Sunday, December 02, 2007

London, London, London, we going down~

I got super lucky last month and got to spend a week in one of my favorite cities (which, as you might have guessed from my title was) across the pond in London, England. I had this fabulously unexpected opportunity through the fabulous service organization, City Year, I gave two years of my life to. It was essentially a four day business trip, full of back to back meetings to learn about the burgeoning youth service movement in Britain and gauge the possibility of bringing CY there. Our hotel was the Royal Horseguards Thistle Hotel, which is steps from the Millennium Bridge and down the street from Trafalgar Square (it's the one with the big lion statues) and the National Gallery. We got a great deal because it was the off season, otherwise there is no way our little non profit could have afforded it. It was beautiful! We got a full delicious English breakfast each morning as part of our stay, where I dined on eggs, hash browns (which were more like tater tots or latkas than American hash browns) and baked beans!!! That might sound gross, but trust me, they're great! I don't eat baked beans in America, they are disgusting. English baked beans, however, are so delicious, they are enjoyed on toast. Their orange juice wasn't fresh though; it was from concentrate! Gross. Needless to say, because of our crazy meeting schedule, I didn't get much time to enjoy our close proximity to Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, St James Park or any other wonderful, historic tourist attraction. Luckily I have been to London many times and did not feel the need to see the sites, so I wasn't missing out. It was nice just to stroll or drive by them as we went to our many engagements. Surprisingly, London in the middle of autumn was much milder than I expected, not at all the dreary, depressing mess I had heard about for so many years. I guess global warming is doing something right. It was quite lovely, and I loved being able to walk around and soak up the atmosphere.

I spent a great deal of my time translating the cross-cultural communication we were doing. I did my best to bring a bunch of Yanks up to speed on both the major parts and the minutiae of British life. Schooling in Britain is different than America, all the way through college, which they call university. Compulsory schooling ends at 16 there. To them, college is the two years of school post high school (from ages 16 thru 18) where students decide on the subjects they want to study in college, learn only those, and prepare for huge exams in these subjects. The results of these exams, called A-levels (Harry Potter fans might recognize them as "O.W.L.s") determine which universities each student will place into and whether or not they will get admitted into the program of their choice (ie accounting, engineering, medicine, law). There is no liberal arts system there, and if you don't know what you want to do with the rest of your life at 16, well, tough luck.

Many young people can't wait to age out of the system. Since jobs, training programs and engaging opportunities for these minimally educated young people is scarce, they end up in the category of NEETs. NEETs is a govt term referring to young people, 16-18 yrs old, who are Not engaged in Education or Employment Training. They are not contributing to society and are beyond the scope of welfare. They are seen as a marginalized threat that is burden on their community. It is believed that many turn to delinquent behavior (drugs, alcohol, out of wedlock births, crime) with nothing to do. There is currently a huge push to direct money, both public and private, to organizations that offer some credible alternative for these NEETs.

London is hosting the 2012 Olympic Games, and like any host city in ther years leading up to it, there is a great deal of money floating around to improve it. This giant honey pot is both public and private. A lot of this funding is looking for a home with non profit organizations that are engaging youth to better their communities and build the culture of service. What better organization than my very own? We found a real need for our kind of proven service model and quantifiable results. We also found an extremely stratified society in terms of race, class, education level, ethnicity, among other things. This society is so segregated that people from different backgrounds and classes almost never have the opportunity to meet or interact, let alone work together for anything. There are no institutions where people can meet, make connections, build relationships, work together toward a common goal or share in a culture and experience together. Basically, these people need City Year!! The English folks we met with were interested in our program model and in our almost two decade track record. They were often unconvinced that City Year's cheerful, cheesy, peppy, multicultural organizational culture would fly with the staid, stiff upper lip conservative British folks.

They had some crazy impression that all Americans were cheesy, cheerful, silly and had no problem making fun of themselves in public. They thought that we were able to Power Greet (when CY corps members greet guests to our events with raucous songs, chants, applause and helpful directions) the masses, legions of starry eyed, idealistic Americans lining up to don the red jacket and donate to our cause. Yeah flipping right. Every year, there are corps members who hate starting their day with powerful PT (Physical Training), who hate the powerful unifying symbol of the uniform, who chafe under rules instructing what to do, how to dress, look and behave and are definitely not cheerful. They get over it. If they don't, they leave. It's that simple. When you dedicate a year of your life to service with City Year, you take a pledge (often each day) to put the community your serving before your own needs. You vow to work with your fellow corps members, putting your idealism to work in order to build the beloved community, bridging the gaps of difference by being the change you want to see in the world. It's some pretty powerful stuff if you take it seriously. British folks could get to be a part of it someday too, stiff upper lip not withstanding.

We've expanded to Johannesburg, South Africa and that corps has added so much to our culture, we've now use a lot of those things across the American network of CY sites. I can't even begin to imagine what British young people would contribute to the culture. Probably looser rules about alcohol, lol.

It was a great experience, and I was honored to go on CY's behalf. I got to meet some other alumni who were very cool. I also got to meet some of CY's founding board members. Talk about wealthy! My gosh... The highlight of the trip for me was getting to see my cousins, Naz and Kamal, and my new cousin (Kamal's wife) Sarah. We sat in a restaurant the day I arrived (after I hadnt slept in about 30 hours) and just talked. We havent ever had the chance to just talk, get to know one another and catch up since we've all been adults, and it was FANTASTIC. What fabulous people! I'm so glad we're related:) They certainly make up for the complete disappointment that is my paternal family tree. We talked about politics, the economies in both our countries, culture, cross cultural identities, India/Pakistan- it was AWESOME. I can't wait to go back this summer for a paternal cousin's wedding so I can see them and spend more time with them. By then, inshallah, there should be a niece waiting for me too!! :)

If you look very carefully, behind our dazzling red jackets, there is Big Ben, hidden in the darkness.

Here is Big Ben as we drive by on my last day.

My cousins Kamal, Sarah and I in the beautiful lobby.

The giant flower arrangement that lent the lobby beauty and fragrance the week I was staying at the Royal Horseguards Thistle Hotel. :D

My room, check out the twin beds pushed together!

My marble bathroom.

View outside the hotel entrance.

The fireplace in the lobby that always had a fire going.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day. Get tested! Donate money to fund research to find a cure! Talk about it, learn about, teach about it; the more we talk about it, the less stigma there will be. Here's a Washington Post article on the state of HIV/AIDS in the nation's capitol.

Study Calls HIV in DC A 'Modern Epidemic'

Here's another Washington Post article about the rise in AIDS cases around the nation.

Where's your red ribbon?

It takes a village...

Hey everyone. It's me. It's been almost an entire semester since I've written, and it is nice to just be writing whatever pops into my head. These last few months have been so hectic and yet uneventful at the same time. I've been taking two amazing Women's Studies classes that have deepened my (ahem! already broad and informed!) understanding and awareness of the world. I have as yet been completely unlucky in the search for a entry level, modestly paying full time gig, although I have landed a substitute teaching gig at a local preschool.

I've been doing it for the last two months and am dedicated to branch out into temping. The politics and petty unprofessionalism of many employees of said preschool is too much for me. These individuals seem to care more about their alliances than the children, more about their outfits than giving the kids attention and more about controlling the children than teaching them. So many times during my break I have wished for a computer handy so that I could document all the jumbled thoughts running through my head. In my classes, I've been learning all about the nature of gender segregated work and the fact that most jobs in America, over 80%, are predominantly one gender or the other. Of those gendered occupations, jobs that care for, serve or nurture others are the least valued, the least paid and often the least trained. Unfortunately, childcare often falls into that category.

Everyday, I see in real life what the studies and readings from my Gender in Everyday Life and the Evolution of Black Feminist Thought discuss. I feel like I'm watching a sociological study unfold in front of me. The women who teach at the school are mostly women of color and most have only their high school educations. They aren't qualified, aren't salaried, don't have contracts and don't know much about child development. The not being salaried and not having contracts isn't their fault, it's the fault of a system that doesn't regard childcare and education a priority. As a result, they aren't paid well, don't have much job security and are often in these paid positions because they have no training and can't do anything else. Since they are paid so poorly, they can't pay for classes to get certified and trained either.

The preschool/childcare center caters to mostly economically disadvantaged families. As a result, the center gets money from the state to cover many children, and the center is often cash strapped. These children are the ones who would benefit the most from trained, skilled, qualified teachers who know how to teach pre-literacy skills and how to recognize learning disabilities and speech problems. The teachers come out of pocket to buy almost all of their supplies for their classrooms and activities. These children would benefit most from state of the art facilities where all their senses were constantly engaged, where computer use was daily for each child, along with intensive vocabulary and individual reading time. The state of CT is very progressive compared to most other states in terms of defraying childcare costs and legally requiring the safety, health and facilities available to all the state's children. It has declared that by 2020, all childcare workers will be qualified in early care and education and early childhood development. Unfortunately, that doesn't immediately help any of these aforementioned teachers who are not certified or academically trained.

My mother, on the other hand, is a childcare professional, with two decades of experience, fully qualified and a degree in early childhood development under her belt. She loves children, all children, and is amazing at interacting with, teaching and challenging them. She teaches at this preschool, and is constantly pushing everything forward with her work and example. I watch all the children at the preschool lean to her, like small flower buds leaning toward sunlight, because she gets on their level, interacts with them, talks to them, sings with them, plays with them, comforts them, and is always thinking of new ways to show them new things. Many of the other teachers, none of whom are qualified, resent my mother's skill, training, innovative ideas, creativity and sheer love of the children. They watch her, in turns amused and annoyed, as she chases the children on the playground, engaging with them, interacting with them and validating them. Around her, they feel safe, loved, and challenged. She finds ways to teach them about everything in a fun science-focused way that turns even seemingly mundane task into a new discovery. Those other teachers are right to feel insecure, she's amazing at what she does.

Yesterday afternoon I got to cover the afternoon shift with the two year olds classroom, where I had spent a week subbing. I got a chance to run, play, sing, and dance with the kids, and they were GLOWING. We ran around outside in the playground for 15 minutes, just going in circles, chasing each other and laughing. I was elated to get to spend so much joyful time with them. I sang a welcome song with them, sitting on the ground so that I was at eye level with them, and we sang it in different voices, at the suggestion of one of the children. All eight children clamored around, sticking their hands out to shake mine, taking turns and suggesting which of their friends should get a turn next. They were so excited! It was nice weather outside, so we stayed out for an entire half an hour, instead of going in early like we normally do. The kids couldn't get enough. It was beautiful, getting to interact with them, watching their eyes light up, having them sing along and participate 100% in the song "If you're happy and you know it," do the Hokey Pokey, sing "Five little ducks" and then want to chase and be chased for 15 minutes. These are two year olds and almost two year olds; 15 minutes of anything is a big undertaking for them. I just wanted to hug and tickle them, shower them with all the love and energy I had. I enjoyed it so much because there was nothing but the children to occupy my attention. Just their little, new lives in a big world that they haven't discovered yet.

These kids have two teachers who never play with them, certainly don't run around with them, and don't even hug them. (One teacher tells the children not to hug her so as not to ruin her clothes.)

When we finally went inside, they had to sit and watch Barney. Not nearly as exciting as running around outside, but you can't really replace the big purple dinosaur. He's their sacred cow. I made a point to tell the parents how much fun we had playing outside, and the parents were almost as excited as the children. "Got a chance to get some exercise today for a change, huh? That's great!" one parent responded.

Don't get me wrong; it's not a bad center. But it is not a great center, with the exception of my magnificent mom. It could be so much better. I have enjoyed the children I have gotten to know, marveled at the things I have been able to teach them, lamented if they regress, celebrate as they learn and grow each day, and loved all of them. It's amazing how developed and solid the personality of a child can be, only having been in the world for a series of months. They are little people, with their own tastes, likes/dislikes, moods and joys. The things they notice, pick up and know- it is just a wonder to behold. I guess parents feel like that as they watch their children grow. But I think teachers get the best opportunity to witness these changes, eccentricities and developments. I am proud to say that I got to be a small part of the village actively raising this community's children; they're beautiful.

Having been through this experience, I am reminded of the world I want to see. I want to be part of a world where the village it takes to raise our children is a well funded, well paid, well trained, adequately qualified, universally insured, loving village where our children are our biggest priority.

What about you?