How we remember & Leaving Tunisia

I wrote this on my last evening in Tunisia after a very eventful week.

I did my best to tweet about a lot of the activities and places I was able to see/explore this week… not to be THAT person who overshares on social media, but because I know my own experience of digging through media channels and twitter before coming to Tunisia was repeated scenes of violence and WARNING WARNING WARNINGS. It meant I came with my own fears and apprehensions about being here… even down to the last minute before I boarded my plane from Frankfurt, when an old friend who has been to Tunis several times told me to be very careful because he was worried.

I tweeted and posted and created content about the positive efforts and growth here, because I want there to be more discussion and dimension to the pictures we paint of Tunisia in English media right now.

Violence is terrible, I do not mean to belittle the experience of those who were shot in Tunis in March or in Sousse this past month. It is terrible. But this country, and so many others, are more than the sums of their violence.

Even yesterday as I sat outside waiting for someone, I received another traveling warning from the US Embassy about Tunisia and the Middle East, more generally. The email didn’t have any more news — it restated the recent shootings, but it caused my heart to race when I saw just the subject line from the embassy in my inbox.

The language we use to frame events and communities affects our perception and later the attitude we take when we interact with those communities.

I am still critical of the frequent shootings in the United States, where we still refuse to improve gun regulation and thus wind up with often preventable mass shootings. We don’t see a travel ban or repeated warnings from other embassies around the world about these events in the United States. Tunisia, I am told, strictly regulates guns, making it easy to identify who is playing with weapons traffickers or interested parties in the black market when the police find weapons outside “acceptable” places.

There is pain here, there is economic pressure that makes some feel like they are reaching a breaking point as they search endlessly for jobs they may never find… but where isn’t that true right now?

It took a while for me to let go of the fear, especially as a woman who often travels alone. For my entire life, I have been offered endless advice on ways to “stay safe” and narratives about all the people “who want to hurt” me. Yes, I could stay home and program and never see the world, but that’s not who I am.

Tunisia is so much more than the sum of the acts of violence these past few months. It is a country with an enormously rich history, a diverse ecosystem of entrepreneurs and thinkers and builders and artists, and a country that is tackling challenging issues in designing a government.

I always take precautions and try my best to stay safe. I respected the fact that Tunisians dress more conservatively than I normally would and planned accordingly, if for no other reason than to keep a lower profile and be able to explore without disturbing the ecosystem. I spent more time listening and asking questions than talking. I said “yes” to every adventure that came my way, while making sure I knew where I was, had access to a charged cell phone, and had enough cash on me to handle a variety of situations. But if something happened to me here or in New York… sometimes there isn’t a whole lot I can do. And I accept that. I accept that as the cost of living and the cost of actively learning about communities.

It’s hard to break out of popular narratives, but every little piece helps. I hope that instead of fixating on the violence, we can also see how people in countries struggling with violence survive in the background. How they continue to build and grow businesses or create art. Because that is the backbone of the countries like Tunisia…  and my beloved Mexico. Not the violence.

Violence and Evaluation: Why It Matters To Document Progress

My preferred field of research is in informal economies. This means, often, that information is very limited, existing data sets can be misleading, not cleaned up well, or just not complete. Unfortunately, a lot of the existing research is based on anecdotal evidence — I can prove some of the theories that I work with… after hours of compiling data from individual sources into my own data sets. Or going into the field and painstakingly collecting it myself.

I find that working with non-profits, especially those interested in reducing violence, yields similar challenges. The groups I work with and think about often devote their resources to the issues they are trying to address, which might make sense in the short term… but then we also run into issues where we can’t scale solutions or improve development models because there was never a system to document progress before/after a program was implemented and/or measure the impact that program had on the specific target groups over time.

What do I mean by this? Look at Ciudad Juarez. The documented homicide rate has decreased significantly since 2010, there has been a ton of investment in local social programs, the military left the policing programs to local police forces… but what worked? Many things happened at once. Which social programs were most effective and why? How do all of these changes in the local fabric of the city interact with one another? What failed? And what were the negative side effects of these changes? What are we not seeing in these new numbers? How do we evaluate “positive change?”

It’s nice that sometimes there is enough clear data from different accounts that we can draw some conclusions after the fact. Sometimes, we receive anecdotes that offer enough context that we can compare data from one story to data from another. This is an extremely slow process — compiling data from anecdotes and interviews, but it is possible.

I would love to see groups in all spheres of development, violence reduction, public investment, etc. being trained to document their findings better and making these records public. That would, of course, require them to disclose when their programs were not working… which is another public branding issue for non-profits, but would, overall, ensure that we can find better programs that really can scale to bring positive change.

A girl can dream.