Everyday Struggles for Utopian Communities
My project looks at people’s choice to withdraw from society and the world. People who choose to leave the world they have known, the world of their families, do so for a myriad of reasons. Some revoke the world for reasons of faith and self-fulfillment while others separate themselves in order to live lives more closely aligned to their core political or social beliefs. No matter why, they all seek out, in their way, a more perfect, whole and all encompassing world away from the “mainstream.”
How do they actual go about doing this? How do individuals gravitate towards monasticism rather than anarchy or life as a sailor? By making this conscious choice to leave their world, how do their connections to home, family and friends change? How do they judge themselves as well as others within their created community? How do their views about people on the outside of their subculture change?
Also, and quite importantly, how do they live their daily lives? How is it changed by their choice to live this new life? And how do they reconcile interaction between themselves and the world they have revoked, while, in many cases, it is still all around them?
While many of these questions apply to every group I focus on, my approach to answering each question will change according to each group. Since each situation will have its own advantages and disadvantages, I will look at each independently.
With the two anarchist collectives I have been talking to I would like to do some reporting pieces documenting their daily lives, their little struggles. I would possibly do several profiles but since these are groups I would want to look at the whole. While I haven’t decided, I am thinking also about writing some social commentary on this group as well. As I have grown up, to some degree, and continue to identify with this world I believe that a certain insider’s viewpoint would work. I think that a first person approach would be of value in understanding the inner workings, the contradictions and the psychological viewpoints of these groups.
For my approach at Ganas (an intentional community) I would like to intern or stay there for a while and see what it would be like to be a part of this community. In addition I would like to write a multi-part series focusing on different aspects of this community; its economics, its social situation, its politics and its infrastructure. I am also thinking about a piece on their connection to other groups like them around the country and world.
In regards to the monks I have been looking at, I have several ideas about how to approach the topic. I plan to write a series of profiles on particular monks for this idea. In addition, if possible, I would write a first person piece on what it’s like to take the first steps towards joining a monastery if, of course, I was allowed to do such a thing. Since I have less of an understanding of this community I would want to also do something on the broader decline in monasticism.
Workless in New York
According to Richard Sennett people today frequently change their jobs and are less connected to a secure, internal work structure. We talk of “projects” rather than of “work,” emphasizing independence and the weaker ties to our employers. I want to learn about the impact the “new flexibility” has on those who find themselves in a limbo between “projects” or suddenly without work.
Sennett speaks about the conflicts people encounter in a society of fragmentation, flexibility and flux, and the problem of forming “sustained narratives.” Hinging on Sennett’s survey I will explore what the “narratives” — the glue that holds life together — are for the workless. I am interested in the routines one faces or establishes for oneself without work, how one “handles” a workless life.
Jeannie’s story is a good example of a complex and fragmented narrative that, fitted into the bigger context of worklessness, informs us about our society at large. Jeannie, one of my interviewees, is 28 and lives in Hell’s Kitchen. She had to quit her job because she became “too big to sit down in a chair.” She got married to a wealthy man, had stomach surgery and lost 150 pounds. Her reasons for not working were quite convoluted: Childhood experiences (“My mother always told me, I would never become anything”), the forceful fulfillment of dreams (“I married wayyyy up!”), anxieties (“I worry about what other people think about me.”), a refusal to have your time determined by an outside structure (“They wouldn’t let me eat candy while on the phone.”) and a lack of interests: “Twice a week I do my nails. Other than that it’s like shopping, gym, going to Vegas, partying.”
I also talked to several retirees. Some struggle with their new life without work, others thrive. This ambiguity provides an excellent insight into what one considers work. Some redefine work after they retire (gardening now becomes work as supposed to an act of leisure); others fall into depression without work.
How do dandies, socialites, bohemians or trustafarians reinvent and expand the meaning of work and worklessness? Through interviews with socialites and trustafarians I hope to elicit the reinvention of work by the wealthy and workless.
How do the homeless, welfare recipients, social parasites, gutter punks and dumpster divers survive? How do they improvise to survive? It is necessary to look at how the system forces people to fill their time. What is the exact process of registering as unemployed, applying for welfare and food stamps? Taking Madeleine Blais’ “The Arithmetic of Needs” as a role model in her accuracy and attention to detail I will write about the bureaucratic realities one faces when trying to get public assistance.
The influence parents have on their childrens’ work attitude has to be examined. We often either live our parents’ (unfulfilled) dreams or revolt against those dreams. For an article about the relationship between worklessness and upbringing I want to interview workless individuals, parents and family psychologists.
According to a New Zealand study, the unemployed are two to three times more likely to commit suicide. A Swedish study came to the conclusion that long-term unemployment increases the risk of dying in that period by 50%. I would like to examine US data of disease/mortality in relation to unemployment and conduct interviews with New York physicians and psychiatrists to find out about their experiences with unemployed patients.
What is New York’s institutionalized support system for the workless and what other support systems are there? How do they provide support? I will start off with the “New York Unemployment Project” and then immerse myself in the network of self-help groups and evaluate popular self-improvement literature.
Mental Health: Policy and Law
A look at the lives of the six percent of Americans who have a serious mental illness and their experiences in the criminal justice system. After researching the topic, I have several specific story ideas, though the form they will take is not clear in all cases.
The first will be a news piece discussing the planned opening of a third mental health court in New York City (the new court is set to open in Queens in coming months). In the same vein, I would like to write a national article on the “problem-solving justice” movement, the significant growth in the number of mental health courts and the issues revolving around these new institutions.
A somewhat different take on the mental health policy beat could be a piece on the role of psychological diagnosis in the asylum process, for example. In particular, I’d like to look at an organization called Doctors of the World that works with victims of female genital mutilation who are applying for asylum protection in the United States. The article could be a profile of an asylum seeker or activist, or a feature of broader scope.
Other possible stories might relate to recent rulings or laws. For example:
All of these cases, while they may seem dry when described in brief, have important stories behind them and represent significant and interesting policy shifts. There is also investigative work to be done here as there is little evidence, in many cases, that the court-mandated changes are being made as quickly or effectively as one would presume they should.
Long Distance Nationalism in New York City
My portfolio is about how foreign conflicts play out here in New York City. They say you can find anything in New York, and that includes political partisans from all over the world. But when conflicts reach New York from abroad, unexpected things happen to them. They mutate, conflate, moderate, or exacerbate. Sometimes immigrants work to mediate disputes in their home countries. Sometimes they whip up trouble. Each of my stories will explore a different byproduct of the globalization of conflict.
These conflicts don’t usually take the form of fighting in the streets, although that has happened. In one example, on February 25, 1994, an Israeli doctor shot and killed 29 Arabs in a mosque in the West Bank. Four days later, a Lebanese Muslim cab driver opened fire on a van full of Jewish boys on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Luckily for us, though, international armed conflict rarely breaks out here. Battles fought with bombs and bullets elsewhere are more likely to stick to rhetoric and theater here. I’ll be exploring the ways that foreign countries and New York immigrants influence each other on the editorial pages of ethnic newspapers, at rallies, and in exile political parties.Here are some of the stories I’d like to write:
“Liberian Truth and Reconciliation on Staten Island” - A number of African countries have formed post-conflict Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to air grievances and uncover war crimes. Liberia’s new TRC is taking an unprecedented approach: the Commission will be seeking testimony from Liberians at home and among the large American Diaspora simultaneously. (Many of the American participants came here precisely to escape the Charles Taylor regime.) Due to Liberia’s strong historical ties to the U.S., the TRC will take the unusual step of also interviewing the participants about their opinions on the future direction of the country.
One of the main sites for the Liberian TRC in America will be Staten Island, which has around 9,000 Liberian expatriates. The organizers of the TRC hope the process will also ease some of the tribal tensions that have flared up on Staten Island. I expect this to be my biggest story, one I will immerse myself in over the coming year (including in Liberia itself, after the Ghana program).
“The Law of Lek in the Bronx” - There’s an ancient Albanian code, called the Law of Lek that dictates all kinds of behavior. The good side is a slavish approach to hospitality. The bad side is blood feuds — cycles of murder that pit families against families and get passed on through the generations.
The law still holds sway in the rural mountains. Most urban Albanians and Albanian immigrants cherry-pick from the law, holding onto the friendly parts and ditching the clan warfare. But there have been reports from Detroit of blood feuds continuing among the Albanian community there. I’d like to find out what kind of influence the law has among Albanians in the Bronx.
“Street theater: Zionism vs. anti-Zionism” - There’s a rather goofy video on YouTube of a group of Arab protestors trying and failing to tear up a crude Israeli flag at some pro-Israel march in New York. In Jerusalem, the same scene wouldn’t be so funny.
I’m interested in how Middle East conflicts play out as theater here in New York. And it’s not just Jews arguing with Arabs; questions about Zionism (not to mention correct religious practice and messianism) get just as heated among Jews, particularly between rival Orthodox sects. The Satmar, concentrated in Williamsburg, are insular and totally opposed to a Jewish state in Israel (pre-messiah, that is). The Lubavitch, headquartered in Crown Heights, have close ties to Israel, and are one of the only Jewish sects that focus on global outreach and encourage converts. Neturei Karta, a Hasidic group with an outpost in Williamsburg, even calls the Holocaust into question. They sent a delegation to the recent Holocaust-denying conference in Iran.
The Orthodox approach to Torah study places an emphasis on parsing arcana and on verbal debate. (It’s no coincidence that many lawyers are Jewish.) Fierce arguments over Israel and Zionism often flare up in public, at protests and rallies in New York. I’d like to look at that phenomenon in the context of the tradition of Jewish scholarship.
“War of words: China Daily vs. Epoch Times” - The Epoch Times accuses China Daily of being a mouthpiece for the Communist Party of China. China Daily accuses the Epoch Times of being a mouthpiece for Falun Gong. Both are correct. Both of these English-language newspapers malign each other in articles. It’s an American print version of the battle between Falun Gong and the government in China.
Eating Under the Radar
My portfolio on ‘indie food’ is about culinary happenings that are flying just below the radar. A major component will be profiles of people who are cooking or producing unexpected or culturally significant foods or drink. Cooking is a bit like a form of oral history — it’s consumable, obviously, and of-the-moment. It’s the ephemerality of it that makes it so evocative of a certain time, place or person. I will address those questions by interviewing elderly people about the dishes that they remember most vividly and what the memories are that surround the dish. I want to both record the recipe and use it as a way to explore issues of memory, tradition and how oral histories are passed along.
I would also like to find out how people living in New York City and the tri-state area are crafting unexpected products. I’d like to do a story on the British company Omlet, whose ‘Eglu’ allows urban dwellers to raise chickens in a mini chicken coop that looks like it was designed by the hipsters at Apple. I’ll profile people who brew beer at home and explore the history of home brewing by contacting the East Coast Brewing Supply on Staten Island. Culinary anachronism is also an element to explore — do medieval recipes still translate? Could I make them at home with ingredients available?
I also expect the local greenmarkets to be a good source of story ideas. A short time ago, I was browsing a market near my apartment and came across a young man who makes pickles of all sorts — he calls himself the pickle guy. We chatted for a while about the barrels he uses to store his pickles and how he got into pickling (Mom, Dad? I want to be a pickle-maker). Greenmarkets are often the only major outlet for craftspeople who are producing what is essentially indie food. I recently did a story for one of my classes about a turkey farmer in New Jersey who raises heritage turkeys and his slightly curmudgeonly perspective on the whole Slow Food movement.
Essentially, I’d like the stories I produce for my portfolio to each have an element of surprise — to illuminate an unexpected food moment or phenomena, to seek out the characters that make those stories pop.
What does it mean to be a feminist at this point in history? What does feminism look like? What is the point? There are many different understandings of feminism floating around, many of them based on misconceptions. I don’t see it as my job to debunk each of them, but I do want write about what feminism actually is and does today.
At its most basic level, feminism is about disrupting usual ways of thinking, especially about things like gender, race, class and sexuality. It’s characterized by a certain sensibility, an ethic, as much as by specific politics or a set agenda. Part of this involves being generally critical and vigilant about injustice. Another part involves creating new culture, whether it’s coming up with a solution to women’s safety issues, starting a business or starting a band. I want to write about cultural spaces informed by feminist thinking, to show that feminism is alive, vibrant and important in ways that may be unexpected.
I’m interested in feminism in all areas and stages: programs designed to help empower and raise the consciousnesses of young girls, the raucous joy of the radical cheerleaders, the nostalgia of second wavers. They are individual phenomena, sure, but they are also all connected to the same history, and at least a similar vision of the movement forward. Feminism today is also characterized by some interesting generational clashes that I am eager to investigate as a journalist.
I envision this project as several reported pieces, profiles and pieces of social criticism that together say something about where feminism is today and where it’s going. Ultimately, I’d like it to be constructive and provide insights into the movement both for people outside it (to help them understand what feminism is about) and for feminists themselves. Some stories I’d like to work on:
Shared Sounds, Shared Space: the experience of music in public life
The density of cities is a phenomenon we tend to imagine in human terms — great masses of people shoving their way into subway cars, cramped elevators, and 50-story apartment buildings. But cities are also great generators of sound as much as there of social interaction. The squawk of taxi horns on 5th Avenue, the salsa rhythms of store-front jewelry stores on Canal Street, the drunken cat calls on Ludlow Street at 4 a.m. — these are all as indelible to city life as traffic jams and pollution. And with rock shows at Webster Hall, sound installations at Williamsburg’s Monkey Town, and the in-store pop that greets every boutique clothing shopper, New York has just as much to offer indoors as out. Cities are quite simply an audiophile’s dream.
My aim is to study this interplay between sound and public space. If we agree that music (or just plan noise) is a ubiquitous part of city-life, what does this mean in practice? How does this phenomenon affect our everyday lives? Music is arguably our most portable art-form — we blast the stereo at home in the morning, grab our iPod on the way out the door, moan about the elevator music on our way up to the office, and plug our headphones into our PCs when we reach our cubicle. Even if we aren’t consciously looking for it, music finds us. So what does this mean for city dwellers? How does an art-form so deeply ingrained in our daily lives affect who we are at home, at work, and at play? How does it affect how we interact with other people? What are the shared experiences of music and sound that shape our lives?
Muslim New York After September 11
On September 12th 2001, The New York Times editorial described the day before as, “one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as “before” and “after.”” Muslims in America clearly felt this split; a quick realization that life in this country would not be the same again. In many respects, Muslims became an American minority that day. The deportations, the racial profiling and hate crimes, which Muslims had scarcely imagined being at the pointed end of, began overnight.
There are over seven million Muslims in the United States today, who constitute the fastest growing religious group in the country. Largely affluent, well educated, linguistically and ethnically diverse, Muslim Americans are unlike any other minority group in American history.
This challenge of writing about this community became apparent to me, while covering the Muslim Day Parade in New York City a few months ago. In the crowd there were no less than two dozen national flags, from every continent. I heard people speaking, Indonesian, Urdu, Arabic, Malay, Chinese, Spanish, Turkish and English. The Muslims, who were essentially representing a ‘community,’ often times had no way to even communicate between themselves. Often, the community shares little history, language or ethnicity. After 911 though, what binds it tightly is that Muslims, regardless of their race and class, share a lot of the same problems.
For my Portfolio I seek to explore the response of the Muslim community to 911, with a spotlight on the many new formal and informal institutions and organizations that the have been created in response to common challenges. I aim to write a series of in-depth pieces that examine institutions and social networks in New York (and some related ones around the country). The aim would be to draw a larger picture that shows how a diverse Muslim population is grappling with the post 911 environment at a political and market level.
I focus on institutions, because they offer a close look at a transforming community. The debates over values, ideology and integration are taking place through new institutions, and prominent personalities and elites that are at the helm of organizations. They offer a window not only in to the community as a whole, but also capture the dialogue taking place within at a time of transformation. Here are some of the stories I would like to write:
Resuscitating Midwood: Earlier this month, 76 more Pakistanis were deported from the US. The steady stream of Pakistanis finding their way out of the country continues. Many of the Pakistanis who have left the country after 911 have been from Midwood, Brooklyn, or Little Pakistan as it is sometimes known as. In May 2003 The Washington Post reported that “of the 120,000 or so Pakistanis who lived near here, 15,000, maybe more, have left.” The New York Times reported in June 2003 that between 40% and 50% of the community in Midwood and Brighton Beach had been either detained or deported or had left. Ahsanullah “Bobby” Khan, is a resident of Midwood, and rose as a central community leader soon after 911 and founded the Coney Island Avenue Project. The aim of the organization is to rebuild the will and soul of a community that was rapidly losing people. I see this piece as a profile of the community and the story of the neighborhood, seen through the eyes of Bobby Khan. An interview with him walking through the streets of Midwood, talking to the Pakistani community and particularly drawing out the process of organization to rebuild what was once a thriving cultural center of New York.
Trading in (In)Securities: An increasing number of Muslims are getting their personal and business credit cards cancelled in New York. The 80-page long federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network that lists names institutions and individuals who may be involved in financial crimes might be partially responsible for this. ‘Project Lookout’ introduced by the FBI after September 11th 2001, also listed all those who are suspected of financially supporting Islamic terrorists. This list has since taken on a life of its own and the FBI admits that several versions now circulate freely among financial institutions with new names being added all the time. Some Muslims are also facing challenges in getting credit and loans for houses, businesses etc. As the Muslim community grapples with real discrimination and as their financial insecurities are exposed, the Islamic Cultural Center of North America based out of the Bronx has undertaken a project to create an Islamic Federal Credit Union. This would be significant undertaking addressing the new needs of a Muslim market after 911.
Portrait of an American Imam: Siraj Wahaj is the founder and imam of Masjid-al-Taqwa in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is graying large framed black man with a booming voice and charisma that holds crowds of thousands spellbound during his sermons. He often dresses in a kurta-pajama, a dress one would normally associate with Muslims in North India. In the 60s he entered the fold of the Nation of Islam and later converted to Sunni Islam. He has led prayer for the U.S. House of Representatives yet he has been pointed out by the Department of Justice as a possible terrorist. He embodies the endless number of identities one can juggle while being a Muslim American. An interview/portrait piece of one of the most influential leaders of the Muslim community in the country, discussing the state of Muslim Americans, the role of religion in bringing them together, and what a bright future might look like.
Serving the Nation. Which One?: After Adil Almontaser a young NYPD officer was honored for his involvement in the rescue effort at the World Trade Center site he, along with a handful of other police officers, founded the American Muslim Law Enforcement Officers Association. Realizing that the Muslim community’s relationship with the police had become troubled since 911, the group’s aim was to organize the 200 or so Muslims working in law enforcement in New York and act as bridge between the Muslims and the police in the city’s neighborhoods. Muslim officers are now present at most Muslim community events and act as liaisons whenever there is need for communication between the law and the community. Similarly, Hassan Ali is a Muslim American working for the Department of Homeland Security. He is proud of serving his country, but candidly speaks about his strong beliefs in the ummah, the global Muslim nation and the need for Muslims all over the world to be unified. These are only some of the several hundreds Muslims serving the country in government agencies all over the city.
Stepping Across Bloodlines; South-Asian-Muslim-Americans: South Asian Muslims in India and Pakistan and Bangladesh make up for almost a third of the global Muslim population. They also constitute the largest group of Muslims in the United States. These groups of Muslims in South Asia have a history bathed in blood of wars and conflict between them. The partition of India which claimed a million lives, three wars between India and Pakistan, a civil war that caused the breaking off of East Pakistan into Bangladesh, all this has caused these Muslims from the three countries to be isolated from one another for them grown to be mutually distrustful. In America though Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims are brought together by the common bond of being Muslim, and South Asian Muslim moreover. The communities bleed together and co-exist and thrive in neighborhoods like Jackson Heights in Queens. I see a lighter piece, possibly revolving around a few Cricket World Cup games between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh during the Cricket World Cup next spring, in the backdrop of political history.
Trans is the New Gay: Contemporary Queer Politics
In this project, I’ll be looking at the manner in which the gay community is responding to the rapid mainstreaming of its culture. The Stonewall rioters were defending their right to exist, while today’s gay community is courted by Microsoft, Volkswagen and Absolut, and its central political issue is equal marriage rights.
While this mainstreaming process has depoliticized much of gay culture, it has also left some subgroups of the gay community on the margins. Queer people of color, transsexuals and older queers are still stigmatized, and, for the most part, ignored. “The new queer war,” argues sociologist Rinaldo Walcott, “is going to be a tremendous war among ourselves, working out the questions of racism, age discrimination, working out the place of the transgender and the transsexual within larger gay politics.”
What now defines the gay community at a time when it is rapidly assimilating into heterosexual culture? What does it mean to be gay, when it has less bearing on one’s public life than ever before? What radical causes do young queer people deem important? How do they reconcile the need to fit in with the desire to be different, and how do burgeoning communities fit into the existing gay culture? Here are some story ideas:
There is a “huge” Queer Fat Activist movement in New York City. A lot of the movement seems to be oriented towards performance art, burlesque and ‘zine writing, with occasional forays into real activism. These are women who are challenging traditional conceptions of the female body, under the banner of queer empowerment, and often at the expense of health considerations. I’d like to profile several activists, follow them around, and get a feel for the community that they’ve created. Then I’d like to place this within the context of the gay rights movement, the context of other political movements, and see where they fit in.
Racism/Homophobia in the Gay Latino Community: The story that I would be most interested in doing is about the history of Latino gay bars in Jackson Heights. Apparently the owners of the half-dozen gay bars in Jackson Heights have been very involved in building up the New York Latino gay community in the past few decades, and they have received no media coverage whatsoever. Duque calls them the “Latino Stonewall.” I think that by talking to the bar owners and the bar patrons, it would a great way to address some of the other issues faced by the gay Latino community that Duque talked about (lack of media attention, homophobia from Jackson Heights Muslim groups, racism from the mainstream gay community, the changing demographics of the neighbourhood, transphobia within the Latino community).
Gay Fraternities: More and more fraternities (at Yale, for example) are welcoming the idea of gay frat members. According to a national survey (Perspectives, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, April/May 1996), 5-6% of fraternity members are lesbian or gay. According to the same study, strangely enough, 80% of gay frat brothers occupy positions of leadership in their fraternities. Apparently gay men really get into this stuff. A gay frat even opened at NYU last year.
I want to know what motivates a gay male to become a part of this macho straight male culture. I think this would allow me to explore both the de-politicization of gay male culture, and its assimilationist impulses. I’d like to follow one or two gay undergrads through the process of applying for, and entering, a fraternity.
How do people negotiate multiple allegiances, as immigrants, foreigners, expatriates and members of bicultural families? The people I’m interested in are living across borders, negotiating two worlds, sometimes more. In commerce and culture, as in personal lives, companies, entrepreneurs, artists and thinkers are often dedicated to bridging transnational, ethnic or cultural distinctions, bringing the exotic home. How is this done? Who does it, and what motivates them? I want to explore this underreported area of experience because I feel strongly that it is a model of future life, and because I am interested in the themes of memory and place.
One in four New Yorkers does not speak English. Cultural, business and community groups, like the Khmer American Association or the Colombian American Chamber of Commerce, are often based on double nationality or ethnicity. Universities now have centers dedicated to studying globalization and transnational issues that go beyond international relations. With every decennial census now, New York’s Department of City Planning publishes an analysis of immigration patterns called “The Newest New Yorkers.” City officials, police and health professionals are forced to deal with non-native constituents and changes in the socio-economics of traditionally ethnic neighborhoods. The ethnic press covers highly specialized groupings of New Yorkers who now have Internet access to news directly from home. Cambodian monks build a pagoda in the Bronx, Colombians congregate at dancehalls in Queens, consulates issue one-page passports for deportation and confirm “survival” status for overseas pensioners. Every one of the doctors in residency at one state hospital is foreign-born.
Because this work is based on people and how they live their lives, market their product, produce their art or promote their culture, the portfolio will become a series of features and profiles, with smaller reports on events such as book-launchings, gallery openings, ethnic festivals or other cultural convergences. Profiles would cover people with their feet in two worlds, like the former president of Spanish-language television station Telemundo now trying to market films to the U.S. Latino audience. Features will seek to uncover places where two worlds co-exist, through keyholes in publishing, music, culture, commerce and public policy.
Here are some of the stories I’ll pursue: Adult adopted children appear at the Colombian consulate in search of their biological mothers; Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx attempts an all-immigrant residency program at a hospital where over half the patients’ first language is not English; the City’s recent push, through the legislation known as Local Law 73, to improve non-English access to municipal services through interpreters, publications and expanded ESL programs, as more immigrants who stay in New York either fail, or choose not, to assimilate; what happens at the auctioning and selling of pre-Columbian or ancient Asian art on the New York market, where conflicting proprietary issues collide?
Latin American Remittances
Numerous studies over the past five years have shown that Latin Americans in the United States average a $200 to $250 monthly remittance home. The same studies have found this figure to be slightly higher among Mexicans, but as a proportion of total income, it can still constitute nearly 20 percent of the sender’s earnings. These are national figures, and only estimates — regional estimates vary from city to city, with Chicago Latinos sending the highest average amount ($443) and residents in the Lower Rio Grande Valley the lowest ($121). I continue to search for any estimates of New York City, but I’ve seen nothing to convince me that there are any. Even if there are, the market is too fluid to be comprehensively summed up in any survey.
Perhaps the activities of New York’s HTAs can give a more indicative sense of remittance behavior here. Casa Puebla, a Mexican HTA housed a few blocks south of Columbia University, recently put up $10,000 for an athletic facility to accommodate a soccer league in the Piaxtla region of its home state, Puebla. Mixteca, a Brooklyn-based HTA also from Puebla, recently celebrated the culmination of an eight-year, $150,000 effort to bring potable water to its hometown following years of alleged embezzlement by local politicians. Most HTAs surveyed previously tend to average not much more than $10,000 per year sent home while operating on budgets of around $25,000.
Whether from an individual or an HTA perspective, I aim to get to under the numbers. Casa Puebla, for one, has a three-for-one funds matching arrangement with the Mexican Government, in which each dollar the HTA raises is then matched with a dollar each from the federal, state and municipal governments back home. Carmelo Maceda, one of the directors of Casa Puebla, tells of recipients back home who become accustomed to receiving regular remittances and now don’t bother to look for work anymore.
There is also a booming intermediary market. A Coopers and Lybrand study in 1997 found that the international component of the U.S. money transmission sector grew an average of 20 percent annually during the first half of the decade. Since that study, the field has grown further, with several banks, credit unions, non-bank financial institutions (NBFIs) and even non-profit organizations offering services ranging from foreign currency accounts to microlending incentives to remittance bonds, the last of which are backed by moneys sent by migrant laborers. While NAFTA is credited with liberalizing the money transfer process, forthcoming FTAA negotiations promise to reduce barriers further. Regulations on trade with Cuba are still prohibitive enough that half of Cuban immigrants still choose to remit money home by a personal courier who flies to Cuba periodically and physically delivers the money. The Cuban market alone is estimated at $1 billion of traffic per year.
My approach for the time being is shaping up to be one that takes into account the human element of this phenomenon. By attending fund raisers, holiday celebrations and various workshops on everything from education to piñata-making, I am gradually making way into these communities and meeting the people at the heart of this movement.
The AIDS Diaspora
I foresee a series of reported stories that build on my knowledge of the intersection of AIDS and broader policy issues. America has always been a nation of immigrants, and New York always a destination for them. The arrival of people — legally and illegally — from developing countries where the disease burden is much higher creates several unique situations.
Though it is illegal for HIV-positive people to immigrate or even visit (a policy that’s murky in its application and which AIDS advocates contest), many come here to stay. The most infected areas of Mexico are along its borders with the United States, suggesting a dangerous overlap of immigration and disease. What kind of health care awaits these immigrants? Do they have access to medicine, care and information in their own language? How do state and federal health and immigration officials view this community?
Some evidence exists, but this is a little-explored topic. Treatments unavailable in rural Mozambique are no doubt equally out of reach in the United States. The size of the problem is uncertain, but clearly it is not small: Massachusetts’s African diaspora community has the highest AIDS infection rate in the state. Only 38 percent of Latinos infected with HIV were born in the United States, according to the Latino Coalition on AIDS. Cases are underreported in San Francisco not only because of immigration fears but because of language difficulties.
Haiti is one of two Western Hemisphere countries chosen as targets of President Bush’s global AIDS plan. Its AIDS rate, which pales next to most African countries, is one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere and ten times that of the United States. HIV-positive immigrants detained at Guantanamo Bay were the subject of a lawsuit against the U.S. government, and the status in society of HIV-positive Haitian immigrants remains a huge concern for their advocates in New York. All of which is to say that these issues play out in different communities in different ways, all worth exploring.
Given the high incidence of HIV abroad, immigrants who work in the United States to send money home are disproportionately affected by AIDS. What special provisions do these workers take to ensure that their families and towns are taken care of? And AIDS is by no means the only disease that raises these problems and questions. Tuberculosis, malaria and hepatitis are disproportionately present in the developing world and immigrant communities.
There is a series of policy and social issues around the disease as well. Included are immigration, trade policy, drug law, welfare reform, access to health care and, as one source described the cultural collisions, “the transition of identity, connections with home and access to health care and all the language/cultural issues that this brings out.” I would like to use my contacts in the international HIV advocacy world to enlarge these stories from their personal roots. I hope to find families on both sides of this divide to profile, to trace their path through the health system. I also hope to examine the U.S. restrictions on infected visitors from abroad, and delve into ways that large drug companies - generally not the friends of sufferers in the developing world - treat these groups here. If my work in Mozambique is any guide, these stories will snowball into others, including perhaps looks at how religious communities in New York are dealing with this issue and how people bring information, supplies and technology back and forth among these worlds.
Green NYC: How the City’s Health, Economy and Future Depend on Its Parks
Ideally, the end goal of my Portfolio project is a book proposal that investigates what the Parks Department means to New York City. The building blocks of this proposal, however, will be articles on specific aspects of parks: the role of entertainment through a Rolling Stone type article on the Summer Stage concert series in Central Park, the challenge of design through a “Talk of the Town” piece on planning parks, the role of recreation through a Sports Illustrated article on amateur sports, the challenge of policing by a profile of an urban park ranger, the role in environmental health by an article in the guise of John McPhee on how the drastic the environment of New York would be altered if all the parks were built over, and what that means for smart growth and urban planning across the nation. I also plan on a series of reported pieces of viewing the city through the lens of its parks, covering issues of gentrification, crime, tourism and neighborhood character. It seems that the parks give the best view of New Yorkers in their natural element.
The questions of urban planning intrigue me as well. Why, for instance, does the public clamor for additional park space at ground zero in lower Manhattan? Why are parks an essential park of remembrance? The other developing story that I plan to cover is the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park, an anomaly in park planning in that it is required to be financially self-sustaining. This plan as it stands now has infuriated several residents who live closest to the proposed park site, as they claim that the luxury apartments planned for the space will dwarf the adjacent brownstone neighborhood. Other ideas and innovations that I plan to cover are “green roofs,” and the technological advances in playground equipment that allow children with disabilities to enjoy the parks.
Brown Incorporated: The blending of Latino culture and mainstream America
Richard Rodriguez once wrote that he was “a brown man in a black and white country.” In his eyes, society did not represent that messy middle color called brown. For Rodriguez, this was odd. He considered brown a bridge between the African, European and Indian. Latinos understood this bridge, as most of them shared the blood of Mulattos, Puerto Ricans or Mestizos.
In spite of the exclusive “black and white” conversation, Rodriguez predicted the “browning of America.” Now at 61, his theories on this “browning” are taking shape in a very big, albeit different, way. Latinos are not just contributing to this country’s culture — they are defining it. In fact, “brown” is now like a corporation. It’s branding itself in order to market to mainstream American culture.
I am proposing an examination of this blending of brown culture and mainstream America by reporting on brown’s influence on the music industry, technology and marketing. I will do this through a series of reported pieces that will take the shape of features and profiles.
To begin with, the influence of brown culture on the music industry is currently stronger than ever. Reggaeton — a genre that’s a mixture of salsa, hip-hop and dance hall — is the hottest thing since punk. Although the American listening public was exposed to the genre only a year ago, reggaeton artists have already inked deals with major record labels, publishers and Hollywood. Eight major radio stations, including New York’s Univision Radio, have switched long-standing formats to reggaeton/hip-hop. What makes this interesting is that reggaeton lyrics are almost entirely in Spanish.
I am interested in covering how Latinos are using the U.S. music industry to sell Latin culture. I will tell this story via the mainstream push of music, clothing lines and films derived from the reggaeton sound. I also plan to write about minorities within this music by profiling artists like the only major female reggaeton rapper in a male-dominated genre. Another story that will fall under the music umbrella is how a Puerto Rican sound became “el reggaeton Latino.” Early on, reggaeton producers created beats with Colombian, Mexican and other Latin influences in order to gather Latino support in the United States. This is how they were able to sell this culture in an American market.
For the second part of portfolio, I plan to cover the influence of Latinos on technology. Among these influences is the Latin ring tone. Barrio Mobil, a sister brand of French-owned Bling Tones, is the first wireless record label in the world. It’s goal is to capitalize on the “hurban” market by offering exclusive and original ring tones from reggaeton and other Latin artists. They also plan to develop new talent and offer Latin-themed wallpaper of Latina models, games, and streaming radio. This will be a look at how a foreign company is using Latino culture to profit in today’s U.S. market, and overseas.
The Spanish Internet is another tool created to feed this burgeoning group. Latino Internet access has more than doubled since 2000. The problem is that the Internet was not prepared to feed a demographic that prefers to read in Spanish. This is why Google and Yahoo are building Spanish language search engines that find Spanish content. I would focus on New-York based companies benefiting from this new trend.
Finally, I plan to report on the influence of the Latin purchasing power in different mainstream markets, specifically TV and print. The most interesting development is the creation of a new publication in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. With a circulation of 650,000, this Spanglish publication is expected to attract advertising dollars and readership now dominated by English and Spanish publications in the area. I have a few similar ideas regarding the TV industry.