When I was a waitress, I made the mistake of cooing over a newborn at my table and asking how old he was – only to discover that he was actually a she.  So I lost my trust in the pink-blue gender-coding scheme and resolved to tread lightly when patting the egos of proud parents.  An incorrectly addressed compliment creates an uncomfortable hick-up in conversation because gender identity is a sacred space, which means it can also be a sensitive topic.

I expect that committing this faux pas is an experience most people can relate to.  And despite any resolution to be more diplomatic the next time you encounter a bald baby dressed in yellow and green, but adorned with a bonnet, you may very well commit a repeat offense.  We are socialized to identify gender by a culturally defined set of behavioral and visual cues and feel embarrassed when we fail to interpret these cues. (If you boast a perfect track record with newborns, then consider an instance where you verbally assumed someone’s mother was their grandmother and you’ll get a sense of the feeling I’m trying to conjure.) Continue Reading »


When you hear a call for “human rights,” who do you recognize under this umbrella term?  Do you think of the poor, child soldiers, domestic abuse victims, refugees or sweatshop employees?  These thoughts drum up images and reports from foreign correspondents, celebrity activists, and specialized non-profit organizations that invite us to export our compassion and support.

With our altruistic sights set on foreign countries, it is easy to overlook issues at home.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, in particular, are still largely at odds against governmental policies and mainstream social acceptance.  As recorded by advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign, LGBT equality is fragmented both across and within state borders.

So where does this disconnect between LGBT equality issues and “human rights” issues that Americans are so fond of purporting stem from?

This is something I have been stuck on lately.  To date, my blog posts have been concerned with people and events outside of the U.S.  However, before I recast my net from American shores, I’d like to catch a few of the stories I feel nibbling at my toes.  (That’s right, I just drew an analogy between LGBT rights issues and minnows.)

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International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world on March 8th.  While Mother’s Day seems to have gained more consumer traction in the U.S., the sentiment is universal – women deserve recognition for all of their anonymous contributions to the family and society.

However, a serious disconnect exists between collectively honoring women’s domestic (and largely unpaid) labor once a year and formally recognizing these contributions in economic development measures like GDP.  Economic measures do not assign a monetary value to things like child rearing and household chores.  These unpaid labor tasks subsidize household expenses, but do not garner the same social credibility as paid labor.  Notably, women do more unpaid work than men in every country.  Since money is tied to power, this becomes an issue of worldwide gender inequality.

Economist, activist, and writer, Raj Patel gives a 2-minute summary in this clip:

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Dare I say we’re on the home stretch to spring and winter just didn’t feel like participating this year?  Stores are eager to purge their shelves and racks of bulky wool sweaters and fur-lined hoodies, making room for the louder colors and patterns of spring break apparel.  Like a hummingbird drawn to nectar, I stop inside the GAP store on State Street and laze from one display to the next, fiddling for price tags that almost never match my more reasonable expectations.  But I never planned on paying full price for a see through sun blouse anyway.  I’m more inclined to dig through the mound of scratchy sweaters in the back, because it’s never too late to start preparing for the inevitable: winter happens every year.

Speaking of winter clothes, one of the best gifts I’ve ever received was a hand-knit sweater vest from my Kyrgyz host-mother. With regards to fashion, the pairing of the words “best gift” and “sweater vest” may seem unlikely, but winters in Kyrgyzstan were relentless and this extra layer appealed to my burrowing instincts. After spending an entire winter admiring my host sister’s vest, I decided it was time to express interest in one myself. So I asked my host mother if she would knit me one for my winter birthday.  She said, “Yes.”

Dibar in her sweater vest.

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Five children around the world die every minute because of chronic malnutrition.

Source:  Associated Press article

How long did you contemplate this fact?  Can you translate numbers into faces?  Did you question its accuracy?  What does it mean to you and the life you lead?

Nonprofits, humanitarian organizations and development agencies are infamous for splashing statistics across their websites and outreach materials. These attempts to quantify global human rights issues are necessary for strategic planning, funding and program evaluation.  However, they do little in the way of provoking a level of empathy that translates into individual action.  Numbers are impersonal.

Shankar Vedantam best explains our penchant for helping a single stranger over a large group of strangers in his article, The Little Lost Dog at Sea.  Using the example of an internationally backed rescue mission to save a dog abandoned at sea, Vedantam posits that the same outpouring of support would not have happened if there had been, say, 100 dogs onboard.  We are more likely to help when the issue is presented on a scale we can cope with, one that promises a moral sense of return.  Getting at the ineffectiveness of large-scale humanitarian statistics, Vendantam explains:

Our empathic telescopes are activated when we hear a single cry for help….When we think of human suffering on a mass scale, our telescope does not work, because it has not been designed to work in such situations. Humans are the only species that is even aware of large-scale suffering taking place in distant lands; the moral telescope in our brain has not had a chance to evolve and catch up with our technological advances.

Consider all the statistic-laden reports that humanitarian groups pump out annually on maternal health, water borne illnesses, genital mutilation, etc.  A majority of this data remains buried in Excel tables.

[Enter data visualization tools] Continue Reading »

By Midwestern standards, this has been an unsettling warm winter. An unforgiving blast of cold is quickly followed by complete calm and dripping overhangs, triggering sentiments of spring. When it comes to wearing appropriate attire, people seem to be confused. Runners in shorts bounce past those in knee-length parkas and clunky winter boots. When it comes to work ethic, the giddy energy associated with the mock spring weather is more distracting than a blanket of snow, which is conducive for hunkering down to work or study.

This mild winter isolates the humanitarian threats and dangers of winter from those fortunate enough to have reliable indoor heating, warm clothing and full meals. But when the New York Times reported that 28 children had died from the cold in refugee camps in Afghanistan, since mid-January, the harsh reality of winter broke back into mainstream media and the consciousness of readers.

Despite the Afghan government’s early denial of winter-related deaths, aid groups such as USAID, Welthungerhilfe and Aschiana, among others, have been working to provide basic winter provisions and bear the weight of witnessing such immense need. Continue Reading »

Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, is well known for his commentary on human rights issues across the globe.  He keeps a blog titled On the Ground, and is currently working on a PBS special that is based upon his book, Half the Sky.  Kristof is a journalist and he is an advocate. But is he an activist?

In the media world, there seems to be newfound contention over the concepts of advocacy journalism and activist journalism, the latter being the imposter.  While all journalism is advocating on the behalf of something/someone, objectivity is still identified as the essential characteristic that separates professional journalists from those who report with an agenda. Continue Reading »

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