Monday, November 30, 2009

consumer charity

This post deserves a bit of a “Sarah on her high horse” warning. Sometimes I say or write things not because I think I’ve got a particular issue figured out, but because I want to ask uncomfortable questions of myself and the world around me. With that in mind, then, one of the questions I’ve been asking recently is when the choices I/we make in the name of helping others are more about feeling good than actually doing good.

The advertisement sidebar on my Facebook page tells me that tomorrow Starbucks will be donating 5 cents of the cost of every drink to the (red) campaign. Money for people with AIDS in Africa – it’s a good thing, right?

Maybe. Leaving a discussion of the actual impacts of charity efforts like the (red) campaign aside for a moment, I wonder what they say about us as US consumers. To begin with, there’s the absurdity of using the donation of a few dollars or cents of the profits from a purchase to some worthy cause as an incentive to buy something. The obvious question here is – if you really wanted to help, why not donate the whole $15 cost of your t-shirt?

Okay, so maybe your t-shirt purchase isn’t so much about helping the poor, but if you’re going to buy the shirt anyway, isn’t it better to go for one that will support someone in need? Again, I want to say, “not so fast”. I wonder if by highlighting special opportunities to make particular ethical consumption choices, companies like Apple, Starbucks and the Gap aren’t distracting us from the fact that all our consumer choices have social, political and environmental ramifications in the developing world. Does a dollar or two given back to the communities in Lesotho where (red) t-shirts are made make up for the fact that what you pay for the jeans on the next rack is the same as what the woman who sews them in Cambodia makes in a month? Does a few cents donation from your latte do anything to address the environmental degradation of non-fair trade, non-organic coffee? Though it’s impossible to measure, does the good you do with the occasional contribution to consumer charity outweigh the negatives impact of the product you buy? Of all the non-charity items you get from those companies?

Perhaps my argument is not so much with campaigns like (red) themselves as it is with how the highlight the lack of a bigger conversation about the amount of stuff we buy, where it comes from, and how the earth and other people are treated to get them to us in the first place. At any rate, I don’t think hitting up Starbucks tomorrow will be my way of marking World AIDS day.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Traveling to central California for Thanksgiving is helping me put some things in perspective. First: what exactly constitutes "large-scale" agriculture. I thought the farms around ours in Ventura County were pretty big (often hundreds of acres planted in the same crops), but riding the train through central California with it's monocrop orchards as far as the eye can see has made me rethink.

And then there's my definition of rural. The Farm feels like the middle of nowhere sometimes. I can't comfortably bike to anywhere I'd want to go other than the beach, and we have no neighbors. But a few days in Mariposa County (population, I'm told, 17,000) has been instructive. For example, the following from the sheriff's report in the weekly local newspaper:
Nov. 16: There was a big dog versus little dog incident on Jones Street. A cat was up a tree on Silva Road.
Nov. 17: A cat was in a tree on Sullivan Road.
Nov. 18: Residents of La Rosa Road had bear concerns. A dog was in distress on Sixth Street.
Nov. 19: A horse was running amok on Cole Road.
Nov. 20: There was an out of control juvenile on Triangle Rd. Loose goats were causing destruction on Crown Lead Road.
Nov. 22: Juveniles were on the roof of Mariposa Elementary School. A raccoon was injured on Broadway in Coulterville. There were suspicious circumstances on Allred Road.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Today I bid a fond farewell to the game of “this time last year I was…” I had planned on spending my Cambodian thanksgiving eating roast chicken and maybe an apple pie with friends. Instead my only distinct memory of Thanksgiving Day 2008 is of waking up at 2 am and being flooded with relief seeing my dad walk in. The rest is a blur of that six days in the hospital in Singapore: IVs, the attacks on Mumbai and the take-over of the Thai airport on CNN, the cleaning lady who helpfully pointed out that my legs were the color of beet root, the nurses who were always trying to get me to take Tylenol (which, like pretty much everything I ate, I would throw up 15 minutes later) and the doctors who kept promising that my condition would dramatically improve in a day or two.

I spent the month of December reassuring people – that while I had been seriously miserable, I hadn’t been seriously sick, and that dengue would have no lasting effects, that I was fine and that what I experienced was far less dramatic than what most people picture for a med evac. I was so focused on trying to keep a brave face that the emotional force of it had to sneak up on me.

The truth is, I was rooting to be evacuated. Even before I got sick I was at the lowest point of my six month internship, tired and dreading having to balance host family politics in expressing my gratitude and saying my goodbyes. I felt a wave of relief when I heard that my platelets were just too low to stay in Phnom Penh, that I would be on my way to Singapore less than six hours after going in to the SOS clinic. I thought that because I had been so eager to leave Cambodia it wouldn’t hurt. I was surprised, then, to end up in tears trying to talk about the end of my internship, and to have recurring dreams that I was back in Cambodia but couldn’t find the neighborhood I had lived in.

While my fever was over before I got back to the US, dengue lasted longer. After a month of Harry Potter and West Wing I had recovered enough to function at school, but it was months before my physical energy caught up with the rest of me. My hair started falling out in earnest in February, in sufficient quantity for my mother to suggest buying a wig. If I pushed too hard during my last semester I would start to taste the same exhaustion that got me wheelchairs all the way back to Chicago.

Laying in my hospital bed a year ago, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to predict how I’d be spending this Thanksgiving – taking an Amtrak train to central California, with dirt still under my fingernails from harvesting veggies for Thanksgiving dinners for hundreds of people. I can only guess at what part of the world I’ll be in this time next year. But I’m thankful.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

rhodes interview

I finished up the Rhodes interview process this afternoon, and didn't get the scholarship. The interview process went okay. The other candidates were, as promised, interesting and engaging folks, and the tenor of the time with the selection committee was less intense than I had expected. The committee went out of their way to communicate that they wanted us to feel comfortable and relaxed and that the interviews themselves wouldn't be aggressive or combative. Friday evening was the "get to know you coffee", which went fairly well, and after which we drew times for our interviews the next day. The interviews themselves were only 20 minutes long. The questions I was asked were all insightful and fair, but it took me some time to be comfortable enough to answer well. They asked me about a range of subjects including the interaction between Christianity and feminism, the cause of the global financial crisis, my career aspirations, how growing up in Kenya impacted how I saw development and what I hoped to do, whose work I would like to model my own after, and what I thought of the relationship between organic standards and agribusiness, and what I thought of the Cambodian government's approach to rural development (promoting large-scale agriculture). There were also several questions about authors I had either not heard of or had heard of and knew the broad outlines of but hadn't read. At no time in the process did I feel like my having graduated from Wheaton or being a Christian was a liability, and the district secretary went out of his way to express how glad he was to see my application and how he hoped to see more from Wheaton.

I left the interview knowing that I hadn't nailed it and wouldn't be getting the scholarship. The group of candidates (11 of us) spent another few hours together before they did two brief call-back interviews with two of the other candidates and then announced their decision (one of the candidates who had been called back and another who hadn't).

While I'm disappointed (more with not feeling like I presented myself as well as I could than with the outcome), the process has been very valuable and I'm so glad I applied (especially considering my initial ambivalence about it). As I said in a text message I sent out to a number of friends afterwards, I've felt overwhelmed several times particularly in the last month by the amount of love and support I've received from my communities in the Chicago area, southern California, and around the world.


Thursday, November 12, 2009