Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Day the Sky Fell

On the day the sky fell
And life turned to rubble
I looked around and cried.

My soul whimpered
"It hurts."

My heart whispered
"I know."

"What do I do?" my soul asked.
"Sit", said my heart.
"Sit, and I shall sit here with you."

"But it's broken," my brain wailed.
"We need to fix it."

"We will," assured my heart.

"When?" accused my brain.

"When we can see through the pain," my heart replied.

"We cannot fix what we do not understand.
So for today,
Sit with us.
The pain will help teach us what we need to know."

My brain sat.
And after a few moments,
"It hurts."

Reaching out its hand,
my soul whispered back
"I know."

Holding them both, 
my heart pointed out
"It should."

On the day the sky fell
And life turned to rubble
I looked around and cried.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Juneteenth in the Land of Immigrants

I'd like to tell you a story about immigrants.

Once upon a time, some people fled the country of their origin in search of a better life. They were being poorly treated by their government and didn't have as much freedom or as many resources as other people they knew about. They wanted better for themselves and their children.

The journey was hard, and some of them died on the way. But some of them made it.

They brought much with them. Their hopes, their dreams, their ideas, their hard work.

They were met by people already living there with a combination of hospitality, hatred, excitement, and fear. Resources were shared and cultures exchanged. Some of the immigrants also committed crimes, and made communities less safe. But the immigrants were also creators. They used their determination for a better life to build buildings, and farm fields, and expand economies. They were brilliant.

Unfortunately, the government was not very good to them. Their legal status wasn't clear, their rights not assured. Their labor was undervalued. This golden land of opportunity they dreamed of was not everything they had hoped.

The above can be read as the story of the DACA policy, which provides some support for immigrants in America, and is currently under threat even though it was partially protected by the Supreme Court this week. But it also serves as prelude to another immigrant group's story. So I'll continue theirs.

Yearning for opportunity, these immigrants took action to get more. And sadly, they were willing to do so by violently harming and using others. Those who had travelled in search of a better life began to take it from others through force. Resource sharing became resource stealing. They shoved aside the local people and bargained with the country they had emigrated from to enslave other people to build their cities and work their farms. Their dream for opportunities became greed, selfishness, and assumed superiority - a willingness to become the very thing they had fled.

Decades passed. The immigrants became second, third, fourth generation. Yet their ancestors' initial reason for fleeing their home was not forgotten, and they still were not granted full political or economic rights. So they began to be violent not only toward the locals and the people they'd enslaved, but their government. They rioted. They threw things in rivers, and burned cities, and killed people. They overthrew their rulers and created a new system with claims to equality, life, and liberty.

Tragically, the children of those immigrants didn't really mean equality for all. They meant rights for themselves, seeing themselves as 'more' human while they continued to horrifically use and abuse others. They forcibly relocated nearly all of the original inhabitants of their new country, killing thousands. They continued brutal systems of slavery, classifying people as property. But over time, some of them woke up. And they realised this was horrific, and they were doing what they had fought against. They wanted to make it stop.

It wasn't easy. Some of the immigrants' descendants formed a new government to ensure slavery would continue. Those on the side of humanity-over-profit claimed freedom for the slaves held by secessionists and won the ensuing war.

But by this time, the descendants of those immigrants had journeyed deep into their new country. Some of the secessionists lived very far away indeed, and had with them the people they'd enslaved. There was little enough government presence that they were able to continue practicing slavery.

That is the story of Juneteenth. On 19 June 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, an army general finally announced federal orders ending slavery in Texas. Slavery continued to be legally practiced in the Union border states until the Thirteenth Amendment passed another six months later - and even that did not universally abolish slavery, allowing for its use as legal punishment.

America is the land of immigrants, created by Britons who left an oppressive country seeking freedom only to become far more horrifically oppressive themselves.

America is the land of immigrants, but forcibly 'immigrated' 600,000 African slaves to that land. Half of that number were transported and kept in chains before 1776 and the country's founding. Slavery in America began four centuries ago, lasting from 1619 to 1865. Though most slavery was outlawed with the Thirteenth Amendment, but segregation was legally mandated shortly after the Civil War with horrific dehumanizing impacts and severe restrictions on the educational, economic, social, and political opportunities of anyone deemed as not "white". After two and a half centuries of zero rights, the Jim Crow era involved a century of minimal rights. And while the Civil Rights Movement accomplished much, Black people in the United States continue to be disadvantaged from centuries of their ancestors' oppression as well as continuing racial discrimination. America is not even sixty years into the right to vote - and just like slavery didn't end with the Emancipation Proclamation, Black voter suppression did not end with the Voting Rights Act, but continues to be practiced through a variety of intentional intimidation, logistical, and bureaucratic tactics.

America is the land of immigrants, but violently relocated indigenous communities, effectively making them 'immigrate' to designated zones so white colonizers could claim their land. The United States has and continues to treat Native American communities horribly - stripping them of life, home, culture, and history.

America is the land of immigrants, but met Irish, Eastern European, Asian, Latinx, and Arab newcomers - and continues to meet their descendants and so many others - with exclusion, disdain, and violence.

Today on Juneteenth, we celebrate the end of Black slavery in Texas and the progress we have made. But on this and every day, we must also recognise just how far we still have to go, and hold ourselves accountable. White America's racism means that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are disproportionately convicted of crimes - and thus are legally still subject to and experiencing forms of slavery and involuntary servitude today, in addition to the everyday microaggressions and systemic barriers faced through economic, social, and political disenfranchisement.

America, the land of immigrants, proclaims to the world "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

But for so many Americans, the reality is #ICantBreathe.

America. We yearn to breathe free. Lift your lamp.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Reflecting on a Broken, Wonderful World

It's a strange season.

This Passover, Jews around the world are sheltering in their homes as children ask "Why is this night different from all other nights?", even though every night now feels the same.

This Holy Week, Christians across the globe are wondering how to celebrate a resurrection while so many are dying.

This year, millions all over the planet are suffering from the same hunger, illness, exploitation, and insecurity as they did long before - and will long after - COVID-19 gave pause to those of us with privilege.

I rewrote the lyrics to Thiele and Weiss' "What a Wonderful World" to capture my mixed feelings of despair and hope at the moment. Thanks, always, to the brilliant Mr Louis Armstrong, who lived his life in a world that denied him rights and yet still saw great beauty. We owe him and so many others so much more. May we use these days to give it to them.

And please - add a verse! What's giving you hope these days? Share a few lines in the comments. ☺

I see war and greed
Famine and flu
All of our hate
Will kill me and you
And I think to myself
What a hurt, broken world

I hear thousands cry
Trauma and woe
We've caused more harm
Than we even know
Yet I hope to myself
We might heal this hurt world

The colors of the rainbow
So pretty in the skies
Are also on the masks worn
By nurses saving lives
I see strangers cross streets
Waving "How do you do?"
Keeping their distance
To save you

I see love so deep
And smiles so bright
Kids calling grandma
To FaceTime good night
And I think to myself
There is hope for this world

I see milk dropped off
For Old John next door
Hands lending aid
Without keeping score
And I know in my heart
We could heal this hurt world

Yes, I ask you today
Help me heal this hurt world

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remembering to Change

One hundred years ago today, a war ended. And a handful of diplomats began working to create a world in which such violence would no longer exist.

They failed.

And yet...

Today, we remember.

We remember the children, women, and men who died for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We remember the soldiers who fought and killed, trying to live their values.

We remember the individuals who decided that their values required working toward an end to the violence more than the vanquishing of another worldview.

We remember the lessons learned.

We remember that those lessons have been forgotten, and relearned, and forgotten again in other wars.

We remember that, while they are not named “World Wars”, other incarnations of political violence and structural injustice continue to kill and harm by the thousands.

We remember the soldiers neglected by a system that doesn’t care well for its veterans.

We remember the fathers sorrowed by empty arms that will never again hold a daughter who didn’t come home from the front.

We remember the children gunned down in our streets by the same hatred that makes killing on such a large scale possible.

We remember our complicity in creating and reproducing systems that make war an everyday reality, rather than a “never again” memory.

We remember our guilt.

And yet...

We also remember our hope. We remember the inspiration of Malala, Ruby, and Emma - children who worked to show us that they believe in something better.

We also remember our strength. We remember the change created by Mahatma, Wangari, and Martin - leaders who marched to demonstrate that we too hold power.

We also remember our compassion. We remember the difference made by Harriet, Oskar, and Teresa - caregivers who laboured to alleviate suffering.

And maybe, just maybe, if we remember enough, we’ll learn this time. And more of us will be Malalas and Wangaris and Harriets, and fewer of us will be soldiers and victims and mourners.




Then change.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Sustainability Signature Seminar


Here I am.

(In London.)

I've been a lot of places in the past ten days.

Oh, the fun I get to have every August and January with my new job at Syracuse, leading a travelling seminar on sustainability and environmental justice for 18 undergraduates.

From our course overview:

In the wake of the Cold War, environmental concerns took a new place on the global stage. The end of the 20th century saw the birth of formal international conservation and climate efforts, which most scholars trace to The Brundtland Commission’s Our Common Future report, released in 1987. Led by a former Norwegian Prime Minister, this body warned that humanity is pushing the finite carrying capacity of the planet to saturation. While such claims were not new, they were framed as increasingly urgent - and the international community began to respond. That report led the way to the Rio Declaration, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and other major global mechanisms for emissions reduction and ecological conservation.

While shared environmental concern has led to unprecedented international cooperation around certain issues, much of the action seems to be ‘too little too late’. Climate change scientists are alerting us to the hottest temperatures on record, and we are losing vital ecosystems like the Arctic ice sheet at previously unanticipated rates.  Urban infrastructure, rural livelihoods, endangered species, habitats, and island nations are regularly devastated by extreme weather events, which are occurring with increasing frequency. And the effects of these droughts and disasters are far from equally felt. Those who contribute most to global warming through energy and other resource use feel its negative consequences the least. This reality raises serious questions about justice, equality, and power in climate change and human-environment systems.

This course is designed as a prequel that frames a semester abroad in the global city of London. Before starting a term of more traditional coursework at Faraday House, participants on the Signature Seminar will visit several Nordic countries, where the negative impacts of global environmental crises are felt most acutely in Europe. But it’s not all bad: This region is also home to some of the world’s greatest progress toward a form of sustainable development that “meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (The Bruntland Commission). This course examines the concepts of sustainability and environmental justice, using ethnographic practices of critical geography to explore how European countries are innovating and experimenting with alternative approaches to life, business, and society. These investigations aim to shift how we think about ourselves as humans, as animals, and as beings of Nature - independently and in relationship.

Students are guided through the established discourses and critiques of sustainability as an academic field. Three pillars, identified by Elkington (1994) and furthered in business and city planning as well as philosophy and environmental studies, will be used as core considerations: people, planet, and profit. This and other traditional conceptions of sustainability will be examined through the lens of various critical scholars and on-the-ground case studies. The course will recognise the progress that has been made and the political difficulties of additional action, even as it argues that the mostly negative (responsive, focusing on preventing, avoiding or solving human problems) efforts of these ‘exemplar’ countries fall short of what positive (proactive, working for the continued flourishing of all life on Earth) sustainability could and should be.

These challenges to and criticisms of sustainability as it is frequently understood (and, perhaps, given lip service and regarded as a buzzword more than anything else) will be complemented by an examination of environmental justice. Working from Schlosberg’s 2004 framework, students will explore the distribution of environmental benefits and costs, participation in decision-making around systems and policies, and the recognition of varied beliefs, values, and actors. Class discussions will question how these three dimensions are considered and addressed or ignored by the various initiatives visited in the field. Observing direct inequalities in access to air, land, food, water, oil and gas, and trees and forests will enable students to consider how environmental injustice has already led to the emergence and growth of protest movements and might inspire new responses. After exploring urbanscapes in several eco cities, the seminar’s final stop takes students to the Sápmi region, recognised as one of the area’s last wilderness spaces, for a chance to discover how climate change disproportionately affects the indigenous Sámi people.

Throughout the Signature Seminar, students will encounter multiple, sometimes contradictory, meanings of and approaches to sustainability and environmental justice - allowing them to consider whether these concepts have been reconstructed so often by different people and for various purposes that they no longer retain their original intentions. Viewing these ideas as essentially contested concepts - with meanings that can neither be discovered nor fixed - is useful in theory and practice, enabling an awareness of different stakeholders' priorities and assumptions. Ultimately, the Seminar aims to equip students in becoming positive agents, working as makers rather than victims of global change while supporting others to be the same. Doing so involves shifting priorities: moving from an anthropocentric (human-centred) value system toward an ecocentric (environment-centred) understanding of the world and an appreciation of the interconnectedness of life on Earth. This launches students’ development as global citizens at Syracuse London, where co-curricular programming will emphasise the responsibility we have as members of the world community to care for both people and planet.


The photos of me are minimal, as I was focused on teaching and taking shots of the students - and I can't post pictures of my students on my personal blog. But, here is a reindeer who apparently got into the hard hay or something (seriously, what a facial expression), as well as a super cute little one. And then, me loving on one of the huskies we took foraging for berries and mushrooms in the forested wilderness. Happy, happy Becca. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Burn

Every year, the Marshall Scholars take a weekend retreat in the low Scottish Highlands. After a truly gorgeous 6.5-hour-train ride through northern England, Edinburgh, and the Forth of Fife (including views of the world's best bridge), we end up at this beautiful country estate, where we proceed to enjoy ourselves pretending to be the British aristocracy at a house party for several days.

This year's delights included swimming in the North Sea (the weather was warm enough that I wasn't the only one to go in!), hiking the cliffs between a fishing village and Dunnotar Castle, and a staged murder mystery roleplay. (I am happy to report that I was neither murderer nor murderee.)

This year was especially fun since Hamza, my best friend from Jordan, was still in the country after the AMENDS Conference - as was his mother, since he's just had his graduation ceremony from the University of Manchester. So we brought along Jordanian mama, the educational entrepreneur, and a handful of miscellaneous international mates to join the American postgraduates in Scotland. It was quite the intercultural hoot, to say the least.

Hilariously, the blond boy pictured below in the University of Manchester t-shirt is not the Jordanian who graduated from the University of Manchester last week. We're just a very mobile bunch.

A grand time was had by all. And now...back to real life.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The growth of AMENDS

Many of you have heard me talk about AMENDS, the American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford. Being selected as a delegate for the 2013 AMENDS Summit was the proper launch of my PhD, as the people I've met through this network are directly responsible for all three of the organisations I partnered with to build knowledge around environmental peacebuilding.

I've just gotten back to London from an amazing several days in Oxford with a reunion conference for AMENDS Fellows - alumni of the Launch Summits the Stanford team host every year with new delegates. I'm very, very happy to announce some big news for the AMENDS Global Fellows:
  1. We are now a registered 501c3 non-profit in the US, giving us legal status independent of Stanford University, and the ability to receive tax-deductible donations (as well as applying for a multitude of grants)
  2. We have a brand new flashy website! Check out more at amendsfellows.org.

More about AMENDS:

The AMENDS Global Fellows are a network of young leaders from the Middle East, North Africa, and the United States who are working to build a more equal, sustainable, and prosperous world.
AMENDS began in 2011, when Arab youth led a wave of popular protests across the MENA region. Two Stanford University students, Khalid Shawi from Bahrain and Elliot Stoller from Chicago, imagined a platform and space for MENA and US youth to gather, collaborate, and share their stories of working for change. AMENDS welcomed its first class of 36 delegates to Stanford in 2012 for a week-long Summit.
Since then, AMENDS has welcomed 177 fellows from 26 countries to annual gatherings at Stanford University, Koç University, and the University of Oxford. These alumni form an active network committed to transformative work in the areas of arts and culture, business and technology, education and empowerment, health and environment, and human rights and political activism.
To better serve this growing network, AMENDS Global Fellows became an independent non-profit organization in 2017. We aim to support our fellows by:
  • providing a platform for fellows’ ideas and initiatives;
  • facilitating active engagement and communication among fellows and with the public;
  • providing resources and opportunities for capacity building, mentorship, networking, and project implementation.
The AMENDS student team at Stanford continues to lead a core part of our programming, selecting new delegates annually to participate in a launch summit and join the AMENDS Global Fellows network.