On sticking with the godforsaken profession of newspaper reporter

(Cross-posted to my journalism blog.)

I spent yesterday morning in a social studies class in one of the school districts I cover. The class is a new requirement for freshmen called Success 101, which teaches students about making life plans, career goals and budgeting for their future needs.

After I had finished snapping some photos, the teacher asked me to come to the front of the class and tell them about my job and the pros and cons of my work. My answer wasn’t a polished as it could have been with some forewarning, but it made me think about why I got into and stuck with this industry.

The newspaper reporters I’ve encountered, especially the younger ones, tend to be a particular kind of masochist. Every one of my coworkers has at times complained about hating the industry to me (as I have to them). And there’s plenty to hate.

We make no money. (We got a 2 percent cost of living increase for 2014, the first COLA or raise anyone in the newsroom has seen in about five years.) We’re supposed to be happy with this because at least we still have a reporting job at a newspaper, and really, it’s true—we could be doing a lot worse.

We work odd hours. I’ve had to put date night plans on hold to go to a three-hour long city council meeting, get home at 10:30 and then be at work at 7 the next morning to write a story about it. For an afternoon paper like ours, my work day becomes a de-facto split shift when I have to go to a meeting in the evening, which makes it really hard to have a life.

We’re supposed to be able to do everything. My beat (which is supposed to be half-time; the other half, I’m a web editor) requires covering schools, city and county government, business and anything else that comes up in two counties (each with its own main town) plus four other small towns spread over Washington and Oregon. Theoretically, this means I should be an expert in educational policy and laws governing public records, land-use planning and municipal government in two states. In practice, this means I’m usually playing catch-up.

Our jobs are high-stress and sometimes require us to confront the worst of human nature. We spend weeks on in-depth feature reporting projects or investigative pieces only to see them get almost no feedback from readers, and then we spend half an hour writing and posting a story about a dead body being found and watch it become the most-viewed article online that month. Any mistakes we make are instantly in the public eye, and our desk phone and cell phone numbers are intentionally available to anyone who asks, making us easy targets for people with a bone to pick.

But I wouldn’t trade this for anything (until I have kids at least, and need to start saving for college for them). As much as the pay sucks and the stress feels like too much sometimes, my job is one of the few I’m aware of where my day-to-day work is always different and rarely boring. Some days, I sit through school board workshops and learn how federal education policy passed 10 years ago is going to impact the students in my area next year. Sometimes I get to drive around wind farms with a biologist who cares deeply about bat migration. And sometimes, I sit in the office reading the New York Times online and waiting for the seven or eight people I’ve called to get back to me.

Being a reporter is a license to keep learning. It’s a license to stay in school indefinitely, except you don’t get graded, you can stick to learning about topics you’re interested in and the only papers you have to write are supposed to be in plain English without formatted citations.

Especially at a small-town paper, being a reporter means people look to you as a source of information. You get to find important stories and share them with your community, and hopefully help give voice to people whose concerns might not otherwise be listened to. You get to give people a platform to be heard. You make sure everything is working as it should by sitting through long, boring meetings so other people don’t have to.

It’s not an easy profession to stick with in 2014, and I think my brief speech to those kids made it sound like reporting is, on the whole, not that great. But when I’m able to make the pay work and see past the hours and the stress, I can honestly say there’s no job in the world I’d rather be doing right now.

Advertisements

New Year’s goals

It’s been pointed out to me that I’m weird for differentiating between goals and resolutions, but here we are. I like goals to be specific and achievable things, and resolutions often seem to be general enough that they’re hard to measure (eg. “Be nicer to my family” or “Exercise more”).

My 2013 goal was to read one fiction book each month, something Goodreads tells me I achieved rather nicely. That modest success has inspired me to be a bit more ambitious in 2014, especially now that college is no longer taking up so much of my time. So, here’s what I’m holding myself to in 2014.

1) Clear my print magazine backlog.
Ever since I studied abroad in the fall of 2011, I’ve had a backlog of my copies of Mother Jones, High Country News, The Sun, Bitch and Orion stretching back between 6 and 18 months and taking up almost a quarter of my bookshelf. By the end of 2014, I will be no more than one issue behind on each magazine. This goal is being made partially because those magazines present more of an obstacle than they should to moving, and I’d like to not cart them with me to my next home, wherever that may be.

2) Listen to one good music album in its entirety each month.
My musical taste is all over the place and often very passive: I hear things on the radio or from friends’ music collections, say “Hey, that song is good” and go acquire it. It’s rare for me to seek out new music or listen to complete albums, whether they’re new releases or classic works. But Beyonce’s surprise album has reminded me that some music is really worth listening to as part of a complete album, and that I’d do well to broaden my tastes intentionally every so often. So, each month, I will find a well-regarded or critically acclaimed album that’s new to me, acquire the whole thing and listen to it consciously and deliberately.

3) Build a website.
I want to put my HTML and CSS to good use doing an actual project that’s for me, not for work or some fictitious company invented by Treehouse. My only rules are that said website require HTML and CSS and that I do all the coding myself—no using complete CSS frameworks, though I may borrow and copy.

4) Put together a working professional website
This could be the same project as the one above, but by the end of the year, I want a real professional website that I had a significant role in designing and building myself. Something with a blog on a subdomain (probably my journalism Tumblr), links to articles and a space for me to upload my own projects, like the I made this year.

5) Participate in 365 in Focus, a group photoblog project.
A friend of mine invited me to participate in a 365, where you take one photo everyday for a year. We’re doing it group-accountability style, with 120 or so of us contributing to a group Tumblr. By this time next year, I will have 365 photos that I like up on the group blog. Some will be shots showing life in Walla Walla, some will be just about my life and a few will actually be good photos.

Do some prisoners matter more than others?

Walla Walla Penitentiary prison boundary

I stumbled across a blog post asking this question earlier this week. The author, S.E. Smith, notes that prison reform advocates tend to talk almost exclusively about nonviolent drug offenders when discussing prison reform and the rights of prisoners:

So when we talk about prison reform, many people shy away from talking about murderers and rapists and their rights, as well as the fact that they deserve justice. Despite the fact that the racial disparities seen in nonviolent drug convictions, robberies, and similar crimes are also seen with rape and murder, there’s an unwillingness to engage with issues like the possibility of profiling, false conviction, harsher sentences because of an offender’s race, and the myriad complicating factors that interfere with true equality for prisoners in the US, all of whom do in fact deserve human rights, no matter what their crimes.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve spent a good chunk of time at the Washington State Penitentiary this year. A friend of mine (my first childhood babysitter, actually) is serving a 15 year sentence there for armed robbery (he was initially sentenced to 20 and got 5 knocked off because the length was ruled cruel and unusual punishment). Like me, he’s from Seattle and his family and friends are there or further away, so he doesn’t have regular visitors. Since the prison is right in Walla Walla, where I’m living, I try to visit him once every few weeks.*

By and large, Robbie is not who people talk about when they talk about prison reform or justice for prisoners. By his own admission, he carried a gun into a store and shot a few people in the process of trying to rob it. He didn’t kill anyone, and injuries were fairly minor, but his crime certainly wasn’t a victimless one.

Reconnecting with Robbie after years of not seeing him took a little while. After initially attending a powwow for indigenous inmates at Coyote Ridge, the last prison he was in, our early visits in Walla Walla mostly involved playing Scrabble (he’s really good from a couple months reading the Scrabble dictionary, but I’m terrible) or Sorry (where I fare better). But now, we often just talk for an hour or two.

He tells me about his classes, how he’s due to finish his AA next quarter, the papers he has to write and the readings they discuss in class. I tell him about my job and the roller derby team I’m on, and he complains that the other guys on his team can’t play soccer as well as he can, which cost them the championship last season. We talk about our families, who haven’t seen each other in years—who’s working where, which side of the world our siblings are on.

We’ve also talked a lot about how he’s changed since getting locked up. He’s told me he’s learned to be less impulsive, to avoid fights and other bad situations, to keep his thinking positive. He works in the kitchen most mornings, takes classes and is part of a group of indigenous men who do traditional bead work and other crafts. He’s also involved in the prison’s teddy bear program, which sews bears to donate to homeless children and elderly people.

After a year and a half of letter writing and about six months of regular visits, we’ve gotten to know each other a lot better. Now, our conversations are often about what he’s doing to do once released. Robbie’s been in prison since about 2001, when he was just 19. He’s told me that there’s a saying that “prison preserves you,” meaning you stay acting roughly the age you were when you went in, no matter how long ago that was. Though he’s nearly 30, he jokes around and acts like he’s my age, but he’s also aware that in about two and a half years, he’ll be out on the streets. He hopes to go back to school and become a veterinarian.

Prison reform conversations often talk about the cost of keeping people behind bars. Drug crimes are victimless, treatment is cheaper, and we could really save taxpayers a lot of money if we treated drug addiction as a public health issue instead of a crime issue.

All of those statements are statements I agree with, but the more I hear them, the more I think they still fit within the logic of prisons as they exist now. Prison is just punishment for a crime. It’s what’s deserved, what’s fair. Nonviolent drug offenders allow us to make the case that these people aren’t truly “criminal” and therefore don’t belong in prison. That position doesn’t engage with a lot of questions I’ve thinking about, like: How can a person spend a decade and a half behind bars, miss the rise of laptops, tablets, smartphones and social networking, and be expected to get a good job that pays the bills when they get out?

I haven’t talked to Robbie much about his thoughts on incarceration as a whole, or how “fair” he feels his sentence was, if that’s something that can really be discussed at all. I don’t want to speak for him or try to make sweeping political claims based on our friendship, and I’m not sure I could even say what those claims would be. I know nothing I’m saying here, personal details aside, is especially original. But that blog post spoke to a lot of the thoughts I’ve been having since Robbie and I got back in touch, and I thought it was worth sharing as a reminder that there are many types of prisoners out there, all of whom deserve to be included in conversations about justice and human rights behind bars.

*Rachel’s note: I would hope this goes without saying, but I’ve gotten Robbie’s permission to write about him and our friendship.

How I accidentally developed an eating disorder

This is a personal thing I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while for a couple of different reasons. I may follow up later and talk about some of the other mental health stuff I went through last year, but I wanted to get this part out.

(Trigger warning: disordered eating/anorexic behavior)

Last year was my senior year of college. Like most academic years in my life, I started out wanting to see how far I could go before I broke myself. I’m a quintessential overachiever and I have trouble saying no to things, so I’m usually pretty busy and definitely enjoy having a hectic schedule. Generally I start a year off with a lot going on, figure out what I’m really enjoying and drop a few things once I decide how busy I actually want to be.

Senior year, however, I quickly veered into unhealthy territory. I was working at editor-in-chief of a college newspaper, which ate up at least 30 hours per week and often more than 40. More than the hours it took, it was one of those jobs that required you to be constantly available, on call, checking your email and just thinking about it, which takes a toll on your brain and can cause a lot more stress than just working long hours. On top of that, I started a 20 hour per week job at the daily newspaper in town, which required me to work early mornings after late nights of newspaper layout. With a full-time and a part-time job sucking up most waking hours, I also still had class—not a lot of it, to be fair, but I was writing an honors thesis, taking one of the hardest politics classes offered at my school, and doing a few other miscellaneous things that ate up my time.

One result of this was that I rarely had time to eat. Mornings were get up and go—I might have an egg before I ran off to work, but as I got busier, even that was hard to do. I started eating most of my meals at our student cafe, which basically serves fries and burgers. Being a vegetarian, I ended up having fries and onion rings for dinner a few nights a week, and grabbing a sandwich at the local sandwich shop once of twice on top of that. Between those purchases, haphazard snacking and getting invited to dinners all over campus, I could survive without ever really cooking.

Gradually, my body got used to this kind of diet. I considered it a good day of food when I had two eggs for breakfast and a large sandwich for lunch and dinner (half for lunch, half for dinner), plus maybe a snack sometime in the evening. It was not uncommon for me to work sixteen hour days on under 1000 calories. I still got hungry, but my body stopped screaming for food if I didn’t feed it. After an hour or two, it would quiet down and let me work in peace.

As my body adjusted, I started associating my diet with strength. I took pride in being able to get so much done without eating as much as I knew, somewhere deep down, that I should. And I convinced myself it wasn’t a problem (certainly not a capital-D Disorder), because I would gladly eat whatever was in front of me if it was convenient—four slices of pizza on newspaper production night, something full of calories while out with friends. The fact that I had lost about fifteen pounds was something I saw as a nice side benefit. My cheekbones looked great, my stomach was flat, and I wasn’t even trying.

I’ve never had an issue with food, really (which I think makes me a rare 22 year old woman), and I’d never thought of myself as having issues with my body compared to just about every other woman (and some men) I knew. And because of that, I didn’t think I could have an eating disorder. I read young adult books about anorexia and learned that eating disorders meant dropping down to 90 pounds and having heart irregularities. Fifteen pounds in four months didn’t seem worth worrying over. Nothing I was doing fit my image of what an eating disorder was, and because of that, I thought I didn’t have anything to worry about.

Anyone rational who stopped to put the pieces together could tell you that what I was doing wasn’t healthy or sustainable. I knew I couldn’t live my life like this forever, but figured I’d hold out until the end of the year and be fine. Everything I was doing became part of a marathon, a death-march of endurance towards graduation, with me constantly betting my health and sanity that I could walk across that stage with a diploma before I collapsed. I did have friends who tried to remind me, gently, to eat, but since I didn’t have a roommate and didn’t spend a ton of time with any one person, it was hard for people to keep tabs on me. Even my boyfriend, who I slept with just about every night, would only see me for one or two waking hours on many days and with his own schedule being busy, he couldn’t be expected to keep track of whether I was eating.

My eating disorder started out functionally, as a way to compensate for my busy schedule, but it quickly took on a life of its own. Like so many other problems and health issues, it became self-reinforcing. And I was so caught up in the idea of suffering until graduation that I didn’t even notice this was happening.

My first clue that I wasn’t okay should have been when my already fussy stomach became impossible. Between the stress of my jobs and my lack of food (and often water), I would wake up with stomach and back pain at 6:30 or 7 a.m. almost every morning. I had random stabbing stomach pains, duller aches and vague feelings of nausea and unsettledness which I woke up with and which made me literally terrified to eat breakfast. Some mornings, the thought of trying to decide what to eat for breakfast would make me start hyperventilating with panic, which meant that I more or less stopped eating more than two bites of breakfast ever for about a month. That panic extended to attempts to prepare food for myself. Even when I had free time, I would come home to discover a fridge full of random items acquired on a whim, half of which were rotting and none of which could be combined into a suitable meal. I couldn’t justify shopping and buying more food when I had so much, but I could rarely put the puzzle pieces of ingredients together into something that sounded edible. More often than not, I had a taco or two and called it good.

With all this, it took until I blacked out in my friend’s shower (I’d been up for four or five hours with no food and no water, and the heat from the shower made me woozy) for me to realize that I had a problem and needed help. I had friends sign up to eat meals with me for an entire week, because the idea of cooking anything or planning food was so terrifying at that point that I couldn’t handle it. I had more or less forgotten how to feed myself, and if told I had to eat lunch or dinner and couldn’t just go buy a sandwich, I’d end up staring at the food in my fridge in confusion, then sitting on the kitchen floor almost crying because I just didn’t understand how to make a meal. I felt weak constantly and rarely had a day where I didn’t feel lightheaded as soon as I stood up. My body seemed frail to me in a way it never had before, and the idea of exercising or doing anything physical genuinely scared me, because I wasn’t sure I was in a condition to do anything challenging without hurting myself further.

I got better, with some real talk and tons of help from my friends. My stomach got better at eating normal amounts of food instead of being full after three bites of lunch, and I re-learned (with some stress in my life removed) how to cook, go shopping for food and take better care of myself. I stopped feeling like I was always on the verge of collapse, and starting playing tennis again. I got better, though it took months for me to feel that my body was really back to normal.

Looking back, what stands out to me is how much my ideas about what an eating disorder is and should be ended up hurting me. I assumed that, in order to have an anorexia-type eating disorder, I had to be consciously trying to lose weight or eat a certain (small) amount of food. I thought that if I didn’t lose tens of pounds over the course of a month or two, it didn’t count. After reading accounts of people who had been rushed to the hospital with heart failure from lack of food, I didn’t think symptoms like general weakness, exhaustion, stomach pain and constant lightheadedness counted. I thought if I knew that what I was feeding myself wasn’t enough, it wasn’t an eating disorder. I thought it couldn’t be real if I wasn’t in it to lose weight. I thought I was just genuinely too busy to eat.

I’ve never been formally diagnosed with an eating disorder, and I think whether I “officially” had one is beside the point. I know many people struggle with anorexia, bulimia and other disorders for years, and that what I experienced last year is relatively mild by comparison. Whether you’d call this an ED or not, though, it’s clear to me in retrospect that I was eating in a disordered and unhealthy way, and in a way that could have had a lot of more serious consequences.

I’m sharing this, I think, because I want people to know that even if your suffering or struggle doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria in a textbook, or your image of what a problem looks like, it doesn’t mean that it’s not real or important. I want to remind friends out there to take care of each other, and to know that even if someone is okay or thinks they are, an offer to cook a meal and share food with someone who’s struggling can mean so, so much. And I want to thank everyone in my life who gave up an afternoon to make sure I was fed, and who helped me get to a place where I can write this all down.

National Day of Civic Hacking

So, I spent this gorgeous Saturday in Portland holed up in a loft office building, huddled over my computer analyzing Oregon legislature data with a team.

This all started at Code With Me Portland, a two-day intensive workshop designed to teach journalists how to code (specifically focusing on interactives). That weekend, I built an interactive map which displays feeds of the latest government meetings in Walla Walla County. It’s still being developed, to, among other things, contain a real feed instead of the dummy links I have in there now. I’d been hanging out on Codecademy learning HTML and CSS sporadically, but Code With Me really let me practice those skills in a practical way and see how a project could be developed from start to finish. And I was excited to find more changes to apply my limited nerd skills to cool things, especially things related to journalism and information access.

National Day of Civic Hacking

Naturally, when I found out about the National Day of Civic Hacking, I was excited. It’s a nationwide thing, with events in something like 100 different cities all occurring this weekend. Basically, developers, designers, policy experts and assorted other nerds get together and try to build something cool using data sets and public information.

I went to the Portland event, because it was closer to Walla Walla and a group of Code With Me mentors and students wanted to team up. Our team consisted of Daniel Bachhuber, a Code with Me mentor and programmer with tons of experience, especially in WordPress; Ivar Vong, another mentor  and developd at Emerald Media Group, and Susan Currie Sivek, a mass communications professor at Linfield College (aka another awesome tech-savvy journalist).

We started out talking about lobbyist and campaign finance data, but we ultimately decided we didn’t want to go down that road, because there are a number of pretty good sites which display campaign contributions, and we didn’t have a clear problem we were trying to solve by building something slightly different.

Instead, we ended up focusing on bills from the Oregon legislature, which we had been looking at incidentally while discussing campaign finance. We found three existing databases of these bills, none of which were especially user-friendly. The state government website is the worst—it allows you to search for keywords within a bill, but then takes you to a full text version with a short (one sentence) summary that’s not especially informative.

The Oregonian’s site is more readable, showing you where a bill is in the legislative process. Still, it doesn’t offer much in the way of context.

Oregonian

For instance, this bill would prohibit siting a composting facility within 1500 feet of a school. Your first thought upon reading that might be, “Why on earth does that need to be legislated at all?” And the bill summary and full text, even for those willing to sift through them, don’t offer much in the way of context.

Now, as it turns out, there’s actually a pretty controversial compost facility that’s been proposed in Stafford. Residents are worried that it will contaminate groundwater and have odor and noise problems. And guess what? It’s located within 1500 feet of a school. In other words, this random bill would stop the Stafford facility if passed, but there’s no way of knowing that from looking at the Oregonian site or the state legislature page. You’d have to be interested enough to do your own search for the bill number and see what Google turns up.

In addition, there’s the fact that even a well-educated person is hard-pressed to understand what any given bill actually does. One-sentence summaries don’t often cut to the heart of what a bill is about or tell you who it will most impact, and most people don’t want to skim through a few paragraphs of legalese to figure out what’s going on in more depth. (Initially, this was kind of a surprise for me, since I’ve been excited about doing that since like sixth grade. I guess my politics major and political nerdiness does come in handy.)

We set out to build a site which was designed with the user in mind, rather than the data itself. Instead of just dumping all the bills on a site and letting people search them, we wanted to give people an opportunity to respond to and interact with bills. Our site was called What the Bill, and we wanted to include these features:

  • One of our big features was to allow users to react to bills by clicking a button. We gave them options including “What?”, “Tell Me More” and “They’d Better Not”, and each bill page displays all of the reactions submitted so far.
  • Another problem we identified with existing databases is how hard it is to isolate bills that have a chance of passing and are actually relevant. We wanted to build a homepage which would display three lists of bills: “hottest” (based on a combination of page views, total reactions and media coverage of the bill), most recently changes (thing the legislature has just taken action on), and editor’s choice (to allow admins/journalists to highlight bills that seem boring, but would actually have significant impacts if passed).
  • Each bill has a “who” and “where” field which are designed to describe the groups of people and areas of the state that would be most impacted should the bill pass. Each field would function as a tag, so a user could go to one page to see every proposed bill which would impact, for example, homeowners, Native Americans or Multnomah County. These fields would be editable by users from a menu we wrote, so we could essentially crowdsource this information and get it listed for all bills relatively quickly.
  • We also had a “what” field, which provides a plain English summary of each bill. For demo purposes, Susan and I wrote a few summaries. We envisioned the site having a team of journalist admins who would check for popular bills or bills where a lot of people voted for “tell me more” and summarize based on that. We also wanted to allow people to suggest edits or submit their own descriptions (like a moderated wiki), but we didn’t have time to build that in.
  • Finally, we wanted each page to provide a news feed of related articles, which would come from several sites that regularly cover Oregon politics. This would mean that, for instance, the page about that compost bill would also have a sidebar linking to news about the proposed Stafford facility, allowing readers to make that connection without having to Google it themselves.

This was a lot to build, and we had about four hours to do it once we finally decided on an idea. Ivar and Daniel did the hard working, using a database called LegiScan which has an API to import information about Oregon bills into a WordPress site. Susan and I created categories for the Who and Where tags and summarized a few bills, after our attempts to design a bill page using our rudimentary CSS knowledge became unnecessary.

Obviously, we didn’t build all the features we wanted to in four hours. Daniel and Ivar did an awesome job just getting the bills imported and setting up the reaction tags, and we got Who and Where working, though they’re not tags and not editable by users yet. We also didn’t get a chance to design a homepage, so the site just has a blog-style listing of the bills themselves. But for a few hours of hacking, our team got a lot done. You can view the site here, and one of the bills I edited and wrote a summary for here.

At the end of the day, all the teams presented their work and the organizers gave out a few awards to projects. We won a People’s Choice  Award, which was really awesome, and came with a few hundred bucks of prize money. The rest of my team not being broke recent college grads, we elected to donate our winnings to a Portland organization which teaches girls to code (I’ll link to them once I get the name.)

All in all, it was a challenging and fun day, and it definitely gave me a better sense of the kind of skills I’d like to be developing. And I’d definitely like to do it again next year.

My problem with the food stamp challenge

I’ve been seeing more friends, classmates and organizations talk about doing the “Food Stamp Challenge.” The challenge consists of trying to eat on an average food stamp allocation, which is $4.50 per day for an individual. According to an email sent out by Catholic Charities Walla Walla, and forwarded to the volunteer listserv at Whitman, the reason for doing this is summarized as follows: “Through this experience we can educate ourselves as to what it means to eat on $4.50 a day, raise awareness in the community, and, in the long term, build understanding that could lead to better programs to assist low-income families.”

I want to be clear: I think the intentions of people participating in this challenge are good (otherwise, there would be no point in writing a critique). Presumably, the goal is that people who participate in this challenge will gain some first-hand awareness that eating on $4.50 a day is hard and spread that awareness to friends and family, ultimately leading to better food policy. Given what I’ve seen of the challenge rules and its marketing, though, I think the net result is more likely to be further depriving low-income people of voice and agency in public policy.

First of all, framing something as a “challenge” and encouraging participants to connect via social media and share stories and recipes with each other makes eating on a food stamp budget sound fun. It probably is fun to do for a week if you’re middle or upper class and don’t normally have to pay that much attention to what you eat. But anyone who has been poor for a significant length of time can tell you that rationing food, skipping meals so you can afford rent or forgoing food so your kids can eat is not fun. There’s nothing glamorous about it. There’s no Facebook page, no support network of people swapping recipes. It’s not a “challenge,” in the fun, reality-TV-esque sense of the word. It’s just survival, and you won’t get any recognition from your friends or family for doing something cool and edgy by making your food budget last for the entire month.

Secondly, the rules and set-up of the challenge make it unlikely to be a very accurate simulation of eating as a low-income person. Rule #3 states that, “During the Challenge, eat only food that you purchase for the project. Do not eat food that you already own (this does not include spices and condiments).” The thing is, spices and condiments are a huge part of what makes food palatable and versatile. They’re cheap in a per-serving sense, but having the capital required to buy a decent set of basic spices is not a luxury that a lot of folks have. It’s way easier to cook healthy, nutritious and diverse foods if you have access to flavorings. Aside from this, lack of money is only one of many reasons why low-income folks often aren’t able to eat healthy food. Time is another huge constraint.

Eating on $4.50 a day is actually pretty easy if you have the knowledge, education and time to cook dried beans from stratch, as my friend Josh discovered. And cooking like that becomes hard, if not impossible, when you’re working multiple jobs, have to provide childcare, are chronically ill or have any number of other life circumstances that many low-income people do. At best, this means the experiences of people trying this challenge won’t be representative of a typical person on food stamps. At worse, this will mean people who try this or hear about others trying it will conclude that it’s not actually that hard to live on food stamps at all.

Finally, and most importantly, I’m sick of the notion that privileged people have to try something themselves in order to see how bad it is. Thousands of people who are actually low-income can and have addressed the fact that our social safety net is insufficient, that food stamps don’t provide enough for people to buy healthy foods, and that there are dozens of other factors which play into food security and access to healthy foods besides income. Everything I’ve written on this post has been said before by people who know far better than I do what it’s actually like to be poor. And too often, the lived experiences of people are ignored in favor of gimmicky “challenges” like this, where people who have never gone hungry a day in their lives suddenly become experts on food policy and the problems with food stamps. Last I checked, which was a few years ago, almost 1 in 8 Americans were on food stamps. There are enough people who have actually dealt with this system to speak to how it works. We don’t need more people to try food stamps before we can take action or make policy about hunger or poverty in this country.

I understand the impulse to try something firsthand to learn more about it. But if you’re going to do the food stamp challenge, don’t act like your experience is a meaningful indication of what a person in poverty actually experiences when trying to eat. And if you’re really determined to solve the issue of hunger in America, pay attention to the next Farm Bill negotiations and call your representatives to tell them not to cut funding for food stamps. Challenge the rhetoric that people relying on food stamps are parasitic, lazy and good-for-nothing. Object to the fact that proposed immigration reform bills won’t allow undocumented immigrants waiting in line for legalization access to social services. Pay attention to the policy and rhetoric that actually shapes the food options that poor people in the U.S. have, and do more than just spending a week eating bulk beans and granola.

Back from hiatus, pondering the ethics of thesis research in Tucson

Hey everyone. The blog has sort of been on temporary hiatus since this summer, both due to general busy-ness and the fact that a lot of my writing energy has been channeled into other (better-paid) places. So I apologize for the long dry spell. But, I’m back in Tucson, Arizona now to finish up the field research portion of my thesis. Since it’s likely I’ll be writing while I’m down here, I thought this would be a good time to write something explaining my thesis in a way which (hopefully) makes sense to non-politics majors.

Basically, and super-broadly, my thesis involves interviewing people who consider themselves “environmentalists” who have also engaged with migrant aid work on the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrant aid means something like putting water out in the desert, often with an established group like No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths, the Samaritans or Fronteras Compasivas/Humane Borders.

I don’t want to explain my research goals in too much detail right now, just because some potential research subjects might see this and I don’t want perceptions of goals to influence what people tell me. But I’m hoping to get an idea of how people who’ve engaged with migrant issues talk about nature and the desert. The thesis itself is going to be a fun theoretical mix of critical race scholarship and American wilderness and environmental history.

Partially, I arrived at this topic as part of my personal journey over the last year or so. I’ve gone from being an ardent, save-the-polar-bears-and-rainforests environmentalist to focusing much more on human issues–social justice, environmental justice, and the U.S.-Mexico border and immigration policy in particular. While these two types of issues aren’t always opposed with each other (and often seem like they should be well-linked), there’s less crossover between humanitarian/social justice issues and environmental issues than it seems like there could or should be. I’ve found over the past year or so that a lot of that has to do with the environmental movement’s long, and often bloody, history of racial exclusion, from the removal, massacre and genocide of indigenous and non-white people which paved the way for “untouched” American wilderness, to the forced relocation and/or criminalization of traditional foresters and hunters in areas designated as critical habitat by American NGOs in the Global South. Looking at this history, it’s been hard for me to retain faith in the mainstream environmental movement, which remains overwhelmingly composed of middle and upper class white people, at least in the U.S., and remains willfully blind to much of its own history. And my doubts are especially strong when the issues in question relate to wilderness or other forms of land preservation.

So this thesis, as much as anything else, is an attempt for me to see how other people who care about the same issues I do view their place in the world, and in the two often contradictory movements they’re part of. It’s also an attempt for me to write about a subject I’m really interested in, and do work on the border, without contributing to the academicization (not a word, I know) of people’s lives and struggles. (I say attempt because it’s completely not up to me to decide if I’m successful in this endeavor.)

There’s a tendency in academia to research marginalized groups of people (undocumented migrants, for instance, or homeless queer youth) and publish things about their lives. The resulting papers get treated as insightful, and people read them and say, “Oh look, we didn’t know anything about these people, and now we do!” Often when this happens, the same group of people have been writing about their own lives and experiences for a while, and fighting for rights, recognition, etc., just not in a way which was visible, intelligible or meant for the consumption of academics. So then academics who aren’t part of said group get credit for studying them, and most likely, essentializing or inaccurately portraying or simplifying their lived experience. And those academics become noted and get to talk over the people they claim to be representing.

I’m not saying there can’t be benefits to this type of research: some researchers focus on advocacy or solidarity/reciprocity work as part of their research, and awareness, as well as tangible benefits, do come through this. (Whitman’s State of the State for Washington Latinos project strikes me as an example of this type of project done well, with ongoing connections to established groups, research needs dictated by community groups and half of the class time dedicated to advocacy/publicity). But tons and tons of white college students and white professors (and some non-white folks as well) have studied the border and immigration and undocumented migrants ad nauseum, and the benefits back to those groups and populations are often small if not zero when a college senior comes and visits for a few weeks to do a project and then leaves again with no further contact. I hope, that by studying individuals, rather than advocacy groups specifically, and by focusing on how a largely white population talks about environmental and immigration issues, I can at least do a thesis where I’m not trying to summarize the lived experiences of marginalized people. And I’m going to keep this issue in mind in my future career as a journalist, where I think those lines get even stickier and easier to cross in ways that can end up hurting people.

While I’m terrified about the prospect of getting all the legwork done in the next week and a half, I’m looking forward to chatting with some cool people while I’m in town. I’ve managed to drag Spencer (my boyfriend) down here with me, and he’s graciously agreed to hang out with me and drive me around town while I do interviews.

Stay tuned for more research updates, and also fun things that sound more exciting than “research updates.”