Monthly Archives: July 2010

Where Schools & Prisons Meet

The biggest appeal to me of working for the ACLU of Texas this summer was the opportunity to work on one of the greatest issues our country is facing: the tragic progression known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate and the biggest prison population of any country in the world. This is not because the U.S. has an inherently greater percentage of bad or dangerous citizens, but rather because our criminal justice system is undeniably broken . And the brokenness isn’t just evident in the adult criminal justice system; its also evident in the institutions that pave the ways to our prisons: the mental health industry, the juvenile justice system, and the public education system.

The nexus between our nation’s schools and its prisons is a critical junction for youth. Classrooms should be the place where children, regardless of their culture or their family’s background, can learn vital knowledge and prepare to excel as adults. Sadly, instead of leveling the playing field, many schools only exacerbate the inequalities in society. Kids who need the most nurturing too often get pushed out of the educational environment and end up in our criminal justice system instead. The ACLU is doing a lot of great work to try to end this national trend, including several actions centered on policy work that I’ve been able to contribute to this summer. A couple of my favorites:

1. Making Schools Safe for ALL Children: Since the increase in school shootings and gang violence in the 1990s, schools have been under great pressure to maximize campus security efforts. One of the negative consequences of this development is that adolescent misconduct is now frequently handled by school police instead of administrators, often with damaging results. A key project of mine this summer has been assisting in the creation of a report on the use of force on students, including conducting open records requests to school districts and identifying the extent to which police use tasers, pepper spray, and other extreme tactics on kids while they’re at school. Many schools have no clear policies on how force should be used, nor any recorded data on how often force is used – a disturbing finding given how many police are guarding our nation’s classrooms.

2. Reforming Policies that Contribute to High Dropout Rates: While many of the reasons why students drop out of school are difficult to remedy, some of the factors that contribute to low graduation rates could be addressed through changes to current state policy. One example specific to Texas: by amending the current method used by the State Board of Education in establishing school curriculum, the Texas Legislature could depoliticize the process of selecting standards and better ensure that subject requirements are accurate and culturally suitable for all students. Relevant, educationally appropriate curriculum is a key to engaging students and reducing dropout. Because current curriculum adoption practices allow the SBOE to sacrifice relevant curriculum for ideological purposes, I recently delivered a report on this topic to numerous legislative staff at the Capitol in hopes of fostering support for a bill next session that would bring forth needed change to the SBOE and to the process of determining what is taught in classrooms across the state.

A second policy in need of clear revision: Texas’ law regarding truancy for students 18 or older. Unlike in any other state in the nation, students in Texas who are over 17 and still striving towards their high school diploma can be prosecuted for truancy for too many class absences. Many older students are balancing work or family commitments that can conflict with school, and facing court fees and jail time for truancy only increases the odds that they will drop out before reaching graduation. Part of my internship has been learning about detrimental laws such as this and identifying ways the ACLU can advocate for appropriate policy changes in the 2011 Legislative Session.

As I work to address these school-to-prison pipeline issues, I’m particularly looking forward to this weekend when our Austin office will host the ACLU of Texas’ annual conference. This year the entire meeting is dedicated to youth rights in school discipline and many of the juvenile justice issues that I’ve been working on this summer. It should be an inspiring gathering of people who share my concern for the education and criminal justice systems, and I look forward to sharing more soon about the exciting conversations that will take place!

Business contributes to the MDGs

In 2000, world leaders adopted a declaration in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to help eradicate poverty and hunger, achieve universal education, reduce child mortality, promote gender equity, improve maternal health, combat diseases, and ensure environmental sustainability. While significant progress has been made toward these goals, much needs to be accomplished to meet the 2015 targets only five short years away.

We hear a lot about what governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations are doing to help reach these goals, but what about the private sector? Business and industry are key partners in the UN’s effort to help achieve the MDGs, and this September they will have the chance to discuss their accomplishments and contributions, as well as the remaining challenges and obstacles.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has invited CEOs to engage with world leaders and UN agency heads this September to review private sector contributions toward achieving the MDGs, and key challenges that remain. I have been helping organize UNEP’s participation, including engaging with CEOs who show a substantial commitment to environmental sustainability in their corporate programs.

A number of companies are taking measures to reduce their carbon footprint and promote environmental sustainability; for example, using power from renewable energy sources, reducing their use of hazardous chemicals in manufacturing and production processes, switching to electric or biofuel transportation fleets, implementing employee telecommuting programs, and promoting waste minimization, water conservation and recycling. Environmentally sustainable measures also contribute to many of the other MDGs—for example, reducing poverty and hunger through new green jobs, and improving health and combating diseases through access to clean water.

By promoting and investing in environmentally sustainable practices, businesses can preserve the environmental resources they depend upon and contribute to the MDGs, as well as benefit from increased cost savings, more efficient production processes, decreased risk, and improved stakeholder engagement and public image.

Land of the plenty

Uganda is commonly referred to as “the pearl of Africa.” Its landscapes include rolling green hills, vibrant crops  and lush soil. In rural Uganda, the majority of families do some type of agricultural work. Common crops include maize, potatoes, and greens. And then there is the wealth of fruits available wherever you look. In our backyard alone, grows papaya, mango, eggplant and banana. Nearby grows jackfruit, passion fruit and pineapple. The abundance of food is not limited to fruits. Goats, cows, chickens, pigs roam throughout each and every village.

So my question is….knowing all of this, why is there so much hunger in Uganda and the rest of Africa? I would estimate that 90 percent of children of under the age of 5 in Buwaiswa are malnourished. How can this be? Even after living in the village for 9 weeks now, I still am unable to answer this question. However I have noticed several characteristics that may contribute to the continuation of hunger in the country. These characteristics include the following:

1. Many villagers do not know what a “healthy meal” includes. They do not understand that eating foods like posho, maize and potatoes (all carbs) may leave you feeling full, but they do not fulfill the definition of a well-balanced meal.

2. Eggs, chicken and other sources of protein are often raised by villagers but immediately sold for profit instead of being consumed by families. Many people do not understand the importance of protein in their diets.

3. It is common in Ugandan culture for men to receive larger and better portions of food.  This means that men are more likely to consume more food and the women and children in the family are left with smaller, insufficient amounts of food.

4. There are so many mouths to feed. The average number of children per family is 8, making it difficult for each family member to receive adequate nutrition.

I realize that the problem of malnutrition does not have a simple solution. However, my teammates and I worked this week to contribute to the solution this past week by holding a nutrition sensitization in our village. We also  invited a local drama group to present on the issue of eating smartly. It was nice to present the issue of nutrition in a different, exciting way.  Since we always attract lots of children during our meetings, the drama was also an opportunity for the younger audience members to learn something as well.

On another note, this will be my final week in Uganda. I have really enjoyed my time here and I hope to return to Uganda in the future. This experience has solidified my desire to work in Africa in the area of international development.

Who wants to develop?

The president, secretary and treasurer of one of the village banks as they collect the final quota to repay their group loan

The president, secretary and treasurer of one of the village banks as they collect the final quota to repay their group loan

This past week two of our village banks completed their first loan cycle (a five-month loan cycle in which they repay about $140 per person with 2.25% monthly interest). After each cycle, the women decide whether they want to continue being a part of a village bank and whether they want to proceed to the next loan cycle, when they can receive a larger loan.

If the women want to continue, we evaluate them individually and as a bank to see if they qualify to move on to the next cycle. We not only evaluate them based on whether they have repaid their loan (we have had 100% repayment so far, so that is not an issue), but also whether they are fully participating in the mission of our project. They need to comply with monthly savings quotas (the women themselves decide how much they should save each month); they need to demonstrate their commitment to our business assessment program by completing homework assignments (practical tasks like naming their business and improving their customer service); and they need to participate in our community classes to show they are interested in furthering their personal development.

It’s hard to decide how much we should expect from each woman. After all, they are balancing a lot of responsibilities like running their own small business and caring for their families.

Is it fair to keep working with women who have a perfect repayment rate, but do not demonstrate interest in the other aspects of our mission? Our low interest rate (2.25% monthly) is very appealing; much lower than the interest rate they could get on individual loans here. But our funding is limited, and we want to target our loans at women who don’t have access to conventional credit; who have small businesses and are committed to expanding them; and who are interested in their personal development.

This is a tough decision, as we have to decide in the coming weeks whether one of our banks – who seem to be working with us just to take advantage of our low interest rates, and have rejected the opportunities for development we have given them – deserves to continue. While it would be difficult to let a group of women go, it would also open up space for new women to create a village bank… hopefully ones who are truly interested in challenging themselves to develop as women, businesspeople, mothers, and individuals.

A Desire for Immediate Results

Much of the work that my fellow interns and I do in the village focuses on education. However, sometimes this can be frustrating – at least for me – because we do not see instant results. I realize that educating people about the need for safe water, better nutrition and family planning is important but many times the results are not visible for many months or even years to come.

This past week was especially rewarding because we completed several de-worming outreaches in Buwaiswa in which we hope to see immediate results. There are several types of worms that affect a large percentage of children and adults throughout Uganda. Young children with worms have huge bellies and unfortunately most young children in Buwaiswa display this characteristic. The good news about worms is that it can be treated with a simple tablet taken with water. Although the treatment is simple, most families in Buwaiswa cannot afford treatment or cannot access the drug. So this past week my teammates and I distributed de-worming tabs at the government-run primary school and at two private primary schools. Although schools are an excellent place to reach a large number of children, many kids do not attend school so we also held an additional outreach at the village center. Women brought their babies and stood in line for several hours to receive the tabs. In the end, we de-wormed nearly 800 children in Buwaiswa. I was excited to have the opportunity to have an immediate impact on the lives of children. I hope that these de-worming initiatives will continue after we leave because they are essential to the health of children and their ability to develop into healthy adults.

Population Displacement in India Due to Climate Change: Why 3 Feet Equals 125 Million People

Climate change activists in northern India

Climate change activists in northern India

Climate change is increasingly understood to be a human induced phenomenon, greatly accelerating natural cycles. By now we have heard over and over again, that in it’s latest research the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has confirmed that accelerated climate change – global warming – is taking place. No surprise there. But, what may be a lesser known fact is the impact climate change is having on sea-levels.

A 3-feet rise in sea-level will inundate 3,700 square miles in India, of which Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai will be the major cities being affected. This would mean losses of billions of dollars in infrastructural, social, physical assets and capital.

According to Indian climate scientists, 125 million people are likely to migrate in the coming century of which 75 million will be from Bangladesh. The people from Bangladesh will most likely migrate to India in addition to their own 50 to 60 million people who will be displaced due to sea-level rise and resulting water source scarcities.

Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai are the largest cities on the coast of India, on an average elevation of 5-30 feet, which is in the Low Elevation Coastal Zone, an area that falls under 30 feet of coastal elevation. Approximately 50,000 square miles of land fall under this zone in India – this includes a population of over 60 million. Fifty percent of this population are in urban regions comprising approximately 31 million people.

These are sobering numbers that leave these predictions in the hands of local institutions. The question is whether these institutions are capable of managing or containing these problems.

One industry that will be hurt the most are the fishing communities, which live on the coast and are the least resilient to climate change. Livelihoods will be lost and  forced to move inland in search of alternative work.

Erratic rainfall, climate changes, water shortages and food scarcity will push the vulnerable communities of landless laborers, small farmers, into worse conditions forcing them to migrate to the cities in search of new livelihoods. Economists believe that the adaptive capacities of these communities are extremely low considering that they are already affected by negative trends of globalization.

If these trends continue and no major policy changes are made then the displacement will be around 50-60 million. Too high a number for the Indian government to not take action.

First month of computer classes, wrapped up!

Last week, we completed our first month of basic computer literacy. Most of the women went from never having used a computer before to understanding how to turn on and off the machines, drive the mouse and keyboard, create basic documents in MS Word, send emails, add contacts to their email lists, attach documents to emails, and conduct basic research using Google and Wikipedia.

Each woman had a different level of experience before the start of the class (some had used a typewriter before, for example), but none had used MS Word or an email client.

Ingrid even made a Facebook account (I know, arguably not the best use of time, but she really really wanted one, so I showed her how to make one during “computer free time”). She’s actually become something of a social networking expert, which can be easily dismissed as pointless, but I think actually ends up having a lot of value; it’s really fueled her interest in using the Internet. Her questions about how to use Facebook invariably lead to other questions about how to do more useful things like download and email photos and navigate the Internet.

All of the women who finished the course took a typing test in the end. They scored between 9 and 16 words per minute. Pretty good, considering that typing in Spanish is inherently a little slower than English (Spanish has longer words on average, a few extra letters, and accent marks). For comparison, Amy, Nora, our assistant teachers, and myself scored between 26 and 65 words per minute in Spanish.

The largest hindrance to the success of the course turned out to be poor attendance. Attendance for the computer classes was about the same as DHFs other course offerings, but missing one computer class prevented students from moving to the next. Between child-rearing, taking classes, fostering small businesses, and climbing out of poverty, most of our women have busy schedules and things just tend to come up. We are trying to encourage better attendance next month by refunding the sign-up fee to any student who comes to every class and completes all the homework. I’m also altering the curriculum for next month to make the course more relevant to the women’s businesses.

All of the women that finished the class took a survey about their experiences. Getting specific answers to my survey questions actually turned out to be something of a challenge. For example, if the question is “What did you learn in class that will be the most useful for running your business?” the response might be, “learning more about computers,” which is all but useless if my goal is to use surveys to improve the course. I’m not sure if explaining the point of the surveys will help or if I should change the form of the questions to make it harder to leave vague responses.

We started this week with the first level of Intermediate classes for the women who “graduated” from the basic level. More updates on that to come!