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Our Technology Salon in New York City on Oct 7 focused on the potential of games and gamification in international development work. Joining us as lead discussants were Asi Burak (Games for Change), Nick Martin (TechChange), and Craig Savel and Stan Mierzwa from Population Council.

TechChange is a social enterprise that uses principles of gamification on its online education platform to incentivize learners to participate and interact. Games for Change has been around for 10 years, working on convening events and festivals about games for social change, curating and sharing these kinds of games, producing games in an effort to mainstream social issues, and providing strategy support for games. Population Council is using personalized avatars (participants select skin color and tone, weight, dress, piercings, and sexuality) to encourage US youth in low-income settings to provide health data through online surveys.

The three discussants provided background on their programs, benefits of gaming and gamification, and challenges they are facing. Then we opened up to a wider discussion, whose main points are summarized here:

Public perception about games is mixed. Some people believe in the potential of games for a range of goals. Interest in gaming in the field of development is growing quickly – but many organizations rush into gaming as a ‘silver bullet’ or trend and do not fully understand how to go about integrating game theory or creating games. Others believe games are shallow and violent and cannot be used for serious work like education or development.

More nuanced discussion is needed to distill out the various ways that games can support development. “The conversation needs to move from ‘why would you use games?’ to how can you use games? How do you succeed? What can we learn from failure? What methodologies work and what are the good practices? Games for Change is working on a typology report that would outline what games can do, when, where and how. The organization is also working to define how to measure success for different types of games. A learning/educational game is very different from an awareness raising or a behavior change game, and approaches need to reflect that fact.

Data extraction was one concern. “Are we just creating games so that we can extract and use people’s data? Or so that we can shift their behaviors from one thing to another?” asked a Salon participant. “Why not co-create and co-design games that provide benefits to the players and their communities rather than extracting information for our own purposes? Where are the games that encourage two-way conversations with authorities or NGOs? How can we use game theory to open up these discussions to make for more transparent conversations?”

Games by their very nature are more participatory than other media, others felt. “Traditional media are top down and linear, providing a scripted story that someone designed for us and where we have no choice as to the consequences. We can’t change the path, and there is one beginning and one end. But games are about participation and feedback. People surprise us by how they play our games. They get takeaways that we didn’t anticipate. At the same time, you can glean a lot of information about people from how they use, play, and move through games. So games are also very good for collecting information and evaluating people and their behaviors.”

(Co)-creation of games is indeed happening all over the world. Rather than create games in New York or DC, there are huge opportunities for working with local developers to create games that resonate with local audiences and communities. Some organizations use open source, free software such as Scratch, a game making software that even children are using to create games. “In Colombia, we used Scratch to engage kids who were going to Internet cafes and just doing emails and chatting. We trained the kids in 30 minutes and they learned to program in blocks and to do animations and make games,” reported one Salon participant.

Games and gamification resonate with all cultures because they stem from play, and all cultures play. There are cultural differences however that need to be considered, and even more important may be aspects like gender barriers, urban/rural differences, and access to the technology and platforms on which digital games are played. In rural Uganda, for example, one organization is using gaming in an online learning program with 3000 pharmacists to train them on how to use a new rapid diagnostic test for treating malaria. The gaming was not a problem, as the group was well versed in gaming concepts. The challenge was teaching the group to use computers. It’s likely that fewer women and girls game in some contexts because of their lower access to technology, lack of time, cultural/gender barriers.

Photo sourced from: Do Something, on http://mashable.com/2012/12/20/dosomething-texting/

Moving games to mobile may help reduce technology barriers. SMS gaming has been quite successful in some cases. One example cited at the Salon was DoSomething.org who created an SMS-based game around teen pregnancy that girls and their boyfriends could sign up for. They would receive texts from “the baby” asking for a diaper change, food, and other things, and this helped them to understand what having a baby might be like. The game was very social and engaged both males and females.

Building on existing viral trends was another suggestion for making better use of gaming. “The most successful and fast-spreading services over mobile seem to be horoscopes and tips. For example, viral spread of a game where someone records their voice, the app scrambles it, and they send it to their friend, is huge right now. How can we harness and try to better understand the potential of those types of threads in the communities where we are working?” asked one Salon participant. “In addition, there is an explosion of things like gambling games in China. What could development organizations do to tap into trends that have nothing to do with development, and piggyback on them?”

Balancing fun/games and learning/impact was another challenge or organizations using games. Some media houses are taking documentary films about serious issues and making them interactive through games so that people can engage more deeply with the story and information. One of these puts the viewer in the shoes of an investigative journalist working on a story about pirate fishing off the coast of Sierra Leone. “The challenge is balancing the need to tell a linear story with people’s desire to control the action, and how to land the player at the end point where the story actually should end.” The trade offs between greater interaction vs staying true to the story can be difficult to manage. Likewise, when using game theory in education, the challenge is balancing game play with the social issue. “We need to figure out how to reward for quality not quantity of participation when using gamification for learning,” said one Salon participant, “and figuring out how to avoid making the game the whole point and losing the learning aspect.”

What about girls and women and gaming? The field of gaming has traditionally appealed to men and boys, noted some, but what is behind this? Some Salon participants felt this was in part because of biological differences, but others felt that we may be playing into stereotypes by thinking that men like gaming and women like social media and communication. One study (by Matthew Kam), for example, notes that when girls in India were given mobile phones on which to play a literacy game, their brothers would often take the phones away and parents would not intervene.

Women are gaming – a lot! Statistically speaking, in the US and Europe, women are now around 50% of gamers. There is a big gap in terms of women game developers, however, and the gaming field is struggling intensely with the balance shifting to a more equal one between men and women.This has erupted into a controversy called ‘GamerGate’ that is rocking the gaming industry and provoking a heated (and often ugly) conversation. “Women who game and who develop games face an incredible amount of harassment online and in person because they are a minority in their field,” commented one Salon participant.

Few game developers are women. “Only 10% of game developers are women,” noted one Salon participant. “There is a lot of discussion in the sector on misogyny. If you play any of the more popular games, the main characters are always men.  Outspoken female developers talking about more inclusive games (as opposed to shooting games) have been targeted and harassed.” (See the recent backlash against Anita Sarkeesian). There is a sense from some male game developers that women developers are entering into a space and taking something away from it. An upcoming film called “GTFO” documents the situation. Though there are changes happening in the independent gaming sector and women are playing a bigger and more vocal role, this has not yet hit the mainstream. Until that happens, said one Salon participant, we will continue to see a lack of representation and agency of women in games/gaming similar to that which we see in the Hollywood movie industry. (See the Geena Davis Institute’s research on gender bias in the film industry.)

Can games reach low income gamers in ‘developing countries’? Much of the gaming dynamic will need to adapt if we want to reach lower income populations. Likely this will happen through mobile, but in places like Kenya and India, for example, people have mobiles but don’t download games. “It may take 5-10 years before people everywhere are downloading and playing mobile games,” said one Salon participant. In addition, there is a lot of work to be done on business models and monetization so that these efforts are sustainable. “People love free things. And they are not used to paying for things in the digital space.” In the meantime, analog games can also be hugely beneficial, and many organizations at present are using more traditional games in their work.

What would help organizations to work more with games and gamification? Areas for further exploration include:

  • Stories of surprise wins and successes
  • More evidence and analysis of what works and where/why/how/when/with whom
  • Better understanding of free content and business models and sustainability
  • More evidence that games contribute to learning, literacy, numeracy, behavior change (eg., studies like this one)
  • Better understanding by donors/organizations of the wider ecosystem that goes into creating a successful game
  • Funding that includes support for the wider ecosystem, not just funding to make a game
  • More work with local developers who are proficient at making games and who understand the local context and market

As a starting point, Games for Change’s website has a good set of resources that can help organizations begin to learn more.

Thanks to Nick, Asi, Stan and Craig for joining as lead discussants, and to Population Council for hosting the Salon!

If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

It’s been two weeks since we closed out the M&E Tech Conference in DC and the Deep Dive in NYC. For those of you who missed it or who want to see a quick summary of what happened, here are some of the best tweets from the sessions.

We’re compiling blog posts and related documentation and will be sharing more detailed summaries soon. In the meantime, enjoy a snapshot!

Today as we jump into the M&E Tech conference in DC (we’ll also have a Deep Dive on the same topic in NYC next week), I’m excited to share a report I’ve been working on for the past year or so with Michael Bamberger: Emerging Opportunities in a Tech-Enabled World.

The past few years have seen dramatic advances in the use of hand-held devices (phones and tablets) for program monitoring and for survey data collection. Progress has been slower with respect to the application of ICT-enabled devices for program evaluation, but this is clearly the next frontier.

In the paper, we review how ICT-enabled technologies are already being applied in program monitoring and in survey research. We also review areas where ICTs are starting to be applied in program evaluation and identify new areas in which new technologies can potentially be applied. The technologies discussed include hand-held devices for quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis, data quality control, GPS and mapping devices, environmental monitoring, satellite imaging and big data.

While the technological advances and the rapidly falling costs of data collection and analysis are opening up exciting new opportunities for monitoring and evaluation, the paper also cautions that more attention should be paid to basic quality control questions that evaluators normally ask about representativity of data and selection bias, data quality and construct validity. The ability to use techniques such as crowd sourcing to generate information and feedback from tens of thousands of respondents has so fascinated researchers that concerns about the representativity or quality of the responses have received less attention than is the case with conventional instruments for data collection and analysis.

Some of the challenges include the potential for: selectivity bias and sample design, M&E processes being driven by the requirements of the technology and over-reliance on simple quantitative data, as well as low institutional capacity to introduce ICT and resistance to change, and issues of privacy.

None of this is intended to discourage the introduction of these technologies, as the authors fully recognize their huge potential. One of the most exciting areas concerns the promotion of a more equitable society through simple and cost-effective monitoring and evaluation systems that give voice to previously excluded sectors of the target populations; and that offer opportunities for promoting gender equality in access to information. The application of these technologies however needs to be on a sound methodological footing.

The last section of the paper offers some tips and ideas on how to integrate ICTs into M&E practice and potential pitfalls to avoid. Many of these were drawn from Salons and discussions with practitioners, given that there is little solid documentation or evidence related to the use of ICTs for M&E.

Download the full paper here! 

Our August Technology Salon in New York City (TSNYC) was a stimulating and deep discussion on whether ‘girl advertising’ detracts from girls empowerment. The topic surfaced after a Facebook conversation about the rise in commercials about girls and women’s empowerment such as Always’ “Like a Girl,” Verizon’s “Inspire her Mind,” and Pantene’s “Stop Saying Sorry.” There are mixed feelings about what these ads accomplish for girls and women, and whether their commercially driven motivations are actually helping to achieve gains for girls in the US and elsewhere.

Some of the key points raised at the Salon included:

Participatory media vs slick, overproduced ads. When it’s participatory media with children and youth making choices about what is being said, shot and edited, it’s one thing. It feels authentic, said one Salon participant. “But the current spate of ads tend to show a very ‘produced’ girl, wearing make-up, feeding into stereotypes about beauty, talking to a screen and selling a product or a brand.” These ads may feel inspiring to people watching, but are they actually ‘empowering?’ The underlying message of many of these ads for girls is still often sex, beauty and/or sexual attractiveness.

Surface rather than deeper change. One discussant pointed out that companies making these empowering girl ads on the one hand are making misogynist NFL ads on the other. If a company really wants to do something for girls, it should be a holistic effort that permeates all its advertising, she felt, not just a slick ad for girls and business as usual with everything else. Making girls feel better about themselves is one thing, but it’s not enough. Girls may say they prefer ‘Goldiblox’ to ‘Barbie’ but the toys are still plastic consumables, and they are still pink, as one participant noted. “Girls need to build confidence at a deeper level,” said a youth participant. “Rather than just providing a one-way ticket to solving a simple problem, we need to go deeper, because the problem does not have just a single cause.” In addition, as other participants called out, much of the change being pushed by ads is shallow change, when what is really needed is systemic change. “Have you really addressed structural injustices and inequities with these one-off actions and campaigns? Do these simple narratives really help? Or are they a distraction?”

Are we conflating empowerment and consumerism? These girl-focused ads encourage girls that we work with to spend money that they don’t have, commented one Salon participant. Are we supporting girls’ assimilation into corporate consumerism or are we trying to change the status quo for girls who have been traditionally left out? “Girls we work with have issues with lack of access to housing, education, a living wage. These ads encourage them to spend money that goes back to corporations, and we don’t know what the corporations are doing with it. Are they supporting militarization of the police? Are they lobbying to cut sex education or planned parenthood funding?” Often the topics addressed in these ads, she noted, are the tip of the iceberg. “We see ads about teen pregnancy, but we don’t see work that addresses its underlying causes.” Addressing underlying causes, many in the room felt, would be the truly empowering work.

Higher visibility of girls’ issues is unintentionally causing problems. The increased presence of girls in the media and in NGO advocacy campaigns was initially very helpful, but some commented that it is becoming a problem. “Donors think that there is a higher level of investment in programs that directly impact on girls, which is not necessarily the case. Often the investment is made in branding or social media rather than in concrete programming that supports girls with real assets and skills.” This has meant that some donors are reluctant to fund programs for girls, because they think the topic is over-saturated. In reality, there is a lot of talk and media but not enough on-the-ground support.

Being a girl in 2014…. In addition to the funding challenges, some research has shown that in the US, girls as young as 7 and 8 feel that they “cannot drop the ball on anything now.” The empowering visions of girls can make them feel that they are expected to do and be everything, and to solve all the world’s problems on top of it all. At the same time, on social media such as Facebook research shows that girls tend to downplay their intelligence and up-play their fun and sexiness, because media bombards them with messages that on top of being successful at everything, they are also supposed to be cute, carefree, and sexy.

What about boys and men? The higher visibility around girls can lead to a marginalization of boys and men from gender work, commented some Salon participants, as it sets up a boy vs girl dynamic. Though for advertising, binaries tend to work, in the wider scheme of things, these issues are very complex and binaries are not helpful. If we are looking for change an empowerment, boys and men also need to be part of the equation and gender should be a more holistic approach, not only focused on girls. “Working with both boys and girls is more empowering for everyone,” said one participant. When boys feel threatened by girls it just creates more conflict. “We need to empower boys by teaching them about girls and gender dynamics,” because both boys and girls are affected by gender stereotypes.

Ads by their very nature simplify complex issues. Ads are simplified because of how they need to be packaged, especially now in the day of social media, as one of the youth Salon participants pointed out. “People take a simplified message and create their own meaning out of it, without really understanding the complexities. Then they share the ad around and feel like they’ve done their part. They think an ad is fully informing them and this is dangerous. These ads don’t really feel empowering for me, it’s just an upswing in ads for teenaged girls and in media targeted at my age group. The ads are just one more thing that’s shared on Facebook. So it’s like someone else packages ideas for you, you share them, and you move on.” Another participant agreed, yet added that ads can open the door to a conversation about something larger that can be followed with more nuanced discussions.

Ads are ads. They are not CSR. Companies are not really interested in empowering girls with these ads, pointed out one participant. These are not Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) ads; they are marketing ads. Another participant added that “many of these campaigns are run by very smart, high-powered women. They do want to see high-powered versions of girls, and they also want to sell their products or their brands.” The income from the ads does not go into social programs; it’s revenue, noted another participant. CSR managers then have the job of advocating internally so that some of the revenue does go towards these types of causes, but it’s not a given. CSR staff work to encourage corporate leadership to allocate some of the funding into programs that have an impact on girls’ lives. Consumers should also be doing their homework and finding out what is happening with different campaigns. Companies want to make employees, customers, and investors/their boards happy. Consumers should pressure corporations to do more than just ads, and to do something that reaches farther. Corporate mandates are totally separate from Foundation mandates, as one participant pointed out. “It’s up to people like us who care about these issues to bridge the gap, to have these conversations in the board room, with management and leadership, with PR staff.” “How can we increase transparency about what these companies invest in,” asked one participant. This is important not only for CSR budgets and ‘girl issues’ but for companies overall.

Starting with the delivery system is a problem. Rather than starting with a solution – an ad, a technology, a delivery system – we should start by picking the group or population where we want to make a difference and then decide what is the best way to go about it, commented one Salon participant. “What does success look like for girls? What do girls themselves what to do, to be? Empower is a vague word. If you substituted ‘farmer’ for ‘girl’ you’d never get away with some of the mystical pronouncements that we hear now about girls. Do you ever hear people saying ‘Ah, farmers… I just feel so alive and so inspired when I meet them! They can change the world!’ Probably not. And much of the rhetoric around girls is just inspiring language that doesn’t actually help girls to achieve their goals. We’ve swallowed the language of the current delivery system. We now measure success in terms of retweets, likes, social media campaigns and putting out manuals and guides. We need to push back and ensure that the money goes to girl programs on the ground.”

Using media for behavior change is a science. Others, however, felt that there was a role for behavior change communication (BCC) done in a scientific way and with solid measurement of impact. Activism and advocacy are different approaches than behavior change, commented a participant. Likes and tweets can be measures of activism, awareness and advocacy. But for behavior change, we need to go deeper. Well-targeted behavior change communication starts with strong, solid research into what drives behavior. There are different categories – knowledge is the first one. But most times, it’s not lack of knowledge that prevents people from changing behavior. More often, it’s attitudes, social norms, and lack of social support and self-efficacy. A well-defined campaign should isolate what will make change and the communication piece should speak to that very specific change. It’s also critical to understand the audience and what will move them to action – for some girls it will be a strong aspirational role model, for others it will be real-life women and girls. Formative research helps us understand what will work with a particular audience.

How are we measuring impact? People are measuring the number of tweets from the general public and calling it impact, rather than measuring indicators of real change for girls themselves. “Attention is being placed on media impressions, tweets, hashtags,” said one discussant. “We measure hollow metrics about the giver rather than measuring the impact on the ground, on the lives of the people we say we are supporting or helping.” She went on to cite some very well known campaigns where the only impact reports were media hits, but no available reports track what happened with funds raised, or with ‘awareness’ and how it translated into actual change. “Is it enough to show women in empowering ads,” asked one participant. “There is a disconnect between advocacy and messaging and measuring impact,” said another person. Within organizations, some digital teams are very good at showcasing to management how many Facebook likes and tweets they get, and this distracts leadership from looking at more impactful efforts on the ground. It allows these shallow campaigns to take funding away from the more solid programmatic efforts that work directly with girls and their families and communities to address underlying causes, and to build skills and assets and enabling environments for girls to succeed.

Equality vs liberation. Boiling complicated intersectional analyses down to an ad that can only carry a single message is complicated and having an equal number of male and female board members does nothing for women who are not operating at these high levels, said one participant. “I have so much I want to say about all this!” she added. “Where are the transformational campaigns? None of our organizations or brands or corporations has enough money individually to do a campaign that would really create structural, systemic change. Even the Ms. Endowment has only $35 million and it’s not enough. We are all competing in the market. How can we collaborate and converse with one another to do something bigger and better. How can we work together to really shift things? What if we came together and only took money from corporations that did something like have a certain percentage of women on the board plus ads that show positive images plus funnel funding into good programs on the ground? How can we hold companies accountable? How are we measuring success?” Another person commented “Many corporations feel that we are lucky to have their money.” She wondered how we can build strength in our numbers and work together as a more solid front.

It’s not one or the other…. In closing, one participant pointed out that there were multiple conversations happening in the room, because those of us working on gender and girl issues are fighting the good fight on multiple fronts. “Work on the ground is one thing. Work at the global policy/advocacy level is something else. And then there is work with the private sector and the public as well,” she said. “We all have different strengths. How can we connect in more meaningful discussions on it all? How can we flag issues that need consideration so that we are all contributing to a wider goal?” Further conversation and joint work could help to address some of the challenges that those in the room are facing. Many participants wished for a follow up conversation to take the ideas a step further, and the topic of engaging boys and men was brought up as something that needs more work.

So, do girl ads detract from girls’ empowerment? According to the majority of Salon participants, yes, in many cases they do. But there is potential to integrate these kinds of ads into wider, more effective efforts to push for systemic change that involves both boys and girls, works at various levels, and demands greater corporate accountability and better measurement of results.

What should advertisers do, then? [Adding this today (Aug 26) after a request for some recommendations for advertisers]

  1. Be consistent. Look inwardly. Don’t be all ‘girl empowering’ on the one hand and then be all misogynist on the other hand with everything else that you do.
  2. If you’re making revenue from girl empowerment ads, then do something with the money that actually supports programming that is proven (evidence-based) to make a real difference to girls in their daily lives or support policy work that help girls advance.
  3. If you’re really about girls’ empowerment and want to work on behavior changes that benefit girls at a widespread level, then look at some of the behavior change science approaches that can help you to plan campaigns that get people to move beyond a) feeling inspired and b) gaining knowledge to c) actually acting and changing their behavior….
  4. A combined effort that works at multiple levels (ads that are well researched and directed, policy changes that support girls and women, and work on the ground that provides girls with skills and helps them build assets) would be a better way to approach girls’ empowerment, if indeed advertisers do want to help empower girls.
  5. Stop commodifying everything and putting more pressure on girls and women to be and do everything. Use some of the power and expertise of creating and motivating people through brands and advertising to support social change that has nothing to do with buying more stuff.

****

For more background reading, see our crowdsourced list of ‘girl ads’ and commentary about girl ads.

Thanks to those who contributed to the Salon topic idea and preparation (especially Eva Kaplan, Karen Cirillo, Clare Ramirez-Raftree, Lina Srivastava and Greta Knutzen) and to ThoughtWorks for their generous hosting!

If you’d like to attend a future Salon in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, London, Toronto/ Ottawa or Nairobi, sign up here to get on our email list!

Oh, hashtags.

My Regarding Humanity co-founder Lina and I have been talking about the effectiveness of “hashtag activism” for a long time now, and every week there is something new to say or learn from. We took the plunge and published where our thinking is this week – though it’s sure to change by next week. (Thanks to Alex Lee and Winter Schneider for their research and writing support!)

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 8.33.06 AM

I’m still grappling with whether hashtag activism and “slacktivism” in general are more important for changing perceptions and behaviors of the individuals who participate in them (which is where many marketers and social media guru types look for impact), or if they should be measured based on their effectiveness in terms of resolving the problem that the hashtag is aimed at addressing. I’m guessing if a hashtag does both, that’s when it’s really found the sweet spot. I’m also thinking that in order for it to do both, it probably needs to involve the people who are directly impacted by the issue and/or people who can actually do something about the issue (these could be one and the same in some cases).

Some say that small acts of online activism (and slacktivism) open the door to a greater feeling of individual agency, which then increases political engagement and more meaningful/more active social cause participation in the future. But I wonder if this is true when the social cause is one that does not directly touch upon the life of the person participating. Does engaging in serial online hashtagging along the lines of #bringbackourgirls make an individual more prone to taking on meaningful action at some point? Or does the hashtag engagement need to relate to something more locally addressable (eg., something the individual could directly impact) in order for it to lead to meaningful action? As we note in our article, some research has found that when it comes to global causes, people have very short attention spans and they move on to a new topic once the complexity of the situation is apparent and they understand their individual inability to make any real difference.

I’m curious about how having “skin in the game” impacts on a person’s feeling of agency and on the impact of hashtag activism at both the personal level and at the level of wider social and political change. I wrote something about this a few years ago (Activism vs Slacktivism: It’s about context not tools), and I wonder whether spontaneous hashtags that spring up and help create critical consciousness and form movements and build cohesion within them (a la #iftheygunnedmedown or #myNYPD) are more effective than those created by marketers/advocates with particular engagement goals in mind.

And anyway, what do I mean by “effective?” I suppose it’s all relevant and that, like any tool, a hashtag can be used for ton of different things and maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges here. There will be different measures of success with different hashtags – some for branding, some for fundraising and some for deeper social change and political engagement. Maybe my thoughts and feelings about hashtag activism are just reflecting my wider viewpoints on the kinds of change that I find valuable, and those usually doesn’t have much to do with building an organization’s brand…

And in the end, why do I spend time debating the value of hashtags!? Surely that’s a kind of slacktivism in its own right.

Oh, hashtags.

Photo from Wikipedia.

As I’ve written before, I moved from El Salvador to Rhode Island in 2001 with my 2 kids. Their father is Salvadoran and they look an awful lot like him.

A few years after we moved, when my daughter Clare was about 7 years old, one of the checkout ladies at the supermarket we frequented said to me, “Your daughter is such a nice child. She’s always so helpful. Where did you get her?”

“Um,” I answered, a little confused, “…I gave birth to her?”

“Ooooohhhhhh! OK,” the lady said. “I thought you had adopted her from somewhere.”

I was annoyed with the lady, at first, for the assumptions she was making. I let it go, however, realizing that it didn’t really matter whether I had adopted my daughter or not. I would love her the same, regardless.

People often ask these kinds of questions without meaning any harm. They say things like “Oh, she’s your daughter? She doesn’t look like you. What is she?”

This question always stumps me. “What is she?” I know that people are asking about her ethnicity, but I find the phrasing odd. So I usually feign confusion or make a dumb joke like “Um, what is she? She’s…. a human?”

Clare is 17 now and she’s been getting into slam poetry. Here is her take on it.

An open letter to the woman at the grocery store that asked my mom “where she got me.”

Home grown.

Sitting on the shelf next to the Autocrat Coffee Syrup and the Del’s Lemonade.

I have made my place here.

I do not belong in the exotic fruits section. The Latin foods section.

It is not for you to decide where I call home.

The sticker on my forehead labeling me “IMPORTED” should not be the only thing you see about me.

I am also organic, fair trade original.

I am my own woman. Not a further perpetuation of the idea that the only way to have such an exotic being is to have taken it. As if to fill a space in your collection.

AND HERE WE HAVE CLARE RAMIREZ RAFTREE. ALL THE WAY FROM EL SALVADOR.

To those who ask, “What are you?”

I am anything I want to be.

(Published with Clare’s permission)

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’ll know that I have a strong connection with El Salvador where I lived during the decade of the 1990s. Every so often I get nostalgic or something triggers me and I get the urge to write about those days or how they still impact on me and my kids. The Central American child migration situation is in the news every day now, with varying explanations and huge amounts of political manipulation, so it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

I migrated to El Salvador for love in 1991 and back into the US with my kids in 2001 to get out of a country that was increasingly sinking into terrifying violence and where I could not envision a future for myself or my kids. The very week we left El Salvador, the 9-year-old son of a man who owned a small mechanic shop (eg, not someone who was uber wealthy) was kidnapped and then killed by his captors when the police attempted to rescue him. My son Daniel was also 9 at the time.

Still, leaving El Salvador was the hardest decision I’ve ever made — and I had a plane ticket, family support in the US, spoke the language, had a job, and already had US citizenship, as did my kids. I cannot imagine sending my children on their own, by foot. I cannot imagine having to make the choice between the known day-to-day violence of one kind and the potential yet very real violence of another.

My ex-husband made the journey into the US in the early 1980s when he was 18. It took him four months to make it. He tells of hunger, of sleeping outside, of looking for short-term work in Mexico to replace the money that the police had stolen from him, and being chased through the fields by a man with a machete. He traveled with the clothes on his back and not much else. The heartbreak and fear involved in a decision to send a child on that journey alone is something I can’t fathom. But I know that El Salvador is no place to try to raise children right now either. Even in the 1990s, every time I left the house I wondered if I would return that evening or if I might be caught up somehow in the senseless violence that runs wild in the country. It’s something you learn to live with, and you don’t realize how stressful it is until you wake up somewhere where you feel safe.

Our decision to migrate back to the US continues to be difficult sometimes, as I wrote in this post about my daughter’s experiences dealing with family separation. It’s never easy for families to be separated, and it enrages me when the family bonds, of “others” or of “the poor” are imagined to be less strong or less meaningful than those of more privileged people or of the current citizens of a particular country. Sending a child to walk across a desert is not a decision parents make lightly. Why do people seem to understand that when it’s the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and not when it’s children of Central America?

Yesterday, my son Daniel wrote about his experiences for a newspaper called Brasil do Fato, where he’s interning for the next 3 months as part of a human rights grant he received from his university. He doesn’t elaborate about his childhood in El Salvador in this version, but his original version talked about the joy of growing up in the Barrio where we lived, playing in the alley and the rubble of an abandoned building down the road, and how things have changed since then.

Daniel’s piece gives a quick history of the US’ involvement in Central America and why it’s not an isolated issue, free of history and a broader global context. He also reflects on “how much a person’s fate is determined by the country and family into which they are born and where they fall in the order of social forces that structure the world.” It’s something he understands well, because he’s had the best of his two worlds.

Here’s the original article published on July 24, 2014, in Brasil do Fato (in Portuguese), and I’ve pasted in an English translation here:

Human Rights here and in the wider world

by Daniel Ramirez

I am Salvadoran, on my father’s side. Which means that I share, at the very least, a common history and memories of life in a Salvadoran barrio. In the barrio, I grew up alongside many children living in very difficult circumstances, just like the children who are seeking to flee the country today.

Our lives, however, turned out very differently. I am privileged to be a college student at the University of Chicago, and currently in São Paulo working as an intern for Brasil de Fato thanks to a grant from my school’s Human Rights program. This highlights for me how much a person’s fate is determined by the country and family into which they are born and where they fall in the order of social forces that structure the world.

Throughout the 20th century — especially after 1932 when the Salvadoran government put down an attempted peasant insurrection led by the Partido Socialista Centroamericano, killing up to 40,000 indigenous people in a massacre known as “La Matanza” — economic tension between the Salvadoran oligarchy and its working classes continually increased.

This conflict hit a high point during the global economic crisis of the 1970s, and in 1979 an attempted coup d’etat sparked the Salvadoran Civil War. The United States saw this as an opportunity to ensure communism would not take root in El Salvador, as it already had in Nicaragua, and funded the Salvadoran military’s campaign against popular resistance. On the left, the guerrilla militia named Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (in honor of Farabundo Martí, the leader of the 1932 insurrection) was organized to fight for the Salvadoran people.

It was a brutal war that lasted until 1992. Thousands were killed and human rights were grossly abused on a massive scale. To escape this, many Salvadorans migrated to the United States, including my dad who escaped to the US in the early 1980’s. In 1990, my dad was deported back to El Salvador, and my mom went with him.

I lived in El Salvador until I was nine, then I moved to the United States with my mom and sister.

Since I left, I’ve gone back to visit El Salvador once every couple of years. Now, my old friends have grown up. They work hard for little pay and already have families, and we’ve grown apart. There are still kids hanging out outside, but they’re older, and it seems to me like the character of their activities has become more serious.

The barrio has changed. It now “belongs” to the 18th Street gang. There’s more violence around, some of it between rival gangs, and my dad tells me to be careful who I talk to. The kid who lived directly across from us back in the day was shot and killed along with his mother right in the alley in front of my old house. If I’d been born ten years later, my childhood would not have been the carefree, playful existence that it was.

Violence, Hope and Reality

This is the type of social climate that is causing children to leave for the United States. And if we follow the chain (if not totally causal, then at least telling) from US military funding, to an intensified civil war, to refugee migration, to Los Angeles gangs, to deportation and finally to the pervasive power of gangs throughout El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, we can see how much current migration into the US from Central America has been shaped by the United States’ influence.

Right now, on the United States’ side of the US-Mexico border, thousands of children are arriving at immigration detention centers, most looking to escape violent conditions in their home countries. Meanwhile, President Obama is looking for the power to deport them as quickly as possible, intending to send Central Americans the message that the US will not aid immigrants arriving en masse to its borders, even if they are children.

United States foreign policy in Latin America extended and fueled a brutal civil war in El Salvador. Its domestic treatment of immigrants, refugees and low income communities bred gangs who then committed crimes and who then were deported back to a Central American economy and society that had no room or place for them to reintegrate in a healthy manner.

The United States is a major historical cause of the current influx of child immigrants. It would be just for United States society to take collective responsibility for the harm it inflicted in the past, and do what it can to help remedy the crisis in Central America. But, as can be seen by looking at how United States society treats its African-American community, as a country, it is not very good at taking responsibility for past crimes.

Why I’m Here

Now, I’ve come to Brazil with a critical eye in order to understand the interconnections between my Salvadoran barrio, my experiences in the United States, and the periphery and the social movements in Brazil, specifically in São Paulo, where I’ve come to live these three months.

I hope to see how diverse groups of people organize to fight for themselves. My goal is to consistently articulate my insights, and track the progress of my thinking on the theme of human rights. I’m not sure where this project will go, but I’m excited to go along with it and take it wherever it leads.

 

 

 

 

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