Dec 30, 2008

Hope Begins with a Free Palestine

It has been a grim week, with news of the bombings and massacres in Gaza filtering in through the virtual blackout in American media. My friends who care about this issue are heart-broken and torn: does living any kind of life in the United States, regardless of "politics" or "heart" make us complicit in this morally repulsive, violent oppression and massacre of a people already without a home?

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Dec 28, 2008

Fair Housing: Do Asian Americans Matter At All?

I have been tracking down and getting up to speed on some civil rights issues, fair housing being one of them. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity recently released a pretty extensive report looking at Fair Housing in the new millennium. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) was passed in the late 60s as one in a group of landmark laws that ensured the rights of those most likely to be discriminated against in a range of issues.

The FHA targeted landlords and others with the power of allowing or denying the right of people to rent or buy housing, outlining the criteria that may not be considered in deciding whether someone could rent or buy from you. The FHA itself outlines race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, disability, and age, among other things.

State and local acts have added to this, now including sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, source of income (for example, housing vouchers), and a number of other criteria that cannot be used to discriminate against people seeking housing. However, the report painted a fairly grim picture about where things are at with enforcement and gives a road map about where things could go with the inevitable reorganization expected when the new administration comes to DC.

There are some good recommendations there, however, looking at this report was quite sobering: there's only one mention of Asian Americans, and it's basically as a obligatory mention of all communities of color (it's also the only time that Native communities are mentioned). While there are some pieces about the impact of poor fair housing enforcement on immigrants, it is clear that they are talking about Latinos, and the priorities focus on issues central to Latino communities. While I don't question that these problems in equitable access to housing must be addressed, I'm very worried about the lack of concern or mention of Asian American/immigrant communities.

Hell - even Clint Eastwood's new movie (Gran Turino), which I haven't seen, seems to marginally deal with issues of Asian immigrants and housing better than this report. Clint Fucking Eastwood. So where is the outrage, or the addendum from the Asian American community? Where are the pieces that talk about the specific hurdles faced by many of these communities, which are pretty well documented by Fair Housing testers around the nation that actually include Asian Americans in their work?

I haven't seen anything at all, and I'm still waiting. I guess it begs the question of who should be looking at these issues? It's a civil rights issue, but I haven't seen the Asian American Justice Center, or really any of its three affiliates (LA, San Fran, and Chicago, though the Asian Law Caucus has done housing work in the Bay Area for a long time) deal with this issue at all. AALDEF seems to have just hired a housing attorney in NYC, so there's not much there either.

And that brings us to the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD). They were formed by a group of local Asian CDCs around the nation who thought we needed a national organization to push for policy change in the National Capital and support local efforts around the nation. But if we all agree that affordable housing falls generally into the "community development" universe, do tenants' rights?

Because aren't many CDCs housing developers? And doesn't that make them. in effect. landlords? And isn't that kind of in conflict with tenants' rights? So then where do they fit in when it comes to fair housing work? And isn't it just a little odd that there's no group out there that really claims fair housing advocacy to be part of what they do on behalf of Asian American communities, when there are documented studies that show that landlords in places as diverse and "accepting" as NYC and the Bay Area are screening potential renters by their accents, last names, and purported/assumed religious background, with Arab Americans, Muslims, and some other South Asians getting the short end of the stick most often.

Family status (and the relation between members of a "family") are touchstones for the Latino community, and this is very true for Asian immigrants too. They're basically saying not just that 10 people in a 2 bedroom is unacceptable, which is hard to argue with, but that even if there are only 3 or 4 people in that apartment, they have to have a very specific relationship, and grandma's gotta go. That's problematic for extended family connections that many Asian immigrants recognize, and allow for all kinds of crazy landlord shenanigans.

But the heart of this post, and my inquiry, is still: who out there gives a shit about Asian Americans and fair housing? And who is raising those issues in the public sphere? And why aren't we holding the groups who say they give a shit about our civil and housing rights accountable?

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Film: Frost/Nixon (2008)

Rounding out my holiday movie watching spree, I got to see Frost/Nixon as the result of a weird series of negotiations between three of us trying to manage dinner, our disinterest in going out to where the indie theater was playing a few different films we want to see, and the resistance of at least one in our party to seeing that Brad Pitt movie, The Wrestler (which I will still go see when I get a chance), Valkyrie (the Tom Cruise vehicle), and probably some animated movie about dogs or rodents (there's always at least one playing at all times, right?).

It was a pleasant surprise. The film was put together well, and who would have thought that Ron Howard could pull together such a compelling piece of cinema. Basic premise: it focuses on the first thorough interview that Nixon granted after his ignominious descent from the highest office of the land. The person who landed it: a pop/celebrity talk show host from London who saw this as a golden opportunity, and got a few lessons in real journalism along the way.

I thought the screenplay was sharp, the supporting characters were compelling enough to move the story along, but we didn't get too much unnecessary background on them, and the pacing was excellent. The leads, recapping their roles in the play upon which the screenplay was based (Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, and Michael Sheen as David Frost) were crisp and memorable, the dialogue sharp, and everything else smooth enough to not be distracting. If you like good political drama, check this one out. Highly recommended.

Unfortunately, we ruined the feeling and depth of this film by going to another right afterwards (see Seven Pounds (of crap) review below).

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Film: Seven Pounds (2008)

Caught this as a one of those spontaneous double-features last night. Man, spare yourself and don't watch this movie. Will Smith was awful - I don't know if I've seen a worse film of his, and I may have to see Pursuit of Happyness or some other not-well-rated film just to cleanse myself of this one.

I thought Rosario Dawson was the best part of the film: she was more believable than anything else, and I actually liked her character - she didn't overact, and I felt her vulnerability (details are unimportant in this one - trust me), but that just didn't rescue the film for me. I mean, think of her as the pearl sitting atop a bass drum-sized tub of 4-month old, slightly greening gazpacho that has not been chilled.

The plot wanders, the mind loses track of what is going on, and you just want it all to end. I can be a sucker for believable melodrama, and even the occasional romance, but man, please don't do this to me. Do yourself a favor: find another film with a believable, vulnerable role for a supporting actress, and just watch that instead of this one.

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Dec 27, 2008

History is a Weapon

I don't know if you've found any great resources online for alternative history, particularly to forward to folks who are looking for something more than the basic drivel they feed us in school, but I just did.

This site actually has a lot of content, including almost all of Howard Zinn's Peoples' History of the United States. Pretty awesome. Click around. There's a lot there, and even though it doesn't have much/anything about immigrant communities, there's the foundation for a social movements class in there somewhere.

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Dec 26, 2008


I'm very excited. As part of the end of year gift-giving, I received, from the love of my life, the full graphic novel. I'm quite excited to sit down and read through it. Actually, I have a lot of books to read at this point. I've tried to stop buying and start reading. More to come.

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Dec 25, 2008

Film: Milk (2008)

I was a little skeptical about a mainstream Hollywood movie about Harvey Milk, even though I have a lot of respect for Sean Penn's choices. After seeing the film a few days ago, I'm happy to say that my hesitation, though well-founded, was not justified in the end. Sean Penn really does throw himself into the role, and just in terms of great acting, it's a performance to watch.

But more importantly, I think the film gives you a real flavor for a particular character in American politics and social movements, not as a perfect or unmatchable soul, but as a full person. I liked that a lot - doing some sort of movement work for longer than a minute, there were a lot of moments when we thought "hey, we know people or situations that are similar or that this reminds us of." I checked out the documentary about his life and assassination a while ago. Rent that for a historical perspective when you get a chance.

Geo/Pro Brown from Blue Scholars said it best in his review here: "What makes Milk so much more than just another historical bio-pic or a generic plea for humanity is an awareness - by filmmaker, writer and actor - that the personal is political. That leaders are created by movements and not the other way around, as most other movies suggest." Here, you get a sense of the people around Milk too, that colorful cast of characters who are committed to more than just their own self-aggrandizement, or even just the cult of personality around that central figure.

Amen to that, and as far as mainstream movies go, this one is worth seeing before it gets kicked out of the theaters by the usual drivel that comes around during the holidays and beyond. Though I have to say, it's because of the holidays that I am actually catching up on some films finally. Look forward to a little writing about "Slumdog Millionaire" next, and have a peaceful week, ya'll. 2009 is rising!

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Dec 16, 2008

Critical Perspectives on the Mumbai Attacks

I haven't been able to keep up with news in India after the horrific Mumbai attacks during Thanksgiving weekend, but the whole thing has been a real roller-coaster of emotions for so many people. The inevitable saber-rattling about Pakistan has caused a lot of concern for many of us: the elite in this country, as well as the lobbies of power and influence in India could easily push for a new war, and the fragile peace and progress arising from overtures by the new political leadership in Pakistan would be swept off the table yet again, with the region and perhaps the world at risk this time.

Anyway, international affairs are something I have very limited contact with, so rather than write on, I'll point you to a few things to read if you want more in-depth analysis about Mumbai:

1) Arundhati Roy's "The Monster in the Mirror," a long and thoughtful piece in the Guardian (U.K.), is one that I just read and recommend.

2) SAMAR Magazine Issue #32 focuses on critical analyses of the Mumbai attacks.

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Dec 15, 2008

Let It Rest!

I'm so goddamn tired of hearing about - and being asked about - Sonal Shah. The drama, from all sides, is unnecessary and pointless: though I do believe there is still a need for true resolution. I didn't know much about her before her meteoric rise, I think she's either been given bad counsel or hasn't listened to good ideas about how to address the concern that she is tied to the Hindutva right, and honestly, she's coming across as kind of  arrogant, even if there's nothing true in the statements against her.

I'm not interested in going after individuals in our community, but I do think that we must all be held accountable for inconsistencies in our past, and examples of poor judgment that may reflect on whatever position we're vying for in the future. I've said before that I'm naturally skeptical of people of color who are so ambitious in politics, because I think the community becomes their way of showing that they have a base, even if they don't really care for what that community thinks or is going through.

The growing number of South Asians in American politics is a natural phenomenon: there is a large segment of our 2nd generation that is well-educated, as the children of the "professional" immigrants who were allowed to come here after '65. But the real question is, what true cohesion is there between our different communities, and should I be made to feel guilty when I don't jump behind some of the jokers who are standing themselves up to claim that they represent more than their own self-interest?

Are these folks, particularly those who are really just opportunists looking to rise as fast as they can on the backs of others through "brown skin, white-collar affirmative action," worth our time and effort? And honestly, are they just looking for the rubber stamp of the "community" rather than a real engagement to win our support? Isn't that the old politics of race: "we're the same race/ethnicity so you should support me, no questions asked"?  I guess that's kind of the Obama method, at least from the perspective of folks truly working for racial justice.

With this whole Sonal Shah thing - I think that even if we give her the benefit of all doubt and say that there's nothing shady with her past associations and affiliations, she has shown remarkably poor judgment with how she dealt with the initial questions in 2004 and how she's acted, both publicly and privately about this issue when it came up over the last few weeks. I truly don't know what to believe, and honestly, the vast majority of disinterested people (who don't have their career weighing on what happens with this flare up, or one of various axes to grind) just don't care.

Maybe I should post up my own advice to her, given that it seems like she's getting really awful counsel at this point, and you know, I should just want to help an ailing sister out. Because I can't imagine that if this thing got picked up by anymore mainstream media, the Dems would let it carry on for much longer, and her nascent political career would fade into a footnote, long before the root issues underlying this storm were ever really addressed in mainstream Desi America.

Those root issues include the very troubling infiltration of hard-right, political Hinduism into middle-class Indian America. The Hindu camps for school children, the programs that send kids over to India for unclear reasons, and the rhetoric that comes from groups ranging from USINPAC to the Hindu American Foundation should be enough to make us all worry a bit. We have enough homegrown extremism (militia, anyone?) in the U.S., thank you very much.

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Dec 14, 2008

Bruce Lee and New Paradigms for Community Work

I haven't been writing much lately, but I've been thinking a lot and using dead trees to capture some of the thoughts. The problem with blog posting, at least for me, is that I tend to be more of a perfectionist (couldn't guess, oh intrepid reader?) and I edit, edit, edit before I post. That's not the case on paper: I don't mind scrawling it out like freeverse and taking it from there.

My thinking lately has been about this work, particularly as I enter community-based work in a much more meaningful way than I've ever done, but with a law degree instead of just good intentions. And there are a lot of lawyers out there, doing all kinds of things: many of them good, some of them not. So I'm trying to see what kind of a "community lawyer" I want to be - in hopes that I don't fall into the ego/"anyone can be an organizer!" mentality that I see folks fall into. I don't think you're automatically disqualified from being an organizer if you have a law degree, but you gotta ask yourself, "why am I doing this, and can someone be more effective?"

Anyway - I'm also looking for new models of thinking about community-based work, strategy, and forms that break the molds and patterns that I've seen repeated again and again. Interestingly, my quest to figure out some things is leading me into unexpected directions. I think I'll be picking up at least one collection of Bruce Lee's writings about Jeet Kune Do, the martial art technique that he developed that broke dramatically from the rigid forms that came before, while integrating many techniques. His "way of the intercepting fist" also involved a lot of thinking about broken rhythm as a way of keeping yourself from falling into patterns and losing the freshness and innovation that comes from constantly challenging yourself to think outside of the box.

I'm hoping that his writing about the philosophy behind his radical break from much of martial arts training may illuminate new paths for me in my work. If people use Sun Tzu's Art of War for their corporate biz'ness, why can't we use non-canonical sources to guide us to reinvent in the new year, and with the new Administration? I'm just saying.

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Dec 12, 2008

So Long 2008

As this year comes to an ignominious end (at least to me), I'm looking forward to 2009 for a few reasons. First, I'm going to actually resolve to move forward with some of my ideas for self-development, particularly in exploring the relationship between how I try to engage in community work and how I live my personal life. I have been reflecting on the external stuff a lot in the last couple of months, writing about it more in journals than up here (obviously).

I think some of the lessons, or experiments at least, that I have gained or started at work may be useful personally, too. So I'm trying to figure out a reading list and some basic habits to put me in the right place with that side of things. Any suggestions would be welcome: I'm looking to read Bruce Lee's collected work on Jeet Kune Do and fluid styles, actually. I don't have the physical ability to make much of his theory on that level, but I think that some of the basic theories of Jeet Kune Do can be applied to other aspects of our lives: take from everything, work with broken rhythm, and don't get stuck in an orthodoxy. Learn, distill, absorb, integrate, and keep changing.

On the work end, I think I'm getting the hang of some things, but the work of things to learn is wide before me, and that's okay. More importantly, I have to remember that I'm in a setting with more people than just me as it was for much of school. I have to remember that I can't fly off the handle without possibly bringing repercussions to other people, and perhaps the very work itself. I haven't fully gone off the cliff yet, but that prospect seems to loom somewhat ominously above me sometimes. Goal: turn the conflict into transformative change. But it's so hard.

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Dec 2, 2008

Innumeracy and Privilege

There are a lot of people in the United States who are not comfortable or may have absolutely no luck or skills with math at all. There's a great book I read a while ago called (simply enough), Innumeracy, which lays out why the author thinks that the inability to understand numbers may be a more widespread issue than even illiteracy in the United States, and its long-reaching affects. While I'm not going to pretend that this is anything I know about, I have a few thoughts about innumeracy.

First, I think there's general consensus that the American education system has been in decline for a long time. Clearly, education is like health care, politicians, and any number of other things in the U.S.; if you have money, you can buy the best. But it's if you don't when things get difficult. So sure, there's a clear nexus between quality of education, poverty, and innumeracy. But I feel like there's also something beyond that that may also be going on.

Second, I think the cliched phenomenon of law students and lawyers who don't know anything about math underscore a totally different set of issues. These are clearly people who, for the most part, have had the privilege of going to elite or at least average schools, where issues affecting public schools that serve the very poor are likely less at issue. So what happened if the resources available to feel comfortable and even excel in simple mathematical skills?

I think there's inherent privilege built into this brand of innumeracy. It's a choice not to get up to snuff in math, because it's okay if some people let some subjects slide. It's a privilege because the numbers are abstract - they aren't connected to the very real arithmetic of poverty, the algebra of making ends meet, or the geometries of small and dangerous spaces in which other kids have to study. I think you can learn math in the classroom, but you can also learn it as you're trying to stretch that dollar into a lot more. If you're thinking that you have to manage your money in order to meet your expenses, pay the rent, feed your kids, and try to pay down your debt, you can't afford to say "I don't get the numbers."

This isn't to glorify the poor, or what they have to go through, or to somehow suggest that the poor are better at math because they have to be (and so then the reasoning would be, why deal with improving the public schools at all?). I'm just thinking that it makes no sense to me, and kind of offends me when people who have no deep-rooted mental/emotional block to math (or no chunk of the brain that deals with math gone missing) just dismiss having to learn it because numbers are more a hobby or something to scoff at than essential tools to survival. Basic arithmetic skills form the bedrock of responsibility by providing context (value) and analysis(logic).

It makes me wonder why people who don't have wealth are immediately thought of as being somehow inferior to those with means, when often, without the tools to understand the value of what they have at their disposal. I see this play out in so many ways, and while of course I can't make big assumptions about what this all means, it just gets on my nerves.

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