Appreciating Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30

In this blog entry, David Updike, co-editor of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30, offers his thoughts on the book and what he learned about Mural Arts along the way.

I think it’s safe to say that over the last thirty years, Philadelphia has become a city of murals. As you crisscross the city, you find them in just about every neighborhood, often where you’d least expect them. They’ve become a part of our landscape, and something that people here and elsewhere associate with Philadelphia. A lot of the credit for that goes to Jane Golden, because it wouldn’t have happened without her energy and her vision, but it also wouldn’t have been possible if the city itself hadn’t embraced the idea that public art matters. And it matters, not just because it improves our aesthetic environment, but more importantly, because it has a lasting impact on the people who participate in the process.

The Mural Arts offices are a buzzing hive of activity. In the hallways you pass a steady stream of people coming and going, to and from mural sites, or classes, or canvassing neighborhoods. And these are people who, to borrow an old phrase from Bill Clinton, look like Philadelphia. They’re young and old, they’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic. And they all carry themselves with a sense of purpose. In the gallery downstairs you’ll see exhibitions of art—some of it quite remarkable—made by everyone from elementary school students to inmates serving life sentences at Graterford. And then there’s the room upstairs with the very skylight under which Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic. And I suspect that our city’s greatest painter, were he alive today, would approve of this populist endeavor, which seeks to embrace the city he loved in all of its aspects.

I’m very fortunate to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of our city’s other great cultural institutions. And it occurred to me as I started working on this book that, in a way, the Art Museum and the Mural Arts Program have opposite but entirely complementary missions. At the Museum we work very hard to get people to come to us and experience great art. But Mural Arts brings art to the people in the places where they live and work. And what Mural Arts brings to these communities is not a particular product or aesthetic. Rather, it’s a process of engagement and dialogue and co-creation that takes place over months and years, and whose effects remain long after the paint on the walls has dried.

Phila Mural Arts 30_smThis book seeks, above all else, to document what takes place off the walls. And really, this gets to the heart and soul of what Mural Arts does. Yes, it’s about transforming places, but mostly it’s about transforming people. We wanted to look at that process and its effects through many lenses, so we brought together a diverse group of authors from different disciplines—social sciences, public health, art education, restorative justice—to paint as broad a picture as possible of what a socially engaged art practice looks like, and what it can do, especially when it works in tandem with other organizations to address big issues like homelessness, youth violence, or urban blight.

In the book, Jeremy Nowack aptly refers to what happens in the course of creating a mural as a kind of “social contract” that arises between all of the stakeholders involved in a project—neighbors, business owners, community leaders, schools, artists. And the key word here is “stakeholders.” People feel a sense of investment and ownership in the murals. They take pride in them. They show them off to visitors. New stories and rituals grow up around them. People now ride the Market-Frankford El in West Philly just to see Steve Powers’ 50 Love Letters unfold. Inspired by the murals, couples have gotten engaged and even married on that 20-block stretch along Market Street.

Other stories around the murals are more painful, more challenging, but also rewarding in ways that aren’t necessarily visible to someone looking only at the end result. A particularly poignant example is James Burns’s Finding the Light Within, which took on the issue of youth suicide, not just with a very powerful and personal mural, but also with community meetings, writing workshops, collage workshops, and a participatory blog, all of which provided safe, supportive spaces in which survivors could share their stories. More than 800 people participated in those activities, and hopefully found some measure of healing in the process.

Elizabeth Thomas begins her essay with a provocative question: “Who makes culture?” In other words, Who decides what messages we see and read and hear? Whose stories count? Every day we’re bombarded by images and messages that tell us what we should wear, eat, drink, watch, listen to. But how often do we see our own struggles and achievements reflected in our environment, or our own stories projected into the public discourse? Socially engaged art practice has begun to address this problem of who gets represented—and who does the representing—in public culture. It’s happening in different ways in different cities around the country, but in Philadelphia its most visible proponent is the Mural Arts Program.

Much of the work that Mural Arts has done in recent years has sought to expand the definition of what a mural is and what it can do. For the mural project called Peace Is a Haiku Song, the poet Sonia Sanchez initiated what became, in essence, a citywide collaborative poem cycle. She began with a mental image of haiku by children hanging like cherry blossoms from the trees in Philadelphia. This evolved into an invitation to people of all ages to contribute poems in a series of community workshops and through a dedicated website. The poems didn’t end up hanging from the trees, but many of them ended up on posters around the city that were created by youth working with graphic designer Tony Smyrski.

The experience of seeing your own words and your own images projected into the world is an empowering one, especially for young people. As Cynthia Weiss points out, kids participating in mural projects often gain practical, real-world skills, like photography and graphic design. But they also gain a sense of agency that may be hard to come by elsewhere in their lives. And that type of experience can have a lasting impact on a person’s life in ways that we’re really only beginning to understand.

This is the essence of what Mural Arts does. It’s about creating situations in which people are drawn out of their everyday selves and both challenged and empowered to reach for something more. So while this book marks a milestone in the history of the Mural Arts Program, our hope is that it also points the way forward for others who want to use the power of art to change things for the better.

To listen to a podcast of David Updike and Jane Golden’s presentation at the Free Library of Philadelphia from March 26, click here: http://libwww.freelibrary.org/authorevents/podcast.cfm?podcastID=1216

Josh feels needed—like a hot cup of cocoa on a cold day

This week in North Philly Notes, Yasemin Besen-Cassino, author of Consuming Work, writes about youth labor, an important element of our modern economy.

On this bitterly cold day, Josh, like many other teenagers, traveled many miles to get to work. Despite experiencing car troubles, nearly having a car accident, and spending hours in heavy traffic, he arrived at the coffee shop where he works part-time only—to do a double shift, carry heavy loads of garbage in the cold, and deal with a hectic day of selling hot beverages to shivering customers.

Even though his school was in session, he chose to come to work instead of going to class at the local college, where he is getting his degree in theater and humanities. When I asked him why he chose his work over his studies, he told me they need him here: “Nobody notices when I am not [in class].” Unlike at school, they notice him at work. He feels needed—like a hot cup of cocoa on a cold day.

Consuming Work_smJosh, like many other teenagers, works “part-time” while still in school, but do not be fooled by what he calls “part-time” work. “Part-time” sounds like a few hours of work scattered throughout the week, but he was at the coffee shop every day of the past week. Even on the days when he was not scheduled to work, he stopped by to hang out with his friends. He did not just stand idly by; he also helped the friends who were working. He is one of many young people who fold sweaters in clothing stores, pour our morning coffees, wait on us in restaurants, and serve us in many service and retail sector jobs. Yet Josh differs greatly from our traditional conceptions of young workers. For most of us, the terms “child labor” or “youth labor” evoke images of unventilated sweatshops in the developing world or the chimney sweeps of Dickens novels. Yet contrary to popular belief, not only is youth labor widespread in the United States; it is an important element of our modern economy.

With his spiky blond hair, fashionable clothes, and brand-new cell phone, Josh looks nothing like the chimney sweeps of Dickens novels, nor does he fit the conventional definition of a service or retail worker in our contemporary economy. Typical service and retail sector jobs in which young people are employed are “bad jobs”: routine jobs with low wages, part-time hours, few or no benefits, no autonomy, and limited opportunities for advancement. Normally, we would assume the teenagers, who take these bad jobs are the poor teenagers, who desperately need these jobs for survival—to put themselves through school or perhaps help their families. What is really surprising is, only in America teenagers, who work tend to be more affluent.

Affluent teenagers say they work to meet new people in the suburbs and hang out with their friends without the supervision of adults. They also work because they want to be associated with cooler brands. Even if the pay is better and the working conditions are nicer many teens don’t want to work for mom and pop places, they want to work for cooler brands—especially ones where they are avid consumers of. “If I shop there, I’ll work there” is a motto for many young people.

Many companies actively seek out these young and affluent workers. These young, attractive workers, who are already devoted fans of their products “look good and sound right.” They become ideal faces of the products they are selling. Besides, they do not care about the low wages, limited hours and the odd schedule.

As affluent young people want to work for social reasons or for the brand prestige, the ones who really need these part-time jobs are often shut out of the system. As “looking good and sounding right” become important components of service sector jobs, many young people from the inner cities have trouble finding jobs, or settle for fast-food positions.

Maybe Alligators Don’t Mind Toxic Pollution

In this blog entry, Stephanie Kane, author of Where Rivers Meet the Sea, offers advice on how to clean up Guanabara Bay for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Alligators thrive along Rio de Janeiro’s coastline and even the most famous beaches are subject to swimming advisories for pollution. Although the Brazilian constitution promises the right to clean water and habitat, up and down its coast, wherever urbanized rivers meet the sea, industrial and household toxins and sewage degrade water habitats. Brazil is not unique. Worldwide, cities destroy the habitats and hinterlands upon which they depend.

That statement did not constitute news until November, when a story came across the AP newswire: Sailors, who had begun training in Guanabara Bay, became more than a little concerned about the bay’s pollution; the visuals startled them although the contaminants that frighten health professional are visible only through microscopes, especially fecal coliform bacteria that could cause dysentery and even cholera. Rio organizers pledged to clean up and monitor Copacabana, the designated swimming venue. But consider: INEA, the state environmental agency, “has classified nearly all the 13 bayside beaches it monitors as ‘terrible’ for 12 years running. . .” AECOM, the company that built London’s Olympic Park, designed the Olympic Park site for Rio 2016; although lovely, as Oliver Wainright noted,  the design does not convey the stagnation of the surrounding Jacarepaguá lagoon. The video-plan evokes AECOM’s  “water strategy” with a visual gloss of rainfall—captured, filtered, recycled and revitalized. Really?  Carlos Minc, state secretary for the environment, says for 20 years, everyone has known that the “bay is rotten.”  This time, he adds, there is something new in the government’s response.  Landfills around the bay have been closed (at least legal landfills), some industrial pollution has been “curbed” and programs to collect floating garbage and install “river treatment units (RTUs)” are in the works. Built over rivers, the RTUs are meant to filter garbage and human waste as it slides by on the way to open water. But contaminated water flows everywhere, above and below ground, through the dense, diverse human development spreading outward from the bay’s edge. How can AECOM’s site-specific water strategy possibly trigger significantly cleaner water for the Olympian swimmers and sailors in 2016  or more importantly, the people of Rio who will still be there in 2017? Will there be RTUs installed on every stream and river? Can RTUs substitute for centralized urban garbage and sewage infrastructures that retrieve and manage waste before it befouls the water?  Even if those responsible manage to keep the water looking clean enough for a few days, is that really a good enough aim? Couldn’t the “legacy” of Rio 2016 be a serious effort toward functional urban infrastructure and to implement and enforce anti-pollution laws?

Where Rivers_smThe special few apparently believe that they are protected from regional water degradation. Earthworks, filtration, labs to monitor fecal pathogens, gestures toward environmental law enforcement—this infrastructure sustains an unequal, exclusionary and paranoid security logic: urban elites wall themselves off within zones deemed free of toxins and criminals and wall out the masses who are left to struggle, to effect real change, to invent and extend sustainable habitat—or merely to withstand and survive. Although well-funded materialized illusions  may make it seem so, islands are not separate.  Rain, mist, subterranean fossil water, cycles, tides, and surges—water brings back whatever we give.

The image of Olympian athletes skimming along the murky surface, intermingling with the city’s disgusting outpourings warns of a dangerously unhealthy situation requiring either sure action or speedy retreat. Surely, the catastrophic air pollution in the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a clue: the environment cannot be ignored. Who knows? Out of pure pragmatism, the International Olympic Committee could actually transform itself into a global engine for start-up urban environmental sustainability projects that could lead to larger projects after the Olympians have gone home (like Bahia Azul, a project that cleaned up the Bay of All Saints in Salvador). Political will and imagination is what is needed here, installing a few RTUs simply won’t cut it.

(Un)Balancing Family and Work

Joanna Dreby, co-editor (with Tamara Mose Brown) of Family and Work in Everyday Ethnographyabout negotiating the challenges of parenthood and fieldworkexplains how her family life sometimes gets in the way of her work.

I was supposed to write this post last week. But then the pediatrician diagnosed my 11-year-old Temo’s persistent cough as possible pertussis, keeping him home for five days followed by his 7-year-old brother Dylan who began with the cough a few days later. Temo’s antibiotic treatment started first, leaving one extremely bored, rambunctious, 2nd grader home the entire work week.  I juggled Dylan around my class lectures, stack of papers, the conclusion to my book manuscript I keep putting off, and this blog post to write. The laundry didn’t get the memo and do itself either.

Although frustrating, this surely sounds familiar to other working mothers.  It is especially not aberrant a week in the life of the academic parent. I trade stories like these frequently with colleagues, who know this shuffle all too well.  A single parent, others may comment, “I don’t know how you do it.” I do not know the answer.  My children, of course, notice, and at times critique my coping techniques.  At morning drop off when Dylan blows a kiss and yells goodbye saying, “I love you, don’t stress today,” I know he understands. We may smile knowingly at these personal struggles, social scientists so often keep these discussions in the backstage, talked about informally at lunches or events only when we dare to pull back from our professional personas.

These are professional problems, yet those of us who formally analyze social problems, and the links between the private and public spheres, rarely turn the scope of analysis on ourselves.  The black hole seems especially apparent in qualitative field research. Ethnography as a social science research method embraces full involvement in research; ethnographers delve into the days of others to fully understand the rhythms of these lives that may, on the outside, seem so foreign.  Strangely, ethnographers so often remain silent on their own struggles to manage family and work. Until now there have been too few outlets that look squarely—and with an academic gaze—at the problems and successes of the academic parenting.

Family and Work_smMy new book, Family and Work in Everyday Ethnography, which I co-edited with Tamara Brown, brings together essays considering the intersections between parenting and the practice of ethnography.  Leah Schmalzbauer writes of becoming pregnant, and raising two children, amid interviews with immigrant populations, and how becoming a mother altered her own analytical frame, as well as relationships with participants. Chris Bobel faces the tragedy that wracked her personal life and its impact on her professional identity.  Randol Contreras comes to terms with the ways his research on drug robbers in the South Bronx competes with his son’s need for fatherly affection. These and the other essays in this book show how researchers who are also parents meet work and family commitments.  Some reflect on their efforts to keep work separate from their families, while others accept their connections and intersections.  Throughout, the authors grapple with these difficult struggles both with integrity and honesty.  I cannot imagine a challenge more worth the struggle.

Decent Care

In this blog entry, Karla Erickson, author of How We Die Nowwrites about the big step toward decent care taken last month when home health care aides were granted federal protection.

In the late 1990s, a McJob—a low paid job with few future prospects like a fast-food job– was the most common way to earn a living in the United States. Quietly and quickly, the fastest growing job category has shifted to a form of work that is far less visible and, until now, far more precarious: home health aide.

For many of us, the mention of home health aide may bring to mind a bouncy 18-year-old girl in a candy striper uniform, but we would be wrong. Home health aides are overwhelmingly female, overwhelmingly women of color, and are women, not girls, often with families of their own. Up until now they have worked in the shadow economy: a barely regulated space lacking all of the protections of even a McJob. No insurance, no minimum wage, and no overtime protection.

Up until September 17, 2013, this work has been treated as not work, or at least not work that rises to the level of receiving federal protections for workers. This shadowy, off-the- record approach to home health work has had several costs. First, it linked home health aides’ labor to a long history of underpaid, indentured and enslaved labor in the home. Second, it reduced the complex work of caring for dependent adults to something that women—and particularly women of color–are naturally good at doing. Why pay well for work that is intrinsically rewarding? And finally, it was indecent. Failing to offer even the most minimal support and defenses to the people who work to care for the most frail among us is a sorry statement on our society. It devalues care, the home, and frail people in one fell swoop.

How We DIe Now_smSo thanks to a suit brought by Evelyn Coke, home health workers will now have federal rights. Coke worked for most of her life in other people’s houses to make sure their bodies were clean, clothed, safe, and fed, but she never had the protection of the Fair Labor Standards Act. This moves her and her compatriots one step away from servants, and elevates them to the status of a McJob.

This major victory is one more step toward decency. Labor rights activists often work toward dignity, and I’m not sure we are there yet, but decency, yes. Home health aides link back to a tradition of capitalizing on the caring labor of racial minority women in homes by paying poorly or not paying at all for their service and sometimes-loving care. Racial minority women and particularly recent immigrant women have often been employed in informal labor arrangements that included extraordinarily long days, working over holidays, wages well below the minimum wage, and absolutely no access to recourse if they were treated unfairly. This act is one step away from that history.

The work that home health aides do is intimate, but working in the shadow economy has routinely put them in danger of exploitation, injury, and abuse. We talk about decent service, decent care, but until the passage of this law, we have not had the decency as a society to protect or even recognize the emotional, spiritual, psychological, and physical labor of the people who work in our homes and aide us in being people. Home health aides are the quiet assistants who ready us for living if we are recovering from an injury or need help with the activities of daily living and the management of disease. They ride buses, and drive their own cars to the homes of mainly elderly, but any person who needs some help to get through their day. They spend hours bent over, raising and turning bodies, cleaning sheets, changing clothes, ministering to others. Today they did not get their due. But they did move a giant step closer to being treated decently, which after all, is what we expect and ask from them everyday.

Last month’s decision will be remembered for years to come. It is a huge victory. Here’s hoping we use this moment of decency to honor, and begin to offer support for, the people who care for us during our most vulnerable stages of life.

Profiling Black and Latino Kids as “Ghetto Thug” Criminals

In this blog entry, Elaine Bell Kaplan, author of “We Live in the Shadow”: Inner-City Kids Tell Their Stories through Photographs, gives voice to her students who use the photovoice methodology in her book to tell their stories.

The deadly shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was on the minds of the 30 social workers at my book talk in late July.  They believed that George Zimmerman’s perception of Martin was provoked by the popular image of inner-city kids

That dehumanizing image as kid criminals certainly prevailed when I was growing up in Harlem. I remember thinking I was just like other kids who played Simon Says, Jumping Jacks and other street games. That idea was shattered by comments like, “those kids are playing street games today will be robbing us tomorrow.”  As an inner-city kid, I quickly learned that negative images tracked kids like me.

In fact, as I write in my book, inner-city kids “have been set apart and that there’s no will in this society to bring these kids into the mainstream.” A blogger, quoted in my book, responded to the question, “What should be done about these kids?” “Send them to Iraq!”

We Live_smI wrote We Live in the Shadow,” to look at the significant social problems faced by inner-city kids,

The group of seventy-four 12-15 year-olds interviewed in the book, attended after-school programs. The kids credited these programs with making them feel safe from the gangs and drug dealers that roam their neighborhoods.

In order to capture these kids’ sense of their world and not that of adults who usually write about them, I gave each a $5.00 disposable cameras and asked them to, “Take photos of whatever it is you want to tell me about your life. “

Instead of giving in to negative stereotypes, the kids used their cameras to capture another view of themselves. Thirteen-year-old Kyle put it best:

“Most ‘people see kids like me as inner-city–gang bangers.  I don’t wanna be a gang banger.  That judges me and how I act. I don’t do that stuff. It makes the community look pathetic.  Um, like some people say that, like where you live, says how smart you are how dumb. But I don’t think that’s possible because I live in, like, a pretty bad neighborhood, but I’m still, like a bright kid.”

The kids’ photos and stories of South Central neighborhoods revealed homes desperately in need of repair, rats in the lunchrooms, teachers who did not teach and bathrooms that were, ” messy, dirty, they stink.” As 12-year-old Jessica, said about her photo showing what she called the “filthy bathroom and unflushed toilet at my school.  Look at what we have to put up with. We get blamed for this, but nobody cleans it up.”  What did the kids learn from this experience: “Don’t go unless it’s an emergency.”

Unflushed toiletThirteen year-old Cesar’s photo of his family’s car led to a story of being carjacked and threatened by a gang.  Oscar’s photo of his father cooking Tamales led to stories of late-night dinners because parents worked late or had two jobs. Other photos showed kids working on homework in a classroom or wearing sweaters with a college logo —the kids’ way of showing their desire to well in school.

I had this conversation with Max, a student in one of my classes who had read my book.

“I could not help but feel like you were writing about me. Each turned page was like a memoir of my experiences at Los Angeles Unified School District public schools. The kids of this book and their stories are real. I am them, and they are me. Even though they are little bit younger than me, I understand their pain and frustration. I dreaded going to class each day. My school was like a dropout factory. It was extremely over-crowded, ridden with racial tension, violence, trash, and graffiti.”

The worst part of the matter was the collective of faculty and staff who seemed to care more about their selfish endeavors rather than teaching their students. Not to say that there were not good teachers.

Max said, “Maybe if the odds were not stacked so hard against us, we would all be scholars.” Instead, as the kids in my book said: “No matter what I do I will still considered to be a ghetto thug.”

The social workers and others I talked to agreed. For Trayvon Martin’s, Kyle, Max, and even me, there is no escape from being racially profiled. The bad news is that these kids can’t defend themselves from this assault. Nonetheless, I am excited that they knew to use photos to tell their stories.  Still, the key question remains, when will the rest of this society hear them?

Why Borders Should Not Be Barriers

In this blog entry, Jane Juffer, author of Intimacy Across Borders, considers immigration reform, and asks, “Is it necessary to link legalization to border security?”

I followed the recent Senate debates on immigration reform with a familiar sense of foreboding. Whatever cautious optimism I might have allowed myself early in the debates dissipated with each step of compromise and concession—the “path to citizenship” for 11 million undocumented people already in the U.S. coming with the very expensive price tag of $46 billion in border reinforcements.  The historical pattern continues: when Congress considers expanding opportunities for legalization, they must simultaneously show that they are “securing the borders” against too many brown people from the south.

Hence the border control amendment: 700 more miles of fencing and 20,000 more Border Patrol agents, double the current number. In addition: observation towers, fixed cameras, drones, helicopters and planes, mobile surveillance systems, seismic detectors and ground radar. Proponents claim this investment would lead to “100 percent situational awareness, or full monitoring along the 1,900-mile southern U.S. border, and 90 percent operational control, or a 90 percent apprehension rate of those seen crossing.” Such rhetoric seems intended to produce the kind of anxiety about national borders and security that followed 9/11, an especially opportunistic move since border crossings now are at an all-time low. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, for example, told ABC News in January that he would not support immigration reform without border reinforcement, based on his belief that the “porous” border could leave the U.S. “vulnerable to the sorts of attacks that we sustained on 9/11.” Even more egregiously, in the Washington Post, Iowa Rep. Steve King shamelessly used the Boston Marathon bombing to say that national security should be the focus now and that any talk about a path to legalization should be put on hold. “We need to be ever vigilant,” he said, echoing President Bush’s call for vigilance after 9/11 (which, in turn, became the motto of the Minutemen border vigilante group). Added King: “We need to go far deeper into our border crossings. . . .We need to take a look at the visa-waiver program and wonder what we’re doing. If we can’t background check people that are coming from Saudi Arabia, how do we think we are going to background check the 11 to 20 million people that are here from who knows where.”

King’s warning reveals that the border control amendment will affect the same people who will have the opportunity for legalization because it casts all immigrants under the same suspicious eye. The irony, even the hypocrisy, of the deal is that in order to recognize 11 million people who are already within the borders of the nation, it must cast aspersion on their home countries. In making immigration reform contingent on a further militarization of the border, the Senate reinforces the discourses and material effects of xenophobia derived from the categories of Us and Them—even as it proclaims the nation’s inclusion of those already here. These othering discourses affect people perceived to be Other whether are not they are legal; just ask Latinos in Arizona stopped by police under the auspices of the infamous SB 1070.

Intimacy Across Borders_smThis reliance on categorical ways of thinking is the very issue I challenge in Intimacy Across Borders, where I draw on the work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to explore the idea that face-to-face encounters between peoples of different cultural backgrounds has considerable potential to break down identity categories. In the towns that serve as the focus of the book—small agricultural communities in northwest Iowa—Latino migration has transformed previously all-Anglo populations. While racism and xenophobia do of course exist, the everyday encounters that characterize life in a small town are more often characterized by mutual concerns and the desire to build community: has there been enough rain for this year’s corn crop to flourish? What are the prospects for this year’s high school football team? How will the local elementary school accommodate the growing number of children in each grade? When I return to visit my parents and take my young son to the park, he is just as likely to play with a child who speaks Spanish as one who speaks English, or, more likely, one who speaks both. The congressional obsession with border security seems so far removed from this life.

Yet of course legalization would make a big difference to the large number of undocumented Latinos in these small towns. People who fear being stopped by police and asked for their licenses would have some peace of mind. The meat-packing plant and the dairy farmers would need to worry less about their workers being deported. Children would need to worry less about their parents being deported.

Why, then, given the seeming congressional recognition of these concerns (as well as benefit to the U.S. economy), is it necessary to link legalization to border security? It seems ultimately that the latter will undermine the effects of the former, as anyone who at one point came from south of the border could still be linked to the threat of terrorism. When will the need to construct racialized and feared categories of Others no longer serve as the basis for U.S. immigration policy?

Millennials come of age in immigrant families

In this blog entry, Evelyn Ibatan Rodriguez celebrates coming of age ceremonies and discusses what prompted her to write Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras

When I first pitched the project that has become Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras to my dissertation chair, the feminist in me worried that I might be judged as a phony because of my interest in traditions so associated with sparkles, poufy dresses, and curtsies.  Fortunately, my chair had just finished organizing her daughter’s bat mitzvah, so she didn’t need much persuading when I proposed studying “debuts” and “quinces” to better understand gender and American immigrant adaptation.  With this book, I now have the exciting opportunity to show readers how much more there are to debutantes and quinces than meets the eye.

Celebrating DebutantesIn some ways, this task seems more daunting today than when I started my fieldwork—a decade before Joel Stein lead Time readers to consider whether young adults are more entitled than ever or “will save the world” (2013).  And long before internet commenters blasted Ms. magazine for daring to call pop superstar Beyoncé a “fierce feminist” (2013).  But, amidst the hand-wringing over young people and what advocating for women’s equality should look like, Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras shows how some American immigrant families have managed to indulge their daughters without producing narcissists. These families observe old-world female coming-of-age traditions without imposing old-school limits on what females (and feminists) can be in a number of creative ways:

1.     They tie personal success to collective success.  Although female coming-of-age parties are framed as “for the girl,” the immigrants I studied organized these events as collective endeavors, designed to showcase the beauty and success of their families and cultures, as well as that of their daughters.  This requires celebrants to recognize what they want as inextricable from their parents’ and communities’ desires, needs, and goals, and, ultimately, it imparts a sense of responsibility for the well-being of those around them. This is remarkable when one considers that the majority of my subjects are “millennials,” teenagers who have been accused of being  more self-involved and significantly less civically and politically engaged than the generations before them.

2.     Debuts and quinceañeras also re-establish first-generation authority.   Viewers of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 and Quiero Mis Quinces (which paint debutantes and quinceañeras as teenage divas who control their parents via tantrums and manipulation) might be shocked that the immigrant parents I observed actually exercised a good degree of influence and control over their daughters.  During preparation for their events, for example, daughters often came to appreciate their near-total financial dependence on their parents.  And, by stressing the “tradition” aspect of their daughters’ celebrations, immigrants asserted themselves as “cultural experts” who their daughters needed to properly understand the traditions they were taking part in. This is vital for children of immigrants who are at risk of “downward assimilation.”  Inter-generational collaboration is also healthy for all youth because of how “cyberculture” has enabled many young adults to evade meaningful contact with anyone beside their peers, though healthy maturation requires youth to relate to older people and things.

3.     And quinces and debuts enable daughters to experience obstacles and figure them out.   Though these events allow some parents to establish greater authority over their kids, the immigrants I studied were not “Tiger” or “helicopter” parents.  In fact, the young women who experienced the best outcomes in my study were those who were granted some autonomy during their debut or quince preparation and performances.  Letting young women to take some financial and/ or organizing responsibilities and enabling them to respectfully voice their disagreement during planning helped cultivate leadership, money-management, communication, and conflict-management skills.  And these are all aptitudes those on either side of the Beyoncé-as-feminist debate should be able to agree are vital to women’s social, political, legal, and economic equality.

Of course there are other ways immigrant-organized debuts and quinceañeras avoid (and do not avoid) producing millennial narcissists and chauvinists.  Nevertheless,Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras should give the hand-wringers some pause—and maybe a little hope.  Because, as I write in the last pages of my book, the advancement of the communities I studied, and of our society in general, depends on how we enlarge our culture to accommodate diverse forms of expression—including feminists in sparkle dresses, being American and Filipino and/or Mexican at the same time, and learning to care for others by organizing a birthday party.

Finding “Home” Abroad

In this blog entry, Carol Kelley, author of Accidental Immigrants and the Search for Home, explains how women immigrating to foreign countries find a sense of belonging in their new homes.

A surprising story in the news last week concerned a Norwegian television program about, of all things, wood. Not just how to chop and stack wood, but how to burn it. Eight straight hours of this twelve-hour program consisted of nothing more than watching a fire burn. Broadcast on Norway’s primary television station, NRK, the show was popular – twenty percent of the Norwegian population watched at least part of the broadcast. The Norwegian interest in wood astounded American media outlets. The New York Times ran an in depth article, there was at least one mention on NPR, and Steven Colbert had a field day.

Cultural quirks and differences are fascinating, and many of us dream of travel and adventure in order to experience them first hand. Imagine, however, that you are Anna, a young Maori woman who has never experienced winter. You arrive in a small Norwegian town with your Norwegian husband where you will live, very possibly for the rest of your life. You look different, speak differently and cannot begin to engage in a conversation about wood fires, not to mention lutefisk or skiing. How will you learn to belong in this culture, and how long will it take? Will you ever truly feel “at home” here? Or will you forever be an “outsider”?

I first became interested in how immigrants find a sense of belonging and home in middle school. I became friends with Susan, who with her parents had escaped from Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968. I remember how confused Susan’s mother was about how to raise her adolescent daughter in the suburban Mid-west. While Susan was getting ready to leave the house, her mother would often pull me aside and ask questions: “Do your parents let you date? What time do you have to be home? How much time do you spend studying?” Even as a teenager I understood how eager my friend’s mother was to fit-in in her new American home.

I will never forget the beaming faces of this family on the day they became American citizens. The joy and pride they found in creating a new home for themselves radiated across the room. Years later own my sister immigrated to Norway, where she has now lived for nearly 30 years. Over time her feelings about living in Norway have fluctuated. Sometimes she seemed to love her life there, enjoying Norwegian culture and appreciating their commitment to social equality. At other times the weather, food and social rules felt oppressive. Eventually she realized that her search for a sense of belonging would not end, but would be a life-long process.

When I began to study anthropology, I pursued my growing interest in immigration, home and belonging. I worked with immigrant populations, researching the effect of social policies and exploring how effective programs can be created for their health care and education. My interest in the emotional, as well as the practical, aspects of immigration continued, and I began to research immigrant’s life histories. My sister’s experience had taught me that to understand issues of belonging and home, I would need to learn how immigrants’ feelings evolve over a long period of time.

Accidental Immigrants_smFor Accidental Immigrants and the Search for Home, I conducted in-depth interviews with four women, all of whom have lived in adopted countries for many years, including Anna. The results of the research surprised me. While all of the participants struggled with issues of belonging, not all faced that struggle abroad: two left home in the first place because they knew they would never belong in their country of origin. They discovered that a totally different culture could better support their values and worldviews.

Belonging is complicated. For some, it feels immediate in a new place, but never exists in their first home. For others it takes a lifetime to adjust to living away from early roots. The commonality is the striving to find a place to belong, and in the tension between commitments to two places. Arriving in the Turks and Caicos Islands a few years ago, I looked for the correct line to have my passport stamped. I expected to see designated lines for citizens and non-citizens. Instead, the signs read “Belongers” and “Visitors.” Despite my knowledge of Anna’s life and her feelings, I wondered: if the same signs existed in the Norwegian immigration line, which would she feel comfortable choosing? I suspect that her choice would be something she still had to contemplate, even after living away from New Zealand for most of her life. But one thing I am sure of – even though she loves Norway, and in many ways feels herself to be Norwegian – she wouldn’t be watching an eight-hour film of a wood fire.

Considering the lives of transnational adoptees

This week in North Philly Notes, Kristi Brian, author of Reframing Transracial Adoption, reflects on the assumptions commonly articulated by non-adopted people that rightly infuriate many adult adoptees.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow earlier this month to protest the adoption ban that prevents U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. Although the turnout was impressive (reported estimates range from 7,000 to 50,000 protesters) I have to wonder what really brought all these people out.  Are the protesters genuinely united for the sake of Russian children as much as they say they are? Do people feel that they honestly need to help preserve the interests of the mostly white, middle-class, U.S. adopters left with pending or halted adoptions? Of course, it’s not too tough to get folks to stand up for the sake of “poor, orphaned children,” but it’s especially easy if a critical mass of people stands practically “at the ready” to yell at the big state machinery that hasn’t done much for them lately. I suspect this was the predominant unifying element of the protesters and I certainly can’t blame dissidents for making the most of a “hot” moment to demonstrate their democratic freedoms. However, when it comes to rallying behind precious, romantic statements about the immensely better life adoptees are destined to have in the U.S., I urge caution.

Reframing Transracial AdoptionsmAs my research on transnational/transracial adoption from South Korea explains (see Reframing Transracial Adoption), “the better life in America” assumptions commonly articulated by non-adopted people rightly infuriate many adult adoptees. Many of the adoptees I spoke with helped me to understand their reality of navigating the imposition of gratitude that surrounds being “rescued” from a nation often implied as inferior.  While it is true that Russian adoptions into white U.S. families are often pursued as a way to avoid the racial component of adoption, questions of belonging, origins, and abandonment are nearly universal to all state-regulated adoptions.

Not only do we have a lot to learn from adult adoptee perspectives, but critically observing the rise and fall of massive adoption projects, such as Korean-American adoption (the first and longest-running form of transnational adoption) should allow nation-states to learn from one another’s mistakes. Korea went from being the world’s top “supplier” of children for adoption in the mid-1980s to a “sending nation” that is, at least to some degree, more conscious of the meaning and impact of that history. This change happened through internal and external criticism, and most notably, in recent years through the dedicated reform work of the Korean adoptees who have returned to Korea to help keep more Korean children in Korea.

While there may be heartache for families with their minds set on a particular child to “bring home,” I feel abundantly confident that criticism and worldwide scrutiny of transnational adoption serves us all. If nothing else, dramatic legislative actions such as the adoption ban should help us to fine tune our understanding of the relationship between family and the state. Perhaps it will make us ask us what the state has done for our family lately. Or what the role of the state should be in helping us form families. I suspect most of us would like to think of the state as an afterthought. It’s there when we need it otherwise we prefer to keep it out of our family matters. Yet for folks fighting like hell to have the state validate their most intimate, loving partnership as legitimate and legal, the family-state question becomes more vivid. Similarly, for those of us unfortunate enough to find ourselves facing the threat of losing our family members, acquiring them, or reuniting with them based on the intervening policies of a state (including policies of the child welfare system, the police force or the prison system) the power struggle can get ugly.

When it comes to your family or your government, who do you expect to win the power struggle? And in the case of transnational adoption, adopters’ vision for family must interface with the power and politics of two nations.  When the fate of our families becomes heavily determined by the “personalities” of two competitive capitalist nation-states (with many skeletons in both closets) both posturing as the top contender in human rights protections, we can only expect a stampede of contradictions to complicate our attempts at creating family intimacy.

My ethnographic research on adoptive families has led me to a position much like the one being voiced by Russia’s Children’s Rights Ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov. Astakhov has stated candidly at human rights hearings on adoption that the “hysterical warnings” about international adoptions being the best viable solution for Russian children only serves those seeking profit from adoption.

The fact of the matter is, as much as we hate to admit it, transnational adoption is a marketplace driven by and reflective of capitalist modes of production. The desires of white Americans and Europeans (predominantly) are the buyers in that marketplace interested in “giving” a better life to a child of their choice. Race does play a big role in which adoption programs adopters choose. Given this fact alone, transnational adoption offers us a chance to follow the advice of philosopher George Yancy as he urges us to shift our gaze (in Look, a White!) to assess the ways of white folks rather than simply accepting them as the way things ought to be done. Look a Whitesm

My book explores the actions of white adopters in Korea’s history with transnational adoption. But more importantly it highlights the work of the Korean adoptees who have critically observed adoptive family life in the U.S. as well as the politics of race, culture and statehood surrounding their adoptions. Although Korea has provided more children for overseas adoption than any other place in the world since 1955, Korea has dramatically reduced its numbers down to 627 adoptions to the U.S. last year. That is still a lot of children being transplanted through the complex bureaucracies of two national-states that cannot begin to attend to the life-long emotional realities of adoption. The more we see those numbers decrease in all “sending” countries, the better I feel about our abilities to create home-grown solutions to globalized problems that often masquerade as new ways to embrace superficial multiculturalism.

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