Posted on | April 13, 2013 | No Comments
In my hometown of Karachi, Pakistan, it’s common to see a bevy of mustached guards holding machine guns, wearing crisscrossed bandoliers over their chests, and riding in a caravan of pick-up trucks behind some Very Important Person.
Usually, the size of the security contingent is directly proportional to that person’s estimation of his own political power. On the road or in any public space, the contingent enforces its expectation that other people will clear out of its way.
The message behind such an over-the-top presence is clear: Do not mess with us. Don’t get too comfortable. This is not really your city. It’s ours.
Last week, the National Rifle Association made me feel as if I were back in Karachi. Back in a place where the person who flexes the biggest muscle claims the right to push others around on their own turf.
On April 2, an NRA-funded taskforce held a news conference at the National Press Club, a storied 100-year-old organization in downtown Washington where journalists cover press events during the day and hang out socially by night.
The club rents out press briefing rooms to other organizations, often hosting four or more events a day. National officials and foreign leaders regularly stop by for press appearances. Like time capsules, headlines from national and local newspapers at crucial points in history hang outside its bar, The Reliable Source. “Nixon Resigns.” “Local Ranch Owner Elected President.” There’s a great taco buffet on Friday nights.
I’ve loved inhaling the mix of journalism history and ideals at the Press Club since my days as a student reporter working a few floors down in the National Press Building. The Press Club, to me, is a safe space, its open access to world-famous leaders the antithesis to the swaggering, gun-toting, might-is-right politics in Pakistan.
That’s why I was taken aback when I entered the club to see eight or nine burly guards in dark suits stationed around the lobby, surveying everything with eagle eyes. At least one wore an earpiece with a wire traveling down the back of his collar. They were, as one journalist cracked to me later, “as big as refrigerators.” I’d never seen such a security presence in the eight years I’d been coming to the club.
Was it the Secret Service? I wondered. Surely, in a city where I’d seen U.S. senators walk alone and spotted Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer all by herself in a public food court, only an American or foreign president would warrant this kind of security.
No, they were just NRA-supplied guards for an event on school safety. An NRA taskforce was releasing its recommendations that morning for improving security practices in America’s schools. A guard checked my backpack and asked if I was carrying any water before I was allowed to enter the briefing room.
Another eight or nine men guarded the front and back exits of the room as Asa Hutchinson, a former Congressman from Arkansas and the director of the taskforce, presented his report. His recommendations included training at least one staff member per school to carry a gun.
“What are you afraid of?” a reporter asked Hutchinson after his formal presentation, referring to the massive security.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” Hutchinson replied, surrounded by guards. Shopping malls have security, he said, and so did the Press Club.
I had to chuckle.
It got less funny when reporters emptied out of the briefing room after the press conference, some positioning themselves in the lobby with their cameramen in preparation for Hutchinson’s exit.
As one cameraman veered in front of the library to get a better view, a very large guard stepped in front of him and told him to move. The camera guy protested. The situation was so blatantly unreasonable I had to interject.
“This is the Press Club,” I told the guard, who towered about a foot and a half above me. “He can film there if he wants.”
Then it was my turn to be called out of line for standing in the lobby of my own club.
Guard: “Ma’am, you have to move.”
Me: “Why? I’m a journalist and a member and I can stand here if I want.”
“Ma’am, I’m telling you to move.”
“Why? I’m not doing anything.”
“The gentleman is going to come through.”
“So I’ll move aside when he comes, like I would for anyone else.”
The message behind the NRA’s intimidating security presence was as clear as the tactics used by Very Important People in my hometown: Do not mess with us. This is not really your space. It’s ours.
That message is more alarming in light of the NRA taskforce’s proposal to arm teachers and other school staff members as a way to increase security in schools. It’s a recommendation that the NRA itself put forward soon after 20 elementary school children were gunned down in their classrooms in Newtown, Conn., last December.
I’m a journalist but I’ve also been a schoolteacher. And I want to know how my 7th graders in Pakistan would have felt if they thought that the bulge under my shirt, as I stood in front of them in the classroom, was a gun.
And how children in American classrooms would feel thinking that not just one, but several teachers in their school, including those they don’t get along with, were carrying guns.
Would they feel intimidated? Would they feel scared? Would they speak up less or think twice before challenging them to heated classroom discussions about topics they cared about?
What message would kids get from an armed contingent of adults in their school, a safe space they should consider their own?
Don’t get too comfortable. This is not really your school. It’s ours.
Posted on | March 28, 2013 | 1 Comment
I’m moving to Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, probably later this year. We don’t know exactly when, but we’ll be there for two years. I’ve been reading a lot about the country in the week since my husband found out his next work assignment.
I’ve got a lot of learning to do, starting with the fact that DR Congo is not to be confused with the Republic of the Congo. They are separate countries whose capital cities, Kinshasa and Brazzaville, gaze at each other across the river Congo.
Of the things I’ve learned about Kinshasa so far, the knowledge that it has a locally grown symphony orchestra is my favorite. Check out this YouTube trailer of the movie Kinshasa Symphony, which came out in 2010.
DR Congo was at war just 10 years ago. Fighting still rages in its east. But life there is getting better, by all accounts: the World Bank estimated last year that DR Congo’s economy would grow by 7 percent over the next two years.
This economic development marks DR Congo as part of Africa’s emergence as the world’s fastest growing continent. I had no idea of how far things had improved in Africa until I read this eye-opening cover story in the Economist.
I’m a little nervous about the move. But the landscape reminds me of growing up in Karachi, now a city of 16 million people. I feel an instinctive recognition, a connection, when I look at pictures of Kinshasa, home to 9 million people and Africa’s second-largest city. In its concrete structures and crowded streets, its graceful palm trees and rolling private lawns, I see echoes of my own childhood.
I think my family’s going to be fine there.
Posted on | December 5, 2012 | 1 Comment
My husband just completed a pretty intensive week of leadership training at work which included sessions on how to effectively talk to the media. The trainer emphasized storytelling: using six magic words that immediately wake listeners up.
“Let me tell you a story.”
Everyone loves a story. But for many people, the idea of handing control over that story over to another person — like a reporter — is both frightening and intimidating. Sometimes, it can have real consequences like job loss or legal issues.
That’s especially true in the field of juvenile justice, where the confidentiality owed to minors can complicate any attempt to gather or tell stories. This week, John Fleming, my editor at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Jenna Gibson, a charming producer at CBS This Morning, and I led a workshop at a national conference attended by judges, advocates and other juvenile justice professionals to explain how telling stories to journalists can help them raise public awareness of the conditions faced by children in the justice system, and ultimately affect change.
I also blogged about why talking to reporters is a good idea, drawing upon a discussion I attended in Florida to illustrate the difficulties faced by most journalists in accessing correctional facilities. My post appeared on a juvenile justice blog, Reclaiming Futures, on the same day as our workshop.
The good news is that the theme of storytelling ran through the entire two days of the juvenile justice conference. The organizers wanted attendees to go out there and communicate their experiences to the wider world. As a journalist, I hope they take the advice.
Stories are the way people can put a face on bald facts. Stories are the way personal experiences can turn into public policy. Stories can be magic.
And in a country that locks up more kids in prison than any other developed nation in the world, we need more magic.
Posted on | May 25, 2012 | No Comments
I seem to write about Street Sense, D.C.’s newspaper for the homeless, only when someone dies.
My family recently returned to the Washington, D.C., area after six months in Vietnam. Coming back to D.C. felt like walking back through that old wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia: we retained memories of an intense, action-packed, vivid life abroad, but our world in D.C. felt unchanged and even indifferent to our experience. We’ve pretty much picked up our lives where we left them: moved back into our Maryland home, reactivated phones and reconnected with old friends. In just three weeks, the motorbike-packed streets of Hanoi and the serene view of West Lake from our apartment seem like a far-off memory.
The one thing that has changed in our D.C. life is that we are seriously looking to buy a larger house. The process has been long, winding and ever-evolving. With the D.C. real estate market on the rebound, we’ve already lost out on a couple of bids to competing buyers. Yesterday, in a funk over our latest setback, I picked up the May 9 issue of Street Sense, a newspaper covering news about homelessness and poverty in the D.C. area. In some ways, it looked very different from the year I served as its editor. Since my departure in 2008, the paper has redesigned itself into a tabloid format, changed board members, executive staff and its logo, and added many new homeless vendors. The content, however, remains depressingly familiar: new statistics on homeless families in D.C. suburbs, multiple stories by the same volunteer or intern followed by a goodbye note by the same volunteer or intern on the back page.
I idly flipped through the first few pages. I’d read those stories already. Then I saw something I hadn’t seen before, near the back of the issue: Jesse Smith Jr. was dead. Jesse had been the vendor manager when I joined Street Sense in 2007. His calm, friendly manner, inspirational speaking skills and warm, gap-toothed grin made him a great mentor for people struggling to overcome their experience of homelessness. He’d gone through a rough patch the year I knew him, I remembered. But he’d rallied, taken some time off to overpower the ghosts of his past addictions, and returned as a volunteer and writer for the paper.
Jesse was dead.
The news story referenced his friendship with Mary Ann Luby, a Catholic nun who worked tirelessly for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless until her death in 2010. She had passionately described the issues facing the homeless population in D.C., filling me in during my first couple of weeks as editor, I remembered. She’d lost a battle with cancer.
Mary Ann Luby was dead.
Cliff Carle, a talented photographer with a wicked, ornery streak, had died a year and a half ago. I’d loved featuring his work in the centerfold of the paper and had written about his death on this blog. When I thought of talented people at the paper, I thought of Cliff.
And Cliff was dead.
I’m haunted now by thoughts of Street Sense, of people who have lived hard lives, suffered indignities and fought demons, and who have died too young. I feel guilty for being wrapped up in a hunt for a larger house when there are thousands of people who are sleeping on the streets or in borrowed beds in shelters. The house we want to buy is only on the market because the owner died suddenly last fall, leaving no heirs. I found a news story on him and he is now real to me. I am haunted by thoughts of his parents who died before him and who owned that house before him, wondering at their history and wanting their house to be in safe, appreciative hands — mine.
In Vietnam, people believe that when a family member dies, they must be helped with offerings by their family to reach their final destination with the Taoist deity, the Jade Emperor, in the sky. So the surviving family burns paper horses to help their ancestors on this journey, along with paper money to help them buy anything else they might need along the way. Once the ancestors have reached their destination, they can intercede on the surviving family’s behalf with the Jade Emperor, bringing them riches and good fortune. I briefly debate making offerings to the family of the dead owner, asking them to help me take care of their house in this world.
But then I am haunted by the thought that all this is so futile — that whether we struggle to afford mortgages and buy better homes in better school districts, whether we struggle to stay sober and keep a job, or whether we burn paper horses in the hope of a better life, ultimately, we all are going to wind up in the same place.
And that big house is not going to go with us.
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