An Intelligent Transit Center for Detroit’s Future

I won’t claim to be an expert on Detroit transit history, but public transit is a major issue in Detroit that no one living in or visiting Detroit can ignore. I just took my wife and my best friend for the first time on the Detroit People Mover (DPM). We parked near Cobo to avoid a Tiger’s game and the accompanying traffic/ parking insanity, then we took the DPM to Broadway station to grab dinner at Small Plates. The whole ride I kept thinking about the critical link between the amount of parking available downtown and the lack of reliable public transit.

Want to increase public transit? Get rid of parking

Parking could be an entire rant of its own, but I want to focus on public transit. Detroit’s most well known piece of industrial “ruin porn” is Michigan Central Station (MCS), originally owned by the New York Central Railroad and built by the same architectural firm that constructed Grand Central Station in New York City. The building was supposed to exude elegance and grandeur, but was marked as an oddity due to the disconnect between the three-story train station against a backdrop of an eighteen-story nondescript office tower.

A Real Public Transit System

The trains arrived in Michigan Central terminal and a passenger could decide to catch a streetcar down Michigan Avenue to downtown or choose to take a horse-drawn carriage (later replaced by taxis). At its peak in 1914, nearly 200 trains left the station each day and in the early 1940s over 4,000 passengers rode the trains daily. Henry Ford even had his own private car that he took between New York and Detroit. During the following years of World War II, streetcars were mandated over buses in order to conserve gasoline and rubber. These were the glory days of public transit in Detroit, when you could catch a regular train to Chicago or New York and had the option to take a working network of streetcars throughout the city. Michigan Central Station was a working transit center for the city. In the 1950s, rail travel dropped off significantly with the rise of the auto industry and the construction of the highways. By 1956, all of the streetcars had been converted into Ford coach buses. In 1975, MCS was sold to the newly formed Amtrak, but they couldn’t maintain the costs associated with the massive building with so few passengers and again sold MCS in 1985. With less than a dozen trains a day, the last train left for Chicago from MCS in 1988. Now the building sits on the historic registry, but is unsalvageable and unfeasible as a transit center any longer.

Detroit’s public transit system has been plagued by issues for years. Transit received a boost in 2005 when the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) announced plans for the Rosa Parks Transit Center, which would run alongside the Michigan Avenue People Mover station. The magnificent tensile roof structure wasn’t awarded a contract until 2007 and was finally completed in 2009. Unfortunately, it seems that the only long term planning that occurred was to place it next to a People Mover station. The Rosa Parks Transit Center is located in an odd section of downtown that does not lend itself to integration with a larger citywide or regional transit system. Detroit’s downtown has an iconic hub-and-spoke street design making it fun to look at on a map, but difficult to maneuver for public transit. Likewise, Rosa Parks Transit Center was not constructed to act like other transit centers in large cities.

In other large cities, which Detroit is arguably no where near similar, transit centers are located roughly an average 2 miles away from the city’s main tourist attractions. New York City is allowed to be different because of its high density and small area.

Chicago Union Station Amtrak, Metra Rail, “L” Rail, City Bus, Bike Share Navy Pier 2.4 mi
Washington D.C. Union Station Amtrak, Metro Subway, City Bus, Bike Share White House 2.4 mi
New York City Grand Central Amtrak, Subway, City Bus, Bike Share Times Square 0.8 mi
Detroit Rosa Parks City Bus, People Mover Rail Comerica Park/ Grand Circus 0.7 mi
Detroit Michigan Central Amtrak, Streetcar Rail, City Bus Comerica Park/ Grand Circus 2.0 mi
Detroit New Center Amtrak, M1-Rail, City Bus, Bike Share Comerica Park/ Grand Circus 2.5 mi

A good example of the lack of long term planning is the filming of movies downtown (i.e. Transformers 4). The Rosa Parks Transit Center was shutdown during filming due to its proximity to downtown. This begs the question, do we really think nothing else will happen in downtown Detroit that might cause a disruption of transit service? My bet is “No” we hope there will be a myriad of events and happenings downtown that will bring in crowds of people on a regular basis. Then why was a transit center planned in the middle of downtown? There needs to be distance between attractions and transit centers to make public transit systems a viable  alternative. The other key factor for a transit center is that they are multi-modal: Amtrak + local rail + bus system + bike-share, etc. Thankfully, Megabus also uses the Rosa Parks Transit Center as a pickup and drop-off point.

A New Transit Center in New Center

This all leads me to my pitch for a new and intelligent transit center for Detroit. The New Center area marked by the Fisher Building is a perfect area to house an intelligent transit center. There is plenty of space for parking, an existing large workforce that needs to commute, and an Amtrak train station – not to mention it will also be situated along the new M1-Rail line, which also meets up with DDOT bus stops. After mashing up transit pathways for DDOT, SMART, DPM, and the new M1-Rail I came to the conclusion that expanding the existing Amtrak station across the tracks would make sense to bring together a multi-modal transit system for the city where you could catch a DDOT bus off the M1-Rail or take the M1-Rail downtown to the People Mover or return to Detroit using the Amtrak and choose how you want to get home.


As I was preparing to write all these ideas down, I came across this video from America2050, which proposed a high-speed rail connecting Chicago and Detroit (developing “megaregions“) and depicted a new fictional transit center located exactly where I had imagined it should be! A new transit center in New Center matches what other large cities have with a multi-modal center located roughly 2.5 miles away from a city’s main attraction. New Center is also a nice way point between the suburbs, offices in New Center, and attractions downtown allowing people to utilize it for multiple reasons.

Working public transit is critical for more than just tourists and businesses. Residents, young people, and especially the working poor rely on public transit to be able to get jobs and keep them. A working public transit system has the potential to increase employment which in turn helps decrease poverty and crime. In an odd way public transit makes urban revitalization benefit people across a city.

Update 10/10/13

I have recently learned that the parking lot where I am proposing a new transit center near New Center is currently managed/ owned by MDOT/ DDOT. This could not be a more perfect scenario. There is no need to obtain the land or convince a business to hand it over for a transit project, it is already owned by the transit authorities.

Critical Questions on Mental Health in America

The topic of America’s mental health system and the need to improve it has become a hot topics following the most recent gun violence at an elementary school in Connecticut. Most of what I have heard from the media and politicians is a broad “need to improve mental health.” It is always a very generalized statement without many specifics on how or where or to what end. It is likely that these pundits and politicians have no idea, but I think this leaves a critical gap in the mental health discussion.

“As soon as I’m finished speaking here, I will sit at that desk and I will sign a directive giving law enforcement, schools, mental health professionals and the public health community some of the tools they need to help reduce gun violence.

We will make it easier to keep guns out of the hands of criminals by strengthening the background check system.  We will help schools hire more resource officers if they want them and develop emergency preparedness plans.  We will make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence — even as we acknowledge that someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator.” – President Obama 01/16/13

An article that I read noted that it was easier to buy a gun than to access mental health services in America. Why is that true?

Mental Health Services Stigma

I seems as though the mental health climate in America is very similar to the stigma associated with PTSD within military circles. With the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq I remember reading that soldiers wouldn’t seek out counseling  for their PTSD because it was interpreted as if the soldier was unfit for service and had serious issues. This applies in both the military and civilian settings. When a soldier leaves duty they may still face stigma related to their PTSD.

Likewise, this often plays out in the civilian world. Seeking counseling is never seen as a positive endeavor. Meeting with a psychologist is a negative event in your life that you never hope to repeat and you most definitely don’t tell anyone publicly. But why?

Why Seek Mental Health Services?

What causes people to seek out mental health services? Are individuals only referred by their family doctor or sometimes do they attend because they are required?

Many people seek out mental health services as a result of substance abuse. Dealing with addictions is probably the most well recognized aspect of mental health in the US. However, there is often a high degree of stigma even for those with mental illness and addictions. Overcoming the stigma and discrimination against those in need of mental health is a huge hurdle if President Obama and others hope that mental health will be more easily accessible among the general public.

Other well known reasons for mental health services are: depression, bipolar, anxiety, and PTSD. Nearly 80% of individuals who suffer from depression say that they experienced some form of discrimination (Mental Health America). Other studies have found that racial discrimination and an individual’s level of poverty also contribute strongly to mental health. However, a recent poll has found that stigma against depression and seeking treatment for depression is decreasing.

Where are Mental Health Services Accessed?

I know for many students being on a campus makes it fairly easy to meet with a Counselor at various locations. How would individuals without easy access find and utilize mental health services. I know that individuals can go to a hospital or an emergency room if they are in immediate need of mental health services, but that can’t be the ideal method of accessing mental health.

Most people probably have no idea that they have access to preventative mental health care with their insurance, however this goes back to the stigma associated with seeking such treatment. The other major barrier to accessing mental health services is the high cost with a minimum around $100 and extensive treatment reaching over $10,000. As a result of the cost barrier, only around 7% of all adult Americans accessed mental health services (NSDUH report).

Since the majority of mental health tends to affect poor individuals this cost barrier makes it even harder to identify and treat mental health. Mental health services is included in the “essential health benefits” piece of the Affordable Care Act, but it is left up to States as to what is included. Without some serious thinking about why, how, and where individuals access mental health services – improving access will just be more political rhetoric. If we are serious about improving the mental health system then we need to be asking serious questions.

from the noble savage to the poor entrepreneur

The idea of the “noble savage” has long held a lofty place in our American psyche. The desire to return to our roots, become “nature’s gentleman” (or nature’s lady), and live traditionally and without excess has been around since the early 17th century with the school of thought known as “romantic primitivism.”

In nature humans are essentially good – Earl of Shaftesbury

What we often forget in emulating the “noble savage” that we are utilizing our privilege to throw out the burdens of modernity, technology, and convenience when many who live “closer to nature” do not have the luxury of changing their social status or well-being by choice. We also forget that we sit in privileged positions where our culture is considered “on top” while other cultures are labeled as: savage, backward, weird, or crazy.

The Noble Savage

Thanks to Disney  (“Disneyification“) we all have a pretty good understanding of the “noble savage” from the movie, Pocahontas. The life of Pocahontas’ people is so appealing that John Smith desires to join them. An even more recent example comes from the movie, Avatar, where a marine from the “civilized” world works to be accepted by a the nature-connected native inhabitants of a newly discovered planet loaded with mineral wealth, which corporations want to exploit. These examples all go without mentioning classic tales of the first Thanksgiving, where “noble savages” show pilgrims how to farm and gave gifts of food to the starving new worlders.

We all like to look at the simple pleasures of natural living, hard work and closeness to nature that other cultures and ways of life exhibit, but we rarely think about the reality of how “simple” those lives really are. The beauty of nature and peoples unburdened by technology and “development” seem appealing, but we often hold misunderstandings about them and overlook the deep complexity of the “other.” More importantly we prefer to look past the hardships they face due to the impacts of our own country’s economic and political policies.

The Hipster

In our own American culture we have seen the inevitable rise of “hipster” driven by a desire to appear to live and enjoy a life of poverty as denoted by attachment to various social markers: old clothing, cheap beer, bicycles, and lofty ideals. Everyone has most likely encountered these noble savages in a city nearby. This has become a large sub-section of our popular culture. Sadly many of these individuals who appear “poor” are pretending; spending $500 on cool wheel sets for a custom fixed gear bike or purchasing expensive meat substitutes with food stamps.

Privilege is a pretty damn easy thing to deal with, it just takes self-awareness and humility. I suggest you get some.

We are becoming “designer tribalists;” Working so hard to look a certain way in order to prove that we hold a morally high ground for being poor or downtrodden. The unfortunate side of this image effort is that being poor isn’t cool. Using our own social mobility and wealth to exploit the image of those who are actually poor only shows how misguided we are that “looking poor” is cool. If we truly cared about the poor we might change our image and instead use our privilege to support the poor.

The Aid Worker

Countless examples can be taken from individuals working internationally in the Peace Corps and other development organizations. We latch onto the new culture, language, and customs of the people with whom we are working with. We emulate the local culture, look down on tourists who don’t speak the local language, and sometimes prefer to identify with this new community as opposed to our own community back home. We become the perfect examples of those who follow the “noble savage” and desire to join them.

Often aid workers decide its their number one job to blend in: adopt local clothing, language, habits, etc.

You eat their food, you wear their clothes, you’ve learned enough of their language to buy food and clothes. If you blend in well enough, they might mistake you for one of them. And there is no higher honor for the expat aid worker than to be mistaken for local.

Yet again this is an exercise of privilege. As aid workers we will only be involved for a short time. We can leave whenever we choose because of our international social mobility, yet the community that we have come to emulate is stuck and has no ability to travel beyond its country’s boundaries as we so easily do.

The Poor Entrepreneur

The noble savage seems to have shifted these days to rely less on primitive and traditional images of native peoples in nature to the idea of the resilient, “poor entrepreneur.” Individuals in the “developing” world who would been categorized as noble savages in an earlier century are now referred to as poor and entrepreneurial. Their poverty makes them business-minded and innovative, however this is not so much a  function of their ingenuity, but more a symbol of the growing inequality of our global system. To look at a person in poverty and say that their innovation is so pure is to remove their unprivileged history. They fashioned their own door hinges out of shoe soles because it was either too expensive to afford metal hinges or there was just nowhere to purchase them. They find new ways to keep cars running, use bicycles parts for windmills, and turn microfinance funds into a livelihood.

The “poor entrepreneur” is a social commentary on global inequality, and thus privilege, around the world. As aid organizations and micro-lending groups prop up the stories of these new “noble savages” we have to remember the reasons for innovation in poverty. If we all faced the same levels of oppression, inequality, and poverty – wouldn’t we all innovate a little more to improve our outlook on life?

Why are they poor in the first place?

This is the burning question. How do families, groups, or populations become poor in the first place? Through structural inequalities. How do the poor become “entrepreneurial?” Is it from Western education, funding, and influence or are the poor in “developing” countries already innovating for themselves? Many organizations and NGOs would have us believe that the poor have become entrepreneurs through their care and influence. However, there are countless examples that allow us to say that Western intervention or dollars are not required to make an entrepreneur. I don’t necessarily believe that entrepreneurs are born or taught, but rather it is a confluence of knowledge, circumstance, and opportunity. Anyone can be an entrepreneur, but not everyone has the same privilege or resources to overcome the structural inequalities that often block entrepreneurs from “developing” countries. We regard these poor people “entrepreneurs” without truly understanding the difficulties that they have faced trying to make ends meet and get their innovations recognized by large NGOs and companies.

Beyond the “developing” world, we are all attempting to become more entrepreneurial. As national economies struggle, we all face harsh economic times and often debt realities. If to be poor and innovative is to be an entrepreneur than to face an economic downturn must only be a bump in the road. There is more to poverty than innovation. The privilege of where you are born into the world is impossible to control and yet we still want to say that some people are better than others based on their income level. Privilege drives the world economy and it is a hard battle to take that privilege from the hands of those who have not earned it.

why #OccupyDetroit won’t work

The #OccupyWallStreet protests have been incredible to watch. The protestors picked a great target for their message, organized without planning for a one day event, and have been building support ever since. I’ve spoken with friends involved in spinoff occupations and many ask me when “Occupy Detroit” is going to begin. Since then I’ve been throwing the idea around in my head and it never quite fits for Detroit. Just today I discovered that “Occupy Detroit” has already started to be organized for October 21, 2011.

1. What to Occupy

Interestingly the meeting point chosen is the iconic Detroit symbol of “ruin and decay,” Michigan Central Station. A large, empty building near Corktown, privately owned is not a great location to bring a large group of people to protest. I understand it is just the meeting point and protests will take place downtown, but that is where everyone should meet – downtown. It seems like the larger problem is that there is a group of people interested in occupying something, but they aren’t sure what to occupy yet.

The biggest corporate symbol in Detroit is GM Tower, right downtown by the river. The problem with protesting GM is that Detroiters and Michiganders are sick of being angry at the auto companies. It is a protest fatigue, everyone and their grandmother has something to say against the auto companies. It is an argument that doesn’t hold passion anymore. So what is next? Therein lies the problem. Detroit, corporately, is pretty small. The best large corporations that are in the city worth protesting are the banks. Many of the banks backed out of home loans for many Detroit residents during the recession. Just recently Citizen’s Bank was taken to court because of racial discrimination and unequal lending practices in Detroit and Flint.

Corporations take advantage of Detroit’s population in poverty all the time. A perfect example is Chase Bank, they have their community giving initiatives to look good, but where does the money they give away come from? It comes from all the people whose houses they foreclosed. Chase has set up a number of simple drive-through banking stations across the city. They’ve used technology to offer their service and avoided placing people in buildings to serve communities. Chase is notorious for its predatory lending services for home mortgages.

Chase Tower is located downtown, in the middle of an area where many wealthy people from the suburbs like to frequent. A potential place to make a statement in Detroit.

In the end, occupation in Detroit will be difficult. Many people “camp out” everyday for lack of a home or place to sleep. It is a divide between those who choose to take to the streets and those who have no choice. Another issue is that much of Detroit is unoccupied, so the message of an #OccupyDetroit effort may be easily lost.

2. Who will Occupy?

The other major problem that I see is that the young, white activist community in Detroit is doing the organizing. This is a far cry from the locally run organizations and neighborhood block clubs where the real effects of corporate greed are hardest felt. Many times African American residents of Detroit are very skeptical of young, white people making a lot of noise.

When the United Stated Social Forum (USSF) came to Detroit in the summer of 2010, there was a deep divide between the white activist community in Detroit (and the US) and the majority African American residents of the city. I was asked by many people, “what is going on?” and “why are all of these people here?” That isn’t to say that there was no racial diversity at the USSF, but unfortunately those who represented Detroit were a majority white activists disconnected from those living in Detroit.

I recently attended TEDxDetroit which was again a majority white. Detroit’s population is 76% African American, but TEDxDetroit was easily 80% or more white individuals with ideas to bring into Detroit without involving those who already live here. Why can’t organizations find and highlight the work done by people already here?

Detroit is full of vibrant ideas and interesting people. The problem is that the residents of Detroit who are facing the most difficult issues aren’t downtown. Most residents of Detroit live out in the neighborhoods and can’t often benefit from the downtown developments created to bring people in from the suburbs.

3. Already Occupied?

It is safe to say that many of those who live below the poverty line are less concerned with occupying something downtown and instead working on advancing their status in life. Detroit has a high percentage of its population living below the poverty line, hungry, without health insurance, and many without good paying jobs. The residents of Detroit are already occupied with making their lives and city a better place.

The recent Census showed that Detroit’s population is decreasing. Many people that I have talked to, including, Detroit high school student talk about getting out of Detroit and leaving for something better. How can a generation that wants to get out of Detroit be motivated to occupy what they don’t want?

If there is any sort of occupation in Detroit, it will represent the economic and racial disparities in the city and demonstrate the deep need to build real connections across communities. A real movement in Detroit would involve Block Clubs and Neighborhood Associations.

poverty, in landscapes of scarcity and abundance

I haven’t been posting any new writing in a while because I’ve been off getting married to the love of my life! Everything went amazingly with the food, pictures, families, and the party after the ceremony. I couldn’t have been a happier person on that day, nor will I ever be happier than I was that day – at least until some other huge life events.

We spent 10 days on our honeymoon in Peru. Many people asked us how in the world we chose Peru. The truth is that we found a great deal on plane tickets and it was cheaper than Hawaii. What sealed the deal was that we both had never traveled anywhere in South America and wanted to see one of the wonders of the world: Machu Picchu. As long as our horrible Spanish was deciphered, we could buy the lower deck seats on the overnight buses (top deck feels like riding in a boat), and could find some fresh produce to eat – all of which are not necessarily easy, then we did alright. People were helpful, the Plazas de Armas were beautiful and manicured, the mountain scenery was incredible, and there were plenty of tourists – Peruvian and foreign alike.

What most shocked me about the experience was going back to work the Monday after we returned from our honeymoon. Driving down areas near Grand Boulevard and Trumbull:

Detroit’s poverty hit me hard.

I know that poverty and urban decline in Detroit have become romantically connected to the grit of America and its loss of industry, but this was different. I wasn’t excited to see the “ruin porn” or the decay of Detroit’s empty landmarks. I was having true culture shock. Growing up near Flint, urban decay and vacant industrial buildings were nothing new. On this drive, however, I could see the downtown Detroit skyline from the expressway while on my left and right were neighborhoods falling apart and huge structures with broken windows and without any activity.

The stark contrast was the difference between the poverty of abundance and the poverty of scarcity. Peru is not a wealthy country. The country gets a steady stream of tourists from around the world due to its pivotal location hosting the Incan empire and its prized city on the hill, Machu Picchu. Beyond the Plazas de Armas and the tourist meccas, there are obvious signs of poverty. My wife commented that just two or three blocks away from the manicured Plazas seemed to be the boundary for where any wealth reached. I recently wrote about how Mount Kilimanjaro is known for having the highest percentage of tourist dollars go back into the communities nearby, Peru made me wonder where all the tourist dollars were going besides improving tourism. In every city, we were met with street vendors, but also women and children dressed in traditional clothing asking if we wanted to take pictures with them for a fee. It hurt to see because it seemed to be a selling of their spirit, their culture, but it was one of the few ways they had to get by. Taking the taxi from Cuzco to Poroy train station gave a clear visual of the layers of wealth and poverty based on access to tourist dollars. The housing became more and more rundown as we went further from Cuzco and down into Poroy, where the best looking building was the train station. On many long bus rides we also witnessed the vast, empty, barren spaces were dotted with square homes. The poverty of scarcity was obvious in Peru, but it was also mostly hidden from tourists.

Maybe the reason that Detroit’s poverty hit me hardest was because Detroit doesn’t try to hid its poverty. There is no large tourism industry in Detroit and buildings lie abandoned, burned out, and collapsed. Our honeymoon to Peru really highlighted the differences between poverty based in areas of scarcity and poverty in places of apparent abundance. Even while Detroit has a history of abundance, many could argue that it is just as much a landscape of scarcity.

middles classes & the globalization of #winning

News agencies and development pundits have been hailing the news that one-third of all Africans are now categorized as middle class and can be compared/ compete with China and India’s middles classes. I see a number of problems with this news, the criteria used to define middle class, and the comparison between an entire continent of people and those of two large countries (both of which are increasingly involved in development in Africa). The recent report from the Africa Development Bank (PDF) says that:

34%, or 313 million Africans are now middle class (living on $2-$20 a day), after several decades without any change, a jump from 27% in 2000.

The Asia Development Bank published a similar report last year saying that 56% of the Asian population is living on $2 – $20 a day (PDF). This calls into question the definition of middle class. I consider myself middle class in the United States of America and my family has been characterized as middle class ever since I can remember. However, my family and I definitely live on more than $20 per day and I would never imagine being able to call myself middle class based on how much money I spend in a day. Its all about location. Here in the US, the term middle class is synonymous with the “American Dream.” It is not so much a hard and fast economic development term that we can use to compare ourselves with other countries, but rather a socio-cultural term that is used to compare ourselves to each other in our attainment of the “American Dream” (Western notions of success).

The Guardian cites MIT economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, who point out that:

the middle classes are: likely to be less connected to agriculture; more likely to be engaged in small business activities; and benefit from formal sector employment, with a weekly or monthly salary, which enables them to adopt a longer-term perspective towards their finances.

Even with a more economic definition, nothing about the term middle class is set in stone and it varies widely between communities and countries (more economic definitions of middle class). The Guardian continued to note that $2 is the poverty line for most countries, so if you live on more than that you are middle class, but there is no in-between. This only continues to prove that “middle class” cannot be defined by economists or development pundits. If we look closer at the term in the United States, it has always been a fluid and flexible term that a wide range of the population wanted to use. The majority of Americans call themselves “middle class” even when many fall into “working” or “upper” class categories based on their income levels.

Middle class often means achieving higher education, holding a professional job position, owning a home, and having a well established lifestyle that is socially acceptable. All of these status symbols mean something different across culture and country of origin. Populations bend and shape their definition of being “in-between” poor and more well off by different standards that are generally unwritten. If we use the United States as an example again, the Pew Research Center conducted a study on social and demographic trends to find that there isn’t just one middle class in America, but four! The study found that people often held onto definitions of middle class that defied traditional stereotypes.

In conclusion, we are all middle class. Whether we want to call ourselves middle class or we truly fit the economic definition, the majority of individuals around the globe identify themselves in the middle class. There is a global middle class that has no financial boundaries, but rather includes all individuals who seek advancement, education, and something more than what they currently have. Economists and development pundits cannot create a definition of middle class for a continent let alone a country, nor can they compare the middle class of the USA to that of another country or especially a continent.

If we want to truly understand if 1 in 3 Africans are middle class, then there needs to be some serious work that includes understandings of success in various countries and asks a large segment of a country’s population how they identify their socio-economic status based on their cultural norms. Why tell someone that their success isn’t as important as another’s?

Photo credit: BBC News

More “African middle class” pictures from BBC News

she’s taking on more water; the zimbabwean titanic

As a ship with a hole takes on water, so too does a state or government sink with a corrupt and ineffective government. Zimbabwe is sinking, many have noted this before, but presently its plunge to the depths seems to be even more imminent. President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is losing control of his country and is losing support from his allies. Zambian President Mwanawasa has called the Zimbabwean state to be like a <a href="
“>titanic and the BBC notes that, “he said the country’s economic difficulties were forcing its citizens to leave like passengers jumping from the sinking ship to save their lives.” Zambia had previously been a proponent of quiet diplomacy. However, now even South Africa’s criticism is increasing, but has not voiced outright criticism of the Zimbabwean government. The United Kingdom has stated that the solution to the issue of Zimbabwe will be found within Africa. This statment may be gaining strength as the economic crises continue and the devaluation of the Zimbabwean currency continues and fuel costs soar. The final paragraph of this BBC article states, “More than 80% of Zimbabweans are living in poverty, with chronic unemployment and inflation running at more than 1,700% – the highest in the world.”

Yesterday President Mugabe attended <a href="
“>’crunch talks’ in Tanzania as the southern African leaders seek to find a solution to Zimbabwe. Many African leaders see Mugabe as a hero for standing against colonial rule, however I am not so sure that a defiance of colonial rule includes not serving your people and allowing them to suffer. As these talks occurred, the headquarters of the leading opposition to Zimbabwe’s government was raided by police. This has become a common theme. The Zimbabwean government has continually attacked any opposition, demonstration, or dissent. Mugabe arrived at the Tanzanian summit and as he did it appeared as though the police had begun a new crackdown on the opposition. The Movement for Democratic Change’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was among 20 people detained in a police raid yesterday. Some of those arrested were accused of fire-bombing, but Tsvangirai was not among them. The opposition is seen by the Zimbabwean administration as a Western puppet to overthrow Mugabe. The Information Minister told the BBC, “You [the West] are too much concerned with your Tsvangirai because he is your puppet and you make him an international hero.”

Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, now says that he favors elections next year. Mugabe had previously said that he would like to postpone elections until 2010 to extend his term, yet his own party, the Zanu-PF party, has stated that they were, “”anxious to get another candidate”. Gone in a year? Possibly, losing support of his own party, his people, and now his own resolve seems to be failing. When dissent is not allowed, opposition is forceable put down, and people are not permitted to voice concern with their government then how can you expect your boat to float?

However I am just a Westerner writing about what I have seen and what I have read. Don’t take it from me. Check out this blog entry from the This is Zimbabwe blog. The entry linked to is a clip from the South African news about the issue of Zimbabwe.

young people for. . .

This year I have been awarded a fellowship through the Young People For the American Way. YP4 is a youth-driven and youth-led program that brings together young leaders and activists who are eager to ensure that their voices are heard on critical issues, such as civil liberties, the judiciary, free speech, the environment, and civil rights. The program is designed for serious people who are interested in becoming more effective leaders and making a difference. I am happy and honored to say that I have been chosen as one of those people. Coming up this month in roughly 6 days is the National Summit of all the progressive leaders chosen for the fellwoship. I am very excited to be headed to Washington D.C. and meet the outstanding student leaders from across the US.

“In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation. . .”
– Great law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy)

As I have said before, I am an idealist – or that is how many people define me – I am a dreamer, but I keep the realities of the world close at hand. In my young age I have experienced so much, met so many inspiring people, seen so much suffering, and witnessed an incredible amount of hope. I dream, but I also see my dreams come to life, I hope and that hope becomes an embodied passion. I dream of a world where my children can live and have no fear. Fear is merely the term used when there is an absence of compassion. I dream of a world where peace is the norm, we will cooperate and coexist and accept one another for who he or she may be. I dream of a world where passion for life and the well-being of others drives the world and not lust for fame, fortune, or the frivolity of things. I dream and I hope. One of my favorite quotes: “Dreams do not meet the overhead, believers do.” A person who does not dream cannot be a believer, but a dreamer has to do more than just envision, a dreamer has to put their heart and soul into their dreams. What I see as the greatest problem in our country (USA) and in our world is the great lack of passion and compassion in society. Where there is a lack of passion there is a lack of purpose. Where there is a lack of compassion there is a lack of hopes and dreams. This all leads to what we are experiencing today – a government with little citizen participation, a society bent on getting more, a world caught up in greed, and a cynical base of societal leaders.

The most basic human emotion of compassion is neglected. People need to be relating to one another as equals. Our pain is the same yet in this world that seems to bring no gain. Broken and dying the poverty stricken are lying at society’s doorsteps. Who will it be who brings about the change in people’s attitudes? What will you do? Today people relate to one another through historical class structures that have somehow made it into the modern world. We go to the schools of our same class (private, public), we attend the same stores as our class, and we meet at the same community centers as our class. Capitalism has driven us apart, its drive for more profit at any cost and hierarchical divisons make us insensitive to the plights of others – because they are below us. Yes, you guessed it I am a socialist. No, not a communist – a socialist, there is a difference. I believe that when economics and class structures are leveled then we will live in a truly equal (and then free) world. When we do not rely on gaining for ourselves, but for our neighbors then we will be a free society. When we can work together to end poverty of all peoples then democracy will be true.

This can all be changed as the decision making power lies with the people. Right now the people do not realize this because those in power use fear to control and gain more power. War, terrorism, flu pandemics – be very afraid and give more power to your government to protect you. No, this is where people need to step up and be more involved democrats (as in a supporter of democracy – not political party)! If we truly live in a democracy then we the people need to be sure that the powerful know what is at stake. Democracy is more than just an idea and a great white building – democracy is a mindset of the people. Democracy is more than a building and less than a person. Democracy lives outside the great buildings of Washington D.C., but has more power than each man or woman gives to it. The decision making power seems to fearfully reside with the primp and proper politicians on the hill, but truly the power resides in the hands of the people – we only need more passion and compassion!

This is just a glance at what concepts and values are in the world I imagine for the future. I believe it to be a possibility. Even more than a possibility, a hope. When we embolden and embody our passions and compassion, when we realize career politicians have no place in America, when we recognize that we each hold the power to help one another and change the world, only then will my imagination be served no longer. The burning issues of passion and compassion live on my campus, in my community, and in our country. When a student refuses to listen to all sides and later decide on their own, when a community leader pushes for a ban of rights for underserved people, when a country bows to fear – this is when the burning issues of passion and compassion rule the day. I strongly believe that the youth of today hold the creativity and the answers to reverse this trend and change the world for the better of society. The youth are the future, we are the future, what do want to see in your future?

new world discovered

Somewhere out there, in the deep and expansive universe there lies a world. Circling the misty reaches of space and swirling in an almost unrecognizable fog. A world where there are vast deserts and jungles, mountains and volcanoes, long droughts and rainy seasons. A world of vibrant color and cloaking mystery. In this world there lives a certain type of creature; a being so distant and unknown we would not even recognize its existence. Most of our society would consider this creature’s living condition to be less than their own. Our society would shun such a creature, let’s call this creature povertarius developinus.

Povertarius lives in the so called ‘third’ world. The world that orbits around the cerebral matter in our skulls encircling the first world, somewhere near the trajectory of the second world. Povertarius is trapped in this world because the inhabitants of the first world keep povertarius in a perpetual course so as to hinder povertarius’ ability to develop, whether known or not. What those in the first world do not realize is that povertarius is not the only creature developing.

Ok, so crawl back out of fantasy world before we go too deep into that illustration. The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as the ‘third’ world. It is an idea that has been put into our heads by western society because there are members of this world that do not live at the same ‘standard’. That term seems to denote a high standing or ability, but is almost near opposite. There is only one world and we are all a part of its rotating wonder. The majority of the peoples on the continent of Africa are labeled as living in this ‘third’ world. Even as they develop and build they remain in the ‘developing’ state. As the President of Zambia, Mr. Mwanawasa said, “It is not easy to achieve everything at once like they are telling you. Even developed countries are still developing.” In the last five years, his administration worked hard to stabilise the economy and now time had come to improve the living standards of the people.

African countries may be in the process of developing, but so are we, the people in western countries. We are developing the way we see the world and how we react or act to the different situations that various people face. We are developing our ability to care and show compassion, the most basic human action, to those who need our help. We need to start developing a process to assist those who most need our help. We need to develop our government’s actions to fit the size of its big words and statements. The world’s people need to recognize that we are not separated by very much anymore, except maybe our prejudices and false perceptions. We are not so distant as to claim we live in different worlds any longer. The distance is only in our minds. Welcome to the world. This is your formal welcome, we’d love you to join us.

(I guess I really don’t have the authority to welcome you all to the world, but it sounded good in writing. I hope the collective peoples of the world welcome you with open arms, open eyes, open minds, and open hearts.)