Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Published on Thought Catalog!

After several submissions of my posts I was finally published on the website Thought Catalog! Check out the post of my article "Cleveland Is Really The Comeback City" here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Income Inequality and the Need For a Living Wage

I recently watched a Last Week Tonight with John Oliver segment where Oliver breaks down income inequality, specifically focusing on the estate tax. Amid the humor Oliver makes some very serious criticisms of the American system and the unwillingness of the United States citizenry to believe income inequality should be a talked about issue. One comment he made was particularly important, "America now has a system where wealth is dispersed as a lottery of birth". With the experience I have had through volunteering in an urban community, I have seen first hand that this is so true. Coming from an upper middle class family with two parents who are lawyers, I won the income "lottery" so to speak. Sure, I have tried hard in school and earned a spot at my university, but I have been afforded so many advantages that people who are born in urban communities in Rochester are not. I have two parents, both of whom work, but always had enough time to encourage me to read, to play, to exercise, to experience and question the world around me. Someone born into a low income family in Rochester is often neglected by their parents during their formative years--not because these parents are bad parents, but simply because these parents are working long hours at one, two, or sometimes even three jobs just to pay the bills. I went to a public high school where the graduation rate is upwards of 90% and we had ample teachers, school supplies, computers, textbooks, and a new school levy was passed almost every year. Students facing public school in Rochester are looking at a graduation rate of around 40%, teachers unequipped to handle the amount of students, a lack of sufficient school supplies and textbooks, and many other challenges that hinder them from even graduating, let alone going to a college like the University of Rochester, despite its close proximity.

So a kid from a low income neighborhood in Rochester is poorly prepared for school, and often drops out. Even if the student doesn't drop out, what is the next step? They can't afford or don't have the means necessary to attend college. They have a high school diploma, but that doesn't cut it in the modern economy. They get a job wherever they can just to sustain basic life necessities. They work hard. Maybe they wait tables, maybe they sweep the halls of the schools they used to attend. Maybe they get a bit of job training and break into the health care aid industry. Regardless of how hard they work doing jobs that need to get done, they don't get paid a wage that allows them to live above the poverty line. Hard working people doing jobs that are necessary for society to function, should get paid a wage that they can actually live on. This is the difference between the minimum wage and a living wage, something that is hard to understand for people who have never had to struggle to pay the bills.

My grandfather was a mail man and my grandmother was a hairdresser who during the holidays worked for Honey Baked Ham (a local company). With their combined incomes, they were able to send three kids to college and support four children. They have finally retired and have settled in a suburban area on the west side of Cleveland. Their four children have all had successful careers that have enabled to them to have families and send their own kids to college. Today,  it would be so much harder to achieve this level of success without a college education. 

People who work in the service field such as my grandparents today don't make nearly enough money to afford them the lifestyle they could have had 40 years ago. The income gap keeps growing and it has reached unparalleled levels of discrepancy between those at the top and bottom. What Oliver points out in his segment is that it is becoming harder and harder for individuals to increase their means. Despite putting in hard work at the jobs that are available to them, people are not able to provide for themselves and their families. Here lies the central fault in the argument that people who live below the poverty line should just "work harder" to achieve more: we need people work at gas stations, to work in super markets, to cut our hair, to clean our houses. It is not relevant to say that people should just find be better jobs, because if they did, there would be no one to do other essential jobs that get paid low wages. This again, is the concept of a living wage. 

Income inequality is a real problem. It is not class warfare. It is simply showing that we are increasingly becoming a country of haves and have nots, even though there are hard working people who fall into the have not category. I will conclude this with one relevant anecdote. The people who are hesitant to talk about income inequality are often people that feel people on welfare are just using the government coffers to not work. I recently had an experience with a woman who came into the organization that I work for with a problem that disproves that theory. She had just gotten a new job, but the employer didn't provide health insurance because it was a temp agency, and she had chronic health issues. With the job, she made too much money to go on welfare and collect Medicaid funding. She was faced with the question of whether to be employed and not be able to pay medical bills, or to stay unemployed and be eligible for Medicaid. She didn't want to take money from the government, but in order to have access to medical care she had to be unemployed and collect Medicaid. What would you say to that woman--too bad? Sorry, your low wages that don't pay your bills are just going to have to cut it because Medicaid is a handout? We need to start taking steps to ensure that people who do important jobs are actually able to provide for themselves and their family. I think establishing a living wage will set us on the right track to solving that problem and decreasing income inequality. 

Why Everyone Should Volunteer in College

This finals week I was plagued by two exams, two ten page papers, and one 20 page paper. The word "stressed" doesn't really cover it. I had done okay my first three semesters at school, but this was supposed to be the semester that I really excelled. I spent countless hours in the library, even pulling the occasional all nighter. Despite the stress and the time consuming studying and writing, I still made time to head down to the Eastern Service Workers Association in Rochester to help distribute food to families in need on Friday morning before my finals. I was agitated on the car ride there, stressed about my impending exams, but when I got there, I didn't even notice. I was greeted in the front of the ESWA by Miss Alma, the sassy, always sparkly dressed elderly African American woman who often helped out around the office. Her friendly hello and earnest interest in how my studies were going instantly melted the stress away. I then spent about two hours in the benefit office working to get food distributed into boxes to send out to the families on the distribution list. 

All in all the trip took about two and a half hours of my study time. When we got the boxes sorted I took off, back to the library to cram for my two tests. Not only did this study break significantly decrease my stress level, but it also helped me to realize that finals are just finals, some things are more important. Sometimes, we need to put other people before ourselves for the greater good (I still ended up with the best GPA I have had all of college this semester). 

The reason I started with this story is to demonstrate that with time management, the stress of college and the effort we put into our studies is manageable. Even if you think you are the most busy student out there, I guarantee you have time to help other people for a few hours a semester. I think that as college students we get so caught up in feeling busy and in our campus culture that we forget about what is going on right outside our bubble. 

It costs approximately $60,000 a year to attend the University of Rochester at full price, and there are people who live just a few blocks away from the campus that raise families on less than half of that amount for a whole years worth of wages. The campus is a bubble, and it is easy to forget that there are people just outside our door that could use our help. 

I'm an athlete, I'm on the executive board of my sorority, I have a job, and I take a full course load. Even with all this on my plate, I volunteer at least once if not twice a week at the ESWA, a local organization that helps low income workers in the urban Rochester community. I don't say this to boast, I merely mean to demonstrate that even if you think you're busy, and I'm sure you are, if something is important enough to you, you will find the time. 

I think volunteering is that important. I believe that as transient visitors in a community we have the responsibility to give something back. I think that as privileged college students we have the responsibility to contribute to the welfare of those less fortunate than ourselves. I think it is important that everyone gets to experience the community they live in and to really understand the socioeconomic spectrum that is present throughout the country. Not only does volunteering help the community, but it is really humbling to work with some of the best people I have met in my life. There are people that need and deserve our help, and it has really been an honor to get to work with some them for the past 9 months. Making the time for people who need it makes me feel better about myself, and makes me feel like I'm making a difference. Everyone can make time to get involved even if it is just a few times a semester, we just collectively as a group of collegians need to make it a priority to start making a difference in our communities.  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

This Girl Isn't Retouched--Her Six Pack is Just Natural

Recently I was in the mall with a close friend of mine shopping in Aerie, a store that is a subset of American Eagle Outfitters. While waiting in line we noticed a huge photo print on the wall of a girl sporting some of their aimed at young adults lingerie. The photo said "This girl is not photoshopped". Prior to entering the store we noticed some girls walking around with bags that said a similar message, "the girl with this bag is not photoshopped". After some banter in line with my friend about the irony of the un-photoshopped model with a perfect six pack that made the cashier visibly uneasy, we left the store, and I carried a bag of my own that said "the girl with this bag is not photoshopped".

This new campaign by "Aerie" has gotten a lot of press lately. For those unfamiliar with it, the clothing company (which sells mainly lingerie for teens) launched a campaign entitled "The real you is sexy". As mentioned, they put it on their bags and it's the tagline for a whole new section on their website where they have supposedly "normal" girls who have not been photoshopped wearing their apparel.

The idea is that you should love the skin you're in (especially when you're wearing and buying Aerie products). The irony, of course, is that while the girls in the above photo might not be photoshopped, all three of them also have flat, washboard-esque stomachs and size four max thighs. While the campaign that everyone is sexy in their own way is great, it would've been enhanced by models who actually looked like normal people. How am I supposed to believe the real me is sexy when the people I have to compare myself to look fantastic even without photoshop?

If you're going to launch a beauty campaign based on looking great as yourself, shouldn't you have girls wear your clothes that don't make teenage girls feel like their "real you" isn't good enough? There is nothing wrong with being in shape, kudos to those models for being so fit, but it seems like for a campaign focused on being able to love the skin you're in, there should be a bit of variation in the types of models you're using. I think the campaign is actually a great idea, I just think that if I'm supposed to buy into the idea that the real me is sexy, it'd be great to see someone sporting the slogan who doesn't fit society's pre-established idea of sexy. Everyone is sexy, you shouldn't compare yourself to models, but teenage girls are prone to comparison and it would be nice to give them someone that defy's society's idea of beauty saying "the real you is sexy".

Monday, July 14, 2014

I Stand with Israel vs. I Stand With Palestine: Why Can't We Stand With Both?

In light of the recent violence in the Gaza Strip, I find it fitting to discuss to some degree the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I have seen several posts from acquaintances touting the phrase "I Stand With Israel", explaining their support for Israel during the renewed fighting that does not appear at this point to have a stopping point. I always get aggravated when I see posts like these, because I don't think that they tell the whole story. Yes, a Palestinian teenager was brutally killed, but so were three Israeli teens. And yes, Hamas may have initiated conflict, but Israel is still bombing Gaza. Neither side is without casualties, but neither is blameless or justified either.

image source

One of the reasons why I find the "I stand with Israel" posts unsettling, is because they tend to disregard a conflict which has been exacerbated through decades of wrongdoing on both sides. It also completely disregards the human life that is being lost on the Palestinian side. With the bombing occurring in Gaza, it isn't just military lives that are being lost, there are civilian casualties. By saying "I stand with Israel" you are fueling the divisiveness that plagues this conflict. Of course saying "I stand with Israel" doesn't mean you don't stand with Palestine or at least their innocent people, but then why single out one side specifically to support? I get it, people feel connected to their Jewish heritage and Israel. I also understand that the Jews have been historically discriminated against for centuries, not just during the Holocaust. Despite these unfortunate circumstances, I don't think it is fair to disregard a whole population of people who in general are just trying to live their lives in peace. Why not just "I love Israel" instead of a statement that can be interpreted as being against innocent people.

The problem with "I stand with Israel", thus isn't that you support Israel, it's that phrases like that imply that you don't stand with Palestine. That you don't care about the family of the young boy who was burned to death because they are Palestinian. That you don't care about the tens of people who have lost their lives this week alone. You can't judge an entire population based on the actions of a few. Many Palestinian people only support Hamas because they feel they have no other option, and still others don't support Hamas at all. This goes both ways though--three Israeli teens were also kidnapped and murdered last week. Saying "I stand with Palestine" is just as single minded as saying "I stand with Israel". We are all just human, don't we have more similarities than differences? Much work has been done over the years to humanize people on both sides of the conflict, but it still perpetuates due to poor leadership and an unwillingness to compromise on both sides.

The Palestinian people are unwanted by nearly everyone. Many Palestinians are refugees in Arab countries that refuse to grant them the rights of citizens. Others are living in the territory they now claim that is less than 25% of what they had before the creation of Israel. You would think that the Jewish people would understand what it is like to have no place to call home. That with the history of the Holocaust and the subjugation of the Jewish people, Israel wouldn't want to let that happen to another population.

Both sides are at fault here, and there is no easy solution to this conflict. It is fine to have an opinion and it is fine to feel that Palestine and Hamas have made some unjust decisions. What I don't think is productive is taking sides. Why do we as American citizens need to take sides? Okay, you're Jewish. Maybe you have even been to Israel a few times or more. I appreciate the passion and the reverence you have for Israel. Allegiances are important and allegiance to a country that was created as a safe haven for your cultural ancestors is perfectly rational. Don't we though, as citizens of the world, have a responsibility to ensure life and liberty for all people, despite if they might be different from ourselves? Doesn't only supporting Israel disregard a whole group of innocent people who deserve a better life and the ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness? Surely as American citizens we can identify with the concept that everyone deserves the right to basic life necessities such as education, food, and shelter. When you take the side against the Palestinians, you are saying that they don't deserve that right. That the actions of a few leaders negate the aspirations and dreams of a people who just want a home.

This is obviously bigger than just a phrase. If you want to express your support for Israel by saying "I stand with Israel" that is your choice the same way it is your choice to say "I stand with Palestine". I think though, that in the face of decades of conflict, we should amend our language to embrace change for the better. If you feel that strongly about your support for Israel, a potential language change could be "I support Israel, but I want peace", the same goes for Palestine. And on the whole, why can't we just stand for peace?

Above: A young boy holds the flag of Palestine while flashing a peace sign.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why Cleveland Really is the "Comeback City"

I made the choice to go to college in another state, and I've been altogether very happy I made that decision. New York is a beautiful state, and I've gotten to see a lot of it in the two years that I've spent there. I love Rochester. I love the way the city looks from the Ford Street bridge at night, the beacon of Rush Rhees Library always guiding me home, and the grit of the people who have survived the ups and downs of the Kodak/Xerox dynasty. Rochester is my second home and I wouldn't trade it for the world, but Cleveland will always be #1.

I didn't realize it when I first left for college. I thought I was like any other student leaving behind a home town for something more exciting. When I got to school though, I found myself missing things I never knew I would. I missed the way the city looked from I90 as it wraps around by Jacobs Field (it will never be Progressive Field to me). I missed the feel of my favorite neighborhoods, from Lee Rd where I worked to Tremont. I wanted to go pick apples at Patterson Fruit Farm and take home one of their amazing apple pies (I even forced my mom to bring one up to school for me on her first visit).

I missed all of the places I had frequented for so many years, but most of all, I missed the people. The spirit in Cleveland is unlike anywhere else in the world. Taking the national stage now with the return of Lebron James, Cleveland sports fans are frequently cited as some of the most passionate in the nation. The undying love for the Cleveland Browns, arguably the worst team in the NFL, is an example of how people here never give up. It's not about titles or championships, its about passion and love for a place and a team despite its flaws. Sure we don't win the super bowl and we haven't been in the World Series in years, but it doesn't matter. Sports for Clevelanders are a way to come together as a community and showcase our pride despite the trials and tribulations.

Just like with the adversity we face in sports, the residents here aren't dispelled by the "Mistake on the Lake" nickname or at times national ridicule. Clevelanders know why our city is amazing, and we genuinely care about the communities we are from. We've been working for years to make this city a better place, one that will garner national attention in the positive, instead of negative light, and it is finally beginning to seem like a reality.

With the selection of Cleveland as the host site for the Republican National Convention, Cleveland will have a national platform to showcase how far we have come. We really are the "Comeback City". Why? Because we didn't get discouraged when national favor had turned its back on us. Instead, we went to work. We have revamped our convention center, built a new Aloft hotel, revitalized neighborhoods like Ohio City, Tremont, Gordon Square, and 4th street, built a brand new Medical Mart to showcase innovation. We have upscale hotels, restaurants, night life, and energy bursting out of a downtown that now has waiting lists to move into apartment buildings. It hasn't been easy, and there are definitely more strides to be taken, but Cleveland has earned it's title as the "Comeback City", and it's time the rest of the country recognized that.

I want people to understand what it's like to be from a place so passionate about it's history and it's future. I find myself constantly talking up Cleveland and getting defensive when people are unaware of all of our improvements. Sure it might irritate my friends, who find my endless knowledge and facts about Cleveland annoying. And while other people are proud of their home towns, I am the obnoxious one always talking about mine and how great it is. Why? Because Cleveland has been the punch line of too many jokes, and it's time people understood that we aren't the same city we used to be. This city has so much to offer that gets overlooked by those who haven't taken the time to look a little deeper. I apologize for being defensive, it's just that I'm invested in my community, and want to share the growth and the achievements we have made.

I think that Lebron really said it well in his coming home letter explaining his decision. "In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have." Cleveland has been working for a long time now, and I think we have earned the right to a little positive recognition.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Volunteer Tourism: Selfish or Selfless?

Every so often posts come up on my social media outlets showing some of my acquaintances posing with cute ethnic children in foreign countries. The individuals posing in these photos are often young adults engaged in what has become known as "volunteer tourism" A lot has been written on the subject, from expressions of support to scathing criticisms of the industry. The Onion recently posted an article entitled "6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman's Profile Picture". I think this really hit the nail on the head as far as the central problem with volunteer tourism.

photo source: the Onion

Philanthropy in itself is not a bad thing. Seeking to help others who have less than ourselves is not a bad thing either, but what I find questionable about the volunteer tourism trend is the need for individuals who partake in it to overly publicize their experiences. To me what it feels like is "look at this picture of me with this cute kid I met in Africa who I paid to visit and will never see again". While this is obviously not everyone's attitude who engages in the volunteer tourism, it is hard to distinguish between individuals who had the money and a few free weeks over the summer, and those who genuinely want to help others and enlarge their world view. I understand that everyone these days is hooked on social media. We can hardly eat good meals at restaurants any more without ensuring that they make it onto Instagram. What that says is "look at me I did this", "look at me I ate this", but is there a line crossed when posting a photo that says "look at me I visited these impoverished people"?

On a personal level, I volunteer at an urban association seeking to improve the lives of low income workers in a variety of ways including filling emergency food and clothing requests. I have been doing this for just over half a year, and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I've put in hours of volunteering and have attended all of the organizations events since November of 2013. I love volunteering and being part of a community organization, because I really feel like I am helping people and making a difference. I have never felt the need to Instagram, Tweet, or Facebook a picture of the individuals that I work with.

Volunteer work is not supposed to be glamorous. It isn't something that you should be doing just to upload new Facebook photos or put it on a resume. Sure, sharing your experiences is a totally valid thing to do, and posting photos from legitimate experiences you have had is completely fine. What is frustrating is the feeling I often get that certain trips were just a vacation. That after posting those photos you'll say "look how cute these kids are, look at me with these cute kids" instead of, "Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and I really felt like I made strides in helping to educate some of its population during my time there. Look at these cute children who I'm teaching English to in hopes they can have a better future".

I think volunteer tourism raises important questions about what type of people we are trying to be. Does a week spent in Africa make you a good person? It certainly doesn't make you a bad one, but if you're going for the wrong reasons, it doesn't make you a good one either. One important distinction to make when discussing this topic as well is the distinction between actual volunteering and volunteer tourism. People volunteer in other countries when they go for programs that last longer than a week or a few days. Some people volunteer through their colleges or through their high schools, and spend enough time there to really connect with the people they meet. Volunteer tourism is going for around a week, and spending on average $3,000 just to observe (source) and to not really get your hands dirty with real volunteering or real teaching.

It's overly harsh to say that people shouldn't be able to share their volunteering experiences on social media, but I can't help having the gut reaction when I see photos that these trips are superficial. Part of this reaction is probably due to my own experience with people who have gone abroad to volunteer just as a summer or resume filler, that come back with no increased knowledge about the world or desire to pursue more philanthropic efforts. Intent is hard to discern from social media without background information, but that's what is important when choosing to partake in volunteer tourism programs. Are you doing it for yourself, or are you doing it to really help individuals who are not as fortunate as yourself to be able to take $3,000 "volunteer" trips? There are plenty of individuals at home in our own communities that need our help too, and despite the lack of an exotic destination, you can still help people here without the $3,000 price tag.

I don't mean to disparage individuals that have life changing experiences and improve conditions in communities in other countries, I really do think volunteering and philanthropy are ways to make our world better. I am just tired of seeing the exploitation of children on social media for the benefit of those wealthy enough to "help" them for a week or two. Volunteering shouldn't be an excuse for a profile picture, it should be a way to connect with other individuals and help them create better lives for themselves and their communities, whether you are doing it in the United States or abroad.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Prevalence of Unproductive Political Speech

Recently I saw a post on Instagram that portrayed President Obama bearing a Hitler mustache with the words "Pull Over Impeach" displayed above his head. Not the work of a radical fanatic, the photo was posted by a young female college student who I had no idea (prior to this posting) felt so strongly against Obama. Freedom of speech is one of the most important rights granted to us by the Constitution, but is there are a point where we take things too far? At what point do we cross the line from utilizing our freedom of expression for productive political discourse, to using this freedom to bash political opponents in ways that are inappropriate, unproductive, and personal?

We see it far too often, attacks on political players not on the basis of their political views or their actions while in office, but based on their personal life, appearance, race, and other factors that should play no role in their effectiveness as political operatives. The Obama presidency is a prime example of free speech taken past the point of political usefulness. The so called "birther" fad associated with Mr. Obama's first term which centered around the idea that Mr. Obama was not an American citizen, was unproductive. The idea that President George Bush or President Bill Clinton would ever have had to dispute where they were born is absurd, and thus accusations that Mr. Obama was not born in the United States were clearly an attack on Mr. Obama because of his race. The "birther" dialogue in the first Obama election which was discussed at length by conservative political correspondents, distracted from the real issues in the 2008 election cycle. So, not only are accusations like this offensive, but they are also unproductive.

This ties back into the "impeach Obama" post previously discussed, as this is another form of freedom of speech that is unnecessary and insensitive. If you truly believe that a president should be impeached, the way to garner support for this is not by equating him to a mass murderer who is responsible for the deaths of millions of individuals. Regardless of your qualms with President Obama, he is not a fascist dictator who brutally exterminated almost an entire ethnic group. As a rational individual and responsible citizen, these kinds of accusations are unwarranted and shouldn't be entertained by anyone who wants their political opinions to be taken seriously.

I encourage all citizens of this country to freely express their opinions in whatever (legal) way they see fit, but in order to be taken seriously in the political arena I believe it is necessary to respect your opponents and offer real criticisms of their actions in order to propose something such as impeachment. There is also a level of human decency that even with politics, citizens should adhere to. Comparing President Obama to Hitler is obscene, the same way the person who made that sign would have found it obscene if I had created the same sign of Ronald Reagan during his presidency.

[image source]