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Sharing Stories, Creating Solutions

in Columns/Opinions/Swat Global by

As my study abroad experience is beginning to reach its end, I can’t help but reflect on the scenes I have encountered and the stories I have heard from such a diverse spectrum of people. On one hand, looking back, it seems easy to feel despair about the current state of the world. In Vietnam, I was struck by how people had to wear air masks outside each day because of the contaminants in the air. But I was even more struck by how Westernization has caused people in Vietnam to be ashamed of their skin, wearing long sleeves and jeans in the 100-degree weather in an attempt to make themselves more “white.” In South Africa, I witnessed the very real effects of apartheid, including black communities remaining significantly more impoverished and faced with more crime than white communities; never mind the fact that there shouldn’t have been a separation between black and white communities in the first place, since “apartheid is over.”

Even in Argentina, there are so many injustices linked to global issues that cause an unimaginable amount of human suffering. Argentina also faces a huge disparity in living conditions and access to basic resources between the rich and poor. Similar to immigrants in the United States and South Africa, immigrants in Argentina face struggles of obtaining citizenship or assimilating into the country. Recognizing how these disparities have been issues across the world, I find moments where I can’t help but feel hopeless. How can problems of human suffering and lack of basic human rights even begin to be addressed when the problems seem so universal? How does one remain optimistic about creating change when there is so much politics or negativity against oneself?

Yet, while studying abroad has given me a broader perspective on the scope of world problems, it has also granted me insight into how to be part of the solution. It has demonstrated to me that, while one person can not eliminate an entire global problem, creating local solutions can make a huge difference in the lives of thousands of people and begin to inspire other communities around the world to create change. Through the power of story and sharing the successes of one community in addressing a problem, a global movement can begin.

When visiting a community impacted by environmental injustice, I witnessed the power of narrative firsthand. Isla Maciel is a low-income neighborhood in the Greater Province of Buenos Aires. It is located next to the Riachuelo River, one of the most polluted rivers in the world, and houses petroleum companies and a power plant. In Isla Maciel, not only are members of the community exposed to high amounts of environmental toxins, but they are also plagued with inadequate housing and lack of access to jobs. As one member of the community described, people live in this community because “the poor are forced to have the land that no one else wants.”

Nevertheless, the community of Isla Maciel has not succumbed to their hardships. Instead, they continue to implement their own solutions. The Isla Maciel Foundation has  established “the micro-credit program” to tackle inadequate housing, “El Comedor,”  a soup kitchen, and “Casa de Maria,” a “problematic substance consumption” intervention, to ensure access to basic needs.  They have even created a job training program for youth, which includes a computer repair workshop, a screen printing workshop, and a healthy baking program.

During my visit to Isla Maciel, I had the opportunity to talk with the teenager who manages the screen printing workshop. It is impossible to describe how incredibly inspired I was by the light in his eyes as he discussed how the workshop made him excited for the future. Not only did the workshop mean he had an employable skill, but it also meant he had a passion that he could continue to share with other teenagers in the community.

But the narrative of resilience did not stop there. As I continued to learn about the community, the Isla Maciel Foundation continued to describe their work by telling me about the lives of community members or children whose lives they had changed. In doing so, they utilized the power of story to illustrate how local solutions can contribute to a global movement. At the end of my visit to Isla Maciel, the coordinator told us that the foundation encourages people to visit their community so that they may “defeat barriers, destigmatize communities, and form relationships with people who wouldn’t otherwise know.” In doing so, they spread knowledge of interventions and serve as a voice for similar communities around the world. And I can guarantee that they succeeded. Upon leaving the community, I told everyone about the strength and solutions of Isla Maciel, and I am still motivated to do so because I find Isla Maciel a story of hope and a testimony that meaningful change is possible.

Through Isla Maciel and my time in Argentina, it has become evident that Argentina is only one place in a global network where social justice movements begin. Around the world, communities are implementing solutions for injustices, sharing those stories through the power of narrative, and therefore creating global movements. It is also an example of why communities need to continue to advocate for their own rights and create new solutions, even if it feels as if the problem is simply too great to be solved.

As Swatties, it can be easy to become disheartened by our fight for social justice, especially as we learn about the scale of a problem or the barriers to creating change. However, it is important to remember that every action toward making a difference counts, no matter how small. By creating change locally, you are not only helping the lives of people in that community, but you are also implementing innovative solutions of change that can be scaled up across the world. Through the power of narrative, a dialogue of solutions is created, allowing innovative programs to be replicated in a larger context.

Gearing up

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

As we hit the part of the semester where the second round of midterms are coming up, the weather is getting colder, there are fewer daylight hours, and the end of the semester coming into view. With the end still very far away, many people are beginning to walk around like zombies. Many of us resort to completing each of our tasks just to check them off the list, and we end up moving through our days with a melancholy attitude.

This is the time of the semester where we all need a second little push. During this time, it is important to remember that there are some good things about this campus. It is important to do a little self-reflecting to find what it is about this campus that you enjoy.

Whether it be the salad bar, or the ski lodge-like atmosphere in Sharples, or that one class that you just really enjoy, we should each recognize what here at Swat brings us enjoyment about being here. Zoning in on those aspects of campus can help get each of us through this part of the semester.  

Maybe go back and re-read that dreaded “Why Swarthmore” essay on your college application and remember why you were so excited to come here as a first-year. Yes, you might cringe a little bit at the forced SAT vocabulary or stressed metaphors, but there might be something buried in there. Maybe you wrote about how excited you were to be able to live in such a beautiful arboretum, but when is the last time you went for a walk in the Crum? Maybe you wrote about how much you hoped to take advantage of being close to Philadelphia, but you haven’t been into the city as much as you anticipated this semester.

Misery poker and Swat-bashing are common around campus. Sometimes it can be fun to make fun of ridiculous things that happen on this campus, but going too far can hurt your experience here.

Swarthmore does a lot of things well. It works hard to support their students through externships, accessible professors, access to funding and many other opportunities.

What’s more, being at Swarthmore offers one access to a collective ethos. When something happens at this school, people know, and people care. That can’t be said for a lot of other schools, and we should recognize its value here.

This school has many flaws, many of which are pointed out in our editorials. However, we must remember that this is a place we have all chosen to be. We have the responsibility to make this community the best possible version of itself, because it is ours.


Mental Health Mondays Matter

in Campus Journal by

Disclaimer: there may be Play-Doh and considerable amounts of chocolate, but this is not a preschool play date. It’s a supportive environment. It’s a place where conflicted college students can come and share their experiences. In short, it’s Mental Health Mondays, a peer counseling initiative born from Speak2Swatties. And you should come.

I will freely admit I raised an eyebrow when I first heard about this event. Coloring sheets? (Further misery for those of us who could never color within the lines.) Discussing one’s issues with peers on a campus so small that they are probably involved in them anyways? I felt it was a poor substitute for CAPS. But then, of course, I am one of the few people lucky enough to have regular appointments.

So I came in with a healthy dose of skepticism, but I was pleasantly surprised. Even though this was just the first meeting, I would encourage my fellow Swatties to come. The organizers made it clear they are not a feel-good attempt at substituting actual counseling. “I read last year’s self-study report … Swat has a pretty high rate of depression and anxiety,” explained Faye Ma ‘19, one of the organizers.
“We completely support CAPS … we’re like a middle ground between CAPS and students,” organizer Lamoni Lucas ’17 made it clear. All organizers agree that CAPS appointments are hard to get. Therefore, Speak2Swatties tries to keep the conversation about mental health going, and Mental Health Mondays is one of its most recent initiatives. It allows students to discuss their feeling with peers who may have been in the same situation as them.

Mental Health Mondays are every other week, 8 to 9 pm, in Clothier 301 (thank you for giving me the chance to discover that there a Clothier 3rd floor exists). It was started within Speak2Swatties by students interested in promoting “active listening,” a that concept shows up regularly throughout the hour. I still don’t fully understand the concept, but everyone listened to each other respectfully for an hour in a confidential setting. Respectful, supportive questions were asked. It felt like a safe environment to discuss personal issues with people who cared, and were listening not because they were paid to do so, but because they were concerned and recognized that we all have problems in common. If that’s what active listening means, I’m on board.

Although today’s topic was about relationships – Valentine’s Day oblige – there was less heart-to-heart discussion of our personal relationships than I expected. The evening got pretty philosophical. We discussed the foundations of a good relationship (among other things: comfort, trust, support, independence and dependence), and the obstacles to relationships at Swarthmore (academic pressure, time commitments, and the campus’ painfully small size). What personal stories we did get were not “ten-minute monologues about your life” (Carina Debuque ’20, one of the organizers, warned us to avoid those). They were real moments that illustrated the larger themes we discussed — helpful and sincere.

The Swatties present were open and emotional, but the space felt low-pressure and welcoming. It was like a friendly gathering around cookies and tea (and Play-Doh. Admire the art I was inspired to create below). It is genuinely relaxing to discuss what’s going on in your life with non-judgmental, helpful peers who aren’t involved in your daily life; people you’re in no way connected to, except by a desire to talk and listen. There was also discussion of formal, long-term goals for Mental Health Mondays as an initiative, such as increasing intersectionality, advocating for ending stigma around mental illness, and increasing the visibility of mental health resources on campus.

No, I didn’t come out of this evening fully enlightened, or feeling an overwhelming sense of well-being. But, simply put, it was nice. I spoke to people and listened to them. We shared, and I discovered that we all have similar issues and problems. Plus, I got free chocolate and finally heard a successful Screw Your Roommate story. My cynicism has been conquered. This isn’t revolutionary group therapy, but it’s a group of supportive people who will listen and not judge. And sometimes, that’s enough.

Care for one another

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

We hear this maxim as we first step on campus. We follow it, or we are expected to, throughout our years. Yes, it is stale to hear. Yes, it is tiring to repeat. Yes, it is easy not to do.  “Care for one another.”

I grew up just north of the Capitol in DC at a Jesuit high school. During school, friends all too often found me at every corner of the theatre, planning and preparing lights for our company’s next production. All that time in the black box left me as pale and thin as I have ever been—which, admittedly, has been my whole life—not unlike a plant left out of the sun for too long. I fell into that classically American mentality of working my fingers to the bone without any consciousness to my body, and the only reason I came out of that black box was because others were conscious of me.  

Caring for others produces two primary goods. The first is quotidian—it builds trust and an emotional support network for openness and honesty, so people can live healthfully and give to others. The second grows out of the former. By building that empathetic network that encourages sharing and solidarity within the student body, the community is strengthened, it can better perform what is expected of it, and it will achieve the goals it sets for itself.  

Let’s return to the theatre. When my friend Mike and I would construct a set, we were sure to brace and scaffold the structure as it went up, adding reinforcements where we could to include more stability. I would push back on a two-by-four as he drilled a screw, and he would hold the base of the ladder as I went up into the rafters to paint. Soon enough, the set reached into the loft, ready for opening night.

What Mike and I gave to each other was strength for the trying times when a screw would hit a wood knot or wood arrived at the theatre warped. We kneaded out the problems and moved on in construction.  Of course, we would always check back to make sure those issues were at rest. Those guarantees and consistent check-ins allowed him to fly set pieces in the loft and allowed me to play more with lighting angles on more complicated sets. Our nine productions together were better off because our problems never fermented in the dark.

Similarly, at the college, we can act together to guarantee that students experience school’s academic rigor or Saturday nights or the newspaper in a way that maximizes the cultivation of ever-learning minds, for the benefit of all.  

From my short month on campus, I have already seen the great capacity students have to smack injustice and raise each other up despite adversity. Most readily, students might think of last week’s inflammatory, hateful, and misinformed piece that degraded and dismissed low-income students. Instead of allowing those heinous thoughts to fester, low-income students took the lead against that rhetoric, and many students worked to ensure those voices were heard and remembered. Now, the community is more aware of the concerns of low-income students, and it is essential that the college work to improve the conditions they face.

Okay, I will hedge some bets. People should not be wholly reliant on others to promote their wellness. I could not hold my ladder and finish the paint job at the same time. We each hold agency to work for our own benefit as long as it does not infringe on others’ well-being. Further, those warped beams are sometimes within ourselves. We need to be courageous enough to confront them in ourselves, to ask more of others, and to be open to the bracing and bending of productive conversations and efforts to fix those structures. Lastly, our environment at Swarthmore is different from the previous stages of our lives, and this environment may have expectations and goals at odds with what we have come to know.  That reality, however, does not excuse us from lighting up this place through solidarity with one another.

And that is where I find the issue. Even at Swarthmore, where students are generally sensitive to one another’s needs, there can be a complacency or lack of drive to work for others when we have so much to handle ourselves—after all, self-care is also expected of us as adults.  That goal is worthy of our time because, like I said earlier, we are responsible for ourselves.

The Jesuits have a saying, and I will paraphrase it here: “Work to be people for and with others.” Mike and my other friends embodied this goal. I spent most of my time working and developing my design in the theatre, but I often neglected myself because of it. Food was optional, even on 18-hour days. Work always came first. The only light I saw from early October to late March was from my computer screen and what blasted from the theatre lamps onto the stage, because I was at school before the sun was up and after it was down. My company did not let me act this way.

Friends would pull me downstairs for dinner and would force me to eat seconds. A five minute break from work to catch up was a constant. Short walks became one of my favorite things because I just had to see the sunset when friends dragged me to Starbucks after school. I was better for their help, and I aimed to give to them back then and now.   

Because I was healthier and more conscientious, I was more aware of my abilities and tasks, both as a lighting manager and as a friend. I was still there at seven a.m. every Saturday and Sunday, but I was more emphatic when talking to others I did not know as well. I had new zeal for my work, which I developed further because I knew how much happier I would make others during a performance. I was fuller, and so were my productions.

Swarthmore should be a place like my theatre company was for me. We are more related than we might expect from the everyday, so we should be generous with ourselves to make sure each person is more capable of being generous to themselves. We each have the ability to help one another, so why would we not take advantage of that opportunity? We are capable of helping each other reach our highest potential.

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