The Value of Culture

When I first began working at the WINC last summer, I could only focus on all the ways in which the center could improve. They have never had the capacity to evaluate their programs, to set criteria for judging success, and had never attempted to glean feedback from the clients themselves. The staff was stretched thin just managing to stitch up the necessary funds to stay alive, and they treated their interns like volunteers who were on standby. The list can go on. I had so many criticisms, but I could never voice them because I knew the center was trying the best it possibly could.

But there was one aspect of the center that I did not understand. The center had changed its mission to serve all Asian women, not just Korean women. This transition was supposed to be a move toward larger and greater opportunities for the center—it was a sign that the center was adapting to changing times and to meet the needs of a changing community. If anything, the center could now apply to more sources of funding. I found this move to be strategic; it made sense. What didn’t make sense was how nothing else changed at the center but the wording of its mission. There were no efforts to hire other Asian women or to market their center as serving a diverse group of women. The center was still very much about maintaining its Korean cultural roots.

I interviewed several clients during my internship to measure how satisfied the clients were with the shelter services. One of these clients was Chinese—the only non-Korean speaking person at the shelter. One of the first questions I asked had to do with the programs the shelter offered such as art therapy, group therapy and culture programs. And to my surprise, this client had no idea these programs existed. Of course she didn’t know about them. They were all administered by Korean instructors who only spoke Korean when running these programs. She also told me how she would have to make her own food late at night because Korean food disagreed with her. Or how the two daughters felt uncomfortable during lunch when the staff and interns spoke in Korean. Her experience at the shelter was shortchanged by the fact that while the shelter opened its doors for any Asian woman, it did not accommodate all of their cultural differences.

I remember at my last week at the center, the Executive director and Case manager were discussion their need to hire a full-time intern for the year. One of the requirements was for the intern to be Korean and bi-lingual. After all, almost all the donors for the center were Korean which is why everything had to be written in both Korean and English.

The center needed to change as indicated by its new mission. But while the clientele base was changing, the volunteer and donor base was not. The two realities were incompatible with each other. I just couldn’t understand how the executive director and case manager didn’t see their current situation in the same way. For the executive director, maintaining the Korean volunteer and donor base was one of the most important aspects of her work.  All the board members were Korean, too.

Researching the history of the center to write a case study about this organization did a lot to deepen my understanding and sympathy for the center and the challenges it currently faces. I learned that the center originated from a grass-roots activist campaign to free a Korean woman falsely accused of murdering her child. The person who founded the organization was a feminist pastor. She built the shelter on Korean tradition and culture. What tied all the women in the organization together were their common cultural ties—it was at the heart of the organization; it was what gave it life.

To demand that the center compromise its roots to accommodate more clients and foundations seemed cruel upon this newfound knowledge. There was so much meaning behind the cultural practices at the center—the fact that there was a cook to make homemade Korean food every day; that everyone ate lunch together; that people took their shoes off at the door; that we talked about Korean superstitions about dreams over rice cakes and fruit; that we respected the elderly and attended to them first. These practices were what sustained the staff, volunteers and fellow Korean clients. The sense of kinship created the best holding space for Korean women seeking shelter. The space was familiar, comfortable and safe.

The larger question is what role does race play in all of this? Does it matter that the shelter calls itself an Asian Women’s shelter but prioritizes Korean women? Does it matter if these Korean women speak Korean? What if a bi-racial woman who spoke Korean appeared? Would she take precedence over a Korean woman who didn’t speak Korean? What assumptions does the staff have about the clients’ racial backgrounds and cultures that inform who gets access to what?

I know that if, for whatever reason, I ended up seeking a women’s shelter, I would seek out this one. Even though the shelter is small and the services far from perfect, the cultural identity of the place provokes a sense of security and attachment that I no other shelter can provide. To think that this unique place might eventually have to change due to changing demands of its clientele base saddens me.  There will always be a need for a Korean women’s shelter. But this demand may not be enough to sustain an entire shelter. Am I being too pessimistic and narrow-minded?


Not in Our Name: Sacrifice and Social Justice

“We do what we can.” This quote was taken from the film our class viewed last week, Operation Lysistrata, and was given in the context of an Arabic Proverb that meant to convey a sense of realism and pragmatism around our efforts to fight for change.  Sounds simple enough right?

Well as I began to think further about Operation Lysistrata, a tremendous world-wide protest of the reckless manner in which George Bush plunged the country into a senseless war with Iraq, I began to really scrutinize this phrase.  To be sure, the thousands, maybe millions of people involved in and touched by Operation Lyistrata were not capable of strolling into the Oval Office and demanding that George Bush call off the dogs of war.  The protest, a performance of the humorous anti-war play, Lysistrata, definitely required long hours of toil and an unspeakable effort for coordination.  One gentleman in the film remarked that the demonstration was a way of saying, “If you do this, it is not in our name,” to the American government and to the world.  I wholeheartedly agree here.  But I cannot readily accept the idea that any protest movement is the best protest movement, that every act of resistance chosen was the only act available.   I have to wonder whether or not “we do what we can” is another way of saying “We do what we want. What is comfortable, what is safe, what will ease our consciences.”

Now in no way do I mean to suggest that the motives of these individuals are somehow questionable, that is beyond me, or anyone for that matter. But what I am saying is that we must be accountable for the manner in which we declare that an evil is not done in our name.  Fighting oppression and injustice will never be as easy or enjoyable as we might like it to be.  Sacrifice is inseparable from resistance. And on a world stage where millions of innocent Iraqi men, women, and children were murdered, and where thousands of American soldiers’ lives were taken we must examine our sacrifices and how they measure up.  An anti-war protest is not successful simply because it prevents war, but throwing a rock at a brick wall does nothing to bring that wall down.

Finally, as I examine our course of action for our final project of the class, these same questions linger.  Of course I can always revert back to the rhetoric of “many ripples start with one small stone” or “we can only do so much,” both of which are very true, but I just wonder, is it because we only want to do so much?

Social Media Activism

I have very conflicting views on this new thing called social media activism. I feel as though I was at the part of this movement, trying to change people’s lives through the sharing of personal narratives online, in running a feminist blog to highlight feminist issues that we face today. And I know it has created change, or at least played a role in bringing pressing conversations about gender to the attention of our larger Duke student body.  And I also know staff writers and guest writers who were able to heal from their past in sharing their pain with their peers. I felt the community that was coming out of this blog.

Since then, I’ve begun to sign multiple petitions online, share news articles online, all in the efforts to bring more attention to the issues that I care about most. But despite all this social media activity I was generating, I found myself hesitant to urge my peers to sign the same petitions I was signing, to talk about the news articles I was sharing, to make those issues more real.

I was most conflicted when I came to know of Occupy Wall Street. I moved to New York a year ago, and over the summer made friends who were moving to the outskirts of Brooklyn due to the rapid rate of gentrification in the borough. These friends were attending meetings before Occupy Wall Street hit the streets. These friends were there on Sept. 17th, the first night of Occupy and continued to keep me in the know by sending me blog posts, videos and pictures of the event. The police brutality infuriated me, the economic injustice that my friends dealt with infuriated me, and I knew I was helping in spreading the word through every avenue I could—especially as the major media sources weren’t covering the movement.

I was an adamant supporter.  I admired the horizontal structure of the movement, the view that these protestors were practicing democracy and figuring out the answers on the way, the disorganized and all-inclusive nature of it. But when the movement came to my front door, I was less than ready to join the protestors out on the streets.

We now have a group aimed at Occupying Duke. I was ecstatic that the movement was laying its roots here—something that could open up conversations about the socio-economic status of our students, staff, faculty and admin, Duke’s labor unions, financial aid, Duke’s investment practices, the wall-street culture at Duke, Duke’s financial hold in Durham, the integrity of our board members, and the integrity of our student body. I was hoping that the movement would allow a space for narratives to surface about how economic injustice plays out at Duke, because I barely knew anything of it.

But at our first general body meeting, I was dismayed at how quick everyone was to take action. Not only was I afraid of taking action, but did not know the risks of doing so at this institution. I was also uncomfortable with the disorganized way in which the meeting unfolded. Someone needed to be taking notes. Someone needed to lead the group into creating community norms. Someone needed to hold the group to set goals for our meetings. Someone needed to set an ending time for the meeting. I saw all these needs, but I was not going to step up to offer them. Furthermore, half of those present at the meeting seemed to be there out of plain curiosity. I did not feel safe to take any risks in voicing my opposition to some of the decisions we were making, or in joining the loudest supporters of Occupy in tenting out.

This meeting was mainly publicized through the web, through Facebook and emails and word of mouth. I wouldn’t have gone if I didn’t know who was holding the meeting nor had friends to go with me. I would’ve been more comfortable taking risks if I knew most of the people at the meeting. I would’ve gone to Occupy Durham if someone was willing to go with me.

That’s the thing with social media activism. I can do it alone, and the risk is minimal. But as soon as it goes off the web, I realize that the risks get higher and I don’t like taking risks alone. This transition is a hard one, and one that asks so much more of me than re-posting a good article about the movement and getting my friends to like it on Facebook. It requires that I start making real relationships, to invest in creating a community off the web to impact others and let others impact me.


Hypocritical Expectations or None at All?

With each semester here at Duke, I notice that my classes start becoming more and more related to one another. I guess I’m finally starting to specialize in regards to my education, and my future plans in general. This connection was especially clear to me today in our class discussion.

We watched a short clip relating to social change, globalization, and online networking. While entertaining and thought provoking, I noticed a general assumption that had been made throughout: the idea that “west is best.”

We are discussing this concept in my global economy sociology class. Sociologists have been making this assumption for centuries, beginning with colonization, and continuing (at a lesser extent, perhaps) into the development decades and even into globalization. We look at other societies and their culture, declare them less-civilized and backwards, and try to impose our ways on them.

The clip today mentioned the theory that the online network would spread democracy by making people in other parts of the world want to be more like us, joking that they would “want more stuff.”

In sociology, I read these articles and naturally thought that it seems righteous to impose our western ways on other cultures. But after today in our discussion, I am now considering it from a feminist/human right’s perspective. While we should be open-minded when it comes to other cultures and their values, where do we draw the line? When certain cultures oppress women and minorities and deny them their basic human rights, it can’t possibly be okay to accept this as their “culture.”

Then I looked in the mirror. While we may be further along than many countries out there, we are in no way perfect. Maybe this is the problem. We become righteous and hypocritical when we impose these ideals on others, and operate in a system that does not complement them back home. How can we demand that others do how we do, yet expect more from them than we do of ourselves?

I now disagree with what my sociology professor has been preaching. Being a good global citizen does not mean accepting other societies and their traditions and values. Cultural norms that violate basic human rights cannot be dismissed for the sake of tradition. We should instead aim for a world where we can consistently hold people to a standard that respects basic human rights, regardless of their position in the world.

We can’t do this by instituting our current system in foreign countries. This would be setting another country up for failure. We can see that our current setup isn’t working by the societal problems that we can’t seem to fix within our system. So rather than hope that technology leads to other parts of the world adopting our western framework, we should take a look at ourselves and try to find an answer to this problem. Maybe that way, developing countries can learn from our mistakes, and hope for better outcomes.

The Perpetuated Myth of Gendered (Dis)ability

Once biases are in place, can a mind ever change?

I feel as if I should be used to this by now, but it still surprises me whenever I witness the effects of our patriarchal society.

It happened again just last night. I was at my recently acquired job, working with someone I had just met. The shop wasn’t busy, so I was catching up on some of my readings for class. I was reading about the policies and practices of Title IX, more specifically about its successes and shortcomings. My co-worker asked what I was reading, so I gave her a brief synopsis. I expected her to act politely interested for a couple minutes, and then the two of us would move on to more commonplace small-talk. But she was genuinely interested.

However, her interest was far from encouraging. She was highly critical of what I had to say. I’m not saying everyone should agree with me. What worried me was that her beliefs were so consistent with the gender stereotypes perpetuated in our society. She didn’t understand why so much effort was spent on encouraging women to go into the natural sciences. She’s an engineer, and she told me she knew from personal experience that men were naturally better at math and science than women. She also explained that she grew up in China, and as a child grew up with the impression that being a scientist was one of the best things you could be, but a woman just wouldn’t be as great of one as a man would be. Her disbelief in her ability and the ability of women everywhere was almost frightening.

I went on to explain how that’s what we’ve been told all our lives, but is it because it’s the truth (doubtful) or because it’s a perpetuated myth? She countered by telling me that men have been the head of the household for so long, and that there must be a natural reason for this. Nothing I said could convince her otherwise. She was so sure that men were naturally at an advantage in so many things- meaningful things, more often than not.

The only encouraging outcome of this conversation was the fact that despite her strong opinions regarding gender stereotypes, she is still learning to be an engineer. While I sat there reading about gender and women’s issues, she worked on her physics homework. It really helped me understand why the Title IX coordinator in the reading believed it would take so long for the effects of Title IX to truly have a meaningful impact: it’s going to take generations to rid these gender myths from the minds of men and women alike, and only then will we have significant and sustaining change. It’s just disheartening to see women like this have such an outlook on the world. If she had more faith, would this affect her work ethic today or her success level in the future? I believe it would. There’s just no easy way to make her see this when the myths are so deeply ingrained in her mentality.