privilege and the public.

The ways that I hold power and privilege include visible exterior qualities; the less visible privileges I hold include the fact that I have a world class public schooling education (and soon, a university degree or two), a US passport that allows me to travel virtually anywhere with security, and that I am from a middle class, English speaking family. These characteristics and traits can be considered privileges and sources of power because I live within a socio-economic structure that values my whiteness, language, nationality, and education (especially when I was “a woman in STEM” – Science, Technology, Engineering, Math at Cal Poly). My youth in the socioeconomically privileged corridors of Los Angeles and San Francisco was characterized by access to great public schools, vast land reserves for hiking and being connected to my natural environment, well maintained roads and infrastructure, low crime, ample options for healthy food including a farmer’s market and an organic garden in my backyard, and a responsive city government. My father has a graduate degree in law and my mother, while not college educated until later in my life, worked for community environmental non-profits. The comfortable financial security of my parents allowed my sisters and me to grow up relatively insulated from the poverty and inequality that surrounded us in the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.

Although my sisters and I could have remained immune to the homelessness and pollution impacting neighboring communities, my parents encouraged us to engage in community service from a young age. Some of my earliest memories are picking trash out of streams with my dad around LA alongside people wearing orange vests (frequently required community service for parolees). The values of community engagement and service to others, along with my specific geographical-socio-cultural-economic background while growing up, gave me the ability and motivation to seek opportunities to participate in public service. Things that determine who lives where in my community include housing pricing, public housing availability and quality, school zoning and districts, and transportation needs (very limited public transport in LA). While the scorecard.org report shows rampant air and water pollution (including 100% of surface water being contaminated) in Los Angeles county, a lot of these problems were not immediately visible or experienced in my solidly middle class community. While I was able to drink tap water and play in the river that ran through my backyard as a kid, I learned about a company “storing” (dumping) jetfuel in neighboring watersheds, which I knew could impact the rivers my friends and I caught tadpoles in. To get involved in trying to hold the company accountable, I joined the Environmental Commission (funded by the available funds from property tax structures) of City Council where I attended middle and high school as a student liaison.

These factors came together and created a platform for me to pursue a career in public service focused on water policy both domestically and abroad. The considerable luxury of deciding to pursue this path builds on a number of existing privileges. The “merit based” scholarships I have been awarded (Truman, Udall, Marshall) that will allow me to go to excellent graduate programs without debt were not based solely on my intellectual prowess but rather the innumerable privileges that allowed me to pursue academics without having to worry too much about paying my tuition or health care, or maintain a full time job, as many lower-income students do. However, these are things I did not think with great care about until I came to Berkeley and heard phrases like “the politics of representation” and was forced to consider the importance of understanding who gets to speak for whom (and why) for the first time. This aligns well with my understanding of what privilege itself is – the luxury of not having to think about things. Traveling to Bolivia for my Global Poverty minor practice experience made me confront one of the greatest privileges and sources of power I have in regards to a lot of the work I do: that I can leave. One important thing about this power includes knowing that it was not earned on some special merit, but rather was facilitated and kept in place by social structures. Going forward in my career, I will strive to be responsible in my actions, surround myself with people who remind me to open spaces for voices that are often not heard, by people who are often not seen. Coming to recognize that that power is not one directional or dimensional, but rather that everyone has some privileges and lacks others is one of the most important lessons I will take away from my time at Berkeley. Developing my personal ethics while acknowledging the relative insignificance of individual good intentions which are miniscule in comparison to much stronger external forces will keep me balanced as I seek to bring less “sexy” issues within the water, sanitation, and hygiene field into discussion.

My education at Cal has given me a specific lexicon to understand and explain the world. I am able to learn about the ways problems are identified and how to create awareness and dialogue about causes. This informs the way I see the world, and allows me to dig through ideas freely and turn off my instincts to fix, instead pausing to acknowledge and analyze the possibilities and limitations of proposed solutions while becoming sympathetic to the complexities of being a decision maker. I often stop to consider who “the public” is that I hope to serve as a public servant – not just tax paying citizens but children, the undocumented immigrants who make my food and keep it cheap, and the formerly incarcerated, among others. Critically analyzing institutionalized racism, sexism, and objectification through American Cultures Engaged Scholarship (ACES) courses confronts the weight and privilege of being a UC Berkeley student in a way that constructively contests the university by asking who gets access to the space of the university, in what ways, and who is heard and valued on campus. If advancing social justice is the highest ideal of education, then only by considering tensions within the university space, and the campus/community as a whole, can I establish who I am and what I stand for, including the awe, excitement, anxiety, and intimidation of my shared task to improve discourse on campus and make the institution accountable to the public.

meditations.

Without sufficient time to critically meditate on significant moments, beautiful subtleties and rich complexities often go unexamined and are lost.  Recently, occasions to reflect on my past three years as a student at Berkeley have facilitated some slightly more articulate musings than my usual hesitant nod when I am asked if I am graduating this semester. The following are a series of questions posed to some graduating seniors. These prompts inspired provocative conversations with peers, and I thought I would share my responses here.

Major: Society and Environment; Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration on development economics and international water policy; minor in Global Poverty and Practice

Guiding philosophy? Eudaimonia is a Greek word central to Aristotle’s ethics that roughly translates to human flourishing. While significant disagreement about what contributes to human thriving abounds, it can generally be agreed upon that a lack of access to education, political disempowerment, and economic inequality will not lead to meaningful human development. I am guided by the idea of eudaimonia as I apply critical theory to make sense of poverty and structures of power through my academic work and field research.

Lesson learned? Stuart Hall argued that the University is a critical institution, or it is nothing. I believe this prescription sets a clear mandate for who I am as a Berkeley student, and that it can help me envision new possibilities for engaged public scholarship. At Berkeley, I have learned that establishing a meaningful dialectic in classrooms and communities about process and participation, and shifting away from academic conversations in academic journals where success is measured in citations instead of societal benefits, has great potential to leave room for creativity, provide space for critique, and offer hope for change.

Inspiration? I am motivated by the visionary educators and bold students who continuously challenge the way I see complexities and the precise locations of my ignorance; who shift the ground I stand on in my academic fields by destabilizing intellectual tradition; and who convincingly insist, even in light of great global challenges, that we recognize poetic experience and trust that if we create space to describe small things, the world will wait while we fully attend to the encounter with brave prose.

Proudest achievement? Two former students from the Water and Human Rights DeCal course that I co-founded and have facilitated for the past five semesters are teaching with me this semester and are preparing to lead the course themselves. When I see them take ownership of the course material, direct complex discussions with graceful command, and have the tenacity to pursue their own visions of justice, I see my efforts inspiring a legacy of water leaders on campus.

Words of wisdom? Read and listen more than you speak.

Breathtaking moment? Seeing my father ride a bicycle for the first time a year ago after being partially paralyzed for most of my life. Medical science and technology completely rebuilt his wrecked leg and allowed my family to go on hikes and spend time together in nature for the first time.

Turning point? Spending time in the Central Valley with California Rural Legal Assistance investigating nitrate contamination in low income farming communities served as a powerful reminderthat human rights, environmental justice, and water access issues are as serious here as they are abroad.  This experience reinforced my understanding of the importance of balancing domestic and international water policy to comprehensively address inequalities in access and affordability, and refocused my attention to how US foreign policy can better address inequitable water consumption and use globally.

Favorite quote?  “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” – Arundhati Roy

Favorite sound? My dad opening the oven, because it means incredible homemade Italian food is about to be served.

Post-grad plan?  I will spend May through August in Washington, DC with the World Bank’s accountability office and the US Trade Representative for South and Central Asia focusing on women’s economic empowerment programs. In September, I will begin graduate school at the University of Manchester to study Poverty and Development (MSc) and then to Oxford for Water Science, Policy, and Management (MSc). In the long term, I hope to return to Berkeley for my PhD before continuing my path of activist academics and dedicating my life to improving equitable access to safe water and sanitation.

microcosmic desks, berkeley, and pre-graduation reflections.

Colorful renderings of pre-colonial maps, postcards haphazardly pinned to corkboard, and permanent coffee rings on the wood laminate desk surface make my cubicle at the Blum Center for Developing Economies stand out from its grey surroundings. This cubicle serves as a useful space to illustrate facets of my time at Berkeley that may not be adequately articulated elsewhere; it is my autobiography.

A small gold pendant of the UC Berkeley seal hanging from the desk drawer is a reminder that my path to Berkeley began at the turn of the last century when my great grandmother studied here before leaving to marry my great grandfather. My 97 year old grandmother, still testywhen I wear anything “Stanford red,” began her studies in architecture at Berkeley before leaving to take a job at the Lawrence Lab. My mother, born and raised in Berkeley, started her studies here before decamping for a job in the city. Perhaps this is why UC Berkeley felt like it belonged to my predecessors; I never seriously considered it as a place to continue my studies after high school. Growing up in the progressive corridors of Los Angeles, I witnessed the ways that cooperative natural resources management could positively empower people to engage with community decision-making processes through my participation in local stream restoration events and later acting as a student liaison on the Environmental Commission of city council. Collaborating with my community over water resources management resonated with me on a personal level and I planned to dedicate my career to restore waterways as an environmental scientist. However, during my second year of college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I went to Guatemala to develop water treatment projects with a rural community as part of an Appropriate Technology course. While I saw the improved health outcomes that clean drinking water could deliver, through conversations with community members I also learned that scientific approaches alone would not be enough to comprehensively address the complex social and political barriers faced by the two billion people without access to safe water and sanitation. I applied to transfer to UC Berkeley to seek an education that would better prepare me to confront the lingering questions I encountered while in Guatemala, including how I might acquire the interdisciplinary skills to effectbroader social change.

Sitting upright alongside Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and Chomsky’s Power Systems, a copy of my reader from Professor Ananya Roy’s class on poverty and inequality theory is a memento of the course that first encouraged me to learn from dialogue with people living in poverty just as I would be expected to learn from class lectures and textbooks. It was in Global Poverty and Practice 115 that I came to process the feeling of being caught between the hubris of benevolence and the paralysis of cynicism. During my first semester at Berkeley, my approach to water issues evolved to a broader interdisciplinary perspective rooted in environmental social sciences and critical development theory, which enabled me to understand the ways that access to and control of water resources is inherently politicized while making sense of my own privilege, experiences, and aspirations through the Global Poverty minor.I became passionate about global water policy as way to build management norms for a resource essential to sustaining life and building healthy economies.

A colorful poster for an upcoming Berkeley Water Group meeting adorns the back cubicle wall. My first semester at Berkeley, I was disappointed to find that there were few opportunities for undergraduates to collaborate on water issues. I worked diligently to revive this discussion group by applying for funding, organizing weekly meetings, and uniting the minds of undergraduates, graduate students, professors, practitioners, and community members. Leading the Berkeley Water Group and transforming it into a respected think tank for research and activism on campus is a legacy of opportunity for other Cal students going forward. Through my fieldwork, research, and advocacy with the Berkeley Water Group, I am constantly reminded that meaningful transnational change must begin with respect for local conditions in order to simultaneously redress poverty and inequity through both policy and direct action. In the Group, I learned that stakeholders in water issues are often unified by an understanding that we are working toward common goals of equitable access to natural resources, reduced water borne illness, and achieving social justice.

Peeking out from the top of the desk drawer is a draft of the Fall 2014 syllabus for the Water and International Human Rights DeCal course that I started and have facilitated for the past five semesters, educating over 120 students.  Although a significant amount of my work has been focused internationally, I also love sharing my experiences and engaging other students close to home while learning from them in exchange. Now that I am passing on leadership totwo former students to continue the course once I graduate, I recall how my peers at Berkeley inspire me every day with their creative brilliance, thoughtful innovations, and deep compassion. The meaningful friendships cultivated over long nights pouring over obscure human rights documents in Doe Library or having lively conversations by the fire place at Free House connect to my roots at Berkeley, which instilled in me a deep sense of history and appreciation for my academic and personal experiences here.

On the bookshelf, Pachamama, the goddess of good harvest in the Andes, stands at attention in the form of a small statuette from my first water projects in Bolivia.As a transfer student to Berkeley, I was delighted to learn that “undergraduate research” was not a contradictionbut in fact something eagerly supported. My partnership with the Foundation for Sustainable Development, supported by the Institute for International Studies Scholarship and the Blum Poverty Fellowship, to improve water availability in twelve rural schools in Cochabamba, Bolivia from May to August 2012 prompted me to return over summer 2013 to begin a year long collaborative water access and gender equality project focused on improving girl’s school attendance. With a BigIdeas grant, Strauss Scholarship, and Human Rights Fellowship supporting the project, I hoped that my usual patient tenacity would be sufficient to overcome the immense doubts I felt about my presence in a setting where I had little accountability to the communities I hoped to serve. As indigenous Australian visual artist Lilla Watson expressed, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time.But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” My fieldwork demands engagement with contradiction and discomfort; such applied scholarship is crucial to keep me embedded in the interactions that constitute meaningful relationships, improved health, and community building and inform the abstract academic theories behind the water security policy making processes that I hope to be a part of in the future. However, I remain self-reflective and critical about my privileged position as an advocate, academic, and public service leader. This has allowed me to embrace the sense of humor necessary to grow as an academic-activist, and take every obstacle as an opportunity to learn.

A framed image of a drawing of the Campanile by a local Berkeley artist sits juxtaposed with a small piece of hand woven cloth from a women’s textile cooperative in Colombia.The multiple worlds and identities that I occupy – Cal student, activist, academic, live jazz music devotee, craft beer connoisseur – fall somewhere between the neoclassical, rigid logic of the bell tower and the cultural memory of the worn fabric. In Marx’s critique of Feuerbach, he writes that thus far, “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” While Berkeley has taught me the importance of theory, I have also learned that I do not want to be an arm-chair academic or a weekend activist; as a Berkeley student, I believe that the mandate of my public education is to engage in the broader global community and share my work.Working with local schools, government, and non-profits in Mexico and Bolivia to address the barriers that a lack of water access and high poverty create for girls’ health and education taught me that creative partnerships and an ability to listen are required to overcomehierarchies in development practice. Whether I am discussing water rights with migrant farm workers over coffee in a dusty gas station in Salinas, or tripping over my words while practicing Quechua, an indigenous language spoken in the Andes, or debating the impacts of US trade policy in Mexico with Zapatistas in rural Chiapas, it is humbling to be reminded that even with a degree from Berkeley, I will still be forced to constantly re-examine the basic assumptions behind my work.

Crests from both the University of Oxford and Manchester that adorn a torn out page from my day planner are relics of inspiration needed to push through the arduous Marshall Scholarship application and remind me of the challenges ahead as a graduate student. They also serve as reminders of the long hours spent in a dimly lit internet café in rural Bolivia, writing drafts of an application I had very little optimism for and the interview during which I was so flustered I spilled tea on my white blouse. Although I have a sense of what the next two years hold for me in graduate school, I know that I cannot contribute to making positive change without strong allies and I must seek leadership at the institutional level to engage meaningfully with the underlying problems of poverty, climate change, and political instability that drive water insecurity. After completing my graduate studies in England, I hope to return to Berkeley for a PhD before seeking to shape United States foreign policy related to issues of water access. I will apply the critical academic background I found at Berkeleyin environmental social sciences to contribute to policies that improve sustainable access to safe water. I aspire to address inequitable water consumption practices in tandem with supporting the improvement of strong civil societies able to hold their government representatives accountable to the social, economic, and cultural demands of water. By designing policies that empower governments to fulfill their obligation to provide water to their people, I hope to make access to and control of water resources a more inclusive, transparent, and equitable process.

My desk space is an unexpected microcosm for the sense of wonder I experience in the world that I inhabit in Berkeley as a Cal student. It also often forces me to consider who “the public” is that I hope to serve as a future public servant and product of the world’s finest public university. My education at UC Berkeley teaches me a specific lexicon to understand and explain the world; as a student, I learn about the ways problems are identified and how to create awareness and dialogue about solutions. By integrating legal, economic, political, and scientific dimensions, the rigor of my course of study at Berkeley allowed me to exceed the traditional physical systems approach to water security that predominates at other institutions, demonstrating that water is a field worthy of academic thought to ensure future peace, health, and international stability. If advancing social justice is the highest ideal of a university education, then only by considering the tensions between seeing Berkeley as it is and what it could be, can I establish who I am and what I stand for, including the awe, excitement, anxiety, and intimidation of being a Berkeley graduate. Being a student at Berkeley has beenthe best preparation for my life’s work in water security and poverty action, both at home and abroad. My pursuit of integrity, diplomacy, and insight in my academic research and career path reflects the zeitgeist at Berkeley: a collaborative and forward-thinking approach to engaged scholarship and global problem solving. Recognizing the profound, yet not insurmountable, gulf between myself and those I hope to serve has solidified my commitment to dedicate my post-Berkeley life to working at the intersection of public service, water security, and poverty action.

kale and marx.

Food gentrification, a phenomenon identified by writer Mikki Kendall of The Guardian and Hood Feminism, entails the mainstreaming of certain foods along with the consequential rise in prices. Such trends abound, the gold standard of which is organic food, for which the “overall retail price of organic food consistently outpaces conventional food” (Bitch Magazine, The Cost of Kale). Food gentrification trends are a result of material conditions of existence for people whose wages have not kept up with inflation and may be relying on food stamps to supplement their income to cover the cost of basic food.  For example, in 2011 kale was sold in 4,700 stores nationwide; now it is sold in 50,700 and during those three years, the cost of kale increased 25% from $.88 a bunch to $1.10 (USDA cited in visual from Bitch Magazine, The Cost of Kale). In Marx’s terms this could be expressed that the quantitative exchange value of kale – the value of a commodity expressed in terms of other commodities- has increased, although the qualitative use-value has not. Foodie trends, primarily catered to by upper-middle income white people, represents a “setting-aside of food as social capital” which becomes normalized “within the aspirational framework of late capitalism” in a way that celebrates the “product over the worker” (Bitch Magazine, The Cost of Kale) and effectively prices out low-income families and individuals.

kale

However, this is not just about kale; rather, the issue is that the weekly cost of feeding a family of four has increased from $123.10 in 2007 to $145.20 in 2012, while the weekly income for all US workers has stayed nearly flat (USDA Family Food Plan, from Bitch Magazine, The Cost of Kale). However, this 18% increase over five years to feed a family does not take into account differences in food availability or quality between socio-economic classes, or that basic staples like eggs, flour, and milk have the “largest disparity in price between organic and non-organic varieties,” making organic foods “practically inaccessible to families who receive SNAP benefits” (Bitch Magazine, The Cost of Kale). The resultant reproduction of class difference benefits from a Marxist analysis. According to Marx, class position is determined by the role within the production process and relationship to the means of production. Additionally, he writes that capital is “not a persona, it is a social power” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, 485). The consolidation of power by food corporations, capitalist (bourgeois) producers, and wealthy consumers continually reinforces these foodie trends. Marx argues that “political power… is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, 490), which is certainly evident in the mass lobbying power of large agriculture and food corporations to dominate the industry. The social relations of class produced by the division of labor that allow farming corporations, land owners, and food producers to occupy such positions of power while marginalizing disadvantaged consumers relies on capitalist patterns of social differentiation and private property.

wages

Although many analyses of food and agriculture focus on the production side, as does Marx when critiquing capitalist trends in agriculture, this article instead focuses on consumer trends. However, Marx’s terms still serve to analyze these contemporary phenomena. A recurring theme across many of Marx’s writings is that of the division between rural and urban areas through “the dispersion of the rural labourers over larger areas” which “breaks their power of resistance while concentration increases that of the town operatives” (Capital, 416). Urbanization “disturbs the circulation of matter between man and soil” by preventing the “return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food…” and consequently contributes to the destruction of the “health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer” (Capital, 416). How prescient that Marx specifically references the US when he writes that “the more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry… the more rapid is this process of destruction” (Capital, 417). Larger structural concerns about the consolidation of food producers in the US by large corporations like Cargill (as discussed in class), illustrate well Marx’s point that the “continual tendency and law of development of the capitalist mode of production is… to concentrate the scattered means of production into large groups” in order to transform “labour into wage-labour and the means of production into capital” (Capital, Volume 3, 441). The surplus value created by increasing the average price of kale (without also increasing the inputs including fertilizer and seed) creates the source of wealth for the growers and landowners. The class differentiations between those who produce the kale and those who can afford to buy it are reproduced as the people in the supply and consumption chain – those who pick, package, transport, and sell the kale (unless done direct farm to table) – are unable to purchase the goods they produce.

The emergence of capitalist modes of production contributes to the shift in agriculture toward a “branch of industry” that is “entirely dominated by capital” (The Grundisse, 242). Because capitalists can increase profits through extending the working day (creating absolute surplus value) and/or introducing mechanization and technology to reduce the amount of necessary labor time (relative surplus value), the “transformation of production under the sway of capital, means… the martyrdom of the producer; the instrument of labour becomes the means of enslaving, exploiting, and impoverishing the labourer” (Capital, 416), the result of which is the bourgeois class controlling both agriculture and industry. The combined displacement of agricultural workers to industry and ongoing marginalization of farmworkers is a result of this shift. However, the class antagonisms resulting from this shift are also present in consumption patterns and the reproduction of class differences. The ability of socio-economically privileged classes to buy trendy foods and the relative inability of the majority of laborers who are part of the production of the food (including farm workers, grocery store workers, cooks and servers in restaurants, packaging workers) to purchase foods reveals that food gentrification is clearly a symptom “of something much, much bigger” (Bitch Magazine, The Cost of Kale).

organic_food

So, what can we do? The critiques of agricultural production and consumption presented in this article reflect the need for social movements to reject the “existing social and political order of things” (Communist Manifesto, 500). While not quite the revolution Marx may have had in mind, local food movements are currently seeking to challenge the specter of “big agriculture” in favor of ecologically sustainable and socially responsible farming and advocate for small, chemical free, diverse, and collectively owned farms that can distribute healthy food locally and affordably. Marx’s critique of capitalist political economy for the shift to mechanization and privatization was prescient given that agriculture remains branch of industry dominated by capital today, and is a useful framework to analyze food trends in the United States. Buy and eat local. Know your farmer. Support projects like the Richmond Greenway (http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=1118) and organizations like Green Tilth (http://www.urbantilth.org/gardens/) that transform dilapidated urban areas into thriving, productive green spaces and promote community gardens.

Check out : The Cost of Kale: How Foodie Trends Can Hurt Low-Income Families | 12 March 2014  http://bitchmagazine.org/post/the-cost-of-kale-how-foodie-trends-can-hurt-low-income-families

Cited: The Marx-Engles Reader, Robert C. Tucker http://www.amazon.com/The-Marx-Engels-Reader-Second-Edition/dp/039309040X

hunger, part 2.

Walking into Trader Joes, a scruffy guy sitting out front caught my eye. He looked about my age, although possibly much younger; exposure to the elements wears the face. His bright eyes, framed with wandering crinkles, reminded me of a friend from childhood. A wilted cardboard sign in his worn hands, a message scrawled in thick black pen read: “looking for random acts of kindness.”

Entering into the air conditioned store, I felt the existence of an invisible barrier through which I could pass, for which my privilege was my passport. As I picked up a shopping basket, I reflected on my backpacking days and running out of money in France and depending on the kindness of strangers to feed me. I’ll pay it forward.

I stared at the endless wall of enticing salad and sandwich options. Oh crap, I thought, what if he’s vegetarian? Or gluten intolerant? Chickenless chicken salad with vegetables. Why didn’t I just start a conversation with him? Some pre-sliced melon glistening in the florescent light. Fruit leathers. Those travel well and keep for a long time. Bag of almonds, the same. I should have asked him what he wanted. Some vegan chocolate chip cookies. I’ll talk with him when I give him the food. A bottle of cold orange juice. Should I get him a toothbrush and soap, or does that seem judgmental?

In the checkout line, I bagged my items in my green tie dyed backpack and separated the items intended for my Act of Kindness into a paper bag. The cashier caught my eye and gave an inquisitive look. I explained. Its for the guy out front. He gave an empathetic nod. You have a good heart. 

I paid for my items and the Nice Things. Berkeley students often get jaded and cynical about the fixture of homelessness. I tried giving a homeless person my leftovers once and they didn’t want them. Beggars can’t be choosers they say. I disagree. I think the problem with such a view on poverty and homelessness is that it responsibilizes individuals and removes the structural context of long standing inequalities, housing access issues, and societal pressures to own property, contributing to deep seated stigmas against people who are homeless. Such responsibilization often identifies the problem of homelessness as the individual instead of the ability of a society to care for its most vulnerable people, leading to the removal of public bathrooms, drinking water fountains, food pantries, and affordable health care services. The same people who remove these services then blame the homeless for their dirty appearance, posing public health risks, and begging.

However, doing this Act of Kindness was not intended as a big political decision; it was one human giving another some food. I walked out the automatic doors into the warm Berkeley sunshine, paper bag in hand.

He was gone.

Haiti.

Haiti. The word alone conjures up, at least for me, disaster, destitution, and failed development initiatives. Although the colonial history of Haiti made an appearance in a number of my classes, I had not deeply engaged in more recent development interventions in the country.

Until today, when I spoke on a panel responding to an Inter-American Development Bank documentary (“Water Everlasting?”) about the role of the Bank in financing water systems. The panel consisted of myself, a post-doctoral researcher at the Blum Center, two IDB representatives (one French, one Spanish) who have lived and worked in Haiti for the past 3 years, and a PhD student at Berkeley who acted as our moderator.

The film itself “reads” like PR for IDB, and understandably so. IDB is the largest single source of financing for Latin America and the Caribbean development projects including infrastructure, education, and various poverty alleviation efforts. IDB has, in my opinion, done plenty of pretty good work.

But when it comes to the water sector in Haiti, we had some differences of opinion. IDB’s fundamental approach to water service provision is one of cost-recovery. My critique of this problem diagnosis as one of non-payment, is that the solution is to cut off the connection, often leading to illegal, clandestine connections or collecting water from dangerous, contaminated sources. A human rights, or just humanist, framework that instead asserts the problem as one of humans without access to safe, reliable, and affordable water would never try to solve the problem by cutting off access which breeds risky behavior, and would instead put forth a collaborative, participatory way to determine fair pricing mechanisms.

Haiti’s population is roughly split between urban (52%) and rural (48%), yet disparities in drinking water access and sanitation are stark; urban areas boast 78% connectivity for water and 34% for sanitation, while rural areas lag with 49% drinking water and 17% sanitation. Compare this to neighboring Dominican Republic which has a similar rural/urban distribution but close to 86% coverage with no statistical differentiation between rural and urban areas. Now, numbers and data are easily manipulable and indicators for water connectivity and adequacy of sanitation are poor – but this is absurd.

Along the lines of distribution in the water sector, as the only woman on this panel and budding feminist scholar, I believe that the water sector is not just about client and provider, or consumer and producer, but rather the entire network of actors involved in the hydro-social cycle. The technical actors (financiers, economists, and engineers) and political (politicians, policy makers, and institutions) in the water sector are traditionally male dominated, and therefore decision making power and knowledge production is also male dominated. Women, although comprising half the population, are disproportionately socially impacted by the outcomes of water and sanitation availability (or lack thereof). The “rendering technical” of water issues obscures gendered dynamics and reproduced technical fixes for political problems.

I certainly do not have the answers for what is “wrong” in Haiti’s water sector. But I do have a sense that asking people who earn less than $1USD per day to pay for their water may be counterproductive and harmful in the long run. More later.

Salinas.

The slow poisoning of thousands of Californians in the Central Valley got me to write after months of hibernation. Since recently returning from a site visit with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) in the Salinas Valley, I found a new energy to share a severe social and environmental injustice occurring in my own backyard.

salinas-map

We, four members of my Engineering 157AC Environment, Engineering, and Society course at UC Berkeley, started the day by picking a rental car and heading down to Salinas to meet with a representative of CRLA. Salinas Valley is nestled within Monterey County and is part of the lifeblood of California agriculture. Over one third of the vegetables in the United States and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts were produced in California, and our agriculture leads the country in total production. After Alco, a “shady water company” in the Valley  (http://www.montereycountyweekly.com/news/local_news/article_a7effd8e-c952-5da4-bcd6-bb95a118acad.html), was found guilty of doctoring its water quality results and concealing the nitrate contamination, the water connections were handed off to the public utility. Many people currently access their drinking water from private wells or small, largely unregulated small utilities. Nitrate, a colorless and odorless substance, is often a by-product fertilizer used in farming. Human health impacts of nitrate contamination include methemoglobinemia, also called blue baby syndrome, which causes a loss of oxygen in the blood stream and can lead to asphyxiation. Headaches, dizziness, weakness, and difficulty breathing are also common effects when nitrate contaminated water is consumed.

1690645_10151918630406761_474237403_n

Contaminated water in California threatens the lives and well-being of hundreds of thousands of people. While we should have great confidence in our well-regulated and managed tap water in most of the Bay Area, nitrate contamination is a serious issue that will not be solved by engineering along. As demonstrated today, 300 feet of pipe to connect the small wells to larger systems would solve the problem; this reveals that this is not an engineering solution, but a political problem. A technical fix will not do, and political will needs to be mobilized to make these issues visible to the public. When private farming corporations produce public health risks and then leave it to public tax dollars to fund the clean up, a predictable pattern of privatizing profit and distributing risk and cost follows.

cb308f98a74011e385020e36ca40396c_6

Further reading:

Governor’s Drinking Water Stakeholder Group: http://aesm.assembly.ca.gov/drinkingwater

NY Times Article, “The Problem is Clear, the Water is Filthy” November 2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/us/tainted-water-in-california-farmworker-communities.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Community Water Center: http://communitywatercenter.org/a-central-valley-farming-town-copes-with-toxic-tap-water/

1969338_10151918171166761_1002308523_n

Previous Older Entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,308 other followers