not exist to be the cultural experiences of American students that change their lives. They too have educational needs that includes cultural engagement.

4. Engage with educational institutions in the locality where studies/service takes place. Including local teachers as the cultural guides and paying them for their services makes these trips more valuable to local communities.

5. Engage before and after the trips take place so that the experience can be meaningful to participants on both sides of borders. Technology makes this extremely easy and engaging this way in the classroom may be a temporal and technological challenge but well worth the equality of experience for both cultures.

6. Use locally owned services and purchase locally made goods as much as possible. No point in going abroad to enrich the pockets of American service providers.

This post is based on a presentation I gave at The Learner Conference held in Rhodes, Greece, July 11-13, 2013.