Out of the shadows


Last month I collaborated with the Northern Irish poet Scott Annett on a poetry response to a few tunes by the intercultural duo “Follow the Rats“. As I was doing so, an idea music student Andrew Goldberg had floated at a seminar was lingering in my mind: “Notes are just shadows of performance, but a lot can be inferred from shadows.” In a similar way, Scott and I attempted to infer something from the sounds by the two Follow the Rats musicians, Cassandre Balosso-Bardin and Phil Alexander. This all took place  at a recent Building Interdisciplinary Bridges Across Cultures [BIBAC] international conference public event which was part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. The performance was a meaningful experience for us as performers, poets, researchers and teachers. We felt the audience enjoyed it too and realised that ‘estrangement from oneself’ emerges both in the creative and intercultural process.

The BIBAC international conference, was convened by Dr Pam Burnard and Valerie Ross. It was a result of the Commonwealth Creativities in Interational Arts Network, founded and convened by Dr Burnard to advance and facilitate collaborations in intercultural arts practice, research and policy and to reconceptualise intercultural creativities in education. In a diverse programme, there were keynotes by Dr Alan Blackwell, Professor Liora Bresler and Professor Jaideep Prabhu. I was also moved by Liz Mackinlay’s reminder on ethical research. Reflecting on interdisciplinarity, she stressed: “Laurel Richardson’s assertion that anyone who thinks the ‘creative and analytic are contradictory and incompatible’ is a dinosaur waiting to be hit by a meteor.”

The process of A/R/T/ography

The performance embodied the concept of A/R/T/ography, the multiple identities of ‘Artist’, ‘Teacher’, ‘Researcher’ that follow our personal and professional life journeys. Initially, Cassandre was just a name on an email to Scott and m. This enhanced the ‘apprehensive appeal’ of the unknown which is present in intercultural encounters. The three pieces of music Casandre sent us, a Barrel Organ Set, a Klezmer Set and a Galician Set, were our shared resource. A Galician Set sparked an interesting response. Both in Macedonia and Northern Ireland the bagpipe is used in traditional music. Subsequently, Scott and I stumbled upon the cultural stereotypes surrounding this instrument in the places we come from and we consciously tried to move past them. Afterwards Cassandre, who organised the 1st UK International Bagpipe Conference, pointed out that there are over 130 types of bagpipes in the world producing many different sounds.

Working with Scott and sharing poetic sensibilities, we discovered passions for fluidity, repetitiveness and sound-driven syntax. Surprisingly, we enjoyed the comic elements that pervaded the melodramatic sadness. Scott listened to the music repeatedly while I anticipated it by writing before listening to it and then did some automatic writing after hearing it. We both agreed on a prompt without discussing the meaning we attributed to it.

I contributed a poem in which Cassandre and I go backpacking, end up on a rooftop bonding over her late night bagpipe performance with the neighbours threatening to call the police. Scott’s poem showed his internal poetic and cultural dualities and the influence of Seamus Heaney’s writing. We both interrogated our cultural positionings – Scott’s from Northern Ireland and mine from Macedonia. Yet we were challenged by the Eastern-European Jewish music  of A Klezmer Set and found it impossible to give up our cultural baggage, even temporarily. To this confused response, Alan Blackwell programmed a visual art response on his laptop which sparked a discussion on ‘liveliness’ – the difference for both performer and audience between a live performance and a filmed one or recording.

To sum up, our attempts to overcome intercultural stereotypes confirmed their presence in our lives. After accepting this, the intercultural collaboration gave us new ways of considering what is beautiful and how we demarcate or melt the boundaries between our A/R/T/ography endeavours.

*Afrodita Nikolova [2014] is doing a PhD in Education. Picture credit: Golowan Festival Penzance June 2005 Mid-Argyl band2. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0-uk via Wikimedia Commons.


A generational contract of design

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The lifestyle and political choices in America over the past half-century have cultivated a society in which young and old are in contention with, and in contempt of, one another. With this divergence poised to swell – by 2040, over 20 percent of America will be over the age of 65, up from just under 13 percent today – America must confront its generational inequities to evade economic instability, environmental uncertainty and drastic social cleavages.

As this demographic shift accelerates the proliferation of interconnected, complex social issues, a new generational contract might come from rethinking the relationship between local policy and design. While comprehensive federal reforms have proven difficult, community design solutions across the country have demonstrated an innovative way to connect the common needs of the elderly and youth. By entwining complementary neighbourhood policy and design that buttress adequate public health, a clean environment, decent public education and universal accessibility, America can make its generational transformation a triumph rather than a terror.

Smart growth to provide access to opportunity

Following smart growth design principles to establish schools as centres of complete communities could enable safe, equitable, and high-performing education. Richard Rothsteing, a top educational researcher, argues that, “two-thirds [of the quality of schools] is attributable to non-school factors.” Such out-of-classroom influences include housing stability, neighbourhood quality and safety, available and affordable transportation options, accessibility of after-school programmes and open space.

Pursuing joint development of neighbourhood designs between school districts and spatial planners could alleviate the stress induced by unsafe, substandard community environments. California is already testing this new strategy through an initiative that brings together the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research with the State Department of Education to encourage collaborative local development.

In compact neighbourhoods, school infrastructure can be used to support the social needs of the elderly. In NYC, the City School Department partnered with the Department of Aging to shuttle senior citizens to city museums, parks, supermarkets and other public places in school buses free of charge when the buses are not in use. Such strategies not only provide mobility opportunities for soon-to-be senior baby boomers, but they also ensure that the older population is invested in continuing to fund education infrastructure.

Ageing in place to reduce budget deficits

The benefits of smart growth design also support ageing in place. Some 78 percent of adults between the ages of 50 and 64 prefer to reside in their current residence as they age rather than move into a designated elderly home. But ageing in place requires built infrastructure, laws, policies and programmes to foster neighbourhoods where residents can live safely, autonomously and comfortably regardless of age or income. Many communities lack this necessary built and service substructure, forcing older adults to abandon their homes, friends and communities in favour of assisted living complexes.

Smart growth design provides housing with elevators, wide hallways, communal green spaces, shared facilities and goods and services within short walking or transit distances. To buttress this infrastructure, local programming aims to reduce service fragmentation and create greater comfort and security for seniors through voluntary social work, education, socialisation, nutrition and fitness programmes and legal advice.

The Queens Community House’s Neighbourhood Intergenerational Chore and Errand Programme connects youth to seniors through services and social activities, which include shopping, laundry and cooking, but also more costly needs like transportation and healthcare management. Such programming helps multigenerational neighbourhoods thrive not only as senior-friendly communities, but also as places for young families who provide the labour for neighborhood facilities.

Fighting obesity through neighbourhood design

America’s youth and its seniors face another shared challenge – obesity. About onethird of senior citizens are considered obese, the same percentage of overweight or obese children. This increase in obesity developed in parallel to the growth of an auto-centric, sprawl-oriented lifestyle. Between 1977 and 1995 Americans’ total number of walking trips – trips to work, school, and other necessities – decreased by 32 percent.

Design can strengthen public health policy aimed at reducing obesity by creating safe active transport options. Complete streets, designed to support biking and walking for all ages and the compact design of smart growth, which makes walking and biking to goods, services and social opportunities not only viable but pleasant, can provide the daily exercise needed to fight obesity and associated illnesses. The risk of cardiovascular diseases, for example, is 11 percent less for those who actively commute and students who live in walkable neighbourhoods have a 59 percent lower chance of being obese.

Several communities across the country have already enacted smart streets to fight obesity. Baldwin Park, a majority Latino-city near Los Angeles, is currently implementing one of America’s most comprehensive Complete Street policies to transform five major corridors into safe walking and biking options to combat childhood obesity.

Considerations for a changing America

As America faces the difficult challenge of accommodating shifting age demographics, it must rethink its generational contract by redesigning the spaces in which its young and old live.

Problems can no longer be analysed, or solved, in isolation, but instead should be evaluated holistically with issues from varied sectors at different scales. This necessitates a multidisciplinary team of decision makers to ensure that policies and neighborhood designs augment the benefits of one another. Policy makers, doctors, architects, police forces, urban planners, community members and financiers should work together to make the necessary investments in capital and ingenuity required to make an intergenerational design solution successful.

But beyond concrete tools, today’s challenges require a new way of thinking about social problems and infrastructure needs of an evolving population. The relationship between the design of the built environment and the social policies that govern the young and elderly’s wellbeing must be rethought to highlight the mutual returns of their connection.

The debate over the 21st Century national agenda to reinvigorate America provides the chance to change how policymakers and citizens alike think about local infrastructure projects and welfare policies – an opportunity to connect generational policy to multigenerational design.

*Victoria Herrmann [2014] is doing a PhD in Polar Studies. Picture credit: worradmu and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net



The struggle for values – in and out of the modern job market



‘Do what you love’, we are told. But what if ‘what we love’ just isn’t hiring? And what if whoever is hiring just isn’t paying enough to really lead the lifestyle we desire? In short, what do we expect people to get out of ‘ordinary’ jobs?

This is becoming an increasingly relevant question: since 2008, 80% of British job growth has been in below-average-pay sectors such as retail, service and catering, which also require a high degree of repetition. Increasingly such jobs are coming to characterise the economy and to define the opportunities available for those looking for work.

It may be true that some people just love selling clothes or providing customer service over the phone – but we also know that happiness in the workplace comes from taking on work that sits well with your sense of self. When your job consists of repetitive tasks being handed down from above, this is less likely. So for the new workers moving into these jobs, a sense of intrinsic self-fulfillment often just isn’t on the table.

The empowerment argument

Yet, when we talk about addressing unemployment, we still tend to start from the assumption that working will prove equally empowering, regardless of one’s background or job. Indeed, the central moral justification for heavy welfare cuts is that doing so is ultimately empowering for those on welfare. Getting people off benefits and into work, the argument goes, will provide them with “new hope and new responsibility” that will provide a richer source of fulfillment.

I make my living as an anthropologist. But instead of studying the intricacies of tribal life on a far-flung island, I live and work in North London in a neighborhood with a long and vibrant history of migration and mixing, but also one of persistent poverty. The people I work with, then, are in many ways the ideal targets of this government’s ongoing drive to get people off benefits and into work. There are families for whom worklessness stretches across the generations, migrants who rely on benefits to sustain their households and everyone in between.

It’s all too easy to look at this picture and jump to tired conclusions about an entrenched culture of poverty or about greedy and self-serving benefit scroungers and to conclude that they just need a stronger incentive to join the work force – a bit more carrot and, these days, a lot more stick.

But what is striking is that, if you take the time to listen, you’ll find that nearly everyone already places a great deal of value on employment. The issue isn’t that the unemployed don’t value work. It’s that the government’s vision for making work more compelling fails to capture their already-existing values. It’s policy that doesn’t speak to people – but speaks right past them.

Benefits and values

Far from the cushy free-ride depicted in the papers, most of the unemployed and underemployed people I meet talk about doubt, apprehension and struggle. Living on benefits means navigating an unpredictable system of sanctions and interviews and ever changing requirements one must meet in order to maintain one’s benefits whilst also knowing that one’s conditions are subject to change at any moment. And so the things that people come to value are the things that best help them navigate these daily experiences.

For example, the value of family may go beyond simple emotional support and love. If the job centre cuts off your primary income for a month for missing a meeting you never knew about, it may be the short-term loan of an uncle or your mother taking up cooking duties, which gets you through.

Your attachment to your neighborhood may have nothing to do with the desirable amenities of the area and everything to do with much humbler facts – like the translation service at your local community centre, which enables your daughter to invest in her schoolwork, rather than spending all evening helping you translate bills and respond to letters.

Exclusion and insecure futures

Even behaviours that may seem straightforwardly contemptible turn out to be more complex in reality. Surely, if you’re on benefits and struggling to get by, you have no right spending money on luxuries such as a new games system or a fancy new phone? But often, the heavier damages of poverty come not from the realities of daily want but from living as a part of society that insists, loudly and repeatedly, that it has no place for you. And, in response, people’s survival tactics become about responding to this sense of exclusion – about asserting their normalcy and equality so that they can reassure themselves that they have the right to live and work in the same world as everyone else.

Hence, you hear stories of mothers who struggle to feed their families, but who may buy their kids a used phone – a dysfunctional shell of a device that they can simply show-off at school to push back against the bullying and feeling of being left out and left behind – because that’s what it takes to make them feel like they can face the next day. You hear stories of people who start looking into whether, just maybe, it might be possible to cheat the benefits system because it’s just so draining to maintain an erratic schedule at your part-time job, when you’re living in a noisy and cold hostel dorm and your wife is pregnant.

And these are still the exceptions. Most struggle on with their heads down – trying to make it in a system that affords plenty of instability and few breaks. But struggle they do. And through this struggle, one of the central values which emerges is that of time. In an unpredictable world, where one must improvise new tactics to make it through each week, anything which promises a bit more stability is cherished. In knowing that your family will continue to live nearby, or simply that you are a secure council tenant, there is the promise of a foreseeable future.

Making sense of resistance

To understand some of the resistance to current programmes to get people working then, you only need to understand how they threaten this often-delicate sense of a future. Taking a job on a zero-hour contract certainly won’t guarantee you can afford local rents, but it will guarantee that you’ll become responsible for them – and that any spare income you make will be taken up offsetting your housing benefit. Working a retail job may not mean that you have any more income than you currently do, and it may not bring any more respect either, but it will probably mean being able to spend less time supporting your children in an already tough environment.

Importantly, regardless of whether these arguments are objectively true, they are felt to be true. Life on benefits can be tough, and learning to subjectively value permanency and distrust change makes navigating such a life a bit easier. The unemployed are far from valueless – far from the cynical self-serving schemers they are often made out to be. Instead, they have found ways to adapt, to live and to find worth in the world that is theirs at present.

*Farhan Samanani [2013] is doing a PhD in Social Anthropology.


Ebola: lessons from a 19th-Century London physician

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We are witnessing the largest Ebola epidemic in history.

Widespread transmission of the lethal viral disease has already led to well over 13,000 cases in West Africa. A handful of cases, primarily associated with travel from this region, have been reported in the US and Spain. While there are encouraging signs that the epidemic may finally be plateauing, two numbers underscore the need to maintain an aggressive international response. Ebola is killing 70% of those affected and according to some projections, West Africa might yet see as many as 10,000 new cases every week by the end of the year. To put these numbers in perspective, the next largest Ebola outbreak on record – in Uganda in 2000 lasted four months and totaled 425 cases.

With the global public health fraternity under fire for allowing the current crisis to spiral out of control, there have been calls to innovate: to apply newer (and often, more expensive) technology to Ebola control. However, the real answer may lie in massively scaling up the deployment of one of the oldest and most fundamental tools of preventive medicine a tool born out of an infamous outbreak of cholera in Victorian London and the pioneering efforts of Dr John Snow.

Lessons from the past

Cholera had been around in Britain since 1831. At the time, oral rehydration therapy was unknown and, for many of its victims, this diarrhoeal infection meant certain death in a matter of hours. In fact, while we now understand that a germ transmitted via contaminated water causes cholera, the prevalent theory of the mid-1800s held that it spread through “foul air. Against this backdrop, London’s Soho was the scene of what was then believed to be the worst outbreak of cholera in the UK – an outbreak that left 500 residents dead over the first 10 days of September 1854. Those 10 days, as we widely appreciate now, revolutionised the control of outbreaks and the practice of epidemiology – a branch of medicine with roots in the Hippocratic eraforever.

John Snow, a local physician, had treated patients with cholera during prior epidemics in London. Crucially, he had also tracked the distribution of the disease in different parts of the city. By 1849, decades before the cholera microbe was actually discovered, his logical observations had led him to deduce that the infection was waterborne and its spread somehow linked to the city’s water supply. However, his views on the subject continued to be dismissed as mere speculation by his own profession until 1854.

The Soho outbreak changed all that. Through a series of door-to-door visits interviewing contacts of cholera victims and by meticulously plotting cases on a map of the neighborhood, Snow was able to demonstrate that most victims in the ongoing outbreak lived close to and indeed consumed water from a pump on Broad Street. The local authorities, while largely focused on spraying the streets with chloride of lime (a costly preventive measure of the day now known to be ineffective), agreed on Snow’s insistence to also remove the handle of the Broad Street pump on September 8. With the pump put out of service, the source of infection was gone and the cholera outbreak ended soon after. This marked the beginning of what we now term “shoe-leather epidemiology” – a literal reference to the rigours of the fieldwork involved – and the birth of contact tracing.

Contact tracing

Contact tracing is already the cornerstone of the fight against Ebola, be it in Freetown or in New York. In the context of Ebola, contact tracing involves finding those who have been in close contact with a symptomatic case and monitoring them for 21 days for possible onset of the disease. What is needed is continued implementation of this strategy on a scale, and with intensity, as yet unprecedented in global health. Mathematical models forecasting the impact of potential interventions on the trajectory of the current epidemic show that a judicious combination of contact tracing, personal protection and safe burials delivered on a war footing across the countries worst-hit by the virus represents our best hope of eventually curbing Ebola transmission. The same models also suggest that a high-end experimental therapy such as ZMapp assuming it proved reasonably effective and one could get it to most patients hospitalised for Ebola would without a doubt save some lives, but would do little to check the propagation of the epidemic itself.

Is classic shoe-leather epidemiology deliverable on such a war footing? One of the few public health success stories of the current epidemic has been the containment of Ebola in Nigeria. The country has been declared Ebola-free after limiting the initial outbreak to 20 cases. At the heart of the Nigerian success have been 18,500 face-to-face visits health workers rapidly tracked down and painstakingly monitored nearly every contact of each suspected case of Ebola.

These experiences indicate that for every case of Ebola in West Africa at least 20 contacts will have to be followed, requiring a manifold increase in current contact tracing capacity. This presents a monumental challenge in health systems ravaged by war, poverty and the effects of geographical remoteness. The problem is compounded by international debates on quarantine policy and airport screening that, while important, threaten to hijack the public discourse on Ebola from its focus on the epicentre of the epidemic.

Dr Snow’s prescription was clear: outbreaks are best managed at their source. Ebola in West Africa must have the world’s sustained and undivided attention – and resources.

*Siddhartha Kar [2012] is doing a PhD in Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge with a focus on cancer genetics. He trained in medicine in India and in epidemiology in the US. Picture credit: Wiki Commons, Ethleen Lloyd and CDC.

Diplomats in robes


New York federal courts have rattled nerves around the globe with recent decisions that impact far beyond US borders. Last month, an Eastern District jury verdict found a Jordanian bank responsible for terrorist financing. Meanwhile, over in the Southern District, Judge Griesa is working to force Argentina into a settlement with so-called “vulture funds” that have rejected that country’s debt restructuring offers. These laws have never been successfully adjudicated before, but the judges in each case dismissed arguments of the Obama administration that caution should prevail. In particular, the administration claimed that the way the judges interpreted the law risked damaging US foreign policy interests and economic stability. Both cases raise questions about how the judges catapulted themselves into these diplomatic roles and if there is any way to contain them.

In the Jordanian case, a jury determined that the Arab Bank was liable for transferring payments on behalf of suicide bombers that killed US civilians in Israel. The damages awarded could reach into the billions. The Bank claimed innocence, but was unable to provide evidence in its defence due to bank secrecy laws of the countries where it operates. Judge Gershon gave no weight to the Bank’s obligations under foreign law, and instructed the jury to presume the Bank guilty. In essence, Gershon made the Bank choose between defending itself in US courts and honouring its obligations under other countries’ laws.

In the Argentina case, Griesa ruled that Argentina is contractually obligated to give equal treatment to all holders of its bonds – which were issued under New York law. Argentina argued that it was legally required to pay the main class of bondholders and that the country had complied with the law by giving all of its bondholders an equal opportunity to participate in a 2005 debt exchange. This didn’t convince the judge, who has held Argentina in contempt and issued a series of patchwork injunctions blocking – and then selectively unblocking – New York banks from making payments on Argentina’s behalf until a deal is reached.

Vulture funds

While the judges claim to be applying the plain text of statutes and contracts, the Obama administration has a different perspective. In a friend of the court brief in the Arab Bank case, Obama’s Solicitor General criticised the severity of Gershon’s sanctions, lauded the bank and the Jordanian government as valuable partners in terrorism investigations and predicted harm to the Jordanian economy. In the Argentina case, the Solicitor General warned that siding with the “vulture funds” could make sovereign debt workouts more difficult and might harm New York’s financial industry by leading countries to issue their debt elsewhere.

Despite these warnings, there seems to be little appetite from the presidency, Congress or the Supreme Court to override the New York decisions. That does not leave Jordan and Argentina without options, however.

During the 1990s, the US joined the World Trade Organization and signed bilateral investment treaties with both Argentina and Jordan. These agreements contain a raft of obligations that bind the judicial branch just as much as the rest of government. For example, courts cannot impede the free flow of capital to foreign financial firms. These agreements also block the US from treating foreign investors and companies in an arbitrary or discriminatory fashion. Argentina, Jordan – or indeed firms based in these countries – should have little difficulty making the case that the New York decisions violate these standards, given their break with past governmental practice at home and abroad. They could even cut-and-paste from the administration’s own briefs in making their case.

The case for tighter controls

In the longer term, US policymakers should examine whether tighter controls on US judges are needed in cases involving international sensitivities. The Constitution tasks the president with foreign policy power for a reason. The Jordan and Argentina cases have shown that nuanced consideration of policy implications is not a skill that comes automatically to judges. Just as officials created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that the presidency would not have the final say on the legality of its own wiretaps, the president needs to ensure that judges do not exert unchecked authority over foreign policy issues. Congress could pass laws requiring judges to give commanding weight to Solicitor General opinions, or even create a device to remove cases from the court system and put them in the diplomatic pipeline.

Without such reforms, the foreign policy positions of judicial nominees must be scrutinised by Congress and the public. If nominees are unwilling to carefully consider trade and foreign policy blowback from their decisions, they should not be elevated to such sensitive diplomatic positions as modern judgeships.

*Todd Tucker [2012] is doing a PhD in Development Studies focusing on international economic dispute settlement. Picture credit: renjith krishnan and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.