Immunosociology: Racism the virus, activism the immune system

As the citizens of Baltimore took to the streets in response to the death of Freddie Gray, I took to the bathroom in response to a nasty virus that had found its way into my stomach. I found myself noticing some similarities regarding root causes that inform my understanding of Baltimore and other sites of conflict in the world.

Let me be upfront with this, I am not comparing my suffering to that felt in Baltimore. There is nothing similar about my awful night and several nights of violence* born out of centuries of even more violent systemic oppression. If anyone needs further clarification, please let me know, because I do not want my metaphor to be lost in miscommunication.

Now that that has been said, I can move forward with a take that I have seen not in other commentaries on Baltimore.

Essentially, I find myself viewing more violent and destructive responses in Baltimore or Ferguson or Madison or Detroit or lots of other cities as symptoms to a disease.

Though I have not formally studied biology since 8th grade, I understand symptoms as side effects of our imprecise immune system. An immune system that is split into two parts, the innate, made up of white blood cells, and the adaptive, made up of learned antibodies that make sure you nip that virus in the bud the next time you encounter.

My innate immune system fought a virus through the complete upheaval of my digestive system. The bathroom was in shambles as I finally stumbled off to sleep at three, with plans to clean up in the morning. I awoke five hours later dehydrated and reeling. My host mother Isis had cleaned up the bathroom while I slept, but shrugged off my thanks and insisted I drink more fluids to recover.

All of those awful experiences were symptoms of my virus, but I did not (seriously) curse my body or my immune system. I cursed the unnamed virus. Just like when I have a cold, I do not condemn my runny nose, my cough, or my fever, I condemn the rhinovirus. After the biological violence is finished, my adaptive immune system remembers the virus should I encounter it again.

Now consider society in place of the human body, racism as the virus, activism and law as our innate and adaptive immune systems, respectively. Racism, as I have come to understand it, hurts society through disenfranchising people of color. Currently that disenfranchisement concretely manifests itself through the systemic and unequal use of force against blacks, which fosters a sense of fear.

Activism responds both nonviolently and violently, when law does not properly resolve an issue. Activism creates social discontent. Perhaps there are marches and people feel shame. Perhaps property is destroyed and cities are left in shambles. Perhaps there are riots and people feel fear. Social communities begin to fracture as we disagree. Sadly, and I think erroneously, people choose to alienate themselves from one another. Of course, these are all symptoms.

The metaphor comes apart in our reaction. Instead of condemning the virus, we condemn our innate immune system. We treat the symptoms by ignoring nonviolent protests and shutting down more violent protest responses instead of adapting to end society’s affliction with racism.

Of course, while this is an apt metaphor, we can aspire to be better than our hive-minded immune system. Medical professionals, or political leaders and scholars, diagnose the diseases of society. We can try preventative treatments like workshops on racism to foster a cultural conscience that rejects racism. We can develop antibodies, through structural legal change, to recognize and prematurely exterminate inevitable encounters with racism. Failing to adapt illustrates how we, largely the white descendants of a racist system, have fallen short.

Though we have fallen short, we can definitely all be more like my host mother and graciously help the recovery, even as we adapt moving forward.

*I struggled with how to characterize these recent nights in Baltimore. Chaos? Fear? Destruction? Each is politically weighted, so I chose the word I hear most often used in other non-shaming commentaries.

Herding Cat


This Easter Sunday amidst celebrations of the resurrection, I had a totally unrelated experience that challenged long-held scientific theories, solidified stereotypes concerning Peruvian

Let’s start from the beginning.

We arrived for a pre-Easter service breakfast. Moments later David called me over with a “surprise.” The surprise was a tiny, blonde kitty wandering between several parishioners’ legs.

I leapt at the chance to play and cash in on that oh-so-satisfying “purr” that every cat lover enjoys. Everyone marveled at the hilarity at a foreigner playing with a kitty.

“Oh! A gringo with a gringo kitty!”

“It’s like you’re her father!”

“You’re taking her home!”

That last one seemed a bit too assured, as if “No” would not be an acceptable answer. I had no idea if I was playing with a stray, though they were all convinced. More importantly, I have no say in what animals we take on.

I looked up at Isis nodding her head in approval. We would definitely taking this cat home. “Tú vas a llevarla,”* she said transferring all responsibility to me via a pointed finger.

To be fair, we had been discussing the need for a cat, following a month under siege from two poison-resilient rats. I pointed out that cats are relatively low maintenance pets. Plus, I selfishly wanted a cat to play with for my remaining four months.

All that being said, Isis had spent the last month aloofly taking no action. Something kept coming up to get in the way of every possible option she mentioned. It did not matter to me one way or another, so I had mostly abandoned the cause.

Of course, Easter provided the perfect opportunity to say yes while putting all burden on me. If only she had realized how burdensome the journey home would be.

The bus ride from Cristo Rey’s district, Surco, and Magdalena del Mar, where live is about one hour. It also involves numerous abrupt starts and lurching stops, and plenty of passenger-rattling speed bumps. A taxi takes about 30 thirty minutes and offers an overall smoother ride, at four times the price of three bus passes.

To your likely schadenfreude, we brought our new feline amiga home on the bus.

Budgetary concerns stopped a protest in my throat. Let’s do this the Peruvian way, I thought. I’m in Peru. I’m trying to live simply. Do it the cheap way.

Instead, I mentioned that we had nothing in which to carry out Then I brought up the important fact that we had no carrying implement to transport our furry friend in the bus. I was not eager to try and carry her or place her in my bag, alongside my bilingual bible, which would soon be in tatters. I somewhat hoped that this challenge might give David and Isis pause, such that they consider the pros and cons of this commitment.

To my chagrin, someone sporting a victorious grin of pride in their problem-solving skills brought me a 12”x6” cardboard box from the church.

Soon someone lamented that the cat would not be able to breathe in the unsealed cardboard box. Another church member popped up with a knife to cut a square-inch hole in the box, as I thought, Oh no. Oh no. That marks escape waiting to happen. No, no. When in Peru, right? It will be fine.

Another instance when I choked back my protest. Another that I would come to regret within the hour.

Thankfully, I had the good sense to push back against the suggestion that I place the cat in the box as we got on the bus. Tight space or not, I was not about to cross six lanes of a Limeñan traffic with a 5-month old gatito in my arms.

To quote anyone who has ever discovered a shower spider: Nope. Nope. NOPE.

One bus ride of doom and several scratches later, I would come to regret not showing similar decisiveness in the face of other poor suggestions, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As luck would have it, we caught our bus just as we arrived at the stop. Even better there was an open front seat, which meant I would need to balance the box while maintaining my footing.

Balance was still a struggle when seated, as the box shook with growing discontent. Warmth spread to my cheeks and my neck hair rose as stares from fellow bus passengers shot at me from all sides of the bus. Stares of curiosity. Stares of concern. Stares of shock. Stares of amusement. My discontent worsened as a front paw shot out the poorly-chosen air hole at an old woman minding her own business in the seat to my left.

I reminded myself to breathe as I worked to keep the situation under control. Of course, I also contemplated whether or not to abandon the fuzzball as we passed Parque Kennedy, famous for housing a throng of cats.

No, that is too difficult to orchestrate, I thought. Stick to the prime directive.

I spent the rest of the ride playing a game reminiscent of whack-a-mole with feline appendages and working to dislodge cat claws as gingerly as possible from my skin and, with a bit more urgency, my fancy white dress shirt.

Fifteen minutes from home, I realized that the as-yet-unnamed wonder had created several escape options through a combination of chewing and scratching away. So much for the love between cats and boxes, I thought as I shoved my hat over that problematic air hole and tightened my hold on the box’s sides to close the widening gap in its flaps.

I resentfully listened to David’s boisterous laugh traveling from the back of the bus. He was engaged in a conversation, animated as always, with a fellow member of Cristo Rey. How can he be laughing in a world where I am this mortified? I thought.

After what felt like several years, or at least removed that quantity of my lifespan, we arrived at our stop. I ran ahead eager to get home before the inevitable –


–I reached out and caught the lower half of the furry marvel’s body as she burst forward in an explosion of cardboard and liberation. A regular Houdini, I thought. And the name stuck.

I clutched Houdini to my chest as claws nestled into my fancy, but thankfully secondhand Easter wear.

After David and Isis fumbled to unlock the front door, I rushed Houdini to the patio, tore off my mostly unscathed dress shirt, wrenched open my first aid kit, and realized that I could dial back the trauma narrative. A handful of skin deep scratches does not an emergency make. I had just been operating on pure adrenaline.

All in all, it was a hilariously mortifying experience rooted in my attempt to go with the flow instead of challenge a misguided group of Peruvians. Still I approached the bus with apprehensive optimism.  Within the first quarter of the trip, it seemed evident that the mission was doomed to fail and I grew anxious imagining judgmental eyes. About halfway through, I considered cutting my losses and terminating the mission early, but stubbornness and liability held me to my post. Bedraggled though the bus trip left me, I forged ahead into the unknown, realizing my previous errors through 20/20 hindsight.

In many ways this is an apt metaphor for a YAV year. A metaphor that has stayed apt as Houdini settles in, struggling to acclimate to imagined fears, like our dog Paris. Of course, like all metaphors, the similarities stop there, as I do not plan to settle here for the rest of my life.

*You are going to bring her.

If this made you giggle some, enough so that you’d like to consider supporting my year, you can send funds to my personal offering account.

Presbyterian World Mission Shortfall

I have decided to start posting information for those seeking to donate to my YAV fund at the end of each post.

If you have kept with the blog or knew me well before I started writing, you can guess I am not comfortable doing that.  I hate asking people for money to support me, I would rather they just donated when they felt called.

Except I just saw that Presbyterian World Mission, the division of the P(USA) that sponsors the YAV program will likely face a deficit in 2016 and 2017. I have grown this year due to this program’s challenges via this support. I hope and believe that those with whom I have worked have also benefitted, though likely less than me.

Additionally, our YAV group was given the goal to raise $20,000 together beyond the $4,000 expected of each volunteer. I raised $4,000 and stepped off the gas a bit, relieved to be done with an activity that I find so repulsive.

That reason makes me want to reach out again, but more so, I have grown connected to World Mission this year. They do good work. This year, I have met several Mission Co-workers that I admire and the incredible partnership work that they do. These are people I do not want to see pushed out of their call. Nor do I want to see their work come to end.

The money sent to my account is used to fund the YAV program, which frees up the funds allocated by World Mission. In some small way, I hope that contributions to my year might serve as a drop in the bucket. Plus, I hope to start carrying my weight a bit more in seeking funds, even if that means asking others to carry that weight as well.

As always, give or do not give. Know that your money goes to an accountable organization that is intentional in its work against poverty. I will be including the link to give to my fund at the end of each post.

So, here is the link:

Definitions of “artisan” and fair trade relationships

Recently, a few of Bridge of Hope’s clients have become increasingly critical of our artisan group members. Their prices are too high. Their work ethic is questionable. Their designs seem uninspired. They just seem to lack drive. They are not really artisans, just people looking for additional income.

Basically, a central question seems to be: “What is an artisan?”

I am not referring to what artisans do. Artisans work in a variety of specified crafts. Our artisans work in a variety of fields from carving, to pottery, to weaving, to sewing. Each of these skill sets are put towards the same goal of the creation and sale of luxury products to higher income consumers.

I would argue that this goal is fairly standard across all artisans, in or outside a fair trade model. I want to talk instead about the ways different fair trade groups define “artisan” within their vision and mission.

It’s a question I have neglected in this blog, as many others in the fair trade world seem to neglect. To use an apt, but crass parallel: much like pornography, each person knows it when they see it. Of course, we each draw the artisan line somewhere different.

I’ll be the first to admit that I often make a bigger deal out of these questions than is really necessary or valuable. It is easy to move from careful consideration to unhelpful existentialism. Even easier to start exploring questions of meaning just as a mental exercise or attempt to look smart. I write this post because some conflicts in the fair trade world start with informing definition work forming amorphous policy.

Are artisans poor? Are they bridges to cultural values from decades past? Are artisans indigenous women?  Are artisans sustainable producers? In my experience an artisan can fall into anywhere from all to none of these categories. Whichever one the organization chooses to focus on will greatly shape its strategies and metric for success.

Organizations that consider poverty as a defining trait of artisans will likely focus on empowering these artisans to overcome cyclical poverty traps. They will provide workshops on various artisan techniques, as well as entrepreneurship. This organization will measure success by the way their artisans improve their economic lives. Like all development programs, they will need enormous patience as results are slow and artisans seem to slow to fully invest.

If an organization defines artisans as carriers of cultural heritage, they will seek to empower established artisans through helping them develop entrepreneurial skills and providing them with new markets. That organization will showcase the artisans’ process to their consumers. There will likely be little patience for artisans that fail to complete orders or lack commitment to artisan work. Success will first be measured in how much cultural traditions are revived and passed along to younger members of a society.

An organization that defines artisans as indigenous women will seek to empower these largely underprivileged members of their society. Similar to a poverty-focused organization, this group will focus on empowerment through training and entrepreneurship. Success is measured in how these women’s lives are changed and gain greater social standing. Tiffani Sharp, who runs one of Bridge of Hope’s client stores, Mama Willow Tree, interviewed our female artisans on how the work has led them to overcome stigma in society and take on new roles. Likewise, they will also need patience with slow progress.

An organization that prioritizes sustainability in their definition of artisans is seeking to offset the negative effects of consumerism. They will seek out artisans that recycle and reuse materials, as well as provide artisans with sustainability workshops. Primary success is reducing waste and the carbon footprint of production.  There will be minimal toleration for non-organic materials or cost efficient, but wasteful techniques.

These definitions are not mutually exclusive nor are they exhaustive.

Not all artisans are poor. Not all are grounded in tradition. Not all artisans focus on sustainability. Not all artisans are downtrodden in their society. When we ignore that complex picture, we get poorer fair trade models.

Admittedly, most organizations do not treat them as mutually exclusive, but when everyone is not on the same page about what an artisan is, it reduces cohesion within the fair trade model.

A fair trade store that focuses on cultural preservation will not want to work with artisans who are still perfecting their craft as means for additional income. They will prefer to work with artisans rooted in tradition, many of whom are not in as great need or poverty.  A sustainability-focused organization that also seeks to empower indigenous women might not work well with an artisan seeking to build a business in the sale of low cost artisan works in high income markets.

These hypothetical, but representative conflicts usually end with artisans meeting clients where they are. In some cases that might result in an overall positive change for the artisan group towards more sustainable production, or more inclusionary practices, or fairer wage payment. In others artisans and fair trade clients will go separate ways and artisans may end up in non-fair trade networks.

I notice a larger problem to all of this. My definitions came from the supporting fair trade organizations. I do not have a concrete idea how artisans define their vocation. Bridge of Hope’s supporters even less so.

We are all just seeking to help and construct a vision for how to help through just trade practices, but we are still rooted in a system wherein the wealthier folks mandate their vision. Sure they listen to a certain degree, but largely, they still seek to sell products and realize a mission.

It is expensive and time-consuming to create and meet that mission mutually with artisans. It means making decisions more slowly. It means pouring money into regular visits. It means putting aside the hours spent researching the perfect recipe for just commerce in your economically privileged home. It means listening, not presenting a plan to artisans who feel obligated to agree with someone who flew thousands of miles to be with them. It means sacrificing your vision in favor of one shared with the artisans. It means failing at working together pretty regularly. It means mutual support for those failures.

It means a better model. Especially in the tough times I have witnessed this year.

Bridge of Hope attempts to work mutually with artisans. It is part of the reason we move slowly, in addition to our endemic short-staffed-ness. Our artisans often move slowly or in a way that seems antithetical to progress. On one hand, I understand if they want to prioritize repairing their homes or improving their communities’ access to basic utilities over paying for and producing a new design. On the other hand, they often forget about deadlines and simultaneously lament the turnaround on an order as well as the lack of orders. Understanding why artisans’ drive might seem low helps us to engage with them to improve that.

While we celebrated together at the artisan gathering, Daniela pointed out the mild hypocrisy in seeking more orders, while not taking advantage of present opportunities. We have encouraged artisans to seek out training workshops and request funding support. Of course, prioritizing artisan-led ideas means advancing more slowly for the reasons I mentioned, but it means advancing more cooperatively.

Slowness should not impede us here. The invaluable give-and-take is completely worth nightmarish logistics. Fair trade artisan markets sell luxuries to middle and upper class consumers. As long as artisans are being lifted out of dire poverty, clients and artisans have the luxury (pun intended) to work things out.

Not every case will result in a positive outcome. Groups may recognize that the gap between their visions is too wide. Most relationships will be strengthened by patient, albeit occasionally mind numbing dialogue.