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3 posts from September 2011

09/26/2011

Where do we go from here?

Charlotte2

We entered an airy, light-filled, breezy factory on the morning of September 9, 2011.  The workers were singing along to the radio and, in general, looked healthy and happy. This was not a typical clothing factory in a developing country; The Alta Gracia Project is a for-profit company that works to provide their employees with a “living wage.” A “living wage” is often hard to come by in the Dominican Republic where 41% of the population falls under the poverty line. The minimum wage (adjusted to US dollars) is $200 a month here while the living wage is $600 a month (Interamerican Development Bank lecture). Alta Gracia pays their employees 350% of the local wage; this salary allows workers to take care of basic human needs such as clean water, food, and shelter as well as allowing them outside expenditures like providing their children with higher education. The Alta Gracia factory, also, ensures a comfortable workspace, pays for employee’s chosen health care, and allows them to form unions. The project, thus far, has been a great success; Alta Gracia is able to provide all these benefits to their employees while still making a profit.  The company sells their line to 185 colleges and universities around the United States as well as some major retail stores.  A sense of elation swept over me when I discovered how principled and prosperous this project has become. One rarely finds a company that can maintain their lucratively while simultaneously preserving such a holistic morality.

In the midst of my excitement, the manager of the factory and our guide began to explain more about the business model of the project.  Alta Gracia sells their clothing lines to Knight; Knight acts as a middleman and sells those clothes to universities, colleges, Barnes & Nobles, and even to Wal-Mart.  Yet, something irked me when I heard this, but I was not quite sure what.  As I traced the progression these clothes make from their fair-trade factory to Knight to Wal-Mart, I began to see a conundrum.  I found it so fantastic that the factory had such a positive impact on the lives of their employees in the Dominican Republic, yet the company was making a profit off a United States’ company (Wal-Mart) that blatantly exploits their workers according to Barbara Ehrenreich’s sociological study published in Nickel and Dimed and the current Supreme Court consideration about Wal-Mart’s gender discrimination (article published in NYTimes March 27, 2011).  At first it struck me as ironic that we (the United States) encourages workers’ rights and dignity, and yet the snag in the process of fair-trade was actually on our own end. Someone posed the question, “Isn’t this the lesser of two evils though?”

Charlotte 1

I could not wrap my brain around the idea of a “lesser of two evils” though. I am an idealist in many ways; I do not believe there should have to be a choice between two evils at all.  Why is a country like the United States, a developed nation, a democratic state, a world power, a land that promises “freedom and justice for all” not the shining example of workers’ rights? We could be at the forefront of workers’ rights; we have the resources, the history, and freedoms of speech yet are we ignoring our own problems in our own country. I do not blame Alta Gracia for selling their products to Knight, and I do not blame Knight for selling them to Wal-Mart: this is the premise of an international economy. Yet, I place culpability in the hands of the U.S. market. When there is international trade or even local consumers, I believe no one should have to worry about how the company treats their workers because it should be a given that United States’ companies uphold a certain standard.

 Taking this concept one step further, what if workers’ rights is just a micro example of the plights in our own country? Now, it might seem obvious that there are looming problems in the United States’ system that need attention, but are we giving these issues enough attention?

Now here is the sticky part: I, myself, am in the Dominican Republic right at this very moment learning about international development and I am guilty of not remaining in the United States to campaign for better workers’ rights.  Yet logically my argument should lead me to conclude that I should be in the United States helping in my own backyard, my own hometown, my own state, or even just within my own country? The only answer I have ever received to this question was Elaine Acacio’s, the CIEE Service – Learning Director. She posed a question right back; do you want to be here?

-Charlotte Kaye

Colorado College

 

09/20/2011

Race and Identity

 

Lauren 3
There is an interesting expression used here in The Dominican Republic: “Es negra, pero tiene el alma blanca." Translated, it means: She is Black, but she has a White soul.  The first time I saw this phrase was on a poster hanging in the hallways at PUCMM.

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The meaning behind this statement is very clear; it is used to describe Dominicans of a darker skin color who, “paradoxically,” possess “White” qualities. The word “White” used in this context can substitute a variety of other descriptors: highly educated, well-spoken, financially stable, etc. Even the soul becomes a color… Simply put, this expression is used to describe a person with dark skin, who is intelligent, refined and trustworthy. We must assume that, in this context, the word “Black” refers to all that is opposite of “White”. “Black,” then, would be synonymous with adjectives such as “poor,” “dumb,” “ugly,” and “dishonest.”

Indeed, that is often how the word is used, as I learned from Eulalia Jimenez, one of our guest speakers during Orientation. Eulalia is a professor at La Universdad Autonomia de Santo Domingo and also works to promote Afro-Dominican pride. She encourages Dominican women to embrace their African heritage and history in a group, Movimiento por la identidad por la mujer Afro (The Movement for Afro Women). Originally, the founders wanted to name it Movimiento por la mujer Negra (The Movement for Black Women) but, due to the controversy of the word “Black” amongst its members, the group had to modify the group’s name to “Afro,” knowing full well that many dark-skinned Dominicans would refuse to be associated with a group that actually professed to be “Black”. An African heritage group however, might have a shot.

“It upsets me when other people deny they are Black, but I can’t blame them. Because, as everyone knows, Black people are ugly, black people are dirty. Their curly hair is ugly and dirty. Who wants to be ugly? Who chooses to be dirty? No one.” – Eulalia Jimenez

Along with eye color, hair color, height and weight, Dominican ID cards include skin color. Although the category “Black” exists, most dark-skinned Dominicans of African Ancestry choose instead to be listed as “Índio,” which refers to the very small minority of Dominican Taína Indian descendents. In her talk on race and identity in the Dominican Republic, Eulalia, who is of African Ancestry, told us about the day she went to renew her ID card.

“I was about to get my ID laminated when I noticed there was a mistake. I called the government employee over and said ‘Sir, there’s just one problem with my ID: it says here that I am ‘índia’ but I am Black.’ The young man looked at me as though I were crazy. He threw his head back and laughed, then asked in a loud and sarcastic tone ‘You want us to put you down as…BLACK?’ ‘My son,’ I said calmly, ‘that’s what I am.’”

 The government employee’s shock at Eulalia’s request further emphasizes how undesirable it is to be seen as Black in this country. Eulalia’s own niece gets offended when people tell her she resembles her darker-skinned aunt. “She says she does not want to look like me, because I am ugly” Eulalia stated simply.

Afro-Dominican hair is also singled out. Most Dominican women use harsh chemicals to straighten their curls. Eulalia, however, wears hers naturally. “Once I figured out I was Black, I learned how to get along with my hair” she says with a smile. This is a very different answer than what you will typically hear. Women who do not chemically straighten their Afro hair are often looked down upon. Many Dominicans use the word “malo” (bad) instead of “curly”. Eulalia’s tongue-in-cheek response to this is “My hair is not bad. It never robbed or killed anyone.” I admired Eulalia’s sense of humor. In fact, I admired a lot about this woman.

What must it be like, I wondered, to grow up in a place where everyone, even your family members, tell you that you are ugly, inferior, stupid… all based on something as arbitrary and unchanging as the color of your skin? To hear, every day, “harmless” expressions reaffirming that you are less of a human being because of the way you look. This is Eulalia’s reality. 

As a woman, I know what it is like to struggle with insecurities over my appearance. Society can place so much pressure on us to look a certain way, and project a certain image. The weight of trying to live under this pressure can often break one’s self-esteem. And yet here was a woman who chose her definition of beauty over the one that was constantly being thrown in her face.

Eulalia chooses to see her beauty. She chooses respect. She embraces who she is and urges her country do the same. Listening to her speak, I couldn’t help but wonder, where does such a strong sense of self worth come from? When I asked her, Eulalia simply replied:

“I am Black, I am fat and, furthermore, I am old. But I am a beautiful woman. This I know. I did not buy what my society has tried to sell me.”

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-Lauren Rodgers

Southern Methodist University

Esperanza

Jose
Santa Lucia is a barrio or neighborhood in the northwestern sector of Santiago, Dominican Republic. In many ways, it could be one of many barrios in the Caribbean nation. To a North American, of course, it seems to be woefully under developed; with a clay road which can be traversed only slowly, and housing made largely of stacked concrete blocks with tin roofs and few modern conveniences. But in a nation where 40% of the population lives in a situation of poverty, these conditions are hardly exceptional.

What does set Santa Lucia apart, however, is the giant landfill that dominates the “skyline” of the community, and the consequent lifestyle that has sprung up around it: that of the “buzos.” Buzos are individuals who make their living by digging through human trash, usually in order to find valuable items that can then be sold. The effects that this “profession” has on the already delicate public health of the region are deplorable; not only to the buzos themselves, who can, and do, pick up diseases while on the job, but also to the surrounding community.

Although difficult to quantify, the physiological effects of the buzos are equally damaging to the community. Elizabeth from the organization “Niños Con Una Esperanza (NCUE), translated “children with hope,” states (paraphrased from the original Spanish) “Children who grow up as buzos are extremely difficult to integrate back into regular society. It stays with them.” Elizabeth continued, saying “People of all ages usually get involved in buzo activity because they must. The high unemployment and lack of economic activity often leaves people with no other option than life as a buzo.”

NCUE is an organization, located in Santa Lucia, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for children in the area. NCUE is also a community partner with CIEE Service Learning and currently has a CIEE student working with the program.

 In order to combat the alarming phenomenon of buzo activity, NCUE has proposed an ambitious program called “Reciclado de Deseclas Plasticos en el Sector de Santa Lucia” (Spanish for “recycling of the abandoned plastic in the Santa Lucia sector). This program would construct an easily accessible plastic recycling center within the community. The recycling center would be overseen and operated by NCUE and staffed by 20 people selected from the community. For Santa Lucia, this program would not only slightly ease the high unemployment by creating jobs for 20 community members, but also mean cleaner streets because it would provide buzos with the incentive to collect plastic. In addition, since plastic is a relatively safe material to handle, the buzos themselves would benefit because there would be less need for them pursue more dangerous material such as glass or metal. Perhaps most importantly, however, once the recycling center is able to become profitable, the extra income would go to NCUE, which could then afford to take more children off the streets and away from the buzo life style. NCUE is currently applying for the prestigious ping grant to fund this community project. “With this program we hope to improve the community by providing opportunities for dignified work,” says Elizabeth. “This directly benefits Santa Lucia with increased economic opportunities.”

Of course, no one program can solve a problem as pervasive and deleterious as that of the buzos overnight. However, organizations that persistently work on several fronts to remedy the situation can begin to make a difference. NCUE, for one, is currently working with over 200 children and providing them with a structured learning environment, life skills, and values. The program “Reciclado” would expand and augment this process by addressing the buzo issue more directly and providing alternative means of income for community members.

 Of course, the sustainability of the program has yet to be proved. Many of the most carefully planned projects of this sort fall short of their goals and collapse because of overlooked details or unforeseeable circumstances. In these cases, such projects always end up diverting money from more deserving programs and sometimes leave the community worse off than before. Even if the program is sustained there is always a slim chance that it will make more than an incremental difference at any notable level. But, then again, a real chance at a better life, even a small one, is no small thing for a community like Santa Lucia. “If nothing else,” says Elizabeth, “we would like to provide the community with hope.”   

 

-Joseph Strzempko

Clark University