Nov 26, 2012

inspired by Yolanda

This video actually starts at around minute four, and Yolanda starts talking at around minute 14 after a great short Guatemala context intro from Kathryn of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission.  I am her interpreter, in the red interpreter vest.  For many years I have been a lead interpreter (and organizer of the interpreting) at the vigil to close the US Army's School of the Americas - the largest ongoing protest in the US against US militarism in Latin America .  This year, in mid-November I had the huge honor and responsibility of interpreting for many speakers at the vigil, many videos of which are online.  The video of the stage on Saturday is good for getting fired up, but the most inspiring experience for me was interpreting for Yolanda Oqueli, in the video above. 

Yolanda is a nonviolent resistance hero.  She has helped to organize her community (San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc) in Guatemala to stop a polluting gold mine that wants to come in and continually worked to keep the resistance peaceful.  They have maintained a round the clock blockade for 9 months and kept the mining company trucks out.  The company tried to break through in the middle of the night when there were only 20 people on shift - and thanks to the miracle of cell phones and great community organizing they managed to turn out 4,000 people in half an hour to stop them!  

So then the company increased the pressure.  They kidnapped Yolanda's husband, also a community leader, and gave him the option of fleeing the country or having his family hurt - and then when he fled they went ahead and tried to kill Yolanda anyways two weeks later! She survived the attempt, but has a bullet left lodged too close to her spine to safely remove.  Amazingly, her first words to her community when they found her shot were to please not be provoked into responding with violence.  And she has gone back to the blockade, and faced large gangs of "private security" thugs (former Guatemalan military) who have come to the blockade and specifically targeted her for harassment.  She continues to be a strong voice in her community for remaining peaceful in the face of these provocations, as she describes in this video.  She has even been brave enough to go on tour in the US and tell her story - even telling it in front of the gates of Fort Benning (minute 8 here).

Please, will you join me in walking with Yolanda and her community as part of our larger struggle for justice?  You can take quick action here to send emails to the US embassy and to the mining company itself.  It helps if you can take a minute to change the first line or two of the letters so that they stand out as different. 

Please also hold Yolanda in the light, send her love, pray for her, or however you think of these things, and ask for her body to move the bullet away from her spine so that it can be removed.  This can take from months to years, and it is causing her great pain while it is there.

I was disturbed, at the vigil, to see people reaching out to touch Yolanda after she gave her testimony on stage in a way that reminded me of how people reached out to touch Rufina Amaya, as if she were somehow saintly.  I wrote about how Rufina, the only survivor of the El Mozote massacre, found this disturbing at the vigil in my article about colonial patterns in the movement to close the SOA, and solidarity movement more broadly - and how survivors are distanced when they are put on a pedestal.  But I continue to work inside the movement to do solidarity differently.

Nov 11, 2012

half the sky? more on the ways white saviourism screws us all up

The above is a trailer for Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.   This is the official site for it.  It's a four-hour pbs special that aired in the US in early October and was shot in 10 countries: Cambodia, Kenya, India, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Liberia and the U.S.

Sayantani DasGupta has a great post over on Racalicious titled:

“Your Women Are Oppressed, But Ours Are Awesome”: How Nicholas Kristof And Half The Sky Use Women Against Each Other" 

Apparently Kristof says at one point in the documentary, “When you have won the lottery of life there is some obligation some responsibility we have to discharge.” Obligation?! Discharge?! Wow,  I hope that my calling to use my various privileges to work in solidarity across the Americas and build the power of our movements to build a better world never comes across as anything like that! (though note that I have often heard international solidarity activists say things along this line in much nicer sounding ways, like 'to whom much is given, much is expected')

It's worth reading the whole post on Racialicious, but here are some highlights:

"Perhaps reflecting this sense of noblesse oblige, the film is based on an amazingly problematic premise: the camera crew follows Kristof as he travels to various countries in the Global South to examine issues of violence against women–from rape in Sierra Leone, to sex trafficking in Cambodia, from maternal mortality and female genital cutting in Somaliland, to intergenerational prostitution in India. Because, hey, all the histories and cultures and situations of these countries are alike, right? (Um, no.) Oh, and he doesn’t go alone! Kristof travels with famous American actresses like Eva Mendez, Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, Gabrielle Union, and America Ferrera on this bizarre whirlwind global tour of gender violence.

There are plenty of critiques I could make of Kristof’s reporting (in this film and beyond, see this great round-up of critiques for more). Critiques about voyeurism and exotification: the way that global gender violence gets made pornographic, akin to what has been in other contexts called “poverty porn.”

For example, would Kristof, a middle-aged male reporter, so blithely ask a 14-year-old U.S. rape survivor to describe her experiences in front of cameras, her family, and other onlookers? Would he sit smilingly in a European woman’s house asking her to describe the state of her genitals to him? Yet, somehow, the fact that the rape survivor is from Sierra Leone and that the woman being asked about her genital cutting is from Somaliland, seems to make this behavior acceptable in Kristof’s book. And more importantly, the goal of such exhibition is unclear. What is the viewer supposed to receive–other than titillation and a sense of “oh, we’re so lucky, those women’s lives are so bad”?

In her book Regarding the Pain of OthersSusan Sontag suggested that images of distant, suffering bodies in fact inure the watcher, limiting as opposed to inspiring action:
Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’ — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic."
That was my bolding - this is is so essential! So many organizations share intense stories without clear action steps the readers can then take.  This is one of the things I am going to be tracking in my postdoc, which focuses specifically on the stories that accompaniers share and what works well for building solidarity.  How can accompaniers, and others doing human rights and humanitarian work in conflict zones, avoid falling in to traps like these?

The article goes on to raise another issue I'll be looking at in my postdoc:

"The issue of agency is also paramount. In the graduate seminar I teach on Narrative, Health, and Social Justice in the Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, I often ask my students to evaluate a text’s ethical stance by asking themselves–“whose story is it?” For example, are people of color acting or being acted upon? Although the film does highlight fantastic on-the-ground activists such as maternal-health activist Edna Adan of Somaliland, the point of entry–the people with whom we, the (presumably) Western watchers, are supposed to identify–are Kristof and his actress sidekick-du-jour.

In fact, many have critiqued Kristof for his repeated focus on himself as “liberator” of oppressed women. As Laura Augustín points out in her essay “The Soft Side of Imperialism”:
Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.
Beyond his self-promotion, there remains the issue of whose story Kristof is telling. He has, in fact, answered critiques of his reporting style–which often focuses on white outsiders going to Asian or African countries–by saying that this choice is purposeful. When asked why he often portrays “black Africans as victims” and “white foreigners as their saviors,” he has answered, “One way to get people to read…is to have some sort of American they can identify with as a bridge character.” A presumption which assumes that all New York Times readers are white, of course, but I won’t get into that now."

One of the things I am curious to look at in the stories told by accompaniers is how accompaniers can function as an 'in', or as she puts it here a 'bridge' for the reader, in ways that are less oppressive and build respectful solidarity. 

DasGupta goes on to make other important points, and ends by citing one of my favorite articles:

As feminist philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff argues in her essay “The Problem Of Speaking For Others,” that part of the problem of speaking for others is that none of us can transcend our social and cultural location: “The practice of privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for." 

I think there are actually careful ways of speaking with that can make our voices louder, but more on that later.