Since President Barack Obama first stepped into office, the American people were startled by a possibility that there didn't have to be a "Black America and White America," anymore, but just "the United States of America." According to New Yorker contributor, author, and associate professor at the University of Connecticut, Jelani Cobb, that was some promising presidential rhetoric, but overall, a lie. Anyone who's read the headlines or seen the news for the past few years can recognize that race relations are far from stable, and the U.S. is far from "united." With issues such as police violence, racial profiling, and the "Black Lives Matter" movement as our modern-day Civil Rights movement, the rift between black and white transcends skin color—it's also a matter of class, power, and the notion of our republic.
As a long-time ally of the United States, France has played an integral role in its development. France has had its share of race problems of its own, seen most prominently through the Algerian War (1954-1962) and lingering racism against people of North African descent that largely populate the banlieues, or suburbs. The war prompted a silence that was only sort of broken recently, by French president François Hollande, who acknowledged the war's brutality, but didn't really apologize. Immigration has always been a hotbed issue in France, but it is especially now more important in preparation for their 2017 presidential election. On the other hand, Americans have a little less time to figure out new policies as the "changing of the guards" is decided next week. Even so, Paris was (and still is) a destination for African-Americans. James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, all found inspiration on French turf.
You may know Coates as the National Book Award-winning author of Between the World and Me. But Coates has also had a history struggling to learn French, as he told us at the opening reception of Festival Albertine last night. He just returned from Paris after a year-long writing fellowship, and there, had various interactions with African-Americans. He used his research to help curate the 3rd annual festival of the famed French-English bookstore housed by the French Embassy in New York City.
During last night's gathering, we were among a room of French, American, White, Black, and more. Coates stood before us and explained the process of selecting his panel for the November 2nd discussion, When Will France Have Its Barack Obama? Joining Cobb on the panel was journalist Iris Derœux, and historians Pap Ndiaye and Benjamin Stora.
What first struck me about the title of this discussion was the use of the word, "when." It suggests that France will have a Barack Obama, and it's only a matter of time. But will France ever have a Barack Obama? The French perspective is so used to seeing White males in political positions that a Black president would seem revolutionary, but would it be more revolutionary than what happened in America?
Ndiaye recounted an anecdote of a modern iteration of W.E.B. Du Bois's theory of double-consciousness. As a Black French man from Paris, when people ask him where he's from, he always answers, logically, "I'm from Paris." But then there's always a follow-up question; "Where are you really from?" This implies that because of the color of his skin and the language that he speaks, people don't feel comfortable accepting him as a Parisian. He must therefore be from somewhere else.
Both France and the United States have had different forms of racism. Americans had slavery, the French had the Algerian war, and that's just two examples. But these major tragedies in world history do not come without aftershocks. Festival Albertine will explore race and identity in the modern age through a series of panels highlighting a number of artistic forms, including art, film, literature, and dance.
The festival runs through November 6th, 2016. For more information, click here. And if you can't make it to New York, all of the events are livestreamed to help spread the messages of these scholars, artists, and writers to people in the rest of the United States, in France, and beyond.
For these children in under-served communities, "A library could be anything" or everything.
In sixth grade, Katherine Karmen Trujillo competed in an academic decathlon with her school. With fourteen of her classmates, one coach, and photocopied pages from prep manuals their school couldn't afford, one of their team members placed in fourth. Though the performance was not very good, "we were so proud," she told me. "Meanwhile, in other schools, everyone placed first or second." But it wasn't because those students were necessarily smarter or harder-working than the students on Trujillo's team. They came from schools that could afford to have one coach per student and endless prep resources. "You could just feel the difference," she said.
That was the first time Trujillo saw the long-term outcomes of inequality. Having been born to immigrant parents in a poor community in South Central Los Angeles, her Honduran refugee mother and Mexican father never wanted their daughter to work menial jobs or struggle constantly like they did. Fortunately, Trujillo's parochial school allowed her parents to pay a small fee per month for her tuition, which afforded them the freedom to give her a great education. They would sacrifice everything to make sure that their daughter could reach her potential.
Social injustices were not just happening in South Central Los Angeles, but all over the world.
But academic excellence also required social consciousness. Early on, Trujillo had a bent for social justice and was involved in a variety of efforts promoted by her school. Her parents and neighbors helped organize an effort to bring the first grocery store to her neighborhood, which piqued her interest in community organizing. From there, it was a clear path to a life of advocacy.
Social injustices were not just happening in South Central Los Angeles, but all over the world. While in college considering a career in public health, Trujillo applied for a fellowship in Denmark, her first-ever trip outside of the United States, where she joined a cohort of Americans and Danes to examine human and civil rights issues. Considering her background, the only immigration discourse that Trujillo had been exposed to was anti-Mexican rhetoric that blamed immigrants for taking jobs and threatening the safety of the United States. Expecting the supposedly progressive country of Denmark to be completely different, she was surprised when she talked to second and third generation Danes of Turkish origin: "Our grandparents suffered and we continue to not be considered Danish citizens; our nationality and our loyalty to Denmark is constantly questioned," they said. The trip taught her that immigration was a universal issue, and one that could have devastating, inter-generational consequences.
Trujillo returned from Denmark completely changed and "fascinated in studying world cultures through a sociological lens." She created her own major, graduated from college, and moved to Washington D.C. to work for regional advocacy agencies like the Latin America Working Group. She landed opportunities that focused on financial literacy and mentoring, then became entrenched in early childhood education at the National Head Start Association. But her connections from her fellowship are what drove her to her next stage in life.
After communities are distributed basic needs like food, water, and shelter, the next question is, "what now"?
Allister Chang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants and the first in his family to attend college, was sent to France as part of the same fellowship that Trujillo attended. His interest in global education inspired by his personal struggles led him to head Libraries Without Borders, a nonprofit organization that brings mobile libraries and educational resources to under-served communities. Knowing her strong work ethic and tireless commitment, Chang brought Trujillo on as Director of Communications and Advocacy, where together they help lead initiatives merging technology and education to provide for the people that need them the most.
Trujillo was inspired by the versatility of the organization's mission, which echoed her interdisciplinary interests in college. "Libraries Without Borders appealed to me because they were creating opportunities in situations where people had no other recourse," she told me. "Or if they had another recourse, it wasn't physically, intellectually, or psychologically accessible."
Libraries Without Borders is the United States organization that formed as an expansion of the international Bibliothèques Sans Frontières, which was founded in 2007 by French historian Patrick Weil. The mission of BSF is to provide under-resourced communities with access to education in the form of physical and digital, academic and creative resources. They work largely in refugee camps and in areas that have been hit by disaster. After communities are distributed basic needs like food, water, and shelter, the next question is, "what now"?
That's where BSF comes in. Many camps do not have access to schools, community spaces, or other methods of cultural and creative stimulation. This means that refugees or disaster victims are not only physically disadvantaged or displaced, but they're also bored, scared, and unoccupied. BSF provides innovative and intellectual resources like the Ideas Box, a mobile unit that covers 330 square feet, contains a satellite internet connection with a server, a generator, 25 tablets and laptops, 6 HD cameras, a large HD screen, board games, arts and crafts, and a performance stage that can all be assembled in 20 minutes. It's not only fun, but a space that encourages academic and moral growth. Adolescent soon-to-be mothers (who are oftentimes rape victims) can have the opportunity to learn how to care for their babies. Young kids can stretch their imaginations by creating written stories, films, and plays. According to one study of students in the Burundese refugee camp of Bwagiriza, those who met in the Ideas Box for 12 weeks experienced a 23% increase in academic performance compared to their counterparts in a traditional classroom.
Other tools include their KoomBook, a revolutionary digital library that creates a Wi-Fi hotspot and is able to connect to devices and project thousands of learning resources. They even have free digital learning platforms like Khan Academy and BSFCampus. Libraries Without Borders has worked throughout Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East to spread the beauty, value, and healing capacities of knowledge.
A library could be anything.
In the United States, two areas of focus for Libraries Without Borders are Detroit and the Morris Heights region of the Bronx, the nation's poorest congressional district. While these areas do have educational organizations, poor school achievement and economic and social inequalities keep communities away, as they are unable to recognize these spaces as "their own." This feeling of unwelcomeness in libraries is something that Trujillo refers to as a "psychological barrier." But what if this conception of a traditional library was turned on its head?
"I was really drawn to the fact that Libraries Without Borders re-imagines what a library space is," Trujillo said. "It doesn't have to have four walls, a roof, or anything. A library could be anything."
Libraries have always been a place where Trujillo feels comfortable. Because her brother was so passionate about books, trips to the library became a common household activity, unlike in other households in her neighborhood: "I realized that a lot of the kids I grew up with never stepped foot in a library; when they did it was because they were forced to." Libraries Without Borders could be that sanctuary all over the world, for people of any circumstance.
Initiatives like the Ideas Box can be powerful as points of cultural exchange, even in intense periods of conflict. "In one of the places where we were operating, there was a big outburst, a riot of sorts, and the camp itself was destroyed," she said. "But the Ideas Box was untouched."
For some of these kids, this is going to be the only book they have in the house.
In 2015, in collaboration with the New York Public Library, Bronx Pro, DreamYard, and the Alexander Soros Foundation, Libraries Without Borders ran an Ideas Box through the summer in the Bronx, which was open five afternoons a week to children and parents. All hands were on deck to curate content, facilitate workshops, and integrate feedback to create a place for academic encouragement and exploration, providing that welcoming environment that lacked among traditional organizations.
As one half of a two-person team based in Washington, D.C., Trujillo's daily responsibilities include meeting with organizations and schools to identify community needs. One of those needs is to provide books to students that have nothing. An exciting new partnership initiated by Libraries Without Borders is with a Detroit librarian, an upstanding community member determined to fill the gaps of failing Detroit schools and libraries. The partnership involves the support of the United Way of Southeast Michigan, Detroit Public Library, and the Mayor's Office of the City of Detroit. Trujillo proposed an idea to provide free magazines and a full-year subscription to magazines from Cricket Media: "When I told her about the year-long subscription, she said, 'This is going to be so wonderful, because for some of these kids, this is going to be the only book they have in the house.' I wanted to cry, even thinking about it now."
Despite Trujillo's modest upbringing, her house was always filled with books. The reality facing Detroit schoolchildren was something she couldn't imagine. "It really compelled me to work harder," she said. "It made me sad and frustrated, but it also drove me."
It drove Trujillo to devote her passion to helping to execute new projects with Libraries Without Borders. One such project in the works is a mentorship program that would pair Detroit children with professionals in the corporate world: "These kids are going to hear about what it means to be a Social Media Strategist or a Director of XYZ," she said. "Then the folks at the companies we're working with are going to learn what it's like to be a five-year-old in Detroit." This cultural exchange is just one of the ways Libraries Without Borders aims to reach a new audience of not just book-lovers, but advocates of applied literacy.
It is literacy, Trujillo says, that is among the most valuable aspects of a functioning and thriving society. Literacy "helps people be independent; it promotes agency and self-reliance. But it also promotes civic engagement. We are living in a time where we're not satisfied with things as they are. But what are we doing to change them?"
If that's the cost of a more self-sufficient, culturally-informed, and empathetic society, what are we waiting for?
In order to run for office, to protest, or to get involved in a smaller way, Trujillo believes it is essential to know how to access educational resources for self-empowerment. And solutions don't have to come at a high price. The initiatives of Libraries Without Borders are a low-cost, high-impact intervention, especially since a KoomBook can be created from a 3D printer for about twenty dollars. If that's the cost of a more self-sufficient, culturally-informed, and empathetic society, what are we waiting for?
The next steps for Libraries Without Borders in the United States include a laundromat library that will bring educational resources to laundromats, focusing on early learning and literacy in Detroit and professional development in the Bronx. Also, in response to recent legislations on immigration, the organization is adding a third staff member to gear up for their "E-Legal" library program launch, which will utilize digital libraries to provide legal resources for immigrants and mixed-status families.
"It's hard to imagine a reality beyond what you see day to day when you don't have an escape," Trujillo told me. For her, that escape is literature, education, and advocacy. And she has more than given back to her community; the same community in which her parents sacrificed for her pursuit of social change. Libraries Without Borders is true to its name, offering a source of comfort and agency to people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences, in uncertain and often frightening times. Education is a tool that encourages more than just curiosity, but it breeds generations of engaged citizens that never run out of questions. Fortunately, Libraries Without Borders can provide some answers.
To find out more about Libraries Without Borders, get involved, or donate, click here.
The imagination is valuable, and we must clear space to let it live and thrive.
As children, our creativity is boundless. We have a few things that fuel it: energy, curiosity, and a passion for the make-believe. When I was a kid, I filmed my stuffed animals in hyper-human situations. I pretended to ride horses with my friends around the playground. I looked out over the slide to watch giant sea beasts. I pretended I lived in the 18th century, speaking in a foreign tongue. I drew cartoons of talking amoebas. None of it was real, and I loved it.
Instead of your ability to imagine, it becomes your ability to predict that starts to count. Instead of the fantasy of your stories, it's how good of a liar you can be that's more important. The adult world is less about color and more about stroke. Creativity is judged by one's ability to find new ways to trick people into doing what you want them to do.
In the adult world, creativity metamorphoses into something more profit-driven.
Young kids do not necessarily have to be stimulated by a "muse" to produce something creative. But as we age, we're less inclined to have these spontaneous thoughts. They're considered unproductive or silly. But daydreaming performs an essential function: that of stimulating different parts of our brain that need some serious dusting off.
How do we get back to that precious state of creativity? We need to free ourselves from repetitive and mundane tasks. Opening our eyes to the beautiful things around us instead of just seeing what we expect to see: the same street signs, the same faces.
We also need to perform a more difficult task. According to Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan, who is the culinary artist behind South Korean temple food, creativity and the ego cannot exist side by side. If one is to grow creatively, one has to let go of the ego. Now, everyone has ego, but having too much of it limits our ability to move forward because we are always keeping judgment at the forefront of our minds. When we stop thinking about what others think of us, we can access a new level of freedom from within, the freedom to be creative again.
But what does letting go of your ego mean? For a lot of us, this means tempering ourselves on social media, or not allowing ourselves to feel superior or inferior to anyone. We must go into situations knowing that people will be people, and we have to let them do their thing so that we can do ours. We fill our brain space with too much minutiae so we don't have any room left for our imagination. The imagination is valuable, and we must clear space to let it live.