Social Justice

From the Archives: Dust with Jeans On

This year for Lent, I am considering wearing some variation of the same outfit from Ash Wednesday to Easter. I am probably not brave enough to do this alone, though, so here’s a dare for you: join me.

1.     Choose one outfit to wear this Lent.

2.     Don’t buy any new clothes for seven weeks.

3.     Be creative. Prepare for resurrection.

This experiment with dressing simply is an attempt to live toward Christianity’s highest feast, the feast of Easter. It is an attempt to begin to pay gracious attention – to ourselves, our bodies, to others and their bodies, and to Creation. It’s not about heroics; it is about receiving the graciousness and generosity of God, the way the dust and mud of Eden received God’s breath, and the way a tree on a riverbank receives water and light and bears fruit. What would it look like to live in the generosity of God rather than in the guilt of our own failure? What would it mean to be free to notice that God is making the world new and that joining in that newness is a gift, and not a crushing burden?

Lent is seven weeks. The “one outfit” recommendation is flexible – this is a creative challenge. Perhaps wear the same pants and same shirt, or the same dress, but different scarves. What about jackets? Hats? Shoes? I’m not proposing no laundry for seven weeks; wash the clothes. I’m also not proposing that you go the gym in dress shoes, or sleep in jeans, or that you freeze during cold snaps and sweat through your shirt when it’s warm. What I am proposing is that we keep some significant part of our clothing stable in a way we wouldn’t normally. And then – from there – we can improvise. Maybe we can follow in the high Church tradition, in which Sundays don’t count as part of Lent. Sundays are the Lord’s Day and therefore they are always feast days, never fast days. Maybe we can wear one basic outfit, like a canvas, as a stable backdrop for a whole variety of appearances. Or maybe we keep one striking item constant, and let the rest of our clothing move around that fixed center.

Editor, philosopher, and teacher Gideon Strauss once said that clothing is an act of generosity toward other people. For him, I think this means sometimes wearing colors other than black. As I think of my own clothes-wearing practices, I wonder: have I ever considered my clothing in terms of generosity? What would that even mean? Clothes have had a lot of meanings for me. Over the years, the decision of what to wear has centered around my fear, around self-expression, hiding, guilt, or my desire to fit in. The labels in my shirts name me as a hopelessly privileged person – as an oppressor. Jeans sizes have at times felt like existential labels; the cut of them, or the brands, have been about proving I’m not one of those people, or that I am; clothes have been about proving that I know who I am, and that who I am is different but not freakish. Any part of embodied existence can become a physical language through which I must prove that I deserve to be alive.

What if, in wearing clothing, I were free to be generous? Generous to myself, to my own body, and free to begin uncoiling from my self-obsession? What if I were free not to think of what it says about me that my clothes were made in sweatshops, but instead to begin to think about the hands that made them, and consider the bodies and souls that go with those hands?

Jeff McSwain, who founded the Reality Center in downtown Durham, North Carolina, recently told me about his understanding of the difference between cooperation with God and participation. Cooperation, for him, means that God has done the lion’s share of the work, but that the tiny fragment we have to do is necessary; if we don’t do it, the world will be incomplete. No matter how small our part is, we can still fail horribly by not doing it. Participation, by contrast, means that we are invited to be involved with a God who makes space for us and for our creativity, but does not existentially depend on us. God is inviting us to work within the already-accomplished reality of creation and re-creation. We can be a meaningful part of the triumph, but we are incapable of causing ultimate failure. The Kingdom of God has come, and we live in it or deny it, but we can’t wreck it.

This is a claim that comes out of a deep, gracious theology of what it means for us to live in God’s creation and to work with God in restoring the world. Our work is real, and yet it is work within a reality that God has already brought into being. Participating with God is not about constructing new realities; it is about giving up on our denial of what is most deeply true. Participating with God does not mean inventing the kingdom of God. It means listening, and paying attention, and realizing that the kingdom of God is here, that it is real, that it is a place we can live, right now. God has made the world new in Christ. God has made us new. It is finished, and it will be completed.

And so this one-outfit idea is about giving in to reality. It is, for me, about reading the tags in my clothing rather than trying to forget that they say, Made in ChinaIndonesia, or the Philippines. It is about making a beginning with honesty, and trusting that God can show up. No: even more, it is about trusting that God has shown up.

Poet Mark Strand begins his poem “Keeping Things Whole” with the lines, “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” The poem follows the speaker moving through the world, understanding himself always as a negative, displacing presence. Everywhere, he is the absence of whatever was seamless until he came. The poem ends with the line, “I move / to keep things whole.”

This Lent, stop moving to keep things whole. Early in his Institutes, Calvin writes that the Spirit with “tender care supported the confused matter of heaven and earth until beauty and order were added” (1.13.22). Either that is what the Spirit is still doing, as God makes the broken world new in Christ, or we are desolate and beyond hope. In either case, we are not the ones making anything whole. Not by our pretense, our heroics, or anything we’ve ever done or ever will do.

In colder climates, Lent is the time of year when the bare ground slowly wakes up.  This is the premise, I think, of the “fasts” the church calendar encourages us to practice during the days of Lent. Fasting is not negation; it is the space of new green shoots, the bare ground unfreezing and growing fertile again. Luther, in writing of our life in Christ, draws on the biblical image of a tree. What we do in God, he says in “On the Freedom of the Christian,” is like the growth of a tree. And what we do without God is, by implication, as useless as trying to build a tree out of scrapwood. Another image Luther uses is of dry ground waiting for rain. We are like that ground: we can no more produce life than cracked mud can produce plants. But once the rain comes, all sorts of new life is possible.

So what if it’s true? What if God’s tenderness, drawing the tips of plants up out of the ground, is the deepest source of reality? What if that tenderness is where all true beauty and order have their source? Then we can pray for Egypt and Libya. We can pray for Iraq and Afghanistan and the United States and Mexico. We can pray for the L.A. police force. For AIDS victims in Uganda. We can pray for downtown Durham. We can go to these places, in thought, in spirit, in tears, in laughter, and in body. We can pray for ourselves, our families and churches, and the friendships and communities where much has died and is dying. We can pray in spite of words we can’t take back. We can pray in spite of cancer, in spite of divorce. We can live. We can die (protesting nonviolently among bombs, or sleeping in beds in a neighborhood from which you can’t hear bombs). We can die the small deaths of the everyday as well as the physical death of which Lent reminds us – a death that goes through the Cross, into the ground, and rises into a life that is truly life.

Wearing one outfit all of Lent is not going to answer all my questions about what I mean in this body, what this body means in the world, or how I might begin living faithfully toward other bodies. But this Lent, as I consider my wardrobe, I am going to practice living on the premise that when God looked at creation and said, “this is good,” that meant me too. It means me, and you, and billions of yous whose names I don’t know. I can groan with the waiting creation, rather than plugging my ears because that groaning makes me feel so guilty. God has something more to say to me than that I’ve failed, again, at living this resurrected life.

Let’s think of our one outfit as the garment in which Christ clothes us, our humanity made whole again. Then it can help us remember that we are free to stop pretending that we are anything other than dust held together by the breath of God.

Credit where it’s due: This idea was partly inspired by a story told of a woman at Ched Meyers’ Sabbath Economics conference last fall, who only buys one dress every twelve months, and partly by Gideon Strauss’s daughters Hannah and Tala, who, every October, “along with several hundred of their closest friends,” choose one dress and wear it for the month, for the sheer fun of it, a project previously chronicled in The Curator.

Around the World in Seventy-Five Poems

Between 2010 and 2011, I embarked on a journey to see the world’s mess and magnificence, to collect stories, create poetry with the voiceless, to write an adventurous chapter of my own life and find God in it all. I christened it the Poetic Justice World Tour.

Poetry is a way for me to use my voice to give my passion, beauty and pain to the world. I use poetry to tell my story and the stories I observe. I use it to convey the beauty and brokenness I see in world using the power of words to paint a picture, inform an audience, and inspire others to act or empathize.  I can be a speaker of life, truth, hope, healing, peace and justice.

I began writing poetry about three years ago. I started hosting The WordSmith Poetry Jam in 2009 and because I organized and emceed the event, everyone just assumed I, too, was a poet. I saw people telling their stories beautifully – sometimes simply and sometimes intricately – with words, metaphors and images. So I began to do the same. This first poetry open mic in Charlottesville, Virginia, on March 26, 2009, served as the inspiration for my around-the-world adventure.

Quite a few things stood out to me that evening: creativity, diversity, beauty and brokenness. In the same room there were professional poets and novices, professors and service workers, Baby Boomers and Gen Ys, African Americans and Caucasians, performing and applauding. The restaurant was packed, the energy was high, and the creativity was amazing. People took the beautiful and broken moments of their lives, stewed them with word play and imagery, and served their meal to an audience of strangers. Their story became the platform for them to speak to the world. I knew that evening that I wanted to create more space for that kind of thing to happen in Charlottesville, and that is the intention I took with me around the world.

It took me eight months to make it around the world. I took about 7,000 pictures, wrote 75 poems, and visited seventeen  countries on five continents. I saw world wonders. I volunteered in slums. I met hundreds of people, listened to their perceptions, and helped a number of them tell their stories through poetry. I learned many lessons, but what sticks out in my mind most often is the creativity and resilience of the human spirit. Here are three of the lessons that have helped shape me as a woman, as an artist.

Compassion for a Craftswoman

It was late afternoon in Cusco, Peru and I had just finished a day of volunteer teaching to 6 year olds and wanted to relax in the sun. I walked across Avenida El Sol and I sat on a bench in front of Qorikancha, an Incan ruin. I hoped to God that closing my eyes would ward off the many street vendors, to whom I had to say no gracias incessantly. Their presence was beginning to cloud my experience of Cusco – an annoyance to say the least. As luck would have it, as soon as I sat down, a portly Quechan woman sat next to me, a street saleswoman. She was taking a rest too. She was intrigued by my dreadlocks and so we struck up a conversation in Spanish. Her name was Margarita, and she lived a few hours north of Cusco. She made trinkets and colorful crafts like key chains, sweaters, and scarves by hand all month to sell to the many tourists that traversed Cusco on their way to Machu Picchu. She spent one day a month in Cusco selling her merchandise. This is how she maintained her home, fed her children, and kept herself alive. She literally took her art to the streets.

Compassion for the vendors filled my heart. If I had only one day of sales to feed my family for a month, wouldn’t I be persistent? Wouldn’t I try to sell somebody something they did not want when I knew it was pocket change to them, but a meal to me? She was poor, but she could make things, she could share a piece of herself, her creativity, and her talent with travelers from all over the world. In her persistence she was demanding to be seen, to be heard, to have a seat at the table of commerce. I walked away with a heavy heart but a newfound respect for the street vendors and Margarita, her work, her art, her voice and her creativity. She would not let her poverty or place in society silence her. That interaction spoke volumes to me to let my artwork speak, create it, and release it to the world, to push it with persistence if I have to.

Life Sculpted Out of Death

London was one of my favorite cities, for the art and culture – and because many of the museums are free. “Free” was my middle name while traveling. I have visited dozens of museums and seen more exhibits than I can count, but one in particular stands out in my mind: “Tree of Life” at the British Museum. “Tree of Life” was made by four Mozambican artists. It is a product of the Transforming Arms into Tools (TAE) project and is made from decommissioned weapons. During Mozambique’s 16-year civil war, millions of guns poured into the country and most of them remained hidden or buried in the bush. In order to remove these instruments of violence from their land, the project encouraged Mozambicans to trade their guns in exchange for tools of productivity such as ploughs, bicycles, and sewing machines. Once the weapons are decommissioned, they are cut up and turned into sculptures by the artists in Maputo. This process produced the “Tree of Life,” sculpted out of AK47s.

This is one of the best examples I’ve seen of how art can play a role in community transformation. Weapons that had been used to take lives were redeemed to become symbols of peace, life, and restoration. These four artists ventured to create something beautiful out of the wreckage of war and violence, symbolizing triumph and new life; hope rising out of a tragic situation. I made it my business to be aware of such symbols, to see them, remember them, and retell them. A quote from the exhibit embodied the type of person and artist I want to be: “Artists want to turn the situation around, change the story.” As an artist, I want to tell stories – good ones and tragic ones and as many redemptive ones as I can. In telling a story, I hope I can be a part of changing the larger story or writing a better ending.

Goldmines in the Slums

The most memorable day of my trip was teaching a poetry workshop to about 15 children and youth at the Inspiration Centre in the Mathare Slum just outside of Nairobi, Kenya. Though we were in a slum, the children were full of joy and enthusiasm. We did an autobiographical poem so they could tell about their lives, a color poem in which they had to describe a color using their senses, and an “I am” poem so that they could creatively describe themselves. I was inspired by their humor, wit, and spirited responses. They defined themselves differently than the outside world would have assumed. Many of the youth compared themselves to lions, the brave kings of the jungle; to flowers; to the brightness and heat of the sun; to instruments like drums and keyboards that give off soulful sounds; and to people like Michael Jackson and Barack Obama. One young man wrote a poem about the color black, which is usually associated with death, darkness, and danger. He thought black was more like angels, roses, and honey. I liked his ability to see with a different set of eyes. It was indicative of the joy and resilience I saw in many Kenyans amidst harsh living and human suffering. I am sure this young man whose home was in the slums knew darkness. He saw it in the landscape which included mounds of trash, rivers of sewage, orphans roaming alone, hunger, and cramped living quarters. Yet somehow he acknowledged the dark and cold of blackness, but then overwhelmingly he saw with eyes of goodness, with pride, sweetness, newness and hope. Or at least that is the way I interpreted it.

Here is his poem:

Black is the color of Africa

It feels round and cold

It’s sweeter than honey

It looks like an angel coming down from heaven to earth

It sounds like a whisper in the dark

It smells as fresh as the roses in the garden.


While in Mathare I saw beauty amidst the ruins by seeing the world through the eyes of children; their poems, perspectives and joyous spirits. I was grateful and honored to have met them. That day, I learned to see with eyes of goodness, in life, in people, in places.

I was reminded that as a poet, I can help people to see the world differently, clearly and more hopeful. I want to do that as often as I can.

photo by:

In Defense of Slum Tourism

After spending the better part of the last two years working in some of the most destitute regions of the developing world’s brightest stars—Brazil and India—I arrived at two disconcerting, and perhaps cynical conclusions. First, the world’s poor face systemic injustices that threaten their very means of survival; second, the majority of those in a position to do something about it will watch these injustices unfold on their television sets and Twitter feeds, and will never attempt to become part of the solution.

Before an expansive view of Rocinha, São Conrado and the Atlantic Ocean, tour guide Zezinho da Silva explains the finer points of Rocinha's urban geography to Canadian tourists Archie and Lorna.

Like the acute clarity that follows an unexpected blow to the face, the weight of these conclusions left me pensive and restless on the ten-hour overnight flight to Rio de Janeiro. Somewhere over Bermuda, I re-read Kennedy Odede’s New York Times opinion piece on slum tourism in his native Kibera, Kenya, and I couldn’t help noticing how his thesis resonated with my own frustration. “Slums will not go away because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them.” Odede continues, “Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something—and then go back to their lives…”

As our flight pierced a quintessentially-carioca partly cloudy sky, this notion of poverty as entertainment simultaneously sickened, convicted and excited me. What kind of twisted individual is willing to exploit another’s poverty for his own pleasure? I had to meet these sickos.


As the cramped van full of tourists—cameras and guide books in hand—snaked through the equally confined streets of Rocinha, the largest slum (Portuguese: favela) in South America, I introduced myself to my fellow slum tourists.

In a tiny Rocinha beco (alleyway), tour guide Zezinho da Silva takes a moment to explain the dynamics of gang warfare to his group.

On my right sat Kim, a freelance writer and photographer from California. To my left was Tom, the marketing director from Tokyo, and behind us were Alex and Jen the writer and TV producer from London, and Archie and Lorna, an interracial retired Canadian couple from the Baby Boomer set. Hmm, these aren’t quite the “Ugly Americans” I expected to meet on an exploitative excursion into the favelas.

Our guide for the tour was Zezinho, who prefers to call his trips a “favela experience,” the aim of which is to “destroy misconceptions.” Born in Rocinha but raised in New York City’s Queens borough, Zezinho is a passionate proponent of slum tourism, yet also seems aware of its potential ethical pitfalls—he warned us against snapping photos of residents without permission as “people don’t like to feel like zoo animals.”

Yet Zezinho didn’t hesitate to highlight the drama inherent in a daylong tour through territory controlled by the notorious Amigos dos Amigos drug-trafficking gang. “Now I’m going to use some code words,” Zezinho whispered, as the team listened with rapt attention. “The traffickers I’m going to refer to as ‘the guys,’ the drugs as ‘product’ and the selling points as… well, ‘selling points.’ And sometimes, you might see some ‘guys’ with ‘G-U-N-S’.”

I expected the next set of questions to center on concern for our personal safety, but what came next surprised me. Jen asked Zezinho whether former president Lula’s celebrated transfer programs were truly effective. Kim wanted to know whether or not “gay-bashing” was common in the favelas. Archie was interested in how favelados pay their property taxes.


While Odede admits “the expectation, among the visitors and the tour organizers is that the experience may lead the tourists to action once they get home,” he laments “it’s just as likely that a tour will come to nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough.”

Residents of the Vila Canoa favela enjoy immaculate computer facilities donated by the Microsoft Corporation.

I imagined the same, until I heard the story of another slum tourist by the name of Pope John Paul II. Upon visiting Vidigal, a favela situated between Ipanema Beach and Rocinha, in July 1980, the Pope was so moved by the favela residents’ resilience in the face of continued government-sanctioned destruction of their homes, that he removed a papal ring and donated it to the favelados. Soon after, John Paul II successfully advocated for the Brazilian government to amend their policy of forcible eviction, and today Vidigal’s luminescent presence on Ipanema Beach serves to remind Rio’s Zona Sul of the legitimacy of the favelados’ land ownership claims.

The residents of Rio’s favelas haven’t forgotten the Pope’s generosity, nor have they forgotten the generosity of other slum tourists who, after experiencing favela life firsthand, have decided that “merely bearing witness to such poverty” is not enough. Examples include the Microsoft executive who donated a computer education center to nearby Vila Canoas favela, and the countless individuals who’ve dedicated their entire lives to empowering the community by teaching English, and supporting occupation-specific educational initiatives.

Aurelio, an immigrant from Northeastern Brazil who steadfastly observes the prevailing men’s favela dress code of soccer shorts, Havaianas sandals, and no shirt, is one of those residents who relishes the opportunity to host tourists in his favela. “Tourism is great, we get to show our favela to the rest of the world, who might one day come to stay,” Aurelio exclaimed as he beamed at the group of now slightly-sunburned and wildly-inspired international tourists at whom I rolled my eyes upon first meeting.

And perhaps that’s where Mr. Odede and I had it wrong. We assumed that for others less accustomed to poverty, “merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough.” It turns out that it’s not. While many will witness injustice (via television, social media, or even slum tours) and choose to do nothing, there are some who upon witnessing such a profound need will dedicate their lives to meeting that need.  Slums will certainly not go away just because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them—the tour is only the beginning of the end.

To learn more about Rocinha, slum tourism, and Zezinho’s efforts to give back to the community, visit Zezinho’s blog at

All photos by Jimmy Chalk.


From Washington, DC to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for an agricultural development conference, held at the Golden Horse Casino Hotel, May, 2007.

I don’t mean to fly off the handle but
flying off…all the way to Pietermaritzburg,
conferencing in KwaZulu-land, and
there I was, driven past the hotel spikes
stuck up like some teenage hair-do,
the Golden Horse Casino Hotel venue
for poverty-reduction talk!—the foyer packed
with lottery dreaming seniors spinning slots.

My own motive’s not far off, whirling
words around an elegant Σ of squares
the total’s still the lust to win.  Golden
geese fly over the shanty poor, dark
horses hobbled in arrears.  High’s up;
now’s back; the distance done: my jackpot speech.


Dressing the rich in rags is haute couture.
The chic wear slogans–rouge their eyes with kohl.
Meanwhile the ‘underprivileged’ barely endure.
Nobody goes broke working for the poor.

* I dedicate this poem to Wang An-Shi (1021–1086), the Chinese statesman who lived during the Sung dynasty when the state was impoverished by the need to pay tributes to invading barbarians. As a result radical reforms were demanded.  Wang An-shi, a poet and writer as well as a statesman, developed a program of far-reaching reforms. He abolished tax immunities of big landowners, ended forced labor on public works in favor of money payment, and instituted the buying and selling of essentials by the state.  These reforms were deliberately sabotaged by the civil servants and he was compelled to resign in 1076.

Hope Between the Bars

A few months ago I wrote a rather scathing column criticizingthe American prison system, specifically regarding its practical function as a punitive institution versus its theoretical function as a rehabilitative one. The article focused primarily on what politicians and lawmakers ought to be doing differently if we are to truly rehabilitate inmates and lower recidivism rates in America.

To some extent, my criticism missed the point. Yes, government money should be dedicated to the reform process. Yes, politicians should stop hiding behind legalese when determining what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. But the point I did not make — and the point I hope to make now — is that prison reform, like any other social reform, should not be left in the increasingly incompetent and untrustworthy hands of politicians. Inmates cannot be viewed as mere statistics for policy and legislation, nor as unforgivable sociopaths who deserve punishment more than they do reintegration. They need to be viewed as humans, not monsters. They need to be seen with sympathy, not fear. Most importantly, they, like any other human, need to experience love.

Loving that which we do not understand — and especially that which we fear — is a difficult hurdle for most people. We give our hearts to what we know, not because it is so much more lovable than anything else, but because it is safe, familiar, and essentially, non-threatening. Yet the only way we are able to come to know anything is through interaction and experience. Prisoners rarely have this privilege with the outside world. Many fell victim to crime in the first place because of a lack of healthy, substantive social connection, and keeping these victims — and yes, even criminals are victims — in isolation for so many years as a follow-up, all but guarantees that such a connection will never be made. Now more than ever it seems that we are content to “lock them up and throw away the key”. We are a culture hellbent on bandaging a wound without ever applying the ointment necessary for healing. For most people in any circumstances, that treatment begins with a simple ear to listen.

Enter Between The Bars, a project initiated by the Center for Future Civic Media, which is a collaboration of the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies. Between the Bars integrates handwritten letters with standard blogging technology to provide a platform for inmates to share their stories, thus hopefully establishing even the vaguest connection to the outside world. Inmates not only have their stories published, but readers can comment, tag, and even subscribe to RSS feeds on the blog. Inmates are then able to read responses from the public, thus maintaining interaction with the very society they one day hope to reenter. This bears more significance than it may seem at first glance because many inmates have no family, no friends, no visitors, and no correspondence with other human beings. They have, essentially, been forgotten.

This is, perhaps, the greatest tragedy faced by inmates. We think of them not as individuals with faces and names, but as a population, an inventory on a distant shelf lined up and numbered, some thrown into the streets after so many years, others set to expire. For many there is no hope left in this life, and for those who believe that this life is all there is, that is a terminal blow. To no longer be seen as a human being — to no longer be seen as a life— is to be denied the essence of our creation. Through ignorance and indifference, we deny the very life we claim to be protecting when we remove criminals from society.

But giving inmates the opportunity to reach us, the very people who have rejected them, can only be powerful if those people are willing to receive them. What is therapeutic for an inmate, what is truly rehabilitative and even redemptive, is for us to once more see them as human. A man convicted of murder is a monster until we understand his own brokenness — a brokenness that, even if embodied differently, we all share. Killing someone is horrible, but is the abuse, neglect, and violence so frequently suffered by the perpetrators of these crimes any less horrible? When we are able to see the poverty in other peoples’ lives, we are able to reconcile, sympathize, empathize, and most importantly, forgive. This is not some sentimental flower-child idealism stated without consideration for the complexities of this calling — I do not mean to minimize the pain and hardship of victims of crime. But one man’s pain does not justify the perpetuation of someone else’s. Crime can never be abolished by disregarding the criminal, but only by loving him, and there can be no love without forgiveness first.

To put it more practically, the prison population should not be seen as an offshoot of society, some extra class cast to the side as undesirables. They need to be seen as part of our society, as those who require our support instead of our contempt. Giving them access to share their lives through digital social media is both a massive and a minute step towards that integration. Once more, if we are able to see inmates as part of who we are collectively, we should find it easier to see their humanity, thus making it more likely that we will find our hearts changed enough to offer them the love that most of us have never had to go without.

Unfortunately, even a private project as necessary as Between The Bars has fallen prey to the imposed sovereignty of policy and procedure. As of December 16, 2010,  the site and all of its archived content has been shut down until further notice, citing administrative issues. Whether due to lack of funding, insufficient manpower, or the treachery of political agenda, we cannot say for sure, but for whatever conglomeration of reasons, the thin ray of sunlight that had briefly pierced the cold stone of this country’s prison walls has been, for the time being, stamped out once more. The blog staff hopes that the site will be back up and running again soon; perhaps even by the time this column is published. Until then, Between The Bars has done the indispensable service of reminding us that no matter the crime, no matter what wickedness mankind continues to demonstrate towards one another in haste or greed, in passion or pride, there is not one who should be denied the infallible, impenetrable, merciful sovereignty of love. That responsibility, of course, rests not with the government nor with the law, but with us.

photo by: miss_millions

Broken Wheels in Need of Fixing

Several weeks ago, I rode in a Toyota Qualis to a small conference center just outside of Bangalore, India to interview several former slaves. There were 77 people staying there– men, women and children– all of them recently freed from bondage in a brick kiln in Bangalore. All were to return to their homes, small villages in Orissa, nearly 400 miles to the north, within a couple of days. All had come to Bangalore months or years earlier with the promise of work, many bringing their wives and children with them, others leaving their families behind and promising to send their earnings home. But there would be no earnings to send.

Exiting the Quails, I was led up a stairway to an open meeting place. The victims were all gathered together in a large group, sitting on the floor and listening to instructions from the social workers who worked for the organization that had helped to rescue them. Small children clung to their mothers’ saris, and the men were gathered around one of the social workers, speaking Tamil. They had the deeply tanned complexion of rural workers who spend their days in the sun; most of the men had moustaches and wore lungis, a traditional southern Indian garment that resembles a long kilt. Most were likely from working castes, which are positions in Indian hierarchy based on the Hindu religion. Caste discrimination has been illegal in India since its independence, but it still subtly pervades much of society. It is people like these who are most often victims of human trafficking and modern slavery.

After everyone had eaten, I asked a social worker about interviewing one of the men. I’d been assigned by the NGO I work for to do an interview and thereafter prepare a short press release which would eventually be used to raise awareness among Indian government officials about forced labor. They led me to a young man named Achal. He was tall and handsome, and very articulate. Achal was 25 years old and had lived most of his life in a small village in Orissa. Over time, he found it difficult to support himself by working the land his family had farmed for generations. This is not uncommon; as India has developed economically, it has begun to shift from an agrarian to a service-based economy. Farmers increasingly find themselves unable to support their families by working their land alone, and large numbers are migrating to cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore. Achal was one of these workers, and he came to Bangalore and found work in a brick kiln, eventually bringing his young wife to help him with the work.

The owner of this particular brick kiln was from what is traditionally seen to be a higher caste. He also had many powerful friends in Bangalore. As Achal worked for the owner, he increasingly found his freedoms restricted, and his wages shrinking from what was originally promised. Then the physical abuse began.

As Achal told me his story, I could not help but cringe at parts. Achal had been forced by the owner to recruit other workers for the kiln by offering them small loans and then asking them to work to repay the debts. When these workers began being abused, they escaped from the facility during the night, and the owner held Achal accountable for their debts. He was eventually sent back to Orissa without his wife and child to pay off their debts by working for a friend of the brick kiln owner. Achal’s wife and small child were held by the owner as insurance in case he tried to escape or to default on the debt. Desperate to raise the money and free his wife and son, Achal attempted to sell his kidney for fast cash. When his kidney was not approved, he went to the police as a last resort. Several weeks later they organized a rescue operation and pulled out the 77 victims.

Listening to Achal’s story, I was astounded. Yet his story is hardly unique. Human Rights Watch, in a 2008 study, estimated that there are 40 million people in India living in conditions of bonded labor, conditions not too dissimilar to Achal’s. And this is only in India. In Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Costa Rica and countless other countries, young women are frequently kidnapped and forced to work in brothels as prostitutes. If they do not cooperate, they are beaten or their families are threatened. Nor are these problems confined to developing countries. Thousands of people are trafficked into the United States each year, often victims of elaborate deceptions that are designed to leave them powerless and dependent on their traffickers, alone and far from home. Human trafficking is now the third largest income generating activity in the world for organized crime syndicates, after trafficking of drugs and firearms.

The figures can be overwhelming, but there is hope. Organizations such as Restore NYC work to help women who have been trafficked into brothels in New York to heal from physical and emotional trauma, obtain work visas in the United States, receive job and skills training and generally rebuild their lives. Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, recently profiled one of Restore’s clients in his column, bringing attention to the scope and severity of a problem that exists in many American cities from New York to Toledo.

Trafficking is increasingly gaining international attention as well. In 2010 a woman named Anuradha Koirala topped CNN’s list of “Heroes of the Year,” individuals the news network identifies as “everyday people changing the world.” Koirala founded an organization called Maiti Nepal in 1993 that rescues and rehabilitates women who have been trafficked from Nepal into India to work in brothels. Maiti Nepal has helped to rescue and rehabilitate more than 12,000 Nepali women and girls since its inception 18 years ago.

But even with the myriad NGOs working against human trafficking, it is an uphill battle. Their work is vital and thousands of lives have been restored, but the problem of trafficking remains. It is currently the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. The trafficking problem is so advanced that it would require institutions to exist in every country with special powers to investigate and disrupt trafficking crime syndicates. These organizations would have to employ thousands of professionals who worked around the clock to fight problems such as trafficking and organized crime. They would require state funding and a national, integrated network of offices in each and every country, state and district in the world.

Luckily, the organizations I am describing already exist in almost every country in the world: the police force. Though NGOs have been able to make headway in the trafficking problem, and to help rehabilitate victims, there is simply no substitute for qualified and well-trained criminal justice systems as a deterrent to human trafficking. The problem, as put forth by a human rights lawyer named Gary Haugen in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, is that public justice systems rarely protect those who are the most vulnerable in society. As Haugen notes, “Most public justice systems in the developing world have their roots in the colonial era, when their core function was to serve those in power—usually the colonial state. As the colonial powers departed, authoritarian governments frequently took their place. They inherited the public justice systems of the colonial past, which they proceeded to use to protect their own interests and power, in much the same way that their colonial predecessors had.” As he concludes, “without functioning public justice systems to deliver the protections of the law to the poor, the legal reforms of the modern human rights movement rarely improve the lives of those who need them most.”

But this is not cause for cynicism. In 2005, with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the NGO that Haugen founded in order to help develop public justice systems, International Justice Mission (IJM), partnered with the metropolitan police department in Cebu, Philippines on a project to develop the capacity of the Cebu police to combat forced prostitution within its city limits. The initiative, called Project Lantern, consisted of a simple strategy: to provide local police with training and resources to identify cases of forced prostitution, safely conduct operations to rescue victims, and to prosecute the perpetrators of trafficking under existing statutes in the Philippine legal code.

Beginning in 2006, Crime and Justice Analysts (CJA), a research and evaluation firm specializing in crime and criminal justice issues, began an independent study to test the effectiveness of Project Lantern. At the end of four years, CJA found a 79% decrease in the availability of minors for sex in commercial sex establishments and street-based prostitution. The study confirmed that investment in criminal justice systems can have a direct impact in the lives of victims – 225 sex trafficking victims have been rescued over the course of the project. Furthermore, a well functioning police system can act as a powerful deterrent for future criminals. Eighty-seven suspected traffickers have been arrested over the course of the project, and 2010 saw landmark convictions of two trafficking ringleaders. Criminals in Cebu are thinking twice before they kidnap and victimize young women.

All of this should add up to a message of cautious hope. Victims of modern day slavery can be rescued and trafficking itself can be curbed. We simply need the political will to invest in criminal justice systems, which, when given proper resources, have shown a remarkable ability to shut down human trafficking, rescue victims and prevent future abuse. Criminal justice systems exist in every country in the world, they are simply in need of attention. To address trafficking, we do not need to reinvent the wheel; we simply need to fix it.

Face to Face

I heard the story on the radio a few weeks ago as I dashed around town running errands and hoping a Verizon tech could resurrect my Blackberry. NPR’s All Things Considered was reporting on the resolution of a forty-five year old case in Alabama.

I turned up my car radio as Debbie Elliot reported that former Alabama state trooper James Bonard Fowler had pled guilty to second degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1965 outside a café in Perry County, Alabama. Jackson was a young civil rights activist and his death galvanized the movement that then marched from Selma to Montgomery. I hardly need report that Fowler is white and Jackson, black.

I’m no expert on this period of our country’s history and had not been following the story, so while commentators expressed mixed feelings about the anticlimactic sentencing—Fowler was sentenced to six months in prison, in part due to his failing health at age seventy-seven—I was arrested by the personal element of the story.

As a part of the plea bargain, the judge asked Fowler to apologize to Jackson’s family, including the slain man’s daughter and sister, who were present in the courtroom. Fowler did so, but as the prosecutor told NPR, “the family would’ve liked for him to have looked at them when he said it, but he was looking at the judge when he said it.”

I thought of that family, who waited more than forty years for legal action to be taken for the killing of their loved one. Years were spent longing for acknowledgement of wrong-doing, of their pain, of the injustice of the death of this young man. I can only imagine the added sting of knowing that this white man could take away the life of a young black man without consequence, even decades after the marches, sit-ins and bus boycotts were over. How they must have wondered—perhaps just in fleeting moments– if what they had gained in the civil rights movement was worth the death of one loved most dearly, especially if his death would never see justice.

As I read more of the story later, I began to see Fowler as a person as well. Here was a man who had lived most of his life with the guilt of killing a young man he says he never meant to kill. Even if he did act with intent, he is now an old man, frail and human, haunted by the wrong he has done. Would six months in prison erase the pain of the Jackson family, much less expunge the guilt of Fowler? As Jackson’s daughter, Cordelia Bllingsley said, “this is supposed to be closure, but there will never be closure.”

Weeks before hearing the story on the radio, I sat in a lecture hall to hear Pat Nolan of Justice Fellowship speak about restorative justice, an alternative means of responding to acts of crime that has at its aim restoring criminals to society while also addressing the harm caused to the crime’s victim. Restorative justice is only effective in instances when the perpetrator is penitent. It involves the victim in the sentencing process, giving the victim the opportunity to confront the person who has wronged them; the offender likewise has the chance to offer sincere apology to the person harmed. For both parties, this process gives a face to the other. The criminal and victim both see each other as human beings and recognition gives way to empathy. Sentencing is then decided in a mediation-like setting with the aims of making the price meaningful—that it actually addresses the harm experienced by the victim—and even restorative. In many cases, the sentencing outcomes of restorative justice procedures include measures that will ultimately help the perpetrator re-enter society as a rehabilitated individual.

And so I turn again to the long awaited trial and sentencing of James Bonard Fowler. Why did this fail to answer the cry for justice? Why was there no closure? What went wrong? If we look at these people not as symbols of our nation’s moral failings, but as individuals who have caused harm and been harmed, what do we see? A daughter who grew up without a father, who now feels that her fatherlessness has not been acknowledged. A remorseful old man who can’t undo his sins. Could restorative justice have resulted in a different outcome? Perhaps Fowler would have looked the Jackson family in the eyes as he apologized.

For a moment, I fight my own tendency to think, “who cares how these people feel? The court has decided that this is justice and they just have to live with it.” And that’s true. By the standards of our legal system, justice has finally been done in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. But is anyone satisfied? The outcome has addressed which law has been violated, who is responsible and how we should punish them, but the victim has been entirely left out. In any case that ends in a guilty plea, victims like Cordelia Billingsley have no voice in the court room.

What if our justice system treated both victim and perpetrator as human beings and acknowledged that far more is broken than a statute? Suppose we considered who has been harmed and to what extent? What if we were concerned not with punishment, but with holding the responsible party accountable to make things right?

I suppose the question that matters here is how we define justice. Our current system will prevail as long as we define justice in terms of punishment for a law broken, rather than as holding a person responsible to right the harm they have done to others.

It’s not a matter of being tough or soft on crime, but of whether the consequences acknowledge the wrongs done and even in a small way, right them.  Responding to a criminal act should not require us to shed our capacity to see others as human beings. Restorative justice requires imagination, the possibility that wrongdoers could be rehabilitated– the dream that victim and perpetrator could actually reconcile. It’s a dream worth having.

Banking on Community

In 1959, urban observer, writer, and activist Jane Jacobs visited Boston’s North End.  There, she was amazed that a community many dismissed as too far gone had revitalized without any outside financing or urban planning.  How had the North End built itself into a safe, well-groomed, healthy neighborhood?  Through neighbors voluntarily exchanging skilled work.But that was in the 1950s.  Can the same types of exchanges — where time, not cash, is the currency — still build communities that ought to be?

Members of Pennsylvania’s Phoenixville Area Time Bank say yes, the free exchange of time can create cohesive, trusting, and beautiful neighborhoods, and they have seen it happen.

Time banks build on the age-old concept of swapping, and provide a web-based infrastructure that lets people bank hours instead of money.  Members contribute services like plumbing, tutoring, computer repair, respite care, driving, shopping, and childcare.  Logging service hours into a database means they’ve earned hours to “spend” by having any of the 170 Phoenixville Area Time Bank members provide a service for them.

And an hour means an hour, no matter what hourly rate the work could fetch elsewhere.  “Yes,” says board member Joel Bartlett, “my hour of architectural services is worth a disabled person’s hour of weeding!”  Also, the person served reimburses all expenses so that it is purely a time-for-time exchange.

Phoenixville Area Time Banker Kris Craig. Photo: Rebecca Tirrell Talbot

New members receive a list of over 70 suggested services they might contribute or need.  “Exchanges can be as creative as anyone’s imagination,” says Judy Antipin, a Phoenixville Area Time Bank member since 2007.  Judy’s partner Diane recently returned from the hospital and about six PATB members gave her meals and rides and cleaned her house.  Member Richard Liston is banking time dollars to earn help with the fledgling Sphere College, a free college he founded for nontraditional students.  One member banked enough hours to have time dollars pay for a whole wedding.

But more is happening than the exchange of services, members insist.  “The transactional piece is a piece,” says member Carol Meerschaert, who recently discovered PATB on  She pictures a time bank as a small village or an extended family.  Transactions forge trust and inspire responsiveness.  It takes trust to have a stranger pick you up from the airport, but members are accountable to each other.  There is a “kind of reverence we bring to each other,” says coordinator Margo Ketchum.  As people bank their time and meet each other, they begin to care about each other.

This is essential in Phoenixville, a gentrifying borough of 16,000 about 30 miles from Philadelphia, that, like many of Pennsylvania’s former iron towns, went from whirring with industry to decaying economically in the last century.  Like a lucky few, Phoenixville has begun rehabilitating with arts and business.  It features beacons of hipness such as creperies, cafés, bistros, and independent bookstores. Thrilling as these beacons are, changes of this sort have often, across America, turned ugly, territorial, and marginalizing when neighbors do not have each other’s best interests in mind.

PATB was not formed to help Phoenixville navigate its neighborhood renewal, but it does want to support a truly resilient community.  Time banks facilitate this because, as Bartlett puts it, “Exchanges are not exchanges.  They’re connections.”  If members connect with neighbors, they begin to realize what matters to their neighbors.   Meerschaert explains that this means that people care about crime, taxes, school budgets — the things that affect these neighbors whom they now know much better.

What’s remarkable about these connections is that they intentionally enfold

Mary Webb, Margaret Carman, and PATB coordinator Margo Ketchum discuss Phoenixville Area Time Bank’s “2010 Project.” Photo: Charles Bartholomew

vulnerable residents, who often get sidelined or used as leverage during gentrification.  Forty non-profits exist in Phoenixville and provide a spectrum of care for area residents. When Ketchum, her husband Joel Bartlett, and a number of others heard Time Banks USA founder Edgar S. Cahn speak at one of these non-profits, an idea was born for a time bank with a unique niche.

They observed that those who benefited from social service agencies were not encouraged to give back to Phoenixville.  Passive receiving was the usual model.  Those who worked for social service agencies, on the other hand, saw themselves as givers only and had a hard time accepting help.  Many time banks dedicate themselves to a cause, and this would be PATB’s.  For people in the helping professions, says Meerschaert, who is also the marketing and communications director for Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, this was “a way to say ‘I need help’ in a safe environment.”  In 2010, PATB has begun a “2010 Project” to focus even more on serving the disenfranchised, and twenty-five percent of their members are currently convalescent, unemployed, or otherwise vulnerable.

Time Banks level the playing field.  As the PATB vision statement says, they connect unmet needs with personal talents.

A Time Bank Social at Maysie’s Farm, outside Phoenixville. Photo: Rebecca Tirrell Talbot

Krishna Evans is a vivid example of this.  She had devoted so much energy and money to raising her children that she put off small repairs on her family’s home.  After joining the time bank two months ago, Evans engaged Bartlett to paint her fence and another member to fix “little annoying things around the house.”  Evans had unmet practical needs.  She also has talents that are invaluable to others.  She has a social work background, delights in spending time with seniors, and loves to garden.  So she earns hours by being a resource for the elderly, sharing a knack for gardening, and looking out for seniors’ needs.  Banking these hours leads to more possibilities.  She hopes to take piano lessons from another member.  “I never had the luxury to pay someone to teach me piano,” she says, bright-eyed.  “I’m expanding who I am.”

Time banks are expanding people’s options and Phoenixville’s possibilities.  But what about neighborhoods that do not yet have a time bank of their own?  PATB is currently following two small new time banks in the area and offering the umbrella of their infrastructure.  There are about 50 time banks nationwide and many in the United Kingdom, but for those who are not near one of these, the closest time bank may provide ways to link up with a few people nearby and establish an informal program.

From the Phoenixville group that urges those typically seen as “needy” to contribute, to the Brooklyn HMO that uses time dollars to cut seniors’ hospital bills, to the Oakland, California church that, according to Bartlett, used time dollars to set up a community watch system, time banks solve baffling problems.  Where neighborhood swaps may have happened spontaneously in the past, our culture of structured social networking calls for more coordinated forms of swapping.  And this structure is meeting not just  material needs, but also fundamental, intangible ones.

Cruel and Usual


Ever since the institution began, and certainly since the 1970s, the American death penalty has been an object of insatiable scrutiny in the criminal justice system of the West. Europe is appalled that we still have it. The Middle East is appalled that we don’t use it more frequently. In some states it’s non-existent, others it’s little more than a myth, and there are still some that can’t seem to get enough of it. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Texas.) So the debate will go on until the unlikely day when the federal government abolishes executions altogether.

Yet even while the fires of the capital punishment debate show no signs of cooling, a recent Supreme Court ruling has started afresh a new debate, rooted in the same constitutional criticism as execution-abolition. With executions on the decline while recidivism has been inching its way up the charts over nearly three decades, those lovable lefties have taken up the faithful arms of that pesky Eighth Amendment once more in order to propel the next Great Debate: life imprisonment for minors.

The Eighth Amendment states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines be imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” That’s it. Seventeen simple, highly interpretable words, upon which universalists, liberals, and abolitionists have stood tall and proud on ethical, moral and political soapboxes to proclaim all that is wrong with the punitive branch of our justice system, particularly when it comes to the death penalty. For some, execution of any sort is seen as cruel and unusual, though it is, ironically, one of the most consistent forms of punishment throughout history, which surely excludes it from being unusual. Then there are the conditionalists who insist that only some forms of execution are cruel and unusual, as though we might be able to convince the condemned — or even ourselves — that we really do care for their well-being if we poison them instead of bludgeoning them to death; firing squads are mean, but hanging is okay; gas chambers leave a bad political aftertaste, but electrocution gets a majority thumbs-up. Still yet there are the legalists who rightly point out that the certainty of someone’s guilt is rarely substantial enough to take his or her life — perhaps the most tolerable and certainly the most logical of the arguments. And then at the farthest liberal end, the place where idealism trumps truth, there are those whose only wobbly leg to stand on is the one that says everyone deserves a second chance. But while an unstable footing may be enough to prop up the Eighth Amendment against death, it only touts social idealism and naivety when positioned against the argument of life in prison.

The case highlighted here is that of Graham v. Florida in which Terrence Graham, a minor at the time, was given a plea deal to avoid a guilty judgment in an alleged armed robbery. One of the terms of that deal was a probationary period, which he allegedly violated, sending him back to court for adjudication for the original robbery. At that time he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

The argument, which the Supreme Court upheld, was rooted in the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and cites a series of other cases in both recent and not-so-recent history which have set precedent to define what is “cruel and unusual”. Without getting into the nitty gritty, the Court’s majority opinion is summed up by Justice Kennedy, who argues that a minor should have an opportunity to change. He writes, “Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope.” This, he says, makes the punishment both cruel and unusual.

But Justice Kennedy is operating on an idealist principle which says that the prison system is designed for reform rather than the truth, which is that prison has much more to do with punishment. For years the criminal justice system has been trumpeting to the media about incarceration’s rehabilitative qualities– how it shouldn’t be seen as an entirely punitive measure, that there is much more to it than locking them up and throwing away the key. Sadly, Justice Kennedy, a would-be conservative who can’t seem to stop drinking the liberal draught, has enthusiastically pledged to sing along.

The truth is, though, that no matter how many educational programs, social workers, religious institutions, or other rehabilitative measures are put into place within prison walls, the system itself will continue to keep itself in business as long as it continues to put the problem children together on the playground without supervision. Indeed, such a metaphor breeds a sense of irony because it is exactly in the school system where we see a similar sociological phenomenon. Take children even from well-to-do families and put them in the best educational institutions around, but the ones who have a penchant for trouble will not only find it, but they will find each other, and from these associations they will often go on to break more rules than they would have had they never met.

Prison is exponentially worse because it only houses the troublesome ones; strictly speaking, there are no “good” social influences. There is frequently street or even gang mentality in prison: demand respect by instilling fear even if it means resorting to violence; the weak will cling to the strong in order to protect themselves, and any opposition perpetually risks life and limb.

Even outside of violence, in the regular day-to-day of prison life, social interactions will, if innocently in the beginning, veer down the wrong path. Inmates will surely make small talk as humans are wont to do, except unlike the world outside prison walls, no one is going to start a conversation with, “So, what do you do for work?” Clearly, nothing anymore. The more natural icebreaker becomes the Hollywood favorite, “So, what are you in for?”

I bring up the obvious to point out the subtle: inmates frequently talk about crime. For a few, it’s all they know. And given the choice between slowly muddling through high school equivalent education or anger management courses, teaching inmates theories with little hope of opportunity for application, or learning from one another about how to get further, faster, the majority tend to sway towards the latter, thus perpetuating the very criminal mentality the system claims to be reforming. So when the “second chance” comes around, ex-offenders become re-offenders, recidivism rates hover at a staggering two-thirds for re-arrest and fifty percent for re-incarceration (so much for rehabilitation), and criminals find themselves right back in the over-crowded system that has already failed them once.

Herein lies the true violation of the Eighth Amendment. To merely prohibit life imprisonment for a minor only looks good politically. But practically, when that minor is released from prison in twenty or even ten years, he’s still going to have a long, uncertain — and yes, frightening — road ahead of him. He has learned only how to function in a unique population subset with no real understanding of how the world outside is working. (Think how much society changes in ten years, let alone twenty or more.) To send him back out into that now-unknown world with fifty dollars, no identification, and a list of homeless shelters to be turned away from is far crueler (though I’m afraid not very unusual) than to keep him in prison for the rest of his life. Even in the cases of ex-offenders being released to family and friends, to do so without further guidance than a weekly tousling with parole officers (who, often times, are ill-equipped themselves to deal with the trials of the parolee’s societal reintegration) is to set them up for failure. Well-intentioned as family and friends often are, they are just as often unable to shoulder the burden reintegration presents, and perhaps more often become part of the problem.

In fairness, it isn’t the High Court’s job to create new laws, only to uphold or strike down the rulings of lower courts. But as long as legal precedent will be the result of the Court’s decision, it would behoove the system to take further action. If Justice Kennedy and his liberal cronies want to make a real difference in the justice system, they should have a few conversations with their buddies in legislation about how we can provide the rehabilitative services offered in prison post-incarceration, rather than piously denouncing one punishment as unconstitutional while the alternative is hardly better and possibly worse. With the billions of dollars the federal government pumps into policies governing education for those who already have it, money for those who should share more of it, and wars that should be dwindling down instead of revving up, surely there can be some reallocation towards reintegration, among other things. Then, and only then, will we be able to adhere to the principles and intentions of the Eighth Amendment while simultaneously moving one step closer to providing some of those in need with a second chance that may actually have the sustenance to bear the fruit the system presently pretends to grow.

An Interview with Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler

After a busy run on the film festival circuit, a theatrical release, and the upcoming DVD release of their film William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe on April 27th, I’m grateful that Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler were able to take the time for this interview.

The sisters (producers/directors) run Off Center Media, a production company that produces documentaries exposing injustice in the criminal justice system. This award-winning film about their father is scheduled to kick off this season of PBS’s POV on June 22 at 10PM. The Kunstlers received the L’Oreal Women of Worth Vision Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

What were your goals for this film? How can film carry on the legacy of social change that was crucial to your father’s life? What are some examples?

Sarah Kunstler: We believe that creativity and art have tremendous power to spur people to action. That is why we got into filmmaking. Our first film, Tulia, Texas: Scenes from the Drug War, opened our eyes to the power of art to further social change. We went to Tulia, a small town in the Texas panhandle in 1999, after a drug sting netted almost 20% of the black population, leaving more than 50 children without one or both parents. All of the charges were based on the word of a crooked undercover cop. It was horrific. We knew immediately that we needed a way to convey the injustice of the arrests and the power of the families of the incarcerated who were fighting for their loved ones. Our film brought national attention to the injustice, helped the incarcerated get new lawyers, and led ultimately to the exoneration of those arrested.

Making that film led us to form our production company, Off Center Media. Over the past ten years, we have made a number of short films highlighting injustice in the criminal justice system – from clemency videos for death row inmates, to documentaries that have been used as part of campaigns highlighting wrongful convictions or Supreme Court cases.

Emily Kunstler: Both of our parents raised us with a deep commitment to social and racial justice, and we knew from a young age that this commitment would dictate the course of our lives. There are may ways to combat social and racial justice in society; we ended up using film as our tool. Our father principally was a storyteller. He would tell a story to the jury and he would tell the same story to the general public through his skilled use of the media. Dad would have been the first to admit that all of his major court victories were decided first in the court of public opinion and then inside the walls of a courtroom. Judges and juries are often disinclined to go out on a limb and take a risk. In this way, educating the public about particular cases of injustice was just as important to our father as what when on in a courtroom. Dad would use a press conference, we use documentary film – but essentially our tactics are the same.

As filmmakers and daughters, when did you decide you were ready to tackle such a personal story on film?

EK: We had been making films for about seven years by the time the idea occurred to us. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner. I think you have to be well into your adult life before you can entertain the idea of looking backwards. Sarah and I were both approaching 30 when we began making this film. When you are young, you really want to strike out on your own. We wanted to do our own thing and not necessary be associated with our parents. I don’t think this something unique to Sarah and my experience. I think most young people feel the same way, though it may have been exacerbated by our father’s celebrity. We didn’t want to be known as our father’s daughters; we wanted to make our own mark. So in choosing to make this film, we had to not only actively embrace our past but consciously choose to identify ourselves with our father, and I don’t think that is a choice either of us would have been prepared to make sooner. But in short, we decided to make the film over a margarita lunch at a small Mexican restaurant in the Fort Greene, the Brooklyn neighborhood that is home to our production office, and we never looked back.

In light of it being such a personal film, what was the greatest challenge in making Disturbing The Universe?

SK: The greatest challenge was making the choice to tell the film from our perspectives. Our father always seemed larger than life, and during his lifetime he was the center of our world, so it was hard to find room for ourselves in the telling of his story – to figure out where we fit. But it was important to us that the film be from our perspective. Emily and I could never have made an emotionally removed straightforward bio-pic, but I think more importantly we hoped that our perspective might be a window for our generation and younger viewers into the stories of some of the most important social movements of the 20th century. Many people our age have never heard of the rebellion and massacre at Attica or the murder of Fred Hampton. It was important for us to have outside perspectives. We worked with terrific producers who helped us get enough distance to find room for our voices.

There were so many interesting characters in your father’s life. Who among them surprised you most?

EK: I think we were most surprised to find and interview Jean Fritz. Jean was one of the jurors during the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, and when we interviewed her almost forty years later, she still maintained a collection of all of the newspaper reports as well as her daily accounts of what transpired in the courtroom from a journal she kept at the time. What surprised us most about Jean was the transformation she went through during the seven-month trial. When the trial commenced, she considered herself to be a conservative Republican. She lived in the very conservative suburb of Des Plaines and ran an auto supply store with her husband. By the close of the trial, after seeing Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom and the clear bias of the judge toward the defense, she had come full circle. She no longer trusted or had faith in her government.

Jean’s transformation goes to the heart of our father’s belief in the jury system. He thought that if you could reach twelve random people, connect to them, take them out of their comfort zone, and show them the truth, that they wouldn’t be able to ignore it and and their thinking would be altered. Dad believed that we are all capable of transformations, large and small.

One of the things that stands out in the film is your deep respect and admiration for your father, even as you doubted many of his choices. Considering the demands of his work and his many obligations, what do you think your father did as a father, not just an attorney, that inspired such devotion from his daughters?

SK: I think he valued our opinions. Even when we were small children, he made a point of talking to us about what mattered to him – racism, the importance of standing up to and combating injustice. He involved us in what he was doing. He made us want to be a part of it. Dad loved it when we showed any interest in his work and would encourage us to challenge him. Whenever possible, he took us with him – to court, to protests, to places like Wounded Knee that were important to him. And he loved us without measure. Emily and I definitely felt that growing up.

But I also think that choosing to be the kind of lawyer, to live the kind of life that our father did requires compromises. You can’t be the kind of Dad who is there all the time. You can’t make your children your first priority. And I think our mother deserves recognition and praise in this regard, because Emily and I never would have made it without her. We had great childhoods. We were protected, we were nurtured, we thrived. And we have her to thank for that.

At the conclusion of the film, you seem to recognize the value of your father’s choices in a new way. I wonder, who do you see taking up that torch? Who do people in distress around the country ask for representation since William Kunstler is no longer here?

SK: This is a hard question – and one that is often asked of us at Q&As following our film. I don’t think there will ever be another William Kunstler. But I don’t think there should be, either. He was a person of his generation – he belonged to the time he lived in. There are a lot of dedicated lawyers out there doing good work, most of them doing it anonymously.

EK: I think, ultimately, that the world we hope to see is a world where you don’t need a Bill Kunstler to stand next to you in order to get attention for the cause you are fighting for or the injustice you are fighting against, a world where lawyers stand in solidarity with movements and where the activists do the talking.


The DVD of Disturbing the Universe released on April 27, 2010 and are available through Amazon and directly from the filmmakers. The DVD can also be rented from Netflix and streamed from iTunes. The film also opens this season of PBS’s POV on June 22 at 10PM.

Human Trafficking, Craigslist, and Kijiji

We are motoring away from Kwadjokrom in a red dugout boat and I have stopped crying. In the heat of the sun I smell like the road, the fine dust gritty between my teeth as I clench and unclench my jaw, trying to work out my shame at my outburst on the road from Kijiji.

Kijiji is a market just beyond the Western bank of Ghana’s Lake Volta, on whose waters thousands of slave children labor. At three or four years old, just weaned from their mothers’ breasts, they come to a lonely life of work and hunger. The fishermen who buy them are often child slaves themselves, grown up on the lake, set free at seventeen or eighteen years old to fend for themselves. At Kijiji, the masters’ wives sell the fish from the children’s nets, and this afternoon we walked in the sun among those market baskets, their mouths full to overflowing.

I am in Ghana on behalf of a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that partners with Ghanaian anti-trafficking leaders to rescue these children. One of my Ghanaian colleagues is sitting at the helm of the red dugout boat, calling to the boatman who guides our craft through the clutter of Kwadjokrom’s shore-docked fishing boats. The boats are shaped like thin moons, each end tipped up, and their wooden flanks are painted with David and Goliath, the Good Shepherd, and the Rainbow and the Dove. We are on our way from Kijiji to a fishing island, where a fisherman has promised to give up a little boy he keeps.

Yet as we push out, my thoughts are of Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, black map dots that rise in my mind with the rhythm of a dull heartbeat. I have no reason to think of those cities while I am here in Ghana, except that they mark for me the trafficking route of a friend, and I have seen Kijiji.

It does not make sense. It did not make sense half an hour ago on the road from Kijiji, when the old man sitting behind me in our rickety trotro asked, through an acquaintance’s translation, why was I so angry?

I did not realize that I was shrieking in the trotro’s cramped cab, holding forth in a language that only three of my traveling companions could fully comprehend.

“Using Craigslist is like buying a coach class ticket on the upper deck of a slave ship,” I think I yelled. The old man was perplexed. “They sell thousands of kids in sex trafficking and prostitution and they could care less!” He did not get that either. “Everyone who buys a used couch knows what’s happening in the ‘adult services’ section and doesn’t care!”

At this point, one of my English-speaking companions yelled back, in near-equal force, that I should zip it. He was right. I turned in my seat to face the front of the bus and the rutted, dusty road leading up to the lake. I was crying now, less from the reprimand and more from the map of the cities I had remembered. I brought my handkerchief up to wipe my forehead and nose and then I held it to my mouth.

It was nearly five years ago that I met the woman whose life is in that map of Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. I was newly married and newly arrived in the third of four cities my husband and I would call home that year. I was teaching literature at a university, but I wanted to keep a hand in the anti-trafficking community, so I signed on for the first meet-up of Polaris Project’s Seattle chapter. When I arrived at the meet-up, she was there, too.

I know what it means to be lonely. I know the delicate aspect it brings to a person’s face and the white cast it brings to the eyes and skin. I know less well how to bear up under my own loneliness, whenever and why-ever it arrives. When I see the kind of fortitude that I lack alive in someone else, I mark it. I know I will need that memory.


When she was fourteen, her father left. Her mother followed. Improbably, she was left alone in blue-collar suburban Seattle, where she was found by an older boyfriend-cum-savior-cum-pimp. She was beaten, raped, and sold on the streets and on the Internet. She was cut, branded, and thrown out of moving cars. The West Coast circuit – Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles – was her pimp’s bread-and-butter. When she became pregnant by him with a second child, she took her two-year-old daughter and fled.

It is hard to befriend a woman who grew up in the rigged world of a “stable” – a slang term for the women that a pimp owns, exploits, and uses to exploit each other. A woman who has known this life wants to love and to be loved, but she does not believe that love can be given freely.

When my husband and I moved to Washington, D.C., my friend and I kept in touch for a while. Once when I called her apartment, I got a drunken woman who told me that my friend and her daughters had been kicked out. I begged for another number and the woman gave me the line for a motel room, where my friend answered once and a man, whose voice I did not trust, answered a second and final time.

These days, Facebook cuts short the romanticism of myriad lost loves and lost friendships, sometimes for the better. I looked for my friend on Facebook last year, sometime in the wake of the Boston Craigslist murders, when the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Polaris Project, and several U.S. Attorney Generals rallied – and ultimately lost their battle – to stop human trafficking via the Craigslist erotic services (now “adult services”) section.

In the midst of the brouhaha, I found my friend. Her Facebook profile was meager and her wall was a strange slate of auto-generated messages, but this seemed in some way fitting for all the abuse she had experienced in the world of mid-nineties Internet.

Knowing what she had overcome, I understood what my friends and colleagues were after in their campaign to clean up Craigslist. I was not sure that attempting to reform an online kingpin, especially one who had no natural impetus to do so, was the best way to do it.

I stumbled on to Kijiji – of eBay, rather than Kijiji of the Kwadjokrom overbank, the red dust road, and the market where women sell fish caught by slave children – sometime during those months. I talked to a few colleagues about what it might look like to stage a “other-cott” and steer like-minded friends toward an online classifieds site that chooses, of its own accord, to entirely prohibit the “adult services” ads that make Craigslist a haven for human traffickers.

But the other-cott did not go anywhere. Or, to rephrase, I did not take it anywhere. I do not know why.

What I do know is that today on the road from Kijiji, someone mentioned Craigslist. I was thinking of my friend, I remembered how many thousands of boys, girls, women, and men like her had been sex trafficked on Craigslist, and without counting the cost, I began shrieking incoherently and obnoxiously about slave ships and sins of omission.

I would like to laugh about the incident, but it occurred while I was on the clock – and besides the inquisitive old man, our trotro ferried half of our Ghanaian partner staff, a former White House economic development expert, and one of Touch A Life Foundation’s most faithful and generous supporters.

It was a bad moment.

I have apologized sincerely to the person at whom I shrieked the loudest. I will apologize tomorrow morning to the other shriek-ee, who was in fearfully close-range. If I can find the old man, I promise that I will apologize to him, too.

I figure that since I have nothing left to lose, I might as well go all out.

I want you – my colleagues, friends, family, random people I went to high school with – to know that Craigslist’s convenience is not worth its price.

If you want to stop human trafficking, stop using Craigslist and use Tell your friends to do it, too. The more, the merrier, and the better the second-hand shopping selection.

And if you think of it, please pray for my friend and pray for me, that in every way that our lives intersect, I would love her well.

For more information, check out:


Kijiji Rules of Use

Polaris Project’s Letter to Craigslist CEO

Polaris Project’s Quick stats & Client Service Reflections re: Craigslist

Craiglist complies with some of its critics’ requests, but human trafficking persists.

Get involved:

Join the Facebook group.

Sign the Petition

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at the author’s blog, and is reprinted by permission.

Whatever Happened to Due Process?

There was a time in my life when I regularly exercised a very reckless lack of judgment. During that time, I decided that the most satisfying future I could pursue would be in the world of law. Since I was transferring schools anyway—more reckless judgment—I jumped at the opportunity to change majors as well. Armed with a stubborn persistence and what I interpreted to be omniscience, I set off to change the world through the fisheye lens of the criminal justice system.

As it turns out, cynical people like me don’t really find much reception in the justice system. (I know. I was surprised, too.) But as I took my first steps into the world of justice, I found it difficult to be any other way. How was it that the United States of America, arguably at the helm of the greatest justice system in the world, could still see so much corruption, so much frivolity? How were men and women dodging murder verdicts based on trial technicalities while I couldn’t even get out of a speeding ticket? Something had gone unquestionably awry.

Yet much of the corruption is subtler than it seems. Indeed, while some legislation has evolved into ludicrous formality, there is no doubt that it once had roots in the protection of human rights.

Take, for example, the Constitutional right to due process. Any person tried on American soil is entitled to a trial and cannot be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law.” But entitlement should not be the same thing as requirement and due process of law should not mean fruitless formalities, both things that the State of Arkansas ought to consider in the case of Abdul Hakim Muhammad. Muhammad is accused of killing one military private and injuring another in a shooting at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas last June. Once in custody, Muhammad said that he wanted to plead guilty, citing religious reasons for his actions. Arkansas, however, does not allow a suspect to plead guilty to a capital crime. Informed of this, Muhammad thought he was being led astray and most recently wrote a letter to the judge, bypassing his attorneys, stating that he is guilty, he wants no trial, and he stands by his actions as an act of jihad. So far, Muhammad must still plead not guilty and be tried for his crimes.

The overarching theme of what’s going on here is that the justice system—driven by an increasingly corrupt world of politics—is focusing less on discovering truth and serving justice and more focused on the political and social ramifications of its actions; in other words, the system is now riddled with laws which function more as clauses to cover the State than they do as statutes to protect human rights.

Forcing Muhammad through a trial brings up a number of major concerns, not least of which is that he could very well be found not guilty. The logical man would say that doesn’t seem possible, but the justice system no longer operates on logic but on politics and in this case, politics says that there may be technicalities in the time leading up to trial where a jury legally cannot convict Muhammad. These technicalities once acted as protection against human rights, but they have been corrupted largely by idealist defense attorneys who treat legal proceedings like a philosophy class where semantics hold more sway than truth. To people such as these, criminal justice is comparable to a high school debate team and the result is that some criminals who deserve to be punished are walking the streets which American people otherwise believe to be safe.

Admittedly, though, if Muhammad goes to trial, he likely will be found guilty, which brings up a different concern: tax dollars. If it isn’t already bad enough that the people of any state have to foot the housing bill for convicted felons, it is downright unthinkable to require the people to pay for a trial for a man who is happy to confess, entirely apart from duress, and accept the penalty. The cost of a pointless trial on top of the cost of even a single year of holding a convicted felon in a maximum security prison or death row tops out at hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the risk of sounding callous, why spend more than we have to?

The root of the answer probably comes from a deep history of coerced confessions and botched trials. With DNA evidence rescuing hundreds if not thousands of people from life and death sentences, cost considerations carry less weight as mitigating factors when the possibility of an innocent man paying for a crime he didn’t commit remains. But to go so far as to prohibit a guilty plea can only be relevant when there remains a very distinct question of truth, such as when a man confesses but then maintains his innocence later on, as in as the tragic case of Amanda Knox. But while Knox’s confession may have been coerced and was certainly retracted, Muhammad has all but boasted of his guilt, and he’s continued to do so for seven months. Under such circumstances, it seems that Arkansas’ law needs a bit of tweaking.

The law, however, is unlikely to be tweaked, because whether it’s wasting resources or truly saving innocent lives, it covers the government’s back, which seems more the more likely interest for the State in the first place. Rejecting a guilty plea in a capital case proclaims that Arkansas will not see any man martyred, whether for religious reasons or otherwise. Rejecting a guilty plea from a self-professed Muslim extremist tells the world that America gives even radical religious zealots a fair shot. There’s no religious bigotry here, no animal bloodletting. Just good, clean, criminal justice protocol.

The truth is that the protocol is not clean and it has very little to do with justice. States are endlessly embattled in a similar struggle when it comes to the death penalty, as the states which still execute inmates seek to prove to opponents that there is somehow a method of taking another man’s life which doesn’t amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Granted, that while the Constitution remains as interpretable as the Bible, there are certain words and phrases in the Bill of Rights that simply don’t leave much room for evaluation. Killing a man by its very nature is cruel and unusual. Waiving your right to a trial is, by its very nature, due process of law, as long as the accused has been given the right in the first place. Muhammad obviously was and if he’d rather not be tried, if he’d rather simply confess and go to the gallows, then it should not be the burden of the people to see his way through the system simply so the State of Arkansas can boast a clean conscience.

The criminal justice system was designed to discover truth. Instead, it has become a place of political struggle where too many lawyers care too much about the game, too many judges care too much about appointments, and too many governors and legislators are more interested in appearing compassionate when the system they work for is still based in punishment, not rehabilitation. If Americans want to be the nice guys then we should do away with prison altogether and find a way to help offenders become functioning members of society, not force unwanted trials on criminal suspects, burdening already-strained American citizens in the process. Those who make their beds with determination to lie in them should be allowed to do so. The criminal justice system has plenty of other problems to deal with.

Making a Difference in the 21st Century

We live in a world of complex problems – perhaps more complex than ever before – but we also live in an age of immense possibility. We often take this reality far too lightly. Not too long ago, we feared as the swine flu virus began spreading rapidly around the world; less than a year later, and the dread of a major global outbreak has largely subsided due to the marvels of modern medicine. Amidst the Black Death of the 1300s, no one would have dreamed that such a thing was possible.

The global warming doomsayers report that glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, and “Bombs Over Baghdad” is hardly just the name of a song. With tremendous problems looming, it can be easy to grow cynical, depressed, or disenchanted. And yet, there is much to be hopeful for, and there are many things that the average person can do. In his 2009 commencement address at The University of Portland, Paul Hawken said, “Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider.” What follows is an account of my own journey in coming to understand and appreciate the words of men like Hawken.

Not too many years ago, a college professor kicked off my college senior-year Public Policy practicum course with a single book and a simple objective. The book: Design Like You Give a Damn, an inspiration source for those thinking up innovative ways to address humanitarian crises. The objective: It is time to take your ideas out of the classroom and into the real world; we have talked public policy for quite some time, and now it is time to live it. Fingers tingling with anticipation after hearing what waited ahead, I never could have imagined what might result from such a curriculum, and perhaps neither could my classmates. Sparking an endless curiosity for the concept of public innovation, a simple class planted the seeds for a drastic re-shifting of my own priorities.

Prior to this course, my two great interests – the public good and the arts – had always seemed at odds. Two loves (it appeared then) that ne’er the twain should meet. At the time, I was finishing up dual majors in political science and public policy. My political inclinations were clearly winning out. The logic seemed simple enough: “If you want to make a difference, you go into politics.” And there was little surrounding me in a twenty-first century liberal arts university to dispute this claim, particularly as my studies focused upon reading, essay-writing, and honing my understanding of the democratic process.

But, as someone who was just as likely to have her head in an interior design magazine as in Plato’s Republic – and perhaps not one more than the other – I often wondered why I had been so unfortunately gifted with competing interests. It seemed that if I went the art/design route, I would be giving up my concern for issues related to the common good and settling for a more materialistic way of life. Seeping with an overdose of asceticism, my train of thought went something like this: planning outfits, decorating for events, drawing pictures, how can these be good? Meanwhile, as I pushed off in the other direction, my soul hungered to be plugged into the creative arts despite my misguided ideals.

Later, during that odd semester spent regularly commuting from the classroom to Durham’s public housing neighborhoods, I began to dream with my classmates and local community members about what could be through the implementation of community gardens in local neighborhoods. In the process, I discovered that my two chief passions were not opposed, but could coexist quite happily.

My four months of practicum led me on a rather curious adventure where I learned of things like Food From the Hood, a public gardens project developed by students in Los Angeles to rebuild a downtrodden part of their community. Food From the Hood launched in the aftermath of L.A.’s race riots, as an attempt to empower youth and provide an educational resource for non-traditional learners. Once envisioned as a community-building exercise, the garden has morphed well beyond its original aims. With ingredients from the garden, students now produce and market salad dressing, learning business management skills in a real-world context. Today, the fruits of the students’ labors sell at high-end grocers like Whole Foods and have landed them in quite a few news media reports. Perhaps more significantly, though, the program has given inner city youth the tools and the courage to step out in the marketplace and their own community to have an impact.

A few years later, my head still spins with ideas as I browse the pages of Studio At Large, a book documenting the journey of several University of Washington architecture students using their craft to make a difference in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe. Students and faculty at UW’s Building Sustainable Communities (BASIC) Initiative are responsible for reimagining and re-envisioning place and space with the input of community members. They have built schools in rural areas with no transportation access, developed innovative migrant housing solutions in Eastern Washington on a minimal budget, and improved access to a community garden for a Seattle neighborhood’s elderly Asian population. Like Food From the Hood and my own hands-on learning experience, UW’s program encourages students to see themselves as global actors as they realize the impact that their work can have in creating a better world. These architects, artists, and planners work with whatever tools and resources they are given, within the context in which they are placed, to produce lasting results. Consequently, their lessons remind us all that social change does not start in Washington – it starts in our neighborhoods, our communities, our places of business.

While once upon a time my dreams made little sense, today they come together with ever-increasing clarity. Making a difference does not necessarily mean lobbying for the next act of Congress, although that too is important. Instead, it means living uniquely into the talents, opportunities, and needs placed before us day by day. I now realize that design is about so much more than coveted objects and high-end labels. Things like advertising, fashion, and fine arts are, in fact, professions that can be used for the public good; and many design-minded folk like urban designers are living that reality day by day. And furthermore, changing the world does not start over there; it starts here in our own backyards.

Don’t Just Do It

In the late 1980s, a popular ad campaign created by the advertising agency Weiden + Kennedy transcended its given purpose of selling sneakers and lodged itself permanently in the annals of popular culture.

Just Do It.

But what it did was more, even, than become a household phrase. For many in the United States, including those in the small, charismatic church my family attended when I was growing up, it synthesized all that was wrong with the world into three short words.

And Nike wasn’t the only company to turn the sixties credo – “If it feels good, do it” – into a marketing slogan. To this day, the refrain, “Why ask why, try Bud Dry,” echoes in my head, long after Budweiser ceased production of the beer the ad was hawking.

These ads and the countless others espousing the same kind of “don’t think, act” mentality, coming as they did as the twentieth century came to a close, illustrate perfectly what the Irish philosopher George Berkeley put forth in his rather bizarre book entitled Siris, written in 1744. Berkeley suggested, as many others have since, that philosophy, though it may be considered and debated in academia, far from popular culture, actually rises from and informs the culture at large.

Berkeley said it thusly:

Prevailing studies are of no small consequence to a State, the religion, manners, and civil government of a country ever taking some bias from its philosophy, which affects not only the minds of its professors and students, but also the opinions of all the better sort, and the practice of the whole people remotely and consequentially indeed, though not inconsiderably.

That is, “If it feels good, do it,” “Just do it,” and “Why ask why, try Bud Dry” rose to such popularity precisely because they captured he prevailing philosophical wind of the day: modernism. We need not ask the hard questions or consider our actions – the consequences, if there indeed are any, are irrelevant in the face of our desire.

In art, film, and literature, this mentality translated into a visual aesthetic disinterested in beauty, movies that settled deep into the despair of a Cold War world, and books that reveled in the kind of freedom and carelessness that only comes from acting on impulse.

Many fault postmodernism with opening the door to moral relativism, but this “whatever floats your boat” mentality was born of modernist philosophy, and then exposed by those responding to the later movement. The line between modernism and postmodernism, both in theory and in time, is blurred, but one thing is certain: in the last decade, we’ve subtly begun to move away from the lack of interest in morality and the relativism so prominent in the twentieth century.

Is this a result of the simple pendulum swing that writes history? Is it a response to the events of September 11, 2001, when something so evil happened that a moral reaction was necessary, if not inevitable? Has the moralizing of religious fundamentalists – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish – taken hold?

Whatever the reason, the evidence is undeniable. In every cultural corner, moral questions are asked – in film and television, visual art and advertising, comic books and cartoons and literature.

In the last month or so, Paste has published “Best of the Decade” lists on its website (and in its most recent print issue). Surveying the lists confirms this assertion: many of the most critically acclaimed books, movies, albums, and television shows all dared to raise questions of morality.

A couple of standouts from the best books list are notable because, in some ways, their attention to questions of morality is what exactly what makes them noteworthy. As Paste points out in its synopsis of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it is both “meditation on the human condition” as well as post-apocalyptic “adventure book.” But each adventure is underscored by the weight it carries, raising questions of morality to the literal level of life and death. As in his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, set in 1980, McCarthy creates a space that is devoid of any sense of right or wrong, in which his characters struggle to reclaim their morality and, ultimately, their humanity.

McCarthy’s books explore questions of morality through fiction, but number 10 on Paste’s list, the late David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction collection, Consider the Lobster, parses the issue in essay form. Until about halfway through, the title piece is a beautifully crafted but otherwise standard bit of reportage of the Maine Lobster Festival. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Wallace asks his reader (the piece was originally published in Gourmet Magazine) if it is “all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure.” And with that, a conscience is thrust into the reporting and the actual feelings of a crustacean are considered.

A more recent release (not on Paste’s list),Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, extends Wallace’s question to include all living things and, along with “Consider the Lobster,” illuminates one of the more interesting aspects of this trend toward moralism. This is not a return or a pre-modern kind of soul searching. The questions that are being considered in the twenty-firstcentury are very postmodern concerns. Look to the places where claims of morality are made the loudest, and often most convincingly, and you will find that they are not necessarily voiced by the traditional sources of moral indignation: religious organizations. Rather, the questions at the forefront are about the environment, treatment of homosexuals, access to health care, and the responsibilities of wealthy countries to their counterparts in the developing world, to name a few.

Though these questions make their way into the mind of Americans through books, they enter the popular psyche more forcefully through the more readily-consumed media such as television, film, and music. Paste‘s top twenty TV shows reveal intense interest in questions of morality played out in diverse genres from science fiction (Battlestar Galactica, which dealt weekly withissues ranging from discrimination to suicide bombers), to animation (The Family Guy filled the space that The Simpsons occupied in previous decades), to talk shows (The Daily Show and The Colbert Report;Oprah did not make the list, but is another prominent example). And, of course, standout, thought-provoking dramas such as The Wire, Lost, and Mad Men make the list. What did not make the list: any “show about nothing.”

As for film and music, Paste offered fifty of each, but the list-toppers serve to illustrate the point. In film, Fernando Meirelles’ City of God took the number one spot, and in music, the album Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens claimed top ranking.

I don’t pretend that the first decade of the twenty-firstcentury is somehow a more “moral” decade than its predecessors. (I’m not even sure how one would make that assessment.) But while in the recent past, questions of morality have been the exclusive territory of religious organizations, a veritable non-issue in the ivory towers of academia and the popular imaginations of American artists, they are being asked again with increasing fervor and a tremendous range of concerns.

A recent visit to Nike’s website turned up no sign of the old “Just Do It” mantra. Rather, a different kind of urging (in support of the Product Red campaign) is prominently displayed. It prods the viewer to “Lace Up Save Lives.”

Woodcuts in a Time of Destitution

The way I understand it, it was hard to find artists in Germany after World War II. Some had been killed, some had fled the country, and many, many German artists had connected their work so closely with Nazism that after the war, after the country stood shocked and ashamed of what it had done, the once successful artists were completely rejected. This left Germany desperate for artists. In a time when the country was confused and conflicted, feeling lost and guilty and trying to somehow come to terms with the vicious insanity of its own actions, there was a dearth of artists.

But there were a few. There were some artists who did not just navigate the politically treacherous times of Third Reich Germany, but also managed to speak to the times. One was HAP (Helmut Andreas Paul) Grieshaber. A woodcut artist who opposed militarism and war, he spent years silenced for his pacifism. He lived and worked in England, France, and Greece before the war, but got deported back to Germany because of his pacifism. In Germany, after 1933, he was only able to create art in secret. Grieshaber did manual labor and delivered newspapers to earn a living during WWII, but still continued to work on his woodcuts. It wasn’t until after the war and after Grieshaber was released from an American internment camp, when the country was desolate of artists and in desperate need of art, that anyone was interested in the work he was doing.

His art is medieval, and also modern. His techniques and even the art itself – cutting an inverse image into a block of wood to make a stamp – date to the 1400s, in Europe. Grieshaber, a traditionally trained typesetter and bookmaker, practiced a traditional art. He did not, however, practice an anachronistic art, and he didn’t try to hide in history, to escape or take a vacation from his own time. Instead, as he said, he took “everything from the present day” while practicing an old art form, an ancient craft.

In 1965 and ’66, for example, in one of his more well-known pieces, Grieshaber carved a modern version of the “Dance of Death.” Inspired by the 15th century relief carving in Basel, Switzerland, Grieshaber did his own version. His version is noted for being very faithful to the original, yet also using modern motifs, re-using mythical and Biblical imagery, and making a strong ethical statement. Grieshaber’s “Totentanz von Babel” is 40 panels of people joining in Death’s celebration. The piece is traditional, the craftsmanship old-fashioned, but the point is contemporary, the effect shocking. The dancing people include the Pope and also the artist himself. It indicts us all.

In a later, less political but just as ethically pointed period, Grieshaber did an entire series of couples, men and women in pairs. In some of these, he carved the individuals separately and then, using red and blue paint, joined them together in a print. The entire series seems to be a meditation on basic relationships, on the couple as a picture of peace, and on Jesus Christ’s “new commandment” – “love one another.”

Grieshaber died in 1981, and his 100th birthday is being celebrated this year with micro museum exhibits from Berlin to the Boedensee. The artist, a funny-looking man who described himself as someone who just wanted to live on a mountain alone with his animals, was an answer to an often-posed theoretical question. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger once famously asked, “What are poets for in a destitute time?” Theodor Adorno, who left Germany to escape the Nazis, gave a name to the “destitute time.” He called it “after Auschwtiz,” arguing that poetry or any art in an era dominated by ideological murder of millions “is barbaric.” As an Orthodox Rabbi posed the problem, what can we possibly say that is credible in the presence of burning children? Grieshaber’s woodcuts show an answer. His works speak of the way humans relate to nature and to each other. His works speak about recognizing violence, rejecting violence, and hoping and working for an otherworldly peace, the intervention of an angel, a dove, a spirit of love.

What’s especially interesting about Grieshaber, though, is that it’s not the themes of his art alone that demonstrate how to be credible in the face of history’s horror. It’s actually his whole art.

Throughout the 20th century, artists were caught between two answers to the ethical question of how to interact with history. One was traditionalism, quietism. These artists loved one idyllic past or another, with its craftsmanship and contemplation of higher things. They ignored the present and the future, left it alone, because preserving the status quo is the price of the peace you have to have if you’re going to dwell in an imaginary past. The other answer was experimentalism, where the art was always shocking, startling, seeking to shape history and usher in the future. These artists understood themselves to be shock troops, and they served one ideological vision or another.

Both ways of approaching history – attempting to escape into the past and attempting to provoke in the future – helped to make the Holocaust happen. Asked in Germany at the end of the war, asked with a concern about the answer’s complicity with the murder of millions, both answers to the question of art and history seemed severely wrong. While time and distance have allowed both quietists and experimentalists to reclaim their original positions, to defend themselves and disassociate with political programs of murder, Grieshaber didn’t have that luxury – but he had another answer, another way. Grieshaber chose a third way.

His art critiques as it contemplates higher things; it creates a space of quiet, but then uses the quietness to ask crucial questions.

Grieshaber’s art looks back to consider the elemental problems in how we relate to each other, and it looks forward to a hope that surpasses the political. There are others, too, who have done this, who have found this third way. In Germany, Erich Kästner’s realism for children, with stories like Emil and the Detectives, is similarly centered in the historical present, appearing regressive to some while actually being progressive in a conservative way. In America, the painter Andrew Wyeth and the poet Wendell Berry are both examples of this third way, rejecting pastoral and utopian temptations, creating art that responds and deals with the destitution of the times. But, more than anyone, Grieshaber seems to have really answered this problem with his art. It’s unfortunate he’s so unknown, especially outside of Germany. With his pacifism and his care for his craft, his ethical consciousness and his skill and obvious devotion to the materials with which he works, Grieshaber’s woodcuts are an example of art showing us how to be human.

With Liberty and Justice for All

The restored bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

The restored bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

With Liberty and Justice For All, a permanent exhibit at the Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, sets out to do more than weave a narrative or artfully display a collection.

It accomplishes both of these, to be sure-telling stories of individuals involved in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement, and the struggle for civil rights. It uses text and audio and video. There’s a timeline, effective lighting, interactive computers. Artifacts include celebrated pieces like George Washington’s camp bed and the chair in which Abraham Lincoln saw his last play. Other items carry a different weight, things like shackles and a bullwhip and an iron collar.

If it were only these things, it would be worthy of discussion. This is our history, warts and all, and it is good to remember. But this is not only about remembering.

The Henry Ford has created an experience that resonates with and extends history.

To fully appreciate the impact, you have to picture the installation within the layout of the whole. The primary space is wide and high and warm. It boasts a 40-foot ceiling and the world’s largest teak floor. Two laps around the interior perimeter equal about a mile. From the main entry point, there is more than the eye can absorb. There are tractors in front of rockstar outfits, an exploded Model T and a moving assembly line, a suspended plane and a diner, neon signs and cars, presidential limos, and a steam engine.

In the middle of this barrage, a boundary of grey walls sets apart what may be the greatest treasure – the Rosa Parks bus. Restored, painted yellow and green, covered with the ads of the mid-1950s, it is surrounded by a buzzing crowd.

It is the reason I came. I sadly had not been here since its acquisition, let alone its restoration or its home in as the centerpiece of this section. My most recent visit was a whirlwind of children, including two preschoolers and two kindergarteners, more interested in skywalkers and the shiny, round Dymaxion house.

As I move closer, I realize that the bus is not just for looking. Folks are climbing aboard. They are sitting, looking out the window. I was excited. I wanted to get on that bus.

I was almost there when I saw, for the first time, the glass. It is a huge pane; about as long and as tall as the bus itself. I half expected it to slide over like at a drugstore or supermarket door. For a second I thought maybe the guide had to let you in. But he can’t – the glass is a divider, and you must walk through the exhibit.

It starts at the battle for independence: the Stamp Act, Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, George Washington. Next, tools of brutality that were wielded against men and women in the name of economic need, and the ways people fought back. You consider Lincoln, his struggle to keep our nation together but extend freedom to slaves. It has been a winding, but relatively clear, path.

Coming out of the Civil War, past artifacts connected to the 13-15th amendments, you turn the corner and are confronted. It is the back of a figure in the full uniform of the KKK. The path forks. You may choose to go back, or turn toward the women’s suffrage display, or walk past it and the clansman and into the Civil Rights era.

In this hallway, displays line the left wall. To the right, a mini-theater plays a Jackie Robinson documentary. Mini-theaters similar to this are a part of the fabric of the Henry Ford. But this one replicates a public waiting area in the South prior to the civil rights movement. You have to choose a door – the entrance for Whites, or the entrance for Coloreds.

The first door was the one labeled “Colored,” and I stepped through it partway through the film. I was behind glass. On the other side, the movie played and an American flag hung. I sat on a bench, and as others entered in the door in front of me, they looked back and stared. I was on display; I was a curiosity. One family looked at me a long time, particularly a little girl in a pink top. She disappeared when her mom became engrossed in a conversation that I couldn’t hear. She reappeared next to me on the bench, and we sat silently for a few minutes until she was spotted and motioned away.

I was ready now, and went to the bus. You can sit right where Rosa Parks sat on December 1, 1955 and listen to her recorded version of the story. It is so much worse than I remember from history class. The norms of this route reserved the front 10 seats for whites – she wasn’t sitting there. She was sitting in “her” section, accepting her “station,” but the bus was crowded. The bus driver warned her that if a white wanted her seat, she would need to move back. It happened. She didn’t move. The driver threatened to call the police. She didn’t move. The cops came, and she was moved – and so was an entire people.

On my way out, I noticed two things. One was an interactive board. Sticky notes and pencils were available, and people responded to four questions about freedom and justice. I was not surprised by what I found. On my drive to the museum, I saw scores of people in a wealthy community protesting against healthcare. Healthcare was the focus of the majority of yellow stickies. People responded not just to the questions, but also to the responses: arrows pointing, stickies stacked on stickies. As I sat and thought about this, a woman pointed out someone else’s answer to a question about modern threats to freedom and justice. She ripped it down and crushed it; later, I saw the same answer reposted.

It is a challenge, I thought, to balance these values. Emotions and rhetoric blaze, and we have become so accustomed to polarization and bias that it has become the norm. Minds are made up by reflex, like when the old-time doctor tapped under your knee and your foot would kick.

On good days, arguments and counter-arguments fly. On bad days, people wave signs wherever it’s convenient so they can feel like they’ve done something, and anger-mongers spew the froth of exaggeration, hyperbole, and lies. How will this nation manage, I wondered?

I stepped away from the board and walked the back wall of the display. I was met with the faint white script of the Declaration of Independence on the same grey walls. Their line was broken by four windows. Through the first, I could see a sign within the exhibit – “The Coming Storm.” The second framed Lincoln’s chair. From the third, I could see the women’s suffrage jail cell.

The last window looked dark. As I drew closer, I realized it was on purpose. How will this nation manage? In the last window, all you can see is your own reflection.

Blind Justice?

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the American justice system is American culture itself.

After all, it’s doubtful that the writers of the 222-year-old Constitution had any idea of the future judicial leniency often granted to a pop culture swollen with household names – people who, despite the lack of valid importance ascribed to them by anything more than brand-recognition, behave as though they are above the law, failing to use what little wit may have been bestowed upon them to understand the damage they cause to an ailing justice system. It’s also unlikely that any legislator over the past two centuries cared one way or the other if the person violating the statute was a celebrity or a hermit; corrupt as our politics are, the time has not yet come to encourage the conspiracy theorists. When it comes to crime, America has been mostly made up of legislators who are dedicated to passing criminal statutes in favor of justice and human rights for all people. There is no special treatment in law-writing.

The problem comes long after legislation, and often long after laws have been enforced as prescribed by the statutes. Nobody cares, for example, if Mr. Smith next door gets dragged away by police on charges of child molestation. In fact, the neighbors will probably fuel the media with cliched (and probably unfounded) character statements – “I knew there was something off about him,” or “I once saw him kill a mosquito and I knew then that there was a deep cruelty in that man’s soul.”

Case-in-point: the homicide of Annie Le. Within days of arresting suspect Raymond Clark, CNN’s disgraceful current affairs personality, Nancy Grace, found herself a sleazy character witness to assist her in viciously slandering a potentially innocent man on television, unfairly biasing the public, and worse, making it very difficult for Clark to get a fair trial. Never mind that the New Haven Police Chief hadn’t released any details about the evidence they’ve found. Never mind that the news media didn’t actually have a shred of admissible evidence implicating Clark in Le’s murder. As far as the people were concerned, the man was a killer, and even if Clark is innocent he’s going to have a time of it trying to convey that message to the public after all of this bad publicity, especially when low-lifes like Grace can’t even be held for slander if a jury should find him not guilty.

But while media lynch mobs effectively destroy the due process of the Constitution – the ironic postmodern effect of the First Amendment trumping the significantly more important Fifth Amendment – there is one redeeming factor here: even with a crippled due process, the justice system is still allowed to do its job. No one sends a petition to his local judge asking for the immediate hanging of a murder suspect, and most judges and juries don’t let media frenzies and public opinion distract them from the facts of the case or the conditions of the law.

The larger problem comes from the opposite case, when a person has enough evidence against him to warrant a trial and suddenly the powerful world of culture baselessly interjects the man’s innocence, stalling the justice system with foolish petitions supporting the man’s release. I am, of course, referring to the Roman Polanski case: he has already confessed and pleaded his guilt to a savage and all-but-unforgivable crime and then gone on to commit another, but Hollywood big-shots like Harvey Weinstein, Pedro Almodovar, and Monica Bellucci have shamefully either denounced his detainment or even gone so far as to call for his release, demonstrating complete ignorance of what the justice system is or how it works. (Incidentally, if Monica Bellucci is going to tell the courts how to carry out justice, then someone from the courts should write her a letter telling her how to act.)

So what is the difference between the case of Raymond Clark, a man who has not yet been found guilty but may as well have been in the public eye, and Roman Polanski, a man who, after confessing his guilt, ran away from the consequences of the law only to be greeted warmly with calls for pardon three decades later?

Some might argue that the only real difference is the amount of time that has elapsed. After all, Polanski’s crime was committed over thirty years ago, and while time may not heal all wounds, Polanski’s victim suggests that it may be enough of a band-aid to forget about them, so long as no one comes along and rips the thing off.

But the Polanski case, with all due respect, isn’t about his victim – and to some extent, it isn’t even about his first crime; it’s about his second crime, which invalidates the time-elapsed argument. He made a plea deal with the courts – in layman’s terms, he agreed to confess his guilt in exchange for a lesser punishment. But Polanski wasn’t punished at all. He fled the country before the United States handed down a sentence, and then apparently dodged US capture through significant understanding of loopholes in international extradition and detainment laws – two slaps in the face of any justice system.

Now that he’s been captured, the US requires that he be held accountable for using the plea deal as a way to skip town. The thirty-year-old sex crime is, frankly, something of a moot point; Polanski now has another statutory violation to answer for and anyone who calls for his release over the indictment on rape is failing to recognize that he now must be indicted for evading his sentence. He is a fugitive of American justice on two counts, regardless how many notable films he’s produced in the process.

Others argue that Polanski has done wonderful things in the artistic world over the last three decades. While this may be true in the eyes of some, others would argue that Polanski’s work is nothing special, that he simply has a good track record of completing the task to which he’s been set, and some might even say that his work is not at all compelling. No matter the viewpoint, this essentially breaks down to an assessment of Polanski’s employment record. And what does a man’s employment record have to do with justice? Raymond Clark is said to have had an excellent employment record, but that hasn’t stopped the media from tearing him apart like a lamb in a lion’s den. Again, Polanski supporters have no basis in justice (though neither do those who like to smear Clark).

And that is the part that is more concerning than anything else. Raymond Clark may very well be guilty, but ultimately, it will be up to a court to seek out truth and then carry out justice, whatever that may be. He doesn’t have a team of celebrity buddies vying to have the system let him get away with a horrific crime.

The debate over Roman Polanski, however, has already demonstrated how justice is lacking not so much in the criminal system (unless they let him off the hook), but in society. The call for Polanski’s pardon indicates that popular culture – sadly, the most influential role model America seems to have – not only misunderstands the situation, but misunderstands the law. The justice system is not some spoiled child insistent on holding a grudge that should have long since passed. It is the system that has been implemented to protect the public and to remind us that legislation is a serious thing and violators cannot simply be pardoned because they managed to dodge the authorities for a significant period of time, making a few movies along the way. If such were the case, we might all commit heinous acts and jump the border for a few years.

Roman Polanski is undoubtedly guilty of two crimes, one of which he admitted to and another which requires no forward admission – even a monkey might recognize the cowardly act of leaving the United States to avoid punishment. Not only does the United States have a judicial and Constitutional duty to hold him accountable for his deeds (over which, by the way, he’s shown no remorse), but all of the would-be Mother Teresas of Hollywood – and anyone else who scribbles his name on a petition – need to think about the actual facts and details of Polanski’s offenses and, more importantly, about society as a whole. No matter how much money a man has, no matter how influential an artist he is, and no matter how well the world recognizes him as a celebrity, he must be held accountable for his actions, good or bad.

Having powerful friends isn’t bad, as long as those friends use their power responsibly. In the meantime, we need to stop preventing the American justice system from doing its job, especially if we intend to complain about its ineffectiveness later.

Dignity Passes By (no more):
Taking On Modern-Day Slavery

Sometimes when a word and its usage have a long, colorful history, we forget the truth for which the word stands. Dignity is one of those words-and we have to bring it back, because right now, there are too many human beings in the world who don’t have it and have never known it. Modern-day slavery is robbing millions and millions of men, women, and children of their dignity (some estimate the number to be as high as 27 million).

In the U2 song Crumbs from Your Table, which laments the nagging tension between scarcity and abundance, Bono speaks of “dignity [that] passes by.” For millions who are caught in the horrors of debt bondage, forced labor, and sex trafficking, dignity does pass by, every day. With their dignity absent, these individuals’ humanity necessarily wanes and wears thin. And every day we, the privileged ones in a developing world, have the opportunity to make sure that dignity is restored to all who suffer the gross oppression of modern-day slavery. When we take this opportunity, we move closer to a world where restored humanity confronts and subverts dehumanizing suffering.

An emerging grassroots organization called Stop Child Trafficking Now (SCTNow) has the potential to lift the darkness and ignorance that so penetrate the American psyche about human trafficking. SCTNow uniquely targets the demand side of the problem – the predators who desire and prey upon the young victims. Some estimates put these children as young as 2 to 3 years old, and our moral sensibilities rage, but the feeling can pass as quickly as it came, and we feel helpless to do anything to approach, understand, or affect the problem.

Lynette Lewis, co-founder of SCTNow, was in the same situation a year and a half ago. She deeply grieved over the sufferings of all the children who were trafficked and forced into slavery, children in the United States who did not necessarily come from troubled backgrounds or broken homes. People often assume that trafficking of persons is a problem only in other nations, not a reality to be dealt with in the United States. Lynette and the staff at SCTNow want to make sure that they dispel that myth and emphasize the pervasiveness of trafficking here in the US.

SCTNow Walks
On September 26-27, 2009, history will be made as individuals, corporations, religious organizations, communities, and student groups come from all over to participate in the inaugural Walk to Stop Child Trafficking Now! Learn more.

To better get at the heart and mind that drive SCTNow’s bold mission, I spoke with Sundy Goodnight, the organization’s National Campaign Director. Her passion is contagious, especially when she describes howSCTNow is uniquely positioned to make a tangible, measurable dent in the number of trafficked human beings. Sundy’s liveliness and conviction not only woke me up physically (it was 9:30am and the caffeine from my Starbucks “redeye” was just starting to kick in), but also emotionally and spiritually. She reminded me that this is an injustice that cannot be watched or analyzed from afar. The suffering is real and tragic, and the victims of this brutal oppression need the sure promise of our help.

Sundy, speaking from her experience as a trauma counselor, wisely remarked that “when a girl is sexually abused or violated…trauma creates silence…[and] shame, guilt, and condemnation follow her the rest of her life.” As if this wasn’t saddening enough, Sundy continued, “The fears are louder than the truth of what she [the victim] is living.”

SCTNow takes a simple approach: go after the demand (the predators), so that the supply (human persons) is compromised. The philosophy behind SCTNow rightly assumes that other methods to alleviate the problem of sex trafficking – whether it is rescuing victims, rehabilitating them, or taking down the pimps who run the brothels and trafficking rings – are useful and necessary in their own right, but do not get at the core of the problem: demand. If predators are found out and brought to justice, SCTNow’s logic goes, then deterrence will curb demand, which will then irrevocably decrease supply. SCTNow has over 100 men who, once they receive enough funding, will assemble themselves as special operatives teams to build cases and track down predators, and then hand over those cases to local law enforcement. Remarkably, these special ops team members are retired Navy seals and counterterrorism agents who have voluntarily joined the cause and pledged to work in the field for little pay.

After my conversation with Sundy, I walked to the subway with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I figured that Stop Child Trafficking Now’s strategy will work well, and in turn help abolish modern day slavery altogether. On the other hand, cynicism fed my thinking that SCTNow’s vision might be too grand, too expensive, and unsustainable.

For the sake of the thousands of children who are trafficked in the US each year, I will quell my cynicism and feed my hope – hope that many more people will become involved with the emerging anti-trafficking and anti-slavery movements. We lose our dignity if we knowingly let it pass by our suffering neighbor. Stop Child Trafficking Now is a convicting light to our ignorance and inaction to make sure that dignity no longer passes by the victims of human trafficking.

Creativity, Community, and Secret Agents

Elementary Camp_2 Elementary Camp_3

Photo: Rebecca Tirrell Talbot; Graphic design: Chris Ware

In Chicago, a glimmer of the world that ought to be, in our midst: Elementary-age kids chatter, laugh, and hunch over their latest writing projects, jotting down what they know about superheroes. Tutors admire their writing or ask prodding questions. My Morning Jacket plays in the background. Then, the kids circle on a carpet and do some very painless literary analysis. They deconstruct a genre with giggles and exclamations, eager to contribute, since the genre happens to be superhero tales. Once they’ve grasped the basic elements of the genre – sidekicks, villains, fatal flaws – they’re ready to create their own characters. Some are gleefully gross (these are elementary school kids, after all), like a boy named Antonio’s “Armpit Hair Man,” who swings to the rescue from (yup. guessed it) his armpit hair.

“We’re academic, but we’re also fun and academic,” says 826 CHI‘s Executive Director, Mara O’Brien, whose enthusiasm and welcoming presence shape this chapter of the 826 National writing and tutoring centers. O’Brien greets each Elementary Writing Camp participant, calling out, “Hello, Sweet Jocelyn!” or “Welcome, my friend!” She believes that 826 CHI’s mission is not just to improve students’ language skills, but also to introduce them to a community of adults who care about them.

At this tutoring center, caring means encouraging creativity, and that usually means thinking like a kid. “We try to trick them into writing,” O’Brien admits. O’Brien once had elementary students write narratives about imaginary vacations – reminiscent of Magic School Bus adventures – through space, inside the human body, or through Harry Potter’s world. O’Brien says that this subject matter inspired elementary kids to write one and a half pages and to tell their parents they didn’t want to leave yet – they were still writing.

The world 826 CHI creates might not otherwiseexist for Chicago students.Presently, says a June 2009 report from the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago, researched by the University of Illinois at Chicago, about half of the students who attend Chicago public schools drop out or fail to graduate on time. Just yesterday, I listened as a mother interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered described Chicago’s selective enrollment schools as a “lifeboat” for students, implying how rough the ordinary school experience is. CPS has long been a troubled system, but it looks as if the state’s budget crisis will worsen its problems: the state board of education cut its budget by $180 million and slashed foreign language, arts, and agricultural programs.

Knowing the arts could be cut, three Americorps volunteers have been bringing West Garfield Park middle school boys to 826 CHI’s summer comics writing workshop. Yara Shadid, Gretchen Oorthuys, and Rachel Bernkopf marvel that the West Garfield Park kids are so creative, drawing on every flat surface and singing their own rap songs. Yet “their in-school time is very strict and regimented,” says Bernkopf. When the arts are cut in public schools, character development, originality, and the feeling of membership in the school all suffer, say the Americorps volunteers. Students will believe creativity has nothing to do with their future success.

Near where the kids circled to deconstruct superhero tales, a Chicago map shows the 157 schools that 826 CHI serves. This doesn’t just mean that kids from 157 schools are tutored at 826 CHI. It also means that teachers plan field trips to the center and that 826 CHI sends volunteers to Chicago public schools to provide extra one-on-one help. “We want to help area teachers get their students excited about writing,” says their website.

Photo: Rebecca Tirrell Talbot
Store design: Chris Ware and Patrick Shaffner

Tutors’ help is especially valuable because if any place can remove the perception that creativity is unimportant, it’s this place. After all, 826 National was begun by Dave Eggers, author of six books including What is the What and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and founder of McSweeney’s independent publishing house, which publishes McSweeney’s literary magazine, The Believer magazine, and Wholphin short-film DVDs.

At Chicago’s chapter, the advisory board reads like a who’s who of the local literary scene: Roger Ebert, Alex Kotlowitz, Audrey Niffeneger, Joe Meno, and many other well-known authors. These are people who’ve made their living being creative, and this is what their participation is about. For older kids, having contact with published authors who care about them must seem almost imaginary – as unreal as a superhero world. But this is the world that 826 CHI is able to create for students, and it is a reinforcing experience for would-be authors.

These connections to published authors also pave the way for young writers to see their own work in print.

Right in Front of Us is one recent example. Published in 2008, it was written entirely by CPS ninth-graders and edited by Alex Kotlowitz, author of There are No Children Here, Never a City So Real, and others. Reading the introduction, it’s easy to see Kotlowitz’s respect for these kids. “I picked up these stories one night,” wrote Kotlowitz, “sat down on my living room couch and didn’t rise until I was finished. I don’t know that I’ve read anything quite like this before.”

826 CHI keeps publishing student work. Most recently, 826 CHI published the first volume of their compendium, featuring work from students ranging from age 6 to 18. In 2007, 200 second through sixth graders wrote a hilarious guide to Chicago called A Sunday Afternoon Hotdog Meal. Publishing student work is an essential aspect of 826 National – which has also published the 826 Quarterly and sought student input for the Best American Non-required Reading anthologies.

At 826 CHI, kids join a circle where the arts have been crucial to success. Mara O’Brien says this shows the reality of what it is like to survive as a writer. Young writers see that even professional writers work many jobs to support themselves. Though earning success by your wits is hard work, 826 CHI is incredibly hip, and above all, the staff create an environment where it is cool to be academic.

Consider, for instance, that from the street, this doesn’t look like a tutoring center at all. Instead, the front of 826 CHI is The Boring Store, Chicago’s finest purveyor of secret agent supplies. When students come for tutoring, they pass through a portal that looks more like an art gallery than a store and sells such tongue-in-cheek items as a dropper-and-bottle called “Eve’s Dropper.”

The store has proved a good idea for many reasons. Not only does it sell quirky items and 826 National’s books, it takes away any stigma kids might feel about going to a “tutoring center.” It also brings in foot traffic. People wouldn’t walk off the street into “the place with all the tables,” says O’Brien, but they do come to The Boring Store, and this increases people’s familiarity with 826 CHI.

Though it’s been a benefit, Eggers didn’t plan it this way when he started 826 National. He simply wanted to start a tutoring center, but when he found the perfect place in the San Francisco Bay Area, the city told him, “That’s not zoned for tutoring; it’s zoned for retail.” As O’Brien tells it, Eggers replied, “Fine! I’m opening a pirate store.” And thus, Eggers began selling a whole lot of lard and tutoring centers came to be tucked into the backs of stores that sold anything you’d ever need for Space Travel, Bigfoot Research, Time Travel, or – of course – your secret job moonlighting as a superhero.

Places where creativity is free, rolicking, and communal may always be rare. But one such place exists at the corner of Milwaukee and Paulina here in Chicago, and it stands as a reminder of what ought to be – and a testimony to what can be.

Connecting Refugees,
One Bead at a Time

Photo: Ruth Ann North

“Iam a link in a chain,” John Henry Cardinal Newman famously mused, “a bond of connection between persons.” His meditation explores the idea that even in the midst of obscurity, insecurity, or even desolation, God is doing “some definite service” through His people. Even the smallest actions can mean that people are gaining strength from each other.Ruth Ann North, founder of jewelry company Refugee Beads, which sells jewelry handcrafted by refugees, exemplifies how exciting it is to be a link in a chain, a bond of connection.

Individually, the actions of jewelry-making are tiny and meticulous.Threading beads onto strings,gripping and twisting wires, sorting and selecting materials. If you’ve made jewelry, you might have suddenly felt like your fingers were gigantic.When the jewelry-making classes in Atlanta, Georgia lead to what North calls “Village Gatherings” in homes and churches in the city and beyond, these minuscule actions open out into the largeness of shared meals and stories, laughter, singing, prayer – as Newman would put it, “connection between persons.”

Refugee Beads began in March 2009. Two months before, Ruth Ann and her husband, Ian, left a particularly biting Chicago winter and moved to the three-mile circle of Atlanta known as the International Village, home to 145 different people groups and tens of thousands of refugees.There, through the North American Mission Board, they hope to demonstrate their belief that God’s redemption of humanity is powerful and complete by nurturing many facets of refugees’ lives – anything from helping adults with English and children with homework to driving kids to drama camps.

Refugee Beads’ goals fit the Norths’ conviction that the arts are a way to understand and heal the whole person. The women not only meet twice a week to learn the art of jewelry-making, but they also eat lunch together and often hike nearby Stone Mountain to continue spending time together.”Refugee Beads is a really encouraging community,” says North.

While jewelry-making sessions sound like a nurturing time – and, honestly, a whole lot of fun – North has pragmatic goals. She hopes to train women in the nuts and bolts of small business management. Selling jewelry allows them to supplement the income they earn working nights at a chicken factory nearly an hour from their homes. Soon, North hopes they will be able to give up this grueling labor.

Photo: Ruth Ann North

While there are many refugees North cares for and cares about in Atlanta, she pours her energy into these six women – refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Egypt, and Sudan – because they are all leaders among their people groups, and will be able to start their own businesses, support themselves, and train their communities in the art of jewelry-making. North hopes that in training and mentoring these women, she is starting a chain reaction.She wants to help them to be self-sufficient, since at this point, it is still daunting for them to walk into a store and communicate what they will need to buy.She hopes to remain a mentor even after they begin their own businesses.

When the women sell their handiwork, the Village Gatherings become a rich, communal experience.About once a month, North has been facilitating Village Gatherings wherever the women are invited. It might be someone’s church group, neighborhood, or work group (whatever the Americans consider their village, says North).These gatherings are one of the main opportunities for the refugees to sell their jewelry, but more than that, they are a chance for people to spend time together.

Realizing that “these women are such a gift to the American church,” North sees these gatherings as a way to connect cultures. Americans have so much to give the refugees – financial assistance, English practice, driving lessons, computer literacy – and she watches as giving flows in both directions. It is presumptuous, North insists, to think that if we are comfortable Americans, we have so much more to give. If anyone comes to a Village Gathering expecting to feel like the generous one, she’s in for a paradigm shift. The refugees bring meals they may have spent five hours cooking, sing in their native languages, pray for the Americans and ask the Americans to pray for them, and tell their stories. The value of these connections has been evident in both emotional and practical ways.Once, when a member of Refugee Beads asked a Village Gathering to pray for her sick child, the American women connected her with a clinic where her child was cared for.

Sharing stories is one way that the connection is particularly symbiotic.The refugees are relieved to tell their stories and be understood, and North listens as they add details and complexity to stories as their English improves. She realizes that there are so many facets of these women’s stories that she doesn’t know, and it may take a decade before the women can articulate the story completely. But for right now, “they need someone to hear this story,” says North. On the other end, listening to these stories allows Americans to learn what people around the world are facing, to step out of their own world and experience someone else’s story.

The first Village Gathering.
Photo: Charlene Hines

“We See Many Healing Power”

What are the stories these women share? The story of Purna, a Bhutanese member of Refugee Beads, is one example. Purna spent 17 years in a Nepali refugee camp.When she was quite young, the Southern Bhutanese, who were subsistence farmers, were forced to migrate, but not before some 2,000 were tortured, says the site They found relative safety, though not a warm welcome, in Nepal, as the refugee population climbed to 105,000 by 2007. The Nepali government did not allow the Bhutanese to work outside the camps. Most days, says North, they ate less than what most Americans would feed their house cats.

Though Purna’s family faced hardship there, she also experienced something that many refugees have seen in their camps.Fellow Refugee Beads member Juli, of Burma, put it this way: “We see many healing power.” “Healing power” may fall beyond the limits of what many American Christians believe God will do, and yet Christian refugees insist on what they have seen.Purna experienced the healing of her sister, who suffered violent seizures.

It happened like this. Purna’s family required her to stay at home to watch her sister. This meant that her brother was the one to leave his Hindu family each day and walk miles away to visit a Christian pastor. Speaking with the pastor, Purna’s brother became convinced that God could heal their sister. “Let me ask the pastor to pray,” he said, and urged the pastor to visit their home. Though the family was skeptical, after the pastor’s visit and prayers, her sister gradually healed, and her whole family began to believe.

When Purna was 25, she said goodbye to her parents, doubting she would ever see them again, because when refugees are placed in other countries, there is more emphasis on getting them out than on keeping families intact.

Photo: Ruth Ann North

Symbolically Small

Contemplating the stories of refugees, it is easy to view any actions an ordinary person might take as tiny, a drop in the bucket. Perhaps it can be seen as symbolic, then, that the refugees sell something as intricate as daisy-patterned barrettes, made with beads nearly as small as flower seeds. The actions required to make this would be delicate and small, yet in a wooden bowl on a table at a Village Gathering, joined with other beadwork and jewelry, this small flower means that hope continues to bloom.

Refugee Beads jewelry is available online at, in Chicago at Novum Shop, and in Atlanta at the Atlantic Station Market. Want to get even more involved? Become a fan of Refugee Beads on Facebook, or contact Ruth Ann North ( to host a Village Gathering or send beads and other supplies.

photo by:

A Human Revolution

Against the backdrop of a deepening blue, the murmurs of an eclectic crowd rise up and fizzle into the open space above East 7th Street. The sun hasn’t quite set as The Human Revolution takes the stage – a cozy corner atop a generous East Village roof – but an early start means anything except an early finish at this makeshift venue. “We’ll go all night if we feel like it,” says the band’s frontman, the charismatic man in the well-worn hat known simply as Human. “Nobody else parties the way New York parties.”

And Human has some authority to speak on the subject. In the month of May alone, The Human Revolution tackled fifteen venues in ten US cities from Portland, Oregon to New York City, promoting their new album, Love Revolution, and perhaps more importantly, a much-needed message of peace, love, and unity.

Like their New York set, the new record kicks off with the classic rock ballad, “To The People,” the opening lines grabbing the listener’s attention with immediate references to September 11 and the war that followed. Melodic pedal steel layered with a gentle electric lead and a soothing violin sets a somber mood, but is in no way indicative of the musical experience to come. Quite the contrary, the album pace picks up considerably with bluegrassy banjos on “Chuck The Raven” and the distantly ska-rock anthem, “Public Servant,” but the reason for choosing this tune as an opener is clear: Human has a message to deliver, and before we get too hasty with our dancing shoes, what’s more important is that we keep our ears open to listen.

With the call to attention out of the way, Love Revolution turns to what really defines the sound of The Human Revolution: a self-described “mystic country jam rock” ranging in style from Charlie Daniels’s fiddle to killer Clapton-esque licks and Willie Nelson politics. On the tracks “Consumer” and “Fear Not I,” Human successfully dabbles in solid reggae beats and island sounds, giving us the only musical taste of “mystic” on the album (the rest is left up to the lyrics). We even glimpse a brief lyrical rap on the bridge to “Soul Revival,” immersed, of course, in an ocean of harmonicas and rhythmic jams which keep the listener wondering if The Human Revolution can be classified in a sub-genre at all.

And that is, perhaps, precisely one of the things The Human Revolution seeks to, well, revolutionize: the way we look at music. Since the grunge era of the Nineties, when bands like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins were lumped into an “alternative” genre of rock ‘n’ roll, sub-genres of rock music have popped up across the world, breaking sound-styles down into categories like indie (it’s a style, not a record label association), alternative, alternative rock (apparently there’s a difference), college rock, goth rock, post punk, trip-hop, electronica, and avant-garde; in short, there are enough sub-genres for all musicians to feel like they’ve done something unique and original. Yet while The Human Revolution has necessarily followed suit at least in part, their focus embodies far more than just the sound.

Take the title track, for example. Immediately following a powerful lead guitar intro, Human sings, “I’ve got two people inside myself, one who wants to fight, and one who wants to pray,” and then, “We’ve got to rise up and sing, dance around and play/The Love Revolution is right here, right now, it’s today.” Particularly during what’s been labeled “The Great Recession,” there are few people who haven’t felt sentiments at least vaguely similar to the dichotomy Human presents, but what medium besides the irresistible groove of country jam rock ‘n roll can really convince us that what we need to do is to stand up for what we believe in, dancing and singing all the while?

That’s where the true potency is found in Human’s songs. Though from time to time it may come across as idealism, Human employs what is actually a very pragmatic way to say the things that so many people are thinking. Speaking to me while on the road to Virginia, Human says, “I’m a very spiritual person. I believe in the power of prayer, but at the same time, I think we have to engage the world.” But “engagement” doesn’t mean hostility, no matter how angry we may feel from time to time. “You can’t fight violence with violence. The way to ‘fight’ the wrongs of the world is to be loving, to serve and help the planet.”

What sets The Human Revolution apart, however, is that their message doesn’t only appear on paper. They actually practice the lot of what they preach. Consider their current tour: The rotating-member band has traveled from Portland, Oregon to New York City on only eight gallons of petroleum-based gasoline. “We travel in a van designed to run ethanol, biodiesel, or just SVO (straight veggie oil). Sometimes refueling puts us a bit out of the way, but it’s worth it when you consider what we’re still saving both in terms of money and the earth.” Such feats as this put songs like “Conversion” in a very different light, one bright enough to call the American people out of the carbon caves we’ve been living in for most of our lives, yet not so bright as to blind us with reckless idealism and intangible hope for a cleaner future.

The pill, then, that seems like it might be hardest to swallow is the one that delivers the message of spirituality along with the organic, hug-your-neighbor, cut down on carbons and cut out the corporation vibe. In an increasingly atheistic nation, infusing feel-good beats with any idea even vaguely indicating a spiritual authority is risky business. But we’re not becoming atheists because we can’t tolerate God; we’re becoming atheists because we’ve become complacent in taking God seriously, another agenda The Human Revolution makes no bones about addressing.

Taking a lead from less-religiously-reserved reggae artists (though he does not identify as Rastafarian or Jewish), Human sends another important message to the American people in “Fear Not I”: “For as long as I walk upon this land, I know that Jah will protect me…Money it will come and go, I will have no fear of poverty/I will spread the abundance when Jah give it to I, for money will not make I free…” The exact opposite of hard to swallow, the medicine The Human Revolution offers tastes sweet, soothing as it goes down, and if we take it in the proper doses with some regularity, we’ll find that the spirituality they promote does, in fact, have the power to heal during these confusing and broken times.

Far from idealism, The Human Revolution offers a positive and powerful message of reform desperately needed by the American people perhaps now more than ever. While newspapers fill their pages with stories of suicides, crimes, illnesses, and hopelessness related to economic downturn and increased cultural strife, Human has done just the opposite. He and his band have reminded the world that there is always hope, there is always goodness to be had and life to be enjoyed, and none of it has to rely on money or any of the myriad popular vices we’ve come to accept as a way of life.

A human revolution? Maybe. Or maybe it’s really just a human reminder calling us back to the way we once were, and the way we were supposed to be in the first place.

The rest of The Human Revolution’s tour dates are available on their website, as are their albums (also available on iTunes) and booking information. Because the musician lineup rotates, there’s no guarantee that every show will have a full set-up, but you can be sure that whatever you get, it will be full of hope, love, and a danceable groove.

Irena’s Vow

For more information and tickets,
visit the
Irena’s Vow website.

I recently saw the first dramatic reading of a play ever staged at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Entitled Irena’s Vow, the play is based on the real-life story of Irena Gut Opdyke, who, during World War II, saved the lives of 13 Jewish refugees by hiding them in her basement shelter. The players had just finished a six-month stint off Broadway, and are currently preparing the show for Broadway, where it will begin performances on March 10, 2009.

Based on a script by Dan Gordon and directed by Michael Parva, the play begins with Irena as an old woman, speaking with students at a school in the United States about her experiences, as she often did later in her life. Through her narrative, and a series of flashbacks, we are taken to Poland in the 1930s, as the Russians and Germans invade and occupy Irena’s home. Irena witnesses the brutal murder of a woman and her child by a German soldier, and vows to never again stand by and do nothing when innocent lives are threatened. She soon finds herself in a unique position to hide and protect the Jewish refugees working in the kitchen of a German officer, and begins the remarkable task of hiding them, giving them food and helping them shelter hope in the midst of the gathering storm around them.

Irena was 19 years old – beautiful, intelligent, and a devout Roman Catholic. She felt a deep compassion for those she was to protect, and even towards the Nazis with whom she spent her everyday life. Entranced by her wit and charm, an older German officer took her into his home to preside over the cleaning, cooking and management of his affairs. He eventually fell deeply in love with her, which helped account for her ability to hide 13 wanted people in the cellar of his house for two years.

A Different Story

The reading was simple and straightforward, with little direction, and many of the actors were in plain clothes and holding their scripts. But the humanity and strength of the story and the hard yet subtle truth of Gordon’s script made the reading powerful. Irena is played by Emmy and Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh with grace and humor, a charming light in the midst of terrible circumstances, emboldened by her faith in God and humankind that the evil she sees is not the natural way of things, and will not overtake them.

The play was well received by the crowd at the United Nations, to put it mildly. Toward the end of the reading, the actors became increasingly hard to hear due to the widespread sounds of sniffling, and members of the audience rifled through pockets and purses for handkerchiefs and tissues. There were few dry eyes in the house.

And this is what I found particularly rousing about the performance: its ability to move this audience in this place. Most of the audience members were delegates at the United Nations: ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, researchers and activists. It is not easy to elicit tears from such a crowd. At a cocktail party afterward, as the cast came into the forum, the delegates lined up to wring their hands, to congratulate and give their thanks. Their eyes were shining with a particular light I have not often seen in those halls.

Several nights later I was having dinner with several of the lead actors of the play, Jon Stanisci and Tom Ryan, who both play German officers. Each is an accomplished actor with an impressive resume. But there was something different about this play, Stanisci told me. It took a series of near miracles to even get the play produced, and then staged, and then financed off-Broadway as the financial crisis hit full steam last fall, and finally to open on Broadway this spring, when so many other productions were closing their doors and moving on.

“I think there is a particular truth to the story,” said Stanisci. “This young woman, who was so normal and humble, propelled by the simple need to do good in a place that was so dark – there is something special about it that audiences respond to. I really think it is a blessed play, and we are blessed to be a part of it.” Ryan nodded his agreement.

A Crucial Place

This made me think again of the United Nations. My work there with an international advocacy organization brings me deep into the halls of the UN Headquarters. The UN was founded in the aftermath of the world broken by war, by the types of atrocities that Irena lived through and fought against. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” If we do not steer our societies by the course of intrinsic human dignity, of the value of each human life despite the race, creed or circumstances, we veer unconsciously back toward untold destruction.

And yet this is not the belief one always sees affirmed in the halls of the UN. It has become a battle ground for culture wars and ideologies, and movements. Like any governing body, it is susceptible to corruption and that great force that turns power into impotence: bureaucratic process. Working there can overwhelm a person, as it no doubt does to many of the young delegates, or those from countries with weak economies and few resources. It is a place where power is often wielded irresponsibly, and questionable legislation approved because it is politically expedient, which will ultimately harm those most vulnerable to sickness and pain.

All of this makes works of art like Irena’s Vow even more important, and its staging at a place like the United Nations so crucial. Gone from that theater were the warring ideologies, political posturing, and the legislative mire of international policy. Here was a piece of art, presented simply, with little pomp or show, telling us that a single person, devoted to good and human dignity, can change the way of things. The delegates who might have been most opposed to some of the messages of the play sniffled alongside their political rivals. This is a testament to the power of art, the power of truth that cuts through our reason and our career and our politics. True art confronts us with a higher reason, a higher truth, bypassing paradigm and discourse and addressing itself to the heart. It reminds us that each human person is sacred, valued, to be protected. And that the smallest person, acting in courage, can make all the difference.

Building Hope Through Sustainable Design:
An Interview with Clean Green Studios

A boy blows bubbles in front of a mountain of trash,
and his home made of castoffs, in La Chureca, Nicaragua.
Photo © Eric D. Smith

Margaret Smith is the founder and CEO of Clean Green Studios, a for-profit company that couldn’t have appeared at a better time. They combine great design with sustainable construction, and all with an eye toward creating sustainable dwellings for people in developing nations. Below, we talk with Margaret about how Clean Green Studios got started.

For more on Hope Studios and Hope Shelters, visit the Clean Green Studios website, or visit them on Virb, Twitter, or Margaret’s LinkedIn page.

Tell me a little bit about the “seed” of the idea for Clean Green Studios.
I’ve been a writer most of my life, and though that’s fun, it’s a solitary occupation. I’ve always been happiest when working with beautiful people in poverty in Latin America, combining my passions of design and social justice.

For years I wondered how to make those twin passions of design and social justice work into a career. In 2007, my son Eric came back to the States from a trip to Central America, with the most amazing photos and videos of a garbage dump community of 1600 people called La Chureca, Nicaragua. The images touched me, especially as I thought of the kids who live in nothing but cardboard, bent tin and other nailed-together trash.

As I thought about what I could do to help the people, I started sketching out a design for a small, sustainable house that could be built by volunteers. With the house would come several attached modules, such as a rain catchment and water filtration system for fresh water. I called it Hope Shelter. That was the seed of the company, and in March 2008 we became a limited liability corporation, designing green products with the world in mind.

What’s a Hope Studio? Who designed them?
Think of a Hope Studio as a backyard retreat that reminds you of your favorite treehouse. It’s a 120-square-foot studio for creativity: art, woodworking, writing, music and entertaining friends. It has French doors, two large windows, a storage loft and built-in bookcase.

A Hope Studio is a small, sustainable backyard studio that I designed with Sebastian Collet, who studied sustainable architecture at the University of Oregon. Right now on the website you’ll see the company’s first green product, a set of blueprints for Hope Studios, with architectural renderings showing exterior and interior. (See photo below.)

Most of the materials have sustainable features (such as galvanized steel, with about 25% recycled content) and are available at large building supply companies. We ship you the blueprints with a supply list. You and your contractor shop for materials at your building supply store. This keeps it local, which of course is another mark of sustainability.

When someone buys blueprints for a Hope Studio, we will send (when available) blueprints for a Hope Shelter to a non-profit that builds homes in a developing nation.

What’s a Hope Shelter? Who designed them?
Hope Shelters are built on basically the same footprint as Hope Studios, with different features. In contrast to Hope Studios, a Hope Shelter is a permanent dwelling for people in developing nations. Whereas in America, green features like stick-on LED lights are something of a fun item, green building and green energy just make great sense in developing nations, since so many families there need sustainability in every part of their lives: food, water, shelter and energy.

As with Hope Studios, we’re just selling the blueprints and supply list for Hope Shelters, not the materials. People shop for materials at their own local building supply store. Right now we are putting the finishing touches on blueprints for Hope Shelters.

These blueprints will be available for sale to groups of volunteers who want to build sustainable homes in Latin America. The groups can take the supply list to pick up materials at a building supply store before heading off to the site with a contractor. We see this as a green alternative to stick-built homes that we Americans normally build for families in Tijuana and other areas in poverty. With Hope Shelters, there’s less wood in the construction, less construction waste, and more features for the family to sustain a livelihood, once the team has left the families in their new homes.

Why would a person want to build a Hope Studio?
I see it as a chance for Americans to have a necessary place away from home, to create and rest. It may be in their backyard, or it may be on a piece of property that’s been waiting for a quiet retreat.

Our first buyer bought a Hope Studio as a quick green getaway to build on her riverfront property in Washington State. Her adult siblings and her mother live near the property. After she drives 3 hours from her house to spend time with them, she retreats to her Hope Studio to read, watch the birds and get some time to herself.

When you buy blueprints for this studio, Clean
Green Studios sends blueprints for a home in a developing nation.
© Clean Green Studios

Who will be living in the Hope Shelters?
I often picture a small family in Tijuana – maybe a couple with a child. The child can sleep in the loft, while the couple sleeps in a hammock below, or the other way around. The hammock can be stored during the day, making more living space. A small stove and sink can be built on the deck, and a compost toilet takes care of things in the outhouse in back.

In 1998 on an old dumpsite in Tijuana, while surrounded by kids watching my every move, I made a mosaic with broken glass and pottery in the drying cement of a daycare center we’d just built, called Casa de Esperanza, House of Hope. They all gathered around, pointing and asking, “Quien es? Who’s that?” Not what’s that, but *who*? I asked each kid’s name and pointed to a shard in the mosaic, saying, “Este es Maria. Este es Juan. This is Maria. This is Juan.” The mosaic became a happy sun surrounded by flecks of light in the multicolored sky. When I look back and try to find a defining moment for Clean Green Studios, that’s it, ten years before I started the company.

Who runs Clean Green Studios?
It’s actually just me right now. Sebastian has his own green building design company, and I’ve hired him to co-design Hope Studio and Hope Shelter. I’m happy to have advisory board members I can call on when necessary, but they have their own busy companies to attend to. Clean Green Studios has some great social networking going on with Twitter, Virb and LinkedIn, and I’ve found encouraging people there, from Russia to Scotland to New York and Portland. In Portland, the company belongs to Clean Tech Alliance and Oregon Entrepreneurs Network.
As CEO, creative director and all-around organizer of Clean Green Studios, I’m looking for some great people to partner with. In particular, I need a great chief operating officer right now, as well as a development director. We are seriously ramping up!

What’s your vision for the future of Clean Green Studios?
We create green products that make the world spin more smoothly. That’s our mission; it’s not just something pretty to say. This whole thing started just because I wanted to make something beautiful and useful for impoverished people in other parts of the world, and it’s amazing to see it coming to pass.

Reflections on Norman Jean Roy’s
Traffik Exhibition Opening

After nearly ten years as a New Yorker, and having worked in the entertainment and prestige beauty industries before entering the arts world where I now reside, I have learned that there is no point in trying to predict what will happen to me each day – whom I will meet, where I will end up, or what I will see. A couple weeks ago I met my friend for Vietnamese food in Chinatown, where, over sour vegetable soup and two pots of tea, we talked at length about the intersection of art and social justice. This friend, a sculptor, is deeply devoted to helping humanity’s most needy, and this devotion is born out of an intense closeness with God and healthy sense of mysticism that enables her to see angels where the rest of us might only see mere men.

After dinner, we headed to Chelsea to attend the opening reception for Traffik, an exhibition by fashion photographer Norman Jean Roy at MILK Gallery, open to the public November 21 through December 8. MILK, located at 450 W. 15th Street, is considered to be New York City’s most prestigious photography gallery, and Roy is one of the most prominent high fashion photogs, under contract with Conde Nast to shoot exclusively for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Men’s Vogue, Allure, and Glamour.

With a resume like that, it’s no wonder that as we neared the gallery, we felt like we had walked onto the set of Entourage. Entering MILK and passing the hefty team of security guards, we were immediately swept into 6,000 square feet of models, agents, creative directors, managers, editors, and other photographers. The walls were hung with nearly fifty images, approximately four feet by five feet each. They were portraits of Cambodian prostitutes and other victims of the sex trafficking industry. The images were beautifully shot and the small placards posted beside each one gave a brief history of each subject featured. For anyone interested in the plight of victims of sex slavery, it would seem that this was a very important exhibition to attend.

However, the evening left both my friend and me deeply unsettled, because walking into the gallery, we entered what looked and felt, for all intents and purposes, like a house party. Club music was pumping, with a bass boost that reverberated through our ear canals and pulsated through our bones. The several hundred people bumping into one another throughout the huge room were talking so loudly that I could not hear my own words, and, from all appearances, very few of the people present were engaged with the art.

Interestingly, this was my second event dealing with sex trafficking in the past few weeks. On November 6, International Arts Movement hosted a screening of the film Branded, a documentary about the sex slave industry in Phoenix, Arizona. Following the film, I moderated a panel discussion with the filmmaker, Chad De Miguel, and a representative from Food for the Hungry, a non-profit organization committed to rescuing victims of the sex industry. I was surprised at the show when a woman came up to me and shouted through the noise, “You’re from International Arts Movement, right?” Trying to place her face (and failing), she quickly rescued me by explaining that she had attended the Branded screening, and I finally recalled meeting her briefly that night.

She works full time for a non-profit that is devoted to helping put an end to sex trafficking, and we tried to engage in meaningful conversation, but the atmosphere made it virtually impossible. I was yelling at the top of my lungs, and still couldn’t hear myself, or her. We exchanged cards and agreed to meet sometime in the future to discuss how IAM and her organization might partner together.

As I made my way around the outside parameters of the room, reading the placards and studying the artwork, I was increasingly ill at ease with the scene I was smack dab in the center of. As I watched people laughing and mingling and networking and scanning the room for who was there, eager to see and be seen, the paradox before me became increasingly obscene. I felt like I was looking at a room full of sex industry workers surrounded by images of sex industry workers; both the industry represented in the flesh, and the industry represented on film used sex to sell their wares.

At one point I pulled out a pen and began making notes about what I was experiencing. Shortly after I had started writing, a man with shoulder-length blond hair bee-lined for me, a full glass of white wine sloshing around in his hand. I didn’t need to hear his slurred speech to know he was drunk; his red eyes and dopey smile spoke volumes. “What’cha writin’?” he asked in a singsong manner, which was creepy coming from a man who appeared to be approximately fifty years old. I stared down at him and managed to dodge him for a bit, but quickly became the unwitting audience to his editorial of the event. “We can’t look at this from an American perspective, with an American standard,” he blathered. “These girls . . . what else do they have? This is all they have. We shouldn’t judge them. This is all they know. This is their life. They’re not asking to be anything other than what they are.”

I was dumbfounded. Was he serious? I’m afraid he was. I contemplated trying to reason with him, trying to somehow get past the incomprehensible ignorance of one who could stand in front of a picture of a woman with deep scars all over her body and filthy, infected lesions on her feet, who barely earned her living by servicing men sexually, and think this way. But I was not up to shouting, and I knew that nothing I could say would make any difference. As I excused myself and walked away, he said something about the self-righteousness of expecting people in other countries to live up to our American standards. I actually did say something to him about them not being “American” standards, but rather basic humanity standards, but he dismissed me.

With the paradoxical scenario of serious subject matter and a party-like atmosphere, I was very curious about the background of this exhibition. According to the press materials I managed to procure, the project came about when Norman Jean Roy was on assignment for Glamour‘s “Women of the Year” portfolio. Roy was introduced to Somaly Mam, a former Cambodian sex slave who was being honored for her work rescuing women trapped in the sex industry and helping them reintegrate into society. Overwhelmed by her story and haunted by the faces of the women Mam had worked with, Roy decided to spearhead a project that would expose and elevate the grave reality and gross injustice of their experiences.

So last January, Roy returned to Cambodia to photograph the victims, gaining access to brothels with the help of Mam and her organization, AFESIP. He was able to observe and document the harrowing lives of working adolescent and child prostitutes, as well as those who have been rescued and are now in rehab at AFESIP centers. The book that resulted, which was the center of last night’s exhibition, was Traffik, which captures the powerful stories of young women who were beaten, starved, raped and tortured as sex slaves. Several of the women talked about being sold by their mothers and being raped as children as early as age four.

As I watched the professionals in one sex industry mingling and drinking wine while being surrounded by larger than life sized images of professionals in another sex industry, the pungent odor of sick irony filled my nostrils, and I wanted to scream. The very publications that use sex to sell their wares were, I guess, ostensibly mourning for victims, half a world away in a physical sense, yet in a totally different universe in the social sense.

Except they weren’t mourning. Honestly, it would have been a very noble scene if they had been. High-profile fashion and beauty professionals in a prestigious New York gallery, stepping out of their party-hopping and schmoozing for one night to examine the horrors of sex slavery? It would have brought a tear to my eye – seriously.

But, from what I could tell, a relative few people were even looking at the images, let alone showing any sort of deep emotional reaction to it. And while the images are very well shot and are effective in capturing the essence of prostitution in the impoverished developing world, set in the context of loud music and a well-stocked open bar, something just felt icky. One image was particularly disturbing in light of the environment we were in. A young girl was dressed in sexy shiny panties and grown-up jewelry, lifting her shirt and looking at the camera with an almost seductive expression that was totally incomprehensible in light of the fact that she could not have been older than four. She was labeled as a child of a prostitute, but it was not much of a stretch to imagine her entertaining clients herself. At the very least, she had to have observed the business her mother was in. The image might have been simply a snapshot of a little girl playing dress up, except that she was living in a brothel, where, according to the press materials available, men pay more for sex with girls between four and seven years old, believing them to be less likely to carry STD’s. (They are, unfortunately, mistaken in that assumption).

Yet, in the milieu of pulsating club music and a plentiful supply of wine and liquor, I wondered at whether there might be people in the room with pedophiliac tendencies who, rather than being correctly horrified by it, would instead be turned on. The music, which was fine by itself, and the wine, which I appreciate regularly, simply did not belong together with images of four-year-olds dressed in sexy lingerie. For everything there is a season – a time to dance, and a time to mourn. But when people are (figuratively) dancing in the midst of such a painful exhibit, it becomes almost a mockery of the tragedy.

When IAM screened Branded, we were very mindful about the context in which the film was shown. We sold no concessions that evening. No wine, no beer, no popcorn. Our intent was that, from the time people entered the space to the time they left, we would foster an environment of concern and soberness about the issue at hand. We hoped that the film would inform our audience, inspiring them to leave the space and look for ways to engage with the issue of sex trafficking, to help change the destiny of the victims and create the world that ought to be. Indeed, there is a time to dance, and Space 38|39 has seen plenty of playful reverie. But when it’s time to mourn, it’s time to mourn.

Unfortunately, this was not the case at the opening reception for Traffik. The project is important, and I hope people will attend the exhibition, buy the coffee table book (whose proceeds will benefit Somaly Mam’s Foundation) and leave more informed about this blight on humanity. Norman Jean Roy’s work in this project is excellent, and I applaud his use of his talent and opportunity to bring this awful situation to light.

However, I am not hopeful that many people at last week’s reception – people of great means and influence who, if engaged, could make a world of difference – will. People who actually hear a call for action are more likely to respond by doing something about it. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear anything above the roar of the electronica that blared through MILK that night.