Other people’s stories

In a seminar last week, I was surprised that so many of my classmates expressed an interest in reporting stories about “social justice” or the “underprivileged.”  On one hand, this is awesome because its so much better than wanting to report alarmist crime stories or about the socialist conspiracy to take away American freedom.  On the other hand, its really easy to report the stories of people with whom you don’t share experiences in a way that is patronizing or reinforces broadly held misconceptions or your own misconceptions.

While I don’t think my classmate’s experience with class are homogeneous, I think its safe to say that  many haven’t experienced extreme poverty.  My own experience is one that is firmly middle class.  Why then, do I and others have  such a fascination with the “underprivileged” and their stories?  I’ve struggled with this question, and the best explanation I can come up with for myself is that, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been sensitive to unfairness and cruelty, so stories about these things, which often involve class or race have always resonated with me.

But what does my attention do?  What does my reporting of other people’s stories of unfairness do?  This is a question I’m trying to answer as I move through my graduate program and one that I hope to raise with my classmates.  I think that we need to think about reporting stories about poverty or other social injustice not just because they’re powerful but because we can imagine some transformative outcome from retelling the story.  More and more I’m feeling like concerned middle-class or wealthy people need to stop fixating on simply “helping” those with different resources and mobilities and examine how the practice of being middle-class or wealthy perpetuates unfair systems.

When I told a friend I was going to journalism school, she said that she felt like it was really important that journalists started looking at helping (or maybe just moving out of the way so that) people can tell their own stories.  I think this idea is important.  Whether there still needs to be space for telling other people’s stories really depends on the outcomes we imagine.  Hopefully I can get a better answer to this question in the future.

The photo that goes with this post is from a screenshot from a video exploring teen violence by the Community TV Network’s Hard Cover News team.  It’s part of a project called Chain of Change that I found out about because my friend Chiara worked with it as part of her Internship at Beyondmedia.

The Chain of Change project’s website describes the project like this:

The Chain of Change project organizes youth activists to individually and collectively strategize how to end violence by exposing its roots through the creation of media. Beyondmedia distributes video cameras to youth groups, who create short videos that challenge individuals to think about their own roles in this struggle.

I think it’s a really great example of people affected by a particular problem, in this case youth affected by violence, are telling their own stories to help meet community needs.


I live in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.  When I tell people where I live, I’m often  asked “why Lakeview?” or given a glum, “oh.  That’s cool.”  My friends in Chicago don’t live in the neighborhood.  People think of it for the college town style bars in Wrigleyville, or going to The Alley when they were teenagers to get punk gear. I find that I’ve started to preempt the “Why Lakeview?” question with a quick explanation that I moved to that neighborhood because it had good neighborhood public schools and I moved to Chicago with 2 school-aged roommates.  This explanation seems to satisfy most people, but it doesn’t resonate.  Before this move, public schools aren’t something I would have factored into my neighborhood choice either.

When I talk to long-time Chicagoans who live in other neighborhoods, it makes me anxious.  In a city so defined by racial and economic segregation, I worry that people will think of me only in terms of perceptions of my neighborhood.  I will become only the privilege or ability or ability derived from privilege that gives me the means to pay the neighborhood’s above average rents.  And that is true, it is a part of my reality and who I am, but it’s not everything, just as the mostly white, mostly young, mostly professional folks living in condos are a part of the reality of lakeview, but not everything.

In terms of income, Lakeview looks like the table:

Income Diversity (by Families) in LAKE VIEW
1970 1980 1990 2000
# % # % # % # %
Low Income 9192 33% 7843 39% 3987 26% 2520 18%
Moderate Income 11553 42% 7480 37% 4962 32% 3305 23%
High Income 6748 25% 4807 24% 6325 41% 8393 59 %
Total 27492 100% 20131 100% 15274 100% 14219 100%
View 2005 Income Diversity Data

View 2005 Estimates and 2010 Projections

Note: Low income = families with annual income < $38,622, moderate income = families with annual income $38,622 – $78,825, families with annual income > $78,825.

Read full data and analysis.

In terms of race, the neighborhood looks like this:

Note that there’s no Latino group because the way that the 2000 census (and, I guess, subsequent EASI surveys) treat Spanish-speaking people is that they’re counted in the other racial groups. I’m told that most report themselves as white or other. The only breakdown of Latino or Spanish speaking people is relative to white folks who don’t identify as Latino or Hispanic. For Lakeview, this looks like this:

I’ve decided that it is reductive to, by my discomfort in owning up to where I live, define the place where I live only by the 59 percent of families that have high incomes or the nearly 79 percent that are white.  This ignores the 18 percent of low income families who found some way to work themselves into the neighborhood, perhaps in order to send their kids to a functional, vibrant public school.  It ignores the queer youth of color who come to the neighborhood so they can be out; and institutions like the Links Hall dance and performance space; the Chicago Womens Health Center, the LGBTQ community center, Center on Halsted; and  the Lakeview Action Coalition.

I can’t really say what all these parts mean, whether they’re bad or good, just that they’re part of the neighborhood.  When we think of place only by its biggest or loudest components we think of the way that they change in frightening terms, as one thing consuming or threatening another, instead of transformation or evolution.  I want to see the places in my life for everything that they are and might be.

Note: All the data from this post is from the fabulous Metro Chicago Information Center.  The photo is from Google Maps.

Graffiti Panic

This is a letter to the editor that I just submitted in response to an editorial in today’s H-T, Graffiti not art; it is vandalism:

I was disappointed by today’s editorial condemning graffiti.  Rather than fostering a nuanced and frank dialog about complicated issues like the state of public and private spaces in Bloomington, the editorial’s intention seemed only to attempt to induce panic.  Why even mention the specter of gang violence when the police department confirms that graffiti in Bloomington has no relation to such violence?  Furthermore, I am disappointed by the brief mention of the “broken windows theory”  and other studies outside of the context of a broader body of research.  This theory, like many sociological theories, is still being widely debated.  For instance, one study by researchers Robert J. Sampson of Harvard University and Stephen W. Raudenbush of the University of Michigan suggests that rather than being inherently problematic to the well-being of a neighborhood, graffiti (among other things) invokes deep-rooted anxieties and prejudices that people have about changing class and race dynamics of a community.  Ultimately, I am far more concerned about the high costs of renting spaces, barriers to starting businesses, and difficulty finding employment in Bloomington.  If we do not address these factors, graffiti may be the only way that many can participate in Bloomington’s downtown.

why vote? and distance from policy

I would now ultimately summarize my last post on the election as saying that deciding whether or not to vote and who to vote for is a personal decision based on one’s own politics, policy analysis, investments, family, identity, etc. in all it’s contradiction and complexity and not overwhelmed by media coverage of the election, political pundits, ideological rhetoric, or other people’s (however vocal they might be) reasons for supporting a given candidate.  To paraphrase a pundit on the radio, this election is not about issues, it’s about how the candidates resonate with voters.  This is true and great and sad.  But, this reality doesn’t have to be as stark and uncomplicated as the campaigns would like it to be.  I’m so excited that race and gender are part of this campaign and that I have heard more and more people talking about these things as a result of the election.  Still, I got really sick of people debating just how black Barack Obama really was, or trying to explain why women identified with Hillary Clinton, and now, the super-cynical steel cage match between race and gender that was ushered in by Sarah Palin’s VP nomination.  What this leaves out entirely is any imagination for the way that Barack Obama’s experience with race might resonate with someone’s experience with gender or all the other complicated ways that we can connect with or reject the ideas of the people around us.  I resent the implication that people of color identify with Barack Obama just because he is multi-racial or that white, working class people can’t for the same reason.  It shouldn’t be that stark, and it isn’t if people just give themselves some space to do some critical introspection.

This isn’t the only reason why I think people like me (young, punk, creative-classish, college-town living) should vote.  In the first few elections where I was eligible to vote, I voted by absentee ballot.  The first time I actually went to the polls it was pretty exciting and also eye-opening.  I think that people should vote if only to see who else votes and what this says about where political power lies on your community.  Are the people at your polling place mostly of one race?  One gender?  Perceivably of one economic group?  What about the election workers?  Is it easy to vote or confusing?  What might your experience suggest about barriers that others could encounter in having access to even the most basic forms of political involvement?

Finally, Patrick asked me why I thought many of my peers weren’t voting.  Off the top of my head, I said it was because of people’s identification as radicals or anti-authoritarians and because many people just couldn’t be bothered to navigate the process of getting registered and going to the polls.  I forgot one important factor however.  An argument that I frequently hear is that libral, Democratic candidates are just as bad as the conservative ones at a policy level.  Common examples of this are the environmental policy during the Clinton admininstration or support for free trade agreements and more recently Scott Ritter’s statement that there wasn’t much difference between Obama and McCain’s rhetoric about Iran.  More importantly though, I feel like many of my peers feel unaffected by politics, even in the last 8 years of the Bush administration.  This makes sense.  Of my friends few own or drive cars very often, hardly anyone has been in military service or even has a family member in active duty, hardly anyone is a parent, hardly anyone is an immigrant or child of first-generation immigrants, few had to sustain the full cost of a college education themselves and many decided to forgo college, few work in a professional setting where job loss due to discrmination or harassment is a concern, most are young and lead a healthy lifestyle and have been free of chronic health concerns.  I’m not hating.  This describes me too, and I’d say we’re in good company.  However, this is a dangerous place to be in because it is very easy to feel like we haven’t been directly affected by the policy decisions of the last 8 years.  It’s also easy to imagine weathering another 8 years of a Republican administration feeling like little has changed in our daily lives and with the slim satisfaction that we supported neither the reviled Republican leader nor their imperfect liberal rival.

I don’t think this perception is always true, but it’s an easy one to have.  For myself, I had to think a little before I realized how differently my mom, a special-ed elementary school teacher, talks and thinks about teaching and what she sees as possible within and as a result of education since No Child Left Behind became part of her reality.  Also, I’ve been out of college for a few years, but I’m thinking of going back and the prospects for financial aid are really, really different than five years ago.  Still, it took a bit of thought and intention to go from “all the candidate’s policies suck, fuck em'” to “these things affect me”, so I understand the apparent apathy of many of my peers.  I just hope it doesn’t stick.

Media check for the week of November 25, 2007

Last night, I watched a movie called Saving Face. It was your traditional rom-com in the sense that it had both an interrupted wedding and an airport scene. However, the characters were Chinese-American and the primary love stories were between two young women and an older woman and a younger man.


I heard a story on NPR this morning that talked about Dunkin’ Donuts’ rebranding campaign, but I thought there was a nice statement about the cache of products being working class and upper class people aspiring to “lower class” identities.

Dunkin’ Donuts’ advertising campaign “America Runs on Dunkin” is created out of a sentiment among customers that they wanted to buy a good, simple product. Brand guru Leslie Bielby says the campaign expands the retailer’s appeal.


media check for the week of 2007-08-19

I decided to go to the IU library to check out the book The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World’s Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town? (ISBN-13: 978-1-56898-678-4) and found a wealth of other interesting books in the HN80.N5 section on the 7th floor. I also checked out There Goes The Neighborhood (ISBN-10: 0-394-57936-4), a book about the politics of race and class in Chicago neighborhoods, and passed on Praciticing Community (ISBN-10: 0-292-73118-3), a book about similar dynamics, but in Cincinatti, though it also looked good.

I heard an interesting recording of a Michael Parenti talk on Alternative Radio on WFHB on Monday, 2007-08-20 that was kind of all over the place, but mostly about how identity politics are exploited to divide people who are marginalized by race, gender, or sexual orientation. He also suggested that the division of power in this country often finds people with very different ethnic, gender, sexual, or other cultural identities on the same side of that power divide.

I read this article by Dave Zirin, author of What’s My Name Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the U.S., Welcome to the Terrordome, and other books about sports and politics. Zirin writes about the difficulties in sending copies of his books to a Texas death row inmate because

“It contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots.”

The offending content, according to the TXDOC, included quotations such as this from baseball great Jackie Robinson:

“I felt tortured and I tried to just play ball and ignore the insults. But it was really getting to me. … For one wild and rage-crazed moment I thought, ‘To hell with Mr. Rickey’s “noble experiment.” … To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create.’ I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of [expletive] and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all.”

I use del.icio.us for managing my bookmarks. Often, I want to access my del.icio.us bookmarks through my browser instead of having to visit the del.icio.us site. The del.icio.us Bookmarks Firefox add-on lets me do just that.

Roy F. Baumeister’s talk, Is There Anything Good About Men? is really interesting. It talks about the different ways that culture have used men and women to achieve its ends. It also talks about how a fundamental difference between men and women is that men favor wider, shallower relationships and women prefer closer, more intimate relationships and how this has driven the different cultural realms that are inhabited disproportionally by men and women. At the base of this, claims Baumeister, is the evolutionary reality that far more women reproduce than men. The wider, shallower, relationships or more risk-taking activities favored by men, in general, facilitates the differentiation that will allow some men to reproduce.

On a somewhat related note, this is a program that my friend is working with. The program is trying to organize
Men of Strength (MOST) Clubs in DC and other communities. A friend who works with the Middleway House, a Bloomington shelter for women and children affected by rape and family violence says that young men who stay in the shelter really lack a community of other males to critically examine their ideas of identity and masculinity and to model ideas of gender or relationships that differ from the violence that they’ve experienced. These clubs seem like a rare example of something that might begin to provide this support/education. The clubs are described as:

Men of Strength (MOST) Club has provided young men in Washington, DC and California high schools and colleges with a safe and supportive haven to connect with male peers while exploring masculinity and male strength.

Exposing young men to healthier, nonviolent models/visions of manhood, the MOST Club challenges members to define their own definition of masculinity and to translate their learning into community leadership, progressive action, and social change.


  • Provide young men with a safe, supportive space in which to connect with male peers through exploring notions of masculinity and male strength.
  • Promote an understanding of ways that traditional masculinity contributes to sexual assault and other forms of men’s violence, perpetuates gender inequity, and compromises the health of men and women.
  • Expose young men to healthier, nonviolent models/visions of manhood.
  • Build young men’s capacity to become peer leaders and allies with women in promoting gender equality and preventing men’s violence.

I have Debian Etch with KDE installed as my workstation at work, and I had a hard time figuring out how to make Iceweasel (Debian’s all-free software version of Firefox) the default browser instead of Konqueror.  Turns out it was as easy as

$ update-alternatives –config x-www-browser