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.

Arson, Travel Bans, and Media Coverage

For a while, the only media outlet covering the recent arson attacks on Black Churches in the American south was Buzzfeed. Other channels were silent about the issue until, within 10 days, we saw 8 Black churches burn across the south.

I am heading to Tunisia at the end of the month to visit some friends. Last week there was a shooting targeting tourists in a few popular tourist areas along Tunisia’s coast. I am not traveling to those sites, but friends and family members, particularly my parents, expressed concern that I was visiting Tunisia.

I immediately checked the US Embassy website for travel warnings and bans for Tunisia and looked for further signs of trouble.

But I paused.

It quickly became absurd to me that I was looking for a travel warning for an unrelated city, when the country I live in now is experiencing a calculated wave of violence. Eight black churches in 10 days across the American South have burned down.

In the last few years that I have lived here, I watched a series of white males decide that specific populations of people that they did not like should die. And yet, while their goals are to cause fear and suffering to the communities they target, we have not called them terrorists. When I was in college, the targets were an audience at a movie theatre in Colorado and the children of Sandy Hook Elementary, very close to my college campus. Later, it was the women on the lawn of the Sorority at UC Santa Barbara, and most recently it was the community inside of a church in Charleston.

The US does not issue travel bans for these acts of violence, even though they are horrific. We also haven’t managed to improve gun regulation, specifically running decent background checks, despite repeated horrific events.

The US has also not issued a travel warning to travelers warning them about the arson campaign targeting peaceful religious centers across the south.

When I am able to divorce my instinctual reaction to these events, it does present a clear case study of “who makes the rules” and who decides “who is dangerous.”

My last thought: If we fear violence and we allow it to dictate our every day experiences, we are allowing it to win. We cannot allow it, or more specifically those who refuse to negotiate rather than turn to violence, to win.

Why Women Worry About Street Harassment (And Other Language Faux-Pas)

When I was a sophomore in college, I remember walking back from the library at 2am in the dark, clutching my laptop and scurrying as fast as possible back to my dorm.

I didn’t like walking alone in the dark.

This was all made worse when I heard loud clanging sounds and male voices chanting in unison:

“MY NAME IS JACK

I’M A NECROPHELIAC

I FUCK DEAD WOMEN

AND FILL THEM WITH MY SEMEN.”

I started running until I got to the gates of my college, with the door firmly shut behind me, I paused and felt my blood pounding in my ears.

I’m 5’6”. There isn’t a whole lot I can do if an entire mob of football players decides they want to chase me down. This was a reality I was well aware of while I was standing there taking in my surroundings.

I run through a list every single time I stand at my door about to leave my apartment:

  • Do I have my house keys?
  • Is my phone charged enough to last me a few hours if I need to make any emergency calls/find my way home?
  • Do I have my wallet?
  • Do I have enough cash for a cab if I need to get home and something happens?
  • Is my dress too short, am I drawing too much unwanted attention to myself?
  • Where am I going? How will I get there? How will I get home?
  • Who should I tell where I am going in case something happens to me?
  • Is it ok for me to go to [This Location] totally alone? Should I call someone?
  • If I need to run, could I run for a while in this pair of shoes?

If I was still working in Mexico or on site in some of the places I study, this list gets a lot longer. Before I leave in the morning, I assess what risks I could encounter that day and try to build a list of options for myself to make sure I am prepared to meet my challenges for that day. Because if the going gets really rough, my options might end up being fairly limited.

That night I listened to a group of men, many of them much larger than me, chanting:

“NO MEANS YES

AND YES MEANS ANAL.”

As part of an initiation routine for their frat, meaning, freshman boys were encouraged to chant about abusing dead women, felt like what I would have labeled “a worst-case scenario” in my morning planning.

Separately, the song is completely vile in every possible way. Who comes up with this garbage?

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I wrote this post because a number of my male friends through the years have asked me why programs like Hollaback are relevant. Why women don’t like to be cat called. Why we get offended sometimes. They mean well, I know they do, so I often explain this experience of constantly wondering how you are going to get home and if someone has been watching you for too long. How we think through our options to escape and how making a single wrong decision could end very badly for us.

For me, this night in New Haven was one of many in my life where we remember that societal expectations and “manners” are abstract concepts that people opt into. They are not enforced by nature, but by communities. Without mutual respect inside of a community, they cease to exist and I am expected to compete for my own survival.

When I explain it in these terms, my male friends are often the first ones to respond with “not cool” to the guy who yells something at me when I walk by. They start to understand where I am coming from when I talk through my morning checklist and what I worry about when I am weighing my options in risky situations.

I think it would be amazing if I could walk down streets in major cities and know that I was not going to hear someone lean out the window of a car and offer me a list of “dirty things I’d like to do to you” or comment on my ass when I walk by. So, maybe it starts with you.

Check out what Hollaback is up to in your city. It’s an issue with deep roots, but it’s a worthwhile one.

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.