Archive for the ‘observations’ Category

Learn to just say no

Tonight I opened Google Reader for the first time in over a month. I hoped that the feed reader had not exploded with the over 100 feeds I subscribe to. The sight of the 1000+ articles sitting there awaiting my perusal inspired me to do something that I don’t do often enough: say no. I have now dumped half of these feeds. It simply was too overwhelming and frankly ridiculous of me to think that I could consume that much information on a daily basis. It is an ongoing negative habit of mine: take on more and more responsibility until I drive myself crazy.

I miss reading and talking about public health now that my brain is constantly occupied with nonprofit management and education due to AmeriCorps. I love what I do everyday but I know that the issues that I really want to explore are in public health and not education. I did not realize how difficult it would be to devote myself to both disciplines this year.

After reading on change.org about the amazing strides that Frontline: SMS has made in advancing mobile health in Malawi, I knew that I wanted to jump back in. Reading and writing about public health will bring back some of the excitement I felt about going to grad school. I have gotten in to Emory and Johns Hopkins so I definitely need to step up my game so that I will be ready next fall.

The True Meaning of Service

I came across a memo from the Heritage Foundation entitled “How Americans Can Provide Real Public Service.” The memo agrees with Obama’s proposals to expand service programs such as AmeriCorps and Peace Corps except the following key differences:

  1. They encourage the wrong motivations for volunteering;
  2. They confuse government work with public service; and
  3. By centralizing control, they reduce the individual and community empowerment that fosters public spiritedness.

I completely disagree with this characterization of service as it perpetuates a romanticized version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand of charity.

1. The author assumes that financial incentive is the only reason why people participate in government service programs. From my personal experience and from others I have met who have participated in these programs, I would have to strongly disagree. The money that AmeriCorps and Peace Corps members receive is technically not considered an income but rather a living stipend. Without this stipend, Corps members would not have the time and resources to fully devote their time to improving the communities that they are serving in. Furthermore, it is faulty logic to assume that altruistic motivation is a necessary quality to volunteer and that financial incentive either eliminates or repels altruistic motivations.

If the author of the memo had read some of the research done regarding the impact of AmeriCorps, he would have seen that the majority of AmeriCorps members increase volunteering the communities they serve in and continue to volunteer after their term of service and often enter into public service and similarly related careers. If that is not an increase in volunteering, they I do not know what you would call it.

2. It is a tragedy that hundreds people are turned away due to lack of funding. This rate of refusal is not an indication that members work for bureaucracies but rather the type of relationship that AmeriCorps members have with the community they serve is not directly exchangable through weekend volunteering. Once again, this is a question of committment, particularly in the case of AmeriCorps VISTA members who are assigned to a specific organization to build capacity within the organization to better serve the community. While short-term volunteering opportunities such as helping in food banks and mentoring children are needed and essential, some of the long-term activities that AmeriCorps members do are not and can not be done in a part-time capacity. Nonprofit organizations may lack the funding, expertise or manpower to complete these activities which are vital to the survival and improvement of the organization. AmeriCorps members help to meet these needs of the organizations that participate.

3. Expansion of service programs will meet the needs of organizations and communities that are currently slipping through the cracks. This expansion is not an intrusion but rather a way of coordinating matches between the needs of organizations and the interests of volunteers. Participation on the organizations’ part has and will remain voluntary. AmeriCorps members will learn to adapt their approach to the needs and ways of the communities that they serve in. It seems to be a rather extreme approach to assume that the ability of a community to better themselves is compromised or even eliminated due to the addition of a so-called “inhabitant.”

AmeriCorps members are not puppets for the federal government to make them do as it pleases. I would think that someone who had faith in “the civic force that is the American citizen” would have enough faith to see that people wanting to serve would put the community’s best interests before their own or anyone else’s.

Listening is essential; so is speaking

I call my grandmother every week and talk about how things are going. Yesterday, we were talking about el crisis de julio. I told her about the meeting that I went to with a group of patients to meet with the authorities from the department of health. The meeting was supposed to be an opportunity for the authorities to explain to the patients rationally why they wanted to pursue the chosen course of action. One official in particular continually lied about the clinic and the staff that worked there. His comments had crossed the line of simple political posturing, so I called them what they were to his face: lies.

My grandmother told me that it’s best to be diplomatic in situations like the one I found myself in.  I told her that diplomacy is great but sometimes you need to point out that the emperor has no clothes on. No amount of euphemisms does anyone good. For a current example, look at how mainstream media is struggling to deal with the blatant and continued lies of the McCain/Palin campaign.

Any article or author that addresses social media almost certainly emphasizes the importance of listening, which is a really critical skill for taking advantage of the power of social media. There are countless tools to use to stay involved in conversations that concern your personal and organizational interests.

There does come a point where you should speak up. The circumstances may create that perfect storm of awareness, dedication, and resources that enable major changes. It may be a question of addressing injustice or moving the general public from complacency to action. You could put a spotlight on global poverty as an election year issue or highlight the human impact of living on one dollar a day. Knowing when and how to make yourself heard is a critical skill for moving from ideas to action.

My digital pensieve and hopefully a clean slate

It literally feels as though my head is too full of concerns and anger over some things that I have not felt the desire to blog. I truly miss writing but when my fingers hit the keyboard, no words appear on the screen. So I took a cue from a fellow BC blogger, and I decided to share what is on my mind so that I can start with a clean slate. Here are a few of the most pressing worries and frustrations.

*Extra cool points for those who understand the title reference. If not, read about it here.

1) Hurricane Ike

As some of you may know, I’m from Texas, north of Houston specifically. My eyes have been glued to every online storm tracker and news article about this storm for the last few days. I have spoken with my family and they feel they are prepared. But it is hard to be out of the country and feeling helpless to do anything. Although this is most pressing worry at the moment, I will feel better once the storm passes this weekend with hopefully everything being alright.

2) Leaving Argentina

I am leaving Argentina to return to the States at the end of this month. Due to the remaining effects of the events of July, I abandoned my initial project idea for this new idea of creating a council of patients to leverage their self-mobilization efforts. The largest problem is finding a way to institutionalize their meetings given all the challenges that each of the patients faces in their daily lives: work, transportation costs and time. I am trying to find way to ensure the sustainability of the group, but with the time crunch and the logistical challenges, I am not sure how it will end.

3) Nervousness about returning to the States

As much as I was scared to admit it to myself, I am a bit nervous about returning to the States. Aside from the reverse culture shock, which I have been through before without wallowing in it, this will be my return to the “real world” aka full-time work. I have loved volunteering this last year, both for seeing first hand the impact of my work as well as the freedom that I have to put my ideas into action. That will certainly change when heading back to the workplace, but I am trying hard to find a compromise.

4) Frustrations with the government’s response to a flailing economy

Billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to bail out dysfunctional, incompetent, and borderline unethical companies? Another major investment bank in need of the federal government to broker a bailout? However, no help for the consumers who have lost their homes due to corporations that preyed on the poor to turn a quick profit with specious financial instruments. I can’t wait for this administration to leave office.

5) Mainstream media’s inability to actually provide balanced and substantive coverage of the campaigns

If I see the phrase “lipstick on a pig” or on any other animal, I might scream. Why is mainstream media apparently incapable of covering issues of substance rather than stories covered to raise ratings and readership? Why is John Stewart better at fact checking candidates and their surrogates? Why, when a presidential campaign decides to silo their vice presidential candidate, does the media not cry foul play?

I feel better already after writing this down.

Traveling without knowing the destination

One of my favorite parts about traveling, especially if I am staying for more than a few days, is that inevitable moment when you realize some daily practice or activity is missing or is profoundly different in the country you are in. Let’s call it a Well, Duh moment. I’m not thinking of something as obvious as language or what side of the road to drive one.

Walking in downtown Maputo is like being in an obstacle course; the pavement disappears sometimes for several blocks and you walk on the red earth instead. Except the red earth is covered with all sorts of litter. Worn-away sidewalks are understandable; Mozambique has other more urgent budget priorities. However, that Well, Duh moment arrived when I had a Coca Cola bottle I wanted to throw away while I was walking. Only I realized that there were NO trashcans. The reason the street was full of trash among other things is that there were no public trashcans and very few dumpsters. Trash is not just an aesthetic problem. It attracts insects like mosquitoes that carry malaria and attracts rodents which carry lots of other diseases.

Just last week while walking to work, I wound my way through the maze of parked cars at every intersection. Double parking is virtually a requirement as there are far too many cars in this city, especially considering the size of the streets. The Well Duh moment arrived when I realized there are no parking meters in La Plata nor are there any painted lines or signs defining when and how to park. Parking tickets are a minor annoyance in most American cities but they are also a source of revenue for the city. Given the admittedly pathetic budget of the municipal health department, I do not think anyone would disagree with more city revenue.

I saw this TEDTalk with Hans Rosling that is just one big Well Duh moment.

Why does the developed world expect the developing world to accomplish in 50 years what took the developed world 100 years to achieve? Is the end goal of international development that all countries are like those of the developed world? The development model in this respect may be too linear and rigid to account for the history of countries like Mozambique and Argentina. Developing countries are not “there” yet but their destination may look different than that of a developed country.