This weekend, my girlfriend and I drove to Portland, Oregon to meet up with a friend and do the usual tourist stuff. We ate a maple bacon donut, wandered through Powell’s City of Books and poked around the holiday market for sales tax-free gifts. Our friend came by bus, so our trip was bookended by time spent in the Greyhound Bus Station, located in a seedy part of Portland’s urban core.
I wanted to like Portland, to soak up its edginess and hipster culture. But I was distracted. In the forgotten corner of the city around the bus station were tons of homeless people. I lost track of how many people asked me for money; how many people I saw curled up in doorways under blankets of newspaper and trash bags. There were several people with bags upon bags of belongings — the remnants of a once stable life.
And then there was the screaming. Every hour or so, someone was screaming at people no one else could see. It was unnerving.
Homelessness is one of those things people don’t like to talk about. It’s an issue that is constantly visible in the cities of America and sooner ignored than discussed. The Portland Housing Bureau estimates that on any given night, 2,470 people are homeless. The actual number is probably much higher. Across the United States, over 630,000 people are on the streets on in shelters. We let so many people slip through the cracks.
A few years ago, I volunteered at Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco, an event that provides homeless individuals with access to doctors, clothing, sack lunches, job placement agencies and veterans benefits professionals. I was a guide, taking a client to each station they needed to visit. Along the way, I learned many of their stories. Many had simply fallen on hard times. Skyrocketing medical bills or the loss of a job left ordinary people without the ability to afford housing. One was a student about my age, who lost his apartment when his financial aid didn’t come and lived in the park while attending classes. I was struck by how similar he was to me, and how easily I could be in the same situation.
In a society that puts so much value on individuality and pulling yourself up through hard work, America has little sympathy for those who stumble on the path to self-sufficiency. Too many people aren’t caught by the safety net and lose everything just because of bad luck or economic conditions.
But where we have really failed is in the area of mental healthcare. In the Greyhound Station, my girlfriend and our friend were understandably spooked by a woman with mental health problems who wanted to talk to them. In the streets of Portland, there are probably hundreds of people in need of care.
In America, we stigmatize mental conditions. We see it as a weakness rather than a medical issue that needs to be treated. The recent outbreak of shootings committed by people with these conditions are a stark reminder of how thoroughly we’ve let so many of our neighbors down.
As I board the train to work each morning, I see a makeshift camp on the side of the tracks. Sleeping bags and canteens lie abandoned as its inhabitants set out into Tacoma in search of food and shelter. Every day, I wonder why we aren’t doing more to help them get back on their feet. What tipping point must be reached before we combat the forces of poverty as fiercely as the forces of terrorism?
As a writer, I feel like I’m in a special position to talk about these issues when no one else will. It’s the task of a writer to draw the public’s eye to the ugly truths of our imperfect society. It is writers who must retell the stories of the voiceless and call for a change in the status quo.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA who has accidentally become an advocate on many issues in recent years. Please feel free to share and comment. You can also follow me on Twitter.
Wind whips along U.S. Route 160, a two-lane rural highway that stretches like an obsidian necklace across the sandstone hills and valleys of the Navajo Nation. Sand blows from one dusty shoulder to the other in long trails that twist and wriggle like ethereal snakes. A row of plywood booths is strung out from the road. Brightly painted signs try to entice drivers to pull over. “Art Sale,” one reads. “Native American Arts and Crafts,” reads another.
Susan Gregg, a resident of Tuba City, shares a booth with a friend, where she sells her handmade jewelry. She handpicks every stone and grinds and polishes each one. Such intimate contact with her work has given her almost encyclopedic knowledge about each one. All of her jade comes from Alaska. She finds picture jasper in the hills around Prescott and quartz from geodes on the Reservation. Most of the materials she uses are believed to have special healing powers, she explains. Juniper seeds were worn to funerals to protect mourners from the spirit of the deceased.
“I remember finding stones when I was a child,” Gregg says. “My grandfather let me herd his sheep when I was just a little girl. I would go out and take an old coffee can with me to hold the stones I found.”
Gregg retired from her job at the Social Security Administration in 2001, after which she taught herself to make jewelry from patterns she found online.
“I am one of those people who doesn’t like to be idle. I like to keep busy,” she says. She gets supplemental income from selling her work at the booth, but admits that times are tough, even during the holidays and tourist season.
“It’s a good hobby, but you don’t get rich doing it,” she says.
Gregg isn’t the only one who has noticed a decline in the economy of the Navajo Reservation recently. Entrepreneurs across the Reservation have seen a slump in sales. Some people like Genevieve Gonnie, who runs a food stand out of a trailer in Leupp, Ariz., blame the Nation’s restrictive leasing process for hampering the start of new businesses.
Dolly Lane is the Principal Economic Development Specialist at the Navajo Nation Regional Business Development Office in Tuba City, AZ. Her second story office overlooks a small, nondescript strip mall. Multiple windows in the building have been broken and covered up with sheets of plywood. Shards of glass litter the ground below and glitter in the late afternoon sun.
Lane is one of the people tasked with packaging all of the business leases for the western region of the Navajo Nation. She admits that getting permission to start a business on the Reservation is hard.
“First, you need to get permission from the people who have grazing rights on the land; who have livestock,” Lane says. “After you get land consent, you need to get a supporting chapter resolution. The Chapter members need to vote to approve it.”
Once business owners get permission from the other land users and from the chapter, then they have to get surveys conducted by the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department and the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife before the application is sent to Window Rock, where the lessee must pass a credit check and get approval from the Department of Economic Development. If there are no problems with their application or their credit, the president must then sign off on each and every lease before a business owner can break ground.
Lane estimates that the entire process can take one year if everything goes smoothly. Leases for new business sites last 25 years and usually come with an option to extend it for another 25 years.
“We’re encouraging communities to withdraw land and conduct surveys now to shorten the process,” Lane adds. Pushing lands through the review process could dramatically shorten the time it takes to get approval for a new business site.
Once businesses are approved, owners must still pay rent to the nation, though some businesses can get their first three years of rent waived if they’re building on the site, in an effort to help small businesses recoup their investments.
The combination of a long and complicated application process and the prospect of paying rent to the government is enough to dissuade many entrepreneurs from seeking legal status, preferring to set up temporary sites on the side of the road.
Nash Myers sells roasted, salted pinions and red chile tamales out of a cooler in the back of his red Ford F-150 on the side of Leupp Road. It was too hard on his family for him to be commuting over 100 miles per day and too expensive to pay for gas and maintenance on the truck, so he gave up his job in Flagstaff as a river runner.
“We’re doing pretty good now,” he says. “As long as we have money to pay our bills and put food on the table for our little girl, it’s good.”
Myers believes that the rural nature of the Reservation makes it easier for people to get jobs in border towns and harder for people in remote areas to get work.
“A lot of families only have one vehicle. So, if you have to go in to work one day, your husband or wife has to take the car and get gas and supplies. It’s tough,” Myers says.
Back in Flagstaff, Mandy Metzger believes that the root of the Navajo Nation’s economic problems is a lack of infrastructure. Metzger represents District 4 on the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, which includes much of the western half of the Reservation.
“Some of the things we take for granted as pretty basic services are very hard to come by,” Meztger says. “It’s so far behind. Can you imagine communities not even having lights and water? I think if there were good roads and there was broadband; if there was power and light and water, then I think economic development could really flourish.”
“We’ve had a contract with [the Bureau of Indian Affairs] to maintain the roads, but because the BIA hasn’t been funded, they haven’t paid the county and so everything has stopped,” Metzger says, shaking her head as she points out some of the communities in her district on a large map covered with checkered squares designating private land and trust land.
“With winter coming, it’s a pretty critical situation, but we have to wait for Congress to provide the funding to the BIA to pay for the work. We need to have some funding for the tribes so they can actually catch up with the rest of the world.”
Metzger has only been in office for three years and has never known a Reservation economy that wasn’t struggling.
“It’s never been good while I’ve been in office. I’ve never known good times. I don’t know what they’d be like,” she says. However, she is optimistic that the new casino at Twin Arrows will help generate jobs for 600-800 people.
Sharon Doctor is the Assistant Director of Native American Student Services. She isn’t convinced that the casino is a good idea.
“I’m Navajo and from the get-go, I’ve been opposed to the casino. I’m very concerned that people on a subsistence income will spend it on the casino instead of buying the food they need.”
Doctor thinks the Navajo Nation should be trying to bring more businesses to the area, especially the green energy industry.
“My husband and I went to California and we saw those huge wind turbines to generate electricity,” she says as she props up a piece of poster board in the window to block the glare on her computer monitor. “He said, ‘Why can’t our tribe do that?’ We need to attract businesses to the Nation, not the casino.”
Jonathan Yazzie agrees with Doctor. Yazzie, like many Leupp residents, commutes to Flagstaff for work. He works for Developing Innovations in Navajo Education, Inc. (DINE, Inc.), a non-profit corporation that is “trying to get people back to farming,” he says. “We want to educate people about traditional farming methods. We recently spoke to the head chef at the new casino to see if we can get them to use local produce.”
Yazzie believes that the future of the Reservation is agriculture, not an increased emphasis on casinos and tourism. He is worried about the state of the economy, especially with unemployment rates hovering between 40 and 50 percent.
“I don’t believe in casinos,” Yazzie says. “If we’re going to have jobs for people, it’s good. But a casino? It’s a bad thing.”
Back at her booth on the side of Route 160, Susan Gregg doesn’t have an opinion about the casino. Her fledgling business is a more immediate concern.
“It’s not very good right now. The cost of living has gone up,” she says. “People want the quality; they want the silver, but they don’t want to pay the price.”
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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer and really curious person living in Flagstaff, Ariz. He travels extensively, immersing himself in new cultures and experiences whenever possible. His thoughts on anything and everything are available in 140-character increments on Twitter: @jonnyeberle.
It’s amazing what one month can do. Four weeks ago, I touched down in Los Angeles in the rain after a life-changing week in my adopted homeland of Guatemala. I was so in love with the place and the people; I was fired up about their struggles; it was painful to try to contain the story that was demanding to be told.
Tonight, I sat down with my fellow world travelers to discuss for the first time how to present the story of Guatemala publicly — and I was scared by my own disconnect. One month had dulled my passion and numbed my resolve. It was terrifying to realize how quickly work and school and messy roommates and chicken alfredo has replaced the connection I felt to Guatemala. My life descended from importance into triviality.
What scared me the most was the way I had slipped back into my U.S.-centric mindset. At some point in our conversation (and probably more than once) I referred to the people we met as “they.” They. One of the most potent and destructive words in the English language. In my mind, subconsciously, I had placed my Guatemalan friends and family into a box labeled “other.” You can’t care about the other. You can’t laugh with the other. You can’t learn from the other, because they’re different. They’re separate.
And that’s stupid.
Because we’re not different. Our situations and background may not be the same, but that doesn’t make someone alien. It’s so easy to put people in that “other” category. It allows us to dehumanize and keeps us from getting too close. However, that was not my experience. I was emotionally compromised. All my walls were torn down by a wonderful group of people who didn’t see me as a white guy on vacation, but as a brother and a son.
Biologically, it’s not that far off (no human being is more distant from me than a 40th cousin), but beyond the DNA, we really are closer than we’re comfortable admitting. Even in a developing country like Guatemala, the young people have Facebook and wear screen-printed T-shirts and the older folks have cell phones and watch American Idol.
This strangely pervasive idea in the American consciousness that we’re somehow different on a fundamental level is bogus. We need to get over ourselves, because we’re all the same. Our experiences may differ, but a human being is a human being no matter where you go. As Ivan Norantes, a Mayan spiritual leader told us, no one is greater and no one is lesser.
As I embark on this process of bringing the story to the masses, I need to keep this in mind. I don’t want to disconnect. I don’t want to simplify, generalize or assume that I know it all, because the story of Guatemala is a long, nuanced and complicated one. I want to tell this story as truthfully and respectfully as I possibly can.
No pressure, right?
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Interested in learning more about Guatemala? Read my previous blog posts here, here and here. If you’re so inclined to get inside my head, you can do so via Twitter (kinda like that movie with John Malkovich), where I go by the moniker @jonnyeberle.
“For the unexamined life is not worth living for men.” – Socrates
During the first week of his classes, Dr. Joel Olson would hand out a pink sheet of paper outlining his theory of education. “Education is uncomfortable,” he said. “It makes you think about new things, challenges old beliefs, forces you to reevaluate the world, and makes you do work you wouldn’t ordinarily do. But remember, there is a payoff. You are learning how to think, read, write, and speak critically… You are on your way to leading the examined life.”
Joel was one of those rare educators who actually got his students to think critically and get excited about political theory. In the tradition of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Nietzsche, and Du Bois, Joel challenged everything I thought I knew about the world. He made me dizzy — and that dizziness was the birth of wisdom.
“We live in an age of information, but not one of ideas. We need to learn to think big.” – Dr. Joel Olson
For those of us who knew him, Joel was much more than a professor. He was a friend and a mentor. He was a radical, eloquent, vegetarian punk rocker with illegible handwriting and a fire in his eyes who took his students out for a beer after the final. He was passionate about teaching; equipping us to think our way out of times of crisis. He was also passionate about changing the world through his activism. Joel was an enemy of the status quo. He vocally opposed SB1070 and criticized racial inequality and questioned authority. He sought out truth and justice with ferocity.
“The formulation of a question is its solution.” – Karl Marx
I never had the chance to tell him what an inspiration he was to me; that will haunt me for years to come. I was perfectly happy in the cave, but he dragged me into the light and showed me that there was more to education than memorization and regurgitation. With Joel, politics was daring and deliberation; a quest for enlightenment; a struggle to achieve the good life for all of humanity.
Now, I don’t know why people die young. I don’t know why husbands and fathers are snatched away from their families without warning. I don’t know why great minds are taken from us when we need them most. But I do know that Joel did not leave us empty handed. He left us with the tools to remake the world.
I’m more determined than ever to take up the fight. Because of Joel, we are no longer ignorant. We can think for ourselves and see the things that need to be fixed. Most importantly, we can ask the hard questions.
“Does it make every one — unhappy when they study and learn lots of things?” He paused and smiled. “I am afraid it does,” he said. “And, John, are you glad you studied?” “Yes,” came the answer, slowly but positively. She watched the flickering lights upon the sea, and said thoughtfully, “I wish I was unhappy,—and—and,” putting both arms about his neck, “I think I am, a little, John.” – W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
Words cannot do justice to the man, but this is the only tribute I know how to give, the only way I know how to give it. I didn’t know him as well as I would have liked, but I do know this: Joel Olson was a great man and it was my great honor to know him and learn from him. He was a visionary thinker, a mentor, an educator, a political animal, a truth seeker, a defender of the oppressed, a shaper of minds and one of the few people I have ever known who truly lived an examined life.
We’ll miss you, Joel.
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Joel Olson was an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University, where he specialized in political theory, racial politics, social movements and extremism. He was a well-known figure in the anti-racist and pro-immigrant movements in Arizona and was the author of The Abolition of White Democracy.
Update: You can learn more about how you can help the Olson-Creed Family by visiting the Remembering Joel Olson Facebook page.
Over the last week, I have slept on airport floors, careened down perilous mountain highways, laid my hands on the stones of Mayan ruins and gotten lost in a bustling market in a country three thousand miles from home. I was disoriented, culture-shocked and a little queasy, but the experience of traveling to Guatemala was incredible.
For me, traveling outside of my comfort zone (literally) has always excited my imagination. How could a writer resist the exotic allure of such a mysterious place? In less than seven days, I wrote three short stories, took 11 pages of notes and snapped nearly 800 photographs. In the creativity department, I was on fire for the first time in months.
(Side note: One of my new friends also tried to get me to marry his daughter, but that’s a story for another blog.)
Still, inspiration wasn’t the only thing I found there. I also found a place bursting with untold stories. I heard stories of a 36-year war, of people who disappeared without a trace, of the specter of colonialism, of racism toward the indigenous Maya, of crushing poverty, of corporate oppression, of community, of the fight for women’s rights, of risking everything for a better life, of horrific violence and of spectacular beauty. I heard enough stories to fill fifty novels — and I intend to write them.
But memory is an imperfect thing and for the past two days, I’ve been busy trying to capture my thoughts and observations in words before these vivid, visceral feelings crumble like the cathedrals of Antigua or the pyramids of Iximche. I want to tell these stories; I have to tell these stories. I have to tell them because Guatemala desperately needs to be listened to and because the written word is such a powerful agent of change.
Guatemala’s struggles are the struggles of humanity and maybe the right words can wake a few people up to the continuing injustices there.
I want to amplify the voice of a nation that has been silenced for too long. And maybe I’m naive to think a few well-turned phrases can bring an end to five hundred years of human rights violations and domination by foreign powers, but when you’re faced with a place so breathtaking and a people so warm and gracious, you can’t help but want to join their fight.
I am not a powerful man. I can’t force multinational corporations to pay Guatemalans a fair wage for their work, nor can I bring about land reform or single handedly change a machismo culture that doesn’t value women. But I have a keyboard and a knack for wordsmithing and that has to count for something.
Guatemala changed me. Now, it’s time to return the favor.