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People of purpose

7 Jun

This past week I had the amazing opportunity to go to a great place called The Painted Turtle (TPT). TPT is a camp for children with chronic illnesses designed to make the kids forget about their medical conditions and to enjoy themselves and to just be kids.The Camp is situated in California and is part of the SeriousFun Children’s Network Camps founded by Paul Newman. Unfortunately, due the wildfires in California, TPT had to cancel all summer sessions.

This past week I had the fortune to spend a couple of days with half of the summer staff and the full-time staff. We spent five days together and day and night we played, we laughed, we cried, we learned from each other and we hoped for the best. During times of uncertainty people’s true colors tend to surface and an atmosphere of desperation, pessimism and frustration usually predominates. However, in this case everyone’s reaction to uncertainty was quite the opposite. Everyone was sympathetic, hopeful, cheerful, understanding and a positive vibe predominated the whole time. The sense of family and community among the staff (many had just met a couple of days ago) was something unknown to me. These folks in their twenties come from different paths in life and even from different countries. It’s a very diverse group of enormously talented people. Their sense of purpose is truly inspiring and the passion and dedication they put into working towards achieving that purpose is just incredible.This is not your average college or post-college young adult. Don’t let their age fool you. Some of them may be young, but they will surprise you by their maturity, discipline, commitment and how well-versed they are.

The series of events over the past days and the wonderful people that I’ve met have been very inspiring to me. It’s been like one of those moments/events/situations that restores your fate in humanity. I now understand why so many people call TPT a “magical place”. Camp is the people and it will go wherever its people are.

I’m confident that next summer TPT will come back stronger than ever as it will also be commemorating its 10 year anniversary! Please visit its website for more information regarding Camp or to show support through this hard times.

Good read: The Oath …an insight to the Supreme Court Justices and their upcoming ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 cases.

30 May


If you are interested and/or curious about the latest developments on the LGBT civil rights movement and you are waiting to hear the Supreme Court ruling this June on DOMA and Prop 8 cases, then you would certainly like The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin.

Through a recompilation of interviews, anecdotes and facts, Jeffrey Toobin describes the interactions among justices and provides the audience with a good perspective on the justices human side. He describes the ways in which their past personal and professional experiences contribute to their ideologies and greatly influence their decisions on current issues. As you read it becomes clearer why and who will vote in favor, who will vote against and who could be the unpredictable one this June.

This book is a great insight to the behind the scenes at the justices and their interactions with the White House.

If you are interested on the possible outcomes of the Supreme Court ruling on this issue the American Foundation for Equal Rights blog explains it really well.

Picks of the Week: From Boston to Capitol Hill to the U.N. to Kabul with LOVE.

19 Apr

Debora Spar wrote something on her Newsweek article “Throw Out that List” that stood out to me and I would like to share with you in light of this week’s terrible events:  “There are millions of women and men who live lives of consequence every day.  They are not famous, most of them. They are not perfect. They do not do, or have, it all. But they are building lives that matter, honing skills and nurturing talents that touch the lives of others. Which is in the end, perhaps, the best we all can do”

Bombs, Instincts and Morals: Why Heroes Risk It All for Strangers– “Morality is a team sport. It’s far better to be part of that team than to be apart from it”

Whistler blower policy failure at the UN. – “It is the world’s most important organization, yet remains one of the most dysfunctional. A former United Nations employee described a pervasive culture of impunity inside the organization – one in which whistle-blowers are punished for exposing wrongdoing.”

Nancy Hatch Dupree’s Affair with Afghanistan– Great story about her passionate affair in 1960s Kabul with a handsome, Harvard-educated, ex-paratrooper and archaeologist  of her expulsion from Afghanistan at the communist takeover and her husband’s arrest and interrogation as a CIA spy; of her meetings with bin Laden, and her trips as a solo American woman into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Boston Attacks Stand As Reminder Of Violence Worldwide– “Attacks like this usually happen in far-off, troubled places – not in the middle of a major American city.”

Gabrielle Giffords open-ed on gun control legislature failure. – “Speaking is physically difficult for me. But my feelings are clear: I’m furious. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money…”

To Boston from Kabul with LOVE – Photo-blog. “All those people had hopes and dreams for their futures. Their parents had hopes and dreams for their futures. It doesn’t matter that we experience this more often here. No one should experience any of it ever”

A brief recap of the 2013 Comparative International Education Society (CIES) Annual Conference

4 Apr

Two weeks ago a few of us had the opportunity to attend the 2013 Comparative International Education Society (CIES) Annual Conference for the second consecutive year. This year the conference was held in the beautiful city of New Orleans (a nice followup to San Juan, Puerto Rico last year – though we are awaiting a location more conducive to intellectual discussion rather than sun-bathing). Last year we were mesmerized and amazed by all the panels and found ourselves a bit “intellectuals-struck.” This year a few of us found that the CIES conference was more characterized by a lack of original content – it was mostly repetitive and flat, offering few groundbreaking insights beyond last year’s panels.

However, there were a few more stimulating sessions, and once you’ve had a pleasant chat with at least one person presenting some more original ideas, then the whole event seems a bit friendlier and more open. Inevitably, when you strike conversations at a conference you’ll be asked about your research/interests. Trying to capture the essence of your research/career objective verbally in two or three sentences before you bore or annoy someone with long and confusing explanations… well, it’s not an easy game, and we are all still getting better at it. These things seem to take time and repeated visits to conferences such as CIES.

One of the highlights (for us) this year was HREC’s very own Steph DeGonda. She presented her research on the Capabilities Approach in a project she has been working on in Honduras. Needless to say, she rocked it and got positive feedback from the audience! So, a special SHOUT OUT to STEPH not only because she was brave and trusted her instincts, but because she delivered and managed it like a champion. We are so proud!


The students and the educational system Left Behind

28 Feb

When I first imagined a Masters in International Education I thought I was going to compare and analyze different educational systems across the world. I had it all planned out in my mind, I wanted to write my thesis about how U.S. educational system is designed to fail its students through their absurd obsession with standardized testing. Nothing happened like expected and there was no thesis to be written.

A couple of weeks ago two friends brought to my attention two similar articles about the realities and consequences of standardize testing – the unpreparedness of students going to College and how standardize testing hurts children with disabilities. I strongly recommend you to read them.

As a former special education teacher I can confidently say that I was one of those teachers getting low evaluations because my students wouldn’t show a “significant” progress. A certain percent of the entire school special education population had to get above certain score in order for the school- and for us the teachers- to make it to safe heavens. My students were often treated more like numbers and labels rather than capable students. Every progress (personal or academic) they made was often diminished by those absurd standards set up by standardize testing. Subsequently, most of my students, just like the girl from the article, felt incompetent and stupid when taking such tests. Those two weeks of testing were the worst two weeks of the year for them. Their self-confidence was at its lowest and this kind of testing was a perfect trigger for anxiety and panic attacks.

I knew my students well, I knew what they learned and what not, the way they learned better and I know that the ways in which they grew personally and academically could not be measured by a standardized test. Parents, general ed teachers, and students themselves knew and noticed such progress, but the pressure is such that before their eyes the “real deal” was their standardized test score. It was very painful and heartbreaking to see my students go through the entire process. I ended up spending my time teaching to the test (not by choice…) – a set of “skills” that students will actually never use in real life. After teaching for only two years I became bitter and helpless and I left the system disappointed.

I honestly believe that the inclusive education model (and perhaps the entire system) needs to be revised and reformed to better and truly serve our kids. The day our education system stops being so politicized MAYBE that will be the day when we will stop failing our students with disabilities and we might then treat them more as capable human beings rather than just as a label with a price tag. And that absurd obsession with foolish standardize testing and their guidelines and modified tests for kids with disabilities means nothing to them or to their families. It’s a mere bureaucracy and a misuse of time.

I have very strong feelings against standardized testing in general, but when it comes to students with disabilities, I think it’s the most absurd thing!! It’s just a political thing and a huge waste of students’ and teachers’ time. If we look into it, I am pretty sure we can find other ways to measure and assess student achievement and teacher accountability. But then again I guess standardized testing is a multi-million industry…

Indonesia’s mentally ill and its “banned ‘pasung’ practice”

14 Feb

In Ghana’s rural communities they have rituals to kill the “spirit child” while in Indonesia they shackle them and confine them to small places to prevent them from attacking other-  like a wild animal. IRIN (humanitarian news and analysis) published an article today called Tackling shackling of the mentally ill in Indonesia.

The Indonesia Health Ministry estimates 19 million people nationwide have various mental health disorders, of which18 million live in rural areas. Currently, Indonesia counts with 33 specialized mental health hospitals and 600 psychiatrists to attend 19 million people.

The ‘pasung’ practice (shackling) was banned since 1977 and in 2011 the Health Ministry launched the campaign “Menuju Indonesia Bebas Pasung” or in English “Towards a Shackle-free Indonesia”, but hasn’t made much progress due to the lack of trained health professionals and the lack of funding. Despite those efforts by the government people are still embracing the pasung practice it in both rural and urban communities. People with mental disorders are being shackled behind their homes and/or inside their homes in small rooms to avoid stigma.

Mental health institutions (long-term) have become the solution to mental health prevalence among many developing countries. Such institutions are understaffed, under resourced, and highly costly to sustain for the kind of services they inevitably fail to provide. What is considered a “severe” disability justifying institutionalization in these countries may be a minor disability in other countries that would require limited family and professionals support to integrate disabled people back into society. In countries such Indonesia, where their health care system is decentralized, is very easy to ‘allocate’ or not allocate funds to some regions and the federal government does not have a final registry on how many adults, youth and children are placed in public mental health institutions throughout the country. Needless to say, reports on abuses and maltreatment are nonexistent. Placement of children with disabilities these institutions increases their vulnerability to violence making children easy prey. By funding long- term mental care institutions, instead of funding people, governments are hampering the social, economic, and educational development of the country

While people all over the world try to escape stigma and prejudice by others, they much rather kill, ignore, maltreat, and fear their own family members. Why are we so scared of disabilities? I insist the more we don’t talk about it, the more we contribute to the stigma.

We can’t change what others will say, think or feel towards people with disabilities, but we sure can change the way we make feel our loved ones suffering from a mental health disorder.

2013 Winter Special Olympics: Apathy adds to more stigma.

4 Feb

The games started on January 29 in Pyeongchang, South Korea with the participation of 3,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from all over the world pledging their Olympic oath- “let me win but if I cannot, let me be brave in the attempt”. The games have the support of prominent political leaders and Olympian athletes, but somehow that’s not enough to get the media’s attention.

The games are aimed at helping people with intellectual disabilities find new strengths and abilities through sports, and to inspire communities to “open their hearts to a wider world of human talents and potential”, organizers said. The Special Olympics have been held every two years since 1968, with summer and winter games alternating since 1977. Anyone over the age of eight with intellectual disabilities can participate in the Special Olympics.

I found out about the Winter Special Olympics via twitter. The only reason why I have a twitter account is to follow news and updates by INGOs and news portals. I don’t tweet. I don’t even know how to do it. I read it. Twitter and the Special Olympics website are the two places where I was able to follow the games. Sadly, the coverage of the 2013 Special Olympics has been minimal to nonexistent. I’ve done a little research in the mainstream media over the past seven days, and I found the media to be disinterested and indifferent towards such event. Only four news outlets, often disseminating the same information from the Associated Press, published one article during the event. The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Bangkok Post mentioned the games in some section of their news. However, the Huffington post published more than one article in their blog during the games, as a part of a series produced in collaboration with the Special Olympics.

Even more disappointing is the fact that two of those articles (except the Huffington Post and the Bangkok Post) focused their stories on South Korea’s long-criticized treatment of the disabled, who for decades were kept out of the mainstream. I understand the critics and the degradation and dehumanization ways with their classification of disabilities. It is something that needs to be addressed, but (today) why not emphasize and celebrate these athletes and their amazing achievements. The Olympian athletes have come very far, have sacrificed a lot and have undergone an intense routine of self-discipline, resilience and self-discovery. They have endured hard training sessions and they have learned to go on despite all the obstacles they have encountered along the way. It all sounds familiar, right? It does because every athlete goes through that. The only difference between these athletes and you and me is that most live in poverty, most are denied education, most are unemployed, most are lonely and most are stigmatized. And yet, they have followed their dreams, they have fought social stigma and for the past seven days they have braved the slopes, the half pipe, and the ice rink. Therefore, yes it’s TIME to CELEBRATE and ACKNOWLEDGE them! It’s about them, not politics, not the 2018 Winter Olympics, it’s about THEM!

I don’t expect a front page in the NYTimes, but I would love to see more inclusive media coverage that promotes awareness and that celebrates differences. If we want things to change, Dr. Aung San Suu Kyi, Chairperson of the National League for Democracy in Burma and Nobel Prize, said during the games, “we must face reality in order to address it”. For now, the 2013 Winter Special Games have come and go and the media is still talking about Beyonce’s lip-sync… go figure. There’s a long road ahead for the 2015 Special Olympics in Los Angeles.

“When we empower people with disabilities we strengthen dignity for all” Ban-Ki Moon UN Secretary General at the opening ceremony via video conference.

Congratulations to all the participating athletes!