Can institutions save us? Can we save institutions?

One sociologist from the early 20th century, Max Weber, argued that the modern world is characterized by bureaucracy. He stated that rational bureaucracy was like an iron cage that we could not escape. As a young graduate student, this idea grabbed me and I resonated with it intellectually. I justified his ideas through contemporary examples, corresponding to the well-studied student I thought I was. In the role of professor, I attempted to make the idea of bureaucracy come alive by showing students how they are restricted by the rules and practices of the university and sports. I also explained how institutions had become the way our present day society has managed the needs of our population—such as healthcare, education, and government. And further, I demonstrated how each institution not only has its own bureaucracy but also that institutional bureaucracies can actually be in conflict with one another. What’s more, in the U.S., many institutions have adopted a neoliberal economic model as part of their decision-making protocol, which puts profit above the ideals the institution was originally designed to serve. 

As I reflect on the last six months and the rising numbers of  COVID-19 cases and deaths, the flailing and uneven economy, the demands from Black Lives Matter demonstrations, atrocities in ICE facilities, and exponentially growing wildfires, I see the devastation and uncertainty institutions have created simply because their own bureaucracies have gotten in their way. In other words, institutions continue to insist on their own viability and indispensability despite results that suggest otherwise.  

For example, Black Lives Matter demonstrations have called for a defunding of police with the added request that cities, towns, and counties put those funds into services that might more readily address the needs of the population—such as community psychologists and mental health experts, social workers, subsidized daycare, and community building resources such as recreation centers, public health clinics, job resource centers, etc. While there has been some positive responses from city councils, overwhelming the response has been to insist modern policing and the current institution and system of bureaucracy works and works well. 

In addition, universities have scrambled to maintain their institutions has they have always been—just with online classes. Among the many things COVID-19 has revealed is the stunted ability of higher education to respond in an appropriate timely, student and community centered response. While I have read some reflective essays on what education means in the era of COVID-19, I have not seen a concerted effort to re-imagine universities and education that would significantly change the way education is done. In many cases, the overwhelming economic shortfall has been put on the shoulders of students, faculty and staff at the same time university municipal communities are suffering. Meanwhile top administrators continue to receive unprecedented salaries. Students are being asked to police their own and being punished when they don’t; yet, simultaneously, universities are insisting that sports competitions continue.

At the same time, universities are responding to the Black Lives Matter movement. On average I see four to five jobs a day for diversity and inclusion vice-presidents, deans, or directors. Many would urge me to celebrate the commitment of universities to diversity and inclusion. So far, I am struck by the steadfastness the institution has to its own current model of bureaucracy and the belief that hiring an individual will undo decades of racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic practices. Is it possible that if we change aspects of an institution, it can save us? Or are we seeking to save institutions so that they can serve us more justly?

Permit me to use a personal example. Part of all faculty responsibility in higher education is service through committee work and other educational endeavors outside of the classroom. It is true that in many universities faculty are well-protected. Nevertheless, this protection exists because of the commitment of the faculty and their work in institutional governance. In my years 18 years in U.S. higher education, I came to fully believe in faculty governance and devoted untold hours to this endeavor. I worked to protect LGBTQ+ faculty, female faculty, immigrant faculty, untenured faculty and to change policy and procedure so that faculty could focus on the educational endeavor without concern for their own welfare in the institution. I placed my faith in the belief that the system could change.

More than a year ago, I left a tenured position where I had seniority and could address the injustices within the university without endangering my station. What I came to realize is that whenever the faculty were not vigilant the system reverted to its normal practices. It was as though the door to just relationships was being held open by us and whenever we had a changing of the guards (or summer recess), the door slammed shut and the work we had done vanished. I left my position naively believing this problem was unique to my institution despite being a student of Max Weber’s ideas. 

With this experience of faculty governance, directing The Center for Gender Equity, and years of teaching what are often called diversity classes, many have suggested I would be perfect for the newly created positions in higher education such as Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, Vice-president of Diversity, or Chief Diversity Officer. I agreed. However, after one recent interview, I was faced with examining the interview process and my desire for the job. Alongside my internal searching regarding whether institutions can save us or we can save institutions, Joe Biden named his vice-presidential candidate. In reading an article about Kamala Harris, her words struck me, “I have chosen to work within institutions for change.” As the poets and mystics say, I took pause.  

I recalled an interconnected idea of Weber’s–the charismatic leader. Through the work of charismatic leaders,societies and institutions can change. Charismatic leaders, Weber claimed, achieve their authority because their followers give it to them—followers believe the leader has the special skills, abilities, or ideas to create something different. Charismatic leaders often say something like, “You have heard it said that ________, but I tell you it can be _______.” Obvious historical examples of charismatic leaders include Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, and Nelson Mandela. Weber suggested that during the lifetime of charismatic leaders change was possible, but upon the death of these leaders, their authority also died and the changes that had occurred get absorbed into the bureaucracy once again.  

In short, I now find myself, a sociologist who has studied social change, unsure of where to place my energies and my faith. As I reflect on our last six months this question haunts me: Is our only hope to live within institutions that cage us?

Not Taking Ourselves Too Seriously

According to Freud our id is a powerful force—that basic part of our personality that seeks instant gratification. Ego, for Freud, is the balance between the id and the superego—our collective moral conscious or society’s ‘control.’ In everyday language we use ego to describe individuals who think too much of themselves or place themselves as the center of concern as in “She/he has a big ego.” With respect to Freud, I am going to adopt the more common usage of ego here.

The task of not taking ourselves too seriously means we recognize when our ego is getting too big and is hindering our ability to make decisions with others in mind. Some easy examples come in the form of traffic or grocery store lines. When I am driving and find myself exasperated with the car in front of me, I have a choice. I can either believe that my time and activities are more important than the motorist ahead, or (as I often choose) I can picture a child’s sick goldfish in an open bowl strapped in the front seat as they make their way to the veterinary’s office. I usually begin to giggle when I think this is the reason for the speed of the driver. In other words, I can check my ego and ask why do I imagine the person in front of me is going slow only to make me upset? Why have I exaggerated my own self-importance? Or in the grocery store, if I find myself aggravated by the line and other customers, I can check myself and realize I am the source of my own irritation because I have inflated my own needs. When I know I am causing my own frustration, I can offer for others to go in front of me. Immediately I feel a shift in myself as I change my focus from myself to others.

These examples may seem rather simplistic and rooted in common sense, good manners, or self-improvement. After all, aren’t we just talking about being patient? In part, but it is also the ability to generate compassion for others and the ability to wonder about ourselves and ask why are we getting so bent out of shape in the moment? Why is our ego growing in this moment? Or why are we taking ourselves so seriously?

Years ago, one of my professors at Duke University, Frederick Herzog (1925-1995), became my role model for checking my ego. Dr. Herzog spent his life fighting for racial equality, dissolving class inequality, and critically examining neo-colonialism. Often in the evening after a seminar, Dr. Herzog would call various students to double-check the notes he had taken from the class discussion. He kept meticulous records not as a way to keep tabs on us, but in order to prepare for our next class. He would tell us that it was imperative he know where he needed to grow and learn. In other words, he didn’t take himself too seriously as to control the outcome of the class or be an authoritarian among us.

I want to be clear. I am not suggesting we not be outraged at social injustice or that we not fight for equal rights. We must be very clear about our values. At the same time, we can recognize when our own egos get in the way and we forget to practice compassion.

During my studies at Duke, I was invited to be a student panelist when Gustavo Gutierrez OP, renowned Liberation Theologian from Lima, Peru, gave a keynote address. In response to a question or comment Gutierrez explored the idea that even though in the early 1990s we were advancing on gender equality and were thinking critically about history and our current practice, we must be aware that others in the future may ask why we did not do more.

His observations still reverberate in me.

What does all this mean as the nightly anti-racism demonstrations in Portland, OR continue and U.S. deaths from COVID-19 reach 1000 for several consecutive days? Or a male U.S. representative calls a female representative derogatory names on the steps of the U.S. capitol? More than ever I think we are being asked to not take ourselves too seriously. We have the opportunity to examine ourselves in this particular moment, to know the vulnerable among us and to allow our values to lead us. “The struggle,” Dr. Herzog told me, “needs for you to recognize your place in it.”

Love

Two African American female thinkers who are often claimed as early feminist sociologists, Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) and Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1858-1964), spent their lives analyzing and explaining how the subordination and discrimination of people work. My point is not to reduce their thinking into simplistic terms. Rather I want to lift up one crucial aspect they helped solidify within social stratification analysis—the process of othering. In the English language, we can recognize when we are othering when we use the pronouns they or them to reference a collective whole. We often create this collective to put distance between what we are ourselves doing (or believe ourselves to be) and those whom we are referencing. As an example: “I don’t understand why they (referring to migrants and immigrants) don’t speak English; after all this is America.” What we have done with this statement is other…we have created a homogenous group (even if it isn’t really homogenous) and made the individuals within the group so unlike ourselves that the rules we apply to ourselves we believe don’t apply to the group we have created. What do I mean by rules? This includes real laws that are created to treat groups differently, regulations within organization which do the same, and social and cultural practices.

Let’s deconstruct the above statement that others migrants and immigrants. I offer this as an example…but this deconstruction can be done with any statement we think might be othering speech.

First, we need to always examine the power we access when we make a statement. For instance, I can acknowledge that I would make this statement from a position as a U.S. citizen, who is white and who was raised in an English speaking home. All these aspects converge to give me a place of privilege and power when evaluating how others should speak.

Second, we should also check our history and geography. In the U.S. there is no official national language. English is the most common language and one in which the legal, economic and educational worlds operate, but at the federal level there is no official language. States have adopted official languages. In Hawaii and Alaska, though, English is not the only official language. In New Mexico, Spanish has had special status since their state constitution passed in 1912. Also, when we use America to only reference the United States, we express ignorance regarding our continental positioning. America is not a country nor American a nationality. U.S. passports state United States of America as the nationality for carriers of this passport. If we insist on using America or American as a cultural reference than understanding how a cultural practice distances and separates is vital. It makes sense that other countries within North, Central and South America may also claim the use of American, yet we don’t often acknowledge this.

Third, we need to question what we erase when we make an othering statement. In terms of language, what am I dismissing or wiping away when I insist one language is used? Culture and the ability for people to express and know themselves disappears as language is lost. In short, we erase people. We also erase distinctive stories. Many migrants pursue new situations as adults because of poverty, war, violence, hunger, and abuse. Other immigrants grow up in the U.S. When we make statements that homogenize we don’t give voice to these varied experiences nor the conditions that lead to migration and immigration.

Fourth, we need to be honest and recognize we apply othering statements in ways we would never apply to ourselves. In short, there are other rules that apply to us. In regards to language, I take Spanish language classes as a way to improve myself but may insist others take English in order to meet my mandate. As a white native English speaker I am praised because I am working towards being bilingual in Spanish and yet when native Spanish speakers become bilingual in English we show little acknowledgement of the accomplishment and often focus on ridiculous things like pronunciation (‘accents’) and noun-verb agreement even though we understand all that is being communicated. When I travel to other places, I may be appalled that others are not forgiving of me when I bungle the language of my destination. Or, as in the case of Mexico, many people migrate to Mexico and never learn Spanish and create enclaves where English or German are spoken. In other words, we insist others do something we ourselves do not need to do.

Fifth, what are we afraid of? As we loop back to the first point of privilege, are we afraid of losing power, control, or first access to resources because we gain by the rules we have created?

We often make othering statements that have to do with cultural practices like hairstyles, clothing, family formation and living arrangements, etc. A lot of othering speech is directed at the poor, people of color, women, single mothers, and immigrants. Power and privilege are crucial to understanding how a statement others.

What does all of this have to with love? Everything. And what does all this have to with the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement? Everything. Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells-Barnett not only critiqued racial and gender discrimination, they also believed and wrote as though we are all moral agents with the capacity to speak out and to act on issues facing us. Isn’t part of being moral agents acting on our capacity to love and to measure that love in demonstrable action that reduces or eliminates inequality?

When Values Lead Us

The COVID-19 crisis and the most recent killing of a black male, George Floyd, by police reveal many things. They show the underbelly of our society. For example, in the first days of lockdown people over purchased items so that there was not enough for those of us who do not have the means to bulk buy. We have seen disproportionate numbers of people of color in the U.S. affected by the pandemic and the economic recession. And, we have seen violent demonstrations largely by white residents against health and safety standards, such as wearing masks and social distancing, go unpunished; meanwhile, the call for the National Guard to control and punish protests against racism. What is all of this about? Values.

Values are a society’s guiding principles that tell us what is desirable and important. Generally speaking, a society agrees on its values. In a multicultural society like the U.S., lots of different cultural values exist, but dominant values ascend, becoming the overall standard. Conflicting values can exist and values can and do change.

Values, in my mind, are absolutely essential to understand because we don’t act without them They drive our behavior. We reinforce values by creating norms or expectations of behaviors that embody the values.  Not all values are equal. We know what values are dominant by what behaviors or people are punished and which or who are rewarded.

When I teach about the U.S. here in Mexico, one of the things I do with students is set up a conversation about U.S. cultural values. I ask the students to tell me what they have learned from mass media about U.S. cultural values. Every time I do this, students in Mexico tell me that they believe individualism is a strong U.S. cultural value. I ask them how they know this and their reply is basically that the individual is protected before a group. Secondly, they tell me that they think consumption is a value in the U.S. as evidenced by events such as Black Friday and name brands. Thirdly, they also want to talk about racism. In other words, the students understand what the U.S. finds desirable and important by the behavior that they see. So, throughout the COVID-19 crisis and the most recent police killing, we see our values on display because we can view our actions and observe which ones have gone unpunished.

There have been many news articles, Tweets, and Facebook posts suggesting that the current crises can be our turning point as a society. I agree. But we cannot turn, if we don’t understand what it is we value. And in turn specify behavior that reflects those new values.

Let me demonstrate. When I teach social inequality, students often become resigned and say, “Dr. B., poverty is too great. How can we ever change it?” My response always is, “We must change our values.”  My example for them: let’s say that right here in our community we value (desire that) every child get more than enough healthy food. Or we could say it more clearly—no child in our community will go to bed hungry, ever. We first need to examine why hunger exists. Maybe there are not enough living wage jobs in our community and families are forced to choose between food and other essentials. Or maybe families cannot afford childcare and children are left to fend for themselves for the day. Or maybe grocery stores are too far away and some of the cheapest things in them are also the least healthy. Or maybe we allow for fast-food to be served in our public schools which minimizes healthy food availability. In other words, these reasons are our actions that point to what we value. If we don’t change what causes hungry children in our community then we don’t actually value all children getting more than enough healthy food. We have allowed the behaviors to persist.

Sociologically speaking cultures have both ideal and real values. Real values are those that we see put into practice and can be observed by our behavior. Ideal values are those that may be spoken but cannot be measured in our actions. In the U.S., we have ideal values that often are in conflict or contradiction with our real values—such as equality. We purport equality as a value and suggest that one way this value is manifested is through our democratic practices. I would argue that COVID-19 and the most recent killing of George Floyd by police reveal equality as an ideal value that we have taken very few steps to fulfill. Until we are willing to be honest about what we are doing as a society and to critically evaluate our behavior as indicators of what we truly value, these present moments (COVID-19 and demonstrable racism) will be moments among so many others where those with the least to lose choose to sacrifice those who have less access and power, rather than actualize values that could change the course of history.

 

Disaster Capitalism

My suggestion to discuss capitalism is often met with a look of “that is one of those topics we have agreed NOT to talk about: politics, religion, and money!” Sometimes when I have conversations with people outside of the classroom about capitalism I am immediately labeled a socialist (or communist) and others say I am purporting a conspiracy theory. I am used to these reactions. What these reactions tell me most is that as individuals, even though we live in a democracy, we often give over our rights to the government and by default any who the government listens to or makes deals with. My working definition of democracy goes much farther than the right to vote. Democracy, for me, includes holding our public officials accountable (even those we voted for!) and the right to question policies and demonstrate how they may harm some and privilege others. And, for me, this includes the right to protest. I am a pacifist and so that means peacefully without violence. So, I believe that discussing capitalism is our democratic right…because this is the system in which our government largely believes goods and services should be provided to its citizenry. I say in large part because we also have elements of socialism in which goods and services are provided to us. Don’t be alarmed, most capitalist countries have these. Public roads, public parks, public schools, and public universities, to name a few, are largely provided for us (principally with equal access) by the government, meaning our taxes. In other words we don’t have pay additional fees (or we pay very little) to access them.

In 1956, as we were entering and augmenting the Cold War, C. Wright Mills, American sociologist, coined the term power elite in which he described what he saw as three main powers working together in the United States to make decisions that affect the rest of us: government, military, and corporations. Simply put, Mills purported that each of the entities made decisions that would benefit the others in some way and that by doing this they maintained decision making power. How does this work?  Let’s use the example of war—the U.S. government declares war. The military needs weaponry. A private corporation ‘wins’ a governmental contract to manufacture goods the military needs. Who pays for the goods? The U.S. Government. Who decides what is needed? The U.S. military. Who gets the profit from the sale? The private corporation, like Lockheed Martin. Sometimes the U.S. government also pays for the research for the product manufactured—as in universities do the research which is partially funded by foundations or U.S. grants and partially funded by the state where the University resides, like New Mexico tech that developed depleted uranium. This is an added benefit to corporations who don’t then pay the full cost of research and development.

Part of what Mills was arguing is that during the Cold War, the development and manufacturing of nuclear warheads benefited the power elite far more than it benefited the average citizen. And yet, there was very little protest and when individuals did protest they were labeled communists, gay, or one of the most vilest of terms commie pinko fag. In addition, Mills solicited us to action as part of our democratic right and privilege to protest practices and policies that did not benefit the majority of us.

What does this have to do with disaster capitalism? In 2007 Canadian public scholar, Naomi Klein, wrote Shock Doctrine in which she outlines the ideas of disaster capitalism. Essentially she argues that when a crisis occurs there is an opportunity for private industry in collaboration with the government to gain more profit. How does this happen? Essentially during a crisis we are emotionally and physically distracted and do not have enough energy, time, etc. to mount an effective resistance. And sometimes the policies implemented punish us if we do. For instance, the Patriot Act changed border procedure upon reentering the U.S and at various U.S. Border Patrol check points along routes that run parallel to the U.S.-Mexican border. As a U.S. citizen I was opposed to these changes; yet, written into law was punishment if I did not follow Border Patrol directions. I distinctly remember one particular evening of harassment crossing from Ciudad Juarez into El Paso, TX.  When I recounted the experience to my sister, she sagely suggested that I not stage my protest while trying to cross the border alone. Unfortunately, I had to agree. Yet, determining when and where to protest most effectively is often difficult.

So, as we move through the COVID-19 crisis what are we paying attention to? As I noted in my previous blog I think we need to be mindful of the most vulnerable among us and to look to policies and procedures that further put the vulnerable at risk. I’d like to add to that…we need to also examine if entities (in Mills’ words—the power elite) are using this crisis as a means to prey upon our distraction and formulate policy that disproportionately benefit them at a cost to the U.S. public (and potentially others).

How do we do this? I suggest that we always need to have our values lead us. I will address this in my next blog.

The Most Vulnerable Among Us

As I noted in my last blog, “Is This Our First Chance to Get It Right?”, the LGBTQ community did a good job of caring for one another and for collectively fighting for rights during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States. Yet, this fight often further marginalized some of the most vulnerable members of the community and others who were also affected by HIV, such as LGBTQ people of color, transwomen, and intravenous drug users. My point here is not to tell the history of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. but rather to think about how a national crisis, health crisis, etc. gives us an opportunity to see ourselves clearly and to examine what it is we are doing and how we can change.

When social inequalities exist before a crisis hits, much of the reaction to the crisis will reproduce those inequalities. This reproduction occurs because the policies and procedures used to respond are formed in institutions which structure society and are shaped by ideologies.

The most vulnerable among us are often made invisible in society. Those of us with privilege (and power) do not automatically encounter the most vulnerable because the structure hides and justifies the inequalities. In the U.S. we are often taught the American Dream which claims that anyone who is willing to work hard can make it in the U.S. and can indeed achieve extreme wealth. Folks like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey are held up as modern-day examples of the American Dream coming true. If it were really all down to hard work, though, we would see farm workers who pick most of our fruit and vegetables in the U.S. living in mansions because tending, weeding, and picking hundreds of bushels a day while hunched over in the blazing sun has to be one of the most strenuous types of work. Or we would see public school teachers who labor 60+ hours a week during the school year and log uncounted hours in the summer make more in a year than what one professional basketball player makes while sitting on the bench for one game.

All of this is to say, we sometimes have to purposefully look for those who are the most vulnerable among us. And, then we need to ask why are they the most vulnerable?  In other words, what structural policies are in place (supported by ideologies, like the American Dream, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) that make access to society’s resources (schooling, housing, medical care, jobs, etc.) easier for some and more difficult for others.

As we read the news regarding COVID-19, we can see how some social groups are disproportionately being affected by the virus. For instance, the Navajo (in New Mexico and Arizona), African Americans, Latinos, and the elderly. Some might say in regard to the elderly, “Well, they are more vulnerable because of age; their immune systems are weaker.” Yet, as a social scientist, I suggest we look outside of the individual and see what social forces exist that mold the various conditions which the elderly, the Navajo, African Americans, Latinos have to face. The pandemic then exacerbates these conditions and lays bare the inequalities—if we dare examine them and ourselves.

In sociological terms, we have a maldistribution of society’s resources and furthermore, the pathways to obtain those resources are not equally accessible by everyone. Ideologies, like the American Dream, racism, sexism, etc., justify the inequalities and make them appear as a natural consequence of our own effort or lack thereof. Furthermore, if we are some of those with resources the ideology and social system not only makes it easier for us to obtain more but also our confidence in the system can be reinforced. We then may not simply come to expect this access and quantity, we may likewise use our ‘success’ as a measure of others never seeing how the system helped us.

So, what does this mean during the COVID-19 crisis? Without a doubt we need to examine policies and procedures AND our ideologies.  In the following couple of blogs I will address disaster capitalism and our values as examples before moving onto the topic of love and not taking ourselves too seriously.

Below I have posted a piece that I wrote for another outlet regarding one vulnerable group that has not been discussed in the news. It’s a bit more heady, but I hope you’ll read it.

LGBTQ+ Youth: Some of the Most Vulnerable Among Us

On March 22, 2020 Animal Politico reported that 15 LGBTQ+ young people in Mexico were kicked out of their homes in the last 10 days (Arteta 2020). Eleven days earlier, 100 U.S. LGBTQ+ organizations released an open letter to the media “outlining how COVID-19 may pose an increased risk to the LGBTQ+ population and laying out specific steps to minimize any disparity” (National LGBT Cancer Network 2020). Absent in this letter is the added risk that LGBTQ+ youth face during the COVID-19 crisis. With the shelter in place order, LGBTQ+ youth face extreme challenges not faced by other populations. Specifically, LGBTQ+ youth may either face expulsion from their homes because of lack of acceptance by family or lockdown in a home where they are not supported—or worse bullied, physically assaulted, or cut off from support systems. In recent decades around the globe, the LGBTQ+ community has experienced gains in civil rights from legalization of same-sex marriage, open participation in the military, and protection from targeted violence. Additionally, schools across the U.S. have implemented anti-bullying campaigns and adopted inclusive actions. However, LGBTQ+ folks still encounter inequalities that not only persist during the COVID-19 pandemic but that may be amplified–putting the most vulnerable members of the community at increased risk.

In the United States, LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately represented among homeless youth. LGBTQ+ “youth comprise approximately 5% to 8% of the U.S. youth population but comprise at least 40% of the population of youth experiencing homelessness” (Robinson 2018: 383). LGBTQ+ homeless youth self-report parental disapproval as a significant reason for their homelessness (Robinson 2018, Ryan et al 2010, Asakura 2016). Conversely, family acceptance is also linked to higher rates of self-esteem and lower rates of suicide and substance abuse in LGBTQ+ young adults (Ohio University 2018, Ryan et al 2010, Asakura 2016, Nash et al 2016). For transgender youth specifically, “lower acceptance and higher indifference [are] significantly related to negative psychosocial outcomes” (Pariseau et al 2019: 274). The Human Rights Campaign reports that in a survey of 10,000 LGBTQ+ youth, 56% state they are out to their families. Yet, these LGBTQ+ youth identified non-accepting families as their primary problem. 33% stated that their family was not accepting and almost half said their family was the place “where they most often hear negative messages about being LGBT” (Human Rights Campaign 2012).

During this pandemic, we must assure this vulnerable population among us remains safe and healthy, and can continue to thrive beyond this current crisis.

Asakura (2016) outlines how LGBTQ+ youth have been able to build resilience or the ability to overcome or cope “more effectively with social marginalization and exclusion” (1). Particularly telling in Asakura’s research are the number of youth that experience “emotional pain inflicted by external adversities that routinely target LGBTQ youth, such as family rejection, violence and erasure of LGBTQ identities” (2016: 6). Among the key components for resiliency are involvement in safer spaces, meaningful relationships, and collective healing and action. Resiliency does not reside within a person but rather depends on resources that support LGBTQ+ youth. Moreover, there is a great cost to LGBTQ+ youth who must shoulder the burden of external adversities alone. Social integration and acceptance continue to be key components to societal members’ well-being (Durkheim [1897] 1997).

How can social support and resources to build integration and resiliency be mobilized for LGBTQ+ youth during a shelter in place order?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQ+ youth utilized online resources to find answers to their questions about sexual and gender identities, to connect with other LGBTQ+ youth, and to participate in supportive social media. In comparison to non-LGBTQ+ youth, LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to site online friends as providing support (Ybarra et al 2015). According to The Human Rights Campaign, 73% “of LGBT youth say they are more honest about themselves online than in the real world” (Human Rights Campaign 2012). Online resources have allowed LGBTQ+ youth to find acceptance and to participate in a virtual community (Nash et al 2015; Ybarra et al 2015). Virtual campaigns, such as “It Gets Better Global,” use YouTube as a means to deliver positive messages for LGBTQ+ youth. Correspondingly, many of the in-face opportunities for the larger LGBTQ+ community to celebrate together have turned to digital options: “the world’s biggest international Pride networks, Interpride and the European Pride Organisers Association, are organizing a “Global Pride” to be celebrated online on June 27” (Haynes 2020). This online alternative offers a wider array of folks the ability to participate, potentially including LGBTQ+ youth. Also, school and community LGBTQ+ youth groups could continue to meet virtually.

Yet, is the online option a panacea?

In one sense, it is clear that the online LGBTQ+ community offers respite and support for LGBTQ+ youth. However, we must ask ourselves—which LGBTQ+ youth? If we are speaking of the U.S. where 95% of teens “report they have a smartphone or access to one” (Anderson and Jiang 2018) and whose usage is not heavily moderated by adults in their home—though 61% of U.S. parents say they have monitored their children’s websites (Anderson 2016)—then perhaps the online community during the COVID-19 pandemic gives support and bolsters resiliency. Yet, if we are speaking globally, where 29% of youth do not have online access (UNICEF 2017), then relying on online resources is not sufficient. Furthermore, we know that online validation does not replace in person support in the lives of LGBTQ+ youth (Ybarra et al 2015, Nash et al 2015).

As social scientists we must continue to study the lives of LGBTQ+ youth; specifically, we must understand how this vulnerable population is affected by the shelter in place mandate and learn how to mitigate these risks in the future. Also, we can “share the burden carried by these youth” (Asakura 2016: 13). Besides ensuring that LGBTQ+ civil rights are protected during this crisis and that LGBTQ+ centers and hotlines are fully-funded, we can personally reach out to at least one LGBTQ+ youth in our lives and be their support.

References

Anderson, Monica. 2016. “Parents, Teens and Digital Monitoring.” Pew Research Center. Retrieved April

6, 2020 (https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2016/01/07/parents-teens-and-digital-monitoring/).

Anderson, Monica and Jingjing Jiang. 2018. “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018.” Pew Research

Center. Retrieved April 6, 2020 (https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/).

Arteta, Itxaro. 2020. “ONG detecta mayor expulsion de jóvenes LGBT+ de sus casas en contingencia por

Covid-19.” Animal Politico. Retrieved April 6, 2020 (https://www.animalpolitico.com/2020/03/ong-detecta-expulsion-jovenes-lgbt-covid-19/).

Asakura, Kent. 2016. “Paving Pathways Through the Pain: A Grounded Theory of Resilience Among

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Is This Our First Chance To Get It Right?

I was a teenager when actor Rock Hudson died in 1985. I remember the hushed whispers around his AIDS-related death as well as indignant pronouncements of his sexuality as the cause. In 1986 I was in a high school class called Science and Society in which we studied what was then known about HIV and AIDS. Most of what we learned was rudimentary virology with lots of it steeped in prejudice, but for that time in middle America, even having the topic in a class was rather progressive and certainly led me down the path of being far more interested in society than pure science.

Two people have now been pronounced cured from HIV with the latest instance in 2019, 12 years after the first. HIV/AIDS has also been downgraded from a global pandemic to an epidemic…nevertheless the numbers are astounding. I came out in 1996. My earliest years in the LGBTQ community were tantamount to intensive HIV/AIDS awareness, advocacy, and activism for a community (my community) that was at risk. From 1981-2000 the CDC reports more than 448,060 HIV/AIDS deaths in the United States. Most shocking is not just the number of deaths but the percentage of those with HIV who died. In the first four years of the HIV/AIDS crisis from 1981-1985, the percentage was nearly 100% at 95.5%. From 1988-2000, 60% of those infected died.

The global deaths from HIV/AIDS peaked in 2004 with 1.7 million. According to UNAIDS, in 2018 there were 37.9 million people living with HIV. Since 1981 to the end of  2018, 32 million people have died from AIDS related causes.

As the COVID-19 crisis was beginning in March 2020, I had flashbacks to those early days of mis-information about HIV/AIDS (and my days in that high school class) and wondered which news sources to believe. I must admit, though, shortly after that I became angry…maybe even indignant. As U.S. (and global) government officials began to hold daily news conferences, support the scientific community, and promote safe steps for interaction and mandated action to diminish transmission, they also spoke out against the use of racist terms to describe the virus. I was angry because the U.S. government mostly refused to acknowledge the existence of HIV/AIDS let alone discuss the path of transmission openly and honestly which has resulted in prejudicial sex education, healthcare, not to mention that we are still living with the virus. Over the years, very few U.S. resources have been put into HIV/AIDS research and in the late 1990s we resorted to sponsored AIDS rides to help fund needed resources. And still today a shroud of silence covers the topic while social stigmas endure for those who are HIV positive.

As we contemplate our current crisis, what can be learned from HIV and our response to it? As a social scientist, I don’t venture to comment on the viruses themselves, but rather to explore what we as a society did and did not do well in the 1980s and 1990s as a means to reflect on what must we do now.

As comedian Leslie Jordan recently commented in an Instagram video…the LGBTQ community took care of its own in the 1980s. As young, otherwise healthy, gay men died in hospitals those who were often at their side were friends and lovers. Many also died alone as families and churches often blamed the illness on the patient themselves. A Mexican friend and I recently watched, virtually, (we were in different houses) an episode of ‘Pose’ (a Netflix original show) that dramatizes some of the HIV/AIDS epidemic among the LGBTQ community of color in NYC in the 1990s. Some of the scenes take place inside St. Vincent’s hospital in Greenwich Village. During the show, she messaged me and asked why did they portray the care of the patients and the hospital so badly. When I responded this was pretty close to how it was, she had a hard time believing that we actually treated people who were dying with such little care. The nurses, who were on the frontline of the AIDS crisis, did all that they could with what little they had. As test drugs became available, nurses were often those who got the drugs into the hands of HIV patients. Indeed, it was also nurses who demanded less prejudicial care and more direct information regarding transmission and safety. After I came out in 1996, I learned about safe sex from members of the LGBTQ community as well as where to go for testing, and what resources were available. Condoms were readily available and freely distributed in every gay night club, it seemed. In 1987 the activist organization ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) began its campaign to improve the lives of people with HIV and AIDS by demanding more research and changing public policy. As the outside world was largely silent on the issue, the LGBTQ community did a tremendous job of taking care of its own.

One result of my education in the LGBTQ community is that I have no issues openly discussing and advocating for safe sex. Our sex lives cannot go back to normal and by normal I mean sex without condoms (including female condoms), dental dams, and finger condoms. We cannot venture into sexual relations (married, committed, or otherwise) without having the conversation about HIV status (as well as all the other STIs) with our potential sex partner(s) and going and getting tested together if the status is unknown. These practices were begun not only as a way to save our lives, but also to curtail and hopefully one day eliminate HIV.

I recently had a conversation with a Mexican sociologist about freedom. In the U.S., we most often define freedom as something individual that guarantees our right to act in our own individual self-interest. Unfortunately, with this definition we usually don’t look beyond the immediate desire we might have nor do we think about the impact of our decision on others. But, we could also define freedom as freedom in community where we place the overall health and longevity of the larger community first. What would have been different with the HIV/AIDS crisis if we as a society had put the overall health and longevity of the community first instead of reacting out of fear, misinformation, and prejudice? Would we be in a different place today?

And what might this mean for the current COVID-19 crisis?

My next few posts will discuss this…stay tuned.

 

Seeing Ourselves Clearly. What Do We Do Now? introduction

A crisis isn’t necessary for a society to have the opportunity to stop and take a good hard look at where it is, what it is doing, and how it got there. It’s just that crises usually draw attention to problems or places where things aren’t working and for whom. Every time there is a social movement, for example, the movement occurs because a group of folks in society is saying, “Hey, the current system isn’t working for us.” It’s a crisis for that group. Because the United States uses a democratic political process, these movements have had significant weight in changing laws, which in turn have changed cultural practices and eventually ideology or cultural values and ways of thinking and interacting. So, no, it doesn’t have to take a crisis or a social movement, but very often we are reluctant to look at how society might be working for others if we ourselves aren’t having any difficulties. Because the current pandemic is affecting everyone, it does create an opening for us to take measure of our actions.

By all accounts, the current COVID 19 is a crisis that will indeed significantly alter society (and societies) and global interactions. For the moment, governments are reacting and triaging with little thought to long range planning or processing lasting effects. This is not unusual. In the 20th century, WWII functioned as the global tragedy that shifted us into the current modern era. And like now, governments reacted and tried to manage that crisis as best they could—again without any clear idea beyond the current moment to survive. Some of the lasting effects were not intended; for example, white married women in the United States entered the workforce in large numbers during the war primarily as a needed function. However, after the war, the experience of white married women working outside the home radically altered gender relations in the U.S. Often times decisions that are made in order to end a current emergency are instigated by the perspectives of the status quo and upheld by current values and norms. For instance, the placing of Japanese Americans in concentration (internment) camps was fueled by a racist ideology practiced in the United States. After all, the south and southwest were still very much segregated before, during, and after WWII. So, it made sense to the government (and was not widely criticized by the non-Japanese U.S. populous) to do the same with supposed enemies. As a society, the U.S. has not yet moved beyond this racist framework. We often point to this time during WWII as a successful move that “protected us” and led the U.S. to victory. Yet, there were clearly other options available that few were willing to explore.

I advocate that as a society we be far more proactive than we have been in the past. We can take stock of this moment and examine where we are, what we are doing and what our actions today may mean for the future. We can take a close look at what informs the decisions we are making right now and who is most affected by them. Thinking critically does not mean that we don’t want the current crisis to end, but rather by thinking critically we commit ourselves to being honest with what we are doing. We need not mindlessly say, “the crisis must end.” We need not be fearful of those who may raise questions or aimlessly point fingers thinking that somehow by naming a scapegoat we have found the source of our problems. We must indeed see ourselves clearly in order to know what we must do.

In this short series, I will write and think from a critical perspective about our current situation and also situate it within a larger context. At present, I have several themes in mind (in no particular order): love, the most vulnerable among us, is this our first chance to get it right?, when values lead us, humor or how not to take ourselves too seriously, and disaster capitalism—what is it?

I look forward to you being on this journey with me.

Las Patronas

Irony is often lost on me…but in the case of immigration and more specifically the current immigration of young Central Americans to the United States…not only do I understand the irony all too well, I am utterly disgusted.  Let me explain.

Since the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the United States has maintained the practice of opposing European power when it interfered with independent nations in Latin American.  The policy could be summed up succinctly as—America for the Americas.  While the United States challenged European powers who meddled in the affairs of Latin American independent countries, the United States, even then as a burgeoning nation, interfered, manipulated, and controlled the outcome of the politics and the economy of many of the independent states in the Caribbean and Central and South America.  During the cold war, U.S. presidents acted under the perceived threat of communist expansion or perhaps at the very least the fear of another U.S. loss like those in Vietnam and Cuba.  For example, Ronald Reagan supported the Contras in Nicaragua by providing them money and weapons as they fought what he perceived to be a communist government, the Sandinistas.  In what is now a very well documented time in history, the Contras (and the U.S. military) used Honduras as a staging area, some claiming that the U.S. was inciting war between Nicaragua and Honduras. The decades long war in Nicaragua between the Contras and the Sandinistas devastated not only Nicaragua but also Honduras.  In approximately the same time period, internal war also devastated both El Salvador and Guatemala.  In all cases, the U.S. intervened both directly and indirectly in these countries or created conditions that led to the wars themselves.

During the Reagan administration, Central Americans fled their countries because of the violence and political instability and escaped to the U.S. in search of refugee status.  Unlike their Cuban counterparts, Nicaraguan, El Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan migrants were overwhelmingly refused entrance as political refugees. As a result, religious organizations throughout the United States opened up their sanctuaries as safe havens for these Central American refugees.  Several of the religious leaders did, indeed, face federal prosecution as a result.

Fast forward to 2018.

Last week I visited a group of women (about 10) named Las Patronas in the state of Veracruz, Mexico outside the small town of Amatlan de los Reyes.  In February 1995, they began to pass out food and water to Central American migrants who were riding atop the freight train called La Bestia, the beast, as they travelled north to the U.S.  Depending on the trains, this journey can take more than 20 days.  During the summer months, the heat is excruciating and during the cooler months, the temperatures can drop to freezing. Hundreds of thousands of migrants travel on La Bestia every year facing all sorts of dangers–including the beast itself.  Many migrants fall off or get parts of their bodies trapped, crushed or severed.  All face extreme sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst and violence from gangs and others who seek to take advantage of them. For every passing train, Las Patronas prepare 20 kilos of rice and copious amounts of beans, and tortillas to distribute in the 10 minute opportunity they have as the train passes less than half a block from their center.  Sometimes the conductor slows and more food and water can be distributed. Other times the train stops for 20 minutes or so. And still other times, the conductor speeds through.  Unless the train stops they do not have the opportunity to feed everyone.  Often the migrants who have been injured or are facing extreme hunger, thirst or exhaustion find their way to Las Patronas to stay in one of about 10 beds they have for migrants.  When there are more than 10 migrants at one time, they pull out foam pads and everyone sleeps on the patio. No one goes hungry and everyone is safe. Las Patronas do all of this through donations only.  When a migrant is injured on the journey, Las Patronas not only seek healthcare for the individual but also strive to secure the individual a visa for Mexico. Mexican law favors injured migrants and with a visa they are able to work in Mexico and/or take safe passage to the U.S. border.

The day I visited, there were about 8 young men all from Honduras living with Las Patronas.  All of the young men had been injured.  I spoke with one young man, aged 24, whose ribs and internal organs had been damaged on his journey.  Speaking with his mouth half-covered, yet with piercing eyes, he told of the violence and lack of economic opportunity in his home country, the family he left behind, including a wife and one daughter, and his hopes for reaching the U.S.  He was recuperating and anticipating a Mexican visa so that his passage to the U.S. would be more secure and less traumatic than the more than 7 days he had left on La Bestia.  As we sat together, the irony fell on me with all the weight of the racist, imperialistic legacy that is the United States.

First, I am not permitted by law as a U.S. citizen to help this young man within the borders of my own country.  Yet, here I am in Mexico volunteering with Las Patronas.

Second, this young man is the same age as the number of years Las Patronas have been giving food, water and shelter to migrants as they travel on La Bestia.  Though to be clear, at various times more migrants come from different countries than at others.  And to also be clear migrants from Central America have been travelling through Mexico for more than 24 years and have also been using trains and other means for their passage.  It is safe to say, though, that this young man has only known his country as violent and in economic ruin where people seek refuge beyond its borders.

Third, if this young man, as many migrants do, was travelling with his daughter he may in fact be separated from her upon reaching the U.S., as the more than 1,900 migrant children in the U.S. have been in the last six weeks.

Fourth, the U.S. has no understanding of the political and economic mess it created, sustained and then left in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.  Rather, U.S. policy makers and law enforcement personnel use a victim blaming stance that seeks to punish the migrants for the conditions that lead them to undertake an enormously dangerous, life-threatening 20 day journey across Mexico.  In other words, leaving their home, undertaking a hazardous journey, facing an uncertain and precarious life as an undocumented immigrant or political refugee in the U.S. is better than remaining in their home country.  Many leave, quite frankly, because there is nothing left to lose—because staying is worse than the chances one must take as a migrant.  Yet, U.S. policies punish the migrant turned refugee or immigrant rather than examine the causes and the U.S.’s role in what leads thousands of people a year to choose this journey rather than remain in their homes.

Fifth, the U.S. has already played this immigrant nightmarish policy for Central Americans, Mexicans, Dominicans and other Latin Americans during my lifetime and it didn’t work; so, I am not really sure why it will work today.  Is it, once again, up to religious groups and other human rights organizations to protect and give sanctuary to immigrants and refugee seekers while politicians use humans as hostages in their game of power?