Wednesday, November 2, 2011

SumOfUs's first test campaign

About an hour ago something exhilarating happened: SumOfUs, the organization I've been working on since January, soft-launched its first campaign to the MoveOn list. The email below went to small random sample of the MoveOn list.

We'll have to wait and see whether it does well enough to go to a wider sample, but regardless, it's a huge milestone for SumOfUs -- and my everlasting gratitude to all my colleagues, friends, and family, without whom this moment wouldn't have been possible.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Daniel Mintz, Civic Action <>
Date: Wed, Nov 2, 2011 at 1:33 PM
Subject: Mocking the homeless

Dear MoveOn member,

Among the worst actors in the housing crisis are the "foreclosure mills" (assembly-line-style law firms) hired by the big banks to throw people out of their homes—often cutting legal corners in the process.

Photos have just surfaced from the Halloween party last year at one of the largest foreclosure mills in the country. Employees of the New York law firm Steven J. Baum dressed up in an appalling mockery of the people they were throwing out on the streets every day.1
Bank of America is the largest servicer of foreclosed-on properties in the country and one of Baum's big clients.2 Sign our petition and demand that Bank of America fire Baum immediately.

Here are two of the outrageous photos (turn on images if you can't see them):

It's not just the photos. Baum helped put more than 11,000 New York families out on the streets last year.3 According to theNew York Times columnist who published the photos, the firm treats homeowners "mercilessly."4 One bankruptcy attorney said that "Baum's work was beyond sloppiness—it was outright fraud."5 And a state judge called Baum's explanations in one case "incredible, outrageous, ludicrous and disingenuous."6
Meanwhile, banks like Bank of America pay firms like Baum a flat fee per foreclosure—which means that their main incentive is to foreclose on as many families as possible as quickly as possible.7 Baum's reprehensible behavior is all too typical of a broken system created very intentionally by corporations like Bank of America.
Corporations like Bank of America may be greedy, but they rely on us to be their customers—and together, we can force them to listen to the 99%. Just yesterday, Bank of America proved how vulnerable they are to public pressure right now when they dropped a proposed $5 per month debit card fee in response to a mass national petition.8 That's why we're partnering with SumOfUs, a grassroots consumer movement for corporate accountability, on this campaign.

Bank of America and Baum are only the tip of the iceberg in the housing crisis, but they have demonstrated the worst kind of greed and contempt for their fellow Americans. Let's make an example of Baum and put foreclosure mills and banks alike on notice: This kind of behavior is unacceptable—and bad for business. Sign the petition now calling on Bank of America, one of Baum's largest clients, to fire them:

Thanks for all that you do.

Daniel, Elena, Julia, Stephen, and the rest of the team

1. "What the Costumes Reveal," The New York Times, October 28, 2011

2. "J.P. Morgan, BofA, Wells Fargo Tops in Foreclosed Home Loans," The Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2010

3. "Feds went easy on NY's largest foreclosure mill: critics," New York Post, October 7, 2011

4. "What the Costumes Reveal," The New York Times, October 28, 2011

5. "Feds went easy on NY's largest foreclosure mill: critics," New York Post, October 7, 2011

6. "Judges Berate Bank Lawyers in Foreclosures," The New York Times, January 10, 2011

7. "Fannie and Freddie's Foreclosure Barons," Mother Jones, August 4, 2010

8. "Bank of America Cancels $5 Fee," ABC News, November 1, 2011

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Kalila in Greencastle

Here's a photo of Kalila, Faiza, my mom, and my dad, in our kitchen. Faiza has just presented my parents with presents from Uncle Negro -- beautiful Ghanaian masks that now occupy pride of place in our living room! This is right before our annual Christmas party -- I don't have good pictures of Kalila during the party on my own camera but other people do and I'll post them when we have them.

West African reading list

Here's what I read while I was gone. There's not a single thing on this list that I didn't like and wouldn't recommend, but I've tried to rank them within each category in order of what I suspect general interest will be :-)

NON-FICTION (choices were largely determined by what was available on Kindle)
  • The Shadow of the Sun -- selective memoir of the three decades Poland's leading international correspondent spent in Africa. Super-readable, evocative, and not too long.
  • You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir -- by Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize for Literature from Nigeria and one of the leaders of the Nigerian diaspora's anti-Abacha movement). Fascinating and (not surprisingly) very well-written; also very long.
  • Shady Practices: Agroforestry and Gender Politics in the Gambia -- surprisingly well-written and interesting account of the interactions between NGOs/development agencies and small-scale female gardeners, their families, and their villages. Well worth reading if you work in international development!
  • Various selections from works of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president (revered like Washington, Lincoln, and FDR all rolled into one) and one of the foremost pan-Africanist intellectuals. He was quite the philosopher and rhetorician!
  • Culture and Customs of Senegal -- extremely informative; especially useful given that the language barrier meant I couldn't talk to people to learn stuff or ask questions
  • Mali: A Country Profile -- very short, almost like an encyclopedia entry.

FICTION/POETRY (I bought most of these in paperback at bookstores while traveling)
  • Things Fall Apart -- one of Africa's most famous and widely-read modern novels, it is a page-turner set centuries ago about the downfall of one proud, ambitious man when the Europeans first arrive in his village.
  • So Long a Letter -- a poignant, eminently readable portrayal of polygamy in Senegal.
  • The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born -- an extremely provocative portrait of politics and corruption in the early years of Ghana's indepedendence.
  • An anthology of West African poetry that doesn't seem to be on Amazon.
  • The Belly of the Atlantic -- Haven't started it yet, but highly recommended by both Lonely Planet and the bookstore in the Gambia. A recent novel about the Senegalese emigration/diaspora and the country's relationship with France.
  • The History of Ghana -- About halfway through this one; interesting, pretty straightforward, reasonably well-written. Uncle Nasir read much of it too and assured me that it was balanced and accurate, even though it's written by a white non-Ghanaian.
  • I'd like to read some fiction/poetry/theater by Wole Soyinka (author named above of You Must Set Forth at Dawn)

Christmas Update: In Greencastle!

Had a great 36 hours in Washington DC. Highlights included catching up with Aaron Strauss, Colleen & Alex Denny, and of course the Rev House crew of Brandzel, Michelle, Padler, and Seth. Arrived in Greencastle a few nights ago in time for our annual Christmas caroling party, where my reunion with Kalila and parents Faiza and Samad took place! Then yesterday we took them to the Indianapolis Children's Museum.

Unfortunately am having trouble getting camera to connect to computer, so pictures will have to wait a bit.

Hope you are all doing well -- and whether you celebrate Christmas or not, have a merry one!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Landed in dc!

Soon to be picked up by the very generous Aaron Strauss. Looking forward to seeing you all!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cultural & political influences in West Africa

A few notes on my observations of cultural and political influences on West Africa:
  • US culture is most prominent on TV, where many American movies and TV shows are on. In the Gambia the family I was staying with also watched CNN. However, we are far from unchallenged in the role of cultural supremacy. Al-Jazeera is the primary international news source for my host family in Accra; TV in the Gambia has lots of Bollywood; many if not most English-language programs have Arabic subtitles (example shown in the parlor of Ibraheem and Sirah’s home in the Gambia); and South African shows also seem popular.
  • France is of course hugely influential in Senegal but not much so in Ghana and less than I might have expected in the Gambia given that it is landlocked by Senegal. France had a different kind of approach to colonialism than the Brits, and ties seem to be closer between France and the Francophone West African intellectual/cultural elite than the corresponding British relationship.
  • Germany, for some reason, has a lot of well-marked development projects in the Gambia. Not sure why.
  • I met a real live person, who spoke enough English to have a real conversation with, who had not heard of Barack Obama! She is 16 years old and from a tiny rural village in northwest Ghana, near Wa. She is “educated,” meaning that she goes to school unlike some of her siblings (hence the English). And she had no idea who Obama was – in fact, I’m not sure she even understood the concept of the President of America. Most other West Africans, however, seem to have quite a balanced opinion of Obama. They think he’s generally good, he’s probably made a few mistakes, and that Americans are expecting far too much far too quickly from him given how royally Bush screwed things over. They don’t have too much of the attitude I was surprised by in Jamaica last year, where Obama is viewed in the same category of historical figure as Bob Marley, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X – he’s not a savior or even really viewed as a representative of the black race -- he’s just a good guy who’s got a really tough job. Not sure how much the difference is because it’s now a year later and we’ve all lowered our expectations for Obama, and how much the attitudes differed all along. However, I did come across the pictured "Obama biscuits" this morning and couldn't resist buying them :-)
  • Speaking of Bob Marley, he and reggae are remarkably popular here, I think for reasons closely related to the strong underlying sentiments of pan-Africanism and that all black people need to stick together the whole world round. There is a small slice of men in Ghana, the Gambia, and Senegal each who are visibly Rastafarian. Note: Rafiq and Faiza asked me at one point why all the white women in Africa who are traveling with/sleeping with/dating black men are with the black men with dreadlocks, and I had no good answer – but from observation it’s undoubtedly true!
  • Nigeria is clearly the cultural Mecca of Anglophone West Africa – Nigerian productions make up probably 70% of all West-African generated music, film, and TV I encountered, even though I didn’t go to Nigeria or any of its border states!
  • Australia has a very low profile (though I'm told that some of Ghana's gold mines are run by Australian companies) and Australians are very rare here (which in my traveling experience is unusual – they are all over Latin America, Europe, and of course Asia!)
  • In Ghana, several times I was shown massive construction projects (usually sports stadiums) that were introduced with the sentence “The Chinese built this,” accompanied by a warranted awe for Chinese efficiency. Otherwise there wasn’t too much obvious Chinese influence, but neither was there too much obvious American influence outside of TV. My hosts in Ghana seem to think that America is more influential on Ghana’s politics, however.
  • In the Gambia, I asked the same set of questions about China and was surprised to learn that China and the Gambia have highly strained diplomatic relations because Jammeh, the Gambian President, is one of the most vocal supporters of Taiwan on the international stage (eg at the UN). Taiwan, in return, provides a lot of aid to Gambia, including things like scholarships to go study at Taiwanese universities. But it was an important reminder of how being the head of state for a very small, poor country can still carry with it much more power in some ways than being, say, a governor of a very large, rich state in the US.

Back "home" in Accra!

As I told Uncle Negro and Sarah, when I got off the plane yesterday in Accra I felt like I was coming home! Of course Faiza and Kalila aren't here, but I'll see them soon enough in Indiana.

My last few days in the Gambia were packed with excitement, including a few more kora lessons, a fascinating school theater performance that Ibraheem was judging, and the opening ceremony of a national youth conference that Ibraheem was running, complete with the Vice President of the Gambia.

The first photo is of one of the acts in the school theater performance -- a traditional Indian dance, performed by a couple of students of Indian descent and a couple native Gambians. I hope I have time to write a whole blog post on the entire event, as it certainly deserves it, but this act in particular stuck out in my mind. The girl on the left in the picture was the leader of the group, and while the other dancers sometimes stumbled through the choreography, she had a look of intense focus the whole time (and it was long -- like maybe 4-5 min). The audience of middle and high school students, who you can see a few of at the bottom the picture, were going absolutely wild the whole time, screaming and dancing and clapping along. And I just had this sense that for this young girl, living in a country and going to a school where she's in a tiny minority ethnically and culturally (and probably religiously, though she could be Muslim), this was a pivotal moment in her adolescent years, the kind of moment of feeling accepted and even celebrated that problably doesn't come along very often. I felt a real sense of vicarious pride and joy in her accomplishment!

The second picture is from the opening ceremonies of the youth conference -- part of a procession of youth groups, musicians, traditional dancers, and more passing by a dais with several ministers and the Vice President. The brown hairy guy dancers you can see in this picture are monsters who carry machetes, and they're acting out some sort of attack scene. It's supposed to be very bad luck if they touch you with their machetes, and Sirah tells me that Rugi used to be very frightened of them as a child.