Winning the Lottery Fantasies

02.25.13

This American Life follows kids at Harper High School

I went to elementary school in Manhattan Beach. California had the best schools in the country and Manhattan Beach had some of the best schools in the state. Every morning my mother would leave the house about 15 minutes before us and head East to Watts in order to teach her students. My classrooms were bright and airy, my teachers were local to the community and beloved. Manhattan Beach wasn’t affluent at the time (though it would become so in later years) but all the kids came to class well fed, well loved and in in clean clothes.

My mother’s students came to school hungry, dirty and abused. Some were squatters, some were children of addicts, many were children of gang members and one child came to school and couldn’t sit in his seat because his parents had burned his genitals with a cigarette. This was a third grade classroom.

When the Manhattan Beach schools weren’t a good fit for us (meaning there were only great and not excellent) we went to private schools. My college education was incredibly adequate and nothing worth celebrating but everything I learned in those early years was enough to tide me over. We learned how to learn, which is arguably more important than learning things, whatever those things may be.

My mother, for her part, taught gifted reading and routinely took kids who were not identified as gifted into the programs. She made them read and she made them love it. I’d often hear her talking about how she could teach a kid to read from the back of a cereal box. Unfortunately many school kids may need to learn that way. The money is running out.

We spent a good bit of time at my mother’s school in Watts. It was a scary place for me and a familiar one all at once. We were the only caucasian children there and their blackness wasn’t what made the kids different from us. Even when they were the same age as us, they were older in ways that I could never articulate. I’m pretty sure they knew how to do things that we wouldn’t learn until we lived independently, there was a weariness that kids in the South Bay didn’t quite have. They were very different but I liked them because I knew these were my mother’s other kids and she loved them. The schools were dismal with no color, no lawns and loads of security. The smell was musty, it smelled like defeat.

There weren’t a lot of success stories in Watts but there are a few and I know my mother clings to them. It makes her entire career worth something and when she talks about one student in particular I know she’s as proud of him as she is of her own blood children. It’s a particular joy that only teachers in the roughest parts of town will ever know. He’s her one in a million.

The last two weekends This American Life aired a special where they followed students and administrators at Harper High School in Chicago. It’s a high school that saw 29 current and former students shot in a year. It’s a dangerous place to be a child and a very dangerous place to be an adolescent. The stories spoke to me, they reminded me of my mom’s other kids.

The most remarkable commentary comes at the end of the second part when they ask the principal of Harper High what she would do if she won the lottery and she spent 4 minutes and 38 seconds talking about all the ways she would help the kids. I share her fantasies. I long for a world where kids are gifted books of their own, where they play on lawns and wear clean clothes that will keep them warm in the cold or cool in the summer. Safe neighborhoods, after school sports and arts in the classrooms would absolutely delight me. I’d like to know that sick kids could go to the doctor or just stay home where someone could care for them and if I was dreaming really big they’d all get computers and learn how to make that powerful tool work for them.

This morning I poked around the house fantasizing about buying books and good food for the kids in Watts. I can’t even imagine what I’d do with a winning lottery ticket.

How would you spend a windfall?

This American Lie, #Kony2012 and the Problem With Messengers

03.16.12

There are many good journalists in America. There are talented documentarians too. Great journalists and biographers aren’t typically found in social media. Sure there are some, but not the majority.

This weekend This American Life will spend a full hour unwinding a previously aired story “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”. In this episode Mike Daisey chronicles mistreatment of workers in factories that make components for Apple products. In a particularly ironic turn this episode became the most popular of all downloads in the iTunes store. A petition was started and national media picked up the story… I know… another petition. But this time Apple responded by hiring a third party to audit working conditions in the factories in China.

Something good happened. Maybe.

Concurrently a video went viral. It’s about a man named Joseph Kony. Kony is the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and has abused tens of thousands of children in Uganda turning them into sex slaves and killers. It is absolutely indisputable that Joseph Kony is evil personified. What is in dispute is whether or not this video is helpful for the people of Uganda. Further, Jason Russell, cofounder of Invisible Children (the non profit behind the video), has had some sort of emotional break. Among other things he was seen naked and agitated on a street corner midday. The police got involved and he is currently hospitalized on a 72 hour hold.

None of this makes Joseph Kony less evil. None of this makes children (many of whom are now adult) less harmed.

As Mike Daisey astutely points out there is a difference between entertainment and journalism. Sometimes we as consumers of content get confused, and this is where we can take some power back. We can use critical thinking to determine if we are consuming journalism, activism or storytelling. The days of passively reading a newspaper and trusting all sources are over.

We need to understand that activism isn’t balanced and doesn’t purport to be. The video that Invisible Children put out doesn’t have to be 100% factual it’s meant only to make us uncomfortable. It’s meant to provoke activism or at the very least slacktivism (sharing the video on your Facebook page and signing a virtual petition). The video isn’t meant to enlighten the people in Uganda nor is it meant to be a comprehensive documentary. It’s like a blog in that it’s meant to plant a seed, it never meant to be the tree.

Is it a bunch of rich white Southern California men trying to affect change in Africa? Yep, it sure is. Does that make their message less palatable? Yes, for some it rings of colonialism, narcissism and the great white savior. Others see it as white privilege and a fabulous use of the gifts bestowed upon men. I think I see it as both with the caveat that I assign no value good or bad.

Mike Daisey clearly  saw human rights abuses in China. Does his embellished storytelling make Foxconn less culpable? Kai MacMahon wisely points out that 17 workers at Foxconn killed themselves last year. When This American Life apologizes for getting a story wrong do these people, these young humans, magically come back to life?

 

17_Foxconn_workers_killed_themselves_

There’s a blurry line these days and sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re looking at propaganda, storytelling, journalism or advertising. Sometimes you’re looking at all three. With fragmented media and the birth of online news the onus will be on the consumer for the foreseeable future.

Ask yourself if it matters that Mike Daisey embellishes a story. He isn’t a journalist, but he is reporting something to us that needs to be heard. If every word isn’t true we can’t dismiss the fact that our yearning for cheap electronics is paid for in both health and sanity by factory workers half a world away.

Does it matter that Joseph Kony’s reign of terror is winding down? Is it a story that still needs telling? Does the US need to be the world’s police force? Yes. Yes. I hope not. Was the video manipulative? Of course it was. Is manipulative a bad thing? Not always.

The problem we are seeing with social media and ridiculous amounts of transparency is that we are placing too much value on the messenger and not enough on the message. People can get an awful lot of stuff wrong and still be very right.