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May 2, 2008

The State of the World - For Real This Time

Working in groups, on projects, in college, sucks. This is my fifth year of higher education, so I have had this experience a lot. It's next to impossible to coordinate 5 young adults with jobs and full-time class schedules and social lives and try and get them all to make space in their schedules to sit down together and fight about how the project should be. Ok, usually it's not arguing. Usually one or two people take the lead, dictate how the project will go, who should do what, and the rest of the group are too complacent about the assignment in the first place they're just glad to have someone else doing the thinking for them. Usually that leader person is me, and usually because it's so hard to get people together, I pick up the slack and just do a lot of it myself. This time, however, I was lucky enough to have an awesome group who were easy to meet with almost every week and who took the initiative and who all genuinely cared about the outcome of the project. So in short, this group project was the best I've done. However, that's besides the point I think you're looking for.

The project itself. I think it's important to get us into the mindset of giving back. It's definitely important to get us thinking about what's going on in the world. Especially in a field like architecture it's important because it is a field that can be used for good or for evil. A lot of people might be going into this field to build mansions and design megamalls and sell their skills to the highest bidder, all morals aside. It's so important to learn about the state of the world so that we can see that changes need to be made. We can grow up and build buildings for good, refugee camps, low income, build for morally responsible companies that will give back to society. If we grow up in a bubble, however, thinking only about money and prestige, the minds of these architects can be used to furthur the exploitation of the environment and people of the world. I learned a lot from these presentations and my eyes were opened to things that I might not have thought about, especially if all we ever talked about was the different types of columns used in classic palaces. I am a firm believer that all the situations of the world are connected, that even if you don't involve yourself directly in a solution, the mere habit of keeping your eyes open to those sorts of things can help you to think about the situations you are involved in. A moral and helpful mind is a powerful thing to have, and instilling that in us at this crucial time in our career development can help to start us down the right path. It can also weed out those people who might be getting into the field for -- what I consider to be -- the wrong reasons.

Ah, the state of the world... Good to know.

Improving Minneapolis Slums Through Sustainability

This project really grabbed my attention, especially because of it's local flavor. It is important to think about things around the world, but we can't forget about what's happening in our own backyards.

They began by giving some of the reasons for the lack of affordable housing developments, one of which was the "not in my backyard" protests from other residents. That reason really hit home for me because I have first hand experience with it. I can understand the problem because I did live in low-income housing downtown. My problem, however, wasn't so much with the building I was in, but with the building in my "backyard," which was the House of Charity free housing project. Well, I guess I'm not sure which building contributed, but I know that living there I had to listen to some very loud fights, both inside and out and sometimes between one person inside and one outside, yelling to/from the second or third floor window. I also had a man follow me into my apartment trying to sell me crack, who then lit his crack pipe on my couch and tried to persuade me to smoke it with him. Luckily, he didn't try to hurt me and left after I repeatedly and firmly rejected his offers. However, I only lived there for a couple of months and that happened. Simply going by the odds, I can only assume it wasn't a freak occurrence.

The group didn't dive any deeper into the "not in my backyard" issue, and went into the redevelopment track instead, discussing the ways current low-income housing can be revamped to make it sustainable and pretty, giving back to the environment and instilling pride in the neighborhood it occupies and the tenants who live there. On first hearing, remodeling the building wouldn't seem like a feasible solution, especially because the government wouldn't want to spend money on crime and disturbance ridden homes when it could be spending that money trying to attract new, hip yuppies to fill its streets. However, I am always of the opinion that all social problems are connected, and I think that having pride in one's home is a very important key in people's development and lifestyle.

The crime and public nuisance that existed in the low-income housing I lived in was very noticeable. You would think that the police would be called in frequently to resolve these things, even if they had nothing to go on, there should still have been noise complaints to break up, right? Well in order for the police to investigate a noise complaint, someone has to call and complain. But I think that people living in this state feel that the government doesn't care about them, doesn't want to be bothered with their concerns. If they don't care about them living in cockroaches and grime (we had the worst cockroach problem there,) why would they care about them living in annoyance and fear? If people hate the sight of their building, they will rush quickly to their apartment and stay in there, not lingering in the hallways or common areas long enough to even recognize their neighbors. If they don't know their neighbors, why waste their time getting involved in their noisy arguments or violence?

If these buildings were designed to be places to be proud of, people would be happier with their life situation. They wouldn't constantly be thinking, "Oh this is temporary, I don't really belong here, I'm ashamed to be here, this isn't my home." People can take stock in their homes and feel a sense of identity. They might just feel a sense of permanence and start community building activities. They might get to know their neighbors, and then when there's a marital dispute going on, they might want to have the police intervene. They might actually want to have people come over and see their beautiful building, so they wouldn't want those people to see crime and grime, so they would do their part in making sure those things stay out of their beautiful home.

Giving people without a lot of money a sense of stability in their life, a sense of pride in their city, might not be as economically booming as importing a bunch of rich condo hipsters. But I think that loyalty goes furthur than trendiness, and the people who feel like their city cares about them will do more to give back than those who are just living here because it's in and convinient for the glamorous part of their lives before they have kids and move to the suburbs. Those loyal, loving people could be the ones volunteering, helping in other arenas to make the city a better place, to give back. And since the greener buildings save the city money in the long run, it seems to me to be a fabulous solution to many problems.

Sustainable, not slummable

Improving Minneapolis Slums Through Sustainability

This project really grabbed my attention, especially because of it's local flavor. It is important to think about things around the world, but we can't forget about what's happening on our own doorstep.

The group began by giving some of the reasons for the lack of affordable housing developments, one of which was the "not in my backyard" protests from other residents. That reason really hit home for me because I have first hand experience with it. I can understand the problem because I did live in low-income housing downtown. My problem, however, wasn't so much with the building I was in, but with the building in my "backyard," which was the House of Charity free housing project. Well, I guess I'm not sure which building contributed, but I know that living there I had to listen to some very loud fights, both inside and out and sometimes between one person inside and one outside, yelling to/from the second or third floor window. I also had a man follow me into my apartment trying to sell me crack, who then lit his crack pipe on my couch and tried to persuade me to smoke it with him. Luckily, he didn't try to hurt me and left after I repeatedly and firmly rejected his offers. However, I only lived there for a couple of months and that happened. Simply going by the odds, I can only assume it wasn't a freak occurrence.

The group didn't dive any deeper into the "not in my backyard" issue, and went into the redevelopment track instead, discussing the ways current low-income housing can be revamped to make it sustainable and pretty, giving back to the environment and instilling pride in the neighborhood it occupies and the tenants who live there. On first hearing, remodeling the building wouldn't seem like a feasible solution, especially because the government wouldn't want to spend money on crime and disturbance-ridden homes when it could be spending that money trying to attract new, hip yuppies to fill its streets. However, I am always of the opinion that all social problems are connected, and I think that having pride in one's home is a very important key in people's development and lifestyle.

The crime and public nuisance that existed in the low-income housing I lived in was very noticeable. You would think that the police would be called in frequently to resolve these things; even if they had nothing to go on, there should still have been noise complaints to break up, right? Well in order for the police to investigate a noise complaint, someone has to call and complain. But I think that people living in this state feel that the government doesn't care about them, doesn't want to be bothered with their concerns. If they don't care about them living in cockroaches and grime (we had the worst cockroach problem there,) why would they care about them living in annoyance and fear? If people hate the sight of their building, they will rush quickly to their apartment and stay in there, not lingering in the hallways or common areas long enough to even recognize their neighbors. If they don't know their neighbors, why waste their time getting involved in their noisy arguments or violence?

If these buildings were designed to be places to be proud of, people would be happier with their life situation. They wouldn't constantly be thinking, "Oh this is temporary, I don't really belong here, I'm ashamed to be here, this isn't my home." People could take stock in their homes and feel a sense of identity. They might just feel a sense of permanence and start community building activities. They might get to know their neighbors, and then when there's a marital dispute going on, they might want to have the police intervene. They might actually want to have people come over and see their beautiful building, so they wouldn't want those people to see crime and grime, so they would do their part in making sure those things stay out of their "backyard."

Giving people without a lot of money a sense of stability in their life, a sense of pride in their city, might not be as economically booming as importing a bunch of rich condo hipsters. But I think that loyalty goes furthur than trendiness, and the people who feel like their city cares about them will do more to give back than those who are just living here because it's "in" and convenient for the glamorous part of their lives before they have kids and move to the suburbs. Those loyal, loving people could be the ones volunteering, helping in other arenas to make the city a better place, to give back. And since the greener buildings save the city money in the long run, it seems to me to be a fabulous solution to many problems.

Project Unity - Achieving Gender Equality in the Central African Republic

Women have, throughout history, been considered all too frequently as second-class citizens. I found it very interesting that of the 37 charitable organizations helping out in the Central African Republic, only one of them dealt with women's issues. I highly agreed with the fact that education is the only way to change these women's situations, since we are dealing with age-old values as the core of the problem.

The only way to make women a more presentable force in a society is to literally change the connotations and opinions of the citizens. Giving women power or money or rights doesn't help them if their fellow townspeople don't feel that they deserve it. They wouldn't respect them and therefore, when shaded from the law, wouldn't respect any rules we could put in place about their treatment. This is why domestic violence is still so prevalent. It isn't that men are more allowed to beat their wives (at least not in our society,) it's that the age-old idea that men are superior beings that perpetuates these activities below the eyes of even the most "civilized" societies.

I think the approach this group recommended really would help these women in the best way possible. Taking them out of their homes or preventing them from participating in the activities they have always traditionally been responsible for, such as child-rearing or domestic duties, would not help them, it would only strip them of their culture and cause tension and hostility with anyone who still held their beliefs of inferiority. This method gives them a sense of accomplishment, a sense of duty, a sense of importance, and an education, and it's quite feasible from what I can tell.

By giving the women teaching jobs, you raise their importance level within the community. They then become not just the raisers of their own children, but responsible for the well-being of everyone's children. They become a valuable asset to the community at large instead of just to their own households, if it even was felt that they were that before. By giving them this importance, they can gain a little more respect, and sense of self-worth.

By educating them, they are gaining opportunities they wouldn't have had before, which I won't get into because the importance of education in general would be another paper entirely.

The kicker here, I think, is in the education of the children. By teaching the women of the community how to teach, they become knowledge-bearers in the children's eyes. They become the source of education to the children, so in those important years of developing values and priorities, these children can have a chance to learn to respect women instead of just thinking of them as, again, child bearers and cooks. This in itself is the key. We can't swoop in and change the connotations and beliefs in adult minds overnight. We can't do anything to make the adults in this society stop thinking of women as lesser beings unless they want to. But giving the women this knowledge and showing that to the children, and having the women have a say in what the kids are learning, that could be all the difference in changing the ideals that hold women down. Once again, education is key.

How do I feel about my experience with Study Buddies? Meh.

My study buddy was an adorable 6 year old boy named Mohamed. His smile will make anyone's heart melt, he cleans up after himself, and he is very smart when he puts his mind to something. I worked with him all year, and although he can be frustrating sometimes, as any 6 year old can, I usually leave with a sense of accomplishment and that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you feel like you've done something good. Two days ago, on the last day I would ever help Mohamed with his homework. he told me he hated me and didn't want me to come back next year.

I had been nervous about our last meeting, wondering if he was going to be sad that we wouldn't be seeing each other anymore. It was one of those bittersweet selfish thoughts; I didn't want him to be sad... but I kinda did. So when I told him I was signing up to come back next year and his reply was "Nooo!" you'd think it would have hit me pretty hard. But I knew then and I know now that it wasn't personal. I know that I did the best with him that I could have. I know that it's hard to sit and listen to a stranger tell you what to do, especially when you're a six year old Muslim boy and that stranger is a college age woman. I also know, from working with Mohamed all year, that he is a particularly headstrong, proud, and easily distracted boy. These qualities are especially deterring when sitting in a room fun of games and toys in front of a big window with the whole world outside, and the situation placed me in the role of disciplinarian. I had to be the one to tell him he couldn't run around the room reenacting his favorite Bad Boys 2 moments, that told him he needed to stop coloring a picture of gangsters and do his homework, that told him he couldn't go to the water fountain alone, or to the staff-only equipment room. I was just another voice of "no," and as that was the only impression he ever got of me, I understand his feelings.

This experience was very enlightening for me. We are spoon-fed the glamorous image of tutoring that little underprivileged kid who only wants to learn against all odds, that they will fall hopelessly in love with us and we'll keep in touch for the rest of our lives. I saw some groups there who looked like they were connecting, that they were friends who were having a great starry-eyed journey through the winding road of knowledge. But I also saw some very tired looking volunteer faces of students like myself, doing it for class credit, in whose eyes I saw little but "alright, here I am again." I also heard some mentees complain loudly about their homework assignments and the way the service was being run. Mainly I was so busy trying to raise my voice as little as possible while still commanding polite authority over my six-year-old rebel, trying to explain to him why he couldn't do whatever he wanted after his homework was done, and letting him win at board games because he threw a fit if he ever wasn't in a commanding lead with the ability to constantly gloat.

When I signed up for next year and Mohamed protested, I asked him if he didn't want me to come back next year. When he said no, I was slightly offended, but cheerfully replied "OK, well then I'll come back and work with someone else." All in all it was a rewarding experience even though I don't necessarily think I had too much of an impact on his impressionable little life. I mean, really, he knew how to do 85% of his homework without me saying a thing. Half the time he told me he didn't want me to help (unless he was asking me for the answers). But the times he did need my help, and I could help him, really was that warm fuzzy feeling. It was sparse and tough to get to, and sometimes I wanted to tear my hair out, but it was worth it. And if I can fit it into my schedule, I will try and come back next semester. Who knows, maybe I'll get that fairy tale bonding experience we see in the movies. Maybe not. There's only one way to find out.