Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Village Called Versailles

I recently saw a wonderfully moving documentary on PBS’s program Independent Lens. A Village Called Versailles told the story of the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans before and after Katrina. Their story was largely overlooked by the mainstream media, but I had heard snippets of their experiences over the years. It is an amazing story that the film tells in greater detail.

The film begins by explaining how this group of Vietnamese refugees initially came to New Orleans, and settled in a cluster of apartments called Versailles in New Orleans East. The trauma of their escape from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, and their journey to the United States was heart-wrenching. The film shows how the refugees worked hard for over 30 years to rebuild their lives and build a strong community in their new homeland. Then Katrina hit.

The Vietnamese American community of Versailles was devastated when the levees broke. The community was forced by rescue workers to go to the convention center, where they languished for days. Then they were eventually placed on buses for evacuation centers in Texas and Arkansas. The experience was particularly painful for the older Vietnamese Americans because it was so reminiscent of their initial arrival in the U.S. as refugees. Perhaps because of that prior experience, they were arguably even more determined than some New Orleanians to return. One elderly man was interviewed for the film, and explained that when he was forced from his home in Vietnam, he could have no hope of ever returning. But he was determined to not be permanently forced from his second home, New Orleans. That was not an option. The film focused largely on the community’s efforts to return to New Orleans and rebuild their community.

For purposes of this blog, I would like to focus on the role of the community’s church. Most in the community are Catholic, and Mary Queen of Vietnam Church has been the spiritual center of the community. The pastor, Father Vien, helped organize the parishioners as the waters began to rise after the levees broke. When the community was evacuated from New Orleans, he traveled great distances to visit his flock and minister to them in person. He also began rebuilding the church almost immediately. Footage shows him on the roof of the church with a hammer in hand in the blazing sun. Just weeks after Katrina, they were able to begin having mass again. Parishioners drove hours and hours on Sundays just to participate in worship at their home parish. It was a huge encouragement to the scattered community, and served as a major impetus for members of the community to return.

As the city began to rebuild, plans initially were made in a vacuum to not repopulate much of New Orleans East. Then Mayor Nagin used emergency powers to establish a major storm debris landfill on the edge of the Versailles community. The Vietnamese American community was outraged. They feared the toxicity of the landfill would be the death nail in their community, and they wouldn’t stand for it. Under the leadership of their priests, Fathers Vien and Luke, the community organized and protested effectively to close the landfill. The community had not been active in politics before, but through the leadership of their priests and the galvanization of their community, they found their political voice. It was particularly beautiful to see the elderly residents of Versailles participate in rallies. They had escaped a totalitarian regime that stifled freedom of expression. They were fighting for the continuity of their community.

I also found it very moving that the people of Versailles organized events to reach out beyond their own ethnic community. They held masses and candlelight vigils that were attended by Vietnamese Americans as well as African Americans. Currently, Mary Queen of Vietnam Church offers services in Vietnamese, English and Spanish.

John 13:35

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Women in Developing Countries

I recently found a wonderful show on PBS called WorldFocus. It is a nightly news program with in-depth coverage each night on a different international theme. I tuned in on March 30th and there was a program focusing on the struggles and achievements of women in developing countries. They spotlighted a number of interesting stories.

The program reported on Liberia’s fight to eradicate a rape epidemic since the country’s bloody civil war. They also had an amazing piece on the post-genocide composition of the Rwandan parliament. As a strategy to heal the country, there had been efforts to get more women in government, but the efforts were much more successful than anyone had ever imagined. Rwanda’s parliament now has a larger percentage of women than in any other governmental body in the whole world.

The entire episode of WorldFocus can be watched if you use the link below.

Unfortunately, as I was searching for the link to prepare this blog post, I learned that this terrific show was recently canceled. It was apparently on the air for just 18 months. This is really demoralizing. I watched it several times in what was apparently its last month on the air. It was much more informative than other American news programs. I assume it was pretty expensive to send journalists out to research stories around the globe, and not just to pay talking heads to gab in a television studio.

Mark 4:24

Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Opponents of Bilingual Education

In my experience in listening to their arguments, English-only proponents who bash bilingual education are often not well-informed about the realities of the alternatives. If children who don’t speak English well are immediately mainstreamed into English-only language classrooms, they simply cannot keep up. People who haven’t studied foreign languages often don’t appreciate this as fact. They often speak in terms of “sink or swim” and “immersion.” However, in my experience, this conceptualization is simplistic and ignores reality.

I have come to understand that many opponents of bilingual education don’t realize that proficiency in a second language is not an all or nothing proposition. One is not either “fluent” or “not fluent” in a second language; there is a spectrum of proficiency. And the proficiency needed to be able to go to the store, rent an apartment or order in a restaurant is not necessarily evidence of proficiency for higher level language challenges like working or studying.

For example, when I lived in France after undergraduate school, I was able to travel, shop, and socialize with ease while speaking French, but there were other things I could not do because of the limitations of my proficiency. I had a very demoralizing experience at a bank one time as the teller tried to explain certain fees I had unwittingly incurred on my account due to my unfamiliarity with French banking rules. Despite over ten years of studying French by that time, I had no clue what the teller was saying to me, and I was very frustrated that the bank had hit my meager account with pricey fees. I could speak in French about shopping and food and movies, but banking policies were beyond my capabilities. Also during this time in France, I very much wanted to audit a university history course, but I ultimately never did because my language skills were not strong enough. I knew I wouldn’t be able to understand everything the professor said and I feared making a fool of myself.

Mainstreaming linguistic minority kids before they have achieved sufficient proficiency in English is harmful to the education of those prematurely mainstreamed kids. Lau v. Nichols recognized that fact. However, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that it is also harmful to the education of the rest of the class. If a sizeable number of students in a class don’t understand the language of instruction, everything gets bogged down as the teacher has to spend extra time to try to somehow get through to those students. Despite the use of charades and/or peer translations (if available), academic instruction is often nearly impossible. And even in the best of situations, it takes significantly more time. Not to be overlooked, classroom management and discipline are also a challenge when there is not a common language between students and teacher. It is unreasonable to expect a child to obey rules that she has not been told in a way she can understand. This is particularly the case when the norms of the child’s culture may be different from the school’s, or when the child is young and never attended (and been acculturated to) school previously.

When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, I experienced this dilemma first hand. In my last year of elementary school, our neighborhood experienced an unprecedented population explosion. It seemed like new kids were added to our class every few days for a while. By the end of the year, the classroom was almost bursting at its seams. The new students were almost all from Southeast Asia. They came from a handful of different countries and spoke several different languages. They were newly immigrated to the United States, and hardly any of the new students spoke English yet. By the end of the year, I remember doing the math and realizing that the class numbered about 40 students, and about half of them spoke little or no English. Our teacher did her best, but my recollection is that we got very little accomplished in the waning months of the year. To cope with the situation, she ended up assigning a lot of self-paced independent study work to the native English speakers while she tried to work closely with the kids whose English skills were still emerging. That chaotic situation did not meet any students’ needs adequately.

Matthew 11:25

At that time Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Teaching Bilingual Education in Texas

In the prior post, I mentioned that I taught bilingual education in Texas while George W. Bush was governor. Around this same time, Pete Wilson was governor of California and was trying to use the scapegoating of illegal immigrants to his political advantage. Governor Wilson was advocating the elimination of bilingual education and the denial of medical treatment to illegal immigrants at ERs in California. In the circles where I worked and played, we frankly just thought those Californians were nuts.

I remember vividly that Governor Bush distanced himself publicly from his fellow GOP governor’s positions. Governor Bush reaffirmed Texas’s commitment to bilingual education, which was very much appreciated by and reassuring to my fellow bilingual education teachers. During this period, Governor Bush also liked to emphasize his own close ties to leaders in Mexico, and his admiration for Texas’s Latino population. In his two races for governor, he often campaigned partially Spanish. Though his Spanish was not that good, I personally did appreciate his attempts and his cultural sensitivity.

In that political context, and despite the conservative political climate where I taught, there was never a wavering of support for bilingual education by the staff or administrators. Outside of that context, I have sometimes heard ignorant proponents of English-only laws assert that bilingual education is a crutch for linguistic minorities, who should just stop being lazy, learn English and assimilate with the dominant culture. Those ignorant assertions frustrate me for a host of reasons.

The reality is that at least in Texas public schools when I was a grade school teacher, bilingual education for language minority students had nothing to do with promoting mastery of languages other than English or celebrating the culture of a particular racial or ethnic group. Instead, modern bilingual education came about after a Supreme Court case, Lau v. Nichols, recognized that instruction in only English deprived a meaningful education to children who did not yet speak English or who only spoke it a little. See Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974). The Court’s opinion required that school districts do something to remedy that situation and meet the children’s needs. Bilingual education in public schools is one strategy to meet those needs.

At least where I taught, bilingual education was limited to just elementary school, and by junior high students had to be ready for English only instruction. As a result, the focus of bilingual education where I taught was to teach kids core subjects in their first language (e.g., Spanish or Vietnamese), while they were taught English intensively during part of the day. If you don’t teach linguistic minority kids in their first language while their English skills are still weak, they fall behind in the core subjects. By the time they get competent enough in English to function well in an English only classroom (e.g., by the end of elementary school), they are too far behind to catch up in their core subjects.

As a kindergarten bilingual education teacher, I taught my students their letter sounds and reading, math (including counting by tens, simple fractions, adding and subtracting), science, and social studies all in Spanish. However, I also spent significant time every day teaching them English. At the beginning of the year, few of my students spoke any English, so we would start out with ESL lessons that lasted an hour or less. But by the end of the year, half our school day was spent speaking English. By then, my students could sing dozens of songs in English, understand simple stories in English, and discuss addition problems in English. At the beginning of the school year, my students mainly played with each other on the playground. Due to their inability to speak English, they self-segregated. But by Christmas break, they were starting to feel confident enough in English that they began to play with the kids who spoke only (or primarily) English. By the end of the year, everyone was playing in an integrated fashion, which was very gratifying.

Mark 9:37

"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Immigration Debate and Kids

Because of S.B. 1070 and the recent visit of the president of Mexico, the issue of illegal immigration is receiving a lot of news coverage. The article and news clip in the link below tugged at my heart, and reminded me of experiences in my pre-law school career.

As an undergraduate, one of my two majors was Spanish. Before I went to law school, I was a grade school teacher for several years. Most of that time, I was a bilingual education Kindergarten teacher in a public school located in an impoverished neighborhood outside Houston. At least at that time, the school district was largely staffed by politically conservative white folks. Most of the students were Hispanic; many of them were recent immigrants from Mexico.

I had a lot of respect for my co-workers. They had big hearts and were incredibly dedicated to the success of our students. The teachers and staff made so many personal sacrifices and worked so hard for the students. Despite many significant obstacles, our students performed very well on standardized tests. While I was on staff, our school was recognized by the state multiple times for its success.

Most of my colleagues were Christian, female, and staunchly Republican. A number of them also lived in the vicinity of where The Urban Cowboy took place, and spoke with an unmistakable Texas twang (i.e., the Lone Star equivalent to a Southern drawl). My colleagues were polite when my class wrote to the White House and received a portrait of President Clinton. The principal had it framed and hung in the library. The process was repeated (with admittedly more enthusiasm) when my class wrote to our state governor at the time, George W. Bush, and we received his portrait in the mail. This high honor prompted many of my co-workers to share with me their high opinion of Governor Bush, as well as their hopes that he would run for president eventually.

In the district where I taught, parents had to prove residency within the district boundaries to register their kids for public school. However, the district never asked about citizenship or immigration status. Despite the politically conservative climate among the staff and faculty, I don’t recall anyone ever questioning the wisdom of that approach or suggesting that it was in any way improper for us to educate the children of illegal immigrants. The attitude seemed to be that the children were currently in the local community, the families seemed to be there for the long-term, and so we ought to give the kids the best education possible.

A sizeable number of our school’s students were from families from Northern Mexico. Indeed, this was a widely acknowledged fact. Our school would celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a parade or assembly. And the staff regularly fretted about a sharp drop off in school attendance just before and after long weekends. To make the most of the holidays, the families would sometimes leave Texas a few days early or return a few days late from visiting family in Mexico.

Some of the moms of my students would occasionally share with me little snippets of their former lives in Mexico. A number of them had taught in rural elementary schools, and valued education very deeply. They often spoke to me with the respectful title “Licenciada” which denoted the fact that I had a college degree. The kids in my classes were generally just five years old and had fewer memories (if any) of Mexico. However, many students would speak nostalgically about the “ranchitos” where their “abuelos” lived.

I never pried about immigration status, that was irrelevant to my job and it was frankly none of my business. But occasionally my little kindergarteners would tell me things that gave me hints. I remember one little fellow was sad at Christmas time because he had never met his “abuelita” or his “primos.” He told me matter-of-factly that his family didn’t have “papeles” so they couldn’t go back to visit Mexico. That broke my heart. I’m a big proponent of grandparents, it is horrible to imagine a child caught up in a tangle of immigration laws being deprived of the love and nurturing of his grandma.

One of my memories of my time teaching little kids in the Texas bilingual education program was how American they were. They loved Mexico and their relatives who still lived there, but these kids’ homes and their futures were clearly in Texas. They were thrilled to read the canned letter we received from President Clinton. And they were delighted to read the more personalized one from Governor Bush, who in answering our class’s questions told us Eric Carle was his favorite author and enchiladas were his favorite food. (This made a deep impression on my pupils, who had enjoyed The Very Hungry Caterpillar and shared the governor’s penchant for enchiladas.)

Perhaps because of the traditional climate at our school, we were all required to put our hands over our hearts and face the flag every morning without fail as children in the principal’s office led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance over the PA system. (On Fridays, we also had to stand at attention while a recording of either the national anthem or Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American” were played.) Everyone took it very seriously. No goofing off! Reciting the Pledge was a solemn occasion every day. As part of an ESL lesson early each year, I would always teach my kids how to pronounce all the big words and to understand what we were saying when we did the Pledge. Towards the end of the school year, the administration would have a handful of kindergarteners lead the school in reciting the Pledge. I remember the principal always complemented my little charges with respect to the good job they did. She always remarked that they enunciated the big words of the Pledge much better than many of the older kids in the non-bilingual classes, and they never forgot the words.

Matthew 21:15-16

But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they were indignant. "Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him. "Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read, " 'From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise' ?"

Friday, May 21, 2010

S.B. 1070

Arizona has been in the news a lot lately. Our new state law to fight illegal immigration has drawn scorn locally, nationally and even internationally. There is much I could write about the controversy. But I’m not an immigration law expert, so this blog post will focus on the bill’s passage from a more personal, granular level.

First of all, the state bill seemed to come out of nowhere. I didn't hear any news coverage of it until right before it was enacted. Both civil and criminal immigration laws already existed at the federal level. Indeed, immigration has heretofore generally been a matter within exclusive federal jurisdiction. Meanwhile, our state has been dealing with unprecedented economic issues, e.g., high unemployment, a dire state budget deficit, the collapse of real estate prices, and a tragically high foreclosure rate. It seemed surprising to me that in that context the legislature would take on something new (i.e., immigration) when we're simultaneously slashing the state budget.

I am a member of the Arizona Asian American Bar Association, and received an e-mail from the organization’s leadership a couple days before the bill was signed into law. The e-mail explained that it was a nonpolitical organization, and typically did not take stands on legislation. However, the group was breaking from tradition and urging Governor Brewer to not sign S.B. 1070.

That same day, my Criminal Law class was fortunate enough to have a wonderful guest speaker, a lawyer who practices federal criminal law. During the Q & A period at the end of her lecture, one of my students asked her opinion on the pending state immigration law. I have known this lawyer for a few years, and she has not struck me as particularly partisan or radical in any way. Prior questions that day had sought her opinion on the war on drugs; she did not express a lot of interest in the policy issues involved, but indicated she did not think it would be wise to decriminalize narcotics. However, when the issue of Arizona’s pending immigration law was raised, this lawyer became much more animated. She was particularly incensed and frustrated at the accusation by the bill’s supporters that the federal government is not doing enough to fight illegal immigration. She noted how much time and how many resources were consumed in her own practice by the federal prosecution of immigration crimes. She also pointed out that Arizona is the busiest federal district in the entire country because of all the immigration crimes processed.

After Governor Brewer signed S.B. 1070, I was personally disappointed and more than a little stunned. But there are so many injustices in this world, and we all are busy with our own lives. The week after the bill was enacted, I was busy grading student memos, and my husband’s old car was getting a ton of repairs done. In the meantime, I was receiving semi-hysterical e-mail updates from Sojourners that S.B. 1070 now made it potentially a criminal offense to drive family members or neighbors to church. Sojourners was encouraging subscribers around the country to voice opposition to the new law.

Over the next few days, I kept hearing more and more about the bill on the radio. What I was hearing was that if a person was pulled over (e.g., for a traffic violation), and if the police had reasonable suspicion to think the person was in the country illegally, they could demand documentation to prove their immigration status. Supporters of S.B. 1070 are adamant that this new law will not lead to racial profiling. Indeed, they point out that racial profiling is illegal. But in all the news coverage, I have yet to hear a coherent explanation as to how police will come to have “reasonable suspicion” about one’s immigration status without paying attention to one’s race or ethnicity. That is very troubling. I’m Caucasian and my complexion is fairly pale unless I’ve been to the beach recently. But I’ve got brown eyes and very dark colored hair. On numerous occasions in the United States and in Mexico, I’ve been mistaken for someone of Hispanic heritage. I began to wonder if I ought to begin carrying my passport or voter registration card around just in case.

One evening, I heard an NPR interview with J.D. Hayworth, who is running against John McCain in the Republican primary for Senate. Mr. Hayworth is pretty conservative and is a viable contender for the nomination. As a result, Senator McCain has lately taken a less moderate position on several issues, most notably immigration reform. In the interview, Mr. Hayworth dispelled the notion that S.B. 1070 was aimed only at Hispanics. He conceded that due to our geography illegal immigration from Mexico was our biggest problem in Arizona, but he noted we also had a serious problem with Chinese nationals and people from the Middle East who were in Arizona illegally. My daughters are Chinese American. And in the past when we have encountered border patrol stops (e.g., crossing back from Canada, traveling through Texas, traveling through California), our family has had to endure intrusive questioning with ugly undertones that sometimes upset our children. The night I heard Mr. Hayworth’s interview, I talked to my husband privately about whether he needed to carry their passports when they were out running errands.

A woman at the law school where I work has been organizing a clothing drive for a local school district. She has been trying to get dressy clothes that seniors can wear to their graduation ceremonies. As she made a recent pitch for donations, she noted that the school district in question is in a lower income area and most of the students are Hispanic. She added that even those who have money to buy clothes for graduation are afraid to go shopping since the passage of S.B. 1070.

Since the law was enacted, there have been daily protests at the state capitol in Phoenix. On the second Saturday after enactment, our whole family went down to join the protests. There were a lot of other families with small children. We explained to our kids what was going on, and what a privilege it is to live in a country where we can speak our minds freely and not fear government reprisal. I told my older daughter about the Tiananmen Massacre that took place in the PRC even before she was ever born, and compared it to the peaceful protests against S.B. 1070. The two of us read the signs, t-shirts and banners that people brought to the Arizona state capitol that day. My husband, our daughters and I all joined in the march as organizers got us into a line to begin processing down the street. We added our voices to the cheers of “¡Sí, se puede!” and discussed with our kids what that phrase meant. Our younger daughter conked out pretty early on after we ran out of cold soda, and insisted my husband carry her. But my older daughter was a little trooper. She and I held hands, and walked with the crowd. We smiled at the television cameras and the police officers on duty to maintain order. It was a beautiful sunny day in Arizona, and it wasn’t yet that hot.

At one point as we were all marching, an angry man in a pick-up slowed down as he drove past us. His window was down and he shouted ugly words at the protesters. My first inclination was to think he was a jerk, and my face probably went into an instinctive glare. But some woman farther back in the line immediately shouted back to him “We love you!” I was shamed at her instinctive non-hostile, generous response. I have no idea who she was or what her beliefs were, but clearly she was reacting in a much more Christ-like way than I had. To my surprise, the angry man shouted back (though at a lower decibel level and a bit begrudgingly), “I love you too.” It was a little surreal.

That weekend at church, we read from John 13:34-35, and our pastor taught on the power of love. Specifically, she talked to us about how Jesus taught us to love people even though they may not be that lovable. It seemed a good follow-up to our experience at the protest. Later in that same church service, during our community’s prayers, our pastor asked God for a Christ-like resolution to our border issues. Amen.

Matthew 2:13-15 (New International)

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Not long ago, as I was navigating rush hour traffic on my way home, I was listening to NPR’s “All Things Considered” to catch up on the day’s events. I was really moved by one story in the broadcast. It was about an artist’s exploration of the experience of hunger.

In great depth, the artist interviewed people who had experienced hunger first hand. The interviewees described in heart-breaking detail what the experience is like. For most of us, who have never known real hunger, we don’t know how physically and emotionally torturous the experience is.

You can listen to the broadcast at the link below. As I listened to it in my car when it was originally aired, I found myself moved to tears. Many of us may be supportive of anti-hunger efforts, but may not have a real sense of what it is like to be food insecure and not have food to feed yourself or your family. The broadcast was heart-breakingly insightful.

Matthew 25:35 (New International Version)

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Birthday Reflections

I recently celebrated a birthday. It was a lovely day. I didn’t do anything special. When I woke up, my children hid in their room to jump out and yell “surprise!” at me. Later that day, my family cooked me a special dinner. Several friends and family members called, e-mailed or sent cards to express good wishes. I am very fortunate to have people in my life who took time out of their busy day to wish me a happy birthday.

One relative sent me a check and told me to treat myself. I felt very blessed to reflect that there was nothing I really wanted to buy to treat myself. I told my husband and my children they were the best birthday gifts ever!

I was reflecting through out the day at my contentment, and feeling much gratitude for my life and the many, many blessings I enjoy. The day would have been perfect except that I kept thinking of all the suffering in this world. My heart is heavy with the continuing suffering due to the recent earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China. I am devastated whenever I read about the human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. It breaks my heart that so many people go to bed every night hungry and/or without a roof over their head. I feel anguish at the plight of parents around the world who cannot provide for the material needs of their beloved children. Being in Arizona, we can no longer count how many families we know who have lost their homes due to foreclosure and/or have a parent who is looking for work. As I write these words, we have friends and relatives who are struggling with life-threatening diseases.

As I was thinking about all this, and the frustration of an individual at not being able to solve these problems, I remembered Dr. King’s famous words from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963):

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an
inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever
affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

When I first heard those words long ago, I was a teenage atheist. I thought the words sounded noble but they did not ring true to me. Many people around the world (myself included) go about our daily lives, enjoying ourselves and never giving another thought to the suffering of others.

Now as an adult Christ follower, I understand these words very differently. I think that Dr. King was expressing a great spiritual truth. To me, he was referring to the Christian concept of the Body of Christ. Each of us is a component of that Body, we are all interrelated. If one part of the body is suffering or in pain, the other parts feel it too and cannot be fully at peace until that suffering or pain ceases.

Romans 12:4-5

Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Belated Happy Earth Day

Perhaps it is just the circles in which I tend to travel, but in my experience many folks tend to have the perception that Earth Day is a holiday founded and celebrated by hippies and/or people who value the lives of endangered insects over humans. In my experience, it is not necessarily a holiday that has enjoyed widespread popular support. Many folks seem to sense that Earth Day is a holiday only for those who eat vegan diets, operate their cars on recycled cooking oil, and have solar panels all over their homes.

I think that perception is unfortunate. In my opinion, even less dedicated environmentalists should observe the holiday. Indeed, particularly for Christ followers, I think it is valuable to make time to consciously reflect on God’s glory in creating the earth. This is truly an amazing planet that he gave us. The biodiversity alone blows the mind. From the visual beauty of wildflowers, mountain peaks and waves crashing along the coast, to the fragrant perfume of orange blossoms and pine trees, to the affectionate companionship of our pets--truly we are blessed with an abundance of riches.

It is also a good thing for us humans to take time to reflect on our responsibilities as stewards of these treasures, and to reevaluate our efforts to-date in that area. Just like many Christ followers take time out periodically (e.g., perhaps annually) to reflect on, readjust and perhaps renew their efforts towards good financial stewardship, we ought to do the same with respect to our stewardship of the natural treasures our God has given us.

Genesis 1:31 (New International Version)

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

Matthew 6:26 (New International Version)

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Guest Blogger Brigham Fordham on Parenthood

Recently, I have been doing research on the ethical limits of artificial reproductive technologies. In reading up on this subject, I have been surprised how often legal scholars claim that parents have children primarily to suit the parents’ own interests. In a very thoughtful book (most of which I disagree with) Dena Davis writes:

The decision to have a child is never made for the sake of the child, for no
child then exists. We choose to have children for myriad reasons, but before the
child is conceived, those reasons can only be self-regarding.

Certainly, there is some degree of truth in this. New parents underestimate the commitment and expense of having a child. We are drawn to have a family, in part, by a desire to pour our own beliefs and practices into a new generation, to extend our cultural and social group, to feel loved and needed, and to experience the quintessential challenges and rewards of guiding a person from infancy to adulthood and beyond.

But is planning to have a family at the outset merely “self-regarding”? My faith and my experience adopting a child give me hope that there is more to it. I struggle, however, to find a place for these beliefs in responding to scholarly works like the one referenced above.

Many Christians believe that God’s commandment to Adam and Eve to “multiply and replenish the earth” remains in force today. Like all commandments, the call to have children requires sacrifice, but it can also bring blessings that far exceed the sacrifices. For couples who are unable to conceive a child, this commandment can be heart-wrenchingly difficult. We want a child, God wants us to have a child, but our bodies just won’t cooperate.

When my wife and I were first considering adoption, someone pointed out to us a famous, though often overlooked, adoption—Joseph’s adoption of Jesus as his own son. Why did Joseph decide to adopt Jesus and raise him as his own child? Surely Joseph saw an opportunity to grow close to Jesus and experience the joys of fatherhood. But I also suspect that Joseph did it because he wanted Jesus to benefit from having a father here on earth.

In modern times, adoption has often been misrepresented as a compromise between young pregnant girls who don’t want a child but don’t believe in abortion and childless parents who are desperately seeking to fill a hole in their lives. This, I think, is a sad misrepresentation of the experience.

The birth mother of our adopted daughter was a young woman who had unexpectedly gotten pregnant by a young man whom she had only known a short time. Once it became obvious she was pregnant, she was under great social and biological pressure to have the child and raise it as her own. No one wants to be seen as “giving up” a child for adoption, no matter how difficult being a young, single mother may appear. Our birth mother showed amazing maturity and clarity. She looked beyond the stigma associated with placing a child for adoption and saw through media representations downplaying the challenges of teenage motherhood. She decided that her child would have greater opportunities in life if the child were raised in a more stable and complete family. For her, and for our daughter, this was the right decision. She did not place her child for adoption to escape responsibility; quite to the contrary, she sacrificed the joys of immediate motherhood in order to guarantee her child a better future. It was one of the most selfless acts of love by a mother I have ever encountered.

In my faith, we believe that all parents are effectively adoptive parents. All humanity was spiritually conceived by God before the foundations of the earth. When parents physically conceive a child, they bring to the earth an already-existing spiritual child of God. We are but stewards of children who are progeny of Eternity.

On this view, parenthood may be partially self-regarding. But the primary reason for parenthood is spiritual: Through parenthood we grow closer to God’s children, we help them to realize their unlimited potential, and, in the process, we begin to learn to express the kind of unconditional, selfless love that God has for each of us. In my faith, we often say parenthood is practice for godhood.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

My Bottom Line on Feminism

I began studying French when I was 12, it was one of my majors in college, and I spent a year living in France after receiving my degree. Languages can be tricky to master. In a high school French class, I remember writing an essay en français to describe my summer exchange experience with a family outside Paris. The French cheek kissing custom was mentioned at one point in the essay. To find the right word, at home I looked up the verb “to kiss” in my thick French-English dictionary. After receiving our graded essays, I was mortified when our teacher later explained to the class that the word “baiser” (which my dictionary had indicated was the correct verb) had at one time meant “to kiss” but in modern usage it now was a very crude word meaning to f*&$. My trusty dictionary had given me no clue to this modern usage. This alternate meaning had introduced a bizarre and unintentionally comical twist to my narrative about my dear French family giving me good night kisses before I went upstairs to go to bed. Several of my friends had made similar faux pas in their essays. We were dismayed that our dictionaries could have led us astray to make such an embarrassing mistake. How could a dictionary be so wrong? We were incredulous.

As I’ve pondered the words “feminist” and “feminism” lately, I’ve been reminded of that awkward mistake in high school French class. Again, the dictionary seems to provide one definition, but usage is giving a very different, quite negative definition. After my high school lesson, I could have insisted on using the dictionary-provided word “baiser” when speaking French to express the concept of kissing, but I did not. What would have been the point? No one would have understood what I was intending to convey. Instead, they would have been shocked and repulsed by my vulgarity. They would have not been receptive to whatever I was trying to convey.

Similarly, I don’t ultimately feel comfortable embracing the term “feminist.” I would likely embrace the term if the dictionary definition were the one in popular usage. But it is not. Many people in our country understand a very different meaning when the term “feminist” is used. In my opinion, it is not helpful to the cause of women’s equality to continue to use a term that triggers such a negative, even hostile reaction in so many.

I appreciate that some people want to reclaim the label “feminist” from its current negative connotation. To me, however, I don’t see the point. It seems like a wasted effort. It reminds me of the quixotic fight of the Academie Française to eliminate franglais terms like “le hot-dog” from the lexicon of people in France.

Moreover, even the dictionary definition of “feminist” does not completely sit well with me. I think it is outdated and misguided to try to isolate the cause of women’s equality. The treatment of women is inextricably intertwined with the treatment of men. I don’t just favor the advancement of women’s rights. I believe more globally in gender equality and would like to see the abolition of all gender-based stereotypes and limitations.

Mark 4:22

For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

More Perceptions of Feminism

In a prior blog, I explained that I had contacted a number of people to get their perceptions of the term “feminist.” When I reviewed their responses, I was very surprised by the overwhelmingly positive feedback I received from everyone. The folks who shared their perceptions were diverse in many respects, but I noted at the beginning of that blog post that they were all middle class professionals. And I don’t generally discuss politics with everyone I know, so I don’t actually know the political beliefs of everyone who shared their perceptions with me. Because of the disproportionate amount of positive responses I received, I began to wonder if I had inadvertently only sought feedback from people with a fairly progressive bent.

In reality, I also really wanted to hear the views of people who did not have a positive view of the term “feminist.” The folks I contacted in the first survey generally mentioned that they had a positive view of feminism, but were quick to note that popular connotations are often negative. I wanted to hear from people who embraced such negative connotations. I wanted to understand their views.

For this reason, I decided to seek feedback from a second set of folks (hereafter, the “second group”). This time around I deliberately sought the views of people I knew for sure were conservatives and/or were registered Republicans. In addition, I also contacted people I had reason to believe might at least have conservative sympathies.

In this second group, I only contacted women. They were all Caucasian. They varied in age from being in their early 30s to their 70s. All of the women I contacted have been married. Some are currently married, some were widowed, and some are divorced. All of the women are mothers. Their children ranged in age from babies to middle-aged adults. Some of the women have family members who are currently serving overseas in the military.

I am pretty sure all of the women in the second group are Christians. All of the women grew up in religious households and/or belong to a church now. Some have taught Sunday school, served on church committees, sung in the choir, participated in various church ministries, or otherwise have been active in their faith communities.

Most of the women in the second group are outspoken conservatives who vehemently dislike President Obama, oppose “Obamacare,” and/or are angered by the president’s decision to not observe the National Day of Prayer. Others are much more soft-spoken in their views, but seem to be in general agreement with the views of the more outspoken ladies. Still others in the group seem to not be that political. I may be incorrect, but my perception is that the less political folks have at least somewhat conservative tendencies. But regardless of their actual views, politics just does not appear to be a huge focus in their lives. They seem to have other priorities and interests.

About half of the ladies in the second group live in small towns. The others live in major metropolitan areas—though mostly in suburban areas. About half of the women have college degrees; the others did not continue their formal education beyond high school. Except for one respondent, all of the women consulted have been “stay-at-home moms” at some point in their lives. Some stayed home with their children just for a few years before their children began school. For others, full-time parenting was their priority until their children reached adulthood. At various points in their lives, the women consulted in the second group have had careers as teachers, nurses, medical transcriptionists, secretaries, teacher’s aides or real estate agents.

A couple of the women consulted in this second group had positive views on feminism. The way they defined the term “feminist” was in accord with the dictionary definition of the term. They expressed the notion that feminists want equality for women in areas like “jobs and politics.” One of these women specifically noted that men could be feminists. One woman added that feminists were not just “extreme activists, such as those that picket and speak out on key issues,” but also encompassed a "regular Betty" who stands up for a co-worker suffering the effects of gender discrimination. The same woman also expressed concern for reverse gender discrimination, indicating that in some contexts a person might receive “better” treatment because she is a woman.

These couple of women indicated they thought that being a feminist was a positive thing. However, one of the women did not think the feminist label fit her simply because she had never done anything to affirmatively promote feminism. The other lady indicated she thought she fit the definition of a feminist. However, she also added that the term made her sad. She reflected thoughtfully, “If we could all just be humanists, then we wouldn't need such words that perpetually remind us how large groups of us are mistreated based on a single quality. I am not just a woman; I am so much more.”

Honestly, I was pretty surprised by these ladies’ positive reactions to the term “feminist.” I wondered if they were influenced by their perceptions of my own views, and perhaps were trying to be polite. But I don’t think these women would misrepresent their own beliefs just to please me. However, these women were potentially the least politically active folks in the second group I consulted. They have a lot of other interests and activities.

A couple other women in the second group had lukewarm, but not hostile views towards the concept of feminism. One such woman defined the term “feminist” as a “female who strives to prove she can stand on her own, be in charge of life and ‘further’ the rights of women.” Another defined the term as “someone who works for women's rights to be equal in every aspect of social, economic and financial environments.” These women seemed ambivalent about embracing the term for themselves, but did not appear hostile to it either. One woman shared she felt she fit the definition of a feminist “by about 50%.” She indicated, “I'm not a true feminist, but I have a great respect for women and men who have broken the traditional barriers of society.” She expressed that her upbringing might account for her not fully fitting the term; she was not raised in a family that was particularly engaged in politics. The same woman indicated, “In general, I think it is positive to be a feminist. Unfortunately, as in everything else, the media tends to give light to the negative views and not the true definition of feminism.” Another woman indicated she was “not rabid for or against feminism” and had a somewhat “neutral position.” The same woman expressed support for the things feminists support but did not “fully agree with some of the aggressive means of achieving” their goals. She indicated a preference for retaining some of the “old fashioned” social customs like “being treated with deference and being ‘treated like a lady.’” She felt those attitudes were not embraced by what she considered to be “true feminism.”

The rest of the women I consulted in the second group had very different and extremely negative definitions of the term “feminist.” One woman expressed that a “feminist is just short of a communist.” The belief was also shared that a “feminist” was a “female who is unhappy with the role God gave her in life.” One of the ladies opined that a feminist is a “power hungry woman who always feels she is being cheated; she covets another’s blessings, abilities, position or strength believing no one is her better.” Another woman thoughtfully looked up the term before responding to my questions. She expressed that prior to looking up the term, it did not have a positive meaning for her. She expressed that feminists “say” they want “equality,” but in reality they “want all they can get.” This same woman observed, “The dictionary definition is interesting.”

The women who expressed negative views of feminism generally indicated they did not fit the definition. Several of the women who expressed this opinion did so in a very concise manner without elaboration. In response to the question asking whether they fit the definition of a “feminist,” they simply responded “no.” When asked if they thought the term held a positive or negative connotation to them, they simply responded “negative.” In response to these questions, some of the ladies used exclamation points or all caps.

One woman with a very negative definition of feminism later indicated a different, more nuanced and very thoughtful perspective with respect to my other questions. She indicated that usually she was not a feminist but at times she was one: “I believe each of us has an individual place in the world. Each of us, whether we be woman or man, are given talents and abilities that express our own personality and strengths through how we use them. Our gender should not limit those talents or the reward they reap.” The same woman also expressed, “Being labeled a feminist is both positive and negative depending upon the time, place and expectations of society. Also, how you present yourself in your current position will influence how the title effects and affects you, whether it be positively or negatively.”

Another woman who provided a negative definition expressed somewhat similar ambivalence. A retiree, she cited her “age group” to indicate her belief that the term “feminist” has a negative connotation.” She shared, “I still want the guy to open my door or help lift or carry something.” The same lady also indicated she believed in “fairness in job opportunities” but not “quotas.” She rejected the feminist label for herself, but noted that in her career she had been the supervisor to some men. She shared that she “didn’t make an issue” of her gender when she had been in such a supervisory role. She noted that even one of her male employees (whom she characterized as a male chauvinist) eventually admitted that it is “alright” to work for her though he was initially not “looking forward to a female boss.”

One woman in the second group declined to try to define the term “feminist,” but simply stated, “I don't think I am a feminist because I think it carries a negative connotation even though I believe in women's rights.”

When I contacted people in the first group to get their views on feminism, I did not get the impression they minded my questions. In fact, many of them indicated the questions were interesting and thought-provoking; they didn’t tend to think about those topics much. In contrast, I got the impression that most (but not all) of the women in the second group were not very happy to be asked these questions. Indeed, unlike the first group, some folks contacted in the second group ignored my request for feedback. Others responded but were a little curt. Still others expressed a degree of self-consciousness in expressing their opinions, noting that they were not sure if they were “right” or if their views “make sense.” One lady specified that she wasn’t sure I’d “approve” of her views.

There are many possible reasons that people in the second group may have been self-conscious or lacked enthusiasm about responding. However, my hunch is that they were concerned that they were going to be judged and disrespected for the opinions they expressed. Although I don’t discuss politics with most of these ladies, in many contexts over the years, many people have made certain assumptions about my own beliefs and values because I am a female lawyer with a hyphenated name. Additionally, now that I am an academic, there are certain presumptions about me that sometimes get made. In many circles, being an academic is equated with being an elitist liberal. Because some of the ladies may have viewed me as a liberal elitist looking to make fun of them, I did my best to put the women at ease and to express my respect for their views. I tried to emphasize that I was trying to understand different people’s perceptions.

Indeed, the whole reason I sought these ladies’ views was because I wanted to better understand the meaning of the term “feminist.” The dictionary definition is quite agreeable to me. However, dictionaries do not always provide definitions based on popular usage. Some terms change in meaning over time, or may have differing definitions based upon the setting and the people who use the term. I think definitions based on popular usage are valid and need to be taken into consideration. If a group of people believe a term means certain things when they use it, that is what the term means in their usage regardless of what Mr. Webster says.

I’m very grateful to the women in the second group who shared their views with me. Particularly if any of them were wary because they worried I would disrespect their views, I applaud their courage. It is never easy to speak one’s mind when one perceives that the listener disagrees. It is my fervent hope that none of the ladies in the second group feels I have expressed any disrespect for their views in this blog post. Certainly none has been intended.

I also appreciate the fact that these women responded to my questions in a very thoughtful manner. I know a number of other women whom I’ve heard use the term “feminist” as an epithet. They were obvious candidates for inclusion in the second group. However, I decided against consulting with those ladies because I sensed that they would react very angrily to me if I posed my questions to them. I am very grateful for the hospitality of the women in the second group for graciously tolerating my questions. Because of their graciousness, I have gained a lot of insight into the issue of feminism.

Matthew 15:10 (New International Version)

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


I was talking with my husband recently about his views on feminism. He comes from a traditional, rural community in South Texas. Feminism was not exactly a big topic of conversation in his hometown when he was growing up. He is a corporate accountant by profession, but in his experience--unless you count quoting Rush--bean counters don’t tend to sit around debating social injustice. As a result, this was actually his first discussion on the topic of feminism.

Initially, my husband joked that his definition of a “feminist” was someone who hated men and burned bras. When he saw I was displeased and was hoping for a serious discussion, the grin on his face disappeared and he went on to explain his true thoughts. In his opinion, feminists are simply people who want women to have equal rights to men—period. (I was actually pretty impressed by his response because this was an off-the-cuff response and unlike me he had not even had to consult the dictionary.) I followed up, “So, would you consider yourself to be a feminist?” He crumpled his brow and squinted. He explained technically he fit the definition, but the term has been warped and has different connotations these days. As a result, he indicated he wasn’t offended by having the label applied to him, but he didn’t exactly embrace it himself. I told him that I agreed the term had been warped, and for example there seemed to be a popular idea that feminism and the promotion of abortion were linked. He thought that was an unfair association. In his opinion, feminists did not want or encourage women to have abortions, but he conceded that access to safe abortions was an important issue to many.

Then my husband asked, “What about men’s rights? What about masculinism?” I laughed and sarcastically asked in what ways men suffered discrimination. After I posed the question, I immediately realized what an incredibly insensitive remark that was for me to make to him in particular. My husband has actually been a real trail-blazer on gender issues, and has not always been warmly embraced as a result.

My husband was a successful corporate accountant for over a decade. By all accounts, he excelled at his profession and was a valued employee. He was promoted consistently and rewarded generously. Before we became parents, we always assumed we’d be a dual career family. Both our moms always worked outside the home. It never occurred to us that our kids would not be in day care or with a nanny during the work day. But when we actually became parents, finding decent child care was a bigger struggle than we had ever imagined.

We went through several options, but they were very expensive, not what we had hoped for, and at the time our only child was frankly not thriving. It broke our hearts and led to a lot of soul-searching. We finally came to the surprising conclusion that one of us needed to stay home full-time, particularly since we were about to become parents to another child. We talked about it at length, pondered the matter carefully from all sides. We were both willing to put our children ahead of our career. Finally, for a host of reasons, we decided the best solution for our family was for my husband to quit his job. It was a scary decision on many levels. It also seemed a little revolutionary. We did not know any stay-at-home dads. Heck, at that time, we did not know that many stay-at-home moms!

When my husband turned in his resignation, shock and disbelief were the chief reactions at his company. He had just been offered (and had turned down) a promotion to management. Because he had cited the needs of his young kids as the reason for declining it, some managers already knew his priorities. But even they never thought he would do something so extreme like stay home as the primary caregiver to his kids. After the big announcement, some of his colleagues quietly came to his office, shut the door and asked him to confide in them. They thought he had accepted a great job at a competitor company and wanted to know if they could go work for him. They couldn’t believe a smart guy with a promising career would “throw it away” to take care of his kids.

I was incredibly proud of my husband’s tremendous courage to defy stereotypical gender roles and buck societal expectations. And I was awed by his dedication to our young family and his great love for our kids. I was euphoric that our children were going to be nurtured by the constant presence and love of their father. But when I shared with friends our exciting news, the reaction was polite and subdued. People did not express the enthusiasm I was expecting. “Good for him” was about as much excitement as anyone could muster. Certainly no one ever said it, but my sense was that they secretly thought my husband had been canned or they looked down on him for not having more drive. On a personal level, it was quite disappointing and surprising.

When he began staying at home full-time, my husband pretty quickly realized he and our kids were in a rather isolated situation. There weren’t other stay-at-home dads around. To my surprise, the stay-at-home moms were not very welcoming in most cases. I had had plenty of male friends over the years; in our generation, I didn’t think there would be a gender divide in social settings. I was wrong. Dads were explicitly not welcome at some of the play groups in our area.

In other contexts, the same attitude was conveyed implicitly. While waiting for the kids at dance or karate classes, the moms often complained about their husbands to one another, and refused to make eye contact or speak with my husband. Initially I thought he was being paranoid or exaggerating, but after a good deal of evidence, I came to agree with him that he was being shunned. He eventually found a local stay-at-home dads support group, but there were only three other families. Unfortunately, each family lived in geographically divergent parts of a large metropolitan area, which made it impracticable to get together much.

When we moved to Arizona, things were not much easier. Many stay-at-home moms seem to view my husband with suspicion. He takes our kids to regular park get-togethers with big groups, and most of the mothers will not even speak to him. It is very isolating and sad. But fortunately at one group there is often another dad or two that shows up. One has a job where he works nights. Another has his own business. They have a terrific guy-camaraderie.

As our kids get older, my husband would like to go back to work, at least part-time. He had a lot of success as an accountant, but it was never his passion. However, he has always had an interest in nursing. He loves science and helping people one-on-one. When we first met, we were volunteers for our church at a local hospital. Unlike me, he was very comfortable ministering to people with serious illnesses and seemed to put them at ease. He now wants to go back to school to be an RN, and hopes to eventually work in a hospital setting. Of course, nursing is a profession traditionally dominated by women. He has been reading for several years about the discrimination men experience on the job. It is rather discouraging, but if that is the field he wants to enter, he has no choice but to be a trail blazer—again.

In conclusion, I think my husband is right that men suffer gender discrimination, too. I think that the term “feminist” does not seem to acknowledge that explicitly, but it should. Or perhaps a whole new term (without the negative connotations of “feminist”) is needed to denote support for equality of both genders, and for the abolition of all gender-based stereotypes. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what term would encompass all of that. I’m open to suggestions.
John 8:32

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.