Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!

“Mixed-income housing was supposed to liberate the poor from the projects. Instead, it has only created more hardship and isolation,” reads the tagline for Maya Dukmasova’s “The Problem with Mixed-income Housing”. While I agree that “mixed-income” housing has increased hardship and isolation, I think it’s for those who have been permanently evicted, not for those who made it into the shiny new buildings.

I don’t object to “mixed-income housing” per se. My mom practiced it in her own way: when we emigrated from Jamaica, we lived in a studio apartment in NW Washington, DC, where my bedroom was the walk-in closet (if you need tips, I can show you how it’s done), and we lived in the last low-income housing in Chevy Chase (now pricey townhouses). The idea was to live among the better-off to access their schools, but it didn’t hurt that their groceries and drug stores and libraries and dentists and employment opportunities were also a step up (my mom’s side hustle after her full-time secretarial job was babysitting, like for Robert McNamara’s kids — yeah, that Robert McNamara — while I was in Jamaica at Grandma’s/boarding school). We weren’t welcomed, and I felt ashamed of the busted up road in front of our Chevy Chase apartment, and definitely felt the class differences, but no one could stop me from shining at school, or shopping or even just browsing at the store. The park was open to all, even kids with second-hand tennis rackets and balls they found in the underbrush on the way to the court, and safe, even for girls. There’s no accounting for how many magazines I read in the air-conditioning at People’s Drugs, or records I listened to at the then-new library on Arlington Road, to evade the summer heat — and learn something, just through the exposure.

Dukmasova’s description of the current version of “mixed-income” housing, where the poor are barely admitted or tolerated, and thoroughly policed, is not quite that. On paper, at least, it looks better: planned, and state-funded. But the cynicism of its roots are showing in its actual practices of exclusion and the drive to privatization that results not in the replacement of public housing, but its near-elimination in favor of maximizing market-rate units and minimizing subsidized ones. For those who have made it into what seems to be a mere 10% return rate for prior residents, I must admit I’m less concerned about how folks manage once they get there. It is possible to act prouder than the rich folk and carry on with finding what’s usable and needed — we took buses all over the place to meet up with other West Indians; when Grandma visited, she found the all-day Black church for Sunday worship — and to talk about the snobby neighbors in the privacy of one’s family and friends. The real exclusion happens right at the beginning, where so few former residents squeak through, and so many more are discarded forever, because of a police record, or credit record issues, etc.

Still, the ultimate exclusion is where I live now, in Ward 8, at the center of concentrated poverty in DC. I can’t uphold that. I can’t romanticize the compound effect of generational impoverishment, shit schools, absent health care, only recently improving libraries, absent employment opportunities, high transportation costs to other parts of the city, vibrant illegal and violently dangerous economy, and it goes on and on. Yes, we have each other’s backs, mostly; yes, we speak on the street, and there’s a gracefulness to how most folks relate. But I don’t know one young person who doesn’t know their future lies in getting out of SE, some way or somehow. And sometimes that’s no further than NW for workshops and bringing back the stuff they’re learning to the community. But even that is a Very Big Deal and hard to get hold of.

So yes, there are problems with the current version of mixed-income housing that need to be addressed, but nothing excludes like concentrated poverty and living with the daily knowledge that the greater society has deemed you disposable and forgettable. The folks in Barry Farms here in Ward 8, who have seen how few came back when the Douglass and Stanton Projects were torn down and replaced by Henson Ridge I and II, know this, and are fighting to make it different. Their first concern is who gets to come back and how many. I’m pretty sure that if someone tried to say some folks can have grills on their balconies and some can’t, they’d call bullshit, and invite some lawyer to go have fun with that.

(Photo Credit: Truthout / Rania Khalek)

The United States steals $450 billion a year from elder caregivers

Earlier this month, AARP launched a new ad campaign meant to address the situation of elder caregiving in the United States. The campaign is based on thousands of accounts, and on longstanding research, such as the report that AARP released last year, “Valuing the Invaluable: The Growing Contributions and Costs of Family Caregiving, 2011 Update.”

Much of that report is, sadly, unsurprising. Caregivers are largely unpaid, largely family members, generally overworked and overtaxed, isolated, at a loss, often confused emotionally as the stress mounts. As a consequence of all of this, and more, caregivers generally suffer declining and deteriorating health. The majority of these careworkers are women.

Here’s the news, and it’s staggering: “The estimated economic value of their unpaid contributions was approximately $450 billion in 2009, up from an estimated $375 billion in 2007.” As AARP poignantly notes, that’s not only a 21 percent increase in a mere two years. $450 billion is also “more than the total 2009 sales of Wal-Mart, America’s largest company, and more than the combined sales that year of the three largest publicly held auto companies (Toyota, Ford, Daimler).”

The stories told by individual caregivers are important, as are their lives. They are crucial, and we must listen to them and, even more, learn to act on what they’re saying and what we’re hearing. At the same time, those stories beg to be contextualized. In one year, the national economy stole $450 billion from US residents. Whether that labor was a labor of love or a labor of obligation, the value of that labor was stolen. And, as the years 2007 – 2009 demonstrate, it’s a growing market with a growing profit margin.

Caring Across Generations is one answer, an important and even crucial answer, to the problem. Of equal importance is re-creating a State that doesn’t regard its citizens and residents as clients and customers. In this year of high political rhetoric, one hears a great deal about the United States being `a wealthy nation.’ Wealth built on the predatory extraction of $45 billion dollars in a single year is not wealth. It’s poverty. Ask the women who care for their elders; ask the elders who are majority women as well. Ask yourself.

(Image Credit:

Domestic workers declare war on the War on Women

Last week, domestic workers declared war on the War on Women.

The current domestic laborers’ market has been forged in the most recent phase of globalization – understood, too briefly, as the political economy of globalized production serving a global market – that began in the 1970s. The last four decades have been marked by the rise of global cities, and mega-slums. Already, more than half the world population is urban. Soon, very soon, more than half the world population will live in slums. A planet of slums beckons.

Cities are the place, and slums are the face of urban poverty in the new millennium. And that face is a woman’s face “Women bear the brunt of problems associated with slum life.”

Global cities produce mega-slums and slum cities. Meanwhile, global cities’ 25-hour-a-day, 8-day-a-week so-called service economies require large numbers of easily available, and replaceable, and cheap domestic workers who make sure the beds are made; the food prepared and tasty; the children and the elders cared for; the houses swept; and the structures of household, community, regional, national and global patriarchy solidified and intensified. Political economists tell us that the new economies produced social workers, workers in the information sector whose work is more than and different from the binary of boss and worker. Tell that to the maids and nannies, childcare and eldercare providers (as well as the hotel and office cleaners, and sex workers) across the globe who every day, and every night, make sure everything is neat, tidy and available. It’s a world economy in which women, especially women of color, are forced to care.

In order to meet this demand, nation-States, the Philippines most notably, have turned themselves inside out and, presto, turned into mega-brokerage houses for mass migrations of domestic workers. Global cities demanded, and created, transnational domestic labor, which became one of the fastest growing, and largest, labor sectors of the world economy.

Women workers built the global economy, which came to rely, violently, on women workers. The feminization of the new industrial workforce produced the feminization of migration, which in turn produced the feminization of survival, and all of it, the whole system, sits heavily, and precariously, on the shoulders and in the arms of domestic workers.

That is one reason that the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, passed last week, is called a landmark treaty, a milestone. Here is a key section from that document:

“Considering that domestic work continues to be undervalued and invisible and is mainly carried out by women and girls, many of whom are migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in respect of conditions of employment and of work, and to other abuses of human rights, and

Considering also that in developing countries with historically scarce opportunities for formal employment, domestic workers constitute a significant proportion of the national workforce and remain among the most marginalized …

Recognizing the special conditions under which domestic work is carried out that make it desirable to supplement the general standards with standards specific to domestic workers so as to enable them to enjoy their rights fully.”

Women and girls are “the special conditions under which domestic work is carried out.”

“Special conditions”.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, W.E.B Du Bois famously noted “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” For Du Bois the color line came down to a simple, and impossible, question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Today, the problem of the Twenty First Century continues to be the problem of the color line, and the question now is, “How does it feel to be a special condition?”

Domestic workers around the world, and in our neighborhoods, recognize that question as part of a global War on Women, and they have had enough. Domestic workers refuse to be ghosts in the machinery of “special conditions.” They have declared war on the War on Women. Step up, step up, it’s not too late to enlist.

(Photo Credit: David Swanson / IRIN / The New Humanitarian)

A Better Half: The Poverty Onion

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz thought that to understand the world, you had to understand an onion.

It is the concept of social embeddedness.  The only way to understand an onion is as a whole; peeling back layers will never lead to a core – only more layers, and watering eyes.  Geertz was writing about culture, but feminist scholars Ellen Ross and Rayna Rapp made the same point about sexuality: it cannot be removed from social layers of family, politics, media, economics, religion, world systems.

Since reading Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky, I have been thinking about the poverty onion.  The global women’s oppression onion.   The violence against women onion.

In their book, Kristof and WuDunn tell urgent, compelling, personal stories about individual women – primarily in poor countries – struggling to overcome poverty and violence.  They are inspiring writers that make readers want to act.  As a former nonprofit fundraiser, I know the power of these stories.  (I also know the danger of turning lives into stories.)

Yet with this kind of writing, we always have the responsibility of asking questions like who is speaking for whom?  What kind of picture are they painting?   Do they show the problems women are facing as rooted only in individuals (i.e. sex traffickers) or do they show larger systems that act to constrain agency?  Is there an examination of structural causes?  Can one woman’s struggles be separated from economic influences, cultural influences, global trade agreements being negotiated an ocean away?  Can one woman’s struggles be separated from the world?

In other words, are they writing about the onion, or an imaginary onion core?

In a chapter about sex work and sex trafficking, WuDunn and Kristof write: “We’re not arguing that Westerners should take up this cause because it’s the fault of the West… This is not a case where we in the West have a responsibility to lead because we’re the source of the problem.  Rather, we single out the West because, even though we’re peripheral to the slavery, our action is necessary to overcome a horrific evil” (24-25).

Is the West not at all implicated or connected to sex work in poor countries?  This view ignores unjust global economic systems – and how the poverty that is influenced by these systems affects decisions individual women make about sex work.  Kristof and WuDunn’s argument that it is not our fault in the West that women are in these situations – but that we should do the right thing and help them – is a framework that leaves people in rich countries as the central and powerful figures and women in poor countries as objects.  Truly feminist work should disrupt, rather than reproduce, terms of domination.

But how do we as people who are concerned about global women’s issues do that?  Is it ever okay to speak or act for others?  Philosopher Linda Alcoff writes that “there is a strong, albeit contested, current within feminism which holds that speaking for others – even for other women – is arrogant, vain, unethical, and politically illegitimate.”   At the same time, she notes that sometimes not speaking for others poses similar ethical questions: “If I don’t speak for those less privileged than myself, am I abandoning my political responsibility to speak out against oppression, a responsibility incurred by the very fact of my privilege?….Is my greatest contribution to move over and get out of the way?”

Alcoff warns of the dangers of what she calls this “retreat response” – the retreating into a position of ‘I can only speak for myself.’  While the neo-imperialistic overtones of speaking for or acting for others is evident, so too is the danger, politically and ethically, of an individualistic and isolationist retreat response.

I do not think that our greatest contribution should be to move over and get out of the way.

Nor do I think feminists should cast aside this book because of its shortcomings.  When I mentioned Half the Sky in an undergraduate class, a few of my 18 and 19-year-old students stayed after class to tell me how Kristof and WuDunn’s book had moved them, made them take a Women’s Studies class, or learn more about violence against women worldwide.  In the end, what I struggle with is how we can best work with the energy and inspiration the book generates.

Despite – or perhaps because of – feminist critiques of Half the Sky, what can we do with the fact that thousands of people are holding this book in their hands?  How can we best harness the fact that this is a bestseller?   That we as a country are reading something about global violence against women, and use that as a jumping off point for a more in-depth dialogue about power, patriarchy, economics, and justice?

How can we start to talk about the poverty onion?

(Photo Credit: The Atlantic / SPKW / Shuttercock)


Baring the brunt

September, the song was, “Women hold up half the sky.” By the look of news reports this week, October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the tune might well be “Women and children bear the brunt”. From households and intimate relations to the armed forces to global poverty, women bear the brunt, children bear the brunt. This is not good news.

The new song began last Friday, with an article that centered on LeAnna M. Washington, Pennsylvania State Senator from the 4th District, which covers part of Philadelphia and Montgomery County. Senator Washington’s official Senate biography reports, “Washington has triumphed over many personal challenges in her life. She was a high school dropout, teen parent, and victim of domestic violence early in her marriage. Her tenacity, perseverance and faith in God allowed her to transform victimhood to victory. Washington, who earned a Master’s degree in Human Services from Lincoln University said of the road she has traveled: “I will go where there is no path and I will leave a trail for others to follow.””

In Friday’s article, Senator Washington is described as having been married at 18, and then living with the big secret of domestic violence, of spousal abuse. She is described as one of `many black women across the country….It’s about absorbing the reality that close to five in every 1,000 black women aged 12 and up are victims of domestic violence, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s understanding that among those abused aged 15 to 34, murder by a husband or boyfriend remains a leading cause of death. More importantly, it’s about actively working on changing those outcomes….Verbal, sexual and physical abuse are forms familiar to a large swath of black females. Historically so…. These are the scars of slavery, lack of education, discrimination, unemployment and other frustrations that have been exacerbated among African-Americans. Poverty tends to be an indicator for abuse, though violence is not confined to one social class. The difference is having options and resources to escape – options not always afforded by those struggling to survive day-to-day. Feeling trapped leads many women to stay put – and in peril.”

The article is titled “Black women bear the brunt of domestic violence,” and it appeared in blackamericaweb. In every community, women bear the brunt of domestic violence. In every community, the language of that particular brunt, of that bearing, is silence.

And those communities are not only defined by race and ethne. For example, on Thursday we `learned’ that in the U.S. military “lesbians bear brunt of military discharges….Every military branch dismissed a disproportionate number of women in 2008 under the policy banning openly gay service members. But the discrepancy was particularly marked in the Air Force, where women were a majority of those let go under the policy, even though they made up only 20 percent of personnel.”

On the same day, Thursday, it was reported that in Lesotho, “children bear the brunt of the deepening economic crisis…”Adult frustration” translated into a grim reality of child abuse, violence, neglect and exploitation, with thousands left to fend for themselves, excluded from crucial services such as hospitals and schools.” The next day, the Africa Child Policy Forum sent out a press release, announcing a new publication, Child Poverty: African and International Perspectives. Here’s what they said in the release: “Poor children to bear the brunt of global economic crisis. New book looks at the brutal reality of child poverty….The book also includes analysis of the impact of the current financial crises on child poverty in the face of increased estimates of the actual number of newly poor and reduced economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa estimated to be down to 3.5 percent – implying a 7 percent increase in poverty in Africa, of which children will bear a huge brunt.”

From one community to another, what exactly is meant by “bearing the brunt”, and why is it always women and children who are endowed with that particular role and capacity? Can community exist without women and children bearing a, or the, brunt? A brunt is “An assault, charge, onset, violent attack….The shock, violence, or force (of an attack)…. The chief stress or violence; crisis.” To bear can mean so many things, from carry to bring forth fruit or offspring, but when it comes to bearing the brunt, it means “to suffer without succumbing, to sustain without giving way, to endure.” Bearing the brunt as an acceptable facet of everyday life, as an acceptable `neutral’ phrase, is a perversion of any vision of sustainability as articulated with wellbeing.

Domestic Violence Awareness must transform the language and the logic of the brunt. It’s time to stop talking about bearing the brunt and start talking and acting on baring the brunt. What is the attack, who and what are the assailants, what is the violence, the force, the stress, the crisis? All must be addressed as part of the same question and part of the same solution. And it begins and ends with women, not majestically holding up half the sky but rather ordinarily and daily populating and sustaining all the daily world. Bare the brunt now, today, and always.

(Photo credit: Precious Jones in NCKU)