Recent Events at Midtown

Bethany and I have been taking a lot of pictures and we thought we’d share some!  The past few weeks having been going great at Midtown.  We are constantly receiving positive feedback from the residents.  Many often say, “You guys are lifting spirits.  You are bringing people out of their rooms.  I am more social now.  You guys are really doing a great thing here.”  It has taken over a month to get to the point where we can actually see interactions among residents changing.  New people continue coming to events and people don’t seem as shy or afraid to head down to the community room for events.  We see friendships slowly forming, which is one of the main goals of this project.  We initially provided events that drew people in, and now we can sit back and watch the community build on its own as relationships grow.

Here are some photos from our first bbq/potluck dinner last week.  While we were cooking in the kitchen (since we didn’t have an outdoor grill yet) we accidentally set off the smoke alarms throughout the entire building.  The fire department came to shut off the alarms, and we were slightly embarrassed at our lack of cooking skills.  However, many residents came downstairs to see if there was a real fire and ended up staying for the barbeque!

These are some pictures from both of our bowling outings to Bryant Lake bowl.  The residents really enjoyed themselves, especially the ones who hadn’t bowled in years.  The bowling events have been successful because they have given residents a chance to get out of Midtown and spend time together out in the community.  Plus, everyone enjoys getting a strike in bowling!

Here are a few pictures from bingo, game night, pet day, and flower art.

We only have a few weeks left with everyone at Midtown, but we realize that our work is nowhere near done.  We are constantly focusing on how to maintain sustainability and our goal this week is to start on the guidebooks.  We want residents to have a resource that will help them continue the events and activities we have set up when they want to.  Upcoming events…yoga, lasagna dinner, canoe trip, fishing, piano lessons, 4th of July bbq, salsa dance class, another bowling trip, and a finale talent show.  We are so excited and enthusiastic to continue forming connections with the residents.  We are continually surprised by the turnout at events and feel like proud parents as we watch people form connections and have real conversations with one another.  We also realize that the residents at Midtown are becoming our friends.  We are sad to think about going abroad for a semester and not seeing everyone at Midtown.  However, we are already thinking about the possibilities for spring semester.  (Now I’m getting a little ahead of myself!)

More pictures to come soon!  Also, for those of you in the Twin Cities–feel free to attend any of the events at Midtown.  Check the Daily Piper for details on upcoming events!

Meza – Beginning

Meza starts in less than a week, on June 26th. Along with the student facilitators, I will reach a couple days earlier to help set up. I am really excited now that this is starting up. In total there are about 25 participants from India, USA, Israel, Cambodia, Mexico, Ireland, Colombia, China…

In the run up to Meza, all participants have been encouraged to think about the personal diversity each of us brings to the group and the program. In keeping with the themes of Meza, the participants are encouraged to bring our artistic creations, music from our communities, a myth from our country, our national costume, favourite recipes, photographs of important people and places in our lives. All these would help to introduce ourselves and also participate in the workshops the first few days.

Looking forward to blogging more often as MEZA gets going!

Waruiru’s First Few Weeks

Waruiru Mburu is working on a project in Uganda. As she has limited internet access she asked me to post this for her. You can see more about Waruiru’s Project on the Macalester Home Page  where her story was featured! Story here.

I arrived at Bunabumali village on a Tuesdy night. The journey was long and quite slippery especially up the hills. The village is at the slopes of Mt. Elgon. On Wednesday I had a meeting with the director, main contractor, some members in the board and a community member representative and we revisited the plan. We revised the budget as the cost of some things had gone up while others like timber were readily available. On Thursday we ordered lake sand, concerete, river sand, cement and white lime. The main problem was transporting the materials up the hill so we had to hire trucks. The people were very co operative though and helped carry the materials to the site when the trucks could not move up the hills.

On Friday the main work began. We hired six extra professional builders and had some community people helping with jobs like fetching water. Being a rural area, water is not readily available so we had to hire someone to reconnect the tap water. People from other nearby villages have been very curious about the building and many of them have visted the site – it is the only stone building in the village. They are also quite impressed by the idea of a community library and hopefully they will make full use of it.

I have also been teaching the primary seven and six classes – about two lessons per day. The students are very smart and motivated. To most of them, English is their third language but they have made maximum use of the few reading books they have to improve their English. The teachers and  two volunteers at the site from the UK, (have been at the school for about an year so they are very well versed with the school) , have been very helpful in coming up with a book list that the pupils really need.

By Tuesday 14/06/2011, the building was almost done! The main parts that were remaining were painting, smoothening the floor, finishing the corners and outside apron. The workers really work hard everyday.

On Wednesday I left for Kampala with the director to order the books. So far we have got 85 children’s reading books and 200 books on health. We made an order for curriculum based books but we have to wait for sometime so that the distributor (Gustro) can contact other publishers to confirm whether they have the books we need in market. Unfortunately, some of the books by Macmillan are not readily available – they run out pretty fast – so we had to go with other publishers like Longhorn and MK.

The main problem that we have encountered so far was the transfer of money from a US account to a Kenyan account. I didnt know that it is not possible to wire money from US account when am not present so we resulted to Moneygram. But moneygram had a maximum transfer for a month and we had to switch to western union which required a verification code that took about a week. But am glad everything has been sorted out as my parents were able to liase with a Kenyan bank for quick transfer of the money.

It has been an amazing almost three weeks in the beautiful beautiful village, amazing scenery, welcoming and lovely people. I am also learning the local language (Lugisu) even though most of the people speak Swahili.

Hope all the projects are going well

Wanyala Nabii (Thank you in Lugisu)

The Midwest: Potential for a European agricultural landscape?

When the semester I ended I spent two weeks traveling around Spain with m younger brother.  He had been studying Spanish and had recently finished his program.  We spent lots of time on buses – from Madrid to Granada and back to Madrid, from Madrid to Barcelona and back to Madrid.  Despite the leg cramps and stale sweaty clothes, the bus ride offered ample time for thinking and an excellent view of the countryside.  Agriculture dominates the Spanish landscape.  Rolling hills of olives stretch across the landscape and into the horizon, climbing the steep mountain slopes until exposed bedrock eliminates their further ascent.  Irrigated hay and potato fields covered the valleys.  Often we would see a shepherd walking his sheep down the edge of the highway to another field.  Hiking in the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains in the south, sheep and cows dominated the rocky landscape.  9,000 feet in the mountains, we came across a bearded man tending his sheep in the midst of birthing season.  A bit higher the mountain grasses became rocky lichen and fragile tundra-like grasses.  While instances of land mismanagement were clear – eroded hillsides, degraded fields of agricultural weeds – I was impressed by the way farming had become intertwined with the natural parts of the landscape.  Wild mountains graced by grazing sheep, large plains covered with orchards…maybe there is hope for designing agricultural systems that mimic and complement nature.

Back in the Midwest, less than 1% of the native prairie remains, it’s lush, diverse perennial grasses, flowers, shrubs, and wetlands drained and plowed for agricultural and paved for urban expansion.  Corn and soybean fields dominate the landscape.  The ordered rows, devoid of weeds due to multiple applications of chemical herbicide lie in stark contrast to the hectic productivity of the prairie.  The prairie ecosystem supports a wide array of bacteria, fungi, animals, and plants using only water, sunlight and feces to support this system.  How can humans learn from these natural processes to improve our current agricultural systems that are fraught with structural inefficiencies such as large transportation costs, high fertilization inputs, massive chemical run-off, and erosion?  As human population increases, farmland will need to produce more food, provide more ecological services, and depend on less external inputs.  A deeper understanding of nature must complement growing technological advancements.

At Concrete Beet Farmers we are trying to incorporate perennial systems and intercropping to develop a more sustainable, productive agriculture.  We are in the process of establishing perennial grasses and flowers that will line our beds of annual crops.  While only a few inches tall, we hope these plants will provide habitat for soil microbes, beneficial pollinating insects, and keep soil from eroding and leaving our plot.  On a larger scale, Minnesotan farmers are beginning to experiment with biofuel grasslands that would border corn fields.  One could harvest the perennial grasses, converting them to fuel, while improving river borders and degraded landscapes.  David Tilman, a University of Minnesota scientist has written that the carbon sequestration from the perennials would exceed the carbon output from these fuels.  Extending the vision further, fruit trees could line our city streets replacing the ornamental elms, maples, and gingkos.  With creativity and and improved understanding of global agricultural practices and our surrounding native landscape we can and must create better farming systems.

Some Before Reflection

I’ve had to think about the benefits that Hekima Place will gain from the project. Moral than anything else, what are the implications of bringing ideas such as global citizenship to Hekima Place. Macalester College has done a great job of teaching its students to critically analyze the world around them. We are constantly asked to consider the race, class and gender implications of a lot of things. As an American Studies major, this awareness comes naturally. For this Im grateful.

Kate Fletcher, the founder of Hekima Place is a woman from North Carolina who after visiting Kenya saw the need for Hekima Place. If it wasnt for her, a handfull of young women would probably not be receiving the education they need. Hekima also encourages volunteers from around the world, even though all its permanent workers are Kenyan. Because of the already global influence Hekima has, it is the perfect place to examine theory and practice.At the same time, I feel as though a theoretical analysis (especially before I go) of Hekima Place would not include the human/experience element.

I know my presence does have a certain Western influence because I have grown up in the US. What exactly that means, I wont really find out until Im there. Still Im looking forward to confronting these issues but most importantly, learning and listening to the young women.

The Harvest Begins!

Slowly but surely, things are sizing up! Despite the cool, wet spring, our plants are eager to grow big and strong.

Over the last week or so, we’ve started to harvest small amounts of baby greens for the St. Paul Cheese Shop, for a neighborhood block party, and for our own munching! This coming week, we’re hoping do sell some of our delicious spinach and mixed greens to a few other cafes. And we’re offering an early mini CSA share! We had to push the official start of our CSA season back a week, to the 9th, but because we have some greens ready to go, we’re offering our members a small box of greens and radishes as a bonus this week. Thanks for sticking with us through a long, rainy spring, guys!

So, since May’s practically behind us, let’s have a few updates!
Absences and Returns:

Alex and Emily H were out of town right after Macalester’s graduation on the 14th, and both missed the farm uncontrollably. Vacation is wonderful, but for a farmer with crops in the ground, it’s also a little torturous thinking about what you’re missing! Luckily, the four other Concrete Beet Farmers picked up the slack and kept the farm in tip-top shape through some of the busiest days yet.

Nightshades in the Ground:

The bulk of our tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are in the ground at our 15th Avenue site! They’re looking strong, despite a bit of transplant shock after moving from the cushy, warm Macalester greenhouse to the real world. We’re in the process of getting a trellising system set up so they stay under control throughout the season. And summer squash and cucumbers are loving their new home on 2nd Avenue. There are even more seedlings in the greenhouse, awaiting a second round of transplanting! This means that your summer will be filled with delicious salads, salsas, grilled veggies, and more! We can’t wait.

Party on the Block!

On Wednesday the 25th, the block club on 15th Ave organized a little get-together for the neighborhood, and we hosted on the sidewalk in front of our farm! Lots of lovely people stopped by and toured the farm, snacked on some of our salad greens, made mosaics, ate cookies, and chalked the sidewalk! It was wonderful to meet more of our neighbors, and reconnect with those we already know. We look forward to knowing you all better!

The Rural Connection:

As you may know, our own Farmer Eric grew up on a blueberry and Christmas tree farm in Forest Lake, MN. Lucky for us, his parents still run Covered Bridge Farm, and they had a little extra patch of tilled land available for us to use this summer. We’re using it to grow our melons and winter squash, which take up a lot of space that we don’t necessarily have on our city lots. Dusty, Eric, and Emily H ventured up to Forest Lake on Friday to prepare the space, transplant melons, and direct seed winter squash. And then we got fed a wonderful dinner by Eric’s mom. We like this arrangement quite a lot.

Before and After!

New Land:

With our great friends Uptown Farmers, we’ve been working for the last few months to set up a lease agreement with a local bank that owns a vacant lot on 12th Ave and 25th St. This past week, we finally got news that they’ve accepted our proposal. So we’ll be team-farming it with Uptown, and we couldn’t be more excited. It’s a great location, we need some extra space for our next round of tomatoes, and we love working with Nate, Julie, and John! Look forward to updates after we break ground this week.

With everyone back on the farm, more space than ever, and our fingers crossed for some warm weather this week, we’re gearing up for June! We hope you all are looking forward to the first CSA pickups, the first newsletter, the first big harvests, and everything else that June brings as much as we are! Stop by sometime, and see how things are growing!

Also, check out our cameo appearance on The Greenhorns Blog! We love these guys- they’re a national network run by and for young farmers- and are excited to be featured on their website, even if they did mix things up and say that Macalester is in Wisconsin…


Communicating

The fact that this blog has really managed to reenergize itself is a wonderful sign.  My name is Paul McGuire, a member of the Student Council, and next year will be my 4th and sadly, final year serving.

Other members have discussed global citizenship before me and in terms far more eloquent which I can muster.  I am interested in discussing global citizenship in terms with which I am familiar. I am a historian.  I am a history major, have always been interested in history for as long as I could read, and I like to credit history for saving my life.  History gave me a desire to learn and a rationality that had not existed before hand – those two traits which distinguish civilized men from barbarians.  Through my work, I have come to believe that history is not simply one list of empty facts after another, but rather a  series of historical processes, processes which shape how human society works as much as physics does in showing the nature of our world.  The duty of the historian is to understand these processes and see ways in which they can be used for the betterment of all.

Like any thought, Global citizenship is also a product of historical processes, and it is important to understand the origins of the concept if we are to understand it as a whole.  The fact is that fifty or a hundred years ago, proposing to work on the concept of global citizenship would have caused one to be laughed out of the room.  Now it is something which actually has a foothold to stand upon, fragile though it is.  This change is the result of the fact that the idea of viewing humanity as a part of a single group is a much more accepted concept in the past, as economic and political integration, the diffusion of Western culture and ideas across the globe, and the spread of technology means that we are literally more connected to each other than occurred in the past.  While nationalism and loyalties to smaller groups exists, they are no longer as destructive as they were in the past, when they helped contribute to some of the worst excesses of the 20th century as new connections have taken their place.

But in some ways these new connections are more tenuous, and different from ways in which tribesmen would interact with each other thousands of years ago.  I spent the first two
weeks of the summer in a town north of Seattle, a lot of it outdoors walking and reading.  I couldn’t help but observe that while one can easily read a book or talk with his fellow people outdoors on the beach, working on a laptop or playing a DS is much more difficult in sunlight, thanks to the glare on their screens.   The result is a different sort of connection where humans interact, but not on a personal basis, as they talk while isolated from one another, and thus is not social communication in a sense.  Given that the very concept of citizen is that of an individual participating within a political society, this is concerning.

If the IGCSC is to continue its work on global citizenship, it is important to promote interaction beyond electronics and internet, and for people to interact with one another on a face to face basis.  For now, I personally will continue that with my work of helping refugees get to the United States and adjust to a completely different culture and society, one where something as simple as a name becomes a matter of difficulty – for example, the Karen people from Burma, one of the largest ethnic groups we work with, do not use last names.  This is a process that in order to work, must be done face to face, not by communication through e-mail or even at times a phone, but by looking at the plight that they are in first hand and doing whatever is necessary.  While this is merely one individual speaking for now, it is necessary for the IGCSC to deal with this concept in a collective manner.  That is global citizenship.

Follow up to Bethany’s Post

I would like to say that Bethany just summed up our experiences over the past few weeks so beautifully and honestly.  After every event we host, it seems that we go through a full spectrum of emotions.  First we are anxious awaiting the start of an event, then we are bummed when there isn’t a huge turnout, then we are excited to meet a new resident, then we question the role these events play in the culture at Clare Midtown, then we doubt our worth and contribution to the organization, then we somehow come full circle and feel proud of ourselves for being a presence and just trying.  Based on feedback from the residents we are slowly getting to know, it seems like our efforts are being appreciated.  Since we are here for such a short time, we realize that our project is simply the catalyst for what will happen throughout the rest of the summer and for years to come.  Our big challenge right now is deciding which events appeal to the largest number of residents, and which events we want to pass along to volunteers when we leave.  We are also working on getting items donated for Clare Cafe in order to ensure sustainability.  If anyone has ideas for coffee or food donations (we have already tried Dunn Bros, Breadsmith, and Kowalskis) please shoot us an email.  We really only need enough coffee and food for about 10 residents on Sunday mornings.

The bowling event we hosted on Sunday night was by far the best experience we have had at Midtown.  We spent the whole week getting excited for bowling because every time we passed the front desk at Midtown it seemed that more residents had signed up to bowl.  In the end, we had around twenty names of people who planned to attend.  However, we showed up to a community room of only three residents and our friend Debbie, the volunteer coordinator for Clare.  I went and knocked on many doors, checking to see if people had simply forgotten about bowling, but no one answered.  I soon realized that this small group actually contributed to the success of the event because it was a very manageable number.  Bethany and I were so excited to see a new resident eager to bowl with us.  We had never met this resident before and he said he had been looking forward to bowling all week.  With the smaller group, we were all able to ride the bus together and share one lane for bowling.  All of us had a blast taking pictures, getting to know each other, and improving our bowling techniques.  One resident probably got over four strikes.  Bethany and I realized that the event was so successful because the residents had a chance to leave Midtown, ride a bus, and bowl (something all of them hadn’t done for years) with friends.  We think that outings will be the most successful events because it allows residents to leave the quiet halls of Midtown and head out into the community.

We learn something new every day at Midtown–from residents, staff, or through our extensive reflection.  We are looking forward to the events planned this week.  On Saturday night we are having a potluck dinner with some form of music (maybe a sing-along type of thing).  We will keep you posted on how it goes!

Community and Isolation: Re-evaluating Success

At the front desk, a resident struggles to articulate himself to the Resident Assistant on duty. He feels hounded and alone in a space where he thinks he has nothing in common with those around him, but where stereotypes seem to trap him among people he wishes he weren’t identified with. In this moment, he is one against many.

This resident is not alone in being alone. Despite the efforts of the staff, a select few residents, and Madisen and I, this place can still feel aggressive, uninviting, and indifferent. It seems that isolation is reinforced at every turn of this exquisite nine million dollar complex: all along the empty hallways, at the locked door of the Community Room, and behind the doors of the residents: in the drug addiction and in the drug withdrawal, in the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and in the depression. And maybe, we worry, even we reinforce this isolation; we are two women who look like girls and who make some residents feel like they’re in a nursing home instead of in their own, private apartment complex.

During most of the time that Madisen and I spend alone together, whether on site, on the bus, or on the couch in between episodes of The Office, we are reflecting and critically (and I mean critically) analyzing our project. This reflection has taken us very quickly from practical evaluations of the efficiency and effectiveness of our project to existential questions of worth and meaning both within our project and without. While we feel that we are always striving toward the “greater good,” we find ourselves regularly questioning what (and if) this “greater good” actually is.

Every day, Madisen and I repeatedly see the difficult and taxing work that the staff of Midtown has to face. It finally hit us on Friday night during a particularly violent incident (throughout which we stood in a copy room in the back) that the work we do is drastically less stressful than the work that goes on around us. Prior to the incident, we had had a tough week of non-attendance and disinterest from the residents, and we were feeling discouraged about our work. As we compared our work to that of the professional staff, however, we made the mistake of equating stress level with worth level.

Just a few days ago, Madisen and I met with Michele Boyer, the Program Director. She explained to us that isolation is a natural byproduct of myriad unseen factors in the lives of the residents, but that the work we are doing, however discouraging at times, is making a difference and is essential to the care that Clare Housing provides. Healthy social organisms need healthy social outlets. Food, clothing, shelter, and medical care are obvious necessities, but community and social support fit right in the mix. What we are doing is certainly different work than that of the staff, but it is not necessarily less important. Michele was enthusiastic and eager to work with us, and her support rekindled some of the hope that had been dwindling from the project.

One we were bolstered up and infused with new ideas, Madisen and I had to return to the practical end of things. We realized it was logistically impossible to schedule interviews with residents because we never saw them, and even if we did, residents would be unlikely to show up for a number of reasons –– from disinterest to the dementia that is a side effect of some medications. On top of that, it became clear that interviews would be too goal-oriented, inorganic, and pressurized to have the residents feel comfortable enough to share their wants and ideas with us. Instead, Madisen and I decided to go door-to-door to talk with residents. This is something we had avoided for a long time in fear of invading the residents’ privacy, but we finally realized that it was the most practical way, and decided to give it a go. While we skipped rooms with signs like “Do not knock on my door for any reason,” we were surprised to make immediate connections with some of the residents who at first seemed the most off-putting.

The last few days have piled hope upon hope. We made our second round of door-to-door visits and encountered an entirely different group of people, nearly all of whom were pleasant, grateful, and even excited to see us. Several people had new event ideas and were eager to give planning and logistical advice. We had a friend volunteer with us at our Friday movie night, saw a strong turnout at our Sunday morning café event, had a blast on a bowling trip Sunday night, and met a new resident at every single event! Attendance numbers aren’t skyrocketing, but we’re reshaping the way we look at the “effectiveness” of our program, and now we’re seeing a lot of smiles and a lot of new faces and a lot of hope. Change happens slowly but surely with each contact we make, and the community here grows with each person we welcome and reaffirm.