Saturday, November 22, 2014

Badass people I know [and what they're up to]: Carolyn Rodgers

This week in "Badass People I Know [And What They're Up To]":
Carolyn Natalie Rodgers!

Carolyn and I met during AmeriCorps training in 2010, and have been long-distance friends ever since. She recently finished a two-year PeaceCorps term teaching English in Armenia, where I visited her last fall.

In this interview, Carolyn and I discuss the important things in life, like globalization, bathtime, and why it’s important to maintain a strong Long Island accent.

Shtetl Chic: Hi Carolyn! How are you? Have you done anything nice for yourself today?

Carolyn: Hey lady! I'm doing alright, pretty pumped to see you in the flesh soon. I started my morning by reading a new book - "We Are Not Ourselves" - in my parents' hot tub, so I feel positively about that.

Shtetl Chic: I never understood how people read in a bathtub. Don't the pages get all wet?

Carolyn: You definitely have to be careful. As long as you keep your hands dry, you're all set.

Shtetl Chic: Oh. Well, okay. I've been looking forward to your visit to New Orleans. I've been telling all my friends about you, and how we know each other.

I remember meeting you because we were at that AmeriCorps training conference and it was super fucking bogus, like "Cultural competency in a community that doesn't really want you there, or didn't ask you to be there, and you're probably taking jobs from the people who live there, and here's a PowerPoint on that!"

And I remember we were at lunch or something - this was in Seattle, so everyone was from California and Alaska and places like that, so I'm thinking, Why am I here? - and I hear this really brash Long Island accent from across the room, and I was like, "I need to find that person, because everything here is awful except for that person…Who is she?" And then we just hung out.

Carolyn: [Laughs] No, dude, this is what happened: You may have heard my accent, but I remember being across the room from you, and I was trying to be polite, which is fucking painful for me -

Shtetl Chic: Like with icebreakers…

Carolyn: Yeah, I think it's the worst thing ever.

Shtetl Chic: That AmeriCorps job has ruined high-fives for me. I can’t give them. I have trauma.

Carolyn: Yeah. So anyways [at AmeriCorps training], I’m like, "Oh yeah, I’m from New York." Because someone had decided to approach The Sullen Girl Against The Wall, you know? And they’re like, "That girl’s from New York too, over there." And I’m like, "Oh really? I’m gonna go over there." I actually remember sitting down next to you, and I was like, "So I’m from New York, and I heard you’re from New York, and I figured we could probably be friends."

Shtetl Chic: [Laughs] Yeah, and I was like, "Well, I don’t see why not." Anyway, I'm really excited to see you soon. Have you been cooking Armenian food since you've been home? Are you going to cook me Armenian food?

Carolyn: I'm so excited to see you too! I don't know if I'll be cooking you any Armenian dishes, though.

Shtetl Chic: Aren't you a tomato/eggplant master by now? Don't lie. 

Carolyn: I am! I am! But [since I've been back] I haven't really made any [Armenian] dishes per se, but some side vegetables here and there. The way I prepare food has been forever changed though. We didn't have large kitchen knives, and instead used the hilariously named "Fuxwell's," which were these palm-sized, extremely sharp and serrated ones. I miss those guys, because as a short person with small hands, I'm much more efficient with them. Also, I almost never use a cutting board anymore.

Shtetl Chic: Do you throw food in the air and hack at it? I used to play machete-ball with my friends that way, using rotted cantaloupe.

Carolyn: No, I'm mostly holding the fruit or vegetable in one hand, palm-sized knife in the other.

Shtetl Chic: Oh.

Carolyn in Sevan, Armenia, 2013

As part of her PeaceCorps term, Carolyn organized a national poetry recitation contest for young students.

Carolyn: [This year's] contest went swimmingly! It was easily my proudest moment in service, as well as the most successful. All the planning came together seamlessly, and it was an enjoyable event for not only the children but everyone involved, including me.

The U.S. ambassador to Armenia came. And this guy’s a ham! At the time, those viral videos of Pharrell's "Happy" song were coming out, with different cities doing it. There’s “New York Happy,” “New Orleans Happy”…So the embassy did a "Happy Yerevan" [for the Armenian capital city].

Shtetl Chic: Are you serious?

Carolyn: Yeah the ambassador's in it two, three different times. He came to our conference, and requested that he be introduced via his music video, "Happy Yerevan."

Shtetl Chic: Wow.

Carolyn: Yeah. But back to the poetry contest, which was a really great opportunity to spend unstructured learning time with my students. It allowed us to have a less formal relationship.

Working with the girls was particularly special for me because I was able to connect with them in a way I had not previously. They felt safe to be their goofy 14-year-old selves, and I could be myself. It was a source of hope to see them push themselves past their own expectations.

Last year, one of the girls was too nervous to say her poem. She practiced and she prepared, and she got to town and she never said it. This year she said her poem, and I was so happy. I was really proud of her. It was a huge moment. I'm still in touch with those girls, and that's a great reward for me.

Shtetl Chic: As an educator, what would you say is the advantage to introducing English - literary English - to Armenian children?

Carolyn: We open the door to the contest at seventh form, which is the year that many kids really begin to slack off. That’s when you can see a great difference between a seventh grader and a sixth grader. A lot of the value is in the contest itself. The result is that the students are encouraged and they can like their poem, and like English. I think that it’s a really smart thing to get them at that age where they’re on the cusp of giving a shit or not.

Shtetl Chic: I remember being in your village and all these little kids popping up out of nowhere and being like, "Hello Miss Carolyn! English!" Or they’d be like, "How are you?" and you’d be like, "I’m fine, thank you," and then they’d run away. And you’d say, "I taught them!" And that was cool because they wanted to show off to you, even though they were too shy to have a conversation.

Carolyn: Ha, yeah.

She got my mail!

Shtetl Chic: What would you say is the difference between the Carolyn who started PeaceCorps, and the Carolyn who finished PeaceCorps?

Carolyn: Oh, Lawd. Carolyn who started was not as confident or certain of herself. I've learned to trust my gut in a real way. Another big change is my acceptance of other folks, but I feel that comes hand-in-hand with acceptance of self. There are so many gifts that I've been given through this experience.

Shtetl Chic: Yeah for sure! What do you mean by acceptance of other folks - like, culturally? Linguistically?

Carolyn: Both, and then some. For example, many English-speaking Americans have a very "Learn my language!" attitude; that wouldn't have been helpful in my role as a teacher in Armenia. During interactions with others, I try to see things more compassionately, because ultimately we all need kindness and patience.

Shtetl Chic: Still doing yoga? 

Carolyn: Yes. Yoga has been a gift to me, and it has helped. It’s totally been a part of my healing process. I feel very like myself, in the purest sense of the word. It centers me, it’s important to me, and I want to elevate my practice. I'm pretty excited to experience the yoga community near you.

Shtetl Chic: Yeah, I don't know much about it. I used to be into yoga classes, like daily. Now it makes me feel bored. I think you really have to be in the right mindset for it, or have a practice/instructor that matches what you need.

Carolyn: We can practice together if you like! We'll get real fucking connected.

Shtetl Chic: What else would you recommend for the angsty 20-something white female to do about feeling out-of-sorts with the world?

Carolyn: Wow, that's difficult especially since I essentially am one. Not nearly at the level that I used to experience, but angsty nonetheless. My suggestion to young females is that they get out of their comfort zone. Do not be content with discontent. Figure out what in fact you are not okay with, realize it's okay to not be okay, then take the necessary steps to put change in motion. Do not stop searching for your place in this world.

I have the pleasure of knowing many people working through their shit and finding their path. I have the great honor of sharing hopes and fears with people like yourself, who gave me permission to be exactly who I was.

Shtetl Chic: I like that part about not being content with discontent. While acceptance is good in general, it can stymie real growth. Do you think everyone has a specific place in the world to make a contribution, or is that a more fluid concept of feeling good in your life?

Carolyn: I see life as this awesome experience and opportunity to seek happiness and fulfillment. A lot of people are completely numb, sleep-walking through life. It's the greatest tragedy of all.

If you do not like where you are - spiritually, physically, or emotionally - the expectation that one day it'll simply be better, with no effort on your part, is most likely not going to get you out of that stagnant place. Oftentimes your location and the people that surround you are obstacles to a peaceful life.

Shtetl Chic: Yeah. Maybe that sleepiness is a defense mechanism, 'cause you know the world is hard.

Carolyn: Sure is, kid.

During her return to the United States, Carolyn managed to import a pet cat she cared for in Armenia.

Carolyn: Francis Scott [Cat] is a majestic prince. I can't imagine having left him. His presence in my second year of service was a great source of comfort.

Shtetl Chic: Did he need a special visa?

Carolyn: He had a kitty passport that was handwritten in Russian, as well as an Armenian government-certified document confirming his vaccinations. All I'll say is that it's incredibly easy to bring domestic animals from Armenia into New York... maybe easier than it should be.

Shtetl Chic: I love you desperately. Don’t ever change, unless it’s for the better.

Carolyn: Alright.

Come meet Carolyn when she visits me in New Orleans for Thanksgiving!

Thank you, Carolyn, for who you are and all that you do!

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Another collaborative anti-oppression / anti-bullshit voting guide, for New Orleans' runoff elections, December 6th!

Oh, you thought you voted enough this year?

Well, you got another chance coming up, friend!

On December 6th (or November 22nd-29th if you're time-management savvy / disenfranchised like that), you can vote on a whole new crop of candidates who ran for election just a few weeks ago! Also, a "school mill" thing.

Here's our take:

U.S. Senate

"Bill" Cassidy - Republican
Mary Landrieu - Democrat

Like we said before, both of these people are totally unacceptable representatives. They have deep ties to the oil and gas industries, which translates to a total lack of accountability to Louisiana's fragile ecosystems and the economies that rely on their sustenance. Landrieu recently exhausted herself  - unsuccessfully, thank Jesus - trying to get the Senate to pass the Keystone Pipeline. One's got a good record on things like reproductive rights and other social issues (that would be Mary), and the other (this would be Bill Cassidy), well, the best thing about him is that the Tea Party doesn't think he's conservative enough. Honestly, voting for the "lesser of two evils" is kinda a hard choice here. Vote or not.

Public Service Commission

Eric Skrmetta - Republican
Forest Bradley Wright - Republican

Skrmetta. Say it out loud. Skrrrrrmetta. Grrrrr. He's the current Commissioner, and served four years on the Natural Gas Committee and two years on the Electricity Committee. He's also a card-carrying lifetime member of the NRA and the Safari Club (Safari Club?). He has a few thoughts to share with the people of Louisiana:

  • One of his main goals is "giving companies the opportunity to be profitable";
  • Renewable energy resources (such as energy efficiency, solar and wind) "have failed" and "are unworkable in Louisiana";
  • "The free market usually handles the consumer wants." AAAAHHHHHHHHH TAKE IT BACK
This guy...We don't like him.

On the other hand, Forest Wright is a board member of Louisiana Green Corp, which provides construction job skills training for youth in our city. Wright says, "it is through engaged civic associations that the public can ensure the accountability essential to good governance," meaning he might provide more transparent leadership than Skrmetta. He's a supporter of solar energy investment, and thinks "the most important thing with natural gas pipelines is public safety." We kinda like this guy! Also, for some reason this commission is in charge of setting prices for towing cars in the city. Forest Wright wants to implement payment plans to help low-income folks pay for getting their cars back from the pound. Okay! Also, listen to this interview with the candidate himself. Vote for Forest Wright.

Domestic Judge, Division 2

Janet Ahern
Monique Barial

Janet Ahern has been working in family law for a long time. She says she'll make interpreter access a priority in her courtroom, for the non-English speakers among us. That's good.

But...we already said we like Monique Barial. She wants to set up systems that make it easier for low-income folks to get lawyers and pursue mediation for their disputes. She's hip to the fact that some people are scared to come to court, especially when they are confronting an abuser. Vote for Monique Barial.

Judge Juvenile Court, Section E

Ernest "Freddie" Charbonnet
Desiree Cook-Calvin

Notttt really impressed with either. They both have insinuated that parents and teachers are to blame for juvenile criminality. Neither disputes that incarceration is a good idea for youth.

Charbonnet points to his five-month interim stint on City Council as evidence of his civic experience; he's also run unsuccessfully for several judgeships (including Traffic Court). We couldn't really find much information on this guy, but he says reasonable - if not patently obvious - things like, “The children that come in contact with the juvenile justice system here are not necessarily leaving better off than when they first came in.” He's also interested in a fiscal makeover of the court, which could be wonderful or terrible, depending.

Cook-Calvin says "the sorts of programs we need include educational, job training, job placement, mental health counseling, drug counseling, and other family support programs for both the young person and the family. We need to look at all the factors involved in a case and address the case holistically, and we need programs that keep children and families from coming back to court." Sounds better. Vote for Cook-Calvin, we guess?

Shall the Orleans Parish School Board (the "School Board") levy a tax of four and ninety-seven hundredths (4.97) mills on the dollar of the assessed valuation of property within the City of New Orleans assessed for City Taxation, (an estimated $15,540,000 reasonably expected at this time to be collected from the levy of the tax for an entire year), for a period of ten (10) years, beginning in 2015, for the purpose of preservation, improvement and capital repairs of all existing public school facilities, to be levied and collected in the same manner as is set forth in Article VIII, Section 13(C)(Second) of the Louisiana Constitution of 1974; provided that said tax is to be levied each calendar year at a millage rate not in excess of the difference between 4.97 mills and any millage levied in such calendar year for any outstanding general obligation bonds of the School Board?

This would basically allot extra tax money for the long-term physical maintenance - think roofs, HVAC repair, etc. - of some schools in Orleans Parish.

You wish that we would just say, "Vote FOR this proposition," and leave it at that, because it is true that our schools need to be taken care of.

But we just can't leave it at that. We need to give you the dirty-on-the-dirty on what our well-meaning votes will do. Here it is:

Three of the seven Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) members voted AGAINST sending this millage to vote. Why? Tensions having to do with the Recovery School District (RSD).

RSD is one of the nastiest examples of opportunism following Katrina from which New Orleans became the nation's testing dish for widespread privatization of public education. Basically the state (as RSD) took over all the Orleans public schools following Katrina, and sold a lot of them to charter agencies to "fix" or "improve." RSD is controversially playing a long-term governance role, without being administered locally or by elected officials. 

Schools newly eligible to return to the control of the OPSB have been choosing to stick with RSD (via charter agencies) instead, which means the spending of this millage - aka taxpayers' money - would increasingly be under the control of the non-elected, non-local representatives at RSD.

We definitely don't want to create an opportunity for school budget looting. The Times-Picayune and the Urban League are for this millage. I guess we are too. Vote FOR this proposition. But then we read this article that explains that if this proposition passes, "the non-elected RSD would receive 90% of the funding ($13,986,000) of property tax revenue" without any requirement for transparency or accountability as to how the funds are disbursed.

Furthermore, RSD doesn't actually provide oversight for any OPSB schools anymore: "RSD has relinquished oversight of all schools in Orleans Parish schools that were once under its auspices to independent charter organizations, and does not educate children in Orleans Parish."

We just cannot be down with this foolishness. Don't let deceptive politics pirate our schools - Vote NO on this proposition.

Where to donate money in New Orleans

Hey you! Over there, with the disposable income!

Feeling generous? Feeling guilty? Want the tax write-off?

Just in time for this holiday season, here's a list of places to give money in New Orleans where your dollars are going to be put to actual work, and not just to pay bureaucrats with nonprofit management degrees. Instead of buying your sister some crap at Bed Bath & Beyond for Christmas, make a donation in her name to one of these fine organizations. We got a lot of good shit going on here!

In no particular order, with an emphasis on groups that address health, education, advocacy, housing, immigration, youth, food justice, etc.:

Trystereo / New Orleans Harm Reduction Network
Provides health supplies, wellness education, wound-care consultations, toiletries, and clothing to drug-users in southeastern Louisiana. Facilitates workshops on safer drug-use, first aid practices, and overdose prevention. Self-funded (no overhead!). Also working on a 12-Step Alternative support group for people who feel kinda judged or unwelcome at AA/NA/etc meetings.

Apex Youth Center
Originally run by a couple out of their living room, this organization does an awesome job of providing free afterschool care for youth in the city. Kids get snacks, clothes, tutoring, whatever. The older kids are the "mentors." The center is often open to the neighborhood for barbecues and other parties. The founders even negotiated with the police to extend the nighttime youth curfew to kids leaving the Center late at night.

Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools / The Rethinkers
A participatory education group of New Orleans students who reject the school-to-prison pipeline, and the teach-to-the-test pedagogical approach. Instead, they work to make their schools supportive environments for learning and leadership development.

Cornerstone Builders
Free buses to prisons around Louisiana. Help a mama visit her son while he's locked up!

Books 2 Prisoners
Sends free books to people in the South's jails and prisons.

Voice of the Ex-Offender
Helps formerly incarcerated individuals re-acclimate to society. Provides legal resources, financial management education, and leadership development opportunities. Promotes community education and collaboration around voting rights and interaction with law enforcement.

Resurrection After Exoneration
Say you spent a lot of time in prison for a crime you didn't commit. Then you get released, but you have nowhere to go. This organization will let you live in their house for free! They'll also hook you up with clothing, legal resources, and whatever else you might need.

Common Ground Health Clinic
"Solidarity, not Charity" is the motto of this Algiers community-based clinic that focuses care on low-income residents of New Orleans. They also publish and distribute a free (and extremely useful) guide to mental and physical health resources in the GNO area.

Survivors Village
Stands up for people whose housing was seized after Katrina for "abandonment," "blight," or other political reasons, when really they just didn't have enough money to come home.

New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, specifically:

Congreso de Jornaleros / Congress of Day Laborers
One of the bravest groups around - a union of undocumented workers. These people rebuilt New Orleans after Katrina; now they're being deported. Fuck that. Give them money to access healthcare, education, labor rights, housing, and stable legal standing.

Stand with Dignity
Tirelessly advocates to improve the housing, employment, and educational opportunities for low-income residents of New Orleans. These people were left in deplorable conditions during Katrina, and stood up to (successfully) demand radical changes to the city's shelter and evacuation protocols.

Asserts the rights and needs of Spanish-speaking populations in New Orleans. They do stuff like: help clinics translate health flyers; advocate to get interpreters wherever they're needed; link families to information about schools and housing; and hold businesses and social services accountable for working with Spanish-speakers.

Crescent City Childcare Collective
Provides free babysitting for kids while their primary guardians are at community development meetings and events. A super-crucial solidarity effort.

Sex Workers Outreach Project
This anti-violence network provides health, legal, and safety information to people engaged in sex work (stripping, escorting, etc)  in New Orleans. It is an important support in an industry where many laborers experience stigma and alienation.

Women with a Vision
Facilitates the empowerment of low-income women of color through legislative advocacy, educational programming, and other initiatives that nobody else is taking up. They do a lot of important work around harm reduction for drug-users and sex workers; they're currently running domestic violence support groups as well. Someone fucking burned their office down the other year, so let's not stand for that.

Break Out
Organizes against police profiling and brutality of queer and transgender youth of color. A totally self-determined group of badass visionary young people.

Youth Rebuilding New Orleans
Founded by two New Orleans-born brothers in their 20s, this agency engages youth to build houses for public school teachers. They also make room to train and mentor young people doing court-mandated community service.

Supporting Urban Agriculture
Grows food in the Lower 9th Ward and gives it to the neighbors, sells it to the people who can pay. Kinda evens things out, and promotes healthy eating for everybody.

Community Kitchen
Makes and serves free meals (including vegan and gluten-free options!) for anyone who's hungry. Caters events for other radical groups in the city.

If you're interested in supporting the arts scene, here are a few other recommendations for groups that have a social justice orientation:

Ashe Cultural Arts Center
Promotes African, Caribbean, and African-American art and artists. Hosts community groups about health and fatherhood, among other themes.

The successor of the Free Southern Theater, this organization produces and encourages social justice-driven art. Recent productions have concerned the privatization of New Orleans schools, and the experience of displacement in the environmentally fragile Gulf Coast.

A film festival that spotlights the struggles and triumphs of marginalized populations.

Mondo Bizarro
A multidisciplinary arts group that produces works around ecological and other civic concerns. Their stellar outdoor "Cry You One" show was performed last year on the canals and swamps of St. Bernard Parish, highlighting the human consequences of environmental degradation.

A multidisciplinary performance arts group that uses theatre as a tool of healing and recovery. Runs a theatre group at Louisiana's St. Gabriel prison for women.

* * * *
Hit up the comments section if you want another group included! Thanks to everyone who helped me compile this list by doing the work / shouting out others who do the work.

Readers' Choice Awards

Youth Agenda's Kwanzaa Freedom School
The youth organizing arm of People's Institute for Justice and Beyond: "Part of a people’s movement for social transformation, led by people of color, with the understanding that undoing racism is liberation for all people." Yes.
Rebuilds people's houses in the Lower 9th Ward. Pretty simple. The homeowners just pay for the construction materials; volunteers do the rest. On a side note, it's pretty ridiculous that we're still relying on volunteers and donations to rebuild people's houses in the Lower 9th Ward. Let's get it done already.

DiscoveryFEST Afterschool and Summer Enrichment
Arts, sports, foreign language, yoga, drama, dance, culinary, etc. classes for youth in New Orleans. This program - formerly called CP3 Afterschool Zone - used to be funded by Chase Bank, but Chase Bank no longer cares about the children of New Orleans. Somehow the program has to fund itself now. You can help!

Operation ZipZap
This fundraising campaign supports a low-income transgender woman of color who wants to learn electrolysis in order to provide it to other trans folks, on a sliding pay scale. She's based in Florida, but has important connections to New Orleans trans advocates.