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A Race to the Top, or to the Bottom Line? My Concerns with President-Elect Trump’s Secretary of Education Appointment

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I have to admit, President-elect Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos to the Secretary of Education post was his first that didn’t make my jaw drop in disbelief instantly. I decided to keep an open mind and research her background before making up my mind, even as I immediately started seeing pro-DeVos and anti-DeVos posts in my Facebook “echo chamber.” After all, as President Obama said, if President-elect Trump succeeds, our country succeeds. So, between studying for finals and seeing friends and catching up with family over the last few days, I began my research…

She is a big Republican donor with 0 experience in a public school or in education period. Still trying to keep an open mind, I kept researching…

President-elect Trump said that Ms. DeVos will work to “reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.” I am all for this, but what does this mean, exactly?

Since my time in Teach For America, I have had a love-hate relationship with charter schools. During my time in TFA, I had the privilege of teaching at one of the oldest public high schools in Memphis (Melrose High School in Orange Mound). I also had several friends who taught in charter schools—some of which were were providing great learning environments and opportunities for their students, and others which were poorly run and were failing at achieving this vision. Charter schools are unique animals—they are publicly-funded, privately-managed schools that are free from the directives and oversight of the local school district. Many times, this independence and freedom equates to a greater latitude for visionary school leaders to run schools that outperform their public counterparts (shout out to Soulsville Charter School, Libertas Academy, Freedom Prep Memphis,  Memphis Grizzlies Prep, Veritas Memphis, and the many other amazing charter schools) . Other times, this independence and freedom leads to schools that perform at a lower rate of achievement than their public counterparts, with minimal course-correction directives from the district. screen-shot-2016-11-25-at-9-33-32-pm

While in TFA, and since then, I have bristled at the idea that charter schools are the end-all, be-all solution to the grave issue of education inequity in our country. Partially because I saw what some of my friends saw and dealt with at poorly run charter schools, and partially because I was teaching at a public school whose students deserved the very best in funding and policy from our government as well.

Ms. DeVos is a proponent of charter schools as well as “school choice” via vouchers. What is wrong with giving vouchers to families who may not be able to afford private school tuition to be able to send their children to higher performing private schools in the area? Here’s what’s wrong—no matter how much “school choice” our government finances, there will be students left behind in increasingly failing public schools because of this measure. Money will go to vouchers instead of improving our existing public schools. Not every student will get a voucher, and even if many do, our public schools, and the students remaining there, will be left even farther behind, and the inequity will grow even deeper and more serious. We can’t afford to go down this path for 4 years—children’s livelihoods and opportunities are at stake.

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On an end-of-semester bowling field trip with some Honors Students!

It is true that in the 8 years of President Obama’s leadership, our country has not solved this grave issue of educational inequity. I was able to teach during a time when Tennessee was one of President Obama’s Race to the Top recipients, which saw mixed results—positive outcomes (some increased student achievement) as well as negative outcomes (increased bureaucracy and mandates on over-worked teachers). All-in-all, I thought it was a step in the right direction for the federal government, even if it didn’t solve all the many, complicated issues of educational inequity overnight. And as much as I love TFA and its vision as an organization to strive for the realization that “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” I hope and pray, and will continue to work toward, making sure TFA goes out of business.

What do I mean? I mean I don’t think our country should need TFA— we need to continue to address improving our public schools ASAP to meet TFA’s vision, which I think encompasses what we all want for all of our children as Americans. [I personally think the first steps towards this are 1) addressing issues of systemic poverty that directly affect low-income students (healthcare, access to food, safe neighborhoods, economic opportunities for families) 2) raising teacher pay and increasing benefits for teachers through classroom resources and professional development, 3) adopting higher national standards for curriculum (Common Core or an improved curriculum), and 4) limiting class sizes and/or decreasing the teacher/student ratio in every classroom (I regularly had 30+ students in a classroom all by myself, and all of these students were on various learning levels.) But that’s for another blog…]

For today, I hope Ms. DeVos focuses on improving our current public schools instead of trying to throw money at the problem through vouchers and increasing the presence of charter schools, some of which may work but others of which will be free to fail at their leisure because of a lack of local school district oversight, but at deep costs to their students. We should not take our focus off improving the educational outcomes and life trajectories for our current and future public school students.

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Is the Electoral College the OG Trump University?

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Later this month, our President-Elect is scheduled to go on trial in federal civil court for alleged fraud for his now-defunct Trump University real estate education program (this is unprecedented in American history). Which has gotten me to think about other universities and colleges that have failed those they were established to serve.

The Electoral College was established as part of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and is spelled out in Article II. The College is composed of Electors that are assigned to each state based on the number of Senators and members of the House of Representatives each state sends to Washington. For example, Alabama has 2 Senators and 7 Representatives, so it gets 9 electors. New York, a state with a higher population, has 2 Senators and 27 Representatives, so it gets 29 electors. Traditionally, a candidate that wins the popular vote of a single state will be awarded all of the electors of that state. Trump won 290 electoral votes and Clinton won 228 votes, so he won the election.

But Clinton won the popular vote by between an estimated 200,000 and 400,000 votes. This is the fifth time in history that this fluke has happened—the other 4 times were when Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote in 1888, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote in 1876, and Andrew Jackson won the popular vote in 1824 (he actually also won the electoral vote, but Congress chose John Quincy Adams under the 12th Amendment provision after Jackson failed to secure the majority of electoral votes).

Even Donald Trump has called the Electoral College a “disaster,” in a way only he can—via Twitter—in November 2012.

Our Constitution was drafted to “form a more perfect Union” and “establish justice.” Which is why I have been feeling frustrated and hopeful that Hillary won the popular vote on Tuesday. (Hopeful, because it means over half of Americans do not condone Trump and what he stands for).

I am frustrated because my vote didn’t count. It is my civic duty to vote, and I did it, but the Democratic votes in blue New York state basically didn’t count once the count passed that critical number needed for Hillary to secure the state’s electors. All other votes were basically extra fat for the trimming.

This also means Democratic votes in heavily red states like Alabama and Mississippi didn’t count towards anything either.

If the election had come out the other way—if Hillary had won the electoral college and not the popular vote—I would absolutely understand the justified frustration from Trump voters. We are all Americans and we all deserve to have our vote count toward the outcome.

How can we preach that people need to get out to vote, when only the votes of those in “swing states” like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida tend to decide elections? Where is the incentive to vote when your state historically leans toward one party or the other?

As a baby lawyer (I am just in my first semester of 1L), I know I don’t know everything, and I know part of my professional duty is to defend our Constitution. But it’s not a perfect document and it’s amenable to change. The Constitution also said black slaves counted as 3/5 of a person, and we all know that black people are 5/5 of a person, just like everyone else. We also currently have 27 amendments to the Constitution, meaning it can change.

One defense of the Electoral College is that it protects the democracy from itself. In Federalist Paper 10, James Madison wrote about protecting the democracy against “factions” and the lurking issue of sectionalism in the new republic. But we live in a different time. While there are still the concerns of sectionalism, our nation fought a war and the outcome was that we remained together as one nation. Our populace is literate and online. We have access to information on the Internet like never before. I have faith American voters can make decisions for themselves.

One argument in favor of a modern Electoral College is the chaos that could result if the popular vote were very, very close. Recounts of individual ballots could take a lot of time and resources. But when has convenience ever been a valid reason to deny justice? Perhaps a new popular vote provision could have a “too close to call” backstop that allows electors or Congress to decide an election if the popular vote is close by a certain percentage?

I believe the Electoral College disenfranchises voters. Before this election, there was much worry and discussion about a “rigged” election and voter intimidation on both sides. But I think the disenfranchisement has been baked into our law for a while.

I know this view won’t be popular with some of my liberal friends, but I think we need to honor the Constitution as it stands today and accept that Trump won the electors in this election. But I do think we need to have a serious discussion and re-examination of this outdated institution. And I don’t want to forget about this issue until it pops up again in 4 years. I will be writing to my Senators and Representative about this over the weekend, and I hope you consider doing the same. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, it could be you who loses by a fluke in the next election. Yes, the Electoral College is part of the compromises that allowed our country to be formed over 200 years ago over heated sectionalist debates. But we are a different country today. One goal of our Constitution is to establish justice, so one person should equal one vote.

Echo Chambers in the Age of Trump

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I live in two Americas. I am a daughter of the South but a citizen of New York City. In the last two days, the divide that exists in this country has ripped open even further, and I have found myself struggling with the national cognitive dissonance I am observing playing out on Facebook and other social media. The realization hit me yesterday (like a load of bricks) that I uniquely have a foot in both worlds. Many people can open Facebook and see only the views that “echo” their own playing out across their Newsfeed. I see views from both rural and urban America, views I agree with and disagree with. I recognize now that is a special position not shared by many of my friends in both worlds. I also take personal responsibility for not engaging those who don’t share my views more.

Whether you are a member of my right-leaning or left-leaning sphere, I want to ask that you keep an open mind not only as you read this post, but as you work to unify our country. As you read this post, please just assume that those who do not share your political beliefs are not inherently bad, just for the sake of argument.

In full disclosure, I enthusiastically supported Hillary Clinton, but I also truly believe we all need to listen to President Obama’s call for unity. For all of our sakes, I am praying that President-elect Trump is not the hateful, prejudiced, loose-lipped, undisciplined, ignorant leader that so many of us genuinely fear he will be. His words, actions, and beliefs have already affected the faith many of us have in this country in the last few days. If you supported Trump, I ask that you please not shut down after reading that. Please know I am not trying to “win an argument” with you. Please know that, from what I am reading on Facebook, many of you out there are truly not aware how genuinely afraid people of color, religious minorities, LGBT people, and victims of disease and violence are right now. I simply want to make you aware. Please accept this assertion as true.

Trump’s views really upset me in a visceral, I-feel-sick-in-my-stomach way. That being said, I want to point out to those of you in my left-leaning sphere that most Trump supporters I know are not racist, misogynist xenophobes. My struggle in the last 48 hours has been dealing with this disconnect—how can people I love and care about condone the beliefs and political platform that embolden actual racist, misogynist xenophobes who are out there? I ask this honestly and respectfully, without trying to provoke or denigrate anyone. We all as people are broken, but not irredeemable.

One realization I have come to is that many people overlooked these horrific qualities because they truly believe that the election of Trump will directly lead to millions of lives saved because of his stance on abortion. Please do not roll your eyes or laugh…that will get us nowhere. Please, for the sake of argument, try to understand where these voters are coming from. In full disclosure, I am pro-choice (my personal views are best expressed here). But please know that many people truly believe abortion is murder and that Trump will appoint Supreme Court justices that will overturn Roe v. Wade. I think these voters don’t realize that Roe was decided by a conservative court, yet they are putting their hopes about this issue in this basket. Also, it doesn’t matter that Trump used to be pro-choice and (somewhat conveniently) changed his mind to get Republican votes. To these voters, President Trump = saved lives. If you have these deeply held beliefs about abortion, it is hard to let any other issue sway you.

That being said, the fear that Trump’s message is causing is real. I can’t tell you how many Facebook statuses I have seen from privileged white men in the South (who are my friends) that talk about how happy they are that that the election is over, that life will go on as normal, and that the dramatic social media posts will soon stop. I love y’all as people, but y’all are speaking from a place of privilege. Speaking from my own position as a female, I have felt particularly devalued in this election and by the outcome Tuesday night. I also humbly admit I don’t know what it feels like to be a person of color right now in a country that elected a KKK-endorsed president 8 years after it elected its first black president, but it really, really upsets me that it happened. What I do know is that we all need to recognize that this election really is unlike anything we have seen in our (millennial) lifetimes. We need to commit to protecting one another as there are so many unknowns with what’s to come in the next 4 years.

I am still soul-searching and grappling with what this election means for our country and for me personally. One solid conclusion I do have is that we all need to listen to each other. Safe spaces are important. It is important for someone who is passionately pro-life to have a place they can talk about their views and not be made fun of. You will find this in many churches in the South. I grew up in the church, and you will find many good people there, despite what the election Tuesday may make you believe. It is also important to have a community where you can express how afraid this election has made you feel, because you are a woman, a person of color, a minority, or a white man who cares about these groups, without being made fun of. I have found this community at NYU Law and among many friends from both NYC and back home in the South, and I am so grateful for this.

Safe spaces are important, but we all need to make sure we are stepping out of our own echo chambers. Trump is our president-elect, but we can all still reject racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. I want people in both my “worlds” to know that I am here to engage with you in a non-judgmental way. We all have to stop writing each other off just because we don’t share the same political beliefs.

Budapest: Give Me One Good Reason Why I Should Never Make a Change

“If you come from Paris to Budapest, you think you are in Moscow. But if you go from Moscow to Budapest, you think you are in Paris.”

IMG_2985[1]It’s been 85 days since I left the USA, and the exhaustion is starting to set in in the form of sickness. However, surprisingly I am in no way ready to come home. The fact that this adventure is almost over has really started to set in during the last few days in Budapest. I am not ready to be in one place again, even though I know I realistically can’t continue to be a nomad forever.

As I write this, I am on a bus from Budapest to Bratislava feeling a bit light-headed from the variety of Hungarian cold and flu medicines I am currently taking to ward off my stuffy nose, cough, and slight fever. The last few days in Budapest have been both fun and relaxing. On my first night, I discovered Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube River (Budapest consists of 2 cities which used to be separate cities–Buda to the west of the Danube and Pest to the east of the Danube).

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A view of Pest-Buda at sunset from the bridge across Margaret Island
Margaret Island is the perfect place to relax, with a walking path, beer gardens, and a beautiful lighted fountain that performs to music. It even performed to George Ezra’s song Budapest (thanks Nat for introducing me to this song before I left to come here!)IMG_2831[1]

My first morning in Budapest, I set off to explore after doing some laundry. I came across a memorial to the Hungarian Holocaust victims that included an active protest area in front. Of course, I had to know what the protest was about, and I soon learned it had to do with what many Hungarians view as the government’s attempt to rewrite the history of WW2. The memorial portrays Germany as a relentless invader and Hungary as a victim of violent imperialism. IMG_2851[1].JPGThe protesters argue that the Hungarian government at the time willingly participated in becoming part of the Third Reich and volunteered to participate in the Holocaust. The protests highlight the stories of Hungarian Jews who lost their lives at the hands of their own government, and also calls for the government to remove this dishonest memorial. If the concerns raised by the protesters are in fact valid, this is quite alarming. One thing I really admired about Berlin was the city’s humility, introspection, and apologetic spirit about the evil atrocities that took place there during the rise and reign of Hitler, and the city’s commitment to equality and ensuring these past sins are not repeated. However, if a nation chooses to disregard and withhold any sort of acknowledgement or apology for past harms, that nation is not only dishonest with itself and others but runs the risk of repeating those evils. Time will tell what happens to this memorial and if there will ever be some kind of apology from the Hungarian government.

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I also took time to relax after investigating protests 🙂

On a lighter note, my visit to Budapest was full of relaxation, including a boat cruise down the Danube (where I met some great girls from Spain, Sweden, and the U.K.), a pub crawl (where I met some new USA friends!), visits to a couple of Budapest’s famous “ruin bars,” and several hours at 2 of the city’s famous thermal baths–Szechenyi and Rudas. When the Ottoman Empire invaded the city back in the 16th century, they brought with them the concept of the Turkish bath. Both baths I visited consisted of indoor and outdoor pools at various temperatures designed to promote health and relaxation, as well as several saunas. My favorite bath was Szechenyi, which has been open since 1913 and is absolutely beautiful. It also had a whirlpool in one of its outdoor pools, which was like a small, fast-paced lazy river! It was so fun to get carried along in this, and also quite relaxing! I also enjoyed Rudas, which was smaller and newer but was located just off the Danube and had a rooftop thermal pool that overlooked the city skyline.

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I obviously didn’t take this picture (I didn’t want to get my phone wet so I left it in the locker!), but this is a typical day at Szechenyi.

While most of the modern shopping and restaurants are on the Pest side (and this is also where I stayed in 2 different hostels), the Buda side is home to many of the historic sites. I spent the entire third day in the city exploring the Buda side. I started with a visit to the Cave Church, which is exactly what it sounds like–a church carved into a cave in the side of the mountain. The church was closed down under communist rule but reopened its doors in 1989.

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Cave church!
I then climbed up Gellert Hill (it was very steep and a good workout!) to see the Citadella, which was used by the Soviets to quell the 1956 Hungarian uprising and is now the home to the Liberty Statue. There are some stunning views of the city from here! I then walked up the Danube to visit Matthias church, which was originally constructed in 1015, reconstructed in the 14th century, and served as the city’s main mosque during Turkish rule.

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Liberty Statue atop Gellert hill
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Matthias Church
I was in Budapest for 5 days, which was ideal as I still got to see a good bit of the city while also taking time to rest and attempt to recover from being sick. Also, Budapest was very, very cheap–by far the cheapest city I’ve visited in Europe. Hungary uses the Hungarian Forint, and about 280 forints equals 1 US dollar. It was hard to spend even more than 10 US dollars post-conversion on food and drinks at any meal. I am not complaining at all!

Just 3 cities left until I return to NYC…Bratislava, Vienna, and London. I definitely have mixed feelings and am half-tempted to book a ticket back to Asia or Africa instead of starting law school! But, duty calls…IMG_2835[1]

Ireland, Part 1: Brexit, Dublin Pride, and Irish Football

 

IMG_0520Even though I am across the Atlantic, I have felt perfectly at home in Baile Atha Cliath (“Dublin Town” in Gaelic). Perhaps it is due to coming away from a rough (but fun!) 3 weeks in South America, but I feel like I have had time to fully recover and enjoy myself here already. And I still have almost a week left here!

I arrived to the Dublin Airport from Madrid Thursday evening–cold, tired, and exhausted. Michael picked me up and immediately began nursing me back to health (he is such a great friend!) I took a long, warm shower (my first real one since Asia!), and Michael gave me an amazing lotion to help with my wind-chapped hands. I turned in to bed around 11pm, right as the sun was going down. In Ireland during the summer, the sun does not set until 11pm and it rises at 5am!

Brexit

The next morning, Michael woke me up with news of the Brexit. I had been watching the vote as I drifted to sleep, and at the time it appeared the UK would stay in the EU. Therefore, I was shocked at the news as I woke up. My initial reaction was fear of the implications for the US–if Britain could vote itself out of the EU at 51% largely due to opinions on immigration, does it mean it is possible for my country to elect Donald Trump along the same line of reasoning? Sadly, I now think the answer is yes. And this horrifies me.

Several conversations I had with Irish citizens throughout the weekend confirmed my fear–there is a strong global right-wing movement that is growing and eroding the foundation of rational, moderate political discourse. One Irish woman I met while shopping said, “Happy Brexit! Welcome to the beginning of the end!” Another man laughed and said it was entertaining to watch the “great empire” crumble on itself (I can understand where his bitter sense of humor comes from, given what I’ve learned (or been reminded) of Irish-British history in the last few days).

The Irish are mainly concerned how the Brexit will affect border controls with Northern Ireland. As it stands now, traveling to Northern Ireland is as simple as crossing the border from Alabama to Georgia. However, now that Ireland remains in the EU with its open borders, and Northern Ireland is part of the UK, the open border policy is likely to change over the next 2 years (for the worse, in the opinion of many Irish), unless some extra agreement is reached. Some Irish believe there could be positive economic development and investment repercussions for them, as Ireland is now the only English-speaking nation in the EU.

Still in shock from the Brexit news, Michael and I went for a traditional Irish breakfast and then for a morning of shopping. We then walked around Dublin for a bit, stopping for ice cream at Murphy’s and for a “pygtail” (cocktail) at Pygmalion. IMG_0248.JPG

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This is the alleyway where Handel first conducted The Messiah. They re-enact it every year here.

We also saw Joe Biden pass by in his motorcade! This was quite funny to me, as I also saw President Obama’s motorcade pass by in Saigon earlier in the summer. As one friend asked, am I following them or are they following me?!

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Uncle Joe passing by in Dublin! BFD!!

Dublin Pride

On Saturday, we woke up bright and early for the Rainbow Run 5K at Dun Laoghaire West Pier along Dublin Bay. The weather could not have been more perfect! I was quite nervous, as this was my first time to really run since the beginning of May and I had a sore knee from my spill in La Paz. However, the race was a lot of fun, and Michael and I both did well! We were also covered in all colors of the rainbow by the very end (which was simply flour with food coloring…haha).13521838_10209382759627559_6600704039503503585_n.jpg13511050_10209382756427479_3700391745242614586_n

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After we cleaned up from our run, we made our way to downtown Dublin to join in the annual Dublin Pride parade. Michael was kind enough to invite me to march with his hiking club–Out and About. This was my the first pride march I have ever participated in, and it was truly an honor to show solidarity with and support for my LGBT friends back in the US and across the world.13521967_10209383025874215_4982384121704861924_n.jpg 

The Pride parade started in 1969 in NYC as a public response to the Stonewall Inn riots, and has expanded to cities across the globe in the decades since. Last year, around the same time the US SCOTUS came out with the decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the country, Ireland became the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage through a constitutional amendment. Several major companies had floats in the parade, including Amazon, Google, LinkedIn, and Accenture. In fact, Accenture was handing out American flags for demonstrators to show support for the victims of the recent Orlando tragedy, and they gladly shared one with me. I was blown away by the amount of Dubliners who came out to show support for the LGBT community along the parade route. There was truly an atmosphere of love and acceptance in the city, and I felt it was one of the most beautiful events I have ever witnessed.IMG_0368

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13517688_10207840293097776_9046839315067913136_o.jpgAlthough the LGBT community has made strides toward equal rights across the world, there is still so much work to be done, especially in the US. In particular, there are 32 states that still do not have fully inclusive LGBT non-discrimination laws. Then, there are some states like Mississippi and North Carolina which have passed actively discriminatory laws toward the LGBT community. Yesterday, I was reminded that we all need to work together to ensure equal rights for all. LGBT issues are not just a “gay community” issue– they are human rights issues. As MLK once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Irish Football

After an amazing dinner at Brasserie 66, I turned in early, exhausted from the activities of the last few days and still recovering from South America! I woke up late on Sunday, put on my newly purchased Irish football pullover, and headed to the pub with Michael to cheer on “the boys in green” in their Euro Cup match against France.

I now truly understand European “football” (aka soccer for those who speak American!). To me, it is most comparable to college football in the US (or at least, the type I grew up around in the SEC!) Each country in Europe is like a state, and their football/soccer team is their source of pride. If Ireland is like Alabama, then the football team is the Crimson Tide. People post Irish flags outside their houses and cars, much like Alabama fans post pennants in the same way.

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The pub where we watched the game!

The atmosphere in the pub was electric. When Ireland scored their first goal and went up 1-0 on France, the floors shook from the noise and celebration! Unfortunately, Ireland went on to lose the match, but the fun (or “craic” as they call it in Gaelic) continued. This reminded me of Ole Miss football…win or lose, the party continues!

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By the end of the night, we had switched our loyalties to Belgium! hahaha

After another restful night, I am ready to explore Dublin a bit more today, and then the rest of the country later in the week. Ireland is just getting started!

 

Genocide in Cambodia

On Thursday morning, I visited the Chueng Ek killing fields and S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. I cannot put what I witnessed and learned into words, but I feel like it’s crucial to attempt to share this information. This post is quite difficult to write, and please be warned that some of the information shared is graphic and gruesome. However, in the words of Chum Mey, one of the survivors I met, it is important that the world knows what happened.

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Between 1975 and 1979, 3 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime. 1.7 million were murdered, and the rest died of starvation. The effects are evident in the demographics of the country today–only 5% of the people are over 65 years old, with 50% of the population under 20 years old. Only 15% of people with an education survived the genocide.

 

In 1975, a man known as Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia. His regime was known as the Khmer Rouge, or the Angkar. He won over the people in the countryside by delivering food and supplies to their villages, and promising a better life through communism for his people. However, his leadership soon turned into a reign of terror, as people were forced out of their homes and into hard labor camps in the countryside. Food was severely controlled and restricted, and many people died of disease and starvation as they labored under the control of Khmer Rouge soldiers.

 

“There are no diplomas, only diplomas one can visualize. If you wish to get a Baccalaureate, you have to get it at dams or canals,” stated one Khmer Rouge slogan.  Although Pol Pot himself had been educated at a university in Paris, he banned all schools and arrested, tortured, and murdered educated people. If one member of a family was educated, the whole family was taken to prison, including the elderly, babies, and children. Teachers, doctors, policemen, and other professionals who could read and write were all targeted, as well as their families

 

From the prisons, the people were taken to a killing field, where they were brutally murdered. Because the Khmer Rouge thought bullets were too expensive, they used hammers, bamboo sticks, and cleaning rods to murder their victims. They would blindfold the victims and have them kneel in front of a mass grave, and then hit them from behind before pushing them into the grave. Many were buried alive. The murderers would bash babies against trees to kill them as their mothers watched. If the murderers noticed a victim was still alive, they would slit their throats with a tree branch.

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I visited the killing field at the Chueng Ek Genocidal Center outside of Phnom Penh, but there were 343 such “killing fields” across Cambodia. Despite excavation, there are still human bone fragments scattered throughout the field, even in the walkways. When it rains, bone and clothing fragments still come to the surface of the soil. There are still blood stains on the tree where babies were murdered. As I walked through, I found myself without words and then asking how God could allow this to happen.

After the killing field, we visited the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. This is where 17,000 prisoners were held during the Khmer Rouge regime. Out of 17,000, only 7 survived. The guards tortured prisoners with electrical shocks, acid, beatings, and salt water over wounds in an attempt to extract information that would aid the Khmer Rouge. Prisoners were forced to use a small metal box for their bodily waste, and it was only emptied once every 2 weeks. If it spilled before then, they were forced to clean the floor with their tongues. Prisoners often ate bugs and rats that crept into their cells to avoid starvation, and many starved anyway.IMG_7898

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Of the 7 survivors, 2 are still alive today. I was able to meet both Chum Mey and Bou Meng, who have written books about their experiences and now work to educate visitors about the genocide and seek justice. Bou Meng, his wife, and their 2 children entered S-21 in 1975, and he never saw them again. Bou Meng was an artist, and he was able to survive because the Khmer Roge commissioned portraits of Pol Pot and other communist leaders from him. Every day, he was tortured and wondered if it was his last day to live. He did not learn his wife’s fate until 2008, when he confronted his torturer face-to-face at the ECCC trial. He there learned that his wife had been murdered at the Chueng Ek killing field. He still carries her picture in his wallet.

Bou Meng’s story was published as part of a dissertation by a Rutgers student.  The following excerpt stands out to me: “Now, he said, the ghosts of those who died follow him, hovering over him in the dark, still skeletal from starvation, still wearing the black clothes that were the uniform in Khmer Rouge times. They gather in front of his home, calling out to him to represent them and to find justice for them.”

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Meeting Bou Meng

Justice is still lacking. Many former Khmer Rouge leaders and soldiers are part of the modern government. In fact, the US, Britain, and other democratic countries still recognized Pol Pot as the leader of Cambodia until 1991, despite his evil atrocities. Him Huy, who was the head guard at S-21 and personally tortured Bou Meng, still accepts money to give tours of the prison and to talk to journalists. The history of the genocide is not taught to Cambodian students at all in school, because the government is still trying to hide what happened as much as possible. It is our job to be educated about this, to seek justice for these victims, and to ensure that this never happens again in our world.  Cambodia is still recovering from this period of history, and it is very evident in the infrastructure, healthcare, and education systems in the country. We need to do everything we can to help this country move forward and heal, and to ensure its future includes hope and justice.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

This afternoon, I hopped in the back of a pickup truck with a few other friends from my hostel and rode 1.5 hours through the hills outside of Chiang Mai to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. The sanctuary is a camp for elephants who were formerly used in the riding business. Many people aren’t aware that riding elephants actually hurts the elephants over time, as their bodies are structured to carry weight in their lower bodies and not on top. Elephants are also harmed by the equipment used in the riding business, such as straps and hooks. The average lifespan of an elephant used for riding is about 20 years shorter than other elephants.

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The sanctuary, as well as camps and parks with a similar focus, is harnessing the tourism industry to change the way elephants are perceived and treated. Elephants were once used by their owners in the logging industry. When that industry dwindled, elephants were then transitioned into the tourism industry as a riding attraction. The elephants are owned by “mahouts,” or elephant trainers, who train the elephants to do tricks and to be ridden and then lease the elephants to tourism companies. By introducing a sanctuary experience as an “ethical alternative” that consistently attracts consumers, the sanctuary pitches itself to the mahouts as a better (the mahouts don’t want the elephants to suffer either, but they have to find ways to cash in on their investment), more lucrative, and more promising business choice for their lease. The sanctuary then attracts tourists to come and feed, bathe, pet, and rinse the elephants, and uses the money made to pay the mahouts as well as operational costs. Mahouts make money, the elephants are treated well, and tourists can take part in a fun experience.  The sanctuary will also buy riding elephants with its own funds, and these elephants become permanent residents of the camp. All other elephants are on lease from their mahouts.

 
So what did we do with the elephants? First, we had to put on a traditional Karen tribal tunic. The guides told us this is so the elephants would feel comfortable around us (maybe this is true, or maybe it’s something they just tell tourists…who knows!) IMG_7476.JPGThen, we started feeding the elephants bananas. Elephants eat between 200 and 300 kilograms of food per day! The elephants were not shy at all, and actually followed us when they saw we had bananas in our hands! One elephant even almost mistook my iPhone in my hand as a banana…crisis averted! These elephants were very muddy, and it didn’t take long before I was very muddy.

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The elephants are so excited to get bananas from visitors!!

This was very fitting, as we next took the elephants to a mud pool and got in the pool with them to give a mud bath. Yes, I swam in the mud with the elephants! I have never been dirtier in my life, and it was fabulous! My biggest concern was being careful that the elephants didn’t accidentally step on me or one of my friends. We were a few hours from any town, so this would be a bad place to break a foot! After the mud bath, we followed the elephants down to a river and rinsed and scrubbed them. Then, we left the elephants behind and trekked to a beautiful waterfall in the jungle and went for a swim. By this point, I was covered in mud from head to toe, so I took the chance to rinse off in the surprisingly cold water. Afterward, we all had a delicious meal prepared by the camp workers, and then hopped on the back of the pickup to go the 1.5 hours back to Chiang Mai. Given the winding and bumpy road and exhaust fumes from the truck, we were all a little nauseated, but that was a small price to pay for such a beautiful and magical day!

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This elephant is pregnant and you could feel the baby elephant kicking!! Her baby will get to live at the sanctuary with her 🙂

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Country Roads, Take Me Home: The Deep South (the good and the bad)

There really is no place like home. During the first leg of my summer travels, I am spending 11 days at “home,” which, to me, is a collection of places in Alabama and Mississippi where I have spent a good portion of my life living or visiting family. While living in NYC the last 3 years, the opportunities to spend time at home have been few and far between, so this week is a real treat for me. There is nothing better than spending time with family, and unwinding at the slower pace of the South.

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This is how I’ve spent most of my time since coming home!

After just a few days here, I am already more well-rested and re-centered than I’ve been in the last 3 years! Visiting home is good for the heart and soul. Below, I’ve listed my highlights of “home” for you, including what I love dearly about each place as well as ways I think my home can become an even better, more equitable place.

Demopolis, Alabama. Demopolis, otherwise known as “Demop,” will always be my hometown. Demopolis is just like those small, sleepy southern towns you see in movies like Forrest Gump and Sweet Home Alabama, except even better! The downtown square is still thriving with small locally-owned businesses, and the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers provides a beautiful natural backdrop for the city. Demopolis is located in the Alabama Black Belt and is home to several wonderfully preserved antebellum homes such as Gaineswood, Bluff Hall, and Lyon Hall. In fact, Gaineswood is known as “Alabama’s Monticello” because of its unique architecture and artistry. Each year, the city hosts the “Christmas on the River” festival in the first week of December, which concludes with a parade of lighted holiday floats gliding down the river on boats. If you’re going to visit, I recommend coming that weekend! If you visit at any other point, check with the local Chamber of Commerce for a free walking tour of the historic downtown. Be sure to eat at The Red Barn, which is a barn that has been converted into an amazing steakhouse (although my favorite dish here is the crawfish étouffée!) Also, be sure to see the hay art on Highway 43 just north of town. These hay sculptures have been around my whole life, and are truly a unique site on the drive to and from Tuscaloosa!

 

 Montgomery, Alabama. As the state capital, Montgomery has a lot to offer in terms of history and culture. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of attending the outdoor symphonies held in front of the state archives building and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival with my mom. The ASF is one of the largest Shakespeare festivals in the world (yes, this is in Alabama!), and features high quality off-Broadway productions throughout the year. The city has also done a good job of renovating the downtown area, including Riverwalk Stadium, home of the AAA team the Montgomery Biscuits! There are several good bars and restaurants in this area that are worth a visit, like Central and Alley Bar.

Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL. Selma is located about halfway between Demopolis and Montgomery, and is an hour’s drive from each. Selma is home to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the tragic Bloody Sunday attack on peaceful civil rights protesters marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1965. Dr. King eventually led the successful march from Selma to the capitol steps in Montgomery along US Highway 80 through Lowndes County, where I lived for a time as a child. Even as I rode to and from school in Selma each day along the very path of this historic march, the significance of this has become even more evident to me in my adult life.Screenshot 2016-05-04 at 3.52.05 PM

Tupelo and Oxford, Mississippi. My family recently moved to Tupelo, yet I’ve spent my entire life visiting family already living throughout north Mississippi. Tupelo is a great town, and I’ve enjoyed the few times I’ve been able to visit. Of course, one of the key sites to visit is the birthplace of Elvis Presley! Tupelo also has a beautiful downtown with several locally-owned restaurants and shops, and a fantastic daily newspaper, The Daily Journal (shameless plug for my dad’s newspaper!) 🙂

Oxford is just an hour down the road from Tupelo, and is home to the University of Mississippi (otherwise known as Ole Miss). A vast majority of my family on both sides have attended Ole Miss, so I of course grew up with strong loyalties here! Some of my favorite childhood and college memories are attending football games in Oxford. There is truly nothing like it! The Grove (as well as the Circle) is where most of the world-class tailgating goes down. Apart from Ole Miss, Oxford is one of my favorites towns in the U.S. If you visit, be sure to stop by William Faulkner’s home Rowan Oak (check out the wall where he outlined one of his novels!) and the downtown square, which is home to several great boutiques, restaurants, bars, and my favorite bookstore on earth, Square Books.

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Scenes from an Ole Miss football game

A New South. Like most people I know who were raised in the Deep South, I recognize what is so inherently special yet tragically flawed about the place I call home. Southern hospitality is a real thing, and the South is home to some of the kindest, most genuine people you will ever meet. However, the repercussions of an all too recent history still influence the region, and there is a lot of work left to be done. Below, I have listed just a handful of issues that have been on my mind.  

  1. Educational equity. Although the legally sanctioned segregation of schools ended with a series of Supreme Court decisions during the Civil Rights era, many public schools throughout Alabama and Mississippi remain extremely segregated along racial lines. While a number of public schools in Alabama and Mississippi are integrated and meeting and exceeding national standards for achievement, several counties in both states have public schools that are segregated, underfunded, understaffed, and failing to meet academic achievement standards. This article details the current situation in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, declaring, “In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.” Too many students are falling victim to the achievement gap that is very much affecting the future and security of our nation. While I taught with Teach For America (TFA) in Memphis, TFA is also doing good work to address this in the Mississippi Delta and Alabama regions. It’s not sufficient in itself to solve this injustice, but it is a step in the right direction.
  2. Extreme poverty and environmental issues. Alabama and Mississippi are home to some of the poorest zip codes in the country, and there is no evidence of this more jarring than the plight of the citizens of Lowndes County and Perry County. In Lowndes County, a majority of citizens have inadequate sewage systems as a result of the high cost of installing above-ground septic tanks as required by the high clay content in the area’s soil. I still remember neighbors from my childhood here who had no running water or septic system. The Equal Justice Initiative is working to directly address the lack of closed septic systems throughout the county. You can read about their work here. In Perry County, just a few miles from my hometown of Demopolis, instances of respiratory disease and cancer have spiked since 3 million tons of toxic coal ash waste were literally transported from a white, middle-class town in Tennessee and dumped in this predominantly African American county in 2008. This waste was deemed too hazardous for Kingston, TN, and was refused by government officials in Pennsylvania, yet has been deemed “safe enough” for the second poorest county in Alabama. You can get involved in this issue here and read more about this issue here
  3. LGBT discrimination. Mississippi recently passed HB 1523, which legalizes discrimination against LGBT individuals under the guise of religious freedom.The law is so incendiary that foreign governments (such as the UK) have issued travel advisories for their LGBT citizens warning against travel to Mississippi. In addition to the horrible reality of legalized discrimination, this law also casts Mississippi back into a negative light where social progress is doubted, and forces those who have connections to the state to both apologize for this law and defend what is good about the state. While this legislation is extremely disappointing, I am encouraged by the conversations I have had with friends from the South who are speaking out in support of change, tolerance, and the protection of human rights.
  4. The Confederate flag as part of Mississippi’s state flag. The Confederate flag, which serves as a symbol of oppression and has been adopted by hate groups, is still officially recognized as part of Mississippi’s state flag. It is time for Mississippi to have a flag that represents all its people.The debate to redesign the state flag is ongoing, and you can read more about the issue here.

The South is a place of contradictions–great natural beauty yet heart-wrenching injustice, a deep and rich history yet excruciatingly painful and persistent modern consequences, and people who epitomize warmth and hospitality yet laws that codify horrifying discrimination in both the past and present. I will always love my home, and for this reason I continue to hope the region can become a place where hospitality is manifested as equality in its schools, its laws, and its symbols.IMG_7196

Change the Game: The Economics of Saving the Rhino

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If there is such thing as a modern day dinosaur, the rhino comes close. It was like stepping back in time, as I watched these majestically ancient creatures move purposefully under the shade provided by the trees’ small branches. I found myself in awe of their presence. I tried not to breathe very loudly, as the rhino fixed his beady eye on me. If he wanted, the rhino could have plowed through the shade trees, easily uprooting them, before making his way to and through myself and my fellow travelers crouched low in the grass just a few yards away. However, the peaceful and friendly nature of these rhinos put me at ease, and I knew they were content to have me in their backyard, so long as I didn’t make too much noise! I fell in love with these easygoing creatures.

The issue is we are losing these animals.

One of the most magical but least expected highlights of my trip to Africa in December was the day I spent tracking the white rhinoceros near the Matopos with Ian Harmer of African Wanderer Safaris. I have always considered myself to have a respectable level of concern regarding animal and wildlife issues. However, spending a day with the rhinos of Zimbabwe made me passionate about the fight to save the rhino from extinction. I was stunned by what I learned—it is estimated two rhinos are killed each day, and poaching has grown considerably in the last 10 years. In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa. In 2015, 1,215 rhinos were poached. At this rate, there will be no more rhinos left in the world within the next 10 years, in the wild or in captivity.

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Snack time!

 

Why are the rhinos dying?

Rhinos across southern Africa are the target of organized poaching schemes driven by the economic forces of the illegal horn trade across Asia. Some Asian cultures believe rhino horn holds special medical power (everything from boosting male virility to curing cancer). The rhino horn can be worth up to twice its weight in gold in these markets. Poachers have advanced systems involving helicopters and infrared technology to track and kill the rhinos, often in the most inhumane ways possible. Ian shared a heartbreaking story from several months back about finding a rhino he had “grown up with” left for dead on the side of the road after the poachers had cut his face off to take his horn. In an effort to protect the rhinos in the fight against the poachers, rangers at the Matobo National Park carry machine guns and are mandated to shoot and kill suspected poachers on the spot.

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With an armed guard in the park

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that rhinos do not have to die or suffer to give up their horns. In fact, cutting a rhino horn is similar to clipping a human’s fingernails or toenails—if done correctly, the process is easy and pain-free. The staff at the Matobo National Park regularly cuts the horns of the rhinos in their park, in order to make them less of a target for poachers. This is unlike the elephant’s tusk, which is essentially a tooth instead of a fingernail. Elephants must be killed to extract the tusk.

How can we save the rhino?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has been instrumental in working to protect the rhino and eliminate illegal horn trading. CITES meets every three years and has a standing committee specifically focused on the rhino. Recently, CITES has pushed for the government of Vietnam to conduct “consumer behavior research” in an effort to develop strategies to decrease demand for rhino horn, as well as to impose stiffer penalties for those participating in the illegal market.  CITES has also mandated Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to continue their efforts to coordinate along their borders to stop poachers, as well as to implement penalties for poachers more consistently. For example, in 2013, Mozambique issued a higher number of poaching fines than ever before, yet only 3% were paid.

The challenge is finding a solution that will prevent the rhinoceros from becoming extinct. It is quite difficult to change mindsets and alter economic pressures over a given period of time, and even more so when the time is severely limited given the rate that rhinos are being poached. What if the trade of the rhino horn became legal? Until 2009, domestic trading of rhino horn was legal in South Africa. It was made illegal in 2009 as a response to the spike in poaching. What about international trade of rhino horn? CITES banned this in 1977, in an effort to protect already dwindling rhino numbers. Despite these bans, the poaching issue has become considerably worse over the last decade, and we are now facing the possible extinction of the rhino.

Since it is painless to cut the horns of rhinos (or “dehorn” them), rhinos could be farmed like cattle and dehorned regularly, thus better protecting them from poachers and generating a profit for the farmers and benefitting the local economy. Also, poachers will be de-incentivized, as a legalized trade would increase supply and lower prices. However, there is always the risk that legalizing the trade could have the opposite effect of increasing demand, in which case poachers would still have inducement to poach. Also, given the demand for rhino horn is primarily in Asia, a ban on domestic trade of rhino horn is a non-issue, as there is really no domestic market. It seems a lift on the international trade ban would be the key driver of this solution.

CITES will have their triennial meeting this September in Johannesburg, South Africa. Without doubt, there will be continued debate on what policies would be most effective for protecting the rhino. I hope the leaders at CITES realize the current strategies have been ineffective, and time is running out for the rhino unless we change the game.

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