I cradled my warm, bruised summer between my hands and let its velvet tickle my lips. I smelled it. I felt its weight. I considered its pre-dusk colors.
Then I bit it.
It didn’t taste exactly the way summer should. Of course, I reminded myself, what else should I expect from the New Jersey peaches sold in September at Union Square for two dollars a pound? The humid gauze of the not-quite-genuine seemed to obscure this whole side of the country. Still, I was disappointed.
I walked through the park, killing time before an interview with a real estate firm, searching without conviction for a place to sit. Benches lined the paved path, and they were mostly full of people pretending not to stare at each other. I saw a man who was sitting backwards, with his feet through the gap of the bench where his lower back should have been. His head was buried in his crossed arms, which were perched on top of the back of the bench. I didn’t know whether he was sleeping or mourning. But I capitalized on the fact that New Yorkers don’t want to sit next to weirdos, and I took the vacant seat beside him.
Across from us, a woman took a picture of her daughter using a cell phone. On the next bench over, a graying man with his hands folded in his lap rocked forward and backward, as if he were on a ship. He wore Nike Airs and a short-sleeved, collared shirt with two badges sewn on to the front.
If another people-watcher had been looking at me, they would have dismissed me as common. Many New Yorkers know the story firsthand: suburban-grown, well-off kid trades roots and memories for the anonymity of the big city. Feigns independence. Looks for work. A group of young people walked by with expensive clothes and faces sharp with scorn. I looked at my feet, embarrassed by them. I reminded myself that just because I wanted a job didn’t mean I deserved one.
So I finished my peach and licked my fingers as I walked to the office building. I immediately took refuge in the bathroom. There, I went through my routine: I changed from tennis shoes into pumps, smoothed my hair, tucked in my shirt, reapplied my makeup, and fastened my clip earrings. Drew calls it “getting into the zone,” but it feels more like self-preservation than inspiration. I glanced at myself in the mirror. There was the gauze again, hiding imperfections and declaring the image illegitimate. It hung in the air between my reflection and me like a veil or a cobweb. That’s my game face. The one you would never recognize.
One of the best things about this apartment so far is our hilarious neighbor. I made ginger snaps as soon as I moved in, and I was determined to deliver a plate of them to everyone in the vicinity. So one night, Drew and I walked across the patio to the next door neighbor's apartment. I'll call him Alonso. All I knew about him was that he was a retired contractor. After calling "who is it?" through his patio door he emerged in a furry, emerald green bathrobe.
"I'm sorry, I was only wearing my pajamas," he said to us with a thick New Jersey accent. He sounded like the mafia, but his hand was soft as I shook it and introduced myself. A curl of an old-fashioned comb-over pointed towards his Italian nose. He invited us in to his sitting room, which was decorated with Elvis plates, a jukebox, and a retired wooden carousel horse. He put the cookies on the coffee table and immediately began narrating his wall decorations to us.
"This is my other house, it was built in 1855, the oldest house on Baldwin street. And here's the original wooden hitching post from the old hospital, they asked my father to remove it so he brought it right into the front yard here, it has loops on it to tie your horses to." We nodded and smiled. I thought, nothing is that old in Oregon. He took it as encouragement and progressed to the next room.
A young man with a full, flushed face smiled at us from a frame above the kitchen table. "And this is my son who passed away, committed suicide eleven years ago or something, and it comes back to me every day of my life." We murmured apologies, stricken by the closeness of this near-stranger's grief. Alonso waved his hand toward the kitchen. "And I have a lot of stuff in there. I have so much stuff in this apartment," he said, scooting past me toward the bedroom. "Even more on Baldwin street. Historical stuff. Valuable." He walked past the framed Van Gogh print that he must have picked up at the Met. It was a hysterically tilted landscape done near the end of Van Gogh's life. It looked like a poor-quality print, but it was actually quite true to life: Van Gogh's palette was muted, at that point, by the heavy medications that kept the painter calm in the luxurious asylum to which his brother Theo had relegated him. Alonso swept by it before I had time to say anything but a vague compliment.
The bedroom was dark and tidy, dominated by a huge portrait of a woman in a green victorian-style dress. "Who is that?" Drew asked. I assumed it was his grandmother, but Alonso told us it was his girlfriend of twenty-six years. "She's beautiful," I said, and it was true. It was an old-fashioned, permed, demure beauty. The historic clothing that she was posed in was a puzzle. So was the Christmas tinsel wrapped around its ornate gold frame. On the wall next to it was a charcoal portrait of Alonso himself, perhaps a decade younger. He told us the name of the painter who had done all the portraits. "He's real well-known."
Finally, Drew said we had to get going, and Alonso followed us out onto the porch. He warned us that he was often out there sweeping, and we told him that if he needed help, he could always ask. Perhaps the following choice anecdote was inspired by his indignation over the thought of needing help with sweeping the porch.
"I've never been sick a day in my life," he said. "But last week I had a colonoscopy or something, you know the doctor just said, 'Alonso, you've never had one, and you're seventy-five, so we just have to check.' So I got it, and the results came back a hundred percent perfect. And the doctor said, 'Alonso, how do you do it?' So I told him my secret. Here's the secret: my mother fed me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day of my life. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches." He leaned forward, gauging our reactions. We nodded. "That and chocolate. You know, chocolate. 'That's great,' says the doctor, 'that's very good for you, peanut butter and chocolate, they're some of the best things you could ever eat! But what do you do?'"
Alonso paused for dramatic effect. Then, like a scientist presenting his life's work, he said: "Peanut butter and jelly, chocolate, and sex. Never been sick a day in my life."
We chuckled, and promised to take his advice to heart, and backed towards our half of the porch as he repeated his choice advice again. "See you later! Have a nice night!" we called, and barely made it into our apartment before bursting into laughter. Peanut butter and jelly, chocolate, and sex. It was the best advice we'd ever heard. We'd just settled down again when our doorbell rang.
Alonso was at the door. He had a half-eaten cookie in his hand.
"I just had to come and tell you, these cookies are fantastic! They turn me right on!"
I promised to bring him more next time I made a batch. He thanked me and waved before rushing back across the porch (ostensibly to eat another cookie) with his head down and his arms swinging, the way people hurry in New York City, resplendent in his comb-over and green bathrobe.
It took a lot of deliberation before Drew and I decided to go down to Occupy Wall Street. What did they stand for? Who was pulling the strings? Were the protesters really committed to nonviolent action? Did we want to put our support behind such an unpredictable movement? Since its inception, the protest has become more focused on income equality and economic justice, but at the beginning, it seemed like a wild card. We were torn between a mixture of concern for the future of the movement, frustration with the impact of unemployment in our own lives, and an ever-increasing curiosity about what was happening in Zuccotti park.
So we went with a group of fellow students to scope it out. The first sign we saw, which said “WALL STREET = NAZIS,” hung over us like a bad omen as we crossed Wall Street and approached the park. It reminded us of the Tea Party, and of Glenn Beck’s particular breed of “Nazi Tourette’s.” But as we entered the park, we read a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. which was painted on a bed sheet and spread out in front of the steps. We soon realized that for every crazy slogan, there were ten more signs that were more thoughtful and profound. The park was so crowded that it was hard to walk through. There was litter on the ground and chaos in the air, and at that point, the only organized part of the neighborhood seemed to be the laundry bins. But everyone was friendly, and as we left the park, the sheet with Martin Luther’s words seemed spread like a red carpet, waiting for justice to arrive.
We went home. We did more research. The next week, we returned, this time with signs of our own, ready to participate in General Assembly. We thought it would be some sort of march, but it turned out to be a legislative session. We were still able to participate, though, because the moderators explained their process before beginning to address the agenda items. It became clear that many participants in this movement were trained in nonviolent communication and the art of consensus.
I’m no stranger to consensus. It’s a decision-making system that requires everyone to agree before any action is taken. I lived in a co-op during my senior year of college, and I remember how long it took to get fifty-six college students to agree on quiet hours, let alone room assignments. Consensus is designed for a group of less than twenty people— my co-op stretched the system to what we thought was its limit. But Occupy Wall Street took it to a whole new level. Unfortunately, as the number of people involved rises, the system’s efficiency plummets exponentially. Compound this issue with the painstaking human microphone, and it’s a recipe for frustration.
That being said, the General Assembly that night was marginally productive. The purchase of plastic storage bins to organize and clean up the park was approved, after the amendment to buy fair-trade bins was removed (not because people disagreed, but because fair trade storage bins do not exist). The occupiers persisted with the process, as if they were patiently dealing with a younger sibling. There were eye-rolls and sighs, but more smiles than frowns. An atmosphere of revelry persisted. At the edges of the crowd, drums were beating and people were dancing.
They also discussed their need for a rented commercial kitchen space, but decided to do more research about the legal details before pursuing it. The Occupy Wall Street kitchen is providing three meals each day for whoever shows up in Zuccotti park. Political agenda aside, this movement has become a great resource for Manhattan’s most vulnerable residents. We left the park that day hoping that the meal program would continue, even after the NYPD or the coming cold weather would force the protesters to break camp.
We were back again several weeks later, giving a tour to out-of-town guests. Since the initial push to clean up the park, things had become more organized. We read their newspaper, marveled at their bicycle-powered computer charger, and took pictures of an enormous piece of political installation artwork, called the Stock Market Slot Machine. Despite obvious improvements to their quality of life, many of the protesters seemed solemn. The drums had simmered down, and an emergency meeting had been called to address recent charges of sexual predation among the protesters.
“I have experienced rage,” we heard one woman say through the human microphone, “about the harassment in this community.” Surprisingly, most of the attendees at this emergency meeting were young males. Ideas about how to start a neighborhood watch were thrown around, but as far as we could see, no real consensus was reached. The atmosphere was more unhinged and militant than it had been the first night we took part in consensus.
Later on that week, reports of occupiers surrounding, chastising, and chasing from the park those accused of sexual violence called into question the sanity of the movement. Why weren’t the police called? Because the police have become a symbol for what this movement is fighting against, perhaps even more so than Wall Street itself. The escalating brutality between police officers and protesters is my main cause of concern as the movement continues. However, there are other issues as well: in Zuccotti park, will the stratification between “homeless bums” and “whiny, rich college students” tear the movement’s voice apart? When the frustration of consensus chases away the more reasonable protesters, will those who are left be able to fairly represent the ninety-nine percent?
And what about that ninety-nine percent idea, anyway? U.S. citizens make up only 5.49% of the world population, but hold 21.67% of the world’s wealth. In light of these facts, the only way we can call ourselves the 99% is by assuming a degree of ethnocentrism that seriously contorts reality.
Still, I’m thankful that Occupy Wall Street has brought job creation and income equality to the forefront of our national conversation. Working six part time jobs and still not making living expenses is one thing when you’re young, healthy, and without dependents… but I can’t imagine doing it indefinitely. Something’s got to change.
This month I've been working hard to develop new web content for UMCOR, and I've been learning about many of the big issues facing our world, how they are interconnected, and what people can do to help. Food Sovereignty is an issue that I'm particularly interested in. Consider this a sneak peek-- when the new site goes live, I'll let you know!
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food.”
--The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 25
UMCOR advocates for the right to food. However, simply distributing emergency food supplies is not enough. People need to be able to grow their own food. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the Ethiopian government is selling millions of hectares of arable land to transnational corporations, even though 38% of the population lives below the poverty line without adequate nutrition. Agricultural communities are being forcibly uprooted and moved to less fertile lands to make room for big business. The food grown henceforth will be exported to wealthy countries while local farmers starve. Due to the corruption of lawmakers, this is a common plight in developing countries. To ensure that everyone has lasting and sustainable food security, we must engage in the fight for food sovereignty.
“The right to food is not about charity, but about ensuring that all people have the capacity to feed themselves in dignity.”
UMCOR strengthens food sovereignty and ensures food security by providing training to farmers through the Sustainable Agriculture and Development project. UMCOR also partners with the Food Resource Bank (FRB). This ecumenical organization helps American farmers donate a share of their crops to raise money for small-holder agricultural development abroad. FRB provides women, children, and other vulnerable members of society with seed, tools, small herd animals, building materials, rain catchers, training, and agriculture extension help. In addition, UMCOR supports the US Food Sovereignty Alliance. This group of US organizations advocates for food sovereignty around the world.
"All people have the right to healthy, culturally appropriate food produced in an ecologically sound manner."
--Founding Document of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance
I have learned to keep up appearances as a young professional. I know that I've been successful in this regard because these days when people meet me, they immediately ask, "What do you do?" instead of "What do you study?" When I first moved to New Jersey, I would say things like, "Well, I just graduated from college, so I'm piecing together part time work," and it would turn into a five-minute conversation, rife with confusion about how one person can do so many different things at once. So I've forsworn that complicated answer. Now I just say, "I'm a writer."
It's true! I really am! Not only do I write, but I get paid to write. Between all of my different jobs, I spend nearly 40 hours a week writing. And then the things that I write get sent out to cyberspace for the whole world to read (okay, just the people who regularly check United Methodist agency websites). I'm pretty sure that counts: I'm a writer.
I'm still, of course, waiting for certain things to happen. Such is the lot of the newly-employed. But, I can always look to The Great Writers to see where a few promotions will lead me:
Which just proves that if you follow your dreams, anything is possible!
I'm kidding, don't worry. There's a big difference between the people who write the classics, and the people who write the normal stuff that gets read every day. Professional nonfiction is, in many ways, a more compelling goal. Perhaps I will learn to write grants, which are both respectable and lucrative. Anyway, I believe that the truth is more strange and wonderful than fiction could ever be. The stories I love the most are ones that have actually happened, either to me or to people close to me. If I ever manage to publish a work of fiction, you can rest assured that it's thinly-veiled nonfiction.
In the meantime, if you are curious about my recent writing projects, you can find them online!
Out of every dollar donated to Invisible Children, only 27 cents go to Africa. Charity doesn’t have to be like this. Imagine No Malaria, a campaign of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), is committed to sending 100% of your donation to the people in need. What’s more, Imagine No Malaria is working with local partners to empower them and ensure that the money is spent on issues that they prioritize.
I remember the first time I saw an Invisible Children film. It was ten years ago, and I was at my church youth group. As soon as the movie ended, my best friend and I used the church office’s desktop to type up a letter of concern to our elected officials. (Even at age thirteen, we were total nerds.) We printed out two dozen copies, forced every youth group member to sign one, addressed and stamped each envelope by hand, and took them to the post office the next morning. My generation is big on instant gratification, but when it comes to social justice, that can mean instant follow-through on issues that matter to us. It’s no wonder that Invisible Children’s most recent video targets the social media crowd. Invisible children specializes in making horrifying videos that produce strong emotional responses and garner immediate support.
The Kony 2012 campaign’s recent Facebook hype has inspired thousands of young people to send help, yet the backlash has left them disillusioned. Invisible Children responded to criticism, stating that in the past five years, 80.46% of its income was used for “programs that further our three fold mission.” (16.24% was spent on administration, and the other 3.22% was used for fundraising.) But it gets worse: the three fold mission is building awareness (i.e. advertising), large scale advocacy (i.e. lobbying), and “programs on the ground in the LRA-affected areas to provide protection, rehabilitation and development assistance.” A third of the money allocated to programs goes towards each goal. Using only the information from Invisible Children’s press release, we can see the following breakdown. For every dollar donated, Invisible Children spends:
Even more troubling than the allocation of funds is the underlying message of the 30-minute promotional video: Africans, without the international support of rich white kids, are helpless to defend themselves against violent criminals. “Our agency has been hijacked for far too long,” writes TMS Rouge of Project Diaspora, “by well-meaning Western do-gooders.” He’s not talking about a government agency; he’s talking about agency as the ability to accomplish something. He points out that Ugandans today are more likely to die in road accidents than in LRA raids, and Malaria is a much bigger threat to most children. “The world should be helping us live on our own terms, by respecting our agency to choose which battles to put capacity towards.” In other words, before you give, ask what people need!
This is exactly what the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) does. Local organizations in the areas where aid is given are UMCOR’s most important, respected partners. UMCOR seeks input from them before, during, and after each project. And UMCOR hires local people to run its programs on the ground, thereby empowering people and strengthening local economies instead of reinforcing the racist and classist stereotype that white men know best. Because of the widespread local concern about malaria, UMCOR partnered with campaigns like Nothing But Nets to have the maximum impact in the fight against this terrible disease.
But it turns out that people need more than nets. They need education about how and why to use nets. They need healthcare for people who are already affected. And they need to eliminate stagnant water near their homes, which is a breeding ground for the Anopheles mosquito which carries this disease. So UMCOR started the Imagine No Malaria campaign. This holistic program does more than manage the symptoms of the disease. It prevents infection, educates high-risk communities, improves access to treatment, and increases communication between key players. Most of this is achieved by locals hired by UMCOR, thereby empowering people and strengthening local economies instead of reinforcing the racist and classist stereotype that white men know best.
Even though UMCOR is a ministry of the United Methodist Church, it does not proselytize. Aid is offered to anyone who needs it, regardless of race, religion, political party, gender, and sexual orientation. What’s more, when you donate to Imagine No Malaria, 100% of your donation goes directly to these projects. This is because UMCOR’s administrative costs (which are kept under 10% of the total budget) are covered by a yearly “One Great Hour of Sharing” offering at United Methodist churches around the globe. That means that when you give, UMCOR can spend that money how you want it to.
Sounds too good to be true, right? How do you know it’s not another scam? First of all, no one is paying me to write this blog post. (I write weekly articles on UMCOR’s Global Health programs, but this one is off the clock. UMCOR itself is too chivalrous to openly criticize another organization, so this article represents only my personal views.) Secondly, the American Institute of Philanthropy gives UMCOR an “A” for excellent financial responsibility. But don’t take my word for it. Go look it up. I’m worried that the only message our young people will take away from this Kony 2012 campaign is that they can’t trust charities. The truth is that charitable organizations are just like people: some are more honest than others. And investing in the future through gifts to charity is just like any other investment: you have to think critically and do your research to get it right.
It’s easy to fight against Joseph Kony because it’s easy to be horrified by what he does to children. We see his face, we see the faces of his victims, and we forget about the relative scale of this problem. If we saw the faces of malaria, would we be inspired to act? Ninety percept of people affected are women and children. Without access to treatment, they suffer from fever, chills, headaches, sweats, fatigue, nausea, coughing fits, muscle pain, impaired brain function, and seizures. Malaria is completely preventable and treatable, and yet a child dies from this disease every 45 seconds. Does this horrify us enough to spur us into action? And, once we are convinced that something must be done, are we smart enough to put our money where it will make the biggest difference?
My newest painting was inspired by my experience swimming with wild spinner dolphins in Hawaii:
It's two feet by four feet, acrylic on canvas, and it's for sale!
Copyright 2011 Julia Kayser. Contact me with questions or comments.