Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Government Meets Grassroots

Yay! now where are the jobs? Answer you politicians!

I have always been a big proponent of grassroots work leading to systematic change in policy.  Unfortunately, these two aspects do not intersect often enough; with there being a major disconnect between what takes place in congressional meetings and what is actually occuring on the ground, in our neighborhoods and communities.
Congresspeople on stage

Recently however, I have been attending meetings and open houses where members of the Obama administration and members of Congress have directly came out to hear the stories and issues that are occurring everyday in our communities. I am aware that these efforts may be related to re-election purposes, but regardless I think that listening to the concerns of communities is a step in a direction towards positive systemic change.
Congressman Mike Honda!
Last week I attended a Speakout for Good Jobs event, which was a townhall type meeting with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Raul Grijalva and Congressman Mike Honda (my favorite congressman!). The event was held in a massive church/worship space where members of the community lined up to speak about their grievances and concerns regarding employment, or more accurately, unemployment.

woman fighting for the rights of the disabled
And there were LOTS of grievances.
I didn't speak, though I have a lot to say from my personal experience about unemployment, but it was a valuable experience for me to attend something like this. I never attended a open house with congress members and I honestly wish that there could be more of these events. The people with the most concerns and the greatest need for help are most often the ones who are being silenced. These events allow members of the community to speak up, but is it enough?
Activist, community leader and best friend, Nwe Oo
I also attended another event last Thursday, where a collection of leaders from the local Burmese community  met with Daphne Kwok, Chair of President Barack Obama's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders, in downtown Oakland (to read additional info about the event, read this great article written by Oakland Digital, our gracious hosts). Many of the community leaders were refugees or were speaking on behalf of the Burmese refugee community in Oakland. Again, much of the rhetoric dealt with lack of jobs for refugees, the economy and problematic budget cuts that dealt serious blows to the well beings of high need individuals and families. The meeting was packed, with community members spilling onto the sidewalk outside the room. Different leaders took turns to
speak. Tluang Salai, a refugee from the Chin ethnic community and an advocate with the non-profit organization Catholic Charities relayed the problems faced by the Chin people of Burma, especially since the numbers of Chin that will be resettled in Oakland will go up drastically in the coming months (stay tuned for my upcoming interview on Salai and the Chin community on my other blog Us Ordinary People). Nwe Oo, a Rakhine refugee and Burmese community activist thanked Daphne for her time to listen to the needs and concerns of the community, especially due to the lack of attention that Burmese cultural groups usually receive.
Burmese community in Oakland

The most poignant part of this event was the unity shown by the different Burmese groups that attended the event. Burma is a country with a very complex and fragmented history, full of political strife and military oppression. Though the diverse minority groups within the country have all faced severe repression from the government, there are considerable differences within different ethnic groups. This event brought everyone in one room, with the common goal of improving the lives of their people, and in this instance they were all sharing their stories and concerns together.

It is promising to see government affiliated representatives directly meet with the people who are directly affected by policy changes, but obviously that is far from enough. What remains to be seen is WHAT will happen with this information. Will it lead to policy change? Will the suffering of working class and lower class men and women be addressed?
The forces shaping policy know the issues, they have heard it from the mouth of the people in our communities. But knowing is not enough, the proof is in action and in fighting for the rights of these communities; fighting against big businesses and corporations that are swimming in assistance money that has not trickled down to our communities.

Community members with Daphne Kwok
Knowledge is power, but action is the tool for change. It is time to use these tools to help the people who need it the most.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Divisions, home and abroad

I have been going to tons of cultural festivals lately due to my consulting gig doing outreach for a non profit English school called The English Center. I'm getting my money and eating awesome food that I never knew existed, so I'm happy.

Thus past weekend I attended an Eritrean festival in Oakland. Some people have asked me "what is an Eritrean?" So to clarify, Eritrea is a country in East Africa that borders Sudan and Ethiopia, and lie across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. See map here.

Back to this particular festival. I was excited because a.) I knew close to nothing about Eritrea and got to learn loads from my highly energetic Eritrean intern and b.) FOOD! So there I was rubbing shoulders with members of the Eritrean community, taking some cool pictures, drinking honey wine and passing out flyers in Tigrinya (one of the language of Eritrea) when a riot breaks out.

Ok maybe not a full on riot, but pretty close.

Protestors marching through
As I'm sitting down, drinking spiced coffee under a tent while discussing community with an elderly Eritrean man, I suddenly hear shouting and loud noises, as if something is being struck. A protest had come into the festival grounds. People were shouting and holding up giant protest signs, and were using sticks to bang on the signs. The signs stated things like "Egypt, Tunisia, Eritrea" and "Human Rights for Eritrea". People from the festival began to clash with the protestors. There was pushing and shoving and cameras were knocked out of people hands, Everyone was shouting, in Tigrinya. I sat back in shock and had a sudden desire to shoot pictures, but then again, I didn't feel like getting my SLR knocked out of my hand. I also didn't want to be disrespectful to the sensitive situation, particularly because I was an outsider.

Let's backtrack, why was there a riot? Between Eritreans in Oakland? This wasn't downtown Asmara, this was Broadway and 42nd.

President/dictator, depends on whom you ask
For many of you that don't know, many Eritreans are divided between pro government and anti government factions. Pro government factions support the Eritrean leader Isaias Afewerki, a man who helped Eritrea get its independence. Government supporters exalt Afewerki for the part he played in independence, while those who oppose the government point out the abysmal human rights record that Eritrea holds and the gross violation of the rights of free speech (Eritrea is the only African country with no privately owned news media) and the troubling imprisonment of journalists as problematic, and are calling for freedom and change. This is the cliff notes version of the conflict, for more in depth information, read local Bay Area reporter Matt O'Briens article, which I coincidentally read right before the festival.

Dancing and celebrating to counter the protest
I watched as Government supporters blasted Eritrean music and began dancing jubilantly while waving the Eritrean flag. I saw one woman get on a chair and kiss a picture of the president's face on a T-shirt.  It was as if the dancing, the flag waving and celebrating would hush up the protestors who stood together as a wall, holding banners and megaphones.

I got out of there soon after that. Good timing, because that was approximately when half of the Oakland Police force showed up (a bit excessive maybe?). As I walked away, I realized that this was my second time witnessing an almost riot/political clash. The first such event I witnessed was in Haiti, where I was subsequently tear gassed by UN (I'm sure it was unintentional...I think), but you can read about that on my old school Xanga site.

When I think of what occurred at this festival, I wonder about what immigrants figuratively bring with them when they migrate to the United States. Customs are brought of course, but so are politics. Though political situations may reside miles and seemingly worlds away, they still play such a big role in the psyche of many immigrants. Often, these situations are the cause of the immigration in the first place. The distance from homelands many not seem so great to many who are here.

In the article that Matt wrote, he referred to people who left Eritrean churches and even instances of family division in Oakland due to these political issues. It's complex and sad, but not unusual. Many groups in the United States, even after years of being in this country, deeply feel such divisions. From Iranians who left during the Islamic Revolution in the late 70's to the Isreal/Palestinian issues that fan further separations between Muslim and Jewish Americans to the continued animosities that people from Indian and Pakistani backgrounds feel in the USA, many divisions have been 'imported' with their populations. 

But Arabs and Israelis both love hummus and have a penchant for facial hair...stop the hate and eat hummus!
I wonder what children from different cultures and new generations will choose for themselves when it comes to issues such as these. How deep will these political events - these histories - play in their lives as they grow? Will they hold the same zeal as their parents or will these elements fade the further they are in distance and time from from the lands of their parents and ancestors.

Though these aspects may depends on families and individuals - not everyone is political or divided of course - this past weekend brought up questions regarding generations and the continuation of  cultural, religious and political animosities. I have seen many of these divisions in my life, even amongst people like myself, who are children of second generation immigrants. There is a line between assimilating and holding on to cultural roots, but are holding on to the conflicts of our forefathers and current situations in the homelands of our parents also a part of our collective future? Only time will tell.

Eritrean girl on an iphone while the protest continues on in the background

 Or maybe they will be too busy on iphones, facebook and twitter...there's hope after all ;-).

Friday, August 5, 2011

Who's afraid of the Big Bad Muslim?

Everyone, apparently (Happy Ramadan by the way).
No Aladdin! not you too....
From the ease with which derogatory comments are made about Muslims/Arabs/people perceived as Muslim throughout the media to the bigoted protests that have the open support of elected officials, Islamophobia is alive in well in the United States.

Ten years have passed since 9/11 and things haven't really changed, in fact they may have gotten worse. There was a recent NY times article about one man's effort to bring down the threat of Shariah laws in this country ( It didn't occur to me that shariah threats were such a big issue in Islamic hotspots like Oklahoma ::heavy sarcasm::).  The scary thing is that this is not just some yahoo trying to enact meaningless policy as a fear tactic, it's that he is getting a platform to present these 'issues' to federal policy makers. THAT is the scary part. When bigotry drives policy or is able to grab the attention of our government, there is a very real cause for concern.
So what do we do? I don't hear a national outcry for the rights of brown people. Some pockets of brown people are calling for our rights, but who is listening? Maybe it's up for us to 'police' our own, because you know, Muslims are so centralized, homogeneous and united that it's easy to just have a huge meeting and tell the extremists to cut it out.

sharing is caring
No, we need raise our voices and unify our efforts. Struggling against Islamophobia is not going to work in small pockets of passionate activists and community members. There needs to be a collective push back, a push to say that this is not okay and that it is unacceptable. That as Americans, we find this unacceptable. I recently joined up with coalition of organizations called AMEMSA (Arab American Middle Eastern South Asian African), say that ten times fast (I've gotten pretty good at it myself). Its a convening of different groups from  organizations that represent communities affected by Islamophobia; from African Muslims to Sikhs, who have basically become 'default' Muslims in the eyes of hate mongers. I represented ASATA, the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, a radical group of South Asian activists in the Bay Area.
I am proud to have been affiliated with groups such as SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) and all of the great work they do nationally to stand up for the civil rights of South Asians. However, AMEMSA was very special to me in that this group came together for the common purpose of standing up to xenophobia, while having such an impressively diverse membership.  When people make bigoted comments about African Americans, there is a great uproar. There are similar, if not greater outcries when anti Semitic incidents occur. Islamophobic comments bring about concerned responses from groups such as SAALT and ASATA, but what about everyone else? Where is the outcry or major media attention?
This is what we are working on. To work together to not just be the 'other'. We are American. Some like me have been born and raised here, others, like a fellow colleague I met from Cote'd Ivoire, came here as an adult and stated that "When Africans come here, in our minds we are going back. But if you look at the statistics, no one is going back."  I include that quote because some come here with dreams of a better life and a new home, while many intend to come here, get success, then leave. Regardless, we are all still here, and we are Americans, and the decisions made by those in charge in this country affects us all equally, regardless of what the pundits on Fox News would have us believe.
intersections, cross listings and lots of circles
AMEMSAA met last week at a convening of the groups, where we spent two days discussing, brainstorming and yes, even majorly disagreeing with one another. Throughout all of this, the thing that struck me the most was the passion of the members I saw within the room; the passion for changing the status quo, the passion to make sure that our civil and human rights are respected. During the meetings, I would figuratively take a step back to look around me and see people wearing turbans sharing ideas with former political refugees, to women wearing hijab bringing up points to members from Africa. It was really something to behold. I did feel grateful to be here, and yes be in this country, because this kind of space would be almost impossible to have in many parts of the world.

We have a long way to go. This may seem like the beginning because there is so much to do and such a long distance to cover, but I think that we can do it. Despite our differences, I believe that we can accomplish positive changes as a united front against intolerance and bigotry.

yay diversity!
In a perfect society, civil rights wouldn't be a term because equality would be ingrained. However in the real world, strides towards civil rights for our communities will not truly occur until we stand up for ourselves. And that is just what we are doing.

"We gotta reject the bin everyone is trying to put us in" -  AMEMSA member

We were given pipe cleaners to play with, so I made lots of colorful, unified stick people. I was in a very 'we are the world' mood