I had the great good fortune to spend five days in NYC last week, walking some of the same streets that the woman from this Hollaback video walked while she videotaped the response. If you haven’t seen the video, it is essentially the distillation of ten hours of footage as she walked around Manhattan in jeans and a t-shirt. The reason it is worth watching is because of how she is treated by strangers as she strolls the streets alone. Some of the unsolicited attention is very disturbing.

Like I said, I walked those same streets last weekend and, with the exception of street vendors trying to sell me something or hand me a flyer for a bus tour, nobody talked to me at all.  Because I’m patently unattractive? I don’t think so. Because I was walking with a man. 


He happened to be my husband, but he could have been my brother or my uncle or just a friend. And that is what I think makes all the difference.  The two of us witnessed many incidents of street harassment of other women as they walked alone or in groups and I may or may not have told one man as he repeatedly increased his volume and pled for one woman to respond to his “compliments” that I thought he was an ass and he should just shut up.  Bubba may or may not have squeezed my hand and started walking faster.

Since this video was posted, there has been much debate on the subject of catcalling and street harassment and many of the usual players have cried foul. On Fox’s show “The Five,” host Eric Bolling said he didn’t see anything wrong with most of what happened in the video and his co-host agreed so wholeheartedly that he catcalled her from the set of the show. In addition to the more famous folks weighing in, there have been scores of others who have defended catcalling as “polite,” and a legitimate way of greeting people on the street.  It is this notion of ‘people’ that I take issue with.

If you are a straight guy on the sidewalk and a couple walks by, are you likely to greet them both with “good morning,” or a leering “God Bless You” if they are a particularly handsome couple? When a single guy walks by, would you look him up and down and say hello or comment on his choice of clothing? If you answered yes to either of those questions, you might live in the Pacific Northwest or some other locality known for its neighborliness or polite culture. But if you are in a big city and the only people you “greet politely” on the street are young women, either walking alone or in a group, then you are likely giving them unwanted attention.  If you persist by asking them for something (a phone number, an enthusiastic response, acknowledgment of your physical prowess or simple glee that you noticed them), you have crossed the line into creepy and aggressive and inappropriate.

If you, like men’s rights activist Paul Elam, believe that men who catcall are simply as “innocuous” as “panhandlers, strangers who talk too much…salespeople, survey takers and even officious video makers,” you might want to realize that these obnoxious folks on the sidewalk are Equal Opportunity Offenders. These folks are starting unwanted conversations with people of all ages and genders. Their motive is generally to make money and, occasionally, to incite discomfort. Folks who catcall are not neighbors simply trying to connect with other human beings. I cannot say exactly what their motives are and I suspect they are complicated and not necessarily universal, but the fact that most of the remarks are sexualized in nature or tone adds an insidious element to them that is not present when a shiny pamphlet or petition is being shoved in your face.

There are already too many situations where a woman can be uncomfortable in public given the culture of objectification in this country. I fully admit to being very nervous in an elevator by myself with a man I don’t know or walking down a dimly lit street alone when a man or two is coming toward me. That may be unwarranted, but the balance of power is shifted such that I, as a female, feel vulnerable in those instances. Add in comments such as the ones Shoshana Roberts heard in her daytime stroll through a crowded city, and I don’t think you can fault women for crying foul. If it isn’t something you would say to someone you aren’t sexually attracted to, it isn’t something you should say at all.


“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.” Josiah Charles Stamp

Ahh, personal responsibility. We are a nation enamored with the concept. We are also enamored with the notion of individuality; individual freedoms (to a certain extent), individual rights, individual responsibility. We expect people to clean up their messes if, for some reason they haven’t managed to avoid making them in the first place. Unfortunately, we don’t always provide them with the tools they need to do either of these things. And therein lies the rub.

We are a nation that loves instant gratification and thrives on the ability to “keep up with the Joneses.” Hallelujah for credit! Visa and MasterCard give us the opportunity to spend money we don’t have on things we want now. Sub-prime mortgages and “zero down” financing offer us chances to spend money we won’t likely ever have. Our children and grandchildren see the economy collapsing under the weight of such ridiculousness, and hear every day on the news that the economy would rebound more quickly if we just went out and spent more money. Huh? Is it any wonder they’re confused? And how many of them will learn about money management in school? How many of their classes will educate them about saving money and contingency planning? If these classes aren’t available, how many of their parents will be able to talk to them about these things? I remember two of the “life skills” classes I took in high school: Personal Finance and home economics. We talked about calculating interest rates and were taught the proper way to write a personal check in Personal Finance class. In Home Ec, we did a little sewing, a little meal preparation, and one very memorable day, a cosmetics expert came in to teach us the proper way to apply our makeup without creating wrinkles around our eyes. I didn’t feel precisely qualified to manage the finances of a household upon graduation. I’m certain I’m not qualified to teach my kids money management skills based on those two “practical life” classes.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed yet another bill that is aimed at blocking access to reproductive healthcare for millions of American women. They claim that their intent is to reduce the number of abortions (hopefully to zero) in our nation. If this is an attempt to force women to live up to the consequences of their mistakes (ie. premarital or unprotected sexual activity?), I fear that they are asking women to sweep up a mess without providing them a broom or proper instruction on its use. Defunding Planned Parenthood and making access to other facilities where women can get objective, non-biased information about their own bodies is worse than that. It is actively denying them access to the broom and the class on sweeping. How can we expect people to avoid mistakes or learn from them when we don’t offer them information? If we fight against sexual education classes in our schools and rail against birth control, we are expecting people to gain this vital education by what, osmosis? If we don’t teach each other what we know about the more difficult things in life, we can’t expect any change. You can’t hold someone responsible for making a mistake they had no way of preventing.

Individuality is important. Differences are often what creates color and vibrancy in life. But not enough can be made of the power of tapping into a collective base of information. There will always be people who learn best by making mistakes over and over again, but for those who could benefit from the wisdom of others, isn’t it our responsibility to pass that information on?

Albert Einstein once characterized insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This applies to entire cultures as much as it does to individuals. We can’t keep telling generation after generation that we expect them to clean up their own messes if we don’t provide them with the tools to either do so, or avoid those messes in the first place. Rebuilding our economy by asking people to spend more money only props it up for the next generation to overspend again. We will find ourselves right back in the same position, just as we have so many times before. And telling women and girls that they ought not to get pregnant without giving them ways to prevent pregnancy won’t affect the rate of unwanted pregnancy in our country. Personal responsibility is a good thing, but it is impossible to sustain without knowledge.

“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.” Dalai Lama

         The fact that the phrase “school shooting” exists is clear
evidence of how we are failing our children. The fact that we have systems in
place to mobilize grief counselors within our communities, that there are
protocols and sample dialogues to help parents talk to their children about gun
violence in their schools tells us we are doing something wrong.  That a “popular,” “happy” high school
student from a “prominent” family could post his anguished feelings multiple
times over a period of weeks on Twitter prior to shooting his friends and
turning his weapon on himself and the media headlines read “Motive Still
Unknown” is shocking to me.
            I
am not blaming the family and friends of school shooters for not intervening,
not anticipating that they will react this way to their deep sadness. I am
saying that we as a society are failing our kids in an elemental way by waiting
until something horrific happens to talk publicly about difficult emotions
instead of teaching our kids how to recognize and process those emotions throughout
their lives.
            Two
vital things we know are at play here. First, adolescent brains are literally
wired differently than adult brains. The brain of a teenager is subject to
emotional storms that are not yet mitigated by logic, primarily because that
portion of their brain is not yet fully developed. When a teenager is feeling
strong emotions, they are not being ‘dramatic’ or ‘over-reacting,’ they are
simply responding to the chemical reactions swirling around in their heads. To
expect them to push aside or disregard those biochemical impulses is simply
unrealistic. Instead, we have to teach them to mitigate those responses, to
acknowledge their feelings and process them appropriately, but all to often we
expect them to “get over it” or we feel uncomfortable when they are upset and
we minimize their feelings to make ourselves feel better.
            We
spend billions of dollars each year teaching our children to read and write, to
apply mathematical formulas to complicated problems, to find patterns in
history and science, and we neglect to talk to them about what it means to be
human. While it is vitally important to have these kinds of conversations within
family systems, it is equally as important to acknowledge these emotional
challenges within a wider audience, to normalize them as much as we can.  If we continue to send the message that
learning to identify and process deeply painful feelings is a private endeavor,
we are missing the opportunity to show our children that they are supported
within a wider community, that they are not alone.
            The
second thing that we know is that violence is often rooted in disconnection.
People harm others when they feel powerless, often because they are struggling
with ideas of their own worth or their place within the community. When an
individual does not feel part of the system or supported by it, they are more
likely to objectify and dehumanize the other people around them. It is through
that objectification that the threshold for violent acts is lowered – it is
much easier to harm someone you don’t feel connected to, that you have
demonized. Our educational system emphasizes individual accomplishments and
competition, values independence, and isolates students who are ‘different,’
both academically and socially. Without some sort of social-emotional education
that acknowledges the developmental stages of teens and tweens within the
context of the demands placed on them, we cannot expect them to flourish. We
may be raising a generation of students who can compete in the global economy,
but without teaching them what it is to be human, to experience pain and
rejection, to accept discomfort and work through it, we are treading a
dangerous path. Every time our children cry out in pain we are presented with
an opportunity to listen, to validate those feelings, to model empathy and compassion
and to teach them how to navigate those difficult times. This isn’t about
individual or family therapy, this isn’t about mental health treatment, this is
about acknowledging that our children are whole human beings who are developing
physically, mentally and emotionally and ignoring their social-emotional
development is creating a problem for all of us.  Our children are killing each other to get our attention.
What is it going to take for us to start listening to them?

It is not often that we get to spend time with our childhood heroes, if at all, but I was lucky enough to do that last week.  Thanks to folks at the Women’s Funding Alliance, I had the opportunity to head to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico and steep myself in the deep knowledge and energy of three iconic feminist leaders.

Gloria Steinem

Alice Walker

Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

It was a ‘conference’ like no other I have ever attended for so many reasons, chief among them the fact that all three women stayed for three full days. They spoke individually and came together to discuss ideas and answer questions. They were available during free time for us to approach them for autographs and photos as well as conversation and it all felt very intimate, especially given that these three women have known each other for years, and worked together on important projects and ideas. Their collective Q&A sessions had an air of ease and camaraderie that extended to the audience.

Alice Walker kicked off the week by talking about fear and mindfulness and transitions. She has a fiery edge to her that raises passions, points out injustice and prejudice and stirs up deep emotions. She is a brilliant orator and it is clear that she is always thinking, answering spontaneous questions with a deliberate message. She read poetry and expressed strong opinions and stood on the stage looking slightly regal.  She was that fiery grandmother who is not about to keep quiet.

Gloria’s presence was anchoring. When Alice sent us up into the sky with her talk of war and politics and race, Gloria grounded us all back in our own skin. She was calm and clear, offered concrete examples, and urged us all to decide what was important to us in our own communities. At the age of 80, she continues to travel the world listening to people, reading books and essays, constantly deepening her understanding of the patterns and connections that are both healing and harmful. She possesses a historical and global knowledge of gender violence and was careful to bring it full circle, reminding us that taking the 20,000 foot view is paralyzing, that we must all strive to find the thing we can do that is right next to us.  She urged us to be aware and active, to use the power we have right now (our dollars, our votes, our openness to connecting with others), and to really listen to others.  She was funny and irreverent and consistent in her message.

And just when we were all feeling quietly inspired to go and be change agents in our own communities, Dr. Chung came up and offered us joy. I had never heard of her before this week, but the first time I saw her I couldn’t help but break into a grin. This woman absolutely radiates love and warmth. Her smile is luminous and crackles with energy and she seems entirely undaunted by anger or doubt despite the hard work she does every day to liberate women and create peace. She talked about compassion and empathy, about connecting with others on the most basic levels in order to crate a sense of shared humanity, and she offered astonishing examples of how this has played out in her own life. She laughed and danced and brought us all along on her wave of optimism, cracking jokes about orgasms and kicking butt.

With the addition of a large group of folks from the Women’s Funding Alliance, the week was perfect. We hiked and talked, turning the ideas over and over again. We sat and drank wine in the evenings, discussing ways to implement the most salient pieces in our own part of the world. We felt inspired every morning as we awoke to the prospect of another fascinating exchange. I came home floating, my brain absolutely overflowing with plans, quotes from these three powerful women bubbling up here and there.  I know that I haven’t yet fully integrated all of the wisdom I received last week and I expect I will continue to turn it all over in my brain for weeks to come, but I will leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from the week.

“Hope to be imperfect in all of the ways that keep you growing.” Alice Walker

“Where love exists, it is hard for jealousy to sprout.” Alice Walker

“Mothering is an art AND a practice.” Alice Walker

“Religion is politics in the sky.” Gloria Steinem

“As long as God looks like the ruling class, we are all in deep shit.”  Gloria Steinem

“Our children only know they have something to say if someone is listening to them.” Gloria Steinem

“If you want ‘x’ at the end (ie. joy, laughter), you have to have it along the way.” Gloria Steinem

“Who wants the Golden Rule administered by a masochist?” Gloria Steinem

“Hope is a form of planning.” Gloria Steinem

“If you connect, there is peace. Disconnection leads to violence.” Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

“All the things we do not want to confront within ourselves, we project those onto others and we call them terrorists.” Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

“There are two ways of being broken – being broken apart so you lose your soul or you are broken open, wider, bigger, fuller. So you become a container for suffering, an alchemist who can change your suffering into joy. Don’t be afraid of being broken. Surrender into brokenness but don’t be broken apart.” Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

“I am a theologian because I have to save God from patriarchy.” Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

I haven’t posted anything in a long time, but it isn’t for lack of material. There is so much going on in the world right now, from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO to the ongoing wars in Syria and the Gaza Strip and Ukraine to the CDC whistleblower coming out to say that statistically significant data sets were withheld from studies on the MMR vaccine over a decade ago.  I’m exhausted and overwhelmed and saddened by the ongoing polarization I see every single day. That said, the fact is, I am guilty of adding fuel to the fire from time to time.

A very close friend of mine helped me realize that yesterday.  I had posted a video on Facebook related to the CDC whistleblower case and remarked that the notion that a group of government scientists purposely omitting an entire set of data from a study was something I found horrifying.  This friend of mine, whom I’ve known since we were 15, commented that she didn’t believe a word of it and went one step further to post a pretty snarky essay written by someone who not only doesn’t believe it, but resorted (in the first sentence of his piece) to name-calling and went on to write sarcastically and with true nastiness about “those people” who put any stock in this story.While my friend and I ultimately had a very civil (very public) discourse about the issue, I was prompted to recognize that the video I posted was incendiary and I spent a great deal of time thinking about how I could have done it differently throughout the rest of the day.

On a very related topic, there was a study published in the New York Times that made its way around Facebook yesterday stating that most people are not willing to post controversial things online for fear of creating debates that might turn ugly. My concern is not that people won’t post those things, but that when they do, they are fully unprepared to have a respectful exchange of ideas with regard to them and it quickly devolves into hateful rhetoric where there are more answers than questions.

When I meet people in my daily life who are utterly convinced of their own positions on everything, I am prompted to steer clear. Anyone who says to me that they know that something is absolutely true is someone who hasn’t asked enough questions. Anyone who is willing to disregard any new theory that might raise an area for further study because they think we know enough isn’t someone I need to talk to. I am most often amazed by folks with very little scientific background or training beyond high school biology or chemistry classes who are steadfast in their determination that some ultimate truth has been proven somewhere and everyone who disagrees ought to just be quiet now.  I am wary of folks who assume that deeper inquiries are a personal challenge or that they are altogether unnecessary.

The video I posted was designed to be incendiary and attention-grabbing and even, perhaps, fear-mongering and that is something that I have spoken out against many times in the past. I can see how my posting it would seem to be an endorsement of these tactics and, for that, I apologize.  But I will never apologize for continuing to be inquisitive, for keeping an open mind and struggling to understand why any scientist worth his or her salt would choose to avoid asking or answering certain questions. I will never apologize for believing that corporate interests ought to be kept as far from scientific discovery and testing as possible for fear that they will create undue influence. And I will never apologize for supporting others who are simply asking that their questions and hunches and parenting instincts be taken into consideration by those who could potentially make a difference. We can be stronger and smarter together forever, but only if we start listening with the express goal of understanding each other instead of simply waiting our turn to spout our own position. If you can’t be bothered to read an entire article or essay (or watch the whole video) without assuming you know what I’m trying to say and responding with dismissive, sarcastic, snarky comments or name-calling, then you don’t deserve to be part of the conversation and you probably don’t want to, anyway. I suspect you’re just angling to be “right” about something and I’m not interested.

One of the things I love best about the middle school my girls attend is their focus on service and community. They are encouraged to find something they are passionate about, big or small, and use that energy to connect with others and make a difference in the world.

Three years ago, Eve partnered with a friend of hers who started an organization focused on kids with serious illnesses who were spending large chunks of time in the hospital or places like the Ronald McDonald House.  The group is called That Lucky Bracelet and the girls put together customized “Smile Packages” for sick kids. It has been a terrific thing for Eve to be part of and the girls have a lot of fun making gifts for kids based on the things each one tells them they love. The weekend before Easter, we hosted a gathering of four of the girls in our backyard and they spent hours stuffing and decorating hundreds of plastic Easter eggs with candy and bracelets and stickers and bouncy balls that they would drop off at our local Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald House for the kids and their families.  If you know of someone who would love to get a smile package from these bright, determined girls, hit their website and fill out a questionnaire. Some of the kids who have received packages continue to communicate with the founder for a long time after getting their initial package and it has been a really rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Three weeks ago, Lola was thinking about school supplies, not because she is anxious to go back to school, but because we were talking about the homeless shelter we worked in last Spring. One of the things the girls did while they were there was to volunteer in the childcare room and watch the toddlers while their moms took parenting classes or ESL classes or went to job interviews.  Ever since then, Lola has been talking about those kids and thinking about what it must be like to be homeless as a young child.  She asked me, “How do those kids get school supplies if they can’t afford food?” and I replied that I figured it was probably pretty hard.  That they probably had to look through the donated items to find what they needed.  An idea was born. She got together with her best friend to create Education Belongs 2 Everybody, a place where folks can go and donate money to help these kids buy school supplies.  We started thinking, and between backpacks and calculators and binders and all of the other things that kids really need to get for school, the cost can run into the hundreds of dollars easily. And what a great feeling it would be for these kids to get to go to the store and choose their own lunchbox or folders based on the things they love!  If you’re so inclined, go check out their website and donate a few dollars through PayPal. Each and every penny donated will go to the shelter we have worked with in the past so that these kids can be better equipped to start their school year off right.

I am reading my first book by bell hooks. I have read quotes of hers before and come across people who think she is absolutely brilliant and yet, I have never once picked up a book by her. Until now. And to be honest, I don’t even really remember what made me pick up “All About Love: New Visions,” but it is quickly becoming a tome to set next to the likes of David Whyte’s “The Three Marriages” and anything by Brene Brown to read over and over again.  I have taken so many pages of notes I’m running out of space in my notebook and I am only about 70% of the way through it.

hooks’ meditations on every kind of love from friendships to family to intimate, romantic relationships to self-love are so simple and profound that I am stunned again and again. And, as I often do, I find myself stopping mid-page to muse about the ways in which her philosophy pertains to different aspects of my life and pop culture.  The fact that her thoughts feel so incredibly universal to me is one reason why I suspect I will be able to read this book many times and find some new perspective during each and every reading.

She begins by defining love in a way I’ve never heard it spoken about before and, yet, it feels absolutely right to me.  She uses M. Scott Peck’s definition, the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth, as a springboard, and adds, “To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”

She has chapters on every imaginable application of love but in light of what is happening in the Middle East right now, I am particularly struck by her chapters on community and what she calls a “love ethic.”

I have been called hopelessly idealistic and a dreamer most of my life. I own it. And so, in that spirit, I began thinking about what the world would look like if we embraced the notion of a love ethic, cultures rooted in mutual respect and acknowledgment instead of materialism and consumerism and money and power.  In this kind of society, it would be absolutely necessary to address our fears and take daily leaps of faith. In this kind of society, we would be required to forego the possibility of having everything we want in order for everyone to have some of what they want.  In our current model, we are encouraged to think constantly about what we as individuals want which sets up this endless cycle of desiring and attaining and assessing and desiring more. We are always comparing what we have with what we don’t have, what we have with what others have, and we will always come up short. In our current model, where possessions equal success equal power, we are tricked into thinking that more stuff will make us happier and we dehumanize other people who get in the way of us having more stuff.

When I think about the daily violence happening in Gaza and Syria, I see a cycle of fear and entitlement. I see groups of people desperate to have exactly what they think they need and willing to go to any length to get it.  I see militaries who have embraced the power of fear to make others do what you want them to do and one of the big problems with that is that, while fear is a terrific motivator, it is only ever a temporary one.  And fear doesn’t allow you to have relationship with others, so if you’re intent on controlling them for long, you either have to continue to ratchet up the fear factor or you have to worry about their retaliation. (Of course, one other solution is to entirely eradicate the “other” so that you don’t have to consider being in relationship at all.)

In hooks’ love ethic, everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and to live well.  Everyone expresses themselves honestly and openly and with a view toward living their ethic in everything they do and, in doing so, they are investing in their own individual growth and the growth and happiness of everyone else.  Individuals in these kinds of communities recognize the humanity of the other individuals at every turn even if they don’t agree with them. In acknowledging the humanity of others, there is no desire to “win” or rule over another, there is only a concern for the good of all and the acceptance that nobody can ever have all that they want because that is not good for the community.

The irony in the present situation in the Middle East is that everyone’s actions are rooted in fear, even as they are doing their mightiest to instill terror in the hearts of their opponents. And when we act out of fear, we cannot hope to accomplish anything but inciting more fear and anger. This cycle is endlessly destructive and while we may gain momentary feelings of righteousness as we claim small victories, we
have not made any lasting, sustainable efforts toward peace.

In the case of the violence in the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu has been very clear that the goal of attacking Gaza is to shut down the tunnels that Hamas has built from Gaza into Israel’s territory. They are afraid and, goodness’ knows I don’t fault them for that. Their fears are justified, given the violence Hamas has rained down upon Israel thanks to the tunnels. But in disproportionately attacking the civilians in Gaza, what Israel is doing is showing that they can instill fear in Hamas, that they can be scarier than their enemy in hopes of what – convincing them that Israel is mightier and they ought to just give up? Even if Hamas did concede that point for now, if they ever hope to get any power again, they will have to invent some way to be even more frightening in the future. And the Palestinians are not likely to ever forget the horrific numbers of innocent civilians who fell prey to Netanyahu’s military which means that the prospects for a peaceful solution are even farther away than they were before.

There will always be someone who will come along and threaten to take what you have – your feeling of security, your home and possessions, your family. And we can set up fences, locks, alarm systems, but as long as we are operating from a place of fear, we are focused on what we might lose instead of what we already have, what is most important. If we can learn to retreat to a place of “enough” instead of continually visiting the well of “I need/deserve more,” we won’t feel threatened by others and worried that they will take what is or might one day be “ours.” And if we can build communities based on everyone taking the courageous, incredibly difficult step of extending a hand and trusting in each others’ humanity, we might just begin to find solutions that are rooted in love one day.

I learned about Occam’s razor in a college philosophy course and it made a strong impression on me. At the time, I was strictly a science major – biology and chemistry – and the idea appealed to me.

According to Wikipedia, Occam’s razor is

“a principle of parsimony, economy, orsuccinctness used in problem-solving devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.”

In other words, the simplest solution is generally the best.  We humans tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and often, when I am feeling particularly perplexed, this bit of wisdom reminds me to step back, breathe deeply, and think about a simpler way to get to the result I am seeking.

Yesterday, when I read a story about some newly genetically modified bananas that are set to be tested on human beings, the full force of this theory slapped me upside the head.  You can read the entire story here, but the gist of it is this:  For the last nine years, researchers in Australia, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have been attempting to enrich bananas with Vitamin A in an effort to combat the lack of this vital nutrient in the diets of many African children. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, immune deficiencies, abnormal brain development, and death.  And so, these researchers have spent years and years and untold millions of dollars attempting to engineer a better banana and they think they have finally done it.  They will begin feeding it to human beings soon (the article does not say which human beings where) and hope that by 2020, (a mere six years from now), they can begin planting it in African countries and harvesting it.

Beyond the obvious issues I have with GMO foods and human trials whose effects we cannot possibly predict, I am speechless.  I know that Bill Gates’ life was founded and built on technology, and I know that he has seen it do amazing things. I understand that he is completely besotted with the idea of technological solutions for nearly every problem he sees, and I know that his foundation has long been in bed with the likes of Monsanto, but this entire endeavor is so wasteful and misguided I can barely breathe.  I cannot claim to ever have worked with the man, so I don’t know what his managerial style is, but I can’t imagine being a part of his organization and not pointing out the fact that a potential solution to Vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition ALREADY EXISTS. 


Those of us humans who know a little about nutrition and real food call them sweet potatoes.  They grow quite well in many African climates and have boatloads of beta-carotene – the form of Vitamin A that has been engineered into these bananas – and have already been tested on humans for tens of thousands of years.  In the absence of massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, they are quite healthy for people of all ages and easily consumed and digested by infants and toddlers.  And they didn’t require a massive investment of money or time to develop.

Of course, you can’t patent sweet potatoes, so perhaps therein lies the rub. But if a non-profit organization like The Gates Foundation is truly interested in solving the problems of world hunger, they ought to stop wasting millions of dollars on R&D and look to the solutions that already exist.  Helping African communities get access to a healthy, well-balanced diet is surely simpler than they think. There is no reason to engineer food in order to feed people unless you are blinded by your love of technology. Just because you can engineer it doesn’t mean you should, especially if it will cost more in time and money than a solution that is already available and you can’t be sure the outcome will be good for the people you say you’re interested in serving.

Photo copied from Patty Murray’s Facebook page

I just got back from having lunch with Washington State Senator Patty Murray and Massachusetts State Senator Elizabeth Warren.  And about 2,000 other people.  Murray, known around these parts as the “mom in tennis shoes” thanks to a slight she got from one lawmaker when she dared challenge funding cuts in a local preschool program, fully embraced the classification and went on to successfully run for her school board, state representative, and is now a four-time Washington State Senator. As part of her acceptance and celebration of that title, she now holds an annual event that honors other people in our state who have taken it upon themselves to make changes that benefit others, going so far as to give them a golden tennis shoe.

This year, I was invited by the folks at the Women’s Funding Alliance to join them at their table and I was thrilled to accept, given that Elizabeth Warren would be speaking.

The honorees were truly fantastic – an immigrant who lived in a housing project in Seattle, got a degree from the University of Washington in business, and headed right back to that housing project to help raise other residents up and offer them the benefit of his wisdom and experience; a young woman whose mother was killed by her boyfriend after years of emotional abuse who went on to start a campaign to teach middle and high school students how to recognize the signs of domestic abuse and step in to stop it; and a woman who took her passion and talent for training dogs and turned it into a project that pairs wounded veterans and disabled children with service dogs as well as utilizing prison inmates to help train the dogs, giving them the benefit of working with the dogs and a useful skill they can parlay into a job when they are released.  It was even more fantastic to hear Senator Murray say that the number of individuals who were nominated for these awards was overwhelming and it was difficult to choose from all of the people in our state who are working so hard for the greater good.

After the awards were given and all of the awardees spoke, Senator Warren came to the podium to thunderous applause.  She was passionate, eloquent, articulate, and spoke clearly about her three biggest priorities: equal pay for equal work, raising the minimum wage, and revamping the student loan system.  She has clearly done her research and staggered us with some of the statistics she shared, and she encouraged us to continue to support candidates who are committed to making changes that will help families pull themselves out of debt and poverty.

Honestly? I felt a little deflated.  Even though the final speaker, a local representative who was funny, concise, and had a compelling story came up to make the “ask” for donations was using the right combination of humor and prompting, I couldn’t do it.  It’s not that I don’t support Senator Murray or Senator Warren. It isn’t that I don’t thank my lucky stars that I have someone like Patty Murray representing me in the Senate.  It’s that I’m in a bubble.  And it is hard to imagine my dollars making the slightest bit of difference unless they transcend that bubble.

All of my federal representatives are Democrats and, for the most part, they all stand for the things I stand for.  My state’s governor? Democrat. My city’s mayor? Democrat. My city council person? Democrat. Even if one day one of those folks decides not to run again, because of where I live it is highly likely that a different Democrat will be elected.  That doesn’t make me complacent, it just means that I doubt that my dollars make much of a dent. They’re preaching to the choir. Elizabeth Warren was preaching to the choir – heck, just today the Seattle City Council was voting on a $15/hour minimum wage proposal. I’m pretty sure she’s barking up the right tree, but unless I’m living in a Tea Party infested district, I have a hard time understanding how my words or actions or dollars have an impact if I give them at a luncheon like that.  Sometimes I wonder how frustrating, and yet energizing, it might be if I did live in a place where there was an entrenched, misogynistic representative and a strong Democratic candidate stepped up to challenge that person. Would I jump in with both feet to campaign and carry signs and donate? Would it feel like I was really part of some change? Would it be awesome?

As I walked away, grateful for the opportunity to have heard people talk about the good work they’re doing, the shared humanity they believe in, the values I hold dear as well, I became even more committed to narrowing my focus.  If I can’t make any substantive change in the way things are done at the macro level (besides what I already do, which is rant on Facebook and write OpEds for places like The Feminist Wire), then I can at least make an effort to fully support those folks who are working hard to make change more locally.  Ultimately, today’s luncheon solidified my decision to continue working with the Women’s Funding Alliance whose focus is on raising up girls and women in the state of Washington in a wide variety of ways, knowing that they are the key to turning lives around.  There, I know my dollar makes a difference.

My piece wondering why, in this country, colleges and universities get to investigate sexual assaults on their own without involving the local police.

And while one of the first comments on it is by someone accusing me of wanting to strip extra layers of protection for college victims, I am most certainly not looking for that. I know our system of justice is woefully inadequate when it comes to rape, but I think it’s a good start to hold all perpetrators (and those accused) of sexual assault to the same standard, regardless of where they live or go to school.  Check it out if you’re interested.

And have a terrific Monday!