Sunday, October 27, 2013

No Capes! (An Ode to the brilliance of PIXAR)

First a public service announcement:
1. I am super safe (I realize the back-to-back posts of political protesting and death might convey a certain mood of danger + sad)
2. I am super happy

And now to transition to the creators of the greatest superhero movie ever... who doesn't love PIXAR? (This will all come full circle I promise). PIXAR seems to have this magical formula for tugging at your heartstrings... a secret code to unlock those smiles you reserve for small children and adorable puppies. I've seen grown men cry watching UP; sophisticated, too-cool-for-school Ive Leaguers cheer when Woody and his toy friends escape the clutches of an evil stuffed purple bear. 'Tis a gift - a unique ability to convey universal truths and cliches through an entirely new lens so it is both familiar yet impossible to dismiss.

I have always been able to pinpoint from afar why this or that development project didn't work... it's that organization's fault (Thunderhead was not the brightest bulb), with the assumption that surely I could have done it better. But what if I'm not a Superhero? What if the world doesn't need more Superheroes? More than anything, our work at Cristosal demands the ability for community members to give honest (tough-love type honest) feedback - when we are serving their needs, and especially when we're not.

And the tough part about being a Superhero is generally you're some kind of extraterrestrial freak coming to a world where you don't belong. That's why the movies work... Superman didn't have to conduct community diagnostics, Batman didn't do interviews with the women's association. Generally they were antisocial weirdos with a penchant for blowing stuff up, which sucks for the people in the movie, but it's great for those who bought the ticket.

At my current job (aka the Noah Bullock school of graduate development studies/nerd heaven) the major problemo is that most NGO's and aid orgs are first and foremost accountable to donors (aka movie goers), with no tried and true mechanisms for the marginalized communities they serve to provide feedback. Unlike markets or democracies, which measure effectiveness through dollars or votes received, the very nature of serving marginalized communities depends on finding a new feedback mechanism since the people you're working with often lack the money or political voice to demand good governance (hence marginalized).

I think it's about time I put my cape away. It doesn't work. Instead I have to find that uncomfortable balance between being a foreigner, just accepting, shutting up and listening, but also finding where my skill set can be of service. It's not a swoop-in-and-save-the-day-job, it's a slog-through-day-by-day-until-you-find-your-niche job. After all, the designers of PIXAR are successful for a reason. They know their audience. And we don't even know who they are - everyone has left the theater by the time those names roll across the screen. And I think that's what I resist most - the possibility that one day I'm not going to be famous, I won't be one of Time's 100 Most Influential People. For the first time, I'm realizing saving the world and making a difference are two very different things.

"True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others, at whatever cost."
- Arthur Ashe 

Monday, October 14, 2013

José Caleb Durán Gonzalez

I saw a man today. He was lying face-up on the ground outside of the National University. There was police tape around his body and I could see blood seeping in pools around his arms, under his neck… in the moments I took to walk past the policemen to the security gate, I wondered whether the red on the wall behind him was blood or graffiti.

I found the press release. His name is José Caleb Durán Gonzalez. He was 28, stabbed to death outside the main entrance to the University. He was a vendor – he sold jewelry to students as they walked by.

But all I can think is he has family. He… I don’t know him. I don’t know what he was like, or what he dreamt about or what his favorite food was. I only know it doesn’t matter anymore. But it should. He should be alive.

I feel empty. As if only now I’m realizing every news reel, every novel, every Hollywood film – essentially the social world I swim in – has been a lie. Because it made me believe I could handle seeing a dead body. It made me believe that when I finally came face to face with someone my age, someone dressed like my brother, lying there in the street, the victim of some brutal attack and left in the open for the public to observe, to walk by, to gape at… but just left there, nameless, breathless, and unequivocally dead, unequivocally murdered… that I wouldn’t feel much. And it was one big fat lie.

I curled up on the bathroom floor hugging my knees, wanting to scream but instead I just cried, harder than I’ve cried missing my mom or my friends, harder than I’ve cried when I’ve been frustrated, when I thought someone didn’t like me… I cried because I don’t understand. I don't want to understand, to accept this like something that just happens. To make jokes about it or mask it as something other than it is. So instead, I am just going to share. To share what I saw, what I feel, and hope in some small way we stop taking these things for granted. So when they put up numbers in the newspapers totaling thousands, hundreds of thousands of deaths, we grasp them not as numbers. But kids. Sons, vendors, people with lives. Not bodies.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Tutela Legal

If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost.

On Sunday I attended a rally at the National Cathedral to support a policy called Tutela Legal. Tutela Legal was a policy started by Archbishop Oscar Romero, an incredible man comparable to Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States, only he was assassinated much more recently back in 1980.

Something you should know about El Salvador if you don’t already (I certainly didn’t): Before and during the Salvadoran Civil War, at least 75,000 civilians were killed. Civilians. Mothers, kids, fathers, students, innocent bystanders indiscriminately murdered, often through organized massacres on the part of the Salvadoran military and indirectly the US. The war ended in 1992. I was three years old.

(There is an excellent PBS Documentary that speaks more about the war and the US’ involvement: Enemies of War).

I realize this is not the usual chipper tone of my blog, but what I’ve had to acknowledge the past few weeks is that this is real. It’s not dramatic, it’s not over-the-top, it is very recent history. A good friend of mine here, only a few years older than me, remembers seeing bodies hanging in city centers or lying facedown in the streets.

Tutela Legal was created by Archbishop Romero to document all the instances of human rights abuses that occurred during and after the Civil War. So far, a pathetic few have been convicted because of an Amnesty Law the President created soon after the Civil War ended, in the name of “reconciliation.” Lawyers have been pushing for the repeal of this Amnesty Law on the grounds of unconstitutionality (and generally blatant corruption and injustice), and it looks like they might succeed! Here’s the problem… the current Archbishop decided that last week would be an excellent time to close the Tutela Legal office and take all these public records and suddenly make them unavailable. Because he can. Without this evidence, those guilty of committing these murders, organizing and ordering the massacre of thousands, cannot be called to account for their crimes. Perhaps more importantly, families of the disappeared stand no chance of finding out what happened to their loved ones.

I joined thousands on Sunday to protest the Archbishop’s actions, surrounded by batucadas (groups of Brazilian drummers), young academics with large painted signs, groups of women dressed in purple who had traveled hours to represent their small village in Usulután… We encircled the cathedral in a large abrazo (hug) just as the Archbishop was beginning his morning mass, holding hands and chanting Queremos obispos a lado de los pobres! (We want Bishops who stand on the side of the poor!)

And we will also rob your history!

Respect for the victims, the archives, and the employees of Tutela Legal!

People carry signs of Archbishop Romero and other martyrs during the rally.

There is much the international community can do. The Archbishop continues to ignore the calls of the public, but he cannot ignore his own Church. If you feel moved to act, please contact your Bishop and ask him to send a letter to the Pope condemning the closure of the Tutela Legal Office. It may seem like a tiny action, but if there is anything I have learned in the last few weeks (or from the Little Mermaid), it is to never abandon my voice, no matter how small it may seem.

Thank you for reading,

Get new posts by email!