By Mariko Powers
Mike Aguilar wakes to sweltering heat most summer morning with his mind full of big ideas. His favorite books, including Be here Now by Ram Dass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 years of Solitude, and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander rest on his bookshelf, and a loudspeaker leans against the wall. He lives in a converted warehouse –part apartment, part community space—that he purchased and repurposed last year, with the help of his father and uncle. “We did everything,” he says, gesturing to the frosted-glass door bathrooms, the kitchenette and bar, the small garden and colorful tables out back.
His vision was to create a venue where community activists and creative types could gather and organize around issues and passions. Bodega Califas, as the clubhouse has been dubbed, is located two blocks from Skid Row – Los Angeles’s infamous hub of homelessness and militant policing. Yet less than five blocks away from there, the dirt-stained concrete buildings give way to downtown LA’s financial district, and the newly hip neighborhoods dotted with cold brew coffee shops and record stores. Burgeoning gentrification is nothing new to the city, but never before has it come so close to the largest homeless encampment in the United States, with an estimated population of 8,000 – 11,000 people.
“We’re working on housing, but also on a number of laws that criminalize homelessness,” Mike says, detailing his volunteer work with the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN). LA CAN activists organize meetings with affected communities, create materials for awareness, and are constantly at city hall and the police commission to try to change policy, Mike says.
“The police use Skid Row as a training ground for surveillance tactics,” he argues. “You see the brunt of police brutality here. There have been 20 police killings already this year. ”
At 29, Mike already has 10 years of experience in community organizing and human rights activism. He recalls his time as a CIEE Khon Kaen Development and Globalization student in Fall 2006 as a turning point in his organizing career.
“That was the first year that we envisioned the Human Rights Festival. I had never organized such a large event before,” Mike says of his semester final project. “That was the moment that I realized, if I put my mind to something and focused and made calls and worked with people to put something together, I could actually do it. That was the biggest moment of believing in myself.”
He sustained the momentum from the Festival’s success when he returned to the University of San Francisco, where he cofounded a student group called "Back to da Roots" and interned with ENGAGE. After graduating, he returned to Khon Kaen as a CIEE Program Intern, and stayed on/returned as Intern Coordinator in 2009.
While serving as Intern Coordinator, Mike shared a house with members of Dao Din, a student activism and human rights group from Khon Kaen University, lived at the Dao Din human rights activist house and worked with a Dao Din leader to develop the Thai student movement, hosting workshops with youth groups in villages. He also wrote a number of proposals and a grant that helped Dao Din acquire the resources to become a recognized community center and organization. “It was originally during that time that we started discussing the trip to Mexico,” he says.
As a first-generation Mexican- American citizen, Mike says he has always seen connections between Mexican and Thai culture. “I would give workshops on the Zapatista movement in Mexico at Dao Din, and ever since Dao Din has expressed an interest in going to Mexico,” he says. That idea became a reality last November, when two representatives from Na Nong Bong village and two Dao Din leaders travelled to Oaxaca, Mexico, to discuss mining resistance strategies with local mine-affected communities.
The exchange was hosted by ENGAGE and Servicios Universitarios Y Redes de Conocimientos en Oaxaca A.C. (SURCO), a Mexican community organizing network. After Na Nong Bong anti-mining activists endured a violent attack led by the local mining company’s cronies in May 2014, Mike and ENGAGE worked for a year and a half to organize the Mexico trip. ENGAGE raised over $30,000 to fund the exchange, and Mike spearheaded a documentary of the meetings, which is currently in production.
“It’s a sad fact that Na Nong Bong lives with poisoned water, violence, and oppression – hopefully we inspired the delegates that went to bring back a positive mindset to fight for what they think is right. And of course, our end objective is to shut down the mine,” he says.
He points out that the Mexico exchange has had a lasting impact not only on the delegates that attended, but also on ENGAGE as an organization. ENGAGE successfully internationalized the Thai anti-mining struggle, he says, and in the process built up the network to include Thais locally in the United Sates and anti-mining activists in Mexico and Canada.
Mike is currently ENGAGE’s Network Coordinator; he monitors all the components of ENGAGE’s work and maintains relationships with CIEE Khon Kaen alumni around the US, as well as with colleagues and interns in Thailand. At last summer’s ENGAGE Convergence in Los Angeles, he helped organize an anti-coup protest action at the Royal Thai Consulate, and has staged an additional five actions since. He stresses that protesting on behalf of our Thai friends is critical at this time, because under military rule it has been difficult for Thais to organize in Thailand.
“What I’m trying to bring to ENGAGE is that we’re doing things that people want to be a part of,” he says. “The biggest issue that we’ve had is a bunch of privileged white kids that say ‘We’ve had a wonderful transformative experience,’ and then they go back to their normal lives. You forget about it. Some people do change and play an active role in society, but a large majority go back to whatever they were doing before.”
By staging periodic actions at the Royal Thai Consulate, Mike hopes he can fire up the network and involve the Thai population in Los Angeles, connecting activists on the ground. Currently, he is organizing the 15th anniversary of ENGAGE Convergence, which is planned for August 2016. He notes that a big goal for this year is to sustain the energy from last year’s successful solidarity programs, and to plan for the future of ENGAGE.
“The message I’m trying to send is, here is a network available for people to go to if they want to be involved, and we’re active,” he says. “Be a part of fighting for issues in your local community, but stay connected to the Thai struggle. All the beautiful people that you met – there’s a network that maintains solidarity with them.”
Written by Zoe Swartz
Bree O’Keane takes her role as a family member seriously and always visits her community in Non Somboon when she comes back to Thailand. Personal relationships have been at the heart of Bree’s extensive community organizing work.
It’s a balmy Friday night in downtown Khon Kaen, and Decha Premrudelert and Bamroon Bamrungsuk –two long-time community activists and mentors to ENGAGE—sit down for their weekly dinner at their regular table at 89 Pad Thai, a restaurant at the lively intersection of a small market and the train tracks. Bamroon pours a bottle of Chang over ice in his glass, as Decha spreads out appetizers of boiled peanuts and bananas on their table. Portraits of notable world leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Mao Zedong adorn the wall behind them. With these two old friends is Bree O’Keane, a thirty-three-year old woman from Rochester, New York. Although Bree stands out at the table in terms of appearance, her relaxed demeanor mirrors that of her elderly friends. She is at ease joining the pair in conversation, in Thai or English, on topics ranging from the evolution of education to envisioning a post-capitalistic world.
Bree has known these men and been involved in the Isaan NGO movement for a long time. She first came to Khon Kaen in 2003 as a student on the CIEE: Khon Kaen Development and Globalization program, and then immediately stayed on as a community intern for the next eight months. “I felt like my [student] experience was just the beginning of something. I wanted to dig in on a deeper level,” Bree explains. Initially, Bree planned to return to the University of Colorado to finish her degree and then come back to Thailand. “I talked to Dave [the Center Director of CIEE: Khon Kaen] and he said that people say they’ll come back all the time, but then go back into their world and don’t,” Bree recalls. “He said, ‘If you really want to stay, you should just stay,’ and that’s exactly what I did.”
"I felt like my experience was just the beginning of something."
Since then, Bree has truly made Thailand part of her world. She has built meaningful relationships, worked with communities and NGOs, and has applied her learning from Thailand to her activism in the United States. Currently, Bree is on the ENGAGE Board of Peers, looking after the logistical and behind-the-scenes aspects of the organization. Bree became involved in ENGAGE in 2003, two years after it was founded, and contributed to its mission development as well as two of its major programs – the Fair Trade Jasmine Rice Tour and the Access to Medicine Tour. While living in San Francisco, where the ENGAGE office was located at the time, Bree became particularly involved in the Access to Medicine Tour. The tour brought a professor, an NGO leader, and a villager living with HIV from Thailand to the US to educate Americans about how Thai-US trade agreements affect access to medicines for Thai people who have HIV/AIDS. The tour visited twelve different venues, including universities, hospitals, and community centers, and focused on how price inflation through trade agreements makes it impossible for villagers to purchase life-preserving HIV/AIDS medicines.
Educational tours were not a new concept to Bree – she first organized one as a Community Intern for CIEE in Non Somboon, a village fighting a potash mine. Community members organized a tour to another village that had been involved in salt mining for years. The natural environment in the salt-mining community had already undergone significant destruction, so it was valuable for villagers in Non Somboon to see what could happen to their community and exchange resistance strategies. Educational exchange has been a common thread in Bree’s work and she believes that tours are important to ENGAGE’s mission. “Exchange isn’t exchange if it only goes one way,” Bree says. “Students bringing the spirit of what they learned back to the States is a type of personal exchange, but there is really something to be said for having human cross-country exchange too.”
While Bree has done impressive organizing work in the US – including starting the first food cooperative at the University of California Berkeley and serving as the Deputy Director for the Alliance for Biking & Walking in Washington DC, her profound personal relationships keep pulling her back to Thailand. Bree considers her host family in Non Somboon to be her family, and she has been back to see them eight times over the past thirteen years. “There are expectations to being a family member,” Bree says earnestly. Three years ago Bree’s host father passed away, and on her most recent trip to Thailand she helped the family plan the merit making ceremony. She shared in the responsibility of watching grandchildren and choosing activities for the ceremony, just like biological members of the family.
Bree has continued to take her connections to heart, no matter where she finds herself living. In 2008, Bree returned to Khon Kaen to work Khon Kaen Education Initiative – an organization founded by Decha and the Khon Kaen Municipality to make local English teaching curriculums more experiential. As it turned out, the people she lived with at this time influenced her current endeavor, starting a fair-trade tea company. “I was living by the lake in downtown Khon Kaen with Ajaan (teacher) Adisack [a former CIEE field coordinator],” Bree remembers. “He and a few other people founded a teahouse that served as a meeting place for NGOs and students. There was even an activist library on site.” The teahouse fostered an exchange of ideas and knowledge, and Bree says she saw first hand how “tea can bring people together, generate conversation, and get people to slow down a bit.”
Today, Bree and a few close friends are in the early stages of founding Open Heart Tea Company, which aims to bridge Shambala Buddhist centers to communities in Thailand through direct holistic trade and one-on-one relationships. Shambala is a lineage of Tibbetian Buddhism with centers throughout the US. Tea drinking is a frequent practice at Shamabala centers, yet they mostly buy tea from mainstream big brand importers, Bree says. She and her business partners believe that they can help Shamabala centers bring mindfulness to their tea purchases. “The experience of tea sharing is in almost every culture,” she continues, “so it’s something that I care about and is important to me.”
"Living in a world where there is so much emphasis on ‘what are we going to do?’ my experience has brought me to think that it is more about ‘how are we going to do it?’ "
Tea sharing epitomizes the attention to personal relationships, exchange, and openness that Bree constantly brings to her life and work. The business world can often seem at odds with grassroots activism, but Bree is confident that she can apply her learning from community work to her business practice. She cites community organizing and cultivating personal relationships as her two greatest skills and as what motives her the most. “These can be very broad concepts,” Bree muses, “but living in a world where there is so much emphasis on ‘what are we going to do?’ my experience has brought me to think that it is more about ‘how are we going to do it?’ That is what has led me to enjoy the work I’ve done.”
Written by Nancy Chong, American University and Riley Oshiro, American University
Katie-Jay with little Guisma in the Djabal Refugee Camp, Chad in March 2009 on an i-ACT trip with her team. This was Katie-Jay’s second time seeing Guisima. "Last time we saw her she had a little round face, not so pointy. Her sister died during the past year, and before when they were fleeing from Darfur, her brother died. Adef and Achta, her parents, said that this past year she got sick, but has seemed to recover. She laughed a lot when I tickled her tummy.”
For Katie-Jay Scott a day in the office is never the same, or the least bit boring. Katie-Jay is the Director of Operations and Community Involvement for i-ACT, an organization dedicated to working with communities affected by genocide, mass atrocities, and crimes against humanity. Between balancing family and her passion for community organizing, Katie-Jay’s life is fast-paced and busy every day.
i-ACT is run by a small staff that manages every aspect of the organization. Much of their work involves Darfur refugees, not only working on the ground in refugee camps, but also creating a campaign around their human experience that personally connects people throughout the world with refugee issues. As an organization, i-ACT seeks to amplify the voices of refugees by telling their stories to people who would otherwise never know about them.
In the field, Katie-Jay’s team is working in refugee camps to tackle an ever-persistent problem: lack of quality education, especially preschools. To address this need, i-ACT created the Little Ripples program, which provides communities with the resources to create a preschool curriculum by integrating expert advice, local cultural history, and community members’ stories and games. In particular, the program focuses on areas of learning, peace-building, and trauma recovery. The curriculum they developed is sustainable and can be adapted and implemented wherever refugee populations go.
“i-ACT fosters a relationship and it captures the stories of the refugees,” Katie-Jay says. “The programs are human-centered – not solely policy driven.” Through programs addressing activism, sports, and education, i-ACT ensures its programs are community-oriented.
Long before Katie-Jay entered the nonprofit world, she was a student in the 2003 Spring semester of CIEE’s Development and Globalization (DG) study abroad program in Khon Kaen, Thailand. The program heavily emphasized teamwork, and Katie-Jay soon learned how to organize communities, facilitate group work, and navigate group dynamics.
“The most difficult experience I had as a student in Thailand was when we were split up based on personalities. I was placed in the very outgoing, boisterous, ‘lead from the front’ group,” she said. “At our midyear retreat, the whole DG group called out our group for being overbearing.”
This moment became the turning point for Katie-Jay’s semester in Thailand. During group discussions with villagers – a core component of the DG education model - she began to pace herself with comments and questions instead of jumping right in as she had in the past. Stepping back allowed her to realize that she was a better facilitator and organizer when she listened to those around her.
This experience soon shaped Katie-Jay’s interest in facilitating groups when she decided to remain in Thailand as a CIEE intern for eight months after her study abroad semester. As an intern, Katie-Jay led a project on the Pak Mun Dam, which created a space for villagers and groups of people affected by the push for hydroelectric power in Northeast Thailand to come together and share ideas. Additionally, she acted as a facilitator to help CIEE students efficiently delegate tasks and roles for the project.
“In Thailand, I learned how to listen to villagers, work in inner cities, interact with all types of people, and how to apply what I learned through various community efforts and projects.”
Once Katie-Jay returned to America, she and other former CIEE interns worked hard to make ENGAGE a legally recognized nonprofit organization. She is one of the founding members of ENGAGE’s Board of Peers, which oversees its long-term strategy and maintains its nonprofit status. She served on the Board of Peers from 2004-2006, and has recently joined ENGAGE’S newly created advisor team.
“ENGAGE is what gave me the foundation and courage to take on other issues,” Katie-Jay says. “With ENGAGE we were trying to coordinate individuals who were living in different states, which set the foundation to test and try new things, start over, and do it all over again.”
One of ENGAGE’s first international campaigns was organizing Jasmine Rice Tours, which brought farmers from Thailand to the United States to cultivate awareness about where rice farmed overseas comes from, and to promote the fair trade movement. “The rice tours went through Portland, so I got to meet farmers and other CIEE alums,” says Katie-Jay. She organized two Jasmine Rice Tours, which further fueled her passion for community organizing.
Through her involvement in many service and activist organizations, Katie-Jay continues to facilitate discussions between individuals that want to mobilize as a group. Pursuing her drive to bring people together through a common cause, Katie-Jay says, “it’s the fundamental idea that people are the center of everything we do.”
Even after all these years and her interest in other projects, Katie-Jay has continued to work with ENGAGE. “The shared experience changed me as a person,” Katie-Jay says, reflecting on her time with CIEE Thailand and her desire to continue being a part of that community. “Going through the process - whether it’s listening to the villager or working in groups - will guide how you interact with people, and this is what I wanted to apply to being an ENGAGE board member and most importantly, now, a mother.”
This past summer, Katie-Jay participated in the 2015 Convergence in L.A., where she led a strategic planning session with attendees to envision the future of ENGAGE. She also helped establish the Grow the Roots Giving Circle, a brand new fundraising program designed to sustain the ENGAGE network. “We want to foster nostalgia with fellow CIEE participants and encourage them to give because this allows us to reconnect with some of the older, wiser, more established members and get them to support younger ENGAGE members.”
She hopes that the legacy ENGAGE creates for future CIEE students builds a foundation where people can learn community organizing and facilitation and apply these skills in all aspects of their lives.
How did you get involved with ENGAGE, and what made you want to get involved?
I saw the energy. And energy is contagious. And I have a lot of it to give away too, so I just really like the passion for these issues all around social justice and environmentalism. I was really excited about the Convergence that was happening pretty soon after I got back from Thailand and wanted to check it out. It sounded like people were really motivated and they had solid connections even though they weren’t all in the same place, and they were doing amazing things, and I just wanted to learn about what other people were up to. It’s just a very comforting place I think, to re-energize through Convergence and just through being involved with the network with all the people that are in ENGAGE. It’s a nice comfort and support no matter where you are, I’ve found.
What are you currently doing and getting involved with?
I finished my degree in International Studies and Environmental Studies, and I kind of went towards the racial justice route instead of environmental. And then I got a job at the Urban League. national non-profit organization based around racial justice issues specifically for African-Americans and I’ve just become engulfed with the issues. As a volunteer coordinator, the main part of my job is coordinating tutors in schools with Middle School students, one-on-one in the classroom. We work with students of color and economically disadvantaged, just trying to close the racial achievement gap which is really significant in our county particularly. Working with kids has been really amazing – who can be steered in so many different directions and by so many different influences – trying to get them to see where they can go in life, and what they can do. I have really enjoyed working on this issue and I feel really passionate about it.
How has ENGAGE supported you in your journey?
I’ve found that in my own organization sometimes people aren’t aware of the language they’re using – sometimes oppressive language – or they’re just not aware of other issues besides this racial justice issue. Which is interesting. So ENGAGE kind of reminds me that some people really try to look at a lot of different social issues and be very conscious about inclusivity and to be intentional. And I really find comfort in that.
We have noticed your involvement with Convergence planning and we would love to hear more about it! Why are you passionate about Convergence and the planning process?
I’m involved because I love hearing people’s voices and hearing that they’re really interested in talking about anti-oppression and all these things that you don’t necessarily talk about when meeting new people. And while we may not always know each other face to face, when we’re planning you get to know someone surprisingly well over how they plan and how they organize themselves and get stuff done. I’m passionate about it because we all need support, we all need that reviving energy and I love Convergence for that reason.
How does Convergence positively affect the network as a whole?
I think it shows that there are still people who are committed to something, because they know it can help people. Often times ENGAGErs are in challenging jobs or are engrossed in a non-profit that might make them have to work their asses off all the time while being activists. And to have Convergence as just a space of comfort and accepting people who are passionate about the same things, is really powerful.
What does planning a Convergence actually look like?
It looks like a lot of phone calls on Sunday nights, and a lot of Google notes, that’s for sure. But of course with ENGAGErs we’re always trying to be intentional about what we do, why we do it, and how we make it the best it can be. It’s a really cool way to develop some skills in coordinating and logistics and sequencing for a one-weekend event. We make progress little by little and get to know each other along the way.
What advice do you have for the next generation of ENGAGErs?
I would say that as hard as it may be sometimes, diving into a new issue, feeling like you don’t know a lot, and you’re around all these really fired-up activists, is to just keep your ears open and know that it’s OK that you don’t know everything yet. It takes time and that’s the hardest part I think for us young people, is we are so used to things changing so quickly. But know that you’ve got support through ENGAGE, which is amazing and hard to find.
A few months out – what are your big thoughts on your student experience?
It’s definitely a life-changing experience in terms of opening your eyes. I think a lot of people go into study abroad knowing that it will be a life changing experience, but the way that the CIEE program is facilitated, it’s changing your life without you even really recognizing it. Which is just mind-blowing.
What is your favorite memory from being a student?
I think it was over the course of one weekend really. I went up to Na Nong Bong to see the villagers protesting against the mine, where they were building a wall, and one of my fellow students and I got to stay behind and video tape this protest. Which was amazing to see people standing up for their rights and standing up for their land.
What issues are you passionate about right now?
Right now, I’m super passionate about alternative education, and finding ways to engage students that are not currently engaged with what I would call academia or school. Ways to engage those students and realize that you can learn from so many different avenues and it’s not just all about a professor lecturing at you or someone who knows more than you. But there are ways to learn all over the place. But I’m also an environmental studies major, so mining and environmentally friendly agriculture and sustainable agriculture/sustainable living are way up there on my interests.
What is the hardest thing about transitioning back home to your University?
I think for me, I have said this a few times, but it’s not culture shock. I think it’s education shock. I think that I just so thoroughly fell in love with how I was learning and the people I was learning with, and how much I learned when I was in Thailand, that it was really hard to go back into an environment where people were only looking to learn in a 50 minute class from a professor who is just telling them the information that they want them to recite back on a paper or on a test. And I think that is still really frustrating for me.
How has ENGAGE supported you in your journey and your transition back home since being on the program?
I am part of the ENGAGE Mentorship Program, so I have a mentor, Alison Dulin, who works for Davidson College. We have lunch on Tuesdays. We talk about things like me wanting to bring back the sustainable community, or things I’m struggling with in terms of how I really want to apply myself.
What have you been working on since you were in Thailand? What are you currently doing?
Since I was in Thailand I worked with my school to bring back a sustainable living community, where I’ll be living next year! I’m also currently president of Davidson Outdoors. It is one of the largest clubs on campus [150 trained trip leaders], and we run about 15 trips a semester – backpacking, climbing, caving, white water canoeing, mountain biking…I do a lot of facilitating that group, in terms of figuring out what people are interested in, and what further kinds of programming we want in terms of further qualifications in climbing or white water kayaking. Behind all of those outdoor activities is this group bonding and group facilitation, because really what you’re doing going into the outdoors is bonding with a group of people in a way that isn’t necessarily possible when you’re around technology and phones. It’s nice to get away and really get to know people.
And huge shout out to you for carrying on the Mentorship Program as a student! Back then, why did you agree to start running it? Why are you passionate about it right now?
It’s an amazing idea. It’s connecting people who have had success and love this program with people who are about to embark on something very challenging – going back into the life that you had before your four months in Thailand. I also just really wanted a niche to get more involved in ENGAGE and to feel like I was still connected when I left – to Thailand, my friends there, my group, and to other people that are passionate about the same things.
What do Mentors get out of the program?
I think that the mentors get to refocus on where they were, coming out of this program. And the decisions that they made that got them to where they are now. I think it offers a really cool self-reflection process!
How is the Mentorship Program influencing the network as a whole?
I think it’s an amazing opportunity to connect one on one and really get to know someone who has just finished the program – it really links generations. Building a network like ENGAGE, it’s really important to link those generations – realize that times are changing, and incorporate those who are just finishing the program. It’s important to make those connections so you feel comfortable passing off a project or just bringing up the idea of a project and suggesting it to someone you think might care.
Why is it important for current students to get involved with ENGAGE while they are still in Thailand?
For me, ENGAGE offers an incredible opportunity to really make the connection that what you’re learning in Thailand is not just in Thailand. I think it’s important to make that connection before you leave. And to know that there are other people who are passionate about these same ideas, that have found ways to do them in the US or wherever it may be. And that is just a really powerful tool coming home, but also just a powerful realization for any student, that the mines we see in Thailand are almost small scale in terms of mines around the world. That these same issues are relevant, wherever you go.
Tell me about the organization that you’re working for. What kind of work are you doing there?
My organization is called Metro TeenAIDS and we are a non-profit with a mission to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Washington DC by focusing on empowering youth. I am part of our schools team which is a team of people who go into DC public and charter schools to teach HIV prevention and general sexual reproductive education. In addition to that, I develop and train the team on topics from facilitation to STI rates, contraceptive methods, and confidentiality. I also review and rewrite different pieces of our school curricula to ensure it reflects the youth we serve, and the current statistics in DC.
How did your study abroad experience influence your path into this type of work?
After studying abroad I knew I wanted to get back to Thailand as soon as I could. I managed to stay in touch with the right people, and applied for a position with Khon Kaen Education Initiative (KKEI) where I worked for a year with the fantastic Thai educators. It also allowed me to connect with past KKEI members in the US. Those relationships and a lot of hard work helped us put on the Teacher Tour to the US which happened in October of this year and was a huge success. When I got back from KKEI, I knew I wanted to continue doing hands on, service work. I originally got involved in an Americorp program and interviewed with Metro TeenAIDS and it seemed like a perfect fit! I could keep the aspects I picked up from KKEI with teaching and facilitation, but I would have the additional benefit of focusing on a topic that I care a lot about and that I had studied during my time with CIEE. My CIEE human rights report was all about HIV/AIDS, so it seemed like a great way to connect the dots of my past to my present and future.
Why is this work important to you and what impact has it had on you personally or professionally?
This work is important to me because whether we like it or not, youth are the future. I want to ensure that they are empowered with support and knowledge to pursue their dreams. I was really fortunate to have a lot of support growing up and was surrounded by people who pushed me to challenge myself and I want others to have that same support. With all the distractions in this world, it’s easy to lose sight of what you want–especially if you’re growing up in DC. This work is not just about HIV prevention. It is about a holistic education for young people. For young people to understand their bodies, their rights, and their choices.
What do you mean by a “holistic education”? How is that different from traditional education and why is it needed?
Something that I learned about in Thailand was the notion of holistic education. Instead of just teaching English because it’s required, teach English as a subject that is integrated with their other topics and their daily life. Using English as more than something you complete worksheets and assignments for, but as a tool to talk about problems, social issues, etc. Khon Kaen is surprisingly similar to DC in the issues they both face: poverty, drugs, alcohol abuse, education disparities, race issues, and issues of general livelihood of a family. As a result, in DC I use discussions on HIV, STIs, teen pregnancy, and drug use as a gateway to talk about the future. By having the youth see a broader picture and understand where they want to go in five or ten years, they really understand the value of something small like protection during sexual activities and how missing that step can really mess with your plans for the future. It’s not just about not getting HIV, it’s about reaching your dreams and living to see them come true. My goal is to always be a holistic educator and try to push myself and others to develop on a broad scale.
What advice do you have for newly returning study abroad students, particularly from one of the CIEE Thailand programs, who want to continue working for social justice in their home communities?
Listen. Listen openly, and listen to many people. It is crucial to understand the problems of a community instead of deciding you know them. If you go into a group or a community with the notion that you know exactly what they need and you will solve all their problems, no change will occur. If you want to work in a community, make sure it’s the one you live in. Being the outsider is a difficult way to create sustainable change. Other than that, persistence and breaks for your mental sanity! Social justice is wonderful and demanding and stressful. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not taking care of your community.
Since returning from Thailand you were selected to be an Emerson National Hunger Fellow through the Congressional Hunger Center. What does the program look like?
The Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship is a yearlong leadership development program committed to social justice and anti-racism. Established and directed by the Congressional Hunger Center, the program aims to train and inspire leaders to bridge the gap between grassroots movements and national policy development as they pertain to anti-hunger and anti-poverty.
For the first six months of the program, Fellows are placed with community-based organizations throughout the country to learn about a variety of community approaches to addressing hunger and poverty. The Fellows return to Washington, D.C. for the second half of the program to work with national organizations that address hunger and poverty from a public policy perspective.
Tell me about your field placement in Boston. What kind of work are you doing there?
In Boston I work for an organization called Community Servings, and the project I’m working on there is two-fold. First, I am executing a feasibility study for an on-site and online Food Policy and Resource Center by benchmarking other food- and nutrition-related policy centers throughout the country. I will compare other organizations’ resources, staff, and structures with our own in order to strategize the development of our own policy center. Second, I am writing the first ever white paper to be published on behalf of Community Servings. The paper will review existing literature on “food as medicine” and will explore the connections between medical nutrition therapy and improved health outcomes for people who are homebound by critical and chronic disease.
How great is the need for an organization like Community Servings?
Community Servings is a service organization that delivers medically tailored meals to people who are homebound by critical and chronic disease. The most common primary diagnoses among our clients are HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Our clients need our services, and without these meals, many would face food insecurity, malnutrition, and poorer health outcomes, perhaps even death. Our work targets the most vulnerable people in the Boston community and arguably the least visible – a population whose needs are so often overlooked by local, state, and federal institutions.
What do you hope to do, learn, accomplish over the course of your fellowship?
Through the fellowship, I hope to gain hands-on experience in connecting real issues and real people with the representatives who have the power to change the circumstances that disadvantage some and privilege others. I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the legislative and political processes and to reflect on my skills and interests so I can navigate a career path that’s right for me. By the end of the fellowship, I’d like to have applicable skills that can be developed more through graduate-level studies, which I can in turn apply to making change in my own community back home in Cleveland, Ohio.
How did your study abroad experience influence your path into this fellowship and this type of work?
If it weren’t for my study abroad experience, I never would have thought to pursue this fellowship. Before the DG program, it was difficult for me to imagine what it meant to contribute to my community without the letters “M.D.” or “J.D.” at the end of my name. It wasn’t until studying public health at the University of Rochester and human rights abroad that I recognized that contributing to my community can mean lots of different things. DG opened my eyes to other possibilities: community organizing, education, public policy. This fellowship is a logical progression of my interests in public health and community-based work, and it would not have been possible without CIEE.
Why is this work important to you and what impact has it had on you personally or professionally?
So far, the fellowship has helped me refine my identity as a white anti-racist, an identity which only began to emerge in Thailand. On a personal level, then, the program has helped develop and solidify many of my values in social justice. It has also allowed me to see that large-scale change can be really strong when a variety of viewpoints are included in the discussion. Historically, both conservative and progressive leadership has led to effective anti-hunger measures at the national level. Recognizing that presidents like Richard Nixon, for example, have signed into law some of the most progressive anti-hunger legislation provides me with a bit of perspective and re-enforces the importance of collaboration.
What does it mean to be a white anti-racist? What does this look like in practice?
As a white anti-racist, I am committed to deconstructing racial oppression within my sphere of influence. In practice this means raising consciousness of those around me through critical discussion. It means promoting institutions and practices that support racial equality and social justice. It also means holding myself accountable for not using my racial privilege unfairly and taking steps to actively deconstruct unearned advantages.
What advice do you have for newly returning study abroad students, particularly from the CIEE Thailand programs, who want to continue working for social justice in their home communities?
I think one thing some of my DG peers experienced upon returning home was a cold, almost hollow, sense of disillusionment. It was as if we had created something beautiful abroad only to return home without any indication of how difficult it would be to recreate that same beauty in our “real” lives. I guess one piece of advice I’d give is that the CIEE Thailand experience is only as detached from reality as you want it to be. If you want to make the lessons you learned abroad part of your daily life in the U.S., do it. Seek out organizations on campus that share your values. Find friends and loved ones who are willing to listen while you stumble through nonsensical stories about what happened abroad and what it all means. Don’t expect everyone to understand or be okay with “plus, minus, deltas,” but don’t forget that it took you some getting used to as well. Be patient.
Beyond seeking organizations that affirm your beliefs, I’d also recommend finding situations that challenge them as well. The Emerson Fellowship, for me, is a way to solidify my values and beliefs, but next year I fully anticipate working for an organization that may not have an overt social justice or anti-racist mission. I need that challenge. I need to learn how to merge my own values into a larger system whose mission is not necessarily my own. I think we all need this sort of experience, too, if we expect to be effective in the work we do.