Day 5 plus

Friday – Monday
On day 5, we presented to each other the grassroots organization that we visited. One group visited the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC), which works with undocumented Latino youth in NY state to pass the DREAM act in local and statewide levels. When prompted about what we could/should do, they asked us to not let it just be a paper at the end of our program, to make sure our new found knowledge and insights become more than words on a paper. Amen, we’ll see how that goes.
From Make the Road and Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC-NY), I think they both seemed to stress the importance of voice and dignity for the people they work with who needed social justice.
Clelia, one of our traveling faculty, started her first class with us with this quote from Linda Smith:
“The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.”
She reminded us that we are the subject of research too because as we study others and interact with them, they are always analyzing and criticizing and interpreting us as well. If me is represented by one circle, and others is represented by another circle, then the overlap between the two circles should somehow give us our research paper.
We all shared what we think our research process should/would look like. I wrote down accessible, interdisciplinary/circumspect, and hopeful/optimistic. Some adjectives from my peers that I really liked were applicable/tangible, inclusive and patient, and embrace/express the gray (areas). I thought that was really beautiful, to be able to explore the gray, which is where most of life lies, and to lose ourselves in it and turn it into something beautiful.
After discussing 1984 (novel), Clelia asked us a bunch of questions to consider and to answer in one page Who we are. I didn’t have any idea where she was going with it, but I wrote as much as I could. After collecting the short essays, she told us she will give these back to us at the end of the trip, and that  research is a lot like asking someone who they are and taking their story and who they are for our purposes. Participants give us so much of themselves, it is so important that we treat the information and them with respect and honor. Pretty intense stuff.
I really enjoyed our Practitioner Dinner with Natasha Lycia Ora. She is a human rights attorney in NYC. She said she worked in non profits for years before going to grad school looking for tools to “dismantle oppression.” When non-profit management and all that did not give her what she wanted, she unexpectedly turned to law. She had never considered it but she found CUNY law school to be one of the few social justice-oriented institutions in the U.S., so she uses the new found expertise to do human rights work. I had never really thought too much about law, but Natasha made a pretty convincing argument for getting a law degree to work in social justice organizations. It helped her make sharper analysis, tools to construct and deconstruct arguments, knowledge of how policies and legislation and laws work, and also a higher salary than if she did non profit work without a law degree, I think. After some of the classes in Rice’s PJHC department, many students and I are left with more questions than answers. If so many non profits don’t do good and/or if they are too busy fighting for funding all the time, where do I see myself in all of this and make a living? I hope to contact her and follow up with some questions. She was very friendly and receptive to inquiries.
Today, we met with two speakers from Amnesty International. They did work on Guantanamo Bay inmates and advising the UN and other interregional bodies on other human rights issues. We learned quite a bit about statistics of U.S.-sanctioned torture, indefinite detention, etc. A lot of us were interested in the problems of the U.N. and how working with the UN may not be the most effective or rewarding.
Particularly, we were interested in how these speakers see the issue that we’ve been talking about: whether or not human rights are universal and where do human rights come from and who/what ensures our rights are fulfilled. It struck some of us how a lot of people we’ve met either don’t identify with the human rights framework or if they did, they were so sure that human rights are universal but never really made it clear to us where they come from and who/what ensures those rights. It’s a lot to say that a list of rights inherently belong to all humans. Plus, rights can be tricky when they come into conflict with one another. But human rights framework may be one of the better languages we have, so to pursue it isn’t bad.
We also visited the 9/11 Memorial and talked about it with Moustafa Bayoumi, professor at Brooklyn college and author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America. Some of the thoughts were very telling. One of us said that the memorial felt like a hateful place to her, because even as a 2nd grader, she remembered the media feeding her images of who to hate because of 9/11, and it was very traumatic. Another person mentioned the use of negative space to create a perpetual void, which relates to the perpetual void that U.S. has cause all over the world since 9/11. Another person said that they learned of a first responder’s story about how bells were rung to signal a person being found, but instead of cheerful it became a traumatic sound to hear the bells signal how many people died. Another person also said that as opposed to being an open place of healing, the memorial emanated an aggressive hurt and sadness.
Apparently the memorial takes about $20 million to maintain every year, which they hope to fund partially through charging $24 for tickets to the museum when it opens. Pretty pricey. I wonder if the rest of the memorial will be free though. The first Arab-American community in NYC was just south of the World Trade Center, but there is a lot of contestation about these histories and how it fits in with the post-9/11 narrative. I did some research looking into how 9/11 has affected Arab Americans, Muslims and South Asians in America, and it is crazy how ignorant we can be. The memorial’s commemorative guide (pamphlet) explicitly stated that the memorial’s mission is to “inspire an end to hatred, ignorance, and intolerance.” It made me wonder whose hatred, ignorance, and intolerance against whom we are trying to end.
Bayoumi’s book unexpectedly brought about a lot of good that he did not foresee. Telling the stories of what happened to Arab American youth post-9/11 really shed a light on how they were treated and it “vindicated [them] from pressure.” Their stories were not well known and it kept them unhappy for so long. It was really beautiful that he gave them a voice. It reminded me of the car wash workers from Make the Road who said that after being unionized, what matters the most is that they can stand up straight now and work in a safe place that respects them.
Interestingly, Bayoumi’s advice to us is that if we want to deal with domestic issues of inequality, we should deal with foreign issues of inequality and how the U.S. treats others. I’m not sure what to make of that.

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