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My Human Rights Story

7 Oct

As for my (delayed) introduction to the blog, I prefer to be straight-forward. Basically my approach to human rights can be summed up by the following: children, education and capabilities. Disclaimer: I am a positive person. My human rights story started in my hometown of Minnesota. I had never considered a career in education until I became a peer mentor in inclusive classrooms my last semester of high school. I discovered I had a passion for teaching and bring positive educational experiences to students. I pursued a degree in elementary education, Spanish and psychology at the University of St. Thomas. As an undergrad, I studied abroad in London and Madrid, so I jumped on the chance to complete my student teaching abroad. I didn’t really care where I was sent – just as long as it was a Spanish speaking country. When I boarded the plane to La Ceiba, Honduras, I knew nothing about the country nor anyone there. I managed to arrive at my host family’s house after a taxi ride through the city that appeared to be stuck in the 195o’s with a driver that I couldn’t understand – although supposedly he was speaking Spanish. I hated my first two weeks in Honduras- the windows had bars, walls were lined with broken glass bottles,  roosters crowed all times of the night (not just at dawn), water and electricity shortages, food contained amoebas and worms, etc!

Despite all this, I spent the next three years of my life in Honduras. I fell in love with the people – especially the children. I started the preschool department at Mazapan school and loved every second of being a kindergarten teacher (yes, even the extremely difficult days)! I found my happy place at La Finca del Nino (Farm of the Child) orphanage in Trujillo. Resources are scarce at the Finca, but what they lack, they make up for in the love and care that they (volunteers and Catholic Sisters) provide for the children. I knew that I wanted to continue supporting marginalized children, so I made the difficult decision to leave Honduras and pursue my Masters in International Education at NYU.

My experience at NYU has strengthened the connection between education, children and capabilities. Based on my experience working at a local NGO in India this summer, I have concluded that the “best” educational experiences aim to enhance and foster children’s capabilities. Where does human rights fit into all this? Well, rights in the sense that everyone is entitled to some good equates with providing education that supports the development of all children’s innate abilities and contribute to the growth of their capabilities set. My future posts will deal more with this subject. My human rights story is by no means finished. I’d like to think of my human rights journey at its initial stages. If you, the reader, have any thoughts or stories to share about children, capabilities and/or Honduras, I’d love to hear them! Thanks for reading!



Unscratchable Itches

26 Sep

When I moved into the apartment in Madrid the only investment I made was in a map of the world for my wall (even bedding had to wait a few weeks and pay cheques). I’d fallen by total chance into the city, apartment and a low-hours teaching job, and was living in a bubble of blissful flanerie, and yet I lost hours in front of that map, my mind far from the convoluted streets of the city. My wanderings through those streets almost inevitably brought me to various bookstores, and within these to the shelves of travel guides. I was tempted by North Africa (still am); I longed to return to Latin America (did, and still do). Travel had become an unscratchable itch.

Sitting in a row of colourless office cubes, working on an article about the global arms trade for a human rights organisation, I found that news was being produced faster than I could write. I was trying to draw connections between the violence in Syria and the international weapons trade, but in the time it took to craft a paragraph about a siege in one city, there had been a massacre in another. Spiralling internal memos about the situation ‘on the ground’ contradicted one other. I drew an arbitrary end to the article, and by the time it went to press the whole arms trade case was dead, and Syria was mired deeper in bloodshed than ever. Human rights, and the insatiable quest for justice, is an unscratchable itch.

After a year teaching in rural Korea, I moved back home to Sydney to spend a few months writing. A manuscript was clamouring for my attention. I wanted to start a new blog. I’d started writing travel articles for a English-language magazine in Korea, and was eager to finish off some more before the next move.

A few years later and I’ve traded one manuscript for another, churned out better and worse blog posts for multiple blogs and better and worse travel articles for multiple travel sites, and I still feel like I have a lot left to write. Like I’m just getting started. Writing is a very, very unscratchable itch.

I’ve spent years scratching away at these various itches. The more I scratch, the more they itch, but I think it’s still eminently worthwhile to do so.

My contributions to this blog will be yet another attempt to scratch a little deeper.

If I was an educator…but then again, no.

22 Sep

Social definitions have never suited me well. I can’t make sense of them. I trust that my transition from academia back to the professional world will be wrought with similar discontent as I come to terms with the fact that while I am passionate about education, while I feel in my bones that education is the reason I gravitate towards the decisions that I have made, while my soul screams that the quest for truth is meaningless without a shared space where we can compare and contrast our truths and in the end hopefully arise from the pits of confusion with some unifying ideal towards which we can strive, while I accept as fact that schools provide not only knowledge for children, but hope for a future, while the sound of rickety wooden desks and bare feet scraping across crumbling cement and dirt floors never fails to remind me of who I am as a human being…I can’t say that I am an educator.

I have tried my hand at teaching. Mostly public health, of which I knew extremely little prior to extensive training in HIV/AIDS prevention education. No, I went to college to make movies and television. I wanted to live with a script in my back pocket. I wanted to craft film trailers. I wanted to scout shooting locations. I wanted to start in the mail room and work my way up to head of production on…well, I’ve forgotten to be honest. In my senior year at UCLA I grew jaded with Mass Communication Studies and tried my hand at UCLA’s global studies program, which led me to a course on African Ecology and Development. Not sure how it awakened what it did, but the fascination stuck, and I shipped off to Tanzania upon graduating. I was teaching HIV education for primary schools and local factory workers, English tutoring after school, ad hoc education and food programs for children living on the streets of Arusha. I lived by sunlight during the week, some battery powered lamps from time to time. Slept in a hut built of mud and sticks. Trapped when it rained, unstoppable when the sun was shining. I returned some months later to what came to be a life that now seemed strangely alien to me. Couldn’t quite make it work, so I sought to return to a life that made more sense.

I was soon in Uganda, teaching HIV Sensitization, distributing condoms, networking with local officials, acquiring donations, helping to quench fires as they arose. Me learning from them, them learning from me. I wanted to contribute more. Luckily, I had just applied for a graduate program in International Education. I wrote my statement of purpose on a boy named Anaeli with whom I worked on the streets of Arusha. Such a smartass, such a clown. And he didn’t want money. He didn’t want a handout (though he enjoyed the food we brought too). He wanted to go to school. I had never seen this in the US…13 year old boys asking if someone could help them just so they could go to school. I understood…while most around me growing up always hated that they had to spend their time in such a structured institution, I reveled in the opportunity to challenge myself and acquire as much knowledge as I could fit into my brain. I would have asked for some help too. So I wanted to go back to school to learn how I could help kids stop having to plead for a chance to get an education. Guided by the admittedly trite mantra to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” I dreamed of helping to create a world where education was an equal opportunity for all children. I got in, and here I am.

But an educator? Hardly. I have decided to leave the act of educating to more qualified people. I take my interest in finding solutions to problems in educating kids like Anaeli, and soon plunged into a world of educating children in the worst situations on earth. The field of education in emergencies and the role of education as a means for mitigating conflict in the region of the world where I felt so at home is relentlessly fascinating to me, and it calls to me. From my coursework on education in conflict, to work with William Easterly’s Development Research Institute, UNICEF’s Child Protection Section, and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, my life has been consumed by it. And there is no end in sight.

Previous research interests have included education for demobilized child soldiers, particularly in northern Uganda, community-based schools in Central Africa, and teacher training for South Sudan as a tool of nation-building for our world’s newest nation. These days: resistance to refugee repatriation in sub-Saharan Africa, and the corresponding brain drain on home economies when educational opportunities for refugees surpass those in their countries of origin. Will be keeping an eye on humanitarian concerns in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in East & Central Africa and the Horn, the growing LGBT rights movement in East Africa, child soldier recruitment, and education in emergencies topics as they arise.

I ache to return. In my final semester in the M.A. program, I will once again have to confront social definitions as I define who it is and what I am to become. I have learned a lot, but I do not have the answers. I have no delusions of traveling to the most remote regions of Central and East Africa and understanding the context at hand well enough to make the right choices. I am not an educator, I am a student. I recognize that my education will never stop. I wish to move through life collecting teachers wherever I can find them, and use what they teach me to help them lift themselves from turmoil. Wrought with wanderlust and committed to whatever change I can be a part of, I am eager to see where life takes me next.

Stirrin’ up trouble in Kisongo Village

In retrospective… I miss teaching

21 Sep

I grew up in a Mexico – USA border town, Juarez-El Paso. Lived the first half of my life in Mexico and the other half in Texas, so if you ask me- I am from the border. I have moved from place to place since 2004 when I first set out to find my way. From Culinary School in Austin to the Disney College Program in Orlando to study abroad in Florence, Italy to a full time job in D.C. to graduate school in NYC. Home is still the the border. I have a B.A. in Special Education and worked for two years at an inner city high school in Washington, D.C. as a 10th grade Special Education Teacher. While I thoroughly enjoyed working with my group of high school students, I soon discovered that the educational system is full of loopholes. The absurd obsession with standardized testing, the lack of teacher’s autonomy, the power struggles, the misrepresentation of special education kids, the countless lies, but overall working for the system instead of working for the students is what took a toll on me.  Despite all that, leaving my students was one of the hardest things. My students became part of my family away from home and I became their “safe space”.  I miss fighting with and for them, I miss coaching girls soccer, I miss being around them, I miss laughing and crying with them, I miss struggling with them, I miss talking with them- I miss teaching.

Having been educated in two totally different educational systems I have always been interested in learning about comparative international education. As a student with a minor speech impediment in elementary school in Mexico, an English Language Learner (ELL) student in high school in Texas and my experience as a  Special Education teacher inspired me to further my research in inclusive education practices, or lack of, in developing countries. A Masters in International Education with a more practical approach brought me to NYC, even though I thought I would never live here, but life happens and here I am, a semester short from graduation. My passion is inclusive education and my research so far has been in the area of child protection, education in emergencies and I am now about to immerse in the area of (de)institutionalization of children with disabilities in developing countries.

The first year of grad school was quite an experience; transitioning from a full time job to being a full time student was hard. Having to adapt to NYC life while getting in the habit of reading tons of pages per week wasn’t easy either.  I spent nights trying to make sense of  Mr. Marx, Mr. Weber and Mr. Foucault with little luck at first, posting on group discussions right before the deadline, sleepless nights and endless days at the library. I just finished a summer internship with UNICEF and as my studies come close to an end, I am excited for what the future might bring.

Soccer summer camp 2010

Greetings! I’m Alice and I love deserts…

16 Sep

…it’s true. I’m not quite sure what it is, but life just keeps taking me back to hot, arid, sandy regions that can test anyone’s stamina, patience and gumption. Yet despite the ceaseless sweating, the sand in between your toes, ears, digital camera case and lunch, I have gained an affinity for these locales. Where else can cold water taste so good? Where else can a small breeze be more welcoming? And where else can you feel extremely accomplished after making the smallest progress in the work you’re doing?

I first became acquainted with deserts in Sahara (well, the Sahel actually…) during my service as a Community and Youth Education volunteer with the Peace Corps in Niger.  I worked mostly with the local representation of the Ministry of Education doing extra curricular projects with the primary schools in my village of Tibiri.  As can be imagined, work was challenging as I was consistently bouncing back and fourth between French and trying to find my footing in Hausa, the local language.  Learning appropriate social mannerisms, bureaucratic structures, and the absence of deadlines meant work happened at a slow pace. But oh, the feeling when something went right! (Or when someone brought a huge piece of ice to the office for us to add to the drinking water!)

My move to NYC to begin graduate school seemed like a logical next step, as I felt I needed to be a bit more informed about the work I was doing amateur-style in Niger. After a year in the International Education program, I can say at the least that it’s been quite a ride. There’s enough reading to make your head spin, and most of it just leaves me dizzy with excitement (minus the heavy theory…Durkheim will ground anyone). I’ve found a re-ignited interest in refugee education — of which you can be sure to hear more about later– and I’m excited to really sink my teeth in this semester. But what really has been a highlight in the past year were two  return trips to the desert (one in January back to Niger, and two months in Rajasthan, India this summer) where my work can be connected a bit with what I’m learning. More importantly, I was able to enjoy a couple more bouts of sweat, sand, stamina.

Welcome to The League

15 Sep

Unbeknownst to some of us, there seems to be a marked disconnect between the world of graduate academia, filled with those sleepless nights in the library pouring over an ostensibly endless ocean of theoretical frameworks derived from an alternative reading of Foucault that you never knew you could really apply to anything, where the only thing keeping your eyes from popping from their sockets is a bottomless supply of Starbucks coffee and the hope that someone in your cohort will soon email you something on YouTube that you just have to stop studying to watch right that second…and the professional world, the world of the Do-Gooder, where you try to think back to all those sleepless nights to figure out how you are supposed to apply that knowledge in a real-world context where the betterment (or even survival) of complete strangers is placed squarely in your hands.

It is to that disconnect, and all of our past, present and future endeavors to reconcile what we have learned with what we have seen, will see, and never imagined we could have our eyes opened to, that we dedicate the subsequent posts of our contribution to the global blogosphere. Each and every one of us are, to some capacity, educators. We study the broadly delineated field of International Education here in the heart of New York City, exploring with an unrelenting fervor (barring YouTube distractions) issues of human rights, international development, cross-cultural understanding, global education and citizenship, humanitarian relief, peace education, education in emergencies, cultural norm formation, ethnic identity, education for equality across gaps in gender, race, ability and class, and a burgeoning catalogue of personal and professional interests that we ourselves have a difficult time keeping straight.

We bring to our studies experience from six continents, dipping our toes in every field one could think of. We differ in our interests, in our beliefs, in our opinions and in our ambitions moving forward. Yet we all find common ground in our passion for what is right in the world, in our unquenchable thirst for using our minds and our hands to shape and mold the status quo to afford equal rights and equal opportunity for every member of the community we call humankind, and in our dedication for leaving the world in better shape than the way we found it. We are the next operational generation of professional Do-Gooders, relishing the ongoing struggle to make sense of it all.

The League invites you to follow along for our reflections on the transition from our graduate studies into the professional world, including musings on our previous experience in the field, future career explorations, current internships and research, commentary on current affairs, and the various issues of human rights and international education that float in and out of discussion between our cohort here in the city. Your contributions and comments are welcome to facilitate the discussion, provide insights into your own experience, and challenge us to reflect on our own understanding of the world. Welcome to The League.